Why bother? Given that your Mac comes with built-in universal search that makes it a snap to find documents, messages, images, or any other kind of file anywhere, why would you invest in an application like HoudahSpot?
That must be a question that the developer has asked himself time and again. And it has to be the first question any writer asks in starting on a review of the app. Stick with me as I walk you through what HoudahSpot does and how it does it, and I will give an answer to that fundamental question.
Interface & Interaction
HoudahSpot’s main window is divided in two sections: on the left a user-definable set of search criteria, and on the right a display of Results of the current search.
The three toolbar buttons are simply shortcuts for starting a new search, based on sets – the first looks for matches where all criteria are met, the second where any is, and the third where none are. Over the right side of the toolbar are three familiar icons, with which you select whether results are displayed in List, Grid, or CoverFlow style. And the remaining two buttons display an Inspector window for the selected file (with very detailed and quite technical information), or a Quick Look preview of the file.
Various aspects of the application are customisable from the Preferences menu item – from the window’s accent colour to assigning global keyboard shortcuts to particular search templates.
You can also access HoudahSpot from the menubar, using the Spotlight-like magnifying glass icon. When you click the icon, it offers a selection of search templates – for ‘Applications’, ‘Long Lost Files’, ‘Music Gone Astray’, and others you will see in the screenshot:
The first line of that list names the third way you can interact with HoudahSpot, via the Blitz Search window:
Using any of the search templates or running a Blitz Search brings up the main window, which is where the action happens.
How It Works
HoudahSpot is a frontend for Spotlight – it doesn’t make its own database, but simply gives you a different way to interact with Spotlight’s index. And HoudahSpot doesn’t actually do anything that you can’t do already with Spotlight. But it makes doing those things quite a lot easier.
The left-hand panel is where you set your search criteria. This is simply a set of limitations that you supply to narrow down your search results. Rather than requiring you to type in language operators – AND, OR, NOT and so on – to link your criteria, HoudahSpot uses nested lines that will be familiar if you’ve ever made a Smart Playlist in iTunes.
This is just a more approachable way of using Boolean Logic, which is the basis of HoudahSpot’s searches. On each line you can choose from a wide range of criteria:
Or select from a broad range of options when you choose ‘Other…’ from that list (I believe these choices are available in a detailed Spotlight search too):
You will see from the detail of the left panel above that you get to specify What you are looking for, and Where the app searches. You can also Exclude particular folders, which will speed up your searches, and you can apply a Limit to the number of results the search returns.
A very nice touch is that you can ‘search by example’: just drag a file onto one of the search criteria, and HoudahSpot will extract relevant information about that file and enter it into the line.
You can save your searches – useful if there’s something in particular that you’re often looking for – and you can save a search as a template, so that it’s added to the dropdown list available from the menubar for quick access.
Unlike Spotlight, which starts searching as soon as you type in the search bar, with HoudahSpot you set and enter all your search criteria and then click on the green ‘Play’ button to start. It’s curious that this is touted as a feature of HoudahSpot – the developer’s website says that the app ‘does not waste [Spotlight's] horsepower to run searches before you are done entering criteria’ – when instant search results used to be seen as one of the good things about Spotlight! Once a search is started it runs in realtime, so any new matching files added to your machine will appear in the results.
So, why would you use HoudahSpot? I’ll come clean and say that I was not a believer when I started writing this review. I simply didn’t see the point. But as I’ve spent more time with the app, I’ve come to like it more and more.
Take a look at this screenshot, in which you can see the same search running in HoudahSpot and Spotlight:
Using only the Spotlight menu search, you’ll quickly see that HoudahSpot’s results are more useful – notice that there are only four instances of YNAB files displayed (the green and blue tree icon of my current choice for best personal finance app), whereas there are eleven shown in HoudahSpot.
By opening the Spotlight window you _can_ easily see all the same results, but to my mind, using HoudahSpot is easier, especially when the search becomes a bit more complex. Again, it’s possible to add the same filters and levels of specification in Spotlight as it is in HoudahSpot, but it’s more complex and time consuming.
At first I didn’t particularly like HoudahSpot’s appearance, but it’s grown on me: it’s simple, logical, and quite minimal. It gets out of the way, so that you can concentrate on your search results, and I find it easier to read than the Spotlight window (I know I could change its appearance by altering settings in Finder View setup, but the way I’ve got it set works best for me in other situations).
Even so, do I see myself using HoudahSpot ongoingly? Probably now and then, when I need a particular deep or thorough search. But I’m not going to keep it running all the time – or even use the global menu, even though it’s handy (I have too many icons in the menubar already!). I might have considered doing this if it could have replaced the Spotlight icon, but that’s not possible under Snow Leopard. One thing I have done, though, is to install HoudahSpot in the Finder toolbar (an option in the Preferences menu), which adds a button so you can launch the app from within Finder – see top-right corner of this screenshot:
My advice is to head over to Houdah.com and download a demo of the application. Have a play with it and see if it fits your workflow. As I said, I didn’t think it did for me, but the more I’ve used it, the more I’ve come to appreciate it.