New toolbar for Microsoft's Live services

Toolbar offers easy access to many Windows Live services, but accessing non-Microsoft content isn't simple

Every time you turn around, Microsoft seems to be releasing--or rechristening--a Web service with the Windows Live moniker. To date, seeing how all of these Live tools work together has been difficult, but in the new version 3 of the Windows Live Toolbar for Internet Explorer 6, we finally get an inkling of that integration. The toolbar offers easy access to other Windows Live services, such as Live Search, Live Messenger, and Live Mail. Unfortunately, however, accessing non-Microsoft services is more difficult than it should be.

At 1.3MB, the free Windows Live Toolbar is quick to download. Setting it up is straightforward, though it doesn't offer the easy drag-and-drop customization of Google Toolbar. At first glance the toolbar's numerous options can be overwhelming, as it packs dozens of functions in a very compact space, and remembering which feature is located on which button's submenu is a challenge.

The Toolbar includes a shortcut to the Windows Live Gallery, where you can choose from dozens of available buttons to add. Categories include search, shopping, mail, and contacts. You simply click the Add button to download one of the buttons to your toolbar. When I browsed the gallery, many of the most popular add-ons were Microsoft creations, but one person had posted a Google Search button.

Not surprisingly, the default search engine is Windows Live Search, but you can enter a new default search engine in the Options dialog box. Accessing other, non-Microsoft services is not as easy. Microsoft, of course, isn't alone in putting its content in the forefront of its toolbar; Google and Yahoo also place their services at the front and center of their respective offerings. But both Google and Yahoo provide a selection of third-party services as well.

The new 'Make a Button' option on the toolbar's Gallery menu lets you create a button to access a non-Microsoft service, but it's not a simple process. The form you're required to fill out is unintuitive, and I failed at my first attempt to create a shortcut to PCWorld.com, receiving several 'invalid data entry' warnings (likely because I had failed to complete the form properly). Several fields don't allow spaces, while others appear to require a URL. What's required isn't always clear--and when you enter incorrect data, you're not told what type of data you were supposed to enter. On my second attempt, though, I did manage to complete the task.

In fact, I felt more inclined to remove buttons from the toolbar than to add new ones, because the interface is too crowded. For example, the Windows Live OneCare button opens the free version of the maintenance service and offers a 60-day no-cost trial of the fee-based version. While the free scan and defrag is a nice convenience (even though the service requires that you download one or more ActiveX controls), I use competing security and maintenance tools, so this button I could jettison without a second thought. Likewise, if you don't have a blog on Windows Live Spaces, the Spaces button is probably just taking up, well, space. However, people who use Microsoft's Spaces blog service will appreciate the toolbar's one-button access.

The same holds for users of Windows Live Messenger and other Windows Live and MSN services, all of which you can access with a single log-in. Of course, Microsoft competitors Google and Yahoo take similar approaches to their families of Web services: All three companies are trying to keep their customers in the fold by integrating their mail, search, local, mapping, photo sharing, and other Web services. But in my view, such stratification doesn't bode well for an open Internet.

News-feed manager extraordinaire

One of the Windows Live Toolbar features I found most useful was actually first available in the previous release: the Onfolio RSS aggregator and information manager. Clicking the toolbar's Onfolio button opens a panel along the browser's left side that you use to create collections of Web information on a single subject. For example, if you're considering a new car purchase, you can drag information from various Web sites, your own files, or other sources into a collection, and then view and compare that information offline.

As practical as these information collections can be, Onfolio really shines at managing your news feeds. The service's Feeds link lets you easily select feeds on various topics and browse them without feeling overwhelmed. It's just as simple to search your feeds.

The only investment you must make in this and other browser toolbars is the time and effort required to configure them. If you're an avid user of Microsoft's Windows Live services, Windows Live Toolbar is for you. If you're not a Microsoft user, however, you won't find it nearly as friendly.

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Dennis O'Reilly

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