Mac Pro: Take 2 – The Power of Spotlight

When Apple introduced Spotlight, the powerful search technology which is part of Mac OS X 10.4, Tiger, this was the first real-world application of instant searches of files, their content and their metadata. It was also the first consumer application of real-time searches of this data; except that, on most Macs, it wasn’t quite real-time. Many users lamented the time it took to run Spotlight searches, and it’s true that on slower Macs, the time necessary is excessive. On my previous Mac, an iMac G5, some searches would take several seconds, and searches that resulted in thousands of hits (kind:music, for example) could take a couple dozen seconds.

Some of my colleagues have railed against not only Spotlight but the lack of simple Finder searches, such as were available in previous versions of Mac OS X. You can no longer simply “find files” from the Finder; you have to use the Finder search bar, which is simply a different interface for Spotlight. The complaints are the same: this can be very, very slow.Not with the new Mac Pro, however. In fact, it seems that Spotlight was developed with computers of this speed in mind. If I search for “and” in the Spotlight menu, it takes just a couple of seconds to return 18,000 hits. Searching for “the” in the Finder takes two seconds to return 20,000 hits. And to find my 36,000 music files, searching for “kind:music” in the Spotlight menu, takes only three seconds.

This means that not only are “simple” Spotlight searches faster and more practical (ie, searches from the Spotlight menu), but also that more complex condition-based searches from Finder windows are finally useful. (However, there are still some quirks; searching for Kind > Music, and Created > This Week in the Finder did not find music files from a half-dozen CDs I ripped yesterday…)

What does all this mean? First, Apple needs to follow one of the golden rules of software design: always test your software on the slowest machine that users will have, rather than the latest, greatest model. Second, don’t design tomorrow’s software today. Many users have sworn off of Spotlight because it was too slow; with today’s Mac Pros, they can use this technology fully. But only with today’s Macs (I’m sure the speed gains are similar across the Intel Mac line, at least with the other core-duo models). Spotlight works very well–and I’ve been a fan since the beginning, using it to discover hidden files containing content that I need to find–but now it works as it really should.

Check out the Mac Pro. It’s a great, quiet, fast machine. And, if you buy from Amazon.com, you can take advantage of a $150 rebate. What a machine…

Coming installments of this series will discuss the computer’s speed, its innards, and much more.

See previous installments:

Mac Pro: Take 1 – The Quietest Desktop Mac Ever

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7 replies
  1. grossmodule says:

    Can you tell me how large the .Spotlight-V100 folder on your boot drive is (sudo
    du -sh /.Spotlight-V100/ )?

    Spotlight directories tend to relentlessly increase in size over months of usage,
    so if you have a newly configured machine it may make a difference. For
    instance, Spotlight is quite slow on my G4, searching across six hard drives and
    utilizing Spotlight folders totalling 3.34GB in size.

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      My boot partition contains my OS, apps and personal files, but not my music
      - the partition is 30 GB, and the Spotlight index is 116 MB.

      My second partition is about 200 GB, containing music and backups – it’s
      Spotlight index is 120 MB.

      Unless you really have lots of files, that sounds like your indexes are way too
      big. What you should do is run the following to delete your Spotlight index
      and have it recreated:

      sudo mdutil -i off [volume]

      Then,

      sudo mdutil -i on [volume]

      The first command deletes the index and turns off indexing. The second
      command turns it on again, and Spotlight will reindex your files.

      Reply
    • eugenepoindexter says:

      I do a clean install of OS/X (new box), and within the first few hours my boot
      disk is at 900MB index, and — on average — any given disk in my external
      FW800 chain (500MB per disk) is at 2-3GB.

      And… that’s using the default Apple spotlight settings that don’t really work,
      and won’t find much of anything useful within, for instance, the Mail directory
      (I’m at 4 million pieces of archived mail), the default spotlight indexing finds
      subject, title, but is near-useless for content, i have to manually reindex the
      mail directory for it to be even vaguely useful..

      The overall speed on anything that’s a Core Duo+ plus FW800 or SATA300
      disks @7200rpm+ is acceptable. Apple’s current interface to mdfind is a bad
      joke though. Hopefully it’ll improve with Leopard. Right now spotlight is…..
      ok, to do any serious work, I dump it all into DEVONthink Pro. Much better
      and more relevent results, references, and suggestions.

      DT Pro is pretty much what the finder SHOULD be one of these days.

      Reply
  2. sachsen says:

    I LOVE Spotlight. Being a fairly recent Mac convert (almost a year now), I’m very
    pleased with it and it runs pretty speedily on my Intel iMac. Now, when I’m at
    work and I’m using my Windows machine, I gnash my teeth when I have to try
    and use the "search" or "find" function in either XP or Outlook. Those apps are
    horrifyingly bad and non-user-friendly. Spotlight, by contrast, is an absolute
    gem and a joy to use.

    Reply
  3. allenwatson says:

    I wonder if the speed is affected more by speed of the disk drive, or
    percentage full, or number of files. I have a Macbook, with a 120 GB drive with
    barely 16 GB free space left. When I enter a single word in Spotlight, like
    "habit", it takes nearly 30 seconds for the list of hits to finish, and about half
    that before it even begins to appear. I still find it slow enough that I prefer
    other search tools. Even when I use Cmd-F in Finder and limit the search to
    file names, it still can take 20 to 25 seconds. LaunchBar still does a better job
    of finding files by name, for instance.

    BTW, I _do_ plan to do some house-cleaning and get free space up to at least
    30 GB…too many downloads, too much music; I am thinking that I need to get
    my music mostly
    onto my external Firewire drive. Is that a good idea?

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      Several possibilities: how much RAM do you have? That will certainly affect
      the responsiveness, though the hard drive speed will have an effect as well.

      Re LaunchBar (which I use, but only for launching apps): it caches its index,
      and only indexes file names, not contents, so it is much fatser.

      As for music, those files don’t add a lot of space to the Spotlight index,
      because Spotlight only indexes their names and tags. This is different from,
      say, text files or PDFs, where all the text they contained is indexed as well.
      This said, it would not hurt to put them on an external drive.

      One final thought: maybe your Spotlight index is severely fragmented. Try
      adding your drive to the Privacy list in the Spotlight prefs, then removing it.
      Spotlight will rebuild the index. (That’s something I do every few months,
      because, at times, I’ve seen that Spotlight doesn’t find things I know are on
      my Mac.)

      Reply

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