BOOT CAMP 511 (12/02/08)

Poor Man’s Vista, part 3


We’ve reached the concluding part of this short series on transforming your Windows XP computer into a passable imitation of a Vista PC. I must repeat this is not some sort of backdoor XP to Vista upgrade; Windows XP is still there beneath the surface but the utilities we’ve been looking at can give XP a fresh new look with some of Vista’s best Aero Glass visual features and as we‘ll see in a moment, help improve functionality with easier desktop navigation and more advanced search facilities.  


We’ll kick off this final selection with one of Vista’s most eye-catching gimmicks and that’s 3D Flip. It’s a radical update of the dowdy Task Switcher in Windows 98 and XP (Alt + Tab), which lets you quickly switch between running applications. The twist in Vista is to turn it into a fancy 3D effect with the windows ‘flipping’ towards you when you press Winkey + Tab. There are several commercial programs on the market that do this sort of thing but there’s no need to spend a penny as a small Japanese utility called WinFlip does an excellent job, and it’s free! In fact I think WinFlip is actually better than Vista’s 3D Flip and as an added bonus it uses only modest resources; it can even be used on Vista PCs that suffer from under-powered graphics and cannot run Aero Glass 3D Flip in its native form.


There are lots of extra features, like Mouse Gesture and edge clicking, which invoke flip mode when you rapidly describe a circle with your mouse pointer or click on the desktop border. Each 3D window can be tagged with a letter so that rather than flipping through lots of pages you just type the letter of the window you want to display; you can also flip windows using the mouse scroll wheel. Installation is very straightforward; download the ‘zipped’ file (only 423kb), let XP Extract the program files into a new folder then copy the shortcut icon into your Startup folder (Start > Programs > Startup), if you want it to launch automatically with Windows. The controls and options are accessed by right-clicking the icon that appears in the System Tray, next to the clock.


This next program also mimics another classic piece of Vista eye candy by displaying a thumbnail view of icons in the Taskbar. Like WinFlip Visual ToolTip it has many more configuration options than the Vista offering, including the facility change the size and shape of the thumbnails. It has another unusual feature that lets you drag the thumbnails anywhere on the desktop, and they can be grouped together on a ‘docking bar’ and then rotated to give them a classy 3D look. It’s very clever, but I have to say it’s not as good as Rocket Dock, which we featured last week in Boot Camp 510. Once again installation should pose no problems, after the zip file has been downloaded (427kb), XP offers to extract the files into a folder and to start the program click on the visualtooltip.exe icon. The control panel, which opens when you right-click the System Tray icon has all of the configuration settings, and the option to load the program automatically at boot up.


One of the most impressive and genuinely useful features in Vista is Search. It is quite unlike the Search option in previous versions of Windows and much easier to use. As soon as you start typing something it starts listing possible hits, gradually refining the list as you complete the keyword or filename. It’s fast, smart, and really good at sifting through large folders containing hundreds or even thousands of images, music tracks, emails and documents.


It’s probably asking too much to find a third-party desktop search engine that matches the one in Vista, which is so closely integrated into the operating system, but Copernic comes pretty close. The key to its speed is the way it continually indexes the contents of your hard drive, this it does in the background, when the CPU is idle, so there’s little or no impact on performance. Like the facility in Vista there are Search boxes all over the place, on the desktop and on browser toolbars. If it thinks you’ve misspelled a keyword it suggests alternatives, it keeps tabs on over 150 different file types, from Word documents to MP3 tracks. Like Vista Search, results are instantly previewed, filtered and sorted, and the search can be extended from your desktop to the Internet. Unlike some rival desktop search engines Copernic keeps your data, search results and habits in-house and private, there’s no calling home to the mothership with your details and it supports advanced features, like ‘wildcards’ and standard search operators. The program installs directly from the download (5.4Mb) and straight away starts cataloguing your hard drive, but only during ‘idle time’, so it can take a while – depending on the size of your drive and how full it is -- before it’s fully up to speed. 



Next Week – Vista Tuning Tips





Collection of visual enhancements in Windows Vista, designed to make the desktop and programs look more attractive and easier to use



Period of inactivity when the computer’s CPU is not performing any particularly demanding tasks



Compressed file, the amount of data is reduced to make it easier to send over the Internet. Zipped files have to be decompressed using the built-in Extraction utility in XP and Vista, or a third-party program, like WinZip  




Some of the programs and add-ons we’ve been looking at may slow your PC down, so only install one of them at a time and see how you get on. If you notice a serious dip in performance check the new program’s configuration settings to see if there are any adjustments you can make to reduce the demands it makes on your PC’s CPU and graphics resources. Upgrading your video adaptor or adding more memory might help in some cases but in the end, if your PC is slow or underpowered then some of these programs are only going to make things worse.


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