Walt Mossberg

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Computer, Search Thyself

The graphical user interface has been a success in the mass market since the Apple Macintosh debuted in 1984, and it has dominated computing since Microsoft Windows went mainstream around 1990.

Its visual display of files stored in a nested hierarchy of folders has worked pretty well — until recently.

In the past few years, computer hard disks have become huge, and average consumers have begun to accumulate thousands and thousands of files each year — far more than in the past. And that is making it much harder to find any particular bit of information buried in the old folder hierarchy.

Every time you plug a digital camera into a PC to transfer images, dozens or even hundreds of files can be added to your PC in one fell swoop. The same thing happens when you rip CDs or go on a photo downloading binge. Email is accumulating in staggering amounts, and just surfing the Web can add hundreds of files — silently cached copies of Web pages and images.

So the familiar file and folder system is buckling. Unless you’re the rare person who is meticulously organized, who creates a perfect system of orderly folders and recognizable file names, locating information on your own computer can be harder than finding it on the Web. There have always been search tools built into the Apple and Microsoft operating systems, but they were terrible — slow and inaccurate, covering only some kinds of data, not all. So you had to rely on separate search systems built into individual programs, such as email software.

But now a wave of new desktop search tools is becoming available, some built right into new operating systems and others available as add-ons. Big names are getting in the game — Apple, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. I’ve been testing the leading candidates and previewing some future contenders. So here’s a rundown of the latest methods for finding all that lost or hidden information lurking on your hard disk.

Spotlight: This is the new universal, speedy search system built into Apple’s latest operating system for the Macintosh, called Tiger. Because it is an integral part of the operating system, which handles all files, Spotlight knows about all the key kinds of information stored on the computer. It can rapidly find words or phrases deep inside emails, Microsoft Office files, address books and calendars, Adobe PDF files and more. It can even probe the “metadata” — descriptive information — attached to song and picture files.

Spotlight is always available on the Mac, no matter what program you are in. You just click on a blue magnifying-glass icon at the top right corner of the screen, and a search field appears. As you type each letter of your search term, Spotlight begins generating results in a list of files that drops down almost instantly, organized by type of file. If you click on “Show All,” the list expands into a larger window where you can see more results, organized in almost any way you choose — by date, by person mentioned, by name or location on the computer.

On my Mac, I typed “Hawaii” into Spotlight and instantly got hundreds of hits. Every email mentioning the state came up, as did Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, the address entries of contacts who live there, calendar entries for my vacation in Honolulu and pictures of my trip. Spotlight even showed thumbnails of those pictures and, with one click, presented a slide show of the images. It also found the theme song from the old Hawaii Five-O television show in my music collection.

Because Spotlight is part of the operating system, it avoids one of the big flaws of add-on search systems — the need to periodically “index” new files in batches, a process that spins the hard drive continuously, sometimes for hours. Spotlight needs to do this only once, when you first install Tiger.

Longhorn: Microsoft plans to emulate Spotlight in the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. But it’s way behind Apple. Longhorn won’t reach consumers until the fall of 2006 at the earliest.

Based on previews of Longhorn I’ve seen, its planned built-in search system will also be fast and universal, and will avoid long indexing sessions. Microsoft also plans to allow more customization of searches, and many more instant previews of files, than Apple now provides. But these apparent advantages may evaporate.

By the time Longhorn arrives, Apple will likely have a second, even better, version of Spotlight.

Google: Until Longhorn arrives, Windows users must rely on add-on search software, and the best known is Google Desktop Search. It does the annoying indexing, but only when your machine is idle. Plus, it’s fast and fairly comprehensive, including even the contents of cached Web sites.

But the familiar Google search results page, which works so well for the Web, is very limiting for a desktop search. And the software offers only a crude way to sort the results and no way to preview content.

Yahoo: The big online service bought a desktop search engine from a company called X1 and re-branded it. This is a robust product, which indexes and searches many kinds of files and previews most of them in a built-in window. You can also take direct action on e-mails that turn up in your search — for instance, you can launch a reply right from within the search results.

The main problem with Yahoo’s offering, in addition to the fact that it isn’t buried deep in the operating system, is that it betrays its techie heritage. X1 was originally built for techies and hard-core search fanatics. Although Yahoo has cleaned it up a bit, the many choices and settings in the user interface may be daunting to mainstream users. Also, it has much more of the feel of a separate, heavy-duty program than the Apple or Google products.

MSN: The desktop search add-on from MSN prefigures what Longhorn will do, and it’s very good. Like Yahoo, it offers previews of most files right in its search results screen. And like Apple’s Spotlight, it is fast and presents a clean, simple interface that begins generating results as you type your search terms.

The main downside to MSN’s search is that in order to get it, you have to download and install a “toolbar suite” that lives in the Internet Explorer Web browser and adds a bunch of functionality that’s unrelated to search, which you might neither want nor need. Also, by default, MSN’s search product searches only your e-mail (which must be run by Microsoft products) and the My Documents folder. You have to tinker with settings to get it to search your whole computer, something all its competitors do by default. The limited search horizon cuts down on MSN’s indexing time and makes it look faster than it really is, but it will likely cause you to get only partial search results.

There are some other good search products out there from smaller companies, notably one called Copernic, by Copernic Technologies, which has a loyal following of users. Whichever you choose, once you trust desktop search, you may never again find yourself creating a subfolder.

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