Give Me a Sidebar, Hold the Search

When Google recently released its re-vamped desktop search engine, a central element of the new offering was a sidebar. This clever device gives keyboard jocks quick access to a bundle of useful features. You can read e-mail as soon as it arrives without opening your e-mail program, for instance, or monitor news headlines without opening your browser.

If the sidebar idea seems like a good one to you, but you’re less than enthused about installing a desktop search engine to have one, relax. There’s a free program called, not surprisingly, Desktop Sidebar that’s a viable and robust alternative to Google’s offering.

The basic component of the program is the panel. Panels are modules that you can add or subtract from the sidebar. They function much as “widgets” do in the new version of Apple’s OS X “Tiger” operating system.

Panels, Panels Everywhere

When you install the application, a number of panels are pre-installed.

There’s a clock that displays the time and date. If you hover the cursor over the panel, a calendar appears with the current and next month. Arrow buttons allow you to move forward and backward through the calendar.

In addition, you can add clocks for additional time zones below the calendar months.

Below the clock, there’s a weather panel that displays the temperature and weather conditions in your area, courtesy of the Weather Channel. Hovering the cursor on the panel will give you more detailed weather information.

Slideshows, Stock Ticker

A slideshow panel is also in the default mix. You can choose folders where you’ve stored images and a thumbnail slideshow will be displayed on the sidebar. When you hover on an image, a large version of it will appear on your screen.

There’s a ticker panel so you can keep an eye on how your portfolio is doing from second to second.

For system worry warts like me, there’s a panel displaying CPU activity, memory usage, swap file usage, most active applications and other system performance goodies.

There’s a nice newsroom panel that can be customized with RSS (Really Simple Syndication) or Atom feeds. As the panel updates the feeds, it scrolls the headlines into view.

Window to Outlook

Since I have Microsoft Outlook installed on my computer, the program loaded panels for the major components of that application — inbox, calendar, tasks and notes. What’s nice about these panels is that Outlook doesn’t have to running to use them, which allows other programs to use that memory.

Other default panels are controls for Windows Media Player, a search field so you can perform Web searches directly from the sidebar and “Quick Launch.” Quick Launch not only gives you immediate access to applications, but to any folder on your system.

Although most of the panels included with the initial download package are installed by default, there are some interesting ones that are not. For example, there’s a mail-checker panel that will poll any POP3 account and support for Miranda, a universal instant messaging client that lets you chat with websters on AOL IM, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and IRC networks.

Most panels can be easily customized by right clicking on their title bar and choosing “panel properties” from a menu.

Google Alternative

The Google Sidebar equivalent to a panel is a plug-in. In time, there will no doubt be plenty of plug-ins for the Google application, but since Desktop Sidebar has been around for some time, it already has hundreds of panels available for it.

If you have any ill notions about free software, you’ll be very surprised with Desktop Sidebar. The application is attractively designed and adorned with nifty effects, such as windows that fade in and out of view and information scrolls. And it plays nicely with other Windows programs while not consuming a lot of system resources.

It’s a program that’s not only fun to use, but can quickly become a desktop essential.

John Mello is a freelance business and technology writer who can be reached at [email protected].

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