Windows Desktop Gadgets and Widgets (First Class Flyer)

Mac OS X has a useful feature known as widgets, which add useful gadgets to your dashboard. Gadgets can range anywhere from a simple search bar, to an email notifier, to a full system process monitor. But how can Windows users experience widgets?

First Class Flyer is a weekly series published every Friday comparing two or more free software products of the same category. This week, we’re taking a look at some desktop widget engines for Microsoft Windows.


Windows Vista includes Windows Sidebar and Windows 7 includes Windows Desktop Gadgets (which is the same as Windows Sidebar except the sidebar is gone and gadgets sit anywhere on the desktop), which is a popular method to get all sorts of useful gadgets on your desktop and is Microsoft’s version of widgets.

Windows Desktop Gadgets

Windows Desktop Weather Gadget and Installed Gadget Gallery

However, many users tried to seek other widget methods, the most popular being Yahoo! Widgets and the sidebar gadgets  included with Google Desktop Search. So how do these compare to each other?

Both Windows Desktop Gadgets (Windows 7) and Yahoo! Widgets have gadgets sitting anywhere on the desktop. Google Desktop and Windows Sidebar (Vista only) include a sidebar to dock all the gadgets, however, they can be dragged off and placed anywhere on the desktop.

Note: The words ‘gadgets’ and ‘widgets’ are used interchangeably in this article. Windows Desktop Gadgets and Google Desktop call them gadgets while Yahoo! Widgets call them widgets.


All three applications provide an option to start up with the system by default and they all don’t slow the system down significantly.

Windows Sidebar in Windows Vista run as two processes. The first process runs the basic engine and the default pre-installed gadgets. A second process runs when additional downloaded gadgets are running. Windows Desktop Gadgets in Windows 7 is integrated with Windows itself and therefore, runs a single process when a gadget is running. The RAM usage depends on how many gadgets are running. The base RAM usage during my testing was around 12 MB and around 1 MB is added for each gadget running. The RAM usage stays mostly stable.

Yahoo! Widgets takes a different approach. Each widget is a separate process. The first process is the engine itself. The more widgets you have, the more processes it uses. This uses significantly more RAM than Windows Gadgets but each widget is much more stable. If one widget crashes, which some do very often, the rest of them don’t go down with it.

Yahoo! Widgets Multiprocess

Yahoo! Widgets uses a multi-process architecture. 3 widgets are running here.

Google Desktop runs as two processes. The first process runs the desktop search engine component of it and the second process runs the sidebar gadgets. The RAM usage of the second process continues to rise as more gadgets are used and drops when the gadget is removed. With the basic gadgets running, the RAM usage was 25 MB. The RAM usage is mostly stable. When I tried adding gadgets that were not Google Created, it often froze and crashed during startup.

Windows: 4
Yahoo: 4
Google: 3.5

Supply of Widgets and Gadgets

How many gadgets and widgets are available for each in their respective galleries?

According to the Yahoo! Widgets site, there are currently around 5985 widgets to download. According to the Windows Live Gallery, there are currently 3831 gadgets for Windows Desktop Gadgets and Windows Sidebar. Google Desktop does not give an official count but since there are 157 pages in the gallery with each page containing 12 gadgets, there are around a total of 1884 gadgets.

Please note that these numbers are estimates and there are many widgets externally hosted and not part of the official galleries.

Windows: 4 (8 total)
Yahoo: 5 (9 total)
Google: 3 (6.5 total)

Ease of Gadget Installation

Windows Desktop Gadgets requires individual downloading of gadgets from the Windows Live Gallery. A user then has to open the file (.sidebar) with Windows Desktop Gadgets.

Yahoo! Widgets includes a Yahoo! Widgets Gallery Widget letting users search the widget gallery without going to a browser. To install a widget, simply click ‘Get This Widget’ and it will automatically download and install it. This widget includes a search bar, full descriptions, ratings, comments, etc… Alternatively, widgets (.widget) can be downloaded from the online widget gallery.

Yahoo! Widgets Search

Yahoo! Widgets Gallery Widget

Google Desktop includes a built in gadget gallery letting users search the full gallery. Simply click ‘Add’ and the widget will automatically download and install. Unlike Yahoo!’s widget official gallery widget, there are very few details shown in this built-in gallery. Alternatively, users can download the gadgets (.gg) from the online gallery.

Google Desktop Gadgets

Google Desktop Gadgets Gallery

Windows: 2 (10 total)
Yahoo: 5 (14 total)
Google: 4 (10.5 total)

Gadget/Widget Management

How easy is it to manage all the gadgets and widgets running?

Windows Sidebar/Desktop Gadgets includes a installed gadget gallery where users can add new gadgets as well as remove them. Gadgets that ship with Windows or those that are installed into the C:\Program Files\Windows Sidebar can be restored at any time given that the file still exists in the All Users installation directory.

Windows Gadget Gallery

Windows Gadget Gallery

Yahoo! Widgets includes a dock that lets users manage all installed widgets. Clicking the plus icon will expand the dock to show all installed widgets. Otherwise, only active widgets are shown.

Yahoo! Dock

Google Desktop does not include any gadget management. When a gadget is closed, it is not deleted however. It stays in your gadget storage directory. In order to use that gadget again, it must be re-added from the built in gallery or the user needs to open the .gg file from the storage directory.

Google Gadgets

The only way to manage Google Desktop Gadgets is through Windows Explorer (or another file manager).

Windows: 3 (13 total)
Yahoo: 5 (19 total)
Google: 1 (11.5 total)

Individual Widget/Gadget Settings

How can each individual widget and gadget be configured?

Some Windows Desktop Gadgets have options, others have nothing at all. Click the gears icon next to the gadgets to configure them. The opacity of each gadget can also be set by right clicking on the gadget.

Windows Gadget Settings

Settings for the slide show gadget

Yahoo! Widgets includes an extensive preferences panel for each widget. Developers can add their own options, but the widgets all have some base options, such as opacity.

Yahoo! Weather Settings

All gadgets have some basic Windows options

Google Desktop is similar to Windows Desktop Gadgets. Some gadgets have options and others don’t. Select ‘Options’ from the arrow dropdown that appears when the mouse hovers over a gadget.

Google Web Clips Options

Google Web Clips Gadget Options

Windows: 3 (16 total)
Yahoo: 5 (24 total)
Google: 3 (14.5 total)

Need to Quickly View Gadgets Without Minimizing Everything?

If you’re working on something and you need to quickly view the widgets/gadgets without having to minimize all your windows, each program provides a shortcut to do so.

Windows Desktop Gadgets allows users to press ‘Windows Key + Spacebar’ to bring all gadgets to the front and ‘Windows Key + G’ to cycle through the gadgets. In addition, Aero Peek in Windows 7 (hover over Show Desktop button) does not hide Windows Desktop Gadgets allowing users to view the gadgets.

Yahoo! Widgets includes something called ‘Heads Up Display’, which is similar to the Mac Dashboard. By pressing the button on the dock or using the ‘F8′ shortcut, the widgets are brought to the front and the screen is dimmed so the main focus is the widgets.

Yahoo! Heads Up

Yahoo! Heads Up Display

Google Gadgets ButtonGoogle Desktop provides a taskbar button that will bring the sidebar to the front. There is an option to show just the icon,¬† just the ‘gadgets’ label, or both, or hide the button completely. Alternatively, users can use the hotkey of pressing the shift key twice.

Windows: 3 (19 total)
Yahoo: 5 (29 total)
Google: 3 (17.5 total)

General Appearance

Windows Desktop Gadgets sometimes look similar to Google Desktop Gadgets, many widgets look very plain.

Yahoo! Widgets mostly carry a sleek interface with an attractive interface and dock.

Gadgets and widgets are typically coded in XML and Javascript, however, Yahoo! Widgets accepts HTML and Flash as well.

Windows: 3 (22 total)
Yahoo: 5 (34 total)
Google: 3 (20.5 total)

Note: The actual types of widgets will be not be compared as everything is user submitted.

And the winner is…

Yahoo! Widgets

With a score of 34 (to 22 and 20.5), Yahoo! takes the crown for this edition of Tech Airlines First Class Flyer.

Yahoo! Widgets
Supports Windows and Mac

Google Desktop
Supports Windows (Mac and Linux versions do not include sidebar. Mac version includes Dashboard Gadgets.)

Be sure to join us next friday for the next edition of First Class Flyer!

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Brian is the co-founder of TechAirlines. He is a developer currently focusing on mobile and web development. He is currently a sophomore at Stony Brook University, majoring in Computer Science.

  • Scott Farwell

    I have Windows7 and use gadgets. I have a friend who is a MAC user and build a custom Widget for my favorite sports team and doesn’t make Gadgets. I use the kludget engine to run the widget but would like to have it be a gadget or at least managed by Windows7 gadgets.

    The main problem is that anytime I choose “show desktop” (which I do multiple times per day) the widget is hidden while all of my windows gadgets know to display with the desktop.

    What’s the difference between the 2 and is there a converter ? Or a way to get win7 gadgets to accept this widget as one of it’s own, or at least make the widget display when I choose “Display Desktop” (button on lower right in Win7 Pro)

    So far nobody seems to be talking about how to manage both at the same time.

    • Brian

      Hello Scott,

      I currently never experimented with running both at the same time.

      Windows Gadgets integrates very tightly with Windows and Microsoft probably designed it to not hide when the Show Desktop button is clicked.

      However, all other systems like Kludget run as a standard program and the Show Desktop button is designed to hide all programs.

      As for the converter, there isn’t one currently as the two widget systems use completely different API and wouldn’t be able to support each other.

      I’ll research a bit deeper into this and will post back here if I ever find a solution.

      Best regards,

  • fuji instax

    these are some amazing gadgets, thanks for the heads up about them.

  • Mark | Tech Site

    After being a silent reader of your tech blog for so long time, finally I’m out of the cocoon.

    Great article about Windows Desktop Gadgets and Widgets :)

  • virtual private servers

    The slide show widget is really cool and it do not consume more ram while the slide show is running