Stop Spotlight Stalling & Beachballs When Searched in Mac OS X with External Drives

Oct 26, 2015 - 23 Comments

Spotlight beachballing the night away in Mac OS X

Spotlight is the lightning fast search engine built into the Mac, but some users may have noticed that once Spotlight has been summoned and a file search query is beginning to be typed, OS X freezes up, stalls, and beachballs for anywhere from 10-30 seconds for seemingly no apparent reason. If you’re in a quiet room, you may even hear a little spin up sound as this happens as well.


If this Spotlight freezes and beachball experience is happening to you, it’s quite likely because you have an external hard drive connected to the Mac, perhaps for extended storage or a Time Machine backup. The good news is that you can quickly stop the Spotlight beach ball from happening, and while it makes sense to do this with Time Machine drives, the decision is a bit more complicated with personal file storage as we’ll see in a moment.

Stop Spotlight Search Stalls & Beachballs on Macs with External Drives

  1. Open System Preferences from the Apple  menu
  2. Choose “Spotlight” and go to the “Privacy” tab – anything placed here will be excluded from Spotlight indexing and search, so we’re going to put the external drive(s) that are spinning up and slowing things down here
  3. Go to the Finder and drag and drop the external hard drive root icons into the Privacy tab of Spotlight
  4. Stop Spotlight from indexing external hard drives to speed it up

  5. Exit out of System Preferences and summon Spotlight as usual, there should be no more beach balling as the external drives are no longer accessed by the search function

Fast spotlight hooray Mac

Obviously this has a downside of not being able to search and index an external hard drive, so for users who have manual file backups and maintenance this may not be a reasonable solution. However, it does work great if your primary backup method is for Time Machine, since you don’t want to be searching that with Spotlight anyway, and if you never really want to search through your external drives files it works well for that use case as well.

It’s worth pointing out that this beachball stalling thing isn’t a particularly new issue, and OS X has long had a problem with handling external hard drives, typically related to inappropriate drive access and spin-up occurring despite nothing to indicate the external drive should be accessed, and the result is seeing the spinning beachball until the drive wakes up and is ready to be accessed. This is definitely frustrating behavior particularly if you’ve come from a Windows background, where unless the external drive is specifically accessed, it will not spin up and delay everything else in the process (for what it’s worth, Mac OS 9 and before behaved the same way too).

Mac Beachball

This is one of those frustrating issues that has been around long enough that it should have been resolved in some way, but for now, you can continue to use the workarounds specific to Spotlight, or for handling the slowdowns with external drives in general.

In case you were wondering, while it’s possible that a connected external hard drive would cause beachballs in other situations where the file system is being accessed, typically the beach ball and freezing is seen when a particular app is experiencing a problem, often requiring the application to be force quit and relaunched again, and in some extreme scenarios, if the entire Mac freezes up, a reboot. That’s not what’s happening here though as there isn’t a specific app problem or OS X problem, it’s just that most external hard drives are slow to spin up if they’re inactive, thus causing the temporary slowdown and a fairly simple solution.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks, Troubleshooting

23 Comments

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  1. Groove says:

    Lol. Useless tip ever!

    • Robert D. says:

      Maybe I am stupid but it took me quite a while to realize that it was my external HD that was slowing my system down (btw, this HD was excluded from Spotlight searches). Every time the HD had spun down to save energy, the iMac would take forever to start a new process, waiting for the drive to spin up again even though what I was doing had nothing to do with the external drive. Therefore this issue is not just related to Spotlight searches but to external HD’s in general, the Mac just does not handle the external drives well. I finally resorted to ejecting and powering down the external HD when I was not going to be using it for some time in order to improve performance.

    • Big Moss says:

      Your comment however, which includes absolutely nothing of value or substance, is very useful. Meanwhile, I prevented Spotlight from waking up my external drive and halting a 5 second delay before the Mac was usable again, whereas reading and responding to your comment lessened my IQ by 2 points.

      • DG says:

        Yours was worse. I have had exactly the same issue as Robert D. and,……. Oh never mind I can’t be bothered with you.

  2. Orla Broholm Larsen says:

    Thanks for the tip, but where do I find the Time Machine disc icon on my iMac?

    • Robert D. says:

      In order to see the drive it must be mounted on your desktop. If you are using a Time Capsule, log into the server and mount the Time Machine disk. You will then be able to add it to the Spotlight Privacy exclude list.

  3. This really doesn’t solve the problem. Spotlight should work fine with external drives. And why have data on an external drive if we can’t search it? The cause of the issue could be a lot of things. Usually, Console and Activity Monitor will ferret out the culprit.

    • sh1ku says:

      Well, the thing is that, external drives stops spinning in order to have a large lifespan. Go ahead and force an external HDD to spin 24/7, look what happens.

      Anyway, I agree that Spotlight (Finder as well) shouldn’t freeze. The problem is, that Spotlight freezes because it “thinks” that the files on the external HDD are ready (and they are, technically), and thus, waits for the HDD to do his job.

      I don’t know, on Windows, the same happens. Explorer kinda freezes when accessing an external HDD. It won’t let you open anything from the HDD, and if you try spamming double-click, when the HDD is ready, Explorer suddenly begins opening files/folders like crazy.

      So, this seems to be a common issue in every system. Blame external HDDs…

      PD: My English sucks, I’m aware about that xD

      • Patrick M. says:

        Simply disable drive spin-down in System Preferences > Energy Saver.

        Duh.

        • anastasia says:

          i don’t know why anyone has to “duh” anything. It’s incredibly rude, and certainly doesn’t add to the conversation. this isn’t twitter.

          Not everyone pays attention to a problem until presented with a solution. I thought my machine was just old, memory too small, or a number of other things.

        • Robert D. says:

          My understanding is that the “put HD’s to sleep” setting is only for internal drives and does nothing for external ones.

  4. James Katt says:

    Your other apps like quicksilver are probably simultaneously indexing the drive.

    • Phil Collins says:

      Did you read the article? This beachball has to do with access from a spun down hard disk, it has nothing to do with indexing except that by having the external drives indexed, they will spin up when Spotlight is accessed. Try it, connect an external hard drive to your Mac, let it go to sleep, and hit your Spotlight keystroke. Here is what it sounds like:

      Vroooooooooooooooooooooooom chika chika chika chika chika chika chika whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr chik chik chik 15 seconds later and a whole bunch of noises, Spotlight resumes as the drive has spun up.

  5. Harold Zeh says:

    There is a better way and, if desired, you can retain the ability of Spotlight to do its job. Use a utility like Disksomnia or Keep Drive Spinning to never allow the external drive to spin down to begin with. They have saved my sanity. I am extremely impatient . . . well, at least when it comes to computers.

    Open and save dialog boxes are more responsive, Finder is more responsive, and the external drive may actually last longer. And if it does not, just get another inexpensive one (of course keep an updated clone of the external, also.) Better it dies than your head exploding waiting for spin-ups umpteen times per day.

    • DG says:

      No. Apple should have addressed this.
      Maybe show you teh results that come up instantly and also maybe at the bottom of the spotlight window post a message along the lines of;
      “………Waiting for disk X”.

      • Paul says:

        That would be exactly the proper way to handle it, deliver what is immediately accessible without stalling the entire OS

      • Harold Zeh says:

        Why a “waiting for disk x” message? Don’t we already know what we are waiting for? A message would be just rubbing it in. Messages about waiting . . . and actually waiting . . . equals head exploding.

        How can Apple fix this when the external drive spinning down is a helpful (i.e, big, dumb) “feature” built into the external drive’s controller circuits. Apple can not dictate to all those drive and case manufacturers how it wants them to act, nor does it have any control to make them act better (flash the firmware?)

        The System Preference for drive “sleep” only applies to the drive Apple installs internally with the machine – which seems like an odd preference when that drive is a SSD. My opinion only.

        And to address Paul below, although at first it sounds proper, what good would having some things be immediately available when it is to the external we need access? Still have to wait for a spin-up. Alternately, the external could be dismounted when not desired for routine access, for the same result.

        Not that I want to act as a marketing tool (and one is free,) but the two utilities I mentioned above have completely eliminated the issue of waiting around for externals in open and save dialogs and they are indexed and immediately (immediately is good,) available for searches via Spotlight. Life became very good after employing them.

        The drives do not mind – and could live longer by not being subjected to heating and cooling cycles. None have failed for me over the last few years and they are cheap, whatever is on sale, drives from a variety of manufacturers. I do not even let them sleep at night. Thou shalt not spin down . . . ever.

        I “junk” them after two years by repurposing them as Time Machine drives or one of several clones of the active attached data drives.

  6. Bill Gates says:

    Searching on a Mac with Spotlight is for Chumps!

  7. BrooklynBob says:

    What?? Exclude external drives from spotlight? What sort of asinine solution is this? Apple should have dealt with this issue many, many years ago. The problem is that they have assigned too many resources to iOS development, and OS X development suffers as a result.

  8. AleMello says:

    I’m having problems with Spotlight, since GM, but not with external drives. It happens all the time, even without Time Machine HD connected.
    I sent a lot of feedbacks reports to Apple, but it seems, 10.11.1 didn’t solve the problem.
    I’m considering reinstall OSX from zero.

  9. RM says:

    I can’t stand Spotlight and have always found it useless and cumbersome. What makes it utterly annoying is that lack of front end controls for it.

    EasyFind FTW

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