Fixing Windows Vista, Part 5: Faster, smarter search

Fixing Windows Vista, Part 5: Faster, smarter search

Summary: In previous installments of this series, I discussed the virtues of a clean Vista install, some useful User Account Control workarounds, top tools for troubleshooting, and the wisdom of shutting off Windows system services. Today’s fifth and final installment is a little different from its predecessors. It focuses not so much on fixing what might be broken, but rather on taking advantage of a feature in Windows Vista that has the potential to transform the way you work. Through the years, I’ve tried just about every third-party desktop search utility for Windows. But I threw them all away after a few weeks of using Vista’s built-in Windows Search capability. In this post, I’ll explain how Windows Search works, how to monitor the SearchIndexer service to avoid potential performance problems, and how to speed up indexing operations on the fly. I'll also point you to an update that every Windows Vista user should install right now.

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In previous installments of this series, I discussed the virtues of a clean Vista install, some useful User Account Control workaroundstop tools for troubleshooting, and the wisdom of shutting off Windows system services. Today’s fifth and final installment is a little different from its predecessors, in that it focuses not so much on fixing what might be broken, but rather on taking advantage of a feature in Windows Vista that has the potential to transform the way you work.

Through the years, I’ve tried just about every third-party desktop search utility for Windows. But I threw them all away after a few weeks of using Vista’s built-in Windows Search capability. In this post, I’ll explain how Windows Search works, how to monitor the SearchIndexer service to avoid potential performance problems, and how to speed up indexing operations on the fly.

First, an overview of how Windows Search works. By default, the Windows Search service runs on every Vista installation, maintaining an index of data files, music and pictures, e-mail messages and contact information (for supported programs), shortcuts to installed programs, and Internet favorites and your web-browsing history. The index is limited to the contents of specific folders and subfolders (you can customize this list), and the extent of indexing is controlled by file types. Virtually all files have their file properties (name, date, size, and so on) indexed; in addition, specific file types that have matching iFilters installed have their full contents included in the index.

You can use the index from just about anywhere:

  • Click Start and begin typing in the Search box. A categorized subset of results appears in the Start menu, and you can click Search Everywhere to see a more complete list in a Windows Explorer window

Start Menu search in Windows Vista

  • Press Windows logo key+F to open the Search dialog box and begin constructing an advanced search
  • Enter some text in the Search box in the top right corner of any Windows Explorer window
  • Enter some text in the Search box in the top right corner of any Vista common dialog box (not available in older applications)
  • Open the Searches folder in your user profile (using the Favorite Links bar in Windows Explorer) and execute a saved search.

Search is especially useful in Control Panel, were you can find a direct link to any task using the search box. You can also search for e-mail messages and contacts directly from Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, or Outlook 2007, all of which use the same index.

In Windows Explorer, the search results are returned almost instantaneously, after which you can sort, group, and filter them. You can also save a search so that you can perform the same search later without having to re-create its parameters.

In my experience, Windows Search works well on any system that runs Windows Vista. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend that you download and install the Windows Search 4.0 update, which was released earlier this week. It’s available for all 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 (you can also download updates for Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Home Server).

I’ve been running a preview version of the Windows Search 4.0 update since its release in March and can attest to its reliability. The update improves indexing speed and also adds support for indexing encrypted files. My favorite feature, though, is its support for using indexes on networked computers. If you have a shared folder on a networked computer (XP, Vista, or a Windows Server product), you can run a search using the search box in Windows Explorer and the results will use the index on the remote computer to give you instant results.

Page 2: Managing search performance -->

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Managing search performance

Occasionally, I read a complaint about the performance hit that Windows Search causes on Vista systems. Invariably, when I look further into these cases, I find the cause is elsewhere. (You can see for yourself by using the Disk section of Resource Monitor, as I describe in part 3 of this series.) The reality is that the indexing service is specifically designed to back off when you use your computer for other activities, switching to low-priority I/O and allowing foreground I/O tasks, such as opening the Start menu, to execute first. When Windows Vista first builds its index after installation, or if you copy a large number of files to the system at once, the indexing can take a long time, but you shouldn’t notice any impact on performance.

To monitor the current status of the index, open the Indexing Options dialog box (the most convenient way to do this is to click Start, click Control Panel, and type index in the search box in the upper right corner of the Control Panel window. The status message at the top of the page tells you what’s going on with the index in real time. On my current system, the index is up to date, so I see this message:

Indexing complete in Windows Vista Indexing Options dialog box

If the indexing service is currently working on some files, you’ll see this message instead:

Indexing speed reduced in Windows Vista

That message indicates that the indexing service has backed off in response to your activity and is operating at a fraction of its normal speed. If the number of files to be indexed is big enough (if you copied a folder full of several hundred documents, for instance), you’ll see the indexing speed pick up dramatically if you keep your hands off the keyboard and mouse for a minute or so.

At any given time, the SearchIndexer service uses only a small percentage of available CPU resources. Using Task Manager or Process Explorer, you can see the status of the SearchIndexer process; if it’s actively engaged in indexing, you should see two additional child processes, SearchProtocolHost and SearchFilterHost. The indexing processes are used to create the index, but not to access it. Windows Explorer access the index directly, so even if the indexer is busy it shouldn’t affect the speed of a search operation. In normal operation, retrieving search results from even a very large index should take no more than a few seconds. If you see hang-ups in either Explorer or Outlook when performing a search, you’ll need to look at the operation of the program itself to find the problem. (Outlook 2007 add-ins, for example, can dramatically slow down the program, and because Outlook runs as a child process of Explorer.exe they can also affect Windows Explorer.)

If you’re impatient, you might want the search indexer to work at full speed after you copy or move a large number of files to an indexed location. There’s a group policy setting you can adjust to disable the “back off” logic, but it’s far easier in Vista to use the Windows Search Indexer gadget created by Microsoft developer Brandon Paddock. (The gadget works under the original version of Windows Search, but the Index Now feature requires Windows Search 4.0.)

Indexing status and control gadget for Windows Vista Sidebar

As you can see, the small, lightweight gadget shows how many files are currently being indexed. If no indexing is in process, the message displays the text “Index up-to-date.”) The four buttons along the bottom of the gadget allow you to control how indexing works. The button at the right side opens the Indexing Options control Panel. The group of three buttons on the left allow you to pause, restart, or accelerate indexing. The third (Index Now) button disables the back-off logic and allows indexing to proceed as a foreground task, which comes in handy when you want to quickly rebuild the index or add a large number of new files.

Next week, I’m going to begin a new series of tips for Windows Vista. As part of that series, I’ll explain how to tweak Search settings to match the way you work, and how to use searches more effectively. Stay tuned!

Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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157 comments
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  • agree

    i have to agree Vista search is excellent and extremely fast. I have been using version 3 and up on my XP machine at work and it always trumps other search indexers like Google Desktop. This is one example of MS doing a very very good job.
    reverseswing
  • Hey Ed

    How can I check the exact version of Windows Search on my XP machine. I do know I have version 4 but it's probably the beta since the updated version came out just 2 days ago. Thanks.
    reverseswing
    • Should be listed as an installed update

      I don't have an XP machine handy to check right now, but it should be visible as update 940157.

      I'll check when I get a chance and update this, unless some other kind soul comes along first with more details.
      Ed Bott
      • An easier way,

        if you have Brandon's gadget installed, it's options (not the indexing options, the gadget's options) list the version.
        rtk
        • Nice, thanks!

          I might have to update the post to show that...

          For anyone following along, allow the mouse pointer to hover over the gadget until you see the gadget controls (white) in the top right coner. Click the wrench icon (below the x). That opens the Gadget Options panel, which includes the version number.

          Correct version number is 4.00.6001.16503.
          Ed Bott
  • Actually...

    The indexer gadget doesn't require Search 4.0, it just works
    better with it.
    Chustar
    • The speed up indexing feature requires WS4

      That's what I meant to say. I've updated the post. Thanks!
      Ed Bott
  • RE: Fixing Windows Vista, Part 5: Faster, smarter search

    well it is listed - install date is 3/28 so i guess it is an older version.
    reverseswing
    • Just install the new version

      It will update if it's newer than the old one, and it will tell you it doesn't need to install if you already have the final release.
      Ed Bott
  • RE: Fixing Windows Vista, Part 5: Faster, smarter search

    The information you provide is extremely helpful...thanks.
    But is Vista really worth all the trouble? What about reverting to XP?
    ambellalta
    • XP search requires separate window

      Vista works just fine, and the way that search is integrated throughout the OS is a huge improvement over XP.
      Ed Bott
  • Mobile version can't get to page 2

    There is no way to see "Page 2" when you're using the "Mobile" version. Clicking the "Page 2" or "Next Page" link from the mobile version brings up page 2 of the standard view, and clicking "Mobile" on "Page 2" brings you back to "Page 1". Please fix all your "Mobile" versions so "Next Page" stays on the "Mobile" version.
    ZDNET_guest666
    • I'll forward to ZDNet ops people (nt)

      ...
      Ed Bott
    • Update

      The ops team for ZDNet has opened a bug report on this. Thanks for pointing it out and sorry for the inconvenience.
      Ed Bott
  • Problem (?) with Vista/Home Server Searches

    I apologize if this is an inappropriate forum for this, but I've just about given up trying to find a resolution to this problem.

    Since putting in a Window Home Server into my home network and moving all my photos, music and video over to its shared storage I have not been able to use Vista's search to find these files. I've added the shared folders on the Server from the "Add UNC Location" search options on the Vista machine and installed WS4 on both machines to no avail. It appears that the files are not even visible to the Vista Search service as it currently states there are 6298 items indexed (many fewer than exist on the Server). The Home Server search options only shows a handful of items indexed even though the shared folders are part of the "Included locations".

    What's even stranger is that prior to installing WS4 the Vista search index showed tens of thousands of files indexed (probably correct) but when I searched from the Vista machine my photo tags (tagged in Live Photo Gallery) would not hit when searched upon.

    Any ideas would be greatly appreciated; I can't for the life of me find a definitive FAQ on using WS with Home Server.

    Thank you,

    Eric Rosenberg
    ericrosenberg@gmail.com
    EAR68
    • Answers

      Eric, download the Windows Search 4 package for Windows Home Server from the link in this post. Use Remote Desktop to open a session on the Windows Home Server. Install the update from the Run box on the Windows Home Server. Allow the index time to be created.

      Now, from your Windows Vista machine, open Windows Explorer and browse to the shared folders on the WHS box. Enter a search term in the search box in your Vista Windows Explorer. The search results should appear instantaneously.
      Ed Bott
      • Thanks, but need more help

        Unbelievable! I only wish formal tech support was so responsive!

        I've installed WS4 on both my Home Server and my Vista Ultimate (SP1) machines, but this doesn't seem to help.

        I browsed to the photos shared folder (\\HPSERVER\Photos) and searched for "San Diego" which should bring up a few hundred photos that have been tagged as such. The search returns two sub-folders with "San Diego" in their names but no .jpg's and a message at the top of the Explorer window that states, "Network locations and connected devices are searched more slowly than indexed locations. Click to get help..."

        I've installed the Vista WS Gadget and it currently reads, "Index up-to-date", "6298 items in total". This appears to only enumerate files that would be indexed on the local Vista computer as I have tens of thousands of .jpg's on the Home Server. I've added the Home Server shared folders on my Vista WS Options (ie \\HPSERVER\Photos, \\HPSERVER\Music, etc) and these same folders are included in the search locations on the Home Server itself. Strangely, even those these shared folders are listed as "included" on the Home Server, the options there state "Items indexed so far: 210".

        Any help would be appreciated.

        Thanks,

        Eric Rosenberg
        ericrosenberg@gmail.com
        EAR68
        • Just to follow up...

          Eric and I solved this via a private e-mail exchange. The index on the WHS machine had to be rebuilt. There are some other issues as well, which I'll write about later.
          Ed Bott
  • Thanks for your series Ed

    It has been very helpful, especially fixing some older Vista builds, some that required a total reinstall (to purge them of crapware totally) and other which just needed drivers updated. Even some of the lower end Vista builds like my daughters Gateway laptop with integrated graphics and a Turion 1.9x2 processor perform quite acceptably once the trialware was removed and the drivers updated. I've been using Vista for a little over a year now and I really hate going back to XP.
    I'm also very impressed with the backup system built into Vista. I used to use Acronis True Image for all my backups, after having done a full restore from Vista's backup program and getting everything including desktop icons back I feel safe letting Vista automatically backup my system knowing it works fine.
    marks055
    • I only wish...

      ... that Microsoft had made its Complete PC Backup program available in all editions.
      Ed Bott