Adding a dash of fun to everyday tasks can make the work go more smoothly and improve your results. This month, we look at a Mozilla Firefox plug-in that lets you browse to music, a program to make cursors more attractive and efficient, and a video-calling program that doubles as a videoconferencing tool. Each comes in a free version or with a free service plan--so you'll save sanity and money while you're improving your productivity.
Tunes in the Toolbar
Music makes my work go faster, and a fair amount of my work requires Web research. This means I always have music playing and Mozilla Firefox windows open. Until recently, it also meant that whenever the phone rang, I had to scramble to pull my media player to the foreground and hit Pause. But thanks to a freebie called FoxyTunes, I can now control my music from within Firefox.
Unlike the many plug-ins that create thick, screen-munching toolbars, FoxyTunes slips a tiny toolbar into the status bar at the bottom of the Firefox Window. I'm not fond of the way icons crowd the Windows system tray, but I can afford the space for the Firefox status bar. This little sliver connects with any of a number of popular players--Apple ITunes, JetAudio, MusicMatch Jukebox, RealPlayer, and Winamp, to name a few--to give you browser-based control over your player.
FoxyTunes is free, but donations go towards future development. The author, computer science graduate student Alex Sirota, accepts PayPal donations through the FoxyTunes Web site.
Cursors Shouldn't Make You Curse
When you watch foreign films, do you have trouble reading white subtitles over a snowy scene? I have a similar issue with the default Windows cursor--neither the skinny typing cursor nor the white arrow stands out very well against a white e-mail or word processor background. The cursor options Microsoft includes in Windows leave me cold. Stardock, maker of popular shell enhancer WindowBlinds, balances form and function in a free program called CursorXP.
CursorXP installs easily into Windows 2000 and XP. Once it's up and running, you can access it either through the CursorXP configuration screen or via Windows' mouse settings. The software adds useful touches such as drop shadows, which are helpful for finding the cursor on a crowded screen, and animations and color changes to show clicking. Although some of the options certainly tickle the funny bone, those of us who don't need candy-cane cursors have more sedate--yet visible--options. If none of them suit you, you can modify the existing cursors and save your changes.
I've Got Second (and Third, and Fourth) Sight
PC World gave SightSpeed Video Messenger 2.0 a World Class Award earlier this year for its excellent voice-and-video syncing. Its successor, SightSpeed 3.0, sports a shorter name, a new interface, and three snazzy new features: a video answering service, video e-mail, and multiparty video calling.
In the new SightSpeed interface, all your contacts stay visible, whether or not they're logged on. Color-coding tells you whether someone's online, whether they've been idle for 5 minutes, whether they're busy, and so forth.
Also, "offline" is no longer a synonym for "inaccessible." If you really need to talk to your boss, who's not signed on at the moment, you can click their contact info to record a video message on the answering service. It's just like leaving a voice mail message. If you want to show the sun plummeting beneath the horizon in the office window behind you as you work into the evening, you can record that moment and then send it as video mail to both your boss and your patient spouse--even if your spouse doesn't have a SightSpeed account.
Multiparty video calling expands SightSpeed from a video IM client to a video conferencing tool. With multiparty calling, you can host a video meeting for up to four attendees. The video quality for multiparty calls isn't as stellar as it is for one-to-one calls, but it's adequate, and the sound is clear. All conference attendees must have the SightSpeed software installed, but only the host needs to subscribe to a multiparty plan. Since it doesn't cost other attendees anything extra, even subscribers to the free calling plan can attend up to 15 minutes of a multiparty meeting. The savings should make it much easier to convince everyone in the remote offices to go online when you explain to them that you can't work from 8 a.m. Eastern time to 5 p.m. Pacific time. (And if that doesn't convince them, you can forward those slackers the irate video mail from your concerned boss.)
SightSpeed--yes, it's the name of the company, too--offers four different video calling plans, starting with a free basic plan and adding more access to features through the $5/month, $15/month, and $55/month plans. The free plan offers unlimited Voice over IP calls, 15 minutes per day of one-to-one video calls, and one video-mail message per day. The high-end $55 plan offers unlimited VoIP calls, one-on-one video calls, and multiparty calls, plus 1000 video mails per month. Other plans bridge the gap between these extremes. All paid plans offer a price break for buying a year's subscription; current promotions offer discounts on Webcams and headsets bundled with the service.
PC World Senior Downloads Producer Max Green and Associate Editor Melissa Perenson contributed to this story.