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AltaVista for your own PC
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule


AltaVista for your own PC 


Bit Player for Sept. 28, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

I'm always trying to find stuff on my three hard drives and on the network that links the two PCs in our computer center—um, I mean our family room. We have 16 gigabytes of stuff. Sometimes I hit it lucky and find what I'm looking for.

I don't need to be lucky any more. I use AltaVista instead.

AltaVista, as you probably already know, is the speed demon of all the Internet-search sites. Technically, it's a search engine—a big site that specializes in finding things on the Web and other parts of the Internet.

Last year, AltaVista began offering a scaled-down version of its search engine so you could find items stored on your own PC. 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 is a charm. It indexed 13 million words on my 233 MHz PC in 23 minutes the first time it ran, and has since taken only a few minutes each day to update the index. 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.

The best thing about AltaVista Search Personal eXtension 97 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. (Don't forget that semicolon trick I told you about last week—and look through the help pages that come with the Personal eXtension, too. They're great.)

The worst thing is that I have no idea what it costs or whether it costs anything. You can download it and run it for a month for free by clicking on a link on the main AltaVista page at http://www.altavista.digital.com/. Nothing in the documentation that comes with the software or at the main Web site explains what it costs. (I'm not even sure where I got the idea that the program runs for only a month. I couldn't find any reference to that time period, even using—blush!—AltaVista's own search software!)

AV Personal eXtension 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, Eudora mail. Using AV 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 for the first time.)

A bonus hidden away in the folder in which you install AV Personal eXtension is a program with the nifty name "Pav_Gui.'' Pav-Gui is a small version of the AV search program that runs very, very fast. (It found 3,840 items in less than two seconds in a test I ran.) Pull a shortcut to Pav-Gui out onto your desktop for those times when you need to look for something and don't have your browser running.

I also tried a competing program called Search ‘97 Personal from Verity. It cost me $30 to download from http://www.verity.com/. The software works the same basic way the AltaVista program works while adding some sophisticated fuzzy-logic features, and it's just as quick. It's very good at what it does, but it cannot index Exchange or Outlook mail and its indexer has crashed every time I've run it after the initial index. I'm not giving up on it. The program shows a lot of promise, and Verity has an excellent support site.


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