This week brings two highly focused operating system updates from Apple: macOS 13.5.1 Ventura, which restores location services permissions, and watchOS 9.6.1, which fixes a bug affecting Parkinson’s disease apps. If you’ve ever wanted to extract data from a table on a Web page, Adam Engst has a browser extension for you—Copytables, which simplifies selecting and copying cells, columns, rows, and entire tables. Then he examines the results of our Do You Use It? poll on Spotlight, revealing interesting usage patterns, providing tips for effective searching, and sharing suggestions for alternative search and app launching tools. This week’s poll asks how you check the weather on your iPhone: Apple’s Weather app or something else. We also look briefly at The Verge’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the iMac and the passing of Adobe co-founder John Warnock. Notable Mac app releases this week include Microsoft Office for Mac 16.76, EagleFiler 1.9.12, and LaunchBar 6.18.
When Apple released macOS 13.5 Ventura several weeks ago, the only specified fixes were for security vulnerabilities (see “Apple Releases 24-Jul-2023 Security Updates for All Active Operating Systems,” 24 July 2023). However, as users quickly realized, in macOS 13.5, apps disappeared from the Location Services screen of System Settings. Troublingly, for three weeks, Apple said nothing about this lapse. The admission that it was a mistake has now arrived in the form of macOS 13.5.1, which says it “fixes an issue in System Settings that prevents location permissions from appearing.”
As far as we can tell, macOS 13.5.1 contains no security fixes or other changes. On the assumption that 13.5.1 is what 13.5 should have been, we recommend updating soon, though the risk of waiting for a few days is likely low.
Once you update from System Settings > General > Software Update, visit System Settings > Privacy & Security > Location Services and verify which apps have location permissions. In my experience, many apps ask for location permissions without good reason, so don’t be shy about blocking such requests.
Apple has released watchOS 9.6.1 to fix a bug that “prevents access to motion data for apps that use the Movement Disorder API to track tremors and symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.” The release notes mention no other changes, nor are there any security fixes with CVE entries. Unless you use a watchOS app that you know incorporates the Movement Disorder API, I can’t see any reason to install this update until it’s convenient.
The first two Do You Use It? polls revolved around features that are easy to use or ignore: Stage Manager and Launchpad. The story is much more complex with Spotlight, the focus of our third poll. Apple introduced Spotlight in 2005 with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, making it a fixture on the Mac for 18 years. Over that time, Apple has continually added features beyond searching for files on the local drive. Its capabilities have garnered widespread use among TidBITS readers, with 85% of respondents to our poll saying that they used it at least occasionally. The blue bar in the chart below indicates my vote—although I employ Spotlight for various tasks, they don’t crop up every day.
Notably, 43% of respondents use Spotlight daily, but what they use it for varies widely. That’s unsurprising, given all that Spotlight can do, so the poll posed a second question to tease out Spotlight’s most popular features, as you can see below. Note that the poll explicitly asked about the standalone Spotlight interface, not uses of the Spotlight database within other apps, like the Finder, Mail, and Messages. (Again, blue bars indicate my responses.)
Spotlight’s features fall into three basic categories: searching, navigating, and utilities.
- Searching: As befitting its original purpose, the most-used Spotlight feature was finding files, with 78% of responses. Beyond basic searching, however, usage dropped off quickly, with only 30% of respondents using Spotlight to search within Mail and Messages, 24% using it to find contacts, 16% using it to search for images locally or online, and 15% using it to find Web content. Searches for images within Photos and even more specific searches for locations in Maps, events and reminders, music, Mac App Store apps, fonts, movies, and videos rated only single-digit responses.
- Navigation: The second most popular Spotlight use was launching apps, with 64% of responses. Following that came opening folders, with 32% of responses. 25% of respondents also use Spotlight to access specific parts of System Settings rather than browse manually or search within the System Settings app. Spotlight has long been helpful for opening System Preferences panes in macOS versions before Ventura, but the tangled mishmash of System Settings may encourage more Spotlight-driven access.
- Utilities: Although they weren’t the most common Spotlight features, using it as a calculator (32%), for dictionary definitions (22%), and to make conversions (22%) all ranked in the top half of the responses. No one mentioned using Spotlight to track flights, but if you enter an airline code and flight number like AA123, you’ll get tracking information. This requires the Siri Suggestions category to be enabled.
The takeaway? Most people use Spotlight for finding files and launching apps, with only 20–30% venturing into its more esoteric features. I see two paths forward.
First, if you have somehow missed out on all Spotlight can do, invoke it by clicking the magnifying glass in the menu bar (which can be turned off in older versions of macOS in System Preferences > Dock & Menu Bar > Spotlight) or pressing Command-Space (which you can change in System Settings > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Spotlight). Then start typing and see what pops up in the results below. Explore all the possibilities—there will be a lot!
Second, if you find the Spotlight results overwhelming, turn off categories you’ll never use. Open System Settings > Siri & Spotlight to find them. In macOS 12 Monterey and earlier, they’re in System Preferences > Spotlight.
Spotlight results can be hard to navigate if the results window is too small, forcing you to scroll. Many people don’t realize you can move and resize the Spotlight window, and it will remember its location and size for future searches. Try putting it at the top of your screen and expanding the results window to the bottomton see many more results at a glance.
You can also navigate the Spotlight results window with the arrow keys, and adding the Command key moves you between categories. Pressing Return opens the selected result. Apple lists a few other Spotlight keyboard shortcuts, but I’ve found others:
- Command by itself reveals the path to the selected file or folder.
- Command-B opens the search in your Web browser.
- Command-D opens the search term in the Dictionary app.
- Command-H opens Spotlight help.
- Command-L scrolls to the dictionary definition.
- Command-R or Command-Return reveals the selected file or folder in the Finder.
- Command-Y or Space bar previews the selection in Quick Look.
I suspect many people don’t use Spotlight as much as they could because the results appear in random order. Before macOS 10.11 El Capitan, Apple let users rearrange the order of the Spotlight results. Few people probably took advantage of that option, but it’s a shame Apple removed it. Now Spotlight puts the results in what it thinks is the most helpful order, but that means the order is different on every search, eliminating the benefit of familiarity. Turning off unused categories may reduce the randomness.
The most common complaint among poll respondents is that Spotlight can be unreliable, particularly for finding files and Mail messages. Although it may be only temporary, the fix is to rebuild the Spotlight database, which you do by opening System Settings > Siri & Spotlight > Spotlight Privacy, dragging your entire drive in from the Finder, and acknowledging what you’re about to do. (You can also add specific private folders here to ensure Spotlight never indexes them.) Wait a few minutes for Spotlight to delete the database, and then remove the drive from the Privacy list so Spotlight can reindex it. Be warned that the indexing process can take quite some time and cause significant CPU usage—you’ll see a bunch of mdworker processes in Activity Monitor, and there’s an Indexing progress bar at the top of the Spotlight results window while it works.
In some cases, Spotlight may seem unreliable because your search isn’t sufficiently specific. You can narrow your search results in four ways:
- Metadata attributes: Anything that appears in the Info window for a file (select it in the Finder and choose File > Get Info) can be part of a search, such as modified date, kind, author, and much more—photos contain a lot of camera metadata.
- Item type: In the link above, Apple provides a long list of item types you can specify by adding
kind:typeto your search, including apps, contacts, folders, email, and much more.
- Keywords: Along with
kind, Spotlight supports other keywords, including
- Boolean searches: To make your search highly specific, use the Boolean operators
NOT, along with the minus sign (
-), which means
I’d be surprised if many people took advantage of Spotlight’s options to narrow searches. Those who want more search power often resort to a third-party app that provides a graphical search interface, like HoudahSpot and Tembo. Another common approach is to sidestep the Spotlight database and search directly, which is slower but can be more reliable—EasyFind and Find Any File use this technique. The most common alternatives to searching for files with Spotlight include:
- Finder: Even though the Finder window search field (also accessible with Command-F) leverages the Spotlight database, many people prefer the Finder because it returns only files and folders.
- Find Any File
When it comes to Spotlight’s other popular feature, app launching, the list was essentially the same as for our Launchpad poll (see “Do You Use It? Launchpad Doesn’t Compete for Longtime Mac Users,” 11 August 2023). A few people even said that Alfred and LaunchBar were sufficient for most of their file-finding needs.
- The Dock, often holding the Applications folder or a folder of app aliases
In the end, it seems that Spotlight is earning its keep in the Mac world primarily for finding files and launching apps—the other features are frosting on top. That’s not to say that Apple should drop them, but I encourage you to turn off unnecessary categories. Also, Apple should bring back the feature that lets us rearrange categories and add the capability for Spotlight to detect and fix corruption automatically. We shouldn’t have to realize there’s a problem and reset the Spotlight database manually.
On the Web, tables are everywhere—you may not even realize how many sites rely on tables behind the scenes for their formatting. Useful as they are for aligning content and displaying columnar data, tables can cause significant frustration if you need to extract data from them. I find myself wanting to do this quite often now that I have the open-source Copytables. I use the free Copytables Chrome extension in Arc, Brave, and Google Chrome, but you can also download Copytables for Firefox (forked from the Chrome version) and Copytables for Safari ($2.99 on the Mac App Store). I haven’t tested those.
Here’s an example of what Copytables makes possible. Earlier this week, I wanted to email someone a list of opportunities from the volunteer-management tool Helper Helper. To extract the text from the table in the Web app’s interface without Copytables, I would have to select the entire table (below left), copy it, and paste it into BBEdit (below right). The results in BBEdit aren’t terrible compared to some tables I’ve seen, but I’d still need to delete every other line. That would be doable with such a small table, but what if there were hundreds of lines or the data didn’t break cleanly at line breaks?
With Copytables in Arc, I instead pressed the Option key to enter cell-selecting mode and dragged over the cells in the leftmost column to select just them (below left). When I copied and pasted into BBEdit, I got exactly what I wanted (below right).
Another example. I’ve been in a pitched battle with spambots for the last few weeks, and one of my most successful interim defenses has been blocking IP ranges. Using Copytables, I can extract hundreds of IP addresses quickly from the logs of our WordPress security plug-ins. To select the contents of a column, I press Command-Option and click the column header. Then it’s trivial to copy the data into BBEdit for manipulation. You can even make discontinuous selections—cells that aren’t next to each other.
Copytables also enables you to select rows or entire tables. Those features aren’t as commonly used—they don’t even get default keyboard shortcuts—so whenever I need them, I open the Copytables window (from the Extensions menu in Arc, or by clicking a pinned extension toolbar icon in Brave or Google Chrome), click Rows or Tables to enable the associated capture mode, and then click to select. If you do use the Capture buttons, make sure to disable them when you’re done, or certain Web apps won’t work correctly due to Copytables capturing their clicks. To select entire tables more quickly, click the Previous Table or Next Table buttons in the Find row.
The Copy options at the top require more explanation. I haven’t needed them, but they offer various formats for the copied data, some of which could be handy (I’m particularly taken with the options that swap columns and rows). Theoretically, you can set one of these options as the default to use with Edit > Copy, but that didn’t work in my quick testing. Stick to the buttons in the Copytables interface.
- As is: Copy the table as seen on the screen
- Plain Table: Copy the table without formatting
- Text: Copy as tab-delimited text
- Text+Swap: Copy as tab-delimited text, swap columns and rows
- CSV: Copy as comma-separated text
- CSV+Swap: Copy as comma-separated text, swap columns and rows
- HTML+CSS: Copy as HTML source with formatting
- HTML: Copy as HTML source without formatting
- Textile: Copy as Textile (text content)
- Textile+HTML: Copy as Textile (HTML content)
Copytables has one other clever feature I occasionally find handy: the infobox. It’s an inset box that shows information about your current selection. Consider this table of data about Canadian wildfires from 2000–2021. When I select the contents of the Area Burned column, Copytables displays the blue infobox at the top that counts the number of selected cells, calculates the sum and average, and calls out the min and max. These simple calculations can preclude the need to move data to a spreadsheet.
If the infobox gets in your way, you can turn it off or have Copytables display it in a different corner of the window. To access this and other settings, click the Options link in the Copytables window. The most useful settings are the modifier keys for click-and-drag selection (below). You’ll want to adjust these if they conflict with something else on your system. The Copytables window also has a Keyboard Shortcuts link that provides a browser-wide approach to setting keyboard shortcuts for extensions; the Copytables options match the Find and Capture buttons in its window.
Copytables is free, but if you find it useful, you can join me in donating to the author, Georg Barikin.