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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Greasy Blog: Search, 3 column template, Blogrush etc

As you can see I've started messing around with more features for the blog. I won't try to be too meta about blogging about my blog, but they are tweaks that elevate one's blog from being the stock blog.

Search Bar

This isn't too useful for now, but as we expand with more and more articles, it'll come in handy. I found the article on Widgetbox , which I guess has a bunch of widgets for your blog. The cool thing about it is that the widgets are as simple to install as just inputting your blog url and the width of your search bar, and basically it'll install on its own.

My only gripe is it doesn't make it easy to tweak once you've already installed, unless you sign up for a (free) membership. When I had to tweak the search width I just ended up deleting the old one and installing a new one.

Still, the search bar seems to work like a charm.

3 Column Blogger Layout

I usually try to design all my sites to be viewable on an 800x600 monitor, but my stats show monitor resolutions that small only account for 2% of the views on this blog so far. Most are either 1280x1024 or 1024x768. So that means it's okay to expand a little.

Blogger's default layouts are perfectly functional, but they don't offer 3 columns by default. Luckily, you can tackle the layout template yourself, if you want to get your feet soaking wet in HTML, XML, and CSS.

I found a blog (Tips for New Bloggers) that takes the guesswork out of it by showing you exactly what values to edit to get a 3 column blog. I still want to alter it so the two thin columns are on the right, and to widen the main reading area a little, but that'll be for a later time (I already spent an hour trying to get it to work, but I couldn't get it perfectly right).

Update: I ended up switching to a completely self-contained template I found at Finalsense, simply called Keyboard. It's a 3 column template that has that gaming keyboard image that I haven't gotten around to changing yet. It looks cool and appropriate, but unfortunately I actually don't have such a keyboard (though I've got a perfectly fine Labtec wireless keyboard and mouse).

BlogRush

Blogrush is a widget that's kind of an RSS exchange for blogs. You build credits based on your traffic, that shows your article headlines on other blogs that use the widget. You can filter what category of blogs will be shown on your widget, and it seems to be working well so far.

I'm still prioritizing content over traffic promotion right now, but slowly but surely I will be putting more effort into driving traffic into the site. There are plenty of articles out there that are all about driving traffic, and it's all a matter of what you take advantage of.

Update: I've also now signed up with Feedburner, BlogExplosion, and BlogCatalog, as that article suggested.

Out with the Floppy Drive

I bought my MITSUMI black floppy drive back when I originally built my computer in August of 2002, and I'd kept it in my system for the past five and a half years. It's always worked... for the four or five times I'd needed to use it.


Image courtesy of Newegg.com , where I had bought this drive and many other computer parts.

That being said, I realized I hadn't owned a floppy disk in years. So when I swapped out my busted DVD drive, I decided to take my screwdriver to the floppy drive and take it out once and for all.

You know the drill... first the power cable, then the interface cable, then screws out and pull the sucker out. Luckily I hadn't thrown out the original cover to that empty slot from my Ultra case (though I did have a tough time finding it), so soon my computer looked super sleek.

Postmortem: the drive didn't really speed up the boot process, and I did have to go into my BIOS to tell it that there's absolutely no floppy drive anywhere. Still, that slowdown (and chugging sound) whenever you accidentally click on the floppy drive (A:\) and it tries to read what's in there (nothing), is now gone.

And finally, there's a tiny reduction in power usage, and better air flow and less heat from the machine.

Now to figure out what I want to do with my trusty floppy drive...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Samsung 18x DVD Burner from 3btech is Here

As you might recall, my trusty AOpen 16x DVD Burner finally bit the dust after languishing for over a year. For a replacement, I went for a Samsung SH-S182D 18x Double Layer DVD Burner from 3btech, the cheapest burner I could find online for 29.99 shipped.

I ordered it on January 20th, and received it on the 25th via UPS ground that I was able to track online. The package was a cardboard box that was filled with styrofoam peanuts and the drive wrapped in an anti-static bag. Along with the CD audio cable (unnecessary), that was all that came in the package. There wasn't even an IDE cable (unless I wasn't paying attention) or any software. In fact, there seemed to be evidence that the drive wasn't new, and had at the very least been installed as a test in a previous computer...

Anyway, installation was a snap, if you know how to install IDE drives at all. I just opened the computer case, unscrewed the drive that was in there, and unplugged the power cable and IDE cable. And then I put in the new drive just as I did.

Here are some photos I took of the project. Unfortunately, I was the only one around so I couldn't take too many photos while working. It's all pretty uninteresting anyway.



Installed, I booted up with no problems. The only odd thing was the drive was identified as TSSTCorp SH-S182D. The part number was correct, but it was not labeled as Samsung. I looked it up online, though, and it seemed to line up with other peoples' accounts. It is labeled as Samsung in the case itself.

The best parts were that normal drive functions performed flawlessly, and burned a 16x single layer DVD just fine. I don't have dual layer media, so I couldn't test those. Playing DVD's using VLC media player worked just fine. The drive didn't come with any software, but luckily the Nero Smartstart software that came with my previous drive still worked fine.

And most of all, the drive now opens without the use of a paperclip!

Overall, so far so good. 3btech was good about notifying me of my order's status, and the drive works perfectly so far. I was a little disappointed by the lack of usually included stuff in the package, like software, and an IDE cable, but I assume that's what I get for the price (plus I didn't need them anyway). But for more novice users that would need these materials, I would highly recommend spending a little more.

I'm more concerned by the fact that it doesn't seem that the drive is new. 3btech offers a 90 day warranty, and I'd be very surprised to have this drive fail in that little time. Still, if it fails in 91 days, I'd be pretty pissed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Selectively Start and Stop Services with sc.exe and AutoHotkey

I recently got a copy of Corel Painter X and noticed that after installing, there was a new Windows service that kept starting up called ProtexisLicensing. Looking online confirmed that it was required to validate your copy of Painter. The problem is Painter needs to be validated by ProtexisLicensing every time it starts up, and if ProtexisLicensing isn't running when you start up Painter, Painter won't load up at all.

I don't use Painter enough to be fine with this background process taking up several megabytes to load every time I start Windows. Luckily, with the help of a utility called sc.exe and Autohotkey, we can tweak the Painter shortcut to start up Protexis Licensing before running Painter, and then turning it off when Painter is closed.

First, download sc.exe . I can't find a specific download location right now, but just google for it and you should find it eventually. It's a Service Controller that lets you start and stop your installed Windows services, among other useful features that I haven't gotten to learn about yet.

Next, create an autohotkey script. Mine is called painter.ahk. The code looks like this:


Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\sc.exe start ProtexisLicensing

Sleep, 1000

Runwait C:\Program Files\Corel\Corel Painter X\Painter X.exe

Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\sc.exe stop ProtexisLicensing
The paths of these files might differ depending on where you put your downloaded sc.exe and installed Painter, so alter as necessary.

What this script does is calls sc.exe to first start the Windows service ProtexisLicensing. Then it waits 1000 ms (1 second), and then runs Painter. RunWait is a command that basically means "run, then pause the script until such and such file is closed." So once Painter is shut down, it runs the next line, which stops ProtexisLicensing.

Then, you can change your start menu or Desktop shortcut for Painter to point to this script instead of running Painter X.exe.

To do this right click on the shortcut, and click Properties. Then change the target to point to the new Autohotkey file. Change "start in" to the folder in which the script is located.

Likely once you fix this the icon will change to the Autohotkey icon. To change this, go to the properties of the shortcut again and hit "Change icon." Then go to to location of the installed Painter.exe file and select it, with its proper icon.

Finally, hit Windows>run>services.msc to load the Services control window. Find the ProtexisLicensing service and set it to disabled (you can also stop it right then). From here on out ProtexisLicensing will no longer run at startup, or ever with the exception of when you call it.

And that's it! Save yourself some RAM space!

Of course, you can use sc.exe and Autohotkey to do this for any other Windows service you have that doesn't need to run every time. Just be sure you know exactly what those particular services affect. For more information, see how I took command of my Windows services.

Monday, January 28, 2008

DeFraggler - awesome Defrag alternative

In principle I prefer to use the pre-installed Windows options when it comes to system utilities like scandisk, defrag, and even Notepad. I'd just rather not be installing other redundant programs even if they're better. That being said, I was turned onto DeFraggler by the same MakeUseOf article I referenced last time, and I must say it's quite impressive.

(image from the Defraggler website)

What makes DeFraggler work so well is that it identifies the fragmented files and only defragments the parts of the hard drive involved, instead of the whole drive like Windows does. Much faster. For someone like me who's automated defrag, this makes it even more painless to defrag frequently (in this case, every Sunday).

Now if there was only a way to uninstall the default windows Disk Defragmenter utility...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Firefox Quick Find with Next/Previous, and Chromedit Plus!

There isn't much of a difference between hitting CTRL-F and hitting "/" (forward-slash), but appropriately, CTRL-F brings up Firefox's Find tool, while / brings up Quick Find. I don't see much of a difference between either one, other than normal find having extra options like Next, Previous, Highlight All, and Match Case, while Quick Find only has the search field.

Well, now you can have it both ways with this simple edit of Firefox's Chrome settings, which I found in a Mozilla Links article:

Open userChrome.css and add this line:

#FindToolbar > * {display: -moz-box; }

I just wish there was an equally simple way to close the find bar as just hitting / again. I have to move my hand all the way over to the ESC key to shut it down via keyboard.

Simple enough, if you know how to edit userChrome.css. If not, I'd just highly recommend getting the ChromeEdit Plus Firefox extension, like I do.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Edit "Send to" and "Open With" right click entries

MakeUseOf.com recently had an article entitled "10 Quick Fixes to Make your Windows Computer Faster" and while a bunch of the tips were ones I'd already implemented, I learned about how to alter the right click "Send to" menu. I was able to remove all but the "Compressed folder" option, which lets you immediately create a zip file of the file you've right-clicked.

To remove, just enter "sendto" in your run dialog (Win-R), and delete the entries you don't want. Do NOT delete the desktop.ini file.

This also got me thinking about how to edit the "Open With" right click context menu. MakeUseOf did not have the answer to that, but I did search and found this Tech Republic discussion that does just that. Unfortunately it involves editing the entries for each and every known file extension, so I think it's too much to handle for now, but I look forward to coming back to that in the near future.

Friday, January 25, 2008

TiffPaging and TiffSplitter - edit multi-page TIFF's

Yesterday I finally moved to a new auto insurance company*, and I was sent an email attachment of the application I had to fill out and send back. The file was a 600-kilobyte TIFF, and when I opened it, it only showed the cover page. I called the insurance company again to ask for the rest of the pages, and I was told the rest of the pages were all in that file.

Turns out, TIFF files, liked PDF's, can have multiple pages. I didn't know this, because who the hell still uses TIFF's? They do, apparently. Anyway, I saw the other pages in Windows Picture and Fax Viewer by clicking the page buttons:

Who knew those were there?

Anyway, I then had to open the pages and send them back. For that, I turned to two programs: TiffSplitter and Tiff Merger Deluxe.

TiffSplitter takes the files and splits them into separate files. They can be exported as separate Tiff's or Jpegs (I stuck with the Tiff's), and rotated. It was a very simple process, and I was able to do as I pleased with the pages.


Afterwards, I wanted to send the file back in the exact same format, as one Tiff, so I used Tiff Merger Deluxe, which merges separate Tiff pages back to one. Unfortunately, the demo version only allowed merging up to 10 pages at a time, so I had to split the 16 page document into two anyway. Otherwise, a really simple procedure as well (I suggest clicking "Add Directory" if all your Tiff's are located in one folder, like mine was).


Honestly though, I'd gone through over a decade of computer usage and never came upon multi-page Tiffs until now, and I doubt I'll come upon it again in the future. Both these files are shareware, but I can't find myself using either of them enough to keep them installed. As soon as I finish this article I'll be uninstalling these programs.

Meanwhile, though, I couldn't find freeware apps that did just these things (I couldn't even find just one program that both split and merged). Does anybody know of any?

* I switched to AIS auto-insurance, the company that's been advertised for the longest time on 106.7 KROQ in Los Angeles with "interviewed testimonials" by one of the DJ's with listeners who couldn't believe the dopey commercials were real and that AIS could actually save them money.

But they did! The online quote gave me an option that was 400 dollars a year cheaper than my current premium, which I was fine with, but when I followed up with a call, they told me of even more discounts that I didn't know about. In the end I was able to get the same coverage (PLUS rental car service) for 600 dollars a year LESS than my previous service. Incredible!

If you're really interested, just check out the personal page of the guy who took my call, Carlos Godinez . If you mention my name when you get your quote, I get a 5 dollar gas card, and if you actually switch to AIS, I get a $25 dollar Target gift card!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Speed Up Firefox Responsiveness

I saw this tip on the How-to Geek a few days ago and it seemed like something I'd already implemented before (I don't remember where I learned that tip back then), and when I got home to try it out, turns out I had already implemented it.

My Firefox is already running pretty slick and fast, so I can't remember how much of it was because of this, but this tweak is supposed to increase responsiveness by letting you access greater areas of a page while it is still loading.


To implement, just type "about:config" in the address bar, and then type "content.switch.threshold" in the Filter. The default value is "750000." Just right-click the string and Modify it, and change the value to "1000000."

Source: The How-To Geek

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

FireFTP: FTP Client for Firefox

I had long used standalone apps for FTP, but recently I was turned onto Fireftp, an FTP client built as an extension for Firefox. I liked it so much I uninstalled my local FTP client and have moved full-time into FireFTP.Why? Mainly because I like my FTP completely integrated into Firefox. It loads into its own Firefox tab. I don't do crazy tricks with FTP, I just want to upload files to my webserver, and the occasional change of permission to use PHP or Perl. Since I usually use my browser to check and make sure an upload went through, FireFTP's right-click "View on the Web" feature works like a charm (after configuring to ignore your public_html or www directories). I've yet to find any feature the other standalone clients I have used in the past had that FireFTP doesn't have.

My only beefs with FireFTP turned out to be unfounded. The first was not being able to refresh in a right click context menu. Turns out there's a refresh button right next to the "Up One Level" Button. The second was not being able to go to other drives by hitting "Up One Level." I thought I had to manually type in the drive letter in the address bar. Turns out I can navigate using the "Browse" button to the right of the address bar. I'm still disappointed these weren't intuitively integrated into the interface, but at least it's actually there somewhere.

And as far as I know it's not adding any more significant RAM usage to Firefox as running my old client, and it only runs when I turn it on.

(note: you can see what my current Firefox browser configuration looks like right now. Intrigued? Stay tuned!)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

PSKill: Kills Processes Dead (great for gaming!)

As my computer gets older, playing current generation games on my computer becomes all the more resource intensive. This is why it's important for me to shut down as many nonessential processes to free up RAM and CPU before playing my game.

Unfortunately, most of us probably have a LOT of background programs running, and it's a pain to close them one by one from the taskbar and the system tray. They're even worse when the processes can only be shut down from the Task Manager (CTRL-ALT-DEL), by force ending the process.

PSKill is one of the PSTools Microsoft and Sysinternals released to locally and remotely administer certain Windows functions via the command line. PSKill's purpose is to force the shutdown of open processes.

I use PSKill with Autohotkey to ensure the immediate shutdown of all the processes I don't need, and I keep it all in an autohotkey file called close.ahk. Running the script immediately shuts down the list of processes I've specified.

Please make sure that you know what the process you're shutting down does, as it may cause Windows to crash or behave improperly, or for you to lose unsaved changes.

To use within Autohotkey, just use this script:

Run, C:\Program Files\PSTools\pskill.exe "firefox.exe"
Where "firefox.exe" can be any process you want to kill. I put PSKill in a PSTools folder in Program Files myself. You can do the same or put it anywhere else you want, just change the path.

I also use the following script to clear the icons that might remain in the system tray even after you kill the process. Don't ask me to explain how it works, it just does, and credit goes to a certain Autohotkey forum user's post which I can no longer find. If you read this, dear user, let me know and I'll give you proper credit!
;;;; REMOVE ICONS FROM SYSTRAY;;;;
TrayIcons:
TrayIcons()
Return

TrayIcons(sExeName = "")
{
DetectHiddenWindows, On
idxTB := GetTrayBar()
WinGet, pidTaskbar, PID, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd

hProc := DllCall("OpenProcess", "Uint", 0x38, "int", 0, "Uint", pidTaskbar)
pRB := DllCall("VirtualAllocEx", "Uint", hProc, "Uint", 0, "Uint", 20, "Uint", 0x1000, "Uint", 0x4)

VarSetCapacity(btn, 20)
VarSetCapacity(nfo, 24)

SendMessage, 0x418, 0, 0, ToolbarWindow32%idxTB%, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd ; TB_BUTTONCOUNT
max = %errorlevel%

Loop, %max%
{
i := max - A_index
SendMessage, 0x417, i, pRB, ToolbarWindow32%idxTB%, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd ; TB_GETBUTTON

DllCall("ReadProcessMemory", "Uint", hProc, "Uint", pRB, "Uint", &btn, "Uint", 20, "Uint", 0)

dwData := NumGet(btn,12)

DllCall("ReadProcessMemory", "Uint", hProc, "Uint", dwData, "Uint", &nfo, "Uint", 24, "Uint", 0)

hWnd := NumGet(nfo, 0)

WinGet, pid, PID, ahk_id %hWnd%

ifwinnotexist, ahk_id %hWnd%
{
idx := i+1
;MsgBox, 4, , Delete tray icon %idx%?
;IfMsgBox Yes
deletetrayicon(idx)
}

tmp = index=%a_index%, i=%i%, pid=%pid%`n
strayicons .= tmp

}

DllCall("VirtualFreeEx", "Uint", hProc, "Uint", pRB, "Uint", 0, "Uint", 0x8000)
DllCall("CloseHandle", "Uint", hProc)

Return sTrayIcons
}

DeleteTrayIcon(idx)
{
idxTB := GetTrayBar()
SendMessage, 0x416, idx - 1, 0, ToolbarWindow32%idxTB%, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd ; TB_DELETEBUTTON
SendMessage, 0x1A, 0, 0, , ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd
}

GetTrayBar()
{
WinGet, ControlList, ControlList, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd
RegExMatch(ControlList, "(?<=ToolbarWindow32)\d+(?!.*ToolbarWindow32)", nTB)

Loop, %nTB%
{
ControlGet, hWnd, hWnd,, ToolbarWindow32%A_Index%, ahk_class Shell_TrayWnd
hParent := DllCall("GetParent", "Uint", hWnd)
WinGetClass, sClass, ahk_id %hParent%
If (sClass <> "SysPager")
Continue
idxTB := A_Index
Break
}

Return idxTB
}

I've even customized the Steam (the game launcher for games like Half-Life and Team Fortress 2) shortcut to instead run a special steam.ahk script that first runs close.ahk, then runs steam.exe (it also shuts down my two other displays). This way I only have to click one icon to everything.

Next I'll go over the script that turns everything back on after I play the game. Also all automatic!

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Busted DVD Burner

Well, almost taking a cue from my recently busted case fan (2 dollar replacement's working like a charm, btw!), my Aopen DVD burner, purchased in January of 2005 from Newegg. Newegg is easily the biggest and best computer hardware retailer on the web, most recently evidenced by how I can still check out what I bought for what price all the way back in August of 2002, when I apparently spent $1697 to build the first components of the computer I'm still using now (my copy of Windows XP and my floppy drive are the only components left in my machine).

But back to the DVD burner first. About a year ago it started acting up. About half the time it wouldn't open or close, either by the button or by ejecting in Windows. Everything else still worked, and hardly ever burned coasters, but I had for the longest time resigned msyelf to sticking a paperclip in that tiny hole under the tray that forces the tray open.

Yesterday after having issues burning an onerous ISO file, I forced it open again, and now it no longer recognizes any disc I put in there. The LED indicator doesn't even turn on anymore.

So, time for a new one.

Anyway, while I do claim more loyalty to Newegg than any other online retailer, if Pricewatch says there's a cheaper component out there (including shipping and tax), and the product nor retailer isn't crap, then that's where I'm headed.

In this case, I was led to 3btech's supply of a Samsung 18x Double Layer burner. Back when I bought the CD Burner for my computer in 2002, it cost 67 dollars, plus another 42 for the DVD player. When I replaced both of them with one DVD burner in 2005, that cost 65 dollars.

The Samsung I just bought cost 29.99 with no tax and free shipping. Incredible. Newegg had a 24.99 burner but had 5 dollar shipping and would've cost me tax, so I'm cheating on Newegg this time around.

If 3btech is any good at all, I should have my new burner by the end of the week. Come back soon to see how the purchase all works out, despite my original insistence that this was a predominantly software tweaks site, not a hardware one.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Alt-Tab Replacement: Thumbnails with Alt-Tab!

OSX has some cool graphical tweaks that make it easier to navigate through the various open windows on your computer, but in my view, none of them are as functional and practical as the Windows taskbar. Now, with Alt-Tab Replacement, the other way of navigating your windows in XP, Alt-Tab, looks even cooler, and is even more functional!

As part of the awesome but why-didn't-they-come-in-the-install-CD package Powertools by Microsoft themselves, Alt-Tab Replacement enhances your Alt-Tab experience by adding thumbnails of your open windows! Observe:

Alt-Tab replacement runs as a process in the background called taskswitch.exe and shouldn't take more than 4 megabytes of RAM while running. It's so small and so fast (it renders the thumbnails error-free in the blink of an eye), that even though I've been super strict about my background processes, I've decided to keep this Powertoy (indeed!) I don't even use Alt-Tab all that often!

Plus it looks super coordinated with my Zune desktop theme.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Thoughts for the future: New/Upgrades/Macs

While at Best Buy yesterday I once again found myself checking out the various video cards for sale. My ATI Radeon 9600 had served me well for over three years, but it's definitely getting long in the tooth. In fact, it's now one of the oldest major component of my computer, which is saying a lot.

I've once again started wondering whether or not to upgrade, what components to upgrade, or to go with a complete build at all. Or, heaven forbid, finally cave into the pressure and get myself a Mac. But which one?

Upgrading

Let's break it down one by one. The first thing I can update is my video card. Unfortunately, my motherboard is also old enough that it only supports AGP, not the far-more-common PCI-Express now. That being said, I don't plan on spending more than 100 dollars on a card anyway, unless I just go for a full rebuild. If I can squeeze another year of gaming out of a 256 or 512 megabyte AGP card for less than 100 dollars, I'd feel justified.

I can also buy a new motherboard that had PCI-Express but still supported my AMD Athlon 64 (socket 754). There are far fewer of these around nowadays, but they can be had for as little as 30 dollars. For just around 100 dollars I can get a new motherboard and a PCI-express video card, with the option of being able to upgrade more in the future.

But this is a much more involved project than just replacing a video card; replacing the mobo would likely involve altering my Windows install. If I were to commit to that much labor, I could easily just replace my processor as well.

At that point I'm basically rebuilding my computer outright, which I haven't done since 2002. In fact, I'd have to buy new RAM as well, since I'm using old DDR RAM, not DDR2 (albeit 2 gigabytes of it).

Console vs. PC

This brings up the next debate: should I migrate to consoles and ditch PC gaming?

My wonderful girlfriend Lynn got me a Wii for our 2 year anniversary in September, the first console I'd owned since my Sega Genesis. I'd been a staunch PC gamer since elementary school, reveling in the high definition gaming on my computer. But with the current generation of consoles finally stepping into Hi-Def, it's hard to deny that consoles have finally caught up. My current computer certainly can't do the graphical tricks that consoles nowadays can do at the resolution they do it in.

That being said, the Wii is not a serious gaming machine. If I wanted true HD gaming, I would have to spring the 300-400 dollars for an XBox360 or PS3, and then I'd have to rebuild my stable of games to play. I'm not even a huge fan of gamepads, since I mostly play FPS'es and strategy games!

Still, the current gen of consoles should probably stave off obsolescence for 3 or 4 more years, basically the longevity of an upgrade for my computer anyway. It's getting to be a hard choice.

Mac vs. PC

And then the hardest choice of all: do I finally cave into the pressures of getting an Apple computer. As an animator and filmmaker in Los Angeles, I am one of the last bastions of people who do their professional work primarily on a PC still (I use Macs at the office). I've managed to get by this far, but if I want to keep editing in my skillset, I have to start using Final Cut Pro.

But Macs are ridiculously expensive for their performance, compared to a PC of the same specs (a friend and colleague's 1800 dollar PC rendered the same AfterEffects file as his workplace's 2500 dollar Intel Mac, and the PC rendered it 30% faster); They aren't built for gaming; they require brand new software; and they're more expensive and a pain in the butt to upgrade.

I volunteered to swap the power supply on a Mac Pro at work once. What was a 20 minute procedure for a PC, took me over six hours (spread over 2 days) with the Mac. Ridiculous.

Besides, I only really need to use the Mac for FCP... I can keep using AfterEffects and Flash on my PC.

An Indecent Proposal

It would cost about 2500 dollars to buy a Mac Pro (quad core Xeon, 2 gigs of RAM, 512 mb video, 320gb HD). With a budget like that, let's see how much I can spread the money around:

$260 - Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 ghz Processor
$65 - MSI Intel Motherboard
$57 - 512 MB Radeon x1650 video card (PCI-E)
$170 - 8 gigabytes of DDR2 RAM
$552 - TOTAL for a PC rebuild (salvage rest of parts from current PC) (via Newegg)

$400 - PS3 or Xbox 360

$952 - SUBTOTAL

That gets me $1548 left to buy a Mac. Not a Mac Pro, but I can get a 2.0 ghz 20-inch iMac with 2 gigs of RAM, which should be more than enough to run FCP without a ridiculously amount of filters and layers, for just $1349.

Total: $2301, 200 dollars cheaper than a Mac Pro that would likely be slower than my PC.

Really with that kind of a PC, I wouldn't even need an HD console for at least another year (almost certainly more), at which point the price for a console will have dropped even more, or we'd all be eyeing the next generation by then.

Of course, this all presupposes that I had this kind of money. Maybe after taxes, we'll see. What do you guys think?

My Auto-Hotkeys (and shutdown via text message!)

Update: The "Empty Recycle Bin" command I refer to below is now obsolete. A much simpler command, "FileRecycleEmpty" takes care of it all, without the extra Enter keystroke. Check my linked article for more info.

Update 2: I've since also removed the option to minimize with double-right-click. To see why, check out this article:

The following is the autohotkey file that I keep open at all times, keys.ahk. It contains hotkeys I use often, and I'll explain what these do afterwards. If you want to use this file as a template for what you do, and you have autohotkey installed, just copy and paste the entire thing into a text file with the extension .ahk:

#SingleInstance force
DetectHiddenText, On
SetTitleMatchMode 2
SetTitleMatchMode, Slow

WinWait, ahk_class #32770, *******: standby
WinActivate
WinClose
Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\hibernate.ahk
Reload

!o:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\open.ahk
!c:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\close.ahk
!h:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\hibernate.ahk
!s:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\
!q:: Run F:\Video Projects\
!e:: Edit
^!r:: Shutdown, 6
!x::
Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\EmptyRecycleBin.exe
Sleep, 500
Send, {Enter}

~RButton::
If (A_PriorHotkey != A_ThisHotkey OR A_TimeSincePriorHotkey > 500)
Return
Sleep 200 ; time for context to appear
Send {Esc} ; close context menu
WinMinimize, A ; minimize active window
Return

#m:: ; Win+O hotkey that turns off the monitor.
Sleep 1000 ; Give user a chance to release keys (in case their release would wake up the monitor again).
; Turn Monitor Off:
SendMessage, 0x112, 0xF170, 2,, Program Manager ; 0x112 is WM_SYSCOMMAND, 0xF170 is SC_MONITORPOWER.
; Note for the above: Use -1 in place of 2 to turn the monitor on.
; Use 1 in place of 2 to activate the monitor's low-power mode.
return

Let's go through what each part means:
#SingleInstance force
DetectHiddenText, On
SetTitleMatchMode 2
SetTitleMatchMode, Slow
The first line makes sure only one instance of the script is running at a time. The 2nd to 4th lines allow the script to monitor the text contained within the open windows. This is important for the next sectoin of scripts:
WinWait, ahk_class #32770, *******: standby
WinActivate
WinClose
Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\hibernate.ahk
Reload
This section waits for the existence of a window that's got the ahk_class of 32770 (you can see what the class of a window is using the AutoHotkey Window Spy), and contains the text "******: standby" (edited for security).

Basically, this waits for a Miranda IM window from my mobile phone (I send the im using text message) that says: standby. Autohotkey then closes the IM window, then runs my hibernate computer routine (I'll show you that soon as well!), and then reloads the keys.ahk script. Again, I plan on elaborating on this process in a future article.
!c:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\close.ahk
!o:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\open.ahk
!h:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\hibernate.ahk
!s:: Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\
!q:: Run F:\Video Projects\
!e:: Edit
^!r:: Shutdown, 6
These are the various hotkeys that make navigating my computer a snap. The symbol (!) implies holding down the ALT key, so "!c" means hitting ALT-C runs my "Close programs" routine (close.ahk) . I use this to shut down programs in the background that I want to shut down if I really want to free my system resources up, like for playing a game or video rendering. Open.ahk reopens those programs when I'm done.

The commands that run a directory open that directory when the keys are pressed. !e:: runs the "Edit this script" command. And finally, "^!r" (Shift-Alt-r) force restarts my computer.
!x::
Run C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\EmptyRecycleBin.exe
Sleep, 500
Send, {Enter}
Hitting Shift-X runs emptyrecyclebin.exe, a free utility that empties the recycle bin. The next 2 lines waits 500 milliseconds, and then the computer sends and "Enter" keypress. This is because while the emptyrecyclebin program empties the recycle bin, if you still have the Recycle Bin set to ask you if you want to permanently delete the files within, you still have to press OK (or hit ENTER, as OK is already highlighted).
~RButton::
If (A_PriorHotkey != A_ThisHotkey OR A_TimeSincePriorHotkey > 500)
Return
Sleep 200 ; time for context to appear
Send {Esc} ; close context menu
WinMinimize, A ; minimize active window
Return
I got this script from Lifehacker, I believe. It lets me double-right click to minimize the current active window. Neat, though I still need to remember to use it more often.

#m:: ; Win+O hotkey that turns off the monitor.
Sleep 1000 ; Give user a chance to release keys (in case their release would wake up the monitor again).
; Turn Monitor Off:
SendMessage, 0x112, 0xF170, 2,, Program Manager ; 0x112 is WM_SYSCOMMAND, 0xF170 is SC_MONITORPOWER.
; Note for the above: Use -1 in place of 2 to turn the monitor on.
; Use 1 in place of 2 to activate the monitor's low-power mode.
return
Finally, that part sends the monitor into standby mode by pressing Windows-M. I believe I got this script from the Autohotkey forums.

And that's it! Hope that inspires you to write your own super-simple script that automates much of your repetitive tasks!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Busted Case Fan

A week or two ago I was tooling around with my BIOS to try to find if I could activate Wake-on-LAN in there somehow (I couldn't... stay tuned), and I noticed that my CPU (AMD Athlon 64 3000+) was running abnormally hot, around 59 degrees celsius. Not terrible, but warmer than I remember it being, which is a lot cooler than the Athlon XP I had in there back in 2003.

Anyway, I knew it wasn't too too hot, and the computer was running fine otherwise, so I left it alone.

This morning I realized that my case fan had broken. It was a stock fan that came with a dinky Powmax tower case that I bought during college, made of the flimsiest metal you could imagine. But the fan worked well and lit up magenta and blue, so when I bought my new and awesome ULTRA case, I kept the fan (the new case didn't come with one).

I checked the connections and saw that it was good (I didn't notice it had broken because the LED's still lit up), but the plastic casing around the motor itself had cracked at some point, and while the motor still turned if I held it tighter together, it was slow and didn't move air at all. Time for a new one.

I went to Best Buy ready to plunk down around 10-15 dollars for a case fan, and when I got there, the two LED-lit fans were both around 12.50-12.99. But as I looked down, I saw a generic Dynex-brand case fan that was only 1.99! Only caveat is that it didn't light up. But for 1/6th the price, I couldn't resist. Armed with my 12% off coupon (hurry, coupon expires Jan 21st!) that I got from recently discovered Dealigg, as well as my Best Buy rewards card, I was able to get the price reduced to $1.92 including tax. Not bad!

Installing the fan was a snap like it always has, just unscrew the mounts of the old one, unplug it from the power supply, and then put the new one in its place. I'm happy to report that the average temperature is now a very pleasingly average 47 degrees celsius.

I must admit I do miss the red and blue light from my PC; it feels so much less alive now... oh well, if I really miss it, I'll just buy one for 5 dollars on eBay, and put the unlit fan in the front of the case, and it would've still been cheaper than buying that 12 dollar one at the store :).

CD Recovery Toolbox Free

I was sure that I'd made a backup of my emails from my college years way back when, and I scoured through my spindle of burned but not well-catalogued CD's and DVD's yesterday hoping to find it and merge them into my Google-Apps enabled greasypigstudios.com email address (I currently have two years of incoming mail and three of outgoing archived in gmail). Unfortunately, no such luck finding it but I did find a CD of old backed-up files that I'd forgotten I had. Among them were older instant messenger conversations from 2002 to 2003 that weren't part of my big mass of IM conversations that went from 2003 to the present.

Seeing that the CD wasn't in the greatest shape, I resolved to move everything out of that CD and into my hard drive for proper archiving before the CD itself went belly up. Unfortunately, my drive was already having issues reading everything, and simply selecting all and pasting it to my hard drive resulted in repeated cyclic redundancy errors.

So I decided to use CD Recovery Toolbox Free, a freeware app I'd seen featured on Lifehacker months ago. I actually downloaded it a while back but uninstalled it after it unsuccessfully tried to take some large movie files off some semi-scratched discs (more on that later).

Anyway, CD Recovery Toolbox comprehensively reads the CD and tries to recover as many files as it can, skipping ones it can't. How comprehensive is it? Well, I started the recovery process before I went to bed, and by the time I woke up, it still had another 10 minutes to go. Thank god it was a CD and not a DVD.


Despite the fact that it took forever, it was able to recover 99% of the files on the CD, and luckily none of the unrecoverables were critical. The recovered files are now back in my hard drive.

As I mentioned earlier, the big downside of CD Recovery Toolbox is that if you have a CD that's taken up by one large file (say, a DivX movie from your old file-sharing days), even if only a tiny part of the CD is scratched, CD Recovery Toolbox won't be able to recover the file at all - it's all or nothing on a per-file basis. Much more reasonable though when recovering a CD with lots of files-- you're bound to get a good portion of it back.

In all, a great product for the price (freeware!). I may not keep it installed all the time, but I'll be keeping the install file handy in case I need to use it again.

The images in this article were taken from the official product website, which also contains the download link and a useful online help guide (the program itself takes no effort to use, but it gives you a better idea if you're considering downloading it for the first time).

MozyHome Video Tour

For those of you who want more of a primer to using Mozy Home prior to applying the MozyHome tweaks I wrote about earlier, here's a video tour on YouTube for using Mozy Home:





Youtube's becoming increasingly great for software and hardware tutorials, and I'll try to embed related videos to my posts more often.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taskbar versus Dock

A few months ago I asked a coworker who had recently become a Mac fanboy to try to convince me on using a Mac OSX-like Dock instead of using the Windows Taskbar, other than aesthetics. He said something about "application-based" versus "document-based," but it all sounded like he was quoting some blog article. So I checked some blogs, and got a better idea of what the hell he was talking about.

I decided to stick with the Taskbar (with the shiny Zune desktop theme, of course). It took up less desktop space and memory, and most importantly I hated how on the OSX dock, you couldn't see all of the open application windows accessible without cycling through them, or be minimized first. And there wasn't much of a difference from launching applications in the dock versus having them in the Windows quick start toolbar.

A few days ago, two months after that initial conversation, I decided to check out the two most popular options for a Windows dock myself: Objectdock (by Stardock, free or 20 dollars for the plus version), and Rocketdock (Punk Labs, freeware).

I tried Objectdock first, and was first impressed by its look (it looks a lot like the OSX dock, regardless of which of the included skins you used. Nothing wrong with that), and secondly at how small its memory footprint was. All of the options you had in the OSX dock were present (being able to drag/drop stuff into it, move them around, etc), plus quite a bit more (I do have to admit, the options windows weren't intuitively labeled, and I didn't have the easiest time with figuring out what the different options actually did.

It also docked vertically on the sides of the screen far better than any configuration of the windows taskbar.

I was pleased to learn that Objectdock also had the taskbar option of having all the windows represented on the right side of the dock (the same place OSX windows would go if you minimized them), and it worked just as I assumed. I was almost ready to throw out my Windows taskbar altogether. Except for one thing.

The free version of Objectdock did not have support for the system tray icons (the icons on the far right of the taskbar where the clock is). OSX doesn't have a system tray (at least not in the dock... I guess that thing on the upper right is its system tray), so I guess in trying to mimic OSX native support for that was unfortunately overlooked (despite the existence of taskbar support). Objectdock's premium version apparently does support the system tray, but apparently at the expense of taskbar functionality. I refused to pay a premium for something that can only do two of the three things I take for granted now at any given time.

Disappointed but not altogether surprised, I moved onto RocketDock, only to find it doesn't have any support for system tray icons at all (how can you dock people survive without it???)

I also tried other programs like Y'ZDock (I dunno where that name comes from), and checked out RK Launcher and Mobydock, and they all seemed to have the same limitations.

As such, I've decided to stick with my very tweaked, customized, shiny old taskbar:

Soon I'll highlight exactly what tweaks I did to make it look like that!

MozyHome Settings

I'd already gone over Mozy twice now in previous posts, but this time around I'll go over the exact custom settings I use, as well as other tweaks to make sure not only that my important data is backed up but also that MozyHome stays out of the way as much as possible.

First and foremost, here's a screenshot of the Backup Sets I currently have:


I've kept the music set turned off because I have far more music than the 2 gigabytes of free space MozyHome gives you for free, plus those are backed up in my MP3 player anyway. Notice that I have it set to back up my instant messenger logs as well as my Firefox bookmarks.

Next, here is my Options window. Emphasis is on making it user-friendly when it's running, but out of the way when it's not needed:

Then, in the "Schedule" tab, I have it set to suspend automatic and scheduled backups. With my Autohotkey-scripted Standby/Hibernate routine set to go every night (or whenever I press Alt-H), MozyHome runs at least 7 times a week, oftentimes more (as I usually run the routine when I leave for work and when I go to bed). This way I can keep MozyHome shut down 99% of the time, not taking up extra resources. Speaking of which, I have the MozyHome backup Windows Service set to Manual so it doesn't become part of the startup routine.

Here's the Autohotkey script that controls Mozy's functions:

run C:\Program Files\MozyHome\mozystat.exe

Sleep, 5000

WinWait, MozyHome Remote Backup (1.8.4.7) - Status,
IfWinNotActive, MozyHome Remote Backup (1.8.4.7) - Status, , WinActivate, MozyHome Remote Backup (1.8.4.7) - Status,
WinWaitActive, MozyHome Remote Backup (1.8.4.7) - Status,
MouseClick, left, 210, 18
Sleep, 8000
Send, s
Sleep, 5500

WinWait, MozyHome Remote Backup (1.8.4.7) - Status, 1 minute ago
Run, C:\Program Files\PSTools\pskill.exe "mozybackup.exe"
Run, C:\Program Files\PSTools\pskill.exe "mozystat.exe"
Run, C:\Documents and Settings\Arvin\My Documents\scripts\finishedbackup.txt
The first WinWait routine waits until Mozyhome finishes loading, activates the window, then hits "S" to start the backup.

The second WinWait routine waits until the phrase "1 minute ago" shows up in the window. This means that the backup just finished. It then runs PSKill, a utility used for fast killing processes (MozyHome won't just quit by closing the window). Finally it opens up a premade text file that says "Backup Finished!" which awaits me when I bring the computer out of standby.

(Feel free to use the script and tweak it as you wish. I claim no responsibility for how you choose to use and modify it, and how it affects your system).

Remember, MozyHome offers 2 gigabytes of space free, and unlimited storage for $4.95 a month. I also get an extra gigabyte of space per user I refer, so please click on the link and sign up for this great service!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Prefetching

I saw a tip this morning on gHacks, about the proper setting for prefetching your programs during Windows startup, and instinctively turned on regedit to apply it myself.

Then it turned out I'd set it the proper way long ago. I guess my 1:10 record'll stand for now.

Backing Up

Anybody who's had more than a few years relationship with a computer knows the pain of a hard drive crash, and we all know that the pain resulting is directly proportional to how often you'd backed up in the past. I'm happy to say that just I've learned from my past mistakes, little by little, and each hard drive failure has been easier to deal with than the past.

In fact, I think I believe I'm going on almost two and a half years now without having to reformat my 400 mb primary hard drive (I've got a 100gb media hard drive that's going on 6 years now, I think, and I bought it used on eBay!). That being said, if something were to go wrong, I'd be set back at most a few weeks or a month.

Here are the various precautions I use to back up my data, in order of importance from most to least:

1) Windows Backup - it's included with every installation of Windows XP, and can be found in Start>Programs>Accessories>System Tools. If you can't find it there, you have to dig out your Windows XP disc and install it from there. Once installed, it has an easy to follow Wizard that asks you to specify which folders you want to back up. Restoration can be done from this wizard as well (I haven't had to restore anything, thank god, but as a result I can't give you first hand accounts of it). I personally choose to back the entire C: partition up (currently 80 gigs, up to 125 gigs when full) into my 500 gb Seagate external HD . Many of you may not have such disposable hard drive space, so pick and choose what you absolutely can't live without, mainly your My Documents folder.

I decided to go for the whole partition because I do have that space, and should the unthinkable happen it'll be completely painless to restore everything. And since I've done so many tweaks to my system that I can't even remember most of them (though I'm trying to for this blog), being able to pick up where I left off would be most ideal. I sincerely doubt I'd be building a new PC after this one anyway in the foreseeable future.

Finally, I decided to go with Windows Backup as opposed to a third party backup solution because it's built right into Windows, and was very user friendly from the get-go.

2) Mozy Backup - I'd already gone over this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. Mozy is an online backup space that offers 2 gigabytes free for their personal license. Just sign up for an account, install their application, specify what folders/filetypes to back up, and set it and forget it. You can tell it to back up automatically on a schedule daily, even specify how much network and CPU bandwidth for it to use. 2 gigabytes isn't much, but it's enough for me to back up my emails to another source, as well as critical documents like accounting information and instant messenger logs. Also, every person you refer to use Mozy gets a free gigabyte of space! (coughpromotioncough)

3) Manual backup of work - I manually back up my current and past projects into another partition of my external drive. My external drive actually isn't big enough to fit all my old projects and current ones, so I prefer to have more control over what goes in and what doesn't.

4) DVD backups - I do this myself using Nero Express, and really only of projects that I've finished and need to archive for future reference. I don't do this very often anymore since getting my external HD, but it's always good to have another place for things to go, and DVD's are good especially if they're of projects long finished.

Finally, it's worth noting that for Windows Backup and Mozy Backup I've used Autohotkey and Windows scheduler to automate backup. I have Windows scheduler set up to run an Autohotkey script at 1:30 in the morning as long as the computer's been idle for at least an hour. Said Autohotkey script is my so-called "Hibernate" process, which among other tasks that I'll cover in a future post, runs Mozy backup, then detects whether my external drive is connected (it isn't always, as it sits at the office most of the time), and if so, runs Windows Backup. At the end the script puts my computer on Standby. I hope to elaborate more on this in the future, but for now I feel very good knowing that at most I'd only be a week or two set back in case of an emergency!

Friday, January 11, 2008

svchost.exe and Process Explorer

Technically it was yesterday morning since it's 2 in the morning as I write this, but "earlier today" I had some random compulsion to check my Task Manager to see if there'd been any leftover processes running in the background following my sampling of various Windows dock launcher applications such as ObjectDock, RocketDock, and Y'ZDock (long story short, I ended up sticking with my taskbar. I'll try to go over my experience in an upcoming post).



I didn't see any processes that shouldn't've been there, though for some reason looking at all those instances of svchost.exe finally got to me and I decided to investigate where they were coming from once and for all.



As some of you may know, svchost.exe is a program that handles a lot of important Windows services, many involving networking. Unfortunately the Task Manager doesn't tell you which services are using which instance of svchost, and you can have as many as 10 instances of the program running.



Luckily, Microsoft has a free utility called Process Explorer that does exactly what you'd expect it to: explore your running processes in a way that shows you where the processes are coming from. For those of you who haven't already seized total control of your Windows startup, this is another great utility to keep you better informed of what's taking up your valuable RAM.



Hovering over the various svchosts showed which service was invoking them. Unfortunately with the exception of one unnecessary service that I identified (again, by checking the safety of disabling it through various sites online), all of the other instances of svchost were necessary for the proper operation of my operating system.



Oh well, I still got one less process off Windows, which makes more room for crap like, hopefully, a free dock launcher that has taskbar and system tray support built right in. Maybe next time!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Speeding Up Startup

One of the more unfortunate consequences of doing a systemwide overhaul is sometimes I change something that causes something else to stop working, without knowing what the hell I'd done to cause it (because I'd changed so many things).

At some point while I was still using Windowblinds, I noticed that my computer was taking interminably long to start up. It would routinely take 4 and a half minutes from the BIOS posting to being able to open Firefox. Moreso, as soon as the Windows chime plays, it just shows the wallpaper with no icons or taskbar, and the mouse pointer that was movable but couldn't click anything. I would later discover that for some reason if I used CTRL-ALT-DEL to log off as a user and log back in, the computer would finish its startup in no time at all. So I could either endure nearly 5 minutes of waiting, or cut out a minute and a half by jumping in the middle of it by logging out and logging back in. I usually just let it go and used the time to stretch my legs or refill my drink.

It had nothing to do with Windowblinds at all (in fact one of the reasons I uninstalled it was hoping it would fix the startup problem), but it bugged me enough to go through everything I possibly could to speed up my Windows startup.

I won't go into obvious computer maintenance tasks like defragging and running scandisk, I'll assume you've done that already.

First, I cleaned up the Startup folder in the Start Menu. This is the most visible way of knowing what was starting up with Windows on your computer, and was the easiest to clean up (just delete the icon from the menu). However I think because it's so easy to remove stuff from there most programs use more insidious ways to ensure loading at startup. So I moved on.

Oftentimes, you can also right-click on the icons in the system tray and see if there's a "Preferences" or "Options" menu, and see if it gives you the option to disable loading at Startup. Quicktime is an application that springs to my mind that always runs at startup when it doesn't need to, and can be disabled this way.

Next up, I loaded up Spybot: Search and Destroy, and Ad-Aware Personal, and ran a systemwide check for spyware. I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to spyware, so I don't keep these programs running all the time (that would slow down my computer as much as the actual spyware would), but it's always good to see what falls through the cracks. When I did the check, it found some cookies, but for the most part, my computer was clean.

Next, by clicking Start>Run>msconfig.exe, you are taken to the Windows System Configuration Utility, which lets you edit the .ini files that govern how Windows loads up. By clicking on the Startup tab, you can see the various programs that start with Windows. Some of the programs on there can be identified easily by their filenames, but many are not. Check the folder they're in for clues as to what they do, and if all else fails, google the filename. If you see anything that doesn't need to run, uncheck it. Novice users might want to do this one restart at a time so you know what disabled application causes whatever side-effect pops up. When I did it I saw some programs that loaded with my video card, mp3 player, and my seldomly used webcam, which I went and shut down.

I restarted when prompted. I noticed a little bit of a speedup at shutdown, but nothing major, and that minute and a half of dead time in the middle was still there. I decided to keep looking.

Start>Run>services.exe brings up the Windows Service Controller. Windows services are application-like components that Windows loads up in order to make sure certain options are always available. I learned about what each of the many services did from sites like these (among others that I can't remember specifically), and then went about setting unnecessary ones to Manual or Disabled.

Again, a tiny bit of speed up (maybe ten or so seconds max), and by this point the startup was almost entirely just that dead period, but alas, the dead period was still there.

Then it turned out it was just my Wacom Cintiq driver acting up. It felt like such a throwaway application/service that I never assumed that would be the problem (I was all ready to reinstall my video card drivers before I even thought of the Wacom drivers). Luckily Wacom had newer drivers on their website and reinstalling the drivers cleared the entire problem up.

Now, instead of nearly 5 minutes to start up, it now takes 1 minute and 8 seconds. That's one third of the time! The only applications starting up that aren't completely necessary for Windows to function are my Wacom drivers, my antivirus, and Thunderbird.

There's more about this topic I can elaborate on, but I'll postpone those for a future post. Especially look forward to more information about Windows Services, and being able to start and stop them at your convenience.

What's gone

As I alluded to earlier, while that first month accounted for the most drastic changes to my desktop and parts beyond, some of the choices I made were inevitably overwritten. Here are some of the stuff that I ended up jettisoning after a week or more of usage:

  • Windowblinds - A dark Windows theme is awesome, but it was a lot of work to integrate it with a lot of Windows applications, most of which were designed with a light theme in mind. The Windowblinds theme I was using, the gorgeous Eminence, for example, had incompatibilities with Macromedia Flash, in which the layer names were the same font color as their background (or just about), and made it difficult to go from one layer to another. I also didn't like how Windowblinds added yet another process in the background, which slowed things down even more.

    Luckily though, I discovered that Microsoft had released their own readymade themes for XP free for download: Royale, Royale Noir, and Zune, which was what I ultimately settled with. They all offered the shiny gloss of Vista but was a quick install that didn't involve an extra process. It basically just installs itself to show up like the other builtin XP themes like Classic and Silver (which was what I'd been using since getting XP 5 years ago)

  • Google Desktop - as much as I loved the gadgets, Google Desktop just took too much ram, CPU, and hard drive space for its own good (almost all for the desktop search function, which I couldn't find any more handy than how I'd laid out my hard drive already... I also had some privacy issues with it). I momentarily tried Yahoo Widgets, which had less of a footprint, but I just came to realize that all those widgets weren't giving me much more functionality, and were really kinda cluttering up my desktop. Besides, widgets like To-Do Lists and Calendars I was able to integrate very nicely into Thunderbird using the Lightning extension.

  • Proud of my new streamlined desktop, I treated myself to a really nice dual-display wallpaper. Then, becoming so enamored with looking at it, I sought out applications that could turn other apps translucent. You can see what my desktop looked like in November, a month after I started my quasi-project:

    It looked really cool like that for a couple of weeks, but in the end the app I used (whose name now escapes me... I tried a whole bunch of different ones) wouldn't work perfectly at startup, and really strained the 32 mb Rage 128 video card powering my 2nd monitor, (the 2nd display of my ATI radeon 9600 was reserved for my Wacom Cintiq). So after a while, that app went away also.
There are many other changes/upgrades/downgrades since back in November, but I plan on covering those in future editions dedicated to specific areas, like how I switched again from Trillian Pro to Miranda. Hope you come back to read them!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Macros, October 15, 2007

Continuing on, another entry from my "personal journals" dated October 15, 2007:

First off, I've become slowly addicted to computer macros via the awesome program AutoHotKey. It lets you create automation and hotkey based batch programs of incredible depth and versatility.

My first hands on experience with automation programs was earlier in the summer during an online contest I had joined. Using Automation Anywhere, a program for which I only had the demo, I was able to friend hundreds of voting members every hour to the point where I'm still by far the user with the most friends, and certainly helped me secure 2nd place in the competition. Even that program I found somewhat complicated, and it never performed exactly as I needed it to.

I vaguely recall Autohotkey back then also, but it was impossible to understand when I first loaded it up, and moved on.

The first automation program I ran was from a few weeks ago when I got WakeUpOnStandby, a freeware standalone program that woke my computer up from Hibernate at a predetermined time (8 am), so I could power down my computer overnight (helping fulfill my "Be Greener" New Year's Resolution), but be ready to roll as soon as I wake up. My computer had never been powered down so much, for so long, in forever.

The next program I used was Batchrun, which was simple in that it really only could run, close, and delete programs. My goal was to have it be able to singlehandedly close down all the processes that I needed closed whenever I should play a computer game (namely Team Fortress 2 and the rest of the Half Life Orange box when it arrived), and then another program to turn them all back on when I finished playing.

It worked well enough except some programs wouldn't close right, and, desperate, I turned back to Autohotkey.

Autohotkey was still very oblique when I powered it up, but somehow (I can't even remember it now), I figured out the intricacies of its interface (basically you just code it all in Notepad!), and found the code (and extra app PSKill) I needed to end the processes I wanted perfectly and quickly, and also open them back up.

Since then I've realized the possibilities this opened up for me. I tweaked the Open programs code to include resetting the color palette of my video card after I played. This was an annoying bug via my video drivers that I still haven't been able to fix, and I feel very empowered to have just written (okay, Autohotkey comes with an action recorder function much like Automation Anywhere that can duplicate all mouse and keyboard actions you choose) a code that will just do it for me very quickly.

I've even expanded the capabilities of WakeUpOnStandby so that I can run a script that turns the program on right before I put it on hibernate, so I don't have to keep it on at all times now so as not to risk having it inadvertently off when I put the computer on hibernate. This way I can save even more system resources by turning WOSB off also when I play my games.

But that's not all. I figured out how to get it to automate tedious internet tasks. I was annoyed when the online contest announced that voting was now enabled daily, which meant I would have to vote for myself daily if I wanted any chance at all of making it to the next rounds. So I set up a script to run that opens firefox, logs me in, and votes for me automatically. I set it to run in the morning after WOSB turns the computer back on, so unless I did it wrong (haven't tested it under real conditions yet), it should have done it before I wake up!

I tried to get it to load the aLiveJournal site up and click on the ranking sites and an add also, but it was having some problems I didn't have the time to fix. As soon as I figure that out, I'll have that run in the morning as well.

Then after that I'll set up another friending program for the contest, and then possibly a commenting program! Then I'd be unstoppable!

Now I get all overexcited just wondering what other things I can schedule for it to do (probably run defrag and autobackup)
As an epilogue, the second time I joined the contest, I ended up ranking 7th in the final round, versus the 2nd I did the second time around. Not bad for not asking help from friends, just AutoHotKey.