Is Windows Search a True Performance Hog?

Guest Article By:

TuneUp Blog
Tibor Schiemann, President and Managing Partner, TuneUp

One of the most persistent myths about Windows is, disabling the Windows Search index will significantly increase PC performance and reduce hard disk activity. The Windows Search index is a particularly handy Windows 7 tool, so it shouldn’t be casually disabled. Let’s dive deeper into this myth and figure out whether it actually works or not.

First, it’s important to know how Windows Search works. After installing Windows or turning on your PC for the first time, Windows Search creates an index of specific files, folders and other items, such as Outlook emails or Start Menu entries, on your hard disk. This index is loaded into the main memory (RAM) of your PC and fuels extremely fast searches. The way this works is, instead of browsing through your entire hard disk or huge folders, Windows Search simply accesses the index and immediately produces results.

Windows Search is especially helpful for multi-taskers, who are always looking for e-mails or files. It’s important to figure out whether you’ll need the feature because the question about its impact on PC performance is complicated. The easy answer is, yes, disabling Windows Search index results in longer search times. But here’s the caveat—this is only the case for folders that are being indexed. These include the entire user folder, all Start Menu entries, offline files, Outlook contacts, appointments and installed e-mails, installed and used OneNote notes, and Internet Explorer history.

What’s kept inside the index need not be a mystery. You can see how much and what is being indexed on your system by going to the Control Panel and typing “Windows Search” into the search bar. Then, click on Indexing Options, and you’ll see an index that could be quite large (depending on how much data is there). But are you still wondering if shutting down the index is worth the performance benefit? I benchmarked this very question on my day-to-day work machine and will share what I found with you.

Putting the Windows Search Index to the Test

For the test, I used a Core 2 Duo with 3.2 GHz, 4 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD hard disk, as well as a lower-end machine with a Core 2 Duo 1.86 GHz, 2 GB of RAM and a much slower 5,400 RPM hard disk. From here on, I’m going to refer to them as the faster notebook and the slower notebook.

The faster notebook had nearly 40,000 items indexed. However, I added all of the folders on all of my hard disks to the Windows Search index. That should give some noticeable results, as more than 300,000 files were added to this machine. The slower notebook had about 20,000 items indexed, which is closer to the amount of files (such as pictures, emails and documents) typical PC users keep on their computers. My comparisons of these two extremes should help you decide whether it’s a good idea to disable the Windows Search index.

First, I wanted to test the Windows Search index activity and added a couple of hundred files to the slower notebook and about 300,000 files to the faster one; this was to see how much these machines struggled with a growing Windows Search index. And, Windows proved itself—while users are working on their machines, the operating system reduces the indexing speed so that it does not impact PCs’ performance. It didn’t matter if I added 500 or 300,000 files; Windows never slowed down in any perceivable manner—even an average CPU consumption of 10% did not noticeably impact the performance. Here’s a quick summary of what I found:

Quick Summary

Comparing the Time to Startup and Shutdown

But does Windows Search have a significant impact on boot-up and shutdown performance? In theory, it should slow these processes because the service and index need to be loaded into main memory.

To test this, I looked at the times with Windows Search enabled and disabled. Both of the machines actually booted just a bit faster with Windows Search disabled. The faster notebook’s shutdown time more noticeably improved, whereas there was no difference in the slower notebook’s shutdown time whether Windows Search was disabled or enabled.

Quick Summary

Moving on with the tests, I similarly found that there was a very slight difference in performance (with Windows Search enabled and disabled) when running a virus scan—an activity which is very intense on the hard disk and CPU. And again, when testing the startup of Microsoft Outlook 2010; and yet again, when trying out the 3D animation performance benchmark Cinebench. Windows Search turned out to not be such a performance hog after all!

For more on the Windows Search benchmarks and specifics on each test run, visit TuneUp’s blog at http://blog.tune-up.com.

Enabling or Disabling: That Is the Question

Following the tests, I believe that Windows Search actually has an effect on performance—although the feature only slows things down a little bit, more so when it comes to lower-end machines. The myth of Windows Search being a real performance hog originated with Windows Vista due to its search performance issues, and probably just continued on with the Windows 7 operating system.

Not sure which way to go: enable or disable the Windows 7 feature? Users should always enable Windows Search if you need to find files, emails, programs and contacts, among other things, once in a while. But if you heavily rely on faster search, don’t touch it. On the other hand, Windows Search should be disabled, if you just use your machine for one purpose only, like as a gaming or as a Windows Media Center-based PC, if you never search for files, or if you just want to squeeze the very last ounce of performance out of your PC.

Have your own conclusions to share about the Windows Search myth? I invite you to email me at tibor.blog (at) tune-up.com or post a comment to the TuneUp Blog about Windows.

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2 Responses to Is Windows Search a True Performance Hog?

  1. techpaul says:

    I was a bit surprised to see no reader reaction to this information…

    Nicely done article. My thanks – to both of you – for sharing it with us.

  2. Windows use to be but Windows 7 has since improved it.

    Ubuntu 10.10 is what I am using at the moment however.

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