Vista delay, schmista delay. You may not be able to upgrade to the official next version of Microsoft’s Windows for months, but you don’t have to wait a day to add many of the new OS’s security, performance, and interface improvements to your current XP setup. And to top it off, many of these advances cost little or no money.
Vista introduces new techniques to help speed Windows’ startup and shutdown times, and to accelerate application launches. SystemBoosterXP claims to use a technology similar to Vista’s prefetching, which anticipates the files you’re likely to request next and revs up your file loading and app starts. The program sits quietly in your system tray (the area near the clock) and needs little if any configuring. You can try it for 30 days before forking over the $20 registration fee.
On the other hand, if you’re an inveterate system tweaker, DriverHeaven TuneXP; free, though donations are accepted) lets you adjust a variety of system settings–many of which I’d never heard of–to speed up Windows starts and shutdowns, and to optimize other system processes. For example, the utility lets you rearrange boot files for faster startups and clean out Windows’ prefetch folder to optimize file access. Though every command is explained in the program’s help file, it is clearly intended for technically adept users.
Vista will secure your data by letting you put your hard drive’s encryption key on an external USB drive. You can do something similar for your notebook computer by using Kensington’s $70 PCKey, which protects an entire hard drive, or with the company’s $50 PCKey LE, which safeguards individual files. To access your data with either product, you must insert the hardware key into a USB port and enter a password to unlock its 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard protection. If you register your product and password at the Kensington Web site, you get support for lost passwords and keys.
You don’t have to wait for Vista’s release to lock out unauthorized users before your PC boots. This same ability is available for free in CE Infosys’s CompuSec utility. Using the same AES encryption, CompuSec provides preboot authentication to protect your hard drive’s data, even if someone removes the drive and tries to use it on another machine. If you prefer, you can encrypt individual files rather than your entire system. The product also lets you encrypt diskettes, CDs, DVDs, USB thumb drives, and other removable media.
Offering a more incremental approach, Folder Lock prevents access to files, folders, and drives with a simple right-click. Unfortunately, the fast-and-easy method isn’t the most secure: The files remain visible in Windows’ DOS and Safe modes. For top security, you have to move the files you want to protect into the Locker folder, which secures items by scrambling them or by applying 256-bit Blowfish encryption. The trial version allows you 35 encryptions, after which you must pay the program’s $35 registration fee. Even simpler is the freeware AxCrypt, which lets you right-click any file or folder and apply 128-bit AES encryption.
Parents will be delighted with Vista’s ability to block objectionable content. But for $40, SentryPC gives you even greater control over who uses your PC and when. Not only can you block undesirable Web sites, you can even stifle online chatting, objectionable words and phrases, unwelcome applications, and more. You can specify the hours and days when the computer and/or specific applications may be used, or limit the number of hours a program can be open each week. SentryPC also provides a log of online chats, sites visited, words typed, applications used, and so on. The trial version runs for only an hour at a time, but at least you can try its features before buying.
The $35 iProtectYou Web-filtering utility (free trial) blocks objectionable sites, newsgroups, and advertising. This highly configurable program monitors language to thwart undesirable e-mail and instant messages. You can schedule times when Web use is permitted or blocked, manage incoming and outgoing connections, and keep logs of Internet activity.
Vista’s new Aeroglass interface isn’t just window dressing; it also helps you find data faster and move more quickly between open windows. But you can add many of Vista’s shiny, bright interface elements to XP. For example, Vista will list a file’s properties and other metadata in a pane at the bottom of Explorer windows. The freeware utility InfoTip Extension lets you beef up the pop-up info tips you see when you hover over a file icon, customizing the information that appears, and even displaying the contents of a text file. Unfortunately, this utility was designed for older versions of Windows, and a few of its features don’t work in XP. Also, it provides no extra information for MP3, WMA, WMV, and other music and video files (which arguably already have pretty good info tips). But hey, it’s still more convenient than opening a file’s Properties dialog box.
Vista will show you a thumbnail preview of open files and applications when you hold the pointer over each one’s taskbar button. Microsoft’s Alt-Tab Replacement PowerToy already gives you the keyboard equivalent: After you download and install the program, simply hold the <Alt> key and press <Tab>, as you normally would to switch between running apps, and you’ll see a thumbnail preview of each app in succession. You won’t see a preview if the app is minimized, however. If for some reason you don’t want the Microsoft version, try TaskSwitchXP and Alt-Tab Thingy–two freebies that do much the same thing, and throw in some extra features besides.
If you’re looking for some of the transparency that Vista’s interface uses, you can buy tools that apply various see-through effects to Windows (such as the $20 Actual Transparent Windows from Actual Tools). But why bother? Freeware can do most of the same tricks sans cost. If you want only your taskbar to have a degree of transparency, check out Transbar from AKSoftware. On the other hand, if you want transparency only for your application windows, the free PowerMenu not only handles that task but also makes windows stay on top of all others, minimizes them to the taskbar with a single click, and changes their processing priority to suit your preferences. If you want to apply transparency to windows and to the taskbar, Vasilios Freeware’s TransApps can do both–but little else. Finally, the aforementioned Alt-Tab Thingy can ghost any inactive window so that it becomes partially transparent and also invisible to mouse clicks (the clicks pass through to whatever is underneath). The window returns to full opacity and normal behavior once the window becomes active again.
To apply Vista’s cool new glasslike sheen to your windows, look no farther than the granddaddy of skinning utilities, WindowBlinds from Stardock, or the equally capable StyleXP from TGT Soft. These programs cost $20 each, and each offers a free trial. Last but not least, you can obtain Desktop Sidebar, a free version of Vista’s sidebar feature that displays weather information, stock quotes, RSS feeds, and other timely information.