Vista, Outlook and indexing

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Do you have trouble with Outlook 2007 and other programs running slowly under Windows Vista? We have some theories about the problem and some possible workarounds that might help you.

Do you have trouble with Outlook 2007 and other programs running slowly under Windows Vista? Opening Explorer windows, saving documents and even simple typing can make you wait and wait. Looking around the internet, there are plenty of people with similar problems.

We’ve had more reports of excruciatingly slow running Windows Vista, especially with Outlook 2007, and given that Peter’s main computer has the same problem, we’ve spent some time working on the problem.

There’s nothing on the Microsoft web site to help, which figures because to admit a problem of this size would affect sales of both the operating system and Office suite.

We have some theories about the problem and some possible workarounds that might help you.

What’s the problem?

The problem seems to be the Windows Vista indexing service when used with a lower level of physical RAM (in this context ‘low’ can mean 2GB!) and a lot of items to be indexed (documents and especially emails in Outlook).

Our informal tests suggest the Vista indexing services grabs more and more resources (especially RAM) as the number of indexed items grows. For most people the majority of indexed items are in Outlook.

Vista runs fine when there’s little to be indexed but once you put any kind of reasonable load on it, the indexing system starts bogging down the entire works. Once you get a few hundred thousand indexable items, the Vista indexing service drags the entire system down.

Adding RAM will speed things up a bit but, over time, the problem may return as the number of indexed items rises.

Regardless of the indexing status, the operating system should not slow down to this degree. Apologists for Microsoft have said that the problem is having ‘too many’ emails in Outlook – which is a typical ‘blame the customer’ response from Microsoft. Outlook, by design, can cope with extremely large data files (ie PST / OST files of many gigabytes). Microsoft went to the trouble of revamping the data file format to provide for much larger data files than are currently in use.

Now the Vista indexing service is undoing that work. Vista indexing was supposed to make finding things easier, instead it forces you to reduce your Outlook data to suit the limitations of the operating system.

In this important respect Windows Vista is a backward step. Instead of technical advancements to deal with the accumulation of data put on computers, Vista’s indexing service put effective limits on what you can store and retrieve on your computer.

It is a bug in Vista, for the operating system should be able to cope with much more data than is currently common. Instead it can deal with less than usual or it forces the user to trim their information storage to cope with Microsoft’s failure.

Other desktop search products like Google Desktop Search and Copernic Desktop Search can index large quantities of data without slow-down on a Vista computer. You would expect Vista indexing, as part of the operating system, to be able to perform better than third-party products – not worse.

Workarounds?

While we wait for Microsoft to acknowledge the indexing problem and then fix it, what can you do to get on with your life? Here are some suggestions, some of which aren’t great compromises but may have to do until Microsoft fixes the problem.

Add RAM

Even more so than Windows XP, Vista loves RAM. Specifically, the Vista indexing service loves RAM.

We’ve noticed a significant difference in performance between a 2GB machine and a 4GB machine (with the same Outlook data and document folders) – the 4GB machine runs faster even though it’s a two year old computer with a much slower processor than a new 2GB notebook.

However keep in mind that Vista 32bit edition (which is what most people have) is limited to a maximum of 4GB physical RAM. Only 64bit machines with Vista 64bit edition will make use of RAM over the 4GB mark (from 8GB to 128GB depending on the version of Vista).

In our opinion, the Vista recommended system requirement of 1GB of RAM is preposterous for anything but the most minimal of use. Adding more RAM is an option and recommended for anyone running Vista in less than 2GB.

But adding RAM can be expensive and not always possible on a notebook computer.

Release memory

There are some options for releasing RAM to make it available for the indexing service to gobble up. This might help if you’re desperate or waiting for more RAM to be delivered.

Both the fancy Aero screen display and the Windows Sidebar take up a significant chunk of RAM. Personally I like the Sidebar but can live without the Aero eye-candy.

Disabling Aero can be done in various ways. The ‘Aero’ look is controlled by dwm.exe (aka ‘Desktop Window Manager) – look in the Processes tab of Task Manager to see dwm.exe take up around 36,000 K of memory.

Some people suggest going to Control Panel | Personalization | Windows Color and Appearance and turning off ‘Enable Transparency’ but that still leaves Aero (ie dwm.exe) running and using as much memory as it likes.

If you go to Control Panel | Personalization |Theme you can choose ‘Windows Classic’ which reverts to a Windows XP look. Desktop Window Manager is still running but drops memory use to a mere 2,000 K.

You can stop dwm.exe entirely and stop the service starting automatically (from Administrative Tools | Services ) and that seems to work OK in our tests. However it may have unexpected consequences and isn’t recommended.

To disable the Sidebar you have to do more than choosing the ‘Close Sidebar’ option from the right-click menu. In our tests, ‘Close Sidebar’ simply made it disappear but leaving sidebar.exe running and using 12,000K of memory .

To turn it off completely, right-click on the sidebar and choose ‘Properties’ then uncheck the ‘Start Sidebar when Windows starts’ option. Next time you start Windows, sidebar.exe won’t use up any memory.

Reduce Outlook data

You can choose to move older data out of Outlook into another data file. You can do this using Outlook’s AutoArchive function or do it manually by making a new data file then moving selected older items (eg from your Inbox or Sent Items).

Doing that makes the older items unavailable to Vista search and rather defeats the purpose of having so-called ‘instant’ search at all. While some people remove older messages, many others keep them as a useful source of information and tips from years gone by.

The advent of desktop search tools made it very convenient and easy to find a message or document from times past – it seems silly to make information inaccessible just because the operating system can’t cope with your reasonable needs.

Disabling Vista indexing

The obvious option is to disable Vista indexing, at least until Microsoft comes up with a solution. This does disable one of the main selling points of Vista but if your machine is running slowly there’s little point in having such a feature. Outlook 2007’s so-called ‘Instant’ search is hardly that on a machine bogged down by Vista indexing. The severe performance hit of Vista indexing (for some users) isn’t worth the cost in time and lost productivity.

Stopping the indexing service will stop you finding items in Outlook and partly in Vista Explorer, however there are alternative products that will fill the gap without the performance hit.

As with the Aero interface there’s various ways to disable the indexing service.

Our preference is to leave indexing running but reduce the indexed locations to a minimal list.

Firstly, stop Outlook 2007 data being available to Vista indexing. Go to Outlook 2007 Tools | Options | Preferences | Search Options and uncheck the data files listed.

549 Outlook 2007   disable indexing - Vista, Outlook and indexing

If you have multiple Outlook profiles you’ll need to do this for all profiles or, at least, disable indexing for the larger data files. Shut-down Outlook entirely to enforce the change.

Then go to the Indexing configuration at Control Panel | Indexing Options. You should see Outlook listed but with the mailboxes you selected, now listed in the ‘Exclude’ list.

549 Vista   indexing with mailboxes disabled - Vista, Outlook and indexing

You can click on ‘Modify’ to uncheck other folders from indexing. Our preference is to remove all indexing except for the Start Menu item – but the choice is yours. Click on ‘Show all Locations’ to see all the indexed folders.

You can also disable indexing for an entire drive by right-clicking on the drive icon in Explorer, choose Properties then UNcheck the ‘Index this drive for faster searching’ option.

The aim is to reduce the amount of indexable material to a small level. The indexing service should now not have much to do and should be able to complete its work quickly. After de-selecting folders you might decide to be left with the Start Menu only.

Finally click on Advanced button and click on ‘Rebuild’ to remove the old index and start a new one.

549 Vista   indexing with only Start Menu - Vista, Outlook and indexing

Ideally the new index won’t take long to make. For example it might show “175 items indexed” and then importantly show “Indexing complete”.

The Full Monty

You can totally disable the indexing service, though this might have unexpected consequences. We’re inclined to prudence and leaving default Windows services running.

But if you want to kill indexing entirely, go to Control Panel | Administrative Tools | Services and scroll down to ‘Windows Search’. Right-click on it and choose ‘Properties’ then change the Startup type from ‘Automatic’ to either ‘Manual’ or ‘Disabled’.

Then click the ‘Stop’ button and OK. On the Services list, Windows Search will change status from ‘Started’ to blank.

Despite our caution, there is a distinct advantage in totally disabling the Windows Search service … it is not as debilitating as you might think.

What happens if you disable Vista indexing

With Vista indexing disabled or reduced to a tiny role you won’t be able to do ‘fast’ Vista searches, for example from the Search pane in the top right of the Explorer windows.

If you try to do a search, you’ll get a warning that indexing isn’t on (ignore it). The search will proceed anyway.

Outlook 2007 seems entirely dependent on Windows Search technology, at first blush you’d think no searches in Outlook 2007 can happen without it.  If you exclude indexing Outlook data you’ll get a warning note in Outlook whenever you try to do a search.  The Outlook development team had a misplaced trust in the Windows Search system and paying Office customers are bearing the pain of their corporate loyalty.

But an interesting thing happens if you turn off the Windows Search service entirely – Outlook 2007 will let you search without the indexing service.   This seems to happen only if you totally disable the Windows Search service as mentioned above.

 

OneNote 2007 is also heavily dependent on Windows Search and most third-party products don’t support OneNote data. The data stored in OneNote is rarely large so you might want to retain OneNote data indexing in the reduced Vista indexing list.

Thankfully there are alternatives to Windows Search …

Replacing Vista Search

We like Copernic Desktop Search because it indexes the entire content of a large document, not just the start.

Google Desktop has some nice options and more extensibility plus some integration into Outlook 2007.

Both services are free and work well – certainly they handle larger amounts of data smoothly and without the problems of the troublesome Microsoft Vista offering.

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 promises to let users replace Windows Search as the default indexing tool with a third-party product. Given the current status of Vista index and search, that change can’t come fast enough for us.

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