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Configuring and Customizing the Windows Vista Desktop : Working with the Sidebar (part 1) - Managing Gadgets

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In the early days of desktop computers, users would often perform only one or a few simple tasks on their computers at a time. Often, this involved opening a word processor, spreadsheet, or other application to perform a single task. Modern users tend to require access to many different applications and types of information simultaneously. For example, within a typical day, users might check their e-mail, monitor stock quotes, view up-to-date weather forecasts, and visit several news sites.

Although all of these tasks can be accomplished using traditional applications such as Web browsers, it can be difficult and time-consuming to navigate to all of the required information. Additionally, the task of juggling multiple open applications and browser windows can become a challenge in itself. Often, the amount of effort required to download, install, and configure new applications prevents users from easily accessing the information they need. It would be much simpler to access commonly used information directly from the desktop by using small utilities that are easy to install and customize. That’s where the Windows Vista Sidebar feature comes in. In this lesson, you’ll look at the purpose and function of Windows Sidebar, along with details on how to configure it.

Understanding Windows Sidebar

Microsoft designed Windows Sidebar as an optional desktop component that allows for running small but useful applications called gadgets. Windows Vista ships with a variety of useful gadgets. Third-party developers can also create their own gadgets and make them available for download. For example, a Web-based stockbroker could provide customized quotes based on a user’s portfolio.

Before you get into the technical details of working with Sidebar, it’s important to understand the types of benefits this feature is intended to provide. As mentioned earlier, it is possible to download and install separate applications that provide all of the same functionality. The primary goal with gadgets for Windows Sidebar is to provide users with a quick and easy way to access the types of data and functionality they require without having to go through the trouble of downloading and installing full Windows-based applications. It provides for a secure and easy-to-configure environment that’s always available on the desktop. Figure 1 shows a sample of Windows Sidebar in action, including several running gadgets. In this screen, some of the gadgets are placed directly on the Windows Sidebar, and two others are located directly on the Windows desktop.

Figure 1. Windows Sidebar, along with several running gadgets

As you’ll see in this lesson, a new gadget can be downloaded, installed, and customized within a matter of minutes. Unlike traditional programs, gadgets for Windows Sidebar are designed to run continuously on the user’s computer and can perform tasks such as periodically updating a weather forecast or providing stock market updates. Furthermore, users can show, hide, and move gadgets quickly and easily. They no longer need to worry about constantly rearranging application windows just to see the information they want. Now that you have an overview of the goals for Windows Sidebar, let’s look at how to configure it.

Configuring Sidebar Properties

Enabling and configuring Windows Sidebar is a simple, straightforward process. If Windows Sidebar is already running, you can right-click any blank area of it and select Properties. You can also right-click the Sidebar system tray icon, if it is present, and select Properties.

If Windows Sidebar is not already running on your system, you can find the Sidebar configuration application by searching for “sidebar,” using the Start menu. Regardless of the method you choose, you will see a dialog box similar to the one shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Configuring properties for the Windows Sidebar

The first option is to determine whether Windows Sidebar should start automatically whenever Windows Vista is started. If this check box is selected, the gadgets for Windows Sidebar will launch automatically after a user logs on to the system. This is the most convenient option for users who rely on gadgets for Windows Sidebar to be available at all times. If the computer is low on resources such as physical memory, manually launching Windows Sidebar might help reduce startup times.

The Arrangement options enable you to specify where and how Windows Sidebar appears on the desktop. The Sidebar Is Always On Top Of Other Windows check box specifies that running gadgets will always appear on top of other windows. Although this is useful for making sure that information is always visible, it can sometimes be inconvenient because user interface components such as scrollbars might be hidden. Other options include the ability to specify on which side of the screen Windows Sidebar will appear.

Finally, if you have multiple monitors connected to the computer, you can choose on which monitor you want Windows Sidebar to appear. There are also buttons for viewing a list of running gadgets and for restoring the default gadgets for Windows Sidebar (both options are covered later in this lesson).

Managing Gadgets

Although gadgets for Windows Sidebar have primarily been designed to be small, lightweight applications, they can sometimes consume significant computer resources such as processor time and memory. This is especially true when simultaneously running many different gadgets. A poorly designed gadget might cause the system to slow down overall. For these reasons, it’s important to keep track of which gadgets are installed and running on the system. In this section, you’ll look at ways in which you can manage and configure Windows Sidebar.

Windows Vista Default Gadgets

Windows Sidebar, by itself, does not perform any useful functions for users. Instead, it’s the actual gadgets for Windows Sidebar that can be used to provide information and manage user interaction. The initial release of Windows Vista ships with numerous gadgets for Windows Sidebar (see Figure 3), including the following:

  • Calendar A simple graphical calendar that enables you to view either the current month or the current day. The interface allows you to click sections to view details about a day or time.

  • Clock This displays the current date and time using an animated analog clock. The configuration settings include eight different visual styles. You can also change the time zone of the clock to any area of the world, and you can even add multiple clocks to Windows Sidebar at the same time.

  • Contacts A list of individuals and their associated contact information can quickly be viewed or edited using this gadget. The actual data for the contacts is stored in the Windows Contacts application.

  • CPU Meter Technical users often like to monitor resource usage on their computers. This gadget displays two frequently updated gauges that reflect the current CPU use and amount of memory that is in use. This information can be helpful when running multiple programs to ensure that enough system resources are still available.

  • Currency This gadget is used to convert between different world currencies. Because these values fluctuate daily, up-to-date information is downloaded from the Internet as needed.

  • Feed Headlines Many users like to stay current on the latest news and information from their favorite Web sites. This gadget can be configured to download and display updated headlines automatically. You’ll learn more details about this gadget later in this lesson.

  • Notes Often, when working on their computers, users will want a quick and easy way to jot down some brief notes. Like their physical counterparts, these electronic desktop notes allow you to write and store small pieces of information quickly. Note pages can be added and removed as needed.

  • Picture Puzzle Gadgets for Windows Sidebar aren’t limited to productivity. The Picture Puzzle is a simple tile-based game that can be played from directly within Windows Sidebar. Numerous pictures are available, and a timer keeps track of how long it takes you to solve the puzzle.

  • Slide Show This gadget automatically displays all of the pictures in a specific folder. It can be configured to show them in continuous or random order. Options allow for choosing the duration of each display, the folder of the images, and manual controls for advancing through the pictures.

  • Stocks A common task for Internet users is to keep up to date with the performance of their investments and the market in general. The Stocks gadget can provide this information. By default, it shows details for common U.S. indexes. Users can also add their own favorite investments to receive updates on prices.

  • Weather This gadget presents information on the current temperature and conditions in a specific area and can show additional forecast details. Configuration options include the geographic location for which to display weather and the temperature units (Fahrenheit or Celsius).

Figure 3. Viewing a default list of gadgets for Windows Sidebar included with Windows Vista

Overall, the default gadgets for Windows Sidebar provide a good overview of some of the types of functions that can be performed within Windows Sidebar.

Attaching, Detaching, and Arranging Gadgets

You can freely move gadgets for Windows Sidebar around the screen. Although the exact details of behavior vary based on the type of the gadget, there are two main locations in which you can place them. The first is within the vertical strip of the Windows Sidebar itself. This portion of the screen allows multiple gadgets to appear in a vertical line. When a gadget is included in the Sidebar area, it is referred to as attached. Many gadgets are designed to take up less desktop space when they are attached to the Windows Sidebar.

You can also detach items from Windows Sidebar by dragging gadgets onto the desktop area. Gadgets that are placed directly on the desktop often show a larger user interface with more information. For example, when it is docked, the Weather gadget shows only the current temperature and weather. When it is moved to the desktop, it shows information for the current day as well as the forecast for the next two days (see Figure 4). Similarly, the Stocks and Feed Headlines gadgets have different docked and undocked displays.

Figure 4. Comparing the docked and undocked views of the Weather gadget

If you’ve cleared the check box to have the Sidebar always appear on top of other windows, you can always right-click the Sidebar and choose Bring Gadgets To Front to make them visible.

Another useful option allows you to specify the opacity of each gadget. Similar to the Windows Aero glass effect, this option provides a semitransparent effect for the display. Users can change the opacity setting by right-clicking a gadget and choosing the appropriate percentage value. There’s a trade-off related to opacity: lowering the opacity will make underlying windows easier to see, but it can also make the gadgets themselves more difficult to read.

Adding Gadgets

The process of adding gadgets to Windows Sidebar or to the desktop is simple: Just right-click the Sidebar and select Add Gadgets. A list of all of the gadgets that are currently installed and available on the local computer will be shown. To add a gadget, you can click its icon and drag it to the desired location.

Alternatively, you can right-click it and choose Add from the menu. This adds the selected gadget to the first available position on the Sidebar. You can also click See Details to view additional information about installed gadgets, including the version, a description of its purpose, and details about the author or publisher (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Viewing details when adding a gadget for Windows Sidebar

A useful feature is that you can add multiple instances of the same gadget to the desktop or Windows Sidebar at the same time. This is particularly useful for those gadgets that have configuration settings. For example, if you’re interested in keeping track of the current temperature in two different cities, you can add two instances of the Weather gadget, each configured with a different geographic location.

Removing Gadgets

The process of removing gadgets can easily be accomplished in two ways. First, you can click the X that appears when you hover over a particular gadget. This removes it from the display, whether it is attached or detached.

Because the user interface portion of gadgets can vary significantly, sometimes it’s easier just to view a list of the running gadgets for removal purposes. You can do this by accessing the properties of Windows Sidebar and clicking View List Of Running Gadgets. As shown in Figure 6, a text-based list of running items will be displayed. You can easily remove an item by selecting its name and clicking Remove.

Figure 6. Viewing a list of running gadgets

It is important to note that when you remove a gadget, it remains available on the system. If you want to add it again, you can just use the Windows Sidebar Add Gadgets option. Alternatively, if you’re reasonably sure that you will never want to use a gadget again, you can choose to uninstall it from your system by right-clicking the appropriate item in the Add Gadget dialog box and choosing Uninstall.

If you have accidentally deleted one of the default gadgets that was initially installed with Windows, you can restore it by accessing the Windows Sidebar properties and clicking Restore Gadgets Installed With Windows. After this is done, you’ll again be able to add the default gadgets to Windows Sidebar, using the process described in the previous section. If all of the default gadgets are still present on the system, the option to restore the default gadgets is unavailable.

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