As I noted in my last post, I have endured a shotgun wedding and am once again joined at the hip with Windows. However, I am determined to make the best of my situation and will be sharing with you the tools I am using to make the experience bearable. Below is a screen shot of my desktop, click for a larger version. Not too bad. Here’s how its done.
1) Move the task bar to the top (easy enough) and run Rocket Dock, that is a freeware Mac style dock you can get here that works great. It has a lot more features than I wish to use (it could act as your task manager if you wished for a really Mac like experience) has lots of plugins and themes. I use the ZenClear style.
2) Theme every thing else. There are several programs that allow you to theme windows. Two of the most popular are Window Blinds and Style XP. I chose Style XP because it had more of an all in one approach. Stardock’s ObjectDesktop suite had too many apps with too many settings in too many places to deal with, even for a Linux Guy. Besides the themes did not work very well, there were artifacts especially in my start menu. So I’m using StyleXP with the OpusSmooth visual style and the Whitepipe color theme. Style XP is cheaper than ObjectDesktop at $19.95 and there are thousands of themes for it at ThemeXP, not all of which are very good.
3) Style XP also lets you change out your Icons system wide. I’m using XP-iCandy.
4) Transparency, the real thing too. Style XP does that, but because I want more granular control over what’s transparent than Style XP allows I use a freeware program called Glass2K. This program lets you assign transparency values to each window and item on your screen. Cool. The only nit I have to pick with it is that you can’t hid its icon when its running in the tray and you can’t turn off the splash screen when it boots.
5) Speaking of keeping Icons out of the tray, the only other program I bought was 4t Tray Minimizer. At $19.95 I felt a little ripped off because all it does is put icons of running programs in the tray instead of on the task bar. This is important for stuff I want running all the time. It should be in the tray and out of the way, but running in the back ground for when I need it. Things like a calendar program or an address book. In fact, the only program I really need it for is the Palm Desktop.
6) How about the Desktop Widgets? Those come from Yahoo! You get the program that runs them here and the widgets themselves in the gallery. The system widget is called Sys Monitor and the weather widget is imaginatively named Yahoo! Weather. Frankly the stink compared to super-karamba widgets for KDE which are infinitely easier to customize. But its what I have to work with.
So now that we have something nicer to look at than the boys and girls at Redmond saw fit to provide us, how about something to work with. Since we’re in an office we’ll need a word processor, spread sheet etc. No problem. Just grab OpenOffice.org. Version 2.1 is hot off the press at this writing.
The first thing anybody should do in moving to Windows is ditch the security nightmare that is Internet Explorer in favor of Firefox. The current version can be had here. Just being able to use adblock to block most inline ads is worth changing. Whle your downloading from the folks at Mozilla you should get Thunderbird to replace Outlook Express. I can’t find a non-Outlook application that works well with IMAP mail boxes, is a combo mail client, calendar, address book and syncs with my Palm. I would like to use Evolution, but it does not sync with a Palm and neither does Sunbird/Lightning. If you are not using a Palm I would recommend Thunderbird and Lightning . My workaround for right now is to use Thundebird and the Palm desktop. That means I have to keep two sets of email addresses and Palm desktop appears not to have been updated in any way since 1998, bleh. Such are the vicissitudes of life.
Work With Linux Machines
I also need to manage my Linux boxen. Putty lets me ssh to my *nix hosts and with WinSCP I have a graphical SFTP client to manage files on them. Both are open source software and work great, but neither are as good as typing ssh and the host name in a Linux terminal or typing sftp:// and the host name in the address bar of konqueror. As an added benefit SFTP is also a fine FTP client, it works in a two pane mode like Midnight commander or in a single pane mode like Windows Explorer.
Security really should have been the first thing I addressed in this article, but I’m not going back and changing things now. On Linux you do need a firewall but do not need to concern yourself with viruses or spyware. Not so on Windows. I use McAfee total protection for anti-virus, because that’s what my company has and I don’t want to buy my own. But I do have a few things to say about firewalls.
The first is don’t use the Windows firewall because it does not block outbound ports. Instead use Zone Alarm, which I consider the Gold Standard in desktop user firewalls. It’s free unless you want to upgrade to the Pro version or some such (to me a blocked packet is a blocked packet whether by the pro or amateur
I keep my system clean from adware/spy ware with Ad Aware. For a few bucks you can buy a version that will run in the background like an anti-virus program and keep your system cleaned out. But how big a deal can it really be to run the free scanner every couple of weeks? Especially since, with the combination of Firefox, Thunderbird, Zone Alarm and your own common sense you are unlikely to have much in the way of spy ware hitting your machine.
Replacements for Windows Applications
Some/most of the applications that ship with Windows are simply not up to the task and should be replaced by something better, but what? Here’s the list.
For chat go with Trillian. It has some obnoxious qualities: its a tad slow to boot (turning off the boot splash helps) and you have to have a skin, it won’t just automatically match your desk top. However, it supports darn near every sort of chat protocol know to geek, from internet relay chat through Yahoo! Messenger. The one sticking point is Jabber, the protocol used by Google and which some of you may run on your own servers. The Jabber plugin is only available if you pay for Trillian. Still, for consolidating your instant messaging in one place Trillian is the way to go.
Notepad is well, notepad, and has been for a long time. Its sure lightweight and easy to use, but you’d really like something more robust for your text editing chores. Consider PSPad. It is reasonably light weight, has just about every tool a programmer could want from a built in FTP client to code folding, to syntax highlighting, to spell checking.
And while Notepad is basic and functional, Paint is basic and worthless. I keep Gimp on the machine because there are some Script Fu effects and other tools that I use on my web sites that I need it for. But I’ve never been happy with Gimp. I don’t like the interface and for most tasks it is simply overkill. So for everyday picture cropping, text adding, etc. I recommend Paint.net, sort of the anti-Gimp. Attractive (face it Gimp and the GTK are ugly), easy to use and with a feature set that will get 80% of what you need done.
Managing compressed files in XP is easier than in previous versions of Windows because of built in support for zip files, but that’s not nearly enough because it won’t help at all with tar.qz files. Enter 7-Zip. Open source, supports zip, gzip, tar, and bzip2. It opens a lot more than that and supports RAR with a plugin. As a bonus it lets you use the 7z format which is alleged to produce higher compression ratios and use less system resources to compress and uncompress than other methods. Nice.
Perhaps you’d like to have a defrag utility that works faster than the speed of the next encroaching ice age. Found one of those for free in AusLogics Disk Defrag. Seems to work great and be accurate. Let me know if it’s not.
Now we need something to replace nmap for exploring the network we are on. Fortunately there is look@lan. Easy to use, reasonable interface and you can find all the hosts on your network.
And for wireless network discovery (perhaps a little war driving) there’s Net Stumbler. Find out what network access points are operating near you and which or your neighbors knows nothing about wireless security.
Those programs will get you started making Windows work the way you want. Don’t settle for Windows the way it is. Make it yours. Better yet, if Linux will work for your situation, use that. Don’t settle.