Microsoft releases “Windows Search 4.0” for XP, Vista, Server 03, 08 and Home Server

Mid last week, Microsoft released an update to its “instant search” software for XP, Vista and other recent versions of Windows. What are the claimed benefits?

Although Microsoft has long had ‘search’ capabilities built into Windows, the versions that were built in to Windows 95 through until Windows XP would search through files on your computer in real time, not through the mechanism of building an index on your PC that could be searched much faster.

When Microsoft started talking about the successor to Windows XP, it spoke of an ‘instant search’ capability to come. Instead, Vista still took several years, while competitors such as Google, Copernic and others came out with their own local desktop search products, while Apple built Spotlight into OS X.

Eventually, Microsoft came out with its own standalone desktop search product with the, er... imaginative name of “Windows Desktop Search” for Windows XP.

Actually, for years, there was a 'Fast Find' program built into different versions of Office which did indeed build an index of Office files, but it wasn't system wide, from memory, and 'slowed' your computer down. I remember I always used to turn it off.

Anyway, when Vista was launched, a desktop search program was built-in, giving Vista relatively fast desktop search capabilities, but still slower than software such as Google Desktop Search.

Now, Microsoft has just released “Windows Search 4.0”, an upgrade for major versions of Windows from XP up, after a “preview” period that saw over 300,000 downloads.

The Windows Vista Team Blog broke the news, with Vista Team blogger Brandon LeBlanc making the announcement “on behalf of the Windows Search Team”.

According to LeBlanc, the major improvements are that Microsoft has “introduced some performance and reliability improvements. Queries are faster, as is indexing - how much faster depends on your machine and your data. Improved reliability means that system failures won't get in the way of the indexer and all of your data will be scanned and available for searches.”

Futher, LeBlanc notes that: “We've also extended remote index discovery, also known as PC-to-PC searches, which allows data to be searched quickly and efficiently across machines running Windows Search 4.0. This means that Windows Vista-to-Windows XP or Windows Vista-to-Windows Server 2008 queries are now possible.”

I’ve just downloaded and installed it, something that requires you to reboot your computer. As it is shutting down, you’ll notice Vista applying the update. Once the computer has restarted, your existing index is gone and will start rebuilding right away.

The index speed is "reduced" when you are actively using the computer, so it could take a "while" before your index is completely rebuilt once more.

What this means is that you won’t get any search results immediately after installing the software, but all will be back to normal soon enough, and if you leave your computer on without using it for a while the index rebuilding will happen much faster.

As for Microsoft’s promises of a faster search experience – I don’t know about that yet, it’s too soon, but hopefully it lives up to the promise of a faster experience.

LeBlanc notes that Windows Search 4.0 also “offers manageability improvements that IT Pros should take note of.”

These include an “extended Group Policy to control more aspects of search functionality and made this control more granular with per-user policies. You can use Group Policy Objects to control how desktop search accesses remote resources - such as Microsoft Exchange Server resources or file shares - to manage network utilization.”

LeBlanc continues for several paragraphs: “Speaking of accessing Microsoft Exchange Server - if your organization selects not to use Microsoft Office Outlook in cached mode, you can set a Group Policy to index Exchange in online mode. Windows Search 4.0 will then index with minimal impact to the server. Our internal testing of this configuration shows significant decrease in the load on the server and the network as compared to Windows Desktop Search 3.01.”

“IT Pros can deploy a new link that will be added to the Instant Search UI of Windows Vista (or Windows Search UI on Windows XP) on client PCs and allow the query entered in the search box to access your company's search server, by opening the search UI of the server in your browser and executing the query in it. With this functionality, users get a single launch pad for all of their searches.”

“Based on a large amount of customer feedback, we have added support for indexing files encrypted with EFS. Users in an organization can now encrypt files and still be able to search their contents. When running on Windows Vista, they also can get an additional level of data protection by using BitLocker and storing their index on the protected drive.”

Windows Search 4.0 can be downloaded from this Microsoft Help and Support page.

However if you don’t want to download it now, it will become available to download from Windows Update in the not too distant future. XP users will see it as an “optional update”, while Vista will see it as a “recommended update”.

LeBlanc advises Vista users that: “By default, recommended updates are installed automatically; however, users can prevent automatic installation of Windows Search 4.0. We will publicly post specific instructions prior to publishing Windows Search 4.0 on Windows Update.”

Windows Server 2008 users are advised that “the update will be applicable only if the File Server Role is enabled.”

So, unless you’re a firm user of Google Desktop or some other search tool, updating Windows own built-in search to a claimed faster version should be a great idea. If I experience any hiccups I’ll let you know, but for now the index is rebuilding and all is good so far!