27 January 2008

#55. Funny Name, Serious Disk Analyzer

Ola, amigos, from the Tool Bar & Grill, where sometimes the Special of the Day is refritos. Today I’m serving up new information on a disk reporting utility that updates my previous post on the topic.

Back in November I reviewed a couple of great disk-space reporters (“What’s Eating You?”, post #46). These handy utilities analyze your hard disk and tell you what file types are occupying its space, and in what proportions. This information can be invaluable for diagnosing and resolving space shortages and other problems. Recently I came across another such utility, and found it well worth your consideration.

Xinorbis is the name, disk analysis is the game. This clever program provides a plethora of data about the condition of your hard disk and the files that fill it. Xinorbis can analyze any drive or folder. The illustrative screen below shows just one of many different views of your disk data.

You can filter and sort the information, and present it graphically as either pie or bar charts.
You can’t delete or move files from within the program, as you can with WinDirStat. And Xinorbis’s graphs and legends are smaller than those provided by JDiskReport, my previous recommendation, and thus are not quite as easy to read.

So if you want the most detailed data possible, use Xinorbis. If you don’t need that much information, stick with JDiskReport. And if you want a disk report that looks like modern art, and enables you to delete files without leaving it, go for WinDirStat.

Xinorbis is free, was updated quite recently to version 3.6, and works on all versions of Windows from 98 to Vista. The publisher, Paul Alan Freshney, also offers a number of other interesting, special-purpose utilities that you might want to check out.

I hope you’ll come back for more great utility reviews every week, and bring all your friends! Please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

20 January 2008

#54. Pretty Darn Fine PDF Conversion

Hello again from the Tool Bar & Grill, where the hot kitchen is a comfort on cold winter days (apologies to those of you below the equator). Then again, a hot kitchen is always comforting to a big eater like me.

While stirring the linguine and listening to old Porter and Dolly duets, a few of us got to talking about the problems of editing PDF files. Portable Document Format is a nearly universal standard for sharing and securing documents while preserving all their formatting. Adobe Systems devised the PDF format years ago, and publishes the gold-standard software, Acrobat, for creating PDFs from other programs.

How To Edit a PDF

So what if you need to modify a document, but you only have it in PDF format? If you have Adobe Acrobat, you can edit the PDF file directly, or save it to a Microsoft Word or Rich Text Format (RTF) file, which most word processors can read. But Acrobat costs hundreds of dollars, and is overkill if you just need to edit an occasional PDF.

The Internet offers a number of free utilities that convert PDF files to plain text (for example, Text Mining Tool, which extracts only the text from PDFs as well as HTML and CHM on-line help files). But what if you don’t want to lose all the document’s heading structure and formatting?

Like a naturalist chef who scours the meadows and forests for just the right herbs, I went in search of the perfect utility for transforming PDFs to Microsoft Word or RTF format while preserving the format and layout. I found some shareware programs that claim this ability, ranging in price from the $20s to the hundreds… but if I have to pay for it, it isn’t perfect, right? The search continued.

I recently heard about such a utility from my colleague Samer, the FreewareGenius, so I tried it out. Free PDF To Word Converter presents a simple, clear interface:

My test PDF documents were one page of heavily formatted text (60 KB), a seven-page pamphlet (416 KB), and a couple of large user guides with graphics (5 and 6 MB). None converted perfectly. In all my tests, all the text adopted Normal style, as expected, including its Times New Roman font, and spaces were substituted for tabs.

Among the other major conversion effects of Free PDF To Word Converter, each line in the resulting Word was in a separate text box (required for proper positioning). Boldfacing and indents generally were preserved. Some bulleted lists lost their bullets entirely, while other lists saw their bullets represented as graphic symbols, not Word lists. And despite the author’s claim to preserve graphics, the user guides’ graphics were lost entirely. Worse yet, one user guide (the more complex one) came out so tiny that it was unreadable even at Word’s maximum 500% magnification, though the other one was properly sized.

To edit a file resulting from such a conversion, you have to extract the text from the text boxes, manually apply styles, reapply formatting and layout as needed throughout the document, and replace the graphics – for starters. This is a lot of work. However, when faced with a large document, you might still prefer that to reformatting it all from scratch. And you can tell Free PDF To Word Converter not to use text boxes, though page layouts can suffer as a result.

After several conversions, Free PDF To Word Converter demands that you get a free registration code from its Web site to continue. You have to solve a fairly simple arithmetic problem (which I ashamed to admit I failed several times, despite using a calculator) to get the code, or you can bypass the math by buying a lifetime registration code for $15.

Next I tried the pdf995 conversion suite, which is among the better-known PDF converters that attempt to compete with Adobe Acrobat. This suite comprises four main programs, downloaded separately, so installation is a bit complicated. (You can use pdf995 for free, buy individual modules for $9.95 each, or buy the whole suite for $19.95.) Finding the PDF-to-Word or HTML conversion dialog box is not very intuitive.

Pdf995 first converts the PDF to HTML, then saves it as a Word DOC file. The resulting file lost most of the text formatting, but boldfacing was preserved. All the bullets, indentation, and graphics were gone. A soft return was inserted at the end of every line, but the lines were not encased in text boxes – making it easier to reformat the text to look like the original, using Find and Replace a lot. Some hyperlinks were preserved, and a gray page background was added. Unfortunately, pdf995 was unable to convert the large user guides at all.

The Internet offers another way to convert PDFs to Word or other formats: Upload your PDF file to conversion Web site Zamzar, and provide your email address. In a few seconds to a few minutes, you’ll receive an emailed link to where your converted document awaits downloading. The free service limits your source files to 100 MB each, though that should be more than adequate for most needs; you can pay for faster service and a 1 GB file limit.

In converting my smaller PDFs, Zamzar enclosed large blocks of text in text boxes (not line by line). It converted list bullets to symbols, but preserved positioning, relative type sizes, boldfacing, and hyperlinks. It inserted nonbreaking spaces between words in one document but not another.

Uploading a large file to Zamzar can take quite a long time. Unfortunately, Zamzar gagged on uploading my two large user guides and failed to complete the upload, though each is barely more than 1/20 of Zamzar’s declared size limit.

As an alternative, you can let Adobe do the work for you. Mail a PDF attachment to pdf2html@adobe.com, and Adobe sends you back an HTML file that you can open and edit in Word. Adobe lost the graphics and bullets in my smaller files and messed up the page layouts and page breaks. But the text generally came out reasonably well, preserving boldface and hyperlinks, and without text boxes or returns at the ends of lines. Adobe doesn’t specify a maximum file size, but it rejected my user guides of over 5 MB each.

If you have a Gmail account, you can get similar results by emailing a PDF file to yourself. When you receive the email, click View As HTML next to the attachment. Save the HTML page on your disk, then open it in Word. Unlike Adobe’s conversion, however, you will find a hard return at the end of every line.

In conclusion, I recommend Free PDF To Word Converter, especially for large files, though you’ll have to choose whether to use text boxes. Zamzar and Adobe are good alternatives for smaller files, though you should think twice about uploading confidential information. Remember, no matter how you convert your PDFs into Word, you still will have a lot of formatting clean-up work to do afterward.

In a future column, I’ll review some free programs for creating PDFs from Word and other documents without Acrobat.

And now for something completely different: Mark Lautman continues his appreciation of the beauty of SVGs, started two weeks ago.

Scalable Vector Graphic Collections

by Mark Lautman

In my column in post #52, I introduced scalable vector graphics (SVGs) and how to view them in web browsers. This week I'll provide a list of some places where you can get SVGs, as well as how to view them in common office applications.

There are two predominant open formats for SVG: the OpenDocument Format describes what OpenOffice files are supposed to be. This specification describes, among other things, the SVG format used by OpenOffice Draw. There are two significant collections of SVG graphics in this format:

  • The highest quality, easiest to use, and most finely honed collection is my very own at Custom OO Shapes. I started creating this collection almost two years ago, and maintain that it is the first such collection on the Internet.
  • Putting ego aside, a more comprehensive collection is available from OxygenOffice Professional. The developers of this project offer hundreds of shapes, and encourage designers to contribute their own drawings.

The other SVG format is specified by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and this is what Web browsers display. There are many more graphics available in this format compared to OpenDocument.

You can open these last two collections only in Web browsers, not directly in OpenOffice. Fortunately, you can convert them into something more useful. The SVG Import Filter for OpenOffice comes in two flavors. The first is an extension that you add onto OpenOffice, enabling you to open W3C files directly in OO. I could get this extension to work in Windows, but not in Linux. The other flavor is a command-line utility that converts SVG files to OO Draw format.

(In preparing this column, I discovered that the Gnome desktop also displays thumbnails of SVG files, as the illustration above indicates.)

You can also go the reverse direction. OpenOffice has an export feature that saves a diagram as SVG, which you can view in a Web browser.

In my next column on SVGs, I'll discuss a few tools for creating SVG files. Mark Lautman

Alert for Norton Internet Security Users

If you use the anti-spam module of Norton Internet Security 2007 or earlier, and have painstakingly compiled a black list (spammer addresses to be blocked) and white list (non-spammer addresses to be allowed), do not upgrade to NIS 2008 yet! It recently has been revealed that the upgrade package deletes your previous black and white lists. Symantec says they're working on a new 2008 upgrade that can import previous lists, so wait for that one – and back up your existing lists anyway.

We Tool Bar & Grill denizens are glad you could join our warm chat beside the stove. Please feel free to explore our advertisers’ offerings by clicking the ads in or alongside this column. And be sure to share your remarks by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. We’ll look forward to your returning for more great utility and Web site reviews every week, along with all your friends!

13 January 2008

#53. Getting Clipped and Loving It

We don’t allow our customers to get clipped* at the Tool Bar & Grill. But we do like to help them manage their clips. Clips, of course, are items that you copy or cut, for pasting elsewhere.
[*For my non-American readers, “getting clipped” is slang for being cheated.]
Windows provides a “clipboard” that remembers the last clip you copied or cut, enabling you to paste it. But the primitive Windows clipboard holds only one item. Copy something else, and your first clip is gone forever. Sorry, Bill, that’s not good enough. To work efficiently, we need to copy many items from various places, and then paste some here, some there… and keep some permanently for repeated future pasting (i.e., “boilerplate”).
True, Microsoft Office has an enhanced clipboard that holds up to 24 items. Sorry, Bill, still not good enough – we need still more clips, and not just when using Office.
Fortunately for you, the Internet offers many clipboard management utilities that hold large numbers of clips, and enable us to do far more with them, absolutely free. Even more fortunately, you have me to recommend the best among them. And on top of that, you also have Mark Lautman to tell you about Linux clipboard managers.
Having tried many clipboard managers over many years, I now rank ClipMagic and ArsClip as my favorites.
Gold Medal: ArsClip
ArsClip is a the clipboard tool I use on a day-to-day basis. This free, open-source utility stores both rich text (but only if saved as a permanent item, that is, boilerplate) and graphics with previews. You can edit text clips, and you can arrange how they appear in the list (see the example below), with multiple categories of boilerplate clips. You can search for clips, and ArsClip also remembers recently deleted clips on a submenu.
To paste a stored clip, just pop up the list with a hot key and select the clip with the mouse or keyboard.
ArsClip won first place with its efficient balance between deep functionality and ease of use. It works will all versions of Windows.
Silver Medal: ClipMagic
ClipMagic is former shareware that is now free. Its rich array of features results in some complexity, but the learning curve is by no means an Everest. ClipMagic supports rich text and graphics with preview. You can edit and merge text clips and check their spelling.
You can set up a tree of categories for your clips, and specify the age or number of clips to keep for each category (forever for boilerplate). You can define rules for automatically categorizing clips, ignoring certain types, and more. You can search for clips and filter the list.
What’s more, ClipMagic stores metadata about each clip; for example, you can attach searchable notes to a clip. And if you copy a clip from a Web site, ClipMagic records the address with the clip (see the screen shot below). The clip database can be backed up automatically on a schedule.
The main reason ClipMagic took second place is that its primary function, pasting clips, is more complicated than it should be. Even if you change the default configuration to enable easier pasting, you still must open the clip list, select an item, close the list, and then paste the item. ClipMagic also includes a screen capture tool (window or region), but this did not work for me.
ClipMagic is the choice when you need to classify and manipulate clips in many ways. It claims to work with Windows versions up to XP (I have not tried it with Vista yet).
Bronze Medal: It's a Tie
Honorable mention goes to:
Yankee Clipper III is distinguished by its simplicity and drag-and-drop operation. Its erratic forgetfulness on my system behavior cost it a higher rank.
Clipboard Help+Spell offers sophisticated features like spell-checking, basic formatting (trim lines, strip characters, change case), automatic database backup, and more. But its inability to preserve rich text formatting and graphics, and its steep learning curve, hold it back.
Clipboard Management in Linux
By Mark Lautman
There we were in the Linux Room, finalizing our column for this week's issue of the Tool Bar and Grill. All of the sudden the editor-in-chief came in.
“Stop whatever you’re doing. We're doing a special edition for clipboard utilities.”
“But, boss, I just figured out how to break into the Chinese banking system. I think our readers will be more interested in free money than in clipboard...”
“Never mind that! Our readers are a spiritual crowd, and they want utility, not instant wealth!”
When we talk about managing the clipboard in Linux, the first question we need to ask is “Which clipboard?” There are three that I know of:
  • The desktop clipboard (accessed by Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V)
  • The Xterm clipboard (accessed by selecting text in a command window)
  • The VIM clipboard (accessed by a " and a register letter)
The VIM clipboard is native to that program, so there is little magic available for it.
However, for the first two clipboards, there is a nifty utility called Glipper (for Gnome) and Klipper (included with KDE). It picks up all your copies or selects, and you can display them by pressing a shortcut key (Ctrl+Alt+C by default). This utility works only for text, not graphics or other objects. Here’s what it looks like:
If you are running KDE, you can also use the included xclipboard. This utility collects your copies from the desktop. You can edit text entries. Click Next or Previous, and then paste the visible entry into the target application. It seems to copy all objects, but I couldn't get it to paste graphics into OpenOffice.
One small Java utility can be used with all operating systems: clip2png. This saves a graphic in the clipboard as a Portable Network Graphics (PNG) file on your desktop. —Mark Lautman
Thanks for getting clipped at the Tool Bar & Grill today. Please return every week for more great utility recommendations. And feel free to explore our advertisers’ offerings by clicking on the ads in and alongside this column.
Did I overlook your favorite utility? Tell us about it by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

06 January 2008

#52. Bite-Size Utility Assortment

It’s tapas week at the Tool Bar & Grill, where today’s offering is a buffet of delightful little morsels – a variety of small special-purpose utilities, all in one place. And after the appetizing tapas, special guest blogger Mark Lautman tells us about Something Very Good: SVG.

Skrommel to the Rescue

I have long been a devoted fan of DonationCoder, a public service site that hosts and encourages developers of free software. DonationCoder includes downloads, reviews, and professional forums. I have found some great utilities there, including Screen Captor, Clipboard Help+Spell, and Find And Run Robot.

One particular DonationCoder page is a veritable cornucopia of clever little utilities: Skrommel’s 1-Hour Software, a collection of executable AutoHotKey scripts that sprang from Skrommel’s imaginative mind. I could not discover anything else about this Skrommel, but the utility-using public owes him or her much gratitude – and some donations to express it, too.

I can’t list all of Skrommel’s little programs because there are about 100 of them, but by listing some of my favorites, I do not imply that the others are less worthy of your consideration. Here is just a sampling of Skrommel 1-hour utilities:

  • GoneIn60s – After you close a program, this utility holds it open in the background for another minute, enabling you to recover it if you closed it accidentally.
  • ShiftOff – Turns CapsLock off when you press Shift and a letter key.
  • TrayScreenSaver – Select and launch screen savers from the system tray.
  • DoOver – Record keystrokes and mouse actions into a macro, edit it, and play it back.
  • WhatColor – Identifies the RGB colors of any color on screen.
  • ToddlerTrap – Disables key and mouse input, for when Junior or Fluffy traipse across the keyboard (or if you just want to clean it).
  • NoStrayClicks – Disables a laptop’s touchpad.
  • AutoClip – Replaces text as you type with any other designated text, clip, or image.
  • Noise – Keeps the computer from falling asleep by sending it keystrokes.
  • BatteryRun – Runs the command you specify whenever the power plug is connected or disconnected.
  • Barnacle – Adds your custom macro toolbar to any program.

Head over to DonationCoder and find your own favorites. If you use and like any of them, I encourage you to send a donation to reward the author.

SVG: Not Your Mother's HTML

By Mark Lautman

If you've made a diagram with OpenOffice Draw, you've used it. If you've made an organization chart in Visio, you've used it. If you've resized a clip art, you've used it. If you zoomed in and out of a PDF, you've used it. The “it” is Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and the stuff is everywhere -- even in the food you drink, the water you breathe, and the air you eat. (Maybe the water you eat, the food you breath... oh, never mind.)

First, a brief background on SVGs. An SVG file contains commands like “move to point A, then draw a red line from A to B, then arc from B to C, return to A, and then fill the enclosed area with a 30% gray color.” Plotters provide a good visualization of SVG commands; this YouTube video is an example. You see a variety of commands moving the pens up and down, to and from a variety of points. These are precisely the commands embedded in an SVG.

The beauty of SVGs is that they are truly “scalable.” You can resize the objects and they retain their original, undistorted shapes – something that most 40-year-olds would like to do as well. If the original command says to move the pen 100 units to the right, and you scale the image by 50%, then the command recomputes to move the pen only 50 units to the right.

Until now, you could view SVGs only in drawing programs, like OpenOffice Draw, Visio, and PowerPoint. However, now some modern web browsers also can render SVGs. If you're running Firefox 1.5 or later, take a look at http://www.carto.net/papers/svg/samples/shapes.svg. It should appear as follows:

These shapes are not images, they are scalable graphics. If you reduce your browser window to one-fourth of the screen, you'll notice that the shapes automatically reduce in size.

The Zoom And Pan Firefox add-in enables you to zoom and pan across SVGs. The following example shows the previous image magnified several times. Because the objects are scalable, they don't suffer from the “jaggies” like magnified raster graphics.

Adobe has a fabulous browser plug-in for viewing feature-rich SVGs. The SVG Viewer displays SVGs that include animation. (Note: Adobe has announced that it will stop supporting SVG Viewer after 2008.)

In the next column I'll discuss some great sources for SVG files. In the meantime, enjoy this poem based on the pat-a-cake nursery rhyme:

There's the monster, there's the monster, in Loch Ness,
Draw me its figure in five seconds or less.
Zoom it, turn it, and fill it with green,
It still looks perfect -- it must be SVG! —Mark Lautman

I trust you found today’s Tool Bar & Grill snacks satisfying. Do please return next week for more helpful utility and Web site recommendations, and tell everyone you know about us too! I encourage you to share your ideas and suggestions by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.