In the world of objects, a desktop is a flat surface where you can leave stuff that you don't mind other people seeing, while confidential files stay in a locked cabinet and private thoughts remain in your brain. Google's virtual Desktop is deeper than that. The Google Desktop 4 beta application reaches into the folders on your hard drive; traces every Web page you look up; and feeds you news, tools, and pictures to reflect your tastes. You can even set up version 4 to index more than one computer so that it will work similarly whether you're logged on to a work PC or lugging a laptop. Such customization is either fun or creepy or useless, depending on your ideal digital experience.
Google intends for Desktop to help you find files and to serve up oft-sought information without forcing you to open a Web browser. This app is cool and fun at times. Nevertheless, to dig up online content, we found ourselves making more use of personalized Web page portals such as My Yahoo and Google Home.
Installing the Google Desktop 4 beta can be an arduous process. This 1.5MB download took a zippy few minutes in our tests on a Windows XP PC, but we spent more than half an hour stepping through menus to make tough choices about our preferences. Google warns during setup that enabling Advanced Features involves sending the company "nonpersonal usage information," such as Web sites you frequent and technical glitches you bump into. However, you may consider your surfing habits personal indeed--even if an algorithm, not a person, reads your data. If you prefer to proceed with caution, click the Disable Advanced Features button during installation. You'll still get to use Desktop's features, but over time, some of its search results and Sidebar content may not seem tailored to your tastes. We'd prefer a third choice to the all-or-nothing approach. For instance, why can't Desktop let you tell Google to index everything except that top-secret folder on your hard drive?
On the other hand, if you're ready to take a leap of faith and open your digital doorway to Google, then enable the Advanced mode and sit back while Desktop indexes your computer. Before we even started to use Desktop, Google already detected the Web sites we'd just visited and asked if we wanted to add those to its Links Toolbar. Google's Desktop Search will turn up e-mail from Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, and Netscape Mail; IM chats from Google Talk, MSN Messenger, and AIM; multimedia content, including videos, music, images, and ZIP files; PDFs, text, and Microsoft Office documents; and browser histories from Internet Explorer and Firefox. Google also walks you through creating a home page that you can access online. Desktop is thankfully ad-free.
There are as many ways to use Google Desktop as there are users. Once the Desktop 4 beta is installed, you can display its Sidebar alongside the right edge of your screen or collapse everything but the search field. Google's search is thorough. For instance, we looked up flower and were surprised to discover how often we'd used that word in our hard drive image files, Outlook and Gmail messages, and Google Web searches. This speedy search helped us grab data in a pinch, where Microsoft's built-in Windows XP search failed to deliver.
The Desktop 4 Sidebar displays a bunch of mini windows representing applets called Gadgets, as well as online information you choose, such as sports scores and financial news. You can tie into other Google products here, such as Gmail, Google Maps, Talk, and Google Calendar.