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In the ongoing battle among file-search tools for the hearts, minds, and screen real estate of PC users, Google opens a new front by adding the ability to access files and recently viewed Web pages from your remote PCs.
Version 4 of the Google Desktop file-search utility--the beta of which was released last week--also lets you undock panels from its Sidebar of information mini-windows, and lock out local-file searching with a single click.
The tool may be downloaded here.
Google is asking Google Desktop users to make a leap of faith with this remote-access option. It already makes some people uncomfortable knowing that the search king is applying its wonder algorithms to the e-mail and other files on their own PC.
At least with previous releases of the program, the files remained on your local system, but version 4's Search Across Computers feature gives you the option of placing those local files, along with your recently viewed Web pages, on Google's servers so you can access them from anywhere.
If the Privacy Police weren't happy with the snoopability of earlier Google Desktop versions (and they weren't), they'll be downright apoplectic about this new option (and they are, as indicated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation's reaction to the version 4 beta; scroll down the page when you access the link).
Of course, the simplest way to protect yourself is to keep this shared function turned off. File sharing across PCs requires that all the systems run the new Google Desktop 4, and that they all are set to be shared in the program's Preferences, as shown on our screen shot (click on the thumbnail for the full image).
Float Your Panes
Google Desktop's Sidebar view is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. Sidebar opens a pane along the right side of the screen with small windows, or "panels," showing your Gmail inbox, news headlines, popular Web pages, your local weather, and a quick list of your recently opened files and Web pages (along with the ubiquitous search box, of course). The pane is customizable through the program's Add/Remove Panels option.
Or click "Get more panels" to see a list of popular plug-ins for the program. Two of my favorite panel add-ins are the eminently useful System Monitor, which displays your CPU usage and other system statistics, and the eminently frivolous TimeWarp, which does nothing but show the time on a warped analog clock face. For some reason, I find each as captivating as the other.
Sometimes I like keeping the Sidebar in view, such as while reading e-mail or working in Word documents and other files that don't require the entire screen. But if I'm browsing the Web or working with images, I need all the desktop pixels I can get, so the Sidebar just gets in the way.
In past versions, I would simply minimize the program to the taskbar, which shows only the search box and a maximize icon (Google calls this view the Deskbar). Version 4 adds the ability to float the Deskbar on your screen), or to undock individual panels by dragging them out of the Sidebar and onto the desktop.
The former option means you can keep one panel in view (such as your e-mail inbox or QuickView list of recently opened files) while the rest are minimized by clicking the Deskbar's Panels button. When you're ready to return the panel to your Sidebar, simply drag it back into the window.
Make Local Files Unsearchable
Google Desktop has always let you designate specific folders as unsearchable, but there are times when you may want to disable file searching entirely, such as when other people are using your PC. The new Lock Search option on the menu that pops out of the program's system tray icon lets you do just that.
When you activate this feature, you can search only for Web pages and images. Entering text in the search box brings up a warning that "Search is locked." You can still search the Web, but local files will be off limits until you choose the unlock option and enter your Windows password. While I've never felt the need to lock searches, it's comforting to know the option is available, especially while using the Search Across Computers feature.
A Send-To Option
The program's new "Send to" options let you right-click items in the News, Web Clips, and certain other panels to see options for sending the entry via your default e-mail client or the Google Talk chat service. I'm not a Google Talk user, so I wasn't able to test this feature, but it appears that your Google Talk buddy list displays on this menu as well. Google claims that you can also send the item to the corresponding panel of a friend's Sidebar, but this feature was also unavailable on my test system, perhaps due again to the lack of Google Talk.
Security Questions Persist
Google goes to great lengths to reassure Google Desktop users that the product doesn't jeopardize their privacy, but despite the ability to designate certain folders off limits, and to purge the file index the program creates, putting your private data on Google's servers introduces a new category of security concerns.
The company can promise to protect your data 'til the cows come home, but as the recent attempts by the government to subpoena search terms show, the safety of your personal information is entirely up to you. I may very well continue to use the Search Across Computers function, but for security purposes, I'll consider the files I share about as private as a postcard sent via the U.S. mail.
If you can get past the privacy concerns, the new Google Desktop can be a great work helper by putting the information you need a little closer at hand, whether the information is in your own local and remote files, or on the Web.
Google Desktop 4 betaBeta, not rated
The new version of Google's local file-search tool lets you access files on remote PCs and lets you float individual Sidebar panels rather than having all or none of them in view, but security questions continue to dog the program. Allowing users to place their personal files on Google servers isn't likely to allay these privacy worries anytime soon.
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