Friday, May 21, 2004

Essential Utilities

I'd just thought that I'd publish my list of "essential" software. The software below is mostly freeware / free for non-commercial use (obviously you should check the terms and conditions first) and I install them on any Windows machine I own as soon as I can as I feel lost without them. There's also a few proprietary bits of software in there that I consider worth the money and use myself.


Adobe Acrobat Reader - Utility for reading PDF files.

Audacity - Audio Editor.

CDex - Extract audio from CD's and, e.g. convert to MP3's. Also perfect for recompressing MP3's to the settings required for making Audio CD's with most CD Writing packages.

DivX Codec - Codec for viewing a lot of compressed videos on the internet.

EazyVCD - Free package containing compatible versions of the two utilities TMPGENC and DVD2AVI. EazyVCD is useless as a program in itself but it contains just the right versions of these two tools to help you convert any video file/DVD into Video CD format suitable for burning with most CD Writing packages.

Ghostscript - Although not that useful on it's own to a novice, as it lets you display Postscript files which are quite rare nowadays, it's used by lots of programs (e.g. PDFCreator) to make PDF files for free.

GSpot - Drag and drop a video file onto this program and it'll tell you what codecs you need to view it.

IconEdit - Icon editor.

Irfanview - Essential image manipulation package, sort of a cut-down Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro that can open any graphics file and perform Batch Scanning, Slideshows and even create self-contained screen savers from a bunch of pictures and video files. Also supports most standard image filter plugins.

JAlbum - Java program which is a free equivalent of Paint Shop Pro's Media Centre Plus, which lets you create albums of your photos suitable to go straight onto a website.

Macromedia Dreamweaver - A very overpriced but wonderful commercial product for designing websites. Invaluable for any serious website owner who wants full control over their HTML and CSS. A joy to use, a bastard to shell out for, but unfortunately the best by far. Only a few apps even come close to this.

Media Player Classic - Lovely little freeware program which can play just about any video file, even plays Windows Media, QuickTime and Realplayer formats if you have the programs/codecs installed without having to load the bloated players supplied by those companies. Also, can be made to look like the "old", much more simplistic Windows Media Player. No spyware or millions of tabs in this program.

Monitor Calibration Wizard - A program to help you correctly calibrate your monitors contrast/brightness buttons. Tells you step-by-step what to do and how to site your monitor, then creates a Windows Monitor Profile to ensure you get the best use of your monitor. I used this to get me a good range on my monitor so that I didn't have to keep upping and downing the brightness for games / desktop work.

Multivalent PDF Encrypter - Freeware command-line encrypter for PDF files so that you can stop people from editing them by signing them cryptographically. You can also limit printing or copying text from them. Not bullet-proof but a definite hinderance. Most of it's functionality is now obsoleted by a new version of PDFCreator but it's still useful for PDF's that you've already made.

NVu - Freeware equivalent to Macromedia Dreamweaver or Frontpage that, although buggy in it's current early stage of development is very usable and quick to learn. If you can't afford Dreamweaver, this is a good alternative. Also available for Linux and made by the people who made Lindows.

PagePlus 8 PDF Edition - Now, me and Serif no longer get on (I'll explain why in another post sometime) but Pageplus is the best DTP program, mainly for value for money. Also, it's Drawplus counterpart is invaluable for a vector editing tool, easily on par with CorelDRAW for a beginner but far easier to use and cheaper. Pageplus beats Publisher into the ground, I'm afraid, especially at the prices you can pick it up for.

Paint Shop Pro - Wonderful image editor. The best you can get. You can open anything, do any raster operation (or even some vector op's) on it, filters galore and all sorts. Easy to use, extremely powerful and not too bad a price, considering how good it is. I use this for everything from touching up my holiday photos to creating images, borders, spacer images and everything else for websites. Animation Shop is also sometimes bundled with it and that's a very nice animated-GIF creator, should you ever need one. Also, sometimes includes Media Centre which is a photo-album generator.

PDF Creator - Freeware Print-to-PDF utility that pretends to be a normal printer. When you print to it, it converts whatever you've printed to a standard PDF, even supporting compression, encryption (DRM). Works well and being free makes it even better.

QuickTime - Essential codec. Stuff the player included with it, install Quicktime then use Media Player Classic instead. Make sure you get the free version.

RealOne Player - Essential codec. Stuff the player included with it, install RealOne then use Media Player Classic instead. Make sure you get the free version which has been squirreled away in a side pocket on the website to get you to buy the full version.

Shockwave Flash Player - Essential web codecs.

SoundEngine Free - Another free audio editor.

SWF Opener - Lovely utility to let you play Flash games offline. If you can save the Flash file to your hard drive, you can drag-and-drop it into a web browser to play offline or you can use this smaller, more efficient utility instead.

Swish - Wonderful proprietary program for creating Flash animations. It started off with simple text movement but recent version are very advanced. Damn sight cheaper than buying Macromedia Flash and suitable for most common uses of Flash, although you might not be able to make very complicated games and stuff with this yet.

VirtualDub - Nice utility for playing about with a video file's audio stream. Resync'ing sound and stuff like that.

WinAmp - Lovely any-format audio player that's simple and plays most things. Media Player Classic can play some audio files but WinAmp plays them all, has neat filters and proper playlist support and is good for running entire albums or CD's from.


Agent Newsreader - Newsgroup reader that does the job without anything fancy getting in the way.

BitTorrent - Download those large files without killing the website that hosts them. Some websites offer BitTorrent downloads so that everyone downloading shares all their bandwidth so the website doesn't incur large bandwidth charges. Lots of Linux distributions and file-distribution sites are using this now.

DBXtract and OEBackup - Turn those cryptic DBX files from Outlook or Outlook Express into human readble text files for backup purposes. OEBackup will also backup ALL of your Outlook/OE settings (addresses, emails, preferences etc.) for backups or for transferring to a new computer.

K9 - Free spam filter which intercepts a POP3 connection from your computer and filters the spam before it gets to your inbox. Works by Bayesian statistical filtering and also uses some DNS blacklists to do it's job. Simple, works very well once trained and also can automatically integrate into Outlook/OE to apply filtering to your existing accounts.

NAT32 Enhanced - Wonderful proprietary NAT (i.e. connection sharing) program that runs under Windows. Very technical, so not for the beginner but powerful, cheap and works with any Windows-visible internet connection, for all you winmodem users out there.

Nmap - Freeware security tool to test firewalls with. Useful if you run servers to find open ports etc. Works best under Linux.

Opera - The best web browser. Throw away IE, Opera, with it's Google ad-funded free version beats it into the ground. Compatible with almost every site, works fast and easy with a number of fantastic time-saving shortcuts and features (such as a list of all the links on a page, pop-up filtering, mail integration, one-click hiding of images... far too many to list and all very useful). Once you learn the "hidden" keys and find all the options for every element of a webpage, IE will seem inconvenient by comparison. Also starting to incorporate mail, newsgroups, instant messaging etc. into a single program.

Pegasus Mail - The best standalone POP3/IMAP mail program. All sorts of features and the best tool to send and receive emails from loads of different accounts.

Putty - Freeware SSH connection tool, with a good security history and reputation. Also does telnet connections and tunnelling.

Sam Spade - Little utility to perform DNS lookups and other technical investigations, primarily aimed at helping administrators find the source of spam but useful for other purposes too.

TightVNC - Low-bandwidth version of VNC, which lets you "see" and use your computer desktop over an internet connection. Useful for remote support or remote access for your home PC's.

Trillian - Multi-protocol instant messaging client that supports MSN, AIM, YIM, ICQ and even IRC in a single program.

WS_FTP Pro - Commercial product but is starting to be given away with magazines / appearing for sale at very low prices. An FTP program with a vast array of features, simple to use and very customisable.

YEnc - Program for decoding a certain method of sending binaries over newsgroups.

ZoneAlarm - The best free Windows firewall. I use this behind a Linux firewall because it still offers many features that are good for securing your PC, and as a second line of defence. I don't feel safe on a Windows machine on the 'net unless I have this. Brilliant protection from external attacks and also "internal". It lets you decide which programs should access the net and tells you if any of them change or any new ones tries to make a connection. Good for stopping keyloggers and other viruses from reporting back home. Although not 100% infallible at it's "internal" functions, it normally provides too much of a challenge for most viruses to bypass and it's external protection is bulletproof. The Pro version has lots more bells and whistles.

Support Files

All of the following are essential in running most modern programs and if a program hasn't already installed them, it's worth installing them straightaway to avoid problems later.

Java Runtime Environment
Microsoft Installer
Visual Basic Runtime files

Miscellaneous Utilities

Ad Aware - Wonderful spyware remover which comes in several versions including this free one. Run it, select all the junk that's accumulated when you've installed suspect programs and then delete it all. Safely, quickly, completely, easily.

Add Remove Pro - Freeware program to remove all those left-behind entries in your Add/Remove Programs list.

AllerCalc - A good scientific calculator that's much more complex than the internal Windows calculator and can be much more useful.

AnalogX BanishCD - Tell Windows 9x where you've copied the Windows CD to on your hard drive and you'll never be prompted to enter your Windows CD again.

AnalogX TimeSync - Sync your computers clock to a NTP server on the net to ensure it stays accurate.

ASPackDie - Decompress ASPack'ed executables. I use this to uncompress Opera's executable so that I can change it's header tags to make it identify itself as plain IE. This fixes loads of broken sites that refuse browsers with Opera in their title, a hangover from the days when Opera didn't work very well. I wouldn't need to do this but the developers refuse to offer this facility and always want the word Opera in the identification string, even if you set Opera to identify as MSIE.

AVG Antivirus Free - Free anti-virus program. 'Nuff said. Alternatively, I use Trend Micro's Housecall website to do this job for me, then I lookup any discovered virus and remove it manually.

Bochs - PC emulator. I use it for testing Linux boot disks / single-disk distro's without endangering my real computer.

Calendar Magic - Lovely little program to mess about with dates, e.g. adding on 50 days to January 2nd or finding out the date of Easter etc.

Calendar Painter - A program I use to print out nice calendars for the year.

CDBurnerXP Pro - Freeware program to burn CD's. 'Nuff said.

CD Check - Simple little program to make sure every part of a CD can be read. Useful for checking backups, disks from boot sales etc.

CD Mage - Program to play about with CD images, e.g. ISO's etc.

ClickTray Calendar - System Tray program to help you keep a schedule of events. Annoyingly bright and cheery but useful and very well thought out. Also has calculators etc. built-in.

Clip-o-matic - Freeware tool to let you recall the last 10 things you copied to the clipboard. Invaluable for everyday Windows use and much better than the Microsoft Office equivalent.

Convert - Free unit conversion utility.

Daemon Tools - "Virtual CD" program which not only lets you mount any ISO image as a "real" CD but can also emulate DVD's drive (including region-coding) and common copy-protections such as Safedisc and Securom so that you can actually play those games that you own without having to insert the damn CD every time.

Disk Image Viewer - Utility for viewing ext2/fat filesystems inside a floppy disk image.

DOS Here - Adds a "DOS here" option to explorer's right-click menu so that you can open a DOS prompt with the current directory already changed to the directory you are viewing in explorer.

DVDFab Decrypter - A replacement for the now-sadly-lost DVD Decrypter. A program to remove the region-encoding from DVD's and copy them to your hard drive. Primarily designed so that you can copy them onto a DVD-R but I use it to remove the encoding and place the MPEG files onto my hard disk, so that I can recode them with the EasyVCD suite or similar into a format that I want to use. I'm so sorry that I want to make a backup of a DVD I already own or that I want to change it into a format that I can take on the move with my CD-only laptop. That was sarcasm.

Explore2fs - Lets you view the structure and file contents of a linux ext2 filesystem from within Windows.

IZArc - Freeware compression/decompression utility supporting all major compression formats, e.g. ZIP, ACE, RAR etc.

MetaPad - Freeware notepad replacement that lets you use DOS or Linux-style line-feeds, unlimited file size, perform decent searches within a text file etc. yet still stay in a small, fast text editor.

MoveLater - Command line utilities to show you what files will be moved/deleted by Windows on it's next boot or let you add to that list. Good for fixing Windows after a corrupt setup program or for seeing what damage spyware/viruses have done.

Multires - Program for quickly switching between screen resolutions. Can also be automated in batch files to make those old programs run seamlessly in the resolution they require without having to manually change it each time.

Password Show - Shows the password hiding between any asterisked box in Windows. Useful for recovering Windows DUN passwords, passwords cached inside programs etc. Doesn't work with everything but works with most things.

PC Inspector File Recovery - LIFESAVER. Searches a harddisk for files/partitions that have become corrupted. Wonderful recovery tool after I wiped out the boot sector and FAT for a harddrive, it found my partitions and files and let me copy them onto a blank hard disk when Windows refused to even see the drive.

RawWrite - Program to write floppy disk images onto a floppy and vice versa.

Refresh 'Em - Essential for Windows 9x, this program refreshes the icons on your desktop and in explorer when Windows gets confused and makes all the icon images change to something completely different.

Startup Control Panel - Essential util that lets you see what programs are scheduled to run at Windows startup. Useful for getting rid of spyware / viruses and nasty little programs that want to run in the background all the time.

Startup Monitor - Companion to the above, this places a watch on any program that tries to set itself up to start at Windows startup, warning you when it does and asking you if you want to allow the change. A little like a ZoneAlarm for windows startup.

SysInternals Process Explorer,
SysInternals Registry Monitor,
SysInternals Debug Monitor,
SysInternals File Monitor
- Wonderful suite of freeware that let you watch and record in realtime any changes or accesses to the File or Registry, also lets you see exactly every process that's running and monitor programs for Debug output. Wonderful for watching exactly what an program or installation does as it does it and brilliant for debugging verbose error messages such as "File not Found" when you have no clue what file it's looking for.

Unknown Device Identifier - Find out what device that "Unknown Device" is in Windows Control Panel and maybe even download the drivers for it. Wonderful for using on unknown hardware that you pick up from friends, boot sales etc. (Apologies to the author for previously linking to someone that he says stole his program and re-branded it).

XVI32 Hex Editor - Freeware hex editor. Useful for performing any sort of file-editing on the byte level and for hacking games and other executables.


I have to say that most games don't interest me and games are much more of a personality-based choice so there's little point in recommending them, but my interests still mainly lie in old games. We can all download emulators for the console games but these utils are good for running the old PC games.

ScummVM - Freeware. Let's you play the interactive games that were wrote using the SCUMM interface, e.g. Simon the Sorceror, Monkey Island etc. Also, because of the kind co-operation of some publishers, there are also free downloads of games such as Beneath a Steel Sky that you can use in this "emulator".

DOSBox - A DOS emulation program for Windows that lets you run all of those old cranky games that needed a true SoundBlaster with an AUTOEXEC.BAT and all the EMS/XMS/IRQ/DMA horrors that went with them.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Bloody Sasser

Yep... you guessed it, I walked into work this week and one school is completely infested with the Sasser virus. Anyway... turned out okay because I was officially told to leave someone else to clean up the virus mess... RM networks are marvellous... can't install a microsoft patch because each PC has it's state built from packages on a central server which, apparently, is fine at doing connection sharing but hasn't got a firewall on it, hence the virus being present.

This package system works by making everything that goes onto a machine into Microsoft Installer .msi files, a marvellous idea which ensures easy software distribution, easy recovery should the individual client PC's go muppet but unfortunately a pain in the arse when it comes to installing anything at all.

Hence, I wasn't going to mess about making an MSI for the Microsoft patch, which can take forever with RM's buggy software, so I phoned the bod in charge of the borough's networks and he said he'd sort it out because RM have specially built-packages, which makes me wonder even more about how far RM are actually in bed with Microsoft, not to mention their Word-97-with-buggy-macros which they sell as RM Talking First Word.

Anyway, I had the staff on me from the second I walked in... not blaming me (not my responsibility, I didn't install the servers) but asking for help with their home PC's. Printed out a step-by-step plan for them, mainly so that they don't bring it back in to the network until it can be patched... believe it or, this network's only pencilled in for patching sometime this or next week... nothing like being up-to-date.

Got asked lots of questions about Sasser, and one of the top ones is if I'd got it at home. Unfortunately, I'm only using a router, (which blocks the virus without me having to touch any settings) another firewall, (which blocks the virus without me having to touch any settings) Zonealarm Pro, (which blocks the virus without me having to touch any settings), and a poor, decrepit, obsolete, operating system which I've been told to replace hundreds of times and never been given a definitive reason to upgrade. Oh, and in case you're wondering, it's my Windows 98SE that isn't affected by the virus.

Sadly, though, the complete lack of any anti-virus software on my machine was absolutely no problem whatsoever and never has been. I've cleaned viruses off of uncountable machines but have personally "caught" precisely one in all the years I've been using PC's and that came from a PC magazine's demo copy of Sin (that ancient 3D game). It caused me no damage, was cleaned within an hour of infection and detected because it had modified critical files which I just so happen to have a tiny little self-made Visual Basic program which can double-check MD5 hashes of.

If I ever have a suspicion of a virus on a file or I want to run untrusted floppies or executables I just visit Trend Micro's Housecall service which can detect viruses for free... manual removal instructions are always available for free on the internet and I personally prefer to delete viruses myself because then I know they have gone and exactly what they've damaged. Not that AV software would have helped at all, something which people seem to think they will. By the time the average person has bothered to update their anti-virus software and run a full scan, they've probably had one copy of every virus that had been released that month slip into their machines, not to mention spyware.

I've been waiting for Sasser... it's the natural evolution of a virus and they are getting better all the time. I love the way it can infect without any manual intervention. I also love the way it can do it to a base install of Windows, which ensures it'll circulate for several years at least because people will be reinstalling and putting unpatched Windows XP machines straight on the internet to get the patches from Windows Update.

I love the way that 90% of the people who need to install this patch will do so over the internet... the virus' main point of entry. And if you clean the virus but don't know of the patch (which is quite possible among ordinary home users) then you've wasted your time because it'll just come back on. And how many machines are there which are not on the internet yet, but will be put on at a later date, without the patches? Even BugBear, MyDoom and other ancient viruses are still circulating... proven by the fact that one laptop I cleaned for the school also had both of the above without anyone ever noticing.

Sasser is just the start. I'm still waiting for some super-virus to come along and give AV software companies and companies like Microsoft a kick up the arse in the security department. Hopefully then we'll get some decently programmed software with well-thought-out defaults.