Yes, it’s that time of year again when we pay tribute to software. For without it, our badass rigs would have nothing to do to but look pretty. Indeed, it’s the programs we run that show us what our machines are truly capable of. The challenge, of course, is in deciding which applications and utilities are most deserving of special honor, not to mention a coveted silver-esque statue.
There’s no secret ballot, there’s no peer-review process, and the public doesn’t get to call in with their votes. The deciders in this contest are the Maximum PC editors. As always, the award candidates are culled from our own personal software libraries—we nominate only the programs we actually use on a regular basis because of their proven performance and reliability. As a group, we whittle down the entrants to the very best of the bunch—the nine exceptional apps and utilities featured here. What makes the whole process even more wonderful is that many of them are free!
Let’s hand out some Softy Awards!
Why stress your noggin trying to remember your login?
|The Password Generator’s multitude of options will satisfy even the most paranoid users.|
These days, you can’t get very far on a computer without amassing a bunch of user names and passwords (surely, you’re not using the same password for every account you register!). KeePass Password Safe helps you keep all that information straight.
This free open-source program lets you manage all your passwords using an encrypted database that is kept safe from prying eyes by a single master password (the only one you need to remember!) and the one-two of AES and Twofish encryption. From the straightforward interface, to the random password generator, to the ability to easily create login scripts for the sites you visit, this app takes all the annoyance out of registered accounts. For ultra convenience keep the lightweight program on a USB key that you take with you anywhere.
The gamer’s ultimate benchmarking and multimedia companion!
|The movie-creation feature comes with plenty of options to address hard drive space and sound-quality concerns.|
It’s hard not to love Fraps. We’re just not sure which part of the popular program we love most. The fact is, this all-in-one application should be a mainstay of any gamer’s desktop rig. For the frame-rate-oriented gamer, the program lets you overlay frame rate, so you can monitor performance in-game. Amateur directors love the program’s movie-capturing feature, which lets you record what you’re doing in a game—you can achieve better-than-HD quality! And rounding out the list of fine features is the program’s screenshot function. We love being able to capture stills of our favorite game moments—frame rate included—with just the touch of a button!
Make your pictures better without the brain strain
|Common editing chores, such as color-cast correction, are effortless with Elements 6.0.|
Sometimes the ends do justify the means. Take Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 6.0, for instance.
Normally, after we complete a software review, the app is uninstalled and the disc filed away. Not so with Photoshop Elements 6.0. We often find ourselves reaching for this program even over a full-fledged photo editor such as Photoshop CS3. It simply gets us the results we need with less time and hassle. That’s a big win in our book because less time editing means more time shooting. And frankly, unless you’re a Photoshop CS3 whiz, Elements may actually yield better results. And the app isn’t lacking advanced functionality, either. You still get access to Adobe Camera RAW updates, for example—a major leg up over other newb-centric photo editors.
Ripping DVDs can be fast, easy, and free!
|Quick DVD-to-DivX rips are great, but the power-user features are what really get us excited.|
Ripping DVDs used to be a major hassle. It took ages and required pricey software—and at the end of three hours of work you may or may not have created a file that played properly. AutoGK (along with cheap multicore systems) has changed that.
AutoGK works its mojo by corralling a motley collection of utilities into a cohesive package. One app extracts the video from the VOB file, one syncs the audio with the video, and yet another recompresses the video down to a fraction of its original size. While this might seem complex, AutoGK makes it simple enough that any user can rip a disc. Still, hidden away in a secret menu (press Ctrl+F9 to access it) there’s a whole host of power-user-friendly options just waiting to be tweaked. That’s what the Softys are all about!
Kiss Vista’s crappy defragger goodbye!
|We don’t actually know how long Vista’s defrag takes because we always lose patience with it. With Disk Defrag it takes a mere 15 minutes.|
What’s worse than Apple not giving its users defragmentation support in OSX? The support in Windows Vista—clearly the slowest defragmentation application ever. We’re talking since the Winchester hard drive was invented in 1956. It’s as though the sectors are first squeezed through a quantum singularity and then beamed back and reassembled into a contiguous file by an angry shop of sector elves two steps away from a strike. For those of you who are mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore, there’s Auslogics Disk Defrag. Install this free defragger on your Vista OS and your blood pressure will drop instead of rise every time you defrag. XP users can benefit too—the app is also much faster than Window XP’s freebie tool.
An iTunes DRM stripper—and more!
|Facebook fiends will love the way DoubleTwist enables simple file sharing, but its DRM-stripping and sync features are pretty cool, too.|
So you got suckered into buying a bunch of DRM-shackled songs from iTunes—just so you could easily manage them on your iPod. But now you’re ready to cut that leash so you can move to a more flexible player. Download DoubleTwist, give it access to your iTunes folder, and you won’t lose that costly investment. The process occurs in real time, but it works.
But this ingenious—and free—program does a lot more than that. It can also automatically grab photos from your friends’ Facebook profiles and synchronize them to your PC and your smartphone or MP3 player. What’s more, you can also share those tunes (and pictures and videos, too) with all your Facebook friends. Cool!
Host every OS you can think of on a single machine!
|Store profiles for any number of virtual machines, then switch among your collection of operating systems.|
VMware workstation rocks due to its ability to let you run multiple operating systems on one PC. Install Linux, Solaris, and other desktop environments right alongside any Windows version—including those as far back as Windows 3.1 (provided you have the licenses, of course).
VMware’s features trump those of a typical virtual machine environment. You can use the program to take snapshots and roll back your computer to a previous state, and you can take screenshots and videos of your system’s activities, which comes in handy if you’re trying to help someone with a troubleshooting issue.
While this app comes with a hefty price tag, we’d rather have a program that does everything than a lesser, cheaper alternative.
Build a massive MP3 library on the cheap
|Someone, somewhere on the Internet is playing your favorite song right now. Radiotracker can not only find it but also automatically rip it to your hard drive.|
If you don’t mind compromising a smidgen on audio quality, Radiotracker offers an incredibly easy way to build a huge library of free—and legally acquired—digital music. The program works by monitoring Internet radio streams for the types of music you like. You can configure it to target specific genres (Americana, world, jazz, acid rock, etc.), particular artists, or even specific songs, and it will scan thousands of stations looking for just that.
When Radiotracker encounters songs that fit the profile you’ve created, it automatically records them to your hard drive in MP3 format—it even grabs ID3 tags and album artwork. The audio quality is limited to whatever bitrate the station is streaming at, but the tunes are free and legal!
Why waste time scanning for bad apps when you can simply block suspicious behavior instead?
|Threatfire watches over your system to make sure malicious apps don’t infect your PC.|
Old-school antivirus and anti-spyware applications work in a very simple and predictable way. They scan every file you download and every app you install on your PC for malicious behavior. This worked really well back in the days when there were just four or five new threats every week. Today, hundreds of new threats surface regularly, and the old “scan for known baddies” approach simply doesn’t cut it. That’s where ThreatFire comes in.
Instead of scanning against a known database of viruses and malware, ThreatFire monitors applications for naughty behavior. When an app does something suspicious, ThreatFire locks it down and prompts the user to take action. Yes, we’ve been promised this type of protection before, but ThreatFire actually works, and it’s less of a system hog than more traditional scanners. That’s what we like to see!
Will these three apps be top dogs when final versions are released?
It’s not that we’re unhappy with the current version of uTorrent. The program has proven itself to be one of the top-notch apps in our downloading arsenal. Its scheduling and automated features make pulling files across the Internet a breeze, and the app makes nary a dent in our system resources.
Still, uTorrent can only get better with the coming upgrade to the BitTorrent protocol that runs underneath this amazing bit of software. BitTorrent developers are currently at work on a new encryption method to thwart the bandwidth throttling methods of a number of popular Internet service providers—Comcast included!
Long ago, Trillian was our favorite instant messaging client, until Pidgin displaced it. Now we think it might be time to revisit our earlier flame, given what we know of Trillian Astra and its IM-anywhere design. In addition to serving as a traditional desktop client for both Mac and PC platforms, Astra comes in a browser-friendly version that works anywhere. All your relevant info syncs across platforms and machines, so all you need to do is log in to Astra, and everything from your AIM, MSN, and Google Talk settings to your buddy icon will be there at the ready.
We’re anxiously awaiting the release of Firefox 3—currently in beta—for a number of reasons. The nascent browser includes some truly revolutionary features. For one, it supercharges the traditional bookmark paradigm, storing your bookmarks in an easily searchable database that’s integrated with the rest of the browser’s search features. Firefox 3’s renderer seems to be speedier than it was in Firefox 2, too. Of course, all the improvements will be for naught if the development team can’t squash the memory leaks that presently plague the Deuce. For now, we’re hopeful.
Don’t confuse our Lifetime Achievement Award with those of other awards shows, where the recipient is nearing the end of his or her career and being tossed a sappy sympathy tribute. Far from it. SlySoft’s AnyDVD is in the prime of its life and getting better all the time. In fact, it’s precisely because of this application’s steadfast commitment to service that we honor it here.
For many years now, AnyDVD has given law-abiding consumers an easy way to circumvent the copy protection on their movie discs in order to create backup copies or play the content on other devices. And just as soon as new DRM is implemented, AnyDVD is right there with an update. Case in point: the AnyDVD HD upgrade, which offers Blu-ray and HD DVD support. Bravo!
AnyDVD will be accepting its award from an undisclosed overseas location.
49 euros, www.slysoft.com