July 2, 2009

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Down with Paint
Anything Windows can do, free can do better
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Hiding out in the Accessories folder of your Windows Start menu, there are some fun and/or useful little tools. Microsoft included them years ago and hasn’t put much thought into them since, so of course there are better alternatives out there now.

You might not have gone looking for them because, hey, the included programs work all right as they are. But why muddle through? Here are just a couple replacements for you to get started.

Notepad: Notepad2.
Alternative plain text editing programs abound, mainly because programmers use plain text editors more than just about any other application. As such, you’ll find lots of text editors with features that really aren’t very useful to the average person and can even be confusing. Nevertheless, getting more functionality than Notepad offers is tempting.

Notepad2 is a happy middle ground. The extra features aren’t intrusive, and it works pretty much just like Notepad for the features they share. I mainly use a text editor when I’ve copied some text and want to quickly strip out any weird formatting like different fonts, underlining and funky alignment. Notepad2 does that quite nicely.

It also does syntax highlighting, a common feature of programmers’ text editors. When working with any kind of source code, be it HTML, Perl, C++ or anything else, Notepad2 displays different elements in different colors. Since it’s purely a display function, the format of the text itself doesn’t change. www.flos-freeware.ch/notepad2.html

Paint: Paint.NET.
It sure sounds like an official Microsoft replacement for the venerable — and very, very basic — image editor, but it ain’t. Independently developed mostly by students and originally open source, Paint.NET is still free for anyone to use. Since it depends upon your having Microsoft’s .NET Framework already installed on your system, the program itself is very small and doesn’t take up many resources. That means it opens quickly for an impromptu photo cropping or contrast adjustment.

It even incorporates some tricks of advanced photo manipulation programs, like support for multiple layers, automatic adjustments and special effects. It’s hardly Photoshop, or even Photoshop Elements, but it does give you plenty of tools to work with. Best of all, it doesn’t have the condescending user interface of many cut-rate photo editors that force you to go through multi-step wizards just to draw a simple line. www.getpaint.net

Disk Defragmenter: Defraggler.
You defragment your hard drive regularly, right? You know, you should. When files are written to your hard drive, Windows puts them in the first available spot. That spot might not have enough space before another file starts, so the file being written gets broken up and scattered around the disk. Windows can find all the pieces again, but if they were all together to begin with, it wouldn’t have to work as hard.

That’s one of the reasons computers seem to slow down as you use them — even as you delete files and make room for more stuff. The built-in disk defragmenter does a decent job of sorting everything out so all your files are optimized for a while, but too often it doesn’t fully defragment your drive, and the more full your drive is, the less it can do.

Defraggler not only performs better in general, it gives you more control. The Windows tool only lets you defragment the whole disk at once; Defraggler can go at individual files. A seriously fragmented drive can take hours to fix, so attacking only the files you need can be a good stopgap measure. www.defraggler.com