eXtensions - Tuesday 11 October 2016

System Preferences in macOS, Sierra: Spotlight

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By Graham K. Rogers

In the recent update to macOS, some of the System Preferences have seen subtle changes. Although the feature works the same as before, the preferences pane for Spotlight has had some small, but significant changes. Spotlight is a search facility that helps users find things on the computer quickly. 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. Now a progress bar is seen in a Spotlight search window when indexing takes place. At these times, there may be some slowing of the computer.


Spotlight now uses 21 categories in searches. These are shown in the Spotlight preference, "Search Results" panel. There are a number of additions and changes here. Previously these were numbered (1-22) but no numbers are shown now. There are now no icons used in the categories listing as in previous versions of OS X. 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 no longer be dragged up or down the list to change the priority of results.

Updating Spotlight should occur immediately a file is saved. If I search for that last sentence, my text file is the top hit. Using "Show all in Finder" will also reveal the file in a refined search.

At the bottom of the Search Results panel, the two checkboxes for Keyboard Shortcuts and Spotlight window shortcut are no longer available. There is now a single checkbox, marked "Allow Spotlight Suggestions in Look up" (applying intelligent searching or a digital potluck).

Below is a new button that replaces one of the missing checkboxes (and its button). The new button is marked Keyboard Shortcuts and links to the Shortcuts panel in Keyboard Preferences. The default key combination (hot key) is Command + Space.

Earlier this was greyed out on my MacBook Pro as I use this key combination to switch keyboards. In an earlier installation, the key allocated (for my use) was shown as F5 (Fn + F5 is used). In Sierra, the hot-key is now F1 (Fn + F1).

A second button to the right of the panel is marked, About Spotlight Suggestions & Privacy. Pressing this reveals a panel with a text explaining how Apple collects and uses data when conducting a search. It also explains how to turn off Location Services for Spotlight suggestions.


The other panel in the Spotlight preference pane is marked, Privacy. Initially, there are no files or folders in the panel. 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. However, the user is warned when dragging in the main disk of the computer as excluding the hard disk will limit any searches.


At the bottom of the Privacy pane, the two buttons - Keyboard Shortcuts and About Spotlight Search Results & Privacy - are also shown.

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). It may be that Bing is no longer used.

There is a similar display of information about these external features on the Sierra Support pages, but readers should note the small caveat, "Not all features of Spotlight Suggestions may be available in all languages or regions, and some features of Spotlight Suggestions may vary by region." Unlike the similar limitations of iOS Spotlight searches (see below), there is no indication of which countries may be in the select few.

The Sierra limits contrast to the way in which Spotlight works in iOS 10. If a search for Point Reyes is done on my Macs, there is only a dictionary entry available. However if a search for Point Reyes is done on the iPhone, the user is offered, "Search Web" "Search App Store" and "Search Maps". In earlier versions there would have been a Wikipedia option on the iPhone. With Sierra, only references on the computer are shown. Entering Point Reyes in a browser on the Mac gives several results making these limits seem all the more irritating.

A number of users in Thailand questioned this limitation. Apple provides a list of only 26 countries (up from 15 originally) that are able to access the full featured Spotlight. Singapore and Malaysia are now on that list.

See Also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. 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. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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