I can find anything online in under a minute, but it takes me days to find an e-mail address on my PC. Lucky for me, the leading Web search companies are falling all over themselves to create free programs that dig through your hard drive. Google, Ask Jeeves, HotBot, and MSN have all released desktop search programs in the past few months. (Slate and MSN are both owned by Microsoft.) AOL's application, which is based on software from a company called Copernic, is now in customer trials, and Yahoo will join the fray early in 2005.
Desktop search applications work a lot like the search function that's already built into the Windows Start Menu, but they're much quicker. They're also smarter about sifting through your e-mail, music files, browser history, and other special data formats. You probably won't find all the Steely Dan songs in your iTunes library or every PDF with the phrase "owner's manual" using the Windows search. If you use the right desktop search application, it's a snap.
How's it possible to make searching through files on your desktop as painless as finding results on the Web? Memorize the contents of the hard drive in advance. In simplest terms, a desktop search program works by pre-scanning files on your computer—e-mail messages, Web pages in your browser's cache, spreadsheets, etc.—and compiling a list of the words and phrases it finds. (Depending on the program, the initial indexing process can sideline your computer for anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of hours.) This index of your hard disk's contents gets stored as a compact file or folder that's optimized for fast access. When you punch in a term like "invoice," you'll get results in a fraction of a second because the program already knows every file to look in.
Since running more than one of these programs at once will slow your computer to a crawl, I installed each of the five applications separately and then went hunting for representative data: e-mail messages and attachments, phone numbers, instant messages, PowerPoint presentations, MP3s, photos, PDF and PostScript files, Web pages, and Word and Quark files. Speed and accuracy weren't an issue for any of these programs even on a minimally equipped PC, so I evaluated each program based on the following criteria:
Interface: Is it a stand-alone application, a browser-based tool, or does it just add search bars to your screen? Since different users prefer different approaches, what matters most is how well the chosen interface works.
What can it search? Every program I tested does full-text searches of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files and e-mail. Most of them search music, image, and video files, as well as Web bookmarks. But if you want to look through e-mail attachments, instant messages, your browser history, and non-Microsoft-Office files—or if you use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer—the field narrows quickly.
Best feature(s): What distinguishes the program from the rest of the pack?
Worst feature(s): What's the most frustrating thing about the program?
The results, from worst to best: