At last — a useful Windows Sidebar Gadget

If you are a user of Windows Vista, you will no doubt be aware of Windows Gadgets. For the uninitiated, they are basically tiny little applications that run on your desktop (you might also know them as widgets or, in the world of Facebook, applications). You will also be aware that none of the sidebar gadgets in existence are actually useful.

Yeah, there’s that massive oversized analogue clock. And there’s that calendar that doesn’t do anything except tell you what the date is. Then there is the RSS reader that only allows you to subscribe to certain Microsoft feeds. The only really useful one that came as a default on Vista is the post-it note style thing. But apart from that, unless you really like currency converters, there was not much to get stuck into.

There isn’t even anything decent among the third-party efforts. The only good one is iTunes Accessory. Almost all of the others are banal and pointless.

This always struck me as a bit weird. After all, there seem to be a lot of good widgets available for Mac OS X. And even when you look at the wonderful and varied ways that Facebook Applications have been used, the world of Windows Sidebar Gadgets is startlingly stagnant.

But yesterday I discovered a truly useful and surprisingly well-executed Gadget made by National Rail Enquiries. Once you install the gadget, you simply type in your start station (and, optionally, your destination station) and up pops a list of how the trains are running. Essentially, it is the live departure boards feature of the National Rail website, just sitting there in the corner ready for me to glance at.

I already put it to good use yesterday, in my little game of chicken (what’s the latest train I dare to get?). I couldn’t decide which between two trains I should get. But when the earlier one started to run late, I decided I had better stay on the safe side and get the earlier one.

The gadget could do with a couple of extra features. Clicking on a journey brings up a larger screen with details on the expected journey times — but only from your station onwards (eg., I get a table of all the stations between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh Waverley). But I usually like to see how the train has been running at stations prior to Kirkcaldy to give me a better idea of the journey’s history. I always get the impression that the journey estimates are a little on the optimistic side, and I’d rather like to see the cold, hard facts of how the train has actually been getting along.

But I can’t complain too much. As I said, it is just amazing enough that such a useful gadget has finally been made, and by National Rail Enquiries of all people! I get the feeling that it is going unnoticed (apparently it’s been around since July, and I’ve only just found out about it). If you are a regular train user and have Windows Vista, you probably ought to install it.


  1. I love my Mac OS X widgets. You can auto-download lyrics for the song playing on iTunes, check tide times for the next few days, and a host of other boring things. A few words in defence of boring analog clocks on Dashboard or its Windows rip-off: they’re useful for checking if your family on different continents will yell at you for calling them at whatever ridiculous hour.

  2. I suspect there’s less useful widgets available for Windows simply because Vista is relatively new. There’s no technical reason that people aren’t just converting the ones for OS X, though, which is reasonably baffling.

    If there’s OS X ones you find useful, maybe you could try porting them? I’d offer to do it as a quick little project but I don’t use Windows (or OS X) so it’s a little more challenging!