Power User: Products, services and tips for a happy holiday

John McCormick

Despite the many things I complain about in this column, a lot of the products and services I test are quite good. I love it when things actually work, and I especially like to write about them at holiday time.

At the top of my personal wish list is the Dell Axim X30 personal digital assistant. It's a wMicrosoft Windows-compatible PDA that has the one thing I found missing from early devices'solid handwriting recognition.

New PDA models, such as the Axim, have powerful processors that can handle various input methods, including handwriting recognition, which I found worked very well on the Axim.
The Axim's optional large-capacity battery and built-in wireless networking are also terrific features, but for many users, I bet their favorite thing about the Axim will be its one-button audio recording.

I gave the unit a full workout, averaging eight-hour days for six weeks without a single glitch or reset. If you're looking for a PDA, don't choose until you've checked out Dell's offerings.

I also have a couple of Internet tools I'd like to share with you during this season of giving. At the Microsoft Trial Software Center, you can download free demo versions of Office applications, server software and even games. (To find it, go to www.gcn.com and enter 334 in the GCN.com/box.)

Server versions are good for 120 days or longer. For those who prefer not to download gigantic files, the cost of a CD is modest. (Sorry, Age of Empires II is only available as a download.) If you like the software, you can upgrade a trial installation to a licensed version. Not exactly something you can wrap as a gift, but I find that a lot of people don't know about Microsoft's trial site and simply learning about it could make a nice present.

You've probably already heard about Microsoft's latest nemesis, Google Desktop Search. It doesn't do much for network workstations, but for home or small-office computers I simply wouldn't do without it.

Google Desktop Search is a free utility that indexes all your local files. Download the tool from Google (www.google.com/options/index.html), select the kinds of files you want it to index in the background, and you'll never consider using clunky Microsoft search tools again.

Also, check out Keyhole (www.keyhole.com), which Google recently acquired. For $30 a year, you can zoom in on 3-D models of Earth built from satellite imagery. You can check out your neighborhood from above or, as the site says, 'identify fishing spots, map out a hunting expedition or pick a golf course.'

No holiday edition of power user would be complete without a good tip. Here's one to improve system performance.

Any power user probably has old hard drives sitting around. Windows XP lets you use a second hard drive for system page memory. This can make for a big performance increase, whereas selecting another partition on a single drive won't help. The boost comes from improvement in drive access times caused by splitting the duties between two drives.

Plug in an unused drive, then go to Control Panel, System, Advanced, Performance Settings. In the Performance Options dialog box, click the Advanced button and make sure Windows is set to adjust itself for the best performance of programs. Under Virtual Memory, click the Change button and try tweaking the settings to improve performance. You can increase page memory size and designate the second drive to store it.

Performance Options is also where you'll find the new Data Execution Prevention protection in Windows XP Service Pack 2. If your processor supports it, the system will protect against common buffer overrun attacks by preventing code from executing in certain parts of memory. DEP provides software-based protection for the rest of us.

This holiday season, may your cup, not your buffer, overflow. Best wishes to all my readers for the coming year.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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