Oct 30 2007

Productivity Bump

Don't take these tools for granted.

Seasoned information technology decision-makers often realize that the devil is in the details. One can plan, plan, plan and hope everything falls into place, but invariably the only way to make sure things run smoothly is to remain flexible and build on experience. Providing your users with the tools they need is no different. Altough there are many obvious choices when selecting those applications that make up the meat and potatoes of user builds, it is often the smaller, overlooked ones that, day in and day out, save the day, each in their own little way. I call them “intangibles.”

These intangible programs can improve the quality of life and quality of work around the office. From simple programs such as free viewers to more expensive retail offerings, intangibles can often be the oil in a well-oiled machine. Here are five such tools you should not take for granted:

1: Adobe Photoshop Elements

Adobe Photoshop Elements is a feature-rich graphic-editing program that many users may find invaluable once they’ve tried it. Whether your HR or IT departments need to create illustrated documentation for user training, your marketing team needs to manipulate artwork for sales brochures or your sales staff just wants to add the right touch to images for a PowerPoint presentation, Photoshop Elements is a capable alternative to the considerably more expensive Adobe Photoshop. Many users will find Photoshop Elements more user-friendly and straightforward than Photoshop, lending greater ease to common image-editing tasks. 

Photoshop Elements contains many of the popular image-editing tools of Photoshop and even boasts a few of its own, such as QuickFix, a mode that allows users to perform common tasks from a single toolbox that can also display a before/after preview during editing. Another nifty feature is multiple-choice color correction, which allows users to see a range of automatic color correction options and choose the one that looks best. The newest version of Elements also includes an improved photo-management utility that makes organizing photos and artwork easier than ever. Users can sort by size, date and even the camera or source medium from which the images originated. Photoshop Elements is the perfect solution for the user who wants professional results without the professional training.

CDW Price: $26.74

2: Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer 2007

One of the challenges inherent to collaboration within a company is compatibility among a project’s participants. It is often impractical for companies to install the same software on all users’ machines, but sometimes users running varied applications find themselves working on the same project. Chances are good that a frugal IT decision-maker is not going to sign off on purchasing PowerPoint licensing across the board for every user’s machine. So, what happens when your marketing team needs to share a presentation or proposal with the non-marketing project staff?
While it may seem like common knowledge, many businesses are unaware that it is possible to view and print PowerPoint presentations without purchasing licensing for Microsoft PowerPoint. All you need is a 26MB free download from Microsoft’s Web site. This utility lets users view and print presentations created in every version of PowerPoint from PowerPoint 97 on up. PowerPoint Viewer will work on all newer versions of Windows from Windows 2000 to Vista. 

This free version has a few limitations that will affect a minority of users. For instance, the PowerPoint Viewer cannot run macros or programs or support opening linked or embedded objects. But for the average presentation, PowerPoint Viewer works beautifully. Small, stable and free, PowerPoint Viewer provides necessary functionality and compatibility at zero cost.

Free: Available at www.microsoft.com/downloads

3: WinZip

While Windows Vista and XP include native .zip support, they lack many advanced archiving tools offered by WinZip that regular users of .zip archives may find indispensable. WinZip 11 Standard boasts better compression, better security (support for Advanced Encryption Standard is available in both 128- and 256-bit encryption strengths), the ability to create self-extracting archives and multiple disk spanning. The Standard version of WinZip also supports extracting .bz2 and .rar files.

For a little more, you can provide your users with the Professional version of WinZip, which has additional features, such as support for automation of compression tasks (great for backups or repetitive archiving jobs) and the ability to zip data and e-mail it with a single mouse click. Also included in the Professional version is command-line support, which is handy for scripting or for use within a batch file.

WinZip may not be for all of your users, but those who regularly manipulate compressed archives can save a lot of time and headaches at a modest price. Those wanting to try WinZip can download a free evaluation version at www.winzip.com.

CDW Price: $25.61 (Standard) or $36.99 (Professional)

4: Foxit PDF Reader

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has long established itself as a major standard in document management solutions. While many users praise the features the PDF format has to offer, reactions to the leading viewer programs are a bit mixed. Many users are unhappy with the load times, instability and overhead often associated with some of the more popular PDF viewers. A majority of viewer users just want to open the file, review it, possibly search it and close it — not download or install additional software, download managers, Internet printing services or automatic update utilities.  Many users are unaware that they have several alternatives when it comes to .pdf viewing utilities.  Foxit Reader is one such alternative that many businesses may want to consider.
Foxit Reader is the perfect utility for any business that wants to let its users open and view .pdf files without the overhead that comes with other popular PDF viewers. Foxit is small (2.1MB compared to other viewers 10 times larger) and uses very few system resources (the reader itself uses less than 6MB of system RAM), and .pdf files launch almost instantly — even inside a browser. Foxit Reader also allows users to make minor edits to .pdf documents using graphics, a highlighter and a text editor through its built-in annotation tool. In short, Foxit offers everything you ever wanted in a reader without forcing you to install anything you didn’t want to go with it.

Free: Available at www.foxitsoftware.com

5: Microsoft Visio

Microsoft Visio can quickly simplify several types of information to get people on the same page when working on a common project. With Visio, users can present this information by creating flowcharts, timelines, organizational charts, floor plans, network diagrams and several other graphical representations of data, with the ability to display information from a variety of external sources. Completed projects can be e-mailed, written to PDF format, saved in HTML format, or even exported as an ActiveX control for use in a Web page. Visio’s integration into SharePoint Server adds even more collaborative possibilities, adding another dimension to its already impressive versatility. Simply put, Microsoft Visio helps to make short work of organizing data so that project teams can spend less time learning and more time planning and executing project objectives.  
You can download a 60-day free trial of Microsoft Visio at www.microsoft.com/office.

CDW Price: $201.99

Jason Holbert is a Tier II desktop support technician at Harcros Chemicals, a chemical distributor in Kansas City, Kan.