Thursday, August 27, 2009

Search for system files with Leopard’s Spotlight

This is a pretty meaningless blog post unless you are on a Mac and ever tried to track down a particular system file (which occurred to me last night for the first time in the 3 years I have been using OS X). In the rare occasion that you need to perform such a feat, remember I posted a tutorial on my blog. :P

Search for .plist and other system files with Leopard’s Spotlight:

Although Leopard’s Spotlight search function is more powerful than the one found in Tiger, some of that power is hidden. Searching for OS X system files, for instance, can only be done when special parameters are set.

Spotlight is configured out of the box to produce results that include the folders and file types that the average Mac user searches for on a regular basis. It’s absolutely the right way to go for everyday routine searches, but what about when you want to dig a little deeper? The most common example of this situation would be trying to find an OS X preference file (.plist). Or maybe you’re attempting to track down your Parallels virtual machine disk image (.hdd).

If you’ve ever tried to find one of these with Spotlight in Leopard, you were likely left scratching your head. This is because Leopard excludes Mac system files from search results in an effort to prevent users from unknowingly screwing up their computers. However, if you know what you’re doing you can easily accomplish this task with a few extra clicks.


  1. The first step, of course, is to open a new Finder window and type your search term in the Spotlight text box. For my demonstration, I will type “com.apple”. Notice that nothing really comes up for this term in the results.

  2. In the upper-right corner of the window, click the tiny plus (+) button next to Save. A new menu will display directly below.

  3. Click on the menu (which most likely says “Kind”) and select “Other”.
    Search for system files with Spotlight in Leopard


  4. A window with a long, long list of attributes will pop up. Type “sys” in the search box and, once “System files” is listed in the results, check the box under In Menu. Click OK.

  5. “System files” should now be selected in the Finder drop-down menu. Select “Include” in the menu next to it and your Mac’s previously-hidden files will be populated in the search results.

There you have it… simple enough, right? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to configure Spotlight to automatically include system files every time you make a search. You will have to press plus (+), choose “System files”, and select “Include” from the Finder window every time. If anyone with more knowledge on the topic can prove me wrong, please do so in the comments! It would be great to figure out how to cut out these extra steps in future searches.

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