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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Tweak XP and Mobile

This month (which is about how frequently I have been posting on blogger) I get back to tweaking my old PC (an old 2300 series Dell Dimension). Alas, I finally completed a basic set of themes/skins for Windows Mobile. Handheld users can get these by visiting my home page here. Enough of that nonsense for awhile. We were once upon a time talking about customizing XP themes, tools, and other eye-candy (especially making them look Vista or Mac-like without buying an expensive new computer). Let's look at a great XP interface enhancer I use and love, which is available for free download, called ObjectDock (from StarDock.com). Also in this installment, a neat little performance monitor called TinyResMeter, and 2 not-so-great add-ons. Who needs the fancy gauges in Vista. I just want to know how much of my CPU is being used without opening task manager.

First off, to give the reader some background on why I post this stuff, I subscribe to at least 4 print magazines that are computer or gadget-related (PC World, PC Mag, EWeek, Computerworld, etc.), and a ton of similar RSS newsfeeds and columns (thanks, Bloglines). I work on computers for a living, and have been doing system administration, testing, and integration for government and military computer systems for about 15 years now. I have seen a lot of technology come and go, and I make it top priority to keep abreast of all the latest tech resources. In other words, I scour all this stuff, try it out, and weed out the crap that doesn't work so well. I personally own old hardware, and usually keep it running until it is completely un-serviceable or dead. I still have my son's 1st generation iPod (he probably dropped it), and after replacing the Hard Drive almost 2 years ago, it still works great. I am a firm believer in optimization, and making the old look new again is an important aspect of this, but not at the expense of performance.

More Program launchers are admittedly something Windows could do without. I mean, why not just use shortcuts on the desktop, or the Windows Start menu? One reason a tailorable launcher is useful is screen size. I like my application space to be as uncluttered as possible, and if I need to start a program, I don't want to minimize running apps, or click through a bunch of links to do so. Desktop shortcuts are passe, and since many program installers by default add a shortcut, can quickly fill the desktop with junk. Many XP users may not even be aware they can create their own custom launchpad using the "Quick Launch" feature in Windows without any add-ons what-so-ever. A Quick Launch menu gives you the convenience of desktop shortcuts, but in a compact, manageable window you can place where you want on the desktop. To turn on Quick Launch (if not on already), simply right-click your Windows taskbar, select toolbars, and turn on Quick Launch (the "Desktop" option in this menu will work in a similar manner, but show all your desktop shortcuts). Once you've enabled them in the task manager, you can simply unlock your task manager toolbar, and drag the box out to the desktop. You now have your own little custom desktop launcher, which you can add/remove shortcuts to as you wish. You can create multiple launchers this way (say one for office apps, one for games, and one for Internet apps, etc.). Now if you want to turn off the main desktop shortcuts, simply right-click somewhere in your main desktop, select "Arrange Icons By", and then select the "Show Desktop Icons" link.

OK, so what?! Program launchers are useful, but not much cooler than a bunch of cluttered icons on the desktop. Well, Quick Launch is kind of boring from a feature standpoint, which is where add-on launchers come in. My personal fav is ObjectDock, but there's practically a cottage industry for helper, launcher or other program running assistance/management, etc. Some like ObjectDock provide a stand-alone space in which they work, and some integrate with other applications, but a word of caution. Add-ons can and some likely will have adware (maybe even malware) tagging along, and might send your private information to external sources, so make sure to research the product in question before downloading and installing it (I usually look on sites like Download.com, or Softpedia.com, and read the reviews by users). Browser toolbars and the like are especially bad for this, also known as Browser Helper Objects (like search bars and the like). ObjectDock has proven to be one of the most useful, excellent freebies I have found yet in this category. It doesn't just give you an awesome launcher with cool, animated widgets (like a MAC), it shows you running programs, provides an expandable preview, includes cool widgets and flyouts like local weather and search and a ton of free themes, icons and backgrounds to keep your customizing away for hours.

So now you have your desktop all pimped with a nifty launcher, and you say OK...now I want to monitor my hardware/software. Can I add some Vista-like Gauges? Yep, sure can...I do this 2 ways, one is with actual hardware. I have a device that is a keyboard extension called the Optimus mini keyboard (a tiny 3-button OLED Keypad). It has the capability to display system resources:

..and software. My personal favorite is a little trifle called TinyResMeter:

Two things are immensely cool about this application. It truly is tiny in terms of size and memory usage (while running). You don't have to install it (no messed up registry clean-up/hooks to worry about later). It works really well, and is quite simple to setup and use. One drawback though was I had to add it to the startup environment manually to get it to auto-run when logging in. Here are the high points from the author's site:

Why TinyResMeter ?

- It is not the nicest Resource Monitor.
- It is not the most complete.
- It has no wonderfull and amazing graphical display provided.
- It has no installer.
- It is written 90% pure API, to keep it as small as possible.
- It do not require any extra DLL.
- It do not modify/write inside Registry Database.
- It use less memory and resources than other identical tools.
- It use a very simple but efficient small display interface.
- It do not use any installer that could increase EXE size, once downloaded you can use it immediately.
- It can be simple copied and executed on any machine with no need of installation procedure.
- It takes very little place on your screen.

Settings saving : You must quit TRM manually thru "Quit" menu in order to save your settings (then you restart TRM), this problem will be fixed in 0.97.

I lied a little. TinyResMeter doesn't match the slick-looking Vista Interface, but it does the same thing in a quarter of the run-time memory required. Finally, I recently tried out 2 semi-loosers. As mentioned previously in the article, I use resources like PC World, and a host of other blog and feeds to find this stuff (see this). Some, in my opinion are great, and some not-so-great. I recently found 2 that I could have done without. The first is a Start Menu enhancement called Vista Start Menu SE (which was like a Frankenstein version of the real thing), the second called Desktop Sidebar (a sort of sidebar widget utility). Both were second rate, bloated abominations compared to the excellent utilities I just went over, and they slowed my computer considerably. The Start Menu added an obnoxious "upgrade" button (to try and force you to get the full version), which I was always nearly clicking on. They were both clunky and caused more problems than the enhancements they tout. In the world of tweaking (especially for older hardware), there is a definite line between useful and attractive functionality and resource-hungry eye candy. The key is finding apps that strike that balance. The free version of ObjectDock never bugs you to upgrade, or attempts to trick you into clicking anything. It has never crashed my system to my knowledge, and has performance tweaks to make it work better on less capable hardware. Those are the right ingredients for virtually guaranteeing an upgrade and a returning customer without resorting to trickery.

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