Super Software Secrets
Manage Your Media
Movies, music, podcasts, pictures...your PC may take up less space in your house than your photo albums and your DVD collection do, but that doesn't guarantee that its contents can't sink over time into total disarray. For many people, PCs have become the hub for storing family photos, home videos, and music libraries--and without the right apps and tricks, those collections can quickly degenerate into a trackless wilderness. Read on for tips to keep iTunes in line, to avoid stuttering streams, and to automate photo uploads.
Auto-add to iTunes: Managing an iTunes library can be a hassle, especially if you download your media from multiple apps. iTunes 9 introduced an ‘Automatically Add To iTunes' folder (located by default at C:\Users\username\Music\iTunes\iTunes Media); iTunes monitors this folder for new files and appropriately sorts the ones it finds. Download new music and videos to this folder, and you won't have to organize them later.
Keep your feeds going: iTunes will automatically stop updating your podcast subscriptions if you don't listen to them--a real annoyance if you want to listen to a series of podcasts on, say, a marathon road trip. A simple Visual Basic script automatically marks all of your unplayed podcasts as played, causing iTunes to continue updating them. Use Windows' built-in Task Scheduler to set the script to run every week or so.
Clean up your music: You don't really need four copies of the same song in your iTunes library--even if it's really good. So select File, Display Duplicates, and start deleting.
Create multiple libraries: You may not want iTunes to lump all of your media into a single library. Maybe you'd prefer a family-friendly media library and a separate adults-only media library, or maybe you'd rather not reveal your love of Rupert Holmes singles to anyone else. Whatever the reason, you can use Libra to set up multiple iTunes libraries and switch from one to another at will; with luck, that "RH+" library won't attract any attention.
Speed it up: By default, iTunes has a few performance-slowing settings turned on. To disable the laggards, open the Preferences menu and uncheck any of the following you don't use: Look for shared libraries (Sharing tab), Look for Apple TVs (Apple TV tab), Look for remote speakers connected with AirTunes (Devices tab), and Look for iPod touch, iPhone and iPad Remotes (again, Devices tab). In the Store menu, turn Genius off.
Secrets of Syncing, Streaming, and Organizing
Don't mess with codecs: If you're tired of installing and updating audio and video codecs to extend your player's capabilities, make VLC your main media player. Easily the most compatible media player available, VLC can handle a multitude of file and streaming formats designed for iTunes, Winamp, Windows Media Player, and more.
Prevent stream stutter: Though many factors outside your control could interrupt your video stream (especially if you're streaming from another user's PC rather than from
a dedicated service such as Netflix or YouTube), one tweak that may help is to increase the size of your system's read buffer. This adjustment will make the stream take longer to start, but it can also smooth out some hiccups by introducing a little more latency. In VLC, open the Open Network Stream menu, check Show more options, and bump up the number in the Caching field. In Windows Media Player, choose Options from the Organize menu, click the Performance tab, and manually adjust the ‘Buffering settings'.
Accelerate or slow down podcasts: If you want to play back your audiobooks and podcasts in Windows Media Player at a different speed from the one they were set to play at, you can arrange it instantly via a few keyboard shortcuts. Press Ctrl-Shift-G to make a podcast play faster, press Ctrl-Shift-S to slow it down, and press Ctrl-Shift-N to reset it to normal.
Automate photo uploads: Depending on which photo management software and online photo services you prefer, you may be able to upload new pictures automatically. LiveUpload to Facebook can publish from Windows Live Gallery, while Picasa can post anything you put in a Picasa Web Album on the Picasa Website. If you favor Flickr, try Foldr Monitr, which can watch a specific folder for newly added images and post them to your Flickr account. (For more on automating your media collection, see "Automate Your PC's Media Library.")
Tag photos from Windows: If you have a lot of photos on your PC, you'll probably want to organize them with a photo gallery app (such as Windows Live Photo Gallery or Picasa). But if you don't want to deal with an extra application, you can use Windows 7's built-in metadata support to maintain order among your photos by means of descriptive tags ("Kids" or "Vacation," for example). Just select the pictures in Windows Explorer, click Show More Details... at the bottom of the open window, click Tags, and type the tags you want to use (separate multiple tags with semicolons). Once you've tagged your photos, you can search for them by placing "tag:" in front of your search string.
Windows Notepad, Calculator, and Paint Tips
Notepad, Calculator, and Paint aren't the flashiest apps around, but they do have a few embedded secrets. Use these tips to get a little more use out of the accessories that come with every Windows installation; and don't forget to check out a few potential upgrades.
These tricks can come in handy when you need access to features typically found in higher-end apps that aren't on everyone's PC. Photoshop and Excel are great, but if you're on a friend's PC, Paint and Calculator just might save your bacon.
Track time with Notepad: Type .LOG (in all-capital letters) on the first line of a Notepad document, and Notepad will automatically stamp the current date and time in the doc every time you open it--handy for logging events or notes.
Use the new Calculator: Microsoft gave the humble calculator a makeover in Windows 7. Not only does the updated app have four different settings (Standard, Scientific, Programmer, and Statistics), but you can use new worksheets to calculate gas mileage, mortgage payments, and leasing prices, or to convert units of measure.
Switch to watercolors: Paint in Windows 7 includes a few new brushes that can add artistic effects to your scribbles. The Crayon brush leaves a bumpy, uneven texture; the Watercolor paintbrush introduces lighter streaks; and the Oil paintbrush has a notably thicker texture. Also, the Watercolor and Oil brushes will run out of paint if you hold down the mouse button for a particularly long stroke; click again to reload them.
Edit pixel-by-pixel in Paint: Need a little more precision in your Paint editing? Turn on the grid by pressing Ctrl-G. You'll need to zoom in to about 600% before the grid will show individual pixels.
Upgrade Your PC's Accessories
Windows' built-in accessories are nice, but eventually you may want something more. If so, check out these apps, which pack more useful features while managing to stay svelte.
ZuluPad, on the other hand, focuses on the "note" side of the Notepad feature set. With ZuluPad (the Basic version is free; the Pro version costs $15), you can pull in images, automatically link to your other notes while you type, and even sync your ZuluPad documents online.
Paint.net is a lightweight paint program that has been around forever--and with good reason. It's much more capable than Microsoft Paint (which falls short of most people's image-editing needs), and yet at the same time it's smaller and easier to use than professional-caliber applications such as Adobe Photoshop Elements and GIMP.