Review: Copernic Desktop Search 1.5

While the newer kids on the desktop search block are still figuring things out, old-timer Copernic offers just the right feature set to get the job done.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 18, 2005

11 Min Read

[Editor's Note: The following review was written for "Scot's Newsletter," an independent publication of CMP's Pipeline Editor Scot Finnie.]

To quote Carl Sagan, the Internet consists of billions and billions of documents — many of which even have useful bits of data on them. Having that much information available has turned us into data packrats who tuck away bits of info for later, like numbers for the quarterly presentation, pricing for that big purchase decision, and checklists for household projects past, present, and future. Given that most hard drives have free capacity measured in tens of gigabytes, there's as much room to store information as you could possibly want. Storage isn't the issue. It's all about retrieval, baby.

And that isn't easy. Most of us are not, shall we say ... organized. Did I save the HTML document? Or just copy the interesting bits into an email? Did I send that to anyone or just myself? What did I name the spreadsheet that had those Internet usage numbers? Or was it a PowerPoint chart? Or, gulp, a PDF?

To save us from having to answer these and other mind-numbing questions, several Web search companies, such as Google, MSN, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves, have released so-called desktop search programs. For several companies, this is their first foray into desktop search software, so the feature sets and user interfaces of their products are uneven. One company that's not a newcomer to the field is Copernic Technologies, which has been developing desktop search products since 1996.

Copernic Desktop Search 1.5 (click to see full size).

Copernic Desktop Search 1.5 (click to see full size).

Longevity has served Copernic well. While the newer entrants are still figuring things out, Copernic understands what to offer in a free desktop search product. Copernic Desktop Search (CDS) 1.5 doesn't try to do too much. It offers just the right feature set to get the job done.

A Distinctive Search
Any search product — Web or desktop — is only as good as the index it creates. The key to picking the desktop search utility that's right for you is to make sure it indexes the types of data you most need to search. It should also create a full-text index of most files. (Full text means includes the contents, not just metadata, of documents, emails, and other files in its index.)

Most desktop search products create a full-text index of Microsoft Office, text, and HTML documents, plus Microsoft Outlook emails. Some will index email attachments or Eudora mail. Most will index metadata (items like file name, size, date, and directory) for music, image, and video files. Some also index Outlook contacts, appointments, PDF files, Web history, and bookmarks. So start by asking yourself, what data do you need to index?

Copernic Technologies recently released CDS 1.5. One of the utility's new features is the ability to index Eudora email, an important decision point for me. (Despite years of trying, I just can't get in bed with Microsoft Outlook. I'm a tried and true Eudora girl.) Desktop search products are always playing leapfrog with each other, but Copernic 1.5 indexes an impressive list of file formats, including Office, HTML, .PDF, text files of all kinds (including .INI, Flash, and .ASP); Outlook, Outlook Express, and Mozilla Thunderbird emails, contacts, and attachments; Eudora email and attachments; browser history and bookmarks; and metadata indexing of music, image, and video files. Check out all the file types CDS recognizes and indexes (scroll down to the "Available desktop search categories" subhead).

About the only file format not supported by Copernic's 1.5 release is Instant Messenger transcripts. Only Google indexes AOL IM chats, but Google Desktop doesn't yet support Eudora email. Copernic also doesn't index RSS feeds, but then no desktop search product I'm aware of does that. (Scot mentioned in the last issue of the newsletter that Microsoft recently announced that Windows Longhorn will index RSS feeds.)

Install and Index
Turn off Selected Mailboxes or Folders (click to see full size).

Turn off Selected Mailboxes or Folders (click to see full size).

So what's Copernic like to set up and use? During installation you select the file types you want CDS to examine, including email program(s), file locations (directories), and your primary browser for Web history and bookmarks. You can configure CDS to search all mailboxes, or turn off selected ones. For example, you'll want to have it ignore your trash and spam folders. Copernic does an excellent job of making default selections, which it lets you customize. In picking file locations, it focuses on My Documents, My Music, and My Pictures, excluding Program Files and the Windows directory. The latter two usually don't contain data documents and would add considerably to indexing time. Even so, if you have a program that stores documents in Program Folders, you can configure CDS to search in that specific folder.

Excellent Defaults You Can Customize (click to see full size).

Excellent Defaults You Can Customize (click to see full size).

Once the program's configured and installed, the next step is building the index. This is the step that will take some time depending on what you've configured, your operating system, your hardware, and how much data you have. To give you some idea, it took a couple of hours to index my documents and email. I turned off the screensaver and did not use the computer at all while it was indexing. I have a hefty, though not obese, data store. I've been an amateur genealogist for many years, so I have a lot of files and documents I keep on hand.

For those who can't resist and want to delve into the numbers, I use about 10GB on my notebook's 40GB hard drive. That includes indexing a 162MB Eudora mail folder, some browser history, 1.2GB in My Documents, with few music or video files. My current PC is a 733MHz Compaq Pentium III notebook running WinXP Service Pack 2 with 1MB RAM.

I did run into a couple of problems. There were three emails in my Eudora mail store that the index didn't like. Each had a very large attachment, though I have many others with equally large attachments that indexed just fine. (Copernic indexes attachments, but lets you ignore those above a certain size. The default is 50MB.) I was able to continue the indexing process by creating a new mailbox within Eudora, moving the problem emails there and turning off indexing on that folder. Copernic support, which is unaware of this review, is looking at those three messages and their attachments to see if they can identify a common theme, but in the meantime, the program is working just fine.

My other problem was somewhat specialized, but I'll explain anyway. As a genealogist, I share family information with other genealogists and we use a specific file format to do that, called Gedcom (.GED). It's text-based, but CDS wasn't including my dozens of Gedcom files in its index. Under Options > Advanced, there's a listing of file extensions CDS uses to identify files to scan. I added GED as a text format, and now my genealogy files appear in search results, along with pictures, PDFs, and HTML documents. You can modify this list to include .DLLs, .EXEs or any other specialized file types you need to find.

And onto Results
Copernic's Results Help You Find Files Fast (click to see full size).

Copernic's Results Help You Find Files Fast (click to see full size).

Once the index is compiled you can begin searching for documents. (Actually you can begin searching while the index is compiling, though why you'd want to is a mystery to me.) The interface is easy to use — just type in some keywords and click the green arrow or Enter and the search is done. Copernic holds true to its primary function, which is to help users find files fast — not just in indexing and searching, but also in how it presents results. It doesn't overwhelm you with a huge long list of files — it groups them. First you select the type of file to search for (email, picture, file, and so on) then Copernic groups the results into sub categories by date, folder, or file type. You can also limit the search by date and by other criteria relevant to the file type.

What's nice is that even though the results listing is limited — a box underneath the search box shows you how many results were found in other file types. Meaning if you opted to search files, it will list the number of emails, pictures, contacts, and so forth that also meet your search criteria. In addition, you can change the subcategory grouping, so you can group emails by From, To or Subject instead of Date. And if what you really crave is one big listing of results, just deselect Show in Groups to see your heart's desire.

There are some who may find the groupings that CDS presents to be overly confining and trying to do too much thinking for you. (I've been known to criticize some software for that.) Personally I find Copernic to be just right. It arranges data files into meaningful groups that help you quickly zero in on the specific document you're looking for.

In addition to the results listing, there's also a file viewer that let's you view the contents of files so you can make sure that's the file or version you need. Once you're convinced, it's a simple matter to click Open File or Open Folder at the top of the results listing to get at your data.

So after all this, it probably sounds like I think Copernic Desktop Search is perfect. Well, not exactly. Remember, the desktop search category is still evolving. Even though CDS is incredibly functional, the interface is a bit flat. It's a Windows interface, but sort of chunky Windows, rather than elegant Windows. As a minor tweak, I'd like more expansive options to refine the search. Right now it's a series of drop down menus, depending on what type of document you're looking for. It would be nice, for example, to be able to select more than one file type at a time — for when I know the file was either a PDF or HTML, but not an Office document. It would also be nice to be able to save searches — in case there are things you look for on a regular basis.

One Size May Not Fit All
They say about New England weather that if you don't like it, wait for 15 minutes. It's much the same with desktop search, a product category that's moving fast. And the thing that drives a decision for one person often won't be the same as for someone else. For example, if you use Eudora mail exclusively, your choices are Copernic, X1 or Blinkx. If indexing AOL IM chats is mission critical, you want Google Desktop Search. If indexing Lotus Notes is your thing, then X1 is the way to go. So far, no product offers it all.

It's clear that data-search functionality should be built into the operating system. And desktop search is coming to Windows in Windows Longhorn in late 2006. In the Mac world, it's available now in Apple's Tiger. But for Windows users, just because it'll be available in Longhorn by 2007 doesn't mean most of us will have it. Longhorn is going to drive us toward new hardware (if we're smart). That means you could wait three years or more before having this useful facility at your fingertips. There's really no reason to wait though.

Having looked at all the contenders recently for PC Today magazine, Copernic Desktop Search definitely outpaces the free desktop search field. Copernic's only serious competitor is X1, which offers comparable or better functionality but costs $75. That's a lot of money for a specialized utility; more, for example, than I paid for Quicken last year. (Look for a review of X1 in an upcoming issue of Scot's Newsletter.) Since I mentioned X1, it's probably only fair to note that the absolutely free Yahoo Desktop Search is powered by X1, but there are a few important differences. First of all, Yahoo Desktop Search doesn't support Eudora, which lets me out. It also doesn't support Netscape Mail, Mozilla Mail, or Thunderbird. And as already noted, X1 adds Lotus Notes support. So, while they're essentially the same product, Yahoo Desktop Search pales by comparison with Copernic, and X1 is the more commercial, enterprise-oriented product that does it all for a price. Of course, Outlook and Outlook Express users may see this equation differently (but check the YDS file support list).

That leaves Copernic in the sweet spot among free desktop search utilities. Just download, install, and go. It's fast. It doesn't interfere with your everyday computer usage. When Windows launches, CDS is minimized as a tray icon. It searches all the file types I need it to, many more than most other free desktop search tools. By virtue of its simplicity, raw power, performance, and value — Copernic Desktop Search 1.5 is a clear winner.

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