Desktop search tools create an index of all your files allowing you to quickly search them using keywords from anywhere in the the file – just like an internet search engine. So, you’d have thought that search maestro’s Google would produce the best of tools. You’d be wrong…
Both Google Desktop Search and Copernic Desktop Search are available for free to download and use, in a fully functional, unlimited package. Copernic says that it will be producing a pro version of its search software but that it will always maintain and update a free version – a distribution model that has worked pretty well for a number of common applications. Google on the other hand is funding the programme through its ‘premium support’ package for its enterprise edition. If you don’t want to know the details of my comparison of the packages, skip to the interesting bit. I’ve been using both for about three weeks on Windows XP Pro on a fast laptop.
Both programmes may be downloaded and installed in between 10 and 20 minutes, a trivial process. When unpacked Google DS takes up about 2.6 Mb, whereas Copernic a slightly heavier 7.5 Mb. This is entirely explained by the fact that Copernic is an independent application, with its own graphics and so on, whereas Google uses your browser for an interface. In any case, this is nothing compared to the size of the index. For my 35Gb of info on my harddrive both programmes created indexes of about 250Mb, the initial indexing process taking around 10 hours – it can be done in the background but its almost certainly worth letting your computer run overnight after installation.
Both programmes are best opened on startup, can run in the background and can index your files ‘on the fly’, i.e. updating the index as you use them. On this score Google seemed to outperform Copernic, which doesn’t seem to index my internet history very successfully.
Google uses your browser interface and looks just like you’d expect, i.e. the google front page with a few extra links around the search box that take you to options. You use the normal Google syntax for your search terms. Your results appear, again, exactly as you’d expect, ranked by relevancy with a very short excerpt of the file indicating the context of the keywords. An icon on the left gives you a quick reference to what sort of file you’re looking at. Some files have an additional small preview image. Click on the link and the appropriate application starts up. Perhaps the biggest plus point with the Google desktop search is that your desktop results can be integrated with a web search, so if you get in the habit of searching the web via Google DS, you’re most likely to surprise yourself by finding the right bit of information at the right time.
Copernic on the other hand, has a dedicated application window, which is far more useful. You can use the normal Googlesque syntax for a simple search, but like your (painfully slow) windows file search, there are a bunch of other buts of information you can specify (date modified and so on). Results are firstly divided into the types of information you have (emails, files, images and so on), and you can navigate the results by either large friendly buttons or the handy links that display the number of results in each type. Within that display results may be listed by folder, date or filetype. A double click runs the application, but more usefully a single click opens the file in a preview screen within Copernic. It only takes a moment to open and the formatting of the display, while not of course matching the file’s native application, is pretty impressive. It is certainly clear enough to be able to scan through tables, quickly spot headings and even recognise long forgotten documents by their layout. Within the preview there are handy buttons to let you skip through the document to occurances of any of your search terms.
On the options front, Copernic’s dedicated application is, again, a lot more useful. Either programmes specify folders for indexing (meaning you can exclude your finances/porn/plans for world domination) and you can also specify filetypes to index. Incidentally, neither can cope with relational databases, which is a bit of a pain. It will, of course, search any reports you output in other formats, so you get to add in a layer of selection before the desktop search gets to the information. For me this meant getting in the habit of rather needlessly outputting my data in a reasonably useable format. Both have ‘integration’ options that allow you to clog up your taskbar or your desktop with not only shortcuts but a search box – I’ve found this merely clogs things up, but its a pretty personal preference. Copernic gives you more choices about when to index information and (to a limited extent) how much of the computers’ resources to use when running in the background. Google gives you neither of these, it also installs to run from start up by default, and I found that I could not stop this behaviour (no icon in the Startup folder). This is frustrating because ‘on the fly’ indexing slows down your machine – Google does so more noticeably than Copernic, I think, but I didn’t actually measure this. The option to turn off the ‘on the fly’ when you want to run a load of applications simultaneously is essential. You can, of course, turn off the whole programme. However, while copernic has easy to access ‘update index’ buttons for each of the types of information, Google has no equivalent. It is, therefore, far more reliant on the on-the-fly option, making it a big no-no for older, slower machines.
The interesting bit.
The interesting and surprising difference between these two programmes was the usability of the results. Google has become the biggest search engine by putting the right results at the top of the pile, time and time again. However, what Google has failed to recognise is that your relationship with your desktop is very different from your relationship with the web. No matter how much of a web-surfing geek you are, you simply don’t have an overview of the structure of the information out there, and given the speed at which its growing, you never will. Information on your harddrives, on the contrary, are structured in a way that you designed. Having results grouped by where they appear should let all but the very messiest be able to filter whole groups out on their own criteria, without consciously thinking about it. Your are just as likely to find those satisfying surprise results – I’ve come across folders full of files that I’d forgotten about and have been genuinely useful now. Google may well make better use of the information it can gather from your desktop, but Copernic lets you make better use of the information you’re carrying in your brain.
Incidentally, the next stage in accessing your data is already available for smug mac users, see Stephen Johnson’s review of Devon Think. If anyone passing reader knows where I can get something similar for the PC, let me know!