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    In search of a better computer search tool

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver November 30-December 6, 2004; issue 788 High Tech Office column

    In BIV issue 785 (November 9 - 15), this column noted that "cheap data storage is radically changing the computer landscape." Big, cheap hard drives, DVDs and other forms of storage make it easy to keep huge amounts of e-mail, documents, photos and videos, storing them on your local computer, across a network, or online.

    But the more stuff you keep, the harder it can be to locate what you need when you need it. Windows and the Mac OS offer search tools, but they don't seem to work the way people want.

    Microsoft's next generation operating system, code-named Longhorn, had promised a new file system, storing file information in a searchable database. But Microsoft pulled this feature as part of efforts to get Longhorn out the door by 2006 or so.

    Apple, meanwhile, is promising new and improved system-wide searches with Searchlight, a feature of its next operating system, Mac OS X 10.4, expected next spring.

    But you might not need to wait for Microsoft or Apple. Canadian Web search tool developer Copernic offers Copernic Desktop Search, free for Windows users ( Installed as a small box on your desktop, it lets you search either on your own computer or across the Web. It checks content in eight common text file types, including common Microsoft Office and Word Perfect formats and Adobe Acrobat PDF documents, along with some image, music and video file types. It can also index and search Outlook mail and contact lists.

    Web search giant Google has also gotten into the act with a free pre-release of its own Desktop Search tool ( Clicking on a tiny taskbar icon opens what looks like a standard Google search page, but instead of producing hits on the Web, it offers up hits on your hard drive among your saved MS Office documents and your Outlook or Outlook Express e-mail. Nice feature: it will also search your browser cache, letting you find information on websites you've recently visited even if you're not online.

    Google Desktop Search is currently only available for Windows 2000 and XP users and only works with Internet Explorer. (Copernic's product works on the full range of Windows versions and is browser-independent).

    Google has promised versions for other browsers and for Mac OS X and plans to search more file formats, including PDF, e-mail and chat. Both Copernic's and Google's search tools start off indexing your drive's contents, making their results appear quickly.

    When I recently tried out Google Desktop Search at my work, however, I was disappointed. Almost all my work is saved to a folder on a network drive, and that meant that it didn't appear in the search results. But if you store your work on your local hard drive, one or the other of these tools is worth a look.

    There have been suggestions online that these tools are risky.

    Google notes that their tool does not make your local data available to others across your local network or online. If you share you computer with other users, though, you may need to be wary about the power these tools give people logged onto your computer to search your files.

    While Copernic and Google Desktop Search products are free tools aimed at individual users, corporate users needing more features and power (including the ability to search across a business network and to work with a variety of file formats) might want to check out products like dtSearch ( US$800 for five users) or ISYS (, priced from "under US$1,000" and up, based on the number of users).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan