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Get back the menu bar and toolbars in Office 2007 with UBitMenu

November 25, 2009 1 comment

UBitMenu can make working with Office 2007 simpler.

Whilst I love Office 2007 – its snazzy new features and organised tabs are far better than the previous version – but not everybody can get on with them. This is understandable, since we’ve all been brought up with menu bars and toolbars, making it difficult to adapt when such a different approach comes along. In addition, there are times when the old way of doing things is just faster and easier. To combat this, I went gallivanting around the Internet to find some software that would let me use old menus when I wanted, but also keep the snazzy new tabs, and I found that  there are a few addons to get the classic look back in Office 2007, but they’ll set you back some of your hard-earned money. Being the cheapskate that I am, I kept hunting until I found a free version, which comes in the form of a German product – UBitMenu.  (I’ve linked to the English translated page). The good news is that it’s free for personal use; the bad news is that there’s a cost if you’re planning on rolling it out large-scale – such as at a business or school.

The software adds a tab to the Office 2007 ribbon tabs entitled ‘Menu’, which contains the classic ‘File’ ‘Edit’ etc, menus, and the standard toolbars that you’ve got used to from older versions of Office. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the software works extremely well; the installation took less than a few seconds, and when I loaded up Word to test it out, I had a tab that offered me the old layout of menus and buttons, without replacing my beloved tabs. It works with all Office software in which the old menus were done away with and replaced with a ribbon – so that’s Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, though it doesn’t work with Outlook. The other Office applications (such as Publisher) still use the menu bars in 2007, so it’s not needed there.

There’s very little I criticise with this great bit of software – it’s a very small download and it fulfulls its task perfectly. My only suggestion for improvement would be implementing the ability to alter the existing toolbars and add new ones. I know a certain ICT teacher that will be very excited by this smashing bit of kit. Whilst I’m on the subject, next time, I’ll be reviewing another exciting Office addon that makes life much easier.

UBit can be downloaded from http://www.ubit.ch/software/ubitmenu-office2007/. (But I’d suggest using the English translated page: http://bit.ly/ubitenglish.

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Find your best performing browser with Peacekeeper

All the browsers claim that they’re the fastest and offer the best Internet browsing experience. However, the performance of the browsers will vary depending upon your system. Therefore, you can test which browser gives the best performance on your system using Futuremark Peacekeeper. The site puts the browsers through a rigorous test which pushes them to the limits of their capability to do such things as: render websites fast, handle multimedia, and cope with data.

Results from the browser tests performed on my laptop

Results from the browser tests performed on my laptop

Peacekeeper is rather a joy to watch; whilst it’s taxing your browser by testing its capabilities, you receive a rather dashing show of colour, text, data, and at one point a beautiful video. These are designed to test your browser’s capability to handle the demands of the modern web. Leaving the browser alone whilst the test runs is your best bet, since using other websites whilst the test runs may slow down the test slightly and therefore cause an inaccurate result. Before you run the scan you have the choice of doing it with a system scan, or without. I chose without, since this saves installing a Java plugin. The scan runs fine and is just as accurate without the system scan, since it only serves to provide Futuremark with more data for their overall statistics.

You may be wondering what the point in all this is. Other than a rather pretty display of content, it’s actually very useful in terms of finding out which browser will perform fastest for you. Since the tests conducted by websites and magazines generally only test on their computers, their results may not be as useful to you. However, being able to test multiple browsers on your PC could prove very helpful in choosing which browser you’re going to use on a regular basis.

The test takes about five minutes to complete, and after doing so you’re presented with a screen which shows you on a graph the overall rating of the browser. You can click on the bar to see a breakdown of the scores to see how well the browser did in each area. Below that graph is a list of the top scores on the top processors. This is probably not of much use other than to make you drool over the expensive processors. You can also click the ‘Benchmark another browser’ button which gives you a URL to copy and paste into another browser. This then compares the results of all the browsers you’ve tested on a graph, allowing you to see a comparison of each browser you’ve tested.

I was surprised to see that Firefox was lagging a long way behind Chrome and Safari. However, this may be partly due to the fact that I use it most often and have quite a few addons installed. However, the overall statistics show that Firefox is markedly slower than Safari and Chrome. Whilst the tests tell you about speed and performance, you should also take into account the other features of the browser which the test doesn’t take into account – such as customisation.

You can run the test from http://service.futuremark.com/peacekeeper. Give it a go and see what results you get.

Create custom web-slices with LiveSlices

July 2, 2009 3 comments

The LiveSlice website has been down for a number of weeks. It appears that it might not be returning.

During my brief stint with IE8 I’ve been making the most of the features that it has to offer. One of these is web-slices. You can also grab an addon for Firefox which replicates this feature, but doesn’t seem to work quite so well. However, the number of webslices provided by site admins is a bit limited. I therefore went on the hunt for a way to create my own. Low and behold, the Internet has an answer in the form of LiveSlices.

The Twitter WebSlice

The Twitter WebSlice

The site’s aim is pretty simple – create new webslices and enable users to create their own. The site doesn’t yet have many of their own creation, however, the ones it does have are quite useful. I especially like the Twitter slice, which allows you to keep track of your updates from Twitter without visiting the website or using one of the bajillions of third-party Twitter applications vying for your use. As with all other WebSlices, the text changes to bold if there’s new updates, then clicking the item in the favourites toolbar pops a little box down which lets you see your updates without leaving the webpage you’re currently on.

Aside from the rather spiffing Twitter slice, another great feature of the website is the ability to create your own slice from an RSS feed. I’ve never particularly liked RSS feeds because I’ve never seen the reason behind having updates to websites hidden away in your bookmarks. Therefore having an RSS feed in a web-slice makes more sense to me. It will add a drop-down item onto your favourites toolbar which can be clicked to see the latest updates to the feed. I’ve got three news sources – one of which was custom-made with LiveSlices, and a few from other sources. In order to create your own RSS  WebSlice you simply need to go to website you want to keep track of, find the RSS feed and copy/paste the URL into LiveSlice’s webpage for creating your own custom RSS slice. You will also need to provide a name and a couple of other settings when doing this. You can then click ‘Install’ to have the slice added to your favourites bar. I had trouble a couple of times when the slice didn’t work correctly when clicked and would refer me to a webpage instead of appearing in a box. I found that deleting it and trying again fixed this.

LiveSlices is a spiffing little website. They’re also working on creating a slice to allow you to add Facebook to your favourites bar. You might be concerned that you’ll end up spending your whole time looking at your social updates from Twitter, but you can counter-balance that by creating your own unsociable feeds for news sources and other such jazzy locations. You can get the feeds and create your own at www.liveslices.com.

Check if your system is ready for Windows 7 with Upgrade Advisor

Whilst no-one wants to think about the cold October days yet, they’ll be here before we know it. With Autumn comes Windows 7, and if you’re planning on installing it on your PC, you’ll probably want to make sure that everything you’re currently running will stay hunky-dorey. You can do so with the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor Beta, which also wins the award for software with the most unnecessarily long name.

The software will give you its conclusions and suggestions after it's finished checking.

The software will give you its conclusions and suggestions after it's finished checking.

Once downloaded and installed, you’ll be able to run it. It will then spend some time pottering around your computer, deciding what Windows 7 would get upset about if you were to install it. It will then advise you as best as it can about how to avoid the upset in the first place. It assesses: whether the PC meet the system requirements; whether your devices will function correctly; and whether there are any software incompatibilities.

Each item listed will show either a pleasing green tick which means “It’ll be fine, but run Windows Update after installing just to be safe”, or a slightly more scary-looking orange exclamation mark road sign which translates to “Oh dear, looks like that might not work. But it might still run, albeit with a few issues.” There are few tailored descriptions for incompatibilities – most just warn that the item might quietly implode if you upgrade, and advise that you seek an update from either Microsoft or the company who makes the software to avoid aforementioned implosion.

It’s still in beta, but in the final release it would be nice to receive more in-depth information about the incompatible items rather than just a stock definition for all of them. Even if you don’t find the software or device feedback useful, at least it will confirm for you whether your PC is capable of running Windows 7. You can download it from www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7/upgrade-advisor.aspx.

Windows 7 RC Review

June 30, 2009 3 comments

I’ve been testing out the release candidate (RC) of Windows 7 in a virtual machine on my desktop PC. Therefore from the outset I’d like to point out that it won’t be performing as well as it could due to the limitations of the type of install used. However, I have still been able to use the operating system; sample its new features; and make a decision as to whether it’s worthwhile upgrading.

The software I’ve been using is Sun Virtualbox, a review of which should be coming soon.  This is free software which allows you to run operating systems inside others. I had to assign a certain amount of RAM and video memory which the machine could use. The limitations of this resulted in me being unable to sample the visual Aero features (which mostly just  makes things looks pretty) of the operating system, but the functionality was still intact. I’ve split the article up into sections. Within each is a commentary of what has changed and my observations and comments about the changes and features.

The Taskbar

Programs of a similar type are automatically merged into one icon.

Programs of a similar type are automatically merged into one icon.

The taskbar has been the same for yonks. Since Windows 95 very little has changed. XP brought with it taskbar grouping for when you had lots of the same window, and Vista added pretty little previews. Windows 7 goes further, and by default overhauls the taskbar. The most noticeable change is that the items now show as only icons. This saves on space. In addition, windows and tabs of the same application are rolled into one icon. For example, if I have ‘Documents’ ‘Music’ and ‘Pictures’ open at the same time, they’ll all be rolled into one icon which represents Windows Explorer. Hovering or clicking on the icon will result in a list of the windows contained within that icon. Had I been able to use Aero, shots of the windows would have appeared, making it easier to identify each. I would then be able to click on the image of the window to blow it up to full size. This is especially useful for web browsing, when you’re likely to have many tabs open. These are all available from the one icon on the taskbar.

Right-clicking on an item causes a program-specific list of documents or functions to appear.

Right-clicking on an item causes a program-specific list of documents or functions to appear.

Jump Lists is another addition. Right-clicking on a running or pinned item on the taskbar will result in a menu with common options and recent documents appearing. For example, right-clicking on Wordpad results in a list of recently saved documents, for Internet Explorer, it results in my most commonly visited webpages, and a couple of common options which are predetermined – ‘new tab’ and ‘inprivate browsing’. This addition saves time by cutting out the step of having to load or maximise the application, and then perform the action – you can perform it directly from the taskbar. Whilst this may sound unimportant, the time saved should begin to add up as the new features become ingrained in your work-flow.

I also found great excitement in the fact that when downloading a file in Internet Explorer, the icon changes its background to a moving status-bar, showing you how the download is progressing without the need to open IE’s download dialogue. The same also applies when copying or moving files. A minor addition, but a spiffing and potentially time-saving touch.

The Start Menu

A search for "Mouse" shows much improved results

A search for "Mouse" shows much improved results.

The Start Menu has also improved. Its now sports a much more accurate and fast search box, which makes finding things much easier. For instance, searching for ‘Mouse’ in vista would result in a single link to the mouse properties settings, followed by any documents related to ‘mouse’. In Windows 7, various other options are given, such as help topics related to

Commonly used websites and predefined features are listed for IE.

Commonly used websites and predefined features are listed for IE.

troubleshooting problems with your mouse; related windows options; and tasks related to the mouse. Searching was incredibly fast despite the limitations of the virtual machine, so it should be even faster on a properly installed operating system.

Another new feature in the Start Menu is the quick access. This works in a  similar way to the aforementioned jump-lists which are used on the taskbar. A small right-facing arrow appears next to applicable applications. Clicking this shows a list of recent documents and/or common tasks. Again, this saves you extra clicks by putting the most common actions there for you. It also prevents you having to remember the name of and find the files you’re looking for, since they’re listed there for you. You can also pin documents to the list. This allows you to retain quick access to files you’re using often.

Document Libraries

An example library containing contacts, favourites, and downloads.

An example library containing contacts, favourites, and downloads.

I must admit that I was a bit confused by this feature when I first looked at it. On the surface, it doesn’t look much different from the ‘Documents’ ‘Pictures’ ‘Music’ etc directories which have existed from XP onwards. However, there is a difference and it’s a great addition to the OS. The library features allows you to group in other folders without them actually being there. So I can create a library which contains a folder for my contacts, and all my outgoing emails. They won’t actually exist within the library, but you’ll be able to see all the content. You could do this yourself by copying over every file that you want to be there, but libraries keep track of the specified folders and link to the content within without you having to do anything.

You can view the documents within each folder added to the library without actually opening the folder. That’s spiffing because it saves you browsing through a bunch of folders and subfolders to find the file you’re looking for. You could have it tucked away in a chain of dozens of folders, but if you specify that folder or a parent folder to be listed in a library, you’ll always be able to access to the files quickly and easily. A good use for this might be when working on an extensive project or piece of work. You might have lots of different folders for this project, but you can group them all and see all the files in a library for your work. The implementation of libraries could be better though. The process of creating one could do with some simplification, since it involved creating a library then changing its properties to add in folders.

Redesigned Applications

The ribbon has been added to Wordpad, making it nicer to use.

The ribbon has been added to Wordpad, making it nicer to use.

Windows has come with built-in applications such as Wordpad and Calculator since the 95 and 3.0 respectively. In that time very little changed, but they’ve received a bit of an overhaul in Windows 7. Wordpad got jealous of the ribbon feature of Microsoft Office 2007 and swiped it for itself. Whilst its functionality is still very limited when compared to fully-fledged word-processors, it’s much nicer to use now and will suffice for quick lists and notes.

Calculator has also undergone some changes. It still looks basic from the outset, but now has options which let you add additional functions such as unit conversion or common calculations – such as leases.

Homegroup

I don’t feel it’s worth going into detail with this feature, but I will discuss it very briefly. The reason I don’t think it’s worthwhile spending a long time on it is that it’s not compatible with XP or Vista PCs. Homegroup is a feature added with Windows 7 designed to make it easier to share files and media with other computers on your network. It also tries to increase security by generating a unique password which must be given to those who you wish to allow to join your network. This acts as a double-layer of security in that anyone who wishes to join your network must first have the encryption key, and then they’ll need the Homegroup password. Unfortunately, XP or Vista computers in your home won’t be able to connect to a homegroup. I think it’s a shame that they haven’t made it compatible, as it would improve home networks and alienates those of us who will still want to run computers using older operating systems.

Snap

Two windows snapped to the sides of the screen.

Two windows snapped to the sides of the screen.

You may often find yourself working with two windows side-by-side, such as writing a Word document whilst researching a topic on the Internet. To put these two next to each other in XP or Vista you’d need to restore them and then manoeuvre them manually untill they’re nicely placed. Windows 7 introduces Aerosnap which fixes this. You can drag an application to the left or right hand of the screen, and it’ll automagically fill that half. Dragging the title-bar to the top of the screen will cause it to maximise. You can drag them back away from these positions to make them jump back to the way they were before.

Improved User Account Control

Users can set their own UAC level.

Users can set their own UAC level.

One of the biggest gripes associated with Vista was User Account Control (UAC). Many find it obtrusive and annoying with its constant nagging about changes that you’re trying to make to your PC. This resulted in some users switching it off completely, potentially leaving themselves less secure. Windows 7 improves upon this by allowing the user to choose the level of security which UAC applies. It implements a slider which can be moved up and down to increase or decrease how active User Account Control is. By default, it’s set to alert you when programs try to make changes, but not when you try to change something.

Summary

Is it worth upgrading? Whilst there’s a plethora of new additions which add up to make Windows 7 worth the investment, and there are other features which I could have also reviewed, such as the ability to emulate Windows XP so you can still run your older applications (Ultimate only), the improvements are only quite small small, so it may not be worth upgrading your Vista or XP machine unless you can’t bear them any longer.

I’ve been testing out the release candidate (RC) of Windows 7 in a virtual machine on my desktop PC. Therefore from the outset I’d like to point out that it won’t be performing as well as it could due to the limitations of the type of install used. However, I have still been able to use the operating system, sample its new features, and make a decision as to whether it’s worthwhile upgrading.

The software I’ve been using is Sun Virtualbox, a review of which should be coming soon.  This is free software which allows you to run operating systems. I had to assign a certain amount of RAM and video memory which the machine could use. The limitations of this resulted in me being unable to sample the visual aero features (which mostly just  makes things looks pretty) of the operating system, but the functionality was still intact. I’ve split the article up into sections, within which is a commentary on what has changed and my observations and comments about the changes.

Redesigned taskbar

The taskbar has been the same for yonks. Since Windows 95 very little has changed. XP brought with it taskbar grouping for when you had lots of the same window, and Vista added pretty little previews. Windows 7 goes further, and by default overhauls the taskbar. Windows and tabs of the same application are rolled into one icon. For example, if I have ‘Documents’ ‘Music’ and ‘Pictures’ open at the same time, they’ll all be rolled into one icon which represents Windows Explorer. Hovering or clicking on the icon will result in a list of the windows contained within that icon. Had I been able to use Aero, shots of the windows would have appeared, making it easier to identify each.

Jump Lists are another addition. Right-clicking on a running or pinned item on the taskbar will result in a menu with common options and recent documents appearing. For example, right-clicking on wordpad results in a list of recently saved documents, for Internet Explorer, it results in my most commonly visited webpages, and a couple of common options which are predetermined – such as ‘new tab’ and ‘inprivate browsing’. This addition saves time by cutting out the step of having to load or maximise the application, and then perform the action – you can perform it directly from the taskbar. Whilst this may sound unimportant, the time saved should begin to add up as the new features become ingrained in your workflow.

I found great excitement in the fact that when downloading a file in Internet Explorer, the icon changes its background to a moving status-bar, showing you how the download is progressing without the need to open IE’s download dialogue. A minor addition, but a very nice and potentially time-saving touch.

Add tabs to your desktop with WindowTabs

I have obsessive-complusive organisational needs. If things are related to the same topic, surely they should be together? Window Tabs comes to the rescue by adding a tab to the top of every application. These tabs can then be dragged around to group them with other applications or documents which are of a similar content. This allows you to have a group for each different thing you’re working on or looking at.

Three grouped windows and the WindowTabs option box showing some excluded applications

Three grouped windows and the WindowTabs option box showing some excluded applications

The software is a very quick install, and as soon as it’s finished the tabs pop up on top of your currently running programs and files. They look quite like Chrome tabs, and they work in a similar way too. You can click and drag one to move it about, and let go when it’s sitting next to a similar tab. The provided screenshot provides an example of three grouped items which share the same subject. In addition, I’ve shown the options window.

There are probably some applications which you don’t want to have tabs appearing at the top. Such as your web browser, because it already includes them, or other applications which you’ll probably never want to group with other files or programs. I’ve chosen to exclude Spotify as well, since I don’t see it fitting into a grouped category as its purpose is different.

Three is the magic number. This is the basic, free version, so it doesn’t let you have anything more than three items in each group. That means if you’re working on lots of documents, spreadsheets and other such jazz all related to the same thing, you won’t be able to group them all together. Unfortunate, but at least it’s free.

The application will work under XP and Vista, and it should be okay under the Windows 7 RC, too. Try it out and see what you think. I personally haven’t kept it, since I use multiple desktops for different areas (see the previous article about Virtuawin). In addition, I think the tabs look out-of-place when compared to the way Windows looks. I think they ought to blend in with the Windows’ themes, rather than looking like Google Chrome’s tabs. If you come to the same conclusion as me, it’s a very easy and quick uninstall, so no worries there. Grab it from www.windowtabs.com if you want to give it a go.

Organise your desktop with Stardock Fences

June 29, 2009 2 comments

Whilst I do my utmost to keep the desktop on my laptop in pristine condition, the desktop on my other PC can sometimes get a build-up of shortcuts and quickly saved files. I have found a rather nice solution which can organise desktop icons into translucent mini-windows which can be easily moved, altered, and hidden at will. This solution takes the form of Stardock Fences.

Example fences and creating a new fence. Click to enlarge.

Example fences and creating a new fence. Click to enlarge.

The software serves two functions. The first and foremost of these is the ability to add sections to your desktop where you can group similar shortcuts. For instance, you may have shortcuts to your projects or work folders. You could make a fence for ‘Projects’, and within that you can collect all the shortcuts related to your work. The same can be repeated for all other categories that you wish to create.

The process of creating a ‘fence’ is easy – just hold the right mouse button, and drag a square. A label will then pop up which asks you if you’d like to create a new fence. Clicking it will cause a fence to fill the space you selected. You’ll then be prompted to name the fence. Finally, you can then drag shortcuts from your desktop, Start Menu, or folders into the new fence. You can remove them from the fence just as easily – simply by dragging them elsewhere. Alternatively, if you decide you want them scattered around disparately again, you can drag them back out and then delete the fence.

The other nifty feature of Fences is the ability to hide your desktop icons quickly and easily. Double-clicking on your desktop causes your icons to quickly fade out to nothing. This allows you to keep your desktop clean and simple, which helps you to look professional and avoid getting confuzzled. As soon as the boss is gone, you can double-click once more to have them appear again. You can nab this application from www.stardock.com/products/fences.