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.
You can add more modules than can possibly fit on your desktop, but they're easy to collapse or drag up and down. Clever users can build their own Gadgets; you can access a library of Gadgets made by Google and by savvy users when you click the Sidebar's Add button. Work from home? Pop in a laundry timer, live lottery results, or the progress of eBay auctions. Business users might want to include Gadgets that track FedEx packages or display Google AdSense earnings. Fun additions to the Desktop 4 beta include tools to care for and feed Polly the Parrot or a FishTank school of fish, plus some simple games. And you can Digg top stories, monitor your hard drive's performance or fragmentation, and see your Web site traffic stats, to-do lists, and stocks.
As the weeks passed, we minimized the Sidebar because its constant shifting display of floating fish and late-breaking news provided just one more distraction from real work. However, this is a matter of personal preference, and we understand that other users may grow to rely on the Sidebar to enhance productivity.
Be sure to enable Search Across Computers if you wish to use the Google Desktop 4 beta the same way on multiple PCs. But if you live, say, an alternative lifestyle, be careful about synchronizing your work and home computers. Do you really want a slide show of your latest tattoos and piercings to rotate on your work desktop for passersby to ogle? At least unlike earlier versions, you can now tell Google Desktop not to cache your deleted files.
Version 3 of Google Desktop came under fire because of concerns about privacy and usability, and Mountain View has addressed many privacy worries--but not all of them--by offering more options during setup. While several weeks of testing the Desktop 4 beta didn't slow our system as much as the clunky version 3 did, we occasionally experienced start-up lags when opening other apps. Google Desktop touches many applications on your PC. We found that Desktop 4's Sidebar did a better job of customizing content than its predecessor. For instance, version 4 consistently displayed desired tech-related news rather than the unwanted sports scores that version 3 constantly showed. You can view several headlines at once, but to read a full story, you'll have to click on it and open a Web page. RSS readers can display more content at once.
As with its other free tools, Google provides a helpful and well-organized knowledge base as well as links to independent online forums. We're glad to see the option of e-mailing the company through a Web-based form. However, we received only a form e-mail in return. So much for getting a helping hand if you run into quirks that the Web-based resources may not explain.
Overall, the Google Desktop 4 beta is an improvement from the prior version. While the product remains in beta testing, we find that it caters to the type of user who likes to organize and blend online and locally managed tools and information. Yet, for reading up-to-the-minute news stories and RSS feeds, we found it less of a hassle to just access a Web-based RSS reader or to visit a personal portal Web page. And despite Google's well-versed privacy options and its pledge not to be "evil," we remain wary about handing over the keys to our daily computing and surfing habits to any company's servers.