Meta: Spotlight’s Bigger Brother


Ryan, of Big Robot Software, tipped me off to the version 2 release of his Spotlight companion application, Meta. Now, I haven’t played with Meta before, and as luck would have it, my PowerBook is in for a fix, so I still have yet to get some time with it. But reading through the features and capabilities have definitely grabbed my attention.

Their tagling is “Spotlight’s Bigger Brother” and it seems – from what I’ve read – close enough to the truth. Spotlight is a fantastic addition to OS X, but as many will probably agree, has much growing up to do. (Wonder what we’ll be seeing in the forthcoming Leopard…)

Ok, so what’s the deal with Meta? Well, for one, you can easily limit the directories you desire to search – on the fly rather than setting it in the prefs. You can also set and append Spotlight Comments to files using Meta, making it easier to search using custom metadata (a feature very close to my heart, which I’ll be writing about in depth shortly). I also really like the fact that you get a Get Info-esque view of the files without having to launch it separately. Essentially, Meta looks like a much friendlier, much more extensible interface to Spotlight.

Take a gander. Let us know how you like it – especially since I’m still PowerBookless and it’s killing me. There’s a 15 day free trial.



Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ryan. Your comments here and the help material on your site convinced me that Meta is worth trying out.


After a week playing with Meta, and learning its query language, I admit that it’s better at finding things than Spotlight and MoRU. The initial downside, for me, was its query language, but when giving it a go, it is powerful indeed. And more powerful than MoRU.

It’s faster too than MoRU, and I haven’t had a crash yet (they’re not uncommon with MoRU).

I’m already a registered MoRU user, but I’m honestly attracted by the power of Meta’s searches.

Yes, it involves a learning curve (but the Help files are excellent), and a bit of typing. But it’s fast, reliable and powerful.

Count me in, I’d say !


Hi Rick,

Make no mistake, I think that MoRU is a great alternative to Spotlight. I also think that Spotlight is a great product. The fact is, Spotlight, MoRU, and Meta are really not fighting for the same customers, they are three different solutions to desktop searching, aimed at satisfying the needs of three different groups of users.

Spotlight itself satisfies the needs of most users, in that most users search rarely, and when they do, they just want to throw down some words they think might be in their files. Apple kept it as simple as they could in order to make the product as accessible as possible.

I can’t speak for the makers of MoRU, naturally, but my impression is that their main goal was to give users access to more of the power of the underlying Spotlight APIs that come with Tiger, while making it very easy to create new searches using a graphical user interface.

Pete and I, on the other hand, think that there are many users who would like to perform very powerful searches, who are accustomed to using text-based search interfaces like Spotlight and Google, and who appreciate the speed and flexibility of textual search queries. Furthermore, it was our thought that if we made Meta able to understand Spotlight’s basic query syntax, and added to that, it would be relatively easy for users to start out with simpler searches and learn additional query syntax as they became more comfortable with searching and found that they needed more power.

So you see, when we look at Spolight, MoRU, and Meta, we aren’t looking at a situation like that of Google vs. Yahoo vs. MSN Search, where all three products are essentially vying for the exact same set of users, because they are all trying to do the exact same thing better than each other. Instead, Spotlight, MoRU, and Meta are meeting three different sets of needs and preferences. And I really think that this is a cool thing, and that it’s good for the Mac community, because it gives everyone more choice and a better chance of finding a product that really works well for them.

So I’m glad that you feel you’ve found a good fit for your needs and preferences in MoRU. It’s a great product. But as Pete and I are finding out, there are lots of other users who find that Meta happens to suit their needs well, and who are really happy with it. And we’re glad to be able to help.


It seems to me that MoRU, combined with SpotMeta (not Meta) ( is the ideal combination. If you’re going to review a Spotlight alternative (or alternative to its interface), that’s the obvious combination to compare it with.


Hi Ryan,

thanks for the pointers to info about Meta’s search language, I had already found them in the Help library file in Meta. It’s indeed a necessity to know the query language in order to make Meta work (very) well.

On the other hand, MoRU is also very apt for repetitive searches: it allows allows the user to store folders with specific types of query combinations: I have five different folders (Smart Groups they’re called in MoRU; quite similar, I guess, to Meta’s Metafolders -though I do like the automatic appearance in Meta of my own Smart Folders! thanks for that, that’s a new feature compared to MoRU I didn’t mention above!) that do specific searches combining specific tags (Spotlight comments, text types, locations, dates …) and it works very well for repetite use (granted, you have to modify the specific query — but that’s all). And I really find files fast. It allows me to predefine typical Spotlight searches, while being much more precise than Spotlight – the only item I’d have to change, is the query item itself.

Meta does that very well too – but it involves more typing and potential typos and forgetting ‘ or *. That’s a downside for me – I personally prefer the ‘select’ option of MoRU and let the programme decide for itself how it should phrase the query. But, again, that’s just personal preference.

Thanks again for your input and the very best with Meta.


Hi erman,

I’m glad that you brought up those points regarding Meta vs. MoRU. You’re definitely right: in order to make the most of Meta, you need to learn a little bit of Meta’s query language. Whereas MoRU lets you create a query via a GUI query builder, Meta lets you do so using a textual query language based on Apple’s Spotlight query language.

The disadvantage of using a textual query language is that it may not be obvious how to use the language the first time you use Meta, which is what MoRU’s GUI-based query builder excels at.

The advantage of Meta’s textual query language is that once you learn a little about how to write queries, doing searches on the fly gets really quick and easy to do. On the other hand, no matter how familiar you become with MoRU’s GUI-based query building interface, the act of creating new searches with MoRU will never really get that fast or natural; you’ll always have to select a key from a dropdown list, then select an operator, etc.

Now, I’m not saying that Meta’s approach to searching is better than MoRU’s – I think that the way MoRU and Meta let you create searches are just two different ways of approaching it, and MoRU’s approach is probably better for first-time users, while Meta’s approach is probably better for repetitive use. One of the thoughts Pete and I have is that with Meta, searching your desktop is about as easy as searching the internet using Google. Just like with Google, searching for stuff using Meta is as easy as throwing a few words into the search field, but if you want to be more precise in your searches, you’ll need to learn a little bit of the query language.

I want to wrap this comment up now, but before I do I just want to mention that unlike Apple’s Spotlight language, Meta’s query language is pretty well documented. Here’s a link to Meta’s online help book where we explain how to use Meta according to task or goal:

…and here’s a link to a more cut-and-dry search language reference:

I hope this helps clear things up.


I wondered what the differences would be between Meta and MoRu, “Spotlight’s bigger sister” if you like.

I downloaded Meta – and have to say that Meta presupposes that the user knows how to write their own search syntax – while MoRu simply allows you to check on some features via drop-down menus. Granted, Meta can tag while MoRu can’t – but don’t we all use QS for tagging anyway ?

All in all, I didn’t really find any new features (but that’s perhaps just me) in Meta compared to MoRu, found MoRu to be more advanced, versatile and easy to use, and cheaper.

I’m sticking with MoRu, it means.


I guess including a link to download the program would be too easy?

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