Gizmo Richards Support Alert Newsletter - Premium SE Edition

"Gizmo's top picks of the best
Tech resources and utilities"

Premium SE Edition,  Issue 129
18th January, 2006

IN THIS PREMIUM SE ISSUE:

0. EDITORIAL: How to surf with complete security.

1. TOP TECH SITES AND RESOURCES
1.1 How to Send 1.5GB Emails for Free
1.2 How to Make Your PC Quieter
1.3 How to Reformat Your Hard Drive Without Data Loss
1.4 Free Downloadble eBook of Photoshop Techniques
1.5 The Definitive BIOS Optimization Guide Updated
1.6 Free Utilities for your USB Flash Drive (SE Edition)
1.7 Search Engine Allows Tricky Queries (SE Edition)
1.8 Free RSS Service (SE)
1.9 Lots of Small Free Programs (SE Edition)
2. TOP FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES
2.1 Best Free Video Editor
2.2 Free Firefox Extension Offers Selective Privacy
2.3 The Best Free Disk De-fragmenter
2.4 Access Linux Files From Windows
2.5 Backing Up DRM Protected Audio While Retaining Quality
2.6 Huge Bundle of Free Goodies from Google (SE Edition)
2.7 Free Reminder Extension for Firefox (SE Edition)
2.8 Free RSS Reader for Outlook Express (SE Edition)
2.9 Best Free FTP Client (SE Edition)
3. SECURITY PATCHES, SERVICE RELEASES AND UPDATES
3.1 Windows WMF Fiasco
3.2 Microsoft Monthly Patches
3.3 Is Your Sun Java a Security Risk?
3.4 Serious Flaw in VMWare NAT
3.5 Holes Patched in Apple QuickTime
3.6 The Dangers of Using Open Wireless Networks
3.7 Big Changes to Free Firewalls
3.8 Skype 2 Final version Released
3.9 New Version Of uTorrent Released
3.10 Thunderbird V1.5 is here
4. OTHER USEFUL STUFF
4.1 Record FM Radio Music to MP3
4.2 What Plug is That?
4.3 Stay Informed About Free Microsoft Downloads
4.4 More Free Stuff from Microsoft
4.5 Useless Waste of Time Department
4.6 Windows Activation Explained (SE Edition)
4.7 How to Write a Press Release (SE Edition)
4.8 Digital Photography Optics Demystified (SE Edition)
4.9 The Five Best Freeware Games of 2005 (SE Edition)
5. TIP OF THE MONTH
5.1 How to Reduce Desktop Clutter - Part 2
6. FREEBIE OF THE MONTH
6.1 The Best Free System Information Utility
6.2 The Best Free CD Ripping Software (SE Edition)
7. MANAGING YOUR SUBSCRIPTION
0.0 EDITORIAL

Well it cost me $189 to make my web surfing totally secure but it looks like you can do it for free.

Regular readers of this newsletter are aware that I surf the web using a virtual PC that's hosted on my normal PC. This virtual PC is created with the VMWare Workstation program.

The advantage of this approach is immediate; I don't care if the virtual PC gets infected because I can just shut it down and the infection is wiped out without affecting the real PC that hosts the virtual PC.

I also use a virtual PC to download and install new programs. Once again, if my virtual PC becomes infected by a virus, spyware or a trojan, I can just shut it down, re-start and the infection will be gone.

Another benefit is privacy; when I shut down the virtual PC, all traces of my surfing history disappears as well.

These benefits may be attractive, but most folks aren't prepared to fork out $189 for VMWare Workstation in order to get them.

But now you can get the benefits for free. The VMWare Corporation has released a free cut-down version of VMWare Workstation called VMWare Player.

VMWare Player can't create new virtual machines like VMWare Workstation but it can "play" existing ones. It works like this: you install the Player, then load an image of a virtual machine using the Player. Once the image is loaded, you have exactly the same virtual environment and features as if you were using VMWare Workstation. That means you can shut down and re-load that image as many times as you like, eliminating any infections and history in the process.

VMWare have on their web site a whole batch of free pre-configured virtual machine images including a "Browser Appliance" which is a pre-configured Linux based system with the Firefox Browser installed. You can use this to browse the web securely without fear of infection.

If you use the Browser Appliance, you are not installing Linux on your Windows PC but rather are running a virtual machine that uses Linux. It won't interfere with your normal Windows PC in any way.

You don't have to worry about complex Linux networking either. The VMWare Reader will transparently connect you to the internet using your normal Windows connection.

Of course you don't have to run a Linux Virtual Machine, you can run one that uses Windows or any other operating system. All you need is to get your hands on the appropriate virtual machine image.

A quick Google search will reveal quite a few images available on the web including various versions of Windows. However I'd be pretty sure most of these present Windows Licensing problems.

The ideal approach is to create your own image based on a separate licensed copy of Windows. Don't use your normal workstation license though, Microsoft licensing does not permit that.

Unfortunately you can't create a new virtual machine image using the VMWare player - you need the full $189 VMWare workstation to do that. You can however, use readily available freeware utilities to achieve the same result. Here's a link to a web site that shows you how:

http://johnbokma.com/mexit/2005/10/26/vmware-player-windows-xp.html

This process is not for beginners but is well within the scope of almost all experienced users.

Rolling your own virtual machine has another advantage: preconfigured images are big, often 500MB and more, so creating an image on your own PC saves a lot of your internet bandwidth.

I encourage you to download the VMWare Player and try building your own virtual machine. Using a virtual environment will change the way you view computing. Once you are freed from security and privacy concerns you will be free to surf the internet to places you would never dream to go, free as well to install and try out programs to your heart's content, knowing that at any time you can wipe everything from your PC just by hitting the Virtual Machine reset button.

VMWare Player: Freeware, Windows and Linux versions available, 28.2MB
http://www.vmware.com/products/player/

See you next month.

Gizmo
supporters@techsupportalert.com

1.0 TOP TECH SITES AND RESOURCES

1.1 How to Send 1.5GB Emails for Free

Limited by your ISP to a maximum email size of 10MB or less? No problem, use this file upload service from FileFactory and you can email files up to 1.5GB. FileFactory also allows you to upload non-email files up to 500MB and share them with multiple users. While the maximum size of individual files is limited, the total of all your files stored on the server is not. Not bad for nix.
http://www.filefactory.com/

1.2 How to Make Your PC Quieter

Here's a site dedicated to the subject. Lots of good tips and recommendations. Worth bookmarking.
http://www.silentpcreview.com/

1.3 How to Reformat Your Hard Drive Without Data Loss

You can do this using Partition Magic and a number of other expensive partition managers, but this article shows you how to do it for free using a Linux Boot Disk. For experienced users only.
http://www.help2go.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=245

1.4 Free Downloadable eBook of Photoshop Techniques

Subscriber Dan Hervey writes, "Gizmo this free PDF eBook is really useful for anyone who wants to improve their digital photos using Adobe Photoshop. It uses a step-by-step approach so it's great for beginners but there's plenty for experts as well." Thanks Dan, I notice it's for version 7 of Photoshop which is now a little out of date. That's OK as most of the techniques still apply to the latest release though you may find that the tool locations have changed. To download this 32MB eBook right click on the following link and select "Save as .."
http://hellnet.perverz.hu/ebookz/Adobe/50%20Fast%20Photoshop%207%20Techniques.pdf

1.5 The Definitive BIOS Optimization Guide Updated

Adrian Wong's definitive guide to BIOS settings has just been updated again.
http://www.rojakpot.com/default.aspx?location=7&var1=18

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

1.6 Lots of Free Utilities for your USB Flash Drive

Many users now carry their data and applications around with them on a USB flash drive. However not all programs can be run directly from these devices. Many thanks to subscriber Evan Gardener for letting me know about PortableApps.com [1] "a community site devoted to the development, promotion and use of portable applications. The site was created by John T. Haller, the developer behind numerous portable applications (like Portable Firefox, Portable Thunderbird and Portable OpenOffice.org) as a way to centralize the knowledge and development efforts of multiple portable application efforts." There are lots of apps here, including a portable version of Firefox 1.5, Gaim 1.5 and a beta version of the upcoming Thunderbird 1.5. It's not the only site of this kind, I'm aware of at least two others ([2], [3]), but it's well organized and very up-to-date.
[1] http://portableapps.com/
[2] http://www.portablefreeware.com/about.php
[3] http://nedwolf.com/Freeware-Portable.htm

1.7 Search Engine Allows Tricky Queries

I'm a great fan of Google but sometimes I need to make a search that's too complex or tricky for Goggle to handle. For these kinds of enquiries I've been using the French search engine Exalead. The advanced search feature is very comprehensive; heck, it even allows the use of regular expressions! Results are presented very nicely with web page thumbnails of every hit and embedded RSS feeds listed as well. With 2.5 billion pages indexed, it's also very comprehensive.
http://www.exalead.com/search

1.8 Free RSS Service

I've had a lot of email from readers asking my advice how to get into RSS. My suggestion is to use the free Newsgator web service [1] for a while. Being web based there's nothing to install so it's an easy, low hassle way to see if RSS works for you. If you get hooked, you can then try installing a free RSS client on your PC. And what's the best free RSS client? Well, since different folks have very different needs, there really isn't one. That said however, do try BlogBridge [2] and GreatNews [3] amongst others.
[1] http://www.newsgator.com/home.aspx
[2] http://www.blogbridge.com/
[3] http://www.curiostudio.com/

1.9 Lots of Small Free Programs

Subscriber "Towelie" wrote in to remind me that I haven't mentioned TinyApps for a while. Guilty as charged. This is an excellent site offering dozens of free programs notable for their compact code, a refreshing change from the huge bloated programs that have become all too common. Small doesn't necessary mean lacking in features; many of the apps here are as powerful as their XXOS cousins. As a bonus, most don't even need to be installed. Not every program listed is a gem, but the site is well worth a long browse.
http://www.tinyapps.org/

Got some top sites to suggest? Send them to
mailto:supporters@techsupportalert.com

2.0 TOP FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES

2.1 Best Free Video Editor

Subscriber Jim Nix writes, "Gizmo this Christmas season I became in need of a video editor. I discovered my copy of Adobe Premiere 5.1 LE did not allow for gamma, brightness or contrast adjustment. I checked your "Best 46 Freeware" listings and found no video editor. If you have considered adding such a category I suggest you consider VirtualDub [1] which is outstanding. The package is however not complete without the additional filters. A comprehensive collection of third party filters is available from an Italian site [2] - just click on the "TELECHARGER ICI" button to download the complete set of filters (RAR pack). Once all the filters are installed, delete the "PCVideo Image Processor" filter as the installation instructions are missing a step. Again, thank you for the fine newsletter." Well thank you Jim. I'm not a video sort of guy but I've checked out VirtualDub and it's an impressive Open source package that is regularly updated by its author. Note however that it won't handle DVD or MP4 and like all video software, needs a pretty fast PC. Freeware, Windows 95 or later, 958KB.
[1] http://www.virtualdub.org/
[2] http://milafat.free.fr/vdfilters.htm
[3] http://sourceforge.net/projects/virtualdub <= download link for Virtualdub

2.2 Free Firefox Extension Offers Selective Privacy

Firefox V1.5 allows users to easily clear their internet history, cache, cookies and other internet tracks. Sometimes users don't want to clear everything but rather just the information for a particular browsing session. You can do this using the free Stealther extension. Once installed, just turn on Stealther from the Tools menu before the session and afterwards turn it off. Nothing will be recorded in the interim. Freeware, Firefox 0.9-1.6a1, 2KB.
https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=1306

2.3 The Best Free Disk De-fragmenter

My top recommendation here has long been Diskeeper Lite V7, the last free version of the commercial Diskeeper program now at V10. Or so it seemed until I received this email from subscriber Vashek Weis. "Gizmo I found Diskeeper Lite 8 on a CD accompanying a new Intel motherboard and later when I checked for updates on the Intel site I found Diskeeper Lite 9! To get it you need to download the full version (89MB) of Intel Desktop Utilities. Once downloaded, run the exe to unzip its contents into a folder of your choice. In the directory tree created you will find these folders: .../3rdparty/Diskeeper/ and .../3rdpartyDiskeeper.64/. Works great and the new Performance tab is excellent. In the Readme_EN.txt and in the License Agreement I didn't find any rules prohibiting downloading and using this program (on a single computer), therefore I am assuming there aren't any. Please note that both on my desktop and on my laptop the installation failed unless I uninstalled previous version of Diskeeper Lite." Great find Vashek and thanks for writing. Windows 2000 and later, 89MB
http://www.intel.com/design/motherbd/software/idu/

2.4 Access Linux Files From Windows

Anyone who runs a Windows/Linux dual boot system will appreciate this free driver that allows you read and write to Linux Ext2 volumes from within Windows. "Ext2 Installable File System for Windows" works as a kernel mode driver that extends the Windows NT/2000/XP operating system to include the Ext2 file system. (486KB)
http://www.fs-driver.org/index.html

2.5 Backing Up DRM Protected Audio While Retaining Quality

This is an update to an item I mentioned in issue 127. In that issue I mentioned HotRecorder for Media [1] a $19.95 shareware utility that claims to be able to convert iTunes and Yahoo! Music sound files into .wav or .mp3 files while "maintaining the original quality of the audio files." I expressed skepticism about the quality claim but at the same time praised the program for its ease of use. The quality question generated a lot of correspondence from readers, several of whom claimed that they had used HotRecorder and other similar products such as Tunebite [2] and TotalRecorder [3] with excellent results. After doing some research it appears that these products differ from older recording products like MyMP3Recoder [4] in that they employ a virtual sound card to capture music being played rather than simply grab and re-digitize the analog output from a real sound card. In principal this means that sound quality may indeed be maintained as the whole process takes place in the digital domain. I confirmed this claim with the developer of Tunebite who stated, "One of the advantages of Tunebite is indeed that the virtual sound card works full digitally. So with the re-recording of DRM protected music the user has no reduction in quality." Sounds good to me ;>)
[1] http://www.hotrecorder.com/products/product_hotrecorder4media.asp
[2] http://www.tunebite.com
[3] http://www.highcriteria.com/
[4] http://www.mp3mymp3.com/mp3_my_mp3_recorder.html

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

2.6 Huge Bundle of Free Goodies from Google

Google Pack is a customizable package of free software now available for direct download from Google. This is made up of a bundle of Google's' own software products such as Google Desktop, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Google Earth, Picasa and Google Pack Screensaver plus third party programs such as a lite version of Norton Antivirus 2005 with 6 months free subscription, Firefox V1.5 with Google Toolbar, Ad-Aware SE Personal and Adobe Reader 7. Optional components include Trillian and GoogleTalk IM products, RealPlayer Media player and GalleryPlayer - a program for displaying artwork and other images on your HD screen or TV. The pack also includes an automatic updating utility. Overall a nice pack of quality products though there is not much new other than the free 6 months Norton AV 2005 trial. None-the-less, a useful timesaver when setting up a new PC. Free, Windows XP, size varies according to options chosen.
http://pack.google.com/

2.7 Free Reminder Extension for Firefox

When ReminderFox was launched last year, I thought I had at last found the reminder program I had long been looking for. Alas it was a disappointment. It was a good idea but lacked even basic features such as the ability to create periodic and recurring reminders. This has all changed with the latest version and the product is now very usable. ReminderFox is not a full-fledged calendar system, but is designed to manage standard reminder needs and handle basic "to-do" list requirements. As a result, it is very simple to use with all the features you really need and avoids the unnecessary complexity of products like Outlook. Also having a reminder program in your browser makes perfect sense. Almost everyone uses their browser daily, so why run a separate reminder application? Much to like here though I do wish it had an audible alarm for reminders rather than rely just on visual alerts. The product is being actively developed so maybe this will appear soon. Freeware, requires Firefox.
http://reminderfox.mozdev.org/

2.8 Free RSS Reader for Outlook Express

I prefer accessing RSS through my browser but many folks prefer to integrate it with their email. If that's you then note that the excellent free aggregator "RSS Popper" is available for Outlook Express as well as Outlook. It's only an Alpha version but it worked fine on my test PC. It requires Outlook Express 6 or Outlook 2000 and later. Freeware, Windows 98 and later, 0.3MB.
http://rsspopper.blogspot.com/2004/10/home.html

2.9 Best Free FTP Client

FileZilla has long been my top pick but subscriber José Vasconcelos differs: "Gizmo, I've tried Filezilla for a while but I cannot agree that is the best free FTP client around. I've been using WinSCP and it's much more powerful and yet remains simple to use. It features a built-in terminal, it can launch Putty directly, allows you to remotely edit files, direct transfer and transfer queue, limit download speed rates, just to point some among a wide array of features, some of which Filezilla misses." Jose is quite right; WinSCP is an excellent freeware SCP (secure copy) client for Windows that uses SSH and offers a rich feature set. Not everyone needs the extra features WinSCP offers but if you do, then check out WinSCP, it's a secure and very capable package. Thanks Jose for the suggestion. Freeware, All Windows versions, 1.68MB.
http://winscp.net/eng/index.php

Got some favorite utilities to suggest? Send them to mailto:supporters@techsupportalert.com

3.0 SECURITY PATCHES, SERVICE RELEASES AND UPDATES

3.1 Windows WMF Fiasco

The hot news this month was the widespread release on the web of exploits utilizing serious flaws in the way the Windows graphics rendering engine handles WMF (Windows Metafile) images. Tens of thousands of PCs were infected with trojans and other malware during the month simply by visiting web sites displaying specially crafted images. Thankfully MS quickly issued a fix for the problem outside of the normal monthly patch cycle and this has now been distributed to Windows 2K and later machines via the Windows Update service. There are a number of twists and ironies here: First, MS has long been aware of the problem but has consistently downplayed its severity. Second, the quickly released patch was in fact a mistake; the patch was only released outside of the monthly patch cycle because it was accidentally posted to a public forum. Third, MS has taken an odd position with patching Win9x systems. To quote their web site: "Although Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium Edition do contain the affected component, the vulnerability is not critical because an exploitable attack vector has not been identified that would yield a Critical severity rating for these versions." In other words no-one has yet found a way to exploit the flaw so we are not going to fix it. Hardly comforting for Win9x users. Finally, two new vulnerabilities in the Windows graphics engine were discovered within days of the release of the MS patch. The new flaws affect even fully patched Windows 2000, Windows XP SP2 and Windows Server 2003. Naturally MS yet again went into their usual denial mode stating the new flaws were not as serious as stated. Not a good month for Microsoft.
http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/MS06-001.mspx

3.2 Microsoft Monthly Patches

Quite separately from the WMF problem, Microsoft released two other "critical" rated fixes in January as part of its monthly patch cycle. The first [1] could allow an attacker to execute arbitrary code on a user's PC simply by viewing specially crafted fonts on a web site or within an HTML email message. All versions of Windows are affected though with Windows Server 2003 systems the flaw is rated as "Important" rather than "critical." The second flaw [2] is in MS Office 2000 and later as well as specific versions of MS Exchange 2000 and later. The flaw lies in the way these products decode the Transport Neutral Encapsulation Format (TNEF) in a MIME email attachment. "An attacker could exploit the vulnerability by constructing a specially crafted TNEF message that could potentially allow remote code execution when a user opens or previews a malicious e-mail message or when the Microsoft Exchange Server Information Store processes the specially crafted message. An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could take complete control of an affected system." Patches for both flaws have been distributed via Windows Update. If you are in any doubt whether your PC has been patched please visit the Windows Update service [3] now.
[1] http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/Bulletin/MS06-002.mspx
[2] http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/Bulletin/MS06-003.mspx
[3] http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/ (Requires IE5 or later)

3.3 Is Your Sun Java a Security Risk?

Most folks have Sun Java installed on their PC but many have never updated it. This is a concern as several serious security flaws have been found in the product during 2005 and earlier. If you have not already done so, it is extremely important that you update your version of Java now. Doing this is quite easy: Go to your Windows Control Panel now and select "Java" or "Java Plugin" from the list then select Update to download and install the latest version. If you don't see "Java" or "Java Plugin" in your Control Panel then turn on "Classic view" from the left hand panel. If you can't get this procedure to work you can simply do an offline installation by downloading Java from this address:
http://www.java.com/en/download/manual.jsp

3.4 Serious Flaw in VMWare NAT

Users of VMWare Workstation 5.5, VMWare GSX Server 3.2, VMWare ACE 1.0.1, VMWare Player 1.0, and previous releases of these products who use NAT for networking should update to the latest version immediately as a serious security flaw in these products could allow an attacker to gain control of the host PC.
http://www.vmware.com/download

3.5 Holes Patched in Apple QuickTime

Apple has released V7.0.4 of QuickTime that fixes five known buffer overflow flaws that could allow Windows and Mac machines to be compromised simply by viewing a specially crafted QuickTime QTIF, TIFF, GIF or TGA file. The new version also includes a number of bug fixes. All users should update immediately by using the "Update Existing Software" option from the Help menu.
http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=303101

3.6 The Dangers of Using Open Wireless Networks

Most users are now aware of the dangers of home wireless networks, however open access public networks are a far greater risk. In fact, I'm constantly amazed at the way folks extol the virtues of public Wi-Fi networks without even considering the serious security risks involved. These risks are real and immediate, not theoretical. You don't even have to be actively using a public network to be exposed; simply allowing your computer to automatically connect is enough. If you have a laptop or PC with Wi-Fi access, please read this article.
http://www.informit.com/guides/content.asp?g=security&seqNum=162

3.7 Big Changes to Free Firewalls

The much-loved Sygate Personal Firewall was discontinued on the 30th of November 2005. The decision [1] was made by the much-unloved Symantec Corporation, who recently acquired Sygate and its products. The excellent Kerio Personal firewall has also disappeared but thankfully has been acquired by the folks at Sunbelt Software, makers of the highly rated CounterSpy program. Sunbelt has generously offered to continue the free version [2]. They have also dropped the price of the Pro version to $19.95 or $14.95 if you purchase before the end of March 2006. That's quite a deal.
[1] http://www.urltrim.com/ct/t.php?l=71
[2] http://www.sunbelt-software.com/Press.cfm?id=135

3.8 Skype 2 Final version Released

The new version 2 of Skype, the wildly popular VoIP program, has finally been released. It's been in beta a while so it should be pretty solid. Features include improved voice quality, one-to-one video conversations, improved contacts organization and more. Freeware, Windows 2000 and later, 9.5MB.
http://www.skype.com/products/skype/windows/

3.9 New Version Of uTorrent Released

uTorrent, the diminutive but highly effective BitTorrent client continues to go from strength to strength. With each successive release new features are added yet the program remains tiny compared to competitors like Azureus. The latest V1.4 release adds multi-scrape, an RSS reader, Bitcomet style add dialog and more. All BitTorrent users should try uTorrent, particularly when the whole thing is only a tiny 130KB download, is free and doesn't need installing.
http://www.utorrent.com/

3.10 Thunderbird V1.5 is Here

After a long period in beta the final version of the excellent Mozilla Thunderbird email client has been released. New features include a built in phishing detector, spell check as-you-type, auto saving of drafts, global inbox filters, support for server-side spam filtering and more. Most importantly, stability has been greatly improved. Overall this great free email client has been made even better. Outlook Express users should seriously consider switching. You'll get more features plus a way safer product as well. Free Open Source, Windows and other platforms, 6.08 MB.
http://www.mozilla.com/thunderbird/releases/1.5.html

4.0 OTHER USEFUL STUFF

4.1 Record FM Radio Music to MP3

TimeTrax TraxCatcher is a stand-alone FM radio with a dockable MP3 player that allows you to directly record music files from FM and store them on the MP3 player and your PC. Software to tag and organize the MP3 files is included. Of course you can do the same thing via streaming internet radio but this way you don't use any of your internet bandwidth plus you get a usable MP3 player as well. MRP is $159. While at the site check out their other products for recording XM, XM-Online and SIRIUS broadcasts.
http://www.timetraxtech.com/

4.2 What Plug is That?

Can you tell a PS2 socket from an S-video at a quick glance? Fear not; just consult this comprehensive guide to PC plugs and sockets. Another web page to add to your bookmarks.
http://www.tomshardware.com/howto/20051123/index.html

4.3 Stay Informed About Free Microsoft Downloads

The Microsoft download site [1] often has interesting new goodies added but few ever bother to check. You can keep informed on what's available by subscribing to the email notification service [2] or via RSS feed [3].
[1] http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/results.aspx
[2] https://profile.microsoft.com/Regsysprofilecenter/subscriptionwizard.aspx?wizid=187f14a9-d7c2-462b-9da6-c9a66cd45cca&lcid=1033
[3] http://www.thundermain.com/rss/

4.4 More Free Stuff from Microsoft

In November last year MS made available for free the "Express" editions of a number of its programming products including Visual Basic, Visual C#, Visual C++, Visual J# and more. The Express editions are cut-down versions of Microsoft's full commercial Visual Studio and SQL Server programs but are still very substantial products. Go get them before November 6, 2006 after which the free offer expires.
http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/express/default.aspx

4.5 Useless Waste of Time Department

Check out this list of web site names that, on a casual glance, read very differently to what the webmaster intended. My favorite was the URL for Pen Island. Yes, run the two words together and you'll begin to understand the problem ;>)
http://spadassin.blogspot.com/2005/11/webmasters-who-didnt-think-when-they.html

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

4.6 Windows Activation Explained

So that's how it works!
http://aumha.org/win5/a/wpa.php

4.7 How to Write a Press Release

A useful guide can be found here:
http://www.lunareclipse.net/pressrelease.htm

4.8 Digital Photography Optics Demystified

Most digital camera users would take much better shots if they had a better understanding of basic photographic concepts such as depth of field, field of view and hyperfocal distance. This free program allows you learn about these relationships by looking at their effect on actual photographs rather than teaching you complex maths. A useful resource for all budding photographers. Freeware, 406KB
http://www.stegmann.dk/mikkel/barnack/

4.9 The Five Best Freeware Games of 2005

These are not my choices but rather those of a gamer dude. If you want even more ways to idle away those spare moments check out the reader feedback comments at the end of the page where you can find more suggestions.
http://www.ghacks.net/2005/12/29/5-best-freeware-games-of-2005/

5.0 TIP OF THE MONTH

5.1 How to Reduce Desktop Clutter - Part 2

In issue 127 I described how you could use your Windows Quick Launch Bar to reduce your desktop clutter. In essence the technique involved creating several categorized folders in the QLB and moving desktop icons to these folders.

A number of readers wrote in to let me know an easier way of doing this was to use a freeware product called (appropriately enough) Free Launch Bar.

I tried it and it's excellent. What it does is allow you to easily create cascading menus within the taskbar using drag and drop.

It's so easy to use that you can concentrate on what you want to do rather than get tied down with the problem of how to do it. It also supports hotkeys, which you can assign to commonly used programs or shortcuts.

If you like the product, you might like to check out a more advanced version called True Launch Bar for $19.90 that adds additional features.

I liked Free Launch Bar a lot but there are lots of other ways to reduce desktop clutter apart from moving desktop icons to the task bar. Other options include using virtual desktops, docking desktop launch bars, enhancements to the Start Menu and enhancements to the task bar notification area, all of which allow you to achieve the same result. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and this is something I'll look at in future issues. Meantime play with Free Launch Bar, I think you'll like it.

Free Launch Bar, freeware, Windows 9x and later, 532KB.
http://www.freelaunchbar.com/

6.0 FREEBIE OF THE MONTH

6.1 The Best Free System Information Utility

System Information Utilities are designed to tell you as much as possible about your system properties and settings. This includes hardware, operating system and installed software.

My long term favorite freebie has been the classic AIDA32 but it morphed into the commercial shareware product Everest [1] some time ago. A cut-down free "Home Edition" was available for non-commercial use for a while but it has now disappeared from the web site. You can however still find the old AIDA32 at some download sites [2] and it's still a good choice particularly for inventorying networked computer systems. It is however, starting to show its age.

A more current option is Belarc Advisor [3]. It's free for non-commercial use and while not quite as thorough as AIDA32, it has the advantage of being actively developed.

My current favorite is the SIW utility written by Gabriel Topala. It "displays detailed specs for motherboard, BIOS, CPU, devices, memory, video, disk drives, ports, printers, operating system, installed programs, processes, services, serial numbers (CD keys), users, open files, system uptime, network, network shares, as well as real-time monitors for CPU, memory, page file usage and network traffic. It also displays currently active network connections, passwords hidden behind asterisks, installed codecs, and more. "

That's impressive enough for a freebie but my favorite feature is the fact that the SIW does not need installing; all you need to do is run the executable. This means one less installed program on your PC as well the fact that you can run the program directly from a USB flash drive.
[1] http://www.lavalys.com/products.php?lang=en (5.5MB)
[2] http://www.majorgeeks.com/download181.html (2.9MB)
[3] http://www.belarc.com/free_download.html (830KB)
[4] http://www3.sympatico.ca/gtopala/about_siw.html (1.2MB)

** Bonus Freebie for Premium Edition subscribers **

6.2 The Best Free CD Ripping Software

Over the Christmas period I started the long task of ripping my 1200 CDs to my hard disk. I knew it was a huge job and one I certainly wanted to do only once. So, before I started, I was determined made sure I did it right.

There are lots of rippers available. All media players including Windows Media Player can rip. There are also some great freebies plus a host of commercial rippers. Most will rip to WAV, MP3 and usually several other formats.

After a lot of experimentation I ended up with three rippers to evaluate in detail: CDEX [1], Exact Audio Copy [2] and AudioGrabber [3]. All are free.

If your CDs are like mine then some will be scratched or have lots of finger-marks. These can cause pops and crackles in the ripped file.

Rippers vary greatly in their ability to handle these problems. Some will simply get stuck; others will skip forward over the problem or even create a silent gap. The best programs will try repeatedly to fix the problem with no audible effects.

Of the three products I tested, one product was outstanding in its ability to handle CD imperfections. That product was Exact Audio Copy.

I'm now two thirds of the way through my ripping exercise. Of the 800 or so CDs ripped I've only had 7 tracks that EAC couldn't rip perfectly. Given the condition of some of my CDs, that's a mighty impressive performance.

EAC can rip to WAV, MP3 (using the excellent LAME encoder), OGG, FLAC and APE.

CD rippers interact strongly with your CD hardware so it's possible EAC may not work with your particular CD drive. If that's the case, try CDEX and AudioGrabber. While their performance with scratched CDs is not as good as EAC they are both outstanding freeware products.
[1] http://sourceforge.net/projects/cdexos/ (1.91MB)
[2] http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/ (1.18MB)
[3] http://www.audiograbber.com-us.net/ (1.6MB)

Got some top sites and services to suggest? Send them in to mailto:supporters@techsupportalert.com

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See you next issue

Gizmo
Ian Richards
editor@techsupportalert.com