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Bargain bin

An admitted cheapskate plumbs the world of cheap technology, and finds there’s plenty of inexpensive, and surprisingly good, tech tools.

The world is divided into two camps: people who spend money carefully and those who spread it about without a second thought. At the extreme ends of the spectrum are tightwads who measure out their dental floss into three-inch lengths, and spendthrifts who end their days hundreds of dollars poorer without actually knowing what they’ve got in return.

I’m at the end that measures floss. I’m not that extreme, of course, but if I’m going to spend 30 bucks on a technology tool, it had better save me 30 bucks worth of aggravation, preferably every day. And that’s exactly what the items I’m reviewing this month do. Each of these items cost me $30 or less, and each of them either gets daily use or gives me peace of mind on a daily basis.

F-Prot Antivirus

When most people think of antivirus software, the name Frisk does not spring to mind. You think of big-name antivirus packages–which I used faithfully until I started working with some seriously underpowered PCs a few years ago. Norton and McAfee demanded too many resources of these decrepit computers, and charged too much in licensing to the 30 PCs I was using. At that point, a reader introduced me to Frisk Software’s F-Prot, and I haven’t looked back. At $29 a year for unlimited virus signature updates (with deep site license discounts, especially for schools and nonprofits), it’s kept my systems safe since 2000, when I downloaded it and bought a license two days later. The one gripe I have is that you must manually configure the Scheduler program to download new virus signatures from Frisk’s site–it’s not part of the regular setup. But when you do, you’re protected against even the newest onslaught of nuisance programs–and you don’t need to upgrade your RAM to support it either.

SideWinder

Ever been halfway through a cell phone conversation when your battery started to run out? Ever cursed the utility company for not having a power outlet right there in front of you at those times? We all have–but I don’t do that anymore thanks to Innovative Solutions & Technology’s SideWinder. This tiny three-ounce hand-cranked generator can convert a quick flick of the wrist into extra minutes of air time. The company reckons that two minutes of twisting the fishing-reel style crank will give you five extra minutes of talk time or half an hour of standby. It kept my Kyocera going (it has a power cable and adapters for many Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung and Audiovox models too), and its capacitors also power a blue LED flashlight, so you can use it for emergency illumination as well as talk time. Using the SideWinder is a bit conspicuous, but it’s the only way I can conceive of using a cell phone on a camping trip or other outlet-free outing. If you’re just short of power outlets, Innovative also provides $6 USB chargers that draw five volts from your PC’s USB port.

WinZip 9.0

So Windows XP can compress and decompress zip files (it’s the Compressed Folder option in Windows Send To menu). Big deal. I recommend getting the program that brought Zip files to Windows more than a decade ago–WinZip. The latest version, 9.0, brings numerous small enhancements, but the big three are better encryption, tighter compression, and an add-on that lets you use WinZip from a command line. To old batch-file heads like me, this last feature is a fantastic automation tool–but even if you’re not a geek, it’s hard to knock WinZip 9’s tighter compression and its newly implemented 128- and 256-bit key AES encryption. These provide greater cryptographic security when you password-protect files–and that’s worth every penny of the scanty $29 license fee. And WinZip’s been the most consistently bug-free shareware I’ve encountered in the twelve years I’ve been using it, which is even better.

SpyBot Search & Destroy

The trouble with being a tightwad is that you tend to go for all the free stuff you can download–stuff like Grokster and Kazaa that comes with nasty baggage that drags your system performance down to a crawl. Programs that track your Web access, serve you pop-up ads, and generally mess up your computing life are called spyware. That’s what SpyBot S&D is designed to rout.

The relief that SpyBot S&D brings is priceless–and actually, so is the program itself. The folks at SpyBot don’t actually ask for payment. However, you can make a donation using PayPal, and I’d recommend you do. You’d be a Scrooge-level skinflint indeed if you begrudged paying for something that brightens your day this much.

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