PCWorld Reviewers' Favorite Files for October: Utilities and a Dash of Fun

At PCWorld, and especially at PCWorld.com Downloads, we love trying out software. October's breakout stars were utilities: Everything from video file conversion to software updates to running Android apps on a PC. We'd be happy to see productivity-enhancing programs like this any month of the year. To see all these downloads in one unranked chart, check out PCWorld Reviewers' Favorite Files: October 2011.

BlueStacks App Player screenshot
BlueStacks App Player runs Android applications within Windows.
You don't have to have your Android phone charged--or even have an Android phone at all--to use Android games and other apps. BlueStacks App Player (free alpha version) comes http://cms.pcworld.com/cms/article/edit.dowith several popular Android apps.

Other utilities don't so much do something new as make what you have work better. Update utilities make sure your software is up-to-date, minimizing security holes. We tried three different ones, but Raxco Software's PerfectUpdater ($30, free demo) delivered the best mix of accurate updates and interface usability.

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Free Treats: Decorate Your PC Desktop for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos

Every Halloween, PCWorld editors dig up some free scares for your desktop. Favorite fonts, themes, and screensavers haunt us year after year...and this October, a few new ghouls rise to capture your imagination. PCWorld's latest Halloween collection includes a frightening font, Windows 7 themepacks, and two exclusive wallpapers from horror artist Chad Savage of Sinister Visions.

Autumn Harbinger Desktop Wallpaper
Sinister Visions' Autumn Harbinger Desktop Wallpaper glows with Halloween spirit.
The zombies of Savage's Zombo-o-Lanterns Desktop Wallpaper appear to be dressing up as jack-o-lanterns, but with the determined way they reach their rotting fingers toward the viewer, nobody's giving them candy. They're after your brains. For a treat with fewer tricks, invite the deep blues and fiery oranges of Autumn Harbinger Desktop Wallpaper onto your PC. Two grinning pumpkinheads cross their skeletal hands across a backdrop of a setting sun and a sky brimming with stars. If it weren't for the golden "Happy Halloween," the scene could edge into November as a solemn harvest image.

Last year, the four horror-inspired fonts of Savage's Sinister Visions Font Quartet leapt out at readers. They, and several other favorites from PCWorld's font and screensaver collection, remain poised for the jump scares. We've invited Gary Pullin's creepy Ghoulish font to this year's Halloween party. Inspired by classic horror movie posters, this display font can run the gamut from mild to macabre.

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ConnectedText Personal Wiki

ConnectedText is an excellent personal wiki program, one which runs solely on the desktop. While this removes one of the features which many associate with wikis, namely, collaborative editing, it also makes ConnectedText much easier to set up and use for a single user. ConnectedText 5 continues to build on the strengths of prior releases without introducing useless bells and whistles or radically changing the interface or functionality.

ConnectedText 5 screenshot
This overly-busy layout shows off ConnectedText's many features, but your actual work environment is usually much cleaner.
Working in ConnectedText is straightforward. Create a project, and begin creating topics. Any word, term, or phrase you think might merit its own topic is marked with brackets, and you can then create that topic by clicking on the word (or create a topic directly from a menu--links aren't required). In a very short span of time, you will have many topics, all linked to each other.

ConnectedText uses two modes, the editing mode and the view mode. In the editing mode, you type in plain text and mark-up words or sections using simple tags to denote headers, bold or italic, numbered lists, and so on. Flipping to view mode shows you a rendering of your text, automatically saving your changes (and like any wiki, you can revert to an earlier edit with ease). The actual formatting is handled by cascading style sheets, so if you know CSS, you can edit them to change the default fonts, colors, and so on. You can also enter CSS tags while you edit, to change the appearance of a section of text individually.

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Search Gmail, Google Docs--And Now Twitter--In a Flash With CloudMagic

CloudMagic's lightning-fast search tool has impressed me since I reviewed a previous version over a year ago. I like its speed, I like its layout, and I like the feature added to its latest version: Twitter search.

CloudMagic screenshot
CloudMagic uses a tabbed system that makes it easy to view results from multiple sources.
This browser extension for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox still searches your Gmail, Google Apps Email, Google Docs, Google Calendars, Google Contacts accounts, too. Once installed, it appears as a small search bar on the upper right side of your Gmail, Google, Google Docs, or Twitter window. You manually add any accounts that you'd like CloudMagic to index by supplying your name and password. As with previous versions, this iteration of CloudMagic stores this information locally, on your PC.

CloudMagic then begins indexing your accounts, which can take some time if your accounts are sizable. It took several hours to index a Gmail account containing 7 years of messages, but only a few minutes to index a newer Twitter account. You can begin searching right away, but waiting until the indexing process is complete will deliver more accurate results.

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Driver Reviver Brings Outdated Device Drivers Up to Speed

Driver Reviver's name may be something of a tongue-twister, but using this $30 application is far easier than pronouncing it. This excellent utility offers a simple way to identify and update out-of-date drivers.

Driver Reviver screenshot
Driver Reviver uses visual graphs that make it easy to gauge the age of your drivers.
Like its rival Perfect Updater, Driver Reviver ($30, free demo) begins to scan your PC for out-of-date drivers as soon as you launch the app. I prefer the approach taken by another rival, DeviceDoctor.com's Device Doctor, which waits to begin scanning until you've manually started the process. But you can pause the scan, and in all other areas, both Raxco Software's PerfectUpdater and ReviverSoft's Driver Reviver drastically outperform Device Doctor.

In fact, Driver Reviver is very similar to PerfectUpdater. Both are $30 apps that quickly scan your PC, and display the results in easy-to-view lists that make it easy to gauge the age of your drivers. And like PerfectUpdater, Driver Reviver offers a free scan of your PC: Once you want to go ahead an update your drivers, you have to spring for the full version of the apps.

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Communicate Website Design Plans Easily--and Quickly--With WireframeSketcher

These days, I’m busy creating a new online store, a process that involves quite a bit of user interface design. To make matters more complicated, my colleagues are spread all over the globe, so we can’t just walk up to the office whiteboard and quickly flesh out ideas. It used to be that to show them a new UI layout, I had to draw it from scratch using CorelDRAW--and even MS Paint, just that one time. WireframeSketcher ($75, seven-day free trial with watermarks) changes that, and lets me present slicker UI designs much faster.

WireframeSketcher screenshot
WireframeSketcher’s interface is not without its quirks, but it offers a rich array of UI widgets and excellent layout tools.
A wireframe is a non-working mockup of an interface, much like a sketch on a napkin. While there are online tools for creating wireframes (such as Mockup Builder), some situations call for a downloadable application that can be used offline.WireframeSketcher starts you off with a blank canvas, on which you can drag and drop any number of widgets. Some of these widgets can be as simple as a button or a label, while others can be as complex as “cover flow” (à la iTunes) or a video player. You can also customize them: For example, the table widget lets you control the number of columns, their width and their contents, and you can even add icons into cells (not just text).

There is no dedicated user interface for customizing a table’s contents; instead, you are presented with a text area into which you must type the desired layout and contents, using specialized syntax. WireframeSketcher's syntax isn’t very complex, but doesn’t adhere to any widespread standard (it’s a form of CSV, basically). It is mentioned in the online manual, but the documentation mainly consists of a few quick examples. I was eventually able to get the table to show the information I wanted in the correct format, but it did require a bit of fiddling.

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Classic Game Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall's Deep Gameplay Makes It Worth the Fuss

The Elder Scrolls, Chapter II: Daggerfall from Bethesda Softworks is the critically-acclaimed sequel to The Elder Scrolls: Arena, the very first game in the famous Elder Scrolls series of PC roleplaying games. Daggerfall expands and surpasses on every aspect of Arena’s gameplay, delivering you into a sprawling fantasy world teeming with villages, tombs and castles to explore. Playing Daggerfall on a modern PC can be jarring--the game was released in 1996 for MS-DOS--but once you get used to playing a game with outdated graphics and cumbersome controls, you’ll discover a well-written role-playing game that sucks you in for hours with a surprisingly exotic and engaging adventure. Of course since Daggerfall was released in 1996 you need a DOS emulator like DOSBox in order to get it running on a modern PC. For more information, check out our handy guide to playing Daggerfall on your Windows 7 PC.

The Elder Scrolls, Chapter II: Daggerfall screenshot
The art in 1996's Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall looks dated today, but the absorbing gameplay never gets old.
You start the game by creating a character from one of 18 classes and 8 different races, allocating points to a variety of different skills like archery, pickpocketing or thaumaturgy. Daggerfall has one of the deepest character creation systems I’ve ever seen in a PC game, more akin to a proper pen-and-paper role-playing game than a modern RPG like Fable: The Lost Chapters. If you’re in a hurry you can breeze through character creation by answering a series of hypothetical questions and allowing the game to create a character based on your choices, much like the morality quizzes that distinguished character creation in the Ultima series of games.

Once you create a character, you’ll find yourself in a dank dungeon with a few pieces of shoddy equipment and a simple quest: Find out why the deceased King Lysandus is haunting his former kingdom, and lay the spectre to rest. And while you can spend hours unraveling the dark plot that surrounds the good king’s death to solve the mystery and save the kingdom (in one of six different endings), the real appeal of an open-world RPG like Daggerfall is having the freedom to blow off the main quest entirely and forge your own story in a world brimming with friends, foes, and fiends that dynamically respond to your actions. You move and explore the 3D world in real-time and engage enemies by using the mouse to swing a weapon or cast a spell, a complicated control scheme that takes some time to get used to.

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