Sunday, October 24, 2010

Free as a Bird...

A few of Peabody's favorite free programs...

It's amazing just how much good freeware there is floating around in cyberspace these days. As a matter of fact it's entirely possible to set up a complete computer system, from operating system, word processing, antivirus, multimedia, web browsers and just about any application you could want with free software.
Most of the companies providing decent free versions of software usually offer better more fully featured versions for a price, the old bait and switch tactic. However, there's still a plethora of excellent stuff to be had for just a mouse click or two.

I certainly don't mind shelling out a few bucks for "critical" top tier software, such as an operating system. I'm still firmly in the Windows camp on this one, ever since the venerable XP came into being, that is. I've been able to do most everything I want to do on a PC with minimal problems. ( my first 2 personal computers sported the "wonderful" Windows 95 and ME operating systems, so I'm somewhat familiar with the iconic "BSoD" ).

 This is by no means an " anti-Apple" rant, as Mac OS X is an absolute work of art from the user interface perspective. Anyone whose had the pleasure of using an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad would probably agree that the beautifully minimalist hardware design and the very intuitive and fluid interface are arguably the standard by which all others are "currently" measured, this statement probably applies to Apple's superb reputation for customer service as well. ( with only 10% of the market share, and customers paying close to a 50% cost premium compared MS, it had better be freakin superb )

But, if you like to tinker around and tweak things a bit, without the "Orwellian" control of the OS's megalomaniacal "Big Giant Head", than Windows is probably your best bet. Besides the chance to actually manipulate ( screw up ) the operating system, there are innumerable applications and free programs to do just about anything on a PC. With this concept in mind,  ( screwing up your system for free ) here are a few of Peabody's current favorite "freebies"...

Freeware list:
(the stuff Peabody uses regularly on Win7 and Xp, with "Thumbs Up" results) 

1. "Firefox" : Mozilla's open source browser is still a personal favorite, and the internet workhorse @ the Peabody Laboratories. Safer, faster and more functional than IE ( which I moved away from years ago ). It offers a multitude of customization features and add on applications that have yet to be eclipsed by the impressive "Google Chrome" ( the current "close 2nd" choice)...

2. "Avast Free Antivirus" : The current favorite for several reasons, the first that it's highly rated by the "experts", and second that it has fairly simple to use interface and doesn't constantly pester you to upgrade to the pay version, as the also highly rated Avira does. ( good luck uninstalling Avira, as it never seems to go away) A close 2nd is "Microsoft Security Essentials" which is very good and requires minimal user interaction.

3. "Zonealarm" : Great personal firewall program with inbound/outbound protection. ( Zonealarm does require a "training period" in which the user must interact to allow programs access, and don't forget to disable the Windows firewall,as you only want one active firewall program running @ a time )

4. "Malwarebytes" : A very effective  antimalware tool with a simple straightforward interface, and will scan multiple and networked drives. ( note: no real time protection in the free version )

5. "Aulogics Disk Defrag" : Amazingly fast and effective for such a low price... ( a mouse click ) ...

6. LastPass : If you're like me, you probably get frustrated occasionally when trying to remember passwords. This is an effective solution which allows you access from multiple locations using a master password, can be set to automatically fill login forms and is encrypted and secure. 

7. "VLC Media Player" : An open source program that plays virtually any video format and has an amazingly customizable interface with a full featured audio equalizer. ( there are tons of nice skins for VLC, but be careful as some may cause poor functionality )

8."GIMP" : An incredibly powerful and very polished image manipulation and photo editor program, comparable to Photoshop. ( without the hefty price tag ). It is somewhat daunting to use if you're not experienced. For the rest of us who just want to do some light photo touch up, or Lightbox are probably a better fit.

9. "Revo Uninstaller" : A program that effectively uninstalls most programs completely ( will take out Avira ), and removes those pesky remnants. Revo has a few very useful features like the Autorun manager, that lets you tweak your start up programs, a "junk files killer" along with a host of cache clearing functions.

10. "Open Office" : For the average user this covers the basics of office document creation as well as spreadsheets. A reasonable open source alternative to the excellent but expensive MS Office. If all you need is a basic word processor than  "Jarte" is awesome with nifty features such as templates and the "Encyclopedia" button which looks up the highlighted word in Wikipedia Dictionary and Thesaurus.  

11. A quick note, as you're most certainly aware, there's no such thing as "free". Most good software vendors want something in return for their efforts on your behalf. ( a reasonable expectation in my opinion ). Either by omitting certain features and tempting you with their more capable "pay version"  or by adding something to the freebie that generates a profit for them, in the form of a search engine add on or maybe a  browser toolbar.
Take it slow when accepting "end user license agreements" as most legitimate vendors will allow you to opt out of these additional features @ some point during the installation process. So don't forget to "uncheck" the little box that enables you to install these options if you don't want them. Having a half dozen search toolbars attached to your web browser isn't going to "enhance" the experience much.

It's always a good idea to take a moment and create a restore point before installing any new software. This can save you a lot of time and grief should you run into any problems or compatibility issues. Win7 will automatically create a restore point before it installs any software, but only when it uses the windows installer, so it's not a sure thing.

To manually create a restore point in Windows 7....

Go to Start menu and right click "Computer", click "Properties".

Click on "System Protection".

In Protection Settings make sure protection is "On".

Click "Create" and the restore point box will appear. 

Choose a name for the restore point, ( the name of the software you're installing would be appropriate )
 and click "Create".

The time it takes to create depends on the processor speed and the amount of data on the drive.

There you have it, a new restore point. Windows will time/date stamp it, along with your chosen name.

For Windows XP users....

Go to Start Menu, point to all programs > accessories > system tools > system restore and click.

Select create a restore point and click next.

Name your restore point and click create.

A restore point has been created.

A System Restore has saved me from major headaches ( reinstalling the OS ) on more than a few occsasions, but this is still no guarantee, so back up your hard drive on a regular basis. With the relatively low prices on external hard drives nowadays it makes sense to use one for a backup device in case of failure of the "onboard" hard drive. One of the easiest to use is the "Clickfree Portable Drive".  It's also possible to use an old laptop hard drive as a backup by simply putting it in an inexpensive enclosure. ( also an effective save in case of a catastrophic laptop event... oops... ). And of course let's not forget one of my favorite multipurpose memory devices, the USB flash drive.

The internet is a powerful tool and I would expect most to folks to research a product or service before purchasing. The same can be said for software, and certainly anything offered as "Free" should be scrutinized thoroughly ( as the proverbial "gift horse", could be of the "Trojan" variety ).
 Always download from reputable locations that provide reliable information on the origin and quality of the software. I highly recommend "CNET"s", with it's in depth reviews and user feed back, which is invaluable in determining whether a program is safe, compatible with your system and provides the functions that you require.    

That said, the fine folks that produce good, legitimate freeware are certainly worthy of being considered for the pay versions of their software, it's likely to be very good also. As always, if any of your systems are damaged or destroyed, Peabody will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self destruct in 5 seconds....... Phfffffftttt.....( nice touch with the sound effects @ the end, huh? )

 I loved  Mission Impossible as a kid and always admired Barney, the cool electronics guy on the series. It was while installing a hidden camera @ 3:00 am., hanging on the outside of a service elevator on the 10th floor of a major hospital in Baltimore ( they were having a bit of a theft problem ) when it hit me.... "Holy crap"... "I'm friggin Barney man"! At which point Ward, the Otis Elevator service man, who was on top of the car, looked down at me and said,... What?... What the hell are you talkin about?...  Hurry up, my old lady's starting to get suspicious of all these "middle of the night" service calls...

One interesting "take down" came from a camera hidden in some ductwork, a couple of rather high level employees making off with, of all things, 25 lb. bags of frozen shrimp and Christmas turkeys... ( I mean a lot of em )...Happy Holidays fellas...


  1. I just recently upgraded to a bigger, faster hard drive on my old dell d820 and am using the old drive in a transend storejet enclosure. fits in my pocket and have the whole family backed up on this thing (3 laptops) cost me under $20 @ tigerdirect and even came with back up software.

  2. brrrr peabody, it's getting cold up there at porcupinepoint. it's nice and warm down here in Corpus Christi baby...

  3. Barney was the coolest character in the M.I. series, for sure. The show was way ahead of it's time. I like what you did with "Big Brothers" eyes. I think Steve might even approve.

  4. As a Unix / Linux system administrator, I definitely approve of your recommendation to set restore points and back up the system before making any significant changes. This cannot be stressed enough. As for climbing around on the outside of an elevator car to catch turkey thieves, I think that sounds a little too risky for me :)