The first Spotlight interface is still the best


Spotlight first appeared with the release of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger in April 2005. The first things you noticed after upgrading from Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and its Find interface were, first of all, the new Spotlight menubar icon in the upper right corner and its simple search field when invoked; but more importantly you immediately noticed how much faster Spotlight in Tiger was in finding what you were looking for. That’s because “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. 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.”[1] Therefore, when you perform a search query, Spotlight checks these indexes instead of going through all the files on the hard drive, like its ‘Find’ predecessor on Mac OS X 10.3 and earlier versions — or Sherlock under Mac OS 9 — used to do.

Find in Mac OS X Panther
The Find interface in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther.


Search in Spotlight was (and is) performed with a find-as-you-type process. Here’s a search for disk in Spotlight’s upper right field. Results are automatically divided into basic categories:

Spotlight Tiger results


What I really like about Spotlight under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger is the separate, standalone window that comes up when you select Show All at the top of the list:

Spotlight tiger showall


And this is the Search interface I’ve really been missing since Apple removed it in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Perhaps the Aqua elements like the three buttons in the upper left corner or the scroll bar on the right will make you cringe, but I think this is still the best search interface ever appeared on Mac OS X. Whenever I use one of my vintage PowerPC Macs running Tiger, it’s great to be back using Spotlight that way.

For starters, the contents are neatly organised and presented. There isn’t a single obscure UI element. Everything is discoverable. Each category is clearly separated by horizontal bars, each section can be expanded or collapsed by clicking on the triangle near the label. If you want additional information on a file or application, you click on the ‘i’ icon near the date/time column. Some categories provide alternative ways of displaying their files. If you look at the Images section, you’ll see three icons on the right of the separator: slideshow, list view, icon view. PDF Documents can also be displayed in icon view. It’s very useful because you can see little previews of the documents (remember, there wasn’t Quick Look under Tiger, that feature would appear later in Leopard). The pane on the right is for sorting and grouping the search results. Again, the UI is very clear, and the search results are rearranged immediately when you select different options.

Spotlight Tiger options
By right-clicking on an element, you have access to additional actions via a contextual menu.


If you’re using the keyboard to navigate this window, the actions are rather predictable: with the Up/Down arrow keys you move from one entry to the previous/next. With the Right arrow key, you expand the info for the selected element (like clicking the ‘i’ icon mentioned above). And if you hit Option and the Right arrow key, you’ll expand the info for all the elements contained in a category. If you have selected an application, and hit ⌘-↓ or ⌘-O, the application will launch.

The Spotlight window is persistent, so whatever you do with the search results (open a document, check a few images, launch an application, etc.), you can always go back to it later and you’ll find all the results as you left them.


From Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard onwards, while the Spotlight menu and find-as-you-type list of results on the upper right corner of the desktop remained essentially unchanged, this neatly organised window disappeared, and the Show All option simply triggered a new Finder window with the search results amassed in an unorganised fashion. If you didn’t find what you were looking for in the first results Spotlight displayed from the Search menu on the top right, you’d have to perform more organised searches with various filters and criteria directly from a Finder window. But the overall approach was less clean and clear than under Mac OS X Tiger. On the other hand, Spotlight got better as an app launcher and new features were introduced, like the ability to do quick calculations from the Spotlight search field itself.

When the Spotlight interface was finally redesigned with the release of Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, it was great to see that Apple was revisiting that kind of search interface, with a panel front and centre, and with the results organised in categories in a similar way as it was under Tiger. Since I upgraded from Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks to 10.11 El Capitan avoiding Yosemite completely, I only started using this new Spotlight interface in recent times. And I have mixed feelings about it.

Spotlight in El Capitan

Under Mavericks, and in my experience, Spotlight was really fast, especially as an app launcher, to the point that I found myself ignoring the Dock increasingly often, even to launch apps I keep in the Dock. Why move my hand away from the keyboard to reach the mouse, when I can just hit Command-Space, type tex and Enter, and TextEdit is already launching? But after upgrading to El Capitan, the first thing I noticed was that Spotlight’s responsiveness was much worse than before. Sometimes I would start typing and nothing happened — no suggested apps, no search results as I typed, nothing. After dismissing and invoking Spotlight again (sometimes twice), everything would work, but never at the speed experienced under Mavericks. After updating to OS X 10.11.2, I must say Spotlight appears to be snappier than before — maybe still not like under Mavericks, but definitely more usable than under OS X 10.11.0.

The interface is certainly more pleasant than the one that lasted from Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard to 10.9 Mavericks, but I still find it less usable and less predictable than it was under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

First of all, the way find-as-you-type has changed makes Spotlight under El Capitan appear slower than Spotlight under Tiger — and sometimes it actually is slower. If you look at the following screen recordings, where I performed a simple search for disk, you’ll see that under Tiger results start appearing immediately as I type d, then get progressively refined as I keep typing i, then s, then k. Under El Capitan, as I type disk, I only briefly see suggestions for launching apps, and then, after a pause where the panel is just blank, I finally see some results.


Searching ‘disk’ under Tiger


Searching ‘disk’ under El Capitan

(The Spotlight search under Tiger you see in the video above was made on a Power Mac G4 Cube, with a 450 MHz processor and 1.5 GB of RAM; the Spotlight search under El Capitan was made on a MacBook Pro, with a 2.66 GHz dual-core processor and 8 GB of RAM.)


Then, while I can navigate the Spotlight window with the arrow keys, there’s not much else I can do. While it’s great to be able to select a folder in the search results and see its contents on the right side of the window…

Spotlight folder contents under El Capitan

…Image files and documents have a big preview but no additional info visible. Things like Created, Last Modified, Last Opened — which are instead displayed for other file types.

In the Spotlight standalone window under Tiger, the file path (i.e., where the file is located) was easily visible by expanding the file info, either by hitting the Right arrow key or clicking the ‘i’ icon. Under El Capitan, it’s a game of guessing which keys to press (if any), and it turns out you have to hold the Command key while the file is selected in the Spotlight window. And when the path is too long to fit, you’ll only see a part of it. Under El Capitan there’s also no way (that I’ve found) to reveal a file in the Finder — right-clicking on a file does nothing, and the only key that seems to work is Enter, which will open the file in the designated application to handle such file.[2]

There aren’t any grouping or sorting options, either. It seems that, after Mac OS X Tiger, everything related to the organisation and filtering of search results is delegated to the Finder window. And it’s not a bad option when you realise how much you can filter by selecting different criteria — here I have kept clicking on the [+] button to show additional options:

Search criteria

But every time I go back to one of my Macs still running Tiger, I realise how flexible the Spotlight window is by offering grouping and sorting options right there; these options aren’t exhaustive, but in my searches they’re often good enough to help me wade through hundreds of results because, for example, I can quickly choose to display only the files modified ‘Today,’ or ‘Since Yesterday’. Additionally, since I’ve accumulated a fair amount of PDFs and other documents, it’s nice to be able to group them by author straight in the Spotlight window under Mac OS X Tiger. It also works with Mail results, so you could quickly find all emails written by a certain person and have them neatly grouped together in the Spotlight window by simply clicking People in the Group by: section at the top of the right pane.

Another annoying thing is that, in Spotlight under El Capitan, when you navigate the results with the arrow keys, the original search term (disk in my example) is replaced with the name of the currently selected search result (e.g. DiskWarrior), so if by chance you then hit the Right arrow key, you’ll be taken to an entirely new list of search results:

Disk to diskwarrior1

Disk to diskwarrior2

Disk to diskwarrior3

I can see the possible usefulness of this behaviour, but for me it just gets in the way.

When I was talking about the Spotlight window in Mac OS X Tiger, I said that it is a great example of clarity and usability — basically everything is discoverable and there’s not much guessing when you start interacting with the various UI elements. Under El Capitan, there’s the occasional inconsistency. For example, if you hover the pointer over a category name (Images, Folders, etc.), a little “Show All…” appears on the right side of the label/horizontal bar/separator. You click it once and it immediately opens a Finder window with all the results from the selected category. But if you select the last item in the Spotlight window — Show all in Finder… — when you click it, nothing happens. You have to double-click it. Why? Who knows.

Another couple of quirky things I’ve found: 1) Some email messages get a full preview, others do not. At first I thought that only messages in HTML got a preview, but sometimes I also see previews of messages in plain text. And 2) When searching for a word in Spotlight, the Dictionary search result I get is in Japanese. I’d like it in English, but I haven’t yet found out how to change this setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the ‘new’ Spotlight interface that was introduced in OS X 10.10 Yosemite. The big search field in the centre of the screen, the clearer way search results are displayed, it’s undoubtedly better than before and going in the right direction from a visual standpoint, but the interface of the Spotlight window still isn’t as flexible, clear and usable as it was under Mac OS X Tiger; and the speed and responsiveness are nowhere near Spotlight’s performance under Tiger to Mavericks — at least on Macs equipped with hard drives. If your Mac has an SSD, your experience has probably been more satisfying than mine.

Addendum: Third-party software

You’re probably already aware of apps like Alfred and LaunchBar, which offer a lot of useful features and can also act as application launchers, but I wanted to specifically mention two third-party solutions that put search first and are directly related to the aspects discussed in the article.

  • If you, like me, prefer the way Spotlight handled searches under Mac OS X Tiger, I recommend you check Tembo, by Houdah Software. Its interface behaves in basically the exact way. It’s fast and well-designed. It’s $14.99 on the Mac App Store (there are two versions: get the 2.0 version if you’re running Yosemite or El Capitan, get the 1.8 version if you’re running Mavericks or earlier), but you can download a free trial by visiting Houdah Software’s website.
  • Then there’s Find Any File, by Thomas Tempelmann, which I keep recommending because, while unable to search for file contents, it is capable of very extended searches in places Spotlight usually ignores, such as inside packages, or inside system’s folders. I also like how it handles search results: it has an extremely useful Hierarchical view, so you can see at a glance where a file is located and if it’s inside an invisible or otherwise not-directly-accessible folder. As for its looks, let’s say long-time Mac users will love its utilitarian, pre-Spotlight interface. Find Any File is shareware and costs $6. Finally, the developer still offers an older version that runs on PowerPC Macs.


  • 1. John Siracusa, from his Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger review on Ars Technica, 2005.
  • 2. A few nice and helpful readers have emailed me, and made me aware that the method to reveal a file in the Finder is to select it in the search results and hit ⌘-Enter. A shortcut that, while not uncommon, was totally non-obvious to me.


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