Hot Apps: Third-Party Desktop Search Tools Revisited

In a world where free desktop search apps abound, are traditional third-party desktop search utilities still worth the cost? Freebies like Google Desktop may do all the job you need,

January 24, 2006

4 Min Read
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Until a dozen or so full moons ago, if you created a lot of documents and hoped to find them later, you had four choices: create a compulsively well-designed hierarchy of folders, subfolders, and filenames; wade through endless screens of My Documents files; play, and usually lose, the lottery with the Windows search feature; or open your billfold for a powerful third-party search tool (typically the better part of $100).

But as often, the tech world — especially the Internet — has changed the rules. Freebie desktop search tools such as Google Desktop beg for a reconsideration of the best solution. So I invited vendors of my favorite traditional desktop search products, X1 and NEO Pro, to provide their latest version.

X1 remains blazingly fast after it has indexed your hard disk. When you begin to type a search term, X1 instantly displays potential matches, narrowing its results while you type. You can then select and display matches with your search terms highlighted for hundreds of file formats (even if you don’t have the app that created the file), including email messages and email attachments.

The X1 desktop search application can highlight search terms found in documents and index and display hundreds of file formats even if you don't have the app that created the files installed.Click to Enlarge

X1 presents an incredible number of potential matches from which to select. It also provides more options to sort and display search terms than you may ever need. On the downside, expect a significant learning curve to search for what you intend to find. For example, sometimes when I selected All or Files or Documents to target my searches some indexed content failed to display.

I also contacted the vendor for the Nelson Email Organizer (better known as NEO) line of products, which specializes in organizing solutions for Outlook users. After various delays on their part, the product didn’t arrive by deadline. That, along with the facts that the latest version has been bumped only from version 3.0 to 3.1 since I reviewed the product in 1994 and a suggestion from their representative that my column’s readers may be more interested in NEO Free 3.1, cemented my feelings about today’s desktop search tools.

The bottom line is that, for desktop users, my experience with these products as well as the latest freebie alternatives is that freebies are the way to go for the foreseeable future. My personal fave du jour is Google Desktop.

The free products have several advantages besides being free. The recent crop tends to be easier to use, and arguably focus better on the results you really want. There are less obvious advantages, as well. The filesize (and thus download and install times) of products such as Google Desktop can be a fraction of that of traditional search tools, mainly because Internet-centric companies approach software development differently than traditional vendors. And the companies behind the freeware have the resources to expand their products’ capabilities rapidly — and are aggressively doing so, in a competitive environment reminiscent of the Browser Wars between Netscape and Microsoft.

However, if the many free utilities, including NEO Free, fail to address your more sophisticated search needs, test the trial versions of X1 and, for Outlook users, Neo Pro.

J.W. Olsen has been a full-time IT author, columnist, editor, and freelance editorial project manager with more than 1000 editorial credits since 1990, and has provided computer, Web site, and editorial services to other clients since 1985. He welcomes feedback via the response form at www.jwolsen.com.

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