System Preferences

How to Use macOS’ Spotlight Like a Champ

There are two kinds of Mac users: those who use Spotlight constantly, and those who ignore it.

If you’re in the second category, that’s too bad: everything about using a Mac gets faster with Spotlight. This search tool doubles as a text-based Siri alternative, and with just a few keystrokes, you can launch or look up anything. Getting started couldn’t be easier: just click the little magnifying glass.

But if you really want to be quick, don’t click: press Command+Space on your keyboard to launch Spotlight. If you only learn one Mac keyboard shortcut, make it this one. You’ll instantly see a blank search window.

What can this search box do? A lot: just start typing. Let’s dive in, starting with the basics and working our way toward lesser known features.

Getting Started: Looking for Files

The basic functionality of Spotlight is instant search of every file on your computer. A very simple use for this is to launch software: just type the name of the program.

Results will pop up instantly as you type, and you can hit “Enter” right away to launch an app or game. It feels silly at first, but it’s actually faster than clicking an icon somewhere—you never even have to take your hands off the keyboard. Once you get used to it, you will seriously wonder why you ever opened software any other way.

You can also use this to launch individual panels in the System Preferences, again just by typing the name.

This becomes really useful when you need to quickly find a file. If you want to quickly find a photo you took in Paris, just hit Command+Space and search for the word “Paris.”

In the above example, you’ll notice that music came up before photos. No matter: you can use the up and down arrow keys to quickly jump from item to item. As you scroll through the photos, you’ll see thumbnails in the right panel.

Searches look at filenames, but in the case of documents, Spotlight also looks inside the file. For example: way back in college, I helped publish a parody publication that was “written” by a cat named Muffles. All these years later, searching Spotlight for “Muffles” brings up the document, even though “muffles” is nowhere in the filename.

If you’re like me, sometimes you can’t remember where you put a document, or what its filename was. In those cases, typing a phrase you know is in the document can help. You can open the document by hitting Enter, or see where it is in the Finder by hitting Command+Enter.

If you want to get fancy, you can also use basic boolean queries, including OR, AND, and NOT. It’s usually not necessary, but good to have sometimes.

Searching for Files With Natural Language

Spotlight is useful enough for simple searches alone, but you can go deeper by using natural language. What does this mean? That you can type surprisingly specific queries and get the results you’d expect. For example: type “pictures from december…

Why Do Some Mac Apps Need to “Control This Computer Using Accessibility Features?”

Some apps, like Dropbox and Steam, will ask to “control this computer using accessibility features.” But what the heck does that even mean?

The wording is confusing, to say that least. What does this permission actually grant? Basically, this gives the app in question the ability to control other programs. Apple outlines their advice here:

If you’re familiar with an app, you can authorize it by clicking Open System Preferences in the alert, then selecting the checkbox for the app in the Privacy pane. If you’re unfamiliar with an app or you don’t want to give it access to your Mac at that time, click Deny in the alert.

But that just leaves more questions. Why do you have to give this permission at all? What does giving this permission mean—will such applications really “control this computer”? And why is this called “Accessibility” access, instead of just system access? Let’s break this down.

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Why Do I Have to Do This?

The process of enabling Accessibility Settings is a bit convoluted. You need to open System Preferences, then head to Security & Privacy > Privacy > Accessibility. From there you need to click the lock icon in the bottom-left corner, enter you password, and only then can you grant your application access.

So why do you have to do this? The answer, in short, is to protect your security.

By default, Mac apps are self-contained, and can’t change the way you interact with the system or other applications. This is a very good thing. It prevents sketchy things from happening, like games you’ve downloaded logging your keystrokes or malware clicking buttons in your browser.

But some applications need to control other applications to…