Charles Moore's Mailbag

Pismo Spotlight Woes Solved with Simple Fix

Charles Moore - 2007.03.16 - Tip Jar

I received a bunch of reader suggestions in response to my column this week (Pismo Spotlight and Find Woes Persist with Latest Version of Tiger) about the issue I had with Spotlight on my Pismo PowerBook refusing to index the hard drive after I had (re)upgraded to OS X 10.4.

Happily, four correspondents zeroed in on the problem: My boot partition, as well as my two other hard drive partitions, had somehow gotten added to the "Privacy" list in the Spotlight Preference panel.

In hindsight, that's something I should have checked first, but in nearly two years of using Tiger, I don't recall ever having added anything to the Privacy list (I do keep most categories deselected in the Search Results pane).

Ah well, at least the mystery is solved. My Pismo is running splendidly on OS X 10.4.8, and Spotlight now works. Thanks to everyone who wrote!

RE: Pismo Spotlight and Find Woes

From Robert Emslie


I read your article about Spotlight being a bit dim with your Pismo. I had similar troubles (Pismo 500 MHz, 10.4.8) starting from a couple of weeks ago, mainly because refused to search through my messages.

Having more urgent things at hand, I postponed the re-indexation of the drive, which I'm doing now, the simple way, by dragging the startup disk icon from the Desktop into the list in the System Preferences > Spotlight > Privacy tab, then out of the list again.

As a matter of fact, my startup disk was already listed in the Privacy list; no wonder nothing registered in Spotlight....

This is maybe the most obvious fix for Spotlight issues, which I'm sure you haven't overlooked, but I thought I'd remind you this easy trick.

My 0.02 cents.

Robert Emslie

Hello Robert,

Sometimes the simplest things.


All three of my hard drive partitions were in the "Privacy" pane. I deleted them from there, and indexing commenced forthwith. How they came to be in there is an abiding mystery. I didn't do it manually.

Did you ever figure out how your startup disk got added to the list?

Thanks muchly for the tip. I often learn as much (or more) through writing these columns as my readers do.


Spotlight on Your Pismo

From Michael Stevens

Dear Sir,

I just read your column on Low End Mac dated 2007.03.12, in which you talk about Spotlight not working on your Pismo. I'm one of the developers of an academic literature management product called Sente, which supports Spotlight searching of its database, and I've had to learn a few things about Spotlight's innards. I have some suggestions that you might not have run across yet.

1) Spotlight privacy settings

The Spotlight preferences panel has a tab labeled Privacy, which contains a list of folders - or entire volumes - that Spotlight is not allowed to index. Even if your main disk isn't on this list, it might be worth adding it to the list, completely exiting System Preferences, and then taking it back off the list. Doing so will force Spotlight to discard any indexing information it had about the volume, then rebuild it from scratch. This has brought Spotlight back from the dead for me more than once on an external disk.

2) File system (volume) format

Spotlight won't index some formats of file systems. For instance, it won't do anything with my FAT16-formatted USB keychain drive. If you do a Get Info on your main disk, and the Format field says anything other than "Mac OS Extended," that might be the problem.

3) CPU load

The mds (metadata service) program, which carries out the indexing, is always lurking in the background under 10.4. It tries to stay out of your way, though, and usually won't run unless it can get a good chunk of the CPU to itself. If you have something heavyweight running constantly, like an animated desktop or screen saver, mds may never even try to run.

I hope one of these ideas helps. Good luck!

Best regards,
Michael Stevens

Hi Michael,

It did. Your first suggestion proved the charm.

Thanks so much for the insights and advice.


Pismo Spotlight Help

From Darren

I think this link should give you some insight into your Pismo Spotlight problems:


I would suggest that you pay particular attention to the section "Stopping Spotlight indexing", as it has a number of steps for restarting the indexing process of a volume if its index is corrupted. It reads as if the corruption can survive a reinstall of OS X, so your switch back to Panther and subsequent reinstall of Tiger probably would not clear the corrupt index.

Obviously, check out the System Preferences > Spotlight > Privacy tab to make sure that your drive isn't listed.

Hope that helps . . . let us know how it goes.


Hi Darren,

As you say, "obviously...." Unfortunately, it never occurred that it could be something so rudimentary.

The problem did turn out to be just that - my three hard drive partitions had somehow been added to the "Privacy" pane in the Spotlight preference panel (unless I'm farther gone than I imagine, I didn't put them in there, and nobody else uses this computer. Weird.

Thanks for the link to that resource - an excellent and thorough tutorial on Spotlight management that I will keep for future reference and referral.


Spotlight Issues

From Tre Cowan


I just read your article on the Spotlight issues, and forgive me if this is something you already looked at, but are your Spotlight preferences set to ignore the hard drive itself? In the privacy section, I routinely turn off Spotlight indexing for my external and flash drives, but if they have the same name as the internal/boot drive, it can get stuck on that.

Since you didn't mention this . . . my 2¢. Good luck! I enjoy your articles.


Hello Tre,

No, I didn't mention it, alas, because it never occurred to me, but you nailed it.

Thanks, and thanks for reading.


Pismo Spotlight and Find Woes Persist with Latest Version of Tiger

From Chris Apa

Mr. Moore,

Perhaps you have already ruled this out, but what of the possibility that the G4 upgrade is in someway messing with you?

My G3 500 MHz with 640 MB RAM has been happily running every version of OS X since Beta, with it's current OS of 10.4.8.

It's no speed demon, as I am sure you understand. Spotlight works as expected, as does everything minus some fancy effects like Fast User Switching, disabled by my meager 8 MB VRAM.

Just my experience though, yours may differ.

I have enjoyed your writing for many years, thank you.


Hi Chris,

Thanks for the insight.

I had pondered whether the G4 upgrade is somehow the cause of an incompatibility, but the odd thing was that Spotlight worked fine for the first eight months I had Tiger installed on this machine.

Thanks for reading.



From Christoph Trusch

Hello Charles,

Regarding your Spotlight problem that survived various clean installs: First I would try to create a fresh user account and look if Spotlight works in there. If so, there is a problem with your preferences, which - if they were dragged over from older installs - would explain the persistence (or whatever you call this in English) of the problem.

Sadly, this suggestion is the only one I have, and to be honest, I can't think of any other reason why this misbehavior would have survived clean installs.

Best regards,
Christoph Trusch

Hi Cristoph,

Good suggestion, and that's what I'd have tried next.


Spotlight Fix

From Alan Wood

All you have to do is use a utility like invisibles to make all those hidden files appear. Then delete the Spotlight index files, which will look like VT100 or something similar. Use the utility to make the hidden files invisible again. Restarts and let Spotlight finish indexing and you should be back in business.


Thanks for the tip Alan, As you've read above, the problem turned out to be something astonishingly simple


Spotlight Problems

From Robert Crane

Mr. Moore;

I had installed OS 10.4.8 in an iBook G3 384 MB RAM. Things were fine for a long while then I started getting very long spinning ball waits. I Googled around and found 2 things.

  1. Hard Disc free space for paging should equal 7x RAM size. I was down to 1.5 G free ( 20G drive) so I freed HD space back up to 2.5G.
  2. I Googled Spotlight and found that it is known to sometimes launch more than 1 process. Using the Activity monitor I killed both the user Spotlight Process and the System Spotlight process.
  3. Then I did a cold shut down and cold reboot.
  4. No more problems.

Robert Crane

Thanks, Robert.

The problem turned out to be something astonishingly simple - my three hard drive partitions had somehow been added to the "Privacy" pane in the Spotlight preference panel.

For the record, hard drive free space could certainly be something to consider if Spotlight plays up. I have 4.5 MB free on my boot partition (25 GB), which is getting a bit tight for OS X, but not critical yet.


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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at and a columnist at If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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