With a customized search portal that combines Web and image results with your bookmarks, comments, and recommended sites, A9, the innovative new search engine from Amazon, has won over plenty of fans in the short time since its release. If you count yourself among the converted, A9's search toolbar should be on your or Firefox browser. But if you want specific types of searches, say, for news or weather, look instead to a more robust toolbar, such as Yahoo's.
Installing the A9 Toolbar is easy; it takes less than a minute to download and run the installation wizard, which is about 478KB. Once the toolbar is installed on IE or Firefox, the first time you use A9, you'll need to either sign in to your Amazon.com account or create a new A9 account (only an e-mail address is required). You can then pick the toolbar buttons that you'd like to appear. While you can't drag the search box to make it wider or smaller, you can choose from the fixed small, medium, and large sizes.
At first glance, A9's search options look disappointingly limited: you can search only the Web, the site currently in your browser window, Amazon, and Google--there's no option to search only for news or A/V clips. But we were impressed with A9's innovative search results page, which boasts separate columns for Web, image, book (A9 is an Amazon service, after all), and IMDB hits. If you're willing to let the A9 Toolbar track your Web history and searches--A9 promises that it won't share your info with anyone--these will be included in the search results, as well. Buttons on the right side of the page open or collapse the search results columns, and you can make the columns larger or smaller by clicking and dragging the edges--very nice. Meanwhile, a pair of arrows on the toolbar lets you cycle through your search results, while a drop-down list lets you see all the results at a glance.
The A9 Toolbar is missing some key features we've come to expect in search toolbars, including a form autofiller. However, the toolbar will store your bookmarks for you (accessible even from another PC), suggest sites related to your current search topic, and display the sites you visit the most. There's also a diary that lets you record notes on any Web page you visit; all of your diary entries are accessible from your A9 home page. (We'd love it, though, if you could publish diary entries to a blog; then we'd really have something to talk about.) Finally, a Site Info button displays the average traffic rank for the domain you're visiting, the speed of the site itself, other sites that link to the page, other sites that visitors to the page also frequent, and reviews for the site (you can add your own review). The A9 pop-up blocker will work in only pre-Windows XP SP2 Internet Explorer browsers, unfortunately; both Windows XP SP2 Internet Explorer and Firefox contain their own pop-up blockers.
A9 managed above-average results in our search tests. While it made only a fair-to-middling showing in terms of breadth--behind Yahoo, AltaVista, Google, and Ask Jeeves--the A9 Toolbar was our first runner-up in providing the most relevant results, right behind Google; that shouldn't be surprising, as A9's search results are "enhanced" by Google. As an example, AltaVista returned the third-highest number of hits for the economics of Andorra.