Your Geek Recommends 1
I spend quite a bit of time elbows deep in computers, for both business and personal
reasons. I have collected some of my favorite products to share with you. Everything
that I recommend is free. Computers are expensive; running quality software on them
doesn't have to be.
I have used several different free firewall solutions, but ZoneAlarm has been my
favorite thus far. It is simple enough for an absolute beginner, but offers enough
under the hood to work well for the experienced user. The only thing that I have ever
needed that the free version didn't offer was the ability to open specific ports on your
PC. However, if that statement means little to nothing to you, then this would make a
more than adequate firewall solution.
I have tried several anti-virus solutions as well. I was once a staunch Norton/Symantec
supporter. However, I have found over the last few years their products have become
extremely bloated and tend to consume more money and system resources than I'm
willing to give. For that reason, I sought out a free alternative. I tried three; Clamwin,
Avast, and AVG Free. AVG won me over.
Clamwin was clutter-free and had good scanning abilities. The problem was that
windows didn't recognize it as a legit anti-virus program. I got tired of fighting with
windows telling me I didn't have an anti-virus package installed, even after insisting
that I did more than once. I uninstalled it after finding something to replace it.
Avast worked well, but when it updated, a loud male voice let you know. More than
once I heard a booming voice proclaim at 2:00 AM that my virus definitions were now
up to date. I can only take being scared awake so many times before it's time to find
For my last switch, I tried AVG free 7.5. That was about a year or so ago. They have
since released 8.0, and it incorporates much of what was in their paid anti-virus
product. Not only is AVG silent about its updates, but it will also let me know if my
Google searches are safe for me to click on by putting a small green check mark at the
end of the search results. I like this because I acknowledge that even the most
informed among us can run across a poisoned website.. If I have my anti-virus
software give me a heads up, it could save me hours of swearing, scanning, and
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Spyware, malware, and other malicious exploits are rampant! I could easily make a
career out of just cleaning up instances of these little pests. The good thing is that the
market is flooded with plenty of good, free software packages to help stem the tide of
Cialis offers, adult dating sites, and penis enlargement spam-bots. I will break my best
of list down into two groups; the programs with active scanning, and the packages you
have to remember to run for them to work.
PASSIVE SCANS - THE ONES YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER TO RUN.
A co-worker turned me on to this little gem just last year. It will detect all sorts of
installations that need to be removed. I have run this after running other scans that
came up clean and it has found several items buried deep in the system. This must
have been a truffle-smelling pig in a former life.
A Squared Free
Where A squared is sloooow to do a complete scan, it is so thorough it might even be
able to diagnose athletes foot and that nagging cough as bronchitis. This will find just
about everything. Though, don't run this when you only have a few minutes. It's best
to get this running and turn in for the night. In Alaska. In the middle of winter.
Spybot Search & Destroy
Perhaps the oldest of the items listed here, using it has been compared to using a
backhoe to weed your flower garden. For that reason, use with care. I like this
package because it will not only immunize your computer against bad URLs, if you
install the "tea timer" option, it will help try to prevent you from clicking on a poisoned
link. It's very easy to use, and extremely thorough.
This is one of those additions to the list that could be put in either the passive or the
active scanning section. I chose to add it to the passive scanner section because the
free version won’t schedule a scan. You have to buy the program to get that
additional feature. Malwarebytes has been one of the few programs that is successful
in removing the scourge that is Antivirus 2008. This little devil is known by many
names, much like the dark prince himself, and is almost as evil. If you should find your
computer infected by one of the variants of this malicious software and you’re not
comfortable trying to remove it yourself, please call someone for help. This is one of
those terrible software packages that disguise itself to look legitimate when it in fact is
designed to bug you into forfeiting your credit card information. I am more than
happy to assist with removing this beastie because it is so prevalent and difficult to
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remove. If you’d prefer to use another company’s services, that’s perfectly fine. I just
urge you, whatever you do, do not “buy” this software. If you do, then consider your
credit card stolen and call your bank to have it cancelled. This software doesn’t mess
ACTIVE SCANNERS – SET IT AND FORGET IT.
I have used this little program in departments that do most of their job functions on
the internet to help them prevent downtime associated with cleaning their systems of
drive-by downloads and other detritus that accumulates with time spent online. If you
install the crawler toolbar with the program, it will help to prevent your browser from
being hijacked as well as warn you about visiting a "poisoned" page. It will also do a
daily system scan to remove any spyware, tracking cookies, or other software deemed
to be problematic. I like this for its set it and forget it ease of use.
Foxit PDF Reader*
While Adobe has done an admirable job of creating the pdf standard, allowing us to
share documents across platforms, their implementation of the reader for their files is,
well, lacking. It runs very slowly, often needs to apply updates that require you to
restart the PC, and tends to bloat. Foxit offers a free reader that’s much faster, never
needs to restart you PC, and allows you to mark-up the PDF file so long as you don’t
mind it promoting itself in the header and footer. Thumbs up.
If you need to quickly create PDF files from a pre-existing document, but don’t want to
spend hundreds on Adobe’s full acrobat program, try PrimoPDF. It installs itself as a
virtual printer and creates a PDF as easy as printing it on your home printer. You’re
given options as to what the end document will be used for, print, screen, or web to
help determine the file size and graphic details. Simple as pie.
Checking multiple e-mail accounts can be a royal pain. Heck, sometimes remembering
to check even one can be daunting. E-prompter will check multiple types of accounts
and report back to you with not only the total number of messages in the inbox, but it
will allow you to both read and respond to them without need of a bloated e-mail
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client. This has been my notifier of choice since roughly 1999, and unless something
radical comes out to replace it, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Anyone who has used windows for more than a week will tell you that it can get rather
arthritic over time. CCleaner, formerly Crap Cleaner scans your hard drive for junk files
that can be safely deleted. Depending on how well the computer is maintained, the
amount of space gained after running this application can vary from a couple of
megabytes to well over a gigabyte.
While I like Google Docs, part of me worries about letting Google have the final say in
what I can and can’t do with content I have created. OpenOffice.org gives you an
office suite that’s fully compatible with Microsoft Office at no charge. Open Office has
some very low minimum requirements and will still run on windows 98. If you need to
be able to create complex documents but don’t want to spend much, OpenOffice.org
just might be what you’re looking for.
Where Quark used to have the desktop publishing market by the short and curlies,
that stranglehold has relaxed a bit in the last few years. Adobe brought their
“QuarkKiller” In Design to the market and stole a little fire from the Gods. Then the
Open Source Software movement came along and brought with it more free, stable
software. Scribus is a free desktop publishing application that gives you the same
granular control over your documents you’d expect from a commercial offering at no
Often times, I have needed to be able to create a short “here’s how to use this
feature” tutorial, but didn’t have the money to pay for a commercial solution. Wink
allows you to create a guided tutorial complete with voiceovers, on-screen controls,
and instructional pop-ups. Tutorials can be saved as a web page, or a standalone flash
Sometimes, you just need to scribble something down. Anyone who has worked in
graphic design knows the value of a program like Freehand or Illustrator. Inkscape is a
free, Open Source vector drawing application. I can’t draw a straight line with the help
of a ruler, but I can appreciate the value of a free program to help me put my ideas to
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Gimp with GimpShop
If you’re looking for a heavy duty image editing program and are used to the
Photoshop menu system, Gimp might be your open source solution. Gimp by itself is a
powerful image manipulation program, but when you add the GimpShop addon, your
menus system changes to mimic the Adobe Photoshop look and feel. Users familiar
with Adobe’s products aren’t forced to learn a whole new graphics package just
because they don’t want to pay Adobe’s prices.
TweakUI is a Microsoft powertoy that gives the average user access to all the goodies
that can be tweaked in the registry in an easy to use graphical interface. Want to be
automatically logged in as one user instead of being prompted for a username and
password, get rid of that annoying “shortcut to” business when creating a new .lnk file,
or change your pointer settings? This will let you do all those things and more in one
easy to use utility.
Yet another Microsoft powertoy, Synctoy will help you to consolidate your files in one
place. Say you have a laptop and a desktop that both have a folder called “pictures”
and you want to combine the two into one master folder. It would take hours doing it
by hand. Synctoy will do that for you in a matter of clicks. Easy to use and fast, this
takes tedious tasks and makes them simple.
For the more advanced user, n-lite allows you to customize your windows installation
CD almost beyond recognition. You can do something as simple making a basic
unattended installation so you don’t have to remember where you wrote your CD key
down, or if you can still read that sticker on the CD case. Or, you can slipstream the
latest service pack, add custom drivers, install applications like office or IE7, and
remove those less-than useful parts of windows like display drivers from the 90’s. N-
Lite is the swiss army knife of custom windows installations.
It seems news reports of some company or organization being broken into and
customer data being stolen are common stories on the 6:00 news anymore. TrueCrypt
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allows you to create encrypted “containers” on your hard drive to save your personal,
sensitive, or incriminating documents in. Should your computer be stolen, unless the
thief has a super computer and a lot of time on their hands, your data will still be safe.
Deep burner is a free CD and DVD burning application that allows you to burn disk
images, and create new CD and DVDs from files on your hard drive. The only
complaint I have for the free version of the software is that it will not copy from CD to
CD. You have to buy the retail version to do that. Otherwise, it’s a really useful
CD/DVD authoring program.
Photoscape is a multitude of photo manipulation tools in one free package. It allows
you to not only view, edit and print your images, but you can create screen captured,
animated .gif files, convert .raw files, and manipulate multiple files all at once with
batch actions including rename and edit. I have tried other free image editing
programs, and Photoscape seems to provide the right mix of features with ease of use.
Most times, it’s easier to describe a problem or explain something if you can point to
something and say “this is what I mean, this right here”. So, I use MWSnap to take
pictures of my desktop when I want to make some documentation on how to do
something or use a certain application. Taking screen shots is easy. I can take shots
the entire desktop, a certain window, a pre-defined area, or a freehand square.
Screenshots can be saved as .bmp, .jpg, or .png and included in any kind of document
including e-mail or word processing. This is handy if you’re having problems but don’t
know how to describe it very well. Take a screen shot!
WEB SITES & SERVICES
I’ll admit it; I spent too much time on the internet. Far too much time since I’m being
honest. And I surf on several different computers. Heck, there are 9 or more in my
house alone! I am also a digital packrat. I will bookmark anything remotely interesting
that I think I might come back to later. For that reason, I love the bookmark feature in
the Google toolbar. It allows me to save all of my bookmarks in a central place where I
can access anywhere I have an internet connection. No more hunting through internet
history and local bookmarks on several different computers just to find that site I liked
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from three weeks ago. Now all I have to do is log in to Google and search through my
bookmarks stored out there in the interwebs.
Once an invitation-only service, Gmail has quickly become the de facto force in
webmail. With Gigabytes of space for your e-mail, you never have to worry about
running out of space ever again. The integration of GTalk, excellent spam filters, and
the ability to filter your incoming message with the addition of the + mark, this is my
go to e-mail service.
Google Chrome *
Google has long been an ally in the open source web browser community, having
supported Mozilla, the creators of Firefox for years. However, they have decided to
dip their gigantic toes into the browser pond and released Chrome. It has not been
out long as of this writing, but so far it’s lightweight, intuitive, and fast. I think it will
grow on me.
There is a seemingly increasing need to be in two places at once these days. While
that might not be possible, perhaps having all of your phones looking for you is then
next best thing. Sign up for a phone number and enter in the external numbers you
want that to ring when it’s called. Move out of state and don’t want to get a new
phone number? No problem! Get a local number in your new calling area and have it
call your long-distance cell phone at no charge to your friends. Never know where
you’re going to be? Tell GrandCentral to call all of your phones in an effort to find you.
Be warned though that this will be the end of “I didn’t hear my phone”. Accidentally
give your number to someone who you just can’t stand? No problem. Send their calls
right to voicemail. Need to record a call because you don’t have anything to write
notes on? Hit a button and record the entire call. Have an e-mail sent to you when
you get a voicemail. The features go on and on!
Years ago, I not only wrote web pages, but I taught people how to create them as well.
I was and am a code snob; I write it all in a text editor, none of this drag and drop
crapola for me. IE has been the thorn in the side of many site designer and code purist
for many years. Firefox obeys the rules set out by the web police (WC3), displays
pages as they’re written, does so quickly and securely, is extremely customizable, and
is completely free. Long live Firefox!
Ever find yourself at work and need something from your home computer? Sure, who
hasn’t. www.logmein.com has a number of remote access solutions ranging from
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completely free to enterprise wide solutions that can connect support technicians with
people in need in a matter of minutes, without the need to install software on the
remote PC. Create an account with logmein, download the client to the PC you want
to be able to control remotely, set the master password, and you’re ready to go. You
can now access your PC and control it as if you were sitting in front of it anywhere you
have an internet connection.
Crossloop.com has very useful free support package that allows for remote screen
sharing. The big difference between crossloop and logmein.com is that you have to
have someone in front of the remote computer to allow access to share the screen
with crossloop. However, you can install that client on the remote machine as you
need it, rather than have to plan ahead and install it before you need it like you do
with logmein. This comes in handy if you have friends or family in places where driving
to help them with a computer question isn’t feasible.
Most of us have run into a problem sending someone a HUGE file that either youa or
the other guys’ mail server has rejected. No worries. Go to www.transferbigfiles.com,
upload the file, enter the recipient’s email address, promise you own the rights to
distribute the file, and send away. The recipient will get a message from
transferbigfiles.com saying they have am e-mail ready to be picked up. In that
message they will receive a link to the file you have sent. Once they visit the site they
will be allowed to download the file. You can e-mail up to a 1 Gb sized file for free.
You can even select that you want to be notified when the download has been
If you’re like me and tend to either lose or forget to bring your flash drive with you,
then this site just might save your bacon. Sign up for an account and you get 1 Gb of
space to use however you like. Log in, upload, download, arrange, and delete your
data from anywhere with an internet connection.
I use this site to test to see if a network connection is down. Most people have no
reason to go to this site as it’s just a purple page that loads very quickly. For that
reason, it makes a great litmus test for connectivity.
I think the best way I’ve heard this described is channel-surfing the internet. Install
this toolbar, create an account, set up your website preferences, make a pot of coffee,
and never sleep again.
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Create a bootable windows CD with all sorts of free anti-spyware, anti-virus,
diagnostic, and productivity software packages pre-installed. This is my bread and
butter when it comes to removing persnickety infections on PCs for people. They’re
easy to build, extremely useful, and free!
This is perhaps the most complex item on the list. This is a software server package
that acts as a DHCP, firewall, internet threat blocker, anti-virus package, content filter,
and VPN solution all in one. Setting up an untangle server is not for the faint of heart.
However, the rewards are well worth all the swearing. You will need a spare PC with
at least two network cards in it for this to work.
Why would you need something like this at home? Simple. I can think of several real-
life examples of where this would be extremely useful. I have a co-worker who has
two daughters; one is 13, the other is 15. One sleepless night, he got up to get a drink
of water and discovered the light in her room was on. She was up at 3:00 in the
morning surfing the internet. Where the site she was on was completely harmless, it
got him thinking about what she might have been doing on other occasions. With
Untangle you can lock down which computers have internet access to what kinds of
sites at what times of the day. In this case, lock down all web traffic between the
hours of 11:00 PM and 6:00 AM on the kids’ computer to prevent them from getting
Another prime example is my darling husband. He will do what boys do and look at
some questionable content on the web. While it’s not the content I object to, it’s the
extra crap that those sites tend to install on his computer that makes me want to spit
tacks. Simple solution was to lock down all adult content sites for all the computers in
the house. No more marathon spyware removal sessions for me!
My point is, if you want very flexible control over what does and does not happen on
your home network using a free and open source server package, you might want to
look at untangle.
Like the Untangle server before it, this beauty will protect your home computer
network from the cruel intentions of the internet. The difference is that this does not
require a standalone server. Re-Router can be installed on a Windows XP computer,
only needs one network card, and will offer the same kinds of protections the server
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edition does, but without needing to do any reconfiguration to the network setup
already established in your home.
Council Bluffs Army Surplus Store
Sure, this isn’t a program, website, or anything you’d think would be related to
computers, but felt that I needed to include this little gem anyhow. I learned of this
place’s existence and started my love affair with it at Taco Bell. My husband and I
overheard this loud, pseudo-geek bragging about all the servers in his basement and
how he’s bought them all from this surplus store. Fate would have it that I was sent to
Peerless Wiping Cloths a few months later to pick up something for my spouse’s work,
and the surplus store was right next door. Curious, I went in to check it out. There I
found a geek’s dream, aging toys sold at shamefully low prices to anyone willing to
carry a CRT monitor out with them. I have purchased an older duplex capable laser
printer, 7 dell desktops, a 24 port switch, several LCDs, a chair or two, and my new
network rack. I have also shared the secret location of geeky Shangri-la with several
of my co-workers. They have since fallen in love as well. The surplus store, she has
*These also have portable versions, meaning that these can be installed to and run
from a USB flash drive or portable hard drive.