Maintenance advice for Windows computers

Is your Windows computer no longer as snappy as when it was new? There are several approaches to dealing with this. The lame and the rich buy a new computer. The paranoid make a from-scratch re-installation of Windows. There is a middle path, which you can take.

Clean the registry

Run CCleaner and remove garbage from the registry. Download the portable version:
http://www.piriform.com/ccleaner/download/portable

Defragment the page file

If you are running Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, or earlier versions, you can also run Windows Sysinternals PageDefrag, which will defragment the pagefile of your windows installation after restart, before Windows is started. The Pagefile is used for offloading the RAM (memory) of the computer, and if the pagefile is highly fragmented, writing to and reading from it will get alot slower. PageDefrag solves that.

Uninstall applications and plugins that you don’t need

Check if you have browser toolbars like Ask or Babylon search which you don’t really want or need, and uninstall them. Unfortunately, various browser toolbars and other things are often installed along with other software that you might have downloaded from sites like Download.com.

Disable automatic start of applications

Applications like Skype and Spotify have options for starting automatically on Windows start. YOu will find that this is often the default setting in these applications and other. Disable that. Start applications manually as you need them.

Other tweaks

If you have alot of icons on your desktop, a higher amount of system resourses will be used compared to if you have no or very few icons. So, clean up the desktop. Also, it takes more resources to have an image as a desktop background compared to having a plain color.

For powerusers: stop or disable unncessary Windows services

There are many articles and postings out there that talk about Windows services that are always running by default, which many users will not need. The reason for not needing it could for example be that your computer is not part of a Windows domain network. Note that you need to know what you are doing if you stop or disable Windows services. However, if you read a few of the articles on the topic, you will know what to keep and what to shut down. Google “disable windows services”.

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Freeware for PDF creation and management

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The best freeware PDF software

The PDF file format has become pervasive and a global de-facto standard for digital documents.Apart from downloading, reading and printing PDF:s provided by others, you also want to be able to create your own PDFs: For publishing documents on the web, sharing with others via email or for storing web page copies, digital invoices and receipts, online newspaper articles and so on.After trying out different alternatives during the past years, I have found a set of freeware PDF utilities that I thing work really well:

Bullzip PDF Printer for creating PDFs

Regardless of whether you use commercial products from Adobe or any of the freeware utilities available, the procedure of creating a PDF is always the same: The document, web page, email or other that you want to turn into a PDF is printed – just as if you were trying to get it on paper – by a ‘virtual printer’ or ‘software printer’. It lets you set preferences and properties just like you do for a hardware printer. However, instead of putting ink on paper, the PDF Printer will create a PDF-file, ask you for a name for it, and a location to save it to.

One very popular freeware PDF printer is Cute PDF Writer, which I have been using for a few years. It is not bad – however, it has the great disadvantage of not letting you control the values of the PDF meta data fields: PDF-files have four meta-data fields called Title, Author, Subject and Keywords. Like most other PDF printer software, Cute PDF Writer picks up the Windows user account name and automatically puts that in the Author fields. For Title, it will use the full file name including file extension of the file you are converting to a PDF. Cute PDF Writer will not let you edit the values, not even remove them. Having the meta data fields populated automatically like that can be even worse than empty fields, since the creators local username is exposed, as well as the file name and sometime full local search path of the original word document or similar. The original file name might not have been meant for public display, and even less so the full local search path of the document, which will also reveal directory names. Whenever a PDF is published on the Internet, Google will without exception use the content of the Title field in its listing, unless that field is empty. Consider a letter to a client, in PDF format, sent with the following information in the Title field:

“C:\Documents and Settings\[Your Name]\My Documents\Client\[Client name] (pain in the ass)\Letter_March29.docx”

On the other hand, Bullzip PDF Printer, a freeware PDF printer that I recently discovered and now recommend over CutePDF, will let you fill in the Author, Title, Subject, Keywords fields when creating the PDF. It diplays these fields with proposed content as part of the steps to create the PDF. Great stuff.

PDF-XChange Viewer for a fast-startup PDF viewer

And for viewing PDFs, a fast and non-bloated option such as PDF-XChange Viewer saves you time compared to Abobe “go fetch coffee and come back” Reader. There are other minimalistic PDF readers that claim to have startup speed as a big advantage, but in my experience, PDF-XChange Viewer is as fast as you need, while still offering a rich set of PDF-file editing features. For example, PDF-XChange Viewer will actually let you edit those meta tags…

PDF Properties Changer for editing PDF meta data

Regardless of which PDF printing software you use, there is a fantastic little utility that installs as a context-menu (right-click menu) option in Windows and lets you view and edit the Author, Title, Subject and Keywords fields. By selecting several PDFs, you can update all of them with the same information at once.

PDFTK Builder to split, collate, rotate and water stamp PDFs

PDFTK Builder is a GUI version of the command line product PDFTK. It lets you split or collate existing PDFs, rotate the pages of your choice in a PDF, or add a background or water stamp in a PDF. You can also add password protection to any PDF, with separate passwords for owner and user, and control over allowed actions on protected PDFs.

A-PDF Number for inserting page numbers with optional prefix

On particular occasions, this tool can be very handy: It lets you insert page numbers with an optional prefix on all the pages in a PDF file. This is very useful if you have printed a long html or plain text article to a PDF for example. You can put the page number left, middle or right (bottom), and numbers can be arabic (i.e. regular numbers) or roman.

So, here follows my most recommended set of zero dollars PDF tools:

For creating PDFs:
Bullzip PDF Printer
which requires the latest version of
GhostScript (select the i386 package for Windows)
Note! Some previous version of GhostScript will not show under Add/Remove Programs, but will still block proper installation of the latest version. Solve this by deleting the folder under program files called “GPLGS” before installing the latest version.

For viewing PDFs (in a viewer that starts up a lot faster than Adobe Reader)

PDF-XChange Viewer from Tracker Software Products
Or, if you have a requirement for a portable PDF Reader, use Foxit PDF Reader: portablefreeware.com

For editing PDF document properties / meta data fields:
PDF Properties Changer

For splitting, collating, rotating, water-stamping or protecting PDFs:
PDFTK Builder by Angus Johnson
For information on running as portable software, check portablefreeware.com

For inserting page numbers at the bottom of each page of a PDF:
A-PDF Number

Swiss Army Knife Software – portable, install-free, indispensable

This text was originally published on March 1, 2007. Parts of the facts stated herein may no longer be valid. For example, if you pay 20 bucks for a 1 GB USB stick, you are getting ripped off. And I have stopped caring about file sizes.

I was about 9 when I learnt what a Swiss Army Knife is, and I was fascinated. I was a boy scout, of course, and very devoted to the motto “Be Prepared”. Since long, I was collecting all kinds of pocket-size gadgets that could be good-to-have: mini-pliers and screwdriver, pocket radio, miniature dictionary, various key rings with extra functions, and so on. But the Swiss Army Knife. That was something else. All the models, the quality, the versatility in the different blades. Always at hand, always solving the problem. I got my first one – Victorinox of course – with 24 functions including scissors for Christmas after putting in on all the top-ten positions of my wish list. It served me very well for seven or eight years until a security guard at an outdoor discotheque [Alingsåsparken] found it in my pocket and confiscated it. It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t bring it – it had basically become a part of me.Enter 21st century. My scouting days are over and I am surrounded by computers everywhere, Internet connected PCs. Whenever I have a little problem to solve, it is more likely to be related to some PC than to a jammed door lock or a sudden need for carving a barbeque stick.

With 1 gigabyte USB-sticks available on every street corner for 20 dollars, this has created something that I can carry around in my pocket at all times, to help me out in emergencies, just like my first Victorinox once did. Swiss Army Knife Software. Smart little applications and utilities that run right off a UBS-stick without installation.

There is at least a couple of websites that run communities devoted to this: No-Install software or Portable software. The genre ranges from command line tools of a few kilobytes to entire Linux operating systems, or the office software suite Open Office.

Portableapps.com for example have put together a free-to-download package that require no more than a 512 MB USB-stick and contains Mozilla Firefox webbrowser, OpenOffice, ClamWin antivirus, Gaim instant messaging, Mozilla Sunbird for calender and tasks, and Mozilla Thunderbird for email. All of it wrapped with a special menu utility.
www.no-install.com has a download section that you can access after registration, where you are presented to 229 different downloads in 24 categories, including operating systems such as Damn Small Linux and Putty Linux. Many of the downloads are commerical software (not freeware).

I discovered these two websites when I had already put together my own little package, which I did by manually going through all serious freeware download sites I could find, looking for the keywords “portable” and “no installation”. In my own collection, I have excluded applications that I found too heavy (too large files, too many files). Along the same lines, the ones I like best are those that do not break the 1024 kilobyte line. My portable-package is 87 MB in its current version and includes 127 different tools, utilites and applications, although there is some redundancy in functionality. Initially, I had the intention of listing all the apps and tools I have found as part of this blog post. I got wiser, and since there are so many websites out there totally focused on listing portable software, I’m just gonna list some of those sites instead. I’ll just mention one tool: PStart, the Portable Start menu. It makes a big difference, trust me. Get it.

Oh, and one more thing. A lot of software that are not presented as portable actually are, especially if they are freeware and hence do not depend on any license key registry entry etc. How do you know? Install it, copy all files from the installation directory to your USB-stick, uninstall it, then try to run it from the USB-stick (and delete any unnecessary language files). Some software have dependencies (e.g. Java runtime, .NET Framework, VB runtime). Now, Java runtime* and .NET must be installed, so we have to give up there. But in some cases, such dependency files can be carried along on your USB-stick and added to the PC you work at for the moment.

*: There is portable Java runtime nowadays
Portable Software websites
www.no-install.com
portableapps.com
www.portablefreeware.com (a non-commerical, community driven site which I highly recommend)
www.freeportablesoftware.com
Nedwolf’s portable freeware list
www.xtort.net – good things and links to more
www.tinyapps.org
www.roadkil.net – smart, small, free utilities
www.nirsoft.net – even smarter, small, free utilities
www.sysinternals.com – Windows system tools and network utilities so good that Microsoft bought the whole package, but it is still freeware