Monday, November 16, 2009

My Home PCs – Part 4 – Toys for Geeks

The final installment of this four-part blog contains some utilities that most home users will never need, but I find them indispensable. With the exception of WinDirStat, these toys take a reasonable amount of technical knowledge to use, although they are unlikely to cause your PC any problems if you want to give them a whirl. If nothing else, it's interesting to run Wireshark and Process Monitor to see the sheer volume of what's going on inside your PC. It's a much busier beast than you probably think.

  • Wireshark - This program captures all network data packets coming into and going out of your PC, very similar to the professional Sniffer tool. Although having a network background is useful to understand all the packet headers, it's more useful to understand how an application works to make the best use of the data captured. It's a good idea to shutdown as many applications as possible before running Wireshark to reduce the data being captured. You can download Wireshark at and there are some very good introductory videos and other documentation at You'll also be installing WinPCap, included in the Wireshark download, which is the component that interfaces between Windows and Wireshark.
  • Process Monitor - This is one of many sysinternals utilities that Microsoft provides and the one I find the most useful. It shows real-time file system, registry and process activity, in short, all the stuff that's happening inside your PC at a very detailed level. The tool provides filters to reduce the flood of data it produces to a more manageable level. The download is available at, which includes both individual links to the different tools and a single download if you want the entire suite.
  • VirtualBox - For those of us that like to try out new operating systems such as Ubuntu Linux and Google Android and want to make it painless, VirtualBox is the answer, and can be found at . This Sun product comes in two versions. VirtualBox OSE (Open Source Edition) is free for all purposes and VirtualBox is free only for personal use and product evaluation. More details can be found at Virtualbox creates a virtual environment for its guested operating systems and boots up image files in the .iso format. It also handles virtual machines packaged in the Open Virtualization Format (.ovf).
  • Google Calendar Sync - In today's world of technology we have a lot of duplicate tools, one for our work life and one for our home life. But having separate tools sometimes causes issues and in my world having two calendars was particularly painful. Enter Google's free Calendar Sync tool, which can sync an Outlook calendar to a Google Calendar. I have my normal Google calendar that comes with my personal GMail account, which is my home life calendar. I have another Google Calendar, using a different account, which contains a synchronized copy of my work life calendar. I setup this second account to be viewable by my home life account and I can view both my calendars at the same time, giving me a complete view of my life. And my wife does the same, shares both of her calendars with me (and vice-versa) and I can see our combined four calendars all at the same time.
  • WinDirStat - We all seem to run out of hard drive space and finding good candidates to delete or move elsewhere can be tedious. WinDirStat solves that by scanning a hard drive and building a visual, color-coded "block map" of every file where the size of each block is proportional to its size. Click on the block and that file is highlighted and its directory structure displayed. By far the easiest way to clean up a hard drive I've found. This utility can be downloaded at

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