indows Vista was never just about good looks - it also included some genuinely useful features you'll want to cherry pick for XP if you can. If you've become frustrated with Windows XP's Search Companion, replace it with an indexed search that can return results from the largest hard drives within seconds rather than minutes. Make your desktop interactive with the help of the Desktop Sidebar, or add instant previews to your open windows simply by rolling your mouse across the tabs on your Taskbar.
Indexing is a process whereby a drive's contents are searched in the background and the results placed in a file. When you then search your computer, the file is checked instead of the entire drive, speeding things up.
Vista is the first version of Windows to feature indexed searching by default, but adding this functionality to XP is simple - in fact, you're spoiled for choice, with three free desktop search tools to choose from.
If you're looking to ape Vista as closely as possible, download the Windows Search tool (see the step-by-step guide below, or obtain it directly from here - click the Choose a technology link). This is the same technology used in Windows 7 and Vista SP2, and is designed to integrate seamlessly into your existing setup, with a search bar on the Taskbar and Internet Explorer. It's also integrated into both Outlook and OneNote 2007. It can be a little resource-heavy, and it doesn't support many third-party file types out of the box, but click here for a list of free downloadable filters that adds other file types.
Google has its own desktop search tool as well. Google Desktop Search (click here) is aimed at home users, and combines with the Google web site to provide searches covering the Internet and your hard drive by default. It also installs its own sidebar, and is packed full of features, but you'll notice the overheads.
The final contender is often overlooked, but is a worthy alternative to the resource-hungry Windows and Google desktop tools. Copernic Desktop Search (click here) is much lighter on system resources, which could be the clincher if your system is feeling the strain of all those other Vista enhancements.
Once installed, Copernic resides as a search bar on your taskbar and can be added as a toolbar inside Explorer windows for easy access from any window. Like Google, it supports a wide range of email clients, but only indexes the History and Favorites from Internet Explorer. It does however support the usual mix of documents, images, music and video, but can't search inside compressed archives like Zip files.
Before making your final decision, visit the desktop search tool's home page and check to see exactly which file formats it supports - this could prove to be the deciding factor in your own personal quest for the best desktop search engine.
The step-by-step guide reveals how to get your new search index up and running in Windows Search 4.0, plus how to use it to quickly find the files you're looking for, even if you can't remember the file's name.
Add indexed searching to Windows XP
1. INITIAL STEPS
You can install Windows Search 4.0 through Windows Update - click Start > All Programs > Windows Update (choose a Custom scan). Wait for the tool to download and install.
2. CUSTOMISE SETTINGS
Once installed, a search box will appear in the taskbar. Right-click the magnifying glass icon in the Notification area and choose Windows Search Options.
3. CHANGE WHAT'S INDEXED
Only a small section of your hard drive is indexed by default. Click Modify and tick the folders you wish to include in the search index. Click OK.
4. ADVANCED SETTINGS
Click Advanced to change the indexing settings and pick which file types to index. You can also rebuild the index from here if necessary.
5. YOUR FIRST SEARCH
Give your PC some time to index your hard drive, then type a filename or words from a file into the Search Desktop box. Click a match that appears in the pop-up dialog.
6. ADVANCED SEARCH
Press [Enter] to open the main search window. You can limit results to specific categories, preview certain file types and much more besides.
If you'd like to add extra features to your desktop - and you haven't installed the Vista Transformation Pack, then the Desktop Sidebar is well worth installing - this sets up a strip down the right-hand side of your desktop which you populate with the tools and features you want, whether it's a clock, the latest news headlines, weather report, or easy access to your tasks and calendar from Microsoft Outlook.
Download and install the program from here - once done, launch the program from the Start > All Programs menu and grant it access through your firewall when prompted. You'll see it's already active with various panels: a weather panel, slideshow linked to your My Pictures folder, news panel, media player and Microsoft Outlook panel.
Start by removing those panels you don't like - just right-click the panel in question and choose Remove panel, clicking Yes when prompted. To configure an existing panel - for example, to set the weather panel to your local city or town, right-click it and choose Panel Properties.
Don't feel confined by the panels included with Desktop Sidebar - to get access to hundreds more, right-click anywhere on the Desktop Sidebar, choose Add panel and then click the More panels link.
You can customise the Desktop Sidebar's own properties too - including its look and feel. Right-click again, but this time choose Options. Switch to the Appearance tab and you'll find a dozen or so skins to pick from, plus more to download online, enabling you to match the Desktop Sidebar to your other customisations. You can also make the Desktop Sidebar more transparent, prevent it from overlapping other windows, set it to start with Windows XP and tweak it in other ways too.
Improve Windows Explorer
Again, many of these enhancements are included as part of the Vista Transformation Pack, so only install them if you don't bother with that particular customisation.
If you have a large number of windows open it can be difficult remembering which one you want to switch to next. Alt-Tab Thingy pops up a small preview window whenever you roll the mouse over a tab to let you see what's hidden behind all the open windows - just like the preview offered in Windows 7 and Vista. Hold [Alt] + [Tab] together, and you'll see a larger preview of all open windows, enabling you to switch between them with ease. Configure it from its own icon in the Notification area of the Taskbar.
Do you find yourself spending ages navigating through My Computer for favourite folders? FindeXer allows you to replace the Task pane in your Explorer windows with a list of customisable shortcuts, enabling you to quickly jump between folders.
Download from the link above, extract all the files from the archive and then double-click the register.bat file. Once you've been told it's succeeded, restart your PC or Windows Explorer, and you should see a list of shortcut icons appear in every Explorer window you open. Just drag and drop new folders on to this bar to add them as shortcuts, enabling you to quickly browse to them in future by clicking the shortcut in question. Right-click inside the bar and you'll see you can configure individual shortcuts or the program itself. It can be a little flaky, and crash Explorer, but will recover quickly. If you decide you want to remove it, just double-click the unregister.bat file and reboot. An alternative product to try is Finder Bar (click here), but the download link wasn't working when we checked it while updating this article.
As you delve deeper into a folder it can become frustrating having to click the Back button three or four times to get back up to a higher level. QT Address Bar converts your address bar to show each level as a clickable link, so if you browse all the way to folder1/folder2/folder3/folder4 for example, you can simply click on folder2 to jump back up to that level.
Jealous of Vista's 3D flip preview? Fret no more - WinFlip brings it to Windows XP, so long as your graphics card supports Direct3D. Once downloaded, extract the folder from its zip file and double-click winflip.exe to get started. Press [Windows] + [Tab] to cycle forwards through the list, or [Shift] + [Windows] + [Tab] to cycle backwards. To have it start automatically with Windows, create a shortcut in the Startup folder (drag winflip.exe on to Start > All Programs > Startup using the right mouse button and choose Create Shortcut here).
Plugging the gaps
Vista isn't just about looking pretty; it has some nifty tools built-in too, many of which can be added to XP for free. If you want a free calendar program then download and install MonoCalendar from here, which looks similar to Vista's own, but owes more to the Mac iCal application.
Vista's new Backup and Restore tool means there's no excuse for losing your data - but of course that doesn't come with XP. If you want a freebie solution, check out either FBackup (click here) or DBFIncBackup Home Edition on the cover disc for a tool with built-in scheduling facilities. FBackup is much more user friendly, but doesn't support CD and DVD; DBFIncBackup is your alternative tool of choice if it's a deal-breaker.
Some editions of Vista - Business and Ultimate - feature the ability to back up your entire hard drive. Don't worry, Macrium Reflect Free can do the job for XP and other versions of Vista just as well: click here for our tutorial.
Vista now supports non-destructive partitioning from the Computer Management console; XP users can get similar functionality with the help of EASUS Partition Master and our tutorial here.
One of Vista's big plusses is its impressive array of recovery tools. XP can't hold a candle to these out of the box, but click here for our guide to protecting XP from a problem that could cripple its installation through a corrupt Registry. The Vista DVD also has a memory tester built-in - download the same tool for XP from here.
And that's about it: you might not be able to afford or want Windows Vista on your PC, but you can still enjoy all its best features without having to upgrade.