It's been a busy couple of years in the suddenly-hot desktop search market. Since October 2003, when Microsoft spilled the beans on its plans to integrate instant desktop search into Windows Longhorn, competitors far and wide have tried to take advantage of Longhorn's delays to release their own desktop search products. The most visible is Apple's Spotlight, a feature of Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my review). However, Spotlight has two main limitations: It runs only on the very latest Mac OS X system, severely limiting its exposure, and it has some glaring functional omissions (i.e. it cannot perform advanced Boolean searches or search key parts of the system, including the OS X Help files).

On the PC, instant desktop search products are popping up everywhere. Google was first out of the gate with its Google Desktop Search, but others, like Yahoo! Desktop Search and Copernic Desktop Search soon appeared as well. Each of these products includes basic search functionality with varying degrees of Windows integration. However, each is also somewhat limited.

My favorite desktop search product came from an unexpected place. In December 2004, Microsoft's MSN division released a public beta version of its MSN Toolbar for Internet Explorer (IE), which was briefly renamed as MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 (see my preview). Building on previous versions of the product, MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 beta added toolbars for Windows Explorer and Outlook, and a new taskbar-based Deskbar. It added most of the search functionality we expect to see from Longhorn's desktop search features, and it was as integrated with the underlying system as Spotlight is in Tiger.

Since then, MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 has been renamed again to MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search (WDS), a moniker that speaks volumes about the importance Microsoft now places in this product. With Longhorn slipping into late 2006, Microsoft suddenly has an excellent desktop search feature, available for free, that rivals any of the competition while providing a degree of OS integration that is unheard of. MSN Search Toolbar with WDS is also significantly better than its predecessor, offering a host of new configuration options and vastly improved performance. In this review, I'll examine what's changed since the public beta. For an overview of MSN Search Toolbar with WDS, please refer to my MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 Preview.

A friendlier installer

The Setup routine for MSN Search Toolbar with WDS has been radically overhauled to be more friendly. Now, instead of simply installing all of its so-called entry points--places in the system where you can access MSN Search functionality--you can choose which entry points are installed, or accept the defaults (Figure). If you choose to customize the install, you can choose whether to install the IE and Windows Explorer search toolbars, the Outlook search toolbar (if you have Microsoft Outlook installed), and the MSN Search Deskbar, which sits in the taskbar (Figure). You can also configure whether to make MSN Search the default engine in IE, and whether to make MSN.com your home page (Figure).

Most intriguingly, Microsoft has opened up a wide range of indexing configuration options. In order to quickly search the contents of your hard drive, WDS, like other desktop search engines, must first index the files you use. This process takes time, especially if the tool indiscriminately chooses to index the entire drive. By default, WDS will index just your email and My Documents folder (Figure). But you can optionally configure it to index other locations, including your entire hard drive or even a custom set of folders (Figure). Nice!

Finally, WDS Setup prompts you to visit the MSN Search Toolbar add-ons site (Figure). I recommend doing so: One of the currently available add-ons, Adobe PDF iFilter 6.0, lets WDS index PDF files.

Using MSN Search Toolbar with WDS

In use, MSN Search Toolbar with WDS functions much like the beta product, but with some improvements.

More configurable when installed

Once MSN Search Toolbar with WDS is installed, you can also configure other features. Using the Options button in one of the WDS toolbars, you can access the MSN Search Toolbar Options dialog (Figure), which gives you a wide variety of choices. Two of these choices are most welcome (and most unexpected). First, you can change the location of your WDS index, moving it to your fastest (or largest capacity) hard drive, if desired.

Second, you can configure WDS to use a different search engine when performing Web searches. You read that right. If you prefer to search the Web with Google, you can do so using Microsoft's integrated search tool. Yeah, that's amazing.

You need to perform a bit of work to make this function correctly, however. In the General section of the MSN Search Toolbar Options dialog, you need to choose Other search service in the Web search service section. Then, you can enter the search string needed to make Google (or another service) work correctly with WDS. Here are the search strings you need for each major Web search service:

Google
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=$w

Yahoo!
http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=$w

It's worth noting that you can also configure which buttons appear in the toolbars. Some people may be put off by the many buttons that the MSN Search Toolbars display by default, and may not need or want access to MSN services like Spaces, Messenger, or My MSN. In addition to deciding which buttons to display, you can also make the toolbars shorter by turning off text labels.

In short, you should spend some time rooting through the WDS options dialog. There's a lot to configure in there, and much you can turn off (or enable) as you wish.

Performance

The MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 was my favorite desktop search solution because of its nice Windows integration and heady feature set. My only real issue was the performance: The initial indexing seemed to take a long time. That's no longer an issue. Indeed, even on my desktop system's massive hard drive, indexing was complete in less than 40 minutes. And after that, WDS is designed to forgo any further indexing until your system is idle (although that feature, of course, is configurable as well).

New Preview Pane

Aside from the aforementioned configuration possibilities, the biggest change since the beta is a new Preview Pane that appears, by default, in all search results windows (Figure). As you scroll through the list of search results, the Preview Pane provides a preview of the contents of the selected item.

Some of the previews are really neat looking. For example, if you select a music file, you'll see a nice album art view along with a list of other songs found in the same folder (Figure). Images, of course, are displayed graphically. And so on.

Incidentally, the Preview Pane can be configured in various ways, and it can be turned off of course. You can also choose between large icon and small icon view in the search results list. In large icon view, you can see image previews (Figure), which is nice. This is an obviously well-designed solution.

Massive document type support

For the curious, WDS indexes over 200 popular document types, including the following:

Microsoft Outlook - Outlook 2000, XP, 2003 Email, Contacts, Calendar, Tasks and Notes.
Outlook Express - E-mail.
Microsoft Office -Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Text files
MSN Messenger - Chat conversation logs.
Adobe PDF - With an optional (and free) iFilter download.
Web page files - HTM, HTML
Audio files - WMA, MP3
Images files - GIF, JPG, BMP
Video files - AVI, WMV

And thanks to its open architecture, companies can create custom iFilter extensions that let WDS index any file type. This will prove hugely important for corporations that have created proprietary file types, but it also means that WDS can be instantly updated should some popular new document type hit the Web tomorrow.

A free-wheeling Deskbar

The WDS Deskbar is a cool tool, but it's not locked to the taskbar anymore, which is kind of interesting. You can dock it to any side of the screen (Figure), for example, or even let it float on your desktop (Figure). Again, the customizability of this product is simply astonishing.

Finally: Tabbed Browsing for IE Users

In late April, Microsoft contacted me to tell me that it was going to implement tabbed browsing in MSN Search Toolbar with WDS, providing Internet Explorer users with a feature Mozilla, Opera, and Safari users have enjoyed for years. I received a near-final build of WDS that included the feature. A week or so later, however, I discovered that tabbed browsing was being removed from the initial public release of MSN Search Toolbar with WDS.

What happened? According to MSN, the tabbed browsing feature had been added too late in the process and wouldn't have time to undergo the stringent testing it required. But on June 9, 2005, Microsoft re-released MSN Search Toolbar with WDS, and this new version now includes the tabbed browsing feature. Here's how it works.

First, you'll notice when you launch IE that a new Tabs row has been added to the UI below the MSN Search Toolbar (Figure). It doesn't appear to be implemented as a discrete toolbar and is, instead, manually attached to the top of the IE display frame. This isn't a huge issue: Arguably, that's where it should be located, right? But you can't display the MSN Search Toolbar and the IE tab row separately, so now when you add the MSN Search Toolbar to IE, you're removing a significant amount of vertical space. To save space, of course, you can drag the MSN Search Toolbar up next to the Address Bar or Standard Buttons toolbar.

In any event, the Tabs row includes a few UI elements by default:

My Tabs. This is a button with a drop-down menu that lets you configure the My Tabs feature, which I describe below.

Open links in background tab. A button that toggles how links are opened by default. In its default (not selected) mode, hyperlinks you click on Web pages open normally. However, when this button is selected, hyperlinks open in new "background" tabs that appear behind the current tab.

Tab for the current page. Even if you have only one tab displayed (which is the default), you will see a tab for that page. There is no way to turn off this feature, as you can in other browsers.

Show all tabs. A drop-down menu that lets you access all tabs, create a new tab, and access the tabbed browsing options sheet, which is part of the MSN Search Toolbar Options dialog (See below).

Some general thoughts about tabbed browsing

Tabbed browsing should be the gotta-have-it IE feature for the MSN Search Toolbar. After all, Microsoft is intending on shipping a similar feature in IE 7, which is due later this year. There's just one problem: This feature feels very much like a hack, and doesn't seem to be integrated with IE in a seamless manner. Case in point: I use tabbed browsing extensively in Firefox, but in that browser you can use simple keystrokes to open (CTRL+T) and close (CTRL+W) individual tabs, and to move between tabs (CTRL+TAB). On IE, CTRL+T does open a new tab, and CTRL+TAB works. But CTRL+W closes the complete IE window, so if you have 10 tabs open--poof!--they're all gone. Yikes.

More important, the performance is kind of lousy, though I'm sure this is an IE 6.x issue, and not necessarily MSN's fault. When you open a new tab, you almost get to watch it draw in real time: The whole IE window flashes, disappears momentarily, and then the new tab appears.

My Tabs

Some browsers, like Apple's Safari, let you save groups of tabs as a single bookmark. When you re-load these special bookmarks, the browser reloads each Web site in its own tab. That kind of feature can be handy if you regularly visit groups of sites, or want to start the day by visiting a list of sites in sequence.

MSN Search Toolbar's tabbed browsing feature sort of adds a feature like this, though you can only create one group of saved sites, which is called My Tabs. And because the tabbed browsing feature is not part of IE, and is instead an add-on, My Tabs is available from the Tabs row, and not from a more logical place, like the Favorites menu.

To add sites to My Tabs, you simply open each site you'd like in its own tab, select the My Tabs button, and then choose Set Current Pages as My Tabs. Microsoft is kind enough to stock My Tabs with four MSN sites: MSN Search Toolbar Help, MSN.com, MSN Search, and the MSN Search Toolbar Add-ins site, each of which opens in its own tab (Figure).

Tabbed browsing options

If you look at the Tabbed Browsing section of the MSN Search Toolbar Options dialog (Figure), you'll notice there are only a few options. You can toggle whether tabbed browsing is enabled, which is handy.

You can also optionally choose to open MSN Search results in background tabs. This is a pretty cool feature. When you launch a search from the MSN Search Web site, the results list appears in the current tab, as you'd expect. But each time you click on a search results link, that page opens in a new tab (Figure). Awesome! This is one of the few areas in which the tabbed browsing feature actually outdoes the competition.

Finally, you can also configure what type of page appears when you open a new tab: MSN Search, the tabbed browsing instructions page (the default), a blank page, or your IE home page (which is what I'd switch it to).

Missing or hard-to-find features

There are still a few niggling issue with MSN Search Toolbar with WDS, but I'm nitpicking, because I'd like to completely replace the lame Windows Search feature from XP with this excellent product. First, WDS finds documents (and email), but not "files," not unless you use some advanced syntax. The distinction is important. If you want to find every document you've written that includes the text "MSN," WDS is a great tool. If you want to find files like msn.dll, WDS can't help you unless you use search syntax like Filename:msn.dll. That's by design, of course. But sometimes you need to find files. It shouldn't require special syntax. (Since it does, however, you can find more information in the Advanced Query reference in WDS help.)

Second, WDS is incapable of easily winnowing down results beyond its stock document type filtering (documents, email, music, etc.). Let's say you perform a search that retrieves hundreds of results and would like to narrow the search from there. WDS doesn't offer a way to query only the existing results. Instead, you'd have to restart your search and use some sort of Boolean operators, which sort of negates the point of an easy-to-use search tool. Plus, what if I want to display just two result types (documents AND email)? It's not easy and it's certainly not discoverable: You can use a complex series of Boolean operators to make this work, but normal people will never figure that out. Microsoft already makes visual query tools (including a nice playlist editor in Windows Media Player). WDS would benefit from one as well.

Though WDS does include the ability to save dynamic search results in a special folder, as Apple does with Spotlight's Smart Folder feature, it isn't easy to discover, and I didn't even know it was possible until a number of readers pointed it out. Here's how it works: You perform a desktop search normally, using any of the toolbars. In the results window, drag the little magnifying glass icon in the Address Bar to any location in your system, like your desktop. This creates a shortcut to the search. When you double-click that shortcut, it opens a new search results window, with the results dynamically generated on-the-fly. You can also save search results in your Favorites folder if you'd like by choosing Favorites and then Add to Favorites from the menu.

Also--and this is the only one that really affects me--WDS doesn't offer a way to open up a discrete location in the file system and launch a search of just that location (and, optionally, all of the folders logically found under that location). I keep a lot of documents on network drives, and often need to search for information in specific folder structures. WDS can't do it, and that's a shame.

Finally, WDS doesn't natively install on or support Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. That's a shame.

Conclusions

MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search is the best desktop search tool available to Windows users, and a must-have addition to any XP user's desktop. It's fast, free, and functional, and offers virtually every feature you'll ever need. No software is perfect, and certainly with WDS there is room for improvement, but the sheer number of improvements that were made both at the beginning of this product, and then again during the beta, are bewildering. I have no doubt that future updates and releases will make this an even more impressive solution. Highly recommended.