Searching the Content of Files and Emails on Your PC

There are some great free PC utilities for finding files based on their filename, for example Everything, but very often we want to find specific words or phrases within files and emails across our desktops and laptops. You know the situation – I remember writing or reading something on my PC some months ago, it was about xx but where’s that file or email? I’ve had a look at 6 free applications for searching the content of files and emails on your hard drive. For each utility, I tried a series of test search terms of fairly unique words and phrases so as not to get an overwhelming set of search results. For example, I noticed that the word GooredFix occurs in one of my malware troubleshooting tutorial pdfs in my document archive. It’s not a utility I’ve found commonly mentioned in malware scanning so this may be the only occurrence on my PC. Similarly, I chose a couple of people’s names as phrases in my searching. Again I chose names where I wouldn’t get a lot of hits.

Some of these utilities create an index of your files to give quicker search results, others don’t and therefore take much longer to scan through your files for matches. I’ll mention which utilities index your files. Here’s what I found for each search utility in no particular order.

Copernic Desktop Search

Copernic

I’ve had Copernic Desktop Search on my PC I guess for about 8 or 9 years now. Earlier versions used to be pretty good but I’ve not been happy with search results from later versions for a long time. As a result I rarely use it now. In fact this was one reason for doing this post – to check the latest version of Copernic and compare it with other free search utilities. So I downloaded the latest version (3.7.0, Build 8) and installed it. Copernic builds an index of your files when your PC is idle so I left it to completely update the index before running my searches.

Results were still very disappointing. Copernic failed to find any of my search terms in my files. In emails, it found just some but definitely not all the email messages containing my search terms.

Google Desktop

Google discontinued development of their desktop search utility Google Desktop in September 2011 because of the shift to cloud-based computing. It’s still available though – I found a copy on cnet download. It creates an index and seems to do that really quickly. I didn’t have to wait long after installation before it was giving me great results. It found all my search terms virtually instantaneously although it didn’t search my emails in my desktop email client Thunderbird – I’ve read it doesn’t search Thunderbird after version 3. I couldn’t get it to search my Gmail emails either despite setting email indexing in the preferences.

DocFetcher

This is an open source search utility and should work on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. It installed without problems but I couldn’t get it to create an index. I tried twice but both times, it hung during the indexing process. If you can’t create an index you can’t perform a search so that was that for DocFetcher on a Windows PC which is a pity.

Agent Ransack

Doesn’t create an index. It correctly found the files containing my search terms but took 20 minutes to search completely through my 65GB of documents each time I ran a new search. I couldn’t set it to search my Thunderbird emails.

UltraFileSearch

UltraFileSearch

Doesn’t create an index. Slightly quicker than Agent Ransack because you can filter the files searched. For example, you can have it ignore hidden files and image files in the search. It took 5 minutes to search all of my documents and correctly found the files with my search terms. I couldn’t set it to search my Thunderbird emails.

MariusSoft File Searcher

Doesn’t create an index. It correctly found the files with my search terms but took 20 minutes to search completely through my 65GB of documents each time I ran a new search. I couldn’t set it to search my Thunderbird emails.

Searching Thunderbird emails

Of the above utilities, only Copernic Desktop Search would search my emails in Thunderbird but it failed to identify all the emails containing my search terms so I had to find another solution. Fortunately I already had MailStore Home installed for backing up my desktop emails and this free utility will also search emails. It will also search email attachment contents if you tell it which attachment types (e.g. doc, pdf extensions) should be included in the index.

So unfortunately, I couldn’t find one good solution to search the contents of all my files and emails on my PC. New versions of Copernic Desktop Search just fail to deliver now and utilities that don’t create a search index are just too slow. At the moment, Google Desktop is best for searching the contents of desktop files, Gmail for searching your Gmail and MailStore Home is a great free solution for searching (and backing up) your desktop emails.

What do you use for searching the contents of files on your desktop? Do you ever need this or do you just back up everything important to say Evernote and search within that? Have you had a different (better or worse) experience with these utilities? Do you use a different one altogether? Let me know in the comments.

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