The Best Software You're Not Using

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At Your Leisure

Speedy Thumbnails

The thumbnailing system built in to Windows XP, 2000, and Me is so slow, you might chew your own thumbnails to stumps before Windows can finish displaying the preview images of a decent-size folder. ThumbsPlus 6 by Cerious comes to the rescue for those who need a quick and easy program to manage hundreds or thousands of image files. It does more than just display thumbnails: You can make slide shows from your favorites and convert file formats in bulk; the batch conversion process is terrific. $90 (free trial)

Poor Man's Photoshop


Are you looking for an affordable image editor? One of the best programs you'll find is LView Pro 2002, which features the bulk of options from its more expensive brethren at a fraction of the price. The $37 program by MMedia Research includes an excellent tool that allows you to rotate and crop photos in a single operation. To make color or brightness adjustments, dig into the histogram tool. This latest version of LView Pro also allows you to do more with text and vector graphics. The interface and help system aren't the greatest, but the money you'll save by using LView Pro over Adobe's Photoshop Elements 2 ($99) or even Photoshop 7 ($609), for example, certainly outweighs the time you'll spend mastering the application. $37 (free trial)

Mega-Music Manager

To be honest, Helium 2 feels more like a database platform than a music manager. Designed for users with thousands--or more to the point, even tens of thousands--of MP3s and other digital music files, Intermedia Design's Helium lets you organize your collection umpteen ways from Sunday (by combination of genre and year of release, for example). Bulk renaming, retagging, and sorting operations are easy, and the included Radon music player works flawlessly. Helium's circuitous interface is both quirky and tough to master, but it sure beats using Windows to rename all your music files. $35 (free trial)

Tivo for Radio

Got a favorite radio broadcast but can't sit by the PC? Replay Radio by Applian Technologies can record standard or Internet radio in MP3 format for you. If you don't have a particular broadcast in mind, Replay Radio has its own database of more than 100 shows and about 200 radio stations to choose from. To record, pick a station and set your recording time, or pick a show and let Replay Radio configure it automatically. Setting up daily or weekly recordings is a cinch, and you can even burn your favorites to a CD. The freebie version records up to 5 minutes at a time. $30 (free trial)

Sound Adjustments

EnhancedAudio.com's Diamond Cut 5 is strong enough for the audio professional, but the app is also great for anyone who likes to tinker with tunes. Every tweak you ever wanted to make to your garage band sessions or your favorite MP3 is possible with Diamond Cut, from erasing pops and crackles to removing (or adding) distortion. Record directly into the program at sample rates of up to 192 kHz, or import music from common file formats (including .wav and MP3). You can also preview your tweaks as you make them and undo in a flash anything that doesn't work. If the price seems steep, try one of the older, more affordable versions. $199

Icons 'R' Us

Ever wonder how those cool little icons show up in your Internet Explorer Favorites menu? They're called favicons, and they're much easier to create than you might think, thanks to IconForge by CursorArts. With it you can craft icons for frequently used documents or programs, saved Web pages, cursors, your own custom applications, and more. IconForge lets you design from scratch or shrink down a larger graphic to the iconic essentials. It also lets you compose in various sizes and image depths. $38 (free trial)

It's Your 3D World

Corel's affordable Bryce 5 lets you create impressive 3D cinemascapes that might remind you of awe-inspiring scenery from a game like Myst. You get a blank slate and easy-to-use tools: Drag and drop to create terrain, add trees and geometric objects, and give it color and lighting, then click Render. After that, if you like, shrink down your scene or animate your landscapes for the Web. It's impossible not to create something that looks like it's straight from a Pixar movie--and it all takes minutes. Superb. $80

CAD on the Cheap

Most people believe two facts about computer-aided design software: It's difficult to use and it's expensive. Autodesk's $49 QuickCAD 8 will disabuse you of both those preconceptions. QuickCAD provides the necessary tools to get you started on any kind of diagrams, from basic shapes made up of straight lines to advanced 2D drawings, but the program is primarily designed for people who want to trace out a room and drop furniture in it. Those users who are familiar with CAD lingo or are patient enough to sit through the tutorials can come up with more impressive works of art. QuickCAD also supports the sophisticated tools a real engineer might require. $49

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