VLC media player on Windows 8

VLC media player

VLC media player

When I upgraded to Windows 8 Pro I wanted to make sure that I could still play DVDs. Now that I have upgraded I’ve moved from using Windows Media Player to VLC media player. Here’s why.

Having read up a little about Windows 8’s support of various media I was fairly confident that if I installed the Windows Media Center then I would be able to continue to play DVDs in Windows Media Player, as I did in Windows 7. I was wrong.

Having bought the upgrade early (back in October 2012) I was offered a free upgrade to Windows Media Centre — woop! — which saved me a whole £6.99. However, as I discovered, it only enables DVD playback in Windows Media Centre, not Windows Media Player.

On my old Windows XP machine I used Cyberlink PowerDVD, which costs between £30-£70 depending; I got it free, bundled with my graphics card, if I remember correctly. It was fairly easy to use, and the controls were pretty intuitive. When I moved to Windows 7 I discovered that this version of the software wasn’t compatible with that version of Windows and I was reluctant to pay for an upgrade and so I started to use Windows Media Player, which had a really terrible, confusing interface but was free.

And so once again another Windows upgrade requires me to find another application that will enable me to watch DVDs on my PC. A quick Google search suggested that I try VLC media player.

VLC media player ticked both boxes: it’s free and it’s really easy to use. The interface is incredibly clear, much simpler than Windows Media Player 10 and 11, and it’s incredibly fast.

I also really like that the software is created by the VideoLAN organisation, “a project and a non-profit organization, composed of volunteers, developing and promoting free, open-source multimedia solutions.”

I definitely recommend VLC media player, if you are looking for a free, user-friendly replacement for Windows Media Player on Windows 8 (or, indeed, any version of Windows from XP SP2 onwards).

My top free Windows 7 add-ons

These are my current top free Windows 7 add-ons (they will all work with Windows XP and Windows Vista too).

allSnap

http://ivanheckman.com/allsnap/

allsnap

allSnap is a small system tray app that makes all top level windows automatically align like they do in programs such as Winamp or Photoshop. Makes your windows feel slightly magnetic.

On 64-bit applications you have to run both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions but you can hide them from displaying in the notification area/system tray; apparently they are working on a version that will work with both 32- and 64-bit PCs.

There is no installer, just drag a shortcut to your Start > Programs > Startup folder.


Classic Shell

http://classicshell.sourceforge.net/

classicshell

Add the “Up” button back on Windows 7 Explorer. They’re bringing it back to Windows 8, I believe. Classic Shell has other features, but I just use the Up button, mostly.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that Classic Shell is dependent on Internet Explorer. I did a reset of IE9 and disabled all the add-ons and extensions, which resulted in the Up button disappearing from Windows Explorer. Thankfully there is documentation on the Classic Shell website to address this.


Dexpot

http://www.dexpot.de/

dexpot

Advertised as “the tool Windows lacks”, Dexpot is a virtual desktop application enabling you to create up to 20 virtual desktops: one desktop might be for email, another for editing graphics, another for writing, etc.

So, rather than switching between multiple applications, just switch to the appropriate desktop. It supports Windows Gadgets and in multiple-monitor setups you can choose to create virtual desktops on any of your monitors (e.g. only switch monitor 1).

The effects (found under Plugins and Extras) are attractive offering sliding desktops or cube-like effects.


Dropbox

http://www.dropbox.com/

dropbox

It would have been remiss of me to not include Dropbox. 2GB of free space, drop your files into a directory and they are accessible everywhere: on your laptop, on your mobile phone, via a Web browser. You can also share folders with other users or with the public.

And if you start inviting others to use it, Dropbox will give you 250MB more space for each new user who joins (up to a certain limit).


Fences

http://www.stardock.com/products/fences/

fences

Organise your desktop icons into groups that you can label.


Microsoft Security Essentials

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

microsoftsecurityessentials

The anti-annoying, anti-expensive, anti-virus application. I now use it on my desktop and both laptops, replacing AVG Free and Symantec Norton AntiVirus 2011.


Mouse without borders

Microsoft Garage

mousewithoutborders

Move your mouse between computers attached to your network (e.g. desktop and laptop), drag-and-drop files from one PC to the next, copy and paste between machines, and share the keyboard too.


PrintFolder

http://no-nonsense-software.com/freeware/

printfolder

A really handy utility to print or save a list of files located in any folder. Right-click any folder in Windows Explorer and select “PrintFolder” in the popup menu.


PureText

http://www.stevemiller.net/puretext/

puretext

Windows + V will paste your clipboard text as plain text — great for pasting from Word or webpages and stripping out formatting.


RocketDock

http://rocketdock.com/

RocketDock

A customizable, hide-able application launcher. I have it hidden beneath my main toolbar and it contains my most-used application shortcuts — those that are not pinned to my main Windows 7 toolbar.


Switcher

http://insentient.net/

switcher

Like the Mac exposé feature, but on Windows. Shows you all the currently open windows.


TreeSize Free

http://www.jam-software.com/treesize_free/

treesize

Right-click a folder, select TreeSize and it will tell you how big that folder and all its sub-folders are. Great for checking to see if stuff will fit onto CD-R or USB drives.


Winsplit Revolution

http://winsplit-revolution.com/

winsplit-revolution

Does magic with windows: reorganise windows to 33%, 50% or 66% (or define your own) with keyboard shortcuts. Windows 7 comes with the ability to quickly show two windows side-by-side, well this does it too and a whole lot more.

I’ve mapped my keyboard number pad to the monitor so that I can easily resize windows with just a few key presses.


What are your favourites?

What are your favourite, free Windows applications let me know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll post my favourites on this blog too.

Fixing the audio problem with Spb Mobile DVD on Windows 7

20110408-spbmobiledvd

I’ve been preparing for my trip to Luxembourg next weekend and given that I’m going to be spending many hours on a train I’ve been converting a couple of DVDs into a format that I can play on my phone running Windows Mobile 6.x.

I’ve been using the rather excellent Spb Mobile DVD, however I ran into a slight problem: since upgrading my PC from Windows XP to Windows 7 the DVD I can no longer hear
any audio on the DVDs (either previewing in Spb Mobile DVD or on the ripped
movies) but the video is superb quality.

I contacted Spb’s technical support who replied the same day saying that I should install the AC3Filter audio codec and try again.

Sure enough after the installation of the AC3 Filter codec Spb Mobile DVD is working once again: superb video and audio too.

I thought someone else might find this information useful.

Reinstalling Windows XP Professional SP3: Operation PC Forgiveness 2008

Screenshot of Windows XP

This week I’ve been enjoying a holiday at home with Jane: a chance to enjoy peace and quiet together for the last time before the children arrive, and to reinstall Windows XP on my main desktop PC. That’s been the main reason for my lack of recent blogging, and not laziness — oh no! Not that. No way!

Slowdown to upgrade

It’s a common problem with Windows: it gradually slows down over time. I install and uninstall all sorts of software on it, I use it every day for everything from checking emails to coding, photo editing to video creation. I’m not surprised it slows down over time.

But this time it was getting really bad. At times it wouldn’t boot properly (hardware driver conflicts I think). There was a serious issue with my sound card: if I played a Flash movie (e.g. YouTube) while listening to an MP3, for example, it would send my audio player crazy when I closed the browser window, playing any non-Flash audio two or three times too fast. It made everything sound like the Chipmunks had formed a metal band!

I also wanted to upgrade a couple of major pieces of software:

as well as various hardware drivers:

It was clearly time for Operation PC Forgiveness 2008.

Backup

On Monday and Tuesday I backed up everything. I used Second Copy 7.1 to copy the contents of each partition one-by-one to my external harddrive (Freecom 500GB).

I’ve tried various other applications over the years that take either images of the partition, or backup to a proprietary format, or first compress the files before storing them in a zip file, but in the end I’ve returned to a simple 1:1 copy on an external drive. That way I can access these files at any time from any PC without having to first install any 3rd party applications.

Second Copy

Second Copy allows you to create backup profiles that can be run either individually or within groups. So I have groups for:

  • Applications (e.g. Microsoft Money files, Microsoft OneNote data, WeBuilder settings, Windows Boot.ini file, Second Copy profiles, etc.
  • Outlook PST files, backups and stuff
  • WeBuilder reinstallation
  • Ultimate Backup to external hard drive

There are a few backups that I do manually, for example Firefox bookmarks and anything else that needs to be exported.

Screenshot of Second Copy

This way I can make sure that all my personalized settings have been backed-up before I run the “Ultimate” backup group profiles and copy it all to my external drive.

A couple of things that I always do when doing a reinstallation are:

  • Install and take a print out of all my installed applications using Installed Program Printer.
  • Take a screenshot of desktop (for location of icons).
  • Take a screenshot of Start Menu (for labels and icons).
  • Take a screenshot of the Firefox add-ons that I have installed.
  • Backup Programs folders within Start menu (both All Users and my username profiles). This way I can see how I organized my Start menu.

Reinstall Windows XP

With the backup complete it was time to bite the bullet and reformat my C drive. I have 12 partitions on my hard drives so wiping C simply takes out Windows and programs, all my data, images, videos, music, etc. are safely stored on the other partitions (and now also backed-up).

One thing that I forgot to do before I set the Windows XP installation CD loose on C: was to deauthorize iTunes. D’oh!

Essentials for a Windows XP reinstall:

  • Windows XP with SP3 and IE7 slipstreamed into it.
  • Latest hardware drivers, already downloaded and saved to another partition, external drive or CD-ROM.
  • TweakGuides Tweaking Companion for XP to follow advice on best order to install drivers, and various system tweaks to improve performance.
  • Notebook and pen (to write down everything you do, error messages, settings, passwords, etc.).
  • Laptop (or other PC) for looking up advice, error messages, etc. on the Web.

Reinstalling XP and hardware drivers took a couple of hours. Reinstalling the rest of my software took the best part of a day and a half. I have almost all my applications stored on another partition (I:\) and categorized which makes it very efficient to reinstall:

Screenshot of Install partition

Reorganize All Programs within the Start menu

Once I’ve installed the bulk of my applications, run Windows (or Microsoft) Update a couple of times to make sure that Windows and Office are up-to-date, and done a cursory defrag I always reorganize the Start menu.

This is how the All Programs part of my Start menu looked after I’d installed most of the applications that I use regularly:

Start menu with three columns of programs

That’s three columns with around 85 entries. Even though I’ve done a “sort by name” on the list it’s still a mess! What it needs is some categorization to group similar applications together.

All users

I generally start with the “All Users” folder (right-click START and select “Explore All Users”). I then create a number of new top-level folders to act as my main categories. These are generally the folders that I begin with:

  • Accessories
  • Bible
  • CDRW
  • Fonts
  • Games
  • Graphics
  • Internet
  • Labels
  • Mindmaps
  • Money
  • Multimedia
  • Office
  • PDF
  • Printers
  • Programming
  • Scanner
  • Startup
  • System
  • Windows Mobile
  • WinZip

All Users Start Menu Programs

As it happens, these are also the main category labels that I use on my Install partition (I:\). Keeping a one-to-one relationship between the start menu and the install partition makes it really easy to find installers should I need to perform an upgrade or reinstall.

Having a limited taxonomy makes it really easy to find any application that I have installed: all my graphics applications can be found under Graphics, office applications under Office, etc. It sounds obvious but I’ve seen too many users wasting precious time hunting through an unordered list of 60+ applications.

Sort the rest

Having created these new folders, I then move the remaining installation folders and icons into them before performing the rest of the clean-up on the Start menu itself, creating any sub-folders as necessary. For example, within Internet I always create:

  • Browsers
  • Email
  • Firewall
  • FTP
  • Instant Messenger
  • RSS
  • Server
  • Twitter
  • VoIP
  • Web Building

I prefer to use generic terms such as “Instant Messenger” and “Firewall” than “Windows Live Messenger” and “ZoneLabs ZoneAlarm Pro” as I find it easier to find them this way, it also doesn’t lock me into a particular application as I can use the same folder structure regardless of the applications that I have installed.

I also use this arrangement on my PC at work and on my laptop so it allows me to have different applications installed but use the same organizational structure.

Start menu lite

While it usually takes me about 30-45 minutes to sort out my Start menu at the start it must save me hours each month when looking for applications.

My new, slimmed down start menu then looks a bit like this:

Start menu

Now I have a clean installation of XP, with (almost) all my software installed and I can find things on my Start menu. Now I can get on and do something productive!

XP Tweak Guide and AVG

Nice to see that the excellent TweakGuides Tweaking Companions for Windows XP and Vista by Koroush Ghazi have been updated. Included in the update is advice on installing AVG Free 8.0 (antivirus software).

What’s not included is the switch to ensure that LinkScanner isn’t installed.

Having used AVG for a couple of weeks, I’ve found it to be a good upgrade from AVG Free 7.5, it’s just a shame that there is no longer an option to disable alerts about disabled components.

If I have decided to switch off Resident Shield, for example, I don’t want to see an error icon in the notification area (system tray) saying that one of the components isn’t configured correctly. That was one feature that I really liked about version 7.5 that’s sadly been removed from 8.0.

Future of Windows XP

Spotted on Custom PC:

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says Windows XP might not reach the end of its life in June if people still want it.

Microsoft’s infamous over excitable funny man, CEO Steve Ballmer, has said that Microsoft might not kill off Windows XP in June if customers still demand it. Still going strong after 6.5 years, Microsoft’s ubiquitous OS Windows XP has stood the test of time remarkably well, but the company plans to start phasing it out in June this year.

However, Ballmer suggested that this plan isn’t yet set in stone. Speaking to a news conference in Mons, Belgium, Ballmer said: ‘XP will hit an end-of-life. We have announced one.’ However, he then added that ‘If customer feedback varies, we can always wake up smarter, but right now, we have a plan for end-of-life for new XP shipments.’

Is that called a u-turn?

Hang on a minute, I’ll go and ask Gordon Brown.

Microsoft XP update cripples IE6

Spotted on PC Pro:

Patch Tuesday paralyses Internet Explorer

Last week’s critical security update to Internet Explorer has crippled the browser for many users. The problem is reportedly affecting Internet Explorer 6 users on Windows XP. The fault causes the browser to crash in a number of different scenarios, such as when printing web pages.

Read the full article.

But why are people still using IE6 under Windows XP?  Why haven’t they at least upgraded to IE7? Or better still moved to a better browser, such as Mozilla Firefox or Opera?