How to search on a Mac

83.9K views
7 min read

We tend to think of "search" as a web-only initiative, but your Mac can do searches, too! Both Spotlight and the Finder are excellent resources, and learning how to use search within these macOS features can help you find what you're looking for much faster.

You can also search within documents like PDFs to find phrases or words that are important to you. Here, we'll show you how to search on Mac, how to use Spotlight to search your computer and some great apps you might prefer to Apple's built-in services.

What is Spotlight in macOS?

Spotlight on macOS is a system-wide search tool you can use to find files, photos, emails, documents, your calendar, and the web. Let's take a look at how you can use Spotlight. 

The main features of Spotlight search on Mac are:

  • Instant search. Searching is an essential thing you can do with Spotlight. It will help you find documents, images, information about people in your contact list, etc.
  • Launching apps. Spotlight can help you quickly open apps. All you need is to type in the name of the app and hit Enter. 
  • Web searching. Spotlight offers to search the internet directly from the search bar.

spotlight search on mac

On top of that, Spotlight helps with word definitions, a weather forecast, currency conversion, and a calculator. We'll talk about these options in more detail later.

convert currency on mac spotlight

How to search on Mac using Spotlight 

To use Spotlight, look for the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of your computer's menu bar. Click on it, and a search bar will appear. Type in your query.

There is also a way to activate Spotlight instantly. To do this, press the Command + spacebar combination on the keyboard or press the function key with the image of a magnifying glass if available.

where is spotlight on mac

How to use Spotlight to search for information? 

  1. First, you enter a query in the search bar to find a document or other object
  2. As you type, Spotlight immediately starts to give out potential options, which change depending on your further refinements. On the proposed list, you will see files, apps, contacts, and other considerable items that match the query
  3. If you get too many results, narrow down your search and enter more refinements.

how to search document on mac

In the example above, we show you how to search a document on a Mac. Now, let's look at what you can do with search results:

  • View in Spotlight;
  • Browse them on the internet using Safari;
  • Open the element;
  • Display the object's location on the computer;
  • Copy an item by dragging it to a Finder window or desktop;
  • View all search results in Finder.

When you're done with Spotlight, close the tool to return to the regular screen. To do this, click outside the search bar or press the Esc key on the keyboard.

What more can you do with Spotlight?

As we discussed above, Spotlight is not only a file search tool. In addition to the features we've mentioned, we want you to know about even more helpful Spotlight functionalities that you can use in your daily life. 

Access to system settings. Enter their names in the search bar and immediately proceed to change the requested parameters. For example, when you type "Display," you will get a window with display settings that will allow you to adjust the characteristics of the screen.

Contact search. Spotlight can search for contacts in the address book or the Contacts app. All you have to do is enter the person's name to have Spotlight display their contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses.

Search events in the calendar. Spotlight will find corresponding entries in the calendar by the event name or the related keywords.

Search emails. If you use the Mail app, you can search for emails by sender names, subject lines, or email content.

Converting time zones. Spotlight will help you get the current time in a given location or the time difference between time zones.

Lookup for dictionary definitions. Do you want to know the meaning of a specific word? Type it into Spotlight, and the tool will display its values.

Working with the app menu. Spotlight can not only launch apps but also display relevant items from their menus. For example, when typing "undo" in Spotlight, the tool might offer the "Undo" function from the previously launched app.

File search by metadata. You can search for files based on their creation date, type, or tags.

File preview. If you hover over a file in the Spotlight results, you'll see a preview that lets you see its contents but doesn't fully open it.

Math functions. Spotlight can be used as a simple calculator and a tool for more advanced math functions (such as finding cosine or taking square roots).

Words translated into different languages.

How to search with Finder

Finder, like Spotlight, is a simple way to find items but is also a bit more direct for discovering files and folders. The tool also lets you organize folders and files according to your preferences. You can open the Finder by clicking on the Finder icon in your Mac's Dock.

where is finder on mac

Here's how to search with Finder:

  1. Open Finder by clicking the smiling blue face icon in the Dock
  2. In the Finder window, you will see a search bar with a magnifying glass icon in the top right corner. Click on the search bar and activate it
  3. Enter a search term and press Enter
  4. If you want to specify search criteria, click the Add button (+) on the right side of the search window, below the search box
  5. Then click the far left pop-up menu, and then select or add search criteria
  6. For example, to search for a specific type of item instead of all items, choose Kind. Or, to search for all items whose name contains a specific word or phrase, choose Name.

search in finder

Tip: If you want to simplify the searching routine for files, launch programs, and adjust settings, try Lacona. This app is like Siri, only for users who don't like talking to their computers by voice. Lacona will understand ordinary human speech if you, as a friend, ask it to find the track of your favorite modern artist, a photo from a team building, or remind you to call your mommy. What's more, Lacona has smart auto-completion and understands you perfectly.

lacona search anything on mac fast

How to search messages on Mac

Have you ever thought about a message you sent and wondered "How to search messages on Mac?" It's a fairly common question; we may have shared info about an event with someone or need to bring up details about a conversation. If you're a dedicated iMessages user, you'll want to know how to search the Messages app on your Mac. Here's how to do it:

  1. Open the Messages app from the Dock
  2. On the left side, above all conversations, enter your search term
  3. Press enter.

This will search through your iMessage conversations for the term you enter. Any active conversation with the search term will be highlighted, and you'll be able to click on those conversations to see highlighted text. Keep in mind searching through the Messages app limits your search to iMessage conversations.

Tip: If you have a lot of messengers in your life, we advise you to put them in one place and save your time. Install IM+ and use it as a messenger box – a single app that includes all of your favorite channels of communication.

im+ app mac

How to search for a word on Mac 

Searching for words on your Mac is the same process as searching for anything else. You can open Spotlight, search in Finder, or use Lacona to search your Mac.

If you want to know how to find a word on Mac fast, here you go. The most direct shortcut is Command + F, which opens Finder and searches your entire Mac for a word you enter. It's great for those times you know the name of a document but aren't sure where it's located.

Still can't find it?

Are you looking for a file but without success? Maybe you accidentally deleted it earlier and didn't fix it. Fortunately, even deleted objects can be recovered with DiskDrill, the most powerful data recovery app available for Mac. Here's how to use it:

  1. Download and open Disk Drill
  2. Select the drive where your lost file was previously saved and hit Recover
  3. Once Disk Drill has finished its scan, find the file that you want to recover (you can do this by scrolling through the list or by entering the file name in the search bar) and select it
  4. Verify the file
  5. Select a location for your recovered file from the menu bar and hit Recover.

disk drill recover files

Like magic, your files will be back on your hard drive and available in search queries.

Master search on your Mac

Finding files on your Mac has never been simpler. Like so many Apple features, Spotlight and Finder search are great but could be a lot better. That's why we prefer Lacona. It's a far better search tool than Spotlight, and its low learning curve will have you feeling like a power user in no time.

We also like that alongside Lacona, other tools we mentioned above (Disk Drill and IM+) are free as part of a seven-day trial of Setapp, an incredible platform with dozens of apps for your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. 

When your free trial is over, Setapp is only $9.99 per month for continuous access to its incredible suite of apps. Families will really like Setapp's $19.99 per month family plan, which grants full access to the entire Setapp catalog for up to four unique Macs. What are you waiting for? Give Setapp a try today!

240+ apps for $9.99
per month

Sign up to Setapp and try them for free.

Security-tested