gizmo richards' support alert newsletter

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

Premium Edition
154, 21st February, 2008

If you experience problems reading this issue in your email program you can read this issue online from the Supporters' Area here:


0. EDITORIAL: Never re-install Windows again

1.1 New Version of the Best-ever Freeware List
1.2 The Best Online Format Conversion Site
1.3 Fifty Gigabytes of Free Online Storage
1.4 More Free Online Storage Options
1.5 Why you Shouldn't Trust Software Awards
1.6 Dictate an Email Reminder on Your Cell Phone
1.7 Use Open Office Online (Premium Edition)
1.8 Best Free Digital Image Processing and Design Programs (Premium)
1.9 Free Disposable Phone Numbers (Premium Edition)
2.1 How to Make Your Mouse Scroll Wheel Work Better
2.2 Amazon S3 Online Storage Impresses
2.3 More Amazon S3 Storage Options
2.4 Free Utility makes Opening Winmail.dat Attachments Easy
2.5 How to Clean Up Your Right Click Context Menu
2.6 How to Make Vista Run Faster
2.7 Neat Way To Search Webpages with Firefox (Premium Edition)
2.8 Problems with Freeware Unzippers and PDF Readers (Premium Edition)
2.9 How to Backup Your Email for Free (Premium Edition)
2.10 Free Software to Improve Your Digital Photos (Premium Edition)
3.1 Microsoft Security News
3.2 Firefox Updated to Version
3.3 New Software Flaws: More than 80% of PCs Affected
3.4 New Version of Secunia Software Inspector Released
3.5 Make Sure You Remove Old Versions of Adobe Flash
3.6 Are New Anti-virus Programs Any Good.
3.7 Spyware Doctor Starter Edition has Smaller Signature Database
3.8 Support Alert Privacy Policy Updated  Please read
4.1 Photoshop Look-alike for $7.95
4.2 Some Light Stuff for Techies
4.3 Make XP Look Like Vista
4.4 Turn Your Laptop or PC into a Serious Alarm Clock
4.5 Useless Waste of Time Department
4.6 The 10 Best Free Downloads for Vista Users (Premium Edition)
4.7 Learn to Type While Playing Computer Games (Premium Edition)
4.8 Get Acronis True Image for Free (Premium Edition)
5.1 Understanding Codecs
6.1 The Best Free Program Launcher
6.2 A Free Utility That Really Does Make Your PC Run Faster (Premium)


Do you really need to partition your hard drive or is it an outdated and unnecessary procedure?

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:

With that out of the way let's go back to the question: why do we partition hard drives?

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.



1.1 New Version of the Best-ever Freeware List

The process of upgrading the "46 Best-ever Freeware" list to a Wiki style format is well underway. As a transitional step to the Wiki the current "Best-ever Freeware" list and the "Extended list" have both been updated and revamped to include much more product information as well as providing an email feedback option for site visitors.

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


1.2 The Best Online Format Conversion Site
Subscriber Christine S. writes "Hi Gizmo, I thought you might want to know of this site [1] that allows you to record streaming media with many file format conversion options. I prefer it to the one you mentioned in issue 153 as I like to save files in MPEG format rather than AVI as AVI takes too long to convert should I want to burn the video to DVD." Nice find Christine, this may well be the best of all the online audio and video format conversion sites. The conversion options for non-media files are also very comprehensive. In fact I'm sure many users will find the PDF to DOC conversion option very useful. Thanks also to Cheryl Rainfield who also suggested this site.

1.3 Fifty Gigabytes of Free Online Storage
Most sites offering large quantities of free online storage usually impose strict monthly transfer limits. This one, suggested by subscriber "Greetz:One", doesn't seem to. More accurately I couldn't see any. I gave it a quick whirl and as usual the upload speeds were modest. Also, the desktop client is pretty basic but it does allow you view your online files and to transfer files by drag and drop. OK, the service lacks the fancy backup management features you get with services like Mozy, but if you simply want a lot of online storage space then this site is well worth checking out.

1.4 More Free Online Storage Options
Subscriber Richard Barnes writes, "Gizmo I saw in January issue you mentioned Amazon S3 online Storage. I use a company called Online Storage Solution [1]. They charge $3 a month for unlimited storage and unlimited downloads. The upload/download method is a bit slow and primitive, but it does the job eventually. I see that they've got a special offer at the moment: $20 for a year's storage. If you've got a load of stuff to store, it's a lot cheaper than Amazon's S3. I've uploaded about 12GB of photos and am now embarking upon uploading my 100GB music collection."

1.5 Why You Shouldn't Trust Software Awards
Ever wonder how that dreadful piece of software you downloaded got all those awards? Here's the answer and it's not happy reading. Thanks to subscriber JW for the link.

1.6 Dictate an Email Reminder on Your Cell Phone
Oh this is so good. Phone a special number, dictate a reminder message with a date and time and you will receive a reminder email and/or phone call at that time along with the message you dictated. Pity that cell phone manufacturers don't provide a similar functionality in the cell phone itself. Thanks to Chris Price for this one. (Jott is currently for USA based subscribers only.)

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

1.7 Use Open Office Online
Many folks are curious about the possibility of using Open Office as a free alternative to Microsoft Office, but never get around to downloading and installing it. Now you can try it out online using this free service that offers you Open Office as part of an online desktop environment. I found the Linux based KDE desktop too slow to be useful for real work, but the access provided to Open Office and other Linux apps could prove valuable to anyone who wants to evaluate the capabilities of this software.

1.8 Best Free Digital Image Processing and Design Programs
This is a well chosen list of 45 freebies. It includes a lot of the products in my own freeware list but there are a number of specialist programs that I've never heard of. The one that caught my interest was FastStone Photo Resizer. Thanks to subscriber Todd Johnson for the suggestion.

1.9 Free Disposable Phone Numbers
In past issues I have listed several websites offering temporary throw-away email addresses but thanks to subscriber Noel Glucksman I can now recommend this site [1] that offers disposable phone numbers. As Noel says " ... just the thing for first dates and CRAIGSLIST transactions." When someone calls this number, he or she is prompted to record a short introduction that you can hear before accepting the call."

Got some top sites to suggest? Send them to:


2.1 How to Make Your Mouse Scroll Wheel Work Better
When you are working with several documents open in different windows you must have noticed how annoying it is to have to click on a window before you can scroll the contents of that window using your mouse scrolling button. KatMouse is a simple free utility that overcomes this by allowing scrolling in any window simply by hovering the cursor over the Window. It's simple, very useful and free. What more could you want? Freeware, Windows NT -> Vista, 224KB.

2.2 Amazon S3 Online Storage Impresses

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.


2.3 More Amazon S3 Storage Options

Subscriber Igor Brejc writes "Gizmo after reading your article in the Premium edition about Amazon S3 [1] I signed up. Since then I've done some testing of clients other than JungleDisk [2] that can use the S3 service. Here are a few useful links:

S3 Drive [3]: 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 [4]: 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 [5]: At the same site there is also an interesting article [6] comparing the economics of home backup server with Amazon.

JunglediskSnapIn [7]: This is a Powershell implementation of JungleDisk which uses the Amazon S3 storage services. This is ideal for making automated backups to JungleDisk.

[5] :

2.4 Free Utility makes Opening Winmail.dat Attachments Easy

Last month I mentioned a website [1] 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 [2]. 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.


2.5 How to Clean Up Your Right Click Context Menu
I recently received this email from subscriber Gregory Wood "Gizmo I finally found a utility called Mmm [1] that allowed me to clean up my context menus, many of which were bloated with software I had uninstalled long ago. Now my Explorer is sleek again! I never thought this was possible." Thanks Gregory. There are several of these context menu editing utilities. The one you mention is exceptionally easy to use because it allows you to initiate an edit from the Context Menu itself. Unfortunately it's only for Windows XP. Users of other Windows versions may want check out ShellExView [2] from NirSoft that works with all versions of Windows from 98 onwards. It's not quite as easy to use as Mmm, but then again it doesn't require installation and is much less intrusive.

2.6 How to Make Vista Run Faster
If you've been disappointed with the performance of your new Vista PC here's some good news. "Briard:, one of the most prolific of contributors to this newsletter has put together a detailed guide showing how you can speed-up Vista. Highly recommended.

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

2.7 Neat Way to Search Webpages with Firefox
Call me slow but only this week I discovered this neat webpage searching feature in Firefox. Go to Tools/Options/Advanced and check the box next to "Search for text when I start typing" Now you can find a word or phrase in a webpage just by typing it rather than first having to type Ctrl F to start up the search feature. Here's another related trick: You can evoke Find in Firefox by simply hitting the forward slash key (That's the one below the ? key) rather than using Ctrl F or Edit/Find. More Firefox tips here [1]

2.8 Problems with Freeware Unzippers and PDF Readers
Subscriber Tim Jones writes "Gizmo I've been using IZArc [1] as my default "unzipper" for years. Sometimes I'd encounter a file that I couldn't unzip and always assumed it was corrupted somehow and just deleted it. Recently however, I read an article on the web by a freeware "junkie" who wrote in his blog of similar experiences with files that couldn't be unzipped by IZArc. One day he decided to try an alternate tool. He tried using 7-Zip [2] and was pleasantly surprised to find that the file that IZArc failed to unzip could indeed be unzipped with 7-Zip and was not corrupted at all. After reading the article, I tried the same thing; the next time I came upon a file that IZArc had trouble with I gave 7-Zip a try and "presto" my file was unzipped without a hitch. I have found that more than half of the files I could not unzip with IZArc, I've been able to unzip with 7-Zip. It doesn't happen often, but for anyone who does a lot of downloading, it can save quite a few files. I had the same experience with the Foxit PDF Reader [3]. I downloaded some PDF files that it just couldn't open. So I tried the even lighter and quicker Sumatra PDF reader [4] and lo and behold, the PDF files opened." Thanks Tim, I've had similar problems with IZArc but can't comment on the Foxit problem as I don't use it. It makes sense though; there are a lot of different versions and variants of PDF files so I'm not surprised Foxit can't read them all. It's also possible Foxit may be able to read some that Sumatra can't.

2.9 How to Backup Your Email for Free

For most users their Email files are among the most valuable data items on their PC yet curiously, they are often the least frequently backed up.

The reason is simple: email archives are usually located in obscure locations on user's computers. In fact many users have no idea where their mail is stored.

The situation is made worse by the fact that many email programs have no inbuilt backup.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs but here's an excellent free solution for you.

MailStore is an email backup program for multiple email clients. Rather than backup in the normal way it works by importing you email into its own store. You can import from Outlook, Windows Mail, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Exchange, and SeaMonkey as well a file or any POP or IMAP account.

That means you can not only backup your email files on your computer but also backup the email in any webmail account for which you have POP or IMAP access, Gmail for example.

This approach not only provides backup, it also allows you to consolidate and duplicate your email into a single store rather than having it scattered across multiple locations. Furthermore, you can search this single store using MailStore's fast inbuilt search facility.

Mail held in the consolidated store can also be exported and imported back into your email program. So you have real backup.

It all works effortlessly provided your email is stored in the default location usually used by your email client. If not, you will need to tell MailStore where to find your files. Thankfully there is a guide [2] that will assist you in this process.

Overall, this is a most useful product. If you use one of the supported email clients and are not currently backing up your email then I suggest you try it out. I also suggest you read this short tutorial [2]. Thanks to subscribers Kent Fulton and Ender Wiggin for the suggestion. Freeware, Windows 2000->Vista, 10.5MB


2.10 Free Software to Improve Your Digital Photos

Digital cameras may be the best thing since sliced bread, but almost all current cameras have a glaring weakness; they take poor photos in conditions where both brightly lit and dark areas feature in the same shot. Typically the dark areas come out black and/or the white areas get bleached out.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a technique that overcomes this problem. It works by taking several shots of the same scene using different exposure settings and then merging the individual shots into a single photo that is correctly exposed in both the light and dark areas.

The results can be quite spectacular. Check out these shots [1] on Flickr.

Creating HDR photos is easier than you might think, because most modern digital cameras have an exposure bracketing feature that allows you to automatically take several shots of the same scene using different exposure settings.

And there is plenty of free HDR software available to merge the photos.

Tony Bennett, one of the volunteer category editors for the freeware wiki project, has just prepared a review of free HDR programs and that's now online here [2]

So get to it and make you own HDR shots. Better still, send your best ones to Tony at the email address shown at the end of his review.



3.1 Microsoft Security News

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 [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3] now.

[3] (Requires IE5 or later)

3.2 Firefox Updated to Version
A new version of Firefox has been released [1] that fixes a number of security problems and offers stability improvements. In total 10 flaws were patched, three of which were rated "Critical." Users with automatic updates turned on will already have had the new version delivered. Other users can get the latest update by selecting Help/ Updates from the Firefox menu or visiting the Mozilla website [2] and downloading the latest version.

3.3 New Software Flaws: More than 80% of PCs Affected
Security firm Secunia has reported in its company blog that new flaws have been identified in Adobe Reader 8.x, Apple QuickTime 7.x, Sun Java 1.5.x and Skype 3.x. In total, one or more of these products can be found on 81% of all computers. In each case the software vendors have released new versions that fix the identified problems. Update links are given in the Secunia blog. So folks, update now and please read the next item.

3.4 New Version of Secunia Software Inspector Released
Most PC users update Windows regularly with the latest security patches but few bother to update their other software products. This exposes them to real security risks as there are many security flaws in older versions of popular products such as Adobe Reader, Flash, QuickTime and Java. The easiest way to identify risky software on your PC is to download and run the free Secunia Software Inspector Program. Version has just been released, so now is a good time to do it. Thanks to subscriber AJ Averett for letting me know about the new version.

3.5 Make Sure You Remove Old Versions of Adobe Flash
If you run Secunia Software Inspector you may find that it alerts you to older, bug-ridden versions of Adobe Flash on your PC even if you have the latest version of Flash installed. That's because old versions are not routinely uninstalled when you install the latest Flash version. Adobe says this is because of compatibility issues. This may well be so, but it's also a security risk, so I suggest you uninstall this junk and live with any incompatibility problems. You can't uninstall the old Flash versions from the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove programs applet, but you can use a special uninstaller [1] available from the Adobe Macromedia website. Many thanks to Cnet blogger Michael Horowitz who told me about this problem. You can read Michael's own blog entry on Flash problems here [2] and again here [3].

3.6 Are New Anti-virus Programs Any Good.
It's a question I often get asked: How good is the new Comodo AV? How does the new PC Tools AV stack up? The honest answer is I don't know. I test a lot of security products but not AV scanners. Properly testing AV programs is a complex exercise, one which I don't have the resources to do myself. Instead I tend to rely on trusted sources such AV Compararatives [1] and a few others. The problem is that none of these reliable testing agencies has yet tested these new AV products. Until they are tested you should not rely on them for your primary AV protection. Yes they may be great, but until they are tested, using them can only be regarded as a gamble.

3.7 Spyware Doctor Starter Edition has Smaller Signature Database
PC Tool's Spyware Doctor is an outstanding commercial anti-spyware product that, along with CounterSpy and SpySweeper, is among the leaders in this software class. For some time a cut-down "Starter Edition" has been available for free. It's well documented that the free version has fewer active monitors than the paid edition, but it now appears that it's missing something else as well. According to reports in the PC Tools forum [1] the Starter Edition signature database is on installation, smaller than the paid version and fewer new signatures are downloaded during signature updates as well. This is most worrying, particularly the fewer signatures in the updates. What's missing? The very latest infections, the most toxic infections? There is no way of knowing. Until this is fixed I suggest that users should use the Starter Edition as a secondary line of defense only. Thanks to Rick Farrow for letting me know about this.

3.8 Support Alert Privacy Policy Updated

The privacy policy for has been updated and is now online here [1].

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.

The privacy policy has been updated to reflect changes in the website and newsletter that have already taken place, such as the introduction of RSS feeds, and to accommodate possible future changes such as the registration of site visitors.

The privacy policy covers your subscription to this newsletter, so I recommend that you read it in full. If you have any questions feel free to contact me at

The new policy is already in place for new site visitors and subscribers and will come into effect for existing subscribers and visitors on the 15th of March, 2008. If for whatever reason you don't accept the new privacy policy then you should unsubscribe before that date. Unsubscription details can be found at the bottom of this newsletter.



4.1 Photoshop Look-alike for $7.95
Serif PhotoPlus V11 is a powerful digital image editor that has a lot of similarity in look, feel and function to Adobe Photoshop. It's not quite in the same league as Photoshop CS3 but at $80.00 it's a lot cheaper and more than powerful enough for most users. Here's how subscriber John Munro got it for $7.95. "Gizmo I downloaded the old free version 6 of Serif PhotoPlus that you recommend in your "46 Best-ever freeware" list. A few days after downloading I received an email offering me the latest full version for a discount price of $7.95! I naturally took up the offer." That's quite a deal though I'm not sure they are offering it to everyone. I suggest you download PhotoPlus V6 from here [1] and try your luck. Even the old version is an excellent product. It's a 19.4MB download and works with all versions of Windows.

4.2 Some Light Stuff for Techies
If all this technical stuff is getting you down then visit these two sites for a re-charge. Thanks to Briard and Leib Moscovitz for the links.

4.3 Make XP Look Like Vista
Want Vista's cool looks but prefer XP's zippier performance and better software compatibility? Then follow these tips to make XP look like Vista. Mind you, by the time you add all these cosmetic enhancements, your copy of XP may well run like Vista as well :>)

4.4 Turn Your Laptop or PC into a Serious Alarm Clock
There is no shortage of programs that will sound an alarm on your PC at a particular time. They may be fine for getting your attention while you are sitting in front of your PC, but they are generally useless for the much more demanding task of waking you up when you are sleeping. This free alarm clock utility called "Banshee Screamer", suggested by subscriber Cheryl Rainfield, has a simple but annoying alarm sound that will wake the soundest of sleepers. It's just an electronic sound, there are no Banshees here, but it works. If you want something more aggressive you can install whatever alarm sound you want. "Banshee Screamer" has the additional advantage over many computer alarms in that it looks like a traditional digital alarm clock which will be a comfort for novice computer users. There are many fancier alarm clocks around but "Banshee Screamer" has a compelling combination of simplicity and effectiveness.

4.5 Useless Waste of Time Department
How do you get a huge container-laden river barge from one side of a large dam to the other? Like this [1] of course. Another mind-blowing contribution from subscriber Lex Davidson.

** Additional Items in this Premium SE Edition **

4.6 The 10 Best Free Downloads for Vista Users
I'm not sure I agree with every item on this blogger's list, but I am sure most Vista users will find at least one program of interest.

4.7 Learn to Type While Playing Computer Games
In issue #152 I mentioned a Space Invaders style PC game [1] that made the task of learning to type fun. I must admit the game was a bit primitive, but this one called "Typing of the Dead" [2] and suggested by subscriber Mike Ward, is a lot slicker. It's a playable demo, not a full version, and is a whopping 107MB download. If that's too daunting you can try my original suggestion which at 1.1MB, is a lightweight by comparison.

4.8 Get Acronis True Image for Free
Regular contributor Rick Farrow writes "Hey Gizmo. Looks like Acronis is giving away true Image 8 Personal for free. Makes me wish I was back on XP." Nice find Rick. Although V8 is an older version of True Image, it was in fact my favorite version. Sure, it doesn't have the fancy features of the latest version, but it's way smaller and runs faster. TIP. A lot of folks have trouble finding the V8 download link so here's what you must do: Once you have obtained your free serial number, register with Acronis and then login to your account. You'll find the V8 download link in your Registered Products folder at the Acronis site.


5.1 Understanding Codecs

This article was prepared by Joe Bennett, the volunteer editor in charge of the "Best Free Windows Media Player" category at the 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 [1], 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 standards
K-Lite codec pack - Contains the DivX codec, so it is therefore questionable.
Asus Video codec - Another variation of Microsoft's MPEG-4 codec.

So where can you find free, legal codec packs that will let you view the media you need to view?
The following is a list of codec packs that are legal and free to download and install on your PC:

XP Codec Pack -
FFDShow -
Combined Community Codec Pack -

Be aware that you may have an illegal codec pack installed on your PC even if you didn't download it. That's because a number of media players come with codec packs as part of the installation package.

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" -

"The default codecs that are included with Windows Media Player 9 and 10 ";en-us;899113

WikiPedia entry for "Video Codec" -

WikiPedia entry for "Codec" -

List of Codecs by FOURCC -

WikiPedia entry for "K-Pack Codec Pack" -


6.1 The Best Free Program Launcher

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 [1] and Find and Run Robot [2].

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 this Premium Edition ***

6.2 A Free Utility That Really Does Make Your PC Run Faster

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.

The program is called Actual Booster 3.1. It works by simply boosting the priority of whatever program is running in the foreground window, that is, the currently active window. Only that program is affected; it does not change the priority of any background program or process.

What that means is that whatever program you are currently using gets a bigger slice of your computers processing power and so will run faster. If you are currently using Word then Word will run faster. If you switch to an Outlook window then Outlook will run faster but Word will slow down. But it doesn't matter if Word slows down because you are not using it!

It's a simple and elegant idea. But it's more than that; it actually works.

On my laptop I have experienced a real improvement in speed. Furthermore, in the five days I have used Actual Booster I haven't had any serious problem other than an occasionally slow or erratic mouse cursor. This is easily solved by hitting Crtl Alt F12 which terminates Actual Booster immediately. This is a useful trick to remember should you encounter problems on your PC.

I found that the degree of speed improvement depends on the program; the more processor intense the program the greater the possibility for improvement. Most Windows operations were snappier while TextPipe pro, the program I use for processing long text documents was really accelerated. Others programs such as Notepad didn't really run noticeably faster.

By default the program in the active Window is given a Windows priority of "high", the second highest setting. This can be changed to a higher or lower priority, but the default value of "high" is a sensible choice. I can certainly envisage problems if this was changed to "real time", the highest priority available in Windows, so don't be tempted to use this setting.

When I saw that Actual Booster was from a Russian software company called Loonies software I must admit I was a bit concerned. However, after a lot of testing I'm happy to say that the product is 100% clean and can be recommended with confidence.

Like a lot of Russian software, it's intellectually elegant and highly functional, but has a rather basic user interface. The program is just 64KB in size and uses only 2MB of your memory space when running. Just the kind of product I like.
Speed Booster does work.

No, it's not problem-free, but the problems are relatively few and easily manageable. I've decided to keep it on my PC but only use it when I need a speed boost. This is easily managed as the program can be easily enabled/disabled from the tray icon.

Actual Booster 3.1, Freeware, Windows 95 -> Vista, 64KB. <= alternate download link


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See you next issue. Next month's issue will be published on the Thursday the 20th of March.

Ian Richards