Although available for Windows for some time, Google Desktop was recently released for the Mac, and I very recently decided to take it for a spin. The Mac version is slightly stripped down from the Windows version (there are no gadgets to clutter up your desktop, for instance), but what features it does have, as I found out, work well.
At first glance, Google Desktop for Mac seems to be a nearly identical product to Spotlight, which is a desktop meta-search tool introduced with the most recent version of the Mac operating system. Spotlight indexes all the files on your hard drive (or wherever you tell it to search – you can exclude certain areas if you wish), and then, after a click of the mouse or a predetermined series of keystrokes, up pops a search window, and Spotlight searches the index it created for whatever you wish to find.
As opposed to older search tools, which simply search through the names of files, products like Spotlight, Google Desktop and Beagle (for Linux), are able to search inside files. So if, for instance, a word processing document contains the word, “dichotomy,” those tools will bring up the file in response to your search query, even though the word might not be a part of the document’s name. Tools like this are very handy, and especially with plugin support, which can allow new formats to be searched, even though they may not have existed when the search tool was written.
After downloading and installing Google Desktop, the indexing of the hard drive commences. It can take a number of hours to go through every readable document, depending upon the hard drive’s size. After this, however, Google Desktop is aware when a new file is added (or an existing one is modified), and so the demand on the processor is light, as only those changes require the program to modify its index.
Using Google Desktop is easy. If the user chooses, an icon will be visible in the menu bar. Simply click that menu and choose to bring up the search box. Or, simply hitting the Apple key twice in a row will do the same job. At this point, simply type in your search query, and the program will go to work.
In my comparison, running on the same computer, Google Desktop returned its search results noticeably quicker than did Spotlight, which is a huge plus. Spotlight was the first tool of its kind available for the Mac, and because of this has probably suffered a bit from being so early. Google Desktop, which actually uses Spotlight for some of its features, is able to provide the same service, only quicker.
In addition to its speed, Google Desktop offers two other points of integration not offered by Spotlight that I feel are worthy of mention. First is that Google Desktop integrates with your web browser. So, if you are in Safari and search for “dichotomy” via Google.com, you will return a long list of web results, obviously. But if you have chosen to allow Google Desktop to integrate with your web services, you will see – at the top of the page – a note that informs you that you have results on your computer, as well. Clicking this link takes you to a separate page, where the results from your computer are visible, and clicking one of those links then takes you to the actual document or file, just as if you had used Google Desktop to perform the search.
One worry about this, of course, is that Google Desktop is somehow sending your information to Google’s servers. From everything I understand, however, this is not taking place. Google Desktop has simply set a trigger within your web browser so that whenever Google is used (via the web), it also sends a search query to Google Desktop, but instead of using the desktop program to display the results, simply lists them ahead of the web search results.
The second piece of integration where Google Desktop has an advantage over Spotlight is in regards to GMail, Google’s popular email service. Since GMail is becoming quite popular, and is a Google product, it was natural that Google Desktop also be able to search a user’s GMail account. Setting this up is as simple as telling Google Desktop your email address and password, and it then indexes your inbox, sent and archived emails as if they were a part of your hard drive.
Obviously, for the above two areas of integration to work, your computer must be hooked up to the Internet (at least – in the case of GMail integration – for the initial indexing). Google Desktop works fine without the Internet, of course, for searching the desktop.
All in all I found Google Desktop to be a very pleasing program to use. Because it searches programs as well as files, it can be used as a program launcher. Simply search for the name of the program you wish to start, and when it shows up in the results, click it, and the program will launch. Google Desktop can also be used to trigger a web search. At the bottom of every desktop search is an option to Search The Web, and simply selecting that will bring up the default web browser with the web results already showing.
As mentioned earlier, Google Desktop was, in my experience, quite a bit faster at displaying the same results as Spotlight. With its web and GMail integration, Google Desktop is shaping up to be a very well-thought-out and fast program. My only “gripe” is that Google Desktop, because of its reliance on Spotlight, is only available on Mac 10.4, and not any older versions. It would be nice if someone would figure out a meta-search tool for 10.3 and below, but perhaps that isn’t as easy as it sounds (and I’m certainly no programmer!). And with the upcoming release of Mac 10.5, it may be that most people will have upgraded to at least 10.4 anyway.
Regardless, Google Desktop is an excellent option for those wanting a bit more speed and a few more features than offered by Spotlight. Google Desktop is a free program, and can be downloaded via the Google Desktop website.