Monthly Archives: October 2008

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Well, I finally broke down and upgraded my media PC to Windows Vista. That meant a new motherboard and CPU (Intel CoreDuo E6550), video card (Radeon HD3650), and RAM (2GB). Not a high end machine by any spec, but more than adequate for recording and playing back HD content. My TV source is less than stellar – a Sky Digital box hooked up via s-video to a Hauppauge PVR150. The quality is, well, just OK, but I didn’t want to invest in something more complex (e.g. DVB-S card) since I’ll be leaving the UK and headed back to San Francisco in the next 6 months or so.

As for Vista Media Center, it is, well, different. The new menu is more complete, but more confusing as well. I’m not sure I like the vertical and horizontal menu scrolling, especially since it decreases the WAF (wife acceptance factor). I also don’t like that it only shows thumbnails in the video library and there doesn’t appear to be an option to show both a thumbnail AND the filename. It’s not always so easy to see which video is which solely from the thumbnail image. I do like the EPG and the mini menu that you can call up while still watching full screen TV.

One nice thing about VMC is that you can now use two completely different TV sources if you install the TV Pack. The TV Pack was only released to OEMs, but is easy enough to find online (can you say “bittorrent”?). This would allow me to add a DVB-T tuner to get all those Freeview channels in better digital quality than my current analog solution allows. You can then combine channels on the EPG so that you only see one channel, even though it is being fed from two completely different sources. So, if I wanted to record the BBC, VMC would first check to see if the DVB-T tuner was occupied and, if it was, it would fall back to the analog one. This is a feature I have been wanting for quite some time and is the reason I kept playing with MediaPortal (though it has never been stable enough for everyday use). Unfortunately, once I had everything installed, I seem to have lost my DVB-T USB stick. Damned if I can remember where I put the thing after giving up on MediaPortal.

OK, I’ve admitted it before, but I’m cheap. There are any number of expensive and not so expensive pieces of software you can get for your computer, but there’s nothing like free. For serendipitously finding freeware, I rely on Download Squad. They do reviews of mostly free software and I’ve found some interesting tools there that I’ll write about shortly. In the meantime, head on over there and check it out. Oh, and I’ll forgive the fact that they’re part of Weblogs, Inc, which is owned by that Internet stalwart, AOL (heck, another Weblogs, Inc. site, Engadget, is another of my favorites).

Why pay buckets of money to Adobe for PDF creation when you can get the basics for free? For creating PDFs, I use PrimoPDF. It installs as a printer driver and allows you to “print” files to the PDF format. It’s not sophisticated and has way fewer features than the full blown Acrobat, but it works just fine for most of my purposes.

For reading PDFs, there is, of course, the free Acrobat Reader. Unfortunately, it’s pretty bloated when all you want to do is simply view a PDF. For that, I use the Foxit Reader. It’s very lightweight and opens almost all the PDFs I’ve thrown at it (it has problems with some embedded forms, but that’s not the bulk of what I use it for). It’s also VERY fast.

There are a couple of other programs that I find quite useful on a day-to-day basis. For free antivirus, I really like Avast Antivirus. The free version works quite well, and it has resident scanners for a number of services, including Exchange/Outlook, the web, Internet mail, instant messaging, and P2P.

For a good, free firewall, I use Comodo Firewall. Sure, it bombards you with all those “do you want to allow this” popups until it has learned your allowed applications, but that’s what good personal firewalls do. It will also reconfirm this permission any time the cryptographic signature of the application changes (like when you do any update), so it’s very complete.

For file compression, I use IZArc. It decompresses just about any format you throw at it – though I usually only need support for .zip and .rar. It compresses into an impressive number of formats too, though you can’t rar files (only unrar them). And, of course, it’s free. It’s also quite fast and has an easy interface.

For simple text editing, it’s tough to beat Notepad++. Fast, easy, and complete with annotating tools for the occasional web development that I do.

Part of a clean install is having a backup of my data. I do this quite simply with Syncback SE. It allows me to synchronize data between two folders, in this case, between my laptop and an external USB drive. Because my laptop has lots of corporate data on it, I also use Truecrypt to encrypt the data on the external drive in case it falls into the wrong hands. As of yet, I don’t keep dated backups – just a snapshot of the latest data I have on my laptop.

I have also tried Cobian Backup for one particular reason. The free version of Syncback doesn’t allow you to sychronize with an FTP server. Instead of paying for the premium version of Syncback (hey, I’m cheap), I tried Cobian for this. It works quite well and I might switch all my backup tasks to it, but I just haven’t had enough time to play with it.

Time to once again reinstall Windows from scratch. I prefer to install all the apps from scratch to get the cleanest install possible, so here’s what I have to remember.

Firefox 3 addins:
– Adblock Plus (of course)
– Delicious (my only bookmark source)
– IE Tab (because some web apps don’t play nice)
– PDF Download (because I don’t like embedded Acrobat)
– Sage Too (my favorite feed reader)
– Scrapbook (to save the occasional site)
– ScribeFire (what I’m typing this post with)
– User Agent Switcher (for testing mobile apps)
– Modify Headers (also for testing mobile apps)
– XHTML Mobile Profile (a pattern here – I test lots of mobile apps)
– WML Browser (yet another mobile testing tool)