Isn’t it about time you got some relief from all those maddening things about Windows and the programs you use? Hunting for files and folders takes too much effort, your program windows are the wrong size, your bookmarks are scattered across three browsers, and that Word file with the weird formatting refuses to print correctly.
Our experts unearthed more than 65 gems to give you new features that you wish your software already had. We also show you how to do a bit of simple programming to apply your own custom formatting with a single click in Microsoft Word or Excel. See “Shortcuts to Downloads and Bookmarks” below for links to our collection of the programs included in this story–and start downloading. Your computing life will never be the same.
In This Article
Note: This online version of the May 2005 print feature includes several additional utilities in each section and other expanded material.
And if you would like to add the sites behind these utilities to your Favorites folder in Internet Explorer in one swoop, follow these directions: Click here to download the ftp file and save this file to your My Downloads folder. Don’t close Internet Explorer, and make sure your Favorites bar is visible. Windows XP users can open Windows Explorer, navigate to My Downloads, and click or double-click the saved file, named ‘Supercharge.zip‘, to reveal its contents, a folder called ‘Supercharge Your Software‘. Drag that folder to your Favorites bar in Internet Explorer to automatically add these links to your Favorites list. Users of other Windows versions need to use an unzip utility to open the .zip file and save the ‘Supercharge Your Software‘ folder it contains into their Favorites folder (C:Documents and Settingsyour usernameFavorites).
And that’s not all. Click here for a collection of Windows freeware, and here to learn about other browser enhancements, along with some tips on how to manage plug-ins.
By Steve Bass
Folder Views Extraordinaire
All versions of Windows: Sometimes you need a quick look at a folder but you don’t want to deal with Windows Explorer. Folder View resides in your system tray, giving you superfast access to the folders you use most often. The tool is easily configurable, so you can remove unneeded folders and add new ones. Plus, if you are using Windows Explorer, you can right-click a file to copy or move it to a favorite folder. Free.
Drive Folders in a Snap
All versions: The folders I want are often deep in a sub-sub-subfolder. To get to those locations instantly in Windows XP and 2000, I use Walker Brothers’ free MountVD, which assigns a drive letter to the folder in a couple of seconds. To remap your network drives in all Windows versions, try Novatix’s $40 ExplorerPlus (free 30-day trial).
Snazzy Folder Icons
All versions: I must have hundreds of folders on my PC. To quickly see the important ones, I’ve changed their icons to something eye-catching. You can do it manually in Windows XP: Right-click the folder in Windows Explorer or any folder window, choose Properties, click the Customize tab, and select Change Icon. But it’s easier with ActivIcons from CursorArts. The tool changes not only folder icons, but also menu icons on the taskbar, icons for system folders, and the Start button. Free.
What’s in Your PC?
All versions: I always seem to attract a special type of pop quiz at parties: Somebody will ask me about the type of CPU in my PC or if my hard drive is formatted with NTFS or FAT32. So I rely on Lavalys’s Everest Home Edition to poke into every nook and cranny of my computer and supply a complete inventory of my system’s components. Everest will generate a detailed report and save it as a text file. Free.
Resize Windows’ Windows
All versions: Have you ever noticed how some programs don’t always open in a maximized window? Next time it happens, instead of furrowing your brow, use South Bay Software’s AutoSizer. The utility forces practically any app’s window to open the way you want: maximized, minimized, or even resized to specific dimensions. Free.
Windows XP and 2000: Tired of your ho-hum mouse pointer? Mine put me to sleep, so I grabbed Stardock’s CursorXP. Choose from over 14 designs, including CandyCane, Yin-Yang, and the entertaining animated one called Gear. CursorXP even adds pizzazz to the standard arrow by letting you customize shadows. Free.
Windows XP and 2000: I got tired of Windows’ Clipboard limitations, but I didn’t want to contend with a heavy-duty Clipboard utility, such as the Microsoft Office Clipboard. My choice is IQuesoft-Online’s Clipboard Buddy, a tool that holds and retrieves up to 100 items that you’ve placed in the Windows Clipboard. Free.
All versions: Could you use a free tool for handling small tasks that would ordinarily take multiple keystrokes? Check out WiredPlane Labs’ WireKeys Lite, which lives in the system tray. With a right-click, it opens Windows’ Registry Editor, controls the volume, kills running processes, restarts the PC, opens the CD tray, or launches the screen saver. Free.
All versions: If you don’t back up because you think it’s too much trouble, you’ll change your mind when you try SyncBackSE from 2BrightSparks. For $15, SyncBackSE makes backing up a breeze. The program even backs up the files currently open in Outlook and other apps, as well as files that are locked on XP systems with NTFS-formatted drives. $15 (Click here for details about the freebie version.)
PC Secrets Revealed
Windows XP and 2000: The more I know about what my PC is doing, the better I feel. If you visit my home office, you’ll see CoolMon on my desktop. CoolMon’s default configuration lists 11 geeky items, including the amount of RAM currently in use, the number of processes running, and my computer’s IP address. Everything occurs in real time. I can monitor up to 44 other conditions, too, such as the PC’s temperature and the fan speed. Free.
Print Folder File Names
All versions: I had to print a list of MP3 files in one specific folder. Finding a way to do it was a pain in the neck. That’s why I didn’t mind paying $30 for Glenn Alcott’s Directory Printer, which sends a folder’s file-name listing to a file or printer. If you’d prefer something a lot less fancy–but free–try the JR Directory Printer Utility. One limitation: The free program prints only the entire folder listing. Glenn Alcott’s Directory Printer, $30; JR Directory Printer, free.
Tweak Your Keyboard
Windows XP and 2000: Maybe your notebook’s keyboard lacks a <Windows> key. Or perhaps, like me, you want to swap the locations of <Caps Lock> and <Ctrl>. Customize your keyboard easily with Travis Krumsick’s KeyTweak. For instance, the unused <Alt> key on my IBM ThinkPad, the one on the right side of the keyboard, became my <Windows> key. (You can immediately reverse all of the program’s changes.) Free.
Your Widget Factory
Windows XP and 2000: To spruce up your desktop, try Pixoria’s useful Konfabulator Widgets. These handy desktop Widgets include standard fare: clocks, stock tickers, weather, and others. Check out the Web site’s Gallery for traffic cams, a haiku generator, a FedEx package tracker, and sticky-note reminders. Use <F8> to toggle all the Widgets on your desktop to the background. $25 (free trial version).
Flick, Don’t Click
All versions: Want to flick your mouse left or right to go forward or back a page in Internet Explorer? You can do this (and more) with Jeff Doozan’s StrokeIt. This utility has dozens of preset mouse gestures for many popular programs; you can create additional ones in almost any application with a few simple, well, gestures. Free.
What’s Your Product Key?
Windows XP: If you’re using Windows XP, one day someone, probably at Microsoft, will ask you for your Windows Product Key. You might frantically search for your original Windows CD. Here’s an easier way: Imran Baig’s WinKeyLite. There’s no installation–just run the program, and it will locate the string of characters you need. Free.
EZ File Renaming
All versions: So you copied a zillion photos from a CD, or maybe your camera’s memory card, onto your hard drive. All the files have ugly file names, such as “11733IMG.jpg.” Plus, they’re marked “Read Only,” so renaming them easily is nearly impossible. Lucersoft’s Read Only Zero removes the Read Only attribute from all files in a folder so you can rename to your heart’s content. Free.
No Mousing Around
All versions: Imagine you’re traveling with your notebook and the built-in pointing device stops working. Or maybe you just like to use the keyboard rather than a mouse pointer. With RH Design’s handy-in-an-emergency Mouse Emulator, you can turn your keyboard’s numeric keypad into a mouse with one click. Free.
Fast Access to Windows Info
All versions: When you pull back the curtains, you discover lots about what Windows is up to–including which programs and processes are running in the background. The perfect tool to use is Process Explorer from Sysinternals. Unlike the Task Manager in Windows XP, Process Explorer provides tons of useful details you can use when tracking down, say, hard-to-remove spyware or a nasty worm. This thorough tool shows you a program’s path, user account, attributes, and memory stats; it also lets you kill a program or process. There’s no installation–just download the utility to your desktop and run it. Free.
Immediate Security Alerts
All versions: I like to be on the bleeding edge of critical security alerts, bulletins about newly launched viruses and worms, and the release of vital hotfixes. If your job depends on getting such data as it’s announced, download RB Works Informer and get up-to-the-minute reports for your choice of any or all versions of Windows right in your system tray. Click an alert, and your browser will open to a page on the RB site with details about the threat as well as sources, like Microsoft, for resolving the problem. Bonus tip: In the system tray, double-click the RB Works Informer icon and deselect its annoying sounds. Free.
Free Microsoft Applets
Windows XP: I’ll bet you don’t know about all the useful little tools right in Windows. For instance, Start, All Programs, Accessories, Accessiblity gets you to the cool Magnifier, for enlarging tiny Excel spreadsheets; the Narrator, which reads text aloud from the screen (finally you can tell your PC to shut up); and the Utility Manager, which lets you control all of XP’s Accessibility applets. There’s even a Fax Services applet. To install that applet, select Start, Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs, choose Add/Remove Windows Components in the left pane, click Fax Services, Next, Finished, and close Add or Remove Programs. Now clicking Start, All Programs, Accessories, Communications, Fax gets you to the fax services. Geek tip: Bypass Add or Remove Programs and work directly from the command line using Sysocmgr.exe. Free.
By Scott Spanbauer
Put a Spell on IE
Internet Explorer: If you do a lot of typing in IE–for Web e-mail, blogging, forum posts, and so on–how about some spelling help? Red Egg Software’s IeSpell lets you do a spelling check of the contents of your browser-based jottings using American, British, or Canadian dictionaries, and you can add your own dictionary terms. Free (personal use), $15 (commercial use).
So Long, Google?
Internet Explorer and the Windows Taskbar: In a Google rut? Copernic’s free search gadget, Copernic Meta, puts highly customized Web searches just a click away from whatever you’re working on. From the toolbar you can run your search term through Copernic’s own topical engines, scroll through recent searches, and add just about any other search engine to Meta’s list (Google included). The tool also integrates with Copernic Agent Basic, which searches multiple engines at once (Google excluded). Copernic Meta, free; Copernic Agent Basic, free.
Cover Your Tracks
Internet Explorer: Clearing IE’s cache–to free up disk space or protect your privacy, say–usually requires digging through multiple levels of menus. BaxterSoft’s CachePal lets you clear your Internet History, Temporary Internet Files, and Cookies folders with a single click. Windows XP users looking for even deeper cleaning may want to opt for the company’s ScrubXP, which erases temporary files, URLs, and other sensitive data when XP starts up. CachePal, free; ScrubXP, free.
Bookmarks in Sync
Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Netscape, and Mozilla: If you’re looking for a painless way to synchronize your bookmarks between different browsers running on the same PC, or even on different computers, let Secure Data Systems’ Sync2It do the job for you. It automatically synchronizes your bookmarks and favorites whenever you save or delete one. Installing the client software on other PCs lets you sync between home and office, but you can always access your bookmarks from any system by logging in to Sync2It’s Web site. $13 per year for personal use, $25 per year for business use (free 90-day trial).
Internet Explorer: Google Toolbar gets rave reviews, but the Yahoo Toolbar for Internet Explorer, a free plug-in, could be even more useful (especially if you’re a Yahoo habitué). The program puts Yahoo’s e-mail, calendar, Internet search, and bookmark services at your fingertips. It also blocks pop-ups and comes with a free anti-spyware program, Yahoo Anti-Spy. If you eschew IE, but still do Yahoo, the free Yahoo Toolbar for Firefox (in beta) offers most of the same features. For IE, free; for Firefox, free.
Link Firefox and IE
Firefox: Though not as automated as Sync2It, SyncMarks nonetheless offers many ways to import and export bookmarks between Firefox and IE. SyncMarks can automatically synchronize Firefox’s bookmarks with IE’s favorites on the same machine when you start or exit Firefox. In addition, the program can write either an HTML or an XML version of the faves file locally. Free.
Total Tab Control
Firefox: Tabbed browsing is a godsend, but this Firefox feature is only about three-quarters baked. Tabbrowser Preferences finishes it by adding a new Preferences submenu that offers fine-grained control over the browser’s tab behavior. With Tabbrowser installed, you can determine which types of URLs and windows should open in new tabs (or in a separate window). Free.
Put It on My Calendar
Firefox/Thunderbird: One of the things that makes Outlook essential for many people is the way it combines e-mail, contacts, and calendars. The Mozilla Foundation’s Thunderbird e-mail program (with Firefox) offers two-thirds of that formula, and the Foundation’s Sunbird project–a calendar module still in beta–adds the last piece. Though only in version 0.2, Sunbird already runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac, and it supports shared calendars through remote servers. Free.
Your Online File Repository
Gmail: What to do with the gigabyte of free storage that comes with your Gmail account? How about remote file storage or backup? GMail Drive creates a virtual file system on top of your Google Gmail account, letting you drag and drop files between your PC and Gmail (stored as Gmail e-mail attachments) using Windows Explorer. GMail Drive has occasional trouble with long file names and with updates to the Gmail site, so don’t use it for critical projects. Free.
OE Under Control
Outlook Express: Quantum Whale’s Outlook Express Tweaker gives you control over a few key OE options, including the ability to eliminate the program’s opening splash screen. In addition, you can disable inline images and block executable attachments. The OE helper also allows you to view, edit, export, and import the otherwise unreachable Blocked Senders List. Free.
Encrypt the Messenger
AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Trillian: Most IM apps lack encryption, leaving your conversations and personal data open to snoops. Zone Labs’ IMSecure Pro adds encryption to all the major IM apps. (In most cases, the other parties must also use IMSecure Pro.) It’s designed to block spam and prevent attacks. The company’s free (limited) version, IMSecure, encrypts only one of your IM accounts. IMSecure Pro: $20 with $10 annual renewal fee (free 15-day trial).
Outlook Express: OE doesn’t come with its own spelling checker; it borrows the one in Microsoft Office or Microsoft Works. But what if the PC you use for OE mail doesn’t have any of that software installed? Spell Checker For OE is a free tool that catches the glaring errors in your OE messages before you hit Send. It also lets you add your own entries to the dictionary (and that’s about it). Free.
Toolbars in Tow
Internet Explorer and Outlook Express: Both IE and OE allow you to customize the layout of their toolbars and adjust the window size to your liking. Problem is, each program is prone to forgetting your preferences, forcing you to resize everything all over again. BaxterSoft’s Toolbar Chest for Internet Explorer and Toolbar Chest for Outlook Express lock the interfaces down tight, so you won’t have to yank your hair out in frustration anymore. While you’re at it, grab Stephen L. Cochran’s OETool, a handy toolbar for Outlook Express that puts close at hand many common maintenance and mail-reading commands that are otherwise hidden away. All free (donations encouraged for OETool).
Quash Spam, Quick Search
Outlook and Outlook Express: If you spend a large part of your day wading through an inbox brimming with spam, phishing scams, and other dreck, you may need help to Qurb the flow. Qurb’s eponymous mail filter(version 3) integrates with either Outlook or OE to block spam, protect against phishing attacks and other e-mail-borne threats, and index your inbox to help you find important messages quickly. (For more Outlook add-ons, see the Office Assistants section.) $40 for home/office use (free 14-day trial).
AIM: Odds are good that you and the people you want to swap instant messages with use AOL Instant Messenger. But don’t you wish the software were less annoying? For five bucks, JDennis.net’s DeadAIM gives the ubiquitous IM app tabbed message windows. It also hides unwanted buttons, blocks ads, and logs instant message and chat room activity. In addition, DeadAIM suppresses the irritating AIM Today startup window and turns the Buddy List window transparent when you’re using other programs. $5.
By Rick Scott
Word Printing Wiz
Word 2002 and later: With Print Wizard for Microsoft Word, you can print any document (open or not), including any part of the document (such as tables or envelopes) or a document outline. When you switch from portrait to landscape mode in Word to create a booklet, say, everything changes–margins, white space, you name it. It’s a real pain to make all those changes by hand before you print. Print Wizard helps you avoid that by adjusting the print output. You can also print color documents in black to save ink or toner, and pick one of five quality levels to save still more. The wizard can even report misspellings and grammatical errors before printing begins. $10.
Word 2000 and later: Think of DataPrompter 2003 as a document automation tool with flair. It fills in key data in your letters, proposals, contracts, and other frequently needed documents by prompting you for the information that varies in each new document. Prompts can be drop-down lists, check boxes, ordinary text or numeric fields, and even data from your address book. With just one click, DataPrompter can switch pronouns between masculine and feminine, singular and plural. And it’s easy to learn. $149 (30-day money-back guarantee).
Toys for Wordaholics
Word 2000 and later: Do you live in Word all day long? WordToys provides a toolbar full of shortcuts to get Word chores done, along with utilities for tasks that Microsoft forgot to cover. Collect documents into a workspace (just as in Excel) to reopen them as a group. In addition, you can save a document and a backup version automatically, and insert an accented character, symbol, or bullet graphic in a blink. And forget Word’s feeble tracking of just your last nine documents opened; WordToys keeps track of dozens of them. $20 (free 30-day trial).
Word Formatting Made Easy
Word 97 and later: If you create Word documents that require extensive formatting–brochures or newsletters, for example–you may find Word’s formatting idiosyncrasies baffling. CrossEyes lets you peer deep into what’s going on behind the scenes. The program’s colorful window helps you distinguish formatting codes (each color indicates what level of formatting the codes apply to), and you can find out which styles have been applied to selected text (a real time-saver). Understand why two headlines that look the same behave differently when you modify them; or reveal hidden text. Puzzled by what happens to formatting when you delete a paragraph mark? CrossEyes gives you the answer. $50 (free 15-day trial).
Data Manipulation Magic
Excel 2000 and later: For industrial-strength data manipulation, nothing’s better than DigDB. With this add-on to Excel’s main menu, you can filter data on multiple conditions, sort in multiple levels, split tables based on cell values, or insert blank rows at regular intervals. DigDB can also split rows by delimiters (to manage “Last Name, First Name” data, say), and find matching values in two ranges, among other features. Intuitive dialog boxes and wizards make difficult tasks a snap. $59 for a one-year license (free 15-day trial).
Excel With Bite
Excel 2000 and later:Power Utility Pak 6 adds a main menu option to Excel from which you can shade alternate rows, format comments, toggle Excel settings from a single dialog box, export a chart to a graphics file, or convert one to a picture. You can print multiple ranges, paste a calendar into your worksheet, and list all cells containing a date. You can also sort worksheets (alphabetically or in custom order), find links, and cure the biggest headache of all by converting absolute and relative addresses. $40 (free 30-day trial).
Formulas to the Nth Degree
Excel 97 and later:Excel Power Expander 4 adds to Excel a separate menu option that gives you slick automation tools for tasks from swapping rows and columns to finding duplicate rows to removing extra spaces or empty rows. The add-on’s real strength lies in its 111 functions, including a heavy focus on math and trig functions, plus many scientific constants. One big annoyance, however: In the trial version, every time you use Excel Power Expander’s main menu to add a function to a cell, up pops a nag screen asking you to upgrade to the paid version. Ugh. $55 (free 30-day trial).
Color Your Presentations
PowerPoint 97 and later: You’ve seen PowerPoint’s default settings a million times: those tired blue backgrounds and generic bullet points. Add some variety to your presentations with new background templates. From abstracts to animated business designs, spring themes to sports motifs, Brainy Betty is sure to have something to set your slides apart. Once you select a template, you can tweak the text formatting. The Web site also offers icons and useful advice on presentation design. Free.
Convert PowerPoint in a Flash
PowerPoint 2000 and later: If you’d like to broaden the audience for your PowerPoint presentation, convert it to streaming video, an AVI file, or a Flash presentation with Camtasia Studio. Click a toolbar button in PowerPoint, and Camtasia captures your presentation in real time (including screen transitions and annotations, such as underlining a key point with your mouse). You can add narration, video, and audio clips; then when you’re ready, choose a few parameters (output size, speed, and the like) in the recording wizard, and Camtasia builds your video file quickly. It also supports formats for burning to a CD. $299 (free 30-day trial).
Repurpose Old Slides
PowerPoint 2000 and later: Why create a new presentation when you can steal–I mean, reuse–slides from existing presentations? PointCapture smoothly merges slides from other presentations into a new slide show. Find slides on your hard drive (by keyword, author, creation date, among other options), and view it in the preview panel. Check the slides you want from those matching your criteria, and with a single click, PointCapture creates a new presentation. $48 (free 10-day trial).
Outlook Gets Psychic
Outlook 97 and later: Highlight text from an e-mail message that describes a meeting, press a special shortcut key you create ahead of time, and Anagram adds the meeting to your Outlook calendar. Picking facts from your selected text, Anagram extracts the appointment date (including converting “tomorrow” to the proper date) and time, and then parses the highlighted message text into the appointment’s comments section. Eerily accurate, Anagram smartly copies and pastes text into the right fields of the right Outlook item. $20 (45-day free trial).
Outlook 2000 and later:Bells & Whistles for Outlook saves you dozens of keystrokes by handling such pesky tasks as automatically adding a greeting to a reply, or warning if your outgoing message is missing an attachment (the program checks for variants of “attach” in your e-mail) or a subject line. Bells & Whistles simplifies pasting boilerplate text into the body of a message, and blocking attachments by file type. The program can also add time and date stamps to any message. $20 (free 15-day trial).
Tame Your E-Mail
Outlook 97 and later:Nelson E-Mail Organizer (NEO) makes Outlook even more efficient by integrating with Outlook’s mail folders. From auto-sorting of messages by recipient to streamlined search functions (including saved search results) to bulk-mail filtering to the ability to group correspondents (say, by the company they work for), NEO is a gem. Take charge of your e-mail, arranging it by attachment type, message date, or sender (all mail to and from that person is in one convenient spot), among other options. Mark certain messages with a??Keep’ so you don’t accidentally delete them, or tell NEO to automatically put mail from important people (like your boss) into a a??Hot’ folder so you can act on it first. The Pro version adds more filtering options and the ability to search across archived message stores. $40, $70 for the Pro version (free trial version with limitations).
Shortcuts Across Applications
Office 97 and later: Get more done just by typing words you can easily remember. ActiveWords Plus lets you automate multistep, cross-application tasks. Its Outlook Agent can display contact info or pull name and address data into your Word document when you type the first, last, or company name and then press a shortcut key that you define. Substitute text, retrieve frequently used documents, send e-mail to colleagues, open your favorite Web sites–just by typing a word or phrase anywhere on screen, whether on your desktop or in any application. The program can even watch your activity and suggest shortcuts. Pretty smart, huh? $50 (free 60-day trial).
All versions of Office: If you depend on Microsoft’s password feature to protect your sensitive files, you may know the sinking feeling that comes when you try to open a document and realize you’ve forgotten the password. Advanced Office Password Recovery (AOPR) uses advanced decryption algorithms to recover passwords from all Microsoft applications, from DOS versions to Office 2003 for the PC, Mac, and Pocket PC. AOPR begins by scanning your password cache, which the company says recovers 60 percent of passwords. If that’s not enough, AOPR uses a combination of dictionary and brute-force attacks. Brute force is time-consuming–the program checked nearly 735 billion combinations to find my six-character password, taking nearly 40 hours. $49 (Home version) to $199 (Pro version).
By Lincoln Spector
A Better Windows Media Player
Windows Media Player: Microsoft’s player would be a lot easier to use if you could control it from the system tray. Enter Tray Control, just one of the improvements in PowerToys for Windows Media Player for Windows XP (part of Microsoft’s Windows Media Bonus Pack for Windows XP). Click Tray Control’s always-visible icon to pause the music, or right-click to skip a track or mute. There’s also a skin importer and a Media Library Management Wizard, which helps you organize your overflowing music collection into an assortment of playlists. Free.
Three Players in One
Windows Media Player: Some media files require QuickTime. Others will run only in RealPlayer. And for still others, you’re pretty much stuck with Windows Media Player. So you’ve got three big, intrusive programs that do just about the same thing. QuickTime Alternative and Real Alternative let Windows Media Player play the other programs’ formats. Free, www.free-codecs.com
Winamp: Prefer Winamp to the better-known players? With Intellized.computing’s TrayList, you’ll like Winamp even more. TrayList gives Winamp a playlist editor and a song search engine. The hot-keys, including ones you program for particular songs, work when Winamp is in the background. $20 (free 30-day trial).
Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro: If you’d like to add twilight colors or some other effect to your photos, try Harry’s Filters from the Plugin Site–it lets you do those things and much more. Make your photos look like cartoon art or crochet, for instance. This free plug-in separates its 69 filters into categories like Color, Warp, and Noise, and provides tools for minutely adjusting each filter. You can play the current filter’s settings like a video. Some filters are so extreme you won’t find your original photo in the resulting image. Free.
Simple PDF Conversions
Acrobat Reader: If you’ve ever wanted to edit a PDF file, you’ll like VoyagerSoft’s Solid Converter PDF. The application uses a wizard to walk you through various options before it converts the PDF into a text file or Word document. With the Word option, you can choose to maintain column formatting or you can anchor pictures to a page or paragraph, for example. The application also converts Word files into PDFs. $50 (free 15-day trial).
A Soft Touch
Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro: Make your family members look stunning in your digital photos with some fancy color tweaks–or add a different kind of effect, such as morning mist to a photo taken in the afternoon. Try Softener, a plug-in by Namesuppressed Design. The utility gives you astonishing command over how it softens your image. Both Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro have their own softening tools, but they offer nothing like the fine control this plug-in provides. $15 (demo version available).
Tubes, Frames, and Masks
Paint Shop Pro: Jasc (now a division of Corel) sells a large line of Paint Shop Pro a??Xtrasa?? to enhance your photos. My favorite is Paint Shop Xtras Creative Edition 1, a collection of over 650 frames, masks, precut selection shapes, patterns, textures, and picture tubes. Want a mask of the Canadian flag? A tetra pattern? How about a picture tube that lets you draw little bananas–or flowers or U.S. flags–all over your pictures? This is a fun package if you’re feeling creative, or just silly. $20.
Easy PDF Creation
Acrobat Reader: Adobe Acrobat’s PDF files are a great way to share formatted documents because almost everybody has Acrobat Reader. And Acro Software’s CutePDF Writer is the easiest way to create PDFs. Windows sees the utility as a print driver; if you can print the file–a Word document or Excel chart, say–you can turn it into a PDF with no fuss. Sure, other programs do the same thing, but CutePDF Writer is free–and ad-free, to boot. My one complaint: You have to download and install GNU Ghostscript, as well. Free.
Homemade Screen Savers
QuickTime: Xochi Media’s IScreensaver Designer lets you turn your slide shows and QuickTime movies into screen savers. And not just for yourself. IScreensaver makes it easy to share your creations with any QuickTime-equipped PC–it can even create a self-installing executable file. Your screen savers will also work on Macs. The $29 Personal license forbids selling the screen savers you create, but you can still give them away for free. $29 (demo version available).
No More LPs or Tapes
Vinyl and Tapes: Still have a music collection on LP or cassette? For $30, the PolderbitS Sound Recorder and Editor can help get those sounds onto your hard drive and CDs. Sure, there are plenty of recording programs that cost less, but they don’t have an editor with filters specifically designed for LP and tape noise, or the ability to automatically find track breaks. Not that it’s perfect: There’s no place to enter tag information (song title, artist), and it can’t create .wma files. $30 (free 14-day trial).
Microsoft Word and Excel: Make Your Own Office Add-On
By Dennis O’Reilly
The right add-on program can mean the difference between loving and hating an application, but you don’t always need a separate utility to rejuvenate your software. In fact, if you know about macros, you can use them to automate and customize your tasks.
My favorite Microsoft Office enhancer is a simple autoformat macro routine for Word and Excel. (Click here for a more detailed look at Office macros.)
I’ll start with the Microsoft Word macro. The first thing that I do after opening somebody else’s Word file is change its loopy font and format to the settings I prefer. But instead of going through the same series of menu clicks every time, I reformat the file with one click of a button or with a keyboard shortcut.
My Word autoformat macro has four steps (your macro and menu selections will vary):
Press <Ctrl>-A to select the entire document.
Click Edit, Clear, Formats to remove the document’s existing formatting. This way the file won’t revert to 9-point Bookman Old Style (or whatever the original font was) when you enter text on a new line, for example.
Choose File, Page Setup, Margins and enter 2.5 under the Right setting to move the right margin in 1 inch.
Select Format, Font, click Arial in the Font list, choose 12 in the Size list,and click OK.
If you want to create a macro in Microsoft Excel, you’ll need to follow one extra step:
Enter <Ctrl>-A to select the entire workbook.
Choose Edit, Clear, Formats to reset the file’s existing formatting (this avoids reverting to the original format when entering new data).
Click Format, Cells, Alignment and check Wrap text.
Select the Font tab in the Format Cells dialog box, choose Arial under Font, and click 12 under Size.
Choose the Border tab, select the Outline icon, and click OK.
To record a macro, open Word or Excel and click Tools, Macro, Record New Macro. In the Macro name box, enter a name, but don’t use spaces and don’t start with a number. (I call my Word autoformat macro “msformat1,” and my Excel macro “chartformat1.”) Under ‘Store macro in’, select All Documents (Normal.dot) in Word or Personal Macro Workbook in Excel to make the macro available in all the files you open.
If you want to create a toolbar button for the macro or give it a keyboard shortcut, now’s the time. Click the Toolbar button to open the Customize dialog box. Choose Commands, and drag the macro you just named to any toolbar. Assign an icon to your macro shortcut to make it pop: Click Modify Selection, Change Button Image and choose an icon (see the accompanying screen shot).
To activate the macro with a keyboard shortcut, click the Keyboard button, make sure your new macro is selected under Commands, and click in the ‘Press new shortcut key’ box. Enter your preferred key sequence (I chose <Alt>-<Shift>-V) and choose the Assign button. Click Close twice to set the macro recorder in motion.
A cassette-tape icon (or is it an unhappy robot face?) and the Macro Recorder toolbar appear. Step through this reformat macro routine, and when you’re done, click the Stop button on the Macro Recorder toolbar. Your macro is now ready to use: Click the icon on the toolbar, or type the keyboard shortcut you assigned to it.
Note that when you close the workbook in Excel, you’ll be asked if you want to save the changes you made to your Personal Macro Workbook to make it available the next time you open Excel. Click Yes.
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