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Flashlight Brightens Up Spotlight in Yosemite

For years, Mac power users have relied on third-party launchers like LaunchBar and Alfred to launch apps, search their computers, and perform numerous other actions. In OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Apple borrowed many of these features, incorporating them into a redesigned Spotlight. Beyond just finding files on your Mac, Spotlight can now search for things in Apple’s various digital stores, look up Wikipedia articles, perform calculations, and more (see “Apple Unveils iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite at WWDC,” 2 June 2014).

Part of what makes apps like LaunchBar and Alfred so powerful is their plugin architectures, which enabled developers to expand their capabilities, something that Spotlight lacked until recently. Developer Nate Parrot has created Flashlight, an open platform that makes it possible for developers to expand Spotlight’s repertoire of commands. The free Flashlight app helps you find, install, and manage the necessary plugins.

Once you launch the Flashlight app, you must click Enable Spotlight Plugins to open Spotlight up to Flashlight’s plugins. After that, it’s just a matter of going through Flashlight and picking the plugins you want. What can you do with Flashlight out of the box? Here are some examples:

  • Perform a quick Web search by inserting / before a Spotlight query.

  • Search Google Maps by prefixing your query with “google maps” or just “gm”.

  • Eject a mounted volume. You can also eject all mounted volumes by typing “eject all”.

  • Create reminders, like “remind me to cut slats for the porch box”.

  • Create calendar events, with a certain amount of natural language processing, like “make a doctor appointment at 3pm tomorrow”.

  • Send iMessages by typing “text person your message”, assuming that person is in your contacts. Press Return to send your message.

To see a full list of installed commands, select the Installed category in Flashlight’s sidebar. You can also click the optional Flashlight menu bar icon to see sample searches for all available commands.

You can install any of hundreds of plugins. The Flashlight app offers browsable categories including Design, Developer, Language, Media, and System, or you can search through the full set. Here are a handful of the more interesting plugins:

  • ESPN Scores: find sports scores with Spotlight
  • Google Translate: translate words and phrases
  • Lorem Ipsum: generate placeholder text
  • Fast Tweet: tweet from Spotlight
  • Spotlight Timer: set a notification timer from within Spotlight
  • Terminal: execute Terminal commands in Spotlight; commands are run in the current Finder folder if the Finder is open.

If you want to create your own Flashlight commands, you can do so with Automator actions, or if you’re more technical, via a Python API.

While this initial version of Flashlight provides many interesting capabilities, it still has lots of rough edges. For instance, the weather command has trouble recognizing states alongside cities, so typing “weather lafayette, in” results in question marks instead of a forecast. I’ve also encountered server errors when trying to perform Web searches and rendering issues while browsing available commands. And while Flashlight extends Spotlight nicely, it has nothing to compare with LaunchBar’s extensive file and clipboard manipulation features.

But it’s hard to complain, given Flashlight’s price and how it extends Spotlight in useful new ways. For those who prefer sticking with Apple’s built-in services when possible, it’s worth turning Flashlight on to see if it shines a light on your queries.

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