Mac users upgrading to Leopard will find a different Spotlight waiting for them.

The last time Apple rolled out a cat-themed OS X update, Spotlight was the star of the show. Introduced as part of OS X 10.4, the search feature used files' indexed metadata—creation date, body text, file kind, and size, for example—to quickly ferret out matching files.

While Spotlight showed promise, its performance often proved disappointing. In many cases searches were too broad, producing hundreds or even thousands of results when you searched using common words and phrases. And while it was supposed to produce results as you typed, it would often hesitate after you'd typed a couple of characters and then eventually begin again as it caught up with the clacks of your keyboard.

Mac users upgrading to Leopard will find a different Spotlight waiting for them. OS X 10.5 refines the search technology in several significant—and welcome—ways. This revamped Spotlight can conduct phrase searches that actually produce useful results; it also supports a new feature in Leopard called Quick Look.

The big changes

Many Spotlight enhancements planned for Leopard were unveiled more than a year ago by Apple.

Let's start with phrase searches. When you conduct a query in your browser's Search field, one of the best ways to narrow your search is by enclosing your search terms in quotation marks. "Licorice Ice Cream: for example, produces far few results in a Google search than Licorice Ice Cream.

Leopard's Spotlight allows you to conduct these same kind of phrase searches. Additionally, with the help of metadata attributes, you can really narrow your results. For instance, type name:"file name" (including the quotes) and, finally, you can use Spotlight's Search field to search for exact file names. This was impossible under Tiger.

File name searching is even easier within the Searching window that appears when you type Command-F in the Finder. Just enter the file name you seek in the Spotlight field within this window and click on the File Name button.

In Tiger, there also wasn't a way to create a Boolean search — one that uses words such as AND, OR, and NOT to conduct conditional queries. With Leopard, you can now search along the lines of kind:messages lizard NOT messages: salamander to find messages that contain the word "lizard" but exclude any that also contain the world "salamander".

While Spotlight now narrows things down nicely, you may still see multiple results. One good way to see if you have the right file is to open a Searching window, perform your search, and select the file you believe you want to open and press the Space Bar. This engages Leopard's Quick Look feature, which we'll explore in greater depth in a coming article on changes to the Finder in Leopard. But briefly, Quick Look lets you quickly scan through the contents of a file, without forcing you to go to the trouble of opening it in its native application. It's a terrific time-saver and ideal for the at-a-glance nature of Spotlight searches.

While we're on the subject of the Finder, Finder windows sport a Shared entry in the sidebar, and those Macs that have Personal File Sharing switched on will appear beneath this entry. Spotlight can now search the contents of those shared Macs as well as your local computer.

Finally, Spotlight adds capabilities reminiscent of launcher apps. It's no LaunchBar, but it is useable as a limited launching utility.

By default, Spotlight will highlight applications as the Top Hit so it's a simple matter to type into the Spotlight field the name of the application you'd like to open — iPhoto, for example — and press the Return key to launch it.

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