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The (NOW VERY OLD AND OUT OF DATE) Guide
Okay, these are my pick of the crop to make your vanilla Windows installed PC into a lean, mean, gaming/browsing/working/media machine. A lot of software choice is down to the personal preference of the individual concerned, but I'll do my best here to tell you what is best for which job as impartially as I can.
Forgive me if I'm teaching you how to suck eggs
SEE THE NOTE ABOVE
As with AV, there is many to choose from but for those of you with XP and SP2 installed you don't really need anything past the firewall which was included in the service pack. It has everything required from individual program blocking to port control. If you still don't trust it (and you wouldn't be blamed if you didn't) then there are a few good ones to consider:
Sygate Personal is a great firewall with information as to what is accessing the net and when, logs allow you to trace hack attempts to the source and you can stop any particular program from contacting the network as and when you wish. The only downside is that it's a little heavy on the CPU sometimes. The main upside being that it's free.
Private Firewall is about as feature rich as you could wish for a software firewall, but costs some money. It has the best performance of the lot.
Zonealarm Pro 5 yes, I know I slated it as the "AOL of firewalls" but the pro version blocks ads and dodgy emails as well as being an able enough wall. Other than that, it gives you the same control the other two give over your programs and allows you to block and unblock stuff as much as you like.
Bit of a minefield, this one, as most people have already found their EG-viewer of choice and are dipping towards fanboi status for their personal fav. It's always good to have a play with the competition though, and here are your alternatives. They're all tabbed, which is an absolute must now.
Avant uses IE as it's engine, which makes a great deal of sense as you don't get annoying problems viewing sites with ActiveX components, Java or embedded media players. It's also the most compatible browser here, but suffers from the same security problems that hamper IE. It's fairly customisable with skins available to download.
Firefox is the current fav for most, it has a mountain of third party support with plugins for every occasion. It does suffer from one problem, which is it takes the longest of these browsers to start up, which can be annoying. Overall the most customisable and highly supported browser there currently is. Gbrowser, Googles forthcoming effort is going to be based on it.
Opera works very much the same as both the above with the fairly major difference of it having an email client. It's fairly customisable with skins and bar/button placement and a plus point over both Firefox and Avant is that it aggressively caches previous web pages instead of resorting to re-contacting the site.
P2P clients are pretty varied and your choice should be based on the network you want to be a part of so it's only fair if I comment on that aspect as well. Where you can, I always recommend getting the "Lite" version of the client involved as the proper client will inevitably install spyware programs such as Cydoor, Gator, Lop.com and Xupiter onto your computer. Which is bad. I'm only going to cover BT for the mo as there isn't much in the way of P2P networks with a legal side to them. Kazaa is riddled with virii as is iMesh. eDonkey 2000 is too slow to even count as a viable option and Exeem is just plain buggy.
Currently the toast of the town, there are two major players for this network. That's not to say that the other clients such as Mainline (the original) or Shadow's Bittornado aren't good, but they lack the functionality offered buy my picks. The only problem with this network is that the shared files have a short life span and is based on the goodwill of others. Download speeds are generally fast and the software you receive will not be riddled with virii. Here's an FAQ to cover the basics and here's a link to EG's Eurofiles to get you started.
Azureus is one of the better known clients, using Java it allows you a high degree of control over your downloads/uploads while maintaining a good download/upload speed. Its major pitfall is that by using Java, it's a real pig; it also means you need Java installed. High memory usage would normally make me think twice but the option to cache downloaded bits to memory before writing to disk, thus reducing disk activity and in the long term saving your drive is great. The only other client that does that is ~
BitComet is quite a bit less friendly looking that the frog motifed Azureus, but it offers all the same options and level of control, drive caching included with the added bonus that it uses a far less cumbersome engine written with C++. The upside of this is that it won't hog the best part of 80mb and require any external programs to run. Perfect you might think. Well, it's not quite as fast as Azureus, nor as pretty.
These come in two flavours, music and movie. So...
A quick word about codec packs. Unless you really need to, don't. They can cause odd problems with your system; a little slowdown here, a little pause there. They're generally not good for the wellbeing of your PC, so just download and install the codec you need when you need it. If you aren't sure what codec a file needs then use G-Spot to find out which one.
BSPlayer is one of the best around for simply playing movies and being unobtrusive. Firstly it has two windows, one for controls and another which is simply the viewing window with a tiny border which can be set to stay on top while you're browsing or working. Fully customisable and skinnable (although some of the default skins are plain ugly) you can tailor it to work exactly how you want it to. It has native support for almost everything. And for the things it doesn't support there's...
Media Player Classic which is a classic. It's also the most compatible player around with codecs available for download which allow you to dispense with the hateful RealPlayer and Quicktime programs almost completely (sadly, they both still need to be installed). Other than that, it's pure function, no frills whatsoever.
VLC is a very simple looking player with more functionality than any of them. Most of the popular codecs are within the program so there's no need to install them directly to your computer. It also plays DVD's and supports network streaming and serving, neither of which I've ever used, but it's definitely a must-have player.
Now there are just too many to go through to really recommend anything other than personal preferences. So I'll just recommend the two at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
Foobar2000 is a neat little player that natively supports most flavours of music file. It's small, simple and very easy to use.
WinAmp The big one. You can't really not mention it for the sheer volume of third party support it's recieved. It's still the most complete music (and video if you wish) player on the web and although it has it's critics, it's downfalls can never outweigh the high points. From skins and visualisations to random plugins it reigns head and shoulders above all others. The pro version allows you to rip CDs to MP3.
System tools, tweakers and widgets
The first thing about programs that tweak is you have to have some savvy as to what you're getting into beforehand. So be mindful and don't go breaking nuffink. K? I'll start with a defragger though and get to the nitty gritty stuff later.
PerfectDisk Workstation is the only one out there that really gets the job done. It uses a smart defrag method that leaves the default MS one in the dirt by grouping the files within each program together rather than jumbling them all over your drive in the order each file was last accessed. It's no faster than the default, but it's prettier. And that counts for a lot. Another nice thing it does is turn off the services that run it when it's finished doing it's job so it doesn't swipe system resources when they aren't needed.
Intel Application Accelerator as the name suggests is only for Intel processors, which is a real shame as this is one serious piece of programming which does precisely what it the . And completely free too.
There are many ways that you can customise the look and feel of your PC, whether it's for productivity or fun, some ways are more effective than others. I'll cover the best and most popular and try to illustrate why some aren't as good as others. I'm a bit of a don at customisation, so expect this to be a lengthy section.
WindowBlinds works on both 2K and XP and is the most popular desktop enhancement tool with over 10 million users. It changes the way Windows looks and feels with alpha blended skins which add various extra functions depending on the one you choose. Some allow you to have transparent windows, let you to minimise windows or apps to the system tray, roll windows up, imbed media player controls, etc. But they all do one basic thing; change your interface.
WB used to be a clunky, unstable, resource hungry monster but since the release of version 4.0 (it's now at 4.5), its use of hardware acceleration has actually made it less resource-intensive than the standard Windows themes service - provided you don't use extremely fancy skins. Compatibility has been improved, too, and it now works with far more applications and properly gets out of the way of ones that don't work with it so well, few and far between that they are. Source<a>. The range of skins available span from the sublime to the ridiculous but there are some stunning ones available to download for free from <a href=”http://www.wincustomize.com/Skins.aspx?LibID=1&u=0”>here amongst other places. If, for some reason, you aren't fond of the colour of a skin, but like it's design then you can change it's colour, saturation and gamma with a few clicks. It's the most complete skinning utility currently out there and essential in my book. Tip: You no longer need to have the XP theme service running, so disable it asap.
StyleXP is only for XP and uses the native Windows XP theme service to apply its skins. By doing this, it makes it more compatible than WB. The addition of a theme picker much like WB's is included without the same level of control but with more options; as well as visual styles it also allows you to change your backgrounds, logons, bootscreens and icons, all of which are freely available from several sites such as ThemeXP. Using the MS theme service has its downfalls though: The visual styles are more or less restricted to having little more functionality than the native visual styles. It works by using an in-memory patch that fools the theme service into allowing the visual styles to be loaded, so while it technically has no footprint, it's relying on a service that consumes 5 or 6 times the amount of resource that WB's app does.
ObjectDock is a taskbar replacement utility that emulates the functions of the Mac OS X Dock which sits at the bottom of the screen and magnifies the icons as you mouse over them. Coming in two flavours, a basic free version and a non-free tabbed version, they are highly customisable and can contain any shortcut you choose all the way to useful little widgets which display things like the local weather, system information, a clock and media player controls. As some default icons can look a little pixilated, the massive third party support offers some shiny, new alternative icons.
Edited by Dirtbox at 21:05:18 31-03-2005
Edited by Dirtbox at 17:10:23 29-05-2006
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