Mac users have been blessed with an easy-to-use tool for searching deep inside documents, not just their file names. So it struck me as odd that Google Inc. would be offering similar software.
But after playing with Google Desktop for Mac, I'm partly sold.
Desktop shares many characteristics with the Spotlight search tool that Apple Inc. ships for free with new Mac computers. In fact, Desktop works by borrowing many of Spotlight's core components and settings, so tweaks you make to Spotlight will automatically update Desktop.
But Desktop, a free download from Google's Web site, goes further in letting you search Web pages you've visited and e-mail you've sent and received using Google's Gmail service (You're limited to one account, though). It also keeps previous versions of documents and those you've deleted — good or bad, depending on your vantage point.
Users of Desktop for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows computers will surely find the Mac version familiar and likable, even if many of the Windows features are missing from the Mac's preliminary "beta" release.
People familiar with Spotlight, on the other hand, face a sea change: Desktop is more comprehensive.
Long before Spotlight, a search was largely based on just the file name. The keywords "best of times" wouldn't pull up a file simply named "A Tale of Two Cities."
Spotlight lets you pull up items based on what's inside — a document's text, or a picture's caption, for instance. Just type in keywords into a Spotlight search box. You can specify certain files or folders to exclude from Spotlight's index.
Desktop indexes files in a similar fashion, tapping content "importers" built into Spotlight. That means Desktop can only index the types of files that Spotlight can (and thus Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail files are indexed by neither). Desktop also will exclude the same files and folders you've told Spotlight to ignore.
Nonetheless, Desktop keeps its own index, separate from Spotlight's, and adds to it.
Like the Windows version, Desktop for Mac will keep track of most Web sites you visit, as long as you use the Safari, Firefox or Camino browser. So a search for "best of times" might pull up previously viewed Web sites on Charles Dickens besides the files already stored on your computer.
And it'll index your Gmail account, pulling up recent messages on your scheme to plagiarize a term paper on Dickens' classic novel.
Desktop alone will automatically save previous drafts of your documents, so you can restore a snippet of text you've deleted but later thought twice about. To me, that alone is worth the installation, as I would often accidentally overwrite data in a spreadsheet and hit save before I can undo my error.
But Desktop has no mechanism for killing out old versions, even after you've deleted the final version of a document. At most you can hide such files from the display, something anyone with access to your computer can easily override.
That part gives me the creeps.
Then again, I've been using the Windows version for years with similar functionality, figuring the convenience outweighs any harm to privacy.
And Desktop can be more helpful than Spotlight — at times — in helping you find data.
Like the Windows version, the Mac software lists your files along with results from a search of live Web pages. Searching Google for sites on the CBS show "Amazing Race," I'd also get Gmail conversations I've had with fellow fans. Another search might produce previously viewed Web pages no longer available online.
Don't worry, your files stay on your computer. Even though Google is bringing in information about sites elsewhere, it doesn't have access to your data (except for Gmail, or if you turn on the Search Across Computers feature on the Windows version).
Desktop and Spotlight both have various options for sorting and narrowing your results, though which is better depends on what you're seeking at the moment. Fortunately, the two can run side by side, and Desktop only adds to your Spotlight experience.
What you won't get with Desktop, however, is the fully featured product available for Windows. There's no Mac sidebar or gadgets, the tools in later Windows versions of Desktop for presenting feeds of news items or blog entries and displaying weather and other updates. (Mac OS X, however, has its built-in Dashboard for displaying similar tools it calls "widgets.")
Privacy options for the Mac are also limited. You can turn it completely on or off, but unlike the Windows version, you can't pause indexing for 15 minutes while you browse Web sites on your medical ailments. And though you can specify files or folders to exclude, you can't block certain Web sites from the index.
There are certain types of files — including Thunderbird e-mail — that only the Windows version will index, and the Mac version will index e-mail attachments only after you save them on your computer. With Outlook on Windows computers, a plug-in is available to automatically index attachments.
That said, the Mac version will let you search from a browser window using a partial keyword — "itu" will bring up "iTunes," for instance. On Windows, you must use a separate search box, such as one attached to the sidebar, and not your browser's.
The features missing from the Mac versions aren't deal-killers, and Google says they're being developed for future versions of the software, which requires Mac OS X Tiger, or 10.4 release.
The bigger question is whether you need Desktop given the availability of Spotlight. I find Spotlight very responsive and easy to use, but for pack rats like me never willing to delete anything, having yet another way to find my files can't hurt.