Andrew Kantor, USA TODAY
My office just completed a pretty big upgrade, trading in old Macs for
spanking-new Windows PCs. And there was much rejoicing.
I've been running a PC at work for sometime, though, often getting
requests to open such-and-such a file, or to go to a website that
couldn't be viewed on the other reporters' computers. I've also
accumulated several useful pieces of software that I've mentioned to
colleagues, usually when explaining how I did something they couldn't
do on their home PCs.
Now that everyone is running Windows, people have come to me and asked
about those things I mentioned; they can run the programs now.
The Firefox Web browser tops the list (along with extensions for it
such as Tabbrowser Extensions, Sage, IE View, and Forecastfox), but
there were a few other programs I pointed them to as well.
Which got me thinking about the gobs of open-source and freeware
programs I have, and how useful some of those things are. I thought
I'd share my favorites.
But I didn't want to do Yet Another List of Free Software. There are
plenty. I wanted to avoid the obvious products such as Firefox and
I also wanted to avoid programs that mimic the functions of software
that comes with your computer. So, although OpenOffice is a great
product, most people have Microsoft Office already installed.
And I didn't want to list products that do things that are, well,
mundane. So, although both ALWIL software's Avast 4 Home Edition (if
you can download it) and Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus are great and free
anti-virus tools, they didn't make the main list. Ditto for Spybot
Search and Destroy, my free anti-spyware program of choice.
I want, instead, for you to say, hopefully more than once, "Neat. I
didn't know I could do that."
There might be commercial software that does the same thing as some of
these freebies, and it might even do it better. But all of these cost
nothing and do a good job.
Microsoft Tweak UI for Windows XP
I'm one of those people who likes things just so. I like to tweak the
little stuff -- to personalize them. My Microsoft Office toolbar, for
example, is completely customized. Who needs buttons for cut and
So I love Tweak UI; It allows you to change all sorts of little things
on your system: The speed of your menus, the name of your "My
Documents" folder, whether shortcuts have those little arrows on them
(and whether they're preceded by the words "Shortcut to"), and many,
many other things. (There's also a version for Windows 95 through
Note: Depending on the version, Tweak UI may appear as an application
under Start/Programs, or it may be in your Control Panel.
Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) has become the standard for
sharing rich documents - documents that maintain the exact look and
feel you designed for them. They're how many articles and brochures
are circulated, in part because they can't be edited the way a Word
Document or Web page can.
You might think that creating PDFs is tough, or that you need to buy
one of the full versions of Adobe Acrobat. Nope. PDFCreator installs
itself as a print driver -- it can turn into a PDF anything that you
can print out. That simple.
Granted, it doesn't offer some of the advanced functionality that
Adobe provides, but if you simply want to take a document and make it
into a PDF, this is terrific stuff.
If you install and uninstall software, you probably know that even
things you removed often leave traces in the Windows registry.
The problem is that your registry can get clogged with outdated or
broken entries. That makes your system slow down. EasyCleaner finds
those unneeded entries and gets rid of them.
But wait, there's more. Like TweakUI, EasyCleaner lets you change
other settings: What programs start when Windows starts, what's in
your "Add/Remove Programs" list, and other such customizations.
Heidi Computers' Eraser
You probably know this: When you delete a file from your computer,
even when it's removed from the Recycle Bin, it's not actually
deleted. Your computer simply marks that space on your hard drive as
"available." Eventually it will be overwritten, but someone with the
right tool could easily recover it.
Enter Eraser. It wipes the file completely so it's gone -- to
Department of Defense standards, no less. It can wipe individual files
(right-click them and choose "Erase") or all the unused space on your
Microsoft PhotoStory 3
This is an incredible way to make your still photos into a video that
will dazzle your friends and family. You point the program to all the
images you want in your "story" (JPEG, TIFF, or GIF) and it makes them
into a video -- a slideshow.
But it' s not just picture, blink, picture, blink, like a traditional
slide show. Instead, it uses the "Ken Burns Effect," gently zooming or
panning over each image.
You can also add background music -- any MP3 or WAV files you have --
and even a voiceover. My favorite is "Linus and Lucy" from "A Charlie
Even better, you can choose to "Create Music" using a variety of
settings such as genre (Classical, Rock, Soundtrack, etc.), style
(e.g., "Soundtrack: Adventure" or "Pop: Motor City"), the instruments,
the mood ("Bittersweet," "Cheerful," "Upbeat," etc.), and more.
You can save the result as lower quality for e-mail, or DVD quality
for burning to a disk. (You need DVD-creation software for that, or
you can buy a $20 plug-in for it.)
Just using the defaults gets you an amazing video; play around a bit
and you might leave your family in tears.
Audacity is a full-featured, well-designed audio editor -- a handy
tool for recording WAV files, editing MP3s, and messing with music.
Things I've used it for: Saving recordings made on a tape recorder to
WAV or MP3 format so I can play them on my PC. Trimming some sound
files (audiobooks, actually) so they fit on a single CD. Removing
noise on old recordings. Playing music backwards just for the heck of
it. Changing the pitch of songs to make the singer sound like a member
of the Chipmunks, which amuses my three year old.
Audacity is one of those very powerful programs that have more
features than most people will use. But if you like to play with
sounds, it's a great product.
Cerebral Synergy's Batch File Renamer
If you take a lot of digital photos, this can come in quite
handy. Like the name says, it's a batch renamer; you can point it to a
directory and rename the files lots of ways - from scratch using
sequential numbers, replacing text, changing the case of the extension
(.JPG to .jpg), and more.
I use it when I have 50 photos named "IMG_1282" through "IMG_1331."
I'll replace "IMG_" with the date - "05-1021" for example. Then those
50 images at least have vaguely useful names.
It's not perfect software. It doesn't remember the last directory I
used, but it does remember the last replacement. I wish it was the
other way around. And the authors sacrificed simplicity for power;
there's a bit of a learning curve, although it's pretty
straightforward once you get used to it.
4t Niagara Software's 4t Tray Minimizer
There's some software that I always leave running -- Gaim, my instant
messenger application (see below), for example. But only a few will
minimize themselves to the system tray -- that group of icons next to
the clock on your taskbar.
Instead, they clog up my taskbar even though I only want them in the
background. It's especially annoying if I'm "Alt-Tabbing" through my
Image courtesy of authorMinimize anything. Besides the hardware
removal tool, you can see icons for Word, Windows Media Player, and
Firefox, thanks to 4t Tray Minimizer. 4t Tray Minimizer lets you
minimize any application to the system tray -- from your MP3 player to
Outlook. I have it set so a simple right-click on the minimize button
does the trick. It's great for reducing clutter, and if you've got
something on your screen you want to hide quickly.
There are plenty more I could probably name -- CDex for ripping your
CDs to MP3s, Gaim as the single instant-messaging program for all your
accounts, PixVue, whose praises I sang in a column a couple of weeks
ago, and so on.
But I think you've got enough to play with for a while.
Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who covers
technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for PC
Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com. His
column appears Fridays on USATODAY.com.
Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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