Whenever I’m helping customers with a misbehaving Mac, one of the most common things I hear is ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could do that with Spotlight!’ Whereas the average user will navigate around their computer by trawling through Finder, the savvy user knows how to get to places, launch apps, search the internet and calculate their tax with a few simple Spotlight tricks. In this post we’ll look at how to increase your productivity by using Spotlight for fast access to a variety of common functions. But first, we need to get Spotlight set up for maximum efficiency.
Set up the hotkey
To get the most out of Spotlight, the first thing to do is set up the keyboard hotkey. By default, this is usually ‘command-spacebar’, but if you are using multiple languages you might want to reserve that for the Input Switcher. Instead, I use ‘option-command-spacebar’, not least because this nice 3-finger combination can be executed with the left-hand while the right hand is reaching for the coffee mug…
Whatever your choice of hotkey, keep it close to the bottom of the keyboard, as the other keys that you will want to be able to rapidly access are the cursor arrows and the ‘return’ key. If you haven’t set up your Spotlight hotkey yet, the fastest way to do so is to click on Spotlight on the top right of your screen with the mouse or trackpad and type
After hitting ‘return’, you’ll be presented with the Spotlight preferences panel. At the bottom, you’ll see fields to define both the Spotlight menu keyboard shortcut and the Spotlight window keyboard shortcut. For the purposes of this post, we’re only interested in the menu shortcut (but feel free to set up the window one too, if you wish!). Once your hotkey is set up you can forget about the annoying inconvenience of dragging your cursor up to the top right corner. Just hit your hotkey combination to open the Spotlight search field.
But don't close the Spotlight prefs just yet. The main pane in the window is the Search Results panel which lists the order in which results appear. You can alter the order of results that Spotlight shows by dragging items up and down the list. Altering this to your likes is a big part of getting the most out of Spotlight. If Spotlight is always showing you lots of results from Mail that you don't want to see, for example, drag "Messages & Chats" to the bottom of the list.
For the purposes of this tip, make sure Applications is no.1 in the list and System Prefs no. 2, and Folders at no. 3. Follow that with Documents, Images, PDFs and so on according to the kind of files you access most often on a daily basis. A set up like this will make Spotlight much more efficient at navigating around your mac, and once you get the hang of it you’ll find yourself trawling through Finder much less often.
Incidentally, I don't recommend unchecking any of those boxes. We want more power in our searches, not less; you never know when you might be looking for something that just won’t show up in a search because you’ve forgotten that you excluded those results in Spotlight’s preferences. Besides, there are better ways to restrict your searches in Spotlight like this and this.
When you're done with setting up Spotlight’s preferences, hit 'command' and 'Q' to close System Preferences and read on.
1. Use Spotlight as an App Launcher
Long before the Apple engineers dreamed up Launchpad, many of us were already launching apps in half the time it takes in the Dock, Finder, or (now) even Launchpad itself. You can open any app with Spotlight just by typing three or four characters. Sometimes, just one is enough! All you need to do is hit your hotkey (see above) and type the first three or four letters of the App’s name and hit ‘return’.
tex and hitting ‘return’ to instantly open TextEdit, or
act for ‘Activity Monitor’. iPhoto should be the top hit with
ip. If you use Terminal a lot, there’s no need to go rooting around in the Applications/Utilities menu to open it. Simply hit the Spotlight hotkey and type
and hit ‘return’.
If you have Carbon Copy Cloner, type
CCC, and if you use 1Password, just the number
1 and return should do the trick.
saf will open Safari and
mai will launch Mail in an instant. Experiment with your favourite or most commonly used apps and you’ll find that using Spotlight is twice as fast as any other method.
As a bonus, if you moved Folders up to no.3 in the Preferences list, experiment with the first few letters of your favourite folders. Try some of these and see what comes up as the top hit:
2. Use Spotlight to access System Prefs
We already saw one of Spotlight’s hidden uses – fast access to System Preferences. In fact you can do this with any of them. Want to check your login items in Users & Accounts | Login Items? No need to go clicking all round the desktop, hit your Spotlight hotkey and type
if you want to change your Security preferences quickly.
Don’t hit ‘return’ just yet – check to see what is the ‘top hit’, as you might find that you have to “arrow down” an item or two. Even so, this is a whole lot faster than wading through either Finder or the menu.
and hitting ‘return’ is also a fast way to open the main System Preferences panel.
Hit the Spotlight hotkey and try typing the word
Look right down at the bottom of the Spotlight results window and you’ll see the Dictionary icon. You can jump there in leaps and bounds by holding down the ‘command’ key and pressing the down arrow key (each press of the arrow key conveniently takes you to the top of each section; release the ‘command’ key and use the down arrow alone to move one item at a time within the section). Notice that when the highlight reaches the Dictionary icon, the definition just pops up for you in a side panel. No need to press ‘return’ or actually open the Dictionary,.app. Just hit your hotkey combination again to dismiss Spotlight. You can also use the ‘esc’ key here: one tap of ‘esc’ will clear the Spotlight search bar, two will dismiss it.
4. Website search
But suppose you type in a word that Dictionary.app doesn’t know? Try
Again, use your command and arrow key to jump down to the bottom of the results and this time choose ‘search the web’. That will automatically open Safari and put the term in the search bar and return the results. But you’re not limited to dictionary searches, you can use Spotlight’s search bar just like the Google search bar in Safari. Try typing in
mini ipad versus samsung galaxy review
best small car of 2012
or anything else you might want to search the web for. Yep, Spotlight isn’t just a file finder on your mac – it’s a google search engine, too!
5. Use Spotlight as a Calculator
Want to quickly know what 17.5% of $45,000 is? Hit your Spotlight hotkey and type:
Don’t press ‘return’ – difficult to break that habit, I know! – the result is already listed next to the ‘Calculator’ icon, just look down to see the search results and the answer is already there!
You can of course do all the standard calculator functions like / for divide, * for multiplication and + and – for addition and subtraction. You can even do powers (3 to the power of 5 = 3^5) as well as bracket expansion. Try
(3x5)^2 and compare the result with
So whether its App launching, web searching, opening system prefs or using the dictionary or calculator, hitting your Spotlight hotkey is a habit you want to develop for faster computing. At least for me, it’s probably the most frequent keystroke I use on a daily basis.
One of the features I really love in OS X is the ability to preview anything by selecting the file in finder and pressing the spacebar – formally called ‘Quick Look’ – without actually having to open the full app. This is great for both music and movies.
However, if you uninstalled Perian or Flip4Mac or haven’t updated them recently, you will find that a lot of movie files – like .avi, for example – which are not fully supported in QuickTime won’t preview. The answer is to get the latest versions of these two plug-ins:
(hit the green download button (free), ignore the one trying to sell you a paid version).
You should then be able to see any movie using Quick Look.
QuickTime won’t play my video
However, all of these methods suffer from one inevitable drawback: anyone who knows their way around Terminal can open, read, copy or delete your folders as if you had never employed any of the above tricks at all. Well, not many people know their way around Terminal you say? But everyone knows their way around Google, and learning how to find files via the Terminal is information easily found, even on Applehelpwriter! In short, all those methods listed above are really a waste of time if it’s security that you’re after.
Fortunately, there is a simple answer to securing localised files or folders, and that’s to make a local encrypted disk image with Disk Utility and then move your data into it. To do so, follow this procedure:
1. Open Disk Utility (Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility.app)
2. Click near the bottom of the sidebar in empty space to make sure none of the disks in the sidebar are selected.
3. Click the New Image icon in the task bar.
4. Give the image a name and choose a location to store it. Storing it in the User Library is not a bad idea. Give it a boring name like ‘old system’, ‘old data’ or something like that, but don’t hit ‘Create’ just yet.
5. At the bottom of the dialogue box is a field for encryption. Click on the option button and choose either 128-bit or 256-bit (the second choice is the strongest but also slower. 128-bit is still so strong that almost no-one save the CIA will be able to crack it!)
6. Create a password that you’re not going to forget. Do NOT use the same password that you use for your Admin account or for anything else for maximum security. Uncheck the ‘save in my keychain’ option.
if you forget the password don't waste time seeking help trying to break it. The system is designed to be uncrackable. If you forget the password, your data is lost for good.
PRO TIP: For that reason, you might like to use a password manager like ‘1Password‘ for this and all your other passwords. The main reason people forget passwords is infrequency of use. With 1Password you use a single password to unlock all your other passwords and to have them entered automatically into web pages and other fields.
7. Set up the rest of the options as in the screenshot below.
9. Once the image has been created, copy the files you want to protect into the disk image window, just like you would a hard disk or other connected device. Now, whenever you want to access your protected data, just click on the disk image and enter the password and your data is ready to be used.
10. Test mounting and ejecting the disk image a few time. Open a few files and save your changes. After you’re sure everything is working as expected, delete the files from the original location that you copied them from. Also, don’t forget to eject the disk image in Finder’s sidebar each time when you’re done using it to prevent anyone else accessing your protected files.
This is the first in a series of planned tutorials for anyone who wants to find out what Terminal can do and how they can use it to increase the usability of their computer. Unlike other Terminal tutorials, I’m going to assume that you’re not interested in giving up the desktop for the command line to do things like move and copy files that you can do more easily in Finder. Rather, I’m only going to focus on those things that it’s generally more difficult (or impossible!) to do in the GUI than it is in Terminal.
Let’s get started. Open Spotlight (try the hotkey command + spacebar or click the spy glass in the top right corner) , then type term and press Return.
When Terminal opens, the first thing you may want to do is make the text a bit easier to see in the Terminal window.
Hold down command-shift-+ to increase the size. Try it a couple of times till the text is a comfortable size. If you overshoot, just use command- - (minus key) to reduce text size.
Now you’re sitting comfortably in your Terminal window, let’s learn our first spell. Actually, we’re not going to learn one so much as make our own!
In order to do that, we want to open a hidden file and edit it. In Terminal, type
(There’s a space after ‘emacs’, and, don’t forget that . dot right before the ‘b’)
What you see after this screen may vary depending on whether .bash_profile has any pre-existing content or not. If there is anything in the file already, ignore it and use the arrow key to move the cursor to a clean line at the bottom. If the file is empty, then just start typing. The first line we want to type is
Now press Return and enter a single, left curly bracket
Press Return again and type (or copy and paste) this:
There’s a space between the ‘s’ and the dash, and all the letters are lowercase except the ‘F’, which must be uppercase.
Press Return and provide the closing curly bracket
It should look like the area inside the orange rectangle:
Now hold down the control key on your keyboard while you first press x and then c. Notice at the bottom of the screen you get a ‘save’ warning.
Press the y key on your keyboard, and you should find yourself returned back to the Terminal prompt.
Type exit at the prompt to logout of the Terminal, and then on the keyboard press Command-W to close the window, and Command-N to open a new Terminal session.
What did we just do?
We defined and saved a new Terminal command called show which we can now use whenever we enter Terminal to easily see all the files and folders – including all the hidden ones – in any given directory. To see what we just did, type show at the command line. You should get an output that is formatted something like this:
As you can see I’ve annotated the screenshot to show some of the features that the show command gives us. First of all, notice the file and folder names that begin with a . dot. These are your hidden files and folders (Remember: they are usually hidden for a reason, so don’t go messing with them unless you know what you’re doing!). The show command also helps us distinguish between files and folders by appending a / slash to the end of folder names. Although not shown here, you may also see some names with an * at the end. That means it’s an executable file — in other words, its purpose is to run some programme or command.
The show command is very useful for seeing exactly what is in a folder, but of course we need to know how to move between folders in order to see anything other than our own home directory.
Suppose I want to have a look in that folder called ‘Shared’. Then what I do is I type
then press the tab key on the keyboard. The rest of the name is filled in for me by Terminal:
The tab key is a very useful trick for moving around in Terminal when you are faced with long names. Generally, you only have to type in enough to make the file or folder name unique and hitting tab will complete the rest of the name for you. However, if I only type
and then press tab, nothing happens. Terminal can’t complete the name because there’s more than one choice. However, if I press tab again, Terminal will give me a list of the all names that begin with S:
pressing tab twice gives:
Now I can see all the options, and how much I have to type to make a unique choice. In this case, I only have to type either ‘cd Sh’ or ‘cd Sn’ to allow Terminal to know which one I want when I press the tab key. Pressing Return after the tab completion will take me to the folder.
Try it with a folder from your own list.
After changing to a new folder, perhaps your screen is getting a bit messy. Let’s clean it up before doing show again. On the keyboard, press control-L to get a clear screen (notice that all your previous commands and outputs are still available if you scroll up!).
Now type show again to see your files and folders, pick a folder (if there is one), and type cd plus the first few letters of the name. Fill it out with the tab key and then press Return.
Again, type show to find out what’s inside. You can keep going deeper into the directory tree by using cd and show on any folders you find.
The last thing we need to know for today is how to go back up the tree, or to move back to the parent folder. Again we’re going to use the ‘cd’ command, but this time you don’t need to type any names. Just a space and then two dots
(don’t forget there’s a space between the ‘d’ and the two dots). This will always take you to the parent folder of the folder you’re currently in, all the way up to your hard disk’s parent directory. If you want, you can make a new up command (just like we made show) as a shortcut for ‘cd ..’. Have a look at the smallest of the screenshots above and see if you can do it.
So now you know how to move around and see all the hidden and un-hidden contents of your drive, go and explore and get yourself used to these first basic commands.
When you’ve finished with your Terminal session, type exit and press Return. You can then close the window and go back to GUI land!
. at the beginning of a name means ‘hidden’
/ at the end of a name means ‘Folder’
* at the end of a name means ‘executable file’
cd – move in to that folder
cd .. – move back to the parent folder
emacs – opens the Terminal textfile editor
show – shows a complete list of a directory, including hidden files
control-L – clears the Terminal screen
tab – will try to complete file or folder names
tab (twice) – will offer choices
learning the Terminal – Part Two