If you've got thick walls, a weak wireless router or a finicky laptop, you may take a dim view of the so-called wireless revolution. Sure, wireless networks mean you don't have to be physically tethered to the wall or the router to access the Internet. But for those cursed with bad wireless reception, the alternative is just as bad: waving a laptop around foolishly like a divining rod, hoping that if you stretch just far enough you'll catch enough of a signal to start your download.
Free wireless network mapper (tested v1.0.2) for Windows by Ekahau
Whereas most network finders either present a basic signal strength metre for each access point or display a radar-like display that looks more informative than it actually is, HeatMapper creates a signal strength map of the area that shows you exactly where signal strength is strong or weak. You load a floor plan of the area into the utility and walk around the area to build the map. When the process is complete, you can see the overall reception across all detected access points, or hover over a single access point icon to see reception for just that network.
HeatMapper is a great tool for figuring out where the weak reception spots in your house or apartment are, but there are several interface problems - you can't pan maps, you can only save survey results as screenshots, and there's no documented way of taking a screenshot of an individual network's heat map, which is probably the information most people will be interested in. Still, as a diagnostic tool or just as a plaything, there's nothing that's as easy to pick up and use as HeatMapper.
Tabbed window manager for Windows (Free for limited version, $19 USD for full version) by WindowTabs (tested build 321)
Most people need more than one program open to work on a project or complete a single task. If you're not convinced, try doing your work while having only one application open at a time and see how you like it. Given all this, it's strange that there are so few ways to group open applications by project or task. Virtual desktop systems offer one solution, as Apple explained when it added virtual desktops to OS X. Other than that, though, none of the major operating systems offer any grand organizing features along these lines.
For those unprepared to take the plunge into virtual desktops, or just unconvinced that they're the right answer, there's WindowTabs. Basically, the utility adds tabs to every open window, and allows you to drag tabs together to create window groups. You can even set WindowTabs to keep all the windows for a particular application together automatically. Only one program in a window group shows at a time; you switch between apps just as you would tabs in a browser.
There are two caveats to WindowTabs. Any window of relatively fixed size, like the Command Prompt, will cause the utility to act a little strangely. Also, you'll only see the active program in each tab group in the taskbar and the Alt-Tab switcher; the others effectively disappear. The free version of WindowTabs has the full functionality of the pay version, but limits tab groups to three tabs a piece. Even with these limitations, WindowTabs offers an interesting and relatively elegant way to add structure to your workspace.
Free Windows 7 taskbar emulator (tested build 1065) for Windows XP/Vista by Lee-Soft OS
Windows Vista has had it rough. Though it will be almost three years old by the time it's supplanted by its successor - quite a long time in computer years - it has always lived in the shadow of its predecessor, the mighty Windows XP. And though Windows 7 is just around the corner, it too must face the behemoth of XP's reputation; Microsoft recently announced that it would offer XP downgrade options from Windows 7 up to April 2011, just a few months shy of the venerable operating system's tenth birthday.
What if you're not prepared to make the leap from XP to 7, but still want to take advantage of some of 7's new features? Enterprising modders have been working to bring the Windows 7 look and feel to XP, just as they did with Vista. ViGlance leads the charge, giving XP many of the benefits of Windows 7's new taskbar. For a relatively new project, ViGlance looks surprisingly polished-you won't suddenly think you're using Windows 7, but it takes a trained eye to notice all the differences.
Users will reap the benefits of larger icons, grouped windows on the taskbar, and a barebones version of Aero Peek-instead of thumbnails of all the open windows, you just get a textual list. But development continues at a rapid pace, and the Lee-Soft blog shows off several new features that haven't yet made it to a public release. ViGlance may just be a fresh coat of paint over a veteran OS, but it'll make your life in XP feel a little more modern and acclimate you to Windows 7's charms at the same time.