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:
Interface: A stand-alone application with a simple layout that doesn't flicker or reshuffle. Compared to its competitors, Jeeves is easy to understand and relaxing to use.
What can it search? Not enough. Jeeves does full-text searches of Microsoft Office files, Outlook messages, and multimedia files but doesn't search browser cache, instant messages, Outlook Express e-mail, or Outlook mail attachments. Even worse, it doesn't let you work around its limitations by adding new file types or folders manually. Jeeves also thumbs its nose at customization, limiting users to two indexing options: You can scan either the My Documents and Desktop folders or the entire disk, nothing in between.
Best features: Listing search results in tabbed categories like "Pictures," "Office Documents," and "Internet Bookmarks" makes it easy to eyeball what kind of files you've found. A preview pane also shows you the first few lines from Word files and a few other types, so you needn't waste time opening them.
Worst feature: Can't add new file types.
Grade: D. Although it's easy to use, Ask Jeeves won't let you search as many files as the competition. The best thing I can say about Jeeves is that adding file types is easier than what they've already accomplished—building a great user interface. Jeeves will become a front-runner if it adds more data types in the near future, but for now it misses too much stuff you'll want to search.
Interface: An Internet Explorer add-in along the lines of the Google toolbar. When you type in a search term, the results are displayed in a sidebar that slides in from the left edge of the browser.
What does it search? HotBot won't indeximage, music, and movie files ore-mail attachments. On the plus side, it does full-text searches of PDF files, RSS feeds, and the Internet Explorer history and joins MSN as the only program to index Outlook calendar entries, events, and notes. HotBot also lets you add oddball and custom file types—pretty much anything other than .JPG, .GIF, .MP3, or .MOV. You can also specify which folders on your disk to index or to ignore.
Best feature: You can choose separate indexing schedules for e-mail, RSS feeds, Web history, and anything else to minimize the amount of time HotBot spends crawling over your hard disk.
Worst feature: Too many important files—e-mail attachments, pictures, movies, music—aren't searchable, even by file name.
Grade: C. The HotBot Desktop is the only entry other than Copernic that doesn't call itself an unfinished "beta" release, but it still feels like a work in progress. It gets a low grade because it doesn't index attachments or music files and is full of little annoyances like a restriction on scheduling the e-mail index to update more than once an hour. HotBot developers say these restrictions were necessary to minimize the program's processor and disk space usage. I would have preferred to make those decisions myself.
Interface: Browser-based search and results pages that look like the Google Web site you know and love.
What can it search? Google can index your AOL Instant Messenger sessions as you type, so you can search them later without having to save each one to a file manually. It also reads your browser cache (if you use Internet Explorer), Outlook attachments, and Outlook Express e-mail. It won't search Outlook Express attachments or contacts, PDF file contents, or, surprisingly, your Gmail account.
Best features: Desktop search results can be included at the top of Google Web searches just like headlines from Google News. Browser history results include Web page thumbnails. Privacy lovers can exclude specific folders and remove individual results from the index. And unlike the competition, store and search Web history pages from the secure servers used for online banking and e-commerce transactions.
Worst features: There's no way to manually add folders to be indexed. It appears that Google restricts searches to your personal folders.
Grade: C+. Google's desktop program has been plagued by questions about security problems that could let remote hackers search your PC. But the real problem here is that you can't search your entire PC. The program not only restricts searches to a preset list of folders, but it also won't match partial filenames. Google's desktop search is perhaps the least geek-friendly of the bunch, save Ask Jeeves. It doesn't have any of the special search syntax ("paul NOT boutin") or smart results sorting that Google's Web search is known for. If your photos have names like paul001.jpg, paul023.jpg, searching for "paul" or "paul*" won't turn up anything. If you don't know a wayward file's exact name, or if it's hiding in some backwater of your disk, you're simply out of luck.
Interface: Adds search boxes to the Windows taskbar, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. Searches from the taskbar pop up a special window; searches from IE and Outlook show up inside the application window.
What can it search? Outlook calendar, events, and notes, Microsoft OneNote files, MSN chats, and Hotmail accounts (via Outlook Express). Oddly, it won't search your Internet Explorer history.
Best features: The taskbar search box shows results while you're still typing, with impressive speed. Command-line fans can use advanced query syntax such as "author:Josh OR author:Mark" to refine searches.
Worst feature: MSN doesn't let you add new file types like PostScript or Quark files.
Grade: B. If Outlook is your life, this is your search tool. While the number and variety of windows almost sent me crying for Ask Jeeves, MSN's search finds much more data than most everyone else. The multiple search bars and results screens it adds to your desktop and applications can be annoying, but it's not that hard to turn off the ones you don't like. MSN would probably get an A if it searched more stuff.
Interface: A standalone application that also adds a search box to the Windows taskbar. It looks similar to Ask Jeeves but doesn't have the handy tabbed results summary at the top of the screen, nor will it let you search every data type at once. The preview pane displays a wide range of file types and will automatically scroll to and highlight the location of your search terms within a file or message.
What can it search? Any file type you add using its Advanced Options settings, in any folder you want. It's also the only program that will search Firefox browser histories and bookmarks, not just Internet Explorer.
Best features: You can add extra file types and folders to the index without any of the other programs' restrictions. The search box supports Boolean phrases ("Slate NOT Webhead"), and its graphical interface has options to refine results, such as e-mail headers ("From: Josh, Subject: deadline") or date ranges ("from July 29 to November 2, 2004"). Much of the index can be updated in real time as files are changed and new messages arrive, rather than at scheduled intervals.
Worst feature: You have to click through each category of results ("Emails," "Bookmarks," "History") separately, rather than being able to see all of them at once. If it only listed the number of results for each category, like Ask Jeeves and Google, you'd instantly know which categories to bother clicking on.
Grade: A. Copernic has almost as many configuration options as the rest put together but lacks some of the best features of the lesser tools: Jeeves' all-categories-at-once search and tabbed results, Google's live AIM indexing and Web page thumbnails, MSN's advanced search syntax and index of Outlook info, and HotBot's RSS search. Still, Copernic finds more than any other desktop search and gives you control over how it indexes your computer. Search Engine Watch has confirmed that AOL's still-under-wraps desktop search is "powered by Copernic," but you can download Copernic for free right now without joining AOL. At the price, it's one heck of a deal.