28 October 2007

#43. Software Smorgasbord

Welcome back to another buffet of diversity at the Tool Bar & Grill. The unifying theme of today’s topics is that they have no theme. So just dig in, and you’re sure to find a morsel that tickles your palate.

Hidden Backup Items

We have been focusing on backups a lot lately, with previous posts on Web-hosted backup services and local backup software. But there’s still more to backing up than that, and special utilities can fill the niche. Whether you backup on line, on a hard disk, or on a DVD, make sure you’re not missing important data that need backing up. What could you be missing?

  • Some backup programs overlook your mail, calendar, and note files and custom settings in email clients or personal information manager (PIM) programs like Outlook or Outlook Express. These files can be hard to find, but free tools like Amic Email Backup and Outlook Express Backup make short work of it. You also can use Microsoft’s Personal Folders Backup to copy the .PST file in Outlook 2000, 2002, and 2003. For Firefox and Thunderbird, try Mozbackup.
  • Your computer’s hardware depends on software drivers, but these drivers are a nightmare to identify and keep track of. Dedicated driver backup programs like DriverMax or Driver Magician both back up your drivers and check the Internet for updated versions.
  • What about those Microsoft Office settings you labored so long to customize? Don’t forget to run the Microsoft Office Save My Settings Wizard from time to time. In Windows XP, you’ll find it under Start > Programs > Microsoft Office > Microsoft Office Tools.
  • And how about your browser favorites and personalized settings? Free backup programs exist for the major browsers. For Internet Explorer, consider RX2 Master Backup, which also backs up personalized settings in other browsers, email clients, and Windows. For Firefox, you can be happy with Mozbackup or the FEBE (Firefox Environment Backup Extension) add-on, which integrates into Firefox to save all your settings and options.
[Note: I have not tested all the programs mentioned, so I list them as examples of useful freeware without recommendations.]

Your Home Page, Reorganized

I recently have been experimenting with Homepage Startup, a Web page that organizes your favorite sites into thumbnail links. It’s a nice idea: You can go to any predefined site more quickly when you can see it right in front of you. And there’s a Google search field at the top. You can set up different Homepage tabs for different purposes (as in my “Main Pages” and “Freeware Blogs” in the example below). Here’s how mine looks right now:

However, this offering needs some polishing. Particularly annoying is the lack of a snap-to-grid function, so your thumbnails don’t line up after you’ve dragged them around, and can cover other links on the page.

I think this type of site is less useful with today’s tabbed browsers, which enable you to open multiple home pages at once. Nevertheless, you might find Homepage Startup very useful. If you know of other similar services, please let us know in a comment below.


If you insist on using Internet Explorer 7 instead of Firefox or Opera, you will be pleased that Microsoft has dropped its Windows Genuine Advantage validation. This means you now can download and install IE7 without proving that your Windows installation is genuine. That’s not Microsoft’s generosity, of course, but its attempt to stem the hemorrhage of users to other browsers.

If you’re looking for a sophisticated, high-quality graphics editor, try the brand-new GIMP (short for GNU Image Manipulation Program [GNU is a Unix-like open-source operating system]), just updated to version 2.4 a few days ago. Some new functionality has been added to its slightly idiosyncratic interface. GIMP runs under Windows, Unix, and Mac.

And now for dessert, more delicious nuggets from the Linux chef de dessert, Mark Lautman:

Ghoulish Graphics

Have you taken a good look at the picture of the owner of this establishment, the picture in the upper right-hand corner? There is something a tad unsettling about the image. Jonathan is the very handsome proprietor of the Tool Bar & Grill, but I've always noticed the hand that's on his shoulder. Whose hand is it? By the position, it can't be Jonathan's – it must belong to someone else. So I took the graphic into the Linux Room to see if the hackers back there could reconstruct the original image. This is what they found:

While we're on the topic of images, let's review a few of the fabulous tools out there for Linux users. The grand-daddy of image editors is GIMP. It's the closest thing there is to PhotoShop, and it's free. That's only where the fun starts.

One of the most popular and useful utilites is ImageMagick. This program does everything there is to do to an image from the command line. It converts between almost any two formats; resizes, rotates, and trims images; extracts metadata from images; adds time stamps; cleans shower stalls. Perhaps the best and most common use of ImageMagick is to convert an entire directory of images from PNG to JPG and resize them to thumbnails, all in one command. (It also is available for Windows here.)

F-Spot is an image management application for GNOME, and comes with Ubunutu. With F-Spot you can make collections of graphics and save them on CD, or export to online sites such as Flickr or SmugMug.

ImgSeek is an amazing program (for Linux, Windows, and Mac) that can search for images and group images by similarity. I tried it with a hodge-podge of images, and ImgSeek was able to group all the astronomy pictures together, all the sunsets together, all my GNOME icons together, and all my bounced checks together. The applications for criminal investigation are obvious, but I was thinking about something more intimate. For example, if your most recent romantic relationship ended abruptly, you can search your entire disk for pictures that include the person who dumped you and erase them all in seconds. —Mark Lautman

Well thank you very much, Mr. Lout Man, for revealing the secret goings-on in the Tool Bar & Grill's back room. Isn't that you in the expanded photo? Now we'll never be able to show our faces at the Bijou matinee ever again!

Did we overlook your favorite utility? Click “Post a comment” below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. I hope to see you and all your friends back here every week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites.

21 October 2007

#42. Apply for Minor Irritations

Hello again from the Tool Bar & Grill kitchen, where this week we’re whipping up some healing salves to soothe those minor irritants that sometimes can flare up into major inflammations. No, not jock itch or crabs – this is a software blog, remember?

We already know that I am especially picky about my computing experience, almost to the point of anal retentiveness (some might say far beyond). But clearly I’m not the only one, or utilities like the ones I review today would not exist. So bless you, free utility programmers, for writing prescriptions for my computer. This blog’s for you!

A Cat To Chase the Mouse

I thought only I could be bothered by the mouse pointer obstructing the text right where I’m typing. But there’s at least one other short-leashed touch-typer out there, and he did something about it – he wrote MouseAway.

Like an invisible cat, this tiny free utility detects when the mouse pointer is over the typing cursor and chases it away, relocating it a couple of lines down and a bit to the side. I tried MouseAway with Word, Excel, a text editor, and ToDoList in Windows XP, and it worked as promised.

It worked a little too well, in fact, because it’s very difficult to Ctrl-click a hyperlink when the mouse pointer keeps jumping away as you approach the link. And MouseAway doesn’t work in Web browsers, where it also would have been most welcome.

Subject to those two minor shortcomings, I recommend MouseAway. You can find it at http://www.geocities.com/mtetrode.

Open Up Those Open and Save Dialogs

There’s another itchy programmer out there, too. He was clearly frustrated by Windows’ inflexible Open and Save dialog boxes, which are too narrow to show long files names and file properties and cannot be resized. The intrepid irritated developer didn’t take it lying down. He fought back by developing OpenWide, a little utility that fixes the Open And Save dialogs.

Using OpenWide, you can specify the exact height and width of the Open and Save dialogs and their position on screen, or you can drag a sample dialog to the desired size and place.

OpenWide also can set the default pane style (list, detail, thumbnail, etc.) and the initial focus (so, for example, the file list has the focus instead of the File Name box). You can even drag a folder onto the dialog’s title bar to open that folder in the dialog. And if you right-click the window’s title bar, a Locate Current Folder with Explorer option opens a Windows Explorer window to the current folder. Now that’s handy.

OpenWide worked great in a number of applications, but strangely, did not work for me in Word and Excel under Windows XP. If you don’t mind that, OpenWide is available free from http://lingo.atspace.com/openwide.html.

By the way, Filebox Extender (reviewed in #16, 15 April 2007) also lets you expand the Open and Save dialogs by specifying a percentage of their original size.

I hope today’s post has helped provide you a with calmer, more comfortable computing, as it has me. And now for a special treat – another great Linux lesson from my co-host, Mark Lautman:

Waiter, Where's My \t?

by Mark Lautman

We had an unfortunate incident here in the Linux Room at the Tool Bar and Grill last week. I might as well tell you now before you read about it in the papers.

A temperamental customer started yelling at one of our waiters. “Hey, I didn't order \b(e[g]{2}s)\b, I ordered (b[na]{5}s)!”

“You ordered \2?” said the waiter. “I could have sworn you ordered \1!”

One thing lead to another, a few insults and shoves here and there, and the bouncers at the Tool Bar removed the surly customer. It turns out it was all a misunderstanding. After all, the funny punctuation marks in their conversation were regular expressions.

One common example of regular expressions is searching for a paragraph or tab character in Word. If you search for ^t in Word, you find all the tab characters; if you search for ^p, you find all the paragraph markers. The ^t and the ^p are regular expressions.

Why would you want to use regular expressions? Suppose you saved a web page as HTML, and you want to get rid of all those tags and just keep the text. You need to find and delete character sequences such as <td colspan=“3”>. That's a difficult thing to do in regular search-replace, particularly with all the variations in HTML tags, but with regular expressions you can search for them all by using a syntax like <.*> in Linux or \<*\> in Word.

It is hard to overstate the power of regular expressions when doing search and replace operations. In fact, since learning regular expressions, my life has become much easier: I don't work, I drink, I smoke, and party until about 4:00 AM. There's also no need to balance my checkbook.

Tutorials: If you're new to regular expressions (regular expressions), it's best to take a tutorial. Here are some that I've read.

Regular Expressions – A Simple User Guide is a wonderful way to become familiar with the terminology and use of regular expressions. The explanations on the first page are very clear and detailed.

ZVON, which as a collection of amazing tutorials on a variety of topics (and have saved my gnarly behind more than once), has a concise and readable tutorial Regular Expressions Tutorial. The best thing about ZVON's tutorials is that they are ad-free.

Regular-Expressions.info has fabulous explanations and examples, but the language is intended for programmers.

Validators: The syntax for complex regular expressions is very cryptic. I've often made an attempt to surgically find and remove text from large files, only to delete everything and then some. To help fine-tune your skills at regular expressions, as well as test regular expressions before you actually use them in a script, you can practice by using some on-line validators.

The Regular Expression Validator lets you type a regular expression and then a sequence of characters to see if the regular expression will find it. Regular Expression Checker is also an online validator. You can also find some on-line validators for Windows.

Regular expressions come in a variety of flavors, such as traditional, POSIX, PERL, and the special syntax in Word. If you use a validator, make sure it checks the syntax that your own program uses. In many cases, it’s best to just check the regular expression within the word processor itself.

Thank you, Mark! Did I overlook your favorite utility? Do you want to find out where Mark parties at night? Click “Post a comment” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And please visit here every week for more great utilities, Web sites, and Linux learning. And tell all your friends about the Tool Bar & Grill, too.

14 October 2007

#41. Just For Fun

Everyone likes a little levity, and your Tool Bar & Grill chef is no different. So after the doom-and-gloom scaremongering of the last few posts, let’s take some time out for the lighter side of the computing world. In future posts, we’ll get back to more sober advice about backing up, maintaining your computer, and other serious matters.

For Web Sites You Love To Hate

The Internet doesn’t usually provide the satisfaction of paper. For example, when you read an editorial in the newspaper that ticks you off, you can crumple it, tear it up, throw it down, or all three. But what can you do with a Web site that arouses your ire? If you punch your computer, you’ll be sorry (though haven’t we all been tempted?).

The happy-go-lucky folks at NetDisaster have the solution. Specify a Web site and the disaster you want to befall it (nukes, graffiti, spilled coffee, meteors, floods, and many more), and then watch havoc wreaked on the screen. A tool bar at the top enables you to change the hazard and other parameters.

Try it out, perhaps, on http://www.president.ir/en or http://www.almanar.com.lb (a couple of my favorites). It’s all in good fun, of course, and does not affect the actual Web site (dadgumit!). Still not as satisfying as the paper, but better than just clicking away.

Mama, That Icon’s Staring At Me

In your browser, each Web site is represented by a tiny icon, called a favicon. Occasionally the icons get confused and have no connection to the site at all, which disturbs classic anal-retentive cases like me. And if you have your own site, you might have struggled with creating and applying a favicon of your own.

Favicon rides to the rescue. You can upload images to the Favicon site, or draw your own on screen (a color picker is provided). In just seconds, Favicon converts the image or drawing to a 16x16-pixel icon that you then download to your computer.

Fly For Free

Flight simulators are among the most popular game programs. They are not just for people who want to be pilots but get airsick. (In fact, on a strong computer the best flight simulators also can make you airsick.) Now there are two new ways to fly at your desk, and they are both free.

The open-source movement is not only about serious computing. Those geeks know how to have fun, too. That’s how FlightGear came to be. I have not tried it yet, but this simulator has earned very favorable reviews, even among the dedicated wonks at www.flightsim.com. FlightGear cuts back slightly on graphic realism, but also does not require a supercomputer to run. (It also works on Linux and Mac OSX.)

The fun-loving eggheads at Google were not to be denied their kicks, either. They embedded a hidden flight simulator in the latest version of Google Earth. Press Alt+Ctrl+A to open the simulator in Google Earth. The experience does not compare to commercial flight simulator games, but it’s pretty good for its price.

Well, that’s just about all the laughs I can handle in one sitting. I hope you’ll make my Tool Bar & Grill a regular part of your weekly Web surfing – and if you like it, please tell the world about it through Digg, Del.icio.us, Stumble Upon, Technorati, and other services. I'll be grateful! Do feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

07 October 2007

#40. Never Back Down. Just Back Up

Welcome to the second part of my review of local hard disk backup utilities. Last week I explained general backup concepts and described what I look for in a backup program. I have examined a number of well-known free backup tools, and now can offer some recommendations.

So without further ado, here are some great freeware backup solutions and a couple of shareware choices, too. Each of the recommended programs has its charms, so the choice is yours.


The Internet is awash with free backup programs, but many are hardly worth their price. I did find a few winners, though.

Cobian Backup

Cobian Backup is my favorite among the free backup utilities, and the only one that runs under Vista. It offers a good balance of functionality and usability.

Backup item selection: Files, folders, and entire drives. Select by browsing, dragging from Windows Explorer, or specifying inclusion and/or exclusion file masks by extension (for example, *.doc, *.xls, *.txt, etc.).

Profiles: You can set up multiple backup sets (tasks) for different purposes.

Backup types: Full, differential, and incremental. You can specify that the first backup of each differential or incremental task is full. Versioned backups can be created with time stamps in their file names.

Scheduler: Run an unattended backup once or daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, or at a specified interval in minutes, in addition to a manual backup.

File format and encryption: Save files in compressed ZIP format or the new ZIP64 format that overcomes the 2 GB file size limit. Either can be encrypted with a ZIP password. For greater security you can use Cobian’s SQX compression format, choosing from four strong encryption schemes: Rijndael, RSA Rijndael (the randomly generated password is itself encrypted), Blowfish, and DES (or none, if you prefer). There is an option to skip compression of already-compressed file types (such as JPG, MP3, ZIP, etc.).

Destinations: Backups can be copied to a hard disk or other drive, burned to a CD or DVD, or transmitted over the Internet by FTP. You can choose to automatically split large backups according to the removable media size (CD, DVD, floppy disk, etc.) to span multiple disks. You can back up to multiple destinations at once.

Notification: Cobian can email you its log file to notify you of the results of its operations.

Special functions: Cobian does not back up open files, but can be directed to close open files, back them up, and then reopen the parent application. You can specify other programs to be run before and/or after a backup. Cobian does not locate special files such as Outlook or Outlook Express data files for you, and does not offer to back up the Windows registry.

Ease of use and GUI: This program is fairly easy to learn and use, with a simple and clear graphical user interface (GUI). However, the quality of the on-line help is erratic, and it is not well organized.

Windows versions supported: NT, 2000, XP, 2003, Vista.

Download site: You can download Cobian Backup version 8 (named “Black Moon”) from http://www.cobian.se

Cobian Backup is donationware, so if you like it, please support the author with a contribution.

SyncBack Free

SyncBack is among the most popular backup utilities. The free version is generally quite adequate for most purposes, but suffers from limited functionality in comparison to Cobian. The publisher also offers a more feature-rich paid version.

Backup item selection: Files, folders, and entire drives. Select by browsing or specifying inclusion and/or exclusion file masks.

Profiles: You can set up multiple backup sets for different purposes.

Backup types: Full and incremental.

Scheduler: Uses the Windows scheduler to run an unattended backup once or daily, weekly, monthly, at system startup, at log-on, or whenever the computer is idle.

File format and encryption: SyncBack saves files in native or compressed ZIP format (4 GB limit). Compressed files can be encrypted with a ZIP password.

Destinations: Backups can be copied to a hard disk or other drive, burned to a CD or DVD (no splitting), or transmitted over the Internet by FTP.

Notification: Can email you its log file to notify you of the results of its operations.

Special functions: SyncBack Free does not back up open files, but can specify windows to close before backup. It can run specified programs before and/or after backup. It does not locate special files such as Outlook or Outlook Express data files for you, and does not offer to back up the Windows registry.

Ease of use and GUI: You can choose “easy” or “expert” (more options) mode. This program is a bit harder to figure out than Cobian, and has a more complicated GUI, yet offers fewer options.

Windows versions supported: 2000, XP, 2003 Server.

Download site: You can download SyncBack Free from http://www.2brightsparks.com/freeware/freeware-hub.html

Simply Safe Backup

In last week’s introduction to backup utilities, I offered a preliminary recommendation of Simply Safe Backup. After more evaluation, however, I have relegated this program to third place among the free tools, primarily due to its relatively primitive and busy interface. The publisher does offer a more feature-rich paid version.

Backup item selection: Files, folders, and entire drives. Select by browsing or specifying inclusion and/or exclusion file masks. Archives are limited to 79,999 files in the free version.

Profiles: You can set up multiple backup sets for different purposes.

Backup types: Full or incremental, and by date or elapsed time. Versioned backups can be created with time stamps in their file names.

Scheduler: Schedule backups by the hour, day, week, month, or year; make a new volume weekly, monthly, or every 3 or 15 days.

File format and encryption: Simply Safe Backup saves files in compressed ZIP format (can be encrypted with a ZIP password) or a proprietary format with 128-bit encryption.

Destinations: Backups can be copied to a hard disk or other drive, burned to a CD or DVD, or transmitted over the Internet by FTP. The interface shows an option for splitting volumes to span multiple disks, but it didn’t work for me.

Notification: Simply Safe Backup also can email you its log file to notify you of the results of its operations.

Special functions: Simply Safe Backup does not back up open files, but can stop specified Windows services before backup and restart them afterward. It can run specified programs before and/or after backup. It does not locate special files such as Outlook or Outlook Express data files. However, it does offer to back up the Windows registry.

Ease of use and GUI: This program was last updated in early 2005, and its GUI looks dated and complicated.

Windows versions supported: 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP.

Download site: You can download Simply Safe Backup from http://www.simplysafebackup.com/new_index.php?page=main.htm


JaBack is the new kid on the free backup block, and appears to be still virtually unknown. I did not test it thoroughly after I could not find an option to encrypt ZIP-format backup files. The encryption options I found were “Hitek” (the publisher’s name) or Java encryption.

However, JaBack looks like it could become a good backup tool if future versions are enhanced with greater functionality. Its GUI is attractive, though with confusing and unfamiliar terminology. It can run chains of tasks and synchronize folders. It saves backups in ZIP format, but not ZIP64. It can FTP or email archives, but not burn them on CDs or DVDs. Backups can be scheduled by the second, hour, day week, month, or at a specified time. You can add the date and time to the file name to create versioned backups.

You can try out JaBack at http://www.hiteksoftware.com/jaba


I took the opportunity to try out a couple of shareware backup utilities that were offered for free at Giveaway Of The Day, a Web site that offers a different shareware program for free each day (and only for that day). The two backup programs described here are like GM cars: produced by the same parent company and sharing the same mechanical systems, but with different bodies bolted on top. I like them both.

Titan Backup

Titan Backup impressed me with its feature set, yet still is easy to use.

Backup item selection: Files, folders, and entire drives. Select by browsing or specifying inclusion and/or exclusion file masks. Can automatically exclude temporary and useless files. Predefined sets provided for picture, music, video, financial, and productivity (Office, PDF, etc.) file extensions. You can see only file names and sizes when selecting, but not dates or other properties.

Profiles: You can set up multiple backup sets for different purposes through a step-by-step wizard. Special file types you can select include emails, contacts, rules, signatures (predefined sets for Outlook Express, Outlook, Eudora, Thunderbird, Opera, and Windows Mail); registry keys; and user settings for Windows, browsers, IM clients, media players, and certain utilities.

Backup types: Full, differential, and incremental, with or without versioning. A preview window shows differences between the current file and the last backup.

Scheduler: Manual, one time, on Windows startup or shutdown, or by day of the week or an interval of hours or days .

File format and encryption: Native or compressed ZIP format (can be encrypted with a ZIP password) or 256-bit AES encryption.

Destinations: Backups can be copied to a hard disk or other drive, burned to a CD or DVD (with spanning), or transmitted over the Internet by FTP.

Notification: Titan can email you to notify you of the results of its operations.

Special functions: Does not back up open files. Automatically finds Outlook, Outlook Express, and other special data files (see “Profiles” above). Titan Backup can run specified programs before and/or after backup. It can back up the Windows registry.

Ease of use and GUI: This program’s GUI is slick and easy to use, but presents a lot of choices.

Windows versions supported: 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, Vista.

Titan Backup costs $39.95.

Download site: http://www.titanbackup.com

Insofta Document Backup

Last week, I tentatively recommended Insofta Document Backup as my shareware choice for backup utilities. This program hides many of Titan’s advanced options behind a slick, easy-to-use wizard interface, though you can get to more hidden options with a little digging.

The attempt to simplify the interface, and perhaps the lower price, led this program’s designers to skimp a bit on features. Among the cut corners, I noticed that the file and folder selection window is small and not resizable. There are no preset profiles, and only Outlook Express data files are found automatically. Backups can be scheduled daily, on a specified weekday or day of the month, at custom intervals, or on Windows startup (but not shutdown).

On the positive side, there is an option to skip compression of already-compressed file types. Like Titan, all Windows versions are supported.

Insofta Document Backup costs $29 for 1 year, or $59 for unlimited updates and support.

Download site: http://www.documentbackup.com

I have not researched commercial backup utilities in depth, so my recommendation is not conclusive. Yet based on what I know, I now recommend Titan Backup for those who are willing to pay for the greater functionality that shareware offers. Titan’s features justify its higher cost and slightly greater complexity, compared to Document Backup. And keep watching Giveaway Of The Day, because offerings sometimes are repeated, especially after a new version of the software is released.

Backups Under Linux

[Please welcome back special guest blogger and Linux wizard Mark Lautman, here providing the view on backup utilities from the other side of the street. –jp]

When it comes to Linux, the best, safest, quickest, and most reliable method of backing up your files is to print every single one of them, arrange them in alphabetical order, and store them in a climate-controlled safe. When you need to reconstruct something, go to the safe, take the hard copy back home, and retype it.

If you’re looking for something a tad more automated, there aren’t very many choices. Most backups involve using the Tar command. Tar comes with almost every Linux distribution, and it’s very versatile. You can make incremental updates, update only those files that changed, exclude file names matching a pattern, and extract specific files or entire directories. In fact, on Ubuntu distributions there are at least 40 options for Tar, so there is something for the most discriminating of vegetarians. I use Tar to back up my own computer, filtering out unnecessary files so that the archive fits on a CD. The problem with Tar is that you need to build a finely tuned script, which requires a lot of time that could otherwise be invested at the tanning salon.

If you’re running a file server on a network at home or in the office, you can use Amanda (Advanced Maryland Automatic Network Disk Archiver). This backer-upper works on client-server architectures. One daemon runs on the server, and another runs on individual computers. Like Tar, Amanda is difficult to set up, but once it runs you are assured that backups are being created at regular intervals.

Those who use KDE can take advantage of Konserve. It runs in the background on your computer, and automatically backs up files in the directories you specify at the required frequency. Konserve’s simplicity means you pay the price in lack of control. It backs up everything in the directories – no exclusions, no backstage passes, no family discounts.

Gotta run... My sister asked for my grandmother's pancake recipe, and it's in box 4A on the upper rack in an Interpol warehouse. –Mark Lautman

I hope this special edition of my Tool Bar & Grill has been useful to you. If it causes most of you to back up your hard disk regularly, I will be happy. Please send me your comments by clicking the link below or writing to me at jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com, and do come back next week with all your friends!