Best Free Desktop Search Utility



A couple of years back there were no contenders for this title. Today we have a wealth of choices.

NOTE: I have made a decision to mainly highlight programs that meet 2 specific needs that I have: 1) the ability to search within files (find words within files) and 2) programs that will work across network shares (index files on my work network where all my documents are stored). There are literally tons of software programs that will search for files and folders, but that do not search within files. There are also several alternatives that might search network shares, but do not search within files.

Again, my focus has been on programs that meet the primary needs I've identified above. It is beyond my scope to review all types of desktop search tools.

NOTE #2: I recently upgraded to Windows 7 (64-bit). To be honest, after upgrading and using Windows 7 built-in search tool, I see no reason to use a third-party desktop search tool. It takes a little tweaking, but the new search tool within Windows 7 is quite good. It even searches within files and will search my home network for files. My recommendation is that if you are using Windows 7, you really don't need a third-party tool.

For an excellent resource on how to maximize your use of the Windows 7 search tool, please check out this article Getting the most from Windows Search — Part 2.


Rated Products


A highly impressive program to search files and folders based on their names stored in a database.

Our Rating: 
License: Free (Open source)
Available for Windows 98/ME/NT4/2000/XP/Vista/7. Much faster than Windows Search. You can choose to include or not include folder names in the search, and can search for text strings within files. Both 32 bit and 64 bit versions available.
Not really a con to me but it is to others--it uses databases to store information about directory structures and uses these databases in searches. Not as full-featured as Copernic or Google.
Read full review...

Copernic Desktop Search Lite  

A very competent and balanced product to instantly search files and documents stored on your computer.

Our Rating: 
License: Free (Limited features)
Find your files instantly: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, HTML, Word Perfect, text, ZIP files, Emails or attachments from Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Mozilla Thunderbird and over 150 other types of files like MP3, JPG, WAV, MPEG
The presentation of email search results is not as effective as other search engines. Takes up a fair amount of RAM. Index limit of 75,000 files. Free or lite version will not index Outlook files nor does it appear to work on networked or external hard drives.
Read full review...

Google Desktop  

Search your hard drive files and web history conveniently from a deskbar or sidebar.

Our Rating: 
License: Free
Google sidebar and gadgets. Just type a few letters or words into the search box and your top results pop up instantly. Indexes and searches multiple email programs.
Google sidebar and gadgets. Large resource utilization. Difficult to remove once installed. Does not appear to work with Outlook 2010. No longer being developed.
Read full review...

Related Products and Links

  • Everything indexes your entire hard disk and then you can search for a file by typing in part or all of the filename and it will display results as you type. Then just double click to run the file or right-click for the menu to open the path. The beauty of Everything is that it can be completely portable! Everything was recently updated and now supports Windows 2000, XP, Vista, and Windows 7. (There is no mention of 32 bit or 64 bit on their website.) If all you are looking for is a specific file or folder, then this little program totally rocks!  It is fast!

    Cons: It does not have a right click preview of common file types (txt, doc, pdf, etc.). It works only on NTFS drives. And, Everything does not search file contents, only file and folder names.

  • Exalead One:Desktop - For home users, this is a serious contender for my top pick. It's been around for a while, but only recently has become totally freeware. It's fast and the options are quite handy. It opens up in a browser window with preview options and other search options. Recently updated to version 4.6. Supports Windows 2000 (SP4), XP (SP2 and SP3), Vista/Vista SP1, Windows 7.

    Cons: I don't recommend Exalead Free version in a networked environment unless you have a ton of storage capacity. On my work laptop, the index file took up a HUGE 46 GB of storage space! In addition, Exalead does not allow users any option about where the index files will be kept on computer.

    For an interesting review of this product, see this link.

  • DocFetcher is an Open Source desktop search application: It allows you to quickly access documents on your computer by typing keywords. - You can think of it as Google for your local document repository. The application is currently available for Windows and GTK-based Linux distributions. It does offer the ability to search within files (actually only certain document types).

    A Java Runtime Environment (JRE), version 1.6.0 or higher, is required. Note: If you have a 64-bit OS, you might have to replace an installed 64-bit Java Runtime with its 32-bit counterpart in order to make DocFetcher work. 64-bit Java is currently not supported.

    The Windows version runs on Windows XP or later. Windows 98 is not supported. There is also a Linux version and a portable version.

    Cons: (though some might see this as a pro) It indexes documents only - pictures, music, videos, etc. are omitted.

  • Agent Ransack is one of my favorites when I'm in a hurry.  It is very similar to Locate32. It does not index your hard drive, but is still relatively quick. It also has the ability to search within files. When searching the contents of files Agent Ransack displays the text found so you can quickly browse the results without having to separately open each file!


Have Your Say

You are invited to share and discuss your views in our freeware forum. To post in the forum you need to register first but that's quick and immediate. Alternatively, anyone can leave a comment at the bottom of this page.



This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Kendall Alexander.

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Average: 3.8 (74 votes)


I've been using it for a month already (installed version) and i can assure it is freeware. They just sell other products you have to buy (IMHO quite visible on their page.

The only ad i have seen is the permanent, yet not disturbing banner linking to TreeSize Free. Main disadvantage: It just searches "for" files/folders, not "in" files so no mail,pdf,doc etc. etc.

A little known gem is the free search program Wilma from It searches within many file types, shows number of hits, displays all the found words in their context, can include or exclude any path or file types when indexing, will also index networked drives and is very fast. Simple and complex searches (using regular expressions) are supported. Can separately search for content, file name or folder name or combinations of the three. It needs no installation and is just run from a directory. Uninstalling is simply a matter of deleting its directory.

It appears to be free and can be used on both Windows and Mac OS, but it is old and no longer being developed. From the author's site: NOTE: As I rarely ever use Wilma myself anymore and then only on Mac OS/X, I have not looked at the code in a very long time and am no longer able to effectively support it beyond answering basic questions. I will continue to make it available for anyone who wishes to use it, but please be aware that new versions with additional features or even bug fixes are very unlikely to be forthcoming. I apologize, but I don't have the time or the inclination to examine an old program that is no longer supported or developed.

You are correct -- it is getting on.
I would like to make a correction. Wilma cannot index networked drives.
It is still worth looking at if you need some of its unique features.

Thanks for the great article Kendall.

In your research, did you happen to find any search utilities which allow you to exclude file & folder names from the results?

After reading your article and many of the comments, I decided to download Locate32. After installation, I posted a question at (which I believe is the primary support forum for that app). The reply I received included the following:

"Unfortunately, Locate32 is supposed to be used to search files based on file names. There is 'search in files' feature, but it is limited and does not support any file formats and the index includes file names. Maybe you could try some other programs like Google Desktop."

That did not seem very encouraging (although I do remember you mentioning that locating the content-search option is a bit tricky). However, the response reminded me that one barrier to quickly finding a particular file (when searching by content) is having to wade through all the files & folders which match due to the search term being present in the file/folder name even though it (the search term) may not exist in the content.

[commercial program edited out] allows you to exclude any item types in the results with a pattern like this: "[Search Phrase] !email, word, .ppt"

[content related to commercial software edited out]

This is a freeware site. Please do not post about commercial software, it's not allowed.

Actually, the guys at [edited out] said that they are releasing a completely free version of the app this month. Copernic and a bunch of others that have commercial/paid versions are mentioned here on this site but they have free versions as well. So, I thought it was relevant. Since the trial period currently is 15 days, essentially its currently free since the free version will be out before the trial period expires, and I was told there will be no need to re-download, but that I'd just need to register to get a free activation code and the app would do any necessary auto-updates for me after that.

If there will be a free version out, then let's wait for that free version. Until that happens, I am sorry we won't be allowing the product to be mentioned on the site/forum. We do not consider a "free trial" to be a free software. Once they release a free version, feel free to post here, and we will check it out. Again, if the free version is severely crippled, we won't be allowing it.

Btw, what's your definition of severely crippled? All the free versions that have paid versions have limitations. Hopefully, your difinition isn't arbitrary. Otherwise, one would suspect this site is paid to promote specific products over others.

Severely crippled will be where the features in the free version lack so much, that practically, it's of very little use. And I don't know why when we state the site rules, or the policies, people start to question the integrity of the site, or the team members here. Just because you don't like the policies, or the rules, it does not mean that we are running some scam here, or favoring specific products, or being paid to favor products, or anything of that sort. This site is big, and if you have cared to look at the several reviews around here, you will know that this site presents its work honestly. There are no favors, nothing, and we do not get paid from anyone. All the team members here are volunteers and work for the site on their free time. So, before you make such statements, please think twice. Don't make ridiculous statements!
Same thing posted in other forums. Looks like spam to me.
Let's see. Will be clear in a few days.

So, it's spam if I think something is good and post about a specific feature it has that I like? By that definition every other post here is spam. I sent an email to them asking what limitations the free version will have. I'll post the reply once I get it.

Here's their response:
[name and email edited out]
11:00 AM (1 minute ago)


Thanks for your inquiry. The free version of [edited out] will generally have all the features of the paid version. However, there will be some limitations. This is a still a bit in flux, but we are targeting making the free version useful for general users, and the paid version most useful for professional power users. At this point the free version will include the following limitations:

· Email indexing

o MS Outlook email indexing will be limited to the default email account/address. So, if you have multiple accounts hosted in Outlook, it will only grab the email, from the first or default account.

· Fuzzy Content Indexing

o The new version will still include unlimited content searches through the windows search API (which generally only searches by exact word matches… non-fuzzy).

o However, this version will now also include our own proprietary fuzzy content search (non-exact word/phrase matches) with proximity detection and relevance scoring. The free version will be limited to scanning the first 150 words of documents, emails, etc. However, this is actually where most general users find the information they need. Only power users usually need to search/scan through the contents of very large documents and emails in a fuzzy way, and for that you’ll need the paid version. However, remember it will still search the entire contents of documents in a non-fuzzy way.

As we get closer to release exact specification will be better known. To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit our News page [edited out]

Kind Regards,

Good question. Other than Google Desktop and Copernic, which can get quite bloated, I think your best option might be Agent Ransack. I still find that Locate 32 offers my best quick choice for searching, but you do get tons of results if you are looking for a word in a file. But, I haven't looked at Agent Ransack in awhile, but I vaguely recall being able to sort or exclude files. One other thought: In Locate 32, you can create pretty much any number of "databases". I choose to limit my databases by network folder (c or h or j drives). But, there is no reason that you cannot limit a database to a single folder or group of folders in a specific drive. You can then update all databases at once or choose which database you want to update. You can also choose to search by a specific database. That may help you limit the number of files you are finding. I wish I could be more helpful.

One more thought/question. What do you mean by bloated? You mean using up lots of unnecessary disk space, cpu, and/or RAM? At what point do you consider it bloated? If we were still living prior to 2001, I might be inclined to agree, but in just the last 12 years standard computing power you get in modern desktops is actually hard to tap out. We are well into the 2000's where RAM is extremely cheap and most modern desktop system come with 6-8 GB of RAM out of the box.

I wouldn't fault either Google or Copernic for using more RAM. In fact I would applaud someone for using the power in my pc I know is there but just sits around unused most the time. For exammple, I found out recently that the Microsoft Office suite of products are all still single thread/cpu.

Using my RAM and CPU that usually goes unused means it will be faster and more cpu should mean it will be more intelligent. So, unless you are running several apps simultaneously that are eating up more than 1-2 GB of RAM each, they should have negligible impact on system performance I would think. RAM processing should be much faster and preferable to lots of disk paging which basically just wears out my hard-drive faster.

I think the same goes for CPU's where in today's common desktop environments we find anywhere from 4-8 cpu's/cores as standard... jeez I can't think of many programs that use all that core power. Most people sit around using one maybe two of those at any one moment (such as with MS Office)... likely less than 20% of normal users computing power is used throughout the day. All that power we've paid for just usually sits around these days.

So, in summary I applaud any apps that more readily use my RAM and CPU's as long as they don't slow down my system and steal resources from other apps that need them. For me, that really only seems to happen on systems older than 5-6 years or so. If you are using as system that old, I'd suggest an upgrade rather than complaining about bloated software. It's called evolution. We need to keep up with it or be left in the dust.

From recent material I've been reading it's been stated that the key to good results when looking for words in files is relevance ranking based on where in the file something was found and what type of information it was found in. Was it found in the title, sub-title, a heading, was it bold, highlighted, a different color, or italic? Was it a very frequent term within that document (possibly making it more or less relevant relative to other docs).

Also, when searching multiple words, if the program understands that the words were closer or farther apart and can score based on that, then it will be much more likely to bring the most relevant documents to the top of the results. In that event, regardless of how many results are presented, generally the most interesting/relevant will always be at the top. Anything beyond those initial top results are just icing on the cake.

I haven't seen anyone do this well yet. I'm waiting to try this proposed feature on another product that is fairly new (mentioned but edited out above by moderators). In addition to the proximity detection they mention above, it supposed to fuzzy search for document content as well (fuzzy meaning you don't have to know the exact way something was written). I don't think I've seen any products do that well, if at all. Have any of you? Please let me know if there are any other products you know of that do this that are free and won't cost me an arm and a leg or every other body part.

When this particular product releases (they are supposed to have a free version this month), I'll write up a review of my experiences with it. In my particular case it could really be helpful because I'm constantly wasting valuable time searching for documents and emails with specific content and the results I get back from Windows and Outlook are basically just what I call a vomit list of everything containing the word or words with no concept of scored relevance ranking.

You mention email indexing and/or searching, i.e. Outlook. While Outlook is not a freeware product and thus not something we will focus on, I've had my eye on a relative newcomer to the desktop search genre. It's called Insight Desktop Search ( and it claims to be able to index and/or search emails and contacts. I've actually downloaded it, but I've never actually installed it. It appears to be freeware and the main website makes the software at least look appealing. If anyone does decide to install it and try it out, I would be interested in your feedback and input.
Last update is from three years ago, so is this still in development?