Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The best new Windows programs of 2008


There were a lot of high-profile updates in 2008, and the line between traditional software downloads and Web applications blurred significantly. The browser especially has become, for some people, the only program they need.
There were several stand out new applications, though, and here are six of what I think are the best ones. They range from traditional Web browsers and browser hybrids to communication tools and utilities that should help you work faster and help maintain your system.
Google Chrome : The one application that probably going to be on everybody's Nice list this year, Google Chrome unexpectedly redefined the highly competitive browser market. While the summer months saw major updates to Firefox and Opera, Google showed in September that Steve Jobs isn't the only guy who knows how to make a big "boom."
Google Chrome has thrown the browser wars on its ear.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
Google Chrome is notable on several fronts, even if browser traditionalists dislike the lack the extensibility. The capability to rip off tabs from the main window and drag them to your desktop to save as discrete Web applications goes a long way to blurring that between Web applications and traditional software. There's also the fact that Chrome is arguably the fastest browser on the market. If it's not, it's certainly tied with the second Firefox 3.1 beta.
Chrome's speed at starting up, at loading Web pages, and at returning URI bar search results have helped push the focus of browser development back onto performance. I still use Firefox as my default browser, because what I lose in performance, I gain in add-on tools that I consider essential for work. But if you haven't yet checked out Chrome, you're missing out on more than just the Google Kool-Aid.
KidZui: KidZui takes the tried-and-failed child-control methods of Web site blacklists and keylogging and abandons them in favor of something far more sensible: an extensive whitelist. First released back in March, KidZui looks and acts like a browser, but instead a closed system of editor-approved sites.
KidZui is the kids browser that's both a bit more and a bit less.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
These editors, made up of parents, teachers, and former teachers have compiled database of 800,000 Web sites the last time I saw KidZui's stats. At-home parents can approve specific Web sites, such as a family photo gallery, that KidZui users couldn't otherwise see. KidZui is more than just a safe browsing environment, though. It combines that most essential of computer tools with social networking features. Children can rate sites, videos, and images, and share those ratings with their KidZui friends. Parents get the peace of mind that comes from weekly browsing and logging updates, and can further block approved KidZui sites if they deem them inappropriate.
It's not a program for everybody, obviously. What it does do, though, is create a uniquely safe way to teach children about surfing the Web and the power of exploring information without worrying about sketchy shenanigans.
Songbird: Songbird was in beta development for more than a year, and finally reached a stable release just after Thanksgiving. Originally designed as a balanced mash-up between Firefox and iTunes, it's instead used Mozilla's Gecko engine to drive music content. You can still browse the Web with it, but it's no accident that Songbird opens up to your music library.
It's a browser! No, it's a jukebox! No, it's...
(Credit: Songbird)
Also taking a page from its Firefox roots, Songbird lets users create add-ons with ease. These aren't limited to skins--"Feathers" in the Songbird argot. Songbird's add-ons include a Cover Flow-styled album art browser, lyric windows, and Last.fm and mashTape support. As much as people love their MP3s, it's amazing to me that it's taken this long for a serious and slick cross-platform jukebox competitor to get onstage. And as much as I love MediaMonkey, it's starting to look like there might be a software-based "Battle of the Bands" on the horizon.
Secunia Personal Software Inspector: Secunia PSI seeks to address an often-overlooked software security issue: the out-of-date program. It makes sure that your applications are up-to-date, which is great not only for ensuring you've got the latest features, but it also takes care of any bug-fixes that might patch previously-unknown exploits. What's important about Secunia is that while it will notify you of updates, it only provides direct links. It won't automatically upgrade your software unless you tell it to.
Secunia PSI keeps track of program updates.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
Based on the Web-based Secunia Software Inspector from 2006, and in development since late 2007, Secunia PSI should appeal to both casual computer users and those who think they know what they're doing. If you're the former, the Simple layout provides basic information about the installed program statuses, with a chart to gauge their security over time and a simplified listing of any errors. Clicking on an error leads you through the proprietary Easy-to-Patch program update process, which automatically excludes more challenging updates.
If you're a power user, Secunia's Advanced layout tab exposes more details and more updates. It also checks your Microsoft XML, your Adobe Flash player installation, and others programs, looking for mission-critical holes and their respective updates. Scanning wasn't like trying to use a 56k modem to stream video, but for a program that runs in the background, I expected it to be a bit faster. It didn't slow down my computer's overall performance, though, and the update process went smoothly. All that makes this a highly-recommended freeware.
Smart Defrag: Smart Defrag is another excellent program that left its beta training wheels behind in 2008. Yeah, there are a lot of defraggers out there. Some are free, some are trialware. Smart Defrag stands out for two reasons.
Speed demon Smart Defrag is much faster than you'd expect.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
It has the quick analysis and scan times that are practically required to be competitive in the field. Alongside those, it boasts an automated defragger that continually defrags the files that you use the most, and does it without becoming a persistent drag on your system resources. The program eats up a small amount of RAM when running in the background, so it's possible to run it smoothly on older machines. Throw in a scheduler you can set up to defrag whenever you want and some customization features like running a defrag when you boot up or shutdown Windows, and Smart Defrag makes a great tool for users of all experience levels.
Digsby: Digsby got off to a bit of a rocky start, a bit like the kid in school who you think would be a lot cooler if it just stopped trying so hard. The problem was that Digsby wasn't particularly stable, was pigging out on every user's RAM, and was offering something fairly unique at the time: a multiprotocol chat client that also pulled in Web mail, and access to MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts.
Digsby offers multiprotocol chat, social networking, e-mailing, and more skins than you can shake a stick at.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
About six month later, in late September, Digsby released a massive update that fixed most of the RAM-hogging issues. Firing up the program is still a bit wonky for me, but there's no doubt that once it's going it works better than it has before. Digsby should easily be the instant messaging freeware of choice for the super social set. It supports the major IM networks of Yahoo, MSN, AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber.
Updating Twitter is a breeze from the application's main interface, though users wishing to do anything more than read Facebook and MySpace news feeds will be redirected to their online accounts.
Users can initiate text, video, and audio chat from the conversation window, and transfer files, send SMS, and compose short e-mails. POP and IMAP accounts are supported alongside Web mail. The notification pop-ups for every activity can get distracting, though a deep preference options control nearly every aspect of the display, including a wide variety of skins and those pesky pop-ups. Although many people had written off the application as too cumbersome in the past, the current build is well-worth downloading and exploring.

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