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Scott's Column
Is Vista That Bad, Best Free Software

February 1, 2008
By Scott Lewis

I have been working a lot this last month. We are getting ready to roll out a major release of my software that will retire a lot of work from an old mainframe computer. Because of this I did not get the time I would have liked to work in this column, or this site. I started writing the segment on Vista back in December. I have been compiling my list of FREE software for a few month now. With little time to start any new ideas I barely had time to proof read these two topics.

Enjoy!

Current Topics:

  • Is Vista Really That Bad  
  • Best FREE Software  

Is Vista Really That Bad

I have heard A LOT of bad press about Windows Vista. "It's too slow." "It's not compatible with my software." "It doesn't work with my hardware." "Drivers aren't any good."

With the first Service Pack to Vista due out as I wrote this I thought it was time to reflect. Let me lay a little ground work. I run Windows XP on my main machine (Toshiba laptop, Intel Core Duo 2.0 GHz, 2 GB RAM, 200 GB Hard Drive, nVidia GeForce Go 7900 GS with 128 MB dedicated video memory). My wife's laptop came with Vista Ultimate pre-installed. I have Office 2003 loaded on my laptop and Office 2007 on my wife's Vista laptop. All other Windows machines in my house run Windows XP and Office 2000 (if necessary).

If you have been reading this column and my Blog (http://miniburb.wordpress.com/) you may already know that I installed Vista on my laptop and ran it for quite a while. Why am I running Windows XP? Games! I cannot get good game performance on my laptop with Vista. And it is NOT Microsoft's fault. I get very slow video performance. And it is NOT nVidia's fault, well mostly. It IS Toshiba's fault. nVidia has a policy to provide "mobile" drivers for its chips to the manufacturers. The manufacturers can then add specific features, such as power management, to the drivers and release them to the public. Toshiba released drivers for my laptop back in January 2007, the same month Vista shipped. However, they have not updated them. They have placed numerous updates from nVidia all over their support site... but for different hardware. So, it is not Microsoft's or nVidia's fault, but Toshiba's.

Let's take a trip back in time... I can recall a day when I gave up on Windows XP because it would not play games. In March 2002 (feature200203.html), approximately 5 months after Windows XP was released (Windows XP was released on October 25, 2001), I was forced to uninstall XP and install Windows 98 to play a game I bought just three months before. Sound familiar. This was with XP prior to any Service Packs. When XP first came out I wrote, "[Windows XP] is slower than the old Windows on the same hardware. This is not a problem for new computers." And, "On a fast machine ... I would think it will make a pleasurable experience." As for what Windows XP did I had this to say, "Overall, Windows XP doesn't really bring anything to the table." And, "It runs the same mainstream programs you have been running all along."

My main advise was, "Overall I kind of like XP. I still don't have any reason to recommend anyone spending the money to get it. If you are buying a new machine for home then you will be getting it... and that is good. However, if you are buying a new machine for work, don't get Windows XP Professional. Have the vendor install Windows 2000 Professional while you can. As for buying an upgrade... forgedaboudit."

I concluded by saying, "In the end remember this... an operating system is supposed to let you run applications. Windows 98 and Windows 2000 let you do that just as well as Windows XP. Wait until the applications have been written to match the interface of XP before upgrading." Boy, this sounds familiar. What did I say about Vista back in April 2007, "If you have the hardware then it is a nice upgrade. And I mean a really good graphics card with proper drivers to run Vista properly. However, there is little to nothing in Vista that you need. I don't see any compelling reason to upgrade to Windows Vista. So, should you get Vista. No!"

Wow, that sounds so close. And that is what spurred this article. People are dogging Vista left and right. I am NOT defending Windows Vista. I too believe it has significant issues. What I am defending is that any operating system as big as Windows is going to have lots of trouble for quite a while with such a huge release.

I ran Windows XP full time for the first time in February 2004, and that was because it came with the machine I was using. I did not install Windows XP on a my main machine for full time use until October 2004, two months after Service Pack 2 was released. I had this to say at that point, "Windows XP is finally getting secure enough I might as well make the switch."

I think people are giving Vista too hard a time. When Windows XP came out it had virtually the same amount of problems. Not compatible, too slow, just a bunch of eye candy. Personally, I was forced to go back to Windows 98 because I could not play a game that was bought in December 2001... with XP in mind. Today, with Windows Vista I can't play games on my "old" hardware because of driver problems. This is the same as before.

Microsoft has always delivered on what future hardware will take care of. Believe me, in two years we will all be using Vista and actually preferring it to Windows XP. Just be patient. I still have the same recommendation for Windows Vista that I did for Windows XP... if you are thinking about upgrading... forgedaboudit. Let it come with new computers, but if you can order your new computers with Windows XP I recommend you do it.

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Best FREE Software

I recently subscribed to PC World's Windows Vista weekly newsletter. They teamed up with Chris Pirillo to supply them with "5 downloads of the week." I am a fan of Chris. I really like his style. He is funny when doing his online video stuff, and I am pretty sure he is smarted than me. With that... I am a little disappointed with his downloads of the week. From what I can tell it looks like he is selecting downloads that he has found because he is looking for downloads. Granted, one of his endeavors is Lockergnome, and they have a Download section to their web site. Maybe I am being harsh, but what I would really like to see from Chris is a reasonable number of downloads that he really uses.

That leads me to my list. Below is a list of the FREE software that I actually use. I think this is better than what Chris provides. Because I am going to list software I really use, I will not cover this topic again anytime soon. In fact, I think I will wait until I get a Mac to cover this topic again. Then I will have a need to change all my "little tools."

AVG Anti-Virus - I support about a dozen computers... really. I cannot afford to put an anti-virus package on all of those computers. The free version of AVG is the product I install on all the computers I need to support. I even uninstall other Anti-Virus programs or suites as part of my regimen to setup a computer. Most computers from major vendors today include trial versions of Anti-Virus suites. These suites contain a lot of stuff you may or may not need. I do not normally install firewall software on computers I have to support because it is not worth the headache to tell the people how to deal with the pop-ups. Besides, if a user just keeps clicking "Yes" to allow any program to go through the firewall what's the point in having a firewall. I have not had any issues working this way myself. If you are like me, and support a lot of family and personal friend's computers, you need a good anti-virus application you can install quickly. This is it. And yes... the link provided is for the free version of AVG. They downplay this on the regular AVG site and it can be difficult to find this link. If you are like me you should buy the regular version of AVG for yourself and use the free version when supporting other computers.

Firefox - I know, everyone knows about Firefox, so why put it on the list. Well, just like everyone should run anti-virus software I thought I should at least mention this because it truly is one free download I install on every computer I use regularly. I tried Firefox a few times during their early days and the low 1.x versions. Although it had some neat features it was incredibly slow to load, and it was just too incompatible with many web sites I visited. Let me explain that. By incompatible I am not referring to Internet Explorer specific web sites. I am talking about rendering the site correctly. I could never use Firefox as my only browser until it reached version 1.5. Pages looked better and the program startup time became reasonable. Now in its 2.x format I can't say how important it is to use this as your primary browser, even if you must keep Internet Explorer handy for some web sites. Currently I only use IE for Microsoft web sites, and at work when click a link in an email message (we use Lotus Notes and it does not know about Firefox to launch it).

Notepad++ - At work I use UltraEdit-32. Unfortunately, UltraEdit is not a free utility. Someone turned me onto Notepad++. Both are really good text editors. I need a good text editor. I will default to using Notepad when using someone else's computer, and even use it myself a fair amount of the time. But Notepad++ and UltraEdit are too useful to be left behind. The one thing I really like about Notepad++ is its color coded syntax. UltraEdit has this, but Notepad++ supports many more languages... particularly SQL. I write A LOT of SQL scripts and Notepad++ is great. I especially love the fact that it displays comments in a different font than the SQL code making the difference even more pronounced without being gaudy. The one thing Notepad++ is missing is the ability to compare two documents side-by-side. Although you can have more than one document open, you open them all in a tab. You can only navigate by tabs. UltraEdit lets you have documents in their own window and you can tile or cascade them within the UltraEdit environment. And UltraEdit has a file compare feature. Also missing from Notepad++ is the ability to open and save files to a FTP site. If you need the extra features of UltraEdit then buy that, but the best FREE text editor I currently know about is Notepad++.

Bulk Rename Utility - This program has the worst user interface I have ever seen (well, maybe). There are more options on one screen than you can shake a stick at. Don't let the very buzy interface put you off. The program does an amazing job of doing exactly what its name suggests. If you need to rename more than a few files at a time this is the tool to use. BNU previews exactly what it is going to do before you commit to making any changes to your files. This is its best feature. You can play with its options all day long and look at the preview to see what the changes will do. I have yet to come up with a renaming scheme it could not perform.

cdrtfe - This is a Windows GUI CDRTools Front End. I normally like to use Nero 6.x on my main machine. It came with my Plextor CD/DVD Burner. However, 6.x of Nero does not work with Vista. When I upgraded my PC to Vista I was left with nothing. I ending up using the disc from Plextor to install Nero 6.x on my laptop... even though it did not have the Plextor drive. It has worked well for me. At work I was having trouble burning a simple file to a CD with the Roxio software that came with the machine. I was sure I had a hardware problem. The network/desktop support person had me try cdrtfe first. This is an open source product that he likes. I was having trouble burning the CD I needed. cdrtfe had no trouble buring a CD, which let me know I was dealing with a software problem (eventually we determined it to be a conflict with Roxio and Windows itself). I install cdrtfe whenever I need quick CD burning capabilities. I am still considering buying Nero 7.x as it is compatible with Vista. My wife has already had trouble burning CDs for family members and co-workers on her Vista laptop. In fact, she burned one disc successfully, but it was unreadable by her Mother's computer running Windows 2000. cdrtfe does NOT have a good user interface. I even have to spend time looking around to find what I want. But it works, and works great. I do not currently have a Vista machine to test cdrtfe with, but I am hopeful that it will still work. If cdrtfe works under Vista there will be no reason fro me to getting Nero 7.

WinSCP - This is a tool I use at work to securely copy files to and from servers. It is a bit overloaded with features, but it works well. And it is FREE. I don't use it a lot, but when I need it it is always ready to get the job done. It is the best "file manager" I have used for looking at remotes sites... securely.

SyncToy - Yes... a Microsoft program. I like it. It has enough options that I have not found a method of syncing it did not handle. And it is free... if you confirm that you have a valid copy (in Microsoft's mind) of Windows XP or Vista. Although SyncToy does not directly do schedule synchronization task, you can use Windows Scheduler to run SyncToy with the appropriate command line options. This can make SyncToy a good backup utility for regular syncing with a network resource.

PuTTY - This is the tool I use to remotely log into Linux computers. I wish it could save some settings, like the windows size, but otherwise it is extremely small and effective. I could not work without it.

SpyBot Search & Destroy and/or Lavasoft Ad-Aware - This falls under the Firefox category... everybody knows about these, right? I normally down install anti-spyware on my own personal computer. I don't do the surfing that would require this. However, I do install it from time to time if I suspect issues, and if I let others use my computer for any length of time (about 5 minutes for my kids is enough to get be to run one of these utilities). It doesn't matter which of these you use, but you probably need at least one. They are free so you could use both. I must say if I was going to pay for an anti-spyware application I would use Spy Sweeper. I had a copy that came as a bundle with another program a while back. Spy Sweeper does a great job of keeping things from infecting your computer in the first place, making tools to search and remove then virtually unnecessary. I install at least on of these programs on every computer I support. It is usually the first thing I do when someone is have trouble with thier computer.

VMware Player & Virtual PC 2007 - If you are going to play around with more than one operating system then these are the tools to use. VMware is available for both Windows and Linux, so you an even run a Windows Virtual Machine in Linux. I don't use these much lately, but they are installed and ready to go. Virtual PC is great for running other versions of Windows in a virtual environment for testing. I have run Vista in Virtual PC on my Windows XP Pro machine. As for VMware Player, it is just that a player. It does not create virtual machines. However, the web site easyvmx does a fantastic job of creating empty virtual machines that you can then run with VMware Player to install the operating system in the virtual machine.

Mp3Tag - This is the latest edition to my toolbox. I started using it when I got my Zune 80. I needed to tweak the MP3 tag information on songs I was ripping from CD and other songs that had bad or missing tag information. It takes a little bit to get used to. Whatever you do don't hit Ctrl-R by mistake. This is the "execute query" key for Visual Studio, so I use it a lot at work. I have accidentally it it a couple of times instead of Ctrl-S to save tag information. Crtl-R in Mp3Tag removes tag information. Oops! If you need to get to the extended tag information this program is a must. The Zune application and Windows Media play both make use of the extended tag information and this is the tool I use to get to that.

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Conclusion

That's for this month. I have been working 50-55 hours a week during January, so I have not had the time I want to write more. Hopefully February (a short month) will provide me with more inspiration and time to fulfill it.

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