Windows Search 4 is barely ready for beta testing

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A beta of the next incarnation of Windows Search is now available for download .. by the brave, foolhardy or anyone with way too much time on their hands.

A beta of the next incarnation of Windows Search is now available for download by the brave, foolhardy or anyone with too much time on their hands.

Windows Search 4 is a typical Microsoft public beta. It might have some purpose, but a proper testing of the technology isn’t among them. Aside from a few lines describing ‘new’ features, there’s nothing to tell prospective testers how to make use of the beta software.

This is an old Microsoft trick; release some ‘beta’ software or updated technology but with little user documentation. It leaves the testers unable to find, let alone try, any new or changed features. Microsoft does this because their purpose in public beta testing isn’t to find problems in software, rather to get through the beta process with some free publicity but as few complaints or difficulties as possible.

For example, Windows Search 4 supposedly has “Remote Index Discovery” which means that networked computers with Windows Search 4 can share index data. There are no examples or documentation on how to implement that ie how can one computer remotely search another. It’s probably quite obvious to the development team who’ve worked on it for months, but not obvious to testers starting from scratch. There are, allegedly, more group policy options available but no documentation on how to use those options or how they work.

This trick is particularly ‘effective’ with underlying technologies like Windows Search which isn’t a separate and obvious program. Windows Search appears to users via Explorer search, Outlook 2007 or OneNote 2007.

Microsoft continues to insist on limited re-indexing control. There is a somewhat foolish ‘Pause’ button (foolish because a user could pause indexing and forget to restart it), a ‘Snooze’ option would be better. Even worse, considering the slow indexing performance, is the absence of a ‘Force Indexing’ option to make the process speed up and not just rely on computer idle time.

It may be that Windows Search 4 has some great innovations, but it’s hard to tell from this beta release. Until Microsoft properly documents what’s in Windows Search 4 (and how to use it) it’s pretty much a mystery. 


Update: we have found some more info on WS4 – an Administrators guide and Troubleshooting guide on the MS Technet site.  There’s no mention of these in or near the WS4 downloads so you’re forgiven for not realising they exist.  The documentation needs some work — it uses the ‘in-house’ names for products (eg Outlook 11 or Exchange 12) instead of their public names.

Better to stick with Google Desktop Search or Copernic Desktop Search for the moment because they have better and deeper functionality.

If you’re running Vista then the best thing you can do for more reliable searching is to install Vista Service Pack 1. As we’ve noted elsewhere, SP1 makes a significant difference to both search speed and the ability to index more than a moderate number of items. This beta version of Windows Search isn’t ready for even broad public testing.


The Public Beta – March 2008

We’re always reluctant to be too hard on incomplete ‘beta’ software but from our tests the build of Windows Search 4 released in March 2008 should not have been made public. Since indexing/search is such an important part of Windows and Office there should be a higher standard expected from a public beta of this nature.

If you install Windows Search 4 it will totally reindex your computer after installation with no warning.

The complete indexing is, perhaps understandably, slow with the draft software but even leaving our test machine idle for twelve hours wasn’t enough time for the full index of 180,000 items to be completed. That’s far too long.

Searches are notably slower even making allowance for ‘beta’ nature of the download – really too slow for a public beta build.

Claims from Microsoft that WS4 is “33% faster” seem fanciful, at least on the evidence presented so far.

Even basic stuff like labelling the software version is obscured. Trying to work out which version of Windows Search is installed is ludicrously difficult. You have to dig into the /system32 system folder, find the searchindexer.exe and check out the file properties. Even then there’s nothing that has the public name ‘Windows Search 4’ in fact the version number starts with a ‘7’! The only clue is the late March 2008 date. Microsoft used to pull this kind of stunt with Office service packs and it’s amazing to see the same mistakes being repeated in a new century.

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