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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
Music is my saviour / and I was maimed by rock and roll / I was tamed by rock and roll / I got my name from rock and roll
— Jeff Tweedy, Sunken Treasure
March 29, 2006
Spotlight Works, Windows Desktop Search Doesn’t

I spend a great deal of time these days flipping back and forth between my PowerBook at home and my Windows desktop at work. One of the many things I missed about the Mac was Spotlight — Apple’s much hyped search technology for desktops.

Spotlight works, and once you’ve gotten used to being able to search for anything with a single click it’s addictive. Smart folders and smart mailboxes are amazingly useful.

This got me to thinking, at work, that I would download Google Desktop. After spending the weekend with a friend who works for Microsoft, I snagged Microsoft Desktop Search — she insisted it was better — and installed it too.

Both fall short, for a really simple reason.

Indexing Speed

All of these products work on a very simple premise: an index. When I installed Tiger, I lost about 1GB of hard drive space, presumably to the index for Spotlight. This index took about two hours to build — two hours during which my computer was slow, and non-responsive and generally very annoying.

Both Google Desktop and Windows Desktop Search do the same thing, albeit even more painfully — trying to use your computer while Google Desktop is indexing just doesn’t work.

At this point in time, all three technologies area bout the same. We’ve indexed the drive, and all of the files we have on it can be searched. With the same files in place, typing in the same search we get substantially similar results.

So what’s wrong?

Files change.

Indexing Current Work

The content of your computer’s hard drive is a work in a progress. Open a file and change, for example, the words Battlestar Galactica to Serenity and the file has to be reindexed. Type a new letter to your incarcerated boy (or girl) friend and the file has to be indexed.

On my Windows machine, this takes time. As I sit here, I’ve edited a Word file to include a new header and changed its filename. This was 20 minutes ago — Windows Desktop Search hasn’t yet found it, and Google Desktop Search just now picked it up.

Spotlight would have had it in the index immediately.

What’s Happening Here

Without analyzing a bunch of technical documentation, what I presume is happening is that every time a file is saved the Mac OS is sending a message to Spotlight which updates its index. As a result, Spotlight is pretty much guaranteed to be the most current index possible — never more than a couple of minutes out of date.

Why this isn’t happening with Windows Desktop Search I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the wide variety of OS implementations over the years — I’m still astonished when I get, on a Windows XP box, Windows 98 style file save dialog boxes. Perhaps some apps can do this and others can’t (although my Microsoft Office is the most recent version, and one would expect it to communicate correctly.)

There’s also the looming question of why Google Desktop Search has already found it, and Windows Desktop Search hasn’t. That one will, I suspet, remain a mystery to me for some time.

I still love my Mac, and a good portion of that is the completeness with which Apple treats the user experience. The attention to details is evident on a regular basis.

Posted by skooter at 8:26 AM This entry is filed under Technology.

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