Google Desktop

Hard-drive storage capacities are constantly increasing, but for some of us, all that extra space just makes it harder to find the files we’re looking for. So it’s little surprise that Google has tried to bring its search expertise to your Mac. The beta release of Google Desktop shows promise, but people expecting the famed omniscience of Google’s online search engine may be disappointed.

On the face of it, Google Desktop seems a lot like Spotlight, the search technology built into OS X 10.4, but Google says that the two are complementary. Like Spotlight, Google Desktop builds an index of your files. When you summon Google Desktop’s floating window (by pressing the command key twice) and enter a query, the search results are displayed in a drop-down list below the query field. As with Spotlight, selecting a file from the list opens it in its original application.

Google Desktop does have some advantages over Spotlight. Many users complain that Spotlight makes it difficult to search for files just by name; with Google Desktop, you can simply type

"filename:penguin"
to have it show you files with the word penguin in the name. Similar query restrictions allow you to specify file type or date as well. Google Desktop also searches some types of content that Spotlight doesn’t, such as Gmail messages and Web-browsing history. And though Google Desktop will respect Spotlight’s privacy list (which you can assign via System Preferences), some privacy-conscious users might balk at Google Desktop’s caching of deleted content. You can’t disable this functionality, though you can opt not to display results from deleted files.

Google Desktop is somewhat snappier at displaying results than Spotlight. But Google Desktop’s top results seem less specific: if, for example, I type in the name of a contact, Spotlight usually shows that person’s Address Book entry as the top hit; in Google Desktop, it’s buried under a mélange of emails and other documents (sometimes including spam messages).

Like Spotlight, Google Desktop can eat up CPU cycles when it’s indexing your computer’s content. In day-to-day usage, it didn’t seem to severely affect my machine’s performance, though its attendant processes ate up as much as 100MB of memory.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you’re a power user who is dissatisfied with Spotlight’s speed and inability to handle complex, Boolean-style searches, you may find Google Desktop an improvement, and it’s free. But don’t expect the almost magical results from Google Desktop that we’ve come to know and love from Google’s Web search utility.

[ Dan Moren is a coeditor of MacUser.com and a frequent contributor to Macworld and Playlistmag.com. ]

Google Desktop’s query restrictions let you specify criteria like file type and dates, to help narrow down your search results.

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