In the same way that Google can search the Web, Google's desktop software can search all the files stored on your PC.
The latest version, called Google Desktop 3.0, likely will be in beta for a while, but is available now as a free download and can offer some real benefits to those tired of the slow performance of Windows XP's built-in search capabilities.
In addition to the file-search functions, the program comes with modules that provide easy access to e-mail, news, search results, movie clips, photos, and weather reports.
Version 3.0 of the software adds a few important new features to the application. Individual sidebar panels now can be detached from the main column and moved anywhere on the desktop. Unwanted panels can be deleted from the program's initial default stack to make room for other add-ins from Google and third-party providers, such as a PC-performance monitor, a desktop calendar, and a currency converter.
The new Search Across Computers function allows you to search for files on your home computer from your work computer, and vice versa. To make content searchable across computers, Google copies the content of participating PCs to its Google Desktop servers so that all files remain accessible even when a particular machine has been turned off or disconnected from the Internet.
Fortunately, the program comes with the Search Across Computers function turned off by default. Most users will want to think through the potential privacy risks involved before switching it on.
Another nice touch is the program's ability to send any content that appears in the sidebar to a friend, family member, or colleague simply by right-clicking on an item and then clicking "send to."
Google Desktop 3 boasts a powerful search engine that can find the information you need swiftly, regardless of whether it resides on the Web or on your PC. Upon installation, the program immediately begins to compile an index of all the information stored on the PC.
Once the computer has been completely indexed, the search function can immediately locate all the files that contain the requested keywords. This is a vast improvement over Windows XP's built-in search tool, which needlessly spins its wheels for several minutes each and every time a search request is made.
But there is one big downside to having the entire contents of your PC indexed and immediately searchable right from the desktop. If you step away from your computer, someone could come along in your absence and enter a couple of keywords, such as "tax return," "bank statement," or "sales report," and immediately obtain a direct path to your highly sensitive information.
Fortunately, Google provides a way for ensuring file privacy and security. You can prevent the program's indexing function from accessing the contents of certain directories and subdirectories. Also, you can enable password protection to prevent unauthorized access to the Google Desktop software.
In addition to these features, the software gives you the ability to customize the sidebar's news panel to list the latest news headlines tailored to your interests. To make this happen, however, you first must agree to allow information about Web pages you visit to be sent to Google.
In other words, the functionality behind the sidebar's news panel is not all that different from what spyware programs do to track the online activities of specific users.
A better method for protecting the privacy rights of users would have been for Google to offer a smorgasbord of news choices to check off at the outset of the installation process. This would ensure that the sidebar's continuously updated list of the latest headlines would reflect your personal preferences without giving Google a way to track your every move on the Web.
Overall, the customization options and the speedy new method of conducting file searches are just two of the many reasons why you might wish to give Google Desktop 3 a try.
Clearly, the software will get better as additional third-party plug-ins for the program are developed over time. Even now, the latest eBay Watcher, Airfare Tracker, and Lottery Results plug-ins should be enough to perk the interest of many.
But before downloading and trying Google Desktop 3, think through all the privacy and security issues involved. That way you will be ready to make informed decisions during the initial installation process to ensure that your privacy and security are protected thoroughly.
Google Desktop 3 Beta
Requirements: Windows XP or Windows 2000; 500 MB of disk space; 256 MB of RAM; 400-MHz processor.
Pros: Includes a plethora of customization options and a speedy new method of conducting file searches.
Cons: Full implementation raises privacy and security concerns.
Verdict: A highly flexible desktop accessory that provides quick access to a wide variety of information resources.
Rating: 4 out of 5