Introduction

This is our account of fixing up our old Windows XP PC. We wanted to see if we could run XP with a minimum of Microsoft products on it, no pirated software at all and, instead, make use of the freeware and open source software that is currently available. Here we will give you a rundown on the project and some reviews of the software that we tried out along the way.

The project started on and ended on , just under a year later, when we stopped using Windows and switched to Ubuntu.

Like most diaries the most recent entries are at the top, so you will have to go to the bottom to see the beginning of the story.


Entries



Bye Bye Windows

By Adam Hunt

When we started this project last summer I really had intended that we would be sticking with Windows XP for several years longer, but today we decided to reformat our Windows XP box and install Ubuntu 8.04 instead on it.

When we started our experiment with Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn in it was intended to be a long-term experiment. We needed a second PC so that we could both work at the same time and it made sense that we should get a used PC and try Linux-based Ubuntu instead.

We knew at the time that one day XP would no longer be sustainable. We knew that it would no longer be a purchase option on new PCs starting in , except some sub-laptops, it turns out. We knew that Microsoft mainstream support for XP would end on leaving users to either pay for support until , do without support as the operating system grew older and more vulnerable, or move to something else.

I really thought we would stick with XP right through April 2009 and on for at least a few more years afterwards, perhaps switching to a new operating system sometime in 2012 or 2013 or thereabouts, when XP is truly no longer supportable.

We have spent a lot of time looking at all the options. In the spring of we spent some time playing with Microsoft's much-promoted replacement for XP, Vista. We were not impressed. First off, running Vista would require replacing our existing hardware, which still works just fine. Second off, Vista doesn't work well. Even now after a year and half since Vista was introduced and after Vista SP1, it still has major problems, still doesn't perform well on 2 or even 4 GB of RAM, it is still very slow. It is also full of DRM, designed to protect large media corporations from you. Vista spies on what users do and reports back to Microsoft. If you use Vista, you not only have a poor operating system that is very slow, but you give up a lot of personal freedom.

We knew that we weren't going to be switching to Vista, it is just bad software.

So we started working with Ubuntu. In the early days we ran into lots of issues. Some of them were perplexing, some were annoying and some were show stoppers. Ubuntu wouldn't run our camera or our scanner. We were never ready to give up on it, but in the early days it was good for web-surfing, word processing and e-mail and not much else. We stuck with it, learned a lot about how it works and the great free community support available for it.

Then something happened - Ubuntu got better and very quickly, driven by the strength of the open source concept of community development. During the time when Vista was still struggling to get good enough to be considered only "bad software", Ubuntu went through four versions. The latest one, 8.04, is better than Windows XP and there is no comparison with Vista. It even works fine with our camera and scanner. It controls our hardware better, too, such as our monitors. It is far more secure than Windows, lacks pretty much all of Windows' vulnerabilities and won't run viruses or spy-ware. It protects your freedom and it is free.

Some other reasons to switch have also been piling up. First was the large numbers of long-running anti-trust cases against Microsoft. The European union has now at least twice convicted Microsoft of illegal monopolistic practices regarding both Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer and was fined US$1.39 billion. In the company was again under EU investigation for more illegal monopolistic practices. In the USA Microsoft has been convicted of illegal activities under anti-trust laws and has been under court supervision since 2002. In reading all of this I have to ask myself why I am still using the products of a company that has been convicted so many times of illegal activities to the detriment of its customers.

Then there was the petition. Windows XP users like the operating system so much and avoid Vista so much, that hundreds of thousands of them signed petitions asking Microsoft to continue to support and develop XP. The company's response is pretty much summed up in their white paper The Business Value of Windows Vista PDF Document (661 kB download), which strongly encourages people to switch to Vista now. Microsoft doesn't care what its customers want.

Then there was the revelation this past week in the same Microsoft white paper, admitting that the next operating system Microsoft will field, Windows 7, will be nothing more than a more bloated version of Vista. Everyone had been hoping for and demanding a newer, lighter, quicker, "MinWin" version of Windows. This is a company that just doesn't listen and just doesn't get it.

It all added up to questioning why I was still using their products. The answer in the past had been that there was nothing better than Windows XP available.

Today there are a number of better alternatives available, such as Mac OS X and Linux, which has the additional advantage of being able to run on your existing hardware and is free.

There were a couple of reasons we hadn't switched earlier. We wanted to make sure that Ubuntu 8.04 was as good as it seemed to be when we first downloaded it. If anything, the updates since then have meant that it is even better than it was on its release date, . Ubuntu 8.04 is truly superior to Windows XP in almost every way and, most importantly of all, it does everything we need a PC operating system to do.

So this all added up to a good time to say goodbye to the monopoly of Microsoft, the crashes, DRM, viruses, spy-ware and the mounting evidence that Windows is only going to get worse in time and to support the open source developers of the Linux community instead.

As a footnote we are still going to continue making our Windows Free Software CD available for a while. We think that there is some very good software for Windows being written by the open source community and, if you are running Windows, it is well worth supporting them by using their applications.

This will be the last entry for this diary. We have learned a lot from using open source free software on Windows. It has prepared us for the free software available on Linux, because many of the applications, like OpenOffice.org, GIMP and Firefox are the same. If you are using Windows we encourage you to use open source applications. And when you think you are ready to make the move away from Windows, then give Linux a try. We think that, with Ubuntu 8.04, you will find it easier than you might guess.

In the meantime we will be writing about Linux on our Ubuntu Diaries


Lavasoft Ad-Aware

By Adam Hunt

Prompted by one of our participants on the NCF Free Software Discussion Group I downloaded Ad-Aware . This is the replacement for the version. This new Ad-Aware carries the version number 7.1.0.10 and was released on .

We have been using Ad-Aware for a number of years on Windows, starting with their old Ad-Aware Personal SE edition and we like the security that it provides.

Having Ad-Aware on Windows is a good idea to ensure that your PC is clear of spyware, trojans and other undesirable things. Due to its inherent design Windows is very vulnerable to these sorts of threats. Besides Ad-Aware is freeware, so why not take advantage of it?

The interface for the latest version of Ad-Aware actually looks identical to the last version, except for the "" legend and the slightly more prominent red "X"s that show that the Real Time Monitor and Automatic Updates are not working. That is because they are only available on the paid, upgrade editions of Ad-Aware. On the free version you have to manually start a scan when you want one and have to also manually check for updates. The updates are available about twice a week and are large files.

We usually clear the caches by just closing Firefox, run a Disk Cleanup, update Ad-Aware and run a scan when we are done with the Windows XP PC at the end of the day.

The new version of Ad-Aware is more than one MB larger download than the previous version at 18.7 MB. Otherwise the new version looks the same and works the same. Lavasoft does say that there have been some changes behind the scenes, including:

That all sounds good but it is totally transparent to the Windows user.

The only visible improvement I noted is in the way Ad-Aware opens and closes. It just seems quicker than the old version and doesn't show a tendency to hang-up on opening or closing. Ad-Aware did occasionally fail to open or crash on closing. It wasn't serious and the typical Windows solutions (i.e. "reboot") always got things working again. So far Ad-Aware seems more stable.

I can only conclude by reiterating what I said in the review of Ad-Aware "Thank you Lavasoft for a great freeware product!"


Microsoft Releases Windows XP Service Pack 3

By Adam Hunt

Microsoft finally released the long-awaited SP3 for Windows XP to the public on . This third and final operating system update has gone out via the normal Windows Update process to anyone running XP with at least Service Pack 1 installed.

Many people were surprised that Microsoft even bothered issuing a service pack for XP when Vista has been out for over a year. It could be that Microsoft wants to show that they do not abandon existing operating systems just because a new one is out. It could also be because XP is still being installed on OEM PC builds and will even be extended in life beyond 14 April 2009, at least for sub-notebooks.

Before Microsoft will allow you to get SP3 you have to download and install Microsoft's spy-ware program, the ironically named Windows Genuine Advantage. WGA will assess your system and give you a message if it thinks for some reason that you didn't pay for your installed version of XP. It will then offer you the chance to buy a licence from Microsoft. Once your WGA validation is done then you can download SP3. Incidentally your PC passes WGA if you don't get any message.

I downloaded the 69 MB package for SP3 and it installed fine and runs fine, despite dire warnings about AMD processors like we have.

One of the most noticeable things about SP3 is that you don't notice anything. Microsoft claims that there are 1,174 fixes in SP3, but there are no changes for users. Everything new is all "behind the scenes", unlike with SP2.

The changes for SP3 include:

SP2 was originally released via Windows Updates, but eventually Microsoft made a download version available. This was supposed to be so that administrators could deploy it across networks without downloading the update for each PC, but it was also useful to download it and save it for future use in reformats after support is done. Hopefully Microsoft will also soon make SP3 available in a similar manner as we plan to be running XP for many years to come in parallel with our Ubuntu PC.

Update:

The individual download of SP3 "intended for IT professionals and developers downloading and installing on multiple computers on a network" is now available at Microsoft.com.


Alex Feinman's ISO Recorder

By Adam Hunt

As described below when trying to create an Ubuntu CD in Windows, first you have to download the ".iso" file and then do an MD5 Sum check on it.

The next stage is to burn it onto a CD. This isn't as easy as it sounds. If you use the standard Right click→Send to→CW-RW Drive(D:) and then burn the CD, you will get a CD that contains just the ".iso" file and won't work. You need a special ISO CD burner to properly record ".iso" files. The ISO burner actually unpacks the files and you end up with a CD with multiple files and folders on it, which is what you want.

Ubuntu comes with a built-in ISO recorder, but, predictably, Windows doesn't.

Alex Feinman's ISO Recorder allows Windows to get the job done. This small 361 kB download creates a right click menu entry so that when you right click on an ".iso" file it offers "Copy Image to CD". Selecting this then brings up the single dialog box. This box offers variable recording speed, which I have found works best at 4X and not quicker. It takes longer, but the results are worth the wait.

Alex Feinman's ISO recorder is also unofficially endorsed by Microsoft, since they don't have a product of their own to offer.

Like the Nullriver WinMD5Sum, I rate this application as 10/10. It works and would be hard to improve upon. Thank you Alex Feinman for creating it!


Nullriver WinMD5Sum

By Adam Hunt

As part of learning about how to create Ubuntu disks I also learned about this really useful little application from Nullriver Inc.

When you download a ".iso" disk image file you should check it to make sure that it is not corrupted or damaged. The best way to do this is to check the MD5 sum for the file. As Wikipedia explains:

"In cryptography, MD5 (Message-Digest algorithm 5) is a widely used, partially insecure cryptographic hash function with a 128-bit hash value. As an Internet standard (RFC 1321), MD5 has been employed in a wide variety of security applications, and is also commonly used to check the integrity of files. An MD5 hash is typically expressed as a 32-character string of hexadecimal numbers."

This all means that if you check the MD5 sum for the file and it matches the sum that the file is supposed to have, then it should be intact. The catch is that you cannot check the MD5 sum manually, it has to be done by an MD5 sum checker application.

Ubuntu, like most Linux distributions, comes with a command line MD5 sum checker, but Windows doesn't. Maybe Microsoft didn't think it was important or perhaps they didn't want you downloading other disk images?

Nullriver has filled in this gap with a great little application. "Little" is the key word as it is just 181 kB in size. The application is used by right clicking on the ".iso" file and then selecting Send to→WinMD5Sum. The application window then pops up and it takes 10-15 seconds to come up with the resulting 32 character string. The user can then copy the reference string to compare the calculated string to and hit "compare". WinMD5Sum then pronounces the two strings the same or different. Very neat!

This works even better than the Linux command line MD5 sum checker, because that requires a manual comparison. Comparing two 32 character strings by eyeball is not a very precise way of doing it.

I have rated this application as 10/10 for the simple reason that I can't see how it could work better!

Thanks are due to Nullriver for a great piece of open source software that does the job for Windows.


Firefox 3

By Adam Hunt

When we installed Ubuntu 8.04 last week on our Ubuntu PC it came with a completely new version of Firefox. Up until now we had been using Firefox 2.0.0.14 on both Ubuntu and Windows XP.

The newest Firefox version that shipped with Ubuntu 8.04 is Firefox 3, the long-awaited third generation version of this highly regarded browser. The decision to include Firefox 3 in Ubuntu 8.04 has been controversial because Firefox 3 is not complete yet, the version shipped was "Beta 5" the final test version.

Because of the controversy, we have been trying it out throughly on Ubuntu. The verdict is that it seems to work fine! So I recently went and got it for our Windows PC as well. The interface is a little different for Windows, to fit the Vista Aero theme, but it too works really well.

Firefox 3, as project "Gran Paradiso", incorporates a lot of changes over Firefox 2, all for the better. It starts with a new rendering engine, Gecko 1.9. This has over 12,000 changes from the last version used!

Mozilla claims Firefox 3 is:

"more secure, easier to use, more personal product with a lot more under the hood to offer website and Firefox add-on developers

Users will notice a new interface in Firefox 3. It is not dramatically different but has been designed blend in with XP Luna, Vista Aero, Mac Aqua and Gnome themes. The forward and back buttons have been "key-holed" on all versions, except the Linux ones.

These are all cosmetic changes. The real changes in Firefox 3 are in the management of bookmarks and behind the scenes.

Most users save a lot of bookmarks these days, which is a change over how bookmarks were traditionally used five or ten years ago. The Firefox 3 solution is to move the bookmark system to a SQLite relational database management system. Essentially your bookmarks are now in a mini-database, which makes them easier to manage. It also changes how they are backed up. In Firefox 2 bookmark back-ups were a simply generated HTML page, with all the bookmarks links on the page. When importing these, Firefox 2 read the HTML page and brought your bookmarks in via the HTML. Firefox 3 can still do this, but its primary back-up is now as a ".json" database file, which stores more information in a smaller file, as well as working better.

The new Gecko 1.9 rendering engine now uses the cairo software library to provide a vector graphics-based rendering. This all means that Firefox 3 will only work on Windows XP and Vista, Mac OS-X 10.4 and newer systems.

There are many more improvements listed. Mozilla sums them up in saying that Firefox 3 is:

Mozilla actually claims that it is faster:

"Compared to Firefox 2, web applications like Google Mail and Zoho Office run twice as fast in Firefox 3 Beta 5, and the popular SunSpider test from Apple shows improvements over previous releases."

Our testing of Firefox 3 Beta 5 shows that it living up to expectations.

Despite the warning that Mozilla posts indicating that betas are "available for testing purposes only", Mozilla Corp vice president of engineering Mike Schroepfer recommends that users switch to Firefox 3 Beta 5 right away. He said: "In many ways it is much more stable than anything else out there."

Canonical certainly took his advice to heart when they shipped it as the only browser with Ubuntu 8.04. We have also used it to replace Firefox 2 on our Windows PC.

Like everything else from Mozilla, Firefox 3 Beta 5 is a great product and will retain Firefox's preeminence as the best browser on the web.

The final version of Firefox 3 is scheduled for release in .

Update:

Today Mozilla released the latest version of Firefox 3 - Release Candidate 1. This replaces Beta 5 as the current test version. We have now installed this version and it seems very similar to Beta 5, except that there are some tweaks to the SQLite database system for bookmark management and some of the toolbar icons.

The final version of Firefox 3 is still scheduled for the end of June, but if you have been waiting, RC1 is a very complete version and very functional running on Windows.

Firefox 3 Release Candidate 1 can be downloaded from Mozilla.com

Update:

Mozilla released a newer version of Firefox 3 on June 4th - Release Candidate 2. This was a bit unexpected as early reports indicated that there would probably be only one release candidate. There is still no date for the final Firefox 3 release, although it is still expected later this month.

Nevertheless Firefox 3 Release Candidate 2 can now be downloaded from Mozilla.com


Foxit 2.3 PDF Reader

By Adam Hunt

Foxit Software released version 2.3 of their PDF Reader on .

The Foxit freeware reader offers a lot of functionality for the size of the download. The Foxit Reader 2.0 version was 1.7 MB, while the new version has grown to 2.55 MB. It is still far smaller than the Adobe equivalent, which, in its Adobe Reader 8.1.2 version for Windows, is 22.4 MB. Now that is bloatware!

For the additional size of Foxit 2.3 you get a lot of improvements, including the following "new features":

and the following "enhanced features":

The new Foxit Reader 2.3 still opens very quickly, unlike Adobe's Reader which seems to take forever to open.

As was mentioned before the Foxit Reader is a great piece of freeware, with many capabilities. Also as mentioned before, download the Reader and skip the shareware add-ons, like the PDF creator.


AVG 8.0 Free Anti-Virus Released

By Adam Hunt

The Czech company that makes AVG anti-virus have changed their name. It used to be "Grisoft". They are now calling themselves "AVG Technologies, formerly Grisoft".

The newly re-badged company has also just released a new version of AVG Free, called AVG 8.0 Free, to replace the current 7.5 version.

7.5 for Windows will no longer be supported with virus updates after , so users will have to upgrade or stop using AVG Free. AVG 7.5 is still the current version for Linux, at least for now.

The good news is that 8.0 is Vista compatible. It also has a new Vista-like interface that is mostly simpler to use than the 7.5 interface.

The bad news is that the free version is becoming increasingly harder to find on their website. They are hiding it! There are no longer any links to it from their home page, or from any pages that their home page links to. You have to search for it! I found it from a link provided on my version of 7.5. It lead through about ten pages of "up-sell" attempts before I got to the actual download page.

I have updated the Free Software List to take users straight to the AVG Free download page.

Once you get past the new interface, the new AVG Free 8.0 has about the same functionality as the last version. Both versions allows users to schedule updates and scans and that is about it.

AVG have hidden the page where you can schedule the updates pretty well. I found it at Tools→Advanced Settings→Schedules→Virus database update schedule

The new version is also twice the download size of the old version. 7.5 was 23.096 MB, whereas 8.0 is a 46.668 MB download. This level of "bloat" is going to be hard on dial-up users. I am not sure why it needs to be that big, when the open source competitor, ClamWin, is just 20 MB.

Given how hard the AVG Free version is to find on their website, the previously reported snarly forum support and the vigourous up-sell attempts, it is likely that AVG is looking at stopping offering the free version at some point in the future. The amount of ill-will that would create will probably sink the company, especially as there is so much competition in the free virus scanner market right now.

That is not all bad news, as there is now the open source alternative ClamWin that is getting quite good. You may want to run both AVG and ClamWin on Windows for a while and compare them.


ClamWin 0.93 - ClamWin Antivirus Improved

By Adam Hunt

ClamWin 0.93 has been released and it includes some significant improvements to this free, open source virus scanner.

First off the new version addresses a security vulnerability, which is definitely a good thing!

Second, according to the ClamWin website, it includes the following improvements:

Faster speed is a good thing. ClamWin seems to do a pretty thorough job, but the previous versions were very slow, typically 0.92 took 196 minutes (3 hours 16 minutes) to scan our whole Windows XP PC. We schedule it to run in the middle of the night so as not to interrupt it when running. The new version has been scanning the whole PC in typically 113 minutes (1 hour 53 minutes) which is 1.7 times faster!

One bonus is that installing the new version retains all your existing settings for updates and scans, so there is nothing to configure. A nice feature!

This new version of ClamWin uses a different virus database set-up and so requires a whole new downloaded version. Version 0.93 is slightly bigger at 20 MB versus 17 MB for 0.92 .

Overall we are pretty impressed with ClamWin and the ClamAV that we run on Ubuntu as well. They both work pretty well and there is definitely good work being done to improve them from the various open source teams involved.

One of the best parts of having open source virus scanning is that you don't get the advertising and "up sell" attempts that seem to be showing up on AVG. That is the price of running freeware, you get advertised at. There is always the danger with freeware that the company may decide to discontinue the application, too. Not so with open source.

Our hats are off to everyone working on ClamWin and ClamAV in the open source community. They are tackling one of the most difficult projects available, one of the few where time really counts and they are doing a good job.


Open Office 2.4 is Released

By Adam Hunt

OpenOffice.org has just released their newest version of this complete suite of free open source office software. Designated Open Office 2.4 it is 9 MB larger than the last version at 130.076 MB.

As with past versions of OO.O, this one includes the same applications:

This new version is intended to make some features work better, introduce new features and fix bugs previously discovered. You can tell that the open source community working on OO.o is spending a lot of time on it as the list of improvements is impressively long:

General

Localisation

Base / DBA

Calc

Chart (Charting features used across the suite)

Draw

Impress

Writer

Extensions/ programmability / API

The improvements to the charting features are certainly welcome, as this is the one area where OO.o has been weakest and it certainly needs more attention! When they fix all the charting deficiencies I will rate it as 10/10.

Overall the improvements are greatly appreciated by the user community!

OpenOffice.org is quickly maturing. We have been using it for more than a year now and are not only impressed with how well it works, but with the effort put into improving it over time. It certainly is easily the equal, or better than, its commercial competitors.

Latest price check at Staples:


Audacity Audio Editor

By Adam Hunt

We have had Audacity on both our PCs for a while now, but until we moved our stereo closer to our office we had no way of connecting them together to make use of Audacity. Now with the swap of one cable between the PC and the receiver we can record virtually anything to digital format!

Audacity is an audio recorder and editor. It allows you to input any sound into the PC through the sound card "line-in", then edit it and save it in a digital format. This means that you can play those old (and aging) LPs and 45s and create digital back-up copies of them that can be played on any digital player, such as VLC.

Audacity is a small download, only 2.2 MB in its current version for Windows. It is also available for Linux and Mac, too. For the download size it does a lot. Not only can sounds be recorded, but edited too, in typical digital "cut and paste" fashion.

Recording old records is fairly easy when done either one track at a time or whole sides as one track, dust pops and all. The only tricky part is hooking everything up correctly! The turntable must be hooked up to the receiver and then the receiver outputted to the PC. This is probably best done by using the receiver's tape deck outputs, as they are live all the time.

At the PC end the cable goes into the sound card "line-in". Most old stereos output as two RCA plugs (one per track) and sound cards are pretty much all inputted as 1/8 inch stereo plugs, so an adapter cable is required. I use the same cable that when plugged into the speaker output then plugs into the receiver to carry digital audio out to the speakers around the house. It does double duty!

Audacity does a lot, but so far I have just recorded and saved individual tracks, an easy task. There is fairly complete documentation on how to use Audacity on the project website

The only problem I had getting Audacity to work was in making sure that both the sound card controller had "line-in" selected and not muted and that Audacity itself also had "line-in" selected as source. A bit complex, but once sorted out Audacity saves the settings and everything works fine.

While recording tracks Audacity saves a series of files in "My Documents" that build up fast. Recording an album can result is a couple of gigabytes of files piling up. Once the tracks are exported into the saved format these can all be deleted however to save space.

Audacity will export tracks in a number of formats. MP3 is a patented format and therefore they can't offer the codec support for that format. If you really want MP3s you have to go and get the LAME encoder to work with Audacity to make MP3s. The open source standard ".ogg" Ogg Vorbis is a better choice and plays well on VLC anyway. Files can be saved from Audacity in this format with no other extensions or plug-ins required.

Overall Audacity gets 10/10, as it would be hard to improve. It has good documentation, small download, relatively good interface and of course the strength of the open source community behind it. A good piece of software!


ClamWin 0.92 - Now Vista Compatible

By Adam Hunt

We have been using ClamWin for a number of months now and in general we have been pretty impressed with it. The only problem we have had with it have been two "false positives". These happen to most virus scanners at some point and they were easy to confirm, so haven't been much of an issue.

We originally downloaded ClamWin version 0.91.2 on . On we got the latest version: ClamWin 0.92. It arrived as a very small 284 KB update file. This would definitely be good for dial-up users, not having to download a whole new 17 MB file.

ClamWin 0.92 incorporates some useful changes over the earlier version, as the press release explains:

Having tried it out, it does scan more quickly than previous versions. Clam is a rather slow scanner, so any improvement in speed is a good thing. I avoid this being an issue by setting it to scan in the middle of the night when it can take all the time it wants to get the job done. It can also be set to use fewer system resources so even if you scan while working it isn't a problem.

The Vista compatibility is a good thing. Vista is a poor operating system, but if people are going to use it at least it should have good security tools available. I gather the delay in fielding a fully Vista-compatible version of ClamWin was due to the problems getting anything to work properly with Vista.

ClamWin continues to be a great back up for AVG on our Windows PC. It still isn't on the same operating level as AVG due to its lack of "real-time" scanning, unless you are using MS Outlook e-mail. For some reason ClamWin supports that one e-mail client. It isn't capable of scanning downloads as they come in, unlike AVG.

Hopefully in time ClamWin will gain this capability, which will make it the perfect virus scanner for Windows at that point.


Our Windows XP Project - Seven Months Later

By Adam Hunt

I was recently doing a bit of clean-up on the Windows XP computer and thought that it might be time to give an overview of this project and where we are with it.

About a month ago I uninstalled Apple Quicktime and installed VLC media player instead. That was a great move - VLC is much better than Quicktime and Windows Media Player put together! I have also removed a commercial astronomy application that we had, Starry Night. The free, open source Stellarium is much better. Similarly I removed the commercial freeware Avid Free DV Video Editor because the on-line video editor JumpCut works better. That all saves a lot of space on our PC!

Overall I think I have the Windows XP PC working really well right now. It is quite fast, doesn't crash very often at all and is equipped just about entirely with freeware and open source software, except for the basic operating system and some of the Microsoft applications that came with it, which we don't use and some enabling software that came with our GPS and scanner. My impression is that it is running much better than it ever did before.

Here is a list of what is installed on our Windows XP box, aside from the Microsoft stuff that comes with it:

Open Source:

Freeware:

With Sumatra PDF and PDFCreator recently installed we could quite easily do without Foxit, but we are leaving it installed for now, because it has more PDF-handling features than Sumatra does. That may change over time as Sumatra gets better, via the open source community.

There isn't anything else on our list of applications that we want to install right now. Our philosophy has always been to keep the clutter down to a bare minimum, keep the PCs light and fast. We use our two PCs to get work done and that generally means that faster and fewer crashes is better.

I have to say that this experiment - equipping a Windows PC with open source and freeware has been a great success. We have some great software that gets the job done better than the commercial alternatives in all cases. It all works well and is all free-of-charge. Windows does seem to work better with less Microsoft on it!

I have also gained a great appreciation of the work done everyday by the open source community of volunteer software developers. These are talented and skilled people who spend, mostly their nights and weekends, writing and improving applications. Sure they do it for the challenge and because the applications are what they want to use themselves, but they do it for the greater good, too and we all benefit from their work. For those of us who can't write software we are happy do our small part and get the word out on the results of their work.

If you are reading this and haven't tried free open source software, then we both urge you to give it a try. We think you will be impressed with the quality, the sense of community and the price, too!

Have a look at the Free Software List. Everything on this list has been tested and recommended.

This won't be the end of this diary, we will be adding more information as we find it, so do check back!


An Open Source PDF Maker - PDFCreator

By Adam Hunt

Here is another useful application that I learned about from the NFC free software discussion group! Incidentally the complete list of recommended software can be found in the Free Software List.

PDFCreator is a utility that, well, creates PDFs. Once installed it acts as a printer and basically any application that you can select "print" from can be used to print a PDF instead of a paper copy. PDFCreator uses the print drivers to funnel the document into the PDF instead.

This is very useful for applications that don't include native PDF capabilities, such as text editors and browsers.

The interface for PDFCreator is very basic - just a print queue list box and a format box. Normally you don't see the print queue list box, instead you get the format box which pops up when you select "print" from the application that you are working on. Hit "save" and designate a destination folder and it does the rest. You only see the print queue list box when you queue a file to combine it with another file or save it as other than a PDF file. It is all pretty unobtrusive.

PDFCreator will actually do much more than just make PDFs. It can also:

Using it is simple. For simple PDFs from one document you just hit print and select PDFCreator as the printer and it is done. For the other more complex features you queue the files and then use the options from the interface to decide what to do with them: combine them into one PDF or turn a single page document into a ".JPG" for instance.

Now I have been using the Foxit PDF Reader for a while and I quite like it. Foxit has an optional freeware add-on, the Foxit PDF Creator. It works just like PDFCreator, in that it uses Windows printer drivers to make PDFs from the "print" function of any application. While the Foxit PDF Printer works well, it lacks many of the sophisticated features of PDFCreator. For instance PDFCreator allows adjustment of the resolution of the PDF and the PDF version. The Foxit PDF Printer doesn't. I can easily live without those features in Foxit, but the Foxit PDF Creator also marks the top right of every single page made in bright blue and red colours:

"Generated by Foxit PDF Creator © Foxit Software http://www.foxitsoftware.com For evaluation only"

This is not a problem if you are just saving a web page receipt, which is what I often use this for, but you wouldn't want to publish an e-book like this! PDFCreator doesn't mark the pages.

I guess that is the disadvantage with commercial freeware like Foxit, as opposed to PDFCreator, which is open source. Foxit is using the free version of their PDF Creator as a marketing tool. Foxit will sell you a version of their PDF Creator that doesn't leave the "evaluation marks" on your documents for US$35. With PDFCreator being better and available for free, I am not sure how Foxit manages to sell any copies of their Foxit PDF Creator. Having installed PDFCreator, I have uninstalled Foxit's PDF Creator.

Of course for competition, PDFCreator is probably best compared to Adobe Acrobat, which also creates PDFs through the printer driver interface of applications. Having used Acrobat in the past it actually has fewer features than PDFCreator. On top of that the current price for Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard at Staples is $349.99. The professional version is $549.95. I am always amazed that there is a market for that type of thing. I guess it is all advertising.

As usual the open source world has created a better application for free. The only item on my wish list to improve PDFCreator is that it would be available for Linux. Sadly this useful application is "Windows only".


A Lightweight & Open Source PDF Reader

By Adam Hunt

I found out about this relatively new PDF reader from the NCF Free Software Discussion Group!

I have been pretty happy with the Foxit PDF Reader that I have been using. It does everything I need in a PDF reader and opens very quickly. The only reservation I have is that Foxit is commercial freeware, not open source.

So when I heard that there was a recommended open source PDF reader it seemed worth a look.

I haven't been able to find out where the unusual name for this application came from. The developer is Krzysztof Kowalczyk, so it is unlikely that he comes from Sumatra. Maybe he visited there once and liked the place, or perhaps he admires the coffee that comes from there? An unsolved mystery. Still it is a catchy name for this lightweight and fast PDF reader.

At 1.1 MB Sumatra PDF is a small download, perfect for users on dial-up. The installation is quick and offers the choice of making it your default PDF viewer or not. The application is just one ".exe" file, so it is easy to use it as a portable application and carry it around on a flash drive.

Sumatra PDF opens in about a half a second. Certainly much faster than the annoyingly slow opening, credit and logo-riddled opening of its competitor, Adobe Reader. Adobe Reader is also a bloated 22.4 MB in its current 8.1.2 Windows version, or an amazing 47.1 MB in its current 8.1.2 Linux incarnation.

Sumatra PDF is a basic PDF reader for Windows only, without all the bells and whistles that some of the others have. If all you want to do is read PDFs then this is perfect. You can display a page, zoom, print, scroll on the page, search for words, go to a specific page and change the page layout. That is about it.

Sumatra PDF does have the ability to highlight text and copy it to clipboard, and this is explained, along with the many keyboard shortcuts, in the very brief, online Sumatra Manual. This is accomplished by holding "ctrl" and dragging out a box over the text to be copied and then hitting "ctrl-C".

The one feature I do use in a PDF reader that Sumatra PDF doesn't have is the ability to click on a hyperlink in the text. Foxit and Adobe do allow that. Sumatra PDF is still in a beta form at this point, so perhaps this feature will be added in time? If it is added I would rate Sumatra PDF as 10/10 at that point.

I have learned not to underestimate the power of the open source world. Sumatra PDF is a nicely done application and one I will be keeping an eye on in future versions to see how the open source world runs with it.

Update -

I asked Krzysztof Kowalczyk on the Sumatra Forum about the origin of the name "Sumatra" to name this PDF reader. He responded, saying: "There's no particular reasoning behind the name." Great answer - I love it!

Update -

With the release of Sumatra 0.9.1 it now incorporates the ability to click on URLs embedded in PDFs, making this now a truly full-featured PDF reader.

Update -

It has recently come to light that while the Sumatra code is under the GNU Public Licence V3 that it also incorporates the Unrar utility which is an "all rights reserved" freeware licence. This means that Sumatra itself is actually freeware and not free software.


Looking For A Better Media Player

By Adam Hunt

I have been getting pretty annoyed with Apple QuickTime lately. After an update I must have indicated something wrong in the installation as it got really greedy, grabbed everything and refused to let go of it. Now anytime I want to open a ".jpg" or any type or audio file it opens in QuickTime. I tried redesignating each file type, but in the end I decided to uninstall it instead. I got rid of Apple iTunes as well, which was an unintended and unwanted download.

I am actually glad that I did get rid of QuickTime as it gave me an excuse to install VLC instead.

VLC used to stand for "VideoLAN Client". It was actually developed as a student project at the École Centrale Paris and was first released under a GPL license on February 1st, 2001. The original name referred to the fact that it was developed to be a network video client to stream video content across a computer network. Over time that fell by the wayside and the name was changed to "VLC Media Player". Today it is maintained by the open source community.

Every application, whether open source or commercial, seems to have its own logo. This helps identify it and even show which files are associated with it. VLC's logo is an orange traffic cone. This seems like an odd choice and not at all related to the application's function, but it is very distinctive! Apparently the use of this logo it came about because the student society at the École Centrale collected traffic cones. An odd hobby.

VLC is a very neat application. First off, it will run just about any type of video or audio file. No hunting for codecs - they all come with it, in the rather small 7.5 MB download. How is it that QuickTime is 19.5 MB and it doesn't do half of what VLC will do?

VLC logo

The interface is very simple and straightforward - no learning curve here. It has a playlist, if you want to set up a string of songs to run in a row. Again the playlist is very easy to use, you can just drag and drop items onto it, click "play" and it does.

Unlike QuickTime you can sequence videos to play in VLC in a row just like you can for audio. Just drag and drop. QuickTime will open multiple windows if you select more than one movies, then all you can do is play them one at a time. VLC also allows easy set up to play a list of audio or video files in random order, or just endlessly repeat them. The fullscreen video is as close as hitting the "f" key and is true fullscreen.

The interface has some nice features not found on other media players, like a graphic equalizer and video filters!

VLC is available for just about every operating system. Its modularity makes it easy to adapt to different operating systems. Current versions are available for BeOS, BSD, Linux, Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, Solaris and even Windows CE.

Once again the open source community has created software that is better than the commercial equivalents. That is getting to be no surprise. I am slowly learning that the best quality software is open source, with commercial software a distant second choice.

The only reason to retain QuickTime would have been to run Ruth's proprietary astronomy application, Starry Night, which depends on QuickTime. However she says that she doesn't need it, as she says that the open source Stellarium is a better astronomy program!


A Better Video Editor - JumpCut

By Adam Hunt

After trying out Avid Free DV and Open Movie Editor we have found a solution to video editing that works best for us, or at least "almost best".

JumpCut is an on-line video editing application and hosting service that is owned by Yahoo. To use it you simply sign into Yahoo with a Yahoo ID and then create an account on JumpCut. The site is entirely Adobe Flash based. You upload video clips, soundtracks, stills, titles and anything else that you want to make into a movie. The simple interface then allows you to arrange the clips in any order, cut them down, add transitions, titles, music and then publish the completed work on their website.

It is my understanding that when Google purchased You Tube a few years ago that Yahoo felt the need to have a video website of their own. You Tube does have a beta editing feature, but it doesn't allow you to save the videos once they are edited. JumpCut does allow saving videos. JumpCut also does not degrade the quality of the uploaded video, unlike You Tube. The end result is quite noticeably different in quality. This can bee seen in the following two videos. These are essentially the same content:

As you can see the JumpCut product looks a lot better!

JumpCut has attempted to carve out a different video niche than You Tube. JumpCut's default for publishing videos is that they be publicly searchable and "re-mixable". That means that anyone can find them and re-edit them to suit themselves. They can then publish them in their own space, without changing your original video. You can also post videos that anyone can remix that will alter the original. I guess that could be fun to see how they turn out in the end. It seems that Yahoo is trying to create a site that offers maximum interaction and creativity through those measures.

Thankfully the option is also available to just keep your own videos private, which means that they are not searchable or re-mixable. You can simply then post the links to them elsewhere, as we have done on our home page or e-mail the links to other people.

While JumpCut does provide the tools to allow users to produce very nice videos with stock title formats, transitions and everything it does have a couple of drawbacks. Chief amongst these is that currently it seems to be just working on Windows only (and possibly Mac - we haven't checked). It was working on our Ubuntu PC, but stopped a few weeks ago. Actually we can do everything with Ubuntu on JumpCut except upload files. Editing and publishing work fine. We have talked to JumpCut's webmasters on this, but no one has figured out why it stopped working. It may be related to the version of Flash that Ubuntu Firefox is currently using.

A second concern is that JumpCut doesn't have any advertising on it right now. While that sounds great, it is the advertising that will pay for it and with things at Yahoo not so good financially these days, there is always the chance that they may just cut JumpCut. I hope not!

JumpCut has also been suffering some technical problems lately. Some videos that are uploaded work for a while and then just display black. Re-uploading them doesn't solve the problem. Judging by complaints on their forum dating back to September 2006, this problem has surfaced before. We have written to JumpCut about the problem and they have responded saying: "Thank you very much for the report. I have told our engineers about it. We appreciate your patience as we work to resolve this issue." We will report more when we have news on this.

Also if they manage to sort out the Linux problems I will post an update here. When that happens and the other technical problems are solved JumpCut will get a 10/10 rating, as it is perfect for our use.

Update:

The Ubuntu problem has now been solved and JumpCut is working fine on that operating system. The problem was the version of Flash installed. For more information see The Ubuntu Diaries.

Update:

Unfortunately Yahoo has decided to discontinue JumpCut, probably as part of trying to solve their on-going financial problems. JumpCut never did get the advertising added to it that was planned, so I am sure it was just a money-pit for Yahoo. This is too bad, because it worked well for us. Yahoo has said that they will leave existing videos on the site and publicly available.


Avid Free DV Video Editor

By Adam Hunt

I should start off this rather negative review of Avid Free DV by indicating a couple of key background items. First we rated this application so low because it really wouldn't do what we wanted it to do, it might be just fine for other users and uses. We were looking for an application that would enable us to take video clips and edit them, combine them into a longer movie, add titles and post the finished product to You Tube, that is all. We were also working with a large library of fairly low-resolution video clips, Apple Quicktime ".mov" format that are only 10 frames per second.

We had a recommendation to try out Avid Technology's freeware Avid Free DV application in early . This application is for Windows XP or Mac 10.3.4 or 10.3.5 only, there is no version for any other Windows or Mac versions or for Linux, so we would be able to use it only on our Windows XP computer. Avid Free DV also has a collection of Flash tutorials available for download, as well.

So on we downloaded the 43.4 MB zipped application file and the 64.4 MB tutorials, all via dial-up. It took quite a while to get it, but we did complete the downloads.

The installation process was interesting. This is the only freeware application that I have ever seen that requires an installation key and the completion of a registration form, as well as filling in a survey. It was pretty obvious that the company has some degree of discomfort with the whole concept of "freeware".

We have now been working with Avid Free DV for the past six months or so and we have done quite a bit of editing with it. We have a few problems with the application:

  1. It seriously degrades the quality of ".mov" files
  2. It is very, very complex to use
  3. Avid is a system hog
  4. The tutorials aren't that good

To edit ".mov" video clips into a movie, first you have to import them into Avid. The application then converts them into an internal format for editing. The import process results in a loss of quality that can be seen on the screen while working.

Then, once the editing is done, the internal format must be exported to its final format. I have tried exporting to several different formats, including ".mov", amongst others. The exporting process degrades the original video once again so that the final product is of notably poorer quality than the input ".mov" video was. In our case, because our original videos are fairly low-resolution to start with, the end product is not good at all.

Of course our aim in editing the videos in the first place was to post them on You Tube. That website degrades video on upload, for space reasons. The result of three levels of degradation on our low-resolution videos makes this application of little use to us. You can see a couple of You Tube videos that we have posted to judge the final results for yourself. These were exported at "best" quality:

Another problem is that Avid Free DV is a very complex application. The tutorial videos are very necessary - without those you would never get started. Even compared to other video editors, the interface is quite different and the buttons unlabeled (no "tool tips"). It takes a long time to learn how it works and many, many runs through the tutorials. Even then we found ourselves going back to the tutorials many dozens of times to try to understand how to do the most basic functions.

Sometimes whole features stop working for no reason - for example the title feature stopped working and one video just could not have a title applied to it.

Avid is definitely a system hog. Avid recommends 1 GB or 1.5 GB of RAM to run it. We were able to run it okay as long as everything else was closed down and the video clips used were small in size.

The tutorials themselves help to some extent, although they have limitations. They are very professionally produced, which you would expect from a company that sells video editing software. But, despite the polish, they are hard to follow. They often start out at a level that is far too simple and quickly accelerate to a level that is way too complex. They also leave out some very important steps in several functions that we were trying to use. For instance their lesson on transitions from one clip to another completely fails to mention that the transition tools make use of video before and after the chosen transition point and that if the clip is cut too close to the start or end then the transition won't apply properly. We learned that one the hard way over several hours, even though it is very basic information.

Overall Avid Free DV is far too complex an application for what we were trying to use it for. Its complex interface, big learning curve, ".mov" degradation, poor tutorials, large RAM requirements make it the wrong application for what need. As mentioned it might be perfect for other users who want to do much more with higher resolution files and have the time to learn its intricacies.

Of course Avid Free DV has one really big flaw - Avid discontinued Avid Free DV on and stated that they would not be offering another freeware version in the future. So even if you want it you can't get it.

We have found some better applications to edit movies and will be reviewing them in the near future.

Much of our story of trying to find the right solution to this editing problem is detailed in Our Ubuntu Diaries.


ClamWin Antivirus

By Adam Hunt

Clam is rather unique in the software world. It is the only open source antivirus software available.

When you think about it antivirus software is probably the hardest project to take on through the open source community. Processing new virus definitions is very time sensitive and that would seem to make using volunteers a challenge, but this project has done it and it works!

ClamWin is the Windows graphical user interface (GUI), just like ClamTk is the GUI version for Linux. Both are based on the command line ClamAV (antivirus) application. Both also use ClamAV's updates and virus definitions, which they call "signatures". Just to show you the work that this open source team have done, not only do they have the scan engine, but they currently have 182220 virus signatures, with new lists issued daily. Pretty impressive!

Just for the record there is another open source antivirus project called Gateway Anti-Virus, but it is just another version of a Linux/Unix GUI for ClamAV. Because ClamAV has no GUI it gets adapted by other projects and packaged with its own GUI easily.

I wanted to install ClamWin in addition to AVG anti-virus on our Windows XP computer for a couple of reasons:

  1. Given Windows vulnerabilities and high profile as a target in the virus-writing community it doesn't hurt to have a second antivirus application installed.
  2. I wanted to support the open source community on this challenging project.
  3. We installed ClamTk on our Ubuntu PC in addition to AVG and I like to keep both PCs the same, as far as possible.

So how does ClamWin work? Not too badly.

The installation was easy - a 17MB download of an ".exe" file, which you click on to launch the installer. It installs cleanly and opens right way, updating its signature files on the way. Then it is ready to work.

The Windows version of Clam is more capable than the Linux version, but then on Windows you need it! ClamWin includes the ability to schedule both scans and signature updates automatically. It can also scan on command, too. The settings and interface are very simple and easy to figure out and the installation comes with a PDF manual as well. Pretty neat.

ClamWin can also scan incoming and outgoing e-mail, but only if you are using Microsoft Outlook as your e-mail client. We don't use Outlook, we use webmail instead.

Reports are given on the GUI after a manual scan. After a scheduled scan the report is hidden away in a ".txt" file in a program folder. That isn't all that useful, although it is supposed to alert you if it finds something to worry about. The good news is that it can be set to put the reports in another location of your choosing, so I set up a folder in "My Documents" and it drops the update and scan reports in there. It makes it easier for me to find them and check them.

Comparing open source ClamWin to the freeware Grisoft AVG performance is interesting. When I set ClamWin to do a manual scan of the whole C drive it scanned about 51,000 files in 4:15. The programmed scan also checked about 51,000 files and did it in 3:56. Pretty slow. AVG in a programmed scan of the C drive will report on 127,000 files and do it in about 40 minutes, so it seems more thorough and faster, too.

The good news is that you don't have to choose between AVG and ClamWin. You can run both on your Windows or Linux PC and do it for free. I have set them both up to do scheduled scans each night, but at different times.

Incidentally ClamAV is one of the 21 scanners used on the Jotti Malware Scanner that allows anyone to upload a file and scan it with multiple scanners using multiple virus definitions. A good endorsement!

We are happy to support the open source community by using ClamWin and letting others know about it.


KompoZer Updated

By Adam Hunt

The very successful KompoZer open source webpage designer is back with a new logo (that looks like it is getting ready to be re-integrated into the Mozilla world) and a new version with some updated features.

We have been using KompoZer for a while now to maintain our older websites that have not been rewritten in hand-coded XHTML, including our Quadracycling website.

For building no-code webpages KompoZer is almost flawless and is far better than some of the other web design applications that we have used in the past, such as MS FrontPage. KompoZer's biggest strengths are that it is easy to use and writes pretty solid HTML or XHTML code (selectable).

The only unusual item we ran into in upgrading from the old version 0.77 to the latest 0.7.10 was in the installation. The previous version of KompoZer was downloaded as a plain ".exe" file. The Windows installation was accomplished by clicking on the ".exe" file and then it installed via the usual wizard. No problems.

This new version comes "zipped". I downloaded it and opened it, looking for the install file, but only found a "KompoZer.exe" file instead. Clicking on that unpacked it but installed the unpacked files into our download folder. I moved the whole folder to "Program Files" and then made a link to the resulting "KompoZer.exe" which opens the program. It is a little unusual, but it works.

I think that un-installing it will be as easy as deleting the unpacked folder.

It is possible that KompoZer installs this way to make it a "portable application". I could copy the whole folder onto a USB drive and then carry it anywhere to edit HTML documents on any Windows PC. Still the install may confuse new Windows users (are there any of those?)

Otherwise KompoZer is a great application - recommended!


Sunbird Freestanding Calendar

By Adam Hunt

Here is a neat little application that we have just downloaded recently. Ruth likes having a calendar to use on the computer to keep track of upcoming appointments, birthdays and astronomical events. In the past she has used the Outlook Calendar feature on Windows XP and also the similar feature on Evolution on our Ubuntu PC.

There were whole bunch of disadvantages to doing it that way. Evolution isn't the greatest at e-mail or as a calendar either. Outlook was okay, but there was no easy way to synchronize the two calendar applications on the two PCs. If you wanted both to indicate the same events you pretty much had to enter them on both manually.

Then we found Mozilla Sunbird, a stand-alone calendar application. It is available for the Ubuntu PC as a simple, add/remove installed application - check a box and you got Sunbird 0.5! The same application, in its later 0.7 version is available as an ".exe" file download of just under 5 MB for Windows.

Sunbird is one project supported by the Mozilla Foundation - the same group of open source community programmers who brought you the Firefox web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client. Like those other two well-known applications Sunbird is simple to use, works well and requires no learning curve to figure out. It is very intuitive.

Sunbird can display entered events in a number of different ways:

All of the features are very simple and work well. What more could you ask for? Well in our case we want the ability to synchronize calendars across both our PCs. This turns out to be quite easy to do - Sunbird will export files as an ".html" file or as an iCalendar ".ics" file. The ".html" file is only useful for posting on the internet, but the ".ics" file allows another copy of Sunbird to import the calendar. It checks and retains any existing events and just essentially adds the new events to Sunbird.

Sunbird seems to work as well as a calendar application can work, so I give it 10/10. Highly recommended if you are looking for a freestanding calendar application.


New and Improved GIMP 2.4.2

By Adam Hunt

We have been using the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) for quite a while now in place of Adobe Photoshop.

For our use GIMP works just as well and is available for free, compared to Adobe's current version "Photoshop CS3 Extended" which is advertised at $1,149.96 at Staples. That is quite a price difference!

For the last while we have been running GIMP version 2.2.17 and it has worked really well for us. We mostly use it for processing photographs, drawing pictures, cropping images and similar work.

While we have been using it the open source community have been working away putting out new stable versions of GIMP. The latest one for which a complete Windows installer is available is version 2.4.2, although according to the GIMP.org website version 2.4.3 will be available very soon.

There is no requirement to upgrade your installed version of GIMP, you can keep it as long as you like. Each download is "stand-alone" and new versions completely replace the old one.

The 2.4 family of releases includes a bunch of new features and improvements over the 2.3 version, as explained in the Release Notes including:

There are also lots more goodies hidden away in GIMP 2.4.2. Ruth likes the sphere maker that is found at Xtns→Misc→Sphere. This allows the user to define the parameters of a sphere and then render it on a blank page. Ruth likes taking the basic sphere created and drawing new planets from that starting point. It is quite easy and fun to to do from scratch.

With every release GIMP improves. I can't think of a reason to buy a commercial application when GIMP provides so much functionality for free. Basically it does everything we are looking for in a graphics application.


FileZilla FTP Client

By Adam Hunt

If you design websites you need to be able to post your completed work to the internet when you are done creating. Most free places to post websites have one or two methods of doing this. Often these are web-based upload forms or even java-based File Transfer Protocol (FTP) applets, like the one that Bravenet uses.

We have been posting our websites to Bravenet and also GeoCities which uses just a webform. These web forms are easy to use, but slow, as you have individually to find and click on each file, or enter the names of the files manually.

Since we now have ISP service with National Capital Freenet we decided to move our home website over to NCF as well. This enabled us to get away from GeoCities advertising and space limitations!

We already have all the tools that we need to design websites, but moving to NCF hosting required either using their one-file-at-a-time web form or else getting an FTP application. Having used FTPs before it was an easy decision to go that route. FTPs allow much quicker uploading of files and total control over what is on the webserver at the other end. There are lots of FTP applications available, but which one to use?

One of the NCF members answering a question on the NCF help forum from another member on this subject recommended FileZilla.

FileZilla is an open source, cross platform FTP client that was designed as a computer science class project by Tim Kosse and two classmates in January 2001. "Open source" is always my first choice in software so I looked it up on Wikipedia to get some background. It all sounded good.

The download for Windows is just 2.9 MB, which, now that we are on NCF DSL, is a mere blink of the eye. It downloads as the typical Windows ".exe" file and installs through a wizard by simply clicking on the file.

The interface is clean and simple and will be very familiar to anyone who has used an FTP before. Your files appear on the left and, once you are connected to the webserver, the server files appear on the right. The only major difference from other FTPs I have used is that it lacks the usual "arrow button" to transfer files. This was accomplished with a mouse click instead. I had it working in under two minutes without much trouble.

The only drawback with FileZilla is that it does not display time stamps for the uploaded files - a minor inconvenience in a free FTP.

As a bonus, FileZilla is available for Mac and Linux, as well as Windows XP. It is no longer available for Windows 95, 98 or ME. We really like to keep our Windows XP and Ubuntu PCs both configured the same, as far as possible, and so having the same application available for Ubuntu is a great bonus. It is available right through the normal Ubuntu "add/remove" utility. This means that I can manage my websites from either PC with no learning curve on the FTP - they both work the same way.

Overall FileZilla rates 8/10 and is well recommended.


Open Office 2.3

By Adam Hunt

Just recently Open Office.org issued their latest version of this suite of office products.

As mentioned before we use Open Office as a free alternative to Microsoft Office and we are quite impressed with it! The download is huge, especially for those of us on dial-up, but it was worth the 6.5 hour wait!

The latest version of Open Office is 2.3. It is a bit ironic that with our Windows XP PC that we can download the latest version and have it operating long before that same version is available for our Ubuntu PC. With Windows we can just go and get the latest version of any software, download the ".exe" file and run it to install the package. With Ubuntu we have to wait for a special "Ubuntu version" to be released and then download it as part of a regular Ubuntu update. That is all well-and-good, but it means that our Windows XP box always has newer versions of software than the Ubuntu one does.

Open Office 2.3 includes the same list of products as before:

Version 2.3 incorporates some security updates, specifically addressing a problem with TIFFs as described in Virus Bulletin:

When parsing the TIFF directory entries for certain tags, the parser uses untrusted values from the file to calculate the amount of memory to allocate. By providing specially crafted values, an integer overflow occurs in this calculation. This results in the allocation of a buffer of insufficient size, which in turn leads to a heap overflow.

Open office 2.3 fixes this vulnerability.

Open Office 2.3 also includes some product improvements as well. Specifically, as explain in Open Office New Features 2.3:

"Charting
The Chart component of OpenOffice.org has undergone a major revamp for 2.3. The developers have added a range of exciting new features, and at the same time made the creation of charts simpler and more logical. The default chart appearance is improved, with a new colour palette. The scaling of axes has been changed to give better results automatically. 3D charts are greatly enhanced in appearance, and easier to create. New chart types include '3D exploded pies' and 'exploded donuts' (watch out Homer Simpson). There is an improved data editor for charts that use their own data (e.g. within Impress).
Writer
The way Writer displays various page images has been improved. There is a new filter for exporting documents to MediaWiki ("Wikipedia") format
Calc
Calc now supports inline matrix/array constants in formulas. Summation has been made more powerful and more intuitive. The display of error values has been made more user-friendly. Compatibility with Microsoft Excel has been improved with workarounds for cotangent functions (supported in Calc, missing from Microsoft Excel).
Base
Base continues to evolve as a fully-fledged OpenOffice.org application in its own right, with its windows all having their own size, position, etc settings. The Report Builder, available as extension on Open Office.org, now has additional facilities for expert users. There is a greater support for keyboard shortcuts throughout Base.
Draw
Draw includes a number of accessibility improvements and support for .png images when exporting to .html documents
Impress
The much-loved 'move along curve' animation feature has been re-introduced, despite claims that over-use could easily create sea-sickness among sensitive members of an audience.
Language Support
Language support has been improved for a further fourteen languages, building on OpenOffice.org's already impressive language support.
Extensions
There are a number of new features available to developers of OpenOffice.org extensions, and a one click link to a new extensions repository.
Other
Writer, Calc, Draw, and Impress now allow users to preview their work within a browser before exporting it to .html format. The default security level for Macro Security has been changed to High, to make it difficult for users to run possibly malicious macros 'without thinking'."

All in all these are good enhancements that make 2.3 even better than the last version.

I have tried out the charting improvements in Calc. While they still aren't perfect, they are getting better and are now almost as difficult to use as MS Excel's charting features.

We both remain very impressed with Open Office. We regularly use Writer and Calc and the other products less often, but the whole suite works well, often does things better than Microsoft Office, such as create PDFs right out of the box and can and you can get it all for free.

What more can you ask for?


Stellarium Planetarium Software

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

Stellarium is an open source home planetarium which allows users to see what the nighttime sky will look like. When the program starts up, you are deposited on the Earth and likely not near your home. The buttons at the bottom of the screen control what you see, where and when. The icons aren't all that intuitive but hovering over them will tell you what they do, such as whether you want to have fog or the atmosphere present.

Unlike many other home computer planetariums, Stellarium focuses on making the sky look more realistic and, presumably, your “cloudy night” astronomy equally rewarding. Although, users can adjust the size of the moon to make it look more like what you'd see in the actual sky, there is a limit to this feature. You can control whether or not the stars twinkle, whether the names of any of the stars, planets or such gridlines as the ecliptic (the path the sun, moon, planets and stars follow in the sky) are displayed.

One of the more interesting features in home planeterium programs is the ability to move through time. Want to relive that total solar eclipse you almost saw? Find the button at the bottom of the screen that looks like a wrench (make sure you are in full screen view. If not press F1). It's the configuration button and clicking on it will result in a dialogue box which will allow you to select the date and time for your location. Using the up and down arrows (you can't directly input any date or time changes, which is a shame, in my view) you can get to the precise date and time of the eclipse. Unlike really being there, however, the Stellarium experience is bound to disappoint. Even slowing down the time does nothing to enhance the event.

Time controls are manipulated with the “J” (slow down), ”K” (normal time), “7” (stop time), “L” (speed up) or the button at the far right of the bottom of the screen (restore time to present). Users can move forwards, backwards or even stop at a particular point. It's different from what you may expect from many other personal planetariums (planetaria?) but it isn't difficult to master. The button at the bottom of the screen which looks like a question mark is the “help” feature and one of the panels includes all the keyboard shortcuts. Ultimately, I find it is better to just play with it. See what the world looks like with no atmosphere, ground fog or even a change of scenery (found in the configuration tab).

Another pro that I like especially is that anything I do, whether removing the atmosphere or displaying the ecliptic line happens very gently. Commanded events don't so much suddenly happen as quietly occur. Ultimately, it's probably not an important feature but I like it.

Another thing I really appreciate about Stellarium is just how culturally sensitive it is. In the configuration dialogue screen, the first tab is the “Language” tab. Clicking on that will give you not just options for the language of the program itself but the “sky culture” is selectable. The choices there are, admittedly, limited and I haven't mustered the courage to play around but the fact that these options are available is a sign of human progress.

Most astronomy magazines, especially older ones, tend to show constellations in the ancient Greek format. Newer planetarium programs (including some commercially produced ones) offer an alternative depiction, such as “Reye's” depictions which just show constellations looking a bit different, and often more like their namesake. However, this seems to be the status quo for Stellarium.

Want to run Stellarium and another program? Hit the F1 to switch from full screen to not full screen. Full screen doesn't seem to allow you to do anything else, like write reviews at the same time. Pressing F1 fixes that.

We have Stellarium on both our Windows and Ubuntu PCs and they run equally well. How quickly the program loads up and is ready to run is, of course, dependent on how fast a processor your computer contains. As with all computers, faster is better.

I would not recommend Stellarium for those who are just starting out in amateur astronomy as a hobby for the main reason that it tends to provide a lot of meaningless information for beginners. Stellarium itself takes a bit of playing around with the keyboard controls just to feel comfortable using it. If you are not too familiar with the nighttime skies, you would be better off spending actual time outdoors first.

Unless there is some neat trick I haven't discovered yet, one of the main cons with Stellarium is the lack of being able to find really basic information on a particular object. For instance, locate the moon (our one) and point the mouse at it. Click once with the left mouse button and the moon will be highlighted with four unobtrusive tick marks that gently throb for attention. Information about the moon, such as right ascension, declination, magnitude and even distance appears on the upper left hand part of the screen, but you can't really tell precisely what phase it's in. That's not to say the information isn't useful – it is – it's just that most people are more likely to be interested in where the moon will be at a certain time not what its RA (right ascension) will be.

In closing, I really enjoy using Stellarium. The preference for using the keyboard to make it do what you would like takes a bit of getting used to but it's one that can easily be mastered, especially when it's cloudy outside.


AVG Revisited

By Adam Hunt

I already reviewed Grisoft's AVG (Anti-Virus Guard) on in this diary and rated it pretty highly. Actually I rated it 10/10 at that time, but I have changed my mind and now rate it at 7/10 for Windows use.

To a small extent this is due to a recent "false alarm" that was picked up in Windows. An updated virus definition resulted in AVG deleting my archived copy of aaw2007.exe from my "C" Drive. Oddly enough this is the installation file for Ad-Aware a competitive anti-spyware program to AVG. I guess these things can happen, but this one is so blatantly obviously a false alarm that it is a bit funny!

Okay - no big deal - false alarms can happen.

The main problem I have with AVG is their customer service. Even though this is a "free" product they choose to offer help from their staff via their "free forum". It isn't really a forum, as they don't want the public contributing answers there, but at least it gives an on-line record of solved problems for others to find. They could just choose to have no support for their free products.

I have used the forum twice in the past, not for Windows problems, but for Linux ones. The diary entry for that can be found in Our Ubuntu Diary. On both occasions I have found the staff "help" on the AVG forum to be darn-right hostile:

Some people might respond by saying, "well what do you expect for support for a free product?" My response is that users of the free product are helping the company improve the quality of the paid products through their reports. A small amount of politeness would not be too much to ask. Since the company is from eastern Europe maybe this is the normal way people talk to each other there? Maybe they put salt in the coffee every morning at their office?

Regardless - I now rate AVG as "7/10", solely due to poor service. I have no reason to believe that service on the paid products would be nicer or more helpful.

I should report the aaw2007.exe trojan issue to Grisoft, though their "false alarm" reporting system. I have mentioned it in their forum, but they want the file e-mailed to them in a password protected format. Since it is a 17 MB .exe file and I am working on dial up, I just don't have the ability to either create a password protected version or e-mail a file that big. I couldn't submit the Ubuntu files that were tagged either, as they were binaries and nothing I have will open them, or save them as password protected files.

Once the issue with the aaw2007.exe file is resolved I will post a new diary entry here and relate what the final resolution is.

Update: I downloaded the new set of AVG virus definitions and rescanned aaw2007.exe from the CD that I have it on. It came up clear this time. I re-installed the file, rescanned it and it came up clear, as did a complete system scan, so I presume this technical problem has gone away. Hopefully Grisoft can do something with their customer service, too.


The Windows XP Project So Far

By Adam Hunt

It has now been three weeks since the reformat of our Windows XP PC was done. We have installed nothing but open source and freeware applications and reviewed most of them here.

We still have a couple of new open source programs that we have downloaded that we haven't tried out yet, including:

We will add reviews of those applications here, and more, as we add and use them.

I must admit that I am pleased with the way our Windows XP PC is working since the reformat. It is definitely running better and faster, no error messages yet, too. It is funny that the operating system seems to work better with a minimum of Microsoft products on it!

Microsoft Windows XP is probably the best operating system that the company has made to date. Since the reformat we have gained an increased appreciation for it and how well it really works, especially when not overtaxed with heavy-weight applications.

Having run Ubuntu on our other PC for three months now it is interesting to compare that Linux OS with our new light-weight XP set-up. Both boxes now have the same 512 MB of RAM and video cards. The Ubuntu box has a faster processor, but overall the performance is very similar when running RAM intensive applications, such as Celestia. If Ubuntu could run our scanner and camera then I would rate both operating systems as comparable, but right now XP is still ahead for usefulness to us.

At least it isn't Vista. We have been talking to friends who have Vista PCs and we haven't found one who is happy with it yet. Some are thinking of reformatting them and installing XP on their machines instead. Having tried Vista I can see why.


Journey to the Stars with Celestia

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

Before I can describe what Celestia is, it's really important to first talk about what it isn't.

Celestia is not a planetarium program. Users cannot be anywhere on the surface of the Earth (or any other planet for that matter) and know what's up in the sky tonight. Celestia will not tell you when the next total eclipse of the sun will be, where to best view it, what phase the moon is in, whether you will be able to see Saturn rise before 3 in the morning or even when the constellation Lepus will rise in your location. Celestia will not display the ecliptic (the path in the sky that the sun and the constellations of the zodiac follow) from the surface of the Earth either. If that is what you are looking for, then Celestia is not the right program for you.

There, now that I've mentioned what it isn't, now let me tell you what it is. Celestia is a space journey program where users can zoom through space to visit most of the objects in the solar system from a safe distance. Users can also visit many of the closest stars and even some of the known planets that reside outside our solar system. This is really a program which would appeal to, mostly, high school students who are studying astronomy as part of the school curriculum.

Celestia is distributed for free under the GNU GPL, which makes this a perfect option for many schools most of whom have serious budgetary constraints as far as extracurricular activities is concerned. As this is a multiplatform open source program, Celestia is available for Linux, Windows and Mac but it has some pretty heavy system requirements for it to work well.

Because the graphics are stunning (and they are), Celestia needs a good video card and at least 512 MB of RAM. Anything less, and you run the risk of the program closing (as it does in Linux) or of the monitor shutting off and then restarting with an error message, as it does in our Windows computer. We originally tried running it on Windows XP with no video card and only 256 MB of RAM and the performance was pretty bad - slow and jumpy. The problem doesn't so much seem to be the program itself but of users running up against their PC system limits and, sadly, it doesn't always take too much to get to those limits without a video card and lots of RAM. Asking to zoom out to a distant star and then trying to get that star's one and only planet to spin rapidly will result in Celestia shutting down. Another way for Celestia to protest whatever it is you are asking it to do is to have many other programs open at once. My advice? Close any and all unnecessary programs first before opening Celestia.

The user options are, unfortunately, not all that intuitive but they aren't impossible to figure out either. Mostly, it's the keyboard shortcuts, like pressing 'K' to speed up time and 'L' to slow things down that can puzzle users. Luckily, the pull down menu options at the top of the screen will help sort things out but if you don't know that, it can make for some frustrating times initially. When it comes to navigating throughout the universe, it can be confusing when, after you indicate that you want to visit Saturn (and why not? It's beautiful this time of year), the indicator at the top left of the screen insists that you really want to visit Earth. When you start up Celestia, the default setting has you located just above the surface of the Earth in a fairly high orbit. It takes some playing with it to understand what it is, how it all works and what it cannot do but it's a great way to learn about the solar system and about other stars, too.

I rate Celestia 7/10, mostly because the graphics are, as I say, absolutely stunning but it just isn't all that user friendly.


The GIMP

By Adam Hunt

The Gimp is an abbreviation for "Gnu Image Manipulation Program". This application is considered by many people to be the open source equivalent to Adobe PhotoShop. The comparison is a good one as GIMP will do most things that PhotoShop will do, but for a lot less money - in fact for free!

GIMP is distributed as free open source software under the GNU GPL. It is cross-platform and available for Linux, Mac and Windows. For Windows it is a 7.7 MB download. To use it on Windows you need to also download the associated GTK Runtime Environment, which is an additional 5.6 MB. Installing both the GTK and GIMP is easy as they are simple ".exe" files and have their own installers to set them up.

In general GIMP works quite similarly to PhotoShop - you can open multiple images with one control panel window to set parameters. In many ways I like it better than PhotoShop 7, as GIMP offers features that the commercial competitor lacks. Two examples:

GIMP is the application that we use for fixing up and reducing photos, creating thumbnails, etc. It also works well for creating new images from scratch. You click "new", just pick a canvas size and then set the background and draw away.

GIMP has lots of interesting plug-ins that have been developed. This is the advantage of the open source community. When someone thinks - "I wish this application could ..." Rather than writing to the company to ask them to consider it for the next version, they write a plug-in to make it happen. The only plug-in I downloaded was "GIMP GAP" which is a Graphics Animation Program. It was 2.5 MB and is available, along with more plug-ins, from the GIMP website. I haven't tried it out yet, so I can't say how well it works!

Overall we have been pretty impressed with GIMP. It does everything that we want in a graphics program. The only problem I have had is that reduced images which have been sharpened and then saved as small file sizes can look "dithered" more than the same parameters applied in PhotoShop. The cure for this is to make the files a little bigger or do less sharpening and the problem goes away. This is minor and easy to adapt to.

We have been using GIMP on Ubuntu and Windows XP for some time now and find it easier to use than PhotoShop. It does everything we need and, as usual with open source software, you can't beat the price! I rate it as 8/10. I hear that some improvements are on the way and that the next version should be even better.

GIMP works - if you don't have it yet on your Linux, Windows or Mac computer go and get it! Besides it is hard to resist the appeal of the GIMP mascot Wilbur the Coyote.


UnFREEz animated GIF maker

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

UnFREEz is an open source animated GIF maker provided by WhitSoft Development. For anyone who may feel intimidated by the idea of having to download a very large software program just to make cartoons, UnFREEz will put those concerns to rest. At just under 20 kilobytes (no that is not a typo), it took me under a minute to download UnFREEz - and that was on dial-up.

UnFREEz is a very simple little application. After creating any series of GIFs, UnFREEz can string them together like frames in a video and then you can play them back in your browser. The ease of this animation maker makes it absolutely perfect for first-time cartoonists, whether you want to create a cartoon of two images coming together or a simple sliding banner. For example, let's say you want to create an animation of a ball rolling along the ground. Open whatever graphics application you have (remember, it must be able to save image files as GIFs) create your first frame and save it to a file folder. Next, make whatever changes to your first image you wish to make, like erasing the current position of the ball and placing it along the path in the direction it's rolling. When you're satisfied, do a "Save As" under a different name (such as "ball01.gif", "ball02.gif", "ball03.gif" and so on) to avoid overwriting your original image. It's a very simple process, however, creating an animation using UnFREEz requires at least three things:

  1. a concept
  2. a graphics editor that can save images as GIFs
  3. a lot of time

Coming up with a concept, what you want to make an animation of, is entirely the province of the user but, as this is a very simple animation maker, it is best to keep your idea just as simple.

UnFREEz won't work unless you have a graphics editor application that can save images as GIFs. MS Paint is the application I use primarily from convenience. MS Paint comes with Windows and so there isn't the additional requirement of having to install other software. Of course, PhotoShop works just as well but it really isn't necessary.

The third requirement is a lot of time. Making images move is a very labour intensive activity. UnFREEz plays no direct role in the creation of individual frames; its job is only to connect the frames you make into a single cartoon. I stated earlier that keeping concepts simple is a good idea and here is why: attempting to handle multiple actions on a set of frames is intensely time consuming and a sure recipe for mistakes to occur. The more actions you have, the more challenging it becomes to keep the actions smooth. In the example above, having one ball moving along the floor is fairly simple to do smoothly but if you have a few balls bouncing around (think of the top of a billiard table) in different directions, then it becomes virtually impossible to keep all the actions flowing smoothly. It is one thing to string a series of GIFs together, it is another thing altogether to make that string run smoothly. Luckily, there is a way to create multiple actions.

To create multiple actions, open a previously saved GIF image and then make whatever new changes you want to make. Do a "Save As" once again and then go on to the next image. As you will very quickly see, doing this, though necessary, will make for a very long process.

Although UnFREEz doesn't have a great many features (it is only 19.5 kilobytes after all) it does give the user two options: whether to loop the animation itself and frame delay (the interval between each frame). The first isn't all that crucial but the second one is. The frame delay is set to zero and the delay time is set in cs or centiseconds (1/100 of a second). If you leave the delay at the default setting of zero, then the resulting animation will zoom through in a blink. No matter how understanding and patient you are, you will feel ripped off when the magnificent and utterly perfect depiction of a flower opening its petals to the sun you spent all morning working on will cycle through faster than you can blink. If you checked the box to have the animation play endlessly, it will look like a fast blinking light and not the serene unfolding of flower petals. The solution to that is to set the frame delay to at least 10cs and 15cs may be better. This will slow the animation down, of course, but it will also make plain any errors you have made, especially in smoothness.

After having used this neat little program over the past year or so, I give it a solid 8 out of 10. I really wish it could make animations from any image file, such as JPGs, as GIFs often look somewhat degraded when saved as small file sizes.

It does also suffer from not being available for operating systems other than Windows (it would be handy on our Ubuntu PC) and not being self-installing. You need to save the downloaded ".exe" file somewhere (such as your "Program Files" folder) and then to launch it either find it again and click it or else create a shortcut to it from the desktop or start menu.

About the only other improvement I would like to see is that the frame delay not be set in centiseconds. It isn't because the concept is difficult to grasp but because it is not a common unit. I mean, nobody says, I'll meet you in a million centiseconds!!

To see some sample animations, check out my animation page.


OpenOffice.org Calc

By Adam Hunt

Calc is the OpenOffice.org spreadsheet application. We have been using it for a number of months now. It is pretty obvious that Calc is designed to compete with Excel - it works very similarly, can save in Excel's ".xls" format and even the logos look alike.

In general Calc works pretty well. Most of the features found in Excel work the same way in Calc. Most of the keyboard shortcuts are also the same, although not all of them! The ones that are different are easy to find by trial and error, but it does mean that there is a learning curve to using Calc after years of using Excel. For instance "Ctrl+D" in Excel will duplicate the cell above the highlighted one, Calc doesn't do this. Instead you have to highlight the cell above and then copy it. It is no big deal - just takes a while to get used to the differences.

Some things in Calc are actually set up better than in Excel. The graph wizard is actually laid out better and is easier to use as a result. Like all other OpenOffice.org applications Calc includes PDF conversion capabilities right out of the box. No need for plug-ins like Adobe Acrobat to save files as PDFs. Like OpenOffice.org Writer the PDF conversion is fast too - no sitting there staring at the little Acrobat logo going round and round for extended periods of time while the document is converted.

As mentioned Calc will save documents in MS ".xls" Excel format, but the file sizes are about twice as large as when the same document is saved in Excel and not all the features work in that format. Calc's native format is the OASIS Open document standard spreadsheet format ".ods". Saving documents as ".ods" make the full range of Calc features available and saves space. If you have to send a spreadsheet to someone who doesn't use OpenOffice.org then you can always re-save it as ".xls" or as PDF.

My one complaint is the graphing feature of Calc. I use this sort of thing quite a lot and Calc just can't do many of the graphs that Excel can. The options for creating graphs are also quite limited and many parameters cannot be changed, making viewing the resulting graphs less than optimal in some cases. With some spreadsheets I have simply had to give up on graphing the data in a way that makes sense because Calc can't handle it.

Other than the graphing, Calc works well. Hopefully that will be corrected in a future update to the application.

Overall I rate Calc as 7/10. Once the graphing is improved it will be rated more highly!

Other than Writer (already reviewed) OpenOffice.org for Windows comes with several other applications all bundled together. In fact you can only download OpenOffice.org as a suite. The other applications are:

Neither of us has used these enough to pass on any thoughts about them at this point in time. We don't generally do much database, math formula or slide show work at home these days and have been using Gimp 2.2 for graphics instead of Draw. Gimp is more like Adobe PhotoShop, whereas Draw is more like MS Paint, a simpler application.

Overall we are both very impressed with OpenOffice.org. In many ways it works better than Microsoft's Office suite of similar applications. Some parts work better than others, but with the strength of the open source community working on the suite it is very likely that over the next while that OpenOffice.org will become the premier application suite available. You certainly can't beat the price for it, especially compared to the exorbitant cost of MS Office (I recently priced one version at Cdn$689.99 locally). Mostly I have found that the reason that OpenOffice.org has't been more widely adopted is that a lot of computer users, especially Windows users, just haven't heard about it yet. We have to work to get to the word out!


Thunderbird

By Adam Hunt

We have been using Outlook Express for many years, in fact we have been using it since we first started using Windows 98, almost ten years ago. Despite its drawbacks it seemed to do a fairly good job and, best of all, was easy to use.

OE is now past tense, as Microsoft have replaced it in Vista with Windows Mail and the Windows Live Mail package instead, so there will be no more versions of OE available beyond the current OE6.

There are some good open source alternatives to OE6 available, but I have to admit that I have been reluctant to try them out. This was partly because we made so many changes to the XP PC in the reformat that were taking some time to try them all out and get used to them and OE6 is right there, part of the XP re-install from the start. It is easy to just go on using it.

My other concern was with the odd-ball Windows Address Book ".wab" that holds all my contacts. I knew that it is unique to OE and that nothing else uses it. I didn't want to start over again or to have to enter the whole book in a new format by hand. So I procrastinated.

However the time came to look at something else, particularly since:

  1. OE is no longer supported by Microsoft
  2. OE suffers from well-known security vulnerabilities that it has had for years and that have never been addressed by Microsoft
  3. OE has a lack of e-mail standards support
  4. OE doesn't handle MIME encoded messages correctly
  5. Well known OE database corruption issues which we have experienced first hand in the past (for details on these factors see this article)
  6. OE doesn't have spell checking. That's right - without Microsoft Office installed OE has no spell checking capability. You don't suspect that is a marketing angle for Microsoft Office, do you?
  7. We are trying to make this Windows installation as little-dependent on Microsoft as possible

It all added up to time to switch to something better. But what?

As you can tell from the review below we have been pretty impressed with Firefox as a web browser. It is very standards-compliant and works well. The open source community working through Mozilla Foundation have done a very impressive job on it. Mozilla have a similarly developed e-mail application called "Thunderbird" which has been well received and so we decided to try that and see how it worked. My one reluctance was that we would lose our address book capabilities.

As described in our Ubuntu Diary we installed Thunderbird on that PC first, mostly due to a lack of satisfaction with the bundled application that comes with Ubuntu, which is called Evolution. We have never had an address book migrated into Evolution, because we couldn't figure out how to do it, so replacing Evolution with Thunderbird wouldn't set us further behind there.

So I installed Thunderbird on Ubuntu. There is an address book installation tool, but as I suspected, at least on the Linux installation, it wouldn't handle a ".wab" file. It wanted a ".txt" or similar file. So I copied our Windows Address Book, made it a ".txt" file in jEdit and then put it into "tab-delineated" format manually. That actually worked! At last we had an address book on our Ubuntu PC!

Saving the ".txt" file gave me some confidence that I could do the same thing on a Windows installation of Thunderbird. Time to take the plunge. I downloaded the fairly small (6.6 MB) Thunderbird installation ".exe" file and set it going. The Windows version has more migration features than the Linux application. It actually took all my settings from OE6, including converting the whole address book from ".wab" to ".ldif" format!! If I had known that I would have saved some time on the Linux installation!

I actually deleted the previous Linux address book that I had so painstakingly created by hand as it didn't have any groups in it and installed a copy of the Windows ".ldif" file. It worked perfectly! Now I had totally synced address books - at least on installation! That is pretty good - cross platform compatibility.

In working with Thunderbird for Windows I can report that it generally works as well as OE6 did. The interface is nearly identical, so there is very little in the way of learning curve for users making the transition. Naturally behind the scenes Thunderbird is more standards compliant and much more secure than OE ever was.

When first using Thunderbird I had complained that it could not be set-up to automatically get mail from the mail server on a schedule. OE will do this and I always had it set for "5 minutes" knowing that I didn't have to check mail - it would. This turned out to be my learning curve on the program. I did find the setting for this and it actually has more flexibility than OE6 has. Thunderbird can be set to check mail on a schedule (default is every ten minutes) and then the user can either set it to download the mail automatically or not. If not then it just notifies you that there is mail to download and you can do it when ever you like. That is a nice feature! Being on dial-up and using OE6 sometimes large files were automatically downloaded when I was trying to do something else on line and everything was slowed down. Having figured this feature out, I rate Thunderbird as 10/10

Overall Thunderbird works well and the interface is both familiar to Windows users and well laid out. As usual a nice piece of software from the open source community at Mozilla!

Incidentally OE cannot be removed from Windows XP, as, like Internet Explorer, it is part of the Windows architecture. So it just sits there unused. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming XP SP3 has anything to say about OE - probably not as Microsoft wants you to buy Vista instead.


Firefox

By Adam Hunt

Mozilla Firefox is a web browser that was developed by the open source community under the banner of the Mozilla Foundation. The current version is Firefox 2.0.0.5 which just came out this past week.

Since Windows XP comes with a web browser out of the box, why bother downloading another web browser? XP comes with Internet Explorer 6 and the upgrade to IE7 is available for free, provided you submit to "Windows Genuine Advantage".

Actually Firefox has some important advantages over IE7 that makes it worthwhile having and also worthwhile making it your "default browser":

  1. Open Source: There is some good data from studies to show that security vulnerabilities get fixed much more quickly on open source applications than commercial applications and Firefox is a good example of this. IE7 has hundreds of outstanding vulnerabilities, most of them caused by the fact that Microsoft incorporated IE as a basic cornerstone of the Windows operating system. This was done to stop people removing it, which cannot be done. Microsoft just doesn't have the resources to fix security flaws as quickly as the volunteers of the open source community. Open source works in this regard.
  2. Spell checking: When filling out interactive forms on the web Firefox provides spell checking, IE doesn't. This is a huge boon when working on Wikipedia or even placing on-line orders, among other reasons.
  3. Bookmarks Toolbar: Firefox allows you to list a half dozen of so of your most used bookmarks (or "favourites" as Microsoft calls them) on a tool bar. This greatly speeds up using the web, particularly if you have a long list of bookmarks that you use less often. It is a nice feature to have.
  4. Security: As mentioned above IE has serious security issues that, because Firefox is just an add-on application, doesn't have.
  5. Standards: Before I started hand-coding webpages I thought IE and Firefox displayed webpages in the same manner. Then I started comparing them. It turns out that IE doesn't show many page features well. A minor example are the borders on the navigation box on this page. If you have both browsers have a look at the border in IE and Firefox. Firefox shows the grooved border the way it is supposed to look, IE doesn't. Actually IE shows hundreds of webpage features wrong or ignores them altogether. There are standards for browsers (set by the W3C) and Firefox adheres to the standards very closely and thus shows standards-compliant webpages properly. IE doesn't.
  6. Deleting Files: Firefox can be easily configured so that when you close it, it deletes passwords, addresses, history, cookies and everything else in the way of personal information. This is a nice security feature. IE can do this too, but only manually. You have to select it and then click the right buttons to make that happen.

Firefox is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. IE used to be available for Mac but that project has been terminated. I am not sure why any Mac users would download IE and use it over their native Safari browser anyway.

Amazingly at 5.8 MB, Firefox is only about 1/5 the download size of IE7.

A nice feature of Firefox are its migration tools. If you have a Windows PC when your install Firefox, the Firefox set-up wizard will ask you if you want to import your IE favourites, homepage, other settings and whether you want to make Firefox your default browser.

Firefox makes a lot of sense as a browser. On my Windows PC I only use IE7 to get Windows updates and that is it. The rest of the time it is Firefox.

I give Firefox 10/10, because I can't think of any way to make it better than it already is. IE7 would get 5/10, due to the reasons listed above.

Great work Mozilla and the open source community!


KompoZer

By Adam Hunt

KompoZer is the open source website design software that replaces NVu and is intended to be competition for Macromedia (now Adobe) DreamWeaver, Microsoft FrontPage and Microsoft's new web design software, MS Expression Web.

KompoZer actually has quite a history. It started life as part of the "Mozilla Suite" and was known as Mozilla Composer. Then it grew into NVu, while back in the Mozilla Foundation the Mozilla Suite became the beginnings of SeaMonkey. KompoZer was released as the bug-free and more developed version of NVu. The plan is apparently that it will once again become part of the Mozilla Foundation's line-up at some point in the near future, once some additional development work has been completed.

I have used a number of web designer products in the past, including MS FrontPage, DreamWeaver, NVu, SeaMonkey and KompoZer. KompoZer is as good as DreamWeaver in most respects and is better than the others mentioned. It produces fairly good quality HTML (and can be set to write XHTML transitional instead) unlike MS FrontPage, which is famous for its non-standard messy code. KompoZer has much better table and cell control than SeaMonkey and generally works better than NVu, which is to be expected, since it is an improved version of NVu.

Since the re-format I have been using KompoZer exclusively to manage all the non-hand-coded websites that I have, including some old ones that were originally written on MS FrontPage. It even works with FrontPage's messy coding to make something comprehensible of it all.

KompoZer lacks some of the extra features of MS FrontPage and DreamWeaver. For instance it won't automatically create thumbnail pictures. This isn't hard to solve, you just need to use an image editor, such as Gimp 2.2, to create your own thumbnails - it just takes longer to do it that way.

There are other minor things that KompoZer doesn't do, but most of these features are things that I don't use when I compose websites on this type of software. Of course once you start hand-coding your own websites you get used to doing everything manually anyway. It is just part of the creative process.

Overall I give KompoZer 8/10. It works well, is easy to figure out and produces nice-looking code that most browsers should be able to display properly. The download is a very small 6.3 MB and that includes some desirable features, like a spellchecker (at least that is desirable for those of us who can't spell). The next generation of this software under the Mozilla banner should be even better yet.

As usual the open source community has produced a really nice product that works just as well as any commercial product available for Linux, Mac, OS/2 or Windows and, of course, it is all free.


QuickTime Player 7

By Adam Hunt

Apple's QuickTime is a common movie and audio player that most people probably already have downloaded to their Windows PC. You may have installed it attached to some other software, too.

QuickTime was originally released in 1991 and has evolved over the years since. Originally designed for Mac, a Windows version was quickly developed to try to gain some market penetration for the native ".mov" format. QuickTime is not available for Linux, but there are open source alternatives for those operating systems.

Apple offers the player as freeware on the same basis that Grisoft offers AVG and Lavasoft offers Ad-Aware. Apple provides the basic player for free in the hopes that you will be impressed enough to buy the "pro" version. For US$29.95 you get a key which unlocks the advanced play-back and editing features. Of course there are open source and freeware alternatives that will give you most of those features too.

The QuickTime marketing strategy seems to have been successful as you find ".mov" everywhere (our camera uses it) and QuickTime seems ubiquitous on the internet. Apple also supplies a QuickTime browser plug-in that allows the browser to seamlessly deal with audio and video formats. There are other applications that use QuickTime plug-ins to run as well. We have some astronomy software that works that way - you never see QuickTime but it makes it all run in the background.

So when you download the current 20 MB QuickTime Player 7 what do you get? Not a lot really. The QuickTime player is just a basic movie and audio player with the normal controls you would expect.

QuickTime Player 7 does its job well enough. It plays movies and audio files just fine. The controls are fairly intuitive and the quality of the playback limited by the recording more than the player in most cases.

All in all it is a nice little package of freeware that lives up to its promises. I rate it as 7/10.

Note: Since this review was written we have uninstalled QuickTime and installed VLC instead.


Windows Media Player 11 & Associated DRM Woes

By Adam Hunt

You can tell that this is just not going to be a happy report. It is not because it is Microsoft, or because the European Union fined Microsoft €497 million in 2004 over anti-competition issues surrounding Windows Media Player, it is because there are some real problems here.

First off I have classified Windows Media Player (WMP) as "sort of freeware". It comes with every edition of Windows, so you are really paying for it as part of your Windows operating system costs. That said my copy of Windows XP was SP1A and it came with WMP 7.

The upgrades to the current version 11 are "sort of" free too. They are provided at no cost, but you can't get the upgrade unless you agree to install "Microsoft Genuine Advantage" (Microsoft's own spyware). Hmmm.

So why did I bother to upgrade to version 11? It is a bit of a long story. I bought a tube of toothpaste that included two free music downloads. Being on dial up I have never bothered with music downloads, but I thought: "What the heck?". And so I gave it a try. Getting the downloads involved completing half a dozen forms, but finally I got my two songs. One of them, White Stripes Icky Thump wouldn't play. There seemed to be a licencing (Digital Rights Management - DRM) issue. So I upgraded to Windows Media Player 11 and lo and behold it worked!! Great song!

Of course I am glad that I didn't have to pay for it, because I didn't have it for long. As described I reformatted the drive. Now this shouldn't have been a problem - the music website made much about backing up not only the song files, but the licencing files as well, which I did.

Of course when everything was re-installed it wouldn't play. Other DRM songs would, but not Icky Thump. WMP kept indicating that it had to download a new licence, but always failed to find what it was looking for, another victim of DRM hell. It shouldn't be a problem, but the DRM system doesn't work and WMP 11 doesn't work right with DRM obviously.

So the solution: pickup the album on CD on sale at Wal-Mart and don't rely on WMP to work right.

Another gripe: Our camera takes movies in ".mov" format. WMP won't play them. I can play them on QuickTime or even on Linux's gXine, but not WMP.

So I give this piece of software 3/10. It does play some formats some of the time. It is reliable enough for some non-DRM media.

If you have Windows you are stuck with WMP, as it comes with all Windows installations (outside the European Union). Maybe there are some better free alternatives available.


OpenOffice.org Writer

By Adam Hunt

I have been using OpenOffice.org's Writer for about six months now and I think it has a lot to recommend it.

This application started off as a Sun Microsystems product and was then handed over to the open source community who have taken it and run with it. It was originally supposed to be competition for MS Word, which seems to be the defacto standard word processor these days and the ".doc" format the standard format for saving documents. Writer does all that. It is pretty much as good a word processor as Word. It lacks some of the odd features that MS Word has, like a grammar checker. The problem is the things that it lacks are generally not the things I use or find useful. Others might. MS Word's grammar checker sucks.

So Writer can write documents. It does a lot more and this is where is starts to leave Word behind. It functions as a desktop publisher and, so far in my trials, it can do pretty much anything that MS Publisher can do. Publisher is a much maligned application, but we used it for some years and really liked what it could do, whether it was designing newsletters, business cards or CD covers. Writer can do all of that. It even has printing templates for such things as business cards. Pretty impressive really!

One of the best parts is that Writer includes native PDF capabilities. To get this with MS Word you have to buy Adobe Acrobat or similar plug-in software. Writer can convert any document you can open in it into PDF and it is fast at doing it, too! One of the great weaknesses of MS Publisher was always that it didn't work with Acrobat and so you couldn't use it to create PDFs at all. Writer is a quantum leap ahead of both MS Word and Publisher and even Acrobat in that respect.

Writer offers a lot of formats for saving and opening documents. It has several MS Word ".doc" formats of various vintages, the expected ".txt" text and ".rtf" rich text along with some Star Office formats, ".xml". Its native format is the open source ".odt" extension which the open source community are pushing as the world standard for documents. Of course MS Word doesn't open that format.

When you save a Writer document as a ".doc" it seems to come out about twice the size of the same document saved in MS Word in ".doc". This is hardly a surprise since writer is working in a non-native format. In its native ".odt" the same document seems to come out about 2/3 the size of the same thing saved in ".doc" by MS Word.

To buy a package that includes MS Word, Publisher and then add Acrobat you would be into significant amounts of money. Writer does it all out of the box and, of course being open source, it is available for free for Windows, Linux and Mac platforms.

Writer isn't available on its own - you get it in a 111 MB (for Windows) download that includes Base, Calc, Draw, Math and Impress. All very impressive work by the open source developers. Why sneak around pirating copies of MS Word when you can all this for free?

I give Writer 10/10 because it does everything I can think of and replaces MS Word, Publisher and Adobe Acrobat in the PC toolbox. It works and it lets you get work done.


Lavasoft Ad-Aware

By Adam Hunt

I first learned about Ad-Aware from the IT professionals at Hypernet. They recommended using it on all Windows PCs to get rid of spyware, in addition to an anti-virus program. So I installed it at home and have been using it ever since.

Ad-Aware is made by Lavasoft, a Swedish hi-tech company based in Gothenburg. It is offered on the same basis as AVG is - free for home use, but you have to buy it for commercial use. The company does offer discounts for non-profits and educational institutes.

Ad-Aware is only available for Windows, but then not too many people write malware for Mac or Linux and almost all trackers don't work on those Unix-like platforms anyway.

What does it do? The description contained in the software's own "about" section describes it pretty well:

"Ad-Aware protects you from spyware that secretly takes control of your computer, resulting in aggressive advertising pop-ups, sluggish computer activity and even identity theft through stolen private information. We give you the tools to detect hazardous content on your computer, clearly identify their threat level, and then give you the ability to remove unwanted content, so that your private information remains right where it should - under your control.
"Lavasoft’s advanced Code Sequence Identification (CSI) technology roots out deeply hidden malware and then searches for similar codes in order to identity emerging variants. Ad-Aware thoroughly scans your memory, registry, Hosts file, hard, removable and optical drives for known data-mining, aggressive advertising, parasites, scumware, keyloggers, trojans, dialers, malware, browser hijackers, and tracking components."

Ad-Aware is currently available in four versions:

Naturally it is the "free version" that I am discussing here. It differs from the upgraded "purchase" versions in that it just scans for threats on command. The retail versions actually do "real time" scanning as you download web pages on the internet. With the free version you have to scan later on and remove anything you find.

I have been using Ad-Aware for two years now (in its previous Ad-Aware Personal SE free edition) and I found that it does catch the odd piece of malware. My usual way of using it is to finish a web-browsing session and then dump all the caches, run a disk cleanup and then, once that is done, run Ad-Aware to see if anything is left. You can then use Ad-Aware to remove any surviving cookies or spyware.

Overall Ad-Aware works well. There are updates available about once a week, although they are sizable. The initial download is relatively reasonable at 17 MB. The interface is very straightforward. The only two features that would be really nice to have are "real-time" tracking and an update download progress bar.

Real-time tracking would allow the application to tell you as you download something undesirable, instead of having to wait for a later scan. This is a feature that is included in the "Plus" and "Pro" versions, which are available at an additional cost. I guess if you want the freeware version you have to accept some downgrades from the retail versions or else no one would buy them.

The previous Ad-Aware SE had a progress bar when you downloaded an update but that feature is gone in "". It means that you hit "update" and it is hard to tell if anything useful is happening until the "update complete" box pops up some time later.

I rate Ad-Aware as 9/10. I can't think of too many ways to make it better than it is! Thank you Lavasoft for a great freeware product!


Grisoft AVG Virus Scanner

By Adam Hunt

AVG (Anti-Virus Guard) is a well-known anti-virus product made by Grisoft of the Czech Republic. That small country is producing lots of interesting things these days, both in the high-tech world and in other areas, such as aerospace manufacturing, too.

Grisoft set the anti-virus world on its ear a few years ago by offering their software for free to home users. Businesses are supposed to buy their versions, plus of course there are more sophisticated versions available for purchase as well.

This doesn't sound revolutionary, as Adobe has been doing this sort of thing for years - give away the basic version and then sell the upgraded versions. This just hadn't been done in the anti-virus world before. It is probably fair to say that AVG Free Edition has killed sales of commercial anti-virus software for home use, such as Norton and McAfee, which were the leaders before. We gave up buying McAfee when we first found out about AVG.

Grisoft is one of the few providers who have also designed an anti-virus program for Linux as well. We have it on our Ubuntu PC.

So what does it do? Actually the Windows version of AVG Free is a full-function anti-virus application. There is nothing "bare-bones" about it. It includes:

The Linux version has fewer features. In fact in the Ubuntu environment all it does is scan on command and nothing else. It is still the best available for Ubuntu, however and the company gets credit for even thinking of creating a Linux anti-virus scanner.

The updates deserve special mention. When we ran McAfee we used to get update packages once or twice a week. Grisoft updates AVG pretty much every day, sometimes several times in one day and that includes weekends too! They must have a busy team there analyzing viruses seven days a week and writing updates for the database. Or perhaps it is all automated these days?

As far as AVG Free Edition for Windows goes I have to give it 10/10. I have been using it for several years and I can't think of any way to make it better than it already is. It does everything I need it to and the price it just right! The download size is a bit big, especailly if you are on dial-up, but set it up and then go and have lunch and it will be there when you are done. Installation is easy and flawless.

AVG Free for Linux would get 5/10 - there is lots of room to make it work better. If it worked like the Windows version it would be perfect! Of course the pundits would probably say that with so many viruses written for Windows and so few written for Linux that you don't need as effective a scanner for Linux. It has also been said, perhaps with some truth to it, that unless you work for Microsoft, if you write programs for Windows you are probably writing viruses. If you write for Linux you don't bother writing viruses, you write applications instead.

Thanks to the folks at Grisoft for a great piece of free software - I hope the company does well!


"J is For Java" - jEdit 4.2 Text Editor

By Adam Hunt

jEdit is a Java Runtime Environment text editor, which means that can be run on any computer platform. I found out about it from reading the book HTML, XHTML & CSS, Sixth Edition, by Elizabeth Castro. She lists a small number of applications that are commonly used for hand-coding HTML and jEdit is on the list.

jEdit is apparently one of the more common applications used by programmers for coding. It was originally developed by Slava Pestov, a University of Ottawa graduate! It is now maintained by the open source community. That makes it interesting for a number of reasons - it is a programmer's application, designed by programmers as a hobby project. You know that it is going to be "good but geeky" and it is.

Most Windows applications are produced for users with a low level of computer sophistication, but not this one. jEdit is very customizable, with hundreds of plug-ins that can be downloaded to change its functionality. I opted only to download the spell checker, which I personally consider the most useful option.

Most typical Windows applications, especially the non-open source, commercial ones, would come with this feature - just hit "F7" and it spell checks. jEdit makes you work a bit to get that and make it work. You start with the Plug-in Manager and select the spell checker from the long list of possible plug-ins. It is only 30KB, that is the first sign that it isn't complete. What kind of dictionary can fit into a download of 30KB? The answer is "none". You need to go and download the open source Aspell dictionary program and then the Aspell dictionary itself in the language of your choice (there are lots, all maintained by various open source community volunteers - this is starting to sound like Linux). The plug-in, plus Aspell, plus the dictionary all add up to spell checking. Each one is easy to install - the plug-in is downloaded from a repository, when selected, Ubuntu style. Aspell and the chosen dictionary are downloaded from SourceForge, linked from the Aspell website and are installed by clicking on them as they are Windows ".exe" files.

To use the spell checker you need to know how to find it - hitting "F7" doesn't do it. In this case it is on the top menu list under "Plugins" and then "Spell Check" and then "Spell Check Selection". It works just fine but doesn't allow new words to be added to the dictionary.

So why go through all this when Windows XP comes with two text editors - Notepad and Wordpad? Because jEdit gives you really useful features for even just writing HTML and XHTML (like this page, which was written on jEdit) that work well. While both Notepad and Wordpad do work, they are very basic and produce masses of mono-colour code that doesn't show up errors easily. jEdit works much like Linux Gedit in that it colours the various parts of the text coding and thus shows up errors easily. This is called "syntax highlighting". At a more advanced level there are also plug-ins to create coding short-cuts available as well as other features too.

So what is the bottom line? If you need a text editor then this is a good one to get. The price is right, as all open source software is free. The license requires just that any changes you make to the programming for it must be made available for others to use free as well - standard GPL terms.

Overall I give jEdit 8/10. It is a small download, works really well and has tons of plug-ins to customize it. The only hesitation on my part is that it makes you work at it to learn its "open source quirks". In a way that is part of its charm - you feel part of the slightly subversive open source community instead of part of the Microsoft monolith.


Foxit 2.0 PDF Reader & Writer

By Adam Hunt

Foxit 2.0 is a PDF reader, from Foxit Software. They are a commercial company that produces PDF manipulation software. Their premise is much the same as that used by Adobe - give the reader away for free and everyone will be so impressed that they will gladly hand over real money for software that does more.

So far that sounds exactly like Adobe, so why bother with Foxit - why not just go and get the current version of the Adobe Reader?

To make any kind of market for themselves Foxit had to come up with a PDF reader that has some advantages over Adobe and they have done just that.

Foxit 2.0 is incredibly small compared to the Adobe Reader. The current Adobe Reader for Acrobat is around a 24 MB download, whereas Foxit 2.0 is just 1.7 MB. That is a real difference if you are on dial-up!

Another feature that Foxit touts on their website is its quick launch time. Everyone who has used any Adobe Acrobat product has sat and watched while it goes through its long splash-screen start up. I know people who have memorized everyone's names on the credit list from their time waiting for Acrobat to open. Foxit has this one aced - it literally opens in under 0.5 seconds and no annoying splash screen. If you want the credits and such you have to click "about" to get all that.

Foxit has a couple of other nice features. One is that it will display any document in "plain text" (meaning "Courier New" font, without adornments). Not sure how that would be useful yet, but interesting nonetheless.

Otherwise Foxit does searches, you can copy text and pictures and do everything else that one would expect a PDF reader to do.

Of course in the Adobe world you get the reader for free but composing PDFs will cost you money. Foxit has this one foxed. Their reader has some add-ons available for free download, including Java script enabling, a PDF creator and a PDF editor. The editor is only a 30 day trial and then a purchase, so that isn't much of a bargain, but the creator is currently free.

The PDF Creator is an interesting option - it uses the same concept as the Adobe Acrobat PDF generator, through creating a "printer". With Foxit there is no intervening interface - you just print any document and instead of sending it to your paper printer, send it to the Foxit PDF printer. It asks you for a destination folder for the document and presto, the document is saved as a PDF. The one problem with the free download version of the Foxit PDF Creator is that it is essentially a marketing tool. The free version stamps every document in the top righthand corner (in blue and red text) with "Generated by Foxit PDF Creator © Foxit Software http://www.foxitsoftware.com For evaluation only". To get rid of the "evaluation stamp" you can buy the full tool from Foxit for US$35.00. A much better option is downloading the open source PDFForge PDFCreator which works better and has no "evaluation stamp" and is free.

Overall Foxit 2.0 is s great piece of software - quick, simple and all free. Just skip the Foxit PDF Creator and install PDFForge's PDFCreator instead.


The Reformat is Done

By Adam Hunt

Well the reformat and re-installation of Windows XP and the application software is now complete. The process was a bit time-consuming - more than I had expected. I had forgotten that when you are nearing the end of a operating system's life there are lots and lots of updates to download. In my case our Windows disk was for Service Pack 1A and we had to download good ol' SP2 (Springboard) as well as a raft of security updates, too.

One interesting sideline was downloading "Windows Genuine Advantage", Microsoft's own house brand of spyware that lets them spy on you to make sure that you aren't using bogus copies of Windows and other Microsoft stuff. When you get to that "update" it states very clearly that installing it is not mandatory. So I tried omitting it to see what happens. What happens is that it cancels all further updates, including Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Media Player 11. But don't feel coerced, okay?!

I installed the following open source application software:

I also installed the following "freeware" software, commercial or propietary software, but free-of-charge, nonetheless:

So with all that installed and configured the box should work well, right? Not quite. There was no sound and the video was awful (jumpy and very slow). I naturally suspected a driver problem. Poop - I thought that XP included video card and audio drivers.

Asking XP to go find new drivers didn't work - it looked, but not outside the PC and so didn't find anything better than it already had.

So I identified the specific devices in question and went to the websites for the makers and found the drivers, downloaded them and then agonized over the correct way to install them. I tried using the Windows Device Manager to do that but it was useless. In the end, as they were ".exe" files, I just clicked on them and they installed perfectly!! Imagine that!

That finished the job and so with the box pretty much working right we could both now put it to work actually doing stuff.

As mentioned we are going to do reviews of these open source and freeware applications to let everyone know how they work in comparison to the alternatives - often expensive alternatives.


The Project Aim - "Microsoft-Lite Windows"

By Adam Hunt

Here is how this all started. Our old Windows XP PC has been performing poorly lately. We had some upgrades done (more RAM, video card) and they seemed to make the PC perform worse overall, not better. We got all kinds of error messages on top of the "normal" Windows errors that we have been getting for a number of years on this PC. Originally this box ran Windows XP SP1A and most of the trouble started when we installed Windows XP Service Pack 2 "Springboard". I don't think that "Springboard" itself was the problem, but the download of it probably wasn't the cleanest one.

With the installation of the video card we started getting "memory dump" errors and our PC expert suggested that maybe the best solution was a reformat.

Back in the days when we had an eMachines PC (a very poor quality computer!) running Windows 98 (a very unstable operating system) we got really good at doing reformats every six months, as that was the only way to keep it working.

So we decided to reformat the drive and re-install Windows XP.

We actually like Windows XP. Unlike the Windows systems that came before it and after it (Windows 98 and Vista) it actually works pretty well. Of course we had considered switching this PC to Ubuntu (see our The Ubuntu Diaries for the complete story there) but we still needed our scanner, camera and didn't want to go and buy another external modem (since Ubuntu has problems with WinModems). It just wasn't time for Ubuntu on both boxes yet. Maybe after 14 April 2009 when Microsoft ceases general support for Windows XP and if Ubuntu figures out how to run scanners and cameras.

I was surprised when I checked and found out how little application software XP actually originally came with. I had forgotten how much software we had to add when we got this PC to make it useful to us. I guess I have been spoiled by working with Ubuntu lately, as it comes with everything you need to get working right away and the rest is available as free downloads, for the choosing.

With XP essentially, besides the operating system itself, all you get for useful, working applications is:

Other than some games and such, that is about it for XP - it was rather "bare bones" out of the box when it was released back in 2002. I guess Microsoft always wanted you to go and buy "Microsoft Office" and other applications and still does, as Vista doesn't come with much either.

We looked at the current price of Microsoft Office at the local store (Cdn$689.99) and decided that we would stick to Open Office instead. We have been using it on Windows XP for a while, as well as on Ubuntu, and in many ways it works better than Microsoft Office. For instance all the Open Office applications can convert anything to a PDF, to do that with Microsoft Office you need to go out and buy Adobe Acrobat. It starts to get expensive!!

Of course most people just "borrow" software discs from work and friends and install them at home ("pirated" is such a harsh term). These days of "Windows Genuine Advantage" (Microsoft's spyware) any second installation of the same "code key" is registered as "pirated software". If you are running XP you will be invited to buy a licence. If you are running Vista then Microsoft may just disable your operating system for you. Of course that isn't all bad - you could then reformat and install Ubuntu instead!

We decided that we wanted to run the XP PC without any "doubtful origin" software and use only "open source", or at least "freeware", instead. It sounds daunting, but it has turned out to be quite easy. We have now ended up with perhaps the only Windows XP PC in the whole world with no "borrowed" software on it!

So to get ready for the reformat we made sure that the latest copies of all our documents were backed up, including e-mail and web favourites, etc. We made a list of what applications we would install and made sure that we would be able to open every document that we had with the new suite of software. We had to convert a few documents to different formats, but it didn't take long.

So what have we installed to provide a workable platform? It is a mix of open source software and no-cost freeware:

The end result is that all the software is free-of-charge, all totally legal and the only Microsoft product is the actual operating system, plus of course the freeware Windows Media Player 11. Sort of "Microsoft Lite XP", or at least "Low-cost and Legal XP". That is our own "Windows Genuine Advantage" - phhhtttt!

As a finishing touch Ruth asked if we could set up the XP PC so it looks and works a bit more like Ubuntu (how's that for a compliment to Linux?). So I have configured it with an Ubuntu-style "clean desktop" and even installed Ruth's custom designed Ubuntu colour-scheme. It looks nice. All the applications launch from the "start" menu instead of from a clutter of icons on the desktop. Hopefully it will work better like this.

As we work more with the open source and other freeware software we have installed, we will do more write-ups on how it all works out for us. We'll keep on adding diary entries here, so check back regularly!