January 18, 2008

My Favorite Free Utilities for Vista: Part 1

While Vista Ultimate has a number of nice system and user enhancements, it's still Windows. Meaning there are still many gaps to be filled and annoyances to be eliminated. Along the way I've amassed a number of useful little programs that have proven themselves. Some accomplish a number of great things, while others just do one thing particularly well. All have found a permanent place in my Vista bag of tricks. While all state they're free, you may want to check their respective web sites for more precise licensing information:

1. Taskbar Shuffle

It's stupefying that every version of Windows, including Vista, still won't let you drag your open taskbar buttons around in the order you want. Sure, XP and Vista can group similar windows together into a combo button, but I've never quite warmed up to it. Taskbar Shuffle is a tiny program that allows you to drag and drop your Windows taskbar buttons to rearrange them in any order you like. You can even rearrange your system tray icons with a hotkey combo, since they never seem to load in the same order with each reboot.

Web Site: http://www.freewebs.com/nerdcave/
Systems Supported: XP/Vista/2000/NT/95/98, 32-bit only, but "hold tight for 64-bit" per the developer's site

2. DeskSave

Who hasn't seen Windows scramble our desktop icons, especially whenever the screen resolution changes? I've had it happen plenty of times when hooking up a projector. The more desktop icons and folders you have, the worse it gets. Windows has long needed some desktop Stickum. For Windows 9x systems, I really liked PC Magazine's fantastic WinTidy utility as the best of breed. However, it's no longer available freely (you have to subscribe), and it hasn't been updated for newer OSes, so it's either crashed or worked intermittently at best for me on various Windows NT-based OSes. While not as refined as WinTidy, DeskSave is another one-trick pony that saves and restores your desktop icon layout at different screen resolutions.

Web Site: http://www.desksave.de
Systems Supported: Windows 9x/NT/2000 and XP (it also works on my Vista Ultimate system)

3. Heidi Eraser

Vista, like all its Windows brethren, lacks the ability to properly erase a file or folder. (Deleting is not the same as erasing, a/k/a file wiping.) With Heidi Eraser, you can drag and drop files and folders to the on-demand eraser, use the convenient Windows Explorer extension or the integrated scheduler to program overwriting of unused disk space or, for example, browser cache files to happen regularly.

Heidi Eraser not only gives you a number of preset file wiping options, it also allows you to add your own. Besides the standalone program, it's also integrated into Windows right-click context menus. So it's easily accessible in Windows Explorer and Recycle Bin: Just select the files or folders, right-click, and click on "Erase". Eraser can also be used to securely move files or folders. In a secure move, Eraser copies the data you select to the location of your choice, and then securely deletes the data from the source location. In addition, it can erase unused space on a drive or removable disk, and even your entire hard drive via creating a "Darik's Boot and Nuke" disk (a/k/a "DBAN"), a well-known and respected disk wiping program. If you donate your PC's, or simply want to employ good data retirement practices, a program like Eraser is essential.

Web Site: http://www.heidi.ie/eraser/
Systems Supported: Windows 95, 98, ME, NT 4.0, 2000, 2003, XP & Vista

4. IE7Pro

Still using IE for your browser but wish it had more privacy and advanced features? Sure, Firefox is a great browser (I have both installed), but it requires plugins to gain more useful features. A single program, IE7Pro does for IE6 & 7 what it takes many plugins to add to Firefox. It's long list of features includes very effective Ad and Flash blocking, mouse gestures, entire web page screenshots (including those looong pages), auto-refreshing of pages (think eBay), IE crash recovery (remembers your last open set of tabs), better tab management, user-definable web site aliases (e.g., simply type "g" and press Enter for http://www.google.com), user scripts for downloading flash video from sites like YouTube, and a lot more.

Web Site: http://www.ie7pro.com
Systems Supported: IE6 and IE7 on Windows NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista

5. FireTune for FireFox

Want to get more performance out of Firefox? FireTune is a nifty little program that optimizes Firefox's internal performance to your PC hardware and Internet connection speed. For example, on a faster PC with fast broadband access, it makes Firefox run all out and increases the number of concurrent web site connections so it can load web pages even faster. On slower machines or slower Internet connections, FireTune throttles Firefox back to match performance for the best browsing experience. It can also optimize Firefox's memory usage, which is particularly useful if you have installed a lot of Firefox plugins. Per the site, FireTune does NOT modify the Firefox executable, or any other Firefox binary file, and everything can be undone easily with a single mouse click.

Web Site: http://www.totalidea.com/content/firetune/firetune-index.html
Systems Supported: Mozilla Firefox 1.x and 2.x on Windows 98, ME, 2000, 2003, XP SP1 (or higher), Vista

[I should note that Totalidea also makes the powerful TweakVI program that does for Vista what Microsoft's TweakUI did for earlier Windows versions, and then some. TweakVI is on my "To Try" list, but I need to emphasize that since TweakVI modifies so many of Windows' critical system settings, you better know what you're doing if you decide to play with it. In contrast, FireTune is much safer to try, and remember to click on its option to back up your current Firefox settings before making any changes.]

Stay tuned for Part 2 for even more useful free programs. . .

Topic(s):   Trick or Treat
Posted by Jeff Beard