It’s been nearly two years since Windows 7 was released, and yet there are still some features that Windows 7 users may not be taking full advantage of — such as desktop gadgets. Similar to the Mac’s Dashboard Widgets, Windows desktop gadgets are mini-applications that reside on your desktop and can display live data, perform simple functions like search or password generation, or give you a sneak peekinside the inner workings of your PC.
Each new Windows 7 system ships with ahandful of gadgets that showdynamic data such as the time, the weather and current news headlines,but there are more than 5,000 gadgets available that run the gamut fromthe frivolous to the essential. A few come from Microsoft, but the vastmajority were written by third-party developers, and most work withboth Windows 7 and Vista. All are available for download at Microsoft’sWindowsLive Gallery.
There are gadgets for gaming, monitoring online auctions, keeping upwith email or social media, playing music, encrypting files and evenshowing the phase of the moon. More important, though, gadgets can beextremely useful for system monitoring.
In the following pages, I’ve gathered a dozen handy gadgets thatdisplay data about key computer operations: networking, systemresources, component status, battery level and more.
While these gadgets sometimes duplicate functions provided by built-inWindows tools, what sets them apart is that they’re always on thedesktop in easy view. Together, they provide a wealth of informationabout how your computer is operating in an at-a-glance format.
The best of them go a step further by linking to key system software.For instance, with the Network Metergadget, it takes one click to refresh the PC’s IP address, saving thehalf-minute of clicking it normally takes to manually refresh theconnection.
Like other Windows gadgets, these system monitors are small (from 26KBto around 2MB) and have a highly focused scope. Most take less than aminute to download and install and don’t adversely affect the system’sperformance.
The best part is that they are all free for the download — a great wayto add to your system without subtracting from your wallet.
With Windows 7 having something like 15GB of software code, figuringout what’s going on inside a PC is no easy task. The SysInfo and SystemControl A1 gadgets provide a valuable peek.
By default, SysInfo appears as a small icon that doesn’t show any data,but click on the icon and a huge panel displaying system information ina wide variety of categories pops up. On top of things like operatingsystem details and the capacity utilization of the processor, there’sdata on the computer’s drives, network connections and battery life.
SysInfo doesn’t provide all the details that more specialized gadgetslike Network Monitor provide, but it’s an excellent overview, andthere’s an uptime clock that shows how long it’s been since the systemwas started. You can choose to have SysInfo display all its info on thedesktop or just in clickable category headers or the single icon, andyou can adjust its size on the desktop.
In contrast, System Control A1 focuses on the essentials. In additionto a prominent digital clock that shows the current time (in a 12- or24-hour format) as well as uptime, System Control presents a nifty bargraph showing how much memory the system has as well as its free memoryavailable.
It also monitors the utilization of the processor’s threads (which itcalls cores) over time and displays the results in graphs — usefulinformation for those who push their systems to the limit.
Unfortunately, System Control’s display isn’t adjustable, and it cansteal a lot of desktop area.
These two gadgets complement each other nicely: SysInfo does a good jobof showing a snapshot of many of the current goings-on inside yoursystem, while System Control A1 graphs processor utilization over time,which can be helpful in trying to trace a program that’s been using alot of system resources.
One of these gadgets — or both — belongs on every PC.
There are few things worse for your computer than allowing itsprocessor, often its most expensive part, to overheat and burn out. Allit takes is one key transistor in the chip shorting out and the wholething is an expensive piece of garbage.
ALCPU’s Core Temp Gadget can help keep your PC from getting hot underthe collar. For it to work, you’ll also need to load the free Core Temp application,but the whole process takes just a couple of minutes.
Version 2 of the Core Temp Gadget shows what processor your system has,its actual clock speed and how much of the system’s memory is beingused. On many systems, it’ll also display the chip’s voltage, althoughsome processors — mine included — don’t support this.
The center of attention, however, is its temperature readings: CoreTemp shows how hot it is inside your processor in surprising detail.The gadget displayed not only the temperature in each of my processor’sfour cores, but graphed them in a line plot. It’s excellent informationfor trying to troubleshoot an intermittent overheating problem.
On top of adjusting the size of the gadget, you can change whatinformation to show, the colors to use and how the graphs are set up.The gadget works with recentAMD and Intel processors, although some Phenom and Phenom IIchips have a single temperature sensor and provide only one reading forthe entire chip.
In the event that your system does start to overheat, Core Temp hasyour back. It will display “(!)” next to the temperature reading, opena pop-up warning and even start shutting the system down if you want itto.
Think of it as free insurance for your computer.
Process watch Inside a PC there are thousands of individual software processesrunning, including those that interact with your computer’s CPU, RAMand hard drive. The fabric of a working computer is the sum of theseprocesses.
Use Top Process Monitor to keep an eye on software processes that areusing lots of system resources.
The Top Process Monitor gadget acts as your PC’s greatest hits chart,showing which processes are using your computer’s resources the most.It can show the top processes for various operations including CPU use,memory use, virtual memory use, input-output operations and drive readsand writes.
You can also choose to view any individual process along with its usagedata, or have the gadget cycle through any group of them. It’s theultimate snoop to see what’s going on inside your computer.
On top of letting you adjust the size of the gadget, Version 2.5 of TopProcess Monitor lets you choose which type of operations to display andcustomize the number of individual processes to show (up to 20) and thecolors used.
A nice touch is that Top Process Monitor lets you set a threshold forthe amount of system resources any process uses. If it’s exceeded, thesoftware gives you a warning. It’s a great help if, for example, asloppy program is using too much virtual memory.
Having connectivity problems? The Network Meter gadget can help youkeep an eye on your connections.
Network Meter displays a wealth of information about either a wired ora wireless connection.
Network Meter takes the concept of “utility” to its natural conclusion.It’s chock-full of key networking data, including current upload anddownload speeds as well as total data moved. It even shows yoursystem’s internal and external IP addresses.
The gadget can show you data about a wireless or wired connection aswell as the network interface card in use. It’s a great first step introubleshooting a faulty Web connection, helping you pinpoint where tostart: the router, the broadband connection or inside the PC.
You can adjust the gadget’s size, color scheme and how often it getsnew data. At any time you can refresh the local or external IP address,which in itself can save a minute or two of clicking. There’s also alink to SpeedTest.net to check your online bandwidth.
The DC Wireless Network Monitor gadget, on the other hand, shows onlythe Wi-Fi basics in a tiny rectangle that takes up almost no room onyour desktop. Below the main signal strength bar is the name of thenetwork you’re connected to as well as the system’s IP address and apadlock symbol if it’s an encrypted link.
And that’s about it, except for the ability to change the color of thegadget. It’s ideal for minimalists who just want to keep an eye ontheir wireless connection.
Disk space and usage
Wondering how much space you have left on your hard drive or whetheryour drive is working too hard or overheating? O&O DiskStatbrings that info and more to your desktop.
By default, the gadget shows two circular gauges: One is a pie chart ofdrive capacity and availability, and the other shows the drive’sactivity level. When the drive is idle, it shows 0%; when it’s maxedout, it shows 100%.
If the S.M.A.R.T. drive-monitoring technology is enabled on yoursystem, DiskStat shows the hard drive’s temperature below the gauges.You may be able to enable S.M.A.R.T. in your system’s BIOS or use autility like Ariolic’s ActiveSMART($30), which doesn’t require a system restart to work.
Click on any part of the DiskStat gadget and it doubles in size,revealing a new section with more details about the drive, includingits size and free space.
O&O DiskStat can look at only one drive or disk partition at atime; you choose which drive to monitor in the setup screen. Click onthe monkey wrench icon on the right side to get to it.
Of all the gadgets I’ve seen, O&O DiskStat is the best looking;it displays the right amount of information without seeming cramped.There are two skins that can help this gadget fit into your desktopdecor, and you can remove the O&O logo for a minimalistapproach. You can’t adjust its size, but the gadget lets you choosewhether you want the temperature displayed in Celsius or Fahrenheit.
Those who have multiple hard drives or multiple disk partitions on a single drive should consider running Drive Meter as well. It shows how much data is going into and coming out of each drive as well as its per cent utilization.
It doesn’t watch the drives’ temperature or show you how much space is available, but it provides a good way to keep an eye on disk activity for up to three drives or partitions simultaneously.
An eye on graphics
Unlike general system gadgets, GPU Monitor cares about just one thing:your graphics processing unit and how well it is running. A fount ofinformation about your system’s graphics and video, this gadget canhelp pinpoint problems whether you have a budget PC with integratedgraphics or a high-end system with a discrete GPU.
In addition to showing which accelerator chip your system uses and keystats such as video memory used and graphics processor load, GPUMonitor shows the chip’s and graphics board’s temperatures. You canhave the gadget warn you with an audio alarm if the graphics subsystemstarts overheating, although it can’t initiate a system shutdown toprevent damage.
For those experiencing intermittent problems with video, GPU Monitorcan keep a log file containing info on any of five main graphicsparameters, such GPU temperature and if the fan is on, along with timestamps to help troubleshoot the issue.
GPU Monitor presents a lot of data and can seem crowded, but you cancustomize it by limiting the types of data it shows, showing data inseparate graphs or a single one, and changing the gadget’s size andcolor combination.
Note: Some users with integrated graphics systems might need to loadthe RivaTuner software, which collects the data that GPU Monitor shows.It’s free, and you can download it from within the gadget.
Firewall status check
Buried inside the Windows Firewall settings page (accessible via theControl Panel) is the ability to set your firewall profile as Public(for unsecure networks, like café hot spots) or Private (for yoursecure home or business network). Each profile involves a differentmixture of which incoming connections are allowed or blocked.
When connecting a laptop from the road, many travelers move aroundbetween secure private connections and public hot spots several times aday. But changing your computer’s firewall settings for public orprivate connections each time you switch networks is a tedious task,and one that’s easy to forget. The Windows Firewall Profile gadgetassures you that you’ve made the change properly.
One of the most basic gadgets around, Windows Firewall Profile doesn’tactually help you change your profile setting; it just shows you thecurrent status (Private or Public) in a small black rectangle. Its sizecan’t be adjusted, and there isn’t much to configure either, aside fromhow frequently the system’s firewall status is checked (from 10 secondsto 5 minutes).
But what this gadget does, it does well. It immediately figured outwhen I changed my firewall profile from Private to Public settings andback again during a busy road trip.
Ideally, the gadget would provide a way to adjust the firewall settingsor at least link to the firewall settings dialog. All the same, it’sreassuring to see what the firewall status is at a glance, withouthaving to wade into the system settings to check.
WindowsFirewall Profile (119KB)
When you’re on the road and far from an AC outlet, it’s important toknow how much power is left in your notebook’s battery. Windows 7includes a battery gauge in the taskbar tray, but it stays hiddenduring most use; you have to click on it to see the charge level.
That’s where 9-skin Battery Meter comes in. It does an excellent job ofputting your battery level in your face in an artistic way.
The gadget comes with nine different decorative skins (hence the name)that range from a circular gauge to something that looks like an AAbattery. You can either open the gadget’s Options to select one or givethe gadget a double-click to bring up a new one.
The gadget glows green when the system is charging, and most of thebattery gauge designs have eight elements that change color to showthat the cells are running down. All turn to orange and then red forthe last two segments; some add a triangular caution sign as the endnears.
Unlike many other gadgets, 9-skin Battery Meter can’t be resized,although you can choose whether to have the gadget display how muchtime remains before the system dies.
While the focus of this story is on gadgets that everyone can use toget some insight into how their system is working, I’ve also includedtwo great gadgets that require specific hardware or software to work:the gadget that’s included with Symantec’s Norton Internet Securitysoftware and the Intel Core Series gadget for looking at certain Intelprocessors.
Symantec’s Norton gadget is among the most colorful. When the softwareis up to date and Internet bad guys are kept at bay, there’s aprominent green banner across the top of the gadget that says “Secure.”You’ll immediately know that something is amiss if, for instance, yourversion of the software is out of date, because the banner turns redand says “At Risk.”
Below the banner are icons that lead to the four major elements of thesecurity suite. You can see details about the system’s current securitystatus, discover what other members of your family have been doingonline (the software keeps tabs on other computers on your network thatshare your Norton Internet Security license), check if your backups areup to date and find out if a website is safe before clicking to it.
There’s no download link for the Norton gadget: The only way to get itis to buy NortonInternet Security (regularly $70; now on sale for $50).
Intel Core Series
By contrast, the Core Series gadget is available online and can tellyou a lot about your system’s processor — but only if it’s a recentIntel CPU.
The gadget wasn’t written by Intel, but it does a great job ofinterrogating Intel processors. (AMD has a similar system monitoringprogram, but it’s a full Windows 7 application, not a gadget.)
Like System Control A1, the Core Series gadget monitors up to eightprocessing threads (rather than cores, as it says), but it’s valuableinformation nonetheless. It adds a handy overall CPU Usage rating and agraph below. If you add the WinRing0 software, which Core Series candownload for you, the gadget can display the chip’s actual clock speedas well.
You can choose a color scheme for the gadget and tell it what toinclude in the graph along the bottom: individual threads, all theoperating threads, core temperature, or temperature and threadstogether. You can’t resize it, though, which is a problem because thegraph is rather crowded.