Desktop Searching - Part 1

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Even if you only search email or documents once a week, one of these Desktop Search tools will make life a lot easier as they are much faster than anything supplied by Microsoft at present.

Everyone’s talking about fast searching of your documents and email these days. What was a niche market only a few months ago is now all the rage with the arrival of a tool from Copernic and now we have the Google Desktop Search.

Add to these the paid tools from X1 and others – there’s plenty to choose from.

These tools are certainly worth investigating for any Microsoft Office user. They are much faster than anything supplied by Microsoft at present. Outlook searches, in particular, go from slow and tedious to happening in just a few seconds with the help of some of these tools.

Even if you only search email or documents once a week, one of these tools will make life a lot easier. It will change the way you work because you’ll use an efficient desktop searching tool instead of hunting around your files and email separately.

In the next few issues of Office Watch we’ll tell you what’s available, what features to look for, security implications and possible pitfalls.


HOW THEY WORK

All the desktop searching programs do their magic by scanning your hard drive and creating an index of the contents. When you do a search the program quickly finds any matches in the index and displays the results much more quickly.

It’s just like searching a book. If there’s an index in the back of the book you can find what you’re looking for much faster than searching through all the pages.

The indexing of the files on your hard drive can take some time in the first place but once the system has caught up it can then sit in the background and quickly add new or changed documents to the main index.

Getting results can be blisteringly fast, and almost instantaneous in some cases.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Any decent desktop searching tool should index all the major document types on your computer, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Publisher docs plus text files, RTF, web pages saved on your computer and PDF.

We feel that Adobe Acrobat (PDF) support is important because there’s lots of useful information stored in PDF’s. Note that indexing of PDF’s can only happen if the file has text embedded with the document image – this usually happens when documents are converted to PDF but it is not guaranteed.

The contents of password protected documents are not indexed – and nor should they be!

In addition email messages should be indexed. Not just Inbox and Sent Items but all folders. Outlook and Outlook Express should be supported at least, preferably some other popular email programs as well.

Indexing Instant Messaging conversations may interest come people too.

Most of the programs for individuals will only index the contents of local hard drives, and anything on network drives is ignored.

File names may also be indexed so you can use the one tool to search file names as well as their contents. Watch for some spin doctoring when some file types are listed as being indexed when all that is being recorded is the file name – not the contents of the file.

This is somewhat of a wish list, and not all the products out there have all the features we’d like to see in an ideal product.

Searching can be a simple matching of words through to complex Boolean statements. For most people the simple matches will be enough. Just like searching the web on Google – in fact exactly like Googling in one case .

SECURITY IMPLICATIONS

Much has been made of the security concerns since the Google tool was released, leading to the mistaken belief that it was somehow more risky to use. That’s not the case in our view.

Any unattended or not password protected computer can be accessed by someone when you’re away – that’s been the case for many years. What is different is the time needed to peek into your computer while you’re getting a cup of coffee.

Before these indexing tools became available it might take someone many minutes to search for a document or email they’re looking for. Now someone can walk up, search for key words and find the document they want in a matter of seconds. With that ease of access also comes the increased likelihood that people will want to ‘peek’ at another computer more out of interest than directly malicious intent.

That’s not the fault of Google or any other software maker. Your responsibility is to make sure your computer is protected against nosy people. There are some simple things to do:



  • Password-protect your computer. If it starts up and goes direct to your desktop then you need to have it prompt you for a password before opening up.
  • Password-protect your screen-saver. If you walk away from your computer and the screen-saver starts, it won’t stop until you re-enter your password.

PITFALLS

Aside from security implications the biggest gripe about indexing programs is the load they can impose on your computer. Each program deals with this problem in different ways and from the messages we’ve received from readers it is clear that each person’s experience can vary. As they say on American TV: ‘Your mileage may vary”

The initial indexing of existing files and emails can take some time and a lot of computer resources – there’s no getting around that. Best to install the program and let it index while you’re at lunch or overnight.

In the next article we’ll look at some of the major contenders in the desktop searching stakes.

 

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