Walt Mossberg

Free Microsoft Stopgap Offers Tabbed Browsing And Desktop Searching

Microsoft’s Windows operating system is old — about four years old, which is ancient in the computer world. So is the last major revision of the company’s Internet Explorer Web browser. Both products dominate their categories, but both have fallen behind less widely used competitors with better features.

Apple Computer’s new Tiger operating system for the Macintosh has a dazzling integrated desktop search feature that can find any common file in seconds — something Microsoft has talked about for years but hasn’t delivered in Windows. The upstart Firefox Web browser has tabbed browsing, which allows users to open multiple Web pages in a single window with just one click.

Windows won’t have integrated desktop search until the fall of 2006, and IE won’t have built-in tabbed browsing until this summer. But Microsoft has just released a free product that adds both features to Windows computers. These add-on versions of desktop search and tabbed browsing aren’t as good as their built-in counterparts, but they get the basic job done.

Microsoft’s new, free utility goes by the ridiculously long name of MSN Search Toolbar With Windows Desktop Search, and it can be downloaded at toolbar.msn.com. When you download the toolbar, it adds a new row of icons and drop-down menus to the IE browser. Many of these are aimed at driving users to other MSN products, like its Hotmail email service. But you can also use the toolbar to turn on tabbed browsing and to perform desktop searches.

When you turn on tabbed browsing, IE can sprout file-folder-like tabs, each of which represents a different Web page that is available in the same main browser window. To add a new tab, you click on a plus-sign icon. You can instruct the toolbar to open any link from any Web page in a new tab so it doesn’t overwrite the page you have open.

These are all standard features in tabbed browsers. But the MSN add-in lacks many others. There’s no way to automatically open a Web site stored on the browser’s Links toolbar in a separate tab. And there’s no “Open in Tabs” command for rapidly launching whole folders of Favorites. In fact, you are restricted to setting up a single group of Favorites that will open at once. It’s called “My Tabs,” and it’s accessed via an icon on the toolbar.

The MSN toolbar’s Windows Desktop Search feature is better. It beats the most popular add-in desktop search product for Windows, Google Desktop Search, but it’s slower and more cumbersome than the integrated search in Apple’s new operating system.

When you first install Windows Desktop Search, it must index all the relevant files on your hard disk. In my tests, this was a painfully slow process. It took more than a day to complete on each of my test machines — even though I deliberately did little work on the two PCs during this period because the indexing pauses when you’re using the computer.

By contrast, the new Spotlight search system on the Mac took less than an hour to do its initial index, even though it was tracking more files than the Windows desktop search was.

That brings me to another issue with Windows Desktop Search: By default, it only indexes, and searches, a limited number of files — your email, provided you are using Microsoft email programs, and your “My Documents” folder. To enable searching of other folders, you have to go through a geeky configuration process. And to enable indexing of your email, you have to be running Outlook or Outlook Express.

Also, unlike other search products, which can index and search Adobe’s PDF files out of the box, the MSN product forces you to download and install a plug-in to enable PDF searching.

Once all this is done, Windows Desktop Search works pretty well. You can start it by typing a search term into a box on your Windows taskbar, or into boxes in IE or Outlook. Searching begins immediately, as you type each letter, and a list of the top results pops up. This is like the Apple search system, albeit a bit slower.

If you want the full list of results, you can open a large window that breaks them down by type and offers rich previews of each email, document or photo in a window on the right. These previews are a great feature, and a big advantage for MSN over both Apple and Google.

In fact, Google’s presentation of desktop search results, which resembles its famous Web search results page, is far less effective than MSN’s. And Google also has stingier limits on how much material it searches. Google indexes only the first 5,000 words in a file, while MSN indexes one megabyte of text in each file, which is usually much more. Apple indexes 10 megabytes of text in each file.

In my tests, MSN search did pretty well at finding things, but not as well as Apple’s. Because it is built into the operating system, the Apple search feature could turn up words in emails seconds after they arrived. The MSN search had to wait to index newly arrived files.

The new MSN toolbar is a decent stopgap effort at desktop search and tabbed browsing. But I hope the integrated implementation of these features from Microsoft is better.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com

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