The best software you're not using

SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - Electronic Stickies

Is your monitor covered with little sticky notes? Forget the paper: Use virtual Post-its instead. Post-it Software Notes Lite by 3M works just like the real thing--and it's free. Click the program's small window to create an off-the-cuff reminder, then stick it to your desktop. Change the font and color of notes, print or e-mail notes, and trash them when you're done. Undeleted notes reappear after you reboot your PC. Set a Post-it alarm to go off at a specific time, and when it does, a tiny window displaying an alarm clock pops up and makes a ringing sound. The US$20 Standard and $25 Office editions offer more-advanced features, such as the ability to send Post-its over a network, but the freebie should be fine for most users. (free)

Stay Organized

Why go through the hassle of installing Microsoft Outlook and keeping up with its peccadilloes when a simpler information manager will do? Golden Section Labs' WinOrganizer lets you store names and addresses along with anything else you want to keep handy, including wish lists, photos, to-do's, and even passwords (which you can protect with a master password). Navigating the intuitive tree structure is a snap. $40 (free trial)

Juggle E-Mail Accounts

Staying on top of several e-mail addresses can be a drag. By the time you hop from Outlook to Yahoo to Hotmail and back again, chances are you've got new messages in at least one account. EPrompter by Tiburon Technology cuts through the hassle of managing multiple in-boxes with a free client that can check up to 16 accounts simultaneously. E-mail messages are downloaded as plain text and assembled in one location, but you still maintain separate in-boxes and out-boxes for each account. The downside: EPrompter is bare-bones--you can't view embedded images or attachments. (free)

Certified E-Mail

Sometimes you need to know whether a particular e-mail message was read at its destination. Most e-mail clients allow you to attach a delivery or read receipt to your e-mail. At the other end, your recipients can confirm the e-mail's arrival, often by clicking a pop-up message; some recipients, however, might get ticked off and just ignore your receipt request. MSGTAG Status by Fisher Young Group won't let your recipients disregard your requests. This application rides alongside your regular client and watches for SMTP traffic. (It doesn't work when you send e-mail from Web-based accounts.) MSGTAG Status circumvents the normal receipt system in that it sends back receipts without the recipients' knowing it. Sure, the program is sneaky, so its modus operandi may not be everyone's cup of tea. You can also keep a running log of e-mail deliveries via the status dashboard. $60

Stamp Out Wordiness

WordDog, a Microsoft Word plug-in by Plain English Technologies, is designed to take out the linguistic detritus all too common in today's business and academic writing. For example, WordDog suggests many in lieu of large number of, and proposes chopping out all instances of really, certainly, and quite. You might still need to use Word's grammar and spelling checkers to catch all your mistakes, but WordDog helps by sniffing out the needless verbiage that would have made even James Joyce blush. $25

Less Taxing E-Faxing

Do you send faxes frequently? If you do, like most people you probably resort to printing out a hard copy and carrying it to the fax machine. Who can blame you? Microsoft's built-in fax utility is a shambles, and Symantec's $100 WinFax tends to hog memory. Enter RKS Software's MightyFax 3.0, a low-cost alternative that breezes you through sending and receiving a variety of file types in fax format (you need a standard fax modem and a phone line). The app lacks integration with Outlook's address book, one of WinFax's best features, but MightyFax covers the basics just fine. $20 (free trial)

Big Brainstorm

If you're the type of person who thinks best in front of a whiteboard--but your handwriting looks like chicken scratchings--Mindjet's MindManager 2002 Business Edition is the way to go. The $189 program gives structure to your brainstorming sessions by building nice-looking, easily tweakable decision trees and idea webs. When you're done planning a new project or generating meeting notes, you can export the document to most Microsoft Office programs (Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Project) or as an HTML file. MindManager is also available in other flavors; the $99 Standard Edition offers the HTML export option only. Handheld users might want to take advantage of the $49 Mobile Edition, which permits you to edit your creations on Palm OS and Pocket PCa??based devices. $189 (free trial)

Find All in Excel

This one's a no-brainer. Say you need to find the word depreciation in your last three years' worth of monthly financial reports. Using Excel's Find function, you'd be skipping lunch while you click the Find Next button for the rest of the day. Advanced Excel Find by Afalina plugs into Excel and lets you run a find command once, returning a listing of every result and its location on all open workbooks. Click a result, and you're instantly taken to that cell. Advanced Excel Find does have one drawback, and it's a doozy: no Replace feature. So if you must change all those depreciations to amortizations, you'd better bring a snack. $20 (free trial)

Drowning by Numbers

Financial novices and wizards alike might often feel stymied by the limitation of Excel's calculation engine and built-in formulas, which can sometimes feel too simplistic to tote up much more than your bar tab. Business Functions Pro by Business Functions is an Excel plug-in that adds 380 financial formulas and a new menu to the program, turning your spreadsheet into a far more advanced business tool. Whether you're projecting the outlay of irregular debt payments or simply figuring out a monthly rate's APR, Business Functions has a formula for you. At $239, this plug-in is pricey, but you can also get a watered-down version for $119 (and a light version for free).

Presentation Pizzazz

Microsoft's free add-on, Producer for PowerPoint, gives your presentations a multimedia makeover. Start with some static images and slides in PowerPoint, timed to run as long as you'd like, and Producer 2002 lets you enhance them with a narrative track of audio and/or video. The result is a unique side-by-side demonstration: a talking head or other video on one side and a standard presentation on the other. You can lay out this synchronization in dozens of ways, and you can capture audio or video on the fly, recording your own commentary without having to use another utility. Note that you must have PowerPoint 2002 or the forthcoming PowerPoint 2003. (At press time, Producer 2003 was in beta.) (free)

An Office Alternative

Once you get familiar with OpenOffice.org's slightly geeky interface, this free office suite can be a reasonable alternative to the old standbys of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The similarities are often uncanny, from spreadsheet currency formatting to autocorrecting typos; plus, you can build PowerPoint-like presentations just as you would with the real deal. You shouldn't run into compatibility problems with Microsoft Office apps: Opening Word and even complicated Excel files works fine--tables and formulas come through intact. Overall, you'll face a fairly steep learning curve to master OpenOffice's eccentricities, but you can't beat the price. (free)

Cut Checks, Not Profits

If your bookkeeping needs are simple, try PayWindow 2003 by Zpay Payroll Systems. The program lets you easily zip through payroll chores, and it provides just enough configurability for you to handle common cases such as overtime and 401(k) deductions. Federal, state, and even city tax withholding (in New York, for example) are taken care of via updatable tax tables. PayWindow is employee-friendly, too--its printed checks provide lots of historical detail. $70 (free trial)

Delete Data For Good

Before you donate your old computer to charity or put it up on EBay, you should be absolutely sure that no personal or confidential data remains on the hard drive. Merely dragging your tax spreadsheet over to the Recycle Bin won't do the trick. After you've deleted all your files, you've got to wipe the free space on the drive and then rewipe it to the point where nothing is recoverable. Jetico's BCWipe 3 is one of the most effective data-mangling tools available. You can wipe your free space on demand or even set up wipe operations to launch automatically at regular intervals. $40 (free trial)

Banish Start-Up Junk

Tired of all those programs that pop up uninvited during start-up? Here's one way to deal with the slew of system tray items and other memory-resident applications you don't want: Startup Organizer by MetaProducts makes mincemeat out of such junk by letting you select the programs you want to load at start-up. Startup Organizer also scans your Registry for potential Trojan horses and other nasty stuff. See "50 Fixes for the Biggest PC Annoyances" for tips on how to prevent programs from smothering your desktop. $25 (free trial)

Invisible Files

You can password-protect and even encrypt data, but once a hacker knows a certain desired document is there, he or she will often stop at nothing to bust it open. If you have a reason to be paranoid, Invisible Secrets 4 by NeoByte Solutions is your gateway to the world of steganography--technology that lets you hide and encrypt smaller files inside larger ones. The result: Except for you, no one knows your secret file exists--and it's protected by a password to boot. Invisible Secrets also includes other security features, such as a hard-drive shredder and a tool to let you password-protect any program on your PC. $40 (free trial)

View Multiple Web Sites

It's a one-trick pony, but for heavy-duty surfers who open the same dozen pages multiple times daily, Grouppk's 1Tabview can be a great time-saver. As a plug-in for Internet Explorer, 1Tabview lets you define sets of Web pages that, with one click, will all open at once within the 1Tabview window. You move around the pages via tabs at the bottom of the window. This makes checking news a breeze instead of the chore that hunting through IE's Favorites can be. $10 (free trial)

Super Searches

Why use a stand-alone search program instead of Google, the reliable? Because Copernic Agent Professional 6.1 lets you automate frequent searches, save and archive results, and summarize pages to get the bare essentials. Copernic sends simultaneous requests to dozens of search sites--not including Google--and compiles the results in a sort of meta-ranking. (The company says that it had to temporarily disable its Google searches because of technical issues.) Copernic also lets you run specialized searches for e-mail addresses, book reviews, audio and video files, and more. Copernic's biggest drawback is its price: $80 for a search engine that doesn't even hit Google as part of its repertoire. But its advanced features make this application worth the cost for search fanatics. $80 (free light version)

Electronic Snapshots

While the Print Screen button on your keyboard may not get much mileage, HyperSnap-DX 5 by Hyperionics greatly enhances this feature. HyperSnap-DX runs in the background; when you see something on screen you want to grab, click the Capture button and the program takes a snapshot of any Windows program, including screens from DirectX. It can also grab more than what you see on screen, such as long Web pages. Once you've pulled the image into HyperSnap-DX, you have some basic image editing tools at your disposal. $35 (free trial)

Find, Replace, Replace

Imagine the headaches for company staff when WorldCom changed its name back to MCI and needed to redo thousands of Web pages, simply to have one word changed to another. DivlocSoft's Actual Search & Replace makes it easy to do bulk operations like this across multiple files. You can search documents for one word or several, and once you find the files you want, you can easily replace, insert, or delete text. The catch: The tool works only on HTML and text files. $30 (free trial)

Macro Creator

Say you want your server to reboot nightly, when no one's around to push the button. Or you want to automatically zip a file when you give it a certain name. Unisyn Software's AutoMate 5 makes manual chores a thing of the past. At $499, the program is pricey, but it's a lifesaver when you have to update thousands of files with the same code. AutoMate requires some trial and error before you can get it to work perfectly, though. $499 (free trial)

It's Fontastic!

You may have the Mangal font installed on your PC, but you probably have no idea what it looks like. Microsoft Office can display a font (in Word, say, click Format, Font), but it's far from perfect. Font Xplorer by Moon Software gives you a large, crisp, and easy-to-navigate listing of installed fonts. It helps you find duplicates and repair broken ones. $20 (free version)

Speedy Thumbnails

The thumbnailing system built in to Windows XP, 2000, and Me is so slow, you might chew your own thumbnails to stumps before Windows can finish displaying the preview images of a decent-size folder. ThumbsPlus 6 by Cerious comes to the rescue for those who need a quick and easy program to manage hundreds or thousands of image files. It does more than just display thumbnails: You can make slide shows from your favorites and convert file formats in bulk; the batch conversion process is terrific. $90 (free trial)

Poor Man's Photoshop

Are you looking for an affordable image editor? One of the best programs you'll find is LView Pro 2002, which features the bulk of options from its more expensive brethren at a fraction of the price. The $37 program by MMedia Research includes an excellent tool that allows you to rotate and crop photos in a single operation. To make color or brightness adjustments, dig into the histogram tool. This latest version of LView Pro also allows you to do more with text and vector graphics. The interface and help system aren't the greatest, but the money you'll save by using LView Pro over Adobe's Photoshop Elements 2 ($99) or even Photoshop 7 ($609), for example, certainly outweighs the time you'll spend mastering the application. $37 (free trial)

Mega-Music Manager

To be honest, Helium 2 feels more like a database platform than a music manager. Designed for users with thousands--or more to the point, even tens of thousands--of MP3s and other digital music files, Intermedia Design's Helium lets you organize your collection umpteen ways from Sunday (by combination of genre and year of release, for example). Bulk renaming, retagging, and sorting operations are easy, and the included Radon music player works flawlessly. Helium's circuitous interface is both quirky and tough to master, but it sure beats using Windows to rename all your music files. $35 (free trial)

Tivo for Radio

Got a favorite radio broadcast but can't sit by the PC? Replay Radio by Applian Technologies can record standard or Internet radio in MP3 format for you. If you don't have a particular broadcast in mind, Replay Radio has its own database of more than 100 shows and about 200 radio stations to choose from. To record, pick a station and set your recording time, or pick a show and let Replay Radio configure it automatically. Setting up daily or weekly recordings is a cinch, and you can even burn your favorites to a CD. The freebie version records up to 5 minutes at a time. $30 (free trial)

Sound Adjustments

EnhancedAudio.com's Diamond Cut 5 is strong enough for the audio professional, but the app is also great for anyone who likes to tinker with tunes. Every tweak you ever wanted to make to your garage band sessions or your favorite MP3 is possible with Diamond Cut, from erasing pops and crackles to removing (or adding) distortion. Record directly into the program at sample rates of up to 192 kHz, or import music from common file formats (including .wav and MP3). You can also preview your tweaks as you make them and undo in a flash anything that doesn't work. If the price seems steep, try one of the older, more affordable versions. $199

Icons 'R' Us

Ever wonder how those cool little icons show up in your Internet Explorer Favorites menu? They're called favicons, and they're much easier to create than you might think, thanks to IconForge by CursorArts. With it you can craft icons for frequently used documents or programs, saved Web pages, cursors, your own custom applications, and more. IconForge lets you design from scratch or shrink down a larger graphic to the iconic essentials. It also lets you compose in various sizes and image depths. $38 (free trial)

It's Your 3D World

Corel's affordable Bryce 5 lets you create impressive 3D cinemascapes that might remind you of awe-inspiring scenery from a game like Myst. You get a blank slate and easy-to-use tools: Drag and drop to create terrain, add trees and geometric objects, and give it color and lighting, then click Render. After that, if you like, shrink down your scene or animate your landscapes for the Web. It's impossible not to create something that looks like it's straight from a Pixar movie--and it all takes minutes. Superb. $80

CAD on the Cheap

Most people believe two facts about computer-aided design software: It's difficult to use and it's expensive. Autodesk's $49 QuickCAD 8 will disabuse you of both those preconceptions. QuickCAD provides the necessary tools to get you started on any kind of diagrams, from basic shapes made up of straight lines to advanced 2D drawings, but the program is primarily designed for people who want to trace out a room and drop furniture in it. Those users who are familiar with CAD lingo or are patient enough to sit through the tutorials can come up with more impressive works of art. QuickCAD also supports the sophisticated tools a real engineer might require. $49

Word Processing--Real Simple

Yeah, Write, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love you because you are a word processor that's easy to use and full of great features. I love your colorful interface (no white spaces when you start a new document). I love your file-drawer organization that lets me customize each folder with a different printer configuration--say, for letters, labels, and documents. I love the fact that your $29 price includes a spelling checker and thesaurus, and that I can import Word files when they are saved in RTF format. And I love how your maker, Word Place, still offers a free version that works well even without the extra frills. $29 (free version)

-- Michael S. Lasky

A Friendly and Flexible Database

Having my own databases is like being able to Google my own life. What projects are due to the copy desk next week? In our survey results, how many Sony camera owners said they had called technical support? All I need are two quick queries to my FileMaker Pro 6 databases, and I've got the answers. FileMaker makes creating a database intuitive, and once I've entered my data, I can slice and dice the information--and decide how to present it--in lots of useful ways. $300

-- Edward N. Albro

Slide Shows in a Snap

ProShow Gold turns my collection of digital images into a fun slide show for my PC or TV. Photodex's program lets me create screen savers, slide shows ready for e-mailing, and video CDs or DVDs for playing back on TV. I can also make CDs containing self-executable files that will launch snazzy slide shows, for instance, on any PC--no special software is needed. Plus, I can easily synchronize background music to the number of slides I have. And I love being able to choose from 170 slide transition effects--even the drabbest set of images comes to life with ProShow Gold. What's missing? A tool to post slide shows on Web pages. $60

-- Tom Spring

Every business needs a complement of utilities to help with network-related chores. And depending on your setup, the same goes for your home office. Here are our top picks.

DU Meter Keep tabs on the speed of your broadband or dial-up connection. This Hagel Technologies app also lets you tweak your connection's settings. $20

JanaServer On a tight budget? Share your office Internet connection and set up an ultracheap e-mail server with author Thomas Hauck's program. $57

NetInfo Scan your network, diagnose problems, and start troubleshooting. Tsarfin Computing's app lets you test your network's security as well. $25

NetZoom for PowerPoint If you need to document, say, your network equipment, turn to NetZoom's exhaustive library of incredibly accurate clip art. $299

VisualRoute Having Internet connectivity problems? Find the bottlenecks and identify the geographical locations involved with Visualware's program. $50

Specialty Programs

Sometimes you need a tool to help you with a hobby, a quirky project, or a one-time task; sometimes you just need a break from typing. Try these gems.

Auction Sentry: You don't have to be tethered to your PC every time you want to place a bid on EBay. This tool schedules your bids right before the auction closes. Tools for sellers too. $15

DART Karaoke Studio: Want to sing along with your favorite band? Impress your friends as the lead singer. $40

Book Collector Pro: Catalog the contents of your home library by typing in each book's title, and Collectorz.com's program downloads all kinds of information on it from the Web (including related images). Sort your collection by author, genre, release date, and more. $40

Voice Studio 2003: Dictate into most Windows apps, listen to your e-mail read aloud, or create macros that respond to your voice with this app from Ultimate Interactive Desktops. $30

Wine Library: Just because you store the data on your wine cellar in Microsoft Access doesn't mean you're a snob. WenSoftware also offers movie, recipe, and other libraries. $35.

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