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date 23.Sep.2012

■ Windows Search for Dummies

One of the best features of Windows 7 is its Start menu, where you can type in a few characters of the program or document you are looking for, and within seconds you will find it, with some luck! A lot of work has gone into Windows Search (formerly known as windows desktop search) to make this fast searching possible. In the past I was critical about it, considering the problems and limitations, which will be covered below. However the benefits are too great to be ignored, and that's why I added windows search for the forthcoming xplorer² ultimate version (currently in beta).

Google search revolutionized the internet. Desktop search is the same idea applied to the files on your computer. A background service monitors for file changes and indexes file content and attributes in a system database. You can then query the database for keywords and get to the file you need quickly. xplorer² old style search on the other hand doesn't use an index, it scans your folders every time you do a new search — that's why it is slower (and more robust).

The good thing about windows search is that you already have it installed and running (if you are on windows XP or older you can download it). You don't need to install extra programs. The search results are presented in a window like normal files (not like unusable text as in google desktop search). You can specify a search location (starting folder) to narrow down the results or you can search your whole hard disk if you can't remember where your files are at all. Resource-wise, if you have a modern computer you won't notice any delays from running the background indexing service. The index file itself WINDOWS.EDB is 750MB on my system — hardly noticeable in a 500GB hard disk.

The default search settings are reasonable for the average user. The index includes emails and files under My Documents (C:\USERS) where most of your files are. If you have text files and documents in other locations just find the Indexing Options applet in the Control Panel, and add extra folders e.g. the PSDK include folders.

Windows search will index file properties (filename, size, date, author etc) as well as file content. When you search with google, you don't specify the date of an internet page, but in windows search you can. In fact the query language is fully featured SQL which means it supports complex boolean searches on attributes and content.
windows search options

■ Windows Search problems and limitations

In the past desktop search had a very bad reputation. People couldn't find anything at all with it, even in plain text files like source code. But it deserves another chance because version 4 included with windows 7 is much better straight out of the box, including most common file format text filters. If one of your file types isn't covered, you can usually locate a plugin IFilter and install it to extend the search scope.

The fundamental problem with index-based search is that it only finds whole keywords. You can't search for something in the middle of a word. Also you cannot search for any special characters like brackets or punctuation marks. However most of the time you don't need anything but a whole name, so this limitation isn't an issue.

Another big limitation is that the index only works with local files and folders on fixed disks. It won't find files in removable devices like DVDs or USB disks, and neither will it work for network folders. If you cannot find files in your local hard disk, make sure the container folder is included in the indexing options (see pic above). Also note some folders are excluded, a concept similar to xplorer² black list.

The forthcoming xplorer² ultimate will automatically use desktop search as a first attempt, and if it fails to find what you are looking for, it will fall back to the traditional robust search you are familiar with. This way you get the best of both worlds, the opportunity of a fast match (WDS), and the trustworthiness of choo-choo search. I have translated most of the xplorer² search options in a WDS query so the search GUI didn't have to change. Only a few complex searches cannot be routed through WDS:

If you want to test this exciting new functionality just get the latest ultimate version beta.

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