20 features that will turbo-charge your Windows PC – Part 2

In Part 1 of this feature we presented some fantastic capabilities that aren’t available with Windows right now – but that you could easily add to your copy of XP or Vista right now – everything from virtual workspaces to simple remote access to friendly screen sharing.

Today we go deeper down that path and offer you some more fabulous features that can make your Windows experience exciting and rewarding.

What’s more, they’re really easy to get and we show how to do that.

Stickies

Available on: Linux, Mac, Unix

There’s no shortage of applications and Web sites waiting to help you sort through your to-do list–but when it comes to sheer visibility, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned sticky note.

Macs have long had an application called Stickies that adds the functionality to your desktop, letting you stick notes anywhere, color-code the virtual paper, and set the fonts to your liking.

Many Linux distributions include a utility called TomBoy Notes, which takes the Stickies idea to the next level by integrating hyperlinking functions that make the notes great for brainstorming, too.

Technically speaking, Windows Vista now includes a similar feature in the form of the Notes gadget in the Windows Sidebar. This widget applet is a poor imitation of its Mac and Linux counterparts, however.

For a sticky-note app that really pops, try Stickies for Windows. This simple, free, open-source program lets you customize your notes to your heart’s content, and stick them anywhere on your desktop.

Software Repositories
Available on: Linux, Unix

In a perfect world, you’d never have to leave your chair to find great software for your PC.

You’d just pop open a magic software-finding utility and click a few options, and then any application you needed would install itself instantly.

That perfect world already exists in Linux, which has long offered software repositories as an easy way for users to find and install new programs.
In Ubuntu, for instance, a utility called Synaptic Package Manager lets you browse through large online software libraries (called repositories) to locate and install applications and utilities as required. Select one and mark it for installation, and it will automatically install when you click Apply.

It will even automatically grab any other files that its installation depends on, without requiring you to do any additional work on your part.

Linux distributors can do this because nearly all of the software in their repositories is free and open-source; they seldom have to worry about license restrictions hindering their efforts. In the Windows world, however, things are more complicated.

A melange of licensing types, ranging from freeware to shareware to trialware and even a little open-source, makes it difficult for anyone to build a reliable software library with the click-it-and-get-it functionality that Linux users take for granted.

Until someone builds a massive library of self-installing Windows applications, users will have to depend on software download sites such as Download.com, Tucows, and, of course, PC World.ca’s Downloads library.

Desktop Effects
Available on: Linux, Unix

Some of our favorite OS features aren’t so much practical as simply astonishingly cool. Take Linux’s Compiz Desktop Effects, for example.

We wouldn’t say that turning your desktop workspaces into a rotating cube, painting fire across your screen, and making raindrops fall onto your desktop have a lot of mission-critical business value. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love these features.

With the release of Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon in October 2007, Desktop Effects became a standard Ubuntu feature. So now any Ubuntu users who have a supported graphics card can spin their cubes, wobble their windows, and unleash lots of other eye candy.

Jealous Windows users demanded similar features, and Otaku Software responded. But the Windows version is more modest. Otaku Software’s DeskSpace lets you turn your desktop into a cube with four workspaces like the one offered in Linux.

You can adjust the transparency levels, rotation speed, and mirroring effects, and you can even drag application windows from one side of the cube to another to organize your workspaces on the fly.

But that’s about the extent of DeskSpace’s power. And unlike Compiz, which is free, DeskSpace will set you back around $20 after the initial 14-day trial.

Application Dock
Available on: AmigaOS, Linux, Mac, Unix

The centerpiece of every Mac desktop is a little utility called the Dock. It’s like a launchpad for your most commonly used applications, and you can customize it to hold as many — or as few — programs as you like.

Unlike Windows’ Start Menu and Taskbar, the Dock is a sleek, uncluttered space where you can quickly access your applications with a single click.

Now you can add a simple application dock to your Windows PC with Stardock’s ObjectDock. ObjectDock sits atop your Windows Taskbar and behaves just as the Mac’s Dock does, complete with a magnify effect that enlarges icons as you hover over them.

It can also hide your Windows Taskbar from view, giving your system the same sleek look that Mac users love. The standard version is free, but a $20 Plus version adds more animations, tabbed docks, the ability to have more than one dock on the screen, and other options.

Truly Automated Backups
Available on: Mac

Apple’s Time Machine backup utility is one of the coolest new features in OS X Leopard; with its help, backing up all of your files to an external drive is idiot-simple. Better yet, it lets you quickly recover an older version of any backed-up file, so you can undo all of your horrible, horrible mistakes.

Windows XP, and certain versions of Windows Vista, have no such feature. Sure, they have a backup utility built in, but it’s nowhere near as easy to work with as Time Machine is, and it will do nothing to help you track down lost versions of your important files.

But Vista Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise do come with Shadow Copy, a utility that lets you retrieve older versions of your files by right-clicking the file and choosing ‘Restore previous versions’ from the context menu.

What few people know is that cheaper versions of Vista (including Home Basic and Home Premium) do record the necessary data for Shadow Copy to work–they just don’t give you access to that data.

A free utility called Shadow Explorer can set that data free, letting you roll back to an earlier version of just about any file on your hard drive, without forcing you to buy an expensive OS upgrade you don’t need.

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