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Get it while you can: AltaVista Personal for your own search engine
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
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Get it while you can: AltaVista Personal for your own search engine


Bit Player for July 12, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Are you still spending 15 minutes a day looking for stuff you're stored somewhere on your PC's hard drive?

Stop wasting your time. Although both Windows and the Mac come with file finders built into the operating system, you probably need a way to find phrases and references within files—just like you do it on the Internet.

You probably need something like AltaVista, the king of the speedy Internet search sites, right on your own PC.

So why not do it? You can install a home or office version of the AltaVista search system for free.

I first wrote about this program, called AltaVista Personal, many months ago. I've been using it nearly every day on my PC. I use the Scheduling Agent in Windows 98 to run the AltaVista Personal indexer once a week to make sure the latest files are in the index. The current index contains more than 18 million words.

You heard that right. The AltaVista Personal index of my own data contains 18 million words. On my 233 MHz PC—not particularly fast by current standards—the search engine can find a reference within those 18 million words in less than a second.

I was prompted to mention the PC version of the AltaVista search system because Digital Equipment Corp., which created the AltaVista Internet search sites (there are many, distributed around the world), is no longer promoting the personal version of its search software. It's almost impossible to find. But I located a current version at an AltaVista site in the Far East. Log onto my Web site or the newspaper's mirror of my site and you'll find a link to the installation file for the current version of AltaVista Personal within this article. (It's a big file, so be prepared for a long download if you have a normal dialup connection.)

AltaVista began offering this scaled-down version of its Internet search engine two years ago.It was not a success. The AltaVista Search Personal eXtension, as it is called—yes, with the odd capitalization—crashed every time its indexer ran on my computer, especially when I told it to make a searchable index of all my mail.

But the latest version, called AltaVista Personal, is a charm. It indexed 13 million words on my PC in 23 minutes the first time it ran, and has since taken only a few minutes each day to update my current index of 18 million words. Indexing will take longer on slower PCs, but don't expect a big slowdown. Processor speed is a small factor. Disk access is what takes the most time.

I use the Windows 98 scheduler to lighten the load on my PC's processor. You can just tell AltaVista's indexer to run all the time, waiting for the preset moment to run its index, but having it run through a scheduler makes more sense. (If you have Windows 95, you may have System Agent, which will do the same kind of scheduling that the more advanced version in Windows 98 does.)

The best thing about AltaVista Personal is the fact that it works just like the regular AltaVista Web site. Everything is the same, except, of course, the location of the files it is searching through. You type in your search words or phrases in the same browser window and use the same syntax.

AV Personal indexes documents of many kinds, including mail. It handles all the standard mail-document formats—Internet Explorer mail, Netscape mail, Exchange mail (including Windows Messaging and Outlook mail) and, of course, mail stored by the popular Eudora program. Using AV Personal; to find notes I saved in mail (either as copies of things I sent or as originals of letters sent to me) is a zillion times easier and a few trillion times faster than using the search facility built into my mail software. (And I'm only exaggerating a little. My mail is now easily searchable, something I could never do without Alta Vista Personal.)

One caution: Because Digital Equipment is backing away from AltaVista Personal, you're not likely to get much help from the company if you have problems. I've installed it and reinstalled it a couple of times to see if there are snags, and there don't seem to be any. But be prepared to suffer through a few hours of trial and error if you have trouble when you set it up.


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