How to Use Spotlight on Your Mac

Use a search shortcut to find what you need fast

Macs are pretty simple to use, but there are always extra shortcuts worth knowing about to speed up your usage. Utilizing Spotlight search is a great way find what you're looking for on your Mac. Here's how to use it, and why it's your new favorite Mac search tool. 

Your Mac needs to be running OS X 10.4 Tiger or higher to use Spotlight. Any Mac released since 2005 should have Spotlight.

What Is Spotlight?

Spotlight is essentially Google for your Apple Mac. You name it, you can look it up through the Spotlight search shortcut.

Spotlight creates an index of all the items and files on your system, so you can look up documents, photos, music files, applications, and even system preferences. It goes a few steps further by allowing you to search for specific words in documents or on web pages contained within your web browser's history. 

Why Do I Need to Use Spotlight?

Spotlight search is a super easy and efficient way to find what you're looking for. It saves you the effort of searching through your icons, documents, and folders, or trying to remember where you stored an important file. 

Mac OS's Spotlight Search Dictionary Definition

Being able to search for websites also saves you the inconvenience of opening a browser separately. Spotlight even offers quick access to definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, as well as solutions to quick sums or currency conversions. 

Macs running Mac OS X Mavericks and earlier will see a slightly different Spotlight search than pictured here. You can still search for things and use it as a calculator, but you won't get Wikipedia, Maps, and other more extensive sources in your search results. 

How Do I Access Spotlight on a Mac?

There are several ways to use Spotlight, with each proving useful in different scenarios. Here's a rundown of how to access the Mac search tool. 

Using the Spotlight Search Shortcut

  1. Press the Command key and tap the space bar. The Spotlight Search bar pops up ready for action.

    Mac desktop showing the Spotlight Search bar
  2. Type a search term into the Spotlight Search field. The search results populate as you type.

  3. Tap any of the search results for a preview. When you find what you are looking for, double-click to open it.

    Spotlight Search showing results on a Mac

    Using Spotlight Search Through Its Icon

  4. Click the Spotlight magnifying glass icon in the upper right corner of the menu bar to display the Spotlight search bar.

    Spotlight Search icon in Mac menu bar
  5. Type your search item.

  6. Double-click one of the search results to open it.

    That's it!

Using Spotlight Through Siri

Spotlight doesn't work quite the same through Siri as it does through the keyboard or icon shortcuts, but it's still a fast way to search for items on your Mac. You can ask it to find files or specific emails in a natural way. To use Spotlight through Siri, you must have Siri set up with your Mac.

Spotlight Search Tips

Spotlight is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Here's some tips on how to use it most effectively.

  • Preview files: To open the file you've searched for, double-click an item. You don't have to open the file to interact with it, though. Simply click it once to preview it to the right of the search results. For documents, click the document name and you can scroll up or down in the preview pane without opening the document. Want to preview a song instead of opening it? Click the icon in the preview pane, and the song begins to play there.
  • Additional search results: You can scroll down the search results just like you would with any other window on your Mac. Spotlight typically shows results in the most relevant order, but it can be worth scrolling down to find more results.
  • Quick search: There's no need to type in the full name of anything. Looking to open Spotify? Type "Spo" and hit Enter and it'll load up for you.
  • iTunes and App Store: Use Spotlight to find things on the iTunes and App Store. Type in what you're looking fo,r and the show or song comes up in Spotlight Suggestions. You can even preorder or buy an item directly through the preview pane, and view local cinema listings.
Mac OS Spotlight Search Film Purchase Preview
  • Search browser history: Search your Mac's bookmarks and browser history by typing in what you're looking for. Can't remember the name of the recipe, but know it had apples in it? Type "apples" and Spotlight will find it from your recent history. 
  • Copy files: Copy an item by dragging it from the results list to the desktop or a Finder window. 

Using Spotlight as a Calculator and Conversion Tool

It's possible to convert currencies and perform other calculations with Spotlight if you have these features activated in the Mac's Spotlight preferences.

Currency Conversion Via Mac OS Spotlight Search
  • Convert currencies: Enter an amount to see the equivalent in other common currencies. For example, type "$100" and you can see the results in other currencies like British pounds or the Japanese Yen. 
  • Convert temperatures or measurements: Enter the appropriate amount you need to convert, then viewing the commonly used results. 
  • Mathematical equations: These can be solved by entering the equation, such as "8+5" or "185*74."

Customizing Spotlight Search Preferences

Spotlight Search can only search the areas you set up in the Mac's system preferences, so it is possible to customize the search preferences, but for the best results, go to System Preferences > Spotlight and check all the boxes.

For example, if you don't click the box in front of Calculator, Spotlight won't be able to perform math equations.

Mac System Preferences showing Spotlight preferences
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