If you prefer you can read this issue online from the Supporters' Area here
IN THIS PREMIUM EDITION:
0. EDITORIAL - End of year reflections
** Additional items in this Premium SE Edition **
2.19 How to Unlock Your Nokia Cell Phone3. BEST FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES FOR 2006
** Additional items in this Premium SE Edition **
3.15 Free PIM Impresses4.0 MANAGING YOUR SUBSCRIPTION
This is the special end of year edition of Support Alert.
It features my annual awards for the "Product of the Year" and the "Best Free Utility."
It also includes my pick of the best tech sites and utilities that have appeared in the newsletter throughout the year.
I'm not making any claims about any of these being the absolute best in their class. I haven't reviewed all the sites and products available and besides, there is always an element of the subjective in such matters. What I can say is that the sites and products listed are superb by any standards. Congratulations to all involved.
I'd like to give particular thanks to the Web's freeware authors. They, in the true spirit of the internet, do what they do simply for the pleasure of their craft and the pleasure of sharing. We are the beneficiaries.
But my most special thanks go to you, dear reader and all the subscribers to the Premium SE edition of this newsletter. Without your financial support this publication would have folded long ago. In that sense, this is your newsletter.
To all of you, I wish peace, happiness and prosperity for 2007.
See you next month.
1. SUPPORT ALERT AWARDS FOR EXCELLENCE 2006
1.1 Product of the Year
Joint Winners: SandBoxie and DefenseWall
2006 should have been called "The Year of the 0-day Threat."
0-day threats are security problems involving brand new exploits. Typically these include new virus threats or exploits of previously unknown flaws in computer products.
Normal security products like anti-virus and anti-spyware scanners provide only limited protection against such threats. Your AV program can't fully protect you against a new virus that's not yet in its signature database nor can your anti-spyware program prevent you from being infected by a previously unknown flaw in a product like Microsoft Office.
Unfortunately these threats have recently escalated to unprecedented levels. Hostile web sites that use 0-day threats to secretly infect your PC have proliferated rapidly while new email threats have arisen that only require you to open an HTML email to get infected.
Although the overall level of such threats has increased they are not yet common. Users who surf widely and use P2P networks are currently most at risk. However if the problem continues to escalate, 0-day threats will pose a serious threat to all users in the near future.
In this context it is appropriate that my award for the product of the year for 2006 should go to a security product that protects your PC against 0-day threats.
Well, two computer security products. The two winning products are both so good that I really couldn't choose one over the other.
SandBoxie and DefenseWall are both sandboxing programs designed to isolate your PC from internet based threats. Unlike anti- virus programs that rely on signatures to detect threats they protect your PC by fencing off and isolating potentially dangerous programs so they can't infect your PC. They don't replace your AV program but rather are designed to provide an additional layer of protection.
SandBoxie and DefenseWall have a lot of similarities but they operate quite differently.
SandBoxie works by allowing you to run your web browser, email program and any other program of your choosing in a virtual environment that's totally corralled off from your real PC. Any malware programs that are downloaded through your browser or email can run in this virtual environment without infecting your real PC. When you have finished you can shut down the sandbox and all the infected programs will be erased without ever getting onto your real PC.
DefenseWall offers a similar capability but with a twist. While SandBoxie requires the user to consciously decide what programs to sandbox, DefenseWall automatically sandboxes your browser, email program, instant messaging, FTP utility and any other program it considers a potential vehicle for introducing infection onto your computer.
It does this using an inbuilt list of "untrusted" programs. This list includes Internet Explorer and all the common browsers plus email clients and lots of other utilities as well. You can also manually add programs to this list.
Any program or process that is started by an untrusted program inherits the untrusted (i.e. sandboxed) status. So if you visit a hostile website in your browser, any malicious programs that run secretly are automatically sandboxed as they inherit the untrusted status of the browser.
This policy based approach used by DefenseWall brings about distinct differences in use compared to SandBoxie.
With DefenseWall, your browser is automatically sandboxed every time you run it unless you choose to run it unsandboxed. With SandBoxie your browser is only sandboxed if you choose to start it sandboxed.
This is a critical difference, particularly when the PC is being operated by less experienced users.
There is another important difference. SandBoxie corrals off all downloaded and changed files into a special area of your disk: the sandbox. These files are not easily accessible unless you go hunting around in the sandbox and choose to move them to the normal working areas of your disk
In contrast DefenseWall downloads files to the normal locations on your PC. That's because DefenseWall is not seeking to control infection by physical isolation but rather by preventing malware programs from running.
Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses.
SandBoxie can be annoying when you download a legitimate file and then have to go hunting for it. This is an inconvenience but can be tolerated. The situation with email files is much more serious. Keeping all your email files in the sandbox is so awkward that it verges on the impracticable.
On the other hand it's comforting with SandBoxie to be able to clear the sandbox and know everything you downloaded is gone. And that comfort extends to privacy as well as security.
DefenseWall doesn't interfere with the normal location of your downloaded files or email and that's a real convenience. However if any of these downloaded files are infected they could pose a risk in the event you ever accidentally run them.
I say "accidentally" because DefenseWall allows you to run downloaded files quite safely by selecting the "run as untrusted" option from the mouse right click context menu. In this case they are completely sandboxed and your PC cannot become infected. However if you didn't use this option and absent-mindedly double click an infected download, then you could get infected.
On balance DefenseWall may be better suited to average users as its policy based approach requires less user intervention. On the other hand, more experienced users may prefer Sandboxie as it leaves the decision making firmly in their hands.
Despite the differences in operation, both products offer outstanding protection. Both are totally resistant to termination by a hostile agent. Both provide near perfect isolation of malware programs including 0-day threats. Both are small and efficient and will hardly use any of your computer resources.
Anyone who surfs widely on the internet or uses P2P networks should consider using one of these products. Should 0-day threats continue to escalate in 2007 as they have in 2006, we may all need them.
I congratulate the program authors, Ronen Tzur and Ilya Rabinovich on their achievements.
http://www.sandboxie.com/ Donationware, Windows 2000 and later, 242KB
http://www.softsphere.com/ Shareware, $29, 30 day trial, Windows 2000 and later, 1.02MB
1.2 Best Free Utility for 2006
TorPark is a special version of the Firefox browser that has been configured to work with the free Tor anonymizing service and run directly from a USB flash drive. It's a neat idea; just plug in your USB stick to any PC with a USB port and Firefox V184.108.40.206 is automatically launched, set up for secure and private surfing.
The most obvious application is internet cafes, public terminals or indeed any PC including your own where you don't want to leave any trace of your private surfing activities. However, what attracts me is not so much the privacy side as the security potential. That's because TorPark creates a secure encrypted connection between the PC you are using and the Tor servers. This allows you to safely transmit information without fear of interception. This makes it ideal for surfing on open Wi-Fi networks. Previously, secure surfing on such networks required the use of private VPN networks, an option only available to corporates??, the well heeled and the technically savvy. Now, using TorPark, any surfer can reap the same security benefits for their browsing.
It won't help the security of your email though. And there are other security limitations too. For example, don't think TorPark will now mean you can now securely conduct your internet banking at an internet cafe. I'm sorry, it's still a no-no. That's because, if a keylogger is installed on the PC you are using, it will grab your confidential data before it gets encrypted.
Similarly, don't think TorPark can provide you with total anonymity; last month the German police seized a whole batch of Tor servers. And there are other caveats. Expect your surfing to slow down as it's relayed across multiple Tor surfers. The slowdown may be small or intolerable; it all depends on how heavily the network is loaded. Expect, too, that some web sites won't work correctly, either because they don't allow anonymous surfing or because they use features that won't work in the Tor environment. Happily, this inconvenience can be minimized as TorPark allows you to easily switch between Tor based browsing and normal browsing. You will, of course, loose your anonymity in the process but at least the site will now work.
These reservations aside, TorPark is a terrific product. All users of open Wi-Fi networks and public computers should use it as a matter of course while many other users will see immediate application in their own environment. I've set it up on a spare USB stick and on my hard drive as well. I suggest you do, too.
http://torpark.nfshost.com/index.php Freeware, Windows NT and later, 9.02MB
2. BEST TECH SITES AND RESOURCES FOR 2006
2.1 Christmas Gift Ideas
If you enjoy your Support
Alert subscription why not share the good news and send a friend a gift
subscription to the Premium SE Edition? At $10 it's an economical Christmas gift
and one the receiver will thank you for every time they receive a monthly issue.
You can set up your gift subscription here  in a couple of minutes. And
here's another Christmas idea. Subscriber Amber Carvan operates a children's
craft site that is currently featuring a guide  showing how your kids can
make their own hand-made Christmas cards using simple household materials. She
also has another guide for Christmas ornaments  that young
children can make all by themselves.
2.2 Outstanding Video How-To Sites
to copy one of your DVDs or strip the sound track to a CD?
Need to join several video files? Like to convert from one video
format to another? These sites show you how to do all these
things and more using free software.
2.3 Convert MS Word and Excel Documents to PDF
can pay $49 for a utility to do this or go to this web site
where they will do it will do it for free. They also can convert
HTML pages to PDF as well.
2.4 Where to Find Good Computer Deals
contributor JW writes, "Gizmo, in the last issue you
mentioned the good deals at BitsDuJour  and FreeAfterRebate
. Here are a few additional shopping sites - that I've
found from experience also offer good deals."
2.5 Free Utility Converts Video Files for Use on Your iPod
Jodix "Free iPod Video Converter" converts DVD/VCD, AVI,
MPEG, WMV, RM, RMVB, DivX, ASF, VOB video files to iPod video
format with a few clicks. It's just an easy-to-use interface
tacked on to some stock converters, but that doesn't detract
from the usefulness of the product. Freeware, All Windows
2.6 Use Instant Messaging Without an IM Client
hardly use IM at all and don't even have an IM client
installed on my PC. On the very rare occasions I do need to send
a message, I use a free web service from meebo.com . They
support a wide range of systems including Yahoo, Messenger,
Jabber, AIM, ICQ, MS and more. It also comes in handy for IM
users trying to contact friends on incompatible networks.
2.7 Help for Windows 98 Users
because Microsoft has abandoned its support for Windows 98,
it doesn't mean everyone has to. This classic Windows 98 site is
still being updated and is a mandatory visit for all Win98
users. The resources offered are quite amazing, including a
downloadable unofficial Windows 98 Service Pack 2, a tutorial
teaching how to incorporate ME enhancements into Win98 and much
more. The site layout will give you eye strain but that's a
small price to pay for the great tips and utilities.
2.8 Free File Conversion Site
Charles G Koenig writes, "Gizmo I found this file
conversion site and it's a winner. You should take a look." Well
I did Charles and it is very good. It handles five image
formats, 14 document formats, 11 video and nine audio. Just
point to a file on your PC, select the output format and the
file is uploaded to the Zamar server. Then you get an email with
a link to the converted document. It's free but do read the
terms of service. There's nothing threatening in it but you
should be aware of such things before uploading any of your
files to a third party site.
2.9 One Thousand Free Icons, Free Favicon Service
is quite special; a free set of 1000 beautiful 16 by 16
icons. Every programmer and web developer should grab these
little gems now . Good too, for webmasters looking for
favicons for their site. If you want to create your own favicon,
try the second link . I used this service to create the "46"
favicon now used at techsupportalert.com
2.10 Get Back Lost XP Passwords
techies know the trick of using a Windows 2000 installation
CD to get access to a password locked XP PC  but here's a way
of doing it using an XP installation CD . What's more, you
can even change the password! On the same page you'll also find
instructions how to make a password reset disk that allows you
to easily recover your XP password should you forget it.
2.11 Lots of Stock Photos for Zip
site claims two hundred and seventy thousand, which should
provide everything you could ever want except of course, the one
you really need ;>)
2.12 How to Improve the Quality of Your Digital Prints
of the keys to high quality digital image processing is to
have your monitor properly calibrated. At this site they explain
what's involved and give you a detailed guide how to do it.
You'll find lots of other digital tips on this site including a
good tutorial on color calibrating your printer. Thanks to
subscriber Tony Bennett for letting me know about this site.
2.13 A New Way to Save Web Pages
been browsing at work and found a site you'd like to check
out when you get home? Toread.cc is a free web service that
takes a snap of the web page and emails it to any address you
2.14 How to Take Great Digital Photos in Poor Light
all tried to take photos in situations with difficult
lighting; too much, too little or worst of all, both. However,
there is a clever way of getting around this called High Dynamic
Range Photography (HDR) that involves melding together several
shots using a digital editor. I tried it and it works
wonderfully. Full details here:
2.15 Ultimate List of Free Windows Software from Microsoft
150 freebies including many I'd never heard of. Many thanks
to Art Flores for the link.
2.16 More Free Software from Microsoft
the item above you'll find a link to the "Ultimate List of
Free Software from Microsoft." Subscriber Wayne Paterson has
written in to let me know the same author has now compiled a new
list of Microsoft freebies specifically for MS Office.
2.17 Identify Unknown Programs from Their File Name
often hard to work out the name of an application just from
the file name, but it's easy with the help of this site. Just
enter the file name and you can discover the product name,
publisher, original publication date and more. Well worth
bookmarking. Thanks to regular contributor Rhiannon Dent for the
2.18 Free Wake up Calls
Adeniji Akintobi writes, "Gizmo, I wanted to bring a
website to your attention. It's similar to the "Oh Don't Forget"
website you recommended in a previous issue except you get phone
calls instead of text messages. You can order wake up calls or
reminder calls for free." Thanks for that Adeniji, nice site. I
note though, the service is currently only available for the
** Additional items in this Premium SE Edition **
2.19 How to Unlock Your Nokia Cell Phone
your phone is locked to a particular Telco or country, you
can find out how to unshackle it here.
2.20 Common Computer Questions Answered
site provides simple answers to typical computer questions
asked by beginners. It's quite well done actually and a great
place to send all those pesky relatives who keep asking you
annoying computer questions.
2.21 A Cheaper Way to Buy Online
contributor JW writes "Gizmo, RetailMeNot comes from the
BugMeNot folks but instead of people sharing login information,
they share coupon codes" Sounds good JW. Every time I buy
something online and have nothing to enter into the coupon code
box I feel like I'm paying more than someone else.
2.22 The Cheapest Way to Buy Books
time you are looking for a book, feed the title into the
search engine at Fetchbook . It will scan 126 book stores and
over 60,000 private sellers to find the lowest price for new and
second hand copies. Thanks to Mikel for this letting me know
about this site.
2.23 Free Mac Applications
more sites with links to free Mac programs.
2.24 Free Multi-Format Document Viewer
receiving an increasing number of documents in .odt format,
one of the native formats used by OpenOffice. I located this
free viewer offered by the developers of the TextMaker word
processor that allows me to read the documents without
installing OO. It also handles several other formats including,
.doc, dot, .tmd, .sxw, .rtf, .psw, .pwd and more. I had to set
the file associations manually but that's no problem. Freeware,
2.25 Real Help for Windows 98 Users
issue I mentioned a collective project I've started to help
Windows 98 users migrate to Linux. That's now well underway and
I'll be reporting back to you soon. If you need Windows 98 help
right now you might like to check out this site recommended by
subscriber Randy Blake. As Randy says, "Gizmo, the dedication of
the people here is amazing ..."
2.26 Free MS Excel Resources
web design at this site  is poor but the tips, tricks and
tutorials are excellent. Check out the second link, too. This
site is not only easier on eyes but has excellent information
for Excel users at all levels.
2.27 How to Send Large Email Files from Your Own PC
contributor Leib Moscovitz recently wrote, "Gizmo I've
recently been using a really terrific program for sending large
files, called Pando . It's very easy to use and extremely
fast, in fact I clocked it against YouSendIt  and it was
something like 25% faster, not to mention the fact that it works
quietly in the background without forcing you to stay on the web
page you're currently using, as YouSendIt does. The program is
officially only in closed beta although you can download it
directly from Softpedia  without having to contact Pando
directly." Thanks Leib for another great find. Pando works by
setting up a server on your PC that allows you to send and
receive large files without the size limitations of your email
program. Nothing new here but what is new is the slick and
hassle-free way Pando does it. To send someone a large file, you
just click the Pando tray icon, enter the recipient's email
address, drag and drop the files (or folders) you want to send
into Pando and then hit "send". This initiates a file transfer
to Pando's servers. The recipient will then automatically
receive an email telling them about the files you have just sent
along with instructions how they can retrieve them. Recipients
not using Pando are instructed to download the Pando program and
install it. Pando users simply have to click a link to start the
download. I tried it with a couple of my friends and it worked
flawlessly and fast. I particularly liked the way a recipient
can start downloading before the uploading is complete; a real
time saver for very large files. On the downside there is little
integration with email clients, it requires both the sender and
user to be using Pando and files only remain on the server for
14 days. I also wonder about the security risk of having a
server running on your PC. Those reservations aside, it's a
great solution to a common problem. Free beta, Windows 2000 and
later or OS X V10+, 2MB.
2.28 The Dangers of Public Proxy Servers
article is from a commercial proxy site and thus slanted to
encourage you to use their service but the advice is
fundamentally sound. As I keep on telling folks, using an open
proxy can be a Faustian bargain. In attempting to gain surfing
privacy, you may in fact, lose all of it.
2.29 Free Online Storage Services
Mark Repp writes, "Gizmo I want to let you know about
a great online storage site called Streamload. It's got more
space available for free storage than almost any other site of
its kind, and for a small monthly or yearly fee, you can share
huge files with anyone and download much more: gigs and gigs of
data. 100MB can be downloaded per month for free, and over 25
gig stored on their server for free. How's that for amazing?"
Amazing indeed when you think how quickly this market sector has
evolved. There used to be two kinds of services: those geared
toward backup/storage and those geared toward file sharing.
Lately though, services like Streamload have opened to provide
both public and private space. Other strong contenders are
OrbitFiles  and Box .
2.30 Free Computer Books
of the best collections of free computer books I've seen. It
includes free tutorials and lecture notes as well and, unlike
other free computer book collections, it includes quite a lot of
recent material including Ajax.
2.31 Free Tech Cheat Sheets
contributor Andreas Büsing writes "Gizmo, Tech Cheat
Sheets is a collection of the best cheat sheets and quick
reference guides on the web. Arranged by tags, you can subscribe
to a feed for only the tags you want to monitor. Visitors can
also give the listings 1-5 star ratings." Nice find Andreas.
This is not the biggest collection I've seen but the quality is
2.32 Twenty Ways to Secure Your Apache Server
list of simple Apache configuration changes that can really
improve your server security.
2.33 How to Make the Best Quality MP3s
to subscriber Jonathon Reich for letting me know about
3. BEST FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES FOR 2006
of the best free utilities I've discovered during the year
have been added to the "46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities" page on
my web site so I haven't listed them again here. Do, however,
check out the web site; you'll find some real gems there.
3.1 Free Goodies for Excel Users
Mark Kealiher writes "Giz, I've found a utility that
may save some of your readers a lot of time when using MS Excel.
I work with many text files that I import into Excel for editing
reasons. Often I find myself needing to combine columns, find
and delete duplicates, etc. I haven't had the time yet to learn
complex formulas and macros and don't want to. The free Excel
add-in tool at this website  automates a lot of the
operations I need." Nice find Mark. I note that its
functionality extends well beyond text manipulation and includes
worksheet comparison, unit conversion and more. I think most
serious Excel users would find something of value here. You
should also check out the ASAP  utilities I mentioned in
issue #121. This freebie provides over 300 individual functions
and enhancements for Excel.
3.2 Free Utility Fixes PC Problems
is an interesting product that bundles together a
large number of fixes to known Windows problems as documented in
many different Microsoft Knowledgebase articles. These problems
fall into five specific areas: Scripting, the Windows Installer,
Windows Update, Secure site problems and Program registration.
The last area includes specific fixes for Windows Explorer,
Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player problems. If you have
problems in any of these areas you should check this utility
out. I've now used it successfully on two machines with IE
problems, so it's become a standard item in my tool kit. Note
though, that this program is intended to be used only on
machines with known problems in the designated areas, so read
the online notes before using. If your PC is running fine, you
don't need it and may risk actually causing problems.
Recommended for experienced users only. Freeware, Windows 9x and
3.3 Free Programs That Run From Your USB Flash Drive
list from SnapFiles  including quite a few five star
rated utilities. If you want more, try the other three links -
3.4 Free Firefox Extension Offers Selective Privacy
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 1.0 - 2.0, 12KB.
3.5 How to Print Lots of Documents Easily
Steve Duncan recently wrote "Gizmo I work at a school
that has over 700 students that need individual reports printed.
As you can imagine printing 700+ word documents takes ages. So I
found this free program, Print Conductor that allows you to
print large numbers of individual files, without opening each
document. It even allows you to change settings on the printer
before it runs the print job and even better you can save the
list of documents that need printing and later on import the
list back into the program. It prints Adobe PDF, Microsoft Word
DOC, Microsoft Excel XLS, Autodesk AutoCAD DWG, and Microsoft
PowerPoint PPT. It's also great for converting large numbers of
documents to PDF using a virtual printer. Hope you find this of
some use to your subscribers, it has changed a 2 day process for
the schools admin down to a couple of hours." Great find Steve,
I'm sure a lot of readers will be able to put this to good use.
3.6 Display Outlook Calendar and Folder Tasks on Desktop
is a free utility that extracts your calendar and to-do
information from Outlook and displays it on your desktop where
it's easy to see. The partly transparent display is very
attractively done and covers information for the coming week.
DeskTask doesn't require Outlook to be running. Highly
recommended. While at the site check out another of their free
products called Find Favorites, a neat little favorites search
engine. Freeware, Outlook 2000 and later, 446KB
3.7 Free Utility for Project Task List Management
a program geared towards folks who work on multiple
projects at one time where each project has multiple sub-tasks
requiring completion in a particular sequence. Its name,
"ToDoList," may be plain vanilla but the program sure isn't; it
can do pretty well anything with task lists you could want.
Sure, there are no fancy calendar displays or Gantt charts but
this is a task list manager not a project manager. While it may
not have the features of a project management utility, it is,
however, much more than a to-do list program; it's so capable it
could be used to help manage quite large projects. I recommend
everyone involved in project work to check out "ToDoList." It
could be just what you are looking for. Thanks to subscriber
Robin Brandt for letting me know about this utility. Note:
registration is required to download the program. Freeware,
3.8 How to Keep Connected to the Internet
Chris Mar writes "Gizmo, I'm among a huge number of
disappointed Internet users who keep losing internet
connectivity. It seems that this may be a function of the ISP as
well as other unnecessarily complex or redundant security
measures in the Administrative Services. Normally to resolve
this I have to use the Network Connection Repair tool to re-
establish the seemingly broken link but recently I ran across an
excellent app called Connection Keeper by Greg Wittmeyer, CEO of
Gammadyne Corporation . It is a free download and has solved
my connection problems. What a joy; no more endless cycles with
the Repair tool or getting stuck after I get up to stretch my
legs to come back to find the little Network Connection icons
lifelessly staring into blank space." Thanks for that, Chris.
You are quite right; internet disconnection problems are very
common. However the causes are many and range from simple ISP
based inactivity timeouts and line noise problems right through
to complex TCP stack issues. Using Connection Keeper is an
excellent first line of attack. It keeps connections alive by
regularly communicating with your ISP even during periods of
sustained inactivity. It won't solve all disconnection problems
but many users will find it provides a simple free solution.
Freeware, all Windows versions, 2.56MB.
3.9 Get Vista "Guided Help" Functionality in XP
contributor A.K. writes " Gizmo, IMHO the most useful
and unique feature of Vista is "Guided Help," a system that
either solves problems automatically or guides users to a
solution through a graphical interface wizard. Now, it appears,
some of that Guided Help functionality is available for XP .
For example I just downloaded a Guided Help exe file  that
covers the situation where XP fails to start correctly because
of a corrupted Registry or missing system file and have
installed it on a my flash drive for use when I next encounter
this situation." A.K. is quite right, Guided Help is a big step
forward in problem resolution and it's good to see that this
Vista technology is being applied to XP. The number of XP Guided
Help facilitated guides currently available is not huge but
still very useful - you can see a full list here . Check them
out and add them to your tech toolkit.
3.10 More Vista Functionality for XP
new Aero Glass interface in Vista is certainly impressive
though you'll need a high end graphics card in order to get the
full impact. Subscriber Chris Price recently wrote in to tell me
about the Vista Transformation Pack, "... an integrated set of
utilities that will modify Windows XP to look and feel very much
like Windows Vista" without the need for fancy hardware.
According to the vendor "the pack changes most of the system
icons, skins and toolbars and also adds new enhancements to your
desktop such as a dock bar or a different system tray clock."
Now I'm not normally into the whole themes and appearance thing
but must admit I was quietly impressed by the Vista
Transformation Pack. It's got quite a few minor bugs but many
users will tolerate these for the invigorating effect on their
desktop. As ever, backup your system before installing.
Freeware, Windows XP, 12.1MB
3.11 Add Process Information to Windows Task Manager
users know that they can find out what programs are
currently running on their PC by hitting Ctrl+Alt+Del and
bringing up the Windows Task Manager. That's the simple bit;
making sense of the processes listed can be tough going. The
utility company Uniblue has just released a free program called
Quick Access Infobar  that allows users to click on any
process shown in the Windows Task Manager and get an explanation
of what that process actually does, along with an assessment of
its security status. The information is displayed in your
browser using data from Uniblue's online Process Library
Database. I tried it out and it works well. The information
provided is clear and useful, though the online database has
quite a few plugs for Uniblue's products. Also a number of
processes related to some of the obscure utilities I use on my
PC were not listed in the database. You can of course also
access the Uniblue Process Library without installing Quick
Access Infobar by simply surfing to the Uniblue site  or
similar sites  and looking up the process. Still, many
average users will appreciate the convenience of a single click
lookup provided by Quick Access. Freeware, Windows 98 and later,
3.12 Free Network Inventory Management Tool
is really nice. Spiceworks is a browser based inventory
program that allows LAN managers to quickly discover and
document the hardware, software and patch status of their
network PCs. That rather bland description seriously under-sells
the usefulness of this product. It's got a terrific filter
system that allows you to target your inventory request plus a
highly customizable reporting system. On top of that it has a
great interface, is easy to use, can handle Linux and Mac OS X
workstations and uses standard network protocols.
3.13 Recover Information from Damaged Data CDs
of the worst PC experiences is to find your precious backup
CDs or DVDs are unreadable due to scratches or surface
degradation. At this site  they list three utilities,
including two freebies, that will help you recover your vital
data. I've previously used one of these programs, ISOBuster ,
and it does a great job with both CDs and DVDs. Don't expect
miracles though, like the guy who wrote to me last year who had
put a hot fry pan on a precious CD accidentally left on his
kitchen counter. I'm sure even ISOBuster couldn't read the
molten plastic mass welded to the bottom of the pan. :>)
3.14 The Best Launchy Application Launcher
Launchy solves the fundamental weakness shared by most application launchers; intrusiveness. Unlike other products that use launch bars or tray icons, Launchy is invisible until you hit a special hotkey combination. By default this is Alt- Space.
Hitting the hot key combination brings up a small window into which you type the name of the application you are looking for.
You rarely even have to type the full name; mostly all you need do is just type a couple of letters. Launchy instantly displays on a find-as-you-type basis, any program that matches the letters you typed in.
Its power lies in the fact that it's lightning fast. When I type the letter "E" I instantly see all programs whose name contains the letter E. There are quite a few as you can imagine. If I then type in the second letter "X" the list shortens immediately to only those programs that contain "EX". By the time I type in the "C" the list is down to one program, Excel itself. Hitting Enter then launches the program and at the same time the Launchy window disappears. The whole thing takes less than 2 seconds.
By default Launchy only searches files in your Start Menu folders. You can however, configure it to handle any file types and search any folders. So Launchy could be used to launch web link shortcuts or even your MP3 files. Configuration is easy; just right click on the Launchy Window.
Launchy is a program that's so useful and so easy to use that you'll wonder how you ever worked without it. Try it, you'll love it.
http://www.launchy.net/ Free Open Source, Windows 2000 and later, 643KB.
** Additional items in this Premium SE Edition **
3.15 Free PIM Impresses
Work Desktop is a $59 commercial PIM and project manager
that's available to individuals for non-commercial use. It's a
pretty impressive product that offers contact management,
calendaring, to-lists, reminders, document filing and simple
project management. Backup is built into the product. The only
thing I could see that was missing was an integrated email
client. Thanks to regular contributor Leib Moscovitz for this
one. Free for non commercial use, All Windows versions, 1.7MB
3.16 Free Internet Traffic Monitor
in issue #127 I mentioned a free utility called Network
Traffic Monitor  that allows you to identify the source of
any unexpected internet activity on your PC. Unfortunately soon
after it was mentioned in the newsletter, the author decided to
charge for the product. However the last free version is still
available at other sites . Recently, subscriber Jean-Denis
Marx wrote in to tell me about Netlimiter 2 Monitor , a free
program that does much the same thing. The user interface is
actually better than Network Traffic Monitor with a clear
identification of all the programs on your PC generating
internet traffic as well as the file name and location. It even
shows hidden programs. Freeware, Windows 2000 and later, 2.2MB.
3.17 The Best Free Software Cataloging Utility
you like testing out different programs on your PC you'll
probably find a software cataloging program useful. These
products will not only inventory what you have currently
installed but also document the different programs you've tried
in the past or have moved to CD storage. There are a lot of
these inventory programs around, but one of the best is SoftCat
, a shareware program from the FNPRG.com. My thanks to
subscriber Tom Mighill who wrote in to tell me about the last
freeware version of SoftCat which is still available from this
site . This version hasn't got as many features as the latest
commercial version but will still meet the need of most users.
Freeware, Windows 98 and later, 2.0MB
3.18 Excellent Free Font Manager
contributor Rhiannon Dent recently wrote to tell me
about his favorite font manager called "The Font Thing." Now, I
have to 'fess up that the only fonts on my PCs are those that
come with Windows so I don't pretend to have the expertise to
assess font management products. What I can say is Rhiannon's
other recommendations have generally been impeccable so if you
are into fonts, you should check it out. Freeware, all Windows
3.19 Free Utility Checks Web Site for Broken Links
are a number of free web services that will do this but I
prefer to use Xenu's Link Sleuth, a free utility that does the
checking from my own PC. Its multi-threaded design makes for
incredibly fast scans, so fast you initially may not believe
it's working correctly. It handles FTP, gopher and password
protected areas, allows for exclusions, detects orphans, can
check external links and much more. Reporting is browser based
and comprehensive. All in all, a little gem. Freeware All
Windows versions, 531KB
3.20 How to Decrypt Protected iTunes Songs
Recently, subscriber Travis Carden wrote, "Hey Gizmo, I thought I'd turn you on to a free tool called JHymn  for decrypting iTunes protected AAC files for use with alternate media players or portable MP3 devices ... you should check it out."
Well, I did check it out and it certainly offers a very effective freeware solution. Here's what the site says: "You buy some new music through iTunes, you run JHymn, hopefully do no more than click one or two buttons and when you quit JHymn and go back to iTunes, all of your DRM-protected music has been seamlessly replaced by unlocked, DRM-free music with the same sound quality as your original purchases, music which is virtually indistinguishable from music that you rip from your own CDs. If you had set up playlists which had included protected songs, the unprotected versions of those songs would now be in those same playlists, in the same play order."
I tried it and it works, though not quite as simply as the above description would have you believe. To start with, it doesn't work with iTunes V6 so I had to uninstall V6 and install V5 following the instructions on the JHymn site . That accomplished, using JHymn to decrypt protected AAC files proved to be reasonably straight-forward.
Once my test files were decrypted I immediately re-installed iTunes V6 because I like the podcast features only available in V6. If you have a second PC you could leave a copy of V5 running on that machine and save yourself a bit of a hassle.
The decrypted files are standard unprotected AAC files of the same quality as the DRM protected originals. They can be played on your iPod, iTunes or any device that supports AAC format. They can also be ripped to MP3, though there will be a small audio quality loss in the conversion.
There are clearly legal and moral concerns here. I suspect many folks would argue that if they pay for a song, it's "fair use" that they should be able to listen to it on whatever device they choose. It's something you as an individual have to think about, though, and there's plenty of material on the JHymn site to help you make up your mind.
Whatever, I suspect JHymn is the answer to the prayers of many iTunes users.
open source software, Windows and Mac OS X (tested with
Windows XP though it may be compatible with earlier versions),
3.21 Best Free Outlook Express Backup Utility
title has been held for some time by Majik's excellent
OEBackup. However, I've been really impressed by PicoBackup
Outlook Express Edition. It's tad more complex to use than
OEBackup, but offers many more features including integrated
CD/DVD burning, disk spanning, encryption, ZIP compression and
the ability to backup multiple users. Freeware, Windows 98 and
3.22 Slick Reminder Program Impresses
been looking at a lot of free reminder programs lately, but
must admit that I've been very impressed by a shareware product
called Cute Reminder . Don't be put off by the kitsch name;
this is a well thought through and beautifully executed product.
Using an inconspicuous docking bar, it allows you to easily
create three different types of objects: reminders, notes and
ideas. Reminders are alarmed while notes are not. Ideas are
notes that pop up after a few days to get your creative juices
flowing. The docking bar also gives immediate access to a
control panel that features a sliding three-month calendar and a
week-long daily view. The real killer feature of this product is
that it works exactly the way you want; way better than any
other product in this class. This degree of usability is rare in
software products and a delight to see. On the downside, this is
a specialist reminder program and not well suited to those who
need to manage to-do lists. If that's your need, then check out
the free utility Rainlender that I mentioned in issue #131.
However, if you are currently using a sticky notes program, then
do try out Cute Reminder. It could be just what you're looking
for. Shareware, $29.95, 30-day trial available, Windows 98 and
3.23 Free Utility Keeps Track of Project Hours Worked
subscriber Richard Steinitz wrote in asking, "Gizmo,
is there some sort of program which can time your work? I have
to do a job which is charged by the hour, and it is all on the
computer. I'd like some little thingy that sits in the corner of
my screen that I can start and stop as I work." Well, Richard
was in luck as I'd just been researching this area and was able
to suggest "Project Timer ." It's truly basic; not much more
than a series of glorified stopwatches but it's simple to use
and does exactly the task Richard wanted. If you bill out your
time to multiple projects, I suspect you'll find this little
program to be very handy. Of course, it won't bill out your
slack time to your paying clients; you need human creativity for
that. ;>) Freeware, all Windows versions, 312KB
3.24 Free Programs to Test Your PC's Security
Subscribers regularly email me asking how they can test the adequacy of their computer security. There's no shortage of specialized security testing programs available, but I find that they often alarm or confuse non tech savvy users. Indeed, the most common response I get when I recommend such a product is, "Hey Gizmo, that program you suggested to me is infected with a virus." I then have to patiently write back and say, "No, the program is just testing the protection provided by your anti- virus software." I'm not kidding, it's true!
If you really want to test your PCs, here are two programs, "Scoundrel Simulator"  and "PC Security Test 2006",  that are easy-to-use and completely safe to download and install. They are relatively simple tests but still useful. And remember folks, there is no reason to get worried if these programs provoke a warning from your security software. Indeed, you should only get concerned if you DON'T get a security warning. ;>)
you want to run some more tests, you can use the same
programs I used for my recent security tests. You can find
download links to each test I used in the actual test
documentation . These tools are designed for experienced
users so please don't play around with them unless you know what
you are doing. And please don't ask me for malware samples or
links to hostile sites. It would be irresponsible for me to
supply these to anyone outside the security industry.
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