The New Battlefield of the Search Wars


Anyone who has been using a computer for any extended period of time knows that with the amount of things we write, download, copy and e-mail every day, files are bound to get lost. There is always that one obscurely named MS Word document in that deeply hidden folder that we can't seem to find unless we wait for our computers to take a painfully long amount of time to comb through our files. We always want to remember that one particular product or job offer that was mentioned last month when you had six instant messaging windows open. Oh, how wonderful it would be if we could just hit “find” button and results would pop up as instantly no matter what the file was named just as they do on our favorite web-based search engine – even if it was just one line of text inside a .pdf file hidden in .zip archive.

Well, it is now possible. Yahoo, MSN, Google, Ask Jeeves, Hotbot, Copernic and Blinkx all offer free desktop search tools that return results almost as fast as you can type what you are searching for. All of these have an impressive amount of file formats that they search through and index, making sure that the information you are looking for, whether hidden in an Acrobat PDF file, and Excel spreadsheet, or an MP3's artist and title info is right at your fingertips.

Although there is no clear winner (since each offering has its own strengths and weaknesses), it looks like Yahoo will own the desktop search battle among the real computer geeks out there since it heavily based on the award-winning X1 desktop search. It is blazingly fast and it gives the best result previews. One also has the ability to sort files by file type, size, name and more. Its only downside is that this feature-packed search is a little cluttered and -- like MSN's desktop search, Ask Jeeves and Blinkx -- it doesn't seem to index e-mails and contacts for my e-mail program, Mozilla Thunderbird (Firefox's e-mail cousin). Hopefully Yahoo's desktop search will add this capability soon. Its professional cousin X1 has this capability, but X1 is a little pricey considering how much the free Yahoo Desktop search provides. MSN will probably avoid indexing Thunderbird e-mails, but Copernic and Google Desktop are both currently capable of it. All of these programs index Outlook and Outlook Express contacts and e-mails (which definitely has the greatest market share), but I am sure that a lot of the tech-savvy people who are going to be writing about these desktop items will often be using alternate e-mail programs such as Thunderbird, Eudora and others.

Copernic seems to be the most comprehensive desktop search at this time in terms of how many file formats it can index. The interface isn't as feature-packed as Yahoo's (not as many sorting options and the file previewing isn't as stellar as comprehensive), but the simplicity is nice. Also, like Yahoo's Desktop Search, one can add additional file types to index. It also outperforms Google and MSN in both interface, speed, and the types of files it can search. One major drawback which I cannot believe is that there is no display option where I can see all of my results listed regardless of the file format. I can only choose to see the results for my e-mails, or my documents, or my music, or my photos, etc. This is a major usability drawback. At first, I thought Copernic was returning less results than the other desktop search tools until I realized that viewing “Files” meant text documents and no all file types at once. I do like that it returns search results as I type (similar to iTunes), but Yahoo and Blinkx operate in the same manner.

Ask Jeeves's desktop search has a very simple and clean interface, and it may be the route best suited for beginning computer users. Indexing my hard drive took a very short amount of time, and one can easily choose whether to index quickly and take more computing resources, or index in the background. I like that it will preview media files such as mp3s as soon as they are selected, but I dislike that there is no way to turn off that function. One can go through the option menus in Yahoo Desktop search in order to configure it for this functionality, and Copernic will never automatically play media files. It is incredibly easy to use and is very refreshing to look at compared to Yahoo's Desktop Search, but it is simply just not as full featured as Copernic or Yahoo. While it previews media files, the text previews are only as good as MSN or Google Desktop – meaning that it only gives you the first few lines of the text document. Also, almost every other Desktop Search included a search box that one could drop onto their taskbar and Ask Jeeves should have done the same. It also doesn't display search results as you type and it require people to hit a button to start each search, but this may be easier to understand for beginning computer users. I would completely prefer using it to Copernic if it indexed as many file types, had a fuller preview and a search bar, but the average computer user may not care so much about these things since this seems like the most user friendly option. I certainly prefer it to MSN's Desktop Search or Google Desktop.

Google and MSN both integrate their desktop search with their web interfaces, but it seems like there is a tradeoff in speed and quality. Currently, MSN's desktop search seems a bit faster and the previews of files are nicer than Google's (but nothing compared to the previews or speed of Yahoo or Copernic) but you apparently can not search from the web interface if you are using a browser other than Internet Explorer. This may be due to ActiveX content (which would explain why it is faster than Google), but Google's Desktop Search may somehow end up becoming pretty popular since they have opened it up to community development. That's right. People are already writing plug-ins to extend its capabilities. Between the two, MSN has the better speed and interface (it allows you to sort your results whereas Google gives you results very similar to its minimal web page results), plus it does an excellent job of indexing everything in Outlook (appointments, e-mails, contacts). As desktop search tools, they both pale in comparison to the other offerings, but it is kind of nice to search for something on Google and see results of files on your computer alongside web page results.

Blinkx is the wildcard to watch out for. Although it currently doesn't have spectacular previewing options like Yahoo and Copernic, it is certainly the most innovative. Blinkx web search is paltry compared to its competitors so you have the option to use another web-based search engine, but it is the only desktop search that tries to be smarter than the others. Even while I am typing this article in Microsoft Word, the Blinkx toolbar has already determined that I am writing about Desktop Search, and it has results related files on my computer and pages from the web ready for me to view. It even includes results from Blinkx.tv (their video search) which currently seems superior to both Google Video and Yahoo Video Search. Ultimately, Blinkx can't show you as many desktop results as Copernic or Yahoo, but it can results that are related to what you are searching for, and that is very interesting. It knows what you're looking at and what you're looking for and it can find related documents. There is even a visualizer that shows you a 3D node-based representation of relationships between items.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Blinkx is the “smart folders” option which allows you to create folders that will populate themselves with related content. For example, I can create a folder on my desktop, make it a Blinkx “smart folder,” and tell it to look for ninjas. Not only will it create shortcut links to ninja-related files on my computer (stories, images, mp3s, etc), but it will search the web for pages related to ninjas and create internet shortcuts to those websites, blogs and news stories. Blinkx also searches the Gnutella, Morpheus, Shareaza peer-to-peer networks, so it is possible to have a folder populate itself with ninja-related content being shared P2P.

For now, I won't even go in to Hotbot since it seems to require Internet Explorer to be opening and running to install and use. It also doesn't create a desktop search box for me like all of the other Desktop Search products. These two items were enough of a turn-off for me to not bother taking a deep look at it, but the only thing that makes it seem interesting at all is the built in RSS reader and RSS Search capabilities.

Summary

Yahoo Desktop Search has a slightly daunting and cluttered interface, but this is the one for the real computer geeks who need as much information about their search results as possible with the most sorting options and customizability. It's only huge drawback as that it does not index and search the most file formats that are important to me.

Copernic, while giving me the search results I want, does not give them to me all at once. I have to pick a category to view and that is terribly annoying. Also, I want to be able to sort by size and have the option to play media files automatically. If I am searching for a particular song and I know the artist but not the title, I want to be able to juts scroll through without hitting play each time. I am however grateful that it indexes my Thunderbird e-mails and contacts.

Ask Jeeves has a nice, simple and clean interface but lacks the features of Copernic and Yahoo. Beginning computer users might actually feel the most comfortable with it if they don't need to find absolutely every file type with a full preview. This wins for usability but loses for functionality. If you don't even know what a PDF file is, Ask Jeeves is the way to go.

Blinkx is one to watch out for and is worth downloading just to play with all the extra bells and whistles. The other desktop searches may give you more of what you want, but Blinkx certainly makes desktop search more fun and interesting.

Hotbot turned me off too early to even take a good look at it.

MSN's desktop search is useful if you currently use a lot of MSN services since the toolbar gives you easy access to MSN features and does quite a great job of indexing everything created in MS Office (and PDF files with a special plug-in from Adobe), but that is about it. However, as the only free desktop tool reviewed to index MS Outlook notes and tasks, some people may find this to be very useful.

Google's Desktop Search misses the mark for now. It does index more file types than MSN, but It was the slowest for me and the previewing options are horrible. Wait for the next version to come out. It is possible that they are opting for a different development path that provides mediocre desktop search today, but incredibly tight network integration tomorrow, but maybe they just need an excuse for people to click on their sponsored links without feeding them to people's desktops.

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