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Inside Secrets of MSN Desktop Search

by Wei-Meng Lee

Hot on the heels of the release of the Google Desktop, Microsoft has upped the competition by launching MSN Desktop Search. Part of the MSN Toolbar Suite, MSN Desktop Search lets you find documents on your desktop in a split second. Though the MSN Desktop Search is currently in beta form, the result is impressive and clearly shows Microsoft's determination to beat Google.

In this article, I will take you on a tour of some of the features in the MSN Desktop Search and show you how you can use it to find documents on your desktop.

Obtaining and Installing MSN Desktop Search

To use the MSN Desktop Search, you need to download the MSN Toolbar Suite. Once it is downloaded and installed, you can use it from Windows Explorer, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office (Outlook), and the Taskbar (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. MSN Toolbar in Windows Explorer, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office (Outlook), and the Taskbar

You have the options to search the Web using MSN Search, or your desktop using MSN Desktop Search (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Searching on the Web and on the desktop

By default, MSN Desktop Search indexes your Outlook or Outlook Express email files and all files saved in the My Documents folder (see Figure 3). However, you can also index the entire hard disk or just a specific location.

Note that in order for email indexing to work, you need to have Outlook or Outlook Express running.

You can also index email attachments. This is useful when you want to search for specific documents found in attachments.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Configuring indexing for MSN Desktop Search

You can use MSN Desktop Search to search your computer for the following:

You can also use MSN Desktop Search to look for messages in the newsgroups if you subscribe to them using Outlook Express.

MSN Desktop Search works by building an index of all the files on your computer (or specific locations based on your configuration). When the MSN Toolbar is installed, you should find an MSN Indexing icon in the Taskbar's notification area, as shown in Figure 4. To see a list of options for indexing, right-click on the Indexing icon.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Indexing icon in the Tray

Indexing is performed in the background when the CPU is lightly loaded. When the computer is busy running applications, indexing will automatically pause to give way to other, higher-priority jobs (see Figure 5). For best search results, leave your computer on for a few hours after installation to perform a complete indexing.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Indexing in action

Searching for Files

With my indexing almost completed, I set out to test the capabilities of MSN Desktop Search. I entered the search phrase computing review, and in a split second a list of items matching the search string emerged (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. Search for documents on your computer

By default, MSN Desktop Search shows the results in a long list. However, you can choose to filter the result based on:

One particularly useful feature is that of showing email conversations. For example, I found an email of interest and then right-clicked on it and selected Show Conversation (see Figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7. Showing conversations for emails

A list of related email exchanges will then be shown (see Figure 8). This feature is very useful for catching up on long email exchanges.

Figure 8
Figure 8. List of related email exchanges

Advanced Search Queries

Besides the usual (and obvious) way to search for documents by using keywords, you can also streamline your search query by specifying advanced search queries. Here are some examples:

kind:email from:wei-meng lee after:12/8/2004

Find all emails from Wei-Meng Lee sent after Dec. 8, 2004.


Find all documents authored by Jeff (includes PowerPoint files, Word documents, and emails).

author:jeff store:oe

Find all documents authored by Jeff stored in Outlook Express.

kind:folder Articles

Find all folders containing the word Articles.

kind:email title:Courses

Find all emails with subject line containing the word Courses

For a list of advanced search queries, refer to the Help file that comes with MSN Toolbar (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Help for MSN Toolbar

Other MSN Toolbar Features

Besides the MSN Desktop Search, the MSN Toolbar comes with other interesting tools, which are useful for when you search the Internet rather than your desktop.


One interesting tool in MSN Toolbar is the Viewer. To see the Viewer in action, I searched the Web using the phrase .NET Compact Framework.

Figure 10 shows one of the pages returned by MSN Search. You can click on the Viewer icon on the MSN Toolbar, and a small Highlight Viewer window displaying a bird's-eye view of the page will appear. When the Viewer is turned on, the page will automatically color-code your search query. The Highlight Viewer window shows the number of matching keywords; you can easily navigate the page by clicking on the Prev or Next buttons. You can also scroll the page quickly by dragging and dropping the red rectangle.

Figure 10
Figure 10. The Viewer in action

Form Fill

Another welcome feature is Form Fill. Using Form Fill, you can predefine commonly used information such as names, addresses, phone and fax numbers, credit card information, and sign-ins to your emails. Once you do that, you can pop them automatically into any Web form, saving yourself the bother of filling out long forms.

You can configure Form Fill by selecting Options in the Form Fill menu in the MSN Toolbar (see Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11. Configuring Form Fill

You have several options for Form Fill, such as filling out addresses automatically and saving web site sign-in information (see Figure 12). To prevent other people from viewing your sensitive information, always protect your information by setting a password for Form Fill.

Figure 11
Figure 12. Customizing Form Fill

You can predefine commonly used information such as addresses (see Figure 13). Multiple addresses can also be defined.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Adding addresses to Form Fill

So the next time you need to fill in a form, clicking on the Form Fill button in MSN Toolbar will automatically fill in the form for you (see Figure 14).

Figure 14
Figure 14. Let Form Fill complete forms for you

When you sign in to a web site, Form Fill will prompt you to save your sign-in information, provided you have configured Form Fill to save the information automatically (see Figure 15).

Figure 15
Figure 15. Saving sign-in credentials using Form Fill

The next time you sign in to the site, you can use Form Fill to fill in the log-in credentials.


In this article you have seen the new search capabilities of the MSN Desktop Search. It's an impressive enough tool that Google should start worrying. And the battle of search is starting to get very interesting. Ultimately, users are the greatest beneficiaries of this intense competition. Hey, who says competition is bad?

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.

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