When you need to open a specific file, program or service on Windows you have multiple options to do so. You can use the taskbar or start menu for that, browse a hard drive using a file explorer, or search to find the item of interest.
Windows Search has been integrated into the operating system for a long time and while it does a good job at finding popular services and programs, it is not the best nor the fastest when it comes to anything else.
Desktop search tools offer faster searches, better options and filters, and a better user experience as a consequence.
These tools can be sorted into two main categories: programs that require indexing before they can be used, and programs that work right out of the box without it.
Lets take a look at the requirements for this top list.
- A free version of the program needs to be available.
- Search all files and don't limit results.
- Compatibility with all recent 32-bit and 64-bit editions and versions of the Windows operating system.
Top list of desktop search programs
The list takes a quick look at each application so that you know what it is about. Below that is a table that you can use to compare the core functionality followed by our recommendations.
The program limits searches to popular document formats such as doc as well as some audio and picture formats. While that is limiting in comparison, it may work well for users who require support only for those formats.
DocFetcher indexes folders that you select only and can also index clipboard contents or Outlook PST files. It indexes file names and information about files such as size but also contents so that you can search for those as well.
The search functionality that it makes available is powerful supporting features such as wildcards and fuzzy searches among other things.
Last but not least, it supports many source code formats so that you can use it to find code as well.
Indexing takes only a couple of seconds when you start Everything which is faster than most -- if not all -- other indexing programs.
The application concentrates on files, folders and paths and you can not use it to search for specific file contents. The search is blazing fast and supports wildcards, regular expressions as well as Boolean operators.
Other options include saving bookmarks, using keyboard shortcuts or modifying the drives or folders that you want indexed by it.
FileSearchy starts building an index the moment you start it up on your system. It may take a moment before the index is created and you can start search for files or file contents using the application.
The search itself is very fast after indexing. As far as contents are concerned that get indexed, FileSearch indexes plain text documents as well as Microsoft Office documents and PDF files only. This is different from other content search tools that search in binary files as well.
The program supports a variety of search options including regular expressions, or filtering searches by date and size.
FileSeek is a powerful search tool for Windows that supports a wide variety of search related options. It needs to be noted that it does not create an index of files which in turn means that searches may take longer than when you are using an indexed-based search application.
Search supports regular expressions and a wide variety of filters, date, size and case sensitive to name three, that provides you with the means to find what you are looking for fast.
Since it is not using a database, it won't run background processes to update indexed files and does not take up as much space as other search programs either.
Hard Disk DataBase File Search is one of the newer search tools for Windows. It relies on indexing to power its search and will need to index contents before you can start searching.
Results are displayed very fast afterwards with options to narrow down results by using the "named searches" filter list or entering the filters directly into the search form. Adding @Executable will for instance only display executable files in the results.
Listary is different from other search tools as it integrates into programs only. This means that you cannot open its own native search interface but use search in other programs such as Windows Explorer, 7-Zip or WinRAR.
To search you simply have to type in a support program. Results are displayed right away so that you can select them easily here with the mouse or keyboard.
One interesting feature is the ability to switch quickly to a folder in the file manager you are in right now.
The development of the program has stopped in 2012 but it works just fine still. The program uses a database in which indexed file contents are stored.
Its main features are to search for file names and extensions from within the interface. Searches are very fast once the indexing completes, and you can add filters such as size or date to the search to customize it further.
Locate32 supports file content searches but it is rather basic as it is using a binary search routine for that and not indexing file contents at all.
LookDisk has been primarily designed to find duplicate files based on names or contents. Its search component is quite powerful on the other hand and while it is not the fastest due to it not indexing data in a database, it supports interesting features such as searching include archive formats.
Search filters are made available to limit the results. This includes among other things options to only search within select locations, filtering by size, date or attributes, or enabling fast search for file contents to speed up the operation.
Lookeen Free indexes files on the c: drive on first run and regularly afterwards. It includes file information in its index but also information about file contents which makes those searchable as well.
Results are displayed in the program's interface once you hit the search button in the interface. Direct matches are color coded which visualizes hits in the file name or extension for example.
Files can be previewed in the program which is done by selecting them. Hits in contents are color coded as well to highlight matches.
Filters are provided, for instance to display matches of a certain year or month only in the interface.
The program is held back a bit by its c: drive limitation and interface elements that have no function in the free version.
MasterSeeker caches information to improve the speed of search and while that saves disk space, it means that it will have to cache whenever you start the program. Another side-effect of this is that it will use more memory than other programs of its kind (went up to 550 Megabyte while searching).
Searches are very fast on the other hand, with options to use wildcards and limit by directory or or file size as well.
Nirsoft's search program is quite fast even though it does use a database to speed up searches. Its primary use is to find files based on parameters that you define.
It is for instance possible to display only files of a certain size that have been created in a specific time period. It offers good in-content search options as well as it lets you search for text or binary contents.
Results are limited to 10000 files though which may not be enough for some use cases.
The search program finds file names by using the Master File Table of NTFS partitions directly. Results are displayed near instantly on the screen after you have entered a search term on the screen.
While search is fast, it is limited to file names only which means that you cannot search for folder names or file contents using it.
Search supports regular expressions and wildcards, and filters to exclude folders, files or file types from the search.
Results can be browsed directly in the interface or exported to various formats including Excel and CSV.
A quick list of desktop search programs suggested by readers in the comments below.
- Agent Ransack - free for personal use, indexes contents of PDF, text and Office files.
- Regain - Java-based program that uses indexing and ships with an optional server component to search servers.
- Swiftsearch - fast program that reads the MFT directly.
- Ultra File Search Lite - free for personal use, supports in-content searching, no background indexing, export options, lots more.
Note: Database size is based on a test system with a 128 Gigabyte Solid State Drive and a 3 Terabyte hard-drive with roughly 2 Terabyte of space occupied by files.
|Program Name||Method||Database size||File Types||In-Content||Other|
|DocFetcher||Indexing||no full indexing||documents, pictures and audio||yes||requires Java|
|Everything||Indexing||34.6 Megabyte||all||no||portable, regular expressions|
|FileSearchy||indexing||103 Megabyte||all||yes||regular expressions|
|File Seek||unknown||no indexing||all||yes||regular expressions|
|HDDB File Search||indexing||117 Megabyte||all||no|
|LookDisk||unknown||no indexing||all||yes||portable, duplicate search, archive search|
|Looken Free||indexing||not measured||all||yes||filters, previews|
|MasterSeeker||caching||no disk indexing||all||no||requires .Net Framework, high memory usage|
|Search My Files||unknown||no indexing||all||yes||portable|
|UltraSearch||Master File Table||no indexing||all||no||export results, regular expressions|
Recommendations depend on your requirements more than anything else. If you want a fast program that finds files really fast, then you may want to try Everything first. While it does index files, its database is not as large as that of other programs.
While Everything is great, it is not offering advanced search options such as
regular expressions which some may require. If that is the case, you may want to try UltraSearch which supports the feature.
The software gets the vote when it comes to tools that do not index file contents. Since UltraSearch uses the Master File Table, it is ideal for that. The downside here is that only the NFST file system is supported by it.
Now You: Have another favorite desktop search tool that we have overlooked? Share it with everyone in the comment section below.