Search me

Getting more hard drive space is really handy, particularly if you've started dabbling in megabyte-gobbling hobbies such as digital music, video, or photography. But combine enlarged file capacity with increasing forgetfulness and you're likely to spend nearly as long trying to find that blessed file as you are using it.

Things get even worse if you need to quickly find a great Web site that you were looking at... when was it again? Last week? Last month? I definitely need help to keep track of what I've been doing and where I stowed it, as my brain already seems to be filled up to the brim with the collected lyrics of Duran Duran and quotes from The Simpsons.

Put the kettle on

Of course, you can use plain old Windows file search to find what you're looking for - that is, if you were planning on getting up to go and make a cup of tea, anyway. Why does it take so long? Well, by default, it starts every search from scratch and doesn't remember anything about what it's found before. It also has no logical means of tackling your huge mass of unsorted data. It sifts through everything piece by piece.

Windows does offer a way of speeding up this search, however, called Indexing Service (IS). When you enable IS, it scans all the files on your PC, then indexes their names and contents for future reference, leading to a much faster search response time. But, as a few sharp-eyed technology journalists have recently discovered, the strange thing about Windows file search is that it doesn't actually use the Indexing Service - even if it's turned on. Worried that it might have missed a recently added (and therefore unindexed) file, it starts slogging through the files one by one all over again while you slowly turn into a modern-day Rip Van Winkle. There is a cunning way to force file search to use the Indexing Service (see "Find it right now"). But it's a pain. Surely there's a better way?

Fortunately, there are numerous PC search options available. Most are free, and all use indexing technology to give you better results. These desktop tools will hunt online for Web pages, news and images, as well as checking your PC itself for different types of files, including documents, pictures, spreadsheets and e-mails. One of the first to be released was the excellent Copernic Desktop Search (www.copernic.com) - see this screen shot. This remains the desktop search tool of choice for many for the wide range of files it can catalogue - not least for Windows 98 users, who have been left out in the cold by most other products.

Where's the party?

The major search engines quickly joined the party. There are now desktop tools available from Google (see here), Yahoo and Lycos (http://desktop.google.com, http://desktop.yahoo.com and www.hotbot.com/tools/desktop). Playing catch-up, Microsoft released the beta of MSN Desktop Search (http://toolbar.msn.com) back in December - you'll find this and all the other desktop search tools mentioned here on our cover disc. A free tool for Windows 2000 and XP that takes the clumsy Indexing Service and gives it a better user interface, MSN Desktop Search also extends its search capabilities to include Web, Internet Explorer history and e-mail - see this image.

But although it turns up as an optional Windows toolbar, don't expect MSN Desktop Search to be bundled in the next version of the OS - wary of attracting another antitrust lawsuit, Microsoft is keeping it a separate entity for now.

There's no doubt that the desktop search concept is a vast improvement over previous search capabilities. But is it really the final answer? Google boasts that its desktop search behaves as if it had a photographic memory of everything that's on your computer. Fine. But what good is a photographic memory if it can't understand what it's looking at and doesn't know what you want?

It can't help you find that photo that you took when your Gran visited last Christmas - you know, the one called jpC073.jpg that's buried in your music folder by mistake.

Come the revolution

One of Bill Gates' personal holy grails has long been an object-oriented file system that structures files in a new way. It would revolutionise desktop file searching, allowing you to instantly find linked data - such as pictures that you took at a party, as well as the invitation you made and e-mails about the guest list.

Called WinFS, the app was due to be folded into Longhorn's release next year. But last summer it was placed on hold and Microsoft now won't even speculate about release dates. What good is a file system - no matter how fantastic its promise - that doesn't ship with the OS? Not much use at all. Which means that, for the foreseeable future, we'll have to depend on Desktop Search and, of course, the old grey matter.

Find it right now

Windows 2000 and XP users can drastically speed up their file searches without having to download a thing - simply turn on the Indexing Service and use a few "secret" keystrokes. A word of warning to those with less powerful machines, though: Indexing Service can be a bit of a resource hog and will probably start indexing your files when you're busy trying to do something else. If you notice your PC is not as responsive as it used to be - and a super-fast file search isn't all that important to you - you might want to turn it off again. But it shouldn't be that big a problem if your system is happy running XP in the first place.

Choose Start-Search, and then Change Preferences. Then choose "With Index Searching (for faster local searches)". Finally, choose Yes, enable Indexing Service.

Like disk defragging, it's best to do this at the end of the day so you can leave it to chug away overnight undisturbed. "But searches are still as slow as wading through treacle!" I hear you wail. That's because you need to add a couple things to your search query.

Using the box marked "a word or phrase in the file" (or "containing text" in Windows 2000), put an exclamation mark in front of your phrase, in our case !PC World.

To find a filename, place @filename in front of it (for instance @filename PC World) and you'll be stunned at how quickly the results pop up. Honestly.

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