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Choosing a Desktop Search Engine

There's no room here for screenshots of all the interfaces, so I'll just provide a potted summary of each.

  • Love Windows? The MSN Toolbar looks just like Windows, with all the strengths and weaknesses of other Windows products. It's part of Microsoft's general attempt to make the web browser dissolve completely into the Windows operating system. The HotBot toolbar is convenient for computers on which Windows Explorer is used a lot.
  • If you love the web, choose the Google Desktop Search, which operates through your default web browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox) and looks exactly like Google's normal search feature. Zero learning curve, and it makes sense immediately.
  • Ask Jeeves, Yahoo!, and Copernic are good if you like to keep searching away from your other activities. They're like buying a car or a bike; you keep one handy for times when you need it.
  • AutoFocus has a wild and unfamiliar interface. We'll talk a bit more about that later. If you like toys or messing with spreadsheets, or you're highly visual, and you prefer tools that appear to be a bit brainier, AutoFocus will take up several hours of gee-whiz experimentation at least.

Testing all these products on the same desktop is a fairly bad idea; not only does each take hours or days to set up (that's the drive-scanning phase), but they can also meddle with each other. It makes no sense to have two search engines indexing the same disk and each other, with both growing databases as they do so. Mercifully, some invisible rules seem to stop keyword-logging competition from escalating out of control. Still, the first noteworthy thing about these products is that it makes sense to choose only one or two. Unlike having multiple word processing applications installed at once—for example, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, WordPerfect, and AbiWord can coexist comfortably on the same system—you only need one (or one favorite) desktop search engine. No wonder the competition is fierce.

The simplest way to compare these products is based on file formats. Unlike a simple find tool, these products search the contents of your files as well as the filenames. The race is on to see which tool has the most file-format smarts, and which therefore can find the most stuff for you. If a tool can't read PDF files, for example, all that data will be omitted from the delivered search results. Here's a table of support for common file formats.

View Table

Key to the table:

  • Y: The tool understands the insides of files in this format
  • N: The tool can only guess what's in the file
  • 2000+: Minimum Microsoft Office versions required for support
  • Plug-in: You need to download a separate add-on to make this feature work
  • 5+/6+: Minimum Microsoft Outlook version required for support
  • IE: Internet Explorer formats
  • Mozilla: Netscape, Mozilla, Firefox, and Thunderbird formats
  • Maybe: Support is too obscure to be certain that this feature works
  • Standard email/news folders: File formats for email and news items that match Internet standards, or at least that match early UNIX tools that implement those standards (many emailers and newsreaders follow those formats, but Outlook doesn't)

Based on this table, Google, Copernic, and Yahoo! are the frontrunners, with the rest not far behind. All tools support the most common formats, so if you're happy with 80% success, choose the tool whose user interface appeals to you the most. Before you do, however, check the following table to be sure that your operating environment is supported.

View Table

Provided that you're using a recent version of Windows, the choice is yours. On Windows 98, your options are limited; for Macintosh and Linux, only AutoFocus is available. The MSN Toolbar Suite is the only product that's made a real effort to cater to non-English speakers so far.

Raw search power may not be your primary requirement. You may be concerned about privacy; you may be concerned about controlling the search process. That's where product selection becomes both interesting and complex.

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