The Big List O’ Quality Software
This post is a long one, and I’m going to pin it to the right nav bar, because it’s going to become an evergreen feature here at Just Well Mixed: The Big List O’ Quality Software.
The purpose of The Big List O’ Quality Software is to help you get useful stuff done with your Windows PC. Windows users face the opposite problem from users of alternate OSes; those folks look far and wide for software that does what they want, so when they find good stuff, word travels fast. In the Windows world, however, there is just so darn much software floating around that it’s possible for even very good stuff to get lost in the clutter. So I decided to throw together this little guide, to share with you some things that I have found very useful in the past.
See, I’m a professional geek — an Alpha Geek, if you will. In my work, I spend a lot of time futzing with software. And that means that I’ve seen a LOT of software, most of it unremarkable, but some of it very good. Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of kit of useful “go-to” programs, tools that I reach for over and over again and that I recommend to others. That’s what these programs are: think of them as programs that have my personal seal of approval, that I’d tell you about if you sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d seen anything useful out there lately.
Please note that this is not solely a list of free software (though many of the things I will tell you about are available for free). Every one of these programs is the result of hard work on the part of developers who care about providing you with something cool and useful, so if they ask for a few bucks in return I’m not morally opposed to helping them out, and you shouldn’t be either. Besides, if it’s on this list that means that it’s worth many times more than they’re asking for it, and in most cases they provide you with the option to “try before you buy” so you can be certain you like what you’re getting before you pony up the cash.
This list is a living document and will be updated over time. If you’ve got feedback or would like to suggest a package for the list, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to have a look — the only consideration is that the target platform must be Windows 2000/XP. (If you’re still on 95/98/Me, most of these should still work but I make no guarantees. But you’re probably used to hearing that…)
- I want a free and powerful application to:
- I want to get my AOL e-mail in any mail program
- I want to consolidate mail from many Webmail providers (AOL, MSN, Yahoo) into any e-mail program
- I want one instant messenger program to connect to every IM network
- I want one program to manage all of my digital media (MP3s, video files, etc.)
- I want to rip CDs to MP3 format with the highest fidelity possible
- I want the most powerful and flexible CD-burning software available
- I want to replace the software for my Creative Nomad/Digital Networks Rio/Dell Digital Jukebox/iRiver iHP/Apple iPod that doesn’t suck
- I want to keep hackers out of my PC, and know when programs try to “phone home”
- I want to scrub “spyware” off of my computer
- I want to know exactly what’s in my PC
- I want to fool programs that expect their CD to be in the drive by using a “Virtual CD drive”
- I want to slice up my hard drive into several drives
- I want to play a free, intense, old-school World War II wargame
- I want to play a free and addictive word puzzle game
- I want a program to find and connect me to servers for my multiplayer games (Counter-Strike, Battlefield 1942, etc.)
Last update: Replaced Trillian with Pidgin as recommended IM client; replaced Filzip with 7zip as recommended archiver. (October 14, 2008)
Web browser: Mozilla Firefox (Mozilla.org: Free, donations welcome)
If you’re like most people, you’re using Internet Explorer as your Web browser. I’m here to tell you that it’s time to quit! There’s an alternative available that’s so much better that once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder how you got along without it — and that alternative is free, too. It’s Mozilla Firefox.
Firefox is based on the world-renowned Mozilla browser technology, but optimized for speed and performance. This means that it’s super snappy (those of you with bad memories of Netscape 6, those days are OVER). It has a whole bunch of features that IE doesn’t have and will never have, like tabbed browsing (open multiple documents in one window — super handy) and pop-up blocking (never see an annoying ad again). Plus, it’s open source, so there’s an army of geeks out there customizing and improving it every day; just look at the huge array of themes and extensions they’ve already produced and you’ll see how you can extend Firefox in any direction you like.
Firefox is THE Web browser. Accept No Substitutes! (return to top)
E-Mail: Mozilla Thunderbird (Mozilla.org: Free, donations welcome)
You hate spam. I hate spam. We all hate spam. But spam is like the weather: everybody complains about it, but nobody is doing anything about it.
Wrong. Enter the new mail program from the people who brought you Mozilla, Mozilla Thunderbird.
Thunderbird has all the features you’d expect from a modern mail program, with one big surprise, a built-in “Bayesian” spam filter. This means that, every time you get a spam, you can just click that message and click a button marked “Spam”, and Thunderbird learns the message is spam. Then, as new messages come in, Thunderbird starts to filter out messages it thinks are spam based on the ones you have told it are spam in the past. It doesn’t take too long before you nearly stop seeing spam in your inbox altogether.
Other mail programs have Bayesian filters, but none has them integrated as seamlessly as Thunderbird does — and Microsoft Outlook lacks this feature altogether (even the new version in the just-released Office 2003 can’t learn what spam looks like). If you’re as sick of spam as I am, try it and see if Thunderbird can be as effective for you in solving the problem as it has been for me. (return to top)
Office Suite: OpenOffice (OpenOffice.org: Free)
Everybody who has a computer needs some office software, right? We’ve all got letters to write and so forth, and it’s nice to be able to bring work home sometimes. But have you seen how much Microsoft Office costs these days? Holy moley! Maybe you didn’t realize how much you paid because they hid the cost in the price of your computer, but if you bought it separately, you know that Microsoft is charging a pretty penny for this product, mostly on the theory that the average customer is a corporate buyer who doesn’t really care too much about the price since it’s a mandatory upgrade anyway. For us Little People, though, that kind of leaves us out in the cold.
Thankfully, though, we now have a viable alternative — OpenOffice. OpenOffice is a full-featured open-source office suite that you can download for free. It’s based on a product developed by Sun called StarOffice, but it’s been improved and extended far beyond Sun’s original product, adding compatibility with Microsoft Office files and a range of nice features.
OpenOffice comes with a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, and presentation program. These can all open files from their MS Office counterparts, so if a colleague e-mails you a Word document, it’s no problem to make some edits in OpenOffice Writer, save back to MS Word format, and mail it back to her. Additionally, it supports saving to a range of other formats, including PDF — which is a nice touch that even MS Office can’t do yet — and Macromedia Flash — so you can easily put your presentations on the Web.
If you’re a hard-core Microsoft Office maven with five years’ worth of VBA macros up your sleeve, OpenOffice probably isn’t for you. For the rest of us, though, it’s a more than acceptable alternative, and just thinking of the money you’ll save ought to put a smile on your face! (return to top)
Image Editor: Paint.NET (Washington State University: Free)
For a long time in this space, I’ve recommended Serif Software’s free version of PhotoPlus as the best free image-editing option, and that’s still a good choice. It’s just that now there is a better one available: Paint.NET.
Paint.NET started out as an academic project at Washington State University, and it’s since grown into a mature, powerful image editing solution that (unlike PhotoPlus) is both free and open source. Its interface is cleaner and more intuitive than PhotoPlus’. And you don’t have to put your email address onto a company’s mailing list to download it.
In short, unless you need to work with files in Photoshop’s PSD format, Paint.NET will probably meet every digital-image-editing need you have today — and that you’ll have in the future. I highly recommend it. (return to top)
Web Page Editor: HTML-Kit (Chami.com: Free for personal use, $49 for commercial use)
When I have to grind out Web pages at work, I have powerful, pro-level tools like Macromedia Dreamweaver to turn to. However, when I come home and want to just hack around, those tools are way out of reach — no way can I afford to pay for something like Dreamweaver out of my own pocket. Now, you can use any text editor to write Web pages, but there’s lots of little convenience features you get from the big boys that you just don’t get with Notepad. There’s gotta be a middle ground, right?
That’s where HTML-Kit comes in. HTML-Kit is an ultra-extensible, free text editor that is a programmer’s dream. On its own, it’s a pretty simple tool; but what makes it impressive is its huge (and I mean huge) library of plugins that add native support for just about any task you could imagine having to do. Just by grabbing the right plugins, you can turn HTML-Kit into a powerful editor for ASP, ASP.NET, CSS, ColdFusion, HTML, JSP, Perl, PHP, Python, SQL, VBScript, XHTML, or any other language you’ve ever heard of; and that’s just the tag library plugins, there’s whole other categories as well that add help documentation, convenience functions, and more. And because it’s all based on a plugin architecture, you only download what you need; the interface isn’t cluttered up with a thousand functions and references for languages and features you don’t care about and will never use.
HTML-Kit is a marvelous resource for anybody from the casual hacker to the hard-core developer — I highly recommend it. (return to top)
PDF Generator: PDFCreator (Philip Chinery, Frank Heindorfer: Free, donations welcome)
For distributing documents over the Net, Adobe PDF is the way to go — it’s cross-platform, open, and well-established. We’ve all received PDF documents at least once in our lives, right? And to read them, all you need is the free reader. But if you want to make your own PDF files… aye, there’s the rub — you need to buy Adobe’s Acrobat software, and that will cost you a pretty penny.
Or do you? PDFCreator is a nifty little tool that gives you print-to-PDF capability from all your applications, for free. It’s powered by an open-source PDF library called Ghostscript, but it hides all of Ghostscript’s rough edges so that all you have to do is double-click install it, and then just choose it as a printer when you go to print a file. Then just tell PDFCreator where to put the PDF, and voila — instant electronic paper goodness.
What’s more, I’ve found Adobe’s for-pay product to be kind of flaky — I could never get it to print PDFs from Microsoft Visio correctly, for example — while PDFCreator handles with ease all the scenarios that Acrobat choked on. It’s nice to find a free product that does the job; it’s even nicer to find a free product that’s better than the for-pay equivalent, at least for basic use (if you use Acrobat to generate interactive electronic forms and such, PDFCreator’s not for you, but then 95% of users don’t do that, so who cares). (return to top)
ZIP file handling: 7zip (Igor Pavlov: Free, donations welcome)
The most common format for distributing compressed file archives on the Net today is the ZIP format. On the Windows platform, the “standard” utility for handling ZIP files has long been WinZip, which does a good job of making unpacking and creating ZIP files easy. However, WinZip is not a free product, and if you haven’t paid up, it reminds you of that fact with annoying nag screens every time you have to un-ZIP something, which gets tedious really fast.
A great free alternative to WinZip does exist, however: 7zip. 7zip does everything Winzip does, except it does it for free — which means no more annoying nag screens! 7zip is a terrific solution to the problem of how to deal with managing ZIP files without having to put up with a lifetime of annoyance. (return to top)
E-MAIL GATEWAYS & INSTANT MESSAGING
AOL mail only: No software required!
Yup, AOL has finally Seen The Light and opened IMAP access to their mail servers. You can now get your mail from any program you like without paying a dime for additional software. Just set your incoming mail server to imap.aol.com and your outgoing mail server to smtp.aol.com and you’re all set! (return to top)
MSN Hotmail, AOL Mail, Yahoo! Mail: IzyMail Server (IzySoft: $29.95, free trial available)
IzyMail is a mail gateway that you install on your PC. The basic setup is straightforward: you install some software that acts as a gateway between your mail program and the online services you wish to connect to, and from that point on everything happens transparently.
IzyMail connects to AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN Hotmail, making it a perfect solution for people with multiple freemail accounts. What’s more, IzyMail supports the newer IMAP protocol. This may sound geeky, but it’s important because POP forces you to download all your messages every time you connect, while IMAP lets you read them right there on the server — so if you like to save important messages in online folders, for example, you can still do so. If you need to connect to multiple services, or if IMAP sounds attractive, Izy is the way to go. (return to top)
Universal Instant Messaging: Pidgin (Free, open source)
Instant messaging is truly one of the Killer Apps of the Internet. Everybody uses it, from 10-year-old kids to bingo-playing grandmas. The problem is, there are all these IM networks, and they refuse to play nice with each other: they won’t let their users connect with anybody else’s. That’s great for them, but not so great for the rest of us, because it means we all end up running half a dozen IM programs just so we can stay in touch with all our friends.
That’s where Pidgin comes in. Pidgin is an open-source instant message program that can connect to any network you can think of — AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, Google Talk/Jabber, you name it. And it has a clean, easy to use interface to boot.
I used to recommend “Trillian”:http://trillian.cc/ for this, but there’s no need to pay for an instant message program when Pidgin offers a solid, free alternative. (return to top)
DIGITAL MEDIA MANAGEMENT
Media Swiss Army Knife: Media Jukebox (J.River: Basic version free, upgrades $24.98/$39.98)
You all know someone like this: the media fanatic. The guy or gal with gigabyte upon gigabyte of MP3s, portable audio players of all types, DVDs out the yin-yang, and so on. If that person is you, then you’ve probably been frustrated with how many programs out there solve part of your multimedia needs, but not all of them — one’s a CD ripper, one’s an MP3 encoder, one’s a DVD player, one’s an interface to your portable MP3 player, and so forth. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one program that did everything?
Enter Media Jukebox. The programmers at J. River have been sweating over this product for years, and it shows — its functionality is amazing. It can go from being a simple audio player to (in its full-out Media Center edition) running a complete home theater, including TiVo. Not bad for a $40 piece of software! Plus, if you run into bugs or need a feature added, just submit it in their forums; they’re incredibly responsive and great about listening to their users. (return to top)
High-fidelity MP3 ripping: Exact Audio Copy (Andre Wiethoff: Free)
This is a product that’s for the person who’s the exact opposite of the Media Jukebox customer. The EAC customer wants to do one thing and one thing only: rip CDs to MP3 format. They don’t care if the program they use to do that is a little clunky, or a little slow, as long as the MP3 file that results is as accurate and high-fidelity as it can possibly be. And on that count, EAC delivers; it does mad crazy amounts of error-checking to ensure that no bits of sound are left behind in the conversion process. The result are some sweet sounding MP3s of a consistently high quality level. (return to top)
Professional-quality CD burning: DiscJuggler (Padus: $39)
If you want CD-burning software that can truly do it all, look no further than Padus DiscJuggler. Sure, DJ can do the standard “copy this CD to a blank” or “burn me a disc from this ISO” kind of tasks; but it’s when you step off the beaten path that you find the true power of the product. Want to make a CD you can boot your PC from? Done. Want to burn a copy of a Karaoke CD? Done. Want to burn a CD image that can be played in a Sega Dreamcast? Done. This thing does everything. (return to top)
Software for your Creative Nomad/Digital Networks Rio/Dell Digital Jukebox/iRiver iHP/Apple iPod that doesn’t suck: Red Chair Explorer (Red Chair Software: Basic version free, pro versions $15-$35 depending on version)
I’ve owned two Nomad portable MP3 players from Creative Labs. They were both solid, reliable pieces of hardware, reasonably priced (an original Nomad and a “limited-edition blue” Nomad II, if you care) that I used to take tunes with me to the gym.
Pity, then, about the software!
Creative’s Nomad software, to put it plainly, sucks flaming donkey balls. It’s a giant resource hog that forces you to navigate an ugly interface just to copy MP3 files from your hard drive to your Nomad. And forget about going around it — there’s no way to connect directly to the device, so if you want to use the Nomad you’ve gotta use the cruddy software. Yech. Thanks for nothing, Creative.
Red Chair Software has stepped in to help us frustrated Nomad users with Notmad Explorer. NE replaces the default Creative Labs software with a much cleaner interface that allows you to drag and drop songs right from Windows Explorer onto the device — a sorely needed improvement. You can even browse your Nomad just like you browse your hard drive in Explorer. It also provides huge improvements to the file-transfer code (Creative’s software is slooooow) and adds a “one-touch synchronization” feature for those folks who use the Nomad Jukebox devices, which will sync up your Jukebox with the music library on your PC, just like Mac owners can do with their iPod and iTunes.
And now it’s not just for Creative devices, either — Red Chair has branched out, and they currently offer versions of Explorer for a range of other devices as well, including the Dell Digital Jukebox, the iRiver iHP, the Digital Networks Rio line, and even the iPod.
All the different devices have free trials available, and you can use the free version indefinitely if you’re willing to lose most of the advanced features, but if you own a Nomad it’s worth paying the registration fee for this software. Think of it as a way to give Creative the finger. (return to top)
Put a firewall around your PC: ZoneAlarm (Zone Labs: Basic version free, Plus version $39.95/year)
If you’re using an “always-on” broadband connection, you need a firewall. Why? Because your computer is always on the Internet! Every second you’re online, there are bored thirteen year olds out there running port scans, looking for unprotected systems. If you don’t have a firewall, that’s you, buddy — and once they find you, they’ll hit your PC with so much prison lovin’ that you’ll wish you’d listened to me. So, better safe than sorry.
(Want to see how vulnerable you are? Shields Up will tell you if you’re leaving your front door wide open.)
Thankfully, ZoneAlarm makes protecting yourself falling-down easy: just download and install the software and you’re good to go. Once it’s up and running in the background, you’ll be notified every time somebody tries to open a connection from the Internet into your PC, and given the option to either let them in or shut them down (the default is to shut them down, and that’s fine in 99.9999% of all cases).
ZoneAlarm has another feature that makes it super-useful: it not only tells you who’s trying to send messages in to your PC, but it tells you when programs try to send messages out. This is incredibly handy because it gives you control over who you let your computer report on you to: if you install a new screen saver, for example, and suddenly ZoneAlarm yelps that the screen saver is trying to connect out to the Internet, you can permanently refuse to ever give it permission to do that, and thereby protect your privacy against someone who just tried to spy on you by hiding a little Trojan Horse inside that screen saver.
You’ll have to poke around a little bit to find the free version of ZoneAlarm on their site, but trust me, it does exist and it does everything you need. If you decide you want to support them, you can save some cash by buying ZoneAlarm Plus, which is just the industrial strength version of the firewall, and not the more heavily promoted ZoneAlarm Pro, which is the firewall plus a bunch of extraneous junk you don’t need. (return to top)
Kill spyware dead: Spybot Search and Destroy (PepiMK Software: Free, donations welcome)
Spyware is an insidious new trend in the software business. (Here’s a roundup of definitions of the term from Google.) Basically, it works like this: some nasty person writes a bit of code that looks harmless enough on the outside (a screen saver, say, or a little game), but which has inside it a little routine that watches what you do — what Web sites you go to, how long you stay there, and so forth — and then, without telling you, sends that information back to the nasty person. People pass the spyware around to their friends, thinking they’re doing no harm (“Check out this cool screen saver!!!”), but each new person who installs the software is having their privacy compromised.
Yeah, it’s pretty scary, and it happens more often than you probably think. That’s why you need a good spyware killer, probably more than you need anti-virus software! If, for example, you have a peer-to-peer file sharing program installed on your PC (something like Kazaa) right now, I can almost guarantee that you’ve got spyware in there too — P2P apps almost always come bundled with it.
Thankfully, there’s a free product that can solve this problem for you. Spybot Search and Destroy will do a thorough scan of your PC, report back any spyware it finds, and give you the choice whether to erase it or not. If anything, Spybot is too thorough; it includes things like Web site “cookies”, which are generally benign, in its spyware scan, so you’ll probably want to read the instructions if you’ve got questions about anything Spybot flagged. But when you’re dealing with scum like these spyware people, it’s better to be too thorough than not thorough enough, and Spybot more than does the job. (return to top)
Know what’s in your PC: Sandra Standard (SiSoft: Free)
If your computer ever starts acting up, you’re going to have to deal with the inevitable question from Tech Support: “So, tell me what’s in your PC.” Odds are, if you’re like most people, you don’t really know. I mean, you have a general idea, but you don’t know the minutiae that the techs can make use of — you know you’ve got a 2GHz Pentium 4, but do you know what stepping it is, or what the bus speed of your motherboard is?
Sandra is a great little program that will tell you everything about your computer — what hardware you’ve got, what software you’ve got installed, everything. What’s more, it comes with a suite of tests to look for ways your system could be optimized, and can tell you if there’s things you could do to pep up your PC a bit, or if there’s any ticking time bombs in your system that you should know about. Plus, you can dump all of this to a log file you can send to your techie, so that even if you don’t understand a word of it you can skip all the tedious questions and she can dig right in! (return to top)
Use a “Virtual CD Drive”: Alcohol (Alcohol Software: $34.95-$49.95, free trial)
In our modern world, stupidity is rampant. People refuse to learn from history and make the same mistakes over and over. It’s quite sad, really. One place where this is currently happening is in the PC gaming industry, which has re-ignited its foolish on-again, off-again romance with a bad idea that should have gone away a long time ago: key-disk copy protection.
The idea is simple. The game publishers don’t want people to buy one copy of the game and then make copies for all their friends. So they require that a “key disk” be in the computer’s drive to play the game. That way, you can give away all the copies you want, but it won’t matter since you only have one copy of the actual CD, so those friends of yours are out of luck, right?
Well, not really, since it only takes motivated hackers about ten minutes to crack the key-disk schemes wide open, something we all learned back in the 80s when publishers first tried this scheme. The end result is that the Bad Guys aren’t inconvenienced — they’re the ones who crack the protection — but we legitimate users are, since every time we want to play we have to fish out the )$(@*( CD, and if you ever lose it or it gets scratched you’re basically SOL.
Alcohol Software sells a line of products that helps legitimate users take back some of their rights in this regard. The most interesting thing Alcohol does is create a “Virtual CD drive” on your system that, as far as Windows is concerned, is a real high-performance CD-ROM drive. What you then do is rip images of the CDs for the games you play onto your hard drive. Then, when it’s time to play, you just right click the Alcohol icon in the tray and tell it to load the image for the game you want to play into the virtual CD drive. It loads up just like a real CD, and as far as the game cares, you’ve passed the “key disk” test. And if there’s any other copy protections that might prevent the game from locking you out because you’re using a CD image, you can tell Alcohol to disable those when you make the image, too.
Are there drawbacks? Not really. The only limitation is that the size of the CD images means that they take up a good chunk of disk space, but most people have disk space to burn, and you only usually need a few images at any given time, so that’s no big deal. Alcohol comes in two flavors, 52% and 120%; if you want to be able to burn backups of your game CDs from the images you create, you should spring for 120%, while if all you care about is the virtual-drive capability 52% oughta do you fine. Either way, this product has saved me a huge amount of time swapping disks and is definitely recommended until sanity returns to the software biz. (return to top)
Split up your hard drive: PartitionMagic (PowerQuest Corp.: $69.95)
You’ve probably seen some folks whose computers have multiple hard drives — C:, D:, and maybe even E: and F: drives. Did you know that the odds are that there’s really only one actual hard drive inside their PC, divided up into little slices? You can do that using a technique called “partitioning”.
Partitioning lets you take one “physical” drive (i.e. an actual hard drive) and divide it up into several “logical” drives (i.e. virtual drives). There’s lots of reasons why you might want to do this — maybe you want to keep all your data files on one partition for easy backup, or maybe you want to run multiple operating systems (Linux and Windows, perhaps) on the same PC.
The problem is, though, that partitioning a hard drive has traditionally been a “destructive” process — you can’t do it without erasing the data on the hard drive. That means that it’s not something people undertook lightly; if you’d been using your computer for a while, you didn’t think about repartitioning unless you absolutely had to, since doing so meant losing everything on your hard drive and reinstalling.
The magic of PartitionMagic, though, is that it allows you to do non-destructive partitioning — you can slice up your hard drive however you like, without losing the data that’s already on it. So, if you decide you’d like to try out Linux, say, it’s easy to carve out a partition for it — you just tell PartitionMagic “give me 20 gigabytes for Linux, and leave the rest for Windows”, and it does the rest. Once it’s done, everything’s set up and all you have to do is start installing Linux.
There are other partitioning tools, but none that approach the quality and power of PartitionMagic. If you want to take control over your hard drive, this is the place to start. (return to top)
Change Windows’ “hidden preferences”: TweakUI (Microsoft: free)
The Mother of All Control Panels. TweakUI is a little widget Microsoft first released back in the Windows 95 days when people started realizing that there were a bunch of things that Windows did that they couldn’t control. Today, they’ve kept it up and TweakUI is available for Windows 2000 and XP. A simple download and you’ve got a control panel that lets you set everything from how your mouse behaves to whether Windows automatically plays CDs when you pop them in the drive. This one is a must-have. (return to top)
Change how Windows looks and works: Windowblinds/Object Desktop (Stardock: Shareware, free to try, $19.95/$49.95 per year to register)
Are you tired of how Windows looks? I sure am. If you’re on Windows 2000, all we’ve got is the bland old gray-bars motif; if you’re on Windows XP, you can choose either that or the new “Luna” theme, which looks like some kind of insane child attacked your computer with a box of Crayolas. Thanks, Microsoft!
What would be nice is a way to be able to switch the look and feel of Windows any time we wanted. Wait, there is a way to do that — it’s called WindowBlinds, and it’s very cool. WindowBlinds makes the whole Windows user interface “themeable”, which means that you can open a control panel and change the whole look of your desktop and all your apps with a click. WindowBlinds comes bundled with several themes, and there’s 2000+ more available for free download, which should keep you satisfied for a while.
If you want to make Windows even more customizable, you’ll want to go beyond WindowBlinds to the complete Object Desktop package. Object Desktop has WindowBlinds, but it also has a whole lot more — it essentially allows you to customize not just how Windows looks, but how it works as well. Object Desktop has way too many features for me to go into here, but check out the feature list for yourself and you’ll see what I mean when I say it’s Tweak Heaven. (return to top)
FUN AND GAMES
Intense World War II wargaming: Steel Panthers — World at War (Matrix Games: Free)
A few years ago, a new publisher launched in the category of computerized wargames: Matrix Games. Matrix had access to some of the best talent in the wargaming business, including legendary designer Gary Grigsby, but they needed some kind of splashy way to announce to the world that they were there and that they meant business. What they came up with was Steel Panthers: World at War.
Steel Panthers was a Grigsby creation, a series of DOS war games much beloved by gamers for being fun and easy to play, but it never quite made the leap into the Windows era. So, Matrix acquired the rights to Panthers and, working with Grigsby and the other original designers, they created a shiny new product that was just as easy and fun to play, but which ran flawlessly in Windows. They then put together dozens of detailed historical scenarios for gamers to play, and a scenario editor they could use to create their own.
Then, they gave it all away for free.
The reaction was, as you could probably imagine, highly positive — a great game from a great designer coming back to life, and for free? What’s more, over the years Matrix stood by the product, updating and supporting it, and a community of gamers formed around it, creating a steady stream of free scenarios for the downloading.
Today Matrix is a well-regarded, firmly established publisher — their newest release, Korsun Pocket, has been said to be the best wargame ever for the personal computer — but they still distribute Steel Panthers: World at War to anyone who wants it. And if you’re at all interested in history or strategy, this is one you should want. (return to top)
Addictive word puzzler: Bookworm (PopCap: Free online play, $24.95 to register)
PopCap is well known as a maker of fiendishly addictive puzzle games (their previous hit, Bejeweled, is also worth checking out if you haven’t already). Bookworm is a fun mind-twister that’s best described as Tetris meets Scrabble. You have a vertical board full of tiles, each with one letter. Your task is to link up adjacent letters into words. The longer or more complex the words, the more points you get; and when you make a word, those tiles disappear and the ones above them slide down a level. However, there are some tiles that are on fire, and if they make it to the bottom of your board, it’s Game Over — so when they come into the mix you’ve got to drop everything to find a word that includes them.
As is their style, PopCap offers Bookworm in multiple formats. There’s a free Java version for online play, and a downloadable PC version if you want to bring the game to your desktop. They’ve also got a PalmOS version if you’d prefer a portable puzzler. (Sorry Mac-heads, there’s no downloadable version for you yet — you’ll have to live with the Java version.) You may think the registration fee is high, but once you’ve had a taste I guarantee it will seem much, much more reasonable, in much the same way that junkies probably don’t spend much time worrying about the price of heroin! (return to top)
Find opponents for your favorite multiplayer games: All-Seeing Eye (Yahoo!: $15 annual fee or $30 lifetime registration, 21-day free trial)
Maybe you’ve already got an online game you enjoy playing (I dig Battlefield 1942 myself), and your problem is how to find opponents for it. The usual solution for this problem is to use a package called GameSpy Arcade, which comes bundled with a lot of popular games. This wouldn’t be a big deal if GameSpy Arcade didn’t suck so thoroughly and completely: its interface is gratuitously annoying and cluttered with ads for other GameSpy “services”. Thanks, but no thanks; I just want to find a game to join!
All-Seeing Eye (ASE) is the solution. It’s a streamlined matchmaking system that has built-in support for just about every game out there, and some nice other features as well; for example, whenever a patch or new map is released for a game you have installed, it’ll notify you when you launch ASE and ask you if you want to download it. If you’re short on memory, ASE doesn’t take up much, and can be configured to shut itself down before you join a game, freeing up what little it does take up, which is a nice touch. This product does what it needs to do: find game servers, hook you up to them, and get the heck out of the way, and it does it well.
Recently the company that created ASE, UDPSoft, sold the product to a bigger fish — Yahoo. So far Yahoo seems inclined not to mess with success; they’ve promised no ads in the client for subscribers, for example. So for now, at least, the choice for server browsers is still clear: All-Seeing Eye. (return to top)
That’s it for now — again, if you’ve got recommendations for things that should be on the Big List, send ’em along and I’ll be happy to take a look!