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Quick Review: Google Desktop

In Short
  • Product: Google Desktop
  • Version: beta
  • URL:
  • Price: Free
  • Spyware and hacking threat: Low for now. More perception than reality, although users with no physical security for their desktops are warned to steer clear.
  • System requirements: Windows 2000 (with Service Pack 3) or XP; most CPUs and configurations. Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer and AOL Instant Messenger users will benefit the most.
  • Pros: Simple, fast and effective local search of your documents and e-mails.
  • Cons: There are more flexible search tools as well as tools that can search a wider collection of file types, but none that integrates into the overall Googling experience as well.
  • Competition: -- -- --

The most configuration work you'll have to do is choose the various options on Google Desktop's preferences page. And the way you get there is simplicity itself. Bring up a Web browser and go to Google's main search page. Click on the Desktop choice above the search bar, and it will bring you to your own individual search page. (For a sample preferences page, see fig. 1.)

Google Desktop Preferences

Click to Enlarge

The way this works is quite elegant indeed. The software sets up a special Web server on your desktop--a server that it and it alone can use. No one can access this Web server from outside your machine, and the information Google Desktop collects on your individual machine doesn't leave the premises--unlike that other Google software, Gmail.

Speaking of Gmail, Google Desktop doesn't serve up any ads at all (unlike Gmail, which tries match the contents of e-mail messages with particular ads). That is a good thing. The Google Desktop search results pages look pretty much like what you would expect from Google: Search results along with an additional line or two of information about the type of documents it has found, the date they were created and an image of any cached and static Web content (see fig. 2.).

Desktop Search Results

Click to Enlarge

The cool thing about Google's Desktop is that you can forget it's on your PC. You won't know it's there until you go to the main, Internet-based Google search page and try to search for something. Then you'll see the beauty of this software, as the search results will come up for both what is on your desktop and what is out in the world beyond, all organized neatly and cleanly and clearly (see fig. 3). You will see results for file names as well as the content of those special files mentioned earlier. It is a wonderful thing to behold. You can, of course, segregate the local and Internet searches by clicking on a check box on the preferences page. But seriously, why would you want to?

Desktop Search Results

Click to Enlarge

You can also specify which type of files to search. If you want to limit your searches to particular files, for example, to determine which PowerPoint presentation mentions "ducks" in either the presentation or in its file name, your search term would look like this: ducks filetype:ppt.

One other thing I should mention. If you configure Google Desktop to have it search your AOL instant messaging traffic, it will begin storing your conversations after you have installed the software and start to index these for full-text retrieval. And as you create new documents, it does the indexing in near-real time. It is a bit spooky, but oh so efficient.

The main search page will tell you how many items are available for search (in my case, about 3,700 items), and if you click on the status link you will see exactly how many of each type of document Desktop has indexed for you at that particular moment. You can't choose to view results for only one type of document, but it's easy to differentiate among them within the results.

Okay, so is there any bad news here? Absolutely. If you use a shared computer, then your previous Web history, AIM conversations and documents you may have thought erased are all still available for inspection. Similarly, Google Desktop creates its own document cache, which is handy for comparing previous versions of your saved files, but problematic if your machine is not secured. Anyone who has physical access could obtain this information. Remember that slow afternoon at the office where you were surfing some, ahem, questionable Web sites? Well, that could be a problem and show up in your search results. The best solution? Take advantage of Windows 2000's or XP's multiple accounts capabilities and always logout and lock your machine when it's not in use. Only time will tell if IT will fully accept or support Google Desktop. Obviously, security questions like these will need to be addressed before this application finds its way into corporate America and beyond.

Another problem centers on compatibility. If you don't use Microsoft's Office or Internet Explorer or AOL's IM chat, then you aren't going to like this tool because it doesn't index any other types of documents (other than pure text files) and will ignore Web pages viewed in non-IE browsers. And if you choose to index your e-mails and make extensive use of Outlook's notes, journal and to-do entries, you'll find that Desktop doesn't cover anything other than the content of the e-mail messages themselves. For example, text stored in an e-mail attachment is not indexed, but you can search for the file name of that attachment. (To get around this limitation, you might be interested in a product Microsoft just purchased from called Lookout. This search tool can index these other messaging collections. We'll see how well Microsoft integrates this into a future Office version.)

At the OS level, if you are running an older version of Windows or if you're on a Mac, there's no Google Desktop for you. However, Mac users can take advantage of Quicksilver (, and Windows users can use's Desktop Search (, which works with a wider variety of file formats and can search e-mail attachments too. Neither is nearly as elegant as Google Desktop; they run as separate applications.

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