Four tips for using the OS X Spotlight menu

The Spotlight menu option in OS X is useful; however, its default behaviors are rather limited. Here are some tips for using the menu, which can expand its functions.

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
3 min read

The Spotlight menu can be very useful for finding files on the hard drive; however, besides just presenting files and allowing you to open them, there are other options for Spotlight that can make using it more useful. After you have performed a search in the Spotlight menu, using the following options will allow you to change how the menu handles the results.

  1. Return

    Spotlight Menu
    The Spotlight Menu can be used to do more than just open the search results.

    This is the default action, which is to open the highlighted file in the search results, be it an application, document, or folder.

  2. Command-Return

    Holding the Command key when pressing Enter will open the parent folder for the item instead of the item itself, allowing you to better manage the item in the Finder.

  3. Option-Return

    This will take the current search criteria and create a Finder search window out of it, so if you have a current search you would like to maintain while you perform another search, you can just press Option-Enter and then change the search criteria for your next search.

Copying from the spotlight search results

Besides using modifier keys, the system supports copying from the Spotlight menu. If you highlight a search result and press Command-C, the system will copy a reference for that item to the clipboard, from where you can paste it into another document or even to a Finder location.

For instance, if you want to copy a file to another hard drive and you forgot where it is on your system, search for it and when it appears, highlight it and press Command-C. Then go to the destination folder (or even perform another search to locate it) and when it is open press Command-V to paste and thereby copy it to the new location.

If you paste the copied item into a document, some programs will embed a link to the file, or perhaps show the file's icon, or sometimes show the file's contents. The specific behavior will depend on what is supported by the application being used.

Copying in this manner works for other Spotlight functions as well. As recently noted recently on MacOSXHints, one drawback to using Spotlight as a calculator has been to get the results of the calculation out of the menu. If you perform a calculation and then copy the highlighted result, you can then paste it into another application (including the Calculator, which can be launched by pressing Enter with the calculation highlighted).

Copying in the Spotlight menu may be convenient, but one drawback is that it requires that the search text not be highlighted. If you close and reopen the Spotlight menu, even though the previous search and its results are still there, the system will change the menu's focus and highlight the search criteria. Copying at this point will just copy your entered text, and not a search result even if it is highlighted. You can get around this by pressing the left or right arrow on the keyboard to deselect the search text and place the cursor before or after it.

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