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Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets

Windows 7 Feature Focus
Windows Gadgets

In Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced a new Windows Sidebar environment that hosted mini-applications called gadgets. (See my Windows Vista Feature Focus article, Windows Sidebar, for more information, including the origins of this environment.) In Windows 7, the gadgets continue on as Windows Gadgets. But the container environment, Windows Sidebar, is no longer provided.

Fun fact: Remember, in Windows Vista, gadgets could appear in either the Windows Sidebar or directly on the desktop. However, in each case, the Sidebar had to be running in order for the gadgets to appear. In Windows 7, you can only access Windows Gadgets directly on the surface of the desktop.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
Windows Gadgets on the Windows 7 desktop.

As in Windows Vista, the Windows Gadgets in Windows 7 are mini-applications built with Web technologies such as DHTML (Dynamic HTML), JavaScript, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and XML. In fact, Windows Gadgets in Windows 7 are virtually identical to Windows Vista-based gadgets; Microsoft hasn't updated the underlying technology at all between the two Windows versions. They don't show up in the Windows Taskbar and otherwise behave identically to desktop-based Vista gadgets.

Secret: It's even worse than that. Microsoft isn't updating the collection of gadgets it ships in Windows 7 either: Only one new gadget--for Media Center--is provided over the default set that came with Windows Vista.

Secret: To bring Windows Gadgets to the forefront, use the Windows Key + G keyboard shortcut.

Tip: The Aero Peek feature (see my Aero Peek Feature Focus) in Windows 7 is designed primarily as a way for users to quickly view, or "peek" at, Windows Gadgets that are hidden by open windows. You can also see gadgets when you use the Show Desktop functionality via the Windows Key + D keyboard shortcut.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
Using Windows Peek, you can "peek through" open windows to see Windows Gadgets on the desktop.

What's changed since Windows Vista?

Microsoft has made the following changes to Windows Gadgets in Windows 7:

No more (visible) Sidebar. The Windows Sidebar UI is now removed in Windows 7 because so few people left it enabled even though it was turned on by default. The people have spoken. Note, however, that the Sidebar executable, sidebar.exe, is still running in the background when you have any gadgets displayed. Yep, it's that lame.

Not running by default. One of the more annoying aspects of Windows Sidebar in Vista is that it was enabled by default, slowing boot-time and providing access to a feature few users wanted. In Windows 7, no Windows Gadgets are running by default when you first install the OS, in keeping with the Windows 7 simplicity and user control mantras.

Touch enabled. Where it makes sense, Windows Gadgets are touch-friendly and support touch-specific features. This support isn't very sophisticated, to be fair: Primarily, portions of each gadget UI--like the "grippie"--have been enlarged to be more easily accessible via a finger tap.

Offline support. Unlike the Vista gadgets, many of which relied on live Internet connections to provide a display (like the Weather and Stocks gadgets), the Windows Gadgets included in Windows 7 are designed to work properly when offline as well. When offline gadgets display a "time stamp" to show you how out of date the data is.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
When offline, some gadgets will display a red time stamp.

Size toggle. In Windows Vista, some gadgets would appear small when displayed in the Sidebar but would expand to a larger size when used on the desktop. In Windows 7, these types of gadgets (like Calendar and Weather) have adopted a new Size control that lets you toggle the size of the gadget whenever you'd like. You can therefore pick the gadget size you prefer.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
Some gadgets can be toggled between two different sizes.

High DPI support. Windows Gadgets respond correctly to DPI changes in the user interface and scale accordingly. Gadgets are not, however, freely resizable. Microsoft is considering adding this functionality for Windows 8.

Still visible on Show Desktop. If you used the Show Desktop functionality in Windows Vista, any gadgets on the desktop would be hidden. This is no longer the case in Windows 7: Now gadgets are still available when you use Show Desktop.

Magnetic Edge functionality. As you drag gadgets around on the Windows 7 desktop, you'll notice that they cannot be dragged over the "edge" of the screen so that only a portion of the gadget can be seen. Likewise, if you line up gadgets on an edge of the screen, they will automatically maintain a certain distance from each other and will not easily overlap. Microsoft calls this feature Magnetic Edge.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
Thanks to Magnetic Edge, gadgets can only be placed so close to the screen edge and to each other.

No more Notes gadget. Microsoft has removed the Notes gadget from Windows 7 and provides instead a Sticky Notes application that offers similar functionality but integrates with the new Windows 7 taskbar.

Gadgets that are included in Windows 7

By default, Windows 7 ships with nine Windows Gadgets. These include:

Calendar. A simple month, year, date, and day of week display in non-configurable orange. Nice touch: Click it and you'll see the full month view.

Clock. A decent clock with one major advantage over virtually every downloadable clock gadget I've tried: You can set it to the time in any time zone, not just the system time. Clock is configurable with 8 clock faces, some of which are quite attractive.

CPU Meter. This gadget features two simple analog-style dials measuring the current CPU utilization and memory usage, respectively. Note that CPU Meter is overly simple and can't differentiate between multiple CPUs or CPU cores.

Currency. A simple currency converter.

Feed Headlines. This gadget is an RSS feed aggregator that links into the RSS feeds you've subscribed to through Internet Explorer 7. It rotates through the currently-unread feeds. If you click a headline, a pop-out window displays the entire feed. Click the feed headline in the pop-out window, and the entire post or article will be displayed in your default Web browser.

Picture Puzzle. A simple tile-based sliding puzzle game with 11 different images and timer.

Slide Show. The requisite photo slideshow gadget, Slide Show can be configured to look for images in particular folders, with different transition types. A View button on the gadget will open the currently displayed picture in Windows Photo Gallery.

Weather. A very handy and attractive weather gadget that can be configured for any location worldwide.

Windows Media Center. The only new gadget in Windows 7, Media Center provides a simple front-end to the Windows Media Center application. Click any of its revolving set of links--Music, Pictures, Music + Pictures, Internet TV, and many others--causes the appropriate experience to startup inside of Windows Media Player.

Secret: During the Windows 7 beta, the Stocks gadget from Windows 7 was also included. This was removed from the final version of Windows 7.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
The Media Center gadget is the only new gadget in Windows 7.

Third party gadget development has been slow and of surprisingly low quality, but you can also download a number of additional Sidebar-compatible gadgets from the Microsoft Web site.

Secret: You can display multiple versions of each gadget if you'd like. This is particularly handy with certain gadgets, like Clock and Weather, where you can display this information for different locales simultaneously.

Adding and managing Gadgets

As in Windows Vista, you add and manage your Windows Gadgets with the Desktop Gadget Gallery application. To display this application, right-click the desktop and choose Gadgets. Or, open the Start Menu and type gadget in Start Menu Search.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Gadgets
The Destkop Gadget Gallery application provides a palette of gadgets from which to choose.

As in Windows Vista, you can add gadgets to your desktop by double-clicking them in the Gadget Gallery window, or by dragging them off of the window and onto the desktop.

Fun fact: While the Sidebar is gone in Windows 7, Windows Gadgets emulate the old Sidebar when you double-click them in the Gadget Gallery window: They line-up on the right side of the screen as added, from top to bottom, just as they did in Windows Vista with the Sidebar.

Final thoughts

While many of the changes in Windows 7 are well-designed and obvious improvements to their predecessors, the Windows Gadgets infrastructure appears to be a complete afterthought. Microsoft never supported the Windows Vista version of this technology with a collection of add-on gadgets, and the available third party gadgets that have shipped over the past few years are almost universally horrible. In Windows 7, there are few improvements, and while the removal of the Sidebar is probably the right move, gadgets are no longer easily discoverable in this new OS version. Worse, there's only a single new gadget. In Vista, gadgets were largely ignored, and I see no reason why they'll be any more popular in Windows 7.

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