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!

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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Top 3 2020 Windows 10 Utilities

Over the past year, I’ve worked with numerous Windows 10 tools and utilities. IMHO, my top 3 2020 Windows 10 utilities have to be:

This doesn’t mean the tools were first introduced in 2020: PatchMy PC has been around for some time, in fact. But all 3 were new to me in 2020. They also quickly became incredible favorites used frequently. Let me briefly introduce them in upcoming sections, with links to longer explanations and information.

Top 3 2020 Windows 10 Utilities #1: Ventoy

Ventoy is sheer genius. It partitions any USB drive into a 32 MB FAT EFI partition named VTOYEFI, and the rest of the drive into an exFAT partition named Ventoy. There’s enough smarts in the EFI partition to let a PC boot. It then mounts any ISO in the Ventoy partition from a pick list. Finally, it passes boot control to that mounted ISO image.

This means you can use a USB drive to store all your ISOs  for Windows 10, repair,  and so on. That includes low-level operational images such as MemTest86 for extended RAM testing. I currently have a nominal 256 GB (238 GB actual) NVMe SSD mounted in a Sabrent NVMe enclosure for my Ventoy drive. Any time I grab a new Windows 10 ISO that’s where it goes. It’s a blast.

Read more about it through this Google search, which provides links to all the great Ventoy coverage at Win10.Guru.

Top 3 2020 Windows 10 Utilities #2: PatchMyPC

For many years I was a big fan of Secunia’s excellent Personal Software Inspector (PSI) and Corporate Software Inspector (CSI) tools. When Secunia got acquired a few years back, it didn’t take long for PSI to fall by the wayside and become obsolete. I like KC Software’s Software Update Monitor, aka SUMo, but its free version is painful to use and its for-a-fee version doesn’t handle automatic updates as well as it could. PatchMyPC doesn’t recognize as much software as SUMo, but it’s free. Plus,  it updates everything it finds automatically and with minimal muss and fuss. There’s an enterprise version, too, that works with SCCM and InTune. Definitely worth getting to know (or at least playing with).

I blogged about PatchMyPC here at EdTittel.com in a piece entitled “Patch My PC Updater is worth checking out” on December 14, 2020.

Top 3 2020 Windows 10 Utilities #3: PowerToys

The original PowerToys utilities go back to the Windows 95 days. The current GitHub version is a major reboot in the form of an Open Source project under Clint Rutkas’ able leadership. Instead of operating as a bunch of independent tools under a general PowerToys label, the latest version (v0.29.0 as I write this) brings all of these tools together under a single umbrella for download, install and update purposes. All kinds of cool stuff going on here, and worth using.

I wrote a PowerToys Intro for ComputerWorld on October 9, 2020, and have written lots of other stuff on this tool here and at Win10.Guru in the past year.

Any or all of these tools will make a great addition to your Windows 10 toolbox, if you’re not using them already. Happy New Year, too!

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Patch My PC Updater Is Worth Checking Out

Thanks to Tim Fisher at LifeWire, I’ve found a reasonable facsimile for the late lamented Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI). It’s called Patch My PC Updater and it does pretty much everything you’d want such a tool to do: scans your PC, inventories installed applications, identifies those that are out of date, and goes off on its own to update them for you. Like Secunia PSI, it’s also free. The lead-in graphic for this story shows all 9 out-of-date programs on a test PC. It also illustrates nicely why Patch My PC Updater is worth checking out.

Grab It to See If Patch My PC Updater Is Worth Checking Out

You’ll find a download link at https://patchmypc.com/home-updater. Commercial versions that plug into SCCM and InTune are also available for IT-level use. The program works from a USB drive — that is, the executable is portable and need not be installed on target PCs.

Before learning about Patch My PC Updater, I had been using a version of KC Software’s SuMO for application updates. But although that program is good at scanning PCs it is less than stellar at handling the update part. Its automation is negligible too. That’s because it requires users to follow update links and handle updates manually for at least some of the out-of-date programs it finds.

All in all, Patch My PC Updater is fast, accurate and covers nearly everything I’ve got installed. Hence, my recommendation that you check it out. If you don’t like it, you can return to Tim Fisher’s LifeWire story and check out 8 more other similar packages he recommends (it also mentions SuMO but puts it in last place).

Updating Applications Goes Better with Expert Help

Whichever tool you choose to keep up with Windows applications, it’s useful to run one at least monthly. That way, you can be sure that you’re getting new features and functions as they get added. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll also be keeping up with security patches and fixes, if other sources of intelligence aren’t already tracking your software more closely for you.

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Recent Laplink PCmover Experience

OK, then. Yesterday evening, after finishing work for the day, I used Laplink PC Mover professional to migrate the Windows 10 installation from the old Jetway mini-ITX PC to the new Dell Optiplex 7080 Micro I’ve been writing about so much lately. I’m pleased to say that, on this latest attempt, the program did what its makers claim it does with reasonably dispatch and facility. I had made an earlier attempt to use it about 10 days ago that failed. I now suspect it had something to do with a pending and incomplete update on the mini-ITX PC. Thus, I must rate my recent Laplink PCmover experience as “mostly positive.”

Preparing for Recent LapLink PCmover Experience

Before I got started on the transfer, I made sure both source and target PCs were completely updated. I also used Macrium Reflect to create an image backup of each PC, and made sure I had the Macrium Rescue Media at my disposal, in case I needed to roll back either or both machines. I also cleaned up the filesystems on both machines using Disk Cleanup, UnCleaner, and manual file deletions from the user account subfolders Documents and Downloads.  With all that behind me, I was ready to go.

Working Through Recent LapLink PCmover Experience

As is often the case, the prep work took longer than the transfer. With the source PC upstairs and the target PC in my office, connected via my wired in-home GbE, the whole transfer involved 2.3 GB of data across 48K-plus folders and just under 8K files. along with a merge from source to target registry of 82K-plus values just over 9 MB in size.

To my surprise, the whole process took just over 11 minutes, according to the program’s Summary.pdf report file. I’ve used Laplink’s PCmover before and I don’t ever remember things going that fast. Best guess: this machine has a relatively small number of applications installed and no huge file holdings under the various user account folders. Thus, it stands to reason that it wouldn’t take too long to migrate from one machine to the other. I was able to confirm that licensed applications from the source PC did work on the target after the process concluded, though I did have to provide (or re-activate) licenses before I could use those programs.

Benefits of LapLink PCmover Experience

I paid full retail for the software last December (I purchased it just over a year ago on December 6, 2019 and the price hasn’t budged since then). It cost me $42.45 ($39.99 MSRP plus $2.50 sales tax).

The obvious benefits of using PCmover are speed, ease of migration, and convenience. I’ve used this tool before, and I imagine I’ll use it again. I could have turned to the Microsoft User State Migration Tool (aka USMT) but here’s what its DOCs file says about that tool’s limitations:

USMT is intended for administrators who are performing large-scale automated deployments. If you are only migrating the user states of a few computers, you can use PCmover Express. PCmover Express is a tool created by Microsoft’s partner, Laplink.

I used the Pro rather than the Express version of PCmover. Express is free, but only for non-commercial use. Because I’m writing about it for publication I naturally chose the for-a-fee version. The Express version does most of what the Professional version did for me, but does not transfer applications, permit image based migration, or copy hard disk contents from source to target PC.

Where LapLink PCmover Experience Fell Short

I did have a little bit of cleanup to do after the migration process concluded. PCmover does not, as I discovered, move all browser settings and preferences from source to target PC. Thus, I had to go in and install some extensions, and change default home page settings in Chrome, Edge and Firefox. It did move favorites/bookmarks, though, as far as I could tell.

All in all, it was a positive experience and resulted in a running PC that worked properly with 99+% of user, account, preference, settings, and files from the old machine ready, available and working on the target PC. As far as I’m concerned the US$40-odd PCmover cost me was worth it, and produced the desired outcome. ‘Nuff said.

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