Making computers simpler

Right, I’ve been experimenting a lot with software here and there on my Windows XP system over the past week or so and I’ve discovered some extremely useful software for the tech savvy. Many kudos to Lifehacker and gHacks, but yeah, I had to sift through many programs to see what exactly I wanted myself. I’ve sorted this post into must-haves, should-haves and uhh-maybes, though I use all of these softwares. Please comment if you have any suggestions/ alternatives (that don’t require proficiency in programming or money)!

Must-haves

1. A suitable, secure, fast working browser: The latest craze, in case you’ve been living in a cave, is the Google Chrome browser. It is currently reputed (or even proven) to be the fastest browser out there, and boasts many other features: a suggestions-as-you-type bar, a private browsing mode, dynamic tabs etc. This is not, however, the browser I’m using now – I’m sticking to Mozilla Firefox 3.0, mostly because of the addons that give me even greater control over my browsing. I’ve also been able to tweak Mozilla Firefox’s about:config file to maximise my browsing experiences. Perhaps I’ll switch if/ when Google provides similar services.

2. A stable RSS feed reader. RSS readers make catching up with blogs and news feeds much simpler – instead of visiting every blog once to hope for new content, you could just have a routine scan through blogs once or twice a day. Now I’m not too familiar with the types of RSS feed readers out there because I’ve stuck to using a Firefox extension, Sage-Too, but I suppose anything that doesn’t require too many clicks and too much time would be the best. Sage-Too is pretty efficient – one click and you can tell what’s been updated and what hasn’t. What’s more, it has added functionality from its predecessor, allowing you to automatically mark all posts as read before leaving the feed (therefore saving one click per feed for me), or even to open the feed pages in new tabs.

3. Media players that don’t consume too much memory: Basically, neither WMP (which is plagued with the lack of codecs) nor iTunes (and its advertising). I recommend the latest VLC media player for videos and maybe Winamp or foobar2000 for audio. The problem with alternative audio players for iPod owners is, of course, that you won’t be able to synchronise your music with iTunes – however there are some plugins available for you to synchronise iPods with other media players (I stick to iTunes for this purpose though).

4. Gee I almost forgot this – something that protects you from viruses, spyware, malware, trojans, worms, whatever. Yes, it gets important for someone who can’t stop trying out new software, but don’t overlook its importance. Or at least I won’t, because I’m into the habit of keeping my computer free from “dirty” viruses. Maybe you should develop that habit too. I use AVG, mostly because Avast! on my brother’s computer plays a loud “Virus Database has been updated” sound when (I’m sure it can be disabled, but yes the sounds do leave indelible marks upon my impression). Otherwise, Lifehacker suggests ClamWin – but please get at least one scanner to calm your nerves whenever you think a virus has struck your computer (AND UPDATE IT REGULARLY!).

5. Good workable keyboard shortcuts for your software: This can be done using AutoHotkey scripts, which unfortunately might require some programming knowledge or just smart Google searches to find the right scripts :). At the moment, I open Firefox by pressing Shift + Caps Lock – this combination also allows me to open a new tab, replacing the uncomfortable Ctrl+T shortcut given by the browser. I’m still looking for new possibilities, but I’m not a programmer, so I guess I’m limited to the suggestions I can find online! Another extremely useful (I’d call it incredible) tool is Launchy, which allows you to launch files easily with a few keystrokes. I can now find a specific document within my folders in four or five seconds!

Should-haves

1. Firefox extensions. Firefox is a pretty fun browser to use, but it can be made funner by playing around with it. The most important ones that I’d include on this list are Adblock Plus, Download Statusbar, IE Tab and Speed Dial. (This is not an exhaustive list of good extensions though: there are a few that I use which I haven’t listed down here) I don’t want to explain them separately, but they’re probably the things that make using Firefox worthwhile, in addition to the about:config tweaks that I mentioned earlier. For people who may want to access their bookmarks across different computers, Foxmarks Bookmark Synchroniser: note link wasn’t working at the time of posting is a necessity
. (NB: Try Dropbox for synchronisation of files across computers, max 2.0 GB)

2. Start Killer – this one is quite useful for people who press their Windows button more than they click the (pretty? ugly?) start button on their computer. It’s also good for those who find themselves opening too many windows on their taskbar, as “killing” the start button gives you space for other windows – however I might recommend something like WinTabber for such purposes (especially if you’re too used to clicking the “Start”).

3. Mz CPU Accelerator, or any other program that manages your processes more effectively – it appears to make my computer perform better, but I’m not sure because my computer’s pretty fast (compared to the previous ones) anyway. Regardless, it’s cool and potentially useful stuff. And cool and potentially useful stuff that does not lag your computer ought to be on your computer.

4. Firefox themes: Mmm Chromifox (to lie to yourself about using Chrome), mmm Littlefox (the smaller the buttons, the more you see on the page). These two are the ones that I’d recommend over anything too flashy. Point being, these themes should themselves help in making your browsing experience more enjoyable – unless you prefer scrolling or switching to the Full Screen mode.

5. Some kind of a download manager. I admit my Internet connection isn’t the fastest in the world, and probably the best way to download large files from slower servers is to use a download manager. In fact, FDM (which is the download manager I’m using) was a necessity for my previous computer, when my connection would tend to break off after a few seconds and a reconnection was required.

Uhh-maybes

1. Design tweaks that don’t lag your computer too badly: for me, I made my icons on the Desktop and the Start Menu look a little cuter by making them smaller (using Regedit). I’ve tried things like WindowsBlinds, ObjectDock etc etc, and while they make your computer look like the coolest thing on earth, they can slow the computer down quite a bit. So be careful about them – if your program installations cause additional lag to Windows (say the startup takes beyond 5 minutes) it’s a sign that a lighter touch may be the way to go.

2. Common program replacements – Besides the ones mentioned below, it might be good to replace things for greater accessibility and functionality. These include VolumeTouch as a simple replacement for the volume controls, AkelPad as a replacement for Notepad (more for programmers, but yeah) and FreeCommander as a replacement for Windows Explorer. These aren’t strictly necessary, but they’re quite fun downloads anyway.

3. Startup Delayer: I haven’t exactly tested this out, but I’m going to the next time I start this machine up. It sounds like a good deal to me though – it allows me to run those unimportant startup processes later (or maybe even the important ones, depending on when I need them). It might really be useful in minimising startup lag.

4. Firefox Preloader: Of course, you wouldn’t want to use this if you decided to remain faithful to IE, but for Firefox users, this loads the browser in the blink of an eye (as it keeps the process running even if Firefox is closed). However, I notice that the process tends to take up more memory as more Firefox windows are opened and closed, which perhaps makes it important for one to “Unload Firefox” and “Reload Firefox” from time to time. Maybe it’s a little tedious, but it sure works fine.

5. SuperPI: For fun.

So, what do you guys do to make your usage of the computer simpler? Is switching to an alternative OS a better solution than making all these adjustments?

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