Widgets: A Fun, Free Cure for Desktop Doldrums

by Joseph Moran

The Yahoo Widget Engine lets you run small programs on your desktop — anything from alarm clocks and calculators to stock ticker updates, weather forecasts, and even Wi-Fi signal strength indicators. You can even roll your own.

The Internet has become such an indispensable resource that it's truly hard to imagine how we ever got along without it. These days nearly any type of information is as close as a Web site or Net-connected utility, but in this frenetic world, who wants to have to fire up a browser window or maximize a background application a few dozen times a day?

Enter Yahoo Widget Engine, a utility formerly known as Konfabulator that is essentially a JavaScript Runtime engine designed to host small applets called widgets. These widgets can perform all sorts of different functions or provide a variety of information culled from the host system or from various online sources via XML. Yahoo Widget Engine is available in both Windows (2000/XP) and Mac (OS X) versions, and while previous versions imposed a registration fee, since being purchased by Yahoo the software is now available completely free of charge.

Widget Engine Setup
On its own, Yahoo Widget Engine doesn't really do much. Rather, the program gets its power from the countless and varied widgets that you can install on top of the base software. You automatically get access to a handful of widgets when you install the Engine, but to really take full advantage of the program you need to visit the Konfabulator Widget Gallery at www.widgetgallery.com. At the time of this writing there are nearly 2,000 different widgets available for download from the site (mostly created by individual programmers).

Downloading and installing widgets is extremely simple. When you install Yahoo Widget Engine, it creates a My Widgets folder within My Documents where you can download widgets to and then execute the widgets directly from there. Most widgets are compatible with either Mac or Windows, though many are Windows-only and there are even a few that are Mac-specific. (The platform compatibility is clearly indicated for each widget.)

You can also search for widgets by category or keyword, and even display all the creations from a particular author. To gage a given widget's worth before downloading, you can reference the number of downloads as well as comments left by previous users.

Although they're applications in the strictest sense, Konfabulator widgets aren't bound by the conventional Windows or Mac look-and-feel. Each widget is graphically distinct with its own unique shape, colors, and visual effects and blends right into the desktop (i.e. border-less windows).

The Wonderful World of Widgets
The available breadth of widgets runs the gamut from utilitarian to whimsical to entirely off the wall. For example, there are hundreds of technically-oriented widgets that detail all manner of PC-related data, including things such as battery life, Wi-Fi signal strength, Internet connection statistics, CPU utilization, memory usage, and hard disk usage.

There are also widgets that report non-tech information, which might include mundane stuff like the date and time (in a variety of styles, including one that displays a grandfather clock complete with chimes every quarter hour), current weather conditions or stock tickers. You can also find widgets that can gather and display much more specific data like the cost of airline flights, local gasoline prices, or the upcoming schedule of a favorite sports team. There are also audio-visual widgets that can stream audio from Internet radio stations or display webcams from cities all over the world.

A particularly useful class of widget is the kind that you can use to input information or otherwise interact with in some way — there are toolbar widgets for all the major search engines as well as ones for looking up terms in the dictionary. There are also widgets that work in tandem with other apps — you'll find a host of remote controls for iTunes, and there's even a widget that will pull the day's events out of Microsoft Outlook and display them right on your desktop.

Then there are the downright silly widgets — examples of which include various characters (The Simpsons, Foghorn Leghorn, Beavis, and the cast of the movie Anchorman, just to name a few) that take up residence and emit familiar retorts on demand.

If you can't find a widget that performs your chosen task, you can always try to roll your own. Authoring widgets isn't rocket science, but neither is it trivial, especially if you lack a working knowledge of both JavaScript and XML. For the unfamiliar, a good way to start is by trying to modify an existing widget.

Widget Management
As varied as the widgets are in function, so are their behavior and ability to be customized. (Some of the widgets we found in fact didn't seem to work at all.) The settings you can modify vary by widget, but most at least allow you to adjust major visual features like color, size and transparency level. You can generally drag widgets anywhere on your desktop and stack them atop each other, but you can also anchor a widget's position if you want.

You may wonder what a desktop crammed with widgets does to one's system performance, and the answer is what you might expect; it depends on the system. We didn't experience any noticeable effects with over a dozen open widgets on a test system (a 2GHz Pentium M notebook with 1GB of RAM), but each widget can consume from just a few to a dozen or more megabytes of memory.

Therefore, as with any application, your available RAM will determine how many widgets you can run concurrently. And since the widgets load upon system start-up, you can expect anywhere from a slight to moderately significant delay in your system launch time.

Widgets are also only as good as the programming that went into them. For example, some limit how small or large you can make them, and we did experience several instances of bad widget behavior, including non-responsiveness and using 100 percent of the CPU.

Aside from the performance impact, having lots of widgets on the desktop can get a bit messy. To help track and organize widgets on the desktop, you can press F8 to call up Konfabulator's Konspose feature, which hides any open application windows and dialog boxes, leaving only the widgets visible.

The Bottom Line
Yahoo Widget Engine is a neat little utility that can be made to do just about anything you want it to. By taking advantage of unused desktop real estate, it saves you a lot of manipulation of browser and application windows, and the widgets spruce up the look of your system in the bargain. In short, if you constantly find yourself on the Web checking this or that, you'll probably find this utility Konfabulous.

Pros: Lets you use desktop real estate to display useful or interesting information from the Net; stylish, attractive widgets take full advantage of today's graphic systems

Cons: Some widgets lack customization options; too many open widgets can rapidly eat up free memory, which results in longer system start-up times

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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This article was originally published on Friday Jan 6th 2006
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