Freeware Files: Five New Tools for Your Virtual Toolbox!

TheMurph

With the imminent launch of Windows 7 and its much-hyped Windows XP mode , the word "virtualization" is going to be everyone's lips throughout the month of October. Never one to let a fad slide on by, I'm jumping on the bandwagon in this week's freeware and open-source application roundup. I'll be taking a look at five different programs that enrich your computing experience with some kind of virtual add-on.

What does that even mean? A number of things. Windows XP mode is a great example of the common definition of virtualization--running a second operating system inside your primary operating system in a way that typically allows you to quickly switch between the two and access the contents of your primary machine's hard drives from the virtualized environment.

Virtual desktops are a lesser derivative of this concept. Instead of running a separate operating system, you're merely extending the size of your workspace by stacking on additional desktop layers that you can swap back-and-forth. You can also install a virtual keyboard that sits overtop your programs--analogous to what Windows offers for tablet PCs--if you're concerned about keyloggers somehow getting their hands on your mission-critical information.

I won't go on, as that might spoil some of the fun applications listed below. The virtual world, er, world of virtualized software is vast and interesting, featuring many applications that can expand your computer's functionality without adding a crazy amount of complexity. The coolness of these apps is only rivaled by their ability to save you precious time and headaches from doing things the old-fashioned way. Let's go exploring!

VirtuaWin

As mentioned above, VirtuaWin is the open-source program that allows you to create multiple desktops on a single operating system. You can switch between your desktops, or workspaces, using a handy little taskbar icon or preset keyboard hotkeys, although you can also set the program to swap over to a new workspace whenever you hover your mouse near the edge of a screen. Sending applications from desktop to desktop is as easy as clicking the taskbar icon or using the hotkeys as well. You can also drag a window over the "gutter" between your desktops, then swap over to the other side and pull that half of the window over to the new screen.

The downside? VirtuaWin doesn't create new desktops per se , in that your icons and background will look identical from screen to screen. Still, this program is a great organizational tool. It's nice to see Windows finally getting the same treatment that Linux has had for how long now?

Download it here !

Neo's SafeKeys 2008

If there's one thing that strikes fear in the computer-savvy traveler, it's having to use an unsecured terminal somewhere to access one's important, password-protected information. Who knows what could be lurking on a PC over which you have no control or supervision? Neo's SafeKeys 2008 attempts to relieve the stress of having to use potentially infected systems by giving you a virtual keyboard for inputting your sensitive information (think logins and passwords). It's not foolproof, but it does provide a measure of security from keyloggers using a whole swath of measures: clicked-on keys aren't translated to real-life key presses, the utility changes height and width to fool mouse-loggers, and you can even hover over keys you want to input instead of pressing the mouse button to thwart would-be screen-grabbers.

Like I said, this program isn't going to be the James Bond of safeguards against someone who's using a number of fancy techniques to steal your sensitive information. However, I'd much rather use Neo's SafeKeys 2008 than just type my password onto a provided physical keyboard. Yikes!

Download it here !

MobaLiveCD

It's not the fastest virtual environment around in terms of raw application speed, but MobaLiveCD puts up a fight for the title of fastest-loading. That's because this one-shot, single-executable application lets you launch into LiveCD-based operating systems at the touch of a button, right in the middle of your pre-existing Windows environment! If you're trying to save yourself coasters by installing your Live CDs straight onto bootable USB keys, you can use MobaLiveCD to launch into said operating systems without having to reboot your PC. The program can also launch a LiveCD-based OS from the .iso file you'd otherwise use to burn said CD.

Download it here !

Visual Subst

For convenience's sake, Virtual Subst allows you to take any folder on your system and mount it as if it was its own virtual hard drive. While the functionality is somewhat negated by the "Favorite Links" section in Windows Explorer, you have to dig a little deeper to see the true genius of Visual Subst. For example, pretend that you've mapped all of your iTunes music to the X:\ drive. The actual folder that corresponds to said virtual hard drive can be located anywhere on your PC, and you can move it around to anywhere else you want without any problem. To iTunes, your music will always exist in a single location--X:\. For you, however, you can shift and shuffle your files to your heart's content, provided you always point the final destination back to your trusty virtual drive of choice. That's just one thought--the mapping possibilities are endless!

Download it here !

VirtualBox

I would be remiss as an app-reviewer if I didn't mention VirtualBox, the oft-heralded free application of choice that allows you to load and launch any number of operating systems in a virtual environment. Essentially, this program will perform nearly the same functions as Windows 7's Virtual XP Mode. It offers you greater configurability and increased support for operating systems beyond Microsoft's own creations. You can also rollback changes you've made with an included snapshot mode, an ideal feature for those looking use a virtualized operating system as a clean test platform for new applications. Nothing against the Windows Virtual PC application--VirtualBox just offers more bang for your $0 worth of buck.

Download it here !

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!

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