Search technology comes to the desktop to reduce wasted time

Paul Boughton

Various estimates have been made for the time engineers spend looking for information, with figures of 50 to 80 per cent being quoted by the likes of product lifecycle management (PLM) software vendors. 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 of this article 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).

Almost all documentation relating to engineering projects is now computer-based, rather than paper-based, which already makes searching for information easier. But the standard Windows ‘Find’ tool is relatively slow and does not have sufficiently flexibility to make it as useful as the new desktop search tools. Generally speaking, the 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.

The reason why desktop search tools are so much quicker than the Windows ‘Find’ function is that they index the data on the hard disc to that each search only has to access the index, not the whole hard disc. Although the indexing process takes time to complete, it can usually be configured to take place only when the computer is idle so that it does not impact on the speed of the computer as you are using it. After an initial indexing process, only new or changed files are indexed – and most of the utilities allow you to specify when this is done.


User interface

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 (Fig. 1). 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 (Fig. 2). 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 (Fig. 3).
Perhaps one of the most useful features of the search tools such as Copernic is that when you select one of the search results you are given a preview of its content (Copernic also scrolls to the first occurrence of the search term and highlights it). But what this means is that you do not have to start the relevant software application, which saves time and computer resources. Formatting is not as per the original, but it is certainly a fast way of finding alphanumeric information within files. And the search tools also work with images, in which case you get previews of files such as JPGs, TIFs and GIFs.

Of course, having found the file you need, you can then open it, but don’t expect to be able to move, delete, rename or change the file properties from within the search tool window.

Engineers using Copernic might be frustrated by the range of file types that can be searched. Although you can specify almost any file type extension and include those files within the index (and you can identify the file as text, music, picture or video), its usefulness is limited. For example, you can search for ZIP archives by file name, but you cannot search the contents of those archives, which is rather disappointing.

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 for this is that it support 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. It also supports numerous database formats, spreadsheets, old DOS word processor formats (potentially very useful for documentation relating to older projects), Microsoft Project, and executables including EXE and DLL files.

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 - but maybe that will come in the future. You can choose whether to display all of the results, or just emails, files, web history or chats (instant messaging), and the list can be sorted by date or relevance. Web history and image files are listed with a thumbnail, and there is a two-line excerpt from emails, files and chats so you can see the context in which the search term has been found. But, unlike Copernic, you cannot scroll through a cached version of the file to avoid starting the application (spreadsheets, for example, are shown simply as a list, with the contents of each cell presented on a new line).


Integrated searching

While the Google Desktop Search interface has its limitations, it also integrates very well with the Google internet search facility. This means, for example, if you use Google to search the internet for particular terms, it will search your computer at the same time. While there will be occasions on which you want to search both the internet and your own computer, this facility has another benefit: you might be searching for something - an operating manual, for instance – having forgotten that you have previously searched for and downloaded it, but Google will identify that you already have certain search results on your own computer. This could avoid the need for a lengthy download, as well as saving time by not having to look through a number of internet search results to find the item you are looking for.

There is another advantage that the Google tool offers over others such as Copernic: the ‘community’ of user-developers is rapidly creating new plug-ins to extend its functionality. So, for example, although the standard Google tool recognises file names for archive files such as ZIP but cannot index the content, there is now a plug-in to do this. Other plug-ins are available for C++, Java source files, Access database files and much more.

So far we have discussed Copernic, Google and Yahoo!, but these are not the only desktop search tools. Ask Jeeves has also produced its own, and Microsoft has launched MSN Desktop Search as part of the MSN Desktop Suite. With the right documentation - and an degree of effort - the functionality of the MSN Desktop Search can apparently be expanded considerably. A number of free add-ins are also available for searching archive files, help files, Mindjet Mindmanager files, DWFs, PDFs, and more. With a selection of these, MSN Desktop Search could also be attractive for engineers wanting to find that elusive file from a past project whose name or number is long forgotten.

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 €61 ($74.95) per licence, and most reviewers conclude that the free alternatives are good enough that paying for a desktop search tool is not justified. Having said that, X1 also offers a Team Edition, Workgroup Edition and an Enterprise Edition, which could be worth purchasing if you conclude that desktop searches make a difference to the efficiency of your operations, but the ability to search other drives within the organisation could bring even bigger benefits.

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. However, for an enterprise-wide tool that could quickly become business-critical, it might be wise to pay for the Premium Support service, which is charged at a rate of €8100 ($10 000) per 1000 users. A further option is the Google Mini that delivers Google searching across a company's intranet or public website (see panel).

Meanwhile, it is hard to pick a winning desktop search tool for engineers. While reviewers have praised the offerings from Copernic, Google, and Microsoft, Yahoo!'s ability to search more file types may be more relevant to engineers. But because all of the alternatives (other than X1 Desktop Edition) are free, it is straightforward to download one, try it out and, if you do not think it serves your purpose, uninstall it and download another. Bear in mind also that this is a fast-moving technology, so the scene could change dramatically over the next six or 12 months. It may also be the case that you choose one for use at work and another for your computer at home, because the usage patterns are different. Nonetheless, the chances are that once you start using desktop search tools, you will not want to be without one.

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