Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

Now that it's gold, here's an inside look at the best and the worst of Windows Vista

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In the earliest days of scoping out Windows Vista, Microsoft set itself the ambitious goal of turning the file system into a true database, and in that way building search into the very plumbing of the operating system.

It was too tough a nut to crack, and Microsoft abandoned the goal. But despite that, search is still built into almost every level of the operating system, and is one of Microsoft Vista's greatest strengths -- although there are some serious inconsistencies with the way it works.

There are plenty of different ways to search: straight from the search box at the bottom of the Start menu, on the search box on the upper-right corner of Windows Explorer, and via Start > Search.

Search is incredibly fast because it uses indexing. Forget the slow-motion days of Windows XP searches; you'll be using search in Microsoft Vista constantly because of its speed. It searches literally as you type, narrowing down the search as you add a new letter.

But speed is only part of what makes search great in Windows Vista. The advanced search tool is superb. You can narrow your search by date, file size, author, tags, location and more. You can type in Boolean searches. You can search other computers on your network as well. In essence, advanced search is the best graphical way to use Boolean searches I've yet seen.

Not only that, you can save your searches so that you don't have to re-create them every time. In essence, it lets you create virtual folders with different views into your data.

Windows Vista's search tool is sophisticated, fast, and lets you save searches for future reference.
Windows Vista's search tool is sophisticated, fast, and lets you save searches for future reference. (Click image to see larger view)

But there are some problems and inconsistencies with search. First off, the search results you'll get vary according to where you perform them. You'll get one type of results from the search box on the Start menu, and another type using advanced search.

In addition, your entire hard disk isn't indexed, and so unbeknownst to you, search may ignore vast portions of your data. By default, it indexes mainly the \Users folder but ignores pretty much all the other folders on your hard disk. Why do it this way? Microsoft is trying to force people to store all their data underneath their own \Users folder. But very few people actually do that, and if you're one of those people who doesn't, you won't be happy with search.

TIP: There is a workaround, however. Choose Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Indexing Options, and you can choose other folders to put into the index.

Microsoft also made a completely bizarre design decision that makes search far less useful than it should be. Tucked away into Windows Vista's recesses is a very useful search pane for Windows Explorer that you'll hardly ever see. The pane appears across the top of Windows Explorer, and has buttons labeled All, E-mail, Document, Picture, Music, and Other. It's a great help for filtering search results. Do a search, then click on the Picture button, for example, and it will display only results that are images. To turn on the pane, in Windows Explorer choose Organize > Layout > Search Pane.

So far so good, right? But the pane appears and disappears for reasons that at first are impossible to fathom. The Search Pane option is rarely available when you choose Organize > Layout. You can make the pane appear only if you're in one of a few select folders, such as Computer and Desktop. You can't make it appear anywhere else, because the option simply isn't available...with one exception. When you type a letter into the search box in Windows Explorer, you can make the pane appear no matter which folder you're in. But delete the letter, and you can't make it appear.

What possible reason can there be for this bizarre and illogical behavior? Microsoft is silent on the matter, so we may never know.

The elusive search pane.
The elusive search pane. (Click image to see larger view)
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