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Ask the PCist - Some Good Free PC Software?

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this year LAist introduced "Ask the MACist" and now we give you... Ask the PCist!
by Andrew Solmssen - send your questions to pcist at bitboy dot com

Hey PCist, I love to do new and wonderful things with my PC, but I want to pay zip, nada, zero, zilch and bupkis for the privilege. What are some great free tools that will make my heart sing and my wallet happy?

There's some amazing free software out there, and you can do some amazing free things with it. Here's a few of my faves:

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The grandaddy, the winner and champeen of all the Internet browsers: Firefox! It just turned 2.0, and it rocks. Grab it at getfirefox.com -- it loads pages like a weasel on speed, it's safer by far than Internet Explorer and its ActiveX nightmares, and it's beyond customize-able with hundreds of amazing extensions like Adblock and others that let you tune your Internet experience to fit you. The new version 2.0 adds spell-checking in text entry areas, session-saving so you can pick up right where you left off, and some other great enhancements.

Google gives great search, but how about a super-cool photo downloader and album program that's quick like a bunny even with several thousand pictures, lets you do some pretty sophisticated image correction, and create slideshow CDs, e-mail pictures and more? Get Picasa at picasa.com -- it's a great tool for images, it's well-written, easy to use, and free.

Speaking of Google, if you've got a Treo, you've got to grab the new Palm OS Google Maps application -- it's free, it will do mapping and directions, and it's even got live freeway traffic info. If you don't have an unlimited data plan from your cell carrier, this may not be the application for you, but if the thought of bringing up a satellite photo from your phone makes you feel like Jack Bauer, go to http://google.com/gmm with your Treo's browser.

There's no excuse for being without up-to-date antivirus software when one of the best programs is free. A trip to http://free.grisoft.com will give you access to a free (for home use only -- businesses, educational institutions and other entities, for profit or otherwise, will need to pony up) antivirus program that's low-footprint, rapidly updated, and far less intrusive than the big boys like Norton and McAfee. Config tip -- turn off "Certify" in the E-mail settings, and you won't get their little ad on every e-mail you send.

Need to see a file on the home machine from work, or even your Treo? Check out Avvenu at http://www.avvenu.com -- it lets you grab files, share folders over the internet, and even do Google Desktop searches from another computer or even a smartphone-optimized browser interface. It's really handy to be able to search your entire computer from home, or grab that JPEG of you dog doing that cute thing with the peanut butter and make it your desktop.

How about playing a video file? Pretty much any video file? Do you want to convert an XVID to an H.264 or an MPEG to an MP4? Do you want to stream a live event with your webcam? VLC Player is the Swiss Army knife of video tools -- it'll do almost anything, and it's free. Check it out at http://www.videolan.org

Dear PCist,

What's a UPS and why should I have one?

A UPS is an uninterruptable power supply, and anyone with a modern computer that doesn't include its own battery (i.e., is not a laptop) should very seriously consider getting one. A UPS protects computers from surges in power like a surge protector, but it also adds the ability to boost power when it sags (as in a brownout) or even power the computer for a short time when the power goes off completely. It also usually has the ability to signal the computer that there is no juice coming out of the wall socket, and it's time to shut down in an orderly fashion.

Here's why this is important. If and when the lights go out, you as the user in charge need to be notified that the machine is shutting down and it's time to save and close your files, and then your computer needs to take care of some very necessary housekeeping itself -- if the computer just turns off like your lights do when the power stops, none of that gets to happen. In particular, even if you diligently save your open files every few minutes, the computer itself may keep parts of open files in memory (which goes away when the power goes out) without writing them to disk everytime you save them. This is called a disk cache, and all modern computers do a lot of it to improve speed and responsiveness. What can happen if the power goes out is that data on the disk never gets updated with what was in the cache, leaving the disk two steps behind. This is officially a bad thing, and can lead to serious problems.

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A UPS will sense that the power is out, and signal the computer via a serial or USB connection to alert you to that fact, usually via a dialog on screen and an alert sound. You'll get a few minutes to save and close your files, and then when the UPS battery gets really low, it will signal the computer to shut itself down, saving you all that heartache mentioned above.

UPSes come in a lot of shapes and sizes. A typical desktop computer will require a unit with 500VA capacity or so -- more VA buys more time without wall power. Manufacturers like APC, Belkin or Tripplite will happily sell you a good unit for less then $100. The battery cartridge will last 2-4 years, and APC in particular has done a good job of making replacing just the battery pretty painless and about half the cost of buying a new unit. UPSes are heavy, so buying online can be more expensive than a local retailer once shipping costs are considered -- it pays to shop around a little.

So if you have a desktop computer, pick up a UPS. It's cheap peace of mind, and it can save you from having to curse the darkness, eh?