50 tips and (mostly) free tools to extend Windows XP's life

Extend XP today, for free

While Microsoft is keen for us to move to Windows Vista, we've got other ideas. With a brand-new service pack and a slew of useful add-ons XP works better than ever. Here are 50 tools that can extend XP's useful working life still further.

Is Windows XP the most popular Microsoft OS of all time? You'd think so, judging by the desire from consumers and businesses to extend its availability.

The main reason why XP has surged in popularity is that its successor has been so badly received. Opposition to Microsoft's 'most important desktop OS ever' has already forced the company to extend the life of XP from 31 December 2007 to 30 June 2008.

InfoWorld has launched a 'Save XP' campaign and this has collected more than 200,000 signatures so far. It's targeted mainly at the business community, but we continue to receive emails from consumers who are desperate to know that Vista won't be the only version of Windows they'll be able to buy for the next two or three years.

"In the past, Microsoft has responded to customer dissatisfaction and changed its plans, so there's reason to believe it will listen today if the message is loud enough," said Eric Knorr, editor in chief of InfoWorld.

Failure to launch

You see, in the 16 months since the OS launched, it's fair to say we tried — and failed — to convince you of the wisdom of making the move to Vista. It's a decent enough OS, but hardly the revelation that XP was or anything similar to the revolutionary way of working that Mac fans enjoyed when Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) launched.

With few compelling applications available and hardly anything of note to entice the business user, it's little wonder that Vista is regarded as a damp squib. Microsoft still claims the OS's installed base is on track to overtake that of XP, but that will depend on whether it holds firm on its plans to reduce the availability of XP licences in June 2008.

We're pretty gung-ho about grabbing the latest technology and running with it. But with the exception of the odd laptop and a couple of dual-booted PCs, we're still largely XP users. In this, we think we're probably in line with most of our tech-savvy readers. There's nothing wrong with XP and we'll continue to use it for as long as Microsoft allows.

That's not to say it can't be improved, however. We've no idea just how many ways there are to customise Windows XP, but in the six years since it launched we reckon we've covered a few thousand tweaks and tools that make an XP PC uniquely yours.

Page Break

Office optimising tools for XP

Get more out of Microsoft's Office suite by adding a few extras. Then watch Word, Excel and Outlook perform tricks you never dreamed were possible.

Open Office 2007 files

Microsoft changed its default file format in Office 2007, so you won't be able to open files saved in the new format with older versions of the Office suite. However, if you've got Office 2000, XP or 2003, you can install the Office Compatibility Pack.

Open old files with Office 2003

The introduction of Service Pack 3 (SP3) for Office 2003 saw Microsoft disallow users from opening file formats that predate Office 97, citing security concerns. To re-enable Office to open these files, you have to run a series of Registry hacks. Fortunately, Microsoft has created Registry scripts to make this task easy. Download them, right-click them and select Merge.

Post offline docs online

Online document-processing tools are wonderful, but getting files online — and keeping online and offline versions synched — can be a hassle. Luckily, the Zoho Plug-In for MS Office simplifies uploading your offline documents to the web service and downloading online documents from it.

Make PDF files inside Office

You don't need full-blown Adobe Acrobat to create and edit PDFs. CenoPDF lets you build PDFs without leaving Word, PowerPoint or Excel. After installing CenoPDF, simply choose the PDF printer option. Alternatively, you can build PDF-based forms using text-entry fields, buttons and boxes to be filled out electronically. CenoPDF is free to try, but PDFs will be watermarked. It costs $US29 to buy.

Add holidays to Outlook

Fed up with manually adding public holidays to your Outlook calendar each year? You can input 12 months' worth of holidays at once by clicking Tools, Options, Calendar Options (on the Preferences tab). On the next screen, click Add Holidays, select the appropriate country or countries, then click ok.

Prioritise Outlook data

ClearContext Information Management System offers tools that are useful for organising your Outlook data, starting with a dashboard that provides a consolidated look at your tasks and calendar items.

ClearContext allows you to assign topics (that you define) to messages. It then automatically files subsequent messages in the thread. The system flags your most important contacts based on how often you deal with them, and colour-codes messages based on the sender's importance.

ClearContext reduces inbox clutter by 'snoozing' non-critical messages — that is, by removing them from the Inbox for a specified period of time. The program is free for 30 days, after which it costs $US90.

Become a meeting power user

MeetingSense takes Outlook's rudimentary calendar system and turns it into a powerhouse. An extensive meeting dashboard gives you a hub for making agendas, creating minutes and sending out summaries — all while providing a centralised meeting space where you and other MeetingSense users can share files, make notes and create action items. It's perfect for scattered groups that meet frequently. After a 14-day free trial, the software costs $US199.

Import Outlook contacts to Lotus

Moving your contacts list from Lotus Notes to Outlook (or vice versa) is easy if you use Personal Notes Address Book Import/Export Utility, a free download from Lotus' website.

Open the utility in the same way you would any Notes database and you'll see a simple form; select the file that you wish to convert. Choose the desired operation and hit a button to start the conversion. It's very useful if you're migrating to a new platform, for example.

Bird's-eye view of your contacts

Xobni is inbox spelled backwards, but there's nothing backward about Xobni Insight's cool interface. This provides information about each person that you correspond with as you read messages from them.

Xobni (currently available only if you sign up for a private beta invitation) lives on the right-hand side of your Outlook window. It provides a graphical view of email frequency, contact information and old conversations with each of your contacts. Don't miss the Xobni Analytics feature, which tracks how much email you send and receive every day.

18 ways to tweak Outlook

MAPILab Toolbox is a pile of 18 Outlook add-ons bundled into one big package. Some of the tools are simple; one, for instance, hides fax numbers in contact searches. Others are pure genius, such as a plug-in that scans outgoing email for phrases such as 'see attachment' and displays a reminder if you forget to attach anything. The toolbox is free for 30 days and then costs $US24 thereafter.

Redact text in Word

You know how the police black out sections of documents it deems too sensitive (or embarrassing) for public consumption? You can too, if you download Microsoft's Word Redaction add-in for Office 2003. You can read your own redacted text; but when you export the documents in redacted form, the marked portions can't be read (or edited, if you choose this limitation).

Share Excel files

You can share an Excel file without using a web-based collaboration system. The eXpresso plug-in for Excel lets you store the file while working in Excel, locking it while one user meddles with it and then making it available for others to edit. Email alerts tell you when the file is unlocked. You can even lock specific portions of a spreadsheet to prevent others editing them.

Add demographic data to Excel

A spreadsheet is only as good as its data. But manually adding information (such as the population or the average income in a postcode area) is tiresome. CDXStreamer does the hard work for you.

Install this Excel plug-in and configure it to find information about a region you're interested in. CDXStreamer then grabs the latest content from the web. More than 100 pieces of demographic data are indexed to each postcode.

The free trial lasts 14 days; regular service costs $US30 per month.

Get real-time stock quotes in Excel

Obsolete stock data in a spreadsheet does you no good. The MSN Money Stock Quotes add-on for Excel inserts MSN stock prices (which are delayed by 15 minutes) into any Excel spreadsheet, with updates every time you change the spreadsheet.

Page Break

Five essential XP add-ons

Office applications are among the chief culprits when it comes to adding unnecessary tools and features that most of us will rarely use. The trick is to bring to the fore those that you'll make use of — inevitably, these are hidden five layers down under some obscure tab — and dump the ones you don't need.

International Character Toolbar

Add this toolbar to Office to gain one-click access to a palette of the most common special characters used in a language of your choice.

ToolbarToggle

Not thrilled with Office 2007's radical 'ribbon' design? Get back to good old menus and toolbars with ToolbarToggle, which restores the 2003 suite's arrangement. A single-user licence costs $US20 after a free five-day trial.

Word Frequency Count

This application (its full name is Word Frequency Count in Multiple Text & HTML Files) adds up the number of times each word occurs in multiple text, HTML and Word documents. This can be handy if you want to check you're not repeating yourself. The full utility costs $US30.

Remove Hidden Data

You probably sometimes receive files filled with embarrassing 'track changes' information and personal data that the creator accidentally left in. Don't be that person. Thank Microsoft for this free add-in.

ClearType Tuner

Part of the XP PowerToys suite (and available in an online version as well), ClearType Tuner gives you control over how fonts look on your LCD screen. You'll be amazed at how much of a difference a slight alteration in font thickness and smoothing can make.

Page Break

XP browser boosters

Web browsers, especially Firefox, are built with plug-ins in mind. Thousands of these code snippets are available; here we present some useful add-ons, plus a few tips that don't require any extra code.

Web ad zapper

Although decried by many webmasters for cutting into a lucrative revenue stream, Adblock Plus is practically a mandatory addition to Firefox, due to the increasingly annoying quantities of web advertising.

Put simply, Adblock Plus blocks ads. It's not just pop-up adverts that are blocked; normal banners, towers, rich-media stuff and Google's ubiquitous advertisements disappear too. Adblock Plus doesn't stop everything, but it deals with enough for you to notice the difference immediately.

Multiple bookmarks

If you use numerous PCs, you probably deal with separate browsers on each computer, each with its own set of bookmarks that have to be managed separately - unless you've got a bookmark synchroniser.

Foxmarks is one of a number of tools that can sync Firefox bookmarks between multiple machines. Install Foxmarks as an add-on to the Firefox installation on each system and never worry about manual syncing again. As a bonus, you can access your bookmarks on the Foxmarks website.

Put an FTP app into Firefox

Even the most casual web developer needs an FTP application, but many are cumbersome, unintuitive and reliant on the installation of another program. FireFTP turns Firefox into an impromptu and speedy two-way FTP application. Once installed, FireFTP appears in the Tools menu. Click it and a new FTP tab opens up, enabling you to easily copy files between your desktop and a remote site.

Get a handle on downloaded files

If you're the sort of PC user who always has something in the queue to leech off the web, you need a download manager to help you handle everything.

FlashGet is a free and extremely popular download manager that can help you organise and queue up HTTP, FTP, BitTorrent and other types of downloads.

It works in the background and lets you pause and resume downloads. It can even tell your PC to shut down when the downloading is done. We also like the fact it works with any web browser.

Restore embedded passwords

Several years ago, Microsoft stopped Internet Explorer (IE) using an embedded password as part of a URL (in the format https://username:password@server.com) when a user goes to a protected website; instead the person must type in the password manually at the pop-up log-in screen. This restriction was a response to the use of fake password fields by phishers.

Restoring IE's original ability takes only a Registry tweak. Run Regedit and browse to the following Registry key:

Hkey_Local_Machine\Software\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Main\FeatureControl\Feature_Http_Username_Password_Disable

Create two new Dword values: iexplore.exe and explorer.exe. Leave the default value for each of these at '0' and restart the browser.

Grab a hard copy of any web page

Most of us have experienced the frustration of printing a web page, only to find the result is a garbled mess that has images missing and is generally almost unreadable. This can happen because Web 2.0 standards don't play well with earlier-era printers. One workaround is to take a screengrab of the web page and then print that. This is hardly practical, however, when a single web page contains enough content to fill up three display screens.

Instead, install Screengrab for Firefox, which lets you save a full page, the visible portion of a page or just the bit you need.

IE Screenshot performs similar tricks for Microsoft's browser. Either save your images as digital files or print them out.

Copy any web video

Various internet services allow you to type in the URL of a web video and then churn out a digital copy of the clip that you can save to your hard drive. But they're often slow and buggy, and you never know if they'll work on the less popular video-sharing sites.

Orbit Rich Media Downloader adds a context-sensitive set of menu items to your right mouse button when you're using a web browser. Now when you see a video or song you like, just right-click to save it to your PC.

Save protected media files

Some websites disable the right-click button on images and other media, preventing you from easily downloading them. Orbit Rich Media Downloader offers a workaround, but you may find that it's overkill if all you want to do is to save an image occasionally.

Instead, Firefox has a quick, built-in way to save protected media files without the hassle. Visit the web page you want, right-click anywhere on the page (but not on the image), then select 'View page info'.

Click the Media tab to see a list of all the images found on the page; scroll through the list (a preview will appear at the bottom of the window) and click Save As when you find the one that you want.

On to something new

Collected quotes of Albert Einstein? Winners of the 'I Look Like My Dog' contest? Pictures of real-life sea monsters? All these web pages can be yours at the touch of a button if you install StumbleUpon, a plug-in toolbar available for both Firefox and IE.

StumbleUpon, like social news sites such as Digg, accepts submissions from users who think a site is worth a look, pointing others to the page in question. Click the thumbs-up button if you like what you see, or hit thumbs-down if you don't. Over time, StumbleUpon refines its suggestions for you, making it (eventually) the perfect time-waster — and one that's always at your fingertips.

Relocate the Firefox sidebar

Some of us just can't help but tinker. If you're itching to move Firefox's sidebar, follow these steps to shunt it out of the way and off to the right of your screen. Edit your userChrome.css file or create a new one in your profile/chrome folder. Find it in C:\Documents and Settings\xxxxx\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\yyyyyyyy.default\chrome, where xxxxx is your username and yyyyyyyy is a random set of eight characters.

If the Application Data file doesn't appear in your user folder, go to the Tools menu, click Folder Options, choose the View tab and select Show Hidden Files and Folders. Rename the example file found there as userChrome.css and add the following line of code to the bottom of the file:

/* Place the sidebar on the right edge of the window */
hbox#browser { direction: rtl; }
hbox#browser > vbox { direction: ltr; }

Keep track of Adsense earnings

If you use Adsense, use Adsense Notifier, a Firefox plug-in, to keep track of your daily earnings within the browser in real time. Just check the bottom right corner for total advertising impressions and your total daily earnings as they accrue.

Page Break

IE Tab

If you use Firefox as your primary browser, you probably get stymied occasionally by websites that don't look right in its windows. Don't fire up Internet Explorer (IE), which maintains a separate history and won't have your bookmarks; instead, use the IE Tab plug-in to instruct Firefox to temporarily use IE's rendering engine. IE Tab sits in the bottom-right corner of your browser. Click the Firefox icon to switch to IE mode and vice versa.

Duplicate Tab

Want a copy of the current window you're visiting, complete with the history of that browsing session?

IE users can accomplish this without having to install and use a plug-in: press Ctrl, N to open a new window that shows the entire history of the current window.

For Firefox users, Duplicate Tab lets you obtain such a history with a single shortcut keystroke, or you can use the tool to merge multiple open windows into a series of tabs.

ErrorZilla

The standard 'Server not found' page is no help if you're looking for a website that's gone missing. ErrorZilla adds a series of buttons to the bottom of the standard Firefox message, providing instant access to the Wayback machine, Google Cache and more.

Inline Search

Internet Explorer users can obtain search-as-you-type functionality that works the same way it does in Firefox with this simple extension.

Extended Statusbar

The Extended Statusbar plug-in supplements the data that Firefox provides about a web page and your internet connection, providing such details as the total size (in KB) of the page, the transfer speed and the load time.

Page Break

Extra media muscle for XP

From music players to image editors, add-ons abound in the world of multimedia. To upgrade your audio or jazz up your photos and videos, check out our favourite plug-ins for iTunes, Windows Media Player, Photoshop and other popular programs.

Get music recommendations

iLike is a plug-in for iTunes that expands your music listening options. A standard (and popular) social-networking component turns you on to people with musical tastes similar to yours, but the 'related music' system seals the deal. Choose a song in your library and iLike suggests other music you might like, along with free, similar MP3s from independent artists.

Variable Bit Rate encoding in iTunes

Regardless of the overall bitrate you use to rip tracks, Variable Bit Rate (VBR) delivers the best music quality in iTunes while keeping file sizes small.

To get there, click Edit, Preferences, Advanced, click the Importing tab, then click the Setting drop-down menu. Choose Custom, then tick the Use Variable Bit Rate Encoding box. A transfer rate of 192 kilobits per second (Kbps) and Medium High quality for VBR yield exceptional results; aim higher if you think you can hear the difference.

Upgrade Windows Media Player

Windows Media Player may not be the most exciting application on its own, but the free Windows Media Bonus Pack add-on for XP gives it considerably more oomph. Extras include visualisations, skins and sound effects, plus a raft of new features. These include the ability to export playlists to Excel and a better tool for finding missing artwork and other metadata on your audio tracks.

Upload to Flickr in bulk

Sending 10, 20, 50 or more photos to the Flickr.com photo-sharing site can be dull and time-consuming. Download Flickr Uploadr for a quick and easy way to upload photos in bulk, all in a standalone application. Right-click any image and you'll get a 'Send to Flickr' menu item, which opens the application and gets your shots ready to go.

Upload to Flickr by email

Even if you don't have web access you can send pictures to your Flickr account by email. First, you need a custom Yahoo Flickr upload email address. Use the subject line of your message for the photo's title and the body for a description. Flag any tags by prefacing them with 'tags:' on their own line.

Shrink photos in a trice

It's wise to take photos at the highest resolution that your camera supports, but your friends and family members probably don't want to receive 4MB files over email. Firing up a full-blown image editor such as Photoshop for a simple resizing job seems like overkill. Instead, you can use Microsoft's Image Resizer PowerToy. Right-click any image to open a Resize Pictures menu for easy pic shrinking.

Make The Gimp look like Photoshop

Gimpshop, a tweaked version of the free, open-source The Gimp image editor, mimics the look and feel of Photoshop, so you needn't learn any new commands. Think of it as a Gimp mod that doesn't require you to install Gimp before getting started.

An avalanche of art effects

Filter Forge offers a monster collection of methods (including more than 4,000 filters) for tweaking and digitally adding textures and lighting tricks to your photographs. Photoshop fans can create their own filters and upload them to the Filter Forge community. Contributors get the plug-in for free; everyone else pays $US99 to $299, depending on the resolution they require.

Apply film effects to stills

OptikVerve VirtualPhotographer, a handy Photoshop plug-in, lets you apply dozens of preset film styles (such as extra grain, soft focus, high contrast and so on) to your photos in just a couple of clicks.

Silence noisy photos

On some cameras, ISO modes as high as 3200 tempt many people to shoot pictures in the dark. This can lead to disappointment and noisy photos. Noise Ninja cleans up grainy, pixellated shots. Plug the application into Photoshop and select noisy areas by hand, or use the Noise Brush to swipe your pointer over trouble spots. The program costs $US45 for home use and $80 for pros.

Make photos look like TV

Looking for a way to crop a photograph on to a television screen and make the resulting image look realistic? Namesuppressed Design's Autointerlace plug-in for Photoshop adds horizontal lines to your image, making it look like you've just photographed an old CRT television.

Expand your 3D library

Adobe's Photoshop CS3 Extended Plug-In for Google 3D Warehouse lets you search and import 3D models from Google's online repository of photorealistic art.

Get the best colour from your PC

Printed photos don't look the same as photos on a monitor. Reconciling the two (and images from other sources) involves installing a colour profile for each device. Microsoft Color Control Panel Applet for Windows XP enables you to switch between the profiles on your machine.

Page Break

Picasa to Flickr

This plug-in for Picasa is free, handy and platform-independent. It uses a simple Java applet to let you zip files from the popular image editor directly to the equally popular Flickr photo-sharing service.

The Filter

Your party starts in 15 minutes and you've forgotten to create a music playlist. No problem. Seed this iTunes and Windows Media Player add-on with a handful of tunes you like. Not only will The Filter generate a killer party soundtrack, but it will dredge up hot tracks you'd forgotten were in your collection.

EvilLyrics

This free download gets rid of the junk code that accompanies most lyrics search results by looking for lyrics in the background whenever you play a song in iTunes, WinAmp, Windows Media Player or another media player. The results aren't perfect, but they're on target more often than not.

ffdshow

Dodge the hassle of juggling multiple video formats by turning to this versatile plug-in, which supports most video players and provides all the video codecs you're ever likely to need.

Plugin Galaxy

This collection of free effects and filters for Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro offers a range of warping and blurring effects, plus handy features such as a 'page curl' for image corners, all accessible within a single convenient interface. Plugin Galaxy is $US70 to buy, but you can try it out for free.