If you experience problems reading this issue in your email program you can read this issue online from the Supporters' Area here: http://www.techsupportalert.com/members/index.htm
IN THIS PREMIUM ISSUE:
0. EDITORIAL: Do you really need a spyware scanner?2. TOP FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES
It was a good question; one that needed to be asked and definitely one that needed to be answered:
"Gizmo, each day my anti-virus scanner updates its signatures, my anti-spyware program updates its signatures as does my anti-trojan program. It seems to me they are all doing the same thing so why don't we have just one program that does the lot?"
Indeed, why not? Why do we have separate anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-trojan programs anyway?
The answer to that question lies in the history of computer security, and it's a very interesting history indeed.
In 2003 I tested Norton, McAfee and a few other AV scanners against a large batch of trojans, and their detection performance was very poor. Only Kaspersky AV performed creditably.
Yes, in those days you needed a specialist anti-trojan scanner to catch a trojan.
That's because these new-generation trojans used some sneaky tricks like process injection and polymorphism to avoid detection. Simple signature-based AV file scanners had little chance of catching them. You needed smarter, more powerful detection techniques. The then-emerging class of anti-trojan programs employed these techniques and that's why they were so much more effective against the trojan threat.
So we all needed anti-trojan programs on our computers.
The historical situation with anti-spyware programs was a little different. It may surprise some readers to learn that anti-spyware programs originally emerged not so much to combat spyware, but rather to remove advertising from software. This history is reflected in the names of these early products, such as Ad-Aware.
The AV programs at that time couldn't remove adware. Not because they weren't able to do so, but rather because the AV vendors didn't see adware as a security threat. Additionally, there was a view at that time that removing ads from advertising-supported products was somewhere between unethical and illegal. A view which was, I might say, more widely held among software developers than consumers :>)
But times changed. Adware moved from being annoying but benign to being actively intrusive. Products like Gator emerged that gathered information from consumers and reported it back to the vendors, often without any agreement or knowledge of the user. All of a sudden spying became the problem, not advertising. And while adware may not have been considered a threat, spyware certainly was.
The AV developers were not prepared for this, but the anti-adware vendors were. They changed and upgraded their products and re-positioned them as an essential defense against the new emerging spyware threat.
So now we all needed an anti-spyware scanner in addition to an anti-trojan scanner and an AV scanner. Computer security had suddenly become a boom industry.
But recently the smiles have been disappearing from the faces of security software vendors. The emergence of new hostile products such as blended threats that variously combined viruses, worms, trojans and spyware into a single product has blurred the neat boundary between different types of computer security threat. We have entered into the age of malware.
To survive, security vendors have had to respond by expanding their product's capabilities. Take the case of Ewido. It started life as an anti-trojan program. As spyware became more prominent Ewido started targeting spyware in addition to trojans. Finally, it was bought by the security developer AVG to bolster their anti-virus products.
And you can see the same trend across the whole security industry. Every computer security developer wants their product to address all security threats, not just individual categories of threat. Indeed, just today as I was writing this editorial I received a press release saying the Avast! AV program has been expanded to include anti-spyware and anti-rootkit features.
So today, what's the difference between a modern anti-spyware program like WebRoot SpySweeper with its newly-acquired anti-virus capabilities and a modern anti-virus program such as Norton 360 which has anti-spyware capabilities?
The answer is "not a lot." In essence, they are both now anti-malware scanners.
So do you still need an AV program plus an anti-spyware program and an anti-trojan scanner?
For the majority of average users the answer is no. A single competent broad spectrum anti-malware product is enough. My recommendations here include AntiVir, NOD32, Kaspersky, BitDefender, Norton and a few others.
Of course, not everyone is an average user. Users who engage in high risk activities, like sourcing their software from P2P services, should load up their PC with all the protection they can get. Similarly, there are users for whom the best possible protection is paramount, regardless of cost or performance implications. Finally, users of freeware scanners who cannot afford a premium product may be well advised to use more than one signature-based scanner.
However, for average users who are prepared to invest in a top anti-malware scanner, one signature-based product is enough. The small increment in protection offered by having multiple signature based scanners is simply not worth the financial cost, operational hassle and the reduction in computer performance.
If you want to increase your
security, you are much better off putting the effort
into other initiatives, such as safer computing
practices, a good firewall with a built-in HIPS or
using a sandbox for surfing. And you can do this
without spending a cent. For details on how to do this,
check out this article: http://www.techsupportalert.com/how-to-secure-your-pc.php
It's in the interests of computer security product vendors to create a climate of fear, because it helps them sell their products. That fear is not without some justification, but fear should not be allowed to turn into paranoia.
These days, when I receive letters from subscribers telling me how they have loaded up their PCs with six or eight different signature based scanners, I can only wince. This is a victory for the fear mongers and a defeat for the forces of reason.
See you next month.
Last month I asked subscribers to vote on whether I should change my website name from "techsupportalert.com" to "46best.com". Many thanks to the thousands of folks who voted.
The vote was in favor of change but I'm not going to do it. I was swayed in this decision by the 500 plus emails I got from subscribers asking me not to change.
The main argument used in these emails was that "46best.com" is a great name for anyone who knows my site from my popular "46 Best-ever Freeware" list  but it makes no sense at all for anyone else.
Another argument was that any new name simple must include "Gizmo", regardless of possible legal issues. Others simply evoked the maxim "if it's not broken it doesn't need fixing."
So I'm persuaded. I'm sticking with the old name. Thanks again to all those who voted and wrote in.
But the "46Best.com" name is not being wasted. I'm currently using it for the brand new wiki-style version of "techsupportalert.com", which is about to go live. In fact, I want you to test it. See the next item for details.
Regular readers will be aware that about 35 volunteers and I have been building a new wiki-style website to replace the current techsupportalert.com site.
The idea is to create a "best-ever freeware" list, based on my current lists, but updatable and expandable by site visitors as well as the volunteer editors and myself - a kind of WikiPedia for freeware.
A prototype of the new site is now up and running. In the end we didn't go with a Wiki; we used Drupal, a popular free Content Management System (CMS) instead.
With Drupal, registered site visitors can still edit the content in the same way as a WikiPedia article, but the results are moderated to ensure the highest standard. Additionally, any site visitor can add blog-style comments at the end of each review.
The new site has some really big advantages for users:
I'd like you to test out the new site by going here  and checking out the best freeware section. You can check out other parts of the site too, such as the tutorials and how-tos, but only the freeware section is 100% complete.
What I'd really like you to do is make some comments at the end of the individual software reviews. You don't need to register to make comments.
Additionally, if you see areas where the reviews themselves could be improved, then register at the site and edit the reviews.
Please do this even if you just see some spelling or punctuation errors that need correcting, or you find dead links or other out-of-date information. And of course, if you feel a review has missed a great product, then by all means add it in. Note that to edit a review you need to register at the site (it's free). Note too that all edits are moderated to ensure that quality is maintained.
So that's it, guys and gals. Go check out the prototype of the new site; I think you'll love it. If it gets your approval, it will go live in May. As it's only a prototype please don't post the URL to forums and other public lists. Wait until the site goes live next month.
1.8 Get Directory Assistance
This is an important item. It's not only about a great new portable apps list, it's also your chance make a contribution to the internet community.
I've asked subscriber Matt Perkins to compile a "starter list" of the "46 Best-ever Free Portable Programs", and this very basic list is now online  on my new wiki-style website.
Rather than just read Matt's list,
I'd like you to make you own contribution using the
features of the new website.
The plan is to pool the huge collective wisdom of Support Alert subscribers and create a really outstanding list of portable applications that everyone can use as a guide and an on-going resource.
Even if you can't make a suggestion, you can help by adding some download links to Matt's list.
The more of you who contribute, the better the end result for all of us. So come on, guys and gals, jump in and lend a hand! Together, we can create the best-ever free portable apps list on the internet.
Here are some freebies. They all just use the standard robotic sounding Microsoft voices, but you can't complain at the price.
The first is CLiCk , an open source plug-in for Firefox. It has multi-language capabilities and supports a number of standard TTS interfaces, which means that you can install a wide range of commercial voices to replace the free but maddening Microsoft voice. Installation is straightforward, provided you read the instructions. Usage is wonderfully simple; just click an icon to start reading a webpage from the cursor location or a highlighted block of text. Press another icon to stop. I couldn't find any recording ability, though.
There is another Firefox extension called SpokenText  that will record to your disk but that's all; it can't read text like CLiCk. The voice quality is good because it uses a web service for the conversion, but that also means you need to be online to use it.
Windows XP comes with a standard feature called "Narrator" that will read any open Window, including Internet Explorer. Although standard in XP, it has to be set up for it to function; details can be found here , . I played with it a while back and was under-whelmed with the voice quality. I've read that the Vista version of Narrator is an improvement, but frankly I haven't tried it.
Subscriber Radan Vasulin wrote in to point out that the Opera browser has in-built text-to-voice capability. It's not a standard feature; you do need to install the voice add-in . Again, it just uses the Microsoft voices, but in this case you can't plug in higher quality commercial voices.
Subscriber Scott Chase writes:
"Gizmo, I've found a great freeware program called "DVD Flick" that has helped me to solve a long-standing problem. I've been trying to find an easy-to-use set of freeware programs, to get video from my widescreen camcorder to a true anamorphic (widescreen) DVD format, like the widescreen movies produced by the major studios. Here's how I now do it:
The first three steps can be done with VirtualDub but I especially like the addition of Pinnacle's easy-to-use VideoSpin that you mentioned in your March newsletter.
DVD Flick is a very simple, and yet powerful DVD Authoring/Burning tool. It supports over 45 video codecs, has an easy-to-use interface, and an accurate way of creating and burning a true studio-style DVD, with IFO and VOB files from various video sources.
The big advantage to this software is
its emphasis on preserving the native aspect ratio of
the original source files.
 http://www.dvdflick.net Freeware,
Windows 2000->Vista, 7.2MB
The program I have been recommending for some time as the best in this category is Free Hide Folder  but subscriber Alexander Powell has come up with something better. That program is called My Lockbox, and it overcomes one of the main weaknesses in Free Hide Folder, namely that the contents of hidden folders may be still accessible to Windows Search and other programs. In other words, the folder is hidden but the contents are not.
The feature list on the My Lockbox website is impressive:
I tried it on a test machine and it performed as advertised. I would, however, suggest that you read the Quick-start Guide on the website and be careful setting up this program, otherwise you might find yourself in deep trouble.
Another note of caution: don't protect important Windows folders such as "My Documents", otherwise you will really cause problems. Just password protect folders you have created that are located outside of standard Windows folders.
If you set up this program carefully and follow my advice on the folders you protect, you will be rewarded with an outstanding product. Freeware, Windows 2000->Vista, 1.26MB
The Microsoft "Patch Tuesday" in April resulted in the release of eight security bulletins , five of which were rated "critical" by Microsoft. The bulletins covered, in total, ten flaws in Microsoft Windows, Office and Internet Explorer.
A number of the flaws could be exploited simply by visiting a hostile website. This could lead to a user's PC being totally compromised by the attacker. This reinforces the message I have been telling you for months: these days it is essential that you surf the internet with your browser sandboxed or running with reduced privileges. Full details on how to do this can be found here .
All of the updates are distributed automatically via the Microsoft Update Service. Dial-up users in particular need to be aware that these updates are large files and will require a considerable period of time online to be successfully downloaded. If you are not certain that you have received the updates then visit the Microsoft Update Service  now.
Vista SP1 was publicly released on March 18 and distribution via the Windows and Microsoft Update Services will start in mid-April. According to Microsoft, SP1 was "focused on addressing specific reliability, performance, and compatibility issues, supporting new types of hardware, and adding support for several emerging standards."
In plain English this means that the majority of users won't derive any general benefit from installing SP1 and, indeed, some may experience problems as the result of the install.
That said, Vista users should still install the pack and the safest way to do this is via the Microsoft Update as opposed to the Windows Update Service. That's because Vista requires certain hardware drivers to be updated prior to installation, and the Microsoft Update Service will handle this automatically. Full details of the changes in Vista SP1 can be found here . If you don't get SP1 delivered by the end of April you can check here  for possible reasons. Ho hum.
Windows XP SP3 has been released to manufacturing, and the public release may be expected soon (some say in the second half of April). There have been reports from release candidate users that it improves system performance by up to 10%, but when I look at these reports it seems like a case of Chinese Whispers to me. I hope I'm wrong. Whatever, SP3 will be welcome if only because it will ease the current huge task of installing three years worth of post SP2 Windows updates each time a XP SP2 system is installed.
Folks have been asking me for this for years but I've never had the time to compile it. However, Benjamin Burrows from UBCD4Win.com offered to do it and it's now available from his site .
Ben has done a great job. The CD contains the installation files for just about every single product mentioned in the "46 Best-ever Freeware" list. The only programs missing are those for which re-distribution is not permitted, and there are very few of those.
We are talking about 600+MB of outstanding programs and utilities all easily accessible through a custom menu system Ben has created. The CD also contains the full reviews from my website to help you select the right products for your needs. If this was commercial software it would be worth thousands of dollars. Ben is selling it for $7.95 including shipping.
With a compilation like this you really never need to buy commercial software again. Take a copy over to your friends and demonstrate to them with what they can get for free. And for folks with slow internet connections this is the answer to your prayers.
If this sounds like a shameless plug, it's because it is :>)
I want you to buy this CD. I have two reasons why: first, it helps Ben continue his development of the wonderful UBCD4Win boot disk project and, secondly, I get $1.00 royalty for every CD sold. Of that $1.00, every single cent will go to charities helping children in need.
I think you'll be surprised at just how useful this CD is. Just the thing to have in your PC toolkit, and a great gift as well.
Regular contributor Paul Lawrence writes "In February's issue of the newsletter we saw some excellent freeware choices reviewed by Tony Bennett for creating HDR images from a series of bracketed digital images.  If you go right out (like I did) and tried to take some snapshots to create your own HDR's, you will soon discover that a tripod is an important part of HDR photography, because image alignment is pretty important. The problem is that it is not always convenient or possible to have a tripod handy. The solution is to take those pics as steadily as possible, and then use an image alignment tool. The excellent freeware "HDRAT" (HDR Alignment Tool) is just such a tool . You can take several very crooked shots, add some control points to each image, and then output the aligned images in any of several popular ready for loading into your favorite HDR creation tool. HDRAT will also help correct some FOV and perspective distortion problems. This tool is a must have for those times when you're caught without a tripod! Be aware that the site that is currently hosting this freeware has limited hourly bandwidth, so if you have problems try back later"
Tony Bennett rejoins: "A technique you can use when you don't have a tripod handy is to press the shutter down, hold your breath and don't let go of the shutter until the three or so exposure-bracketed photos for your HDR shot have been taken. It's when you let go of the shutter that your shots get out of alignment. It also helps if your elbows are held against the chest making yourself into a tripod. Using this technique, the results can be surprisingly good. For example, check out this hand-held HDR shot  I took. Of course there are other alternatives to using a tripod such as this  :>)"
4.7 Learn to Touch Type for
Sooner or later you will need to convert an Adobe PDF file to a Microsoft Word DOC file. They are, after all, two of the most common document file formats around.
The reverse conversion from a DOC to PDF is, of course, a piece of cake; there are any number of free PDF writers  that allow you to output a PDF file directly from Word itself.
Converting from PDF to DOC is trickier, particularly if you want to preserve the document layout and/or your PDF file contains images.
If layout and images are not important, then all you need to do is copy and paste the text from your PDF Reader into Word. The text will copy fine but all layout and any images will be lost, though some font style elements will be retained. And if the original PDF is in multi-column format you will get a real mess.
Your best free option for preserving format is to use an online conversion service. With these services, you upload your PDF file, then download the converted file.
I tried a number of these services, including one offered by Adobe, but in the end I could only recommend two. Each, however, was excellent.
My first choice is ZamZar . This is an excellent general file conversion site, and PDF to DOC is one of the many conversion options available.
Usage couldn't be simpler: just surf to the site, select your conversion output type, point to the file you want uploaded for conversion and type in your email address. Some time later you will get an email with a download link for the converted file.
For my 107KB test PDF file, the
download email link came back to me within one minute,
which was pretty impressive, though I have heard that
sometimes you may have to wait for quite a
ZamZar did well, though . The two column layout was preserved, the images were reproduced in their correct locations and the varying fonts rendered well, given that Word had no exact matching fonts. Importantly, all the text could be edited from within Word
On the downside the image quality was reduced and the article's large opening drop capital was displaced. Not bad though.
My second recommendation, KoolWire , works very similar to ZamZar. There are, however, some differences: First, the converted KoolWire file comes back as RTF, not DOC format. That's not a problem though, as Word can easily read RTF files. Second, the KoolWire site suggests that if the file being converted is less than 10MB then you should email the file rather than directly upload it. This is rather less convenient, so I told a white lie and selected the "more than 10MB" option, in which case I was able to directly upload the file just like with ZamZar.
There was another minor annoyance. The KoolWire site is in Italian and, although an English option is offered, it is less than complete. Still, it's not hard to work out what you have to do.
Conversion quality was good, but on my sample file the converted RTF file  was not quite as good as ZamZar. Two of the document's pages mysteriously ended up as tables, and the image quality was poorer. On the other hand KoolWire got the big drop capital correct, though at the expense of messing the left justification of the paragraph that contained it. At 869KB, the converted file was similar in size to the 829KB ZamZar file.
Overall, both these free conversion services are good though not perfect. Which one gives the best conversion will probably depend on the document being converted, so why not try both?
I haven't tried any of the many commercial PDF to DOC programs. If you own one then why not download my test file  and email the converted DOC file to me at email@example.com along with details of the program used. I'll publish the results in a future issue.
(This item was prepared by Joe Bennett, one of the volunteer category editors for my new wiki-style website)
With podcasting more popular than ever, more and more people are now looking for easy ways to record, edit, mix, and save sound on their PCs.
In fact, people don't want to simply record only their voices for their podcasts. They are now making entire downloadable shows that are edited and mixed to such quality, that they sound almost as good as the professionals.
Software that can do all this editing has been, historically, very expensive (like the $349 Adobe Audition) but two excellent free products are now available that will give you that professional touch you desire for your recordings.
Audacity  does all the recording and editing I need, and is much simpler and faster to use than a lot of pay products. It allows you to select and apply a noise profile and, just as easily, remove it. According to the web site, Audacity will also, "record live audio, convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs, edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, and WAV sound files, cut, copy, splice, and mix sounds together and change the speed or pitch of a recording." Audacity supports plugins for LADSPA, Nyquist and VST. There is also support for real-time monitoring, though it is not enabled by default.
Note: Audacity supports VST plugins but this support is not "built-in". Because the code is not 100% open source, it must be kept separate for licensing reasons. The "VST Enabler" is available for download from the Audacity website (See link in the "Product Specifications" section below), and is available for Windows, Mac OS-X and for Linux. Support is limited for the time being, but full support is coming.
Kristal Audio Engine  is a powerful multi-track recorder, audio sequencer and mixer - ideal for anyone wanting to get started with recording, mixing and mastering digital audio. According to their website, "It is designed as a modular system. The main application provides a mixing console, while the audio sequencer, live audio input and so on are loaded as separate Plug-Ins."
It supports an ASIO audio driver, which may be appealing to those who are concerned with latency while implementing multi-track recording. It's based on a 32-bit floating point audio engine that can handle sample rates of 44 to 192 kHz with word sizes of 16, 24 or 32 bit. It comes with a three-band parametric EQ and supports WAVE, AIFF, FLAC, and OGG Vorbis file formats. It can only handle a maximum of 16 audio tracks, though the web site mentions an upcoming version 2 that will handle more tracks, as well as support for MIDI, virtual instruments, and a wider range of VST plugins.
Like all media editing programs, Kristal requires a modern fast PC. Don't even think about using it with a sub 1Ghz machine.
Wavosaur  weighs in at a total uncompressed file size of 491K, and is the only product in this review that requires no installation, making it extremely portable. What surprised me about it was that, for such a small program, Wavosaur packs a lot of advanced features, including resample, bit-depth convert (8,16,24,32 bits), pitch shift, vocal removal, DC offset removing, auto-trim, silence remover, interpolate, auto detect region, cross-fade loop, and export of multiple .wav files from regions. It also supports ASIO drivers and VST plug-ins, has many analysis tools and is also skinable.
Thanks to subscribers, Jay Eitelman, Rinchen Tsepal, and Brandon Tanner for contributing to this review.
Subscriber Keith Richmond writes:
"Gizmo, I have been using, for about 4 months now, a program called Spotlight on Windows to view the data flow and troubleshoot related problems on any computer on my network. The look and feel is very cool, so cool, in fact, that I at first suspected it was all show and little substance. I could not have been more wrong.
The main interface is a dynamic visual that lets me know where any bottlenecks might be that are slowing down my computer. Anything that is functioning satisfactorily appears in green, but when a slow-down occurs, the visual which represents the affected area turns yellow, orange or red, depending on the severity of the problem detected.You can then click on the visual and get a drill down related to the problem, any metrics involved, and related drill downs.
It has great graphs and charts that are populated by the data it obtains from the continuous scan of the computer involved.
Best part is this: I can run it to get feedback for my local machine, or connect through Spotlight to any computer on my network to easily diagnose problems from afar. If someone calls me at the helpdesk and tells me their computer is running very slowly, I can, with a few clicks, connect the relevant PC through the network using Spotlight by using their IP address and network admin user name and password. I can then see right away exactly where the bottleneck is occurring. It runs completely form the host computer. No need to install anything on the remote machine.
So far, the only issue I have with it is that it seems to be very processor intensive on the host machine, so older machines will suffer a hit. I am running it without an issue on a Pentium D 2.8 GHz with 1.5 GB RAM, and it is fine and dandy."
This a great find, Keith. I tried it on a single workstation and it worked like a charm, flagging problems in the write rate of one of the hard drives and excessive page file usage. It didn't, however, pick up a motherboard fault that I know exists on the test PC, but neither has any other diagnostic program, other than a specialist card-based hardware diagnostic suite I tried last year.
Yes, there was a minor performance hit when running Spotlight, but it was quite acceptable. Besides, this is not a utility that you would want to leave permanently running. Rather, it should be used only when diagnosis is required.
OK, it's not perfect, but it's still a must-have program for your PC toolkit. It's great for individual PCs but it's network admins who should really be smiling.
Spotlight on Windows: Freeware with
one year renewable license, all Windows versions,
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See you next issue. Next month's issue will be published on the Thursday the 15th of May.