Download This: Clocks, chats, faster searches

I'm always on the lookout for useful utilities, large or small, that make my everyday work go faster and smoother. Sure, in a perfect world my PC would serve my every whim without any need for tweaking or configuring. In other words, it would just work. Since we're nowhere near such nirvana yet, here are some downloads to get you one step closer.

The first item is relatively small--but it's the little things in life, right? The program addresses a shortcoming in the way the time of day displays in the Windows system tray. Even though mousing over the time readout in order to also view the date isn't hard, the extra step still annoys me. AlphaClock is a system-tray clock replacement that shows the date along with the time. You can also change the color and font of the readout, set alarms, and have the app literally tell you the time at regular intervals in a pleasant female voice.

Version 1 is a free download. Version 2, which costs US$30, lets you customize the display further, and also view CPU and memory usage.

Find things fast

Once you've mastered time, you can move on to space--specifically, by using a desktop search app to quickly find what you want among all the useful and not-so-useful stuff you've packed onto your hard drive. Version 2 of Copernic's free desktop search program places a search field in your taskbar; the software sifts through your documents, e-mail messages, media files, and contacts. It also indexes your Web browsing history and your bookmarks.

The new version has a revamped user interface, letting you see all types of search results at once, instead of requiring you to switch between, say, e-mail results, then document results, and then address-book contacts. Version 2 begins searching as you type, showing partial results in a pop-up window above the search box. One minor annoyance is that to see all the desktop search results in the main program window, you must click on a link in that pop-up window. If you press after typing keywords in the search box (a much faster and more natural method), you'll instead be sent to Copernic's Web site for the search results.

From the main program window, you can also use advanced search options, such as filtering for file type, size, date, and folder (when searching for files), or subject and sender (when searching for e-mail messages).

A preview window shows document contents and lets you play music files that appear in search results. The window doesn't seem to be able to preview Thunderbird e-mail, however. Download Copernic from the maker's Web site.

Other great desktop search apps exist as well. If you're not yet using one, and you're not one of the lucky few who possess a photographic memory for the places you've stashed info on your PC, by all means try one of these utilities. You can run multiple search apps at once to see which works best for you. Find a good one, and you'll never go back.

Open-source instant messaging

So what to do with all your new-found free time? Chat with friends, of course. Miranda is a free open-source IM client that connects to multiple chat networks, including AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo. It can also connect to IRC servers. Miranda strives to be small and speedy, and does seem to start up faster than other multiprotocol IM clients such as Trillian.

With a host of configuration options and plug-ins for added functionality, Miranda appeals most to tinkerers, who like to get their apps just right. I use one plug-in called History++ that makes it easy to review past chats. Another, called HistoryStats, gives fun, detailed stats on past conversations (seems I chat most often with my wife on Wednesdays and my boss on Fridays). Grab Miranda and browse add-ons here.