There are many occasions where I want to combine a few PDF files into a single document for easy storage. If I get invoices, contracts and data about a project in several different files, I can archive them all as one file by combining them. Conversely, there are many instances where I get PDFs that have unnecessary blank pages or strange formatting that I eliminate by removing pages. I typically use the full version of Adobe Acrobat for these functions, but that’s overkill for most people. PDF Split and Merge helps make it easy to merge and split PDF files without needing to spend additional dollars on a more complex program. The interface is a little clunky, but once you get used to it’s quirks, splitting PDFs is a snap. The only possible disadvantage to this app is it lacks the ability to perform split and merge functions on password protected PDFs. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista $0.00]
I saw an early demonstration of WorldWide Telescope at a holiday party in December 2007. The room was blown away. Everything cool we’ve seen from mapping software for the Earth was bringing all the known universe into focus on screen in a completely different way. You can travel to galaxies and view photos from telescopes from around the world. Hear the leading researchers in astronomy share data on the stars in the sky. World Wide Telescope fundamentally shifts the way we all learn about the stars. One of the big wins here for we Earthlings is that Microsoft has succeed in getting scientists all over the globe to participate in sharing data with the unwashed masses. It’s fun to bash Microsoft as a big company that takes our money and frustrates us with lackluster products we’re forced to use, but World Wide Telescope is a massive example of the company diverting some of those dollars to something that ultimately benefits everyone on the planet with access to knowledge and information that’s primarily only been available to scientists, exposing it in a way that’s accessible to everyone. If you have an ASCOM compatible telescope, you can use it in combination with WorldWide Telescope. [Windows XP/Vista $0.00]
Almost two years ago I wrote about the Schmap player, which enabled interactive map guides for about 30 major U.S. cities at the time. Schmap has since expanded, now offering 200 guides covering cities in Europe, Canada, and the United States. You can download the massive 388MB collection for local access on your computer, or you can selectively download cities as you need them. If you’re planning a trip for business or leisure, Schmap offers an interesting way to find places you might otherwise miss, locate restaurants off the beaten path, or simply explore the city before you get there. After Schmap, you won’t look at travel planning the same way again. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista Mac OS X $0.00]
Scott Dunn over at Windows Secrets provides a list of the nine must-have freeware apps, based on the overlap in reviews from four respected publications. To make Scott’s list, an application had to appear on the list of three out of four of publications. You can read Scott’s methodology in picking the software, then download the apps. Most have been mentioned here before.
Avira AntiVir Personal is one of the most frequently updated free antivirus apps.
Comodo Firewall Pro is a solid upgrade to the Windows Firewall, providing protection for both inbound and outbound traffic.
TrueCrypt is my favorite disk encryption software. If you want to make sure files on your disk are locked down, use TrueCrypt with an external key on a USB drive.
CCleaner is a favorite registry cleaner and temp file remover.
Lightning for Thunderbird is a must-have because Thunderbird lacks a calendar.
Foxit Reader is a lightweight alternative to the slow-loading Adobe Reader for PDF browsing. It is free but the terms are confusing because Foxit tries hard to upgrade you to their “pro pack”.
Audacity is the best free multi-track audio recorder period. I’ve written several tutorials for audio recording and podcasting based on Audacity.
Wavosaur is the audio editor I affectionately think of as “Sound Forge lite”. It’s a great two-track audio editor with most of the functions you’d need from a pro app like Sound Forge.
Pidgin is my favorite unified instant messaging client. Since Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Google, and numerous other messaging apps refuse to collectively play nice, Pidgin bridges the gap for you.
My own lists of best freeware solutions are much longer, but it’s excellent to see Scott’s distilled list of freeware featuring nine overlapping greats.
If you’re not using some kind of password manager to protect all those online accounts, or if you use the same password everywhere, there’s a good chance you’re exposing yourself to potential security problems. While Firefox has a decent password safe (that only encrypts your files if you supply a master password), using a third-party solution like KeePass is likely a better alternative, if only because it gives you easy access to that data outside of Firefox. KeePass stores unlimited passwords, makes it easy to create unique passwords for each account, and encrypts all those passwords to make it impossible for a virus or someone who sits down at your computer to access your online accounts. Clicking the remember this password box is a good way to give anyone access to your account. Instead of worrying about whether you can remember dozens of passwords, use something like KeePass to store them instead. You only need to remember the master password and KeePass does the rest. [Windows 9x/2k/XP/Vista $0.00]
Windows XP may be long in the tooth, but it’s certainly not dead yet. If you do only one thing to overhaul the current state of your Windows XP machine, download Windows Live Photo Gallery. This barely exposed update for the baked in Windows photo management tools is one of the most useful upgrades to your Windows user experience. An improved photo import makes this a worthwhile download all on its own. Photo management is upgraded to include views sorted by date and tags (a new tagging tool helps you ID your photos for grouping all pictures of a particular person, event, or location). Simple photo editing for red-eye removal, crops, and adjusting levels handles most common image fixes. If you happen to have a Windows Live Spaces account, there are additional features to publish direct from Windows to your Space or build slideshows for publishing to your Space. Download this free upgrade to the built-in Windows photo management experience and you’ll be looking at your images in a whole new way. (The same features also improve Vista) [Windows XP/Vista $0.00]
Is your Internet connection as fast as your ISP claims? Are you sure? When was the last time you ran a speed test to compare their published data transfer rate to what you’re really getting? There are a number of online services that you can test against, but it’s also handy to have a speed testing tool installed and ready for use (especially if your primary system is a laptop). SpeedConnect Connection Tester downloads a file from a Microsoft server and benchmarks your data rate during transfer, with a handful of stats to analyze once it completes. In theory this is meant to encourage you to purchase the company’s Internet Accelerator, if your connection is slow, but you can simply use it to benchmark your connection with no strings attached. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista $0.00]
Adobe officially joined the world of online photo editing with Adobe Photoshop Express. This online service allows you to upload photos, edit them, store photos in online albums, and selectively share some or all your photos online. This means you now have access to many of the basic Photoshop editing features without needing to own Photoshop and without needing to have your computer with you. In addition to having a photo repository with Adobe’s Photoshop.com site, you can also pull in photos from Facebook, Photobucket, and Picasa, which might get me to try uploading some photos to one of those services, instead of my personal preference Flickr.
I wasn’t entirely sure I’d like editing Photos in a browser, but even testing the service from my AT&T BroadbandConnect account worked easily enough to convince me this could be a great way to edit photos going forward. Most of the editing features offer you multiple choices, so you can test several variations live, which makes editing just as fast as using desktop software. Editing is non-destructive, so you can always go back to the original version of the file, with a version history that allows you to look back through many undo iterations. Of course if you need automated actions, you’ll still want to have Photoshop CS and many of the advanced features of Photoshop Elements aren’t found here. For free Adobe has done a great job of exposing popular features, making editing easy, and paid attention to the need to store photos outside of the Adobe universe. Give Photoshop Express a try and you may think twice about tying up system resources with additional photo sorting and editing apps on your desktop.
While I’d like to see support for more online services (especially Flickr), in the meantime Photoshop Express will be one of my keyword bookmarks, so I have it when I need it.
Many of the Windows utilities have been part of the operating system for so long that they start looking neglected. The Windows Calculator is one of the best examples of this. It looks and functions like it was created by an intern writing his or her first Windows application. FreeCalc is the calculator that should have shipped with Windows. Beyond core calculator functions like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, FreeCalc ads a simulated paper tape to actually keep track of your calculations, with a convenient export to text file feature. Instead of a fixed size, FreeCalc is adjustable. There are many more key controls in FreeCalc than the standard Windows calculator. A visible memory value shows you what you stored with the memory function of the calculator. While you can certainly get more calculator functions buy purchasing a software calculator, FreeCalc takes you most of the way to many features that should be built in to any calculator for Windows. [Windows 9x/2k/XP $0.00]
I have the need for making a flowchart or business diagram once every few months, which makes the price of something like Microsoft’s Visio seem outrageous. Diagram Designer is tool for diagramming almost anything. If you need to create a flowchart, diagram of your workflow, the hierarchy of your office, or anything that makes more sense when connecting a bunch of boxes with lines or arrows, Diagram Designer will do the trick. In addition to simple layout of diagrams, the software supports import and export of the following image formats: WMF, EMF, BMP, JPEG, PNG, MNG, ICO, GIF and PCX. There’s a graph plotter for math equations. A calculator is built in for solving equations. A compressed file format keeps the files sizes small for your drawings. For most diagramming needs, Diagram Designer will be the last tool you ever need. [Windows 2k/XP/Vista $0.00]