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    Free tools to fix common problems and have some fun while you’re at it

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver October 16-22, 2007; Issue 938

    High Tech Office column

    Microsoft’s Office 2007 release made major changes to that widely used applications suite. Innovative, yes, but they’re causing problems for users.

    Office 2007 introduced new default formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2007: docx, xlsx and pptx, respectively. Office 2007 users sharing files with others could poke around in the program options and change the defaults for saving files or they could save individual files in the older formats prior to sharing them. But too many users do neither, and many of us are receiving e-mail attachments that we can’t read.

    If you’re using Office 2000, Office XP or Office 2003, stop reading and get the Office 2007 Compatibility Pack; find Microsoft’s link to download that add-on letting you open the new file types in these older Office versions. If you’re using an Office alternative, search for Word Viewer 2007. Microsoft’s free viewer will let you open, read and print (but not change) new format Word files. There’s also a PowerPoint 2007 Viewer.

    (Mac owners are currently out of luck; Microsoft is promising a new version of Office for Mac later this year with updates for older Mac Office versions after that.)

    Office 2007 also dropped the menus and toolbars used in earlier versions for a so-called ribbon interface. Microsoft gives no way to go back to the earlier style, but offers a Ribbon Customizer program, with free and paid versions. It gives Office 2007 users a ClassicMenu ribbon: one click and the older-style menus and toolbars reappear. If you’ve got the new version of Office, but prefer not to have to re-learn where everything is, it’s a must-have.

    The free Google Pack ( collects some of Google’s best along with quality free stuff from other sources. It lets users select what they want and download and install it all in a single pack. It includes a tool to keep all the various components up to date. Skip the items you already have, like Adobe Reader, but the pack’s Spyware Doctor is among the best free anti-spyware utilities available, and Picasa is a good tool for organizing and working with collections of digital photos.

    Not included in the Google Pack but also free is Google Earth. This lets users view much of the Earth as if from space, zooming in on your home or workplace, tourist destinations and more. A new version lets you move out into space. And here’s a secret: briefly pressing the Control + Alt keys and the letter A (Command + Option + A on Macs) takes you to a flight simulator, flying a propeller or jet-powered plane over the Google Earth landscapes. Of course, we don’t waste time doing this at work.

    Since Windows 95, Microsoft has released a series of free “Powertoys” to help customize its various operating system versions. Most useful: TweakUI, to tweak the user interface in a variety of ways. Separate versions for Windows XP and for earlier Windows versions are still available, but so far, nothing for users of the new Windows Vista. Vista users may want to download TweakVI from Like the Ribbon Customizer, there are free and paid versions. The free version works fine for me.

    Far too many options, but with a bit of tweaking, it let me restore the menus to Vista’s Explorer windows and even seems to have sped up Vista’s pokey startup.Mac users wanting to tweak: check out TinkerTool. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan

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