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!

Version 1.1 Brings Start11 Way Up

When Windows 8 arrived in 2012 — a decade ago, now — I was nonplussed and flabbergasted. The new menus completely threw me for a loop. I had trouble finding my own desktop and its assets. Then I discovered Stardock’s Start8, which let me use everything I knew about Windows 7 to interact with Windows 8. It was a lifesaver. By the time Windows 10 came along, I naturally gravitated to Start10 out of habit, if for no other reason. With Windows 11, early versions of — you guessed it — Start11 had me wondering why I bothered with the program. Even for a mere US$5 ($4 to upgrade) it didn’t seem to add much to the native experience. But version 1.1 brings Start11 way up in terms of functionality, and provides one-click access to otherwise more complex native operations. Let me explain…

If Version 1.1 Brings Start11 Way Up, What Do You Get?

Take a look at the lead-in screencap. IT shows the right-click taskbar pop-up (lower right) along with the Start11 settings pane that makes it happen. The key item is “Replace taskbar right click menu with Windows 10 style one.” That change confers the following options:

  • Configure Start11…: provides instant access to the Start11 app (previous versions needed a launch from the Start menu)
  • Cascade windows/Show windows stacked/Show windows side by side: manage on-desk arrangement of open Windows
  • Show the desktop: hide all open Windows
  • Task Manager: one-click access to the Task Manager
  • Taskbar settings: one-click access to Taskbar settings

For me the biggies are easier access to Start11 controls and familiar access to Task Manager. Does this mean I’m turning into a hide-bound dinosaur, set in my ways? Probably. I had been using CTRL-ALT-ESC to fire off Taskbar before and this is less work.

Other taskbar tweaks are nice, too. They include changing its size and position (but top or bottom alignment only, no right or left side).

Worth the Price of Admission?

Sure, Start11 is cheap. But I’ve learned a lot since Windows 8 hit the streets a decade ago and more. I’m not uncomfortable in the native Windows 10 Start menu , and ditto for Windows 11. I’ve got several test machines running 11 with no “menu support” of any kind and am just as productive there as on an assisted alternative desktop.

I’ll probably buy a license for Start11 when I upgrade my wife’s 11th-gen Dell Micro 7080 later this year. She will be able to keep working as she always has, with little difference between how her system now works on Windows 10 and how it will work post-upgrade. But outside those who resist, or don’t like, change, I don’t see Start11 as a must-have piece of software any longer.

Does that mean Microsoft has gotten better at building base level OS navigation? Or does it mean that I’ve simply absorbed the start menu ethos within Windows 10 and 11? A little of both, I suspect.

Bottom line: If you’re already using Start 11, the 1.1 upgrade really makes the program shine (and more usable and capable). If that means you, grab the upgrade today!

 

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Ventoy 1.0.62 Gets Plug-in Manager

I’ve been a huge fan of the Ventoy bootable image tool for several years now. The developers have recently released a new 1.0.62 version at GitHub. It includes a GUI plugin configurator that immediately explained to me why I have issues with my current version on some of my laptops. The partition style on the ventoy drive is MBR and some of my newer laptops are GPT/UEFI only. Thus, when Ventoy 1.0.62 gets plug-in manager, I get ready information to helpful details right away. Cool!

If you’re not already familiar with Ventoy, it includes two partitions on USB attached storage media. The bulk of the device is exFAT formatted, and provides storage for ISO, WIM, VHDX, and other mountable cabinet or image formats. The VTOYEFI partition (32 MB FAT) has just enough smarts to get the PC running, mount an image, and then pass boot control over to that image. The result is a way to store all of your Windows (and other OS) images in one place, along withe repair tools, and boot into them as and when you need to.

If Ventoy 1.0.62 Gets Plug-in Manager, Then What?

Why, download and install if you’re not already using the tool. Or download and update if you already are. The Plugson GUI manager is a major step forward in functionality, visibility and insight, and improved control over the program. I’m not sure I understand all the wrinkles just yet. Thus, I plan on writing about it again after some more time spend fooling round … err … experimenting with its features and functions.

The more I look at plugson the more things I find to like about it. This program has evolved considerably over the three years or so it’s been available. And it just keeps improving and extending what it can do. Good stuff, and a great tool for Windows admins and enthusiasts.

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Dell Display Manager Pops Outta Nowhere

OK, then. Yesterday, I fired up a local account on my production PC while investigating the new Firefox Store app’s behavior. When I did so, that account asked me if I wanted to install Dell Display Manager. That explains this story’s title: Dell Display Manager pops outta nowhere. I’d never heard of it before, nor seen it mentioned in other Dell apps. (For example, Dell Update Control or Dell Support Assistant, both familiar because the Dell Optiplex 7080 Micro that’s a family daily driver PC at our house.)

Good News When Dell Display Manager Pops Outta Nowhere

“OK,” I said to myself, “let’s give this a shot.” That turned out to be a good move. It’s kind of a pain to use the monitor’s own built-in control buttons to manage brightness, contrast, color profiles and so forth. The Dell Display Manager (which I’ll call DDM going forward) does all this on the Windows desktop. Much, much easier and more user-friendly.

My only question is: Why hadn’t I heard of this tool sooner? As a regular at TenForums and ElevenForum, people talk about monitors a lot. And some of those folks are also MVP-equivalent on the Dell forums as well. Yet I managed to remain not-so-blissfully unaware of the tool until now. And to think I’ve been buying Dell monitors since the mid-to-late 1990s!

If You’ve Got Dell Monitors, Use DDM

The home page for the utility includes  a download link for the tool. It’s entitled “What is Dell Display Manager?” and provides a useful and informative overview of its capabilities. As the page says, the tool is for standalone monitors only and “is not applicable to laptops.” Indeed, they have different display management tools. But since we currently have 4 Dell monitors here at Chez Tittel, this ends up being a useful and valuable item for my admin’s toolbox. If you’ve got Dell monitors, but didn’t already know about (or use) DDM, do yourself a favor and grab a copy today. You won’t be disappointed. Good stuff!

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PowerToys v0.49.0 Gets Video Conference Mute

Clint Rutkas and his team have been talking about it for months. I’ve been waiting to check it out myself. That’s right: in its latest release, PowerToys v0.49.0 gets video conference mute capability. Right now it’s available through GitHub, though I expect it’s just a matter of time before it comes via the Microsoft Store. The new control page in settings serves as the lead-in graphic for this story.

What PowerToys v0.49.0 Gets Video Conference Mute Means

I run at least 4 different video conferencing platforms regularly: Zoom, Teams, Blue Jeans, and Google Meet. From time to time, I’ll get invited to another, similar platform for online meetings. Each of them offers a mute capability, but each one uses a different control in a different place in its app window.

What I like about Video Conference Mute in PowerToys is that it offers one single set of controls for mike and camera, for all such apps. Here’s the set of keystrokes it uses:

PowerToys v0.49.0 Gets Video Conference Mute.keys

Keys to toggle the mike and video together, or separately. Good stuff! (Source: PowerToys built-in Welcome docs)

For those already using PowerToys, an update is in order. For those not already using the tool, you can simply run the installer and it will set you up. Then, right-click the PowerToys icon in the notification area to open its UI, and go to the VCM pane. There you simply need to move the slider labeled “Enable Video Conference Mute” to on (as shown in the lead-in graphic if you exercise the option to view it on its own web page). It’s just that easy. I already liked PowerToys a lot, but this latest and long-anticipated addition just made me like it a whole bunch more. Check it out.

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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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