50 ways to pump power into your software applications

Stuck with a boring browser? Wish that Word could handle more tasks? Feel hemmed in by Photoshop? You don’t have to toss (or upgrade) your existing software to get new features and tools.

Sometimes a plug-in, an add-on, or even a simple tweak can enable your computer to do tricks you never even thought of before. We rounded up more than 50 of our favorite tools and tips for unlocking extra value from popular browsers, productivity applications, and multimedia tools.

Browser Boosters

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

Nuke Web ads: Though decried by many Webmasters for cutting into a lucrative revenue stream, Adblock Plus is practically a mandatory addition to Firefox, due to an increasingly onerous glut of Web advertising. (IE users can try Ad Muncher free for 30 days and then pay US$30).

Put simply, Adblock Plus blocks ads–not just pop-ups, but regular banners, towers, rich-media stuff, and Google’s ubiquitous advertisements. Adblock Plus doesn’t stop everything, but it nabs enough that you’ll notice the difference immediately.

Many PCs, one set of bookmarks: If you use numerous computers, you have undoubtedly had to deal with separate browsers on each of those PCs, each with its own set of bookmarks that must be managed separately–unless you have a bookmark synchronizer, that is.

Foxmarks is one of a number of tools that can sync Firefox bookmarks among multiple machines. Just 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 Web site, too.

Put an FTP app into Firefox: Even the most casual Web developer needs an FTP application, but many of these are cumbersome and unintuitive–and they require installing yet another full-blown 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, offering a simple two-pane system that lets you easily copy files between your desktop and your remote site.

Get a handle on downloaded files: If you are a download junkie who always has something in the queue to leech off the Web, you need a download manager to help handle everything.

FlashGet is a free and extremely popular download manager that can help you organize and queue up HTTP, FTP, BitTorrent, and other types of downloads, working in the background and letting you pause and resume downloads. It can even tell your computer to shut itself down when the downloading is done. Works on any browser.

Restore embedded passwords to IE URLs: Several years ago, Microsoft disallowed Internet Explorer to use an embedded password as part of a URL (of the format https://username:[email protected]) when a user goes to a protected Web site; instead the person must type in the password manually at the pop-up log-in screen. (This restriction was a response to phishers’ employing phony password fields to deceive unsuspecting users.)

Restoring IE’s original ability takes a Registry tweak. Run Regedit and browse to the following Registry key: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Main\FeatureControl\FEATURE_HTTP_

Here, create two new DWORD values: iexplore.exe and explorer.exe. Leave the default DWORD value for each of these at ‘0’. Restart IE.

Grab a hard copy of any Web page: Did you ever print a hard copy of a Web page only to have it come out garbled, missing images, and otherwise nigh unreadable? One reason that may happen is because the newfangled Web 2.0 standards don’t play well with 0.1-era printers.

Solution: Grab a screen shot of a Web page, and select Print. But how do you do that, when a single page has enough content to fill up three display screens?

Simple: Install Screengrab for Firefox, which lets you save a full page, the visible portion of a page, or just the tidbit you’d like to keep. IE Screenshot performs similar tricks for the Microsoft browser. Save images as digital files or print them out.

More Browser Boosters

Copy any Web video: Various Web services let you punch in the URL of a YouTube flick or other Web video and receive a copy you can save to your hard drive. But they’re often slow and buggy, and you never know if they’ll work on less popular video-sharing sites.

Orbit Rich Media Downloader adds a context-sensitive set of new menu items to your right mouse button in your Web browser. Now when you see a vid on Dailymotion or hear a song on MySpace that you like, just click to save it to your PC.

Save protected media files: Some Web sites cruelly disable the right-click button on images and other media, preventing you from easily downloading them. Orbit Rich Media Downloader is one workaround, but it’s overkill if all you want to do is to save an image occasionally.

Good news: 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 (not in the image), and select View Page Info. Click the Media tab to see a list of all images 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 you want.

One click to something new: Collected quotes of Albert Einstein? Winners of the “I Look Like My Dog” contest? Pictures of real-life sea monsters? All of these Web pages can be yours at the touch of a button if you install StumbleUpon, a plug-in and toolbar available for both Firefox and Internet Explorer.

StumbleUpon, like social news sites such as Digg, takes user submissions to point other users to cool stuff on the Web. Click the thumbs up button if you like what you see, or 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.

Easy access to deals and discounts: Smart shoppers perform a quick search for a coupon code before buying anything online, but forgetting to do so is easy.

RegisteredCoupons.com’s toolbar for Internet Explorer simplifies bargain hunting by putting the information right where you’re most likely to see it: A utilitarian drop-down box lets you select the retail outlet where you’re shopping. Click the store in question, and current coupon codes and promotions instantly arrive in their own window.

Relocate the Firefox sidebar: Want to move the sidebar to the right side 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 you don’t see the Application Data file in your user folder, go to the Tools menu, click Folder Options and then the View tab, and select Show Hidden Files and Folders.) Rename the example file there userChrome.css, and then add the following 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 on your Web site or blog, you can use the Adsense Notifier Firefox plug-in to keep track of your daily earnings within the browser, in real time. Just check the bottom right corner for total ad impressions, CPM, and your total daily earnings as they accrue.

Five Essential Browser Add-Ons

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

3. ErrorZilla: The standard “server not found” page is useless if you’re looking for a Web site that’s gone AWOL. ErrorZilla adds a series of buttons to the bottom of the standard “Firefox can’t find the server” message, providing instant access to the Wayback machine, Google Cache, Whois lookup, and more.

4. Inline Search: IE users can obtain search-as-you-type functionality that works the same way it does in Firefox with this free, simple extension.

5. Extended Statusbar: This 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.

Office Optimizers

Get more out of Microsoft Office by adding a few extras. Watch Word, Excel, and Outlook perform tricks you never dreamed were possible!

Open Office 2007 files with older Office versions: 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 have any of three prior versions of Office–2000, XP, or 2003–you can install the Office Compatibility Pack and thereby establish forward compatibility with the new format.

Open old files with Office 2003: Conversely, with Service Pack 3 for Office 2003, Microsoft disallowed 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 then select Merge. At once, you’ll be able to open old files again.

Put offline docs online in a jiffy: Online document-processing tools are wonderful for people who are working on files as a group, but getting files online–and keeping online versus offline versions straight–can be a hassle. The Zoho Plug-In for Microsoft Office simplifies uploading your offline documents to the Web service and downloading online documents from it, all without your having to leave your Office application.

Make PDF files inside Office: You don’t need full-blown Adobe Acrobat to create and edit PDF files. CenoPDF lets you build PDFs without leaving Word, PowerPoint, or Excel. After installing CenoPDF, simply print your .doc files and choose the PDF printer option–or build PDF-based forms using text-entry fields, buttons, and boxes to be filled out electronically. The program is free to try, though PDFs are watermarked; it costs $29 to buy.

Add holidays to Outlook: Want to avoid manually adding Memorial Day and Christmas to your Outlook calendar each year? You can input 12 months’ worth of holidays at once by clicking ToolsOptions, Calendar Options (on the Preferences tab). On the next screen, click Add Holidays, select the appropriate country or countries, and click OK.

Organize and prioritize Outlook data: The ClearContext Information Management System offers tools that are useful for organizing your Outlook data, starting with a dashboard that provides a consolidated look at your tasks and calendar items. ClearContext allows you to assign topics (which you define) to messages; then it automatically files subsequent messages in the thread.

The system flags your most important contacts based on how often you deal with them, and it color-codes messages based on the sender’s importance. ClearContext reduces inbox clutter by “snoozing” noncritical messages–that is, by removing them from the Inbox for a specified period of time. The program is free for 30 days, and then costs $90 to buy.

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 centralized 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 $199.

More Office Optimizers

Import Outlook contacts to Lotus Notes, and vice versa: Moving your contacts list from Lotus Notes to Outlook (or making the opposite migration) is a snap using the Personal NAB (Notes Address Book) Import/Export Utility, a no-cost download from Lotus’s Web site.

Open the utility the same way you would any Notes database, and you’ll see a simple form where you can point to 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.

Get a bird’s-eye view of your contacts: “Xobni” is inbox spelled backward, but there’s nothing misdirected about Xobni Insight’s cool interface, which 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 side of your Outlook window. It provides a graphical look at e-mail frequency, contact information, and old conversations with each contact. Don’t miss the Xobni Analytics feature, which tracks how much e-mail you send and receive every day.

18 ways to tweak Outlook: MAPILab Toolbox is a pile of 18 Outlook add-ins 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 e-mail for phrases like “see the attachment” and then pops up a reminder in case you forget to attach anything. The toolbox is free for 30 days, $24 thereafter.

Redact text in Word: You know how the feds black out sections of documents they deem 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 cannot be read (or edited, if you choose this limitation).

Share Excel files without groupware: You can share an Excel file without using a Web-based collaboration system: The eXpresso Plug-In for Excel (a 2007 Innovations Award winner) 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.

E-mail alerts tell when the file is unlocked. You can even lock specific portions of a spreadsheet to prevent others from editing them.

Swell your spreadsheets with demographic data: An Excel spreadsheet is only as good as its data. But manually adding information (such as the population in an area code or the average income in a zip code) is tiresome. CDXStreamer does the heavy lifting:

Install this Excel plug-in, and configure it to find information about a region or a stock ticker you are interested in. CDXStreamer then grabs the latest content from the Web, automatically. Over 100 pieces of demographic data are indexed to each zip code. The free trial lasts 14 days; regular CDXStreamer service costs $30 per month.

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

Five Essential Office Add-Ons

1. International Character Toolbar: Add this toolbar to Office to gain one-click access to a palette of the most common special characters used in the foreign language(s) of your choosing. Warning: You may have to sign on to the Office Genuine Advantage program to get this add-on.

2. ToolbarToggle: Not thrilled with Office 2007’s radical new “ribbon” design in lieu of good old menus and toolbars? ToolbarToggle restores the 2003 suite’s arrangement. A single-user license costs $20 after a free five-day trial.

3. Word Frequency Count: This shareware application (full name: Word Frequency Count in Multiple Text & HTML Files) adds up the number of times that every word occurs in multiple text, HTML, and Word documents. Unlocking the full utility will cost you $30.

4. 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 yourself. Thank Microsoft for this free add-in.

5. ClearType Tuner: Part of the Windows XP PowerToys suite (and available in an online version, as well), this add-on gives you fine-grain 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 on your eyes.

Multimedia Muscle Builders

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

Make music friends, get worthwhile recommendations: iLike is a plug-in for Apple 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 offers other music you might like (with instant previews you can play), along with free, similar MP3s from independent artists.

Use Variable Bit Rate encoding in iTunes: No matter what overall bit rate you rip tunes at, Variable Bit Rate (VBR) delivers the best-quality music while keeping file sizes small. Finding the option in iTunes isn’t easy.

To get there, click EditPreferencesAdvanced, click the Importing tab, and then click the Setting drop-down menu. Choose Custom, and check the Use Variable Bit Rate Encoding box. A transfer rate of 192 kbps and Medium High quality for VBR yield exceptional results; aim higher if you think you can hear the difference.

Give WMP an upgrade: Windows Media Player may not be the most exciting application on its own, but the free Windows Media Bonus Pack add-on for Windows XP gives WMP considerably more oomph.

Extras include additional visualizations, skins, and sound effects, plus new features such as the ability to export your playlist 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 photo-sharing site can be dull and time consuming. Download the Flickr Uploader (now in version 3.0) for a quick and easy way to upload photos in bulk, all in a stand-alone application.

The program also plugs into Windows Explorer. Right-click any image (or group), and you’ll get a ‘Send to Flickr’ menu item, which opens the Flickr Uploader application and gets your shots ready to go.

Upload to Flickr by e-mail: Don’t have Web access? You can send pictures to your Flickr account by e-mail from any PC or even by phone. First, find your custom upload e-mail 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 the phrase “tags:” on their own line.

Quickly shrink those pics: 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 be custodians of an inbox full of 4MB files.

If firing up a full-blown image editor such as Photoshop seems like overkill, use Microsoft’s Image Resizer PowerToy to right-click any image and open a Resize Pictures menu for easily making pics smaller. To resize in bulk, select multiple shots.

More Multimedia Muscle Builders

Make GIMP look like Photoshop: GIMPshop, a tweaked version of the free, open-source GIMP image editor, mimics the look and feel of Photoshop, so you can use this full-featured application without having to 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 4000 filters) for tweaking and digitally adding textures and lighting tricks to your photographs.

Photoshop jockeys can create their own filters and upload them to the Filter Forge community. Contributors get the plug-in for free; everyone else pays $99 to $299, depending on the resolution they require.

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

Silence noisy photos: On some cameras, ISO modes as high as ISO 3200 tempt a lot of people to shoot pictures in the dark–leading to disappointment with the resulting noisy photos.

Noise Ninja cleans up grainy, pixelated shots. Plug the app into Photoshop and select noisy areas by hand, or use the Noise Brush to swipe your pointer over trouble spots. The program costs $45 for home use, and $80 for pros.

Give pics the TV treatment: Looking for a way to crop a photo onto a television screen and make the resulting image look realistic? Namesuppressed Design’s Autointerlace plug-in for Photoshop adds telltale horizontal lines to your image, just as if you had photographed your old CRT.

Expand your 3D library: Adobe’s free 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 possible color from your PC: Printed photos don’t look the same as photos on a monitor. Reconciling the two (and images from other sources, like scanners) involves installing a color profile for each device.

The Color Control Panel Applet for Windows XP enables you to switch among all the profiles on your machine; if you have multiple monitors or printers, you can easily tweak output to look its best on the device you’re using.

Five Essential Multimedia Add-Ons

1. 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.

2.The Filter: Your party starts in 15 minutes and you forgot to make the music playlist. No problem–seed this iTunes and Windows Media Player add-on with a handful of tunes you like. Not only will it generate a killer party sound track, but it will dredge up hot tracks that you might even have forgotten you had.

3. 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 application. The results aren’t perfect, but they’re on target more often than not.

4. 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 are likely to need.

5. 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 like a “page curl” for image corners, all accessible within a single interface.

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