AMITIAE - Friday 7 November 2014

System Preferences in OS X 10.10, Yosemite: Spotlight

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By Graham K. Rogers

In the recent update of OS X to 10.10, Yosemite, some of the System Preferences have seen subtle changes. Content in the preferences pane for Spotlight has had some small changes. The interface has also been considerably changed. Spotlight is a search facility that helps users find things on the computer quickly. New features for online searching may not be available in some regions.

Spotlight is a search facility that was introduced originally with OS X 10.4. It uses HFS (hierarchical file system) to find information on a user's disk and integrates with the Finder. In theory, any data recorded on the disk, including text, file names and file metadata, are indexed by Spotlight. It is possible to prevent such indexing with the Privacy settings.

There is also a facility for searching online using sources such as Wikipedia, Google and Bing (and more). This may not be available in some regions (see Notes below).

The main panel is in two parts: Search Results and Privacy.

Search Results

When the system is first started and at other times, including when users update OS X, Spotlight indexes the disk. This was previously indicated by a small black dot in the middle of the Spotlight icon on the top right of the menu bar. With Yosemite, a progress bar appears in a Spotlight search window. When indexing takes place, there may be some slowing of the computer.


Spotlight now uses 22 categories in searches. These are shown in the Spotlight preference, "Search Results" panel. There are a number of additions and changes here. There are now no icons used in the categories listing. The Spotlight search may offer several results, some of which might not be related to the user's search needs.

Spotlight - Default List Order

Each item has a check box so can be deselected. A category can be dragged up or down the list to change the priority of results. In my user account, "Documents" is the top category, followed by "Presentations", with "Developer" last. I leave "Fonts" unchecked, so this is not included in any Spotlight search.

Spotlight - Personalised List Order

Updating Spotlight should occur immediately a file is saved. If I search for that last sentence, my text file should be the top hit: it is a Document and, chronologically, the most recent. If not, using "Show all in Finder" should reveal the file in a refined search.

At the bottom of the Search Results panel, there are two checkboxes. The first is for the menu keyboard shortcut. The default is Command + Space. Earlier this was greyed out on my MacBook Pro as I use this key combination to switch keyboards. However, in the most recent installations, the key now allocated (for my use) is shown as F5 (Fn + F5 is used).

The second checkbox is for the Spotlight window shortcut. When this is used (in my case Option + Command + Space) a Finder search window is opened. This is the same window as when the "Show all in Finder" command is used in a basic Spotlight search.

By pressing a button at the side of each of the text boxes, a number other key commands are made available as options. If one is selected that is already allocated to another feature, a yellow warning triangle will appear to the right. With the text box open, it is possible to type in another key combination, although not all are accepted.

In previous versions of OS X, these buttons were also available in the Privacy pane. That is no longer the case.


The other panel in the Spotlight preference pane is marked, Privacy. If a folder or a disk (e.g. an external hard disk) is dragged to this panel, it will not be included in searches. We can also use the Plus (+) and minus (-) icons at the bottom to add or remove locations from this panel.


This panel has another valuable function for updating the Spotlight database. If a folder or disk is dragged into the panel, then dragged out again, Spotlight will then re-index that location. This includes the computer's hard disk, so is a way to re-index the disk.


At the bottom of both panes - Search Results and Privacy - there is a button marked "About Spotlight Suggestions and Privacy". This opens a panel in which there is a lengthy text about what data is shared with Apple and Microsoft (Bing). There is also information about how a user may turn off this data transmission.


See also: Spotlight: Privacy Advocates Furious As Apple Feature Siphons Off Location Data of Yosemite And iOS 8 Users (Thomas Fox-Brewster, Forbes)

Additional Note - Online Searching

When Apple demonstrated the features of OS X 10.10, Yosemite, at the WWDC in June 2014, a much-touted new facility was the way that Spotlight would search both the computer and online sources, such as Wikipedia, Google and would also use Microsoft's Bing (shown as a category in Search Results).

There is a similar display of information about these external features on the Yosemite pages, but readers should note the rather small caveat, "Spotlight Suggestions may not be available in all regions." Unlike the similar limitations of iOS Spotlight searches (see below), there is no indication of which countries may be in the select few.

The Yosemite limits are similar to the way in which Spotlight works in iOS 8. Apple's screenshots indicate results from several external links within the Spotlight search.

However if a search for (as example) Point Reyes is done on the iPhone, instead of the Wikipedia link and a thumbnail image, the user is offered, "Search Web" and Search Wikipedia" on the iPhone. With Yosemite, only references on the computer are shown. Entering Point Reyes in a browser gives several results making these limits seem all the more irritating.

A number of users in Thailand questioned this limitation. It was also found that users in Singapore - usually one of Apple's favoured nations - were similarly limited. For iOS 8, Apple provides a list of only 15 countries that are able to access the full featured Spotlight.

See Also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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