Built-in search functions make Windows 7 and Macs a delight when looking for stuff.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Free search methods for your files

October 16, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

You probably use Google to search the Web. It works great. But what should you use to search for stuff on your own computer?

Many Windows and Mac users have it made. They both have built-in desktop search functions that could embarrass Google. But the new Windows method works only in Windows 7, leaving users of XP (and Vista, if there are any left) out in the cold. The Mac search function fares better among users; it's been around long enough to be found on just about all Macs in today's homes

First, let's clear up some confusion about desktop search software. As you might suspect, it's not just for searching your desktop -- if your desktop is THAT cluttered, you need more help than I can supply -- and it's not just useful when you're looking for a file.

The best part of desktop search software is the way it can find words and phrases (italic) inside (end italic) files, including mail and things like calendar entries and to-do items. You'll never lose that birthday list you made three years ago, no matter what you called it or how you stored it, or that note about the best bed & breakfast sites in Nova Scotia, no matter what you did with it. If a reference to something exists on your computer, a good desktop search system will find it.

What I recommend for users of non-Windows-7 PCs is Copernic, a sturdy search program that's been around for years. (I used an early version when I was trying out Windows 95.) Copernic comes in two versions, a free one for you and me and a paid version for those who want more features. (The free version has all the features we might need.)

Get Copernic from www.copernic.com.

Windows 7 users might not suspect that they have an effective desktop search function. Older versions of Windows looked only for filenames, but Windows 7 can find phrases, names, dates and just about anything else. The secret to getting this advanced search is the F3 key (function key 3).

Click once on a bare area of the desktop (just to make sure you're working with Windows itself, not with a separate program) and then press F3. You'll see a search form.

Once you enter your search word or phrase, a menu opens that gives you a chance to filter your search. You have many choices, and you can even search just for long or short videos, to give just one example.

Mac users have a search function called Spotlight. Press Cmd-Spacebar to open the search form. Spotlight is not like the Windows 7 search at all; it finds items much more quickly, but doesn't easily give you the options for advanced searching like the ones in Windows 7.

(Seasoned users of both computers might realize that there are other ways to get the search forms to open besides F3 and Cmd-Spacebar. I prefer those methods because they don't require mousing around. Feel free to use the mouse method by clicking the search bar in Windows Explorer or the spyglass icon on a Mac.)