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Desktop Search Engines: Which is Best?

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Desktop search products by Google and others are becoming all the rage. Nigel McFarlane reviews the seven most popular desktop search engines and points out their features and flaws.
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I know exactly where my shoes are—they're in a special shoebox where they won't get lost. It's the shoebox I can't find. That feeling of frustration is all too common when sitting at a computer. With only a simple Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux install, your desktop already holds over a thousand files, before you even get started. Fear not! A squad of desktop search engines is appearing on the market, and they're designed to make finding your own stuff easier—or so we hope. This article is a buyer's guide to the current offerings. Check back here occasionally to see how they're advancing.

The Power of Desktop Searching

When asking "Where's my file?" your current search strategy might be fairly simple:

  • Macintosh: Finder
  • Windows: Start, Search, Files and Folders
  • Linux: find or glimpse

All these tools grub through your disk drive one file at a time, with little preparation and little foresight. They're enough for basic needs, but if you have lots of files, you need a better tool.

On the other hand, web searching is a breeze. Engines such as those at Google, Altavista, Yahoo!, and Amazon.com bend over backward to answer your search query. They try to provide the best possible answer in the blink of an eye. It was only a matter of time before this more-attractive service model came to your local PC, and that's what desktop search products seek to provide. Because most people still have Windows, Office, and Outlook, all the competition is on the Windows desktop; elsewhere, there are very few options.

For this article, we'll examine the best known (or at least best marketed) of these tools, as shown in the following table.

View Table

The basic versions of most of these products are free to use without restriction; AutoFocus is free only for noncommercial uses. For this article, I tested the versions shown in the following table.

Product

Version

Ask Jeeves Desktop Search

1.7.0 beta

AutoFocus

2004.2

Copernic Desktop Search

1.5 beta

Google Desktop Search

1.0

HotBot Desktop

no stated version

MSN Toolbar Suite

beta

Yahoo! Desktop Search

1.0 build 1500zz

Among the options are four applications, two toolbars, and one web-like search engine. Diverse as they may seem, all these tools start with the same basic approach: They crawl all over your local disks, consuming vast amounts of CPU and real time, and causing your disk drives to groan and click until you dread that they'll wear out and die. At the end, each tool has built a database of keywords (a new file on disk) that will be used to speed up searching.

To complement the database is a piece of user interface, which you use to enter and submit your search keywords. Toolbars are very popular form factors, and most of the products provide a toolbar item on the Windows Taskbar in addition to their regular search interface (usually an application window). All these tools leave a small, permanently running server on your computer that does the dirty work of returning the names of files matching the keyword query.

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