Windows Tips: Great Freeware Squeezes More Out of Windows

Illustration: James O'Brien
The best thing about Windows is the amazing programs that developers outside of Microsoft create to make the OS better. Here's my list--in no particular order--of the ten best Windows freebies of 2005.

Shrink Your Files

If your Web site needs some speed or your photo collection takes up too much disk space, try Nuetools' StripFile. The program can shrink HTML and common Web image files (GIF, JPEG, and PNG) not by altering the content but by removing nonessential information such as color profiles and comments. Adjust the utility's Settings options to specify the kind of data it should remove. Or just point the program to a file or folder and click Compress. Another alternative is to right-click a folder or file in Explorer and choose Strip to remove extra information. StripFile creates a backup folder for your originals in case you run into problems.

Results vary depending on the type of file being compressed, but the application promises reductions of up to 50 percent. In my own tests, StripFile reduced the size of HTML files by 7 percent and that of JPEG files by 6.3 percent. Such slimming may not seem a huge difference, but over a large number of files it can add up to significant savings on disk space.

A+ Picture Manager

There are many ways to manage your digital images, but few are as well designed as the Picasa image service from Google. Picasa organizes the images and movies on your hard drive into a library. From there, you can copy, move, delete, and perform other file-management chores. Picasa's image editing features let you crop, rotate, perform tonal adjustments, and apply special effects to your images (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Give your digital photos a makeover or add some finishing touches at Google's Picasa image editing site.
).

Although you'll see the results of your editing appear in Picasa's various views of your photos, none of your changes directly alter your original picture, which Picasa preserves as a kind of digital negative. To make your changes permanent, you must export a copy of the edited image to another folder.

One of my favorite features (and one sorely missing from Windows) is Picasa's group renaming. With this feature I can automatically add the date and/or image resolution to a file's name. Other options allow me to group my photos into albums bearing custom labels without having to make copies that take up additional disk space. Picasa's built-in slide-show features can create great gift CDs, and I can even back up my images to CD or DVD. Other features let me generate image galleries for the Web, e-mail photos, and order prints from online services. Picasa is no Photoshop; but it's easy to use, and it provides just about all the image editing tools that many of us will ever need.

Lean, Clean File Tool

For Windows 2000, XP: Keeping the various folders and program windows you have open at any given time arranged properly as you move among them can be a hellish task. But window disarray becomes a thing of the past when you install Nikolay Avrionov's ExplorerXP. The program lets you tile or otherwise arrange your open folder windows inside its parent window. ExplorerXP offers a customizable toolbar, multiple file renaming, and the ability to drag and drop files out of and into Explorer windows and its own windows. Limitations? The program can't show thumbnails or any file views other than Details. Nor is there any simple way to browse network drives, though you can enter UNC network paths (such as "\\server\share" to access remote shares). All the same, for basic file management ExplorerXP is a fast and elegant utility.

PDFs in a Jiffy

For Windows 2000, XP: You can convert nearly any document to Adobe's convenient Portable Document Format without slapping down a cent. Though some free PDF utilities insert advertising or a watermark in the resulting PDF file, Acro Software's CutePDF Writer does not.

The application adds a CutePDF printer icon to your system. Point your prints to this virtual printer instead of to your regular printer to get a PDF version of the files. CutePDF Writer requires you to download and install a separate PostScript print language interpreter, such as Ghostscript (available from the same Web page). You won't find anything like Adobe Acrobat's security features, font selections, or optimizing options; in fact, CutePDF's configuration choices are pretty close to nil. But for most of your PDF-creation needs, CutePDF Writer fits the bill very well.

Mac Icons for Windows

There's hope for Mac mavens who have been forced into the body of a Windows user--as well as for anyone else who wants an alternative to Windows' boring taskbar and Start menu. Stardock's ObjectDock utility launches and switches between applications and uses Mac-like zooming and animation whenever you hover your mouse pointer over an icon (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Add a Mac-like look to your Windows icons via Stardock's ObjectDock utility.
). I have to admit that I never managed to get the program's weather-reporting icon to work, but I had much better luck with ObjectDock's clock and pop-up Google search box. (For $20, you can upgrade from the free version to one that supports multiple monitors, tabbed docks, and many other features.) If you're ready for a new way to launch and manage your applications, give the program a try.

After-Hours Cleanup

If you leave your system on all the time, you can use Windows' Scheduled Tasks tool to automate virus and spyware scans, backups, and other maintenance chores while you're away from your PC; see my June 2004 column for more on creating these shortcuts. But what if you prefer to shut off your computer at the end of the day? Use the simple controls included in FileWare's LastChance to add the applications and commands you want to run prior to shutdown. When you exit Windows, LastChance interrupts the shutdown process, runs the commands you specified, and finishes shutting down Windows when they are complete. You can set the utility to run commands when a particular resource (such as a network drive) becomes available. You can also schedule your shutdown for a preset time.

Keep Your Icons in Line

One day you start up Windows and notice that suddenly your desktop icons are in disarray. Lots of things can bump icons out of place. For an instant fix, give Tim Taylor's Icon Restore a try. The utility installs two new commands on the right-click context menu of My Computer, as well as on most other system icons. Set your icons the way you like them, right-click My Computer, and choose Save Desktop Icon Layout. Thereafter, anytime your desktop gets cluttered, just right-click My Computer again and choose Restore Desktop Icon Layout. If you've hidden your system icons, you can see the same commands by right-clicking Recycle Bin. The utility has no built-in uninstall capability, so be sure to download the companion UnInstall Icon Restore program just in case you want to remove this freeware in the future.

A Tidy Taskbar

In these days of madcap multitasking, nobody runs only one or two applications at any given time. For example, my system's taskbar is filled with an appalling number of buttons, each of them corresponding to a program that is currently open on my machine. Under these circumstances, even using the <Alt>-<Tab> keys to switch between open windows soon becomes a chore.

Elias Fotinis's TaskArrange program lets you drag and drop all of your taskbar buttons into a single window to order them the way you want; alternatively you can arrange the icons using the program's own convenient controls (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Do you have too many apps running? Organize your taskbar buttons more clearly with TaskArrange.
). If you have Windows XP's taskbar grouping feature turned on (right-click the taskbar and choose Properties to find this option), TaskArrange can reorder items in the grouped item pop-up menu.

Just remember to exit TaskArrange once you have achieved your desired order. That way the program will take up no more memory for itself, nor will it require a pesky tray icon of its own.

Hide Tray Trash

Icons representing your many (but vital) always-on utilities can clutter your system tray. Make more room with Two Pilots' Tray Pilot Lite, which adds a button near the system tray for toggling the tray--including the clock--into and out of view (see FIGURE 4

FIGURE 4: Now you see them, now you don't, when you click the Tray Pilot Lite button.
). Click to see your system tray icons, and click again to clean out unnecessary ones. For a little under $16, you can upgrade to a version that hides the system tray but not the clock (to use a different clock, see the next item).

A Better Clock

Windows' own clock (in the taskbar tray) is small and plain. It doesn't display seconds, and it has no alarm. Replace it with ClocX, a freebie that lets you set alarms to go off once or on a regular schedule. The alarms can play a sound, display a message, launch an application, or even exit Windows. You can display a pop-up calendar for a quick check of the date, or see both the date and time on your clock face (see FIGURE 5

FIGURE 5: Not just another pretty face, ClocX is a handsome timepiece that can remind you of your appointments.
). Use the program's antialiasing, its transparency levels, or one of its downloadable faces or "skins" to improve the clock's readability. Set ClocX to stay on top of open windows, or activate its "click-through" to place it beneath windows.

Send Windows-related questions and tips to scott_dunn@pcworld.com. We pay $50 for published items. Scott Dunn is a contributing editor for PC World.
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