Spotlight brings new life to search in Yosemite

As the Yosemite public beta rolls out tomorrow, CNET takes a deeper dive with individual features from the OS starting with Spotlight.

Yosemite was unveiled at WWDC in June. Photo by James Martin/CNET

Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite is one step closer to your Mac desktop.

The public beta of Apple's next computer operating system will be released Thursday at 10 am PT. After checking it out for more than a week it's clear that it's more than just another incremental update.

First off, Yosemite's flatter look and sharper corners that are reminiscent of iOS 7 mark the biggest redesign to the Mac interface since Mac OS X was first released as a beta in 2000. And beyond the new look, Yosemite also adds several new features that should make common computing tasks easier, along with better communication between Macs and iOS devices.

In the weeks ahead of the launch this fall, I'm going to be taking a closer look at some of the major new features and how they stack up against previous versions of OS X as well as similar features on other platforms.

For this first post, I'm looking at Apple's changes and new features in Spotlight.

Hello, Web search

For many years, searching the Web has been Google's bread and butter. The company has dominated Web search so thoroughly that it's tough for some people to even name another search site that's comparable.

With Spotlight in Yosemite, though, Apple is trying to take a piece of that pie. Instead of just searching your hard drive like you did using Spotlight in Mavericks, in Yosemite the feature now searches the Web for relevant results, obviating the need to even open your Web browser and navigate to Google's homepage.

Sound useful? Sure, but remember that Apple wasn't the first to find a way around Google's search dominance. Windows 8, too, delivers Bing Web results straight from the operating system search tools since it came on the scene in 2012.

Now that Apple has announced that relevant Web results will accompany your hard drive searches, is it trying to break you of your habit of loading up Google by keeping you in Apple's OS? Probably to some extent, but I don't think that's the whole story. I think Apple probably saw what Microsoft was doing with search and thought it a useful feature, then reworked Spotlight to give you the best results possible, but all in one window.

The search results in Yosemite give you meaningful location results through Maps, news stories about the topic, and more. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

How the new search works

Just as you clicked the magnifying glass in the upper right (or hit Command-spacebar) to search your hard drive in Mavericks, Spotlight in Yosemite uses the same controls to deliver both local results and relevant finds from the Web.

As an example, searching for "Burrito" in Mavericks returns results in the upper right part of the screen from my connected email account and any other files or apps with that name on my hard drive. At the bottom of the search box there are options to search the Web or Wikipedia for Burrito, which opens Safari to load the results. Obviously performing a spotlight search for a Burrito shop in Mavericks is not ideal because it only searches the hard drive, but it illustrates why Yosemite is so much more convenient.

I should also point out in the screenshot below that Spotlight is finding the word burrito in coupon emails where it appears alongside several different deals. Yes, even the one that says "2-Hour Fashion Consultation" has a coupon later in the email for deals on Mexican food.

Spotlight results in Mavericks divide up the results by type. While it may seem some are irrelevant, those results are from those pesky coupon emails. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

In Yosemite, a search for burrito gives you location-based results in Maps (nearest burritos to you), any news stories about burritos, the associated Wikipedia entry, and any references to burrito in your connected email accounts. A similar search on Google will get you much of the same information, but I have to admit it's pretty easy to hit command-spacebar and type in the food I'm craving at the moment for a quick list of results.

From Spotlight in Yosemite the directions to your destination are a click away. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Apple Maps in Spotlight

Spotlight also searches Apple Maps for hits nearby. Clicking on a Maps result brings up a map with Yelp reviews for the burrito restaurant in your area along with the restaurant's website, address, and phone number. Buttons at the bottom let you get directions, and you can scroll further to read Yelp reviews.

Clicking on the phone number will let you place a call via Handoff features through your iPhone if its within the same Wi-Fi network. I was unable to test these features because they are tied to iOS 8, but Apple demonstrated at WWDC how you can make or receive calls directly from your Mac.

Clicking on a Map result gives you the address, phone number, Yelp reviews, and buttons for directions on one screen. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Windows 8 has a similar experience

Like I said, Spotlight isn't the first with this added Web search functionality as part of the operating system. Windows 8 also includes Web results when you perform a search, giving you location results using Bing Maps, and actually displays quite a bit more Web results than Spotlight.

A Windows 8 search gives you files with your search term on the left, Wikipedia results, and more from the Web to the right. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Likewise, Windows 8 will bring up Bing Maps to give you directions to the nearest burrito shop, and you can call the restaurant using Skype or if you have calling features set up in Chrome via Google Hangouts. But while you're getting the same features, the main difference here is that Yosemite displays all this information neatly in the same box you performed the search where Windows requires some scrolling through results to find the information you need.

Scroll to the right in Windows 8 search results to find Bing Maps results shown here. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

It's not a big difference, but when you look at the smaller Spotlight screen with relevant results, Yosemite displays the information you need right now rather than an exhaustive list of results you need to search.

There's still work to be done

As a public beta, Apple is still working on smoothing out the rough edges in Yosemite, so treat this post about Spotlight as a preview rather than an evaluation of the finished product. Even at this early date, I like the changes that are coming to Spotlight to make performing both local and Web searches much easier than before. True, it's not as if opening a browser to search the Web is that painful, but having everything is more convenient for users. And on Apple's side, "Google It" isn't even entering your workflow.

It's true that both Windows 8 and Google search already have many similar features to what you get in Spotlight and that they turn up more results. But I think the way Apple returns the most relevant results on one screen is more convenient, letting you get to the information you need right away without having to scroll through several screens or search through a long list of Web results.

In the end, we'll have to wait and see what tweaks Apple makes before launch, but I think Spotlight is looking like a welcome upgrade over the Mavericks version.

That's it for my preview of Spotlight in Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, but check back every week as I talk about a new feature and compare it to similar features on other platforms.

Featured Video

Google Cardboard getting an upgrade?

The virtual reality headset may come in a new form this year. Meanwhile, the Super Bowl was streamed online in record numbers, and there are theories to why Venmo had troubles after the big game.

by Bridget Carey