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Time for a makeover

This month, we take a look at two of the best shareware programs available for Windows XP that help your system work, look, and perform better than it ever has before.

As most regular readers probably know by now, I’m a huge fan of the shareware concept. Often, you can find shareware programs that work better, faster, and cost less than their commercial counterparts. This month, we’ll take a look at two of the best shareware programs available for Windows XP that help your system work, look, and perform better than it ever has before.

Time for a change

Programs like Microsoft’s Power Toys are great for reconfiguring how your PC works, but what if you want to change the look and feel on your Windows desktop? Enter Stardock’s Object Desktop, a suite of programs that allows you to change just about any visual aspect of your Windows PC.

The program comes with WindowBlinds, DesktopX, IconPackager, WindowFX, and a host of other small programs that give you total control over your PC. WindowBlinds, which is certified by Microsoft, helps you to change the desktop itself via pre-existing enhancement “skins” or through your own changes on the fly. Don’t like your control panel? Change it! Want it to be transparent? You can do that too. You can change the look and functionality of just about anything on your desktop.

And speaking of desktops, DesktopX gives you even more control. You can add all sorts of gadgets to your screen, including a temperature bar, a newsreader, to do list, calendar, Amazon search bar, and more.

Between the two programs, you can create a desktop totally unlike any you’ve ever seen before. Not feeling creative but ready for a change anyway? You can also download skins from the program’s Web site that enable you to apply a theme (Spider-Man, Aquarium, Natural, etc.) to your PC in one fell swoop.

Pre-packaged

IconPackager is a program that enables you to change all of your Windows icons at once by applying pre-prepared “packages” of icons. The themes range from various holidays to patriotism to material-specific such as gold, silver, copper, azure, and glass. And if you don’t like the packages that come with the program, there are plenty more than can be downloaded for free, or you can create your own using IconDeveloper, another program that comes with the suite.

There are a multitude of other programs in this suite, far too many to go into in the space allotted for this column, but one of the utilities I had the most fun with is WindowFX. This handy little program allows you to add animations, transitions, and shadows to your folders and icons. It’s a fun way to add life to your otherwise-drab desktop without using a lot of memory or space. And, really, when you work at your PC all day, isn’t a little change a good thing?

Object Desktop >www.stardock.com< costs $50 to register. Many of the individual utilities can also be purchases separately and run $10 to $35. And if you purchase any of the individual programs (say, IconX, a program that enhances your desktop icons, for $10,) you can upgrade to the Object Desktop suite for $35, saving five bucks in the process!

Turning PDF inside-out

It’s very easy to turn Microsoft Word documents into Adobe PDF files if you have the right software, but did you know that you can also convert the other way? There are a number of programs that do the job for you, to a greater or lesser degree of success, and one of the best is a handy little utility called Solid Converter PDF.

Solid Converter PDF can take any PDF file and translate it into an editable, full-fledged Word document or RTF (Rich Text Format) file. Moreover, the program is able to maintain the original font (provided you have that font on your PC) and column layout, and can extract the original images, bitmaps, and vector graphics from the PDF file.

I ran several PDF files through the conversion process, including a flyer I put together for a friend’s restaurant, and Solid Converter handled every one of them with nary a hitch. Of course, some PDF files are trickier than others, and this utility has compensated for that by letting you convert via five different formats: Flowing, which best preserves the flow of the text; Tables, which ignores columns in favor of layout; Continuous, which focuses on formatting and text flow; Plain Text, which recovers only the text of the document; and Exact, which attempts to recover everything exactly as presented using boxes in Microsoft Word. In addition to these formats, there are other choices you can make within each format to better control the output of the conversion.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It is, a little, but the learning curve isn’t that steep, and it’s more a matter of simply playing around with the program to see what looks best. The program even installs directly into Word, so with a simple click of the Open PDF button you can essentially import any PDF file into your word processor.

If you do a lot of work with PDF, this utility is almost essential. Solid Converter PDF can be used as a stand-alone program, a plug-in for Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat, or as a right-click option in Windows Explorer. You can download a 15-day trial version of the program from >www.solidpdf.com

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