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IN THIS FREE EDITION:
0. EDITORIAL: Never re-install Windows again
This may seem like a strange question to ask in this, the last part of a series on how to partition and image your hard drive. It is, however, an important question that needs to be addressed.
But first things first: The final
part of my tutorial on "Never Reinstall Windows again"
is now online here:
In the past, partitioning was a necessity. For example, early versions of Windows 95 could only support partitions up to 2GB, so if you had a drive bigger than that, it simply had to be split up into several drives smaller than 2GB.
And there were performance reasons. Older file systems slowed down as the number of files on a disk increased, so you could get better performance by splitting a large hard disk into several smaller drives. Also, old single head disk drives performed much better on the outer tracks, so it made sense to put performance sensitive functions like the operating system on partitions that were located on the highest performing area of the disk.
Management was also an issue. It made sense to separate different types of data on different drives in much the same way you use folders to separate different kinds of data within a drive. Typically, this involved putting the operating system on one drive partition and user data on another.
This later scheme had some real advantages. First, it allowed the system partition to be easily backed up and restored without affecting user data. Secondly, it meant that size of the system backup was more manageable. Finally, it allowed separate backup regimes for system data and user data.
That was the past. Today's operating systems and file systems do not currently impose practical constraints on maximum disk size. NTFS, for example, allows partitions up to 16 terabytes. Furthermore, these file systems do not noticeably degrade in performance as the number of files increases.
Hard drives have also changed. Modern multi-head drives with large caches perform far more uniformly across the entire disk surface. Indeed, there are some that argue that with caching, a modern drive will perform better overall when it is not partitioned.
So if we don't have to partition anymore and there is no longer a performance advantage in partitioning, then why do it?
It all comes down to management, backup management in particular. This can be clearly seen by the way I manage my own PCs.
Over the last five years the first thing I did when I bought a new PC was to partition the drive. I created one partition of around 10-15GB for Windows, another of 1-4GB for the Windows paging file and allocated all the remaining space to a data partition.
This system has worked well. I backup the Windows partition regularly using a sector by sector drive imaging program (Acronis True Image) and back up my data using a file based backup program (Genie Backup Manager.) My drive images are a very manageable 6-8GB in size and I can restore Windows quickly and easily without overwriting my key data.
That's all very neat but there are other backup approaches:
I could, for example, have everything on just one partition and use True Image to image the whole drive to an external hard drive. That is, create one big image containing Windows and my data, the whole caboodle. That way both Windows and my data would be backed up at the one time.
Sure the image would be huge, maybe 150GB but it could be argued that external hard drives are so cheap it doesn't matter. Sure it would take a long time, but if it runs overnight who cares.
Similarly, I could use the external hard drive not for storing an image file but for creating an exact mirror of my hard drive. And there are a number of software products that allow you to do this easily. Some even allow the creation of a bootable mirror.
Then again there are various hardware Raid options. Today Raid and hard drives are so cheap that it's a practical option for home users.
A while back I decided to try out one of these alternative strategies on a new PC I had bought for my wife. So for the first time in years I didn't partition the drive as soon as the PC was delivered.
For backup I bought a large USB external hard drive and I set it up so every night a scheduled True Image backup job ran that imaged the whole C: drive to the external drive using True Image's differential backup mode.
That was about 6 months ago. Since then I've restored both Windows and data on that machine several times and it has worked well enough.
So I'm convinced. You no longer "have to" partition your drives for backup management
But I'm still going to do it.
I've found that I hate working on my wife's PC. With everything all mixed in together it's a mess. Furthermore, the drive gets fragmented more quickly. And because the hard drive works harder I figure it's got more chance of failing.
And there's the time factor. I can restore Windows on my own PC in 10 minutes. On my wife's PC it takes hours.
However, my wife who uses this PC doesn't share this perspective. She doesn't see the underlying mess because she only deals with her own data. Her view of the computer is "My Documents." Similarly she doesn't worry about the time it takes to do a system restore because she only uses the machine for one hour a day. Besides she leaves the maintenance to me.
So there you are. If you are an average user who can afford to buy good backup software and extra hard drives to store your backups then maybe you don't need to partition your hard drive. But if you are like me and want your computers well organized and easy to maintain then partitioning is still the way to go.
See you next month.
PS This month I'm giving away six free copies of the top rated anti-virus NOD32. For details, see below.
Support Alert is not produced by a giant publishing empire, it's the work of one man, working alone, namely me.
Support Alert relies on paid subscriptions to the Premium Edition to survive. If you feel that you've benefited from reading the free edition perhaps you would like to consider subscribing to the Premium.
The Premium Edition contains almost twice the number of great tech sites, free utilities, tips and other content as the free edition. It's also ad-free.
When you subscribe you'll also get immediate access to the archive of all past issues of the Premium Edition where you can catch up on the hundreds of great utilities you missed in the free edition. If you like the free edition you'll love the premium. At $10 per year it's just the cost of a few coffees.
This month I'm giving away to new Premium subscribers, six free copies of the top rated anti-virus NOD32.
NOD32 is a brilliant program for protecting your PC yet it only consumes a modest amount of your computing resources. That's why I use it on my key work computers. At $39 it's good value but it's even better value when you can get it for free.
The six copies I'm giving away will be allocated at random but your chances of scoring one are actually quite good. So if you have been thinking of subscribing, now's the time. Note this offer is only valid in jurisdictions that permit such offers.
Even if you don't win anything you'll
still get my special report "Gizmo's Desert Island
Utilities" which outlines the software I use myself,
including many free products.
1.1 New Version of the Best-ever
These upgraded lists are a big improvement over the originals and a credit to the 30 volunteer software editors working on the project.
May I ask you a favor? When you check out the new lists could you please help out the editors by adding your comments or suggestions using the email link at the end of each item? Even if your suggestions are minor they will all help the category editors in their task.
You'll also notice some software categories which still need editors, so if you feel you'd like to help with one or more of the vacant categories then please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Use Open Office
Over time most computers start running slower and slower. The most common cause is the Windows Registry becomes bloated and full of errors. Cleaning your registry removes these problems and can make your PC run just like new. The improvement can sometimes be so dramatic that you may find that you won't need to upgrade to a newer PC.
There are many registry
cleaners available but only one product, Registry
Mechanic, has scooped the "Editor's Choice"
awards from the top PC magazines and websites. It
not only cleans better than the competition, it's
faster, easier to use and very safe.
Learn more ...
2.1 How to Make Your Mouse Scroll
Wheel Work Better
Last month I wrote about Amazon's S3 storage system in the premium edition. After using it for a month I'm sufficiently impressed with it that I feel I should tell all subscribers about it.
Amazon S3 is not really a consumer online storage service like Mozy but forms part of Amazon's package of web services that is geared to technical users. Indeed, to access the S3 storage you need a separate third part application program.
The program I'm using is called JungleDisk. It's a $20 program backup management program recommended to me by Jean-Denis Marx, one of the volunteer editors for the Best Freeware Wiki project.
JungleDisk mounts the S3 as an external drive which can be accessed normally through Windows Explorer. It performs automatic or manual backups of the directories or files designated by the user. JungleDisk can keep deleted and modified files on S3 (time machine function) or ensure that the two drives are in sync.
They also sell a $1 per month add-on "Plus" service that provides web access to your backup files and allows true differential backup. The latter means that only the changed parts of large files are uploaded rather than the whole file. This feature should cut down on bandwidth use considerably. I say "should" as I haven't yet tested it.
And there's also a portable version for your USB flash drive that allows you to securely access your data from any public terminal.
Yes, JungleDisk is not free but the $20 is a once-up cost and includes lifetime support. And you can try it for free for 30 days.
I know what you are thinking: "Why is Gizmo recommending this when I can get a lot of these features at other online backup services for free."
Well let me tell you straight: I don't get paid a cent to say this nor do I derive any commission from S3 or JungleDisk. In fact I forked out my $20 for JungleDisk just like anybody else.
The real answer is simple. S3/JungleDisk is the only online backup solution that I've tried on my PC that has worked seamlessly and 100% reliably. And while it's not free it's so cheap it doesn't matter.
JungleDisk is not for beginners. Nor is it for those who want cute looking interfaces. JungleDisk is serious software designed to do a serious job.
Subscriber Igor Brejc writes "Gizmo after reading your article in the Premium edition about Amazon S3  I signed up. Since then I've done some testing of clients other than JungleDisk  that can use the S3 service. Here are a few useful links:
S3 Drive : This is a free virtual disk client for S3. I tried it on Windows XP and I had some problems with it. But it does work on my Vista machine. It's beta and has some quirks, but I think it should be mentioned here. But JungleDisk is probably a better option, since it's actively developed and supported and it is cheap.
S3 Backup : This is a free client for S3 backup (it's beta too). I tried it and it works, but sadly it lacks the virtual-disk feature
List of Amazon S3 Backup Tools : At the same site there is also an interesting article  comparing the economics of home backup server with Amazon.
JunglediskSnapIn : This is a Powershell implementation of JungleDisk which uses the Amazon S3 storage services. This is ideal for making automated backups to JungleDisk.
Last month I mentioned a website  that is useful if you want to read one of those strange winmail.dat email attachments sent by a user of Microsoft Outlook. Several subscribers wrote in, including Darren Lovatt, Joe Francis and Dirk Röhrig, to tell me about a nifty free utility that's designed just for this exact task.
Here's what Darren said "Gizmo I thought you might be interested in Eolsoft's Winmail Opener . It's a small and simple utility that allows you to view and extract contents of TNEF-encoded messages such as the infamous winmail.dat. That means if you receive winmail.dat on your e-mail, with Winmail Opener you can view the rich text message contents and attachments embedded into this file. Winmail Opener is absolutely free - no nag screens, no ads, no spyware, no time limit. The executable is small and system requirements are low. Been using it for a while, and it always does the job."
Many thanks to Darren and the others for the suggestion. A lot of readers are going to find this really useful. Freeware, Windows 95->XP, 304KB.
some top utilities to suggest? Send them to
After a quiet January, Microsoft has released a huge set of security patches on "Patch Tuesday" in February. In total there were 11 bulletins covering 17 flaws. Six of these flaws were rated as "critical", with the majority of these related to Microsoft Office.
However, a flaw in Excel 2000 -> 2003, rated by Secunia  as "Extremely Serious", remains unpatched. Until Microsoft gets around to patching it, users should not open Excel files from unknown sources or, alternatively, they should open such files in a sandbox or other safe environment.
Further details of the Microsoft February updates can be found here . All of the updates are distributed automatically via the Microsoft Update Service. Dial-up users in particular need to be aware that these updates are large files and will require a considerable period of time online to be successfully downloaded. If you are not certain that you have received the updates then visit the Microsoft Update Service  now.
I know reading this stuff is about as exciting as watching paint dry but these things, like End User Licensing Agreements are important and should be taken seriously because they help protect you from scoundrels.
----------------- sponsored links
Remote Access Software
Drive Imaging Program
4.1 Photoshop Look-alike for
This article was prepared by Joe Bennett, the volunteer editor in charge of the "Best Free Windows Media Player" category at the techsupportalert.com website.
According to WikiPedia, "A codec is a device or program capable of performing encoding and decoding on a digital data stream or signal."
In plain English I'd put it this way: a codec is a particular way of compressing audio and video files to save space.
The best known example of a codec is MP3. It compresses bulky audio files such as WAV to much smaller MP3 files.
All codecs involve a trade off between the amount of compression and the resultant quality. If you compress too much the quality loss may become intolerable.
Information scientists are always coming up with smarter ways to get more compression with less quality loss. That's one of the reasons why there are so many codecs and it's also why newer ones will keep popping up.
So why is this important to you as a computer user?
Because to play an audio or video file that has been compressed by a particular codec you need the corresponding codec on your PC in order to decompress the file and play it.
Out of the box, a brand new PC will be capable of playing certain kinds of media. By default it will be able to play audio CD's, WAV files, certain kinds of AVI files, and Windows WMV files. However, there are a lot of other file formats which it will not be able to play, so additional codecs are needed for the computer to be able to decode those files and play them.
In fact, most computer users have encountered the situation of trying to play a video file only to be frustrated to find they don't have the codec. As a result the video won't play.
There are tools available to help overcome this problem, such as VideoInspector , a freeware program that identifies the codecs used in a particular video and helps you find a download location.
While you can install individual codecs in order to play a particular media file, it's more common to install a whole collection: a codec pack. The idea is to give end users a "one stop" installation of a lot of codecs so they don't have to hunt down particular codecs when they come across a file they cannot play.
That sounds handy but there's a catch. Some codec packs contain proprietary codecs of doubtful legality.
Typically this involves the use of codecs that are altered versions of existing codecs developed by other companies. Often this is done to avoid copyright issues, but it's sometimes done to extend functionality so the PC can play more file types. However, since almost all codecs are released under a license agreement which prohibit alteration, these altered versions are still likely to be illegal.
And it's not only the law you have to be concerned about. Using an altered codec may cause problems on your PC. It all depends on how professionally the alterations were made. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing this in advance.
The following codecs and codec packs are considered to have legality issues hanging over them:
DivX codec - This and the many
varieties of it are altered versions of the Microsoft
MPEG-4 V3 codec. It is considered old by today's
where can you find free, legal codec packs that will
let you view the media you need to view?
XP Codec Pack - http://www.xpcodecpack.com/
Often these codec packs show up in the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove programs applet, so you can uninstall them there if you wish. If they are not shown in Add/Remove programs, they will still be visible from the Windows Device Manager.
To see the codecs installed on your PC, right click on the My Computer icon, and select Properties/Hardware/Device manager/Sound Video Game Controllers. You can then select either of the Audio Codecs or Video Codecs items. For each items the codecs are listed under the properties tag. If you want to, you can also uninstall any unwanted codecs from the same location.
"Windows Media Player for Windows XP Supported Codecs"
If you only use a few programs you don't need a program launcher as you can get by perfectly well with the Windows Start Menu or by using Desktop Shortcuts.
However, once you start using a lot of programs, these methods become clumsy and inefficient. At that stage you need a program launcher.
Programmers have come up with several different design approaches for program launchers. One approach is to use a dockable command bar containing shortcuts. Another is to use hotkeys to launch particular programs.
My preference though is for keyword based approaches where you launch a program by typing in the name (or part of the name) of a program. The best known freeware examples of this approach are Launchy  and Find and Run Robot .
Now these two top programs have some hot competition in the form of Enso, a former commercial program that is now free.
You use Enso by holding down the Caps Lock key and typing a command followed by a program name. But you rarely have to type the full name. For example, on my laptop all I have to do to launch Firefox is type "Open Fir". At that stage Enso has determined that I wanted Firefox and has offered me the option of launching it. It's fast; lightning fast.
That's all very familiar to Launchy users, but Enso has some neat extra tricks. You can navigate to folders, websites, open particular files in designated applications, swap between Windows and more using the same basic command structure. For example, you can jump to any open Firefox or Internet Explorer tab by typing part of the tag title. It doesn't even have to be the first part of the title. So to open a tab titled "where to buy cheap beer", all you need to type is "GO beer." In fact, "be" is probably all you need type.
You also don't have to rely on typing application names because Enso can link a command to any keyword. For example, Firefox could be launched by typing "FF" if you so wish.
Enso is fast and addictive, but then again so is Launchy. Which is better?
Launchy is smaller, open source but not quite as powerful, while Enso is faster and more flexible but with a smaller user base. My advice is to try both and see what better suits your personal style. Personally, Enso suits me better, but your mileage may vary.
What I can say is that if you have never used any of these products you are going to be surprised just how useful they are.
Thanks to subscriber Philip McMahon for letting me know Enso was now free. Enso is freeware, works with Windows 2000, XP and Vista and the download is 12.1MB
*** Bonus Freebie in the Premium Edition ***
I'm skeptical about products that claim to make your PC run faster. I've tried many of these over the years and for the most part they either didn't work or they messed up my PC so badly that any speed improvement was not worth the problems created.
But things have changed: following an enthusiastic recommendation by regular contributor "Torrente", I've at last found a product I can recommend. In fact it works so well I'm using it myself ...
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See you next issue. It will be published on Thursday the 20th of March, 2008.