Monday, January 23, 2012

Windows 7: Great Additions

I think it is safe to conclude that the new operating system from Microsoft named Windows 7 is a total success. It manages to both look good and work well. Furthermore, it boasts multiple additions and improvements, like the super bar, the library system and more. However, as good as it is, after a clean installation you are still far from getting a system with which you can work. Today I will present a couple of programs that I find essential to have after you finish a clean OS install.
You may ask why Microsoft does not add them in as part of the standard operating system. Well, the answer to this is fairness. It would not be fair to the competition. It's not that long ago that Microsoft concluded a trial with the European Union regarding the browser they offer as standard. Now at installation, Microsoft must offer a choice to the user of which browser s/he wants.
While this is true in the case of some applications, in other areas, their product is, to put it simply, just not up to the level of the competition. I think they decided to focus on other areas instead. For example, I ask: why does the standard built-in notepad NOT offer a programming language syntax coloring system?
This article will rely heavily on my experience, so for some of the options I point out, you may find alternatives that you like better. Personal preferences are not a subject for debate. Nevertheless, I believe by the end of the series you will have a good grasp of applications that are good to have, and even try out a couple of them.
In order to give some kind of structure to all this, I will split the applications into the field to which they correspond: document manipulation, image handling, file sharing/management, music, video and other handy additions to your OS. Moreover, I will also give to each of them a brief overview of the features I like, ultimately explaining why you may want to use it.
Squeezing so much information into a single article would be overkill, so I'm going to split it into two parts. Today I will go over document and image manipulation, and finish up with file sharing and management. All of the others will remain for a forthcoming piece.
Before we start, let me tell you that I always start with the installation of the browser and one antivirus.  However, debating which of these is best would call for an entire article of its own, so I will not go into it. For the record, I use Opera (for the overall look and feel, the speed, and built in e-mail/RSS reader) as my browser.
Microsoft Security Essentials is my antivirus choice because it is free, does not use a lot of memory, and does not get in your way while you work. What messenger program you use also depends heavily on what the other people around you use; therefore, I will skip it.  If you want a freeware cross platform messenger that supports all the major chat companies, you can look into Pidgin.
As far as document manipulation goes, we have three sub-sections: text editors, document editors and PDF manipulation. Windows 7 already comes with a quick and basic text editor: Notepad. However, I often edit text files that follow some programming/script language syntax. Notepad2 extends Notepad with syntax highlighting using the Scintilla code-editing component. 
It is simple and lightweight. It has multiple versions, as listed on the website. I like the code-folding edition you can find there, just because I often edit/look into source files. It is perfect for those times you do not want to go through a slow programming IDE start-up time, like Visual Studio's.

Taking this further is Notepad++. The idea is the same, but it offers a lot more options and a tab-based interface. This is good if you are simultaneously editing multiple text files; otherwise, I prefer Notepad2.

As far as document files for printing goes, I stick with Microsoft Office. Sure, Open Office is coming along nicely, and it is free, but Microsoft remains the standard in this domain. With the launch of Microsoft Office 2010, they just made this point that much clearer. I have written a review of the new edition, so make sure to check it out.

Nowadays the portable document format is PDF. Regardless of the efforts of others, the XPS format is just not used by anyone (okay, maybe Microsoft). For viewing this file, the choice generally comes down to two application: Adobe Acrobat Reader and Foxit PDF Reader.

While the first has a much cleaner and elegant user interface, the latter has the advantage of being tab-based, and this is essential if you are doing research work with multiple documents. I usually end up having both of them, and choose which one to use based on whether I'm reading one large document or multiple documents at once.

Sometimes I have multiple PDF files that I want to join together or split into more pieces. For that, I use another tool. It is a simple freeware PDF manipulation tool: PDFTools. It can do much more; however, I usually use just the capabilities mentioned previously:

Here we need to look at three tasks: viewing images, taking screen shots and creating images from scratch. The basic built-in photo viewer is just too simple, and it looks bulky, if you ask me. I suggest instead the FastStone Image Viewer; however, you may want to look over XnView or Infranview, too. What I like about FastStone is that it has both library and basic image viewing functions. By default, I always start with the basic function, and fill the whole screen.
It is perfect if you want to show some pictures to some friends. It instantly hides all the other windows you may have open, and you can easily focus on the image itself. Sure, it has multiple image manipulation functions that you can bring up if you go the key areas of the screen (left, right, bottom) with your mouse. It gives you everything without making the screen crowded with functions, and it is blazing fast. It offers functionality and simplicity, well-integrated.

If you want to share your vacation pictures with your friends, then you will probably end up using the Google Picasa website. For uploading pictures there, you will use Picasa 3. It is a good image hosting application for the Picasa website; however, for image viewing I prefer FastStone.
Whenever you are debugging some computer issue over the web, the usual first request is, "Tell me what you see." Because the Print Screen button paired with Paint's paste function is not elegant (and takes too much time!), I use FastStone Image Capture. This has become shareware; however, you can just use the last freeware version.

The neat features I like in it are the quick editing tools you have at hand after taking the picture: add watermark, draw object on it, resize image (Ctrl + R) and more.
Finally, as far image creation software goes, we have two candidates: Paint.Net and Adobe Photoshop.
While Adobe has the advantage of years of experience and more polished software, it costs to a hefty $700. In my opinion, this is just too much. Paint.Net, on the other hand, looks great, is free and will serve you well as long as you are working on relatively simple things. Oh, and the other magnificent thing is that Paint.Net barely uses any resources, while Photoshop becomes more and more resource demanding with every version.

Sharing multiple files across the web with your friends, or even with yourself in case you have multiple computers, is normal these days. The easiest way that may come to your mind is to send it over an instant messenger program. Nevertheless, this will take too much time and has a high chance of failure. Therefore, you need to find new ways to do this.
If you have an FTP server at your disposal, hosting files to this can be done via the FileZilla client. It may not have the best-looking user interface but certainly does the job well, and it is stable.

If you lack the server, then you can use one of the many online file sharing sites, like MediaFire. Nevertheless, hosting and sharing multiple files can be troublesome, so you may want to pack them together. For this, we need an archiving application. I use 7-zip for its 64-bit support and great Windows shell integration with the new beta version. Moreover, it has a clean UI with many advanced features that appear only when you need them.

At the extraction end, it is just as good. Nevertheless, WinRar is a viable option, too.

You can share your files across multiple computers with Dropbox. It will create a folder in your file system where you can drop your public and/or private files. 

An icon in the tray icon will serve as a control center. You can also share some folders with other Dropbox users, and you may use this to share files with them. It is the perfect tool if you want to synchronize some content over multiple systems. In the free version, you have 2 GB of space; however, you may pay for more. 
Finally, as far as file management goes, I like to install three additional programs: CCleaner for periodic clearing out of unnecessary files; Windirstat to snip out unwanted files on my HDD; and Soluto to eliminate programs that slow down the start up of my system. I will talk about these three more extensively in a future article.

Now I will take a short break and let you explore the applications presented in these pages. If you have any other application you've discovered in these categories, make sure to point them out in the blog following the article. If you could rate my article as you think it deserves, that would be awesome. Make sure to tune in next time too, when I will present the music, video and the general usage sections. Until then, remember to Live With Passion!

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