Add Vista-like search capabilities to Windows XP

Sure, Vista has Instant Search. But Windows XP supports Windows Desktop Search, which provides similar capabilities. Deb Shinder offers this detailed look at how to obtain and install this free download and how to use it to find your files much more quickly than you can with XP's built-in search engine.

This article is also available as a PDF download and a photo gallery.

One of the best new features in Windows Vista is the improved search capability, called Instant Search. By simply typing keywords in the search field on the Start menu, you can quickly find documents, e-mail messages, photos, and even programs. Instant Search is transforming the way users access files — more and more of us are abandoning the time-honored method of navigating through the file system hierarchy and are going directly to what we want from the search bar (which also appears in Windows Explorer and other windows in Vista).

But what if you aren't quite ready yet to upgrade to Vista? Maybe you have legacy applications that won't run on it or your hardware isn't compatible with the new OS. The good news is that you can get similar search capabilities in Windows XP, or even Windows 2000, by installing Windows Desktop Search, which is a free download from Microsoft.

In this article, we'll take a look at WDS and see how to get and install it and how to use it to find your files much more quickly than with XP's built-in search engine. We'll also look at how it compares with Vista's Instant Search.

Why search matters so much

The advent of huge hard disks available at low prices has made it possible for individuals to store hundreds of gigabytes of information on their local computers. A home user today can easily have disk space equivalent to what an entire company or datacenter had two decades ago.

But with all this information comes a problem: finding it again when you need it.

When a user creates a file, he or she may not need it again for weeks or months. By that time, the user may not remember the filename or the directory where it was stored. Or a different user, who never knew the filename, may need to access the file. Users need to be able to search for files using criteria other than filenames, such as key words within the file or the author's name. Users also need to be able to search different types of files, including e-mail messages and calendaring information. But they also need ways to filter and sort to narrow the search and make it quicker.

Introducing desktop search

It's no coincidence that some of the biggest companies to emerge with the growth of the Internet were those that made search engines, such as Google and Yahoo. The Web is a vast collection of information that would be almost impossible to navigate and use without effective search tools.

Until a few years ago, the issue of localized search or desktop search — the ability to find information stored on a user's own hard drive — took a back seat. But now, software companies are competing heavily for the desktop search market. Along with the well-known "biggies." such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, other companies such as Copernic offer well-rated desktop search engines.

The evolution of Windows Desktop Search

The previous incarnation of WDS was MSN Desktop Search, which was released in 2004 as part of the MSN Toolbar Suite. Like other desktop search applications, it indexed content on your hard disk. Unlike Google's Desktop product, it didn't index Web sites you visited, but it did index some types of files that Google didn't, such as photos, music, and Outlook e-mail attachments.

WDS grew out of MSN Desktop Search. The current version for Windows XP SP2 is 3.01 If you're running Windows 2000 with SP4, you can install WDS version 2.6.6. If you're running XP SP1 or without a service pack, Microsoft recommends that you upgrade to SP2 or use WDS 2.6.6 (with Office 2000/XP/2003). I didn't have a pre-SP2 machine available to test whether WDS 3.01 would install despite the recommendations, but it's clear that Microsoft doesn't support it on XP pre-SP2 machines. WDS 3.01 can also be installed on Windows Server 2003 computers and XP 64-bit machines.

Microsoft Outlook 2007 includes built-in Instant Search for searching e-mail within Outlook. If you have earlier versions of Outlook, you can install the Windows Live Toolbar along with WDS.

By default, WDS 3.01 indexes the contents of the My Documents folder and subfolders and your Outlook or Outlook Express e-mail messages, calendar appointments, contacts, and tasks (stored in a local .PST or on an Exchange server). Administrators can use Group Policy to configure WDS to index specific folders on the hard disk and to index the contents of file shares. The index is updated when you make changes to the data on the PC and can be configured to wait until the computer is idle to avoid slowing down other programs.

The indexed data is stored in the WDS catalog, which contains the properties and content from the indexed items. More than 200 properties are supported in the schema for WDS. You can see a list of them here.

Downloading and installing WDS

You can download WDS from the Windows Desktop Search Web site. The downloadable file for 32-bit XP SP2 is 4.65 MB. If you have a previous version of WDS installed, it will be removed during the installation process.

After agreeing to the EULA (there's no charge for WDS), the setup process will begin, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Installation of WDS can take a while.

I noticed that it took several minutes for the installation program to remove the old version of WDS. You may get a dialog box advising you of the removal before the WDS installation completes, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

If you have a previous version of MSN/WDS installed, you may get a "restart" box before the installation is complete.

The installation may stop responding until you click the Restart Now button. This is a little confusing, because you may be hesitant to click the button to restart the computer when you're in the middle of an installation. However, after I finally did so, instead of the computer restarting immediately, I got the dialog box advising me that WDS had been successfully installed and the computer now needed to restart, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

After WDS is successfully installed, the computer needs to be restarted.

Of course, you can choose not to restart the computer now, but WDS will not be usable until you do.

Configuring WDS

Once you've installed WDS and restarted the computer, there will be a search icon in your tray (represented by a magnifying glass) and a Search The Desktop toolbar attached to your taskbar, as shown in Figure D. You can remove this if you want.

Figure D

A search icon appears in the system tray and the search toolbar appears on the taskbar.

Setting indexing options

If you click the tray icon, you'll see the options for snooze indexing (to prevent WDS indexing from slowing down other programs), for indexing now, and for viewing the indexing status, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Clicking the tray icon allows you to select WDS options.

The Indexing Status dialog box will show you how many items have been indexed and how many are left to scan, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

The Indexing Status dialog box shows how many items have been scanned.

You can also change the location(s) to be indexed by selecting Windows Desktop Search Options from the menu and clicking the Modify button, shown in Figure G.

Figure G

You can set indexing options, including the hard disk locations to be indexed.

Clicking Modify brings up the Indexed Locations dialog box. Here, you can check the entire drives you want WDS to index or you can expand the drive letters to select only specific files on those drives to be indexed, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

You can select entire drives or specific folders to be indexed.

Note that the My Documents folder and its subfolders are indexed by default, but if you've created other folders on the computer's disk(s) where you store data, you'll need to specify them, or the drives on which they're stored, for them to be indexed.

Once you add new locations, indexing will start immediately. You'll get the Indexing in progress message, along with a notice that search results may not be complete during the time the new locations are being indexed, as shown in Figure I.

Figure I

Indexing of the new location(s) will begin immediately, as indicated by the Indexing in progress message.

Setting advanced options

If you click the Advanced button in the Indexing Options dialog box, you'll be able to configure index settings, file types, and UNC locations. Note that files encrypted with EFS are not indexed, and that option is grayed out. You can, however, choose to treat similar words with diacritics as different words.


Diacritics are marks that are added to letters in some languages to distinguish from the same letter without the mark. This changes the word's pronunciation and/or meaning (a common example is the Spanish character that has a tilde above the letter n, indicating that it's pronounced like "ny"). Diacritic marks are sometimes called accent marks, but the accent is only one type of diacritic mark.

Figure J shows the Index Settings tab in the Advanced Options dialog box.

Figure J

You can set a number of options on the Index Settings tab.

The Index Settings tab also has a button for rebuilding the index for selected locations. You could use this option if you were having problems with searching where the results seem to be out of date. Another button allows you to restore the indexing defaults if you've made changes that are causing problems.

In the third section of this tab, you can see the current location where the index itself is stored. By default, it's located in the Documents and Settings\$username\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Desktop Search folder, so other users of the computer don't have access to it. The index is also stored in "lightly obfuscated" format so that it can't be read in plain text if an unauthorized person should get access to the file. You can select a new location if you like. For better security, you can also encrypt the index with EFS to further protect it.

The second tab in the Advanced Options dialog box is File Types. Using the check boxes here, you can specify what types of files (based on file extension) should be indexed and how each file type should be indexed — that is, whether WDS will index the file's properties only or also index the contents of the file. Figure K shows the File Types tab.

Figure K

You can specify what file types to index and how to index each type.

If the file type you want to index doesn't appear in the list, you can add it by clicking the Add New Extension button (note that this button is grayed out until you type a new extension in the text box to its left).

Finally, you can have WDS index network file shares to which you have permission by entering the UNC path to the share on the Add UNC Location tab, as shown in Figure L. You must enter the path in the traditional Universal Naming Convention format: \\servername\sharename.

Figure L

You can index files in network shares by entering the UNC path.

Note, however, that administrators can use Group Policy to prevent specific shares, paths, or file types from being indexed; this will overrule the user's settings.

Using WDS

Now that you have WDS installed and configured, using it is easy. Just type a keyword or words into the search toolbar and results will immediately be displayed, as shown in Figure M.

Figure M

Search results are displayed immediately when you type keywords in the search toolbar.

Results are divided into two categories: Communications (e-mail messages) and Everything (regular files on your hard disk). You can click the "more" links to display additional results in each category. This opens the full Windows Desktop Search Results window, as shown in Figure N.

Figure N

Search results are displayed in an Explorer type window.

As you can see, a menu bar runs across the top of the results pane with options to view results from All Locations, Everything, Documents, or E-mail. For e-mail messages, the results show the sender of the messages and the subject line (title). Additional information, including the file size and folder in which it's located, appear in the Preview Pane.

You can click the down arrow to display more sorting criteria, as shown in Figure O.

Figure O

You can filter the types of files to show in the search results.

Deploying WDS in the enterprise

Administrators can deploy WDS throughout the enterprise using standard software deployment tools, such as Group Policy's Software Installation feature, the System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), or third-party software deployment programs. You can also use Group Policy to apply customized policy settings to particular users or computers and remotely manage WDS.

Users can search their local machines, the Web, or the company intranet from within the WDS interface. You can install IFilter add-ins to allow users to search additional file types. WDS requires a filter for each file type to be able to index it. There are hundreds of filters already included in WDS, but your in-house developers can create filters for proprietary file types. These are the same filters used by SharePoint, SQL, Exchange, and other search-based products. Instructions on how to write IFilters can be found on the MSDN Web site.

Multilingual User Interface Pack

For organizations with international offices, a Multilingual User Interface (MUI) pack for WDS 3.01 was released in February 2007. It includes 32 languages in addition to the default English language: Brazilian Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Croatian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Serbian - Latin, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, and Ukrainian. You can download the WDS 3.01 MUI for XP here. Unlike with previous versions, you don't have to install the English version of WDS before installing the MUI.

Deployment tools

Administrators can download tools to deploy WDS, including the.adm template for controlling WDS with Group Policy, as part of the WDS Enterprise Components Pack. WDS policies allow administrators to control setup and configuration, indexing behavior, and search behavior. If policies conflict, "exclude" and "prevent" policies take precedence. Examples of some of the available policies include:

  • Turn off the Windows Deskbar
  • Disable the Rebuild Index button
  • Prevent automatically running WDS when users log on
  • Index only e-mail and My Documents
  • Prevent indexing Outlook
  • Prevent indexing Public Folders
  • Prevent indexing e-mail attachments
  • Prevent indexing specified file types
  • Prevent indexing network shares
  • Hide Advanced Indexing options

A WDS Administrative Guide is available for WDS 2.6.x, but at the time of this writing, the Guide for WDS 3.x is still in development. Both guides will be available on the Microsoft Web site.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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