Great software for your home office

Maybe your boss allows you to telecommute. Maybe you're your own boss. Or perhaps you work after hours from home or just take care of a lot of personal business on your PC. Whatever your scenario may be, here are ten programs to keep your home office humming. These gems will help you manage your money, your email, your notes, and your time. And they'll also help you present a good image of yourself on screen and on paper. With one exception, all programs work in Windows 98 through Windows XP.

I'll skip the really common programs. After all, you don't need to know about Windows, office suites, or a good email program. And you've already heard enough about antivirus software, personal firewalls, and tools to back up your data--even if you haven't actually gone out and bought them (yet).

Keep Your Money in Order

What's your financial worth? What do you owe on your credit cards? How much do your clients owe you, and when do you expect to receive their payments? What are your biggest expenses? If you're looking for a tool to manage all aspects of your financial life, Intuit 's Quicken 2004 Premier Home & Business will do the job. And its US$90 price is one expense worth making.

You can record transactions, balance your checking account, and track investments (if that isn't too depressing). You can also pay bills online and keep an inventory of the items in your home. If you've got a business, you might also track accounts payable and receivable. Speaking of accounts receivable, Quicken can become your invoicing system: Use its template to print out your bills or email them to clients.

Protect Those Files

Got any files or folders you must protect from prying eyes? The best tool I've found for the job is Steganos Safe 5. Create a "safe" with this $23 program, and you have a virtual drive you can fill with files and access with any program. Once you close the safe, all you've got is a large file filled with incomprehensible gobbledygook, and nothing but the password will reopen it again. The safe uses a combination of 128-bit AES and 128-bit Blowfish encryption--two widely accepted standards that are as hack-proof as anything you're likely to encounter.

If you want more security tools, you can spring for Steganos Security Suite 5, which costs $56. In addition to the regular safe, the Suite lets you use a portable safe: You can create an encrypted drive with your confidential files, save this drive onto a CD, for example, and then access the drive on any PC, when yours isn't available. The portable safe comes with a read-only version of the encryption engine, so you can open files with no problem when you're on the road--but you won't be able to encrypt new files (unless you have the suite installed on your notebook, say). The Suite also provides email encryption, a tool that hides encrypted files in image or sound files, a password manager, a program for cleaning up your browser and other histories, and a shredder.

Touch Up Your Images

Jasc Software 's $100 Paint Shop Pro 8 is a great tool for nonbusiness chores like touching up family photos. But if pictures are a part of your business--whether it's posting real estate photos on your Web site or displaying artwork--Paint Shop Pro is a valid business tool as well.

You can do all sorts of things to your photos with Paint Shop Pro. You can correct for barrel and pin cushion distortion--that is, when images appear to curve outward or look pinched. You can remove the dreaded red-eye effect. You can add arrows, circles, and text. And if you're looking for something unusual, you can make a photo look like an oil painting.

If you're the artistic type, you can forget about photos and make your own drawings in Paint Shop Pro. Or capture images from your computer screen--an important business chore in my profession; I used Paint Shop Pro for the screen shots in this article.

Create Brochures and Business Cards

Touched-up photos are not enough. You also need great-looking brochures, newsletters, and business cards. You can create all of them in Microsoft Publisher 2002. (Note: the upcoming Publisher 2003 will be part of Microsoft's new Office Professional and Small Business editions.)

Microsoft designed its $120 Publisher to be easy to use, and by and large, the company succeeded. It comes with a wide variety of document templates to help you get a project started. These include newsletters, catalogs, business cards, Web sites, greeting cards, and even paper airplanes (like Paint Shop Pro, this doesn't have to be an all-work program).

Once you select a template--or go with a blank page--you can arrange things as you please with plenty of drawing tools, text formatting, and clip art. And it's still user-friendly: Suggestions pop up from time to time about easier ways to do things.

E-Mail and Post Your Documents

So now you've got your brochure or newsletter looking absolutely great. In addition to printing it, you want to email it to clients and maybe post it on your Web site. If you're thinking about formatting to HTML, forget it. HTML--the format used for Web pages and formatted e-mail--isn't capable of handling real precision formatting.

Luckily, Adobe invented the Acrobat PDF file format, which can reproduce a document's exact look, even on systems without the same fonts. Adobe made its Acrobat Reader free, and by now almost everyone with a computer has installed it. (If you haven't, download Adobe Acrobat Reader 6.0 from PC World Downloads.)

However, Adobe didn't provide a free way to create PDFs. Neither has a company called eHelp, but it has created a cheap and easy way: the $50 1-Step RoboPDF 3. If the file is printable, RoboPDF offers several ways to convert it to PDF. You can right-click the file for the program's options, load it into its native application and select RoboPDF from the list of printers, or drag and drop the file onto the RoboPDF icon on your desktop. And if that application is Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, you can use the RoboPDF toolbar, one of the program's handy features, to make the conversion happen. It works like a charm.

Fax From Your PC

Sometimes you have to forego email or the Web and use a more arcane method of delivering information--you have to fax it. If you do a lot of faxing, and handling all those incoming and outgoing faxes has become a major hassle, consider investing $100 in Symantec 's WinFax Pro 10.02.

True, a cheap fax machine costs less than $100, and Windows comes with its own basic Fax program (except Windows ME). But WinFax has some tricks up its sleeve for the frequent faxer that neither a basic fax program nor a physical fax machine can handle. You can drag and drop a file onto a desktop icon to fax it, and attach multiple files to a fax to have them all go out together. There's a junk-fax filter. If you'd rather have received an email than a fax, there are OCR capabilities to turn the bitmapped image into editable text. Best of all is the signature feature that helps you "sign" a letter by stamping a bitmap of your own signature to it before faxing it out. (Note: You do need to have a fax-modem installed for WinFax to work. Check out Symantec's system requirements for more details.)

Not all of WinFax's special features are really useful, though. The photo-quality faxes don't look noticeably different from the regular ones. Plus, WinFax hogs memory on some systems. But for heavy-duty PC faxing, WinFax is a good investment.

Organise Your E-Mail

Why can't I find Edna's email about the Entropy Project? Wait a minute--maybe Edwina sent that? Okay, where is it?

If you're overwhelmed by email, and you use Microsoft Outlook, consider Nelson Email Organizer 2.5 (also known as NEO). This $40 Outlook add-on by Caelo Software offers seven tabs with different views of your email. You can click the Correspondent tab to see your mail organised by sender. Bulk Mail has messages that weren't actually addressed to you. Go to the Status tab for unread or tagged email, and Date View for mail that arrived today or last month. The Hot tab has your priority folders, whatever they may be. (Note: Microsoft's new version of Outlook provides a lot of these features, so if you are planning to upgrade to the newer version of Office when the time comes, you may not need to purchase NEO.)

Since NEO doesn't store the mail separately, but works with mail already stored in Outlook, there's no problem with the two programs getting out of sync. No, it doesn't work with Outlook Express.

Organise Everything

Creo 's Microsoft Outlook add-on, the $100 Six Degrees 1.5, helps you organise a whole lot more than email. In addition to requiring Outlook, Six Degrees works only in Windows 2000 or XP.

Six Degrees watches what you do in Outlook, then it finds relationships between different items, which it displays in its own window. Click an email message or an appointment in Outlook (but not, alas, a task or a note), and Six Degrees will list anything it thinks might be related to it. And it doesn't just watch Outlook. If you click a file in Windows Explorer--say, your notes for an upcoming presentation--the resulting list may include emails about the presentation, the appointment itself, and other files containing similar keywords.

Of course, it's all guesswork, and Six Degrees doesn't always guess right. But it guesses right often enough to be useful if you have trouble keeping track of all your data relating to specific projects.

Make the Ultimate Outline

Now that I've shown you some better ways to organise your Outlook data, how about something to replace Outlook altogether?

Micro Logic 's $150 personal information manager, Info Select Version 7, is laid out in an outline format. You enter bits of information under headers like Reports and References. You can create your own headers and subheaders, as well. Under some of these headers, you'll find forms for entering structured information such as contact databases. In others, you can just enter unstructured notes, then impose a structure based on where you place them in the outline. There's also an appointment calendar and email client to make it a full PIM.

It's also handy for Web research. Highlight text in your browser (or any other program), click a system tray icon, and that text becomes a note beneath the highlighted topic in InfoSelect.

If you've got a Palm-based PDA, you can buy a separate $70 version, Info Select for Palm. The two sync up, letting you enter and organise data while sitting at your PC or on the run. The program isn't offered for Pocket PC-based PDAs.

Info Select is a bit intimidating at first--you should start at either the Easy or Basic level. But if you have to manage a wide range of disparate data types, it's a big help. Especially useful is its very fast search engine, which brings together your organised and disorganized info.

Keep Tabs on Your Time

If you've got multiple clients and charge by the hour, you need a way to track what you do, how long you spend doing it, and for whom you're doing it. That's where Iambic 's $150 TimeReporter 4.0 comes in.

Setting up TimeReporter can be time-consuming and a bit of a challenge. It uses either an SQL or Access database, and if you have neither you may have to download Microsoft Data Access Components (or MDAC) first.

To get started, you need to log on by name to set up TimeReporter. Then you have to enter some basic information--clients, tasks, categories, rates, and so on. But once your key information is entered, the program is pretty easy to use. You just click selections and enter a bit of text to record what you did and when. Or use the Start and Stop buttons at the beginning and end of a chore.

Of course, you may not do all of your chores at your computer. That's why Iambic includes a Palm version of TimeReporter in the package. The desktop and the Palm versions, of course, sync together. (Sorry, nothing for Pocket PC operating systems.)

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