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Monday, December 18, 2006

Make Your PC More Useful

Christmas is almost here, so here's a suite of products that can make your computer more useful and safer - and the good news is, none of them costs a bean!

The Google Pack is a set of free software from the search engine giant Google and its partners. Exactly what you get varies a little according to the country in which you live, but the chances are it will include the following core components:

Picasa - Google's photo organizer program.

Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer - this gives Explorer additional functionality, including a spell-checker and an automatic form-filler.

Mozilla Firefox - the alternative browser to Explorer, with many additional features. The version in the Google Pack is automatically supplied with the Google Toolbar as well.

Google Desktop Search - this program will automatically search your hard drive for files of all types.

I'm a big fan of all of these programs. Picasa is great for organizing your photos and posting them on the web (see this post for a link to my summer holiday snaps!). Also, unlike certain similar services such as Snapfish, people don't have to register and log in to your site before they can view your pictures.

Mozilla Firefox is currently my browser of choice, though with the latest Internet Explorer release there isn't much to choose between the two right now. Firefox has slightly more features, and I love the way you can customize it with "extensions" to do almost anything you want. On the other hand, I've found that the latest version, Firefox 2.0, is more inclined to crash than the previous version (or Internet Explorer). So there you go - you pays no money and takes your choice - but either way, the Google Toolbar in the Google Pack makes a very handy addition.

Google Desktop Search (GDS) is a facility I couldn't live without any more. It lets you search your hard drive in just the same way you would search the Internet with Google. For example, if you need to find a file on your PC and all you can remember is that it included the words "contracts for authors", you would just start up GDS and enter these words into the search dialog box. In a moment, a list of all files on your computer containing the term in question will be displayed: Microsoft Word files, emails, websites you have visited, and so on. Not being the world's most organized of people, I find GDS invaluable and use it almost every day.

The Google Pack also includes other software, including (probably) Adobe Reader, Lavasoft Ad-Aware, Google Pack screensaver, and so on. You can pick and choose which of these applications you want to download on the main page. To reach this, click on any of the links to Google Pack in this article, then click again on the banner that appears.

Downloading the Google Pack is then a simple and straightforward process. Once you've chosen the applications you want, just click on the Download button and follow the on-screen instructions. Just one point to note. If you opt to have Google Desktop Search - and I strongly recommend you do - you should know that when it first launches it will take several hours to index your entire hard drive, and while this is going on your PC may run slower than normal. The good news is that this only happens once. After GDS has fully indexed your hard drive, it then updates itself automatically in the background, with no noticeable effect on your PC's performance.

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