You’ll find dozens of online articles that contrast two great Mac apps: Spotlight vs Alfred. Why only have one of them? Spotlight, Apple̵
Whether you’re trying to find an app, a file on your Mac, answer a question, spell a word correctly, or perform a simple conversion (such as dollars to pounds), these two will have the answer between them.
It does not cost you a penny either. Spotlight is built into macOS, and the free version of Alfred includes all the features described below, although the Powerpack add-on ($ 29.99) adds many more. How to make these two work together in perfect harmony.
How to call Spotlight and Alfred
Spotlight can be activated on a Mac in one of two ways. You can either click on the magnification icon at the top right of the screen, or you can use the Command + Space Bar hotkey, which is usually much simpler. When you tap it, a search box will appear in the center of the screen, where you can start typing keywords. I’ll get to the things that Spotlight is great to find soon.
When you install Alfred (use the link above to the download page), the installer will ask if you want to use the default keyboard shortcut, which is Option + Space. Unless you have a good reason to change it, I will leave it at the default setting, as it means that Spotlight and Alfred are just a key away from each other, making it easy to switch between the two.
Let’s now deal with their respective strengths and which of the pair I will choose for each task.
Find apps – Spotlight
Spotlight is great for opening apps, saving you from having to dive into the Launchpad and find the app if it’s not already attached to the Dock. Even on the Dock, many people will find it faster to open apps with a keyboard alone.
Enter the first three or four letters of the app name in the Spotlight search box, and it should appear under Applications. Either click on the name with the mouse or use the keyboard down arrow key to scroll down the search results, then press Enter to open the app.
The category is a close thing, as Alfred is also a decent app starter, but we think Spotlight is faster.
Finding Files – Spotlight and Alfred
When it comes to finding files, Spotlight and Alfred both have different strengths. If you know the name of the file you want to open, it is usually fastest to type its name in the Spotlight search box and choose from the results.
However, if you only have one keyword in a document but do not remember the name, Alfred usually wins.
By default, Alfred will not return search results for documents, images or other files on your computer when you simply enter the name in the search field. To do so, shoot Alfred, click the setting step, and make sure the default results are clicked on the left side under Basic.
Now, under Extras in the main window, make sure the documents are checked. You may also want to check for photos. Alfred warns that checking these boxes can reduce performance, but on the MacBook Pro 16in test, I have not noticed that the search speed drops in any meaningful way with the two selected.
To search for a specific keyword in a document, type “enter” followed by the keyword you want to search for in the Alfred search field. The results should be displayed immediately. You can use the shortcuts that appear (ie Command + 1, +2, etc.) to open the document, use the arrow keys to select it, or click on the result with the mouse.
Web Search – Alfred
The idea of searching the web for something other than Google in the browser seems perverse, but Alfred is really a better way to find web results.
Both Spotlight and Alfred can search online, but Alfred wins out because of his ability to search specific engines. You can search for anything on Google by typing “google” in front of the keyword in the Alfred search box, but there are many other keywords you can use for specific searches. These include:
Images – Google Images
gmail – searches your Gmail inbox
amazon – searching the online store
wiki – performs a post in Wikipedia
imdb – looking for details about a movie on IMDB.com
tungsten – Wolfram Alpha searches for specific questions
There are many more default settings than this. Open Alfred’s settings and click on Web Search in the menu on the left to see the different keywords you can enter.
Even better, you can create your own by clicking Custom Search in the menu and pressing the + button. Alfred will give you instructions on how to set one up for your favorite site – the screenshot below shows you how to search for Forbes.com by adding “forbes” in front of your searches, for example.
Fast conversions – Spotlight
Do you need to quickly convert dollars to euros or kilos to pounds? Just enter the item you want to convert to Spotlight and it will do the conversion for you, without having to open a web browser and take your attention away from what you are doing.
System Commands – Alfred
Alfred can be used to issue system commands, which are often faster than hunting for the item in the menu with the mouse / trackpad.
For example, do you want to remove deleted files? Type “tomtrash” (all one word) into Alfred and he will put the trash out. (Note, you may be asked to give Alfred permission to perform such tasks the first time you do so.)
Other self-explanatory system commands that Alfred can perform include:
- log out
- turn off
Spellings – Spotlight
I’m physically unable to spell the word bureaucracy … beaurac … bureaucracy. If you need a little help with a word, you do not need to open the Mac Dictionary app – type what you think the first letters are in Spotlight, and it will normally find the right word for you.
Trivia – Spotlight
Finally, if there is a small trivia you need the answer to – like the name of the Prime Minister of India or the capital of New Zealand – Spotlight will usually find the answers for you. Spotlight will usually answer the same type of question you can ask Siri, but you do not have to ask the keywords as a question. “Simon Cowell age”, for example, will give you the answer you are looking for. (61, to save you the hassle of seeing yourself.)