Stop Spotlight Stalling & Beachballs When Searched in Mac OS X with External Drives
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
- Open System Preferences from the Apple menu
- 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
- Go to the Finder and drag and drop the external hard drive root icons into the Privacy tab of Spotlight
- 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
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).
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.