Category Archives: Software Reviews

We are constantly getting a wide variety of hardware and software to test and exercise under a range of conditions. As you might expect, some work better than others, some play nicely with others (or not), and a few are genuinely pleasant surprises. Here you’ll find a collection of reviews on a range of products. We’ll be updating this section frequently as we run across new stuff, so come back soon and often!

Start11 Gets v0.9 Update

Some running Windows 11 who might want an alternative to the native Start Menu. For those folks, Stardock’s latest Start11 release offers a nice option. Please understand this is NOT free software. Those upgrading a Start10 license must pay US$4 for the bits; first-time buyers must pony up US$5. Either way, it’s a pretty good deal IMO. As a long-time user, when Start 11 gets v0.9 update, I pay attention. Others may not be so inclined.

When  Start 11 gets v0.9 update, What Do You Get?

Start11 gives users a pretty broad range of functions for a small price. It allows them to make the Start Menu look like the ones from Windows 7, 8 or 10 (and of course, 11 as well). Here’s the UI “pick a version/layout” control:

Start11 Gets v0.9 Update.sm-style

You can pick from Windows 7, 8 (Modern style), 10, and 11 styles for the Start Menu layout, look, and feel.

You can pick an icon for the start button, and position the start button at left or center in the taskbar (or even up top). As for the taskbar itself, Start 11 offers a number of controls, including blur, transparency and color; the ability to apply a custom texture; right-click menu controls (which bring back the old Windows 10 style right-click pop up), and a bunch of tweaks for taskbar size and position, plus separate positioning controls for primary and secondary monitors. I like it, myself.

Search can be tweaked in a variety of ways, including disabling built-in search. Search result filtering can use icons, search can peruse file contents and well as names, and more.

Alternate Menus Appeal to Some

I know plenty of purists who want to use only native. built-in Windows controls and utilities. I am not such a person. If you are, Start11 will have no appeal to you. But if you’ve got users who want to be productive right away and already know their way around an earlier Windows version, Start11 can be a real blessing.

Right now, I’m running one machine with native facilities only, another with Start10 on Windows 11 (it works), and this one with Start11 set to run in modern layout mode. I’m watching for issues and gotchas, and will keep readers posted. I’m glad I feel comfortable getting around Windows11 using a variety of menuing tools and techniques. I remember being baffled, bothered and bewildered when Windows 8 first came out. Thank goodness, that’s no longer an issue.

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Windows 11 Gets Nifty New Paint App

As soon as I read about it online at WinAero, I jumped into the Store to visit Library → Updates on one of my two Dev Channel PCs. And indeed, a new version of Paint awaited me there. One quick update later, and I saw for myself that Windows 11 gets nifty new paint app. My quick scrawl appears on the canvas in the lead-in graphic for this story, and the update offer in the screencap that follows.

Windows 11 Gets Nifty New Paint App.store offer

The latest Paint version gets a Windows 11 style makeover.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

MS Store Update Means Windows 11 Gets Nifty New Paint App

If you look at the lead-in graphic for the story you’ll see right away that Paint has had a thorough makeover. The top-line ribbon features new-style icons and controls. The Colors elements are all in circular — not rectangular — swatches. There’s not much new inside, except for the Text tool (upper right corner under the Tools heading). But the new iteration is cute, fun to look at, and as easy to use as ever.

Behind the scenes, though, there’s still some catching for Microsoft to do. The “Editor Colors” window remains unchanged with square outlines around basic and custom color areas.

The base app has been reworked, but the color palette hasn’t caught up yet.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

So far, it looks like the new Paint version is off to a good start. I’ll be curious to see how this unfolds as October 5 comes and goes. Some of the necessary catch-up work looks likely to come after that, based on what I see right now. But, as usual, time will tell — as will the contents of next Tuesday’s public release. Stay tuned!

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Start11 Beta Arrives With Certain Complications

OK, then. Here’s a phenomenon that may interest some readers not at all, though I confess myself fascinated. When I first started using Windows 8 in February 2012, the new Start menu totally baffled me. With major deadlines close and breathing down my neck, I bought a copy of Stardock Software’s Start8 Start Menu replacement package so I could skip the learning curve and get stuff done. Since then, I’ve cheerfully paid the US$4-5 per PC that Start8 and later, Start10, licenses cost. I was immensely tickled this morning to find out that Start11 Beta arrives with certain complications in its wake. Let me explain…

What Start11 Beta Arrives With Certain Complications Means

I have licenses for Start10 on two of my three Win11 test machines. For the record, Start10 works fine on Windows 11 PCs, but it lacks native smarts and features. A for-a-fee beta version is available as of August 10. Like Start10, it goes for US$4.99. I find it a little odd to be asked to PAY to play where Beta  software is involved…

But for those with Start10 licenses, one can also pay to upgrade the software to that version and get updates as the product evolves. I qualified for a discounted (US$3.99) update price, so I ponied up and downloaded the installer file, named Start11-fs-setup_sd.exe.

Then the fun began. Because Start10 was already running, the installer informed me I had to close that program and uninstall it before I could install Start11. I killed all the Start10 related entries on the Processes tab in Task Manager.

But that proved insufficient: in fact, the Start10 service process would persistently keep restarting seconds after I killed it. So I opened the Details tab, and killed the Start10x64.exe process along with a few other hangers-on. Only then did the uninstall complete successfully, after which it informed me I had to reboot my PC to complete that process. After a restart, I was able to get Start 11 up and running.

First Impressions of Start11

I understand how the native Start Menu works in Windows 10 and 11 now, so it doesn’t bother me as it once did immediately following Windows 8’s debut. I’ll be up front and say I’m not sure Start11 is something that everybody — or even most people — need when running Windows 11. That said, as an old familiar tool for me, I immediately felt comfortable with its workings and capabilities. These include:

1. An option to shift the Start Menu button and program icons back to the left-hand side of the display.
2. Indirect access (one click to the native Start Menu through a Windows Menu button in the Start11 menu).
3. More sophisticated controls over Start Menu appearance, such as icon settings (size, background, columnar layouts), menu font controls, menu transparency controls, and customization options).
4. Right-click on Start button can be set to produce Win+X menu

Is Start11 a piece of essential Windows 11 software? Probably not. Is it nice to have? I think so, but others may disagree. I’m glad it’s cheap, but I found the install process far from smooth and well-engineered. But then, it IS a beta version. I’m guessing that will change as Start11 and the OS to which it’s matched both evolve into their production versions.

Start11 Beta Arrives With Certain Complications.about

The About screen shows Version number 0.5: a clear indication of a beta version. Hoping install will improve as the program evolves.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

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Windows App Update Blues

OK, then. I just got back from a nearly two-week hiatus (see yesterday’s blog post for a trip report). For the past day and a bit more, I’ve been catching up my 10 PCs. In part, that means updating the apps on those machines. Indeed, this experience has me singing the “Windows App Update Blues.” They’re nicely illustrated in the lead-in graphic for this story, which shows two apps on my primary production PC that lack built-in update facilities despite widespread proliferation and use (Kindle) and a pricey paid-for license (Nitro Pro).

Why Sing Those Low-Down Windows App Update Blues?

It’s nearly inconceivable that Amazon, that paragon of modern software efficiency and might, doesn’t include an updater for the Kindle reader. Ditto for Nitro Pro, which makes me shell out over US$100 for updates to this powerful and otherwise handy PDF tool on a more-or-less yearly basis.

Updates are not that simple on either side. For Kindle on PC, I have to visit the “free Kindle app” page at Amazon. Because I stay logged into the site, clicking “Download for PC & Mac” brings a file named KindleForPC-installer-1.32.61109.exe to my PC. Then, I have to run the installer, and it gets updated. Thankfully, this does not require me to remove the older version manually by way of post-install cleanup. Question: why can’t I get an update through the usual Help → About sequence typical for most Windows apps?

Nitro Pro has a “Visit our website” link on its Help → About pane. I guess that’s intended to streamline the manual update process. But each time I have to upgrade, I have to remember to visit the Downloads page via the website’s page footers, and manually download the latest version. While Amazon is at least kind enough to rename its updates so you can tell them apart, all four versions of Nitro pro 13 share the same filename: nitro_pro13.exe so only file creation dates distinguish them from one another. Then, something called “Nitro Pro SysTray” blocks installation until I instruct the installer to shut it down manually. After that, things work their way to proper completion. It, too, cleans up older versions (thank goodness).

But the Question Lingers: Why Manual?

I’m still not happy that I have to run this stuff down on my own and run updates manually. I hope somebody at Amazon and Nitro notices this item, and takes appropriate action. Given that most programs do this automatically, why can’t their apps do the same?

 

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Audacity Announces Data Harvest Plans

Dang! I just came across a news item that indicates one of my favorite audio recording and editing apps may be going over to the dark side. I’m talking about the long-time, well-known open source freeware program Audacity. Following  its April acquisition by the Muse Group, the program’s privacy policy updated on July 2. Alas, in that policy, Audacity announces data harvest plans. These include include telemetry data, and sharing of such data.

Audacity Announces Data Harvest Plans: What Kind?

What kind of data will Audacity collect? The types of data to be collected seem pretty innocuous. Namely, OS version, user country based on IP address, OS name and version, CPU. Also, non-fatal error codes and messages, and crash reports in Breakpad MiniDump format. I don’t see any personally identifiable information here, except for the IP address.

Who gets to see it? The desktop privacy notice reads “Data necessary for law enforcement, litigation and authorities’ requests (if any).” Legal grounds for sharing data are “Legitimate interest of WSM Group to defend its legal rights and interests.” That said, we also find language that reads such data may be shared with “…a potential buyer (and its agents and advisors) in connection with any proposed purchase, merger or acquisition of any part of our business…”

What has the user community most up in arms is that Muse asserts the right to occasionally share “…personal data with our main office in Russia…” This contravenes requirements of the GDPR, and could potentially violate data sovereignty requirements in certain EU countries (e.g. Germany) and elsewhere.

Does This Mean It’s Time to Bail on Audacity?

Not yet. These new provisions don’t take effect until the next upgrade to the program (version 3.0.3, one minor increment up from current 3.0.2) take effect. But a lot of people, including me, will be thinking long and hard about whether or not to upgrade. At a bare minimum, it might make sense to run Audacity in a VM through a VPN connection, to obscure its origin and user.

Note: Here’s a shout-out to Anmol Mehrotra at Neowin whose July 6 story “Audacity’s privacy policy update effective makes it a spyware” brought this chance of circumstances to my attention.

Note Added July 23: Audacity Updates Policy

If you check this story from Martin Brinkmann at Ghacks.net, you’ll see that Audacity has retreated from all of its controversial or questionable privacy policy language. Seems like the resulting user reactions caused them to revisit, reconsider and move away from data harvest that could touch on user ID info and addresses. Frankly, I’m glad to see this: I like the program, and am happy to understand its new owners have decided to leave its prior policy positions unchanged.

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Macrium Reflect 8 Drops Commercial-only Versions

As I was perusing my usual Windows 10 news sources yesterday, I noticed that version 8 of the excellent Macrium Reflect backup tool made its debut. My excitement deflated quickly, as I figured out that Macrium Reflect 8 drops commercial-only versions.

Fortunately, I have a 4-license package of Macrium Reflect Home. This I upgraded to version 8 for a “mere” US$75.72 (US$69 plus tax). This got me to v8 on those PCs that run a commercial version. That means my production desktop, my road/travelling PC, and my wife’s and son’s PCs. But what about Macrium 8 Free?

Macrium Reflect 8 Drops Commercial-only Versions.later

This terse statement about MR V8 Free popped up on TenForums yesterday (Thanks, Kari!).

Macrium Reflect 8 Drops Commercial-only Versions: Free Comes Later

A mainstay in the Windows 10 toolbox is the no-cost version of Macrium Reflect (MR). Known as Reflect Free it offers about 85% of the functionality of the commercial version. I’ve used it for 6-plus years on my test PCs and have yet to find a situation the free version couldn’t handle, backup and restore wise. I bought a 4-license pack to do my bit to support a company whose products I like and endorse.

Word on the street is that the v8 Free version is coming, but won’t be out until the end of the summer (see preceding graphic). That item was dated May 20. Doing that calendar math puts the date on or around August 18. For the time being, users have no choice but to wait for the v8 version of Macrium Reflect Free to makes its appearance.

What’s New in Reflect Home v8?

The software’s maker — Paramount Software UK Ltd — has helpfully put together such a list in handy graphic form. I copy it here verbatim from their “Reflect 8” web page:

Macrium Reflect 8 Drops Commercial-only Versions.what's-new

Some of these features won’t be included in the Free version when it appears, but many/most of them will.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

Of these features, intra daily backups (repeated, frequent copies of specific data files) are quite interesting plus well-informed and -intentioned. I need to spend some time with the new version to really understand what it can do. Alas, that must wait for the press of paying work to abate a bit (I’m kinda busy these days, which has its good and bad points).

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SSD-Z Is Interesting But Incomplete

I’ve been mucking around with SSDs quite a bit lately. Yesterday, that had me rooting around for a utility I could use to tell me more about all of my many SSDs. When I found a utility named SSD-Z (think of Frank Delattre’s outstanding CPU-Z) I was sure I had struck gold. Alas, it’s not quite at the same level as Delattre’s tool, even though it is pretty interesting.

SSD-Z Is Interesting But Incomplete.vertex4Why Say: SSD-Z Is Interesting But Incomplete?

The tool did a great job of telling me more about my older SSDs, If you look at the preceding screenshot, it’s pretty effusive and complete about my nominal 250 GB OCZ-Vertex4 SSD. But if you look at the next screenshot, it’s mostly mum about my no-longer-new-but-still-capable Samsung 950. This runs on my daily driver and is now 6 years old, and still gets the job done.

SSD-Z Is Interesting But Incomplete.sam950

Not much detail here.

What’s remarkable is how little information appears. There’s no data about flash technology, cells, controller, NAND or speed info. TRIM is supported, despite a counter-protestation. Sigh. I’m disappointed.

Upon further investigation, I see the developer hasn’t updated the tool since 2016 (not too much later than I bought the Samsung 950). I guess this is a tougher problem than one might think, at first. I’m sorry to say that SSD-Z doesn’t pass muster, though it does provide a good model of what might be possible, given enough SSD data from the community.

Vendor Tools Might Be More Informative

In looking at an Enterprise Storage Forum story from 2019, I see that vendor tools are most likely to provide details about controller, flash technologies, and so forth.  Samsung, Intel, OCZ, Crucial, and Kingston come in for specific mention. And indeed, Samsung Magician tells me more about all of my Samsung SSDs — even OEM models — than does SSD-Z. The same is true for other vendor-specific tools, when one has drives from those vendors to check into.

Gosh! I’d love to see SSD-Z deliver on its implicit promises. We could all use a utility like that, right? The TechPowerUp contributor behind this tantalizing item, Aezay, has not posted there since 2018. If he’s out there and paying attention, I’d be happy to co-drive a crowdfunding effort to do this tool right, and help the whole community. This leads me to echo the excellent Pink Floyd lyric: “Is there anybody out there?” And that’s the way things go sometimes, here in Windows-World.

Stay tuned: if anything interesting turns up, I’ll report back. Yowza!

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Voidtools Everything Finds Files Fast

I know plenty of purists who won’t use third-party Windows tools if a Microsoft-supplied tool or facility will do the job. I am not such a person, and I’m happy to use third-party tools that either do things that Microsoft doesn’t do, or do as well as they do. Because Voidtools Everything finds files fast, it’s part of my standard Windows 10 desktop runtime. Oh, and it’s free, imposes little overhead, and — in my experience — runs faster and works better than Microsoft search. I usually get what I’m after before I’ve finished typing my input string.

Because Voidtools Everything Finds Files Fast, Use It!

The Everything FAQ provides a peachy overview of the tool, and explains its speed, behavior and workings. That said, Everything is primarily a name search tool for files and folders. It provides only limited visibility into file contents (that’s a search tool of a different stripe). The developers say that Everything takes about 1 second to index a fresh Windows install (about 120K files) and a minute to index 1M files. It really is fast, based on personal experience. It can also access files on FAT volumes, network storage, and flash devices (but minor configuration wiggles in Tools → Options → Folders are required, shown below).

FAT-derived volumes (like those on SD cards and UFDs) don’t show up by default in Everything. But they are easy to add.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

Working Search for Everything It’s Worth

OK, bad pun, I know. But you can use boolean operators and wildcards in Everything much like you do at the Windows command line. Everything also supports advanced search for more complex search strings that also include the program’s content search functions (warning: these are slow because Everything does not index content in advance). For me the Advanced Search window provides the complex functions I need. Check it out:

Advanced search offers a variety of pattern definition and matching functions. Works like a champ, too!

If, like me, you have lots of storage and millions of files at your fingertips (right now, Everything says it’s indexed 1.4+M objects for me), Everything is handy and useful. If you try it out, you’ll probably end up keeping it around and using it regularly. I use it dozens of times a day, every day myself.

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TreeSize Offers Valuable System Volume Information Insight

The JAM Software program TreeSize is a great visualization tool for examining (and pruning) Windows disks. For those disinclined to buy a full-blown copy, the TreeSize Free version (shown in this story’s screencaps) will suffice. These days, in fact, I recommend TreeSize over the older Open Source WinDirStat project. Both provide colorful, easy-to-read tree map diagrams for disk space consumption. But WinDirStat hasn’t been updated since 2016, and JAM is keeping up with TreeSize in all of its current manifestations. Certainly, there’s no disputing that TreeSize offers valuable System Volume Information Insight.

And, in fact, WinDirStat doesn’t shed much light on the contents of the System Volume Information (SVI) folder found in every NTFS volume. TreeSize, OTOH, tells you quite a bit about where the space in that folder is going and can help guide at least one easy clean-up maneuver.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’m going to follow up on my January 13  “restore point failure” story. In this story, I’ll show both before and after screenshots (in reverse order).  The lead-in graphic for this story shows what a pared-down 2.2 GB SVI folder looks like. It’s the “after” shot, taken after I turned off restore points on my production PC and instructed the System Protection control panel widget to delete all existing restore points. Why keep them if you don’t plan to use them ever again? Gone!

The next screenshot shows the “before” state for that folder. Note its size is 13.8 GB and the primary items shown are all restore points ranging from 3.1 to 2.5 GB in size. Deleting them reduced the size of this folder by 11.6 GB — a pretty substantial disk space reclamation.

TreeSize Offers Valuable System Volume Information Insight.before-restore-point-delete

Pretty much all you can see in this before SVI shot is a handful of BIG restore point files.
[Click image for full-sized view]

How TreeSize Offers Valuable System Volume Information Insight

Simply put, TreeSize makes file and folder information available for the contents of the SVI folder. Digging into the “after” display, one can mouseover any item therein. This provokes an information display a couple of seconds later. This appears as a pop-up windows that provides information including Name, Full Path, Size, Allocated, % of Parent allocated, Files (count), Last modification timestamp, Last accessed timestamp, and more. This information is quite informative and can be helpful.

In looking at the “after” shot at the head of this story, you can see that SVI includes folders for a variety of MS apps, Office.OneNote, Windows Photos, Skype, Office.Sway, and a whole bunch more. I’ve never seen this level of detail for SVI before. You can even zoom in on individual items to see what’s inside them, if you like.

IMO, TreeSize Free is a great tool for all kinds of uses. In this case, I’m glad that it confirms significant space savings thanks to turning off restore points and deleting existing saved restore points. Good stuff!

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Web-only Project Monarch May Replace Outlook.exe

Here’s an interesting item that makes me squirm just a little. Zac Bowden at Windows Central reports on an upcoming initiative at MS code-named Monarch. As he explains it, this will be a web-based app modeled on the current Outlook Web App (aka OWA). Where the squirming comes in is that this single new app targets all platforms. If I understand what’s going on, that means the web-only project Monarch may replace Outlook.exe. As a long, long-time Outlook.exe user who’s flirted with OWA from time to time, this prospect is scary.

If Web-only Project Monarch May Replace Outlook.exe, Then What?

Let me explain the source of my terror upon this news. Indeed, Bowden reports this changeover is planned for 2022, with plenty of time for improved understanding and more info to come. But I run my professional life around Outlook. My Archive. pst file goes back to the mid-1990s and is over 13GB in size. I use Outlook search to keep up with current and ongoing work. It also helps me research past activities, expenditures, and communications as I need them.

What happens when the .exe file gives way to a browser-based app? Can it still access and maintain my local PST snapshots and archives? This is the real cause of my most immediate concerns, because I depend on my “email trail” to make sense of my professional (and to a large extent, personal) activities.

So Far, There’s Not Enough Detail Available…

Here’s what Bowden says about MS’s plans for Monarch:

Microsoft wants to replace the existing desktop clients with one app built with web technologies. The project will deliver Outlook as a single product, with the same user experience and codebase whether that be on Windows or Mac. It’ll also have a much smaller footprint and be accessible to all users whether they’re free Outlook consumers or commercial business customers.

I’m told the app will feature native OS integrations with support for things like offline storage, share targets, notifications, and more. I understand that it’s one of Microsoft’s goals to make the new Monarch client feel as native to the OS as possible while remaining universal across platforms by basing the app on the Outlook website.

This all sounds well and good, from the perspective of reading and writing, and sending and receiving email. But from the perspective of building and maintaining a long-term business history around an email trail, it makes me wonder. Too bad, I guess, that for two-plus decades that’s been a primary strategy of mine with a huge lode of data to back it up. Looks like I may need to start rethinking that strategy, and look for ways to keep mining that data — outside Outlook, if necessary. Sigh.

Stay tuned. You can bet I’ll be following this with more than usual interest, because it has huge implications for how I work and ply my trade as a freelance writer, consultant and occasional expert witness.

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