Wednesday, February 27, 2008

First Looks - Sumatra PDF 0.8 - A fast, free alternative to Adobe Reader




I have always wondered why the PDF format became a web and desktop standard for publishing documents. I wondered because the only application available for reading them was Adobe Reader, which has always been slow to launch and slow to respond while viewing a document. And matters have just gotten worse over time, as Adobe Reader has become more and more bloated. Thankfully, things have been changing recently. We now have some alternatives to Adobe Reader - First their was Foxit Reader, then PDF-XChange, and now there is another new kid on the block - Sumatra PDF.

Unlike Foxit Reader and PDF Exchange, the developers of Sumatra PDF have chosen to follow the KISS principle with their program. Sumatra PDF can be used to view and print PDF files, and that's about it. Since that's all that 90% of us need a PDF viewer for to begin with, they've chosen a good path to follow. The program is small, launches very fast, and is very responsive when moving about in documents.

The interface is clean and simple, with forward and back buttons for moving about in the document, zoom + and - buttons, and a find function. The find function will find all occurrences of a word or phrase, and conveniently highlights the text in yellow. Two additional buttons allow you to find the next or previous occurrence.

Setting Sumatra PDF up to view a full page at a time, sized so that it is readable, is much easier to do than it is in Adobe Reader. I always have to fiddle with Adobe to do this across different PDF documents, but I found that Sumatra usually opens a document already set up this way. I think part of the reason is that the user interface consumes a lot less real estate in Sumatra than in Adobe.

One thing to note - Sumatra PDF was not designed to integrate with browsers, so PDFs are opened in a separate program window. This may be a show-stopper for some of you, but I happen to like it.

Even though Sumatra PDF is still beta software (current version 0.8), I experienced no serious bugs. The only minor thing I noticed was that when viewing a couple of very complicated PDFs (files with multiple images and diagrams on a single page), Sumatra took a noticeable amount of time to render the page. But I viewed a variety of other PDF files with no problem at all.

The Bottom Line...

A real alternative to Adobe Reader if you just need to view and print PDFs. Small, fast with a very clean and simple user interface. It's Open Source, so it's free for personal or commercial use. Even though it's still in beta, I found the application overall to be very well behaved - your mileage may vary due to its beta status. I like it enough that I left it on my machine as my default PDF viewer after the review. If you are not frightened by the word beta, I would recommend giving Sumatra PDF a try. If you are, stay tuned - I will post an update when the first official release happens. You can download Sumatra PDF here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

First Looks - Up and coming Open Source software

My next post is part of a new series called First Looks. In this series, I will be reviewing promising programs that are currently still in beta. Most of these will be Open Source type programs, simply because Open Source betas are usually widely available. One of the things that makes Open Source possible is users who are willing to try a promising new software still in beta, and report any problems they have.

If the word "beta" makes you nervous, no need to download and try it yet - I will post an update when the first official release happens. So check back soon for a review of Sumatra PDF, a delightfully nimble new alternative to the slow, bloated Adobe Reader.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Snapfiles.com – Best free software download site




Over the years, I have searched for and downloaded a lot of free software. Usually this involved Googling “free word processor” or whatever I might be looking for – and a lot of trial and error downloading, installing and trying different packages. The search results don't provide much feedback about the quality of a program, except in the form of advertisements. Over time though, there was one site that I kept returning to, Snapfiles.com. Now I usually start my search for a good free software program there.

The biggest reason I like Snapfiles is the large, active community of end-users that provide reviews on the site. You can get quality, real-world information about a software package from people who have downloaded and tried it. And the folks at Snapfiles have done a great job in designing the site to support this review process. Another reason I like this site so much is that Snapfiles makes it easy to search for just free software. Many of the “free download” sites that you find in a web search lump shareware and freeware together, and you have to weed through programs in both categories to find free software.

When you arrive at the homepage for Snapfiles, there are convenient tabs at the top of the page for Shareware and Freeware. Clicking on the Freeware tab brings up a comprehensive list of categories and sub-categories, all on one page. Clicking on a category brings up a one page list of all the software available in that category. Each entry in the list contains a summary of the information available about that program. There is a star rating system, with 5 stars being the best rating. You can see the rating given by the Snapfiles editors, an overview of the program's features, and most importantly, the star rating given by users along with the number of reviews that the rating is based on. You can read all of the reviews for a software package by clicking on the rating link. You can also choose to download the program from this summary.

It's not unusual to find 50 or more reviews for a popular free software package on the Snapfiles site. Usually you can get a good “feel” for the program – whether or not it might meet your requirements – after reading just of few of these reviews. Clicking on Full Details in the summary box brings up a page with more information – the publisher, the version and filesize, which OS's the software is compatible with, and a link to screenshots. This is another thing I like about Snapfiles, most of the program descriptions have one or more screenshots available.

If you don't want to browse the site to find what you are looking for, there is a search bar on each page. Type in a keyword and press search, and you get a list of all the programs matching that keyword. This list will include both shareware and freeware, but at the top of the list there is a checkbox to “Only search for freeware” - check this box and press Find It and you get a filtered list of just the freeware programs that match your original search.

The Bottom Line...

I would definitely recommend starting your search for a good free software program at this site. The layout is fantastic, the pages load fast, the site is well-organized, and the reviews are great! You can visit Snapfiles.com here.

P.S. Snapfiles is my personal favorite out of the free software download sites that I am AWARE of – I would appreciate your comments on other sites that might be your personal favorites. I would like to conduct a poll on this topic, so if you would like to nominate a favorite site, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Spybot Search & Destroy 1.5.2 – An excellent free spyware and adware cleaner





Over the past few years, I've come to the conclusion that no one anti-spyware program can catch everything, so I use two of them on a regular basis – Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware from Lavasoft. I'll be reviewing Ad-Aware in the near future.

I have been using Spybot S&D for several years now, and have followed it through several upgrades to the current version, which is 1.5.2. Spybot S&D has a spyware and adware scanner that can be used to run periodic, thorough scans of your system, either manually or on a scheduled automatic basis. It also includes resident protection for Internet Explorer and a separate resident application that protects other browsers (including Opera and Firefox, two of my favorites) as well as important areas of the Windows registry. In addition, it includes an Immunization feature, that can be used to protect against the installation of more common spyware and adware.

The installation of Spybot S&D requires a little more interaction by the user than I care for, but it's well worth the effort. The installation program uses a wizard-style interface, and you are prompted to select the language, whether or not to install the resident protection, to download the latest update of the definitions file, and to back up your registry. Also, you can choose to view a short tutorial after the program installs – I would recommend this if you are new to Spybot S&D.

The first thing to do after installing is to use the Immunize feature to protect against common spyware and adware. After Immunizing, click on the Search & Destroy button and choose Check for Problems. This starts the scanner, which displays a list of the problems found while running. The scanner will take most of your system resources while it is running, so you should do the scan when you don't plan to use your computer for a bit. To facilitate this, the program includes a built-in scheduler that will run the program at the time and interval you select.

When the scan completes, you are left with a list of problems to be fixed. Each item can be checked or un-checked for removal. The program recommends that you view the tutorial for help interpreting the results. You might, for example, be using an IE toolbar that S&D considers to be spyware or adware (for more on this, see this article on the author's website), and you can un-check it if you want to keep it. After reviewing the list of problems, simply choose Fix selected problems, and S&D will remove the problems found. S&D keeps a backup of all changes made, so if you discover something missing you can always undo the change.

As I mentioned earlier, I use more than one spyware/adware cleaner. I use Spybot S&D and Ad-Aware on a weekly basis, mainly because both take a while to run and consume a lot of resources while running. To fill in the gaps, I use Advanced Windows Care Personal (look for a review soon) on a daily basis – it only takes 3 or 4 minutes to run, and does some registry and junk file cleaning as well. In addition, I use the resident protection provided by my ISP (they provide tools from Computer Associates for free).

As for the resident protection in Spybot S&D, I have used it before with excellent results, but it consumes too much ram for my taste (about 30K for the TeaTimer resident app). But by all means, if you are not currently using a resident anti-spyware tool, I would recommend it (I doubt if you are as anal about system ram as I am).

The author issues updated definition files on a periodic basis. S&D does not automatically check for updates, but there is a Search for Updates button on the main screen. The first time you do this, you will have to select which mirror you want to download from – if you are unsure just use the default. I usually check for updates every week when I run the scanner.

One note about the user interface – there are two interface “Modes” in S&D. When installed, the mode is set to Default. In order to use the built-in scheduler or enable/disable resident protection, you have to change the interface mode to Advanced. You do this by selecting Mode > Advanced from the drop-down menu at the top.

The Bottom Line...

While not for the casual computer user, Spybot S&D is a very powerful application. It is one of the best-supported freeware apps on the web, and has become a full-time job for the author, with people from all over the world assisting part-time.  If you are more of a “hands-on” computer user, I would definitely recommend giving it a try. Personally, I would like to see the install streamlined a bit, the user interface made a bit more user-friendly, and the ability to do automatic updates. But don't get me wrong – this is one of the best, if not THE best, spyware and adware cleaners available, whether free or paid. Just be prepared to invest a little time in getting used to the program. You can download Spybot Search & Destroy here.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

EasyCapture 1.0 – simple, easy-to-use freeware screen capture utility




When I started this blog, I made the decision to always include a screenshot of the programs that I review. It quickly became apparent that I needed to update my screen capture utility to meet certain criteria. My criteria included the following:

  1. Small, lightweight, easy-to-use
  2. The ability to capture just the active window, without the mouse cursor
  3. The ability to preview the image and save it with a filename of my choosing
  4. The ability to do basic editing, particularly resizing of the image while maintaining the aspect ratio – before saving it

It took me a while to find a freeware program that meets these criteria, but EasyCapture from XYStudio was a perfect fit. It includes all of the features mentioned above, plus some.

EasyCapture is a small download (about 850K) and the install program is straightforward. When you run EasyCapture, it brings up the window as seen in the above screenshot, and installs itself in the system tray as well. Within a few minutes of first running it, I was using EasyCapture capture to do all of the things mentioned above – it's that easy to use.

You can capture the full screen, any open window, the active window, or a rectangular area of the screen that you select. You can perform these functions from within the main program window using convenient toolbar buttons, or by using the assigned hot-key for each function (the hot-key assignments are user-definable, you can change the defaults to whatever suits you).

For my purposes, I minimize EasyCapture to the system tray, then use the hot-key (Ctl-Shift-A is the default for the active window) after selecting the window of the program that I am reviewing. EasyCapture capture makes a neat little camera-shutter-clicking sound, and the main window opens up with a full-size preview of the image. Then I choose Image-Resize from the menu, enter the desired dimensions, click on Ok, and the image is quickly resized. I can choose between Good or Better quality for the image resize algorithm in its dialog box. I then save the image using the Save toolbar button and I'm done.

There you have it. It takes me about two minutes to have a screenshot that meets the criteria for my blog posts. EasyCapture has lots of other features – but they don't get in the way of the basic ones and I am able to do what I need to do quickly and easily. The folks at XYStudio have done a great job on this one.

EasyCapture has some other cool features, too. You can add text to explain your screen capture, draw lines and rectangles in the colors of your choice, and even add cartoon-type “balloon stamps” with text. There are also 8 Filter selections that can be applied to your image, including Blur, Emboss and Mosaic. You can also Rotate, Flip, Invert, and adjust the Brightness, Contrast and Color, to name just a few of the other editing options. EasyCapture allows you to save your captured images in BMP, GIF,PCX,JPEG or PNG format.

A visit to the author's website reveals a basic on line help menu. There's also a contact form for the author and the website states that EasyCapture is compatible with Windows Vista, WinXP, and Win2000. I tested it on my Win XP SP2 machine. I found only one minor issue with EasyCapture, which had to do with some of the tool tips for the toolbar buttons not displaying – I see this quite a bit with new programs – as this is the first release of EasyCapture, I'm sure this will be corrected soon enough.

The bottom line – If you need a good screen capture program, even if you already have one, get EasyCapture and give it a try – I think you'll be surprised at it's capability and ease-of-use. EasyCapture is free for personal use, and can be downloaded here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mozilla Thunderbird – Gain control of your inbox again with this easy to use free email client



Up until a few weeks ago, I was using the web-mail provided by my isp for reading and sending all of my email. Even though the web-mail app had a spam filter, my inbox was out of control – I was still getting about 75% spam. So I started searching for a good, free alternative. I soon came across references to Mozilla Thunderbird, developed by the same organization that gave us the Firefox web browser. Most of the reviews I read mentioned that Thunderbird's built-in spam filter technology was excellent, so I decided to give it a try. A month later and I am now using Thunderbird for all of my email needs – with a little effort on my part my spam count is down to about 10% !

The install process for Thunderbird is simple, with a minimum of questions. When I ran the program for the first time, it recognized that Outlook Express was on my computer and asked if I wanted to import account settings from it. You can also do this at a later time from the Tools menu – an import option lets you import account settings, your address book and actual mail. This makes switching email clients relatively painless (unless you have only webmail).

Using Thunderbird to organize your email is fairly straightforward. If you set Thunderbird up to check your main email address (the one you use to login to your isp), all of your email will be delivered to your Inbox in Thunderbird by default. Then, using the easy to understand Message Filters, you can set up filters on each of your addresses to filter mail to folders that you create. These filters run automatically as your mail is downloaded from the mail server, so the result is that each time you check your email it is sorted into the proper folders. Of course you can use Message Filters to sort on almost anything contained in the email, rather than just the address - you could for example sort mail from a certain group, where the group name is in the Subject field of the message, into a folder for that group.

Now for the good stuff! The built-in spam filter technology starts to work right away identifying messages that Thunderbird thinks are spam (Thunderbird uses the term “junk” - I like that word better than spam, because that's exactly what it is - junk!). The people at Mozilla have really done their homework in researching the kinds of spam that are out there, as the filter does a fair job right out of the box. I spent about a week examining all of my messages and telling Thunderbird which were “junk” and which were “not junk”. You can do this with a click of the mouse as you are looking at a list of messages. A special icon appears beside the spam messages.

After about a week, my confidence that Thunderbird could recognize spam as opposed to my real mail began to increase significantly – I'm not sure how it works, but it really does! I now only perform an occasional spot check of the messages marked as spam before deleting them, and it's been over two weeks since Thunderbird had a message wrongly identified as spam.

A couple of minor things that I don't like about Thunderbird. The program is a little large for my taste – as you can probably tell from my posts I like really lightweight, fast programs whenever possible. Thunderbird's memory “footprint” is about 30K, as opposed to say about 20K for Outlook Express. As such, the program loading time and response is just a little sluggish. The sluggishness is (sometimes) particularly apparent when marking mail as junk or not junk - there is a noticeable lag before the junk icon appears when you click on a message. However, after “training” the application, I only have to do this a few times day. Most people might not notice at all, it's just that I don't upgrade PCs every year so I don't usually have the fastest PC on the market.

Thunderbird can also be used as a newsgroup and RSS reader. I did not test these features as of yet, but may do so in a future post.

The bottom line – I would definitely recommend giving Thunderbird a try, particularly if you are plagued with lots of junk email. With a little effort, you can be relieved of most of your spam in a matter of weeks. You can download Thunderbird here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ccleaner 2.04 – An excellent free PC and registry cleaner




Ccleaner (originally stood for “crap” cleaner – no kidding!) is an excellent PC cleanup utility for daily or weekly use. As I mentioned in my review of Disk Cleaner yesterday, I use Ccleaner weekly to help catch the things that Disk Cleaner missed during the week – as an added bonus Ccleaner also contains a registry cleaner.

I have used Ccleaner for about 2 years now, and just recently upgraded to version 2. If you have an older version, you can install the latest version on top of it – you don't have to uninstall first. One thing I noticed about the newer version is that it will by default try to install a “cCleaner Yahoo! Toolbar” to your browser – I assume this means Internet Explorer, the install program doesn't explain - at any rate I unchecked this in the “Install Options” screen, because I don't like toolbars reducing my browser space.

The interface for cCleaner is clean and easy to understand. For disk cleaning, you can check or uncheck the types of files (i.e. cookies, browser history, etc.) that you want cCleaner to check for. Then you click on Analyze, and after a few seconds cCleaner comes up with a detailed list of the files to be deleted. Then click on Run Cleaner and the files are deleted. There's a setting in the options menu to delete the files securely if you are overly concerned about erasing your usage tracks.

In the registry cleaner interface, once again there is a list of types of registry entries to search for – you can check or uncheck each type. Then you click on Scan for Issues and Ccleaner comes back with a list of all the problems found in the registry. Next, click on Fix Selected Issues and cCleaner will prompt you to back up the registry – I always answer yes to this, since cCleaner can reverse any changes it makes as long as there is a backup.

Ccleaner has a couple of other features worth noting – In the Options dialog, there is a list of all the cookies found on your system - you can choose which cookies to keep and which to delete. Ccleaner is the only utility I have found that gives this control over cookies – I like to keep some cookies for easy login to some of the websites I visit.

Also, the Tools screen contains a list of all installed programs that have an uninstaller available – you can run the uninstaller directly from cCleaner. I find this list much easier to use than the one in the Windows control panel. The Startup tool lists all of the programs set to run at startup – you can delete these entries directly from cCleaner as well.

Ccleaner always finds temp files and registry problems that my other utilities overlook, so I would recommend giving it a try. I tested cCleaner on my Windows XP SP2 machine – the author's website states that it is fully tested and functional on Vista, but that they are still working on a few minor issues with Vista. You can download cCleaner here .

Monday, February 11, 2008

Disk Cleaner – A small, fast, free PC disk cleaning utility that just plain works



Even the name is simple – just plain Disk Cleaner. Runs in only a few seconds, and cleans over 120 types of temporary files that are left on your hard disk. This includes Windows, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera temp files, as well as a host of other types created by common applications.

I've been using Disk Cleaner on my Windows XP SP2 machine for over a year now – I run it once or twice a day, and use a couple of other PC cleanup utilities weekly – they don't find much in the way of temporary files left over at the end of the week. I especially like the fact that it's fast and easy to use – When you launch Disk Cleaner, it takes just a few seconds to search out the temporary files before the program comes up – then you just press the Clean button and it only takes a few seconds more to clean the files. Close the program and you're done! The whole process only takes a minute or so.

The first time you run Disk Cleaner, you do need to select the files and categories that you want to clean – some are selected by default but most are not. This is necessary, for example, because you might not want to clean the cookie files in IE, Opera or Firefox – many websites store login and preference data in cookies, so be careful about deleting them. Disk Cleaner will automatically save file cleaning preferences, and will apply those automatically the next time it runs.

Disk Cleaner also can be easily configured to run in “Quiet Mode” (runs in background and deletes files automatically), and at startup (in Quiet Mode).

You can download Disk Cleaner v. 1.5.7 here.

Note to Windows Vista users – A visit to the help forum on the author's website reveals that the program has not been updated for Vista – users seem to be having mixed results, mostly due to Vista's new way of handling file access permissions. So I wouldn't recommend this program for Vista users.

By the way, I mentioned that I use a couple of other PC cleaner utilities – They are Ccleaner and Advanced Windows Care – I plan reviews of these utilities in the near future.

Welcome!

Welcome to the No Cost Software blog. This blog will be devoted to what I believe are some of the best No Cost Software programs on the net. Look for reviews, tips on how to use and questions and answers for No Cost Software programs in a variety of categories. These categories will be developed over the next several months, as reviews in each category are completed.

A few words about the name of this blog – Actually, I wanted to call it “Best Free Software”, but that name was taken on Blogger. So I coined a new term, “No Cost Software”. By “No Cost Software”, for the purposes of this blog, I mean any software that can be downloaded, installed and used without cost for personal use, period.

This definition necessarily includes some software that is proprietary, some that is open source, some that is considered free as in the Free Software Foundation definition. Some of the software that I review will even contain ads as the author's way of making a living from writing it – but rest assured, I am only reviewing software that I use frequently, and I do not like adware.

But I am willing to live with unobtrusive ads if the software package has some real value for me. Also, this definition includes some programs that are lead-ins to more advanced or capable programs – for example personal editions of programs that have a more powerful, paid cousin for business use.

Ok, enough of that. Please feel free to post comments and questions to the posts that I write. If you have suggestions for free software programs that you have found useful, and would like to see reviews of them, send these suggestions to me at Suggestions

For now, check back soon for my first review in the category of PC Utility Programs.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ubuntu Software - Reviews, tips, tricks


Getting Started with Ubuntu series

Changing the background
Changing the desktop theme
The Gnome Panel system
Ubuntu's Hidden Applications

Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron review

Part I
Part II
Part III

Ubuntu Software

Internet


Adding Adobe Flash Player to Firefox
Review - Thunderbird email client (Windows version, operation is identical in Ubuntu)

Ubuntu Utilities


Tracker desktop search tool
Installing Thunderbird email support in Tracker
Ubuntu's Hidden Applications

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