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DIY: Build Your Own Screen Savers With Stardust

 Desktop Enhancement

There are hundreds of screen savers you can download from FindApp. What if you want something that nobody has already created? For instance, suppose you want to create a custom screen saver to promote a new product you're releasing. Or you might like your screen saver to show the smiling faces of your family, or perhaps your stock portfolio with current pricing.

To create a screen saver, you could hire a professional programmer, or you could use one of the many excellent tools available on FindApp. These tools let anyone create custom screen savers quickly and easily. I selected Stardust Screen Saver Toolkit 2004to review because it is extremely powerful and easy to learn and use.

Screen Saver Toolkit uses a simple wizard interface. There are two types of screen saver you can create: media-based “Classic” or web-based “WebSaver”:

Classic projects can combine all types of media, including bitmap images, movie files, and audio clips. Flash animations are also supported.

I am a fan of old cartoons, so for this blog I will create a screen saver that uses short clips from classic animation. I used Auto Movie Creator's automatic scene detection to create short clips from some cartoons, then added them to Stardust.

The next screen of the wizard sets options for the program's distribution and setup:


You can select from many options to have the screen saver behave exactly the way you want. Using these features doesn't just let you create a professional-quality screensaver, it lets you add touches like the readme file, limited-time trials, and built-in support for user payments and unlocking. For this example, which is free, I won't bother with any of these things. The Add-ons are free programs from Stardust which you can optionally add to your screensaver if you choose.

Click Next here and pick from the Settings. This section shows the real power of the Screen Saver Toolkit.

You can control the behavior of the screen saver completely here, everything from the delay between each media file to how the mouse should work when the screen saver is playing. You can also control how the much control the user has. For instance, you can allow users to turn the audio off, or even change the order in which the files are played.

The next screen of the wizard shows that this program has been around for a while: one setup option lets you put your screen saver on 1.44 mb floppy disks! With this program you have lots of options, including creation of a single EXE file, which is what most people will use. You also get to design your setup window, including the text that appears and the background color.

Click Next, and the program builds your screen saver. Stardust creates a standard Windows installer.

The whole process, including making the video clips, took me less than half an hour. If you already have photos, movies, and/or Flash animations to use, you could create a professional-quality screen saver in only a few minutes.

The other type of screen saver you can create is a WebSaver. This very simply loads a web page if your system remains idle for too long. This can be interesting if you pick a site that is attractive and fun to look at. I created a simple screen saver that loads the NASA Astronomy Image of the Day to test this feature

Stardust Screen Saver Toolkit 2004 is a simple, powerful tool to create slick screen savers with a professional feel. You can find it, along with other fine alternatives, in the Desktop Enhancementcategory of FindApp.com.



File Compression Comparison: WinRAR vs. WinZip

 PC Utilities

Files are getting bigger all the time.  Even in these days of inexpensive hard drives with enormous capacity, there are still plenty of reasons to use file compression programs.  If you are sending a file over the Internet, cutting its size by half reduces transfer time by half.  If you're putting files on a DVD or CD, size is very important.  Compression software also makes it easy to combine many files into a single archive.  It's much easier to share a single RAR or ZIP file which contains hundreds of files than to make someone download each file separately.

There are many different compression programs out there.  Undoubtedly, the two most popular PC compression formats today are Zip and RAR.  Both have the ability to greatly reduce the size of files, to store multiple files in folders in their archives, and to extract the files with several options.  The main practical difference between them is that Zip is older and not protected by a patent, so there are many different programs that can create and open Zip files. The RAR format is restricted to software approved by the creator and there is somewhat less of it available.

For this review I tested the leading Zip and Rar programs, WinZip by WinZip Computing and WinRAR by RARLAB.  I compared them in two areas:  User Interface and Performance.

1. User Interface

As you see, the two programs have a very similar interface, with a file list and colorful, easy-to-recognize icons.



Both programs also have a Wizard to perform basic tasks (create an archive, open and extract files from an archive). I do find the WinRAR file selection interface more intuitive.  Both programs integrate with Windows Explorer and with your email in very similar ways.  Overall, the two programs are very similar in both appearance and functionality.  At least for me, WinRAR is slightly more intuitive. 

2.  Performance

For a compression program, there are two types of performance:  compression ratio (how small they can make files) and speed (how long it takes to compress files).  For this test, I compressed a folder containing a mixture of documents, images, video and audio files, and data files from different programs.  The uncompressed size of the folder is 112 mb.  I tested each program three ways:  with default settings, set for maximum compression, and set for maximum speed.  Here are the results:

Test Results
 Default Settings
 Maximum Compression
 Maximum Speed

WinRAR does seem to live up to its claim to be the fastest compression software.  In the "Default" section WinZip takes less time, but it does so by giving slightly worse compression.  (All compression numbers here are low because I was working with music and image files, which do not compress very much.  Documents may compress by as much as 75%.) I didn't do formal tests, but uncompression of RAR files also appears to be slightly faster than Zip.

Interestingly, both programs support the other one's file format.  WinZip can uncompress RAR archives.  WinRAR can actually create Zip files as well as open them.  (Remember, the Zip format is not patent-protected.)  I tested WinRAR compressing the same folder using the default Zip settings.  It took 2:46 to compress by 13%, so clearly WinZip is better at Zipping than WinRAR.  Both programs can also open many other types of compressed files, including TGZ, 7Zip, and LHA.

Which one should you buy?  Both can do almost anything you need from a general file compression utility.  WinRAR does give better performance in most circumstances.  WinZip has additional features like job automation for the advanced user.  Also, if you are planning to share your files, your audience is more likely to have an unzipper than an unRAR program.  And of course, there's nothing stopping you from having both.

Why not take advantage of FindApp's try-before-you-buy philosophy?  Download them both and see which one you like the best. 

Agree?  Disagree?  Post your own reviews on the product pages!



Fixing PC Problems: Your Software Toolkit

 PC Utilities

What do you do when your computer starts acting up?  You could pay a professional technician to examine it, but that can be expensive and it may take days to even find out what's wrong.  Before doing that, it pays to try a few software tools that can identify and solve problems for you for far less money, without the wait. Tool Kit

One of the most likely reasons for a system slowdown is infestation by spyware.  Please read my earlier article for advice on handling this type of problem.

If you don't know what the problem is, install a tool like CompDoctor.  This program provides you with a comprehensive database of PC problems.  You can search for the exact problem your computer is having, and CompDoctor will tell you what the most probable reasons for that symptom are.  The publisher constantly updates the PC problem database, so it's always current and comprehensive.

If you (or CompDoctor) suspect a hard drive problem, you should consider using DiskCheckup.  Many hard disks include SMART monitoring sensors that can tell you about heat problems, bad sectors,and other potential failures before a catastrophe happens.  DiskCheckup constantly monitors the SMART readings, and will notify you when they reach danger levels, allowing you to replace the drive before it fails.

The Windows Registry stores information about installed programs, data files, and Windows settings.  As you use your system, the Registry gets bigger and more complicated.  Incorrect settings here can cause crashes, startup and shutdown failures, and slowness.  Luckily it's easy to fix Registry problems with software like Free Window Registry Repair.  In only a few minutes, it analyzes the Registry and fixes problems, improving both performance and stability.  It's completely safe, because you can reverse any changes the program makes by clicking Restore.

If you're experiencing a lot of problems—crashes, freezes, slowdowns—many people will advise you to install a new copy of Windows and start from scratch.  Before trying that, you may want to run System Sentry.  A host of functions in System Sentry can rejuvenate your computer, and make it as fast and healthy as when it was new.

With a few software tools, anyone can repair most computer problems in a few minutes.  Remember, though, that it is always good to have a current backup

John M.



Image Makeover: Bitmap File Converters

 Graphic Design

As I write this, it's February.  Lots of people took hundreds of digital pictures in December, and millions of others got new digital cameras for the holiday and now they have even more pictures on their memory cards and hard drives.

To use image files, you often have to convert them into the proper format.  Most image editors will let you open a picture, then save it in a different format.  However, if you have many files to convert, you should consider using a dedicated conversion program to save yourself hours of boring work.

Probably the single most commonly used image file format is JPEG, the standard defined by the Joint Photographic Experts Group.  Both most cameras and most web pages use JPEG images.  AnyToJpeg from PhotoActions converts dozens of photos in a single operation.  While converting, you can also rotate, stretch, crop, and perform other operations.  Process all your photos with only a few minutes of effort!

If you are comfortable typing commands, or if you would like to include image conversion and manipulation in a script, you should download and evaluate Neomesh Image Console.  Image Console can convert between many different image formats including GIF, JPEG, TIFF, and TGA, and also adjust brightness, create thumbnail images, and much more, all from the command line.  If you need to automate image processing it can be a lifesaver.

If you use CAD or drawing software, you know that photos and other bitmap graphics must be converted into vector format or traced before you can use them.  Vextractor can trace image files in almost any possible format, including BMP, GIF, JPEG, and TIF, and turn them into easily resized vector graphics in an amazing variety of different file formats, including Adobe Illustrator, EPS, AutoCAD DXF, EMF, WMF, and many others. Anyone who has ever struggled to hand-trace a face, building, or flower understands what a huge advantage it is to have excellent software like this do the work for you.

There are dozens of programs in the Converters and Optimizers section of FindApp.  If you work with images at all, take a moment to look around, and you'll probably find something that will save you time and effort while making your work more fun.



Why buy software online?


In a previous article, I talked about shareware, programs you can try before buying.  When you plan to buy software, one decision you will make is whether to buy boxed software or download it. Obviously, we editors here at FindApp are believers in the idea of getting software online, and I'd like to explain why.

With apologies to David Letterman, here are the top 4 reasons to get your software online:

  1. Try Before Buying: As I explained in the earlier entry, with downloadable software you have the chance to try it for a while before making your buying decision.
  2. Instant Delivery:  Once you decide what software to use, you can pay for it and be using it within minutes
  3. Selection:  FindApp has over 10,000 programs available.  With downloadable software, you will always have a wider range of choices than you can find any bricks-and-mortar store.
  4. Support Directly From the Publisher:  When you buy downloadable software, you are buying directly from the maker.  Because of this, you have a direct relationship with them, and can get support from the experts who publish the program.  Most shareware has at least email support for all registered users.  If you purchase software in a box, you may have to deal with a retailer for support.

How much do we at FindApp believe in downloadable software? I personally have bought exactly one program in a box in the past 10 years.  When I asked around the office, none of us can remember buying boxed software in the past 5. It's no contest: online is the way to go.

I'd like to wish you all a joyous holiday season, and thank you for using FindApp.



What is Try-Before-You-Buy software?


One of the main reasons people use FindApp is to get try-before-you-buy software.  As I start this blog, I thought I'd take the time to explain the way it works for anyone new to the system.

Also known as shareware, try-before-you-buy software is commercial, copyrighted software.  Anyone is entitled to download and try the software, but the software has some sort of limitation on it that can only be removed by entering an activation code.  For instance, a program might only work for 15 days from the time that it is first used, and then stop working until paid for and activated.  Other software will work forever, but certain features don't work.  For example, a shareware video editor might limit the user to saving only 30 seconds of each file until it is registered.

Generally, try-before-you-buy software is activated online.  When you decide that you like the program and want to activate it, you navigate to the maker's web site, and purchase the software.  You are then emailed a "serial number" or "activation key".  Typing this key into the program unlocks all the features.  You almost never need to download a new version of the program, you simply activate your already-installed trial version.  If you lose the serial number, there is usually an automated system to send it to you again.

The try-before-you-buy model has been increasing in popularity since it was first introduced. Major companies like Microsoft and Adobe now let you download and activate their software.

An example of popular shareware is Auto FTP Manager, an file transfer program.

Shareware is different from freeware.  Freeware is software that is completely free of charge.

Some software is free for personal use only.  If a business wants to use the program, they are required to purchase it.

Almost every software company has its own license terms.  It's always a good idea to read the User Agreement.

In a future blog, I'll talk about how to pick the best shareware and freeware.

That's all for now.  Thanks for reading.

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