25 February 2007

#12. To Do: Find To-Do List Manager

Welcome back to Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where you can find a valuable new Windows utility or Web site twice a month– that is, if I can figure out what to write about and get myself organized enough to research and write it.

Sometimes I stare at my desk, close to desperation, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing now. What was I working on? What should I be working on? What’s my most important goal, and what’s most urgent? What action should I take right now to start moving forward? Piles of paper scraps and sticky notes only add to the confusion.

A computer should be an excellent to-do list manager, right? First I tried Microsoft Outlook’s Tasks module, even setting up a complex customized structure for tracking my projects’ progress. Outlook simply wasn’t up to the task. Then I used Microsoft Project, but it’s an excellent task manager like a shotgun is an excellent fly killer.

Perhaps, I thought, there are free or cheap to-do list managers on the Internet, so I went looking. I found many, but most disappointed me with limited functionality, oddball approaches to task management, primitive GUIs, or all of these. Then I came across an outstanding exemplar, and my search is over.


For a local PC-based to-do organizer, you can’t do better than ToDoList. It was designed to support the geeks’ latest rage, the much-hyped Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to time management and productivity. ToDoList has almost everything I really want from a task list manager:

  • Nesting of subtasks – Break a task down into subtasks, and break subtasks down still further. Expand and collapse the task list, and drag and drop tasks to change their positions in the hierarchy.
  • Priorities – Prioritize tasks from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Color-code tasks for any purpose.
  • Deadlines and milestones – Specify the starting date and due date of each task and subtask. Tasks can recur, too. Track the time you spend on a task and its progress toward completion. Tasks can be allocated to specific resources (that is, people).
  • Comments – Enter detailed comments about each task or subtask, with rich text formatting.
  • Sort and filter – Sort the task list by priority, deadline, completion, or any other attribute. Filter the task list by task status, deadline, priority, category, allocated resource, and other attributes.
  • Multiple projects – Set up separate projects, each containing its own task tree. Each project is managed in its own tabbed page. (However, I have not yet found a way to get a bird’s-eye view of all projects at once.)
  • Detailed data – Comprehensive information is presented clearly. Any detail field can be a column in the task table, which can be sorted on any column. Data are stored in XML format, and can be imported and exported in various other formats.
  • Configurable – Virtually every aspect of the GUI is configurable, making ToDoList very versatile.
  • Ease of use – I found ToDoList’s GUI to be intuitive and accessible. I figured out the basics in a few minutes, and was fairly proficient in under an hour, so you can probably learn it even less time.

Because ToDoList is an open source project, plug-ins for various needs are available. I have found plug-ins for encryption, spelling, pop-up reminders, and exporting projects in Gantt format.

ToDoList (current version: 5.1.1) is provided for free by AbstractSpoon Software at http://www.abstractspoon.com/, where you also can find links to plug-ins. The anonymous author does not solicit donations, but does bury a PayPal donation link the bottom of the Web page. As always, I urge you to support freeware that you intend to use regularly.

My thanks go to my esteemed colleague Elliott Anderson for recommending this great utility.

Web-Based Task Managers

If you need access to your to-do list from anywhere there’s an Internet connection, to share it with other people, or to integrate it with other Web functions, consider a Web-based task manager. These hosted managers lack the depth of functionality of ToDoList and its ilk; for example, they do not support subtask nesting and hierarchies (which is often vital, especially to GTD proponents), nor notes at the task level. But they do offer some cool additional capabilities in varying combinations, such as:

  • iCal compatibility for sharing calendar data
  • Integration with mapping, search, and other Web services
  • Support for multiple information formats (for example, adding graphics, photos, or sound files to the page)
  • Reminders by e-mail or SMS (generally only in the United States and Canada)
  • Social networking features, such as collaboration, tagging, sharing, and linking
  • Access from mobile phones and PDAs

Here are my quick impressions of the most significant features and differentiators in the best Web-based task managers I have seen.


This site claims to adhere to GTD principles, and appears aimed primarily at individual users. Each project can include task lists, formatted notes, and reminders. Drag and drop to sort lists. However, like all the other sites reviewed here, there is no provision for nesting subtasks, and notes can be attached only at the project level. The paid premium version integrates a calendar and email and SMS reminders. http://www.backpackit.com/


Another GTD claimant, this sophisticated site seems to cater more to work groups. It provides actions and contexts with projects. Drag and drop to organize lists. Tasks can recur. Notes are in a separate Reference tab attached to the project. The home screen “dashboard” gives a useful high-level view of pending items. Delegated tasks move to a Waiting list. Reminders can be sent by email and SMS. A separate version is formatted for mobile device screens. The paid premium version adds encryption, file attachments, a calendar, and more collaboration tools. http://www.vitalist.com/


Also espousing GTD, this site supports projects and contexts, deadlines and progress tracking, drag and drop to sort tasks, and file attachments. Tasks can be marked as the “next action.” http://www.nozbe.com/.

Remember the Milk

Geared toward personal use, this site supports deadlines, categories, task notes, time estimates, sharing with others, mapping, and e-mail reminders, but supplies only four priority levels and does not track progress. http://www.rememberthemilk.com/.


This site attempts to provide a very graphical interface, but its functionality is rather basic. It supports contexts, deadlines, progress tracking, and notes (which are not visible at the top level). However, even the limited hierarchy provided by division into projects is hard to distinguish in the task list. http://www.taskfreak.com/.

Did I overlook a great one? Please clue me in below. And I hope you’ll return on March 10 for another roundup of helpful software.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.

10 February 2007

#11. Control Your Startups

Has this happened to you? It’s taking longer and longer to crank up your computer, and then you find that your virtual memory is nearly all used up before you open an application. So you pop open the hood (perhaps with Windows’ built-in System Information or Msconfig) and peer inside. There you find a complex tangle of programs, processes, and services that loaded themselves automatically. What are they? Where do they come from? What do they do? And how can you control them all?

Nice to see you back again at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where I alert you to the most useful free and inexpensive utilities and Web sites on the 10th and 25th of each month. Today, we’ll look at a few of the best free startup monitoring and control programs.


Windows XP offer various ways to view startup programs:

  • System Information – Under Software Environment, the System Information applet (in Accessories > System Tools) shows running tasks (processes), loaded modules (program DLLs), services (low-level system functions that support other programs), and startup programs, with a little bit of information about each. It also enables you to search for a particular file.
  • Computer Management – Right-click My Computer and select Manage from the pop-up menu. The Services node lists the currently running services, with a short description. You can start, stop, restart, pause, and resume any service.
  • Task Manager – Here you can see all the running applications and processes, but the only action you can take is stopping them.
  • Msconfig – Type msconfig in the Run box (you can’t reach it through the Windows GUI). Here you can view running services and startup programs. All you can do with them, though, is disable (stop) them.

Clearly, Windows’ tools are primitive. What do we need? As Tim the Tool Man always answers: More power! Here are a few of your options.

Startup Monitor and Startup Control Panel

Many years ago, before freeware was common, Mike Lin was among the pioneering few devoted programmers who wrote useful utilities and distributed them gratis. I came to know and love his tiny, efficient Startup Monitor and Startup Control Panel way back when.

Startup Monitor performs one simple but vital task: It alerts you immediately to any program that is trying to start itself automatically at the next boot-up, either in the Startup folder or in the Registry. This is an essential first line of defense against viruses and spyware. Once you have installed Startup Monitor, it is invisible except for its occasional pop-up warnings and the Stop Startup Monitor entry in your Programs list. Here is a sample warning:

Startup Control Panel, from the same author, shows all programs that start automatically from any Startup folder or the Registry. It also shows programs that are scheduled to run once at the next boot-up, though not processes or services. Using its no-frills GUI, you can only disable or enable the listed programs or edit their names and paths. SCP installs itself as a Startup icon in your Control Panel.

Both utilities are available from http://www.mlin.net/. Donations are accepted through a link on the site.


I switched from Startup Control Panel to CodeStuff Starter several years ago because it offers more bells and whistles. You can view all startup programs and their details, by startup folder or by registry entry. Better yet, you can view additional properties of each listed program (see below). You can enable, disable, or delete any listed program. You also can add new startups, and even launch listed programs from within Starter. Here's the startup list, with one application's properties on top:

Starter provides similar functions for processes and services, and in addition enables you to edit service properties, as shown here:

Starter’s GUI also displays current CPU and virtual memory usage in the status bar. What Starter doesn’t do, however, is alert you to programs that want to start up automatically, so if you use Starter, keep Startup Monitor in the background too. That’s what I do these days.

The Starter home page is http://codestuff.tripod.com/, but downloads are available only from Softpedia, Simtel, and similar download sites.


WinPatrol includes the functions of a startup monitor and controller in one program, and does even more to protect your computer. It warns you of new startup programs in Startup folders and the Registry and changes in Internet Explorer settings (helpers, home page, and more), though its GUI is not as pretty as Starter’s.

WinPatrol Explorer lists startups, running processes and tasks, and scheduled tasks. You can see their properties, and you can launch programs from within WinPatrol. It also lists cookies, hidden files, and file type associations, and can even remove cookies according to a text string filter. All this information can help you prevent or identify malware infections.

The free version of WinPatrol monitors your system at the minute intervals you choose. Even if you set the minimum interval, therefore, it could take a full minute before WinPatrol issues an alert. WinPatrol Plus offers still more features, such as real-time monitoring and detailed information about start-up programs and services, for a one-time payment that includes lifetime updates. Get the free or Plus versions at http://www.winpatrol.com/.

Beware of Startup Mechanic

You might also come across a similar free program, Startup Mechanic. It is adware of an especially insidious type, and anyway does not appear as good as either WinPatrol or the combination of Startup Monitor and Starter, so avoid it.

What Are All Those Files?

Now that you can see them, what the !@#$% are all those startup programs, processes, and services? Starter and WinPatrol provide some information, but the Web sites listed below can have more comprehensive lists and greater detail. And when your firewall asks you whether to authorize a particular program, you can use these sites to find out if it’s legitimate.

Note: Some of these Web sites might not be updated for Windows Vista. Please note, too, that I am staying with Windows XP for a while, so my reviews and recommendations might not pertain to Vista.

Thank you for lending me your eyeballs. Please post comments and suggestions below. And check back here on February 25th for another roundup of valuable utilities!

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.