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Yet Another 8 Absolutely Cool, Totally Free Utilities

Enjoy our latest collection of excellent free/open-source utilities for your USB toolkit

Executive Summary:

Our latest collection of great free/open-source tools includes CamStudio, CDBurnerXP, Comodo Firewall Pro, DriveImage XML, GParted LiveCD, JkDefrag, PageDefrag, and TestDisk.

I’m addicted to digging up quality tools and utilities that are free—it’s a treasurehunter’s challenge! Sure, anyone can find costly utilities that do a good job of making a certain task easier. The trick is to find the free ones that perform just as well as their commercial counterparts. Since last September’s publication of “8 More Absolutely Cool, Totally Free Utilities” (InstantDoc ID 96628), I’ve been having a lot of fun unearthing more and more free utilities for my toolbox, and I’m dying to share them with you. So, check these out and start downloading! (Check out the Learning Path, page 54, for download details.)

Recently, an external USB drive that I was using for file backups and storage of non-critical files experienced a hard crash—you know, the “thunk-thunk-thunk” heads-against-platters noise that makes any systems administrator’s skin crawl. I knew my chances for a full recovery were rather slim, so I started looking around for datarecovery utilities.

I came across TestDisk, an open-source application licensed under the GNU Public License. Available from Christophe Grenier, TestDisk—completely free for any person or organization to use— can help you recover damaged partitions, make non-bootable disks bootable again, and repair damaged boot sectors. The application runs under DOS, Windows, Linux, the BSD variants, and MacOS, to name just a few OSs. File-system support includes every common type (e.g., FAT, NTFS, EXT2/3), as well as a bunch you’ve probably never heard of. I have no doubt that TestDisk can repair or recover data from a broad range of malfunctioning systems. Figure 1 shows its main interface.

Unfortunately, however, TestDisk didn’t solve my problem. The “thunk-thunk-thunk” sound was a dead giveaway that I was facing a physical/mechanical disk problem. No software can fix physical problems, and the TestDisk documentation makes that clear. For mechanical problems, you’d need to enlist the services of a professional datarecovery service that can physically open the drive and try to read the platters back.

I had hoped I’d get lucky, to no avail. Still, the experience gained me another valuable tool for my toolbox—one that I’ll keep around should disaster strike.

GParted LiveCD
Have you ever painted yourself into a corner by partitioning a physical disk drive into multiple logical partitions, only to realize months later that you didn’t anticipate your space needs correctly? In the past, I’ve paid for commercial partition-management utilities such as Norton’s PartitionMagic to get myself out of such situations. Invariably, however, by the time I need to use a partition-management utility a second time, I’m using a newer file system or a new type of disk that my partition manager doesn’t support. Recently, for example, I had to move an ext3 partition around on one of my systems’ hard disks, but my outdated partition-management utility didn’t support ext3.

Having paid multiple times for similar feature sets, I was recently happy to find GParted LiveCD when I needed to resize some partitions on my laptop. GParted LiveCD is a bootable runtime version of the Gnome Partition Editor (GParted). By booting up a small, stripped-down instance of Linux, GParted LiveCD is the only tool you’ll ever need for managing partitions on your systems—including resizing partitions, moving partitions, and even mirroring partitions.

GParted LiveCD is available as a downloadable ISO image. After the download, you can burn it straight to a bootable CD-ROM (see CDBurnerXP 4 later) and put it in the machine whose partitions need editing. Of course, it goes without saying that you should always perform a full system backup before resizing a partition on a production system.

How about my absolute favorite disk-based utility? JkDefrag is a diskdefragmentation and -optimization utility for all modern versions of Windows. You might ask, “Why should I care about a disk defragmenter when Windows has one built in?” Because the Windows defragmenter is a bit basic, there’s still a great marketplace for commercial third-party disk-defragmentation utilities, and for that reason, I appreciate a utility such as JkDefrag.

Developed by Jeroen Kessels, JkDefrag runs automatically, is very easy to use, and supports several customization features through command-line switches. Speaking of command-line switches, there are also GUI and screen-saver versions of JkDefrag, in addition to the command-line version.

JkDefrag can handle typical internal hard disks, external USB drives, floppy disks, memory sticks—essentially anything that Windows interprets as a drive. It uses the standard defragmentation API provided by Microsoft, so it’s as safe to use as Windows’ built-in defragmenting utility. However, JkDefrag doesn’t simply aim to defragment your hard disk; the tool’s available command-line strategies will also help you optimize that disk’s performance. Figure 2 shows JkDefrag at work.

For example, when you launch JkDefrag for the first time (without any command-line parameters), it will begin to defragment and optimize all the mounted writable drives on your system that it can find. The default optimization is a fast optimization, which should increase system performance a bit. For example, the beginning or center of a hard disk performs much better than the very edge of a disk; therefore, as a default strategy, JkDefrag will attempt to move all files to the center of the disk. However, it doesn’t do so arbitrarily! JkDefrag tries to place files closest to the center of the disk based on three levels of importance: directories (the most often accessed files on a system) in the front, regular files in the middle, and SpaceHogs at the end. JkDefrag uses the SpaceHogs nomenclature to describe files that tend to be large but less important. Examples of SpaceHogs include MP3, WMV, and AVI files, and any i386 directories you might have lying around. When I run JkDefrag on my systems, I also flag AAC and *.m4? files as SpaceHogs by using the -u command-line option. (I have a lot of purchased content from iTunes.)

After JkDefrag finishes its first default run, you should have a neatly organized hard disk, with your most important data toward the center of the disk and the least important in the back. Once you’ve finished your first run, you can schedule recurring defrags to take place during off hours through the Control Panel Schedule Tasks applet.

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After running JkDefrag for several weeks, I must say that my system seems a bit faster. Give JkDefrag a spin on your computer. You’ll be glad you did! See the Learning Path for information about where to get JkDefrag’s latest standalone executables (no installation required!).

While I’m on the topic of defragmentation and performance, there’s one file in your computer that’s probably taking up a lot of space, is critical in terms of system performance, and can’t be defragmented by standard defragmentation utilities. That would be your pagefile.

The computer I’m using to write this article, for example, has a pagefile that consumes about 1.5GB worth of space. As Windows swaps certain programs in and out of main memory, the page file is the storage container that receives the program data. I can’t even begin to comprehend the complexities of keeping a file such as this optimized for maximum performance, but fortunately I don’t have to. Mark Russinovich at SysInternals has done it for me.

As you might know, SysInternals was the home of some of the best free Windows utilities anywhere on the Internet. Recently, Mark joined Microsoft, and therefore Microsoft has inherited all these great tools. PageDefrag is just one of the many SysInternals utilities you can find at the company’s Web site. Figure 3 shows PageDefrag’s main screen.

When I first ran PageDefrag, the application presented a list of files that it would defragment (i.e., the pagefile, the hibernation file, event logs, and the registry hives), and I was surprised to see that my 1.5GB pagefile had more than 2,000 fragments across my hard disk! I instructed PageDefrag to defragment my pagefile during the next Windows bootup (the only time the pagefile isn’t in use, and therefore the only time it can be defragmented) and let it start its work. You can have PageDefrag run once on the next reboot or every time your system boots.

Have you ever had to restore a full desktop system from a failed hard disk, with only a recent Windows backup available to you? If so, you understand the hassle of such a process. First, you have to get a new hard disk, place it in the PC that needs to be rebuilt, and install a clean copy of Windows (assuming you remember where you put that system’s installation media). That process can take over an hour for most systems. Then, finally, you can restore your full backup to the system and get back up and running. Wouldn’t life be easier if you had an image of your system that you could just zap to a new hard disk, and get back up in less time?

Disk-imaging tools such as Norton Ghost offer a solution to this problem: Instead of doing a system-level backup, such tools create an image of the disk itself. Then, if you experience a failure, you simply need to write that image to a new disk, and you’re ready to go—without the intermediate step of reinstalling a base copy of Windows.

Runtime Software provides a free utility called DriveImageXML for this purpose. It stores the images it creates as XML-formatted data so that your images aren’t locked up in a proprietary vendor’s binary format. Through the DriveImageXML interface (which Figure 4 shows), you can also browse through diskimage files to view or extract individual files, if necessary. DriveImageXML works with all FAT and NTFS partitions and runs on Vista, Windows 2003, and XP.

Several years ago, I realized I was getting buried in original source-media CD-ROMs and DVDs for all the different versions of OSs, applications, and peripherals I regularly work with. Keeping track of all these discs was becoming tedious, so I started storing ISO image files of every original media CD I got, as soon as I received it. By archiving these CDs in a central location on my network, I knew they would always be available. If a CD was ever lost or destroyed, I could still turn to the ISO file and burn a new disc in a few minutes, saving me the hassle of contacting the vendor for a replacement disc.

CDBurnerXP is the first tool I used for this purpose, and it’s still the tool I use today. It’s a full-featured CDburning program that includes the ability to create ISO files from CDs and DVDs, and it can burn CDs, DVDs, HD DVDs, and Blu-ray DVDs. In addition to using CDBurnerXP as an ISO-reading and -burning utility, I use it as a capable audio disc burner. Figure 5 shows the tool’s UI. CDBurnerXP runs on Vista, Windows 2003, XP, and Windows 2000.

Comodo Firewall Pro
When I ponder the notion of a “free firewall,” I get a bit skeptical. After all, considering the speed at which Internet-based threats grow, how good could a “free” firewall application be? I’m always happy when my skepticism is proven wrong, and Comodo Firewall Pro does just that.

When I first installed Comodo Firewall Pro, I initially thought I’d just installed a copy of Zone Alarm (a popular, commercial personal firewall application). After a reboot to insert the proper network-level modifications into my system, Comodo Firewall Pro instantly recognized that it was communicating on a network it hadn’t seen before (i.e., my home network) and asked me to provide a name for it. Then, a few network utilities in my Startup folder that Comodo Firewall Pro didn’t know about attempted to connect to the Internet. Comodo Firewall Pro immediately saw this outbound communication attempt and displayed a dialog box identifying the application that was trying to communicate (and to where) and asking whether I wanted to allow or deny the outward communication. After I allowed these trusted applications the rights to communicate when necessary, Comodo Firewall Pro never bothered me about them again. Within five minutes of using Comodo Firewall Pro, I was extremely impressed by its thoroughness—especially considering the price. Figure 6 shows Comodo Firewall Pro’s UI.

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How and why, you might ask, does Comodo offer such a worthwhile product for free? In a forum posting on the company Web site, the CEO expresses his intention of offering Comodo Firewall Pro for free as a means to build corporate brand identity and raise customer awareness. It’s a smart strategy, and I have a feeling Comodo Firewall Pro will be around for a long time. Comodo Firewall Pro runs on Vista and XP, both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

In “8 More Absolutely Cool, Totally Free Utilities,” you’ll find a sidebar for a utility called Wink—a good tool for building screencast recordings. Screencasts are digital recordings of computer-display output, often overlaid with audio or video. These types of tools are becoming increasingly popular as training and demonstration utilities. After you produce a screencast, an audience of thousands can watch it immediately. Since mentioning Wink in that article, I’ve discovered CamStudio, another strong contender in this space.

CamStudio is a solid utility for recording screencasts, interleaving audio and video simultaneously, then producing final content in Web-friendly Flash files for easy, cross-platform consumption. Having paid for commercial versions of such applications in the past, I’m quite impressed with Cam- Studio and look forward to it being a strong contender in this space.

Can’t Beat the Price
Commercial versions of all the utilities in this article would probably cost more than $500. Save that money and download these free and open-source counterparts, which perform just as well. Stay tuned for the fourth installment of this series, in which I’ll share more free software gems to make your job easier.

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