Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: Freeware Enhances PC Productivity

Whether doing a good deed or hawking their services, programmers offer useful software.

Whether you're a computer guru or technologically challenged, chances are you can use your PC more productively. And you can do it without spending a dime with free software programs and Web services. Some computer whiz kids may not be saints, but there's a long history in the computer world of programmers sharing their work for free. Some programmers offer downloadable "freeware" from the Internet. Freeware is a small program released by its developer to the public without charge, sometimes out of sheer generosity. Some developers have other motives, such as promoting their consulting business or offering a limited free version of their work in the hope that users will upgrade to a beefed-up pay version. Typically programmers prohibit you from selling their program or altering its source code. But a growing number of "Open Source" adherents, following the example of the Linux operating system, release their program's source code to the public over the Internet without restriction in a worldwide collaborative effort to create the best possible product. The Open Source Initiative offers further information about this practice. While some e-commerce companies are moving beyond the advertising-only model and are now charging for their services, most Web-based services remain free. This seems absurd, doesnt it? After all, how well can a company be doing if its pricing its product at zilch? And, from a consumer perspective, how valuable can something be if doesn't cost anything? It turns out that the best of the free software programs and Web services nullify the notion that there's no such thing as a free lunch. These are excellent tools. But as with anything, there is a potential downside. One negative with free programs is that you probably won't get the same tech support as with a pay program (though good tech support with pay programs is never a certainty). Another negative, which is true any time you tweak a PC, is the risk that something will go wrong. One way to protect yourself with Windows PCs is to make back-up copies of two files that together comprise part of the inner workings of Windows called the "Registry." You can do this with the help of software, though it's simple enough to do it manually. If you're using Windows 95, 98, or Me, just copy the files system.dat and user.dat in the Windows folder to a Zip or similar removable drive, a back-up tape, or another folder on your hard disk. In case your system does get corrupted, which is possible but highly unlikely with any given tweak, you can correct things in most cases by simply copying these Registry files back to the Windows folder. If you're using Windows NT or 2000, you should use the Backup utility included to back up the Registry and, if need be, to restore it. Here is a sampling of the best free productivity-enhancing computer tools:

  • PowerDesk: With this utility you can copy, move, or otherwise manage files on your hard disk faster than you can with Windows' own tools. PowerDesk also includes built-in tools for handling Zip-compressed files. www.ontrack.com/powerdesk.
  • JConnect Free: Formerly called JFax, this Internet-based service lets you receive faxes as attachments to e-mail messages, which is more convenient than using a fax-modem. www.j2.com.
  • Tweak UI: This Microsoft utility, which works with Windows 95 and all versions after it, makes it easy to tweak the Windows user interface. There are dozens of options -- one lets you log on automatically at boot-up, convenient for cable and DSL modem users. www.microsoft.com/ntworkstation/downloads/powertoys/networking/nttweakui.asp.
  • PC Pitstop: This Web-based service scans your PC for viruses, checks your hard disk for errors and fragmentation, and diagnoses your Internet connection. www.pcpitstop.com.
  • Atomica: Formerly called GuruNet, this combination utility/Web service is a reference gem. While connected to the Internet, you hold down the "Alt" key when clicking on a word in any Windows program. Atomica offers a dictionary definition then the option of reading a concise encyclopedia entry. It will also translate the word into foreign languages or search the Web. www.atomica.com. The above is just a sprinkling of what's out there. You can test out other interesting programs at virus-free download sites such as Nonags and Download.com. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
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