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Software // Enterprise Applications
03:24 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner

10 Essential Free Or Cheap Windows Utilities

These tools keep the workflow humming.

A colleague is moving from one department of the company to another, and as part of the job change, he has to start using a Windows laptop as his primary computer. Until now, he's used a Mac. So we were talking about his job transition and, as the conversation came to an end, he said in passing, "Are there any good utilities that I really need to get for Windows?"

He was asking the right guy. I'm compulsive about fiddling around with cheap and free personal productivity software. I do it the way other people buy Filofaxes and Dayrunners, fountain pens, and blank books. I'm always on the lookout for the right combination of tools that will turn the chaos of my life into order.

Here are 10 tools that I use to keep my work flowing faster. Six are priced under $30, and four free tools.

Cheap Software
1. ActiveWords lets you set up simple, typed text strings to do text-substitution, launch programs, open documents, navigate to Internet sites, pre-address e-mails, and create Outlook tasks and calendar entries. It monitors everything you type, and looks for certain sequences of text followed by two taps of the spacebar (or the F8 key — user's choice) and then it takes action.

So if I type S, followed by T, followed by space, space, ActiveWords automatically pastes in my business e-mail signature wherever the cursor is at the moment. If I type "pub" it pastes in a boilerplate passage that I use when responding to some readers' e-mail, asking if it's okay for me to publish their e-mail. If I type "scpgo," it launches my browser and takes me to Security Pipeline, the site I edit. And if I type "task", ActiveWords opens a new, blank task in Microsoft Outlook.

I can type these things anywhere. I don't have to be in my browser to launch my browser and go to a Web site. I don't have to be in Outlook to create a new task.

I've only just touched on usefulness of this wonderful, flexible application, which is reviewed here. Price: $19.95 for basic version. Note that pricing in the review is out-of-date.

2. Anagram is a handy little utility. It allows you to easily extract contact information from e-mails and other documents, and create Microsoft Outlook, Agendus, Salesforce.com, or Palm Desktop address book entries. You just highlight the text containing the contact info, click Ctrl-C twice, clean up the entry a bit, and you're done. Pricing: $19.95 flat for Outlook, Palm Desktop, and Agendus; $6.95 per month for Salesforce.com.

3. ClipMate is a clipboard extender. It keeps a database of recent items you've clipped to your clipboard, so you can paste them back in again. Like ActiveWords, it's a regular little toolbox of useful gadgets: you can save libraries of frequently reused boilerplate text, use it as a screenshot capture utility, use a feature called "PowerPaste" to paste different items in sequence, and more. Price: $29.95.

4. FeedDemon is my current favorite RSS aggregator. Price: $29.95.

5. NoteTab Pro. Microsoft Word really isn't suitable for writing copy on the Web. It generates a lot of weirdly formatted characters that aren't Web-compatible. Some of my colleagues have figured out how to customize Word to generate Web-friendly text, but I find it simpler just to use a text editor, which produces plain, unformatted text.

The free Notepad that comes with Windows is fine for some people, but I like a few more features. My text editor of choice is NoteTab Pro, which includes spell-checking, the ability to open multiple documents in a single window, create outlines, some wizards for generating HTML, and more. It's actually a full-fledged programmers' editor; you can use it for programming in C, C++, Java, and other languages. Only NoteTab Pro has the spell-checker, URL and HTML highlighting, and a couple of other features I consider essential. Pricing: $19.95. for Pro version; $9.95 for standard version; Lite version is free.

6. SplashID stores and encrypts usernames, passwords, and any other short text snippets you want to protect against prying eyes. There are a lot of cheap or free password-storage-and-encryption programs out there; I prefer SplashID because it's the only one I've been able to find that synchs easily with my Palm handheld computer. The Windows version also synchs with versions that run on the Pocket PC, Windows Mobile Smartphone, Sony Ericsson P-Series phones running Symbian UIQ, and Nokia Series 60 phones running Series 60 software. Price: $29.95.

Free Software
7. GAIM open-source multi-protocol instant message client allows you to use a single client to communicate with buddies on (deep breath) AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, SILC, GroupWise Messenger and Zephyr networks. I just use it for AIM and MSN. Occasionally, people try to send me files, multimedia documents, or start a voice chat, and they get an error message. I consider that a valuable GAIM feature. I am an IM Luddite; text instant messaging was good enough for Chaucer and William Shakespeare and it's good enough for me.

GAIM has a tabbed interface for multiple conversations in a single window, and allows you to create aliases for users, so you don't have to remember who BadGirl785433 is. (Who is she? She's no one your mother would want you to IM with, that's who.)

8. 40tude Dialog is a newsgroup reader. It has complex scripting and rules languages that I mostly don't bother with, except for one thing: I have rules set up so that any replies to any message I post get copied to a separate folder, called "Replies." That way, I can keep up on ongoing conversations throughout the day without taking up too much time.

9. Mozilla's Firefox browser has been written about extensively; I assume you already know about this one, so I won't belabor it. Firefox permits customization using add-ons called "Extensions"; here are the ones I use.

10. POPfile is an excellent spam filter, as well as being a general-purpose e-mail sorter and it's reviewed here.

And A Bonus One
There's one other tool that I really like and want you to know about. It's a desktop search utility called X1 and it's not cheap — it costs $79.95 — but it vastly improves productivity.

Now Get To Work
Complex and hairy as it is, the Windows desktop provides only basic functionality. It needs to be customized to get it really humming. Fortunately, there are plenty of free and cheap tools that do the job.

I've never really written down a list of my favorite personal-productivity tools in one place; it's a pretty broad and impressive array. You might even describe it as intimidating. A cynic might say that the reason I feel my life is disorganized is because I spend too much time browsing for personal-productivity tools. I'll just try not to think about that.

Mitch Wagner is TechWeb Pipelines' senior editor.

The TechWeb Spin TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, Mitch Wagner, and Cora Nucci. We hope you like it, and even if you don't We hope you like it, and even if you don't, we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it. Check out The TechWeb Spin Archive.

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