Supercharge Your Software
By Lincoln Spector
A Better Windows Media Player
Windows Media Player: Microsoft's player would be a lot easier to use if you could control it from the system tray. Enter Tray Control, just one of the improvements in PowerToys for Windows Media Player for Windows XP (part of Microsoft's Windows Media Bonus Pack for Windows XP). Click Tray Control's always-visible icon to pause the music, or right-click to skip a track or mute. There's also a skin importer and a Media Library Management Wizard, which helps you organize your overflowing music collection into an assortment of playlists. Free.
Three Players in One
Windows Media Player: Some media files require QuickTime. Others will run only in RealPlayer. And for still others, you're pretty much stuck with Windows Media Player. So you've got three big, intrusive programs that do just about the same thing. QuickTime Alternative and Real Alternative let Windows Media Player play the other programs' formats. Free, www.free-codecs.com
Winamp: Prefer Winamp to the better-known players? With Intellized.computing's TrayList, you'll like Winamp even more. TrayList gives Winamp a playlist editor and a song search engine. The hot-keys, including ones you program for particular songs, work when Winamp is in the background. $20 (free 30-day trial).
Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro: If you'd like to add twilight colors or some other effect to your photos, try Harry's Filters from the Plugin Site--it lets you do those things and much more. Make your photos look like cartoon art or crochet, for instance. This free plug-in separates its 69 filters into categories like Color, Warp, and Noise, and provides tools for minutely adjusting each filter. You can play the current filter's settings like a video. Some filters are so extreme you won't find your original photo in the resulting image. Free.
Simple PDF Conversions
Acrobat Reader: If you've ever wanted to edit a PDF file, you'll like VoyagerSoft's Solid Converter PDF. The application uses a wizard to walk you through various options before it converts the PDF into a text file or Word document. With the Word option, you can choose to maintain column formatting or you can anchor pictures to a page or paragraph, for example. The application also converts Word files into PDFs. $50 (free 15-day trial).
A Soft Touch
Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro: Make your family members look stunning in your digital photos with some fancy color tweaks--or add a different kind of effect, such as morning mist to a photo taken in the afternoon. Try Softener, a plug-in by Namesuppressed Design. The utility gives you astonishing command over how it softens your image. Both Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro have their own softening tools, but they offer nothing like the fine control this plug-in provides. $15 (demo version available).
Tubes, Frames, and Masks
Paint Shop Pro: Jasc (now a division of Corel) sells a large line of Paint Shop Pro a??Xtrasa?? to enhance your photos. My favorite is Paint Shop Xtras Creative Edition 1, a collection of over 650 frames, masks, precut selection shapes, patterns, textures, and picture tubes. Want a mask of the Canadian flag? A tetra pattern? How about a picture tube that lets you draw little bananas--or flowers or U.S. flags--all over your pictures? This is a fun package if you're feeling creative, or just silly. $20.
Easy PDF Creation
Acrobat Reader: Adobe Acrobat's PDF files are a great way to share formatted documents because almost everybody has Acrobat Reader. And Acro Software's CutePDF Writer is the easiest way to create PDFs. Windows sees the utility as a print driver; if you can print the file--a Word document or Excel chart, say--you can turn it into a PDF with no fuss. Sure, other programs do the same thing, but CutePDF Writer is free--and ad-free, to boot. My one complaint: You have to download and install GNU Ghostscript, as well. Free.
Homemade Screen Savers
QuickTime: Xochi Media's IScreensaver Designer lets you turn your slide shows and QuickTime movies into screen savers. And not just for yourself. IScreensaver makes it easy to share your creations with any QuickTime-equipped PC--it can even create a self-installing executable file. Your screen savers will also work on Macs. The $29 Personal license forbids selling the screen savers you create, but you can still give them away for free. $29 (demo version available).
No More LPs or Tapes
Vinyl and Tapes: Still have a music collection on LP or cassette? For $30, the PolderbitS Sound Recorder and Editor can help get those sounds onto your hard drive and CDs. Sure, there are plenty of recording programs that cost less, but they don't have an editor with filters specifically designed for LP and tape noise, or the ability to automatically find track breaks. Not that it's perfect: There's no place to enter tag information (song title, artist), and it can't create .wma files. $30 (free 14-day trial).