Download This: Top download picks of 2005

In the second year of Download This I tried out dozens of ingenious programs. But by year's end, many of them have fallen into disuse on my PC -- or have been removed. Here are the ones I use regularly, plus a few that deserve more frequent workouts. Everything's free to try, and some stay free forever.

I can't imagine life without ...

Cutting back on JavaScript: JavaScript is a mystery ingredient in many a Web page -- and in some of them, it helps evildoers exploit your data. Firefox/Mozilla extension NoScript plugs directly into your browser, where it lets you decide which sites you'll allow to run JavaScript. Free.

Making Web sites easier to read: Remember last year's wrap-up column, in which I swore off Microsoft's Internet Explorer? So many sites need IE to run properly, I had to break that resolution. But I have found a teeny add-in that makes IE's font rendering more to my liking. EasyRead plops a plus sign and a minus sign into IE's toolbar to let me resize text on the fly. Free.

Windows worth looking at: If you don't like the look of your desktop, redecorate it with WindowBlinds. I customized font sizes, chose easier-to-see cursor shapes, and redid the menus in a soothing shade of blue-green. Ahhh. Free trial, US$20 to keep.

A logical choice: There's a reason for that Sudoku aisle-cap display I saw at Target last week. The ubiquitous numerical logic puzzle is addictive, and with this software version, you can play it on your computer or print out puzzles to make your commute speed by. Free 28-day trial, US$15 to keep.

Plays almost everything: My other favorite game is "Let's see if the VLC media player can play this mysterious video file." More often than not, it does. Sure, you probably have QuickTime and Real players to handle those formats -- but for anything else, try VLC. Free.

Rarely used, really appreciated

I need these programs only occasionally -- but when I do, the need can be urgent. I wouldn't dream of uninstalling any of these little lifesavers.

It's a small world after all: When I run across an intriguing-looking phrase in a foreign language, I can't get it translated until I know its language of origin. Polyglot 3000 identifies text snippets -- even those in character-based languages -- to tell you which dictionary to check or which language pack to install. Free, US$5 to add tech support.

A hall monitor for PC processes: Ever wonder what's going on in your PC -- and whether you need to worry about it? Security Task Manager demystifies processes running on your computer, assigning security ratings to applications, browser helper objects, DLLs, and services. Free 30-day trial, US$29 to keep.

Faster, cleaner startups: Some programs that load at startup help, but some hinder. Startup Organizer helps me figure out which is which by letting me test different startup configurations, including ones that load programs in an order I specify. Free 20-day trial, US$25 to keep.

Fine-tune your PC: TuneUp Utilities 2004 includes 13 utilities to tame my PC whenever it starts acting funny. I liked 2004's interface so much, I'm still using it. You can check out the new version, TuneUp Utilities 2006. Free 30-day trial, US$40 to keep.

Programs that deserve better

Just a little more discipline or a few fewer toolbars, and I'd be using these every day.

Stepping out of Liquid Surf: Liquid Surf does a neat job of resizing text in Internet Explorer, and its window-splitting functions help power surfers work all the faster. But when my IE toolbar space reached critical mass, the smaller, less powerful (and free) EasyRead won my vote. Liquid Surf has a free 30-day trial, and costs US$20 to keep.

Hey PC, what's for dinner? No question, BigOven does a great job of finding, posting, organizing, and rating recipes -- not to mention making shopping lists. That said, it's been more of a planning tool than an every-night helper; checking the cupboards is faster. Free 30-day trial, US$30 to keep.

Slim chances: It's hard to imagine a better food journaling tool than DietPower. This app gives you the calories and nutritional breakdown for everything you eat and can tells you how many calories you've burned in a given day. As with many health tools and computer programs, most problems come down to user error -- in my case, a reluctance to fess up to all that mindless munching. Perhaps this New Year will bring me more resolve. Free 15-day trial, US$50 to keep.

These apps work great with the right crowd

It's not a lot of fun to be the first person at a party, but it's great when the gang's all there. Here are some programs that work beautifully, provided you have the requisite number to tango.

I Meem, but do you? Imeem -- an Internet-based communication service -- boasts a nice-looking, easy-to-use interface that makes it simple to share photos and keep track of various conversation threads with friends and/or strangers. Admirably granular privacy controls and peer-to-peer connections keep it safe. Trouble is, I just don't find enough fresh content on my favorite topics to justify frequent visits. It's worth swinging by Imeem now and then, but it'll be more worthwhile when I know more folks in the neighborhood. Free.

Can you see me now? Instant messaging apps are piling on video and voice features, but I haven't seen that magic combination of great lip sync and simple controls anywhere outside of SightSpeed. But while sending video e-mail is easy, getting friends and family to install a Webcam and some software for live conversation hasn't been -- so far. Now that SightSpeed ships with Creative Webcams, however, maybe that'll change. Free.

Pleased to meet with you: Raindance Meeting Edition proves itself with a great set of presentation features for meetings from a handful of participants to groups of up to 125. Perhaps the new version coming out in late January 2006 will garner new users as well.

On January 20, the free version of the Raindance Meeting Edition service will transition to a ten-meeting trial. If you want to give RME 11 run-throughs before deciding to buy, now's your chance. Express Pack of unlimited one-on-one meetings, US$19.99/month. Full version, US$100/month per reassignable seat, plus US$.25/minute voice conferencing.

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Laura Blackwell

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