Expand your desktop by 360 degrees

The Windows desktop-shell program 360desktop lets XP and Vista (32-bit) users transform their standard desktop into a 360-degree panorama with Web widgets. Learn how 360desktop performs and whether the features are worth the install.

In general, I'm not much of a fan of desktop-enhancement software. I like programs such as TweakUI that let me change the aspects of Windows that are extremely annoying to me, but I generally ignore desktop components such as wallpaper, themes, sounds, and all that jazz.

Despite my reservations about "needless" desktop enhancements, however, a new public beta for the software 360desktop intrigued me with its promises of "unlimited desktop space" and the ability to save any part of the Web directly to my desktop. After creating a System Restore point in case my Windows XP machine exploded, I tentatively gave 360desktop a spin.

Surprisingly, 360desktop did better than my (rather low) expectations and delivered a smoother, cleaner product than I expected. There is still a general feeling of "Do I really need this?" but after exploring my new 360-degree desktop environment and adding a few Web widgets, I can certainly see the appeal.

360 desktop background

If you're stressed out, you can leave the backside of your 360desktop pristine for meditative purposes.

(Credit: 360desktop/Duane Loberg)

The short of it is that 360desktop turns out to be darn fun, if you have the RAM to handle it. It's the sort of cool visual application that will amaze easily impressed coworkers and family members. Whether it's worth the resource consumption likely depends on how much you like to play with your desktop.

Installing and running 360desktop is simple, although it does place a shortcut on your regular Windows desktop without asking. It runs like any of your other Windows programs and doesn't seem to affect any critical system files.

All in all, 360desktop is a high-octane Windows shell manager. When you run it, you get a 360-degree panoramic desktop with custom widgets. When you quit 360desktop, you're back to your standard Windows desktop look and feel. I had no major problems switching between the two desktops, although I had to kill the 360desktop process a few times in order to quit the application completely.

360desktop also used a fair amount of RAM, but nothing ridiculous (yes, Digsby, I'm looking at you). I averaged 115-120MB RAM usage during my evaluation, which is significant, but not necessarily a death sentence. I didn't notice any slowdowns or crashes, which was a pleasant surprise. As mentioned, quitting occasionally required killing a 360desktop process manually.

360desktop QuickNav

The 360desktop QuickNav scrolls your desktop, manages widgets and wallpaper, and can also locate applications.

(Credit: CNET Networks/360desktop)

After you've transformed your desktop into a 360-degree panorama, a persistent "QuickNav" area in the upper right of your screen lets you scroll or drag your mouse to move around. You can also push your mouse to the left or right of your current screen to make it scroll. The included help-guide PDF file suggests that you can navigate with the Windows button plus the arrow keys, but that feature did not work for me.

A handy icon in the Windows taskbar offers a right-clickable context menu that lets you customize a variety of 360desktop options, such as scrolling speed, whether or not the app starts with Windows, how it focuses Windowed applications, and whether the location of running apps and widgets appear in the QuickNav.

Putting Web widgets on your 360-degree desktop is simple, and the feature works well. Click the "Add a widget" button in the QuickNav, and you'll see a bare-bones dialog with two tabs--Web Widget or Embed Code Widget. The first lets you enter a widget name and a URL; the seconds lets you enter a name and a snippet of HTML code.

360desktop Web widgets

Creating widgets from popular sites and services is a breeze. Here, I've got a YouTube video, last.fm playlist, and Flash-based Web site.

(Credit: CNET Networks/360desktop)

Once you've added a widget, a special 360desktop toolbar appears next to it. That toolbar lets you drag and drop the widget, close the widget, or click the "i" button for more information. I easily added widgets from a variety of sources, including full Web pages from CNET Reviews, videos from YouTube, and music playlists from Last.FM, imeem, and FineTune.

360desktop Web widget

Web widgets can be resized and clipped to be saved permanently. Here, I've saved the main editorial space from the CNET front page. You can see the Mountains wallpaper in the background.

(Credit: CNET Networks/360desktop)

The additional button in the 360desktop widget toolbar is the killer feature for me. I used it whenever I wanted to save only part of a Web page. To save a manually resized portion of a Web page, first click the Widget icon in the QuickNav to add a new widget, then click the Web Widget tab. Your most recent Web page is entered by default, or you can paste any URL you'd like. Once you've saved the Web page to the desktop, a double-arrow button in the lower-right corner lets you resize the widget as you like. Clicking the Scissors "clips" the page, then you drag the widget to the location you want it, then click off onto the desktop. Voila. (Imagine my joy at being able to add a tiny Sad Trombone "Play" button to the edge of my desktop.)

360desktop installs with a U.S.-based Fourth of July theme (the public beta was announced on 7/4/08), and it also includes "Smokin," a panoramic image with five artistically colored smoke trails. The ability to create your own 360 wallpapers and share them with other users is a feature that has been promised for future releases. Three additional wallpapers--Around Matsumoto Castle, Canebay beach, and Mountains (Camp Nanga Parbat)--are available on the 360desktop Web site.

Adding the additional content was simple. Click the download link, select "Open with 360desktop," and the new panorama will automatically be loaded in the background.

Available for Wndows XP and Vista, 360desktop is unfortunately not compatible with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, although the developers promise that such a version is only a few weeks away.

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