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Three free desktop-search alternatives face off

Google Desktop Search and Windows Desktop Search can't keep pace with old-timer Copernic Desktop Search.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

You've got your pick of free desktop-search utilities, nearly any of which are faster and less processor-intensive than Windows' built-in file-search feature. I've used at least a half-dozen different file-search tools in the last few years, but three have stood the test of time: Google Desktop Search, Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search (or simply Windows Search in Vista, where it replaces the old Indexing Service), and the oldest and best of the bunch, Copernic Desktop Search. After bouncing between the three, I've settled on Copernic for its speed, ease of use, and relatively small footprint.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with Google Desktop Search or Windows Desktop Search, both of which help you ferret out those important e-mails, Office files, images, videos, and other items you've misplaced on your hard drive and other storage devices (though these locations may not be indexed by default). In my experience both seem to slow things down more than Copernic Desktop Search. Also, Copernic gives you more control over what types of files and other content gets searched, and how often.

Customize Google Desktop Search
By default, this program resets your browser home page to Google, and makes the service your default Web search engine. It also will install a sidebar with news, e-mail, weather, and other gadgets, unless you uncheck this option during its installation. You can change these settings later, if you wish.

The installation options for Google Desktop Search
Uncheck the default options when installing Google Desktop Search to keep the program from changing your browser settings.

Google Desktop Search indexes all fixed disks on your PC by default. You can add other devices by clicking the down arrow to the right of the search box that the program adds to the taskbar, choosing Options, and selecting Add drive or folder to search in the Search Locations area under the Desktop Search tab in the resulting browser window. This is also where you can enter folders and Web sites you want to exclude from your searches.

The Google Desktop Search options screen
Add storage devices to be indexed by Google Desktop Search, or exclude folders or Web sites from its search index.

A big question with Google Desktop Search is security: If your hard drive is formatted as NTFS, you can choose to encrypt your index and data, but this slows down your file searches and indexing. Google makes its money by serving up ads related to your searches, and that includes those for your local files. Google's privacy statement says the company doesn't make your data accessible without your permission, but the Web search king's track record for privacy is spotty at best.

Tweaking Windows Desktop Search
When it was first released a couple of years ago, I was impressed by Microsoft's desktop-search product, in large part because it was so much faster and more accurate than the file-search options in Windows itself. While it offers more customization options than Google Desktop Search, Windows Desktop Search is slower and clunkier to use than Copernic Desktop Search, though a new version is reportedly in the offing. Windows Search 4 promises to improve searching across networks of PCs and Windows servers, and to support the OpenSearch standard for searching Web services.

You access Windows Desktop Search options by clicking Desktop Search Options on the Options drop-down menu in the top-right corner of the search results window. Click Indexing in the left pane to change the locations the program searches, Advanced to reset the file types it retrieves and place its index file in a different folder, and Deskbar to hide or show the program's search box in the taskbar.

Windows Desktop Search's Indexing Options dialog box
Set Windows Desktop Search to index other locations on your PC via the Indexing Options dialog box.

As the new default local-search service in Vista, Windows Search leaves much to be desired. I've used its Advanced Search options to narrow my searches by file location, date, type, and other attributes, but I'm unimpressed with the results. That's what prompted me to reload Copernic Desktop Search, which I've used on PCs dating back to Windows 98.

The file-search oldster outshines the new challengers
I noticed a difference immediately: Copernic is a breeze to use and customize, and it seems to index faster, while taking a smaller bite out of your system resources. The search-results window is clearer and more intuitive, allowing you to view the results by file type, several of which are shown as tabs along the top of the window. Searching within the results is just as easy and intuitive, and you can search your chosen term on the Web with a single click.

The Copernic Desktop Search results window
Copernic Desktop Search's results window lets you filter your file searches by type with a single click.

To change your search settings, click Tools > Options, and then select one of the tabs in the left pane to see and reset your options in that category. For example, you use an Explorer-like folder tree to include or exclude locations to be indexed. Adding or removing file types, and changing the folder the index is store in are just as simple.

Copernic Desktop Search's Indexing & Performance Settings dialog box
Change the frequency and idle time before Copernic Desktop Search begins indexing via the Indexing & Performance Settings dialog box.

Copernic Desktop Search shows that there's still plenty of room for specialists in the PC software industry. Maybe there are some programming tricks the big boys haven't figured out yet. I'm thankful for tools such Copernic, which shorten my workday without costing me a penny.

Monday: where Web services outshine their desktop-application counterparts, and where they still come up short.