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Leopard spotlight.png
Screenshot of the Spotlight menu performing a search for the word "adobe" in Mac OS X Leopard.
Developer(s) Apple Inc.
Operating system Mac OS X
Type Desktop search
Website Spotlight

Spotlight is a system-wide desktop search feature of Apple's Mac OS X operating system. Spotlight is a selection-based search system, which creates a virtual index of all items and files on the system. It is designed to allow the user to quickly locate a wide variety of items on the computer, including documents, pictures, music, applications, and System Preferences. As well, specific words in documents and in web pages in a web browser's history or bookmarks can be searched. It also allows the user to narrow down searches with creation dates, modification dates, sizes, types and other attributes.

The feature is also available on Darwin, but only through a command-line interface. A similar feature for iPhone OS 3.0 with the same name was announced on March 17, 2009.

Spotlight was first announced at the June 2004 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference,[1] and then released with Mac OS X v10.4 in April, 2005.[2]



Indices of filesystem metadata are maintained by the Metadata Server (which appears in the system as the mds daemon, or mdworker). The Metadata Server is started by launchd when Mac OS X boots and is activated by client requests or changes to the filesystems that it monitors. It is fed information about the files on a computer's hard disks by the mdimport daemon; it does not index removable media such as CDs or DVDs.[3] Aside from basic information about each file like its name, size and timestamps, the mdimport daemon can also index the content of some files, when it has an Importer plug-in that tells it how the file content is formatted. Spotlight comes with importers for certain types of files, such as Microsoft Word, MP3, and PDF documents. Apple publishes APIs that allow developers to write Spotlight Importer plug-ins for their own file formats.[3]

The first time that a user logs onto the operating system, Spotlight builds indexes of metadata about the files on the computer's hard disks.[3] It also builds indexes of files on devices such as external hard drives that are connected to the system. This initial indexing may take some time, but after this the indexes are updated continuously in the background as files are created or modified. If the system discovers that files on an external drive have been modified on a system running a version of Mac OS older than 10.4, it will re-index the volume from scratch.[3]

The spotlight engine is used to power the Finder's search

Within Mac OS X v10.4, Spotlight can be accessed from a number of places. Clicking on an icon in the top-right of the menu bar opens up a text field where a search query can be entered. Finder windows also have a text field in the top-right corner where a query can be entered, as do the standard load and save dialogue boxes. Both of these text fields immediately start listing results of the search as soon as the user starts typing in a search term, returning items that either match the term, or items that start with the term. The search results can be further refined by adding criteria in a Finder window such as "Created Today" or "Size Greater than 1 KB".[3]

The Mac OS X v10.4 also includes command line utilities for querying or manipulating Spotlight. The mdimport command, as well as being used by the system itself to index information, can also be used by the user to import certain files that would otherwise be ignored or force files to be reimported. It is also designed to be used as a debugging tool for developers writing Importer plug-ins. mdfind allows the user to perform Spotlight queries from the command line, also allowing Spotlight queries to be included in things like shell scripts. mdls lists the indexed attributes for specific files, allowing the user to specify which files and/or which attributes. The indexes that Spotlight creates can be managed with mdutil, which can erase existing indexes causing them to be rebuilt if necessary or turn indexing off.[4] These utilities are also available on Darwin.

Although not widely advertised, in Tiger, Spotlight can perform boolean searches.[5] By default if you include more than one word, then Spotlight performs the search as if you including an "AND". If you place a '|' between words, Spotlight performs an OR query. Placing a '-' before a word tells Spotlight to search for results that do not include that word, i.e. a NOT query.[6]

Leopard additions

With Mac OS X Leopard, Apple introduced some additional features. With Spotlight in Tiger, users can only search devices that are attached to their computers. With Leopard, Spotlight is able to search networked Macs running Leopard (both client and server versions) that have file sharing enabled. A feature called Quick Look has been added to the GUI that will display live previews of files within the search results, so applications do not have to be opened just to confirm that the user has found the right file. The syntax has also been extended to include support for boolean "AND", "OR" and "NOT" operators.[7]

Also while Spotlight is not enabled on the server version of Tiger,[8] it is on the server release of Leopard.[9]

In addition, where Spotlight in Tiger had a unique and separate window design, Spotlight in Leopard now shares windows with the Finder, allowing for a more unified GUI.

The unique Spotlight window in Tiger allowed sorting and viewing of search results by any metadata handled by the Finder; whereas Spotlight Finder windows in Leopard are fixed to view and sort items by last opened date, filename and kind only. Unfortunately, under Leopard there is currently no way to save window preferences for the Finder window that is opened via Spotlight.

In Leopard the Spotlight menu doubles as a calculator, very similar to the functionality of the Google search field (but without the need to be online).

iPhone OS

A search tool, also named Spotlight, has been included on the iPhone since iPhone OS 3.0. This feature allows the user to search contacts, mail metadata,[10] calendars, media and other content.[10] Compared to Spotlight on Mac OS X, the iPhone-version's search capability is limited.[10] The Spotlight screen is opened with a finger-flick to the right from the primary home screen.[10]

The feature was announced in March 2009 and released with iPhone OS 3.0 in June 2009.

See also


  1. ^ Ina Fried (June 28, 2004, accessdate=2009-11-15). "For Apple's Tiger, the keyword is search".  
  2. ^ Apple, Inc. (2005-04-12). "Apple to Ship Mac OS X “Tiger” on April 29". Retrieved 2009-11-15. "Spotlight searches the contents inside documents and information about those documents, or metadata"  
  3. ^ a b c d e John Siracusa (April 28, 2005). "Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger". Retrieved 2007-04-04.  
  4. ^ Kirk McElhearn (July 8, 2005). "Command spotlight". Macworld. Retrieved 2007-04-04.  
  5. ^ "10.4: Use Boolean (NOT, OR) searches in Spotlight". May 12, 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-09.  
  6. ^ Hiram (April 30, 2005). "Boolean search in Spotlight". Ipse dixit. Retrieved 2007-01-21.  
  7. ^ "Apple - Mac OS X - Leopard Sneak Peek - Spotlight". August 7, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-21.  
  8. ^ Robert Mohns (2005). "Tiger Review: Examining Spotlight". Retrieved 2007-04-04.  
  9. ^ "Apple - Leopard Server Sneak Peak - Spotlight Server". August 7, 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-04.  
  10. ^ a b c d Frakes, Dan (2009). "Hands on With IPhone 3.0's Spotlight". PC World / Macworld. Retrieved 2009-12-26. "iPhone Spotlight doesn't search the full content of every file on your phone"  

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