XWidget: An Easy and Customizable Widget Engine

XWidget is Windows software that brings the famous Mac OSX dashboard to Windows computers while adding some new features of its own. There’s several Windows dashboard programs out there, but XWidget stands out from the crowd by almost perfectly balancing ease of use with customizability, including many unique features not found in any other dashboard software.

There are several other similar programs: Rainmeter (an extremely powerful but complicated program), Yahoo! Widgets (now discontinued), Google Desktop (also discontinued), and Microsoft’s Sidebar which comes bundled with Windows 7. XWidget is an excellent, easy alternative to a more difficult program such as Rainmeter, while still remaining more featured than the spartan Windows 7 Sidebar, packing a couple of surprises in its tiny package

Getting Started

The installer is only 7 megabytes, although it downloads the actual software throughout the course of installation. It’s quick to install, but unfortunately, the installer is crudded up with bloatware, namely the Babylon toolbar. But it goes by quickly and XWidget opens automatically at the end.

The default XWidget configuration

The default XWidget configuration

The first thing you are greeted with after XWidget opens is three minimal widgets: Weather, a clock, and a photo gallery. All of the default widgets follow this sleek, black look, and together they look really nice and minimal. On the first open, XWidget also opens a browser window with a gallery of widgets. More on that in a minute.

The XWidget Menu

The XWidget Menu

The main application resides in a tray icon. This is where you’ll be configuring the program. As you can see this menu holds a lot of power in it. There’s a slew of interesting options, and we’ll get to them, but let’s start with the basics.

Desktop and Dashboard Modes

XWidget has two modes: Dashboard mode and Desktop mode. Desktop mode always displays your widgets, and looks quite similar to the Windows sidebar. The widgets show on the desktop and live behind your windows. Unlike Rainmeter, the widgets stay displayed even when you click the show desktop button, which is a nice feature. You can right click on a widget and toggle whether it will show on both Dashboard and Desktop views, or only the Desktop view.

Dashboard mode, on the other hand, is similar to OSX, with a semi-transparent black background covering all the windows with the widgets displayed prominently on top. By default, XWidget offers one shortcut to enter Dashboard mode: double-clicking the middle mouse button. If your laptop happens to be configured to read a two-button click as a middle click, then you can access the dashboard this way. But this is a cumbersome and not very discoverable shortcut.

Luckily, XWidget allows you to set up to three different shortcuts for bringing up Dashboard mode. I set my dasboard to show at F12, again, similar to a Mac.

The dashboard view of XWidget

The dashboard view of XWidget

In Dashboard mode, we can add and remove widgets by clicking the plus in the bottom left. To anyone who’s used a Mac, this will be a very familiar gesture. XWidget also comes with a fairly robust default widget selection.

Switching between Dashboard and Desktop is fairly simple, though occasionally there are some bugs with how widgets display. Toggling backwards and forwards between the two modes can sometimes cause all of the widgets to disappear: only restarting the program fixes this. It doesn’t occur very often, however, and as most people will likely use XWidget in either Desktop or Dashboard mode this isn’t a big issue.

Configurability

XWidget boasts a total of fourteen default widgets, namely: EkerWeather, EkerPhotoAlbum, EkerTime, EkerUptime (displays computer uptime), EkerRSS, EkerIP Address, EkerNet, EkerRecycle, EkerSearch, EkerSystem, iFolder Dock, EkerAppsTab, and EkerDriverDock.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, and a simple configuration of the default widgets can provide a very robust dashboard already. Because of XWidget’s dual modes feature, it’s also possible to use XWidget as a Rainmeter replacement.

Widgets always show on the desktop, and XWidget can hide the desktop icons automatically opon starting up. A combination of these features and the EkerSystem, iFolder Dock, and Eker AppsTab widgets can provide a very similar setup to Rainmeter desktop customization.

A simple but useful options panel for XWidget

A simple but useful options panel for XWidget

The options are not particularly robust, but serve their purpose well. Though there’s not very many of them, they’re all extremely useful and together make XWidget into a pretty potent customization option. Several of the noteworthy options are the following:

  • Toggle desktop icons
  • Run XWidget when Windows starts
  • Configurable hotkeys to show the dashboard
  • Toggle the system taskbar
  • Hide the XWidget tray icon

More Widgets

A weather widget I added in 5 seconds using the Gallery

A weather widget I added in 5 seconds using the Gallery

Thankfully, XWidget supports more than just the default fourteen widgets. The gallery can be opened by clicking ‘More Widgets’ on the context menu of the tray icon. This takes you to a gallery which is surprisingly robust. There are definitely more widgets here than there are in the Windows 7 Sidebar or Yahoo! Widgets gallery, though there is a glut of clock and weather widgets.

Installing a widget is ridiculously easy. There is a prominent download button on each individual widget page in the gallery; clicking it starts a progress bar at the bottom of the browser window and when it has completed the widget opens on your screen automatically. It’s really a snap to install new widgets, and it’s definitely one of the better features of XWidget.

Overall, the widget selection is good, but as I said before, heavily glutted with clock and weather widgets. There’s also a distinct lack of widgets that tie in with social networking and the like: there’s no Twitter widget, for example. Still, there’s a pretty good selection overall.

Creating your Own Widgets

Ultimately any dashboard software will be all about the widgets, and XWidget’s selection is a little lacking. But that shouldn’t be a problem, becaues XWidget comes out of the box with a widget creator. Simply click ‘Create Widget’ on the context menu of the program.

The Widget Creator tool

The Widget Creator tool

Upon opening this command, you’re greeted with a screen which prompts you to name your widget and select the type (one of the types is ‘Weather’ which doubtless explains the glut in the gallery). Unfortunately, though it’s touted as simple, the widget creator is very confusing without documentation.

There’s little to no explanation of what anything is. The left has a list of drag and drop elements which you drop onto the widget’s canvas (in the center of the screen), and then bind to certain events using Javascript code. The toolbar at the top allows you to debug and test your widget.

It seems simple enough, and no doubt an hour or two of fiddling could produce a very functional widget. But XWidget doesn’t need any more clock or weather widgets — better documentation and support for the widget creator is a must if the selection is to improve any.

Still, it’s a powerful feature that’s hamstrung by having a difficult learning curve and no documentation — there’s absolutely none on the website and none to very little in the XWidget Designer itself. There is definitely room for improvement with this feature in future releases.

Performance

According to the Soluto startup manager, XWidget impacts boot by only four seconds. That’s not a small chunk, but it’s very modest when compared to the power and productivity you can get out of XWidget once it’s properly configured: the four seconds is definitely worth it.

The performance of XWidget is incredible. The most RAM it used at any time during my testing was 10k, with fifteen widgets open; which is excellent for a program of its type (Both Rainmeter and Sidebar frequently top 50k of RAM, and Yahoo! Widgets can reach 200k if running heavy widgets). All of the subtle animations and functions of the program were extremely smooth and never slowed down the computer in the least. It’s a pleasant surprise to find a dashboard program that’s light on system resources.

Comparison

The big question is how XWidget stacks up against the other programs of its type. It’s a clear winner over Windows 7’s default Sidebar: XWidget uses fewer system resources and has a much better selection of widgets, and allows you to create your own.

Yahoo! Widgets and Google Desktop have been discontinued, so comparisons are somewhat unfair, but XWidget beats them both in performance (although Google Desktop is close), selection, and customizability.

Rainmeter is difficult to beat, but XWidget comes fairly close. The two programs target different niches: Rainmeter is for complete customization, but can be a lot harder to use. Also, because it’s not geared towards widgets specifically, there is no dashboard mode. XWidget is lighter on system resources, but is not quite so customizable as Rainmeter, and trades some customization off for ease of use. Still, it definitely depends on what you’re aiming for, as both programs are very capable.

Wrapping Up

Overall, XWidget brings clear, easy-to-use dashboard functionality to Windows, and it’s a clear winner in my book. If you’re looking for a simple yet robust dashboard program for your computer, XWidget is definitely the way to go.


Summary

XWidget is a simple and easy to use Dashboard program that emulates the OSX Dashboard on a Windows computer, while also bringing several features of its own to the table.

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