It's the feature everyone loves to hate. Windows Search, the busy little background service that chews up your CPU cycles and thrashes your hard disk, is alternately revered and reviled, yet it rarely gets the attention it deserves.

On the plus side, Windows Search makes finding buried files, data, and - in the case of Vista - features and settings almost comically easy. Just start typing in the search box on any Explorer window and chances are your desired target will (almost) instantly appear.

And while the experience is not quite as well integrated under Windows XP (for example, you can't organise your results or search for specific Windows objects), the freely downloadable Windows Desktop Search tool does a pretty good job of providing a centralised interface into the data-centric side of your digital world.

But for all its flash, Microsoft's search offering has always felt a bit unfinished. The lack of centralised management tools, critical to enterprise IT administrators, and the perception that Windows Search could be as disruptive as it is helpful (for instance, client machines randomly "indexing" overburdened server shares at the most inopportune times) have so far relegated the technology to the guerrilla fringe.

Fortunately, that's all about to change. Windows Search 4.0 is finally here, and it's ready to enter the workplace as a well-mannered IT citizen.

Plays well with others

For starters, Microsoft has extended Group Policy coverage of Windows Search functionality.

Most importantly, you now can restrict searches against file shares and Microsoft Exchange message stores, the latter even if you're running Outlook without an offline cache (ie, an OST file). You can also add your own in-house search server to the list of available Primary Search Locations.

This new target option will then appear as a link in the various Windows Search UI components including the Deskbar and the Desktop Search results search box. Subtle changes, to be sure - however, combined with support for searching encrypted files and the ability to incorporate indices from other, networked systems, they make Windows Search 4.0 much more palatable for IT.

As for users, the UI for Desktop Search hasn't changed significantly from earlier versions. Some users prefer the all-in-one nature of the XP version to Vista's more distributed, integrated model. But while XP's UI is more visually distinct, Vista's search mechanism is actually more functional. In addition to searching for more object types, Vista lets you organise your search results using various filters, as in this stacked view.

Of course, Microsoft also took the opportunity to tweak performance a bit in this new version. Search engine CPU utilization (as measured by the Windows Sentinel Process Monitor widget), especially under Vista, has dropped significantly - as much as 34 percent in some instances. This, in turn, should allow Windows Search 4.0 to keep a lower performance profile, thereby addressing one of the major complaints against search under Vista: that it gobbles up too many CPU cycles.

Indexing performance was also supposed to have improved. However, testing under Vista Business (SP1) showed that it actually slowed by 17 percent. It took Search 4.0 a full 252 seconds to index a sample folder structure consisting of roughly 425MB of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio) data files, Adobe Acrobat PDF files, and a mix of text and Visual Studio source code files.

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