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Monday morning Macware: Searching for text in context

The Mac platform has been through many hardware and software transitions in its three decades of existence -- 68K chips to PowerPC chips to Intel chips as well as the Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X switch. Each transition has left behind some favorite piece of software or hardware that isn't compatible with the new gear and never gets updated. Maybe the company went out of business, or stopped development for the Mac to focus on Windows software (a common problem in the mid-90s). But whenever it happens, it leaves affected users searching -- sometimes desperately -- for a replacement.

I recently helped a reader in just such a quandary. He wrote me about a program written for OS 9 he had used called Gofer by Microlytics. Last updated in 1989, Gofer could search files and folders for words or word strings and would display the results in their original context. According to my reader: "Without opening the program, you could just copy a section or even the whole document, and paste it in whatever you were working in." As he pointed out, the built-in Spotlight function in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger will search for text and display a list of files, but it does not show you the results in context.

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Gofer could run in Classic mode on a PowerPC Mac, but my reader is getting ready to upgrade to an Intel-based Mac. The new Macs can't run Classic mode, and thus no old OS 9 programs. Did I know of any substitutes?

I did not, but relishing a challenge I went on the hunt. I actually found two possible substitutes. The first is a $10 piece of shareware called SpeedSearch X by a fellow named Matt Brunk. The latest official version was released in 2002, although you can chance a more recent (2006) beta version if you're feeling daring. SpeedSearch X does mostly what my reader required, although I had a little trouble with the interface. My goal was to search a folder of mostly text files for a term (actually I searched copies of some of my blog entries for the word "Apple").

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I couldn't get the program to find anything until I realized I needed to click a disclosure triangle above the search term window to reveal several more options, including one that tells the program to search file types other than TEXT. Then I got 267 matches, showing each mention of the term "Apple" in its original context (although it's just a single line -- not a paragraph or even a full sentence.) You can click on an icon to open the selected document in its original program to cut and paste the text, but you'll still need to hunt it down within that document.

Otherwise, SpeedSearch X is a pretty good text search tool with plenty of options for making the search as broad or as narrow as you require. For example, you can search your entire hard drive or just a folder; or you can tell the program to search for certain types of files by extension, such as .html. You can even add your own categories to the various menus -- I added .doc to the file extension selector menu to filter for Microsoft Word files. SpeedSearch X's greatest drawback is that it has not been updated as a Universal Binary -- it's PowerPC only. It still can run on an Intel-based Mac under Rosetta (Apple's built-in technology to translate PowerPC code to Intel code), but Universal Binary programs run natively on Intel Macs, which always is preferable.

The other option I discovered is TextWrangler 2, a text editor from Bare Bones Software.

Some Mac users may be familiar with an advanced HTML and text editor called BBEdit. It's been around since the early 1990s, and continues to be updated. TextWrangler is a less-robust offshoot of BBEdit (which costs $124.95) that Bare Bones gives away for free, our favorite price. (Veteran Mac users may recall an older, similar product called BBEdit Lite. TextWrangler has replaced it.)

Among TextWrangler's many capabilities is text searching. Like SpeedSearch X, TextWrangler brings up a list of results organized by the name of the file. It also shows the search term in the context of the document, with the line of text in which it appears excerpted. But here's where TextWrangler goes SpeedSearch X one better. Clicking on one of the lines brings up the entire paragraph in which the search term appeared, so you can copy and paste it as my reader does now with Gofer. The only glitch is that text from a word processing program such as Microsoft Word contain a lot of embedded formatting code that shows up in plain text files as gibberish characters. Fortunately, most of the gibberish appears before and after your body text, not within it.

As a program produced by a commercial entity, TextWrangler is much more polished than SpeedSearch X, and it can do a lot more for those who need its text editing features. Considering that it's free, TextWrangler looks like the hands-down winner of the text-in-context searching contest... unless any readers know of something even better suited to this task. Suggestions, anyone?

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