In these bad economic times, it is nice to be able to report on things that will make everyone who uses a computer more productive. Far different from yet another exhortation to move to an unknown operating system, which usually gets a few to try, and the rest to scoff, this is for those who want to use what they know already, and are happy with.
Because of the really snappy deal that William H. Gates III made with all of the major manufacturers of computers, the overwhelming majority of the pubic have a copy of Windows, to use on their computer. While it is also referred to as ‘the Windows tax’, for our purposes, it is the Windows gift!
What do I mean by that? Well, with a little looking around, and paying attention to what is being written (including this piece), it is possible to have only 1 piece of commercial software on your computer, and that would be the one that came with it – Windows.
For many machines there are other programs that are included. Many times the programs are either simpler, less full featured versions, or the full retail versions could be included, yet the programs have a finite shelf life. This would be where the program works for a specified number of days, or perhaps a certain number of uses, and then stops working. I am certain that I am not alone in my loathing of these types of programs, and the practices of those computer makers that use them. (thank you, Dell!)
Lately, Microsoft has been shamed by the Open Source Community to give back, and a few of the programs that have come to us free by way of Redmond are really great. You have heard of them, I’m sure. If you read me with any regularity, you know that the so-called Wave 3 of these applications is out, and for the most part, are very well done, with very few nits to pick at.
Windows Live Mail is a much improved version of a standard mail program, far surpassing Outlook Express or most other POP3 mail programs. It is easy to set up, allows users to access their Hotmail and Windows Live Mail accounts like they were POP3, and will allow other addresses to be aggregated, much as Outlook does, but this is free.
Windows Photo Gallery allows users to view, edit, collate, and share their photos, in a way not possible with bare Windows. Again, this is free.
If you are someone who wishes to keep a blog, or do any other writing to be published on the web, there is Windows Live Writer. It is usable with many types of blogging software, not the least of which is Live Spaces, the Microsoft site that each person with a Live ID can access, now tied into Microsoft Sky Drive, which is 25 GB of ‘cloud’ storage, again free.
If you want to keep in touch immediately with others, you can use Windows Live Messenger (nee MSN Messenger), and have almost instant access by text with others using the service. If you are so inclined, you can also see the other person, provided you and your friend both have web cams. Again, completely free. If you’re really interested, you can make phone calls to others, mostly free, using this same software.
All of the above programs can be found at Windows Get Live!
Now what is known as productivity software is one place where Microsoft has not been so helpful, as the company makes big bucks with Office, in its many incarnations. For those not having the money, or unwilling to pony it up, there is the Open Office Organization’s Open Office 3.0. This is their best showing so far, and this is, for most, all the productivity software ever needed. There is a very fine word processor, presentation graphics program, database program, spreadsheet, and all the necessary glue to make the applications work together. In the manner of Office, Open Office 3.0 has many, many add-ins, including templates for just about any situation you might encounter.
With productivity taken care of, turning to utilities to complete the smooth functioning of any Windows XP installation is next. Microsoft imbued XP with lots of power, compared to previous revisions of Windows, but the maintenance and protection programs can be easily surpassed by several free offerings.
Windows XP after the advent of Service Package 2, added a firewall, which is barely acceptable, and sometimes difficult to configure. Here the built-in protection can be easily disabled, and with the Sygate Personal Firewall, or for those willing to fiddle to get even more protection, the Comodo Firewall Pro will make sure that only wanted bits get into your system.
NTFS has many pros, and few cons, being much a much better file system than the FAT 32 that it replaces, but it is still prone to fragmentation. Microsoft includes a file defragmentation program, but it is severely crippled, and can take hours to do its job on modern size hard drives. Although there are commercial solutions, the free solution from Auslogics is a fine solution to the problem. Using this fast and friendly program will make weekly defragmentation runs something not approached with fear and loathing.
Windows has included Windows Defender for a while, but it is no substitute for a proper antivirus program. There are many free antivirus programs, but my choice would be AVG Free, which after having a slight misstep when revision 8 came out, is possibly the best free solution.
Another case where Microsoft gave the user an incomplete solution was in the realm of optical disc writing. While it is possible to do basic writing with the abilities of XP, solutions like ImgBurn and Final Burner Free give a much more complete and satisfying experience, allowing much greater latitude in committing software, pictures, or music to CD or DVD.
There are many utilities that make the use of Windows XP just a little easier or nicer, and many are free. Some are also very useful for those not so sure of the many problems accessing the internet can bring. Some of these would be WinPatrol, Secunia Software Inspector, and CCleaner.
Some of the small utilities that give power to the user over his system were once from a third party company, now absorbed by Microsoft. Any of the utilities from SysInternals will allow much greater control, and knowledge of the user’s system.
For more on the nice little things, that are frugal with your machines resources, and make Windows (and especially XP) much better, see part two of this series.