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DevonAgent 2.0

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Say the word “search,” and Google is likely the first tool that comes to mind. But sometimes you need more than just a list of links. DevonAgent 2.0 begins where Google leaves off.

Aimed at casual Web surfers and serious researchers alike, the program queries multiple search engines simultaneously, visits each link for you, and filters and summarizes the results. Thus it steers you much closer to the content you want, without a lot of fruitless clicking.

Simple searching

DevonAgent brings the same kind of industrial-strength research tools once reserved for scientists to your Mac’s desktop. It comes with more than 130 plug-ins for search engines, scientific databases, and other research tools. These range from general-interest search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) to more-specialized medical, philosophical, or domain-specific databases, such as the Apple Knowledge Base. (You can even write your own XML plug-ins to support other databases.)

Thankfully, you don’t have to be a scientist to use DevonAgent. The program’s interface collapses into a small window featuring a single text field. Just type your query into this field to begin your search. Even without customization, the search results are uncanny in their relevance. A couple of nice touches: Because it doesn’t require you to learn the unique syntax of individual search engines, DevonAgent can simplify life for anyone who needs to query a number of search engines. And you can even search within file types such as various kinds of multimedia, e-mail, or RSS/RDF/RSF/Atom feeds.

Search sets

The program also allows you to define your own search sets. A search set includes options for which search engines to query, what type of content to search (for example, RSS feeds), how deep into a Web site’s link hierarchy you want to look, and whether or not you want to filter out repetitive or irrelevant material. Unfortunately, when defining search sets, it’s easy to get lost in the maze-like editing window, with options spread out among several different panes.

You can use plug-ins as part of your search sets, or you can access the plug-ins directly. For example, if you assign a keyword to a plug-in, you can use it to perform a quick search from the address bar of the program’s built-in Web browser. This Safari-based browser is streamlined for fast searching and means that you don’t have to leave the program to follow links.

Detailed results

The expanded main window offers two views of your search results: Pages and Digest. The Pages view lists all of the page results, ranked by relevance. But instead of taking you off into the wilds of the Web, the program lets you click on each page so you can read a summary of it. The Digest view presents a list of related keywords the program finds in the search results. For example, a query on the topic of liberation theology resulted in a list of additional keywords such as Marxism, history, and faith. Click on a keyword and you get a summary of the page that contains it.

New to version 2.0 is the interactive topics map visualizer. For each selected topic (or keyword) the visualizer generates a map that displays the main topic in the center with related topics grouped around it like a constellation. The size and color of the circles representing the topics indicate the degree to which topics relate to each other. Select a new topic and the digest dynamically refocuses on it, making it easy to navigate among search results.

Other useful features include the Objects drawer, which lists items by content type, such as news feeds, e-mail addresses, or images. Also, like Apple’s Spotlight, DevonAgent allows you to define live queries that can run unattended, which is handy if you want to monitor Web pages for news. The program can automatically notify you of new results via e-mail, or execute an AppleScript. In addition, you can access DevonAgent through a Dashboard widget or contextual menu from within any application.

Macworld’s buying advice

DevonAgent 2.0 goes beyond mere searching to filter and summarize results, making it possible to find the proverbial needle in the haystack of information that is the Web. It’s simple to use while at the same time providing the kind of industrial-strength search capability once reserved for academia.

[ Lee Sherman is a San-Francisco-based technology writer. ]

DevonAgent returns a list of pages ranked by relevance and summarizes them so you don’t have to visit each one yourself.
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