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Many free programs are simple, one-task affairs. A few, though, are so generously laden with features that they can take the place of several other programs, even ones you must pay for. This month, we look at a new version of a popular startup-management/cookie-management/spyware-detection-and-removal tool and a new (deep breath) universal-instant-messenger/video-messenger/Voice-over-Internet-Protocol/file-sharing/photo-sharing communications suite.
Scotties Make Good Watchdogs
Your computer could use a watchdog like a Scottish Terrier, something small to brighten up the household and alert you to intruders. Enter WinPatrol, a popular, free security program that's recently been updated to version 8.0.
It's a good idea to run WinPatrol immediately after downloading it, simply to help with housekeeping. WinPatrol's mascot, Scotty the Windows Watchdog, fetches information about what programs are running at startup, what useful and not-so-useful helpers are installed in Internet Explorer, and the like. You can also look at the cookie blocker's list of objectionable keywords ("commission," "track," and "porn," for example) and add items or subtract them. Version 8.0 includes a new "Delete File on Reboot" feature that removes stubborn programs in their brief moment of vulnerability.
Even when the program appears to be napping in the system tray, this clever pup monitors your system, barking whenever it detects suspicious behavior. Instead of referring to a long, frequently updated list of programs, WinPatrol simply looks for anything that behaves like malware. You can click the Scotty icon in the system tray to find brief descriptions of the potentially troublesome files; another click takes you to the Web site for WinPatrol maker BillP Studios, where you can read the latest information about questionable files. Not every file that makes Scotty bark is a bad one--some are downright neighborly, once you've been properly introduced--but he'll sniff out all the strangers and help you decide who's a friend and who's a foe.
If the descriptions in the free version aren't quite enough, you might consider paying the one-time $20 registration fee for WinPatrolPlus. WinPatrolPlus users get access to more detailed descriptions. And, as the Scottish side of my family would say, "Dread naught!"
What Will They Think of Next?
If you were building your ideal instant messaging client, you'd want it to cover the IM services you already have. You might add lots of features, but you'd limit desktop-cluttering windows. Oh, and you wouldn't want to pay for it. Qnext, a free universal instant messenger from a company called (you'll never guess) Qnext, just might fit the bill.
Qnext lets you exchange IMs with contacts on the AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo networks as well as Qnext's own peer-to-peer service. Your friends on other networks don't need to have Qnext. When I tested the program, many of my contacts were using AIM and ICQ through another universal instant messenger, Trillian. (Yes, I still like Trillian--but many of that program's richer features are cordoned off in the $25 Pro version.)
That said, there are advantages to a purely Qnext conversation. The number of features accessible through Qnext's main interface window is its biggest edge over other universal IM clients. Qnext evades the usual muddle of windows by opening what the company calls "zones." If you want to share files from work or photos of your new kittens, you open a zone from Qnext's main interface; this widens the interface window instead of popping up a separate window. If you want to chat with Voice over Internet Protocol or the video messenger, you do that through the main interface, too.
When you use Qnext's P2P services, 512-bit user authentication and 192-bit encryption keep your privacy intact. Each zone can be configured as public, friends-only, private, or shared with only the Qnext users you choose. If someone pesters you about the kittens--or shows you any other unwanted attention--you can remove their access to a zone or block that person's messages entirely.
In the future, Qnext plans to charge for the photo-sharing service, Qnext Photo, and for other services not yet announced. For now, though, it's all free.
PC World Senior Downloads Producer Max Green and Senior Associate Editor Andrew Brandt contributed to this story.