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 peek inside the inner workings of your PC.
Each new Windows 7 system ships with a handful of gadgets that show dynamic data such as the time, the weather and current news headlines, but there are more than 5,000 gadgets available that run the gamut from the frivolous to the essential. A few come from Microsoft, but the vast majority were written by third-party developers, and most work with both Windows 7 and Vista. All are available for download at Microsoft's Windows Live Gallery.
There are gadgets for gaming, monitoring online auctions, keeping up with email or social media, playing music, encrypting files and even showing the phase of the moon. More important, though, gadgets can be extremely useful for system monitoring.
In the following pages, I've gathered a dozen handy gadgets that display data about key computer operations: networking, system resources, component status, battery level and more.
While these gadgets sometimes duplicate functions provided by built-in Windows tools, what sets them apart is that they're always on the desktop in easy view. Together, they provide a wealth of information about 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 Meter gadget, it takes one click to refresh the PC's IP address, saving the half-minute of clicking it normally takes to manually refresh the connection.
Like other Windows gadgets, these system monitors are small (from 26KB to around 2MB) and have a highly focused scope. Most take less than a minute to download and install and don't adversely affect the system's performance.
The best part is that they are all free for the download -- a great way to add to your system without subtracting from your wallet.
With Windows 7 having something like 15GB of software code, figuring out what's going on inside a PC is no easy task. The SysInfo and System Control 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 in a wide variety of categories pops up. On top of things like operating system details and the capacity utilization of the processor, there's data on the computer's drives, network connections and battery life.
SysInfo doesn't provide all the details that more specialized gadgets like Network Monitor provide, but it's an excellent overview, and there's an uptime clock that shows how long it's been since the system was started. You can choose to have SysInfo display all its info on the desktop or just in clickable category headers or the single icon, and you can adjust its size on the desktop.
In contrast, System Control A1 focuses on the essentials. In addition to a prominent digital clock that shows the current time (in a 12- or 24-hour format) as well as uptime, System Control presents a nifty bar graph showing how much memory the system has as well as its free memory available.
It also monitors the utilization of the processor's threads (which it calls cores) over time and displays the results in graphs -- useful information for those who push their systems to the limit.
Unfortunately, System Control's display isn't adjustable, and it can steal a lot of desktop area.
These two gadgets complement each other nicely: SysInfo does a good job of showing a snapshot of many of the current goings-on inside your system, while System Control A1 graphs processor utilization over time, which can be helpful in trying to trace a program that's been using a lot of system resources.
One of these gadgets -- or both -- belongs on every PC.
There are few things worse for your computer than allowing its processor, often its most expensive part, to overheat and burn out. All it takes is one key transistor in the chip shorting out and the whole thing is an expensive piece of garbage.
ALCPU's Core Temp Gadget can help keep your PC from getting hot under the 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 being used. On many systems, it'll also display the chip's voltage, although some processors -- mine included -- don't support this.
The center of attention, however, is its temperature readings: Core Temp shows how hot it is inside your processor in surprising detail. The gadget displayed not only the temperature in each of my processor's four cores, but graphed them in a line plot. It's excellent information for trying to troubleshoot an intermittent overheating problem.
On top of adjusting the size of the gadget, you can change what information to show, the colors to use and how the graphs are set up. The gadget works with recent AMD and Intel processors, although some Phenom and Phenom II chips have a single temperature sensor and provide only one reading for the entire chip.
In the event that your system does start to overheat, Core Temp has your back. It will display "(!)" next to the temperature reading, open a pop-up warning and even start shutting the system down if you want it to.
Think of it as free insurance for your computer.
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