November 14th, 2005 • 11:49 am
As far as I can tell, the most important complaint regarding Spotlight in Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) is the utterly unresponsive behaviour of Spotlight when you start typing keywords to search for.
If this sounds like a pretty basic flaw, it’s because it is one.
The problem is that Apple decided that all Spotlight-related features should work based on a “live search” model, where the system start searching for matches for what you are typing as soon as you start typing—as opposed to waiting until you press the Return key or click on a button before starting the search.
I suppose that it’s a design choice that makes sense in theory. Why ask for the user to complete an extra step (press the Return key or click on a button) when you can start the search as soon as he starts typing?
In the real world, however, this is an utterly dumb decision. It only makes sense to cut this “extra step” if the extra step is only and always a waste of time. But if cutting the extra step causes all kinds of new problems that lead to significant time wasting, then it makes no sense whatsoever.
Yet that’s exactly what we have here. Because Spotlight starts searching as soon as you start typing, and because it searches for partial words as well as whole words, it frequently starts searching for things that you don’t want it to search for. If you start typing the keyword “article,” for example, it might interrupt you after you’ve typed “art” and start searching for documents that contain the partial word “art” throughout your hard drive.
And when it starts doing this, there’s nothing you can do to stop it! If your Spotlight search is in a Finder window, you immediately get the spinning pizza of death, and then you have no choice but to wait until the spinning pizza of death disappears. If you have already typed the rest of the “article” word, Mac OS X will only register the rest of your keystrokes (“icle”) once the spinning pizza of death is gone.
If your Spotlight search is in the Spotlight menu itself (in the top-right corner), things are apparently better, but it’s an illusion. You never get the spinning pizza of death when you type your keywords up there, but Mac OS X stills starts searching as soon as you’ve typed a few letters, regardless of whether the partial word search that it starts is actually something that you intended. And there is still a delay before it registers your additional keystrokes and actually starts searching for the keyword you want. You can see that by keeping an eye on the list of search results that it builds, because this list frequently contains references to items that match a portion of the word that you’ve just typed instead of the whole word.
Spotlight supposedly updates this list of search results in a “live” fashion, but even on a fast machine, this live updating is far from being immediate, and each time this happens it is yet more precious seconds that you are wasting waiting for Mac OS X to actually register what you want it to register and start searching for what you want it to search for.
The simple truth is that today’s computers contain hundreds of thousands of files, most of which are indexed by Spotlight, and searches for small, partial keywords will always yield hundreds of results that are utterly irrelevant and will cause your computer to slow down and force you to wait before you regain control of your machine.
And these waits occur each and every time you try to use Spotlight. In other words, they have a cumulative effect and amount of lots of wasted time in the daily use of Mac OS X.
Now, I just have one question for Apple: Is all this wasted time really worth the supposed advantages of a “live search” feature? Think about it: The only real advantage of a live search feature is that it saves you the “extra step” of having to hit Return or click on a button.
How many Mac users do you know who would rather waste time again and again waiting for Spotlight to finish searching for irrelevant matches and catch up with them instead of just taking the extra step of hitting Return or clicking on a button?
Apple cannot pretend that this design decision is in the name of consistency. There are numerous other search tools, including the many on-line search tools that people use, who do require the user to hit Return or click on a button. And even Apple’s own applications are not consistent. The search field in the Finder, Mail, iTunes, and System Preferences is a live search field that doesn’t require the user to hit Return or click on a button, but the search field in the Help Viewer application, for example, is not a live search field and Help Viewer does not start searching until the user hits Return after typing his keyword(s) (and of course there is no visual indication that Help Viewer actually requires this).
This problem with Spotlight choking on partial word searches has plagued every version of Tiger, including pre-release builds. I complained about it during the early stages of testing AppleSeed builds of Tiger, and nothing was ever done about it. Clearly someone at Apple made the decision to make Spotlight a “live search” feature, and no one was going to be able to change their minds—especially not a lowly volunteer AppleSeed tester.
I was hoping that Apple would come to its senses after the release of 10.4.0, based on worldwide user feedback on the “finished” product, which is why I waited for improvements in 10.4.1, 10.4.2, and finally 10.4.3, which was released last week. While some people allege that things have improved somewhat in 10.4.3, I just can’t see it myself. In my experience, Spotlight searches in the Finder still cause the spinning pizza of death all the time with completely irrelevant searches for partial keywords, and the system-wide Spotlight menu still lists irrelevant matches for several seconds before finally catching up with my typing and listing relevant results only.
I frequently find myself trying to type as fast as possible in order to avoid Spotlight starting to search for irrelevant partial words. How ridiculous is this? It should be the computer adapting to my typing speed, and not the other way around! Anyway, I am a fairly fast typist, but even I cannot prevent Spotlight from interrupting me with irrelevant behaviours while I am typing my keywords.
It also does not help that people with a bigger voice in the Mac world can’t tell it like it is. Take Rob Griffiths. He’s the mind behind the highly successful Mac OS X Hints web site, has written several books about the Mac and articles for Mac publications, and now has a Mac OS X Hints weblog on the Macworld web site.
What does he have to say about this rather obvious problem with Spotlight?
While you can’t totally avoid the extraneous results and the spinning ball, here’s one way to greatly minimize them. Instead of typing your search term in the Finder’s search box, first type it into any open application. For example, you could type in Safari’s address bar or Google search box, a TextEdit document, a Sticky note, or a widget. Now select the word with the mouse, and then hit Command-C to copy it to the clipboard. Switch back to the Finder, click in the Spotlight search box (or just hit Command-F), and then hit Command-V to paste your search term. You don’t even have to hit Return, since the Finder will still try to do a live search.
Can’t he see how ridiculous this is? Mac OS X is supposed to be an advanced, user-friendly operating system, yet for a simple thing such as a keyword search, we have to use a ridiculous workaround involving a third-party application and cutting and pasting?
Where is Rob Griffiths’ indignation? Where are the headlines on major Mac web sites about this major, crucial flaw in Spotlight’s implementation?
I really do think that Spotlight has great potential as a searching infrastructure in Mac OS X. But its currently implementation is so flawed that it really makes you wonder what goes through the minds of Apple’s engineers and decision-makers. Do they even use the technology themselves in real world situations?
This is the kind of problem that is typical of a user-hostile software developer such as Microsoft. But the fact that it can occur at Apple as well, as this particular issue with Spotlight demonstrates, does not bode well for the future of computing in general. If even Apple cannot avoid such user-hostile design decisions, then who can?
Maybe in 10 or 20 years, we’ll have computers that are so fast that live searches really are possible without any kind of performance hit and user interface hiccups. But right now, even with the fastest processors and the fastest hard drives, Spotlight is still a constant source of user frustration. I realize that finding a balance between making design decisions for the future and maintaining optimum usability today can be difficult at times. But for this particular problem, the balance is so obviously wrong that it’s a daily insult to Mac users worldwide.