Utilities software – a program for every eventuality
Why utilities software? … some things just need a simple program, and when a program keeps it simple, it’s often better. If you want to join parts of an audio file that have somehow become separated, then that’s all you want – you don’t want a dozen other options to cloud the issue and bloat the software, and you don’t want ‘suggestions’ popping up all over the screen while you’re trying to use the program. You want software that keeps it simple, stays focused, and gets the job done.
These are some utilities that I’ve found particularly useful, and in many cases it’s precisely because they’re focused on the one single thing they’re designed for.
Xmarks – an example of the best free software
First in this list of utilities software is a bookmarking utility called Xmarks. This was something that I wasn’t going to include, because it’s almost completely taken for granted. If you use certain sites regularly, you have to have some kind of bookmarks software, but once you set it up, you barely notice it. Over the years, I’ve used various programs to keep track of my ‘favourites’, and sooner or later I inevitably change to another one because some aspect of the program starts to annoy me, or interfere with the way I use the computer (okay, I admit it, I’m just hard to please)!
The latest in a long line is Xmarks. It has a fairly simple, uncluttered interface, and does just what it’s supposed to do. I use Xmarks almost exclusively for bookmarking sites, although it does have other features. The only other Xmarks feature I use is the synchronisation between various computers. If I set up certain bookmarks on my main computer, it automatically syncs on my laptop. You can also set it up to share particular folders or your entire list of bookmarks with others.
Oh, and one other major benefit is that if I’m using a computer somewhere other than at home, I can log in at my.xmarks.com, and know that all my bookmarks will be available from there.
I’ve only ever used the free version, and it’s done all I need, but there is a premium (paid for) version if you prefer.
ClocX – another example of the best free software
If you like to have an old fashioned analog clock on your desktop, you can, and you can make it look exactly the way you want. Download ClocX and you have the choice of dozens of beautifully designed clocks, with optional alarms and optional transparency (handy if you find the clock a bit distracting). You can easily resize your chosen clock from ClocX as well, a neat trick that you’ll be hard pushed to equal with the clock on your living room wall!
You need never miss an appointment again! And ClocX can be used to time fixed periods of work at your computer – a real boon to productivity, because if focuses the mind sharply on what you’re doing.
The clock you choose can be set to be quite faint, and yet brighten up on mouse-over, if you choose. You can choose to have ClocX always-on-top, and there’s a simple calendar facility too. Very useful, and a nice change from the digital clocks you see everywhere these days. Totally free software, and among the best free software available.
If you want to take it a step further, you need TimeLeft. This amazing program gives you a huge range of designs for a digital clock, and (to quote their website) “TimeLeft is a versatile desktop utility – it can be used as a countdown clock, reminder, clock, alarm clock, tray clock, stopwatch, timer, sticker, auction watch, work days/hours countdown clock and time synchronization utility. TimeLeft uses Winamp skins to show digits and text.
The main feature of TimeLeft is a powerful customizable reminder, which can show a message, play music (various formats, including mp3) or open a link, document, execute an application, turn off your monitor or shutdown your PC”.
Definitely among the best free software, but there’s even a deluxe version too. If you’re looking for some of the best free software in this category, you have to check this out.
As we’re all well aware, the Windows clipboard is sadly limited. Once you save a second item to the clipboard, the first one’s ditched, never to be seen again. You can only ever have one item on the clipboard at one time … that’s it. Why Microsoft has never improved on this I cannot imagine.
If you have lots of stuff that you’d like to have in a repeatable form, you need something like Clipboard Magic. There are other programs like this, of course, but this one is very good, and I’ve made extensive use of it.
Anything you type is automatically saved to the clipboard (unless you ditch it). Each item is shown by the first line, and can be selected and pasted into the clipboard (the normal clipboard, that is) with a single keystroke, ready for use. You can have several clips of text, or whatever, that you can call up.
Very useful, even if only for oft-repeated items like your name and address, phone number, the web address of your blog or website, etc. But you can also have oft-used phrases ready, or paragraphs, or even longer chunks of text. Very handy. Freeware.
Color Scheme Designer
One of the hardest things to do when you’re setting up a website (unless you have a natural flair for such things) is to get the colours just right. Get them wrong (which is surprisingly easy!) and your site can look truly horrendous. And a site that just doesn’t look right is almost encouraging visitors to rush towards the back button in a rush to get away from it.
You can also manage to screw things up quite easily by using too many colours. The easiest way by far though, is to use colours that do not match, or complement each other. How to go about getting it right? Actually, there’s no easy way … no matter which method you use, you still need to have a ‘feel’ for colours and colour schemes (that’s my excuse anyway!), but your best bet is to use one of the colour scheme designers available online.
I’ve tried a few, and the one that I’m most comfortable with is Color Scheme Designer. It features a simple colour wheel (a common feature in many such utilities), and if you drag your mouse around the wheel the colours change accordingly, suggesting one new scheme after another, endlessly.
If you have the designer set to ‘complement’, the right side of the screen shows several shades of the selected colours (two main colours, in this case) in panels, mimicking a website setup. Set it to ‘triad’ and it adds a third colour. You can do this for four and five colours, if you want, but I think most designers would agree two or three main colours is probably enough.
Going back to the right side of the screen, you can click on ‘Light page example’ to see a dummy page pop up in the selected colours, using a light theme. Click on ‘Dark page example’ and you see a darker version. You can also choose to see a text sample in the panels, using white, black and grey. It’s fascinating to see how variable the colour schemes are, but sadly, if you’re not blessed with a feel for colour, you’ll still have to just make a decision at some point and hope for the best!
Freeware, but the developer, Petr Staníček, gladly accepts donations.
If you’re ever left wondering if that important email you sent was ever actually received, MSGTAG is the program to help put you out of your misery.
Once you set the program up to work with your email client, it ‘follows’ your email and reports back to you immediately it is opened. So, no more sitting there and wondering if someone received your urgent and vitally important communication – if you get the email reporting it’s been opened, you know it has been (and if you don’t, either be patient or resend it, but at least you know where you stand). Free program, although with the paid version you get to lose the MSGTAG logo from the bottom of your outgoing email.
Note: Does not work with Hotmail, Yahoo mail, AOL and similar services, since they do not use the SMTP protocol.
If you like your desktop wallpaper and you hate to see all those annoying little icons disturbing your chosen scene, you might like Rocketdock. This puts your selected icons (your most used ones) in a floating ‘dock’ that you can have at the top or bottom of your screen, or at either side. You can have it there permanently, but the whole idea really is to hide all this stuff, so you can choose to have it slide out of sight once you move your mouse away, and pop back into view when the mouse approaches the edge.
Of course, you can group some icons together (utilities, say, or games, or security), so that they take up less room. When that group icon is clicked, a window opens to reveal all the enclosed icons. Handy. Lots of styles of icons for Rocketdock too, by the way, and various ways to customise, such as making the icons ‘bulge out’ further on mousover.
Completely free software from the Punk Software Team.
It’s always good to know what’s going on ‘under the hood’, so to speak, and an ideal way to find out is to take a look using Folder Size. This program analyzes your hard drive and shows you all the folders it contains, including the size of each.
At a glance, you can see what’s hogging all that space, and you can click on any folder that looks interesting and see what’s inside. Great way to find out where all your valuable drive space is disappearing to, and it’s an easy matter then to delete anything that’s clogging up your system. Alternatively, you can save it to an external drive, or put it on a few DVDs for safe keeping.
Free, but donations accepted. A very handy utility, and among the best free software available.
Defraggler is a cool little file defragmentation program that you might like to check out. As files are created, opened, closed, moved, copied, played, transferred and all the rest of it, they get gradually more and more fragmented. A computer’s hard drive finds it easier and more convenient to store bits of files here and there, as necessary. The down side of this is that when it wants to use that file again, it has to, in effect, build it up again from all the fragmented pieces.
At first this isn’t a problem, because the fragmentation is minimal. After a while it gets progressively more troublesome, as the pieces get scattered farther afield. Sooner or later, something’s got to be done about it!
Use Defraggler to defrag your entire hard drive, or even individual files – unique in the industry. This compact and portable Windows application supports NTFS and FAT32 file systems.
This is another program from Piriform, the people that gave us CCleaner. Thanks, guys!
7-Zip is open-source software, equivalent to WinZip, but free. If you want to compress files for storage, or for mailing, or you want to decompress files someone sent you, 7-Zip will handle it, no problem.
According to 7-Zip’s home page, its compression ratio compares very favourably with the leading archivers.
Freeware, shareware, and open source software
The programs on this page, Xmarks, ClocX, TimeLeft, Clipboard Magic, Color Scheme Designer, MSGTAG, Rocketdock, Folder Size, Defraggler and 7-Zip are all freeware, i.e. they cost you nothing at all, and they rank among the best free software. Very many utility programs are freeware, and many of them do a better job than the paid for variety. Just a step down from that, many utilities are shareware, which means you’re expected to fork out for the program, but only after a free trial period (and then, usually, only a modest fee).
Some programs are open source software, which means that the code is available to interested parties to work on. If you’re a programmer, you can contribute to open source software and improve on it. This way, open source software just keeps getting better and better, because the people working on it are motivated to make genuine improvements (and not for monetary gain either), as opposed to being motivated to add needless ‘improvements’ so that software companies can charge extra for ‘upgrades’.
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