Not the chip that Apple used to use, but your own PC being more powerful. Doug, you can stop reading now if you want to. This is Windows-centric.

There are a whole lot of improvements that can be made to a stock PC. This is a long post. And I’m writing this for a relatively recent PC with Windows XP. If you have an old PC (Win98, WinME, or Win2K) or are running Vista, this advice may not apply.

And all this falls under the very best disclaimer I have ever seen: If you take any of this advice and break your computer, you get to keep both parts.

There are four sections to this advice: your web browser, tune-up utilities, task-specific utilities, and advice.

Finally, everything here is free, and I actively use it. It’s not all open source, so I’m talking free as in beer, not necessarily free as in speech. And there’s a specific disclaimer on the very last item, but aside from that, I actively use all this software, between work, home, and church.

Web Browser

Firefox. Some people use Opera, and there are others available, but please don’t use Internet Exploder. It’s not the best browser out there, but it’s the most common. That’s why the bad guys try to exploit it for installing malware on your PC. Beat the bad guys. Firefox is updated as often as new releases are available, not waiting for a monthly software release like MS. Firefox supported multiple tabs years before MS used the idea. The reasons keep on going, but I’m not going to.

There are also some great extensions for Firefox, extra pieces of software that people have written to enhance the functionality. You want these.

Adblock Plus removes almost 100% of the ads from your browsing experience. You can also use it to selectively block offensive pictures from sites you still want to visit.

Filterset G Updater keeps Adblock Plus updated. Automatically. Once or twice a week.

Flashblock gives you control of the flash animations. It will stop them from playing automatically, but still allow you to play them if you want.

Image Zoom lets you control the size of pictures on web pages, zooming in with the mouse wheel.

DownThemAll lets you download pictures from a web page. It does download every graphic, so if you want just a single pic, view it by itself first.

PDF Download is another download manager, this one for PDF files. You can set it up to automatically open the downloaded file in the reader instead of the browser. This saves memory usage by the browser. Also works with Foxit Reader below.

Tab Mix Plus allows you to manage the behavior of the tabs in Firefox. You can set it to automatically switch to a tab by hovering your mouse pointer over a tab. Really cool.

IE Tab will switch between showing a page in Firefox and Internet Explorer, all within Firefox. Useful for sites that are written only for IE (like some of my work’s sites). You can tell it to remember to always open a page or site in IE.

Gmail Manager watches your Gmail mailbox and lets you know when you have new mail. I have mine on a 5-minute refresh.

FoxClocks shows you the time in other countries. Useful for me – I interact with people in India, Saudi Arabia, and England.

Google Browser Sync keeps all instances of your browser in sync – history, bookmarks, cookies, passwords. This is great for syncing work and home browsers. I have two home instances – Linux and my Windows – and it works like a charm.

I use all these extensions. They all work as advertised. You may not need them all, but they’re all solid.

Tune-up utilities

Many flavors, addressing many problem areas. Some of these are powerful, so use with care.

CCleaner used to be called Crap Cleaner. It gets all the junk off your PC – hundreds of megabytes of stuff you’ll never need. Use carefully – you can accidentally take out some desktop customization. Run this before defragging. Or defrag again afterwards.

JKDefrag is a disk defragmenter with the strangest interface I’ve ever seen. When you run it, it turns the window into a map of the disk drive. No controls, no “File Edit View” up at the top – it just works, and stops when it’s done.

Page Defrag does a defrag on some system files during startup time – the only time these files can be manipulated. The company that wrote it was called SysInternals. Microsoft bought them a few years ago.

Abexo Free Registry Cleaner does exactly what it says. The same company also sells a registry cleaner. Don’t get that one.

AVG anti-virus. The best free anti-virus software. Set it up to get updates at a dark time of the morning. I haven’t tried their other free products.

Startup Explorer lets you see everything that starts automatically when Windows starts. Don’t delete something just because you don’t know what it is.

Rootkit Revealer will see if you have any deeply hidden badness. Again, not everything this finds is evil. Another one from SysInternals.

Spybot Search and Destroy does what it says. Takes a while to run. Do check for updates before running.

Bazooka is a similar program – very lightweight. Weeks or months between updates.

Task-specific utilities

A lot of these are replacements for things that come with Windows, or replacement for the “standard” programs that everybody else uses. They’re generally smaller, more useful, and more fun. Think of them as a Mini Cooper for software applications.

cdex is a CD extracting (ripping) program. Works with freedb to get the track names. Supports WAV, MP3, Ogg, and WMA, and FLAC (if you set that one up).

1by1 is a simple music playing program. It plays a directory at a time.

Foxit Reader is a replacement PDF reader. Adobe’s reader is bloated and loads terribly slowly. This is a delight.

Taskix lets you reorder the application buttons at the bottom of the screen. I like mine in a certain order. This does that, and stays out of the way the rest of the time.

Ultra Explorer is a replacement for Windows Explorer. It has a neat mode (View | Column Mode) that displays successive directories as columns, removing the need for the back or up buttons. See the screen shot here.

Process Explorer helps you see exactly what’s running on your computer, and what all it calls. A techie’s dream. Much better than MS Task Manager. Another one from SysInternals.

Notepad++ is a text editor that has lots of neat features. Not a word processor.

Irfanview displays all sorts of pictures, and includes some mark-up utilities (circling the important part of a screen shot, for example). Get the plug-ins.

Picasa is from Google. It will index all your pictures and has some basic (but very useful) photo tweaking tools.

Google Apps is on-line word processing, spreadsheet usage, and more. You can be collaborative on this.

Open Office is the functional replacement for MS office. I interchange documents with work all the time with no problems.

Xyzzy is a pronounceable password generator (and a secret word from the Adventure game).

Filezilla is a friendly FTP program for updating your web site. I have used the client, not the server.

Microsoft’s Power Toys – specifically TweakUI and Dos Prompt Here (they call it Open Command Window Here). You can do some nice desktop tweaking with the first, and save yourself a lot of typing with the second. I have not used all of the Power Toys, but do use the two I mention.

7-zip is a file compressor/decompressor. I’d say that it’s a functional replacement for WinZip – except that it does so much more.

DeepBurner is a CD burning program. It creates perfect audio CDs at church – hundreds of them. Just do them one at a time instead of more than one. This is another program with a paid version – stick with the free one.

Audacity is a sound recording studio. Very sharp, very flexible.

Computer advice

This is general advice on how to keep your PC current. This can be ignored if you want.

Keep your software up-to-date. Some of it will phone home for updates, some of it won’t. Microsoft publishes their fixes monthly, on the first Tuesday of the month. You can set your PC to download and install the updates automatically. That’s the safest thing to do. I don’t do that, preferring to see what goes onto my PC, but I’m a geek. Lots of other application software has an option to check for new versions. I’d rather do that manually (but do it – I’m compulsive about that) instead of having a piece of software running all the time that checks for updates. I would rather use up mental energy remembering than use up computer resources having it watch for something.

You can also watch for updates to the computer’s BIOS. This can fix bugs, or can add functionality and/or speed. And it’s not necessary, and can mess up your PC if done wrongly. Proceed at your own risk.

The same goes for drivers for your video card. If your card is newer, there may be frequent driver updates that will add more speed or capabilities.

Here’s where it starts to get seriously weird. If you don’t live in an alternate universe (at least occasionally), these are not for you.

Ubuntu is a leading Linux distribution. You can download their bootable CD and boot it on your PC, running it from the CD. If you like it enough, you can dual-boot your PC, so that you can run either Windows or Ubuntu. It’s useful for times when Windows doesn’t work.

VMWare Player helps out for times when you want it all. VMWare does something called virtualization, which means that it created a computer in software. Whatever runs in the software computer interacts with the hardware computer, but is not running directly on the hardware. They have a lot of appliances (pre-built operating systems for the player) here. You can download the player, an appliance (like Ubuntu), and run them inside Windows. Specific disclaimer: I haven’t used the player or the appliances. I do use VMWare to run Windows on my Linux box. It works, and works well. I work from home one day a week, and do all my work inside my virtual Windows machine, including connecting over a VPN to work. And all the Windows software doesn’t realize that it’s not running on hardware. Astounding.

Good luck with all the possibilities. I am available for consulting. You don’t want to pay my fees.