APSE: A Personal Search Engine

APSE.io is literally A Personal Search Engine. Usually, when I run across such language, it’s for some new utility that will search the files on your hard drive or some such nonsense. APSE aims a bit higher, however, in promising to “let you search for anything you’ve seen on your computer, so you won’t ever lose something again.”

In a nutshell, APSE takes a screenshot every x seconds and saves that to a local directory. Then it OCRs that screenshot and stores the result in a database so that at any moment, you can search for any textual information that has ever been displayed on your computer since you started using the software.

One of the issues I frequently run into, for example, is that during a typical day, I might use 4 or 5 different chat applications, participate in meetings in 3 or 4 videoconferencing applications, edit documents in multiple apps, etc. Two days from now, remembering where I saw that statistic my co-worker needs for a key project can be maddening to find.

With APSE, I can quickly search the database of all OCRed screenshots and find the information I need. The search function is fairly robust, allowing me to search for exact phrases, OR and NOT operations, filtering by timestamp and wildcards, and using parentheses to construct precise searches.

I did something like this for many years where I used a utility to capture a screenshot every second on my laptops and desktop machines. I still have several terabytes of those images on a secure server but have never gotten around to OCRing them and throwing the text into a neat database/search interface as APSE has.

One of the obvious considerations in running an application like APSE is privacy and security. This application takes a screenshot every few seconds, so it is inevitably going to capture private information. The developer has made a wise choice by only storing the data locally. This is not an application that is storing your data in the cloud somewhere, which I think is essential for an application like this.

But also be aware that creating this sort of data is a risk in and of itself. APSE gives the user control to, for example, pause the screen captures, etc., but realistically, you will still fill a directory on your computer with screenshots of sensitive material. If you cannot secure that computer, I’d recommend passing on tools like this (if the words “full disk encryption” don’t mean anything to you, please don’t run software like this).

Taking screenshots every few seconds is also going to take up a lot of space. I spend much of my time using my laptop hooked up to a dock with dual monitors. On average, APSE takes about 1.25 GB worth of screenshots each day. This will vary based on your computer’s resolution, the number of monitors, screenshot frequency, and compression level. But there’s no getting around the fact that this is a space-intensive application, and I’m assuming most people don’t have three 2TB NVME SSDs in their laptops.

APSE does allow you to automatically delete images older than x days or only capture one monitor rather than two. Still, those sort of options seem to go against the grain of the purpose of such a utility–I want to capture and be able to search everything and maintain that ability for the foreseeable future.

Finally, there is the price. APSE is a desktop application sold on a subscription model at $15/month or $120/year. I could be wrong (I hope I’m wrong!), but I’m skeptical there are that many people who will pay that much for a tool like this.

I’ll be subscribing because this is the sort of application I’ve long wanted and assumed I’d have to build myself someday.

The one thing I would like to see is some data portability. A year from now, I’ll have 450 gigabytes of screenshots, and what I’d love to be able to do is move those to my NAS and have APSE still do its OCR/search magic.

It would also be extremely useful if it were possible for users to create a watch folder or similar functionality to add screenshots from outside the system into the database.

But as it is, if you’re into lifelogging or the sort of “e-memory” ideas laid out by Gordon Bell in Total Recall, this is close to a must-have tool.

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