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Search and ye shall find (maybe): Apple's Spotlight needs an overhaul

Kirk McElhearn | April 1, 2013
When I backed up my home folder recently, my backup software showed that it contained 191,644 files. With a haystack that large, it can be difficult to find specific files: As an example, the other day I wanted to find an article I wrote about Spotlight, back when Apple last made a significant update to the feature.

When I backed up my home folder recently, my backup software showed that it contained 191,644 files. With a haystack that large, it can be difficult to find specific files: As an example, the other day I wanted to find an article I wrote about Spotlight, back when Apple last made a significant update to the feature.

Though I did eventually find the article, my success wasn't due to Spotlight. (I'll talk about what I used to find it later.) Because I didn't know what keywords to look for, other than "Spotlight," I got hundreds of results, and it took me a while to sift through them. The Spotlight menu offered me what it considered the most relevant results, but I had to choose Show All in Finder to discover that the search query had produced 431 matches. Though you can sort search results in the Finder by criteria such as kind and date, the sheer number of matches means that finding the right file often takes a bit of scrolling and Quick-Looking.

Spotlight was quite impressive when it debuted as part of Mac OS X 10.4. Since then, however, the feature has seen few enhancements, and Apple has removed some useful functionality.

Wheat, meet chaff

With so many files on our computers, having an efficient way to find the ones we need is crucial. I keep files in folders, and I can usually remember that I wrote, say, an article about iTunes a few months ago, and track it down. But to locate older files, users often need more help.

Spotlight fits the bill for many searches, but it usually returns too many results. Back in the day, Tiger offered both a Spotlight menu and a Spotlight window, the latter permitting quick filtering of files by kind, date, location on your Mac, and so on.

Unfortunately Apple ditched the Spotlight window with Leopard, and Spotlight itself has fallen by the wayside. None of the "200+ New Features" in Mountain Lion mention any enhancement to Spotlight. Instead of working with the straightforward point-and-click interface of the Spotlight window, users must enter complex search queries to try to unearth elusive files. The Finder does allow some filtering by additional criteria, but that approach is often complex and confusing.

In many ways, Spotlight has become ungainly, larded with features tangentially related to search that seem to reduce its effectiveness at what used to be its raison d'être: It can launch applications (though many launcher utilities are more powerful); you can use it to find dictionary definitions; and you can even use it to perform calculations. But when handling the core task of searching for files, it often seems to toss up results at random. It's unclear whether results appear high in the queue of matches because Spotlight deems them especially relevant or simply because they were recently created or opened; often, looking at the top results of a search makes me scratch my head.

 

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