Spotlight: Tips and Tricks

Anybody who uses a Mac should be aware of Spotlight; it appears as that little magnifying glass that sits in the top-right of your screen. Many people have decided to replace Spotlight with 3rd-party programs that provide different functions (Evan has already highlighted two of them, Alfred and Quicksilver), but most reviews overlook some of the hidden functionality that Spotlight provides. This article will outline a few cool things that you may not have known you could do with Spotlight.


Spotlight, at its heart, is a search tool that has many different criteria you can search with. Everybody is familiar with searching by file name, but you can also search by:


Spotlight allows you to search by the kind of file you’re looking for. This allows you to limit your search to files of a specified type.

To search by kind you type kind:document into your spotlight window. This will limit the results that come up to only documents.

You can also replace document with many other types of files like: image, audio, pdf, folder, application, and many others. This allows to to keep the list of items shorter if you are sure of the type of file you want to find.

If I was looking for a text file containing the words, “Hello World,” I would type:
Hello World kind: text
and all text documents with the words Hello World in or on it would appear.


Spotlight also allows you to search by when a file was last modified. The modified attribute can take dates in many forms. I can take specific dates like 1/1/2011, it can take a range of dates like 1/1/2011-1/10/2011, or if you add a > or < sign you can search for files modified before or after dates.

To use the modified attribute in spotlight you will type in modified: 1/1/2011

and it will return all files modified on January 1, 2011. (Notice a pattern in these search commands?)


Searching by when a file was created is exactly like searching for when a file was modified. To use it you would type created:1/1/2011 The only difference is that it will return all files that were created on January 1, 2011 instead of modified.

By Name Only

Normally, when you type a search term into Spotlight, it will return all files that contain your search term in their file name or within the file contents. If I search for “This” I would get all the files that contain “This” in their name, but also all the files that contain “This” within the body text.

This can clutter up the result list and make it harder to find the file you are looking for. If you know that your search term is only in the name of the file, you can type name:this and only files that have “This” in their names will show up. When combined with another search modifier you can easily limit your results down to just a few files.

If you know a lot about the file you want to find you can quickly narrow it down. Say you want to find your resume, and you know you last opened it a month ago and saved as a document; with this information you can type name:resume kind:document modified:<4/31/2011 and you get a pretty accurate result.

Navigating Results

The results list from Spotlight can often be a little unwieldy, but these quick tips will help you move through that list a bit more smoothly.

Move Down a Category

If you are using the arrow keys to navigate through a list of Spotlight results, it'll take a while for you to reach the bottom of the list. To hop down a little quicker, you can use CMD + arrow keys to move up and down categories. If the first half of your results are documents and you are really looking for that picture near the bottom you, can get there that much quicker.

Open In Finder

Say you have a search result that you don't necessarily want to open, but need to find out where it is stored or what other files are stored in the same place. To accomplish this you can use the CMD + return or CMD+click key combinations. This will reveal the highlighted file's location in Finder.


These are just a few quick tips that can make using Spotlight easier for everybody. If you have some tips of your own or just want to chat, sound off in the comments or check out our forums and become part of the growing HackMac community!

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