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Windows Built-In Search Facility: What's New in Windows Search 4.0?

written by: John Lister•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 7/4/2011

Windows Search 4.0 is the latest built-in search facility incorporated into the Windows OS. Here we discuss the new search facility, which offers enhanced speed, advanced features, several new tricks, and best of all a potentially useful technique which Microsoft likes to keep hidden.

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    Earlier this month, Microsoft updated their Windows’ search facility to make it far easier to find information on your PC. Unless you’ve got automatic updates turned off, it should have been downloaded to Vista machines on 3 June. If you’ve got XP, it’s only classed as an optional (rather than recommended) feature, so you’ll have to download it manually from the Microsoft site.

    The system works by taking information about all the files on your computer and creating a master index. Once this is set up (which takes a few hours at first), the index automatically updates whenever you change a file’s contents.

    The index makes the search much faster than the old system, which effectively started over every time you carried out a search. As well as the text in documents, the new Windows Search also looks for database details such as artist names and song titles in your music files, and even e-mails which you’ve got stored on your PC.

    The general feedback so far backs Microsoft’s promise that the new edition of the system (Windows Search 4) runs quicker and is less demanding on computer resources such as memory. There have also been some technical changes to make it less likely that the index will be damaged if your computer has a serious crash.

    Aside from running more smoothly, the practical changes in the new edition are mainly to do with networks. A new feature called remote index discovery makes it possible for Vista and XP machines to search one another across a network.

    There are also more options for network managers to control exactly which machine handles the workload, which allows them to make sure searches have a minimal effect on the network’s overall running.

    Another change is that the system can cope with encrypted files. Previously these were simply ignored by the system. Now if you search for a term and it appears in an encrypted file, you’ll be told the file exists and is relevant – though naturally you’ll still need the relevant permission to access the file.

    Something that’s not new, but is still something of a secret is the “Use natural language search” option. You can activate this in the Windows Search options menu under the Search tab. The idea is that phrases such as “photographs of garden taken last month” should provide relevant results without you needing to manually set a series of filters and options.

    Vista ships with the option turned off, likely because it doesn’t work perfectly: it takes some trial and error to discover which terms work well. For example, “email yesterday” does bring up all the e-mails you sent and received yesterday, but it also brings up every e-mail with the term “yesterday” in the message.

    Despite the improvements in Windows Search 4, there are still some barriers to the idea of a seamlessly integrated system for searching your PC, network and the internet in a single step. Aside from the technical restrictions, regulators probably won’t be happy about such a system unless it covered all internet search engines, whereas Microsoft would probably prefer to push their own service.

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    Promotional image of Windows Search 4.0Promotional logo for Windows Search 4.0