Category Archives: Software - Page 2

Open Source CD Recording in Windows

Just last year I was lamenting about the lack of good open source CD recording software for the Win32 platform. I’ve been thrilled with k3b for Linux and was hoping that someone would come out with something similar for Windows. As the formally great Nero Burning ROM software has become more and more a bloated piece of junkware there have been several interesting developments on the CD recording software front.

First, the very unofficial “Nero Light” and “Nero Light Micro” setups of the Nero software have become increasingly popular with people “in the know”. Not produced by Ahead Nero Software these are slimmed versions of the Nero trial version from the Ahead software page which can be activated with a regular Nero key but which contain far less bloatware (13-35MB instead of 170+). While I haven’t tried them myself I hear they provide the most used functionality without throwing in the kitchen sink. Nero has grown far beyond simple disc burning software which is all I ever used it for and which has caused me to leave it behind.

Second, there are now two open source contenders for CD recording in Windows. Both are technically frontends to a Windows port of the command line cdrecord engine but so is k3b (requires Linux) which has been my favorite since dumping Nero. Even though I do most of my burning with k3b in Linux these days it is occasionally useful to burn something in Windows so I’m testing these as replacements for Nero on that platform.

Both cdrtfe and InfraRecorder provide basic CD burning capability on the Win32 platform though there are a few advantages and disadvantages to each. Cdrtfe is a bit more mature software but is also more complicated, has a less familiar interface and, let’s face it, not the best name in the world. On the other hand InfraRecorder is a lot easier to remember, has a clean, slick interface and is quickly gaining momentum but is quite a bit newer and has fewer configuration options at the moment. Personally, I really like the way InfraRecorder looks and feels which does count for something in software design and I’ve heard great things about the primary developer Christian Kindahl so I look forward to watching this product mature. Both packages allow for basic CD/DVD creation as well as ISO image burning and should already serve the majority of users’ needs, best of all they are both free and open source solutions.

Mounting Floppy Disk Images in Windows

It’s fairly easy to find information on the creation and use of CD images. Many solutions, both commercial, shareware/freeware and open source allow CD/DVD images to be created and or mounted for use without actually burning a disc. A bit more esoteric, especially in the world of Windows based systems is the floppy disk image and knowledge of them is shrinking, not growing.

Back before bootable CDs (and support in BIOSs) were common most Linux distributions distributed a boot disk image to go along with their CD so it was not uncommon for the power user to encounter a disk image. In these cases a DOS compatible utility called rawrite (or in more advanced distrobutions WinRawrite) could be used to write the image to a disk or, conversely, read a disk to an image file. In *NIX based systems such functionality, and the functionality of mounting a disk image without using a physical disk is usually built in to the operating system. Disk images have also been more common among Macintosh users going back many years with the Apple Disk Copy utility but especially in recent years with OS X where “Disk images have become the preferred transport mechanism for downloading files…” Still disk images remain fairly uncommon among Windows users, especially as floppy disk drives themselves become increasingly uncommon.

Because of my interest in vintage computing and vintage software I store much of my old software that originally came on floppy disks in disk images on my server. Creating the images from physical disks is fairly straight forward using WinRawrite but in some cases I have earlier copies of disks done in a proprietary self extracting image format which only can write the image to a physical disk. Obviously I would like to get all my images in the standard raw format but without spending the time to write each image to a physical disk and then reading it back with rawrite. Today I located a handy tool called Virtual Floppy Drive which works similarly to the virtual cd drive tools in that it can mount a disk image or a “blank” image to a drive letter on your system. This allows me to then run the proprietary self extracting image and “write” the image directly to a raw file. The tool is also handy if you want to create an image from scratch for distribution or edit an existing disk image.

A better antivirus/anti-malware?

Even when I’m generally satisfied with software I’m using I like to keep an eye out for other, potentially better, solutions. In this case I have great hopes that eEye Digital Security has produced a better antivirus/anti-spyware/anti-malware solution than what has been available in the past. From Norton to McAfee to TrendMicro and others the traditional antivirus vendors seem to suck up more and more computing resources even when most of the security threats are coming from spyware, rootkits and other areas for which little or no protection is provided. Luckily, if you’re a home user the new kid on the block, eEye, has come out with a product called Blink which purports to be a security center for your PC which works and uses considerably fewer resources than the other options. If the hype is real this could easily become my solution of choice. Thanks to the current free 1-year subscription promotion I’ve installed it on a few computers and will be watching to see how it performs. It sounds like an interesting product and has some powerful features so I have high hopes.

Network Settings Profiles

When you’re regularly moving from one network to another it’s often useful to be able to store a profile of network settings which can quickly be recalled to set things such as a static IP address, etc. Many newer laptops include software to do just this but for those doing it with desktops or who have replaced the OS on the laptop it’s useful to know third party utilities exist which can accomplish the same thing.

Two free utilities are Network Switcher and SwitchNetConfig some of the low cost/shareware ones are SwitchPro, NetSetMan, Mobile Net Switch and NetSwitcher though many others exist as well. If you know of others, especially a free or open source solution I would encourage you to leave a comment and let others know about its existence.

Converting PAL DVDs to NTSC

Occasionally I’ll find a PAL (European video standard) video which I really want to preserve on an NTSC (US/Japan video standard) video DVD for showing where computers are not at hand. Because the frame rate of the video (the number of still pictures in each second of video) differs but sound must remain synced up this is a difficult thing to do. One of the best sites I’ve found with instructions for doing this with free tools is this one. The downside is that it’s a pretty lengthy and involved process and, at least to my eye, the end result is still sub-optimal. If you have any better resources for making this conversion I encourage you to post a comment and share them.

Downloading online Flash video

As with many technologies, the advent on online Flash video (flv) has both an upside an downside. On one hand it eliminates, or at least substantially reduces, the need to have a great variety of platform dependant streaming video tools (a la RealPlayer) but on the other hand there’s a lot of good, or at least interesting, content on YouTube which could either disappear without notice and requires an Internet connection to view. This is an argument I have with most of these Internet based services such as YouTube, Flickr, etc. I think people are setting themselves up for a future problem by posting so much potentially important data at sites with unknown and uncontrollable futures. Enough of my rant though. The point here is to find a solution, or at least a mitigation strategy for viewing Flash videos offline.

Thanks in part to others experiencing the same problem and the popularity of YouTube there are a number of people with an interest in this. Several online sites such as KeepVid and Javimoya offer web-based methods of saving these videos as well as downloadable FLV players for viewing them. Again though, I have a problem with relying on web services which are unpredictable in the future. A better solution would be to use a cross platform script, such as the python based youtube-dl, which does not rely on the cooperation of a third party. Even better is to understand how a script such as youtube-dl works by reading some information on manual FLV downloading from sites like this or this.

Remebering toasters that fly

I was recently reading some excellent interviews Tommy Thomas, of Low End Mac, did with the AfterDark team which brought back some fond memories of the flying toasters. Those who remember the quirky early Macintosh screensaver developed by After Dark (later Berkely Software) often wonder where the creativity went in screen saver development, something Thomas touches on in his interviews.

For the time being those who wish to relive the golden days of the screen saver you’ll either need to find an old copy of these screensavers many of which don’t run on modern operating systems or check out some of the knock off versions such as this free one, which unforunatly doesn’t look much like the original.

Open Source MATLAB Replacements

Many engineers, scientists and engineering students are familiar with the MATLAB product which is used for complex mathematics and mathematical modeling. I recently came across two open source (and free) alternatives. Octave was originally written as a companion to a chemistry textbook being written by professors from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas and has grown from there. Octave is available for a wide variety of systems from OS/2 to Windows, Macintosh and Linux.

Another option is SciLab. SciLab is about the same age as Octave but is clearly managed by a consortium and seems especially popular in European countires. Similarly, it is available for many systems such as Windows, Linux and Macintosh.

Multi-booting your Intel Mac without Bootcamp

I recently came across an anonymous Slashdot posting which claims you can multi-boot an Intel based Macintosh without the Apple provided Bootcamp software. The original posting is poorly written so I’ve paraphrased it here, note that more information is also available on this page.

Bootcamp does a few things for you:

  • It provides a GUI for the DiskUtil online partition resizer though the GUI is limited and supports fewer partition types than the command line based DiskUtil which can be used without Bootcamp in OS X 10.4.6.
  • It contains a graphical bootloader for selecting OS X or Windows upon boot, but other bootloaders are available.
  • It contains a diskimage with Windows drivers for the Apple hardware, but these drivers can be extracted without installing the Bootcamp software.

Because the Intel Macintosh platform uses EFI instead of a BIOS you need firmware on your Macintosh which supports BIOS emulation. All of the recent Macintosh firmwares do and simply updating your firmware to the latest version will add this capability.

The most critical compnent of a multi-boot Intel Macintosh system is the bootloader. Luckily an open source third party bootloader, which is much more configurable than the one provided in Bootcamp, is available. The rEFIt project provides a graphical boot menu and maintenance toolkit allowing you to create triple-boot scenarios such as OS X, Windows and Linux.

I’m quite impressed by rEFIt and would actually be interested in seeing this work and potentially using it on other EFI based systems.

Creating free installers for Windows applications

On a recent trip around the web I discovered two open source tools that allow you to create installer packages for Windows applications. The Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS) has been around for quite a while, I even used it once upon a time to package up a few scripts of mine. A chief complaint at that time was that it didn’t look or operate in the same way the Microsoft Installer (MSI) programs did which has the potential to confuse some users or make them feel that your software was of a lesser quality. In fact recent versions of Mozilla Firefox, Gaim, OpenOffice and many other popular applications use NSIS for the installer. An interesting thing about NSIS is that you can cross compile the Windows installer on POSIX OSs such as Linux.

An alternative to NSIS is Inno Setup which has been around since 1997 when the author grew frustrated with InstallShield Express (ahh the days of InstallShield). Since that time a community of support for this installer has developed leading to tools such as ISTool, a graphical intergface for creating the installer script. One of the interesting things about Inno Setup is the extensive support claimed for installing 64-bit applications, something bound to catch developer’s eyes as more consumers move towards 64-bit computing.