Tame OS X Lion’s Spotlight menu features

The handy Spotlight menu, at the far right of your menu bar, is even handier in Lion because it offers new ways to work with the list of search results. Click the magnifying glass icon or use the default Command-Spacebar shortcut to open the menu, and type in your search term. Then, use these tips to go from searching to doing.

Control which categories you see in the menu

Want to see PDFs in your Spotlight results, but not music files? Control what results show in the Spotlight menu by tweaking your Spotlight Preferences. Go to System Preferences and select Spotlight; click the Search Results button and then check the categories you want listed in the menu. (This limits only what shows in the Spotlight menu, not the results in a Finder window search.) You can also drag a category up or down in the list to change the results order. You might, for instance, want presentations listed at the top of the menu because you work with them so frequently. The Spreadsheets category is new in Lion; it hides or shows both Numbers and Excel documents.

Take a Quick Look at files

If you’re not sure that a result you see in your Spotlight menu is what you’re looking for, take a quick look. Point to an item in the results list and a Quick Look “popover” appears next to it. This means you won’t have to head to the Finder or open the item to see such things as images, the contents of a document, contact information in Address Book, iCal events, a font sample, or an email.

To do it all from the keyboard, use the Up or Down arrow key to navigate the results list and pause on the item you want to see.

Peek at your Top Hit

The Spotlight Menu automatically picks a “Top Hit” for your search, displays it at the top of your results, and selects it. That’s convenient when you want to open the Top Hit, because all you have to do is hit Return. But what if you want to preview the item first? Pointing to the Top Hit, or using an arrow key to move away from it and then back again, displays the popover, but there’s quicker way: just hold down the Command key.

Page through a multi-page document

You think you found the correct Word document, or spreadsheet, or PDF in your Spotlight menu search, but you’re not sure. There’s no need to waste time launching an application just to look through the document. Scroll through any multi-page document right inside the preview: slide your arrow into the popover and use the scrollbar that appears, or, if you have a trackpad that supports it, use a two-finger drag.

Preview movies or music

Check that a movie or sound file in your Spotlight menu results is the right one before opening it: position your pointer anywhere in the Quick Look popover for a movie, or over the icon for music, to see a Play button. Click it to play; click again to pause. You can also stop the playback by moving to another item in the menu or by closing the menu.

Bonus tip: Hold down Command when a movie or sound file is showing in the popover to get additional information about it; usually the file’s name appears, and then its file path (where it’s stored on your computer). Press Command-Option to see the path instantly.

Go to the Web with your preferred search engine

Lion’s new Spotlight-menu command, Search Web For, opens Safari and starts a Web search for whatever you’ve entered in the Spotlight menu. Control whether the search is through Google, Bing, or Yahoo! in Safari’s preferences: Choose Safari -> Preferences, click the General icon, and choose your search engine from the Default Search Engine menu.

Drag items from the Spotlight menu to use them immediately

You typically search for something because you want to use it, not just look at it. Lion makes that easier by letting you drag an item from the Spotlight menu’s list of results and drop it where you need it. Dropping the item on the Desktop or in a Finder window copies it to the new location (you’ll see a big Plus cursor as you drag, indicating a copy is being made). You can even drag a found item to the Dock.

The best thing, however, is that you can drag something from the menu and drop it into a document or on an application icon. Any application that accepts dragged-in material will welcome a dragged-from-the-menu item. So, for instance, you can drag a photo straight from your Spotlight search results onto a waiting Pages document. Or, drag a PDF onto Mail’s Dock icon and a new message window opens with the PDF attached.

Create quick-access file aliases from menu results

An alias, which you can create in the Finder by selecting an item and choosing File -> Make Alias, is a link to its original: double-click the alias and the real thing opens. So, if certain files must be buried in a nested set of project folders, their aliases can be placed in a more conveniently reached location. Alternatively, you can Command-Option-drag an item in the Finder to create its alias. In Lion, you can Command-Option-drag something right out of the Spotlight menu to do the same. You’ll see the “I’m making an alias!” curved-arrow cursor as you drag. So, find the file or folder you want, and drop an alias of it on the Desktop for subsequent easy access.

Easily use Address Book information

Not only can you preview an entire Address Book entry in your Spotlight results, you can also use shortcuts to work with some of its information. Hover over the item in the Spotlight menu to reveal the Quick Look popover. Then, in the preview, click on the label for a phone number, email address, or physical address to see a brief menu of appropriate options.

If you click on a phone number, the menu will include options to display it in large type or open FaceTime. Click on an email address and your options are to send an email, open FaceTime, send updated contact information, or start a Finder-based Spotlight search for email messages to or from that address, or attachments sent from that address.

If you click on a physical address, you can jump to a Google map of the location, copy the URL for the map, or copy a “mailing label.” That last option is a great timesaver: it grabs the information from multiple items (first and last names, street, city, state, and zip code) and places them on the Clipboard. This makes it easy to paste someone’s name and address into a document or email message.

Mac author Sharon Zardetto’s latest ebook is Take Control of Spotlight for Finding Anything on Your Mac.

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