Google Desktop for Mac

Google has just announced Google Desktop for Mac. Being from Google, it is in beta (even though the version number is, bizarrely, Also, the Mac version certainly does not have feature parity with the Windows version. Notable features that are missing include the Sidebar, any Google Gadget support, advanced search, the ability to lock down searches and the “Floating Deskbar”. So it’s not really in same league as the Window’s version at this point in time. Perhaps the lack of “Gadget” support indicates that Google thinks Spotlight is crap, but Dashboard is pretty good, so didn’t bother competing on that front. Who knows?

So what does the whole thing do? Well, when you first download it, you’re actually downloading a 1 Mb installer (“Google Updater”) that doesn’t just want to install Google Desktop, but also tries it on with Google Earth, Google Notifier and, presumably, if I’d let it run its course, Picasa Uploader. I think this is particularly obnoxious behaviour from Google. The worst part is that I already have Google Earth installed but, because it’s in /Applications/Google/ rather than just /Applications/, Updater didn’t detect it and tried to download it again. At this point, I tried to quit the installer and was presented with this rather horrifying dialog:
Google Updater
So, let me get this straight. I have two options 1) Watch you (Google, that is) continue installing a program I already have or 2) Let you do it secretly. What a choice — it’s a tough one.

So after this pretty abysmal start, things picked up a little (aside from the ever-present Beta label and lack of feautres). After installation, I was presented with a rather helpful dialog, explaining that all I had to do to use Google Desktop was to press the command (⌘) key twice:
Google Desktop Welcome
After confirming that I had indeed “Got it!”, I was presented with the main head-up interface to Google Desktop, which is beautiful in its simplicity:
Main “head-up” interface
Pretty nice. Certainly as simple as the Spotlight interface. The Preferences link at the top right takes you to a pane in System Preferences — fair enough. It is, after all, a system-wide service and can run as a “faceless” process in the background. As you can see in the bottom right of the above image, Desktop was at the time hard at work indexing my hard drive (a process that took around an hour in my case for ~100,000 files). Rather nicely, it’s possible to perform a search while indexing is in progress, although obviously the results are incomplete…

At this point, I just waited until it had finished indexing before actually starting to use it. Once it had finished indexing, I ran a quick ps auxc | grep Google out of curiosity to see what was going on behind the scenes. To my surprise, this revealed 8 processes, as shown here:
Google processes
Now, I don’t actually know what all of these are doing, but there seems to be an almost comical level of redundancy between the processes. For example, what are all these doing: GoogleUpdateInstaller, Google Update Helper, GoogleUpdateDownloader and GoogleUpdateChecker? Weird. Also, what’s the difference between a Daemon and an Agent? Though I’m probably just being ignorant not knowing the answer to that one…

So far, so interesting. Now, in terms of features, the obvious comparison is between Google Desktop and Spotlight. On this front, Google Desktop looks fairly promising. My feeling (i.e. without any formal testing) is that Desktop is marginally faster than Spotlight (on my 17-inch MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz). It also has the option to present more information than the Spotlight menu does in the form of file-paths or “snippets” from mail messages, HTML files etc. However, Desktop does seem to ignore Spotlight’s preferences for the order in which search results appear (and presents no equivalent option in the preferences). When I search for “iPhoto”, for example, the first hit with Spotlight is, whereas with Desktop, the first hit is the iPhoto Getting Started Guide — not really something I want to open on a regular basis.

Another feature of Desktop is its integration with your web browser. Once you’ve restarted Safari, you can access the Google Desktop homepage from a multiplicity of places: the Desktop menu bar item, its Dock icon or by heading to and clicking on a new item above the search box: Desktop. All of these take you to, which looks like this:
Google Desktop homepage
As you probably already know, this allows you to search for local content through the web browser. Through this interface, I’d say Desktop surpasses Spotlight in some regards, but not others. For example, it allows for searching of web history and will show you a small graphical preview of each page in the results. Also, cached email messages can be viewed within the browser with no need to switch to Mail, which is pretty nice. But Spotlight wins in terms of filtering down your results. Desktop gives you the option to show everything or just any of the following types: email, web history, files, media or “others”. Then it gives you the option to sort by either date or relevance and whether you would like a partial or exact match of the search term. These options are fairly limited compared with Spotlight, which presents the following options:
Spotlight interface
Desktop also allows for searching of Gmail accounts, which is neat (although it takes an age to index the messages) and, crucially, allows a Google search to be launched by pressing ⌘ ⌘ “Search term” Up-arrow Return. This can be done from any app and is definitely a bonus of installing Desktop, especially if you don’t already have Quicksilver configured to do something similar.

So all-in-all, Google Desktop is pretty average. It’s in beta (although admittedly I haven’t had any issues with it thus far), it doesn’t offer feature parity with the Window’s version, it isn’t better than Spotlight in all regards and the installer is horrible. But, on the plus side, it does offer a couple of nice new features, notably Gmail search, system-wide Google search and web history search with graphical previews. I’ll be leaving it installed for the moment, especially as it’s a pretty “passive” program — it runs in the background and hasn’t taken over any of my keyboard shortcuts, so why not? I think Spotlight in Leopard is introducing system-wide web searching, and Quick Look will give us rich graphical previews of every file but, for the moment, I think Google Desktop will make some contribution to my daily Mac-using life.

Window switching in OS X: It’s fast.

The move from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X brought about a big change in terms of switching between programs: clicking on one window of a program no longer brought all of that program’s windows to the front. This took the Mac OS a little closer to the traditional MS Windows model of program switching rather than the traditional Macintosh implementation — the difference in switching model can be summarised as window-based in Windows (appropriately) and application-based on Mac OS 9.

Interestingly, at around the same time as the OS X change, Microsoft also made a small move away from their traditional model in Windows XP. In XP, when the task bar becomes full, windows belonging to the same program become grouped together and are represented by only one tab in the task bar — in much the same way as the application-centric OS X Dock, but conditional upon available space.

However, OS X didn’t lose all of OS 9’s application-based heritage. Clicking on a program’s Dock icon still brings all of its windows to the front, as does command-tabbing to a different program. Then, of course, there’s Exposé and a host of keyboard modifiers for each method that just make the whole operation really slick. I think part of that slickness stems from the combination of app-centric and window-centric switching… Anyhow, for reasons I’ll explain at the end, I thought I’d just run through some hints and tips for switching between programs and windows on Mac OS X (which are especially recommended for newcomers to the platform):

The Dock (application-centric)

The Dock is the most obvious way to switch between programs on Mac OS X, but even it has a couple of useful keyboard-modifiers to smooth things along:

  • alt (⌥) clicking on a program switches to it, while simultaneously hiding every other program
  • command (⌘) clicking on a program reveals its location in the Finder.

⌘ tab (application-centric)

Pressing command-tab brings up a semi-transparent head-up display with the icons of all currently running applications. There are a handful of keyboard shortcuts that can be used after releasing the tab key, but with ⌘ still held down:

  • H: hides the currently selected application (with the white border around it)
  • Q: quits the currently selected application
  • Tab: cycles forwards through open applications
  • ~: cycles backwards through open applications (shift-tab also does this, but I find ~ much easier to press)
  • The left and right arrow keys, and indeed the mouse, also allow selection of the program.

When you actually want to switch to the selected program, simply release the command key (or click on the program with the mouse).

Exposé (window-centric)

Exposé allows you to see all open windows simultaneously by pressing F9 (or whatever you have assigned to it in the Dashboard and Exposé preferences pane). Alternatively, you can see just the windows of the current application by pressing F10. Or finally, you can temporarily reveal the Desktop by pressing F11. There are a couple of interesting tips regarding Exposé:

  • You can switch from All windows mode to Application windows mode by either (as you might expect) pressing F10 or by pressing tab. Subsequent presses of tab move through all open applications in Application windows mode. Nifty. Shift-tab moves through in the reverse order.
  • In All windows mode, you can move around the windows using the arrow keys.

⌘ ~ (window-centric)

Finally, this is a great one: press ⌘~ in any program with more than one window open and it’ll switch between the open windows belonging to that program.

So that’s that. Now, you might be asking yourself why I’ve only just written this when all these features have been available since Panther at the latest… Well, my main reason is that last week a Windows-using friend was watching me produce a document in Pages, all the while switching back-and-forth between Safari, Mail, Aperture, Photoshop and Finder using a combination of the above methods. They were clearly so impressed that they felt the need to comment on how quickly I was managing to piece together the various parts of the document.

This made me realise that the combination of Exposé, command-tab and the Dock allows for a huge amount of flexibility in how you move around the OS X interface and, as noted by my fellow student last week, these choices clearly have a huge beneficial effect on productivity. For that reason I, for one, am definitely looking forward to spaces in Leopard…