| By Scott Dunn |
In the last issue, I explained how to add Vista Business features to either Windows XP or Vista Home Premium.
But you can also add features that are unique to Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate if you have Windows XP or Vista Business.
Mix and match the features you need
If you’re satisfied with XP, or you just don’t want to pay the high price of Vista Ultimate, adding third-party equivalents of Vista’s special features to your OS can be a smart way to go. This is especially true if you only need a couple of features — and those features can be found in free or inexpensive products.
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As with the previous part of my two-part series, I haven’t extensively tested the following products but am relying on highly positive reviews from reputable test labs and publications.
Get the advanced security of Vista Enterprise
Vista Ultimate and Enterprise have a few features not found in any other version of Vista. But, as with many Vista features, third-party solutions can be be as good or better without costing you very much.
Whole drive encryption. Vista Ultimate comes with BitLocker Drive Encryption to protect your data if your computer is hacked or stolen. At $99 for a perpetual license, PGP Desktop Home is a less-expensive encryption solution than buying Vista Ultimate. PGP that protects e-mail, lets you create encrypted .zip files, and automtically expands virtual disks to hold your sensitive data. (The more expensive Pro version of PGP has garnered excellent reviews from sites such as PC Magazine).
For a totally free product that’s comparable to PGP’s, check out TrueCrypt. This encryption software garnered the highest rating from SnapFiles, an independent software download site.
Like PGP Desktop Home, TrueCrypt lets you create an encrypted virtual disk. Behind the scenes, this “disk” is actually a single file that looks and acts in Windows Explorer (and other file-management utilities) like a disk drive.
TrueCrypt also has a “hidden volumes” feature, which lets you create an invisible drive letter within an encrypted volume for even more security. Note that TrueCrypt cannot encrypt the folder that contains Windows.
Virtual computing. Vista Enterprise and Ultimate include Virtual PC, which lets you run multiple PC-based operating systems within Windows. This can give you backward compatibility with older software, a second environment in which to surf the Web more safely, and more.
XP users can download this feature for free directly from Microsoft. Users of other Vista editions other than Enterprise and Ultimate may want to try out the free VMware Player, which contributing editor Mark Edwards discusses at length in the paid version of the June 14 newsletter.
Add Premium-style multimedia and parental controls
Vista Ultimate and Home Premium have some features that aren’t found in Vista Business, Vista Enterprise, and other Windows versions. The most notable omission is multimedia playback, as is found in Windows Media Center. Vista Ultimate and Home Premium also have unique child-access and monitoring tools.
Multimedia features. If your computer has a TV tuner card, you can record programs to your hard disc using SageTV Media Center. PC World gave the previous version a score of 86, or Very Good. You can download a 15-day free trial version from the SageTV Web site.
Vista Home Premium also offers Movie Maker and DVD Maker utilities for video editing and production. If you can afford it, however, you’ll be better off (in any Windows version) spending $100 on Adobe Premiere Elements, which PC World recently named as one of the 100 best products of 2007. Aimed at inexperienced users, Premiere Elements helps you capture, edit, and output digital video on DVDs, the Internet, and elsewhere.
Parental controls. Vista Home Premium and Ultimate come with built-in tools for controlling what Web sites your children can visit, what applications they can launch, and when they can use the computer. Microsoft’s tools also provides monitoring, so you can get an activity report showing what your child has been doing with the computer.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have Home Premium or Ultimate to get these features on your computer. Advanced Parental Control provides the same tools and garnered 5 out of 5 stars and cows, respectively, from CNET and Tucows.
Another favorite, rated highly by PC Pro reviewers is CyberPatrol, whose features include Web site blocking and Internet activity monitoring. The product can restrict instant messaging, the amount of time spent online, the downloading of programs, access to applications, and more.
Both products cost US $40, but have trial versions that you can install and use for free.
If even $40 is too much money, consider your options if you have an Internet security suite. ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite and Norton Internet Security 2007 have some parental filtering features built in. (Note: The Norton product may require a free parental-control add-on pack).
If you’re forced to use a free product, your best bet may be the older (and therefore free) version 3.06 of iProtectYou. This program garnered 4 out of 5 stars (“very good”) from SnapFiles. It lets you restrict Web sites, chat sessions, e-mails, and instant messaging as well as scheduling when children can use the Internet.
Give XP the Vista look and feel
Finally, XP owners who want more of the slick Aero appearance — and other desktop features that are part of every Vista version — free and cheap substitutes abound. For example:
• You can give XP a more modern look and feel by using “skinning” programs, such as StyleXP from TGTSoft or Stardock’s WindowBlinds (US $20 each).
• You can add transparency to Windows elements with the free products Transbar, PowerMenu, and TransApps.
• To get Vista’s “thumbnail preview” of a window when you hold your mouse pointer over a Taskbar button, check out the freeware product Visual Task Tips.
• Last, but not least, for something approaching the Vista Sidebar in functonality, try Desktop Sidebar or Yahoo’s desktop widgets.
As I pointed out last week, you can’t completely duplicate Vista Ultimate with just a few downloads. And depending on how many new features you want, you could actually end up spending more licensing third-party products than you would purchasing Vista Ultimate itself.
But a few judicious add-ons can decidedly enhance your XP or Vista experience. If you don’t see what you need here, keep on surfing — someone’s bound to invent even more.
Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He is also a contributing editor of PC World Magazine, where he has written a monthly column since 1992, and co-author of 101 Windows Tips & Tricks (Peachpit) with Jesse Berst and Charles Bermant.