TaskBlaze – Time Tracking your Tasks

I complete quite a few tasks over the course of any given day. Researching and writing articles, dealing with advertising, tweaking settings on various sites. What I don’t do is keep very accurate track of how much time I’m spending on each task. Just the other night, someone asked me how much time I spent doing things during my day – I don’t really have a clue because I’ve never tracked it. I make a list of things I need to get done (typically using Outlook’s Tasks feature), checking off completed items as I go. Getting a better handle on how much time I’m spending on specific tasks would certainly help determine if I’m using my time effectively. I recently discovered TaskBlaze, which helps track time spent on all those little tasks throughout the day. The app requires Outlook and automatically tracks your time as you work on projects. Enter the name of a task in one box, and any categories for the task in a second box. Hit the start button and get to work. When you complete the task, click stop and TaskBlaze writes the time spent on the task to your Outlook calendar, with categories assigned for later organization. It’s a simple solution and it seems to work flawlessly for what it does. [Windows 2k/XP $0.00]

Windows Live Photo Gallery with Plug-ins

Back in April I recommended Windows Live Photo Gallery as an essential upgrade to the built-in photo browsing of Windows XP. It also enhances Vista, but the difference isn’t nearly as dramatic. Since my initial recommendation, the Windows Live team made additional enhancements and exposed some features to allow other people to make Windows Live Photo Gallery even better. In addition to better tagging of images, basic photo cropping and red-eye removal, there are vastly improved online sharing features. At the time I first wrote about the app, Windows Live Spaces was the only place you could upload photos. Now Windows Live Photo Gallery supports uploading to Flickr, Picasa Web, SmugMug, and any Drupal installation via a set of handy plugins. In theory someone could write a plugin to upload almost anywhere. The nice thing about the way its done is you only install the upload tools you need. [Windows XP/Vista $0.00]

tinySpell – spell check for Windows

One of the most important features Windows still needs is system-wide spell check. There’s no reason I shouldn’t have access to spell check in every single document window if I want it. Microsoft builds one of the best spell checkers available into Word, yet fails to provide anything for the operating system. tinySpell helps solve this problem by offering spell check to any application you want to use it with. The 110,000 word American-English language dictionary goes a long way toward solving most common spelling problems both as-you-type or on any block of text. The only downside is the free version does not include a way to add new words to the dictionary, which is, of course, resolved by purchasing tinySpell+. If you do most of your typing in Firefox, which does include spell check, you may not need tinySpell, but for many of us, an app like this goes a long way to avoiding mistakes. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista $0.00]

Reader’s Choice Best Free Software – Part 2

I originally planned to release this second part of the Reader’s Choice Best Free Software survey results back in June, but held off because the summer slowdown kicked in and I realized it wouldn’t receive the attention it deserves. Part 1 of the reader survey covered 10 of the 20 application categories. Below you’ll find the list of top-rated apps in the second set of 10 software categories.
Backup Software
SnapBackup SnapBackup placed at the top of a crowded field of 174 backup applications with 13% of reader’s survey votes. Snap Backup might rate as the ugliest app in the survey, with it’s Windows 3.1 icon, but the important thing is that it works. You define what to backup and SnapBackup handles the heavy lifting.
See other popular free backup software
Instant Messaging
Windows Live MessengerWindows Live Messenger came in tops in the instant messaging category with 22% of reader votes, despite only working with the MSN and Yahoo contact lists. Live Messenger is a slightly better version of the Windows Messenger client that ships with many versions of Windows, so maybe this is a natural extension of Microsoft’s reach. I stopped using Live Messenger for most things because I generally find it distracting to be interrupted by messaging clients, so I’ve largely limited my list of contacts to those who use Gmail. I do find Live Messenger to be the best free messaging product for video chat, because it seems to have the least quirks.
See other popular free instant messaging software
Email Client or PIM
Thunderbird Thunderbird made a strong showing in the email client category with 51% of all readers selecting it as a favorite. Coupled with free calendar add-in Lightning it’s nearly as powerful as Outlook without any of the baggage associated with buying the Microsoft Office suite. Email can be managed for individual or multiple accounts. Contact management is built in. By default there’s no calendar, but Lightning is a simple downloadable extension, similar to Mozilla’s Firefox extensions. Thunderbird also acts as an RSS reader if you choose to use it that way. Working on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux also makes Thunderbird a plus, especially since data is fully portable between all three versions.
See other popular free email software
Media Player
VLC Player VLC Player received the most reader votes with 31%. VLC plays back most audio and video downloads without additional software. It also plays back DVDs without purchasing anything additional, which is one reason it’s a popular choice. VLC also works to rebroadcast audio and video if you dive into the advanced settings, so you can stream content from your computer out to the Internet. And in some cases, you can use VLC to rip DVDs or convert PAL movies to NTSC.
See other popular free media players
DVD Cataloging Software
eMyDVD Organizer eMyDVD Organizer received the highest percentage of reader votes in the DVD cataloging software category, claiming 31% of votes. The software supports 35 existing fields for detailed movie information, the addition of cover art and screenshots of the movie, as well as your own custom fields. While this is the most popular choice on the list, it isn’t what I’d call the most convenient solution, because input requires too much manual intervention. Fortunately the switching cost is low and you can easily export data from eMyDVD in a format that imports easily into something else.
See other popular free DVD catalog software
Desktop Search
Google Desktop Google Desktop Search is the clear leader in reader popularity with 66% of readers selecting it as their favorite. Part of the overall Google Desktop package, Google Desktop Search does an excellent job of indexing data and making it quickly available via search. Whether you’re looking for a forgotten document or need to track down an old email, Google Desktop Search does a solid job of retrieving what you need.
See other popular free desktop search software
Browser Toolbar
Google Toolbar Google Toolbar ran away with this category receiving 64% of all reader votes. I used to use Google Toolbar more frequently, but find myself using many similar features now built into Firefox and Internet Explorer. Over time, it may be that if you like the Google Toolbar, you’ll be better off simply downloading Google Chrome.
See other popular free browser toolbars
Screen Capture Utility
ScreenHunterScreenHunter ranked at the top of the reader survey with 17% of readers selecting it as their favorite. The application provides basic enhancements over simply using the Print Screen key, offering configurable hot keys, automatic file naming, and configurable screen capture area.
See other popular free screen capture software
Download Manager
Free Download Manager Free Download Manager (FDM) secures the top spot in the Download Manager’s category with 33% of reader votes. FDM speeds up downloads by splitting them into multiple parts and also resumes interrupted downloads. FDM is capable of acting as a BitTorrent client. Flash video download support makes it easy to grab favorite videos from YouTube. A recently added upload feature extends functionality to make FDM two way.
See other popular free download managers
Text Editor
Notepad++ Notepad++ tops the reader’s picks in the text editor category with 25% of reader votes. In addition to handling basic text Notepad++ does an excellent job of marking up code for easy reading, it supports built-in macros, you can define your own markup rules, and it also makes a handy tool for creating ascii art. If you’re into writing regular expressions for search and replace, this is very likely the ultimate notepad alternative for you.
See other popular free text editors

RealDVD – copy DVDs to your PC

RealNetworks enters the DVD copying fray with a consumer-friendly solution for copying movies to your hard drive. Their latest software offering, RealDVD, brings usability and attention to simplicity in copying DVDs to your computer. I have yet to try a solution that makes it easier to copy movies. RealDVD requires you to insert the disk and press a single button to copy the full movie, which is then playable from your hard drive. My only complaints about RealDVD are a lack of support for copying files to a portable device (like an iPod or Zune) and the amount of space each DVD takes up. RealDVD is, in effect, a virtual DVD carusel, as it takes the full resolution contents of a DVD movie and transfers them to your hard drive, which means each movie takes up somewhere between 4-9GB of space, depending on the movie. If your aim is to get all your movies quickly accessible from your computer, my suggestion is to invest in a 1TB portable hard drive along with RealDVD, so that you don’t hit any space constraints as you’re copying movies. I’d also like to see RealNetworks open up the copied files to play back on multiple computers without requiring me to spend an additional $19.99 per computer, but I understand they are attempt to place limits on use in order to remain within the bounds of a fair use scenario.
Advanced users are going to find something like Xilisoft DVD Ripper Ultimate more to their liking, because that app allows for creating portable versions. For simply making an easily navigable catalog of your DVD library on hard disk, RealDVD works quickly and easily. In my first experiment with RealDVD I copied a disk to my drive using my laptop’s internal DVD drive. Laptop drives aren’t known for being fast, because fast drives tend to drain battery more quickly. RealDVD anticipates potentially slow DVD drives by displaying a tip indicating approximate copy time depending on drive speed. If you have a slow DVD drive, connecting an external drive will save you a bunch of time. [Windows XP/Vista $29.99]

CleanAfterMe – Desktop Cleanup and Privacy Tool

Daily computer use creates a bunch of extra stuff on your system. As you use applications, browse Web sites, open documents, and generally go through your daily routine, you leave bread crumbs about your habits everywhere. If you use a computer on a corporate network, in a public location, or even share with family members, you may have reasons for not broadcasting every little thing you do to anyone who sits down at the computer. You may also not want a bunch of extra junk building up on your system even if you don’t care whether people know where you’ve been. Enter CleanAfterMe, a simple utility designed to remove temporary files, clear the recent documents list, flush the Windows Event Logs, remove the list of installed USB devices, disable auto-complete information, and eliminate cookies. My biggest complaint is the software doesn’t allow you to choose which cookies to keep, since there are some that come in handy for saving specific types of preferences. CleanAfterMe runs without an installer, making it a great solution for use on public networks where an admin may have control over what you can and can’t do with your computer. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista $0.00]

TweetDeck – Twitter Desktop Client

I’ve been actively encouraging people to sign up for Twitter because I think it’s a great way to keep up with sound bytes from lots of people. It’s a decent way to quickly find help with a problem if you are engaged with enough other people. And if selectively used, Twitter is a great way to filter some of the information that flows through your life. For an excellent (and more detailed) explanation of Twitter, watch Twitter in Plain English. After experimenting with only reading other people’s Tweets on my phone, only reading in a browser, and using a couple different desktop apps, TweetDeck comes out as the clear winner for organizing information in a way I can quickly digest, showing me the tweets from everyone, the tweets directed at me, and direct messages only I can see in separate panes. TweetDeck is built on the Adobe AIR platform, which feels like a slightly reinvented version of Flash, making it a cross-platform solution out of the gate. [Windows XP/Vista | Mac OS X | Linux $0.00]

Desktops – Virtual Desktop Manager

When Sysinternals first became part of Microsoft, I was concerned their regular release of free apps would cease. Fortunately Microsoft continues to let them thrive. The recent release of Desktops is a perfect example. The app is a simple solution for creating up to 4 virtual desktops for Windows. Virtual desktops come in handy because it can get confusing when you have many application windows open simultaneously. With a virtual desktop, you can give each application function its own space. Put your email client on one desktop, your Web browser on another desktop, your photo editor on a third desktop and your favorite game on the fourth. I find it really handy for keeping interruptive instant messenger windows from getting in the way of whatever I’m doing. Desktops also separates taskbar items by desktop, making it easier to get to the screen you want. Clicking the icon in the system tray provides a visual of all four desktops (shown below) or you can simply use Win+1,2,3 ,or 4 to switch between them. Desktops isn’t a replacement for having two monitors but it goes a long way to reducing clutter on your desktop. [Windows XP/Vista $0.00]
Desktop virtualization