Lots of my non-technical friends often ask me what the best program for this or best program for that is. In fact, it happens so often that I decided to put a list of them here, so that they could look it up for themselves. However, I figured that a generic list might be a little boring, so I decided to make the list the “First Annual JIMCOFER.COM Best Of IT” Awards – complete with commentary! So put on your black tie and let’s roll out the red carpet… it’s award time!
Office suites are packages of software mostly used in business. They almost always include a word processor and a spreadsheet application, and nowadays most suites come with presentation software, personal information management (PIM) software, and maybe even HTML editing and database software.
Microsoft Office is the 800-pound gorilla in the office suite category, and for good reason: Microsoft has spent millions in R&D making Office as easy to use as possible. And since 90%+ of all businesses use Microsoft Office, you can be sure that any document that you send to a business will be able to be read by the recipient. OpenOffice.org is a package of programs that mirror the capabilities of Microsoft Office, yet has one important difference: it’s free. Although OpenOffice.org is still rough around the edges in many aspects, it’s definitely coming along nicely. Although OpenOffice.org claims to seamlessly import Microsoft Office documents, beware that the conversion doesn’t always work that well in complex documents.
So – which office suite is for you? Well, if you have a need to exchange Microsoft Office documents with colleagues, I’d tell you to stick with that. If, on the other hand, you simply need an office suite for your own purposes and don’t envision yourself needing to send the documents to a business. why not save your money and use OpenOffice.org instead?
I always hated Netscape. I found it clunky, slow and riddled with bugs… and apparently I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. I cheered when Internet Explorer finally pounded Netscape into the dust in the great “Browser War” of the late 1990s. But then Microsoft sat on its big fat ass for the next several years. Internet Explorer just sat there, stale and rotting, while the guys from Firefox took the Netscape code and re-engineered it from top to bottom, making Firefox the leanest, meanest browser in all the land. And not only is Firefox small, fast and secure, it comes with endless possibilities. Firefox supports extensions and themes, which allow the user to tweak the Firefox experience and user interface to their heart’s content. But although Firefox is king of the hill (well, my hill) now, it’d better watch its back: Internet Explorer 7.0 looks pretty good. Plus, although Firefox is considered to be more “secure” than Internet Explorer, much of that has to do with Firefox’s small user base. As more and more people more to the ‘fox, more and more exploits are being discovered.
I’m sure I’ll get hate mail from fans of the Opera browser, but I just don’t like Opera. It’s that simple. It renders some sites (like this one) in a bizarre way and has a cluttered interface. I know the Opera fans are hardcore, and if that’s your thing, have fun using it. But I’m *still* not interested in using it.
Best Email Client
Winner: Microsoft Outlook
Runner-up: Various (see below)
Yaaaa – more hate mail! Look folks, I’ve been using Outlook for years, and I’ve seen it mature from barely usable (Outlook 97), to easy to use but highly insecure (Outlook 98), to secure but annoying (Outlook 2000), to almost there (Outlook 2002) to almost perfect (Outlook 2003). Outlook is the client of choice in the corporate world, and this means two things in particular: Microsoft’s fear of losing corporate customers to Lotus Notes or a Linux solution has forced the Office team to make Outlook one of the most secure email clients out there; secondly, the sheer numbers of people using Outlook mean that almost every piece of third-party software out there that interfaces with email or PIM information can interface with Outlook. Whether you want to synchronize your Palm or Windows PDA to your email and contacts, whether you want to export your personal calendar to Yahoo! or Google Calendar, whether you want to create vacation request email forms for your company, whether you want to get RSS feeds in your Inbox, whether you want to connect to Exchange, POP or IMAP servers, whether you want to import Bulgarian holidays into your calendar… either Outlook can do it out of the box or with some third-party plug-in, which is more than I can say for most of the runners-up below. Outlook 2003 is easily the best version of Outlook yet, with its reading pane, two line view and junk email filters. Never has it been easier to manage thousands of emails, especially now that Outlook 2003’s native PST format can use 20GB (or more!) PST files.
I’ve used Outlook for so long that I don’t even know where to begin to rate the runners-up. There’s always Outlook Express, which is included free with every copy of Windows XP. It works fine, but I just can’t get excited about it. Then there’s Thunderbird, the Mozilla project’s freeware email program. I wouldn’t have recommended this at all a while ago, but it seems that the project has finally gotten some stability. Use what you want, but I’ll stick with Outlook.
Let me make this perfectly clear: Kaspersky Labs makes the best anti-virus product, hands down. It’s not even close, folks. In a world of mediocre anti-virus programs (McAfee VirusScan) and downright dangerous anti-virus programs (Norton Anti-Virus), Kaspersky Anti-Virus Personal (KAV) stands out as a Mercedes Benz, Bentley and Rolls Royce all rolled into one. It uses far less RAM than most AV products, and is the least intrusive anti-virus program I’ve ever used. KAV also consistently ranks at the top of the pack in virus detection percentages, hovering somewhere near the 99% mark. And unlike other AV apps (Norton Anti-Virus, I’m looking directly at you) KAV is easy to install, use and uninstall. The bottom line: if you want the best anti-virus protection there is, KAV is for you!
If, however, you’d like virus protection on the cheap, AVG Free Edition does the job well enough and doesn’t cost a dime. Keep in mind that AVG Free is only licensed for home use, though; if you want to use AVG at a business, you need to buy a license.
Sure, there are plenty of image viewer programs out there with more features than Windows XP’s built-in “Windows Picture and Fax Viewer”. But XP can handle about 99% of all the image viewing tasks an end user will have, especially if used in conjunction with Windows Explorer’s “thumbnail” view and Microsoft’s “Image Resizer” powertoy. Windows Picture and Fax Viewer can display images, rotate them, cycle through them via mouse button or Page Up and Page Down keys, and even provides some limited slide show features.
Of course, there will always be the person that needs a more robust viewer, and for that there’s IrfanView. Long considered to be one of the best pieces of freeware ever, IrfanView crams an almost impossible number of groovy features into an easy-to-use interface. IrfanView supports just about *every* image format ever invented and has a nice “batch processing” feature for making changes to lots of photographs at a time.
No, Adobe Photoshop isn’t on this list. It’s far too expensive and far too complex for most home users to figure out. Jasc Software’s Paint Shop Pro (now owned by Corel) has almost as many features as Photoshop, but with an easier-to-understand interface and with a much nicer price tag too! If you need to manipulate images, “PSP” is the way to go.
If you use Windows 2000 or XP, you might wanna check out Paint.NET, a program originally developed at Washington State University with the blessing and assistance of Microsoft. It’s like the “Microsoft Paint” program you know and love (or hate), but it’s much more powerful, supporting “layers, unlimited undos, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools”. And best of all, it’s FREE! And unlike another free image-manipulating program (cough! THE GIMP cough!), Paint.NET has an easy to understand and use interface.
Millions of geeks loved Windows Media Player 6.4, the media player that shipped with Windows 2000 (it also ships with Windows XP; just click Start > Run > mplayer2.exe). It’s not hard to see why – the program is super lightweight, both in the amount of RAM used and in the screen real estate it takes up. So many people liked Media Player 6.4 that when Microsoft announced Media Player 7.0 – the first of the big, bloated media players – a movement was launched to keep 6.4 alive. The result of that movement was Media Player Classic, a program that apes the UI of Media Player 6.4 but adds support for playlists and many more features than Microsoft’s player. It’s everything you need in one fantastic package.
VLC won’t win any awards for its interface. But VLC can play just about any video file on the planet. If Windows Media Player can’t handle it, if Media Player Classic crashes on it, then VLC might be your last hope. VLC can also stream just about any file type, so you can use VLC to host files over the Internet or on your local LAN. Granted, VLC doesn’t make it easy to figure out may of its more advanced features, but they’re there if you need them.
Both of the players given awards this year are freeware.
Best Audio Player
A million audio players have come and gone over the years, but WinAMP is still my choice for playing audio files. Not only is it still freeware, but the vast galaxy of skins and plug-ins means that you can tweak the program to no end. Want to create your own Internet radio station? There’s a WinAMP plug-in for that. Want to control WinAMP remotely over a LAN? There’s a WinAMP plug-in for that. Want to add on of those nifty “now playing” applets to your website? Yes, there’s a WinAMP plug-in for that. In fact, WinAMP can be as simple or complex as you like, and that’s something I like… a lot!
Yes, I am aware of other audio players out there. I’ve even tried a few of them. But I always go back to WinAMP. Like an old friend or comfy sweater, WinAMP is always there for me.
You might be tempted to use an “all-in-one” solution like Windows Media Player, RealJukebox or iTunes to rip your CDs. Any why not? Using one is easy. But all-in-one solutions typically don’t make the best quality sound files, and part of the reason why is because they don’t rip the best quality files from the audio CDs in the first place. As the old IT saying goes – “garbage in, garbage out”. Exact Audio Copy has long been the gold standard program for ripping discs, and it got this reputation for its “secure mode”, which produces exact copies of the files on your CDs. While initially setting up EAC isn’t the easiest of tasks for a non-techie, it does offer close integration with the famous LAME encoder; once everything is set up correctly, it’s as easy to use as an all-in-one, yet produces far better results.
For those people that don’t care for EAC, there’s always CDEx. The project seems to be a state of flux right now, being abandoned by its original author and with no new version released by the new authors. It’s still around though, if you wanna check it out.
Best MP3 Encoder
LAME is the best MP3 encoder on the planet… full stop, period dot. LAME is hardly lame, but the reason the encoder has that peculiar name is an interesting one: a German outfit called the Fraunhofer Society holds the patent to MP3 encoding. To skate by the obvious issues of violating Fraunhofer’s patent(s), early on LAME was simply a set of patches against the ISO demonstration source. This source had a restrictive license but was available online without charge. Because the early versions were not an actual encoder itself but rather a set of patches to be run against demonstration source code, the project was entitled “LAME Ain’t An MP3 Encoder”, which was shorted to LAME.
Anyway, the important thing to know about LAME is that it’s a command-line program. It runs from a command-prompt window, so you, the end user, will have to type out long strings of commands rather than just clicking on some buttons. If this scares you, look into some of the GUI wrappers for LAME, the most popular of which is RazorLAME. Also most freeware CD rippers (like EAC, above) offer integration with LAME and can pass the needed commands to the encoder on their own.
ID3 tag editors are a dime a dozen these days. In fact, I feel as if I lack some sort of “geek cred” for not having written an ID3 tag editor myself. Many – if not most – of these editors are freeware, which might make someone wonder why I’d pay good money for one. Well, that’s because Tag & Rename does everything you could want to do with a tag and filename editor, and does it well. Not too long ago, I decided to embark on what will eventually become known as the “Great ID3 Tag Clean Up of 2006”. I wanted to add cover art for all of my songs and clean up a lot of the extraneous information I had collected in those tags over the years. I was able to do the bulk of it in less than a week with Tag and Rename, and I have over 11,000 music files! One of Tag & Rename’s best features is its Amazon lookup. Not only does Tag & Rename have an option to import cover art from Amazon, it can also search Amazon UK, Amazon France, Amazon Germany and Amazon Japan as well. This comes in handy, especially since a lot of albums that have gone out of print in the US might still be available elsewhere. Tag & Rename’s file renaming features are great as well – once you’ve imported the album information from Amazon, you can rename the files to your particular naming scheme with two mouse clicks. About the only bad thing I have to say about Tag & Rename is that its toolbar is somewhat overwhelming. When you open the program for the first time, you just might be startled by the 842 buttons on the Tag & Rename interface. But you’ll get used to it, and when you do, you’ll love Tag & Rename too.
AudioShell is a freeware context-menu based editor that also supports adding cover art. Just install, then select one (or more) files via Windows Explorer. Right click and select “Properties” and you’ll see new entries for “Audio Shell Information” and “Audio Shell Editor”. As you might guess, you can view the tag’s information on the “Information” screen and edit it via the “Editor” screen. While the process is easy – even for multiple files – I like that Tag & Rename displays all of the tag information for every file in the folder, so you can easily tell if (for example) all of the files in your “New Wave” folder have the appropriate tags.
Best CD Burning Software
Winner: Nero Burning ROM
This is the “lesser of all evils” category. I have no great love for Nero, but there simply isn’t a better alternative in my opinion. Easy Media Creator 8 is still a bloated piece of junk, and almost every single piece of shareware\freeware out there either has a horrible interface *or* lacks some key feature (or both). For example, in Nero you can easily burn an audio CD by dragging a WinAMP playlist onto the audio CD layout pane. Doing this with most shareware\freeware programs results in a snotty error message: “Hey Idiot! You’re trying to burn an AUDIO disc. File ‘playlist.m3u’ is NOT an audio file. Please put AUDIO files ONLY into the layout pane!” Many shareware programs are also crippled when it comes to burning certain types of files, especially video DVDs or burning MP3 CDs in the order you want. Again, I just want to say that I have no love for Nero (especially the uber-bloat that is version 7.0), but I just can’t find anything that I like better than the ol’ girl. If you want to use Nero too, do yourself a favor and stick with version 6.6.
Best Text Editor
Runner-up: EditPad Lite
You might not put a lot of thought into a simple text editor like Notepad, but other people do. System administrators hate Notepad because it tends to choke on large files, which makes opening 25MB log files problematic. Programmers hate Notepad because it displays text in one color (black) and doesn’t have any option to color code HTML or XML tags. There are a ton of text editors out there – believe me, I’ve tried dozens of them – and none are better than Notepad++. Notepad++ has a tabbed user interface, which means that you can have many documents open within the same window. And Notepad++ color codes tags and syntax, so finding errant code is much easier than with Notepad. All in all, it’s everything you could want in a text editor, and it’s even free!
I used EditPad Lite for ages, and I like it. But it lacks several of the features that Notepad++ has. To make matters worse, now that there are two versions of EditPad (EditPad Lite, which is free, and EditPad Pro which costs money) the authors have removed several interesting features from the free version to entice you to pay for the “Pro” version. Screw that, I ain’t buying!
RSS is a technology that allows email-like updates to be retrieved from websites all over the Internet. So if you visit the same website every day, it might be more useful to you to to have that information downloaded and ready to be viewed in RSS than opening four or five browser windows and drilling down to the information you’re looking for. One of the blessings (or curses, depending on how you want to look at it) is that RSS it’s only a technology. It’s not a specific program that you download from one particular website. There are many ways to get RSS feeds to your desktop: you can integrate them with Microsoft Outlook, you can use a separate RSS program, you can get them in most web browsers (RSS support will be included in IE 7, Firefox and Opera already support RSS), or you can subscribe to a service that collects such feeds and displays them on a website.
Since I’m a complete Outlook whore, I prefer using NewsGator. NewsGator creates a folder in your mailbox called “My News” and created subfolders theerin for each feed that you subscribe to. You can then archive the feeds to a PST, move them to a public folder or forward them on to friends… basically anything you could do with a regular post in Outlook. And since NewsGator is client based, if I leave Outlook open on my computer when I’m away, I can read the feeds via OWA or OMA.
Of course, Outlook isn’t for everyone. If you’d prefer to have a free-standing RSS application, then something like RSS Bandit might be for you. There are dozens of free RSS readers out there – most of which look like a lightweight version of Outlook Express – and of these, I like RSS Bandit the best.
I mentioned that most web browsers now support RSS. Unfortunately, most of the RSS support in all browsers kind of sucks, so I’d advise using them only as a last resort.
I also mentioned subscribing to a service that collects these feeds. This is over the Internet of course, and what makes them different is that the entire service is web based. You can use Firefox to get RSS feeds, but those feeds will only reside on your machine. A site like Bloglines, on the other hand, works like webmail, meaning that you can get your feeds from any computer with a web browser and Internet connection.