Google's Toolbar does a few nifty things, but it is, well, a browser toolbar. And it might track your browsing without permission. Here's how to get most of its features without having to install it, or nearly any extra software.
At its heart, the Google Toolbar is a horizontal strip that offers a Google search box — which your browser already provides, to the right of your address bar — and links to Google services and web tools. For nearly all of those extra tools, you can simply add a bookmarklet, a tiny little web script program, to your browser's own bookmarks bar by dragging it from the spot we've linked to. That way, you can rename, rearrange, and pick and choose the web tools you want to have handy at all times.
If you're more of a keyboard fan, or don't like the clutter of the bookmark bar, you can activate those bookmarks using tricks like keyword bookmarking in Firefox. The CyberNet blog details how to set up keyword bookmarks in Opera. If you're a Safari user on a Mac, you can quickly access any bookmarks in your bookmarks bar based on location — Cmd+1 activates the first bookmark (or, in this case, bookmarklet), Cmd+2 the second, and so on. If you're using Quicksilver, it can expand to cover your bookmarks for convenient access. Internet Explorer user? You can kind of get there with a registry hack, or by installing IE7Pro, which, oddly enough, works on Internet Explorer 8.
Onward, now, to the toolbar liberation.
Automatic Form Filling: Certain browsers, Internet Explorer among them, have built-in tools for automatically filling forms with standard information. That's not all that secure a method, mind you. Password service LastPass stores your password data in the cloud, and can also remember multiple sets of form data for different sites and situations. Better still, if you don't want to install any of the LastPass extensions and add-ons, you can simply grab a "LastPass Fill Forms" bookmarklet and activate it when needed. You'll be prompted for your password if you haven't logged into LastPass in some time, and after that, your tedious order forms are filled and gone.
Gmail checking & default composing: As for checking Gmail, there are plenty of add-ons for Firefox, Google Chrome, and even a desktop application made by Google to ping you when new messages are available. As for making Gmail your default mail link handler, you can do that with Google's desktop apps, in Firefox's settings, and in Ubuntu's Preferred Applications dialog.
Web history access: You still need to be logged into your Google account and have it enabled in your account, but by installing this user script, as explained by Google Operating System, you'll get more personalised search results and a convenient log of everything you've looked at. And if that starts to freak out your privacy receptors, you can always turn it off.
Make Goo.gl shortened links: This bookmarklet at Marklets.com will give you a quick goo.gl shortlink to whatever site you're on. If you'd rather enter a URL for a more complex site manually, Alexandre Gaigalas' webapp can make them for you, too.
View SideWiki comments: It's not the most beautiful browser trick you've seen, and it's for a service that hasn't really taken off. But if you know there's a good SideWiki conversation happening on a page, you can get at them with the SideWiki Comments bookmarklet stashed in the middle of Digital Inspiration's explanation post.
Search sites via Google: Accomplished, without having to click anywhere, through the use of keyword bookmark searches.
Social sharing: AddThis is the little clickable button you see on nearly every news and blog site, combining the multitude of news, social, and bookmarking services into one pop-out list. Put the AddThis bookmarklet in your browser, and it'll do the same when clicked or activated, popping out with pretty much the definitive list of sharing services to choose from, with the heavy hitters available right out front.
Add to Google Bookmarks: Grab the Bookmark link from Google Operating System's post, and you're good to go.
Highlight search terms: The Word Highlight user script not only highlights the terms you were looking for on a results page, but hit your Ctrl button and the / key, and you can type a word and see it highlighted everywhere on the page. Requires Greasemonkey on Firefox, a current version of Chrome or Opera, or GreaseKit on Safari.
Everything else: One thing the Google Toolbar offers is a huge number of buttons to access all of the search firm's many, many, many services. You can, of course, just bookmark your favourites, but for the searchable Google tools, we recommend either a smart keyword search, as described near the top of this post, or the Quix bookmarklet, an all-in-one tool that provides access to tons of services, many of them Google-based, from two-letter shortcuts.
We didn't cover everything that the Google Toolbar does — like add a Chrome-like new tab page to Firefox, which you can approximate with Speed Dial — but we tried to cover the tools that would work on nearly any browser, any system. Tell us what we missed, and what bookmarklets or apps can or can't make up for it, in the comments.