Search technology comes to desktop to cut wasted time

Paul Boughton

It is impossible to say how accurate such estimates are, and it is not always clear whether the research was undertaken before Google and the other popular internet search engines really became part of everyday life, but there is now another breed of software utility that could make a significant difference to the amount of time engineers spend searching for data: desktop searches. And best of all, they are available for free!
It is a fair assumption that readers will be familiar with internet search engines and the use of quote marks around phrases, minus signs to exclude results containing certain words or phrases, plus signs to include essential common words that might otherwise be excluded, and other ways to achieve a useful output from the millions of web pages that are indexed.

Using desktop search tools, this power can now be brought to a user’s own PC (similar tools are also available for Macs).

Generally speaking, desktop search tools will allow you to search commonly used data formats (such as Word, Excel and emails), and there are options beyond the search terms that help you to narrow the search. So, for example, you can search for a phrase, then reduce the list of results by specifying that you know what you are looking for is in an email received more than one year ago.

One of the main differentiators between the various desktop search tools is the user interface. Copernic, for example, forces you to start the search by stating whether you want to look in emails, files, music, pictures, videos, contacts, bookmarks or web history. This brings up a list of results with a menu for refining the search. (It also allows you to access results in file types other than the one originally specified, so you loose nothing by specifying the file type at the beginning of the search). If you have searched for files, you can then narrow the search by specifying the file type, size, date and folder. For emails, you can refine the search by typing words or phrases in the search boxes that relate to the email ‘Subject’, ‘From’ and ‘To’ fields, as well as using the importance, folder and date to help find what you need.

Google Desktop Search and Copernic Desktop Search both feature in the PC World 100 Best Products of 2005 (at 76 and 89, respectively), but these are the only desktop searches included. Nevertheless, Yahoo! Desktop Search could prove to be the most useful in an engineering environment. The reason is that it supports the largest number of file types, at over 300. These include graphic formats such as DXF, DWG, HPGL, IGES, Micrografx DRW and DSF, as well as Visio.

Another user-friendly feature of the Yahoo! offering is the ability to save searches, which could cut down searching time in the long-run. Reviewers have also suggested out that Yahoo! Desktop Search is more customisable than the alternative desktop search tools.

Google’s interface is very similar to its popular internet search interface, with a single search box. Results are also presented in a similar way to the internet search, albeit without the advertisements.

Ask Jeeves has also produced its own tool, and Microsoft has launched MSN Desktop Search as part of the MSN Desktop Suite.

X1 Technologies also has a desktop search tool, and it is this company’s technology that Yahoo! uses. However, there are some major differences: X1 Desktop Edition enables the user to search network drives, plus it fully supports IBM Lotus Notes and Eudora software. However, there is a drawback: you have to pay for it at the rate of $74.95 per licence.

If you decide to invest in an enterprise-wide search tool, there is a choice – though not with as many alternatives as for desktop searching. Google’s Enterprise Edition, for example, has enhanced security, centralised configuration and company-wide installation – and it is free.