Spotlight has been with Mac users for a while now, but Apple has tweaked the search tool for its forthcoming upgrade to the Mac OS. We look at how Leopard will tackle searches.

Spotlight, which was introduced with OS X 10.4, is Apple's solution to help us find stuff on our increasingly-large hard drives. Spotlight's goal is to make sure we never lose something again -- as long as we can remember something about a file, image, application, or other item, we can find it.

Spotlight helps you track down things by indexing everything on your hard drive -- including the name and contents of pretty much everything you store. Using this index, it's then theoretically possible to find documents quickly and easily by simply typing a word, phrase, or keyword that you recall from the item. There are some issues with the current implementation of Spotlight, so it’s good to see an enhanced version will feature in Leopard.

Spotlight in Leopard appears to work much as it does in 10.4 -- just press Command-Space and start typing. However, the implementation has been changed, with some new features as well as changes to existing ones. These additions and enhancements are designed to make working with Spotlight easier, giving the user more power. Hopefully, they'll address many of the issues Spotlight critics have with the current implementation.

One big change in Leopard's take on Spotlight is that application launching is now considered a more important task than it was in Tiger. Applications are the first matches returned from a Spotlight search, and if the top hit is the application you want to launch, there's no need to select it -- it's already highlighted, requiring just a press of the Return button to launch it.

Seek and ye shall find

Another change is that when you bring up the Spotlight window (Command-Option-Space by default), the results list is pre-populated with recently-used items. So if you happen to be looking for something that's been recently used, you won't even have to run a search.

Finally, more Finder-like search features are built into the Spotlight search window. There's no longer such a big disparity between the types of searches you run in the Finder and those you run in a Spotlight window.

One of the biggest new features is the ability to search networked Macs and OS X Server boxes. Many Mac owners have more than one machine, and now, you'll be able to find stuff on any of those networked Macs with one Spotlight search.

Another welcome addition is Quick Look. This shows you previews of your PDFs, photos, contacts, and slideshows (and probably more) without even opening the parent application. Just select the item in Spotlight's results list, and you'll see the Quick Look preview. No more finding what you think is the right picture, only to discover you were wrong after waiting for Photoshop to launch and open the image.

Either/or

Finally, Apple addresses an item near the top of the 10.4 Spotlight gripes list with the addition of more powerful search logic to the Spotlight interface. Spotlight now supports boolean logic -- you can use "AND," "OR," and "NOT" in your search requests. This should greatly cut down on the number of irrelevant matches found. You can also search using specific file attributes, such as author, type, or keyword. It's not clear at this point if you can also use parentheses to control the grouping of your search elements or not.

One thing that wasn't covered in the keynote address that demonstrated the software is whether or not Spotlight will finally support phrase searches. It would be great to be able to search on "some phrase," thereby excluding any document that merely contains both "some" and "phrase" (but not in order) from my search results. This seems like something many people would want to do, but it's not clear if Leopard will add this feature or not.

It's also unknown if Finder searches for filenames have gotten any easier -- prior to Tiger, searching by filename was fast and easy. And although Spotlight is a great technology and incredibly powerful, it actually made it more difficult to do a simple filename search in the Finder.

Spotlight in Leopard appears to be gaining at least some of the missing features people have been clamoring for since Tiger's 2005 release. Apple seems to realize that if Spotlight is the future of search on OS X, then it needs to make the tool more useful to more of the user base. The OS X 10.5 version of Spotlight looks likely to improve on the current implementation, but we'll have to wait for the official release to see how all of these improvements actually play out.