Vista delay, schmista delay. You may not be able to upgrade to the official next version of Microsoft's Windows for months, but you don't have to wait a day to add many of the new OS's security, performance, and interface improvements to your current XP setup. And to top it off, many of these advances cost little or no money.
Vista introduces new techniques to help speed Windows' startup and shutdown times, and to accelerate application launches. SystemBoosterXP claims to use a technology similar to Vista's prefetching, which anticipates the files you're likely to request next and revs up your file loading and app starts. The program sits quietly in your system tray (the area near the clock) and needs little if any configuring. You can try it for 30 days before forking over the US$20 registration fee.
On the other hand, if you're an inveterate system tweaker, DriverHeaven TuneXP; (free, though donations are accepted) lets you adjust a variety of system settings -- many of which I'd never heard of -- to speed up Windows starts and shutdowns, and to optimize other system processes. For example, the utility lets you rearrange boot files for faster startups and clean out Windows' prefetch folder to optimize file access. Though every command is explained in the program's help file, it is clearly intended for technically adept users.
If you're running out of system memory, check out MemoryBoost Pro which hunts down RAM hogs, recovers memory leaks, and frees up unused memory. Faced with a particular application that needs all the RAM it can get, you can create a special "boost shortcut" that gathers as much available memory as possible before launching the app. MemoryBoost Pro is $20 shareware with a 30-day trial period.
Vista will secure your data by letting you put your hard drive's encryption key on an external USB drive. You can do something similar for your notebook computer by using Kensington's $70 PCKey, which protects an entire hard drive. To access your data with this product, you must insert the hardware key into a USB port and enter a password to unlock its 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard protection. If you register your product and password at the Kensington Web site, you get support for lost passwords and keys.
You don't have to wait for Vista's release to lock out unauthorized users before your PC boots. This same ability is available for free in CE Infosys's CompuSec utility. Using the same AES encryption, CompuSec provides preboot authentication to protect your hard drive's data, even if someone removes the drive and tries to use it on another machine. If you prefer, you can encrypt individual files rather than your entire system. The product also lets you encrypt diskettes, CDs, DVDs, USB thumb drives, and other removable media.
Offering a more incremental approach, Folder Lock prevents access to files, folders, and drives with a simple right-click. Unfortunately, the fast-and-easy method isn't the most secure: The files remain visible in Windows' DOS and Safe modes. For top security, you have to move the files you want to protect into the Locker folder, which secures items by scrambling them or by applying 256-bit Blowfish encryption. The trial version allows you 35 encryptions, after which you must pay the program's $35 registration fee.
Parents will be delighted with Vista's ability to block objectionable content. But for $40 SentryPC gives you even greater control over who uses your PC and when. Not only can you block undesirable Web sites, you can even stifle online chatting, objectionable words and phrases, unwelcome applications, and more. You can specify the hours and days when the computer and/or specific applications may be used, or limit the number of hours a program can be open each week. SentryPC also provides a log of online chats, sites visited, words typed, applications used, and so on. The trial version runs for only an hour at a time, but at least you can try its features before buying.