Alfred vs Spotlight: Which Works Best at Finding Stuff on Your Mac?

George Tinari

With the releases of OS X Yosemite and OS X El Capitan, Apple improved a feature that remained largely untouched and unimproved before that: Spotlight search. Before these releases, people often looked to third-party search apps that would improve digging through the Mac for files, apps and information.

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Can Alfred do anything that Spotlight search can’t? | Shutterstock

One such example was Alfred. Years ago, it was considered a staple among power users. But now, Spotlight has gotten smarter. It can find Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos on the web, retrieve weather reports and stock information and understand natural language. Is Alfred, the once king of search for Mac users, still necessary, or can Spotlight find pretty much everything you’d need at this point?

Alfred is Extremely Customizable

Alfred’s main perk over Spotlight is still its extensive customization options. If you head into the app’s preferences by clicking the tiny gear in the Alfred search bar and click Features, you’ll see a comprehensive list of everything Alfred can do.

This includes what you might expect like searching through your Mac’s files and folders, contacts, bookmarks, images and applications. But it also includes some unexpected treats like web searches through Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, IMDB, YouTube and more. Plus, each result gets assigned a keyboard shortcut.

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You can even add your own, which Spotlight won’t do. Do this by clicking Web Searches in the sidebar and then Add Custom Search. Enter the search URL, then give your new search a title and keyword shortcut to perform your search in the future.

Note: This requires that you know the URL for searches performed on specific websites. For instance, Google’s is http://www.google.com/search?q={query} and Twitter’s is http://www.twitter.com/search?q={query}. Check out AppStorm’s article for a few good examples to get started.

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Alfred can act as a quick calculator, dictionary and assistant for various system tasks like emptying the trash or logging out, too. It even includes a very unique Remote feature in which, paired with the iOS app, lets you control Alfred and different tasks on your Mac from your iPhone.

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In addition to all of that, Alfred has the potential to get immensely more powerful …if you’re willing to pay up. A number of fantastic features in Alfred 2.0 include being able to search through clipboard history, control iTunes playback, search through passwords with 1Password integration and set up automatic workflows to perform repetitive tasks that include other apps. Unfortunately, it costs to unlock the rest of these: £17 or $26.10. That’s a pretty big price to pay compared to Spotlight, which is built into the Mac in its entirety for free.

Spotlight Pulls in More Content

While Alfred has an advantage in the customization department (albeit rivaled by Spotlight’s Flashlight plugin), Spotlight does a better job of bringing content to you rather than having to hunt for it. If you search “weather,” Apple’s Spotlight will show you current conditions and the forecast within your search. You don’t need to hit Enter or even type in your location. It just knows, and it’s way more convenient than having to open up a website in Alfred.

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Searching for Adele’s new album will bring up news articles about it, the music video for a single on YouTube and a Wikipedia article that you can even begin reading in Spotlight search. Again, Alfred just provides links to open these websites and doesn’t intelligently match results to the context of your search.

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Being an Apple product itself, Spotlight has the advantage of being able to search through other Apple services. Enter a business address to get directions in Maps and even get quick information like a phone number and reviews, or search for a movie for showtimes or purchase links in iTunes.

This is extremely important because this makes Spotlight much quicker to use than Alfred. Granted, Alfred can control iTunes playback and create workflows, but at a cost.

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Spotlight is customizable too, but not to the extent of Alfred. The only changes you can make are in System Preferences and just allow you to check or uncheck which categories show up in results and which folders you want Spotlight to skip over during searches.

Spotlight Shines

Altogether, Spotlight is just a more polished search engine. It’s the instant access and quick answers that make it more powerful than Alfred, especially since features are all included for free. Without paying anything, Alfred is capable of less and doesn’t pull answers directly into the search results.

If you opt for Alfred’s paid Powerpack upgrade, you do get some excellent power features, but at that point the winner is subjective and determined on a case-by-case basis of every user’s needs. People who don’t need workflows or 1Password integration won’t find much value in Alfred’s upgrade. However, it’s hard to not find value in the on-the-spot search results Spotlight provides. For that reason, Spotlight wins our comparison.

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George Tinari

Written By

George Tinari

George Tinari has written about technology for over seven years: guides, how-tos, news, reviews and more. He's usually sitting in front of his laptop, eating, listening to music or singing along loudly to said music. You can also follow him on Twitter @gtinari if you need more complaints and sarcasm in your timeline.