Searching in Windows Vista, Part 2

Start menu and Control Panel search tips

By Dave Johnson

Pop quiz: Can you find that e-mail your brother sent you about six months ago? You know the one I mean—you don’t remember the subject line, but somewhere in the message he invited you to visit him in Spain next summer. How long would it take you to find something like that? Using the new search capabilities in Windows Vista, probably no more than a few seconds.

If you ask me, your computer’s most important job is making it easy for you to locate your programs and files. Think about it—you entrust your computer with documents, pictures, e–mail, and programs. You don’t really know how it stores everything; it just does. Kind of like a really fast electronic butler. But when it comes time to find a file days or weeks later, you usually need to remember exactly where you put it, and what the file name was. Where did that butler go when you really need him?

Windows Vista makes finding your files so much easier that you’ll soon forget how frustrating it used to be. In this column, I’ll tell you how to quickly locate personal documents, pictures, and programs using the Start menu, as well as stuff in Control Panel. For more scoops on searching, be sure to check out Part 1 of the series, in which I talk about getting the most out of the Search box at the top of every folder.

At your fingertips

I’m guessing that the first thing you do when you sit down at the computer is open a program. Your favorite programs might be pinned to the top of the Start menu, but others are probably scattered willy-nilly throughout folders in the Start menu, making finding them about as much fun as bathing the dog. Type the name of the program in the new Search box at the bottom of the Start menu, though, and you’ll see it appear right away.

Picture of the Search box on the Start menu
Type a program’s name in the Search box to locate it quickly
Try this: click the Start button Picture of the Start button, and then type calc in the Search box. Don’t press ENTER. Instead, watch what happens to the Start menu as you type. With the first "c," you might see all sorts of results in a number of different categories (which I'll talk about in just a moment). Typing "ca" narrows the field, showing fewer entries. By the time you get to "cal," you will probably only see a couple of items. On my computer, when I add the second "c," the only search result is Calculator. (Your results might vary, such as if you have a document on your computer with the word "calculator" in it.)
Picture of a search in progress from the Start menu
Search results narrow as you type each letter of your search term
To open Calculator, then, all you need to do is click the Start button Picture of the Start button, type calc, and either press ENTER or click Calculator. That’s a lot faster than trying to remember where Calculator usually lives in the Start menu (it’s in the Accessories folder in All Programs, in case you’re keeping score at home.)
If you’ve been using Windows for a long time, you might have just realized something really cool: the Search box in the Start menu now works similarly to the old Run command. To start a program like Regedit in Windows XP, for example, you had to click the Start button Picture of the Start button, click Accessories, click Run, type Regedit, and finally press ENTER. Whew. Now, you can just click the Start button Picture of the Start button, type Regedit in the Search box, and press ENTER. Of course, if you have a nostalgic fondness for the old Run command, it’s still available. For more information, see What happened to the Run command?

Files galore

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you type in the Start menu’s Search box, you get more than just programs. Indeed, you get all sorts of results, divided into categories. Windows Vista displays the top search results by category for whatever you type.

Picture of search results in the Start menu
Search results in the Start menu showing all four result categories. Some searches might not include results in all categories.
What’s in here


Programs that contain your search term at the start of a word in the program title. Type connect, for example, to see Remote Desktop Connection, or calendar to see Windows Calendar.

Favorites and History

Website addresses (like from your browser’s history that contain your search term in the website’s address. The names of your web favorites are also searched, so if you save as "Msft" in your Favorites, you’ll see this result if you search for Msft or Microsoft.


Files that contain your search term at the start of a word in the file title, in file properties like tags, or anywhere in the body of a document that contains text (like a word processing file, spreadsheet, or presentation).


E–mail messages that contain your search term at the start of a word in the message title or anywhere in the body of the message.

That’s pretty useful, because you can frequently find any kind of file, program, e–mail, or favorite website just by typing a few characters, without opening additional folders. Once you see the results in the Start menu, you can open a particular item by clicking it or using the arrow keys to highlight the file, and then pressing ENTER. By default, the first result is always highlighted.


  • If you type a search term and then press ENTER, you’ll open whatever item was at the very top of the search results, which, odds are, isn’t what you’re looking for. Get in the habit of not pressing ENTER when using search in Windows Vista.

Expanding your search

What if you don’t see what you’re looking for? The Start menu has a limited amount of space, so it might not show you the specific file you were trying to find. That’s okay; you still have two additional ways to search—by clicking one of the following options at the bottom of the Start menu.

What it does

See all results

Opens the Search folder and automatically performs a search for the term you typed in the Start menu’s Search box. This will show you all the results from files that are indexed on your computer. If there are no search results at all, the link becomes Search Everywhere, and the search for your term is performed on your entire computer.

Search the Internet

Opens your web browser and automatically performs a search on the Internet for the term you typed in the Start menu’s Search box.

So what, you might be wondering, is the index? Windows Vista stores information about all of your files in something called the index. When you do a search, Windows doesn't need to slowly search your entire hard disk, because it already has a summary of all your stuff in its index. Your results pop up right away. Windows Vista automatically indexes all the files in your personal folder—that’s stuff in Documents, Pictures, Music, Videos, Favorites, and the other folders you see if you click the Start button Picture of the Start button and then click your user name at the top of the Start menu.

Once you have a folder full of results, you can fine-tune your search. If you know that you are looking for a particular kind of file—like an e–mail or picture, for example—then click the appropriate button to filter your search.

Picture of the Show only filter in the Search folder
Fine-tune your search by clicking one of the search filter buttons

Conquering Control Panel

Unlike the Start menu, you might not spend a lot of time in Control Panel. But when you do visit, it’s kind of like going to the dentist—you’d like to get done and go home as quickly as possible. But Control Panel has so many individual settings, how do you find what you’re actually looking for?

Well, if you’ve read this far, you can probably guess the solution. The Search box at the top of Control Panel is a handy way to quickly cut through the noise and locate exactly what you need.

That’s great, you say, but odds are that you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. What if you want to change the screen resolution of your monitor, for example? What is that setting called? What would you type in the Search box?

Thankfully, Windows Vista knows several different ways to refer to most of the settings in Control Panel. To change the screen resolution, for example, you could type any of these things to get to the same place:

  • display

  • monitor

  • resolution

  • screen

Picture of search results in Control Panel
Find the same Control Panel setting with similar search terms

Likewise, if you wanted to change the sound scheme for your computer, you could type sound, audio, or volume to find the Sound settings. That means it’s easier than ever to find the correct setting quickly and painlessly.

Sure, there will always be times when finding the right file, folder, or program will take longer than it should. In the real world, I lose my car keys a lot, too. I just wish there was a floating Search box around to help me find them.

About the author

Picture of columnist Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In addition to writing about Windows, he's a scuba instructor, a drummer, an award-winning photographer, and the author of over three dozen books.

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