Desperately Seeking Desktop Data

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Google Desktop, Version 5.9

Google, like Exalead, builds its desktop search experience around a browser. In the case of Google, however, it has an advantage because Desktop generally matches Google's Web search experience.

(See Related Slideshow: Desperately Seeking Desktop Data)

Best desktop search tools

This free application provides full-text searching of Outlook, Outlook Express, Netscape and Thunderbird e-mail; Word, Excel and PowerPoint files; and PDFs, images and video. As such, it covers many essential sources of information, but clearly less than other products.

Google Desktop offers some interesting ways of managing information. Google Gadgets, which can be placed anywhere on your desktop, shows you new e-mail, news feeds and photos. While this may be more of a gimmick, Google Desktop for Enterprise (also free) is all business. For example, it extends e-mail support to IBM Lotus Notes.

What's really noteworthy, however, is that Desktop for Enterprise works in conjunction with the Google Search Appliance or Google Mini. Put simply, when an organization installs one of these search appliances, employees can search their PCs, corporate intranet and the Internet from one search page.

Right after setup finishes, Google Desktop goes to work indexing e-mail, files and Web history. On a large hard disk, the process usually takes a few hours for the initial scan. But since the software works while your PC is idle, you shouldn't notice and slowdowns. From then on, Google Desktop automatically refreshes the index whenever new e-mail is received or you save a file.

Here's a neat trick: Similar to Google's Web search servers, Desktop creates cached copies of files each time you view them. So if you accidently delete the original file, Google Desktop can often come to the rescue by finding the snapshot file.

Searching for content follows Google's trademark ease of use. I often used the Quick Search Box which appears in the center of your screen. After typing a few letters or words, the top results automatically appear. To see more details, you can do a more traditional Desktop Search from a browser. This option returns relevant results as a Web page, with each hit including an icon that identifies the file type, the file name, and a preview of the file with the search term highlighted.

By default, Google Desktop orders results by when you last opened each item, but will also sort the results by relevance. In addition, you may filter the results - using links across the top of the page - to limit results to e-mails, files or Web history.

An Advanced Search form lets you specify the type of search (such as files or e-mail), words the file must contain, and date range - all without having to remember any complex syntax. However, Google Desktop doesn't go much beyond these fairly rudimentary search options.

Besides the Quick Search Box, and Deskbar (a search box that appears within Windows taskbar), Google Desktop can optionally add a search box to Microsoft Outlook. I found this search to be more comprehensive compared with Outlook's built-in function, which only lets you search individual folders.

If you're using Microsoft Vista or Windows 7, the obvious question is why bother with Google Desktop? The simple reason, I believe, is Google searches additional assets, such as Gmail and PDF files. More importantly, it adds thumbnail previews of search results for images, videos, and Web history. So for the minimal amount of extra computing overhead, it's certainly worth trying.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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