Make the Most of Your PC for FreeWhatever you use your PC for, chances are you can do it more productively, whether you’re a computer guru or newbie. And you can do it without spending a dime with free software programs and Web services.
Nerds may not all be saints, but there’s a long history in the computer world of programmers sharing their work for free.
Today you can still download “freeware” from the Internet. These typically are small programs released by their developers to the public without charge, sometimes out of sheer generosity. Some developers have other no-less-valid 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 at <www.opensource.org> offers further information about this phenomenon.
On the Web, some e-commerce companies are moving beyond the advertising-only model and are now charging for their services in a scramble to survive the dot-com shakeout. But most Web-based services remain free.
All this seems in antithesis to our market economy and to the very nature of capitalism. It flies in the face of common-sense notions of how to profit from your labor. How well can you be doing if you’re pricing your 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 here.
One negative with a free program 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, which in a Catch-22 can necessitate tech support.
One way to protect yourself with a Windows PC is to make back-up copies of the 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’s 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.
• JConnect Free. Formerly called JFax, this Internet-based service lets you receive faxes as attachments to e-mail messages, which is much handier 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, translating the word into foreign languages, or searching further on the Web. <www.atomica.com>
The above is just a sprinkling of what’s out there. You can test out other interesting-sounding programs at virus-free download sites such as Nonags at <www.nonags.com> and Download.com at <http://download.cnet.com.> Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
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