Desktop Utilities for Your PC

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series on utilities for IBM PCs or compatibles. The first part, on enhancing input!

By | April 4, 1988

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series on utilities for IBM PCs or compatibles. The first part, on enhancing input! output operations, appeared Feb- ruary 8, 1987, P. 22. The second, on DOS utilities, appeared March 21, 1988, p. 14.

In this final installment, I’ll consider the so-called desktop utilities, (not to be confused with the term desktop publishing). When SIDEKICK first came out in 1984, it used the desktop metaphor in an attractive way. Just as your desktop had a Rolodex, appointment book, notepad and calculator, SIDEKICK had a mini-database for names and addresses, calendar, notepad and calculator.

The electronic versions of these common items hadhad their advantages. The notepad could be a full-fledged editor with information that you could store on disk. The Rolodex could do its searches electronically on fields other than the last name. You could even use the data base to dial your phone for you. There was also a cut-and-paste feature that allowed you to move copy from SIDEKICK to your word processor.

In addition to popularizing the genre, SIDEKICK legitimized the entire area of resident programs, also called TSRs (see “What Is a TSR?”). SIDEKICK’s phenomenal success has led to a multitude of clones that aimed to correct SIDEKICK’s definite weaknesses by including more powerful calculators and calendars with alarms and better reporting capabilities. PAL, a shareware program, uses the SIDEKICK calendar file for alarms and other enhancements.

Among the best of the SIDEKICK clones are METRO, POLYDESK III and WORD PERFECT LIBRARY But the best of all is its new successor—SIDEKICK PLUS.

Every one of SIDEKICK’s features is enhanced in SIDEKICK PLUS. You can now have up to 10 files open in the notepad. The dialer has become a full-fledged communications program with Xmodem file transfers, scripts, a learn mode and background communications. The calculator has a tape that is a notepad so it can be edited and re-entered or saved. There are now four different calculators (see “Calculators” below). The calendar is sophisticated enough so that you can set alarms that will even run a command or dial a modem. If you want to, you can attach an entire notepad file to an appointment. If this weren’t enough, three new modules have been added: a full-fledged file organizer in the same league as XTREE PRO or QDOS, a “Space Invaders” type game and an outlining program.

SIDEKICK PLUS does its wonders without faking as much memory as you’d expect because it swaps to disk, RAM disk or EMS memory. In all, it takes about 64K of conventional RAM without background communications or about 90K if you want the background communications.

While I recommend the program highly, there are stand-alone programs that often do one function even better than SideKick Plus.

HOTLINE II is a resident dialing program with real flair. You can look up area codes and have the program automatically dial directory assistance in any area code. Using a few keystrokes, you can set up 30 “quick dial entries.” The program understands Centrex systems, so you can use the same data base of phone numbers at home and the office; HOTLINE II will automatically strip the Centrex extension when necessary. It will tell you the current time for an area code before you dial. If the number you dial is busy, it will redial it in background. The program takes up 80K of conventional memory, but if you have EMS memory, it will only take 3K of conventional memory.

HOTLINE's manufacturer also publishes hard copy national telephone directories. The program comes with a 10,000-item national data base of phone numbers and addresses. In the near future, the company promises a variety of specialized databases.

Electronic calendars, unlike paper ones, let you attach alarms to times and move appointments easily. The appointment features in SIDEKICK PLUS and WORD PERFECT LIBRARY are especially noteworthy. PRIMETIME PLUS is a stand-alone time organizer. While the alarms and appointment generator are very good, its most significant feature is its task management. You can keep a rolling to do list and assign items a numerical priority and a letter code (like P for phone) and you can sort the current list by those codes. You can set up tasks to appear only on the list starting at a future date. You can also assign tasks to others and have them re-appear on your todo list only at a future date. While I’m often depressed to see how long a todo list I have, it is clear that I’m considerably better organized with this program than I would be without it.

Just as there are many different ways to keep notes—for example, a large pad, little slips of paper, or PostIts—there is a wide variety of note programs for the PC. And just as you may have more than one kind of note on your desk, you may want more than one kind of note program.

For organizing extensive notes on little projects, a popup notepad like the one in SIDEKICK or its imitators is fine. A resident program called TORNADO NOTES is ideal for organizing those little slips of paper with someone’s telephone number or the name of a program that a friend told you to look into. You create “piles” of notes and the program will display on screen all the notes that will fit. The arrow keys take you deeper into the pile. It has a simple but speedy search. As soon as you type in enough of a search string to specify a unique note, it will beep and display that one note. If you stop before there is a unique note, it will show you only the subpile of matching notes.

SMARTNOTES allows you to attach notes to computer items much like you use PostIts on hard copy. You can attach notes to parts of your word processor files, to cells of spreadsheets or to files in a directory listing.

Calculations are so important to scientists that I hesitate to give a capsule review. SIDEKICK PLUS has two calculators of direct relevance to scientists. The scientific calculator is a full-functioned, non-programmable calculator with trigonometric and exponential functions. The formula calculator lets you type in formulas for evaluation without the usual intermediate calculations. Both calculators allow you to edit calculators on a tape and “replay” them. And both have variables that can be used in calculations.

An interesting alternative to the SIDEKICK PLUS calculator is a set of programs called the SCIENTIFIC WHEEL. It has three modules: a full-screen resident formula calculator that is similar to SIDEKICK PLUS (calculations are easier to edit but without variables), a conversion module and a gem of a “function analysis” program. In this last program, you type in a single function of one variable and with a few keystrokes leam its zeros, maxima and minimas. With a few more keystrokes you can graph the function or compute derivatives or definite integrals numerically.

The most serious problem with all these neat programs is that many are resident and DOS can only ad dress 640K. If you are going to make serious use of your machine you will have to find a way of man aging your TSRs.

One of the simplest ways of doing this is with a set of free programs called TSRCOM. There are three main elements. MAPMEM will list all the- programs currently resident in memory. MARK can be run at any point in the loading of your TSRs. Optionally, you can give the mark a name for later reference. RELEASE will remove all programs loaded since the last mark was made and restore the internal parameters. You can also release from a named mark other than the last mark. There are also programs to disable TSRs if they compete with one another.

TSRCOM has some commercial competitors, but none I have tried is better.

TSRCOM is ideal for some situations. Say you want to load a thesaurus with your word processor, but want to free up the memory when you’re done with it.

But the program is limited. Task switching and multitasking environments attempt to go beyond what programs like TSRCOM can do. Three of the standard contenders here are DESQ VIEW, MS WINDOWS and SOFTWARE CAROUSEL CAROUSEL allows for several partitions of 350K to 550K each, depending on which resident programs you try to load before CAROUSEL. With a single keystroke you can swap the current partition out to disk, EMS or AT extended memory and swap in another. The swapped out programs are suspended in essence, CAROUSEL makes any program you 550K each, depending on which resident programs you try to load before CAROUSEL. With a single keystroke you can swap the current partition out to disk, EMS or AT extended memory and swap in another. The swapped out programs are suspended; in essence, CAROUSEL makes any program you own into a TSR.

DESQ VIEW and WINDOWS

are multitasking environments, which makes them more powerful but also leads to more conflicts with other software. Because I haven’t wanted to deal with the hassles, I’ve used CAROUSEL for the past year and a half. It has really enhanced my productivity, but the multitaskers do tempt me from time to time.

Simon is IBM Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Caltech. His address is 112 Formosa Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036


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