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The Sad State of Professional Search Tools on the Mac (and what you can do about it!)

Currently (December, 2016), there does not seem to be a single professional-level search tool for the Mac that will search EVERY file and includes professional search options. Most search tools on the Mac only use the Spotlight index to find files. And, professionals quickly realize that Spotlight doesn’t index every file. Key point: If Spotlight doesn’t index a file, then it won’t find a matching non-indexed file during a search. Similarly, the tools that rely on Spotlight will have the same search limitations. The other Mac search tools, mostly free, also lack basic functionality, but hey, they’re free.

Regular Mac owners using Spotlight on the Mac, however, (read: non-professionally demanding, non-programmers, or similar) should be satisfied with Spotlight’s searches and with the various commercial and free search tools that (lazily) rely on Spotlight but offer other useful features. For users who only need Spotlight, these enhanced file search tools are excellent to have.

There is no implication here that Spotlight and its search results are bad, quite the contrary: Spotlight search, compared to the built-in Windows search is amazing. (Actually, we think Spotlight is enough reason to use or switch to a Mac all by itself.) Anyone old enough to remember the now-extinct-but-formerly-excellent DOS tool, “Norton Magellan”, understands how useful it is to have your hard disk indexed. Mac’s built-in Spotlight indexes your disk for free, in the background, and keeps it all updated for you. Yes, that’s incredible. And, moreover, day-to-day, using Spotlight to find most files you need, nearly instantly, (instead of the drudgery of Windows’ “File Explorer”, every time you need to find a file, somewhere), will make you much more and even extremely productive.

Thus, Spotlight, for the casual to home to light business user, and the tools that rely on it, is probably all the search capability these user groups would ever need. Spotlight indexes, will thus find, nearly instantly, text in Word, Excel, text, PDF, and many other file formats. Spotlight won’t, however, (reliably, from our testing) search inside zip files or other file formats, often from Windows, it doesn’t “know about”.

Zip files are so common, however, you would expect Spotlight to be able to search inside a zip for matching text. But at least in some the zip files we used, Spotlight was unable to find matching text - even in a simple text file within the zip. Yet, in other zip files, Spotlight found the matching text. For the non-matching Spotlight searches in zip files, it’s possible the Spotlight index wasn’t up to date, or perhaps there was some other index problem. But, do you want to worry about the index itself when you’re doing critical searches? (We don’t.)

The image below shows a spotlight search looking for the text “documents1” in a text file inside a zip file on the user’s desktop. Sorry, out of luck. Spotlight’s not being able to search inside a zip file, or search reliably when it can search “some” zip files, is a huge and obvious limitation. (the image below shows that Spotlight only finds the text file itself, but not the same matching text in the zip file in the same directory.)