Mac OS X 10.5: Shining the spotlight on Spotlight

With Leopard, look for welcome refinements to Apple's search tool

In recent columns, I've talked about the new features coming in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, including Time Machine and Spaces. Both are major additions that will make computing more reliable and help organize the way you work within Mac OS X.

Now, I want to talk about two less prominent features -- one of which isn't even new. Leopard will include an enhanced version of Mac OS X's Spotlight search tool as well as Quick Look, a new tool for previewing documents without opening them.

Compared to Time Machine and Spaces, an updated version of Spotlight may not seem particularly exciting -- after all, it got the shortest amount of attention at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote last August and hasn't really been talked about since. However, changes that Apple is making both refine and expand Spotlight in major ways, particularly in network environments.

Remote Mac and server search support

One of the biggest advances in Spotlight is that it will be able to search remote computers. This is a big deal for home users, who have different files -- think digital photos and music -- stored on different Macs. You'll be able to search across all the Macs in your house for that one photo that you know you downloaded from your camera but can't find or for the particular CD track you ripped but don't remember on which of three Macs you placed it. The new and improved Spotlight will even offer some unique parental monitoring capabilities because you can remotely search your kids' computers if you suspect they're downloading files illegally or saving files that you feel are inappropriate.

However, the power of remote searching at home is nothing compared to its use in the office. Apple is adding a new Spotlight Server feature to Leopard Server that will index all content on Mac servers, allowing you to search all servers in a network -- just as you would look for something on your local Mac. This stands to offer incredible value in any network environment, particularly collaborative environments where many people are working together on a single project.

Being able to search based on metadata, file names and file contents across multiple folders, share points and even multiple servers will make locating documents much simpler. Imagine, for example, a situation in which a colleague asks you to update a grant proposal or an InDesign file for XYZ company. You don't know the file name or whether it is in a group folder, his public folder or in some other location on your department's share point. Being able to search among all Spotlight's criteria -- or even just the ability to look at file contents for XYZ company -- will make locating the file much easier than locating information in any file on a network has ever been.

Spotlight under Leopard Server will also respect file permissions and access control lists (ACL). That's critical because it means that while Spotlight would theoretically have access to all information stored on a server, users won't. Making Spotlight fully respect Mac OS X's permission structure is actually quite a feat for Apple to tackle (though clearly one that it needed to) because of the varying levels of access people might have. That would include access rights assigned explicitly, through group and nested group membership, POSIX permissions and ACLs.

You don't want a situation where someone is denied access to a file while browsing through the Finder because they lack permission to an enclosing folder, but can access that file through a Spotlight search because of permissions on a subfolder or even on the file itself. Apple's Leopard Server Sneak Peek page for Spotlight states that Leopard Server will ensure that if you cannot browse to a file, you will not be able to locate it with Spotlight. No doubt, this is a challenge for Apple's engineers. But for users and systems administrators it will mean fewer security headaches down the road.

Recent Items

During the WWDC keynote, Apple also announced that Spotlight in Leopard will include a "recent items" feature. Recent Items is such a pervasive theme in Mac OS X, and in many applications, that it's a bit surprising Spotlight didn't already have such a feature. Being able to recall recently found items or items that you were recently working with is a huge advantage. How many times have you been working on a file, saved it and then not realized where it was saved? This is especially true when you open files on a server or a remote Mac, or files that you receive via e-mail or other messaging means. Those are typically stored in a temp directory of some form.

Advanced search functionality

As powerful as Spotlight is, it actually offers a somewhat limited set of search options. True, searching in Mac OS X -- be it with Spotlight or its predecessor, Sherlock -- has always offered an array of search criteria (text, date, type of file, size). But until now, the ways that you string those criteria together has been limited. Spotlight in Leopard is designed to offer advanced search functionality by allowing you to select a variety of boolean operatives. (Apple has said so far that AND, OR and NOT will be supported.) Being able to string them together yields a more stringent search result.

In Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, if you wanted to search for a file whose name contained the word "car" -- and you knew it was either a text or PDF file but didn't contain the phrase "hybrid" -- you could search for all files with car in the name and scan through the results (many of which might be images or movies or other types of files). Or you could search for text files with car in their names and then search for PDF files if you didn't find what you were looking for initially. While both methods would work, you'd either have excess files to check or you'd need multiple searches.

In Leopard, you'll be able to enter a search that specifies car in the file name, text or PDF as the type, and not files containing the word "hybrid."

Using Spotlight as an application launcher

Apple's Leopard Spotlight Sneak Peek page touts another feature: using Spotlight as an application launcher. Specifically, it notes that applications with names matching your search will always appear as top hits in the Spotlight menu. At first glance, this doesn't seem particularly impressive. After all, that's how Spotlight works now. However, Apple goes on to say that just hitting return will automatically open the application. Right now, while applications are shown as top hits if they match a search, they aren't automatically selected. What is selected is the Show All option that displays the Spotlight results. You can, of course, use the menu, the arrow keys or the mouse to navigate to an application and launch it.

Having the top hit be an application that's automatically selected allows you to enter the first few letters of the application's name, hit return and open it. This could be a great timesaver for launching apps you don't keep in the Dock, particularly those not at the root level of the Applications folder.

Note: As useful as this feature will be in Leopard, I've been using Spotlight as an application launcher already, albeit with one or two extra keystrokes to select the right application).

Quick Look

Quick Look, a new technology that will accompany Spotlight, allows you to preview the contents of files without opening them. That's a big help when searching for information because many files often have similar names, metadata and even content. While the Finder currently offers some preview capabilities for image and video files, Spotlight search results don't make use of that feature. Even the current Finder previews are small thumbnails.

Quick Look's description indicates that the technology will display full size previews "in a graphic overlay." Although Apple doesn't explain what that is, existing Mac OS X technologies that could be similarly described include Dashboard or the command-tab application switcher. It seems logical, though not certain, that Quick Look will work using a similar visual effect.

However, Quick Look's power will come not from its form but its function. The ability to get full-size previews of varying media types could save a lot of search time. For some file types, opening a document to verify that it's the one you want takes several seconds (while Preview and Text Edit launch, for instance). However, many documents can take noticeably longer to open, particularly if the associated application has to be launched. Photoshop files, Final Cut projects and Quark documents all come immediately to mind because they can be large files and each use an application that can take a while to launch. Even Office documents and applications can take time, which is why I typically preview Word documents with TextEdit -- especially when using an Intel Mac.

If Apple builds support for a large range of file types into Quick Look, the results could be revolutionary. Simply click on a search result and see exactly what the file looks like, regardless of type -- and maybe doing so even without the associated application installed. Imagine quickly scanning through search results and even being able to read PDFs or other documents, look at photos or watch video, all directly from the search results window. If your job is mostly to gather information rather than to edit files, Spotlight and Quick Look could quickly become your primary tools, and your best friends.

Coupled with other advances in Spotlight, Quick Look stands to change the way you work with Macs in a home, small office or corporate environment by making searching for files across a computer or network effortless. Search for exactly what you need, find it wherever it is and then preview it before you open it -- and maybe skip even opening it as a result. The ease of use and the added efficiency will pay back time-saving dividends. And if Apple's updated version of Spotlight is as good as the original, the simplicity of it will make you wonder both how you lived without it and why nobody developed it sooner.

For more information about Leopard, if you have some time, check out the QuickTime video of Apple's WWDC 2006 keynote.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs. For more information, visit

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