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[Review] MSN Desktop Search Beta

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Review: MSN Desktop Search Beta

Alright, so now that finals are done, here are my thoughts on the new MSN Toolbar Suite Beta. The original thread with screenshots is here. Besides talking about what this product offers, I'll also add my feelings on how it compares to Google Desktop Search Beta, which was released a couple of months ago.

What you get:

Let's start with what you get right after you download and install. Basically, as the name suggests, the suite includes three different toolbars that you can enable or disable depending on your preference.
1) The MSN Search IE toolbar
2) The Outlook toolbar
3) The Deskbar

The Deskbar - the gem of the suite:

The Deskbar is the most interesting part of this suite, so I won't spend any time talking about the IE toolbar (not only because I don't use IE, but because the new version of the IE toolbar is more or less the same as the previous version). So once you've opened up MSN Desktop Search, you enable the Deskbar by right-clicking the taskbar and selecting "MSN Deskbar" from the Toolbars menu.

Q: Do I really have to waste the space on my taskbar with another toolbar?
A: Not necessarily. I like to keep my taskbar clean too, and there are two ways you can still use the Deskbar without having it sitting on your taskbar. One thing you can do is to drag it out to your desktop and place it anywhere as a floating bar, or dock it to one of the edges of your screen. Here's how I do it:

The nice thing about this is method is that the deskbar stays behind all your other windows, but floats to the top when you use your shortcut keystroke (the default being Ctrl+Alt+M).
The other option is to right click the MDS icon in the tray and select "Hide Deskbar." This removes all traces of the deskbar, but you can still use the quick-search find-as-you-type feature. Just use the keystroke and begin typing. Of course, with this method you can't see what you're typing, which is why I choose the previous method. Plus I think the deskbar looks nice the way I have it set up. ;)

Q: How did you remove the butterfly logo and the Go button?
A: Registry hack!
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\MSN Apps\DB
Create a new DWORD value, name it Buttons
Set the value to:
0 = No change. Both buttons enabled.
1 = Both buttons hidden.
2 = Butterfly menu button is enabled, but Go button is hidden.
Close the deskbar and enable it again. Voila!

Find-as-you-type searching:

Now that those issues are out of the way, and you have the deskbar set up just the way you like it, let's see how it works. So as I mentioned, you change focus to the deskbar with your keystroke and begin typing. It's as simple as that, and the search will be refined with each new character that you type. It's really nice how the results are organized by type, just like Windows Explorer's "Show in Groups" feature with "Arrange by Type" enabled. Power-users and those who want to fine-tune their searches should definitely take a look at the Advanced Search Query reference in the Help files. Alternatively, the web version is available here.

Detailed results:

Besides being able to select what you were looking for right from the flyout menu, you can also hit enter after you fill in your search term to open up the main search results window. The results are displayed in more detail here, with excerpts from indexed documents and emails, thumbnails of images and presentations etc. You can also filter types by selecting the appropriate category from the horizontal menu on top. Play around with it. It's pretty self-explanatory.

Q: Damn you, M$! Why won't my results appear in Firefox/Mozilla/<Insert favorite browser here>?!
A: Hehe. Too many people have been bringing this up. I think the main reason for this is because they're thinking about the way Google Desktop Search handles search results in a browser window. Unlike GDS, MDS does not display your results in a browser window.
That's right. It's a shell namespace extension, a technical term that just basically means it extends Windows Explorer. Still want Firefox? Think again. Even as a big supporter of Firefox, I think MSN's method is the way to go, without a doubt. You can right-click search results to bring up context-sensitive menus just like in Explorer, drag and drop files from the results window anywhere else, sort by columns and all kinds of stuff. In fact, if you're looking for email messages, you can right-click a result and select the "Show Conversation" option which will show you all messages that belong to the same conversation thread. Very nifty.
Basically, this approach beats Google's implementation hands down because quite simply, a browser just can't do any of that.

P.S. If you click a stored URL link result, it'll open in your default browser - Firefox, Opera, IE, whatever. This is a relief, since MSN Messenger seems to have IE hard-coded in as the handler.

Some file format questions:

Q: How come I can't search through the contents of PDF files?
A: Right after you install the toolbar suite, you're taken to a completion page containing the link to an IFilter that you can download from Adobe's site. Install this BEFORE you begin indexing, or you'll just have to re-index after you install it to have your PDF contents indexed. I would have liked to see PDF support built-in, since it's such a popular format these days, but I'm quite sure there are licensing issues with Adobe involved here, since Google's app doesn't index PDFs either.

Q: What about indexing the contents of other file formats?
A: MDS will store filenames of any file (except EXE and DLL files) in the index, but it might not necessarily index the contents of certain types. Basically, you need to find and download an IFilter for the particular file format, just like we did for PDFs earlier. IFilters have been a feature of the Indexing Service since Windows 2000, so there are IFilters available for a number of file formats if you search around.

Q: I don't see results of stuff stored within ZIP archives.
A: Same as above. Need an IFilter, and all the ones for ZIP files I've seen are shareware, unfortunately. This is one area I hope the MSN Search team works on before the final release.

Q: GDS indexed my browser cache to display visited web pages. Why doesn't MDS do that?
A: In case you didn't already know, GDS received some serious criticism for this security and privacy flaw in their software, which exposes sensitive information like your webmail messages and bank statements even after you logout of the respective sites. Here's the MSN Search team's official announcement on this:

Customer privacy is a top priority for us. We do not store and index web pages that have been visited or that are in the temporary cache. By taking this approach we avoid indexing sensitive information like online bank statements. Additionally, when you delete files or emails from your computer or your email, the index will get updated so these files will be permanently removed from the index. In future releases, we’ll look to see how this can be done in a privacy-friendly manner.
Aliases and App launching - the Run dialog on steroids:

Ok ok, enough of the questions. Now on to something just as cool as instant search, and something you won't see in GDS - aliases and application launching. You can launch common applications from the deskbar by prefixing the names with the '=' character. For example, =iexplore opens IE, =firefox opens Firefox, =notepad opens Notepad, etc.
You can also combine this feature with aliases to create short names like ie, fx, np etc. Defining an alias is a one-time thing, and it looks something like this:
@fz,="C:\Program Files\Filezilla\filezilla.exe"

Now you can type in "fx" in the deskbar to launch Firefox, or "fz" to launch Filezilla, and so on. It's the Run dialog box on steroids! Once you set it up, it can be really fast and convenient. The deskbar has replaced the quick launch bar and/or the dock, the Run dialog box, and Start>Programs for me, in addition to serving its primary purpose - being an instant search tool. :)

Web searches using aliases:

Here's a funny one. Want to use the MSN deskbar to perform Google searches on the web? No problem. Just create an alias that looks like this:
Now you can type in "g microsoft" and your default browser opens up with Google search results for the term Microsoft.
It works for pretty much any other search engine, including Ebay, Amazon, Yahoo etc. Here's a list of common searches, thanks to Marek from the MSN Search team (he's the "geek" in the Channel9 video I posted earlier, by the way)

To be continued...

I think I've covered most of the basics by now. I'll write up Part 2 of this sometime tomorrow, including some concluding thoughts, issues and a wishlist for the final release. It's 1:30AM and I need sleep after all those exams. If you have any questions, ask away, and I'll try to answer as best as I can. :)

Also take a look at the MSN Search blog. I had a small issue with Outlook, so I posted a comment on the blog, and got a prompt response from the Program Manager of the team. They're very responsive to feedback, so if you have some reasonable (please, please, please don't ask for Firefox support for the hundredth time!) requests make sure you let them see it.


I'm sorry Hal...
Political User
Great review NetRyder :)

I'm trying the program, goign to see how it works out :)

btw, does anyone know where the cache is stored?
Khayman said:
Great review NetRyder :)

I'm trying the program, goign to see how it works out :)

btw, does anyone know where the cache is stored?
Thanks Khay. :)
The index is stored in C:\Documents and Settings\<Username>\Local Settings\Application Data\MSN Toolbar Suite\DS

Electronic Punk said:
Looking good, when you get it done, it may well have to be revamped, reposted and repimped :D
Sounds good. ;)
perris said:
sticky...we'll take it down when we're done pimping
great job
Cool. A sticky-worthy review. Thanks :D

perris said:
if you have links to th if plugins that are available that will help
I actually haven't tried making a list since I'm just using the Adobe Ifilter for PDFs (have lots of PDF files, so it's essential).
Besides, with so many formats out there, I don't even know which ones I'd be looking for. I suppose people could post if they can't find a particular one, and we could help them find it if it's available. :)

Perris Calderon

Staff member
Political User
Q: How did you remove the butterfly logo and the Go button?
A: Registry hack!
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\MSN Apps\DB
Create a new DWORD value, name it Buttons and set the value to 1
Close the deskbar and enable it again. Voila!
that's a nice hack, but I lost the ability to clear the search history, and the options from the tray...those are important...we need a toggle

Perris Calderon

Staff member
Political User
advanced searches are REALLY helpfull...remember to capitialize the tool word in the middle;

To find this
granny Items containing granny, GRANNY, GrANnY, or other capitalizations.
granny smith Items containing both granny and smith.
granny NOT smith
Note: The word NOT must be capitalized.
Items containing granny but not smith.
granny not smith
Note: The word not must not be capitalized.
Items containing all three words: granny, not, and smith, but not necessarily in that order.
granny OR smith
Note: The word OR must be capitalized.
Items containing the word granny, the word smith, or both.
granny or smith
Note: The word or must not be capitalized.
Items containing all three words: granny, or, and smith, but not necessarily in that order.
"granny smith" Items containing the exact phrase granny smith.
gran* Items that contain words beginning with gran.
granny hasattachment:true Items that have attachments and contain the word granny.
granny isattachment:true Items that are attachments and contain the word granny.
granny before:11/11/04 Items containing granny whose date is before 11/11/04.
granny after:11/11/04 Items containing granny whose date is after 11/11/04.
author:granny Items created by someone whose name contains granny.
author:"granny smith" Items created by granny smith.
subject:"granny smith" Items whose subject contains the phrase granny smith
subject:granny smith Items whose subject contains the words granny and smith.
perris said:
that's a nice hack, but I lost the ability to clear the search history, and the options from the tray...those are important...we need a toggle
I agree.

If you watch the Channel9 video I linked to in the other thread, you'll notice that they talked about this. Apparently, they were in a dilemma whether to include the buttons or not. On one hand, it was taking up space; on the other, usability tests showed that newbies need to have something they can click. In order to strike a balance, they enabled the buttons by default and made them removable via a registry key for power users.

I also think a toggle option via the right-click menu would be handy. I'm quite sure they've received that request already, but I'll be including it in the wishlist that I'll post here as well as submit to them. :)

perris said:
well, unless I'm doing it wrong, the pdf search sux...it doesn't go to the page, it just opens the doc.
that sux
Isn't that how it works for any document?

I personally use the indexed search just to find a document or email that contains what I'm looking for, but I can understand why it would be handy to open the document at the right page, especially when you have eBooks etc.

That also seems like a reasonable feature request. Perris, you should post a comment on the MSN Search blog I linked to in the first post. I'm sure it'll be seen and acknowledged.
perris said:
that's a nice hack, but I lost the ability to clear the search history, and the options from the tray...those are important...we need a toggle
Perris, just discovered something else. If you change the value of the Buttons DWORD to 2 instead of 1, it hides just the "Go" button, so you'll still have the butterfly button with the options. :)

Perris Calderon

Staff member
Political User
with the hack?

or something else

I can live with the hack, but every once in a while I want to clear te history

actually, I'd like to line item clear...that would be best
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