Thursday, July 31, 2008

14 Great Programs You Didn't Even Know You Needed

14 Great Programs You Didn't Even Know You Needed

With these programs, you can eliminate a lot of annoying Windows limitations, and you can enhance your computing fun tremendously and cheaply--or even for free.

Ron White

Mon, 13 Aug 2007 06:00:00 UTC

It's the little things that frustrate. You know how it goes when you try to make a picture stay on the wall. You place it against the wall and remove your hands ... ever ... so ... carefully ... and the picture goes crashing to the floor! You'd think that someone would come up with--oh, I don't know--a little metal stick that's sharp on one end. You could then use a rock--or, no, better yet, a heavy piece of metal with, say, a handle--to hit the little stick of metal so it goes partway into the wall. Then you could hang your picture on the piece of metal, and, voilá, a picture that won't fall every time gravity kicks in.

Okay, that was a little silly, I know. But not as silly as some computer users get when they endure the same tiresome annoyances and petty, repetitious tasks because they don't know that something better lies just over the next download. They assume that what they have is as good as it gets.

But when it comes to computing, there's always a better way. In fact, I have 14 better ways for you: 14 great programs you didn't even know you needed--and needed desperately. Some will have a major impact on the way you compute. Others are one-trick ponies. But oh, such clever tricks!


You're typing away merrily and, being the consummate typist you are, you don't look at the keys--or the screen. (After all, did Jimi Hendrix look at his fingers as he played?) But when you do glance at the screen, you see that two paragraphs ago your left hand's little finger slipped AND STRUCK THE CAPS LOCK KEY BY MISTAKE. NOW YOUR WELL REASONED AND CLEVER MEMO ASKING FOR A RAISE LOOKS AS IF IT WERE WRITTEN BY BANK ROBBERS ORDERING TELLERS TO HAND OVER THE MONEY.

You can eliminate such accidents with SharpKeys, a free, obscure little tool. SharpKeys allows you to move your keys around to suit your idea of how a keyboard should be laid out. For example, I've banished my Caps Lock key to the position of the Scroll Lock key, which had its heyday when Lotus 1-2-3 was hot. My Caps Lock now functions as another Delete key. The arrangement lets me kill files by mousing over them with my right hand and zapping them with my left.

You can come up with your own scheme using any key, including those that most macro programs won't change. Well, almost any key. Some boards with keys devoted to gaming may elude SharpKeys, but it does work with multimedia keys. And it accomplishes all this by creating some Registry entries rather than by lurking in the background and soaking up memory.

Download SharpKeys

PTFB Pro (Push the Freakin' Button)

Regardless of what downloadable software you install, Windows will always insist that you reply to the same two pointless dialog boxes. One asks if you want to run the program you've just downloaded. Well, naturally. That's why you downloaded it. Then a second dialog box warns you--even if the program is from Microsoft itself--that you should run software only from publishers you trust. (May be some irony there.) And it asks again if you want to run the software, which of course you do, unless you've been downloading and installing programs merely for the unbeatable thrill that comes with software installation.

It's enough to make a mild-mannered computer user shout, "Yes! Yes! Just push the freakin' button!" Or something like that. What you want is a simple, inexpensive program that saves wear and tear on your vocal cords and your index finger. It's named, appropriately, Push the Freakin' Button Pro, and if you ask it to, PTFB will push said freakin' buttons every time they appear.

Because Windows is not the only software that asks the same perfunctory questions over and over, PTFB will get a workout on any computer, especially because it also lets you record macros that will respond to a whole bunch of freakin' buttons, freakin' asinine questions, freakin' menus, and freakin' check boxes, all in the same freakin' dialog boxes.

Download PTFB Pro

Macro ToolsWorks

PTFB is fine for quick and dirty button pushing and macros. But consider the more complex tasks you'd like to automate that go beyond dialog boxes--and perhaps beyond a single program. Have you ever thought despairingly that the only way you could avoid their tortuous repetition would be to learn C++ and rewrite Microsoft Office? Despair no more. You have an easier way, and it's Macro ToolsWorks, a pony with a three-ring circus of tricks.

The program lets you create simple macros by recording your keystrokes--and mouse strokes, if you dare. Some danger is inherent in the fact that windows do not always pop up at the same screen location.

A lot of macro programs let you do fast, slam-bang recording. Macro ToolsWorks makes your macros more powerful by providing simple programming commands that you insert into your recordings to allow the use of variables, flow control, text manipulation, macro menus, Internet functions, and other commands that even a programming virgin can master before the honeymoon is over. With them you could, for example, create a macro to download a file, search for paragraphs with certain words, copy them to a word processor, and send you an e-mail to announce everything is done. Use it a little or use it a lot, Macro ToolsWorks makes your software work the way you think it should.

The software costs $40 for a single user license, but you can try it for free for 30 days.

Download Macro ToolsWorks

More Windows Enhancers

As long as I'm bashing Microsoft--and really, can you think of a better way to spend a summer's evening?--I might as well bring up other programs that do all the things Windows Explorer can't do worth a darn. The most efficient approach is simply to chuck Explorer and run Xplorer2.

At first glance it may look as if you're running Windows Explorer--until you notice the multiple file lists, the preview window, and the plethora of goodies strewn along its toolbar and menus. It's filled with dozens of tweaks that should be standard in Windows.

Xplorer2 lets you search for duplicate files, display a history of programs you've run, and copy to multiple folders. And that's just the beginning. Use its automatic script-generation wizard to create scripts to apply multiple commands to multiple files. Create your own commands and put them on the toolbar. Transform drives so they look like folders. Use "sticky clicking" and never again have to hold down the Ctrl key as you select files.

The utility's best trick is that it lets you change the text and background colors based on file extensions so that you can identify files as a glance. I've given all my graphics files red backgrounds, but I use the text colors to distinguish among JPEGs, GIFs, TIFFs, and so on. It's a computing rainbow. Makes me think Microsoft needs to hire not more programmers, but the art director for Hairspray.

Download Xplorer2

Xplorer2 is, of course, a whole corral full of one-trick ponies. Ycopy has only one trick, one very small, modest trick. But at the right time, you'd rather see Ycopy's little pony caper than a herd of horses performing Tristan und Isolde.

Why? Because the following has happened, or will happen, to you: One day, you discover that you have to copy a few hundred gigs' worth of files from one place to another. Because this task will take a few hours, you decide to go on a long lunch while the files migrate. Three hours and four banana margaritas later, you return to find that the copy operation choked on the tenth file because the file was open on another screen, or had an error, or was read-only. All your computer has been doing while you were gone is display a message asking what to do about the problem.

This is when you remember that computers are not like people: Even the dumbest human would put aside copying that one file until you returned. So will Ycopy. When Ycopy finds a file it can't handle, it makes a note about it and moves on to the next file. When you get back from lunch, you still have to do something about the recalcitrant files, but at least all of the other ones are taken care of.

Download Ycopy

Spybot Search & Destroy

Please try to stifle your yawns. I'm sure you have heard of Spybot Search & Destroy, and I'm sure you're saying that you already have a perfectly decent program to track down spyware. That's fine. But you need to check out Spybot for two reasons. The first is that no single antispyware program is enough; I use four, myself, because I haven't yet found one that can catch all the insidious, constantly morphing, beastly programs determined to pester me until I pay for a video of Britney Spears getting out of a car.

Even if you're already using Spybot, you may need it in a way you're not aware of, because the program's creators hide one of its best features. They even try to scare you away from this feature with warnings of computer disasters, lost data, locusts, and earthquakes.

This secret feature is the ability to edit which programs and services launch when you boot your PC. Other programs give you the same ability, but what sets Spybot above the others is that it provides an explanation and recommendation as to whether most of the programs really need to be there sucking up memory. Without that information, most of us are left staring at program names written in computer gobbledygook and wondering if we should chance a plague of locusts. Be brave: Damn the locusts and take command of your startup.

Download Spybot Search & Destroy

Windows thoughtfully gives you a PrintScreen function so at least one of the orphan keys at at the upper right of your keyboard has some reason for being. But Windows' PrintScreen is another example of software underachieving, as it gives you only a full-screen capture in .bmp format. Like anybody uses .bmp anymore.

Here's a better choice: HyperSnap. A screen shot of your desktop--in any graphics format you can think of and several you can't--is only part of what HyperSnap can offer. You set up hot-keys so that with a single, deft touch you can trigger image captures of individual windows, a region you select or several regions at the same time, any controls or toolbars, entire browser screens (including the part that hangs below screen level), or a single button. Once you have your screen shot, HyperSnap provides the tools to annotate it with text, arrows, circles, stamps, and more than you need, really. It also will capture text in error messages and other dialog boxes that usually resist being transformed into words you can actually use.

If you have to create instructions, document errors, or just illustrate online stories about 14 great programs people didn't know they needed, HyperSnap is the way to go.

Download HyperSnap

I suppose most people, at some time or another, have had a reason to use a computer with only one hand. For those occasions, there's StrokeIt. (Perhaps not the name I would have chosen.) StrokeIt allows you to issue commands and execute recorded actions using only mouse gestures.

It comes with enough predefined gestures to cover generic commands, such as save, open, and maximize, as well as gestures for particular programs, such as selecting tools in Photoshop and playing back music in popular media players.

Most of the gestures are simple to learn: O for open, N for new, P for play or print, depending on what program you're using. You can add new gestures and new programs to control by moving your mouse. If you're using them when I walk by, don't get up. Just gesture.

Download StrokeIt

Multimedia Fun


Of all the dumb stuff you can find in Windows--and there's a lot of competition--the dumbest is to have only one volume control for every sound that pours out of a PC. For example, it goes without saying that the music of AC/DC is best listened to at decibel levels known to induce psychosis in neighborhood dogs.

So, after a heavy session of AC/DC MP3s, you return to work until ... Jeez! What was that? That was an ordinary beep indicating an error--only it played at a volume so high that at first you thought you were being shot at.

MP3 music and Windows event sounds simply can't get along on the same PC, unless you have Wavosaur, a free sound editor that includes a batch operation to lower the volume of all the .wav files in a folder by 6dB. Doesn't sound like much at first; you may have to run your event .wav files through it a couple of times. (Be sure to make backups in case you overdo it.) Wavosaur is so simple to use and works so quickly that in minutes you'll have a respectably decorous set of sounds that you could take to a Zamfir concert.

And did I mention that Wavosaur edits, processes, and records sounds, .wav files, and MP3 files? Wavosaur has all you need to edit audio, produce music loops, analyze, record, and batch-convert.

Download Wavosaur

J. River Media

Regardless of whether your computerized musical tastes run to AD/DC, to Zamfir, or to Zamfir playing covers of AC/DC on his pan pipes, you want the best possible software to organize and play your tracks. And that's Windows Media Player--uh, no, I mean J. River Media Center. Windows Media Player is the Microsoft program designed first to further the spread of Windows music audio files and their lovely copy protection, and second to play music.

J. River Media Center is the ultimate in not just playing music but also creating music and audio libraries, editing MP3 tags, editing file names, and even editing the music itself.

You won't find a lot of difference in how PC-based music players make your tracks sound; speakers are a lot more important. The things that really differentiate software are the tools a program has for organizing a music collection, plus the player's versatility.

J. River Media Center wins on both counts. The "Media" in its name is significant: It applies the same organization to photo collections, movie collections, and even your TiVo content. It's the only sane way I've found to manage an iPod. I'm not sure why Media Center takes a backseat to Winamp and Microsoft's Windows Media Player; perhaps that's because its name sounds too much like "Media Player." Whatever the reason, give your ears and your sense of organization a treat with this jukebox hero.

This is a $40 shareware program.

Download J. River Media Center

An excellent music organizer and player is really nothing without music. I don't know where you get your music tracks from, and I won't ask--the same way you won't ask me why I'm so familiar with Azureus, a program that provides not only music but also movies and software, some of which I'm sure must be perfectly legal.

Azureus is a BitTorrent client, which means that it's your window to the growing world of peer-to-peer file sharing, an ingenious system that sows thousands of little bits of files throughout the Internet so that people can use programs like Azureus to download them and piece them back into Green Day songs, The Simpsons Movie, or Photoshop. Or something perfectly legal, I'm sure.

Azureus is different from most torrent clients in that it's open source, it's intelligently and artfully designed, and it has gobs of help to get you through what is still a complex way of cheating the major studios. Plus, click a button, and out pops Vuzes--not "vu-zes," but "views." It's a sort of slick version of YouTube with videos that have high production values. Some are free, and some, such as reruns of Fat Actress, aren't.

Download Azureus

Basic Needs, Basic Tools


Another of the things that Windows could be a lot more helpful about is networking.

Troubleshooting advice that ends in "consult your network administrator" sounds like a joke when you are your home's network administrator. Most software utilities that purport to simplify networking are lying through their routers. So I wasn't too excited about trying Network Magic--nothing about networking is magical, unless you include voodoo curses.

But whattayaknow? It's a program that lives up to its hype. Now when my network abruptly disappears, I click on Network Magic and it starts trying different methods to resuscitate the ethernet. It doesn't always succeed, and Network Magic has to resort to telling me which cable to unplug, how long to wait, and what to try next. Between the two of us, though, this networking stuff is child's play. A very big, mean child, but Magic and I can take him.

Download Network Magic

Considering that many people have moved their permanent residence to the Internet, you'd think folks would want better digs than Internet Explorer. Sure, there's Firefox; it's sort of the DIY log cabin that Linux devotees build themselves because, you know, Microsoft is evil. There's Opera, too--I have no clue why people use it. And then there's Maxthon, the Rodney Dangerfield of browsers--if Dangerfield looked like Brad Pitt and thought like Frank Lloyd Wright.

One possible reason Maxthon can't get no respect is that it originated in China and has never been properly marketed in the United States or Europe. But the people who have discovered it, as I did a couple of years ago, love it because it packs an arsenal of tools for blazing your way through the morass that the Web can become.

Maxthon, of course, has tabs--it had them before IE and Firefox did. But here's one example of why its tabs work better: When you reopen Maxthon, you're presented with a list of the tabs what were open when you last closed it, and you can pick up where you left off easily. Tabs can be renamed, locked in place, scooted around, tiled, constantly refreshed, and saved in groups that you can later recall in toto.

Other tools translate dozens of languages, let you edit a Web page to eliminate parts you don't want to appear in a printout, and zoom images or the entire screen.

A treelike history helps you find your way back to a certain page. The browser also lets you suck all the images off a page or collect notes and search with multiple engines. There's no way I can tell you all the things that have made me a die-hard Maxthon user. It's free. Try it yourself.

Download Maxthon


is like Spybot Search & Destroy in that you may have heard of it, or even used it.

You've heard about it as a replacement for Windows Clipboard--and how exciting can that be, right? Wrong. Though it is a superlative replacement for Clipboard, think of it as an easily programmable database, and stop thinking of clips as mere pieces of data that you'll never see again once you've pasted them.

The beauty of it is that you don't have to endure the data-entry drudgery that comes with most databases. Because 95 percent of the data you're likely to save in the ClipMate database is stuff you've been copying anyway, it's in the database automatically.

I use it to track the passwords, registration keys, license numbers, and other codes I need when I inevitably have to reinstall every program on my hard drive. When I get a code, usually in an e-mail, I copy it and paste it into the program waiting to be authenticated. Then a press of a hot-key opens ClipMate's database. Ctrl-R lets me rename the code to the name of the program, and I slide it over to a database table that I've named "Registrations," from which no entries can be deleted unless I say okay. ClipMate is constantly backing itself up, so I don't worry about crashed drives--at least not as far as my passwords are concerned.

ClipMate also has tools for processing data. You can join separate clips together, or break a single clip into many. It will not only strip away all the line breaks, codes, and formatting that cause problems when you paste them into different programs, but it will also check the spelling and capitalization while it's at it. With a little planning and choosing among options, you can have all of this happen automatically when you copy, cut, or paste. It speeds up, dresses up, and cuts down on your work without your giving it another thought.

Download ClipMate

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