Some more useful/interesting/fun programs for your delectation... and all of them free!
If you are feeling adventurous then jump down the page and read about Altiris Software Virtualisaton which enables you to install new programs into layers and switch them on and off at will. Otherwise work your way through the list at leisure and install any programs that take your fancy...
(1) One of the nicest programs I have installed recently is Xentient Thumbnails which converts all kinds of image files to tiny thumbnails in every folder. Yep, I know that Win XP displays files as thumbnails in the My Pictures folder, but this tiny program gives you them everywhere. Compare the two screen shots below to see the effect. It's such a nice feature that it’s bound to find its way into Windows itself sooner or later ... but you can have it now if you point your browser at http://xentient.com/products/thumbnails/ and download the tiny installation file (it’s less than a megabyte so it’ll only take a few seconds). Double click to install it and .. that’s it, just enjoy this super little enhancement.
(2) I came across a new expression the other day: feature creep. It refers to the way software starts off small and nimble and then slowly gets bogged down in succeeding versions as more and more (often unnecessary) features are added. Windows Media Player (WMP), currently on Version 10, is a classic example of this. With so many built-in functions – it plays CDs, MP3, video, streaming audio, rips CDs etc. it's become increasingly difficult to use. Most of the time I just want to play MP3 files on my hard drive and for this I have found the perfect program: STP MP3 Player.
This tiny 200 KB download (from http://tinyurl.com/jla78) does exactly what it says on the box: it plays MP3s. Once installed it sits as an icon in the system tray from where you can play single tracks, whole albums or play lists. It has a few other neat features such as a built-in equalizer and CDDB support, but these extras don't intrude at all. The interface is... what shall we say... a bit plain, but you can download skins from http://tinyurl.com/go2up to spruce up the looks a little; I quite like Shadow 2 as it makes the tray icon more attractive.
Once you have installed the program, right-click on it in the system tray and choose Settings > Automation > Setup. Click the tiny + button and add the folder(s) where you keep all your MP3s. Click OK and allow the program to scan the drive and add your music to its database.
You select music to play via a cascading menu rather like the Start menu. To play an album right click on the STP tray icon again, point to Tracks, then point one of your favoutite artists, then to one of their albums. As you point to an album you'll see all the tracks in it – just click on a track and the album will start playing from that point. Once started, a single click on the tray icon pauses the music; a second click restarts it; a double click jumps forward one track; a triple click jumps back one track. Beautifuly simple.
(3) This next program, Taskbar ++ is one you won't realise you needed until you have have used it for a while. This nifty little utility allows you to drag open program buttons along the taskbar to a new position. Stunning, eh? Why would you want to do that? Well, every time you open a new program (or folder), it appears as a rectangular button on the task bar to the right of all the other buttons. You might be opening and closing lots of programs but want to keep one particular program open all the time. For me, it makes it easier if that program's button is on the left, near the Start button, rather than changing its position all the time as I open and close other programs. Or sometimes I'm switching continuously between two programs and it's just easier for my brain if the buttons on the taskbar are the opposite way round. Not convinced? Give it a try! Download the 595 KB installation file from http://tinyurl.com/rokop and double click to install it. To move a button on the taskbar just hold down the Alt key, hover the cursor over the button until it changes to a pointing hand, and then drag it along the taskbar to a new position.
(4) Another small utility you might never know you needed is Winroll, which you can download from http://www.snapfiles.com/get/winroll.html. Instead of minimising programs to the taskbar, it allows you to "roll them up" so that only the title bar is showing on the desktop. Not an eartshattering innovation, but using it does help to keep the desktop free from clutter and makes workig more pleasant – and therefore more productive. For example, when you write a new email the message window is usally smaller than the main program window, so it sits rather untidily on top of it. If you have Winroll installed, just right click on the main program title bar and it immediately rolls up out of the way, making it easier to see the message window against the desktop. Winroll has another trick up it's sleeve too: hold down the Shift key and right click on a window's minimise button and the winodw will minimise to the system tray rather than the taskbar. This is great for programs which you keep open all the time but seldom look at – such as your email program – as it keeps them out of the way but still immediately available; a single click on their icon in the system tray brings them back up on the desktop.
(5) Another of my favourites is XstreamRadio. Like all the other programs outlined here it does (mainly) one thing, but does it well – in this case streaming radio. In case you don't know, streaming radio is radio played over the internet. You can listen to thousands of radio stations for free if you have an un-metered broadband connection, and the sound quality is generally good. If, like me, you live somewhere with a limited selection of stations on "normal" radio then intenet radio is a god-send. Now I can listen to the Beeb or Virgin Radio instead of the local radio stations which are nearly all in Khmer.
Now you can use Windows Media Player to listen to streaming radio (allegedly) but I haven't worked out how to do it. Fortunately, XstreamRadio doesn't take any brain power to use.
- Start the program and wait a few seconds while it initializes its list of radio station
- Click the select station button
- Choose a genre (if you want) and then scroll down the list to choose a station (sorted by country) from the 1000+ available
- Click on a station and wait a few seconds for it to bufffer
- Sit back and enjoy the music...
Not too difficult, eh? Oh, I forgot to mention that you can record the program you're listening to or you can schedule the program to record a station while you're away from the computer. And if you click on the little pink heart icon you can add your favourite stations to a list at the bottom so you can get to them immediately. Once playing you can minimise the program to the system tray or you can have it showing as a thin horizontal bar at the top of the screen. Eiher way it is unobtrusive.
Nip on over to http://www.xstreamradio.co.uk and download the 3 MB installation file. Double-click to start the installation and then just follow the prompts.
Note: there are supposed to be country flags next to each of the stations in the selector box, but for some reason this doesn't work on my computer with the latest version of the program (although it did with the previous version) – but maybe it will work on yours.
(6) The first installment of Computing Ideas introduced the wonderful Photofiltre program and outlined how to crop, resize and title photographs ready to email to people. It seems that some folks (no names, you know who you are) haven't taken that advice to heart because I still get huge photos emailed to me which take for ever to download and are too big to view in the email message.
Ok, this time I'm going to make it really simple. This method is so easy that you have absolutely NO excuse for sending out 5 MB photos any more. Assuming that you are runnng Windows XP (does anybody use anything else these days?) then navigate to your pictures folder, right-click on the photo(s) you want to email and choose Send To > Mail Recipient. A dialoge box opens asking if you want to make all your pictures smaller. Of course you do! Click on the more options link and the dialogue box expands to show you... more options. I suggest you choose "small" if you know the recipient is using a modem, otherwise medium is fine. Click OK. An email message opens with the resized photos already attached. Just add the address and a message and click send. Your recipient will love you to bits for making this tiny bit of effort.
Note: in case you're worried, your original photos are not affected in any way using this method.
(7) There are lot of children's educational programs available, but most of them costs real money. One of my favourite is TuxPaint, now on version 0.9.15-2 (honestly!) and available for free. It's a basic painting program which is designed to be fun and - most important - simple to use. If you compare it to Windows' own Paint program you'll see what I mean. With Tuxpaint you don't really need to read or write any English (though the program does help you to learn new words), just fire it up, click an icon and start painting. You can draw common shapes such as lines or circles or use the built-in rubber stamps to generate lots of fun shapes (animals, fish, insects, fruit, household objects etc) automatically; there are even a few backgrounds for you to paint on. Click the save icon and your picture is automatically saved and a thumbnail created which you click on next time to open the picture again – no need for file names. There are lots of special effects on tap and also "fun" sounds assigned to many actions which will keep the kids amused.
You can download the program and extra rubber stamps from http://www.newbreedsoftware.com/tuxpaint/download. If you're comfortable installing from .zip files and setting up shortcuts yourself then choose the .zip files, if not choose the Window installers which automate the installation. These files are quite large at 7.3 MB and 15.3 M respectively, but should only take an hour to download even on a slow dial-up line. On broadband they'll be down in five minutes or less.
The web page says that TuxPaint is aimed at the 3 – 10 age group, but I think it's great for kids of all ages...
(8) And finally, one for the software junkies amongst us... Altiris Software Virtualization is the best new application I've come across for ages – a computer geek's delight. It allows you to install any number of programs and capture them in "layers" which can then be turned on or off at will. When a layer is active the program in it appears to be installed on your PC and can be started and run normally; when the layer is deactivated the programs and the shortcuts to it disappear. If you don't want the program any more simply delete its layer and its gone for good.
Why is this better than installing and uninstalling programs normally? Well, for one thing, you can install two programs that do the same job, but have only one of them active at a time so that it automaticlly becomes the default for that particular function. For example, I recently downloaded the trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 (a beta test version weighing in at 440 MB!) and installed it to a layer. When I feel like messing aroud and trying out its fancy new interface I activate the layer and Word documents automatically open in the Office 2007 beta. When I deactivate the layer Word documents open in Word 2003 and I can do some real work.
Another use for software virtualization is in testing new programs. You probabaly know that frequently installing and uninstalling programs builds up a layer of sludge in Windows which eventually causes it to run slowly and crash more often. That's why I usually reinstall my operating system from scratch at least once a year. But with Altiris I can install new programs in a layer, test them out and then delete the layers if I don't want to keep the programs. This continuous creation and deleteing of layers has no effect on the underlying Windows installation - hence no sludge and no slow down.
Ok, if I have sold you on the idea then download the installation file - a modest 1.5MB - from http://tinyurl.com/fdhkt and install it as normal. You'll need to be logged on as an administrator to do this, which most users are by default. Towards the end of the installation you'll be prompted for a license key, so follow the web link given and generate a key which will be sent to you by email. A bit of a faff I know, but the software is free after all, so Altiris would like to have an idea of how many people are using it. By the way, don't hang about too long before you download – Altiris seem to have removed the free download link from their web site so it might not be easily available for long. Having said that, I think I would actually pay for this program if I had to...
Once Altiris is installed and working it's easy to install a new application into a layer. Open the Software Virtaulization Admin program and click File > Create New Layer. Choose the first radio buton "Install application" and click Next. Give the new layer a name (the name of the program you are about to install seems a good choice) and click Next again. On the following page you have two choices: Single program capture or Global capture. If you are installing a simple program which will not require much customisation then choose the first option and click Next. Glance at the summary on the next page and then click Finish.
The virtualization admin program will minimse to the system tray and appear as a flashing green ligthtning bolt, signifying that it is monitoring and capturing the program being installed. The installation should proceed as normal and there is no need to do anything special. When it finishes make sure you untick any box saying "start the program now" or such like as we want a clean end to the install. The Virtalizaton Manager should realise tha the installation has completed and end its capture, but if it doesn't for any reason then right-click on the green lightning bolt and select End Capture. The Virtualization Manager will pop back up and the newly installed program will be in the list of available layers. In fact it will be in bold, showing that it is already active. That's it, finished.
Try out the new program and make sure it works properly. If you want it to be available all the time then select it within the Virtualization Admin program and click File > Start Layer Automatically. From now on that particular program will always be available, just as if it had been installed normally. If you don't want to have the program available all the time then just activate the layer when you need it.
A few notes to finish with:
If a program you are installing needs a lot of setting up - such as arranging the interface, setting language options etc. - then when you do the installation you should select "Global capture" rather than Single program capture. That way you can run the program, do all your fiddling around and only then tell it to end the capture. Now all your special settings will be saved in the layer and you won't have to enter them each time you run the program.
Do read the manual that comes with the program. Despite its small size its quite a complex bit of software and there are a few little wrinkles which might catch you out. For example, if you accept the default settings for an application layer then when you turn off the layer all the documents you created with that application are hidden along with the program. Worse still, if you delete the layer to remove the program for good then all the documents are deleted too! But it's easy to overide this behavour and assign folders to save to which will not be virtualised. So – read the manual!
The other thing to note is that not all programs can be virtualised in this way. Software which digs in deep - such as virus scanners and firewalls - don't work with the current version of Altiris. But most "ordinary" programs should work just fine. Give it a try, it might well become one of your indispensible programs.
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