Google Desktop Search Beta

Google has joined the burgeoning desktop search market with a public beta. We've had a day or so to play with it -- here's our initial report.

Desktop search -- the ability to index and query the contents of your PC's hard disk quickly and easily -- is one of the hottest topics in computing at the moment: after all, who hasn't bemoaned the failings of Windows' built-in search tool? Now, one of the biggest beasts in the Internet search jungle has turned its attention to your local storage: Google has launched a beta version of its desktop search tool, which is free to download here. We've been using the program avidly since it was released: here are our first impressions.

Google Desktop Search places your local hard disks' content at your fingertips.
Google Desktop Search (GDS) is straightforward to install and set up. Simply get the 400KB download from desktop.google.com, let it quit any open applications such as Outlook and Internet Explorer that will be indexed, set a few preferences and let the program get on with its initial indexing task. Google Desktop Search handles the full text in Outlook and Outlook Express email, text, HTML, Excel and PowerPoint files, as well as AOL and AIM chat, and Web pages viewed in Internet Explorer. The initial indexing process only works when the computer has been idle for thirty seconds, so it never slows down other work you’re doing. In our experience, GDS had no detrimental impact on other applications at all, during the index phase or subsequently. Once complete -- and Google recommends you let it run overnight if you’re constantly using your computer during the day -- the index is updated automatically when new files appear. Local hard drives (C:, D: and so on) are indexed, but not removable storage or networked drives. You access the program, which runs as a Web service on port 4664, via a system tray applet with a swirly icon in Google colours. When you right-click on this, or double-click it, and select 'Search', it launches the familiar Google search page, with the addition of a Desktop item alongside Web, Images, Groups, News and Froogle. Enter your search term as normal, and you get the results, ten to a page, with icons denoting the file type to the left and a thumbnail to the right if it's a cached Web page. You can click on the thumbnail, or the 'cached' link for other file types, to see a copy of the file as it was indexed by Google -- a great way of looking at old versions of Web pages or files you've been working on. The initial impressions of Google Desktop Search in the ZDNet UK office – which contains a healthy mixture of the enthusiastic and the cynical -- are almost universally positive. Suddenly, the contents of your hard disk(s) -- many of them, anyway -- are available pretty much at the drop of a hat. Yes, we'd like to see more non-Microsoft applications supported, and more control over the display of results in the browser. But for a beta it works remarkably well, and can only get better. And if you're worried about privacy, Google only collects non-personal information relating to the performance of the applet -- the number of searches, time to get results and so on: for now, there are no adverts tied to the desktop search results, although that could change in the future.