Monday, January 23, 2012

Applications to Enhance Your OS - For advanced users. windows 7

With all the controversy about the security of the Windows operating system, at the end of the day it is one of the best and most stable OSes. Yes it is not perfect, however none of its competitors can't quite catch it. Nevertheless, using the same OS for a long time will lead to its becoming filled with bloatware (installed by you); in this case, the only option is to install a clean, new OS. Once you have that clean OS, what applications might you want to install? That is the subject of this article.
I should start by pointing out that this is the second part of my two-part series about this issue. The title of the first is "Windows 7: Great Additions" so make sure to read it. Second, I want to make clear again that this article relies solely on my own experiences, and you may have other opinions. If you do, you can express them in a friendly manner on the blog following this article.
To make this a little more browsable I have split my article up into subject areas. In the first article you could learn about document handling, image manipulation and file sharing applications. Now I will go over the music, video and some other useful applications to have installed on a fresh operating system. Let us jump in it!
Okay, I confess: I am dependent on music.  It has become a big part of my life. As soon as I start up my computer, most of the time the first application I start is the music player. In this area, I recognize that Microsoft managed to significantly improve its media player with Windows 7. Nevertheless, the enhancements are not enough to make me switch to it from Winamp.
Winamp pretty much grabbed its customers side by side with the spread of the MP3 file format as the standard for music files. I loved the old format with the classic view, as it was relatively simple and focused on your playlist. Then again, I also like the new Bento skin, as it has some good ideas and looks good with Windows 7. Luckily, I found a couple of additions that allow users to have both under the same system.
After you install Winamp, we need the cPro package. This Winamp plugin will let you use a cPro skin that extends many of the functions of the media player. I for one like the Braun atelier skin as bringing back something from the Winamp classic skin.
Now start up Winamp and hide the playlist, as we can have this in the tab too:

By right clicking on the tabs, you may set the application to auto-hide the ones you do not want to see. Do this with the ones you do not use. The BrowserPro tab hides multiple functions; however, I end up using the one for lyrics:

Besides this, you will need two more plugins. The first is Enhancer for a better quality sound output, and the second is the Winamp Essentials Pack for a general improvement in functionality. Once you have this up and running, you can instantly locate the currently-playing file (Ctrl+F), get many decoders to play all the music files (not just the MP3), auto play using the resume feature and more. Remember to set the enhancer as your output in the settings:

Another great addition is the winamp shell integration tool. The Win7shell will allow you to use the preview functionality of Windows 7 as a controller/quick access:

You can customize what it should show for a better user experience. Additional options here are foobar2000, MediaMonkey or AIMP.  In the end I usually end up with something like this:

If you want to keep an online library of what your are listening to and benefit from a free online database and charts for this, make sure to download the Last.FM scrobbler.
Video playing goes back to codecs. Most of the modern players have integrated video codecs, and Windows 7 itself has a couple of them integrated within it. However, just to be on the safe side and avoid any potential problems, you should install the Windows 7 Codec Pack. Once you've resolved this issue, you can go get the player itself.
I recommend two players: KMPlayer and SPlayer. I also like the Media Player Classic Home Cinema or VLC media player.

What I like about KMPlayer is its clean interface and high degree of configurability. As a bonus, you will also get a great album art view. This means some scrollable lists of thumbnails of videos, as you can see from the image below:

The player has multiple built-in codecs, and if you installed the codec pack indicated earlier, I can guarantee that you will not come across any file type that you cannot handle.
What do I mean by a clean interface? You will see absolutely nothing but the video itself while you are playing it. Thus, once you are watching a video you can focus on the video. Moreover, if you are doing something else at the same time, not a single extra pixel will be taken over by the player other than those it must have. The following image is not a full screen screen shoot.

The control commands will appear automatically if you put your mouse at the bottom or top of the screen. It's simple and functional:

For those that want to mess around with the advanced configurations, that too is an option, with a right click anywhere inside the player window:

The always-on-top-while-playing option, too, is nice to have. If you are  interested in some information about the video you are playing or how much CPU you are using, then just push the TAB button to toggle to real time information about this:

Need to take a quick break? Push the ESC button and the player will pause and minimize itself to the system tray. These are the main reasons I like and use KMPlayer.

Now what about SPlayer? Well, SPlayer is there for those who are interested in playing HD videos that require a crazy amount of CPU and have a GPU standing there and doing nothing. Luckily there are out a couple of tools that can put your CUDA-compatible NVidia video card to work.

Nevertheless, even after integration it does not works as well as the one built into the Splayer. Do you want to watch one of those 1080i, 1080p videos and your CPU is struggling to decode it? This is the player for which you are looking. For example, I am watching a 216 MB large 3:30 length 1080p resolution video file, and the CPU is never jumping above eight percent as far as usage.

You may use it as a primary player, too; however, due to the lack of the features I enumerated when talking about the first player I mentioned, for regular usage I prefer the KMPlayer.
The following applications I will present are too general to fit in any category.  Primarily I need a good calendar and planning software. Functionality is again my most important goal. A good desktop calendar pick is Rainlander. It takes only a little space on the desktop, and its interface is elegant enough to look good paired with Windows 7. Rainlander has multiple skins; however, the default one looks the best in my opinion:

Double clicking on any day on the calendar lets you set new events or to-do items. Both of these will have their own windows that you can place anywhere on the desktop to remind you what events are coming up or what you need to finish.

If you used to use another program to do your calendar (like Google Calendar or Outlook) it is possible to subscribe to this and edit them via Rainlander, as it uses the standard iCalendar format. Although these sharing additions are only available in the Pro version, it is good to have support for them.

Another must-have tool in my opinion is Daemon Tools Lite. Use this whenever you have an image on your computer and you want to open it. You can also extract these on your hardware using the 7-ZIP application I presented in my earlier article. After installation, you will have an icon for Daemon Tools in your tray. Right click on it to bring up the menu:

From the virtual devices menu you can easily select to which virtual device you want to mount the image.
For those of you who want a better task manager to watch over processes, I recommend that you install ProcessExplorer. Download it and put the single executable file you have in a folder. I like to create a new folder in the Program Files folder for it. Once you have installed it, you can set it to replace the default task manager present in Windows:

What I like about this compared to basic one is that you can see the resource usage of the system services, too. There are some applications or virus programs that install themselves as services. However, the classic task manager hides this from the user.
Therefore, sometimes your computer may get really slow, the CPU usage may jump to the sky -- but the classic task manager cannot show you which one is the guilty process. That's no longer true with Process Explorer. Another great thing is that you can view the resource usage of a given application instantly by double clicking its process:

To view the process usage of the whole system, just double click on the small graphs you can find in the upper section of the process explorer:

This is a great tool to have if you want to discover those resource hogging applications.
Besides this, if you want to find out some technical details about your system, you should probably install Lavalys Everest.  If you have a Sony Ericsson phone and you hate the bundled software you use to synchronize/transfer your data from the phone to your computer, then check out MyPhoneExplorer.
This pretty much sums up all the software I tend to install on a clean OS. The idea is to keep things simple (yet functional) and use freeware to fulfill your needs as much as possible. These work quite well for me. Only after this do I go on to more task-oriented software, like Microsoft Visual Studio, Matlab, Mathematica, games and so forth.
I hope you found some interesting software while reading these two articles. If you know some other applications that you consider crucial, please share them on the blog following the article. I would like you to also point out what you like about them (not just enumerate them) to keep this as informational as possible.
I ask that you rate my article, too, if you found it useful. Thanks for joining me, and if you are one of those who like to have a clean OS and file system all the time, make sure to come back for my next article, where I will be presenting a couple of applications to accomplish this goal. Live with passion!


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