System Preferences in OS X: Spotlight and Startup Disk

By Graham K. Rogers


Continuing with the extended look at System Preferences in OS X, we are now looking at two useful sections: Spotlight, for searching on a disk; and Startup Disk which, as the name suggests, allows a user to specify the operating system location.

Spotlight is a powerful search facility that was introduced with OS X 10.4. It uses HFS (hierarchical file system) to help us find information on a disk quickly and easily. It integrates with Apple's Finder. In theory, any data recorded on the disk, including text as well as file names, plus file metadata, is indexed by Spotlight.

For example, if we search using the word "image" and add the Boolean, NOT (in capital letters) plus the word, "flash", images not taken with flash will appear in a Finder panel; but also we will find several files that contain these text words as well. On my computer that search brought up over 8,000 hits with images, zip files, text files, mail messages and other file types: all of these will have some connection to the search criteria. A search like this needs refining.

Spotlight preferences
Spotlight Preferences: Order for Search Results

When the system is first started, Spotlight will index the disk. This can be seen by a small black dot in the middle of the Spolight icon on the top right of the menubar. It uses 14 categories in searches and these are shown in the Spotlight preference, "Search Results" panel. Each has a check box so can be deselected. A category may be dragged up or down to change the order of results. In my user account, "Documents" is the top category, followed by "Mail Messages", with Presentations last. Updating the data occurs immediately a file is saved. If I search for that last sentence, my .TXT file is the top hit: it is a Document and, chronologically, the most recent.

Spotlight preferences
Spotlight Preferences: Privacy - Excluding Results

The other panel in the Spotlight preference pane is marked, Privacy. If a folder or a disk (e.g. an external hard disk) is dragged to this panel, it will not be included in searches. We can also use the Plus (+) and minus (-) icons at the bottom to add or remove locations from this panel. This panel has another use in updating the Spotlight database. If a folder or disk is dragged to the panel, then dragged out again, Spotlight will then re-index that location. At the bottom of both panels are keyboard shortcuts for using Spotlight. By default, Command + Space will bring up this feature while Control + Command + Space brings up the Spotlight/Finder search panel.

There are also a number of third-party Spotlight plugins on the Apple downloads pages, that are designed to enhance the features of this facility.

The Startup Disk preference has a single window in two parts. At the top are listed any bootable disks that the system recognises. In a normal environment, two icons are shown: the current disk and a Network startup, which is usually greyed out. If a disk has more than one partition, only those with operating systems installed will be shown. An external, bootable disk will also appear in the panel when attached. My external disk has two partitions, but only one (which has Leopard installed) appears in this panel. The "current disk" icon also displays data concerning the version of the operating sytem in use and the disk name. In this panel there is also a button marked restart.

Startup disk preferences
Startup Disk Preferences: Selecting a Disk

If the Installation disk is inserted in the drive, this can be selected instead of the main disk, and we can restart directly using the preference pane. When such an optical disk is used, we can also start the computer using the C key. A disk with a usable operating system can be selected and the computer will restart from that. Unless there IS a bootable network, it is unwise to select the Network Startup icon. It may also be a good idea, particularly after using another disk, to ensure that the correct disk is selected. OS X is usually good at finding a bootable disk, but has been known to lose the plot.

The bottom half of the panel refers to Target Mode. This is a highly useful way to connect two Macs using a Firewire cable: one becoming the slave of the other. This can help in diagnostics and repair. As an example I can run Disk Warrior on my MacBookPro to check and repair the disk on my iMac. It is also a method to transfer large quantities of data quite quickly.

At the bottom of the panel, is the lock icon which requires an Admin password to open. This makes it less easy for someone to start the computer using an external disk. If used in conjunction with the Firmware Password Utility, the computer is considerably more secure. This can be copied from the original (grey) software installation disc and is in the Applications/Utilities folder.

Disks available
All Disks Connected: Only Those that are Bootable Appear in Startup Disk


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