24 February 2008

#59. I Can See Clearly Now

Good evening, gentlemen and ladies, and welcome to Jonathan’s Bistro. I hope you can read the Specials Du Jour board clearly enough to enjoy your meal. First an hors d’oeuvre to tune up our LCD screens, and then on to sample Mark Lautman’s selection of OpenOffice extensions.

No Fork Needed for This Tuner

Note: I just noticed a minor omission and error in this post, and have added a couple of clarifying sentences below. If you read this post yesterday or the day before, please read it again! –JP 26 Feb.

ClearType is a Microsoft technology for smoothing the jagged fonts on LCD screens. It is supplied as an option with Windows XP, and is automatically on in Windows Vista. Most commentators rave about it, but I still have not decided whether I like ClearType. I am still experimenting with different settings, trying to find pleasingly plump characters without edge artifacts like color tinges or ghost shadows.

Windows lets you turn ClearType on or off, and that’s it. So how am I experimenting, you ask? Aha, dear reader, that’s why I am the utilities maven. Microsoft offers a free ClearType Tuner Power Toy for adjusting ClearType’s strength. The only trouble is, choosing the best setting is like a vision test at the optometrist. Which is clearer, (snap) this or (snap) this?

Oops, this power toy works only on Windows XP, and my new laptop has Vista.

Microsoft offers an even handier on-line tuner on its typography site, ClearType Tuner. It works just like the Power Toy. Oops, it refuses to work with Firefox; use Internet Explorer or the IE Tab add-on for Firefox.

Then I turned to ClearTweak freeware from ioIsland. This simple utility provides a slider to control contrast, and shows you the result in a little preview pane. This approach is arguably superior to Microsoft’s because you can fiddle with the settings to your heart’s content, though you can't compare the results side-by-side.

Microsoft claims that several new fonts shipped with Vista (all starting with “C”) are optimized for ClearType, but I’ve gone cross-eyed trying to see the advantage. And I want to see traditional fonts clearly, too. Here is what ClearType can do on my new ThinkPad laptop’s screen at various ClearTweak settings:

You tell me: what looks best? I just can’t make up my mind!

Extensors and Flexors

by Mark Lautman

I recall how my grandmother of blessed memory was getting on in years, and it was difficult for her to bend down to pick something up off the floor. We visited her one day when I was about 13 years old, and she showed me a mechanical hand that extended her reach far enough to touch the floor or grasp items on overhead shelves. It made her life much easier.

That was in 1970. Now I'm 38 years older, and though I can still reach the floor, reaching for the 10-key pad on the keyboard isn't as easy as it used to be. Neither is re-inventing office documents for fax cover sheets and product presentations, and I'm fatigued from writing macros. I need relief: I need extensions.

Extensions are popular in open-source software. Jonathan did a column on Firefox extensions (post #33). This week's column is a review of some handy OpenOffice extensions.

[Editor’s note: As you may know, OpenOffice (OO) is a sophisticated office suite that many reviewers say is nearly on a par with Microsoft Office, and in some respects surpasses it. Like MS Office, OpenOffice includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and database components (but nothing like Outlook). It works on multiple platforms and claims compatibility with MS Office document formats in addition to its native Open Document format. Because it is an open-source project, it is free. Sun Microsystems partially sponsors OO, which is based on Sun's StarOffice suite. I plan to review OO for this blog in the near future. --JP]

According to the OpenOffice extension repository, the top three extensions are Sun's template pack, Sun's report builder, and eFax's faxing facility.

Sun's template pack is fabulous. OO is a complete office suite with all the features anyone needs, but it is spartan when it comes to ready-to-go templates or drawing objects. The template pack includes a ton of ready-made templates for spreadsheets, letters, and presentations.

Beyond templates, there are some wonderful enhancements to the standard OO functionality. For example, Alternative Find & Replace for Writer has a find and replace dialog box that takes OO's find/replace to the next level. It includes prebuilt expressions for common search patterns, and you can save your own find/replace patterns for later use. Here is an example of using this extension to add a directory name to a list of files:

Another extremely useful extension is the Annotation Tool. Where standard OO inserts only a small yellow rectangle, this extension inserts a note and highlights the affected text, as shown here:

With the SVG Import Filter, which I described recently (post #54), you can import an enormous number of SVG images available from online galleries. In that post I also mentioned OxygenOffice Professional, a set of extensions that includes a large collection of graphics and drawing objects.

When you open OO documents, each appears in a separate window. The Tabbed Windows extension opens each document in a tabbed page inside a single OO window. This saves on screen real estate.

There are plenty of other OO extensions which you can browse at the OO extensions repository. If you feel a case of rheumatism coming on and it's difficult to reach the floor, one of them just might give you comfort! —Mark Lautman

I hope today’s post has helped you see things more clearly. Please keep coming back each week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites. And please help keep this blog going by visiting our advertisers.

Did I overlook your favorite utility or Web site? Tell us all about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

17 February 2008

#58. The Syncing Honeymoon Is Over

Frustration has returned to the Tool Bar & Grill. A few years ago, I didn’t think about how a USB flash drive could make my life easier. Now I can’t live without at least one. But each new solution brings still newer problems, especially for someone as lazy as your Tool Bar chef.

The new problem is synchronizing multiple computers through the flash drive. I have a PC in the office and one at home, and found the easiest way to keep folders and files up to date at both locations is by copying them to and from the flash disk. But not easy enough, of course. I went looking for a utility that would compare folders on the local hard disk and the flash disk, and automatically copy the newer files over. I found Allway Sync, as described in my post #27 (1 July 2007), and life was good. Until recently.

Allway Sync is free for personal use, but is restricted to 20,000 files per 30-day period. That’s a lot more files than I sync each month. But then Allway Sync warned me that I had exceeded the limit, because it counts all the folders and files it scans, not just the ones it copies. And a few days later, Allway Sync stopped working and suggested I buy the Pro version ($19.95 for one computer, $9.95 for an additional license).

I decided first to find and test some new freeware syncing utilities to see how they stack up against Allway Sync before plunking down my hard-earned money.

What I Want in a Sync Tool

At the least, a folder and file synchronization utility should work bidirectionally, but you would be surprised how many purported sync tools work in one direction only. It should allow you to maintain multiple pairs of folders for synchronizing. I immediately ruled out utilities that lack these features.

A good sync program should provide configurable rules to govern how it decides which files to copy where. It should support filtering, enabling you to specify file types to skip over (backup and temporary files, for example). It should display a preview of the file changes it plans before the actual operation, giving you a chance to change the default actions.

All synchronizers provide day-and-time or interval scheduling, either built-in or using the Windows task scheduler (but this is more suitable for backing up than for synchronizing). I’d like them to provide launch triggers beyond the typical such as launching when a USB flash disk is inserted or removed, or when files in the monitored folders are changed.

The table below shows the features of the sync utilities I tested that floated toward the top of my rankings.





Launch on USB insert or removal

Launch on file change

Allway Sync 7






Sync Expert 1.9




SyncBack Free 3.2.10




Microsoft SyncToy 2 β




Flash Synchron RC 1


A double Y means the preview shows the type and direction of the file operation; in other previews, you have to analyze the file time stamps yourself to puzzle out what is about to happen.

As you can see, none of the freeware sync tools I tested measures up to Allway Sync. Though some come close, all the others require some manual intervention to start their sync jobs.

Dear readers, I welcome you to send me your suggestions. Tell me about the free synchronization utilities you know and love, as well as share any other thoughts, by clicking on “comments” below or writing to me at jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

And now for something completely different… a special review of text-based Web browsers for speed demons, by my ever-slender friend Mark Lautman.

My Browser Is Lighter Than Yours

by Mark Lautman

I came across a web site that tells you what you may not want to know: your body mass index. The BMI is a measure of body fat based on your height and weight, and like tuberculosis, nobody is safe from it. I'm a thin guy, but my short height of 5'9" (1.75m) dooms me to a BMI of 24.8, which is just a breath away from being overweight. [My BMI shall remain classified. –JP]

Here in the Tool Bar's Linux Room we do our share to fight excess weight [unlike in main room –JP], and we start where it counts most: on the personal computer. First, go in front of the mirror with your computer and look at your Web browser. The installation kit for Firefox is 5.6 MB; for Internet Explorer, 14.7 MB. Who knows what else is installed on your machine when you start using these applications. They also have big problems with security, privacy, and generally reprehensible content.

That's where text-based browsers come in. These programs were used in the very early days of the Internet, and still are popular among those who have BMIs of 24.8.

The best text-browser I found was elinks (Linux). It supports many features of the mega-browsers, such as cookies, forms, searches, history, and launchers for external plug-ins, in a very small package. Because elinks doesn't display graphics, there is no need to render pages with particular dimensions and wrapping; this makes the response time amazingly fast.

Another popular text-based browser is Lynx (Windows, Linux). Here is what the Tool Bar and Grill page looks like in a Lynx text browser:

The indisputably smallest and securest browser is the Linux command wget. This retrieves a Web page and saves it as a file - no cookies, no history, no pop-ups. (A Windows version of wget also is available.)

wget is very useful if you want to download a series of Web pages in batch mode. For example, you could set up a batch file for 100 downloads from Project Gutenberg, and in the meantime you're in the weight room lowering your BMI.

Because text-based browsers retrieve only the text from a Web page and none of the media, you probably don't need that expensive Internet connection through cable or satellite. It's something to consider.

If you're interested in exploring other text-based browsers, see http://www.google.com/Top/Computers/Software/Internet/Clients/WWW/Browsers/Text-Based/. If you're not interested in learning about such browsers, then you have time to get back on the exercise machine! Mark Lautman

10 February 2008

#57. The New Love in My Life

Welcome to the Tool Bar & Grill, friends. Please come right in and find your own seats. I’ll be back to take your order soon. Right now, though, I’m very busy getting acquainted with my new love and outfitting her just the way I like.

Oh, you want to see her? Sure, she’s right over there… No, not her; that’s my devoted, long-suffering girlfriend Louise at the kitchen door. I mean the beauty sitting on the stool in front of the counter. Yes, that sweet, bright little black one. My new ThinkPad laptop computer. Yep, she’s the one for me.

Sure, I have dallied with other laptops over the years. I’ve been having serious relationships with portable computers for most of my adult life. But I only fell in love with my ThinkPads (and, of course, my 1982 Osborne; you never forget your first one). True, ThinkPads can break your heart too, like that sexy little Convertible subnotebook I had to part with when she started losing keys till she looked snaggle-toothed, or the hefty G model that another fellow stole away from me. My computing history plays like the good ole hurtin’ songs on the jukebox in my favorite country honky-tonk.

Getting To Know You

My new Lenovo ThinkPad came into my life a couple of weeks ago, but I have had precious little time together with her to admire her sleek lines… the brilliant shine of her screen… her modern technology and seamless synthesis of hardware and software… her legendary reliability… her firm yet pliant keyboard… her fingerprint reader… and that cute, perky little TrackPoint in her keyboard. No sir, nothing else is a ThinkPad.

I’ve been configuring my new cutie and feeding her my favorite software a little bit at a time, as well as getting to know the Windows Vista she brought with her. So far, Vista has failed to impress me with its cosmetic frippery and fixes to things that weren’t broken in XP or third-party utilities. Maybe time will tell if Vista’s under-the-hood changes, such as supposedly improved security, will justify the trouble of learning where everything is in the new interface.

Startup Kit

Among the first essential utilities I installed is AnVir Task Manager Free. This useful tool vastly improves on the Windows Task Manager, which is only slightly updated in Vista. AnVir Task Manager displays useful details about running applications, processes, services, browser help objects, and connections, and whatever else your computer is doing while you’re staring at the screen. AnVir Task Manager shows and manages your startup list, allows you to delay some programs’ startups (not configurable, though), assign CPU priorities to running processes, and be alerted to programs inserting themselves in the startup routine. Helpful tray icons graphically display CPU, memory, and disk use. The two for-pay versions provide greater security protections and more detailed information about your programs.

I have previously recommended WinPatrol, whose functionality in both free and paid versions is quite similar to AnVir’s. WinPatrol remains an excellent choice, though I’ll stick with AnVir for its slightly prettier looks. Among the other minor differences, WinPatrol lets you specify the startup delay, but lacks the tray gauges.

Back in My Good Graces

If you are a regular reader (and if not, why not?), you have followed my hopes and tribulations with Comodo Firewall Pro version 3, which includes HIPS (host intrusion protection system) anti-malware. I started using the new version even before it was publicly announced, due to my satisfaction with version 2 and its excellent results in tests and reviews. Alas, joy escaped me as I encountered problems in running the firewall.

I granted the latest Comodo Firewall release a second chance on my new Vista machine. So far, so good, I am pleased to report. Comodo’s firewall and HIPS module are very chatty indeed, popping up numerous notifications and questions about software I am launching or installing (perhaps because in my paranoia, I set the security settings to a high level). And sometimes Comodo fails to recognize known applications that should be in its white list database.

Overall, however, Comodo appears to be doing a fine job of protecting my computer in the short time I have used it. It is very informative and configurable. I eagerly await professional tests of Comodo’s efficacy in comparison to other firewall and HIPS products, which I hope will continue the previous version’s respectable ratings.

Protects and Annoys

I also tried a new antivirus program on my new Vista computer – and again, so far, so good. Avira AntiVir Personal Edition Classic (free) is highly ranked; both it and AVG Free, still in use on my old computer, earned the Virus Bulletin 100 ranking for detecting all in-the-wild viruses without any false positives, and AntiVir has sometimes beaten AVG in other laboratories’ tests.

However, AntiVir pops up an irritating window every day that tries to sell me the professional version. AntiVir also warns that its registration will expire in several months. If this proves to be an inconvenience, I will consider replacing AntiVir with AVG.

Thank you for sharing in my romantic tales about my new love interest. I hope you’ll return for more utility reviews every week, along with all your friends. And please feel free to explore the offerings of the advertisers who vie for your attention in and alongside this post. Finally, I encourage you to share your suggestions and ideas by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

P.S. A loyal reader from Spain has suggested carrying the Tool Bar & Grill restaurant theme to its logical extreme by sharing our exclusive meal recipes with you (see post #54), as well as distributing free beer (nice try, pal). Though our best recipes are secret, Spain has kindly proffered some great recipe Web sites for all of us to enjoy in his comment on post #56.

04 February 2008

#56. Private Club – No Exporters Allowed

Dear readers: This week, I turn the Tool Bar & Grill spatula and spoon over to graphics whiz Mark Lautman, who promised to paint the whole place. See you next week!

Scalable Vector Graphics, Part 3

by Mark Lautman

Saturday nights are particularly obstreperous at the Tool Bar's Linux Room. The music is loud, the conversation effervescent, and even the police officers who are sent to quell the noise end up having a good time.

Last weekend was a bit different, though. A swaggering businessman came in and asked for a beer. "What's your line for work?" I asked him, pouring him a ps -A | grep "Heinekin".

"I'm an exporter," he said. The DJ running the sound overhead the man, and lowered the volume on the speakers. The customers became hushed.

"An exporter?" I said, my muscles tensing. I didn't want trouble. "What do you export? Cars? Clothing?"

"Oh no, nothing like that," he replied.

"Weapons? Mercenaries?" I continued, hoping for the best. I just hoped he wasn't going to say...

"File formats. You know the 'Save As' function? That's my specialty. I export files from one format to another."

It was all I could do to get the guy out of the Linux Room in one piece before the regulars jumped him and ripped every line of source code out of his body. That's the thing about the Linux Room – we work in native formats, not "Save As." Exporters and emulators don't fit in here.

That brings us to the last installment of my series on SVG. [See part 1 in post #52 and part 2 in post #54. –JP] There are lots of applications that export to the SVG format. OpenOffice saves as SVG, and I understand that Adobe Photoshop also saves as SVG. Nevertheless, most of us have been around long enough to know that exporting to a non-native format isn't always as smooth as advertised, particularly for complicated formats like SVG (or RTF or even HTML). In this column, I'll discuss a few tools that work with native SVG format, as well as how you can start to roll your own SVG.

SVG Editors

The premier SVG editor is Inkscape (http://www.inkscape.org/) (Windows/Linux/Mac). This is a full-featured drawing program, including fills, lines, text, shadows, etc. The files are saved in native SVG; when you open the files in a text editor, you see human-readable SVG commands. Here is an example of a file open in Inkscape and the same file displayed in a web browser:

Another fine SVG editor is Sketsa (http://www.kiyut.com/products/sketsa/) (Java). This application is not quite as intuitive as Inkscape, but provides almost all the same features.

A bite-sized SVG editor is the GLIPS Grafitti Editor (http://glipssvgeditor.sourceforge.net/) (Java). It contains the basic functions included in the other two applications.

Batik (http://xmlgraphics.apache.org/batik/), sponsored by the Apache foundation, provides a way to interact with SVG files. Go ahead; try the demo at http://xmlgraphics.apache.org/batik/demo.html. You owe it to yourself. It shows how SVG will eventually make its way into the Internet, and eliminate the need for heavy plug-ins into web browsers.

On-line Tutorials

For those who are mechanically inclined and like to code their own files, I highly recommend the following tutorials: The best tutorial for the OpenDocument format we discussed two weeks ago [post #54 –JP] is J. David Eisenberg's "Custom Shapes in OpenOffice.org." (http://books.evc-cit.info/odbook/custom_shapes_article.pdf). His explanation is clear and really shortens the learning curve. The file format he describes is visible only in OpenOffice.

A great tutorial for the web-based SVG format is SVGBasics (http://www.svgbasics.com/index.html). This is also a fine example of clear explanation accompanied with examples and sample code.

This completes our survey of SVG – what it is, how to view it, and how to make it. Next week I'll discuss a Maltese recipe, kwarezimal – what it is, how to view it, and how to make it.

Thanks for dropping in to the Tool Bar & Grill. Feel free to share your thoughts by clicking “comments” below or dropping me a line to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And be sure to stop by again next week!