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ISBS Tech Guide: Windows Vista Desktop Search

By Brian | April 30, 2007 | Share on Facebook

As we discussed last week, Windows Vista is not that big a change from Windows XP, other than a few “Wow”-inducing items and a couple of very useful enhancements. Even those enhancements, though, are typically just tweaks to existing Windows functions (like the breadcrumbs navigation technique that replaces the Windows Explorer tree or the Flip 3D function that enhances the existing Alt-Tab feature). Desktop search is an exception to this rule, though, and warrants its own entry in the ISBS Tech Guide.

First, let’s review how desktop search worked in Windows XP. Basically, it worked like an application. You ran it (Start–>Search), typed in a query, clicked “Search” and received a result set. From there, you had basic interaction capability with the files, and when you were done, you closed the Search app and the results went away. It was like changing the channel on the TV, rather than reaching for the remote control. In other words, I hardly ever used it. Instead, I’d peruse my regular file folders to find a file, use the search within my mail application to find a particular e-mail, or click through the Start menu folders to find a rarely-used application. I’d use the search app only in the very rare case where I truly had no idea where I’d put something, but even then, it was typically unsuccessful at helping me find it.

In Windows Vista, search is a function of the operating system, not an application. It has gone from a tool of last resort to the easiest way to find just about anything on the PC. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say that before the season started, my friend sent me a Word document containing the New York Yankees’ 2007 schedule, and that this morning, he e-mailed me that he’s coming to New York and wants to catch a Yankee game.

The first thing I do is press the Start key (the one with the flag on it, next to the Alt key on most keyboards). This does the exact same thing as clicking on the Windows Logo in the bottom left corner of the screen, but note that you don’t need the mouse to search in Vista. When the Start menu opens, focus defaults to it’s search box. This is key, because again, I don’t need to touch the mouse. So, after pressing the Start key, I begin to type “yankee schedule.” As I type, the list of commonly used programs that is normally above the search box in the Start Menu disappears, and search results immediately start appearing in its place. With each successive character I type, Vista refines my search and shows me a shorter list of potential results.

The results are grouped and sorted intelligently. Applications are on top, followed by Files, followed by Communications (e-mails, saved IM’s, etc.) In this case, after a six keystrokes (<Start>yanke), the first item on the list is the Word document I was looking for. I press Enter and the document opens. That’s seven keystrokes from reading the e-mail to reviewing the schedule. As I said above, search has gone from a tool of last resort to the easiest way to find a file.

The next day, I need to pick my friend up at the airport. That e-mail he sent me had his flight number and arrival time in it. I sit down at my PC and once again type <Start>yanke. The word document is on top of the list, but just below it (under “Communications”) is a list of e-mails containing the string “yanke,” the second of which is the the e-mail from my friend. So, I press the down arrow twice and then Enter again. The e-mail opens and I have the information I need – this time, in eight keystrokes. (A small aside: note that Outlook does not launch to display my e-mail, just the individual message opens. This seems like a small detail, but in the past, launching an individual e-mail message would launch Outlook, which would display my entire Inbox, and kick off a Send/Receive transaction, which would download whatever mail I had residing on my POP3 server. Most of this would happen in the background, but it would all be wasted processing, given my task at hand).

Just to round out the example, say I now want to figure out how much my friend owes me for the tickets, so I need a calculator. I type <Start>calc, and the first item on the list is the Windows Calculator app. I press Enter and the calculator appears. Others may prefer to put a calculator icon on their desktop or toolbar, but I find these six keystrokes to be a faster way to work. At any rate, you have both options.

All of this would be fairly impressive on it’s own, but the coolest feature of Windows Vista Search is the saved search result windows. Let’s say my ticket exchange above is part of a larger service I provide, distributing Yankee tickets to friends throughout the year. In that case, I probably have lots of documents and e-mails that contain the phrase “yankee,” so I’d have to be more specific in my search to find what I’m looking for. In that case, here’s what I’d do: Type <Start>yankee to bring the list up. But then, instead of clicking on an item, click “See all search results” at the bottom of the list. This opens a standard Vista window, displaying everything that matches the search (including applications, files, e-mails, etc). I can sort/group any way I want (by file type, by name, by date, etc.). Then (and here’s the cool part), I can save my search window as it’s own folder. Now, whenever I open this folder (or refresh the window), I can see all files/e-mails on my PC that contain the term “yankee.” To be clear: I’m not saving the result set from my recent search; I’m saving the query itself. So if I get ten more e-mails tomorrow regarding the Yankees, the same window will contain ten more items tomorrow. Also of note, given how Windows XP worked: the items in this window are the actual files themselves, not shortcuts or pointers to the files. I can open/edit/rename/delete/etc. the files right from this window, even if they actually live at the end of some complex folder tree in my Documents folder. The Vista architecture allows a file to be referenced natively from more than one location, which greatly enhances the usability of search (among other things).

Two other notes – one on indexing and one on the Mac search tool.

Regarding indexing: Vista Search comes complete with a small indexing application, which allows me to specify which folders are included in the search index and which are not. This covers Windows folders, but also folders within your Outlook inbox. So, for instance, since I’m such a pack rat and never empty my Deleted Mail folder, I set Search to ignore the Deleted Mail folder in my mail file. This eliminates clutter from my search results, but allows me to keep my poor man’s e-mail archive. Also, the index management tool lets me include networked folders, so I can have the Search function on my laptop, for example, search the shared network drive and bring back files that I worked on from a different machine.

Regarding Mac Search: When Vista was in beta release, many compared the search function to OS X’s Spotlight search tool. The biggest criticism of Vista’s implementation (other than the persistent cries of “copycat!”) was the fact that the search tool was not always visible on the screen (in OS X, it’s always in the upper-right corner). I find that I actually prefer this choice, since the tool is always one keystroke away. Also, while some may prefer the mouse for common tasks, I’m very much a keyboard shortcut user. I don’t know if you can bring Spotlight into focus with a single keystroke (although I’m sure someone will tell me in the comments. <clears throat>). If not, having to mouse to the upper right and click to execute a search would drastically reduce it’s utility to me (especially with a wide screen monitor).

As it stands, I’m obviously a very big fan of Vista’s search tool. I’ve already used it more in the first two months than I did in all my prior years of Windows usage.

Next week: What’s the deal with Vista security?

Topics: Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “ISBS Tech Guide: Windows Vista Desktop Search”

  1. Jeff Porten says at May 1st, 2007 at 7:34 am :
    Command-Spacebar is the default keystroke to bring up the Spotlight search field, and yes, the keyboard focus jumps there so it’s a no-mouse endeavor. We don’t have a Windows key, but you could assign it to an Fkey if you wanted to make it a single keystroke.

    Spotlight has its own problems, though — which I’ll go into in detail when I get around to blogging my responses to your ISBS tech series.

  2. Brian says at May 1st, 2007 at 6:17 pm :
    Ooohh…a Tech Guide that comes with its own Response Tech Guide. I like the sound of that a lot.

    Sounds like a Red & Blue book deal in the making… ;-)


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