Windows Live Toolbar can enhance the usefulness of Internet Explorer, make Web surfing more fun, and spare you some mouse clicks--if you take the time to get acquainted with its features.
The download of Windows Live Toolbar 3 was nearly instantaneous in our tests, but during the otherwise quick installation, we weren't sure whether to install the Standard, Custom, or Advanced modes. We chose Standard, which accepts Microsoft's suggested content, but when we changed our minds, we couldn't go back to pick Custom, nor could we cancel installation without causing it to install the Toolbar with its default settings. If you'd like to keep your IE settings the way they are, make sure to uncheck the options that would set Live.com as your home page and turn Windows Live Search into your default search engine.
Initially after installation, Windows Live Toolbar 3 didn't appear within IE. To make it show up, we selected Tools under IE's View drop-down menu. The Toolbar then appeared with its search field and icons below IE's address bar. The Standard icons include links to Microsoft properties, such as MSNBC news, MSN.com, the Gallery, Windows Live Favorites, the Onfolio sidebar for collecting content from your Web searches, Windows Live Messenger, Spaces, and Mail. You can also click a button to subscribe to RSS feeds, which display within the Onfolio sidebar, not within a drop-down list, as offered by Google Desktop. We expected to remove and add icons by right-clicking them; but instead, you can control them all at once through the Windows Live logo drop-down menu to the left of the Toolbar's search field.
However, you can find plenty of additional tools from Microsoft and third parties at the Windows Live Gallery of Custom Buttons. With so many choices, ranging from the practical to the whimsical, we weren't sure where to start. Tools to choose from include those to whisk us to YouTube, movie news, Wikipedia, Windows Live Local Maps, online shopping, Yahoo Flickr, and travel tips. You can also embed tabbed browsing and add games.
When a Microsoft pop-up asked whether we wanted to add the Phishing Detective in addition to the built-in antiphishing filter, we accepted. The Toolbar's antiphishing features are designed to protect you from handing your private data to scam artists posing as legitimate banks and shopping Web sites. Windows Live Toolbar also blocks pop-ups, which is great for security, but we found it trickier than the Yahoo Toolbar to accept certain pop-ups that we needed. PC Health, another Standard icon within the Windows Live Toolbar, connects to Windows Live OneCare Advisor for an on-the-spot safety scan, and it links to Windows Live OneCare (free for 90 days).
While you type with the toolbar's search box Windows Live Search suggests a list of popular searches. We typed apple, for instance, and the Toolbar search drop-down suggested phrases including apple ipod and apple cider vinegar. The Toolbar also lets you pick the type of search, such as News or Images or Stock Quotes, and opens a small menu showing your history of lookups.
Windows Live Toolbar 3's tiny contextual Smart Menus pop up when you highlight text on a Web page and bring you more details without leaving the page. Highlight a company name, and the Smart Menus can display stock quotes. Highlight an address, and Smart Menus will open a tiny map or a weather forecast for that location. These menus can be quite useful, and they're small enough to ignore, but we understand how they might drive some people batty. A similar feature from the Yahoo Toolbar irked us before we knew what it did.
Help for Windows Live Toolbar 3 includes a searchable online knowledge base and a decent table of contents to step you through the basic features. We couldn't find anything when we looked up DLL to figure out why an error message prevented us from accessing some Toolbar menu choices, purportedly because of a missing DLL file. We reported the problem to Microsoft through a Web form. You can also send e-mailed support queries via a Web form at support.live.com.
We enjoyed testing Windows Live Toolbar 3 once installed, and found its option for adding tabbed browsing to Internet Explorer to be its most practical feature, albeit one that's coming to IE 7 and that already is standard in Firefox and Opera. Once we got used to Smart Menus, we found them useful for mapping addresses and searching the Web for text we'd highlighted on a page. We also enjoyed using the Onfolio sidebar to help manage newsfeeds and save our favorite online stories. However, we still wish that Microsoft--as well as Yahoo and Google--would make their installation processes less intrusive by default. If you're a faithful Internet Explorer user who wants to expand that browser's functionality and could use shortcuts to an array of Windows Live tools, then we suggest giving Windows Live Toolbar 3 a spin. However, if you prefer to surf the Web with more screen space and without little interruptions designed to help you drill down within your Internet searches, then you might want to pass on any toolbar application.