Archive for category Computer

My List of Favorite PC Programs & Utilities

Here is a list of programs & utilities (some free, some not) that I have installed on all my systems (desktop & laptop); use on a daily or weekly basis; and most highly recommend.  These ARE NOT listed in any priority order.

  1. Process Explorer (free, from Sysinternals. A ‘must have’ to see what processes are running on your system, and much, much more)
  2. Autoruns (free, from Sysinternals.  A ‘must have’ to see what programs are configured to run during system boot-up & much more)
  3. Xplorer2 (free lite version, $29.95 pro version. Powerful replacement for Windows File Explorer.  I use the Pro version, and can never go back to Windows File Explorer)
  4. Vopt (Best, fastest & most capable disk defragger I’ve ever used!  Even tho’ it costs $40, I like it so much I bought 2 licenses!  It has features not found on any other defrag program I’ve tried.  Try it out for 30 days & see if you don’t agree)
  5. Avira AntiVir Personal (Free.  I’ve been using this for the past several years & love it.  It’s highly rated, has a small footprint & utilizes few system resources)
  6. Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware (Free.  One of the best – if not the best – malware remover available)
  7. SUPERAntiSpyware Free Edition (Make sure you download the free version)
  8. Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall (Free – I’ve been using this program for over 5 years.  It does exactly what a firewall is supposed to do, with a small footprint & without becoming “bloat-ware” that most all others have become.  I also use an older version of the free Comodo Firewall on a couple of my systems, but I noticed that it’s grown from a 7MB download to 45MB.  I don’t think I’d still recommend Comodo now, due to it’s apparent bloat).
  9. SyncEXP (Free, powerful file synchronization program. One of the best file/folder synchronizers I’ve ever used — great for synchronizing files/folders between PCs, laptops, and external HDDs.  Better get this one soon, because it’s transitioned to shareware (SyncEXPERT) & may soon disappear.  With this program, I could probably retire FolderMatch listed next.)
  10. FolderMatch ($35, Great folder comparison & synchronization software.  I’ve been using this software for over 6 years, altho’ SyncEXP can ‘almost’ replace it. I use it to synchronize data between all my systems (desktop & laptop) and backup to External HDDs.  It’s somewhat more powerful & definitely more friendly than SyncEXP, which is why I still use it & recently paid to upgrade)
  11. Foxit Reader (Free PDF viewer.  I haven’t used Adobe Acrobat Reader since it became so bloated several years ago… Version 6?  Anyways… this is a GREAT replacement!)
  12. CCleaner (Free.  I’ve been using this program for several years… despite some folks thinking you might destroy your system.  I usually defrag my drives weekly, and even though Vopt has a fine cleanup utility, I always run CCleaner before defragging my HDDs)
  13. Firefox (Free. Latest version v3.6.  Need I say more?  Be sure do download the “NoScript” extension.  It may be irritating at first, but believe me – it will protect you!!!)
  14. Notepad++ (Free source code editor & Notepad replacement.  Be sure to download & install the Spell Check program & dictionary)
  15. KeePass Password Safe (Free, open source password manager.  I’ve been using eWallet for many years & am slowly but surely transitioning to KeePass, primarily because it does not require installation & can run off of a USB stick, and it can import eWallet files.  Plus… it’s free, whereas eWallet costs $19.95)
  16. VLC Media Player (Free.  Absolutely the BEST open source video/multimedia player available, and comes with all codecs needed)
  17. Disk Cloning/Backup SoftwareI clone the system HDD of each of my systems on to a replacement HDD every 3-6 months.  In between, I use Acronis True Image Home ($49.99) to make full & incremental system disk backups on an external HDD.  There are now some free alternatives, but I have yet to try them.  They are:  Easeus Todo Backup; Easeus Partition Master; Easeus Disk Copy & DriveImage XML — to name a few.  As I stated, I haven’t tried these, but I believe Easeus has a good reputation & I’m going to try it out next.
  18. PDFCreator (Free.  I’ve been using this open source program for years, ever since it first appeared.  It creates a PDF file from any Windows program that can print.  It’s fantastic for saving web pages/articles.)
  19. TrueCrypt (Free.  IMHO, the best open source encryption software available.  I use it to create virtual encrypted disks of my sensitive data files/folders, that are then mounted as a real disk when I need to access them.  It can also be used to encrypt entire partitions, USB flash drives, or your entire HDD (including your system drive.)
  20. ImgBurn (Free, lightweight, powerful CD/DVD/HD DVD/Blu-ray burning application.  Although beginners might find it a bit difficult to master, it’s capabilities are awesome & I’ve yet to create a “coaster” with this app)
  21. Image Viewers/Editors.  These are all free & I have several of them installed, but I prefer Faststone Image Viewer for everyday viewing, minor editing, cropping, resizing & converting to other image formats.  The others I use are IrfanView (keeps getting more powerful each & every update); XnView; and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). Some folks call Gimp the”poor man’s Photoshop.”  It’s extremely powerful, but intimidating for noobies.  Version 2.8 is slated for release around Dec 2010, and is sporting a new, more user-friendly interface.  For most of my hardcore photo editing, I use Jasc Paint Shop Pro v9 & it’s follow-on, Corel’s Paint Shop Pro X2.  I have to admit, I’ve been disappointed with Paint Shop Pro since Corel purchased it (not to mention it’s higher price tag) & usually stick with Jasc’s last version.  I know Google’s Picasa is highly rated, and probably the best bet for noobies.  I tried it out, but couldn’t tolerate it’s need to scour all my HDDs for images & build it’s own image catalog.  I manage all my images myself; I know exactly where they all are; and I don’t want software searching for every image, everywhere, on all my HDDs, just to build it’s OWN catalog.  I haven’t tried Picasa since. One more free product is Lightbox Image Editor.  I’ve never tried it myself, but it’s received positive reviews.

These just happen to be the first 21 items that come to mind.  There’s many more, such as music players (Winamp); FTP client (I like FileZilla); newsreaders; office suites; accounting software; tax prep software (I prefer TaxACT — it’s better & much cheaper than all the others, especially TurboTax); audio editors/recorders (Audacity); CD rippers (I prefer CDex & have been using it for many years); DVD rippers (DVDFab); etc., etc., etc.  It’s hard to quit, but I’ll end it here for now.

New Western Digital “Advanced Format” HDD partitioning scheme

Maybe I’m the only guy that didn’t hear about this, but when I did my post on “Make Your Own External Hard Drive” below, I stumbled upon Western Digital’s new “Advance Format” hard disk drives (HDDs).  In the Advanced Format HDD, Western Digital has replaced the previous 512 byte hard drive sector with a 4 kilobyte (4096B) hard drive sector.  The first drives out there now are the WD Green Caviar series (1TB, 1.5TB & 2TB).  All should have “EARS” in the drive model number (i.e., WD10EARS).

Now… why do you care?  There are some compatibility issues with Windows OS’s prior to Vista & Windows 7 (duh… like Windows XP).  In fact, it has issues on Vista & Win 7 if you use currently available disk partitioning/cloning software to copy to an Advanced Format HDD.  The disk imaging software companies (i.e., Acronis, Paragon, etc.) have yet to update their products to conform to the new 4K sector (but hopefully they soon will).

Fortunately, Western Digital provides alignment software that you can download from their website.  It is strongly recommended that you run this software after partitioning/formatting with Windows XP, or after using any disk partitioning/cloning software on Vista/Win 7.  In addition, the new Advanced Format HDDs have a jumper setting (pins 7-8) which you can use on XP when initially partitioning & formatting a new WD Advanced Format HDD (if you use the jumper setting, you DO NOT use the WD Alignment Utility).  Here’s the configuration details from Western Digital’s website:
So… what happens if you don’t follow the above procedures?  Well, supposedly you will not lose or corrupt any data, but you may drastically slow down the transfer speed of your new HDD.  Also, if you use the jumper pins 7-8 setting before partitioning/formatting the HDD, DO NOT run the Alignment Utility afterwards and DO NOT later remove the jumper (unless you’re completely starting over with the HDD… new partition, etc.).

Here’s links to information concerning the Western Digital’s Advanced Format HDDs:

UPDATE:  Ars Technica did an even more detailed article on this (“Why new hard disks might not be much fun for XP users”)

Western Digital currently offers two alignment utilities, one from Acronis & the other from Paragon.  The Acronis alignment utility is provided as a bootable ISO that you need to burn to a CD, whereas the Paragon utility is a Windows installer file.  Western Digital states the the Acronis utility may be as much as 3 times faster than the Paragon utility (I know which one I’ll be using!).

This is just one more reason you should build your own External HDD, as the WD Align Utility may not work on all USB Ext HDDs that are Advanced Format, requiring you to remove the HDD from the external enclosure, install it in your PC, and then run the WD Align Utility on it.  Well… it’s not always easy to crack open retail external hard drive cases to remove their HDD; but it’s trivial for an external HDD that you built yourself.

Why, you ask, should you build your own External HDD?

  1. Reliability/Quality.  Why do you want an Ext HDD?  To backup your data!  If the reliability of the Ext HDD you purchase isn’t as good as the system hardware from which you’re backing up, you’re wasting your time (& money).  In my opinion, retail External HDDs — especially the more affordable ones — are becoming increasingly unreliable.  Not only are the cases cheap, but the controller electronics, external connectors, power supplies, etc., are all of inferior quality.  The Seagate Free Agent Ext HDDs I mentioned in my previous post would get extremely warm… and this was when I wasn’t copying any files.  Heat is the enemy of most all computer components, especially HDDs.  Most of the external HDD enclosures available for building your own Ext HDD are often all metal (which is much better at dissipating heat than plastics) and often include cooling fans.  Keeping your HDD cool will noticeably increase the odds that it will survive many years of use.  I have also found the controller electronics, connectors & power supply to be of superior quality in separately purchased external enclosures.  If you read the customer reviews of many of popular retail External HDD products (i.e., Newegg), you’ll see a significant level of both failure and customer dissatisfaction.
  2. Data Recovery.  Should the HDD in your external enclosure fail, you have a better chance of recovering the data than with a retail Ext HDD, unless you’re willing to crack open the case of your retail Ext HDD & remove its HDD (which in almost all cases, voids your warranty).  You have fewer options for file/data recovery via USB than if you remove the HDD and connect it directly to your system (via motherboard IDE or SATA connectors).  Usually your only option is to download the Ext HDD manufacturer’s “disk tools” software, which in my experience “may” be able to restore the HDD to use, but is terrible at actually “recovering” any files.
  3. FlexibilitySay you decide to upgrade the HDD(s) in your desktop PC, i.e., removing your two 320GB HDDs and replacing them with two 1TB HDDs.  What do you do with these 320GB HDDs after they’re removed?  Well, if you have more space & connectors in your desktop PC, you could use them there.  But if you don’t, you can use these HDDs in another external enclosure for yet another Ext HDD, or if larger than your current Ext HDD so you could just replace it’s HDD with one of these.
  4. Disk Imaging Say you want to make a complete image of your system disk.  You first need a HDD of equal or greater size of the disk you want to image.  Next you need a means to connect the HDD to your system.  Again, if your desktop HDD bays are full or you don’t have any more motherboard HDD connectors, you can use your homemade Ext HDD.  Just remove the existing HDD from the Ext HDD Enclosure & install the HDD you want to place the image on, and go ahead and image your system disk with whatever software you choose (Acronis, Paragon, Ghost, DriveXML, etc.).  When through, you can remove the image HDD from the External HDD Enclosure & reinstall the previous HDD.

I cannot emphasize the importance of performing backups… that is, if you keep or have any data on your PC that feel you couldn’t live without or is important to you.  This might include photos, financial data, personal data, emails, music, videos, etc.  Murphy’s Law will ensure that the more important the data, the more likely a HDD will fail IF you don’t have at least one backup of that data.  I have not lost any data over the past 18 years, nor have I had a HDD fail on me (except for the three Seagate Ext HDDs mentioned in previous post).  In my experience, HDD failures almost ALWAYS occur — in both home & office environments — when you DON’T have current/multiple backups.  It’s like rain & umbrellas.  How many times have you brought an umbrella with you & not needed it?  How many times have you encountered rain when you DIDN’T have your umbrella?  For me, it’s about a 10:1 ratio (meaning I’ve encountered rain when I didn’t have my umbrella 10 times more often than when I had my umbrella with me).  Consider “backups” your safety umbrella.  You never seem to need them when you have them… but I can almost guarantee — if you don’t have a backup, you’ll eventually REALLY wish you had!

Make Your Own External Hard Drive(s)!

I’ve been buying off-the-shelf External Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) for the past seven years.  All have functioned perfectly and I’ve never had any issues (or data loss) — until I purchased three Seagate Free Agent Desk 1.5TB External HDDs last year – all from Costco’s.  Two of the three failed (after loading up with files, of course), so I put them back in their original packaging (after wiping them clean) & took them all back to Costco’s this past December & received a full refund.  (Thank You Costco for your fantastic return policy!)

I was thinking of making this post a slam against Seagate concerning their faulty Free Agent Desk Ext HDDs, but instead decided to encourage people to just build their own external HDDs.  It’s easy and doesn’t cost that much more than the retail products.  But in my opinion, you have a superior product and much greater flexibility.  Besides, it’s what I’m doing now & I thank Seagate for encouraging this behavior.

The discussion that follows only addresses 3.5″ hard drives.  You can build your own 2.5″ external HDD for even less, but you cannot yet get the higher capacity (i.e, 1TB) in 2.5″ HDDs yet.

You only need two things to build your own External Hard Drive:

  1. An enclosure (w/power supply & cables)
  2. A 3.5″ Hard Drive

I purchase all my computer hardware from, and they sell 3.5″ HDD external enclosures for as cheap as $17.  To replace my three Seagate 1.5TB Ext HDDs, I chose the Rosewill R2-JBOD Aluminum 3.5″ USB 2.0 Dual-Bay External Enclosure, on sale for $39.99 (currently out of stock until 2/16/10).  It’s main selling points for me were the all aluminum case; cooling fan; removable metal tray for two 3.5″ SATA HDDs; on/off power switch; separate fan on/off switch.  This case houses two HDDs and it’s almost the same size as the Western Digital MyBook enclosure (which only houses 1 HDD).

For the hard drives, I chose two Western Digital Caviar Green WD10EADS 1TB SATA 3.5″ internal hard drives.   They’re currently $84.99 each @ Newegg (currently out of stock).  I’ve always gone with Western Digital (for over 15 years) as I’ve never had one fail.  I’ve had four of these WD Green Caviar 1TB drives installed in two of my desktops for the past year & they’ve performed flawlessly.  (By the way, don’t confuse this HDD with Western Digital’s latest WD10EARS, which uses a new Advanced Format – 4K Sector Transition.  It will require special procedures you need to follow if using on Windows XP (or earlier) Microsoft OS’s.)

Once you have your enclosure & HDDs, you need to install the HDD(s) in the enclosure.  I’ve always found this easy to do, and it was especially so with the Rosewill dual-bay enclosure.  You slide each drive in & ensure the SATA connector is seated, then secure each HDD with the included 4 screws.  Once both HDDs are installed, you slide the tray back into the enclosure, secure with four screws, and your ready to go!  (By the way, you don’t have to install two HDDs in the Rosewill dual-bay enclosure.  You can install just one, and install an additional HDD later).

So… now you have your newly assembled External HDD.  What next?  If you installed a previously used HDD in your enclosure (i.e., it’s partitioned, formatted, & may or may not have data on it), just plug the puppy in – connect to your USB port – and your ready to go.  If you installed a brand new HDD in your enclosure, then you need to go through a few steps before Windows (any version) will see it.  Go ahead & plug in your ext HDD, connect to USB port, and power it up.

To use your new HDD, you’ll need to bring up the Windows Disk Management interface (unless you get a pop-up Wizard offering to guide you through the necessary steps).  For XP, right-click on “My Computer”; click on “Manage”; then click on “Disk Management” under Storage in the Computer Management window that pops up.  You can also access Disk Management via “Start ==> Run” & type “diskmgmt.msc” in the run window & click OK.

Once you’re in Disk Management, you need to do the following THREE things:

  1. Initialize the disk (only takes a few seconds)
  2. Partition the disk (one or more partitions, very quick)
  3. Format the disk (NTFS or FAT32; recommend NTFS; recommend Full Format & it will take a while.  1TB HDD takes a couple hours)

If you’re lucky, when you enter Disk Management you may be presented with a pop-up that the system has discovered a new disk, and it will walk you through the necessary steps.  If you do not get a pop-up, go back to Disk Management & scroll through the listed disks.  At the bottom you should see your newly attached external HDD.  With the Rosewill Dual-Bay Ext HDD, Disk Mgmt on my system showed two new HDDs.  If your new Ext HDD doesn’t show up, try clicking on the “Action” menu  (in Disk Mgmt) & select “Rescan Disks.”  As I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, on most XP systems I’ve always gotten a pop-up Wizard that steps you through initialization, partitioning & formatting of the new disk(s).  If you don’t get this wizard, just right-click on the new drive in Disk Mgmt & select initialize; right-click & select partition (I use just one partition for the entire drive, but to each their own).  Lastly, right-click on disk & select Format.  If you created multiple partitions on the ext HDD, you’ll need to format each one of them.  I always format my disks with NTFS, especially the large 1TB or greater HDDs.  Unless you have a need for FAT32, I’d use NTFS.

Once you’ve initialized, partitioned & formatted your new ext HDD, it should appear in Windows Explorer & you should be able to start using it.

If you run into problems (it happens), don’t forget to “Google” for help & by all means post a comment here & I’ll try to help.  I’ve attached the Rosewill Enclosure user manual (Rosewill R2-JBOD User Manual), as it shows in more detail the steps you take to initialize, partition & format new HDDs.

Good Luck!