A few freeware recommendations

It’s taking a while to get my 2010 blogging up to speed – so I thought I’d share a couple of the utilities which have been making life with Windows a little easier.
One which took a while to get used to, but is now a must-have, is the open-source Launchy. I was finding my Windows Start Menu getting over-full – to the extent that it took a good few seconds to even open. (Admittedly a memory boost later helped.) So I was looking for a way to avoid having to open the Start Menu at all – and that’s Launchy.
You press Alt+space, and you get a text input window – into which you can start to type a program name, a folder name, a filename, a custom command… you get the picture. Launchy lists anything which matches whatever you type in, as you type it in – and when you see what you want, hit ‘enter’… and it happens.
Even better, it learns which are your favourite applications for any given combination of keystrokes: so when I want to activate my local web development environment, all I need to type in is ‘w’, and it knows what I probably want. It may not sound like a massive productivity boost – but you might be amazed just how much time you spend navigating around your Windows environment.
(There’s an equivalent for the Mac called Quicksilver; and for Linux, Gnome Do. I can’t vouch for Quicksilver, but I’m spending more and more of my time with Ubuntu, and Gnome Do is starting to become an essential part of that experience too.)
My other recommendation is MaxTo for Windows – which actually makes 1920×1080 monitors make sense. I bought a new HD-resolution monitor last summer, and found myself overwhelmed with the available pixel space. Full-screen applications don’t make sense at that resolution, but there’s no built-in mechanism to make windows ‘maximise’ to anything smaller.
When you first run MaxTo, it asks you to define a grid layout which suits you. So for example, I’ve got a full-height, 1024-wide area for ‘full screen’ web browsing; an 800×600 (ish) window which I tend to use for text editing / coding; and two narrow columns for Explorer windows, Javascript error console, odds and ends like that. Then, when you press the ‘maximise’ button on a window, it expands to fill the area it’s in.
It’s the only way I’ve found, on any operating system, to get the screen layout I want – reliably, consistently, and instantly. It’s like having a multi-monitor setup on a single unit, and was precisely what I needed. MaxTo ceased to be freeware last year some time, but if you look around – eg here, you’ll find older versions.

Reviving a slow XP machine

Lately, my trusty XP desktop has been grinding to a virtual halt. Things were getting so bad that I’d decided to trash the lot, and do a fresh install. But having made the decision, I got brave enough to do some radical / drastic spring-cleaning – sure, what did it matter if I borked it? I was going to reinstall anyway! – and it’s actually been enough to bring the thing back to life. Not quite as zippy as a box-fresh installation, but certainly back to acceptability.
A few tips I’d like to share from the experience:

  • There really aren’t more than a handful of software applications you really, really need. I made a list of barely 20 things I absolutely had to have if I did a fresh install (and 6 of those were web browsers).
  • CCleaner is a marvellous piece of freeware, which will wipe your Windows machine clean of all sorts of stuff that simply doesn’t need to be there. It also includes an ‘advanced’ (?) Registry Cleaner, which identified and sorted out hundreds (literally) of issues for me.
  • One particular area of agony was the time it took for Windows to draw up the list of ‘All Programs’ under the Start button. As a workaround, I started using Launchy – which effectively puts a ‘command prompt’ inside Windows. Press Alt-Space, start typing the name of what you want, and it’ll present a list of suggestions. Pretty quickly, you’ll find the right programs are coming up when you type the first letter. It’s a remarkable timesaver, and so efficient I’m still using it, even after reviving the machine.
  • On similar lines is the experimental Firefox addon, Ubiquity. As with Launchy, a ‘hotkey’ brings up a command line interface, where you type pre-determined commands to do online things. Some of the reviews have been glowing; personally, although it’s certainly clever, I didn’t find myself using it much. So as part of my spring-clean, I uninstalled it… and was amazed at the speed increase I saw in Firefox as a result. I can’t say for certain that Ubiquity was slowing things down; but there is mention of a known bug in the current version, which may have been causing my problems. I’ll be back (probably).
  • There are so many good uses for a service like Dropbox: an online storage / backup / syncing service, with Windows, Mac and Linux clients, plus a pretty web interface. 2GB is free, 50GB costs $99/year. It’s very tempting.

And finally, one that won’t be at all contentious…

  • Linux is ready, but the IT industry isn’t. I was beginning to think it’s time to finally ditch Windows. I’ve been tinkering with Linux on and off for 10 years; and there’s no doubt now that Ubuntu, Fedora or various other distributions are now up to scratch. Was this the moment to go Linux-first, with Windows as backup – be it dual-boot, or ‘virtual machine’? In the end, I bottled it. Partly because I’d revived the Windows installation, but mainly because there were going to be issues with many, perhaps most of my peripherals.I was able to find long, tortuous workarounds to make most (but importantly, not all) of my kit mostly work; but that’s not the point. I don’t have the time or energy to put up with lengthy, intricate installation processes, or accept limited functionality, when we know it would have been plug-and-play under Windows. True, there is a part of me that would fancy the challenge; and I dare say, for most hardcore Linux types, that challenge is (the main?) part of the attraction. But it’s too much to ask of mere mortals.Don’t get me wrong; I’m very pro-Linux in principle, and I actively want to make the switch – probably to Ubuntu, since you asked. But I need people like (quick glance round the room) Dell, Apple, Garmin and (ha!) Microsoft to catch up. Make your kit work with Linux, guys, out of the box – and we’ve got ourselves a revolution. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with occasional playing in Sun’s VirtualBox.