Video conversion has become a popular topic with me lately. I purchased a Google TV a few months ago, using the device to retire my old HTPC, which ran Windows 7 with Media Center set to launch upon startup. The problem is this — not all of my ripped DVD’s were in a format recognized by Plex, which now serves my home media to the living room.

Since purchasing the Vizio Co-Star, I have been slowly but surely working my way through the re-encoding of almost all of our movies, most of which had been ripped to ISO files in order to retain all of the menus and extras. Unfortunately, Google TV will not allow me to keep those options, but this is not the end of the world — I do not really need them, it was just a nice touch.

My latest experiment is using TEncoder, which is a powerful tool for converting video and audio files from one format to another. The app holds a lot promise, but may not work for every need — more on that later.
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One thing that Microsoft has always excelled at is making its operating system customizable, and what the company does not do, third-party services make up for. Stardock is one of the premier makers and has been especially popular since the release of Windows 8, thanks in large part to bringing back the Start Menu, but it is far from the only one.

This all brings us to BetterDesktop Tool. This app is not for bringing back the long-lost Start Button and Menu, but it certainly brings plenty of functionality along.

Get the App

Head over to the BetterDesktop Tool web site and you will find two choices — there are standard and pro versions, with the Standard option being free. Both versions are contained within the download package. Commercial users must purchase a license and can try BetterDesktopTool Professional Edition free for 30 days. The app is compatible with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows.

During the installation process you will be prompted to choose between “Private Usage” and “Commercial Usage (30 Day Trial)”. The app requires only 1.5 MB of free disk space. There are no toolbars or other software included in the app and installation is extremely fast.

The Interface

Only three tabs garner the top of the screen — “Windows and Desktop Overview”, “Virtual-Desktop” and “General”. All have a rather geeky look to them, but they are less scary once you understand what each can do. The app is capable of a lot, but we will hit the highlights here to get you introduced to all of the functionality that BetterDesktop Tool brings along.

Windows and Desktop Overview

This is the first of those geeky looking screens I mentioned, but do not let appearances put you off. It is not as scary as it may at first look. First there are several dropdown menus that allow you to set options, which as Ctrl-Tab or Alt-Tab, for a range of choices, and these can be to not only keystrokes, but also mouse clicks and “hot corners”.

Options

  • Show all windows
  • Show foreground app windows
  • Show desktop
  • Show non-minmized windows
  • Show desktop

Mouse options include the usual – left, middle and right buttons. Hot corners are areas of the screen – top and bottom right and top and  bottom left.

Other options on this tab include “Arrange windows in a regular grid”, “Move all windows to primary screen” and “Show top-level windows only”.

There are also two buttons at the bottom right of the screen — Exclude Window and Reset Excluded Windows. The first will propt you with instructions. “To exclude a window start window-overview (show all windows) and right-click the window you want to exclude. Select the corresponding menu item and the window will be excluded”. The latter button does the opposite.

Visual Desktop

By default, Virtual Desktop is enabled as is “Move windows between virtual-desktops by dragging them to the screen edges for a time”. Howeveryou can disable these and also choose from a number of options.

The “Show virtual desktop” option has similar dropdown menus for keyboard, mouse and hot corners. You can choose what occurs when another application on a virtual desktop gets activated — move it, switch it or make the app global.

“Direct switching” also has options for keyboard shortcuts, as well as moving and switching. Finally, there is an option forthe amount and arrangement of windows that appear on your screen. By default, this is set four – two wide and two high. However, both of these can be changed by clicking the up and down arrows to the right of each number.

General

The “General” tab has six options, the first three of which are enabled by default.

Options

  • Start Program with Windows
  • Check for updates on start
  • Disable all shortcuts when a fullscreen application is running (e.g. games)
  • Disable animation for window, desktop and virtual-desktop overview
  • Ask to restore applications from hidden virtual desktops before shutdown/logoff (blocks shutdown)
  • Enable multitouch-gesture support for designated touchpads

Below this, there are two button at thebottom of the screen — “Check for update” and “About and License”. Both options do exactly as the names describe.

Features

  • Arranges all windows in a non overlapping layout. Allows selection of an arbitrary window to bring it to the foreground.
  • Can be applied to minimized, non-minimized and foreground application windows.
  • Supports Multi-Monitor setups.
  • Moves all windows away from your desktop to give you access to Desktop-Shortcuts and Sidebar-Gadgets.
  • Supports Multi-Monitor setups.
  • Configuration of Mouse and Keyboard shortcuts for all functions.
  • Configuration of Hot-Corners for all functions.
The app works with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. It also requires Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0, though most users should already have this installed. the program is not compatible with Windows XP. The app will conduct a check for the operating system to notify the user when the software won’t run on his system.

The Verdict

As I said back at the beginning, there are countless applications for customizing Windows. BetterDesktop Tool is perhaps one the better ones, as it allows the user to set all sorts of shortcuts using the the keyboard and mouse and even screen corners. The app is also free and comes with no malware or toolbars that attempt to install themselves in the setup process.

The company also points out that support for window selection by keyboard shortcuts will also follow soon in the next version. The company regularly updates its app, so you can expect to get regular new features and bug fixes.

There is no shortage of music apps available, and many of them are free. I seem to try just about every one I find because, well, I love music and I am always on the hunt for these programs. I use apps to help clean up my library, I use special players, I backup music to Google Music and more.

My latest find is called MP3Jam. It is a simple but surprisingly capable free tool for locating and downloading anything from individual songs to entire albums.

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If you are anything like me then you have a large computer-based collection of music and that library is, at least partially, a mess. Over the years I have tried countless solutions to fix that mess, but one I have long heard about, but not tried is MediaMonkey. This app does more than just attempt to clean up your library — it also serves as a player, streams to DLNA devices on your network and can sync with mobile devices.

In fact, the app boasts a long list of features — manage media, identify tracks, tag, organize and rename, automatic library updates, download music and podcasts, sync and backup with mobile devices, record and convert, burn, play and stream to devices.

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About two months ago I made a major change in my living room. For several years I had used a home theater computer (HTPC) to access all of our ripped DVD’s, music and digital photos. I did not use Windows Media Center for its primary focus, which is watching and recording live TV, so when the PC aged and began to slow down I decided to replace it with a cheaper alternative.

Instead of building a new HTPC I opted for a Google TV box. I got the same functionality I had been using Windows Media Center for thanks to the Plex server and app. However, many of our discs had been ripped as ISO files — a format that Google TV, even using Flex, can not handle. I needed to convert the files and options included MKV, MP4 and AVI. All would work, but I opted for MKV.

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One copy of a file is the same as having none — because that is what you could have at almost any moment. In fact, two copies is sketchy for a couple of reasons. Reason one is that, while on-site backup to a home server is excellent when it comes to restoration because it is the fastest way to get back up and running, it does not protect you in the event of a disaster such as a flood, fire or tornado.

That is where the second backup comes in. The cloud, as it is known today, is a great storage solution that can house files safely away from your home.

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Earlier this year Microsoft broke my heart by doing away with Live Mesh, a part of what was once known as the Windows Live Essentials suite of apps. In recent times the company has scaled back the service and also taken the Live out of the name, making it simply Windows Essentials.

There are a number of ways to replace Live Mesh — Microsoft would prefer for you to move on to SkyDrive, but the functionality is different, as the cloud serves as an intermediary and if you are syncing more than 7 GB of files then this will cost you. Microsoft also still makes SyncToy available for free, which is the Live Mesh predecessor. I have also used SyncBack SE and can attest that this app is an excellent replacement.

BitTorrent, a legitimate service that has largely been pigeonholed as an illegal file-sharing service, has been producing apps recently that are geared towards helping users with both video streaming and file synchronization, among other things.

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Windows Media Player has been a part of the Microsoft operating system through quite a number of versions and it remains in place in Windows 8, almost as a relic from the past. But the app is still relevant, even on modern computers.  The software has quietly moved up to version 12, though it looks little different from the past few iterations.

Microsoft has not changed much in recent updates of the app and, in fact, has lost some functionality, given that the company removed DVD playback from the software — unless you pay the extra $20 for the Media Center Pack, which requires the Pro version of the operating system.

Otherwise, you will need to install a third-party app, such as the free VLC Player, which is my recommendation. But if you wish to pay, then grab something like Power DVD.

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There is no end to the amount of utilities that proclaim to “help” you out with your computer, by scanning files, cleaning things up and grabbing system information. Its an area of software that is fraught with danger, though. Many are unreputable and some even pop up messages warning you of danger to your system in an effort to prompt you to purchase them. Others simply either do not work or work a little too well, giving unknowledgeable users the opportunity to harm their own system by removing a file that Windows finds essential to run.

If you are careful, however, you can find some good utilities. Pay attention to reviews and what experts have to say and, when in doubt, simply avoid the software.

One of the better apps for gathering information about what is going on with your computer is called PC Hunter, which was recently updated to version 1.0.0.2.

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Like its predecessors, Windows 8 makes customization of the computer mostly easy and, where it lacks, third-party software makers have stepped up and filled in. There are multiple free and paid ways of adding the lost Start button and menu and making numerous other tweaks like adding tabs to Explorer and more. 

As for the desktop and lock screen, customers can use built-in functionality to change the background to any image they wish to use, but the Start screen has a limited number of options — users can only change the color and choose from a limited number of design options.

Enter Stardock. The company makes numerous affordable apps that customers can try and buy to make tweaks to almost every aspect of the Windows 8 operating system.

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