Widget Application Performance

With the recent release of Konfabulator as free software from Yahoo!, users wanting to dress up their desktops with a little eye candy suddenly have more choices. I decided to have a look at the three main freely available projects, with an eye for ease of use and performance (by which I mean how much of my CPU and memory do they use).

The three main applications under review are all free: Kapsules, dotWidget, and the newly freed Konfabulator. I’ll also mention Phatbits of which I received an “old” preview build. Of course, now that I’ve done all this comparison work, I guess I’ll have to make a commitment to review these results when Kapsules releases their much anticipated version 1, and when Phatbits goes public.

Preface

First of all, if I’m going to use a widget application, it had better do something useful, and do something that updates so often that it’s worth having it running all the time. This means no drive, CPU or memory monitoring widgets, which just show me how much free space|power|memory i have left … because It just doesn’t matter. So, my intent is to find a widget that will give me the weather forecast (not just the current weather), the current value of stocks I’m tracking, a to do/event list pulled from Outlook (I’m NOT going to enter things twice, and I have to use outlook to share my schedule with my coworkers), and maybe an RSS reader, or a web-comic downloader, and something mostly for looks like an analog clock and a calendar like Rainlendar. Rainlendar is, by all rights, one of the first, and most popular desktop widgets, but it’s stand alone, so if I’m going to run a widget application, I’d like to replace all of Rainlendar’s functionality.

Installation

I started out by downloading and installing all four applications (including the pre-release build of Phatbits). All of them feature similar, easy installers and caused no problems. Kapsules asked me several extra questions, such as did I want it to associate the .kap extension (how should I know? what’s that extension for? I just said yes), but other than that, everything is pretty much uneventful.

Out of the box, the best experience, hands-down, goes to Konfabulator. Not only did they pre-install almost all of the widgets I listed above as ones I was interested in (they didn’t include an RSS reader), but they feature a special “introduction to Konfabulator” widget which steps you through some understanding of what the application is and how it works, and they pre-configure several widgets to be visible, something that NONE of the others did (We’ll give them all extra grace since all of them purport to be pre 1.0 releases, and Konfabulator is a 2.0, but even so, the out-of-box experience is going to win over 90% of people who try these to Konfabulator before they even get to installing new widgets for the others). Konfabulator is also the only one which put itself in my start menu’s Start Up folder, and thus is the only one which will be running after I reboot.

Finding and Using Widgets

The news only gets better for Konfabulator when I tried to set up the widgets I wanted … Konfabulator is actually the only one that had the full set. I used Konfabulator’s The Weather, Stock Ticker, Calendar, PIM Overview, Combarss, and Analog Clock … and of those, the only one I had to download was the RSS feed reader. I nearly decided not to bother comparing dotWidget at this point: while Kapsules has just over 100 widgets available, and Konfabulator has almost 650 (for Windows — they also support Mac, with over 1000 widgets available for Mac), dotWidget has less than 25 available on their website.

When I started up dotWidget I found a total of 7 “default” widgets available: two analog clocks (why two?), and a few system stat widgets (eg: disk and memory monitors, because yeah, everyone needs to keep track of their disk space several times a day), one widget which I still haven’t figured out if it even does anything (dotHealthE) and one which checks gMail (no thanks). So I went to find and install some widgets so I could compare it to Konfabulator and Kapsules … I managed to find an RSS parser, and a weather one, but no stock feed or PIM. After downloading these, manually unzipping them, finding the folder where I’d installed dotWidget, and moving the folders there, i was finally able to load the weather widget, only to discover that it doesn’t do anything unless you read it’s readme.txt file and then “You need to go to weather.com and choose your local weather then manually edit the weather.ini file using that URL. It will refresh every 2 minutes.” Do I need the weather forecast updated every 2 minutes, really? Probably not, but oh, this isn’t even a forecast. At that point, I actually decided to just leave it displaying the weather for some random place, since it was already clear I was not going to be using dotWidget long term. I almost gave up installing the calendar and RSS parser I’d downloaded, after getting an error suggesting I “contact the widget’s vendor” ... but eventually realized the problem was an extra nested folder in the widget’s folder. With only three widgets successfully loaded (one displaying the weather for Yuma Valley), I finally just close the application completely.

When you start up Kapsules, the first thing that happens is that you get reminded to donate money. Not exactly the best impression, since at this point I hadn’t even got any widgets configured. The reminder does have a note on it about where to turn off the begging, so I went straight to the preferences dialog. While I was doing that, I noticed an option to “Always on Virutal Desktops”[sic] which I turned off (that misspelling will probably be gone by the time you download it, as I know Kapsule’s author will see this post ;) ... although Kapsules did associate .kap files with the program, it turns out that’s mostly irrelevant anyway, since widgets come as .zip files which you have to unpack to the correct location (much the same install process as dotWidget widgets), and after you unpack them and move them to the right folder, you still have to double click the .kap file or use the “Add Kapsule” in the system tray menu to get them to show up (actually, I found out later that exiting and restarting Kapsules completely will add the kapsules to the directory). I was able to find and download a stock ticker (which only shows one stock, but which you can install multiple times), a calendar, clock, Outlook task list, weather and RSS readers. The Kapsules weather plugin never actually downloaded the weather, and the RSS reader simply crashed every time I ran it, so I can only assume neither of them was able to traverse my firewall proxy, although Konfabulator’s equivalent widgets never had any problems.

Resource Usage

As far as resource usage, it’s hard to compare dotWidget, since I only managed to load three widgets, which showed 13MB Mem Usage, and just over 5M VM Size. OF the remaining two, Kapsules seems to be the winner, with around 18M VM Size and 30M Mem Usage, which really does beat out Konfabulator: the six widgets I mentioned earlier create a total of seven separate Konfabulator.exe processes (one, I assume, for the systray icon), and the smallest one takes over 3M in Mem Usage, and 4M in VM Size … they combine for a total of over 40M in VM Size and 45M Mem Usage.

Results and Summary …

Despite it’s ridiculous memory usage, Konfabulator is the winner in this match up. The difficulty I had installing widgets on the other two is enough to completely offset the difference in resource usage on my system with 768MB of RAM, and the fact that I can actually “open” Konfabulator widgets from the web and have them work is quite impressive by comparison. Hopefully Kapsules 1.0 use will bring the promised full suite of high quality widgets and some improvements in usability, but in the meantime, the configuration panels in Konfabulator are several generations ahead of Kapsules simple text edit boxes, presenting full color pickers and font choosers.

The major criticism of Konfabulator is the fact that it runs multiple separate processes, although this makes it nearly immune to buggy widgets (I did find a couple that caused problems), it’s a sore price to pay… I have the feeling I’d be better off just running a whole bunch of separate applications. Rainlendar provides a beautiful calendar with options to show multiple months, cool event icons, and the ability to pull the date/appointment information from Outlook, as well as including a simple to do list, all while using less than a third as much memory as the Konfabulator calendar widget, which just sits there showing a month of dates.

Clearly, I’m not really going to give a full review of Phatbits here, the preview release I had only had two of the plugins that I was looking at, and it’s developer assures me he’s just finishing up a major (three month) feature push which includes significant changes to the way the program works, however, I will say this: running three widgets (a cpu meter, a “to do” list, and the weather forecast), it’s showing only 7.5M VM Size and just over 6M Mem Usage, which would make it by far the best performing of the ones I tried, and one assumes it will only get better as it nears full release.

As an observation, I just checked my geoShell settings, and I’m running 19 plugins (counting multiple instances of 10 distinct plugins) and showing under 4MB of Mem Usage, and under 6MB VM Size. Maybe we should be supporting slightly larger (visually) plugins, so we can get full blown calendars and analog clocks going…

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12 thoughts on “Widget Application Performance”

  1. This is a really well-thought-out, well-conceived review detailing some pretty specific details about not only the user interactions with the programs, but also what it’s actually doing to your memory and CPU. Thanks for putting this together!

  2. I got a bunch of good notes from this, alot of which I’m sure youll see reflected in the weeks to come. One flaw with your review though. The average user isnt going to have a proxy setup in place. I dont think it was fair in that one case to compare the apps on a platform which does. Nonetheless, get online so we can figure out how to handle proxy settings automagically.

  3. Andrew: well, if the only users we’re discussing are home users, that’s certainly true. However, anyone who actually finds these widget apps useful is certainly going to want to use them at work too … and I think you’ll find most medium-to-large companies are running proxies to protect themselves from attacks and from internal legal trouble (by limiting employees access to the internet).

    Either way, the only reason it came up in the review is that several Kapsule widgets failed spectacularly to connect (causing Kapsules to slow down, chew 2 or 3 percent of my CPU, and I should note, crashing with unhelpful messages) while none of Konfabulator’s had any problems. I think that’s quite important information (not to say the deciding factor) to anyone who is behind a firewall, or for some other reason connects to the internet through a proxy.

  4. Well you make good points. But one thing that you’ve overlooked, or rather assumed, is that Kapsules is intended for people who don’t take the time to read the documentation and content provided on the site. I, nor the app itself, make any claim that Kapsules is an out of the box, n00b ready app. It never has been, and has always required reading of some sort – mainly because I just havent had the time to make it THAT user friendly.

  5. Thanks for the unbiased and concise review! We’re currently very busy working on Release 0.8 (in beta testing at the moment) and I’m hoping you’ll find a lot of the major issues (lack of useful widgets, difficult widget installation process, etc.) disappear with this release.

    We’ve picked up a bad reputation of released part-complete products and it’s something I’m particularly taking a stand on – this is why, even after FOUR MONTHS of frenzied development R0.8 is still yet to make a public appearance! ;)

    I appreciate you’re a busy person, but if you do have a spare 30 minutes or so, we’d really like you to take a look at the latest beta – it’s perfectly usable and is much more joe-user friendly (as it should be) than its predecessor. Thanks!

  6. Hello,

    I came here from ‘blizzle’. I like this article this is very well written.

    stan, how do I help test? I would like to try a new widget softwares!

  7. Thx!

    Good review, short, but informative.
    I really like the fact that you looked at the “ease of use” and the “performance”.

  8. I believe he fight is over. I suggest that the smaller companies make something that Yahoo.com may want to buy them out of. The fact that there is a widget DECOMPILER and creator and full information on creating them a GINORMOUS following already and its FREE make this a losing battle for the little guy.

    I would suggest making a full suite to run with konfab or other utilities that make it work better as you obviously have way more programming skill then those of us who consume you could write code to make konfab a single exe with all its widgets and sell that to yahoo.

    I am no fan of the bug guy winning but hey looking at this in reverse at least it was Yahoo not Microsquish who won. I am a MS baby as most are but I love the fact that MS needs to be taught how to do graphics that are AWESOME instead of the lame BMP graphics they do now.

    Guys I appreciate the efforts of the Kapsules and dotwidget but your oppurtunity is slipping away from you as you rush to market something that is already rev 2 and easy to program easy to use and easy for the n00b’s in the world and backed by what is to us endless cash.

    I want truly useful widgets for replacing my desktop as a whole like DesktopX and konfab is the thing that will do it. I need a full suite and hey maybe a explorer replacement! like the days of old where we could do PC TOOLS desktop or Norton Desktop! If you build it I will beta it and help you make it strong I will be first in line to BUY it too quote me on this PLEASE!

    I am not flamming nor am I stopping my support of you guys ROCK ON! but proper dierection kills most small companies or groups from achieving GREATNESS!

    -One who cares about us the little peeps!

  9. I would have liked a little more backround info on the technical implementation.
    Personally I find desktop-widgets not really useful. For RSS a dedicated reader is much better (or Thunderbird). I have no interest in stock tickers and wheather forecasts are something I watch every evening in the news.

    Still, I like Kapsules the most, simply, becuase it allows for ActiveX scripting. That is, I could use (theoretically, I did not try it, since I do not really need it) ooREXX, Javascript, Python and others (I use the three named here) in order to create widgets.

    At this point I would like to mention something:

    We really need some more intelligent view on the desktop. Writing plugins/widgets in non-user scripting languages is ok, but there should be more. There should be always a possibility for Power(!)Users, ie. users with technical skills and the ability to master at least one programming lanugage somewhat (bash, Python, Javascript, PHP, VBScript) to create their own plugins.

    It would be nice if geoShell would allow full access to its API for ActiveScript.
    It would be even nicer, if geoShell and the Widget tools would use X(H)TML and CSS for their widgets/UIs. WIth the latest AJAX libraries full GUIs can be created. Many people know HTML and Javascript simply because they want to have a “cool” homepage. And these most likely would benefit.

    I also would like to see a more service-oriented approach in general, where I have function servers and UI clients, like a mediaplayer demon and a user/library interface, but that’s a completly other topic.

    However, this could be nice for Desktop expandability in general. A server, that has access to lower level stuff, delivering an API, which I can script at least with Javascript (+MochiKit or Prototype, jQuery, etc.) and make UIs with HTML+CSS.

    Dead simple.

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