In Search of Desktop Data

With great fanfare, Steve makes a pronouncement: the single most important database you own is your collection of e-mail and other documents. (Excluding the spam, grumbles Angela.) If you keep your e-mail, excluding the spam, you have a record of your activities that can go back years. Add in all the documents you've created--letters, photos, IM transcripts, whatever--and most of us have a pretty good snapshot of our entire lives (or an important cross section of them, anyway) stashed in our computers. The problem is how to find something amidst all the ones and zeros.

What you need, says Angela, is a Google for your hard drive; as it happens, Google will be happy to provide such a service. And not just Google: Yahoo has one, Microsoft has one, and there are others, some of which actually cost money. The category as a whole is known as desktop search, and the Duo dig into the options: Steve as a longtime fan, and Angela as a naturally organized person with a great deal of skepticism about any product that claims to know it all.

Steve notes that computers are naturally well-designed to locate specific items in a huge body of data. Desktop search software, he says, does that without requiring the user to make any real effort upfront. (In other words, the time Angela spends on her meticulous file-naming system could be better used doing other things, such as making sure all the windows she has open are in pixel-perfect alignment, not that she does that on an hourly basis.) In fact, most operating systems and many e-mail programs have at least rudimentary search tools built into them. But dedicated desktop search tools can scrutinize data in many formats--and they're very, very fast.

They do that, says Steve, by creating an index of every word on your hard drive. Then, instead of having to go through every document one by one (as, for instance, Windows XP's search does), they just look through the index, find the appropriate stuff, and present you with the item you were seeking--or, more often, a list of items that match your search criteria. That index takes a bit of time to create when you first install the program--Angela recommends leaving your computer on overnight to let the program do its thing--but once that's done, subsequent updates are so quick as to be almost unnoticeable.

Yahoo Desktop Search made the biggest impression on Steve. It's free, it's extremely fast at both indexing and searching, and you can open a preview pane that lets you see the results without having to open the document. By default the program searches just about every sort of file, but there are various ways of narrowing down a search, including buttons to have the program focus on only documents or e-mail. Steve noted one problem with the version he tested (repeated crashes of Microsoft Outlook) but he suspects that the problem will be resolved as the program moves through its current beta incarnation.

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