What is Spotlight on macOS and how to use it

apple macbook air m2 keyboard trackpad close up

Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

Spotlight is one of the best – and at the same time one of the most overlooked – features on macOS. I ignored it for years, but once I started paying close attention to it, I was amazed at how efficient it was and how it accelerated my productivity and output. What is Spotlight and how can it turn you into a Speedy Gonzalez on Mac? Read on for all the details.

Read more: Enable notifications and focus modes on a Mac


Spotlight is a search tool on macOS that can quickly pull up apps, documents, emails, and other files on your computer. You can also use Spotlight to create online search results, search the App Store, and get current information such as news, sports scores, weather, and stock quotes.


What is Spotlight on a Mac?

spotlight search macbook

What do you normally do when you want to open a file or an app? You would stop what you’re doing, go to Finder, find the file or app you want to open, and double-click it to open. This entails more clicks than necessary, and if you’re deep into something, breaking the moment to start searching in Finder can completely break your momentum. Especially if you don’t know where to look in the first place.

Spotlight is a hyper-charged launcher that helps streamline that process. The beauty of this is that you can do it all with your keyboard without leaving whatever you’re doing at the time. If your fingers are fast on the keyboard, Spotlight will open files and apps in two or three seconds.

Spotlight’s main competitor is Alfred, which has both a free and paid version. But you will probably only get the full benefit by purchasing the paid version. Spotlight, on the other hand, is completely free.

Using Spotlight

spotlight mac menu icon

If you haven’t used Spotlight before, you can open it by clicking the magnifying glass next to the clock in the menu bar. But since we’re trying to keep our fingers on the keyboard and generally reduce the amount of clicks, we need to set up a keyboard shortcut to open the Spotlight search bar.

Set spotlight

Go to System Settings > Keyboard and click Keyboard shortcuts.

macos keyboard settings

Click Spotlight in the left sidebar. On the right side, you’ll see two keyboard shortcuts: one for Spotlight search and one for a Finder search box. I’ve designated my shortcut for the Spotlight search box as the Command key and the space bar. You can change it to whatever you want by double-clicking the shortcut and entering what you want to use.

Of course, the shortcut can’t already be used by another app. Click Done when you’re done.

macos settings hotkeys spotlight

Now go to the Siri & Spotlight section and scroll down to Spotlight. You’ll see a list of all the things that Spotlight will continually index so you can find them in the search results. But if you don’t want a particular app or feature to be indexed, you can disable it here. Sometimes limiting your indexing options speeds up your computer a bit because Spotlight has less to do.

macos settings siri spotlight

Keep sensitive Spotlight results private

At the bottom of that same window you will find a Put privacy in the spotlight knob. Clicking that lets you specify whether there are folders, files, or apps in Finder that should be excluded from Spotlight search. Either to keep the results neater or because you may have a nosy family member or roommate.

Just click the + button, navigate to the file’s location in Finder and it will be added to the privacy list.

macos settings bring privacy to the fore

Use it for the first time

macos spotlight search bar

Now by clicking the magnifying glass icon in the top menu bar or using your new keyboard shortcut, you can now open the Spotlight search box. The box can be moved around the screen with your cursor and always takes on the color of your Mac’s background.

Things Spotlight can do for you

The best thing to do, if you are a beginner with this feature, is to just start typing and see what comes up. Play with it. You will quickly master it. By entering the right keywords for what you’re looking for, you can find just about anything.

mac spotlight calculator
  • Find any file, image, app, music file or movie file stored on your computer in a split second. You can also drag them from the Spotlight bar to the desktop.
  • Spotlight can read documents based on the keywords you specify.
  • Look inside zip files to find compressed files.
  • Show events and reminders.
  • Bring up items on your to-do list.
  • Get photos from your Photos app.
  • Search your podcast app for specific episodes.
  • Make searches on your favorite search engine. You’ll never have to go to the browser’s search page or omnibar again. Also get variations of your keyword.
  • Make mathematical calculations and conversions. Never pull up the calculator again.
  • Access any part of your Mac’s settings and you’ll be taken right there.
  • Type a business name to go to the location on Apple Maps.
  • Enter the name of an app to be added to the list in the Mac App Store.

And much more!

mac spotlight search result

Frequently Asked Questions

The actual feature itself can’t be removed, but you can just tell it in the system settings not to index anything, essentially rendering it inactive.

It can work in certain situations, depending on the size of the files it’s trying to index, and what you’re trying to do at the same time. If you’re experiencing speed issues on your Mac, try deselecting some large file types from the Spotlight settings. A reboot of the system wouldn’t hurt either.

In System Settings, you can prevent certain categories or certain file formats from appearing in searches. If it’s already indexed, deselecting those formats will immediately remove them from the Spotlight index.

Most of the time it is just an indexing bottleneck and can be resolved by simply rebooting the system.