Microsoft's next version of Windows, codenamed "Longhorn," will include a toolbar on the right side of the desktop with a clock, an email monitor, a calendar and task display, and integration with MS middleware such as MSN Messenger and Windows Media Player. It might also display news and stock tickers. It's supposed to be the next big revolution in the Windows interface. Unfortunately, Longhorn has a problem with delays. It seems like it's been delayed almost as long as Nintendo's 64DD. Fortunately, some developers have stepped in to provide this functionality.
I'm sure you've seen desktop information toolbars before. Almost every major search engine website has one and AOL Instant Messenger includes a basic one. In fact, back when Active Desktop and “Channels” were introduced in Windows 98, it was supposed to do this.
Most previous attempts have failed miserably. The first thing everyone does when they install AIM? Turn off the stock and news tickers. Active Desktop has been slow, unstable, and utterly unusable until Windows XP. Nobody ever used the Channel Bar. And most search engine toolbars (except Google's) aren't intentionally installed - they just clutter up the screen space of less-proficient computer users who said “Yes” to an ActiveX download prompt at some point and have no idea how to uninstall anything.
Upon the recommendation of The Register, a site I trust for all of my computer news, I decided to give Desktop Sidebar a try. It's a freeware, spyware-free program that mimics Longhorn's upcoming sidebar. The Register's article gave a nice outline of the features that I couldn't have said any better:
The RegisterFortunately, the Desktop Sidebar is an excellent replacement. It assembles all essential information into a slim window that docks at the side of the screen. The bar displays emails, appointments, tasks and notes (straight from Outlook), Messenger contacts, stock quotes and weather forecasts. The program also lets you monitor your PC's performance and disk space and you can control Windows Media Player or WinAmp from the Sidebar. Even Google is only one key click (Win+Q) away.
This utility too has a nifty RSS reader, one of the best we've seen so far, as it runs in a nicely animated carousel mode. The Newsroom panel also integrates with Internet Explorer, so you can subscribe to news feeds from pages displayed in the browser with one button click. We're proud to say that the Desktop Sidebar comes included with The Register RSS feed.
It was enough to convince me to use the program. For those of you who aren't familiar with RSS, it's a text format based on XML that functions as a universal news-post format, intended to be viewed on internet-connected devices and programs that aren't full-scale browsers, such as cellular phones. The content is stripped down into its bare elements: title, author, link URL, body text, etc. Usually, no layouts, images, or advertising are present. Many news sites and blogs are now offering these RSS feeds (“feeds” are really just regular files that are downloaded periodically). Personally, I don't think they'll last long in their current advertising-free state, but I'll enjoy it while I can.
Desktop Sidebar comes with an assortment of skins, so I picked the one I liked the most and began customizing the layout. Each panel has its own options. I disabled the functions I didn't need - stocks, MSN Messenger, Outlook's Notes, and Windows Media Player. It came with a handful of RSS links, but a few of them were outdated and didn't work. Fortunately, adding new RSS feeds was simple: just browse to the page with Internet Explorer and click the new “XML” button on the toolbar. It was a breeze.
The Winamp-control panel was not as helpful. It hid the main Winamp window completely, and I couldn't figure out how to temporarily pop it up. The panel itself only has basic functions (play/pause, stop, next, previous) and standard Winamp shortcut keys (like J) don't work. The song title is displayed in a text box with the option to scroll it, but when I enabled that option, the box just stayed black. Even after disabling the Winamp panel entirely, it still didn't restore the main window, and I had to manually go into the Winamp tray icon's menu to turn it back on.
By contrast, Outlook's associated panels (Inbox, Notes, Calendar, Tasks) were excellent with tons of options. Everything worked as you'd expect. This is the key strength of Desktop Sidebar: a quick Outlook viewer.
The software isn't perfect, though. I set it on Auto-Hide and about once a day it would resize itself to 0 pixels wide, forcing me to drag it out and resize it manually. Also, it would steal the focus even if the mouse moved to its side during a fullscreen game, minimizing the game as if I had pressed Alt-Tab or the Windows key. Running Desktop Sidebar when playing games is therefore useless or even dangerous, since some games crash if you minimize them.
Unfortunately, Desktop Sidebar isn't right for me, and I uninstalled it. The bugs are minor but very annoying. But more importantly, it just got in the way. Without Auto-Hide, it just took up too much screen space, and with Auto-Hide, it got in the way whenever my mouse would slip to the edge of the screen (usually when operating scroll bars). I tried it briefly on the left edge, but then it got in the way of even more common operations.