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Supercharging Windows Search

Man and woman look at laptop on desk.

Back in the summer of 2018, a small group of Windows Insiders did something that we don’t typically recommend:

They quietly turned off the Windows Search indexer on their PCs. Luckily for us, they also took us up on our request to explain why. The feedback they provided led to some of the most significant improvements we’ve made recently to the Windows Search experience.

We originally wrote about this story in an earlier Inspired by Insider story. In this article, we’ll provide a quick summary of the updates we made based on Insider feedback. Then, we’ll bring you up to speed on the latest developments. We’ve also added a few tips and tricks to help you optimize your search experience—and find more of what you need, faster, on your PC.

Demystifying the Search Indexer

Think of the indexer (also called the Windows Search service or search indexer) as the engine behind Windows Search. It roams across your PC, cataloging information from all your files, such as words and metadata. This process is what enables Windows Search to return results so quickly—often within milliseconds. It’s much faster for Windows Search to check the index than go searching across your PC each time you ask it to look for a file.

The indexer not only indexes file names but all the content within each file. What’s more, it powers the file search for File Explorer, Outlook, Timeline and many UWPs. This is why we don’t recommend turning off the indexer. Doing so can dramatically slow down your PCs ability to find stuff, whether you’re looking for a document, media file, message or contact.

Of course, indexing does require disk space and processing power (both CPU and RAM resources)—especially when you first run indexing. But as we mentioned earlier, we’ve done a lot of work to help ensure that indexing is slowed down or ‘throttled’ when you’re using your PC for other tasks. Still, we know that many users continue turn off indexing. And that brings us to our Insider survey from last year…

Insiders weigh in

The process behind our research was simple: Whenever a Windows Insider disabled Windows Search, a ‘toast’ would pop up on the screen asking why. The reasons for turning off the indexer covered a wide variety of scenarios but essentially boiled down to three key areas: excessive disk and CPU usage, general performance issues and low perceived value of the indexer.

Topping the list with our Insiders was “excessive disk usage” followed by ‘general performance issues’ and “low perceived value”. This was the kind of concise, real world feedback we’d been looking for—and we got straight to work addressing it.

Adding value with Enhanced Mode

To help users get more value out of Windows Search, we developed a new setting called Enhanced Mode that makes it easier to expand a search. By default, Windows Search is limited to documents, pictures, videos, and desktop to conserve computing resources. To extend search, you can manually customize your search locations—or, you can simply click on Enhanced Mode to instantly expand indexing across all folders and drives.

 

Searching windows screen.
Enhanced Mode makes it easier to expand a search query across your PC.

We originally introduced this feature to Insiders in a Windows 10 Insider Preview Build in 19H1. The question was: would it be enough to satisfy our discerning Insider’s need for more Search value? We’ll reveal the answer to that question in a moment.

Tackling excessive disk usage

We’d actually been working on this issue well before the Insider survey—but Insider feedback got it pushed up in priority. Soon after, we rolled out a new algorithm that detects high disk usage and slows down indexing activity. As we noted in an earlier post, the algorithm wasn’t perfect, and we continued development through 20H1.

Our goal was to supply our algorithm with even more signals so it could better identify peak usage times and manage the indexer accordingly. Based on these new signals, the indexer will stop or throttle down when:

  • Gaming mode is ON
  • Power savings mode is ON
  • Low power mode is ON (constrained mode or connected standby)
  • The device is waking up after being in low power mode or in a logon state
  • Device goes from AC->DC
  • CPU usage goes above 80%
  • Disk usage goes above 70%
  • The device’s battery charge is < 50%
  • The device’s display state goes to screen off

Additionally, for our developers, we made a change where the indexer no longer covers popular source repositories like Git (partly because of the sheer size of these repositories and also because the tools developers use to interact with their repositories typically have their own indexers). We also worked with our Visual Studio partners to exclude their project folders (which we found resulted in a quick 30% improvement in disk usage, for an even better developer experience.)

We introduced these changes to Insiders in 20H1 (Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 18945, to be specific). Again, we deployed our pop-up survey whenever an Insider turned off the indexer. This time, we wanted to see if the changes we made had impact on the issues cited by Insiders in the earlier survey.

And the results are in

We recently wrapped up the survey and we are pleased to announce that the latest results are very encouraging!

Criteria for turning off indexer Current Rank Previous Rank
Done without user action or intent 1 4
To protect an SSD from wear 2 5
Excessive CPU usage 3 6
Proactively because of past or general perf issues 4 2
It doesn’t provide enough value 5 3
Excessive disk usage 6 1
Blocking an update 7 NEW
Other (mostly folks testing things) 8 7

Several top issues reported by Insiders became less significant after the recent indexer updates.

After introducing our latest round of updates, all three top reasons for turning off the indexer fell in significance. “Excessive disk usage” fell from the top reason all the way down to number six. “General performance issues” fell from number two to four. And turning off the indexer because of low perceived value moved from the third most popular reason down to number five. It appeared that we’d made some real progress in delivering a better Search experience.

Equally encouraging was the new ‘top’ reason: “Done without user intent”. This is typically the result of third-party applications turning off the indexer automatically, often without the user knowing. Our guess is that, as our application partners discover just how far the indexer has come—disabling it may no longer be necessary.

As we head into the next Insider Preview development cycle, we’ll continue to work on solutions to address the issues raised by our Insider community in our survey. In the meantime, we’d like to thank all you Insiders for helping make the Windows Search experience even better for users around the world.

Keep your feedback and comments coming in the Feedback Hub. As always, we’ll be listening!

Windows Search Tips & Troubleshooting

Expand your search. The fastest way to extend Windows Search across more items on your PC is to go to Settings > Search > Searching Windows and turn on Enhanced Mode. This will index across all your folders and drives, including your desktop. Note that this option may reduce battery life and increase CPU usage so you may want to scroll down to exclude folders that you don’t typically search.

Minimize your search. Along with being able to exclude specific folders from indexing, you can also exclude specific file types. Go to Settings > Search > Searching Windows, under “More Search Indexer Settings, choose “Advanced Search Indexer Settings” and click “Advanced for the File Types” tab. If you don’t use full text search for certain files (such as code files), you can select “Index Properties Only”.

Check your indexer status. If the indexer seems to have been running for a long time, you can go to Windows Search settings and check the pending queue in the settings page. It will tell you if there are many items that need to be indexed and can give you a rough idea of how long each item is taking. If the indexer is running and there are no items in the pending queue, one of two things is happening. First, it could be doing a maintenance operation. These typically take less than 5 minutes and will happen every 100,000 new words indexed. The second thing is that the indexer could be servicing a complicated query from an application running in the foreground. Check to see if you have a window open somewhere on your machine that is doing a search.

Check that Windows Search is running. If you ever suspect Windows Search might be disabled, simply press the Windows Key + R, type services.msc, scroll down and double-click Windows Search. To get Windows Search running again, confirm that Startup Type is set to “Automatic (Delayed Start)” and Service Status is set to “Running”.

For more information see Search indexing in Windows 10: FAQ.

 

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