26 August 2007

#35. Solutions for Slippery Shortcuts

Sometimes it’s the little irritations that get you – the small annoyances that can occasionally build up into one of those days when it seems nothing is going right. Like when the bar and grill where you hang out runs out of your favorite pie, the coffee is cold, and the waitress brings the wrong change.

None of that will happen at my Tool Bar & Grill. In fact, in my hangout I specialize in solving little problems and banishing small annoyances – for free!

My loyal readers know that I can be rather particular about my computer (some might call it anal retentiveness, but it’s all just part of my charm.) So of course I hate it when my carefully arranged shortcut icons suddenly go crazy and fling themselves all over the desktop. This can happen when I change the screen resolution, or start Windows in Safe mode. A newly installed program might wreak havoc on the desktop, or Windows might just decide it’s time for a change.

If you, too, are troubled by roving icons, take your pick from these neat and simple solutions. They’re all free.

Icon Restore

The simplest utility is Icon Restore by Tim Taylor (http://users.rcn.com/taylotr/icon_restore.html). After you install it, the Windows desktop context menu includes two new options when you right-click on any system icon (such as My Computer): “Save Desktop Icon Layout” and “Restore Desktop Icon Layout.” When you’ve got your icons right where you want them, just right-click and select Save Desktop Icon Layout. Then if your icons break loose, you can corral them again by right-clicking and choosing Restore Desktop Icon Layout.

Desktop Icon Save and Restore

Slightly more sophisticated is Desktop Icon Save and Restore by Jamie O’Connell (http://www.midiox.com/html/desktop.htm). It works very much like Icon Restore, adding “Save Desktop…” and “Restore Desktop” options to the desktop context menu when you right-click on any blank area of the desktop. This program, however, saves the icon layout separately for each screen resolution setting. So if you frequently move back and forth between certain resolutions, this little program is for you.

Note: These two utilities apparently have not been updated since 2004, so their support for Windows Vista is questionable (I have not tested them with Vista).


Several steps up in functionality is Iconoid from SillySot Software (http://www.sillysot.com). Yes, it saves and restores icon positions for each screen resolution. But this program comes with a bit of a learning curve. Among its many advanced features: You can save icons by their relative positions for any screen resolution. You can specify their text labels’ background colors. Iconoid can automatically hide all the icons under various conditions – for example, when you move the cursor off the desktop – and display them again when needed. And it is Vista-compatible.


If you really like to play with your desktop icons, you might enjoy RocketDock from Punk Software (http://rocketdock.com). RocketDock is an application launcher, not just an icon saver. It places a semitransparent icon bar along the edge of your screen, which is much like the Apple OSX animated “Dock.” Drag your desktop icons onto RocketDock. When you move the cursor over the strip of icons, they expand and display their text labels. The effect is really cool, but after the initial oohs and ahs, I found no practical use for this novelty.

If you use one of these free programs and like it, do please consider sending a donation to the programmer.

Thanks for dropping in to the Tool Bar & Grill. Do you have your own favorite icon utility? Let us all know about it with a comment below or an email to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. Do come back next week, and bring all your friends.

19 August 2007

#34. Cool Tools for Hot Days

I’m glad you have stepped through the swinging screen door into the Tool Bar & Grill (air conditioned for your comfort) to cool down in these dog days of August. Summer is the time for eating light, and in that spirit, the specials du jour are short reviews of charming little utilities that you might find useful. (Apologies for being so Northern Hemisphere-centric; old habits are especially hard to break when the heat has boiled your brain.)


It happens almost every day. You want to remove a USB flash disk, and Windows stops you with its tired old “The device cannot be stopped right now. Try stopping the device again later.” Or you try to rename or copy or delete a file and Windows balks – the file is in use by another program, or there has been a sharing violation, or access is denied....

This is Windows’ way of preventing you from trashing a disk or file as it is being written. But sometimes you are mystified about what program could be locking your device or file. You close every program and still Windows stubbornly refuses to let you grab your flash disk and dash out of the office. What to do?

Install Unlocker from http://ccollomb.free.fr/unlocker/#download. This dandy freebie opens any Windows lock. Usually, you need only to right-click the locked file or folder, choose Unlocker, and then click Unlock in the Unlocker window.

Use Unlocker with care, of course, to avoid damaging your files. Unlocker is free, but as always, I encourage you to donate money to the author if you benefit from the program (see the PayPal link on the Web site).

System Information for Windows

Here’s a little utility that lives up to its name. SIW tells you more than you ever thought you could know about your system’s software, hardware, and connections. All the components are listed in the tree frame at the left, with details in the properties frame to the right. You can create reports in several formats.

There are lots of other good system information utilities out there, offering functionality way beyond the basic Windows tools. But SIW provides more detailed information than any other I’ve seen. Better yet, it needs no installation, so you can run it from a flash drive, CD, or even floppy diskette. When I recently considered buying several used computers, SIW was indispensable in my evaluation and negotiations.

A new version of SIW was released last month, including Vista support. You can get it absolutely free at http://www.gtopala.com, and again, donations are encouraged.


No, this is not an aid to religious proselytism. Convert is a small program that converts just about anything to anything else. For example, it tells me that my 19 cu.ft. refrigerator holds 538 liters (see below), and that 98.6°F equals 37°C. Just look at the tabs to see all the types of measurements you can convert:

Convert is not the only program of its type, and you can find Web sites providing similar information. But Convert is thorough, easy to use, and instantly available any time. Download it from http://joshmadison.com/software/convert, and don’t forget to reward the author.

That wraps up another refreshing break at the Tool Bar & Grill. You can comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. If you find this blog useful, do please tell all your friends. Y’all come back and see us again real soon now, hear?

12 August 2007

#33: Fabulous 15 Firefox Favorites

Welcome to another Sunday brunch at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where I dish up delicious recommendations for great free and cheap utilities and useful Web sites.

Last week I noticed that well over one-half of Tool Bar visitors get here with Mozilla Firefox, the free Web browser that has exploded in popularity in the last two years. That is evidence of your above-average sophistication, because Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) still has nearly 80% of the browser market (down from over 90% a couple of years ago), and Firefox has under 15%.

I have been using Firefox since version 0.4 several years ago, and am devoted to its advantages over IE in usability, functionality, speed, and security.

Though Firefox is not perfect, it is an open-source project, which means that any programmer can improve on it. A burgeoning community of programmers is doing just that – developing cool add-ons (also known as extensions) that bring new capabilities to Firefox and help make it the browser of choice among knowledgeable techies. (Perhaps that is why the excellent but proprietary Opera browser, which pioneered tabbed browsing and leads in speed, failed to seize the public’s imagination as Firefox did.)

Plain Firefox is like a single Santa doll perched on your neighbor’s chimney at Christmas time. Firefox with add-ons is like Santa with his sleigh and reindeer on the roof, surrounding by blinking lights, strobes, dancing elves, rotating candy canes, and a blanket of snow, with “Jingle Bells” blaring through the loudspeakers.

It’s not easy to identify the most useful add-ons among the thousands available. So to get you started, here I present some of my favorites. These are the add-ons I consider most essential or too useful to be without:

  • IE Tab – If you encounter a Web site that Firefox can’t display properly, IE Tab uses Internet Explorer’s rendering engine to show the page properly in the same tab.
  • NoScript – Blocks all Web services from running scripts unless you expressly exempt them, either temporarily or permanently. This helps keep you safe from the increasing danger of drive-by Web attacks (as described in post #29, 15 July 2007).
  • McAfee Site Advisor – Warns you of malicious or annoying Web sites that might harm your computer or subject you to spam attacks (featured here in post #10, 25 January 2007).
  • Download Statusbar – Replaces the Firefox download manager, displaying the progress of file downloads in a tool bar just above the status bar, with a number of other convenient download management functions.
  • Tab Mix Plus – Adds a host of helpful options for displaying and managing tabbed pages.
  • ScrapBook – When you don’t have time to read everything, ScrapBook saves the entire Web page and its linked page (you choose the depth) for your future perusal.
  • Google Notebook – one of several competing add-ons that enable you to clip, collect, organize, and annotate Web pages or parts of them; essential for researchers. A popular alternative is Clipmarks, but I have not tried it yet.
  • Gmail Space – Enables you to store files to your unused Gmail (Googlemail in the UK) space (often more than 2 GB). If you don’t use Gmail, which I think is the best Web-hosted mail service, this is another reason to start.
  • FEBE – When you have ad many add-ons as I do, you need Firefox Environment Backup Extension. It creates a backup file of all your add-ons (and other parts of your customized Firefox environment at your choice – bookmarks, preferences, passwords, etc.). You also can use this file to replicate your environment on another computer.
  • AdBlock Plus – Blocks pop-up advertisements and banners, and gives you control over what to display.
  • Update Notifier – For compulsives like me who need to know when an update is available for Firefox or one of your add-ons.
  • Morning Coffee – Opens groups of Web sites that you regularly visit on certain days.
  • Forecastfox – Displays the current conditions and weather forecast for your selected location, so you almost never need to leave your computer and see the real world. Highly configurable.
  • Foxy Tunes – Now that your face is buried in your browser all day, use Foxy Tunes to control your music without leaving Firefox (works with most popular media players).
  • Fasterfox – Claims to tweak Firefox settings for the best performance. I can’t tell if it really works, but I feel better thinking that it might.

These are just some of the extensions I use; the list could go on and on. All these add-ons are completely free, though some authors accept donations (and deserve them). You can find these and many more at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox (you can select different languages from a list box at the bottom of the page).

Every Firefox user has his own list of favorite add-ons, so I’m sure this post will generate a tsunami of emails reminding me of great add-ons that I failed to mention. Bring ’em on, Tool Bar patrons. I’ll share the best of your suggestions with the entire Tool Bar community. You can comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. I’ll look forward to seeing you back here next week!

05 August 2007

#32. I Blog, Therefore I Am. I Back Up, Therefore I Will Continue To Be.

Hello again to my loyal Tool Bar & Grill patrons, and welcome to the many new visitors who stopped in for a bite this week. I hope you all are enjoying the tasty snacks of useful and time-saving utilities and helpful Web sites that I serve up every week. Today’s special: a great backup service for your blog (and mine).

If you write a blog or Web site, you appreciate the hard work that goes into it. Every thought is precious, every word a jewel (especially mine, of course). What a loss to the world it would be, if some technical glitch or human error wiped your blog, or mine, off its server!

Fear not, because BlogBackupOnline has come to your rescue. Set up an account at the Web site – http://www.blogbackuponline.com – and specify the location of your blog. BlogBackupOnline runs a full backup of your entire blog to their own server; after that, it backs up new material daily. The interface is clear, simple, and friendly.

If your blog ever goes kablooey and your blog service provider loses its backup, you can restore it from BlogBackupOnline in a few simple steps. You also can use BlogBackupOnline to transfer your blog to another platform, or to export it in RSS format.

BlogBackupOnline has been watching over the Tool Bar & Grill like a devoted watchdog. And when I restored some posts, it brought them back perfectly, including the screen captures. However, while BlogBackupOnline says it can restore comments as text at the end of the blog post, it failed to restore the comments on my blog.

BlogBackupOnline claims to support most major blogging platforms, including Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, Friendster, LiveJournal, Serendipity, Windows Live Space, Movable Type, Terapad, and Vox.

BlogBackupOnline says its service is free while in beta (that is, during testing before general release), and each free account gets 50 MB of storage. (To put that in perspective, the 31 previous posts in this blog occupy 436 KB, including graphics – less than 1% of my 50 MB.)

So if you blog, back up your valuable contributions to humankind now, easily and for free. Let’s hope BlogBackupOnline stays in beta forever!

As always, I hope your visit to the Tool Bar & Grill has been both satisfying and nutritious. You can’t beat the price, anyway. I only ask that next time, you bring your friends. You can comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. See you here next week!