Microsoft is known for building better products by learning from its competitors, but with MSN Toolbar, Microsoft seems to be stuck in the learning phase. This half-baked toolbar has a limited number of specific types of searches, an OK pop-up blocker, and not much else--except for, that is, the exceptional highlighter viewer, which makes it easy to find search terms in long Web pages.
Installing MSN Toolbar was easy in our tests; it took less than a minute to download and run the 603KB installation file. Once the toolbar is installed, you can add or remove buttons for the various functions (but not for specific searches, such as news, dictionary, and shopping) and resize the search window by clicking and dragging.
MSN Toolbar has a decent if not awe-inspiring range of specific types of searches, including Web, current site, news, dictionary, products, movies, and White/Yellow Pages. However, thedoesn't yet match that of Google or Yahoo. The MSN Money search takes you to company profile pages when you search on stock tickers, while the encyclopedia search is little more than a preview of the for-pay MSN Encarta service. MSN Toolbar's highlighter is worth a mention, however: in addition to highlighting search results on a page, it provides a pop-up Highlight Viewer that shows you a small version of the page and highlighted circles where your search terms appear; a red box shows you the current browser view, and you can drag the box down to any point on the page. It's a great way to find search terms on a lengthy page.
In terms of other extras, MSN Toolbar is weak. You get a pop-up blocker that will allow pop-ups for a given domain and that can be temporarily disabled, but it won't show you recently blocked pop-ups. Shortcut buttons will take you to your MSN start page, MSN News, the MSN Messenger site, and Hotmail, but we were expecting more; for instance, we'd like it if the Hotmail button indicated how many unread messages were in your Inbox or if the Messenger button were better integrated with your Messenger buddy list. Missing features include a form-filler tool, portable bookmarks, and the ability to cycle through search results with toolbar buttons.
MSN Toolbar had a very rough time in our on-the-Web search test, scoring dead last in the breadth department (behind Yahoo, AltaVista, Google, Ask Jeeves, A9, and HotBot, in that order) and near the back of the pack for relevancy behind Google, A9, HotBot, AltaVista, and Yahoo. MSN ranked near the bottom of in all of our search results.