Smooth your startups, track your firefox history, and play with chocolate

Even if your PC runs smoothly, it shouldn't keep secrets from you. We include a utility that shows what programs load when you start up your PC, a Firefox extension that helps you track your Web movements, and a straightforward game to challenge your brain instead of your PC's resources.

Suss out startup freeloaders

The moment your PC boots up, it attracts a school of digital remoras--programs that attach themselves to your PC and start up automatically when it does. Msconfig, which is already on your system, lists each contributor to this free-meal frenzy of programs, but only in cryptic terms. The free Autoruns utility provides clear descriptions and a search function to help you make sense of this bewildering catalogue and see how some hitchhiking apps slow startup.

A program from Microsoft-owned Windows Sysinternals, Autoruns lets you view a list of all startup programs or look at subcategories such as Boot Execute, Drivers and Scheduled Tasks. A little gumshoeing can help you identify unnecessary items and (in some cases) malware.

From each Autoruns entry, you can initiate a keyword search via Google or (if you have it) the system utility Process Explorer, which elaborates on entries found in Windows Task Manager. Disabling or deleting entries is temptingly easy, but you must research an item carefully before acting. Autoruns, free.

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Thumb through the Web

Sifting through your browser history to return to a site is pointless if you can't recognise the URL. Firefox users have a new tool in ThumbStrips, an extension that shows pictures of Web pages you've recently visited. Once installed, this time-saving freebie from Intuit Innovation Lab sits at the bottom of your Firefox window, letting you scroll through thumbnails of the pages you've visited in your current session.

Each thumbnail identifies the site's name and how long ago you last visited it ("3 minutes ago," not "12:02 pm"). The thumbnail shows the page exactly where you left it; clicking the thumbnail returns you there. You can filter by domain or temporarily stop recording your travels. You can also save or e-mail a ThumbStrips session. Page Break

A Delicious Puzzle

For a sweet mental morsel, try the Chocolate Castle demo--it's part maze and part sliding-tile puzzle. You clear Easy, Medium and Hard versions of each of four rooms by shifting, joining, and eating pieces of chocolate. Four characters eat chocolate that's colour-coded to match them, but each disappears after eating one piece. The trick is to meld chunks of chocolate in advance, and timing is crucial: once joined, pieces can't be separated, so they can become roadblocks. The full version's 120 puzzles include twists like slippery ice and exploding Turkish delight.

The Hard-level puzzles may make you grateful to the makers for providing Undo and Redo buttons. If you're stumped, you can generate text files that record incomplete games to your Clipboard in chess-like notation. From there you can e-mail them or post them to the free BBS maintained by the creator, Lexaloffle Games, to seek help (or conversation) from other players. Chocolate Castle's charmingly retro music and graphics help this sweet stuff preserve a tiny 235KB footprint. Chocolate Castle, free 12-puzzle demo, $US20 for full (120-puzzle) game.