After a 4-month absence, Microsoft's free PowerToys for Windows XP have returned, albeit in a slightly changed form from their original release in October 2001 (for details, see my SuperSite for Windows review of PowerToys at the URL below). PowerToys are a collection of 10 power-user-oriented tools for XP, many of which offer intriguing digital-media functionality that's missing from the default XP installation. In this review, I look at PowerToys and recommend some favorites.
Dating back to its early days as a DOS shell, Windows has always been keyboard-navigation friendly. And today, power users are familiar with many timesaving key combinations, such as Alt+F4 to exit the current application and Ctrl+F4 to close the current document in the current application. But the most famous Windows key combination is probably Alt+Tab, which lets you switch between the running application and other open windows. If you're running Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook, for example, and Word is the current application, then pressing Alt+Tab will cause Outlook to jump to the front. Likewise, if you press Alt+Tab but don't release the Alt key, you can view a small window that features an icon for each running application or open window. Each subsequent tap on the Tab key moves the selection forward to the next application or window, and when you find the application you want, just release the Alt key.
The Alt-Tab Replacement PowerToy enhances the Alt+Tab feature with a blue, XP-style window that shows not only an icon for each application or window but also a thumbnail view of each available application or window. This PowerToy uses a visual representation of the windows and applications to let you more easily determine which application you want. The problem with this PowerToy, however, is speed. Even on a fast Pentium 4 system with a 64MB 3-D accelerator, Alt-Tab Replacement is far too slow for all but the most casual of users.
CD Slide Show Generator
One of the nice things you can do with XP is copy hundreds of megabytes of digital photographs and other images to a CD-R disc and share them with your friends and family or archive them for later use. But support for digital-image files varies wildly among various Windows versions, so when your friends and family don't have XP, how can you be certain they can view your photos? Well, with the nifty CD Slide Show Generator PowerToy, your worries are over. When you use XP's built-in CD-burning capabilities to copy image files to a CD-R, a little dialog box appears and asks whether you want to add a small slideshow application to the disk that will auto-run when the disc is inserted into a PC. The slideshow works in all modern Windows versions (Windows 95 or later).
HTML Slide Show Wizard
The HTML Slide Show Wizard is an amazing and fun PowerToy that takes a directory of images and creates a full-featured, Web-based slideshow that offers various viewing options, including a thumbnail view of all images and a filmstrip-style view similar to XP's My Computer Filmstrip. The wizard even creates intelligent HTML that degrades appropriately for browsers other than Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) so that your slideshows are viewable on any platform. If you spend a lot of time creating a photo-filled personal Web site, the HTML Slide Show Wizard is one PowerToy you'll want to play with.
A handy shell-oriented tool, Image Resizer adds a context menu entry that lets you quickly and easily resize digital photos and other images so that you can share them through email or the Web and not sop up your friends' and family's bandwidth in the process. After installing Image Resizer, you simply navigate through My Computer to any folder that contains images, right-click one or more images, and click Resize Images. A small window appears, letting you select various sizes (small, medium, large, and handheld) and choose whether the resized images should replace the originals. It even gives the new images logical names so that an image named my_pic.jpg, resized to small size, is renamed as my_pic (small).jpg. Good stuff.
Open Command Window Here
The first PowerToys collection shipped way back in 1995 for Win95, and Microsoft has enhanced and improved a favorite from the early days—now called Open Command Window Here—so that it works with modern OSs. The XP version is the best yet. This PowerToy lets you use My Computer to navigate through the XP file system, then right-click a folder and select Open Command Window Here to display an MS-DOS-style command-line window that points to the selected folder. This PowerToy is handy because, by default, command-line windows open in C:\Documents and Settings\username, but the path to the folder you want is usually different (and long). Using the PowerToy, you can reach your destination quite easily without typing a long pathname. If you're a command-line junkie, you need this PowerToy.
Essentially a software-based graphing calculator, this PowerToy will be valuable for many high-school and college students. I've been out of that target market for several years and can't vouch for the usefulness of the Power Calculator, but I suspect that many laptop-enabled students could use this calculator instead of one of the Texas Instruments (TI) or other graphics calculators that are prevalent at universities today.
The ultimate PowerToy, Tweak UI is another holdover from the first Win95-based PowerToy collection. However, Microsoft has significantly enhanced Tweak UI to offer much XP-specific functionality. Tweak UI lets you access numerous system settings that aren't otherwise available through the XP GUI. For example, you can set up your system to log you on automatically; change the location of special system folders such as Favorites, My Documents, and My Music; or configure how taskbar grouping works. The sheer number of settings you can customize is hard to fathom until you see the PowerToy, but Tweak UI is a must-have tool for all XP users. I highly recommend it.
Similar to the Magnifier tool that ships in XP, Taskbar Magnifier lets you magnify a portion of the screen but uses a taskbar-based location to display the magnification. Frankly, the standard Magnifier tool is more appropriate for vision-impaired users, and I'm not sure why anyone would want, or need, the Taskbar Magnifier PowerToy.
Virtual Desktop Manager
Few people realize it, but Windows NT–based OSs have had the ability to work with multiple desktops for years, although Microsoft has never seen fit to make this capability part of the base OS. In NT, you can use a tool from the Microsoft Windows NT Resource Kit to configure virtual desktops; now, such a tool is available in the XP PowerToys as well. Dubbed the Virtual Desktop Manager, this PowerToy provides you with four virtual desktops, each of which can contain various open applications and windows. The desktop icons and Start menu, however, are identical on each desktop. You use a small UI in the taskbar to switch between desktops. I've never seen the need for multiple virtual desktops, but I'll bet that power users will be all over this capability.
One of the most common uses of Webcams these days is to take pictures for automatic uploading to a specific location for display on a Web site. Visitors to the site can see semi-live images that are routinely updated as frequently as every few minutes. XP supports most Webcam brands out of the box but doesn't offer automatic uploading capability. Webcam Timershot—a neat little application with numerous configuration options for determining the quality of the snapshots, the frequency of uploading, and the location to which the images will be posted—fulfills the need for automatic uploading. You can configure Webcam Timershot to always overwrite an existing image or to archive images as they upload. Webcam Timershot is a must-have for XP-based Webcam users.
The new PowerToys aren't available as a single download, as the previous versions were. Instead, you download only the PowerToys you want and install them individually, which can be a bit of a pain to users. Also, many of the PowerToys that Microsoft had planned for this collection are no longer included, such as a nice taskbar-based media player, an IE Find toolbar, and a Super-Fast User Switcher. But the collection is solid and definitely worth looking at. See the URLs below for more information and free downloads.