The Chicago Tribune James Coates Computers column
(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Aug. 27--OK kiddies, it's the last weekend of summer downtime and we need something to cheer us up. And among the most cheerful things about using personal computers is finding free stuff.
By free stuff I mean legally free stuff, and that includes everything from MP3 and MIDI format music files to Photoshop quality picture editors to PC virus scanners to Microsoft Office quality word processors and to a pantheon of utility programs.
I'll start with a gem in that final category of utility software and then move to the rest of the Web's little known but easily acquired free software. But first a word of warning:
These last few days before Labor Day should not be wasted languishing in front of a computer screen squinting at the tiny type on your Web browser, as I am doing at this moment. So put this column aside and get out under the sun and smell the late summer flowers.
OK, now that you're back, let's start with WinDirStat, which will let you finally get a crystal clear overview of just what's on your computer. We're talking about everything from word processing documents to downloaded movies; from program files to photographs and even the number of such arcane giblets as DLL and VBX files.
Free for the taking, WinDirStat (http://kdirstat.sourceforge.net/) starts by scanning every bit of the hard drive and any other drives that may be attached to the computer. The scanning is accompanied by PacMan icons nibbling folders and files they find. Then a big box displays on the screen using Tetris-style jewel colors to give a graphic display of the entire contents of the hard drive.
The amount of space remaining displays in gray below a mass of stacked rectangles in different colors, which are coded by file type and take up space according to the individual file sizes. WinDirStat almost instantly gives an answer to such questions as, "Where can I find enough stuff to delete so I can keep this computer from filling up with clutter?"
The colorful display of contents consumes the bottom half of a divided screen while a traditional text-type file tree runs down the top half of the display.
When you click on any block of color below, the file list above moves up or down to find the location of the selected file that is then highlighted. Should you want to nuke a listed file, you can call up a delete command by giving the name a right-click.
You also can play any of the files or read their contents by using an open command in the same menu as the delete commands. Most likely you'll be amazed at how much junk is scattered about the drive. Removing the junk will give your computer all kinds of added storage capacity.
WinDirStat is one among hundreds and maybe thousands of free Windows programs that are created by the so-called Open Source community, made up of programmers who create software and then distribute it in a format that lets other users acquire the programming code and alter it to their own desires.
SourceForge.net has become a favored posting site for this software that makes it ever easier to find cost-free replacements for Microsoft's costly and copy-protected programs like Office, Internet Explorer and even the Windows Operating system itself.
This is a hotbed of folks using the open-source Linux language and other methods to create shareable software for Macs, PCs and, above all, for machines running on various flavors of Linux.
A lot of this stuff is over my head, but there's a great collection of Windows-ready gems in the SourceForge mix that includes databases, media players, office applications, sophisticated graphics creators and such.
So let's turn to a simpler outfit called Freebyte that is totally dedicated to the mainstream audience and offers a great array of open-source programs for Windows at Freebyte.com/freeware.
Freebyte offers a free version of an outstanding program called Treepad Lite that lets users keep an unstructured collection of bits and pieces of information that can be browsed or searched by keyword.
Treepad works by displaying an icon for documents and collections of documents in a narrow pane dropping down the left side of the screen while whichever item selected there displays in the larger pane to the right.
I've praised Treepad before in this space, but today's focus is the large collection of other freeware that is available on the Freebyte site.
First of all, there is a collection of Freebyte's own free programs that focus largely on computer file utilities and personal productivity applications, including a great address book and FBZip, which is the group's own program for creating Zip compressed files and reading the ones made by other programs, including Windows and the proprietary PKZip products.
In addition to saving space by squeezing down files, FBZip lets users protect the Zip folders it creates by assigning a password.
Forgive the cliche but I've only covered the tip of the iceberg. You'll be able to use the links offered in SourceForge and Freebyte to discover a mother lode of, dare I say, fun new things to do with your computer after the summer recess bell rings.
Binary beat readers can participate in the column at chicagotribune.com/askjim, or e-mail email@example.com. Snail-mail him in Room 400, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
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