How to Search Effectively on iPhone or iPad with Spotlight

Without a doubt, as we wait for iOS 7 to be released, we can all anticipate enhancements and changes to the Spotlight search technology. Most of how we already interact with Spotlight will be applicable in the new iOS, so I thought it appropriate to cover a basic how-to at this point in time. As I usually like to do when writing How-to articles, let's all come up-to-speed on the technology. Then I'll cover some specific tips on handling Spotlight searching on your iOS devices.

iPhone next to a Spotlight logo

Spotlight on iOS – the younger sibling to Spotlight on OS X.

Spotlight is Apple's system-wide search feature available both on OS X and iOS. It creates a digital index of all items and files on our devices, allowing us to quickly locate information from a number of sources residing on them. Compared to Spotlight on OS X, the iOS search ability is limited, but still enormously useful for finding our information on-the-go.

Here's the complete list of what you can have Spotlight search for in iOS:

  • Contacts – All content
  • Apps – Titles
  • Music – Names of songs, artists, and albums, and the titles of podcasts and videos
  • Podcasts – Titles
  • Videos – Titles
  • Audiobooks – Titles
  • Notes – Text of notes
  • Calendar (Events) – Event titles, invitees, locations, and notes
  • Mail – To, From, and Subject fields of all accounts (the text of messages isn’t searched; you do that in the Mail app)
  • Reminders – Titles
  • Messages – Names and text of messages

Spotlight has evolved well over the life of iOS. It was debuted in iOS 3, and in version 4.0 included the ability to search text messages. I'll talk in a bit about a handy new Spotlight feature introduced in iOS 6, as well as a hint about one of it's new features in the highly anticipated iOS 7.

The Spotlight search screen on an iPhone.

Searching on my confessor, Father Guido, returns a few "hits" thanks to Spotlight.

On all current, pre-iOS 7, devices, the Spotlight search facility is located on a dedicated screen just to the left of the primary Home screen. It's opened with a finger-flick to the right from the primary Home screen. This means that if, say, you are on Home screen number nine, to get to the Spotlight screen, you would have to flick nine times to the right, correct? Well… yes, but the fastest way is to press the Home button from any Home screen to get you immediately to the primary Home screen. Then, you make just one right-flick to get to the Spotlight search page, where you can enter your search query.

Did you know…? As of iOS 6, you can have up to eleven pages of app and folder icons. The number of apps a Home page and a folder can hold differ when comparing an iPad against an iPhone or iPod touch. Currently, folders cannot be nested within folders. You can rejoice, though, because from what we hear, this will change in iOS 7. Meanwhile, provided there is sufficient storage memory, and including the maximum number of apps the Dock can accommodate, the greatest number of app icons that can be seen on an iPhone's screens is 3,584. On the iPad it's 4,520. Hey, it's the dog days of summer… I have nothing better to do than to figure this stuff out!

As seen in the list above, Spotlight allows us to search for apps. In iOS 6 a cool, new feature was introduced whereby we are now shown from the Spotlight search page which folder contains the app we are searching for (if applicable).

Why is this such a clever feature? Well, say that you have hundreds – no, thousands – of apps on your iPhone, and you want to locate an app that is lost in this bedlam. Perhaps you want to find the actual app so that you can manipulate it in some way – like move or delete it. You dread having to manually flick pages and rummage through folders in an effort to manually track down the elusive app.

Good news! Now, it's a cinch, thanks to Spotlight in iOS 6. Simply go to the Spotlight search page, start typing the app's name in the search field. As you type, Spotlight immediately starts to build a list of search results. For any apps that are inside folders, the folder name will be listed to the right of the app's name. This is a huge time saver.

Searching for an app in the Spotlight search screen on an iPhone.

Spotlight on a device running iOS 6 will help you find your wayward apps.

By the way, what I just described also defines Spotlight's functionality as an "App Launcher." As you accumulate more-and-more apps that occupy more-and-more folders and pages, you will use Spotlight as an app launcher…well…more and more.

As for the forthcoming iOS 7, it was revealed at the 2013 WWDC (World Wide Developers Conference) keynote that Spotlight will no longer have its own dedicated screen. That sounds like a step back, but it's not! The good news is that Spotlight will be quickly accessible from any Home screen by simply pulling down on the middle of whatever screen you are on.

The search screen on a prerelease version of iOS 7 on an iPhone.

This is how the search screen looks in a prerelease version of iOS 7. It will be available from any Home screen.

We're all looking forward to new capabilities in iOS 7, including Spotlight enhancements. Meanwhile, as we all wait for launch day, let's finish up by reviewing some miscellaneous tips and techniques on using Spotlight.

Search Results Settings: If Spotlight does not return expected results, one troubleshooting step often overlooked is to review your Search Results settings to see if you excluded any searchable content. Get there by tapping on General > Spotlight Search. (For iPhone 3G and the second gen iPod touch, tap Settings > General > Home > Search Results.)

The Spotlight Search Settings page.

On the Spotlight Search Settings page, you can make some changes to how Spotlight's search behave and report results.

This is the settings panel where you specify the content categories searched by Spotlight and adjust how it presents its search results to you; enabling or disabling Spotlight Search for specific types of content. You can also change the order in which results are displayed by moving the types up and down on the screen via the little "grab handles" seen at the right end of each line.

Special issues when searching: Spotlight is not case sensitive, so you can search using uppercase or lowercase letters and get the same results.

In iOS, Spotlight uses a basic "starts-with" search on certain text fields in the data content of the device. It doesn't search the middle of words.

Words without a space between them will be counted as separate words if each word starts with an uppercase letter. For example: Searching for "two" will be successful in "OneTwoThree", but not in "onetwothree".

Mail Searches: Spotlight searches the To, From, and Subject fields of email messages downloaded from your mail accounts. However, the text of messages is not searched from the Spotlight search page. To search text in the message body, use the search field in Mail and tap All.

Search in Mail can also search messages on your email server. Depending on the mail server you use (iCloud, Exchange, IMAP, and so on), searchable fields may vary. The maximum number of search results can vary and may be dependent on the query and the server's search implementation. If you don't find what you're looking for, try adding more characters or words to the search field.

Calendar Searches: Spotlight searches calendar events in a two-year window. It will reveal results from one year in the past and one year in the future. If an event has recurrences that fall in this range, it will find the event that is closest to the current date.

If multiple events have similar details (title, notes, location, and so on) and you search for these details, Spotlight will show the most recent event. To see more results, use the search function in the Calendar app.

Message Searches (Messages App): Spotlight searches for text in your messages and the sender name. This type of search is available for devices with iOS 5 or later.

App Searches: It bears repeating that you can open an app from Search by entering all or part of the app name, then tapping the app. Remember that you can choose which items are searched, and the order they’re searched via Settings > General > Spotlight Search.

External Searches: Finally, you can search the web or Wikipedia directly from the Spotlight search page. After entering your search term, scroll to the bottom of the search results, then tap Search Web or Search Wikipedia. Safari will launch to display the results.

The Spotlight search page shows an option to search on the Web or in Wikipedia.

It's generally easier for me to initiate a web or Wikipedia search from the Spotlight search screen.

By taking the time now to learn techniques and tips for searching information on your iDevice with Spotlight, you'll be better prepared to tackle exciting new features and enhancements to be discovered in iOS 7.