My PC Toys

I’ve seen this idea somewhere before, I’m not sure where, but I remember it’s stayed with me since and only now have I decided to write about it. These are the tools I use on the Web and on my computer at home. Some I find more invaluable than others, and some are just gimmicky, but all serve a purpose and a positive purpose that I use.

I plan to write this over a few days and see how much comes out about each tool, if there’s enough I might create a separate review on my Review site, we’ll see. For now let’s get on with the list of tools, what use they are and why I use them. Hopefully you’ll find it useful and perhaps pick up a couple yourself.


Web Browsing: Opera

Opera: Free

I’ve used the free web browser Opera for quite a long time now, well before Firefox came out. The amazing thing is that its done everything that Firefox does now for most of the time it has spent on my PC. Tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, integrated mail, news and feeds, it’s everything I want in a browser and it runs way faster than either Firefox or IE and can handle a lot more open windows at once. I’ve found it perfect for my browsing requirements, unfortunately every now and again some site doesn’t accept the browser, but for those moments I just turn to IE. However, and there is a big however, IE7 is catching fast, and what I’ve used of this browser in it’s Beta has stunned me. It’s fast, packed full of features, and they work the way the user would want them. If they keep this up it’ll be the better browser.

Web Publishing: w.bloggar, 1st Page, MovableType

w.bloggar: Free

I used to post everything onto the various MovableType (MT) enabled Blogs I write on through the MT interface itself, and although it wasn’t that great a hassle and it was something I got used to, it was never as slick as using the free w.bloggar. Combining all the necessary fields in a layout that mirrors the MT entry screens, all the HTML formatting code you’d need with the most common at a CTRL keypress away, it also provides you with the ability to assign code to your function keys, a spell check, preview, posting to multiple Blogs, categories, file upload, straight posting or post and publishing, saving entries, importing, exporting…the list goes on. This tool is superb and allows me to write my posts very easily offline. The only thing I’d say is be wary of the search and replace, it’s got a mind of its own.

1st Page: Free

Not everything is so easy through w.bloggar though, and sometimes you need a stronger HTML creation tool. Outside of straight posting there’s a lot of HTML to play around with when you’re working on your own sites, Content Management tool enabled or not. When this kind of work comes along I turn to the free and feature soaked 1st Page HTML Editor. It’s got absolutely everything you could ever imagine, including code snippets and direct help on the HTML tag you highlight. Like w.bloggar it automatically formats and highlights your code, but here there are tons more HTML commands, shortcuts, highlight colours for different tags and code types. Java, CGI, Perl, HTML, and there’s so much help available. This is an HTML editor for everyone from a novice to an expert, it even has different modes for the different types of users. Excellent, and very easy to use.

MovableType: Free for personal use

I’ve dabbled with WordPress and to be fair that was only after using MovableType (MT) for sometime and I was already used to it. Still I find MT very usable and quite simple to follow. There is the issue that posting a new entry is quite daunting for those not well versed in MT already, but the functionality it provides you for your Blog or even as a full Content Management System is vast. Adding in the power of the plugin gives even more, although unfortunately the library of plugins is not as vast as WordPress it’s still very good. I’ve been using MT for a few years now and I’m more than happy with the functionality it offers, I’m running two Blogs and working on a third, and I can’t say it’s failed me yet. Actually I wouldn’t say I’m even using half of its functionality! If you’re looking to expand your Blogging or site from the free web-system you’ve been using, or you’re thinking of starting out with your own webspace, this is an excellent tool to consider.

Internet Utilities: Skype, Smart FTP, Zone Alarm, Shareaza, Trillian, Ad-Aware

Trillian: Free for light version

I used MSN Messenger for some time in my early days on the Internet, but then I found contacts who were using ICQ, so I downloaded their chat client. Then there were other people on AOL, and at that point I realised three clients was just plain stupid. It was around then a quick net search directed me to Trillian and found the answer, a chat client that connects to all the services at once. Perfect and free. Since that first install I’ve never looked back and uninstalled MSN Messenger from my machine. Now not all the MSN features work properly with Trillian, and I’ve had severe problems with file transfers killing my router, but for chat it’s a perfect tool.

Skype: Free with charges for additional services

Internet telephony took some time to come to me, and still is, paying BT for the privilage of talking to someone who is also on a Broadband connection is just insane, so I’ve turned to Skype. It’s not perfect, and it would be great to have a simple all on one Skype phone that you could dial numbers for your landline automatically or allow you see your Skype contacts and their online status on a small display. This would allow you to simply select them and turn to a WiFi connection to connect over the Internet. Now that would be ideal. However right now it’s still an evolving system and just needs a little more on the hardware front to allow me to use it as my preferred phone solution. Still, it’s a superb option if both parties make the effort. Plus it includes a chat client…another one!

Smart FTP: Free for personal use

All my file transfers with my host are carried out either through w.bloggar for images during blog postings, or Smart FTP for everything else. Its a simple and free tool offering some very powerful options. I particularly like the split screen layout, automatic reconnect, and keep alive options. Everything you really need for file uploading and downloading.

Zone Alarm: Free for standard version

If you’re paranoid, using some peer to peer software or running some Internet Web Server or equivalent from your home, then ZoneAlarm is a must have tool. Again it’s a free product that provides a stunning array of strength and features. This is a software firewall, a system that stops external connections from the Internet to your computer as well as preventing your computers software from connecting to the Internet. It has a simple configuration option or a more advanced, and to be honest you really need to get into the advanced setup. Configuration has to be made to allow name servers and connection to local PC’s (if you have a home network), once you get this done you can allow\disallow local applications as they connect to the network. I have an extremely sturdy Internet Router, and when it isn’t in use I turn it off, so that I hardly ever get any external systems trying to connect to me, until that is I enter peer to peer file sharing.

Shareaza: Free

Shareaza is perhaps the best P2P (or file sharing) system I’ve found on the Internet. There’s no spyware or adware to be seen, and it’s pretty robust and user friendly. It also connects to various sharing networks. However it can be infuriating trying to find something a bit more obscure, some configuration changes need to be made, and there’s no private peer to peer file sharing option. The configuration really needs to be delved into so that you don’t open a bunch of files for sharing that you really don’t want to, or should, and to ensure that your bandwidth doesn’t get consumned by external connections. After that it’s very user friendly and simple to use. What I really would like though is a private peer to peer system, that you could either setup for friends only, or one on one. For everything else, Shareaza is the best, and remember that you can only share files that do not hold a copyright…unless that copyright is yours!

Ad-Aware: Free

If you’re very careful you should find absolutely no need for this software, after all you’re not going to let anything hit your registry. You won’t allow emails, web pages and pop ups to run on your computer that you aren’t a 100% sure of, however I still find it comforting to run Ad-Aware once a month, and I find comfort knowning my Dad does too. It scans your hard drive, memory and registry to pull out potential issues, areas that might be deemed as adware or spyware, and gives you the option of removing them automatically. I found that this software was really easy to install, setup and just start using. The more complex part is understanding what the results are. Don’t be put off by that as a little Net research can give you the answers, and the tool gives you an extra level of comfort and safety.

Computer Utilities: AVG Free Edition, Kill Process, WinRAR, Reg Clean, CCleaner, BatchRun, Yahoo Widget Engine, Allways Sync, VNC Server and Viewer

AVG Free Edition: Free!

You’ll be noticing that most of the software I’ve been talking about through this list is either freeware or shareware, and AVG Anti Virus software is no exception, an anti-virus software that doesn’t cost a penny and comes with free updates, what more could you ask for? Again, because I tend to know a lot more of what is coming into my PC I tend to use this ad-hoc and not let it run constantly, however I have used the anti-virus monitoring on this and it found it perfectly unobtrusive. I tend to run it on files when I download them and keep the email checking on constantly, and so far it’s found every single virus that’s been sent to me. Updates are pretty much automatic, although I’ve found if you don’t choose the right settings it can overly notify you of these updates and become quite ‘nagging’. Otherwise it’s a great free tool.

Kill Process: Free

Another free tool, and something that I don’t use for its name at all. I never use Kill Process to actually kill any processes but rather to see what’s running on my computer and understand a bit more about what’s going on. For some reason I’d rather make sure everything is running smoothly and without waste rather than throwing memory and disk space at my computer, perhaps says something about my personality. So this tool tells you some good information about process usage, where the processes have been started from, etc. It helps to stop them being started in the first place, however it has some powerful features like creating a list of processes to automatically kill on startup, Windows Genuine Authentication tool anyone? Not because I want to run illegal copies, but because I can’t be bothered with it continually running and contacting Microsoft.

WinRAR: Trial, pay for full version

I much prefer WinRAR to WinZip. It’s a free tool and not only does all the WinZip functions in, what seems to me anyway, a much more user friendly and obvious manner, but it also does the complete RAR archive management side too. Another feature I like is the ability to split archives across multiple files of specified size. An excellent compression tool.

Reg Clean: Free

Every startup the Windows registry is read and loaded, and when applications are removed from your computer old and useless parts of the registry are often left, so a cleanup now and again can help startup times and performance. Reg Clean does a simple scan deletes and backs up the unused entries making the registry files a bit cleaner and more sleek.

CCleaner: Free, you can donate

CCleaner is multi-purpose computer cleaner. It not only scans and cleans your registry but a whole host of areas where your computer can build up files and unused information, as well as looking for common problems within the registry. Temporary files, startup, add\remove programs, downloaded programs, etc. A strong feature of this application is also to show you what files are started on your computer at startup, and I don’t just mean what’s in your startup folder, but also those of all users and those in the registry. This is very useful to remove what shouldn’t be on in Windows and cleaning your system even more, and when used in conjunction with the following tool it can make your startup even faster.

BatchRun: Free

I found BatchRun quite recently, but I’ve made it a standard install on all my setups. Batchrun is a tool that should be used by more advanced PC users, but can provide superb results. When Windows starts it runs all the programs marked in your registry for startup as well as those in the startup folders for your user and all users all at once. Then the hard disk tries to keep up as it leaps back and forth between program locations pulling in information for Windows to load all their modules and get them running. With BatchRun you can create an ordered startup file which loads each program one by one either waiting for it to complete loading, or waiting a nominated time delay before starting the next. Although this sounds like it would then make the startup last longer it doesn’t, it actually makes the startup significantly quicker as the computer software and hardware is focussed on loading and starting one application from one place, one at a time. I’ve taken as many registry entries as possible and all the startup entries and placed them into this to run at startup. It has not only speeded up the entire process but it has also ensured that certain applications don’t begin until others are configured, for example that Outlook doesn’t start until all the wireless and internet applications have loaded.

Yahoo Widget Engine: Free

Okay, Yahoo Widget Engine is a huge gimmicky toy and 99% of the offered widgets are resource hungry and pretty pointless. However there are a couple I really like and do find useful, so I’ve loaded the widget engine for a few small tools that Windows doesn’t offer either at all or in one place on the desktop. I’ll talk about these in more detail later, but the little XML systems I’ve installed are proving to be quite useful. I have a weather widget that shows the next five days temperature and weather, which is about as accurate as any others, i.e. not. Then there’s the clock with alarms, volume, wifi signal and battery (for the laptop) meter. Little things that make everyday use just a little bit easier.

Alyways Sync: Free

Now, here’s an issue that’s always a difficult one, synchronising data. I write on my Windows mobile, my PC, and my laptop, these are the three places I sit down and tap away. Most of this is done online, but reviews and larger articles I tend to write locally and then place in w.bloggar before uploading. So if I use these three devices I really need some way of keeping the latest versions on them all and resolving file conflicts simply and correctly. AlwaysSync provided me with the best solution. Simply define the folders that you want to sync from and to, and these can be network paths, the code runs at startup, analyses the files and performs a synchronisation. There are plenty of configuration options and filters you can use so that the analysis and synchronisation can happen any way you want. It’s free, and it also has an automatic check for new versions. Perfect. It’s never failed me yet.

VNC Server and Viewer: Free, you can donate

I’ve got a few computers at home, a development Web Server (which I still haven’t finished), my main work desktop and my laptop, I tend to find I’m flitting around back and forth between them. Sometimes I’ll sit in my living room and tap away but wish I could quickly do something on the others, so I found VNC Server and Viewer, both free applications that do just that, remote desktop control. Run, no need to install, the Server program on each computer and enter some security details, run the viewer, type in the IP address or name of the computer you want to connect to, enter the security details and viola, full screen control. There’s file transfer and even copy and paste work between machines, it’s superb. So much so that when I setup a friends computer for them, I remotely connected across the Internet and fixed their problems. Ideal.

Internet Audio\Portable Devices: iTunes, , QTFairUse, Sonic Stage

iTunes & QTFairUse: Free, although iTunes does charge for songs!

I no longer use my iPod and I’ve returned to Sony with their stunningly superb NW-A3000 HD Walkman – the software for which (Sony Connect) is horrendously bad – but I still use iTunes to buy some odd songs which I can’t find elsewhere. However, since they are DRM’d to the max without a thought to the consumer I have just downloaded QTFairUse which is a nice little application to strip out the DRM and allow you to use the song on other devices. Yes I could do this by writing to CD and then ripping them off, but this is much faster, although I’ve yet to try it.

SonicStage: Free with Sony Walkman, although tunes cost to download

This is the software I use with my Sony HD Walkman, and it does the job very well. There are a few little niggles I have with it, but in the whole it ensures my player and library are synchronised, updates song information from the Internet, and allows me to create all my playlists, etc offline, even displays all the intelligent features of the player. What more do you need? Well, loads perhaps, but that’s all I need barring complete removal of all DRM from all music systems (including iTunes), I mean why can’t I download an iTunes song and pass it to my Sony player? It’s streets ahead of Connect in terms of reliability, usability and functionality, so if you’re a Connect user convert now. Sony offer a conversion utility as well – I didn’t find this out until after I swapped and spent ages recreating the song and playlist information, so allow me to pass that titbit on!

Photography: Photoshop, Nikon Picture Project, JAlbum

Photoshop: Ouch! Commercial software

For digital photography there’s nothing better than Photoshop. I use it a lot at work too and I barely touch the surface of features, but there’s enough to alter levels, brightness, contrast, bring out specific colours and dampen some, tidy up imperfections, crop, resize, and that’s about all you need. Great application, it’s not free by any means, the one that sits on my work laptop is the closest I get to it. Pity the work has such an old version.

Nikon Picture Project: Free with a digital Nikon

I have a Nikon D70, which compliments my F50s just fine. It has a great feature of storing all the photo information along with the actual image, unfortunately when uploading the photos into a graphics application doesn’t mean that these details are taken with them. So I load the photos into Picture Project to extract all the details of the camera settings and then copy and paste them into the additional information in other applications. It’s a bit drawn out, but it does the job and gets all the information across.

JAlbum: Free, although you can donate

What a utility this is. If you have your photos uploaded and processed on your computer, what next? Well you can sent them off to a printer and get them all printed, or you can put them into a gallery on your computer or even the web. Photoshop gives you a little tool to make a web gallery, but it’s not very configurable so I stumbled upon JAlbum. This is a free application but it’s absolutely stunning. You have so much flexibility and control in making your own web galleries, including full EXIF support, sub-folders, watermarking, resizing, it even has its own FTP client. I urge you to check out this software, it’s wonderful.

Yahoo Widgets: XBox Friends, Widescape Weather, iVolume, Informer

XBox Friends: Free

This is a nice little widget which tells you about your XBox friends and whether they are online or not. I can’t believe this has taken so long, and in fact I can’t believe Microsoft hasn’t produced a PC application to monitor and control your XBox Live, never mind your XBox or XBox 360. In the meantime, this is really handy if you’re on your PC more often than XBox Live.

Widescape Weather: Free

This is a cool little widget that shows you the current weather and the next five days. It’s very small and uses a simple symbol with a temperature reading. Doesn’t take up much space at all.

iVolume: Free

A nice little minimilist icon that simply shows you the current volume setting in big figures and gives you an easy up and down arrow. It all fits inside a compact little box. It just makes things that little bit easier than opening the volume application, unless you’ve got volume controls on your keyboard or laptop that work every time. Mine don’t.

Informer: Free

Now I did have quite a few other widgets listed, until the other day when I downloaded Informer. This groups together a number of handy tools under one bar. On my desktop it sits just about the windows start bar and has the following sensors (mini-widgets inside the Informer widget). Date, WiFi signal indicator, Yahoo Mail indicator, secure feed from three seperate ToDo lists on Remember the Milk and four feeds from friends sites. The feeds all indicated by a feed icon, title and a number representing unread against total viewable entries. Hover the cursor over the feed and you see a list of the entries from that feed, clicking on it will take you to the default application you’ve specified in the settings. You can define other sensors with the current list being – spacer, text, image, shortcut, date, time, uptime, feed, Gmail, Yahoo, IMAP\POP3, Internet radio, WiFi signal, disk, CPU meter and graph (even for duo-core), memory, swap file, recycle bin, battery, and finally a fully functional off\restart\logoff button. So you see this widget does tons of stuff and it gives you quite a lot of flexibility. It’s a nice stab at a little information aggregator.

Web-based Applications: Bloglines, Remember the Milk, CalendarHub, Yahoo Calendar

Bloglines: Free

I’ve used Bloglines for a long time now. It’s an online feed reader, that means wherever I go I login and get all my feeds with my reading list bang up to date. Bloglines is pretty simple, it allows you to categorise your feeds into folders, choose various display options (summaries, titles. etc), and all the usual feed reader options. It makes keeping up to date with feeds a complete doddle, and you can export your bloglines feed list into various different formats for other applications and displaying on a website. There’s even a Yahoo widget to display your bloglines list. It’s recently undergone an update and the reading and update options are quicker and in a nice animated style now, it looks a lot slicker and runs a lot faster. I’ve tried a few other news readers both online and installed, and nothing comes close to the ease of use of Bloglines.

Remember the Milk: Free

This is how I now keep track of all my tasks and todo’s. I have used so many methods before from Outlook synching with my handheld, to FreeMind (a java based mind mapping software, which is free and very good if you’re into mind mapping), but nothing has given me the flexibility that Remember The Milk has. I have four or five different lists with priorities, notes, due dates and even tags. I have secure feeds to bloglines and my Informer widget, I even use feeds to pull some of the lists onto my Filmstalker website. It’s a very powerful and easy to use system, and for all you web 2.0 people out there, it has all that nice fluid animation rather than page refreshes. I really do find this application essential everyday use.

CalendarHub: Free

CalendarHub is another application I use for my Filmstalker site. Using this I can maintain a diary of film releases that I want to go and see, and by using the feeds I can display them on the site. It’s a fully working calendar which allows you to publish diaries for your friends to see, create multiple calendars and group them together, etc. It’s a superb Calendar, although sometimes just a little slow. I’m definitely waiting for this functionality to be implemented in Yahoo Calendar, or for this and Yahoo’s synchronising features to be added to Google Calendar. For now though, this is the perfect application for calendar feeds.

Yahoo Calendar: Free

The only reason I use Yahoo Calendar is because of its excellent synchronisation tool. Since I have a calendar and contacts listing at home, work and on my handheld, it can get confusing if they can’t synchronise together. I used to use my Palm Pilot and DesktopToGo which managed synchronising between the Palm and multiple computers excellently, however I’ve passed on the Palm and now use a Windows Mobile phone, and I don’t think ActiveSync is up to the job. So using Yahoo Calendar I can synchronise my home and work Outlook calendars and contacts, and synchronise the handheld with the home PC every night. It works a charm and I haven’t had any conflict issues with Yahoo yet…touch wood.

Extras…

Now there are a number of web based systems I use for statistics for my websites, but I’m not going to go into them here because then I’ll be giving too much away! I also think these are beyond PC Toys and extend into business tools (you could argue the same for MovableType, but I use it for this personal site too), and that’s not what this article is about.

The End

As you can see I have a fair number of tools I use on the PC, and if any of them sound interesting then do drop a comment if you want to find out more. Perhaps you use an application that you think I should be using, well feel free to drop a comment too. Watch out for updates as I’ll add new applications and take some away as and when I find new ones.

6 comments on “My PC Toys”

  1. Patrick Reply

    Interesting list, Richard.

    I use a lot of these – AVG, ZoneAlarm, Ttrillian (which is great – you know it keeps a copy of all your conversations, if you want to save those witty comments – or manage your security…), AdAware.

    Why KillProcess rather than just Windows Task Manager?

    Also, I just don’t get your addiction to Opera; but you don’t get my love of FireFox…

  2. Patrick Reply

    BTW, you can find my on Trillian (AIM and Yahoo) under my journal name – though I am rarely on: I dislike the immediacy of IM! But I’m there sometimes…

  3. Richard Brunton Reply

    Hey Patrick – I’m not ignoring you by the way, I read all your posts.

    Killprocess shows you more than those that are running in Task Manager, it allows you to do more too, like kill processes that TM wouldn’t allow you to as well as setting up a list of processes to keep killing on startup.

    It’s only recently that Firefox does all that Opera does, and although in some areas it’s starting to look better, it still runs way slower on my PC, especially with 5+ tabs open.

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