Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Favorite Free Utilities

Depending on the supplier, when you buy a new Windows computer, it often comes with a bunch of junk and ads that you don't want while missing some utilities that you may need. To address the first problem, I don't buy from Dell or HP or Acer or anything that you might find at Best Buy or Costco. I like to build my own machine or buy from a supplier that doesn't pre-load a bunch of junk. These include (but are not limited to)
Now, for stuff that you may need or want that didn't come with your computer, here's a list of the free utilities that I like. Note that many can be installed all at once by using Google Pack.

Google Pack: Google pack is (IMHO) both a good and bad thing. It's good because it allows you to install a lot of useful software all at once. It's bad because it allows you to install a bunch of not-so-good software at the same time and also because it sticks around after you've installed the software you want contacting home base to see if there are any updates. Both of the bad things can be defeated leaving you with an easy way to download a bunch of good stuff all at once. Here's a link to download just the stuff I recommend. Once you have installed everything, you can use Add/Remove programs to uninstall Google Pack and leave your software installed on the computer.

There are several things I haven't checked in the above screenshot. I have nothing against Skype, StarOffice or Google Talk so if you want those also, go ahead and check them. Google Earth is not really necessary but it's really cool. I always avoid any Norton (Symantec) stuff or anything from Real. I've tried Google Desktop and it just doesn't work well for me. I don't like to see my desktop search results in a web page mixed with other stuff. I've never checked out Spyware Doctor but I know it's a 'trial' version which means they'll probably try to get you to buy something. Just use Ad-Adware (mentioned below) instead.

Adobe Reader: (Available in Google Pack) You'll end up installing this eventually and the latest version looks nice. However it's bloated, and tends to keep running in the background even if you aren't viewing any pdf files (I hate that!). An alternative which I use as my default is...

Foxit Reader: This does just about everything Adobe Reader does but it's much smaller and faster and doesn't hang around after it's no longer needed. I usually let this be my default pdf reader but keep Adobe Reader around just in case I come across a pdf file that Foxit can't handle.

AVG (Free version): Many years ago I was on a business trip in S. Korea and I plugged my unprotected laptop into the company network. Soon I saw .eml files popping up on my desktop and everywhere on my hard drive. I did some research and discovered I'd been hit with the nimda virus. I came accross GRISoft which makes AVG anti-virus and they had a free utility specifically to clear the nimda virus of my machine. It worked great and so I installed their free complete anti-virus product. I've been using it ever since. It doesn't bug me about renewing, it stays out of the way, it's got one icon in the tray to let me know it's working and it will certify both incoming and outgoing email (configurable). That's all I need in an anti-virus product. Personal flame: If your computer came with any Symantec stuff, get rid of it as fast as possible. It will bug you all the time for renewal and try to sell you more products you don't need. My mom ended up buying a product for which she didn't need or even understand what it was. UPDATE: AVG 8.0 includes anti-spyware and and kind-of-cool link checker for IE, but not Firefox :( so maybe you don't need Ad-aware anymore.

Ad-Aware: This anti-spyware product has been around since spyware and has always worked well. I used it all the time before Microsoft came out with Defender. I tried Defender but it bugs me all the time and I don't think it's ever found any spyware on my machine. So now I've disabled Defender and I just run Ad-Aware every once-in-a-while when I think my computer is being slow.

Firefox web browser: (Available in Google Pack) I don't know if this even needs to be mentioned but if you are still using Internet Explorer, then definitely download Firefox. While IE now (finally) has many of the same features as Firefox, Firefox is still more secure and there's a lot more extensions available which make browsing a much more pleasant experience. These are my favorites (most not included in Google Pack):
  • Gmarks - Allows you to have a side pane with your bookmarks stored on Google servers.
  • IE Tab - Allows you to open a web page in an Internet Explorer tab. Handy for Microsoft sites which tend to only work with IE.
  • Google Toolbar - (included if you install Firefox from Google Pack) Put's a very nice search box on your toolbar along with an Auto-fill button and some other neat stuff.
  • GMail Manager: Great if you have more than one gmail account nice even if you only have one.
  • Fire FTP: This is a full-fledged FTP program built into a Firefox add-on. It's free but they take donations half of which are donated to charity.
Google Picasa: (Available in Google Pack) If you've purchased more than one digital camera, then you probably have multiple picture managing programs on your computer. You don't need to use the program that came with your camera, they all do pretty much the same thing. I don't use any of the software that comes with my digital cameras because Picasa does everything I need and it integrates well with Picasa Web Albums. See my web album here.

Google Screensaver: (Can only get it through Google Pack) If you really want to save your screen or save power, you should just have Windows shut off your monitor. If you want to see your latest pictures while dozing off at the office, then get this screensaver. You can configure it to use pictures from a folder or from your Picasa web album or any photo RSS feed.

7-Zip: Shortly after installing Vista on my home computer, I tried to unzip a large file with Vista's built-in zip utilities. It was waaaaaay to slow. While Vista was chewing on the zip file, I Googled for zip utilies, found this one, installed it and unzipped my file. Vista never did finish unzipping the file. Sheesh! You'd think they would test this stuff.

Paint.net: Windows Paint hasn't changed much since Windows 3.1 (remember that?). While there are tons of fancy graphics programs out there, I've found most of them difficult to learn and way more powerful than I really need. Paint.net does everything I need including transparencies, converting formats, pngs and icons (with an extension).

FileZilla FTP
: I used to use CuteFTP but now they charge you for it. This one is open source so they never bug you to pay for it.

Revo Uninstaller: Many programs do not completely uninstall, this will help get rid of junk leftover by lazy uninstall programs.

CCleaner: Get rid of junk on your hard drive and registry.

Auslogics Disk Defrag: This defrag program works way better than the one that comes with XP or Vista. The only problem with it (at the time of this writing) is that there is no command-line option which means you cannot schedule it to run.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Install QuickBooks Pro 2006 on Vista/Windows 7

Intuit does not support installing QuickBooks 2006 on Vista. They recommend that you upgrade (big surprise). I have, however, successfully installed it on my Vista Ultimate machine (twice).

When you try to install a program with known problems on Vista, you'll often see the following dialog.

This is far as the setup.exe in the root folder ever got. When you click Run Program the dialog disappears but setup.exe is still running in the Task Manager. I just killed it. Of course Checking for solutions online is about as useful as most Microsoft help that takes you online.

I have not done extensive testing to figure out exactly what you need to do and what you do not need to do but I'll post here the things I did. Probably some steps were unnecessary. Note: To be safe I ran everything I could as Administrator.

1. Uninstalled my latest version of Flash
2. Installed 'Macromedia Flash' from the QuickBooks CD in the folder \ThirdParty\Flash7
3. Installed the .Net framework 1.1 from the QuickBooks CD in the folder \ThirdParty\DotNET11
4. Tried to install Jet40 from the CD but it didn't work so it's probably not necessary.
5. Installed MDAC from the CD in the folder \ThirdParty\MDAC28 - it was quick.
6. Did NOT even try installing IE6 from the CD. Vista and IE have enough problems without confusing it by trying to install an old version.
7. Ran the Setup.exe program in the \QBooks folder. The Setup.exe in the root folder never let me get past the screenshot shown above.

During setup I encountered the following dialog. I clicked Ignore and it seemed to continue on just fine.

After it finished up I ran QuickBooks and did an update. It took a while but it seemed to update a bunch of stuff. I told it where to find my Company file and viola! I was up running. Then I reinstalled the latest version of Adobe Flash player again.

Ooops! Not quite. After I closed QuickBooks and tried to reopen, it told me that it had downloaded some updates but not installed them yet and asked if I wanted to install. I said OK and it tried but failed on the same file as shown above (ZRush_ShipRush3_QB.ocx). I tried clicking Ignore again but it kept looping between installing and unistalling the updates. I went through the loop a few times and manually registered the file with the command line:

C:\Program Files\Common Files\Intuit\QuickBooks>regsvr32 ZRush_ShipRush3_QB.ocx

But I don't know if that was really necessary. I finally just rebooted the machine, ran QuickBooks and let it try to install the updates again. It complained about another file but I clicked Ignore and let it go and it did complete. Now it seems to have the latest updates and it doesn't bug me anymore. Also, I turned off Automatic Updates because I don't like stuff running in the background and bugging me when I'm trying to do work.

That's it. I'm sure it would be almost trivial for Intuit to release an install program to help with Vista but it's also almost trivial to download payroll tax tables and they make you pay extra for that.

UPDATE: Charles Russell commented that this may not work with UAC enabled. Good point. I always have UAC disabled so that very well could be why it works for me and not some others.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Connect to your home computer from anywhere

There are several services which will allow you to connect to your home PC through the Internet (GoToMyPC and PC Anywhere come to mind) but if you have the right operating system and some patience you can do it for free. Here is a quick checklist of the steps you'll need to perform. Each step is detailed below. The machine at home that you are connecting to is called the host. The machine that you are connecting from is called the client.

1. Have an OS that supports Remote Desktop at home (host machine), this means XP Pro or Vista Business/Ultimate. The machine you use to connect from (the client) can be any version of XP or Vista (or even Linux).
2. Enable Remote Desktop on the host.
3. (Optional) Change the port number on the host that Remote Desktop uses.
4. Open the Remote Desktop port on the firewall of the host computer.
5. On your home network, make sure your host computer has a static IP.
6. On your router, forward the port to the host computer's static IP.
7. (Optional) If your ISP gives you a dynamic IP (most do), then get an account at dyndns.org (free) or something similar so you can easily find your network from the Internet.
8. Make sure the host computer is turned on and doesn't go to sleep while you are away.
9. From outside your home, run Remote Desktop Connection on the client machine and give it your dyndns alias name followed by a colon and port number.

1. Host Operating System. For XP you must have XP Pro. For Vista you must have Vista Business or Vista Ultimate. If you have XP Home or Vista Home, you're out of luck because they don't have Microsoft's Remote Desktop service. You can still use a service like GoToMyPC and PC Anywhere .

2. Assuming you have an OS that has the Remote Desktop service, you'll need to enable it. By default it's disabled for security reasons.
XP Pro - Right-click on My Computer and select Properties. Click the Remote tab and check Allow users to connect.. in the Remote Desktop section. You can then select which users are allowed to connect.

Vista Business/Ultimate- Right-click on Computer and click the Remote Settings link. In the System Properties dialog click one of the two lower options in the Remote Desktop section. The Help me choose link should help you choose which one. You can then select which users can remote connect in.

WARNING: Windows will let you select any user, even if they don't have a password, including the Guest account. If you plan to allow connections from the Internet it would be a REALLY BAD IDEA to allow the Guest account access or any account that is not password protected. Otherwise anyone who guessed your IP address or alias could log onto your machine and do anything.

3. Change the port used for Remote Desktop. Although this is completely optional, there are two (maybe three) very good reasons to do it. First, for security; the default port for Remote Desktop is 3389 and anyone who might want to break into your computer knows this. So, by changing it, you are making it a little more difficult for the casual hacker to find you. Second, many workplaces may block outbound traffic on 3389 precisely because they don't want people using Remote Desktop to connect to a machine which may be unsecured. If you change to a port that is allowed from wherever you may be connecting from, you'll be able to get through. I use port 8080 because this port is sometimes used for web servers (and is a high number out of the well known port range) and is thus usually open to outbound traffic but it is unlikely that you are using it for anything else. You need to pick a port that you are not using for something else. Thus, if you are running a web server on the standard port 80, you don't want to set up Remote Desktop to use port 80. To change the port, you need to edit the registry. The registry key that needs to be changed is the same for XP and Vista:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Terminal Server\WinStations\RDP-Tcp\PortNumber
The third potential reason to change the port number is that if you want to have multiple host machines on your network, they must use different ports to avoid collisions.

4. Open the port used by Remote Desktop on the firewall on the host machine . If you didn't change the port, then this will be 3389 (and the firewall was probably already adjusted when you enabled Remote Desktop), otherwise you need to open the port for whatever you set in the previous step. The firewall settings can be found in the Control Panel.

Steps 5-6 only apply if you have a home network with a router
5. Make sure your machine has a static IP address on your home network (for example: You can either set this up through the Network Settings of the machine or (with some routers) tell the router to always assign the same IP address through DHCP to your machine.

6. On your router, forward the port to the IP address of the machine. Every router has a different way of doing this. You only need the TCP protocol, not UDP. For my example I would forward any incoming TCP traffic on port 8080 to the IP address Here's what the screen looks like on my Linksys router. Note the text in the Application column is informative only, it doesn't do anything.

7. Most ISPs give you a dynamic IP address which means it could change anytime; although it usually doesn't change very often. There are many ways to find out the IP address that your ISP gave you if you are at home. You can check your router settings or you can visit one of many web sites that will tell you such as findmyip.com or kmwTech.com. When you are NOT at home, however, it is difficult to find your home IP address unless you already know it from the last time that you were at home. Of course it could have changed since you left the house.
There are many ways to overcome this but the easiest that I've found is to use a free service called DynDNS. This service will give you a domain name (like myhouse.dyndns.org) that will not change. Then, by installing some software on one of your computers at home, it keeps track of your IP address. Many routers (including my Linksys WRT54G) know how to update DynDNS so you don't even have to install any software on one of your computers, the router keeps DynDNS informed whenever it detects that your IP address has changed. This step is optional but very handy so you don't have to keep track of your own IP address.

8. Make sure your computer at home is on and doesn't go to sleep while you are out trying to remote connect in. Seems obvious but still worth mentioning.

9. Now the fun part, from work or your laptop or your friend's house or wherever run the Remote Desktop client. This is found in Start>Programs>Accessories>Remote Desktop Connection.

You'll be asked for your user name and password to log onto the machine. Check out the options to set screen resolution, sound etc. Of course if you didn't take my advice in step 7, substitute your IP address for the DynDNS alias.
Note that using your DynDNS alias or outside IP address from inside your own network might not work. To test within your network, use your local IP address and port. In this example it would be


Windows XP FAQ on Remote Desktop
Set Up Remote Desktop Web Connection with Windows XPGoogle Remote Desktop