Fifteen great Microsoft Office optimization tools

What's the most popular application software in the world? Most likely, Microsoft Office. You use it, your colleagues use it, your relatives use it, and just about everyone you know uses it.

You certainly aren't getting the most out of it, though. That's where downloads can make the difference. We've assembled 15 great downloads to help you use Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint more effectively. With these downloads, you'll be able to cut through e-mail clutter, create PDF files for free, use Excel to run a business, and shrink massive PowerPoint files, among other things. And they're all free or almost free.

It's time to get downloading and boost your productivity.

General Office Downloads

The following three downloads are a great place to start if you're looking for overall help with Office. With these programs, you can recover lost product keys, kill privacy-invading information, and even replace Office with a free alternative.

ProduKey

Say you need to reinstall Office or some Office component. To do so, you need Office's product key--but if you can't locate the CD from which you installed Office, you no longer have the product key. What to do?

Get ProduKey. Run the program, and it shows all product keys for every one of your Microsoft Office applications; it also displays them for Windows, Windows Server, and Microsoft SQL Server. Once you have the key, you're ready to go. For techies or network administrators, the tool has a variety of command-line options, such as for obtaining a product key from a remote PC, and for saving product key information to a text file.

Download ProduKey | Price: Free

Metadata Analyzer

What's hidden in your Microsoft Office documents could harm you. A lot more information than you may imagine is lurking in your Office documents, and anyone who receives and views them can see everything. Documents hold hidden text, names of authors, revision history and markup, hidden cells, hidden spreadsheets, the total number and time of revisions, and other details.

Think that doesn't matter? Think again. In 2006, Google accidentally told the world about highly sensitive financial projections because it posted a PowerPoint presentation containing notes with the confidential information. And in 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's top communications aide, Alistair Campbell, released a Word document with hidden information that proved that the British government had used plagiarized documents as a way to justify its involvement in the Iraq war.

This free program will make sure that nothing similar happens to you. Point it at any document, and it analyzes the file, showing you all the private information lurking within. The program will then clean up the document so that the information drops out of sight.

Download Metadata Analyzer | Price: Free

OpenOffice

Microsoft Office costs hundreds of dollars, depending on the version you buy. If you're looking for a new office suite but you don't want to hand over that much money, grab this free, surprisingly powerful suite instead. It has a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, a database, and a drawing program, and even a "mathematical function calculator" if you need that sort of thing.

No need to worry about compatibility with Microsoft Office formats: OpenOffice handles all of those, as well as open-source formats. Each program in the suite offers just about all the power you'll require.

If this free suite has any drawbacks, it's that the interface isn't as polished as Microsoft Office's, and it lacks a few bells and whistles. Still, free is free, and if you're seeking a way to avoid spending big bucks for a suite, it's a great choice.

Download Open Office | Price: Free

Outlook Downloads

Outlook is the program everyone loves to hate. It's bulky, and it can be slow, but it also gets the job done. Plenty of tools promise to improve Outlook--the following are our favorites. You'll cut through e-mail clutter, find Outlook information quickly, shrink the size of this bloated application, handle attachments better, and more.

Xobni

If you suffer from e-mail overload and want more out of Outlook, you need this program, which makes finding messages, contacts, and anything else in Outlook exceedingly easy. It's the best Outlook add-in I've ever used.

The program runs as an Outlook sidebar. For each e-mail, it shows information about the person with whom you're communicating, including all the "conversations" you've had with them; in essence, it sets up a threaded list of every e-mail between the two of you. You'll also see a list of every file you've exchanged, as well as the person's phone number and "social network," a list of people with whom that person has exchanged messages. It includes icons for sending an e-mail to the person and scheduling a meeting via Outlook, as well. For anyone who lives for statistics, the total number of messages you've exchanged appears at the top of the screen, along with more information that isn't of much practical use but is interesting regardless.

The add-on offers plenty more, too, including a Xobni Analytics utility that gives you more information than you need about your e-mail use. Want to know the average amount of time you take to respond to people by day, month, and week? It's in there. So is the median time you take to respond to specific people, and to people at a particular domain.

Those statistics, though, aren't the real reason for using this program: It's the only Outlook add-on I've ever tried that actually lives up to the promise of solving e-mail overload.

Download Xobni | Price: Free

Lookeen

This add-in for Outlook 2003 and 2007 performs lightning-fast searches, and offers several tools for managing and finding e-mail.

It integrates directly into Outlook, so you don't have to fumble with a separate program when doing searches. Thanks to its various organizational tools, you can list all conversations with a specific contact, for example, and show all e-mail messages for a given day, week, or month. The program also automatically summarizes messages.

Lookeen does its job by indexing your files and then searching that index, rather than your entire data store. Because of that, you'll have to wait a little while before you can start using it; the program may take up to 20 minutes to finish its initial indexing.

Download Lookeen | Price: Free

SendShield

Worried that the Office documents you send may have private information buried in them? This program, like Metadata Analyzer (see the previous page), solves the problem. When you send a Microsoft Office document in Outlook, the utility examines the document for private information. It then shows you the results and lets you delete that information. The program deletes information only from the copy you send; the original file stays intact.

Download SendShield | Price: Trial; price not currently set

Outlook Duplicate Items Remover

Duplicate information--multiple copies of e-mail messages, contacts, and other details--tends to clutter up Outlook. It may arise because you've imported data from an earlier version of Outlook, or it may show up for no apparent reason.

The free Outlook Duplicate Items Remover solves the problem handily, adding a new Outlook menu option that will eliminate duplicates for you. Click the ODIR menu option, choose Remove Duplicate Items, and select a folder. Then click Remove Duplicate Items. The program will kill the copies, but it will also keep a backup, in case you want to restore anything.

Download Outlook Duplicate Items Remover | Price: Free

Kopf Outlook Attachment Remover

Perhaps the most common complaint about Outlook is how bloated the program becomes. It stores all of its data, including messages and attachments, in a single .pst file--and that file can quickly grow to gargantuan proportions, especially if you have plenty of attachments. As a result, Outlook loads and runs more slowly, and if your .pst file becomes too big, your machine will be prone to crashes.

What if you want to keep your attachments, but you don't want the .pst file to balloon? Try this clever program, which saves the attachments to your PC and deletes them from your .pst file. It then links your e-mail directly to the attachment, so the attachment still appears to exist in Outlook.

The program can go through entire directories, but if you prefer, you can have it operate on a message-by-message basis.

Download Kopf Outlook Attachment Remover | Price: Free

OutlookTools

Outlook is a complex program with many different options. Often these options hide beneath many levels of menus, and some features you may simply never find.

This free utility does an excellent job of simplifying Outlook's configuration. In a flash, you'll be able to access all of your Outlook settings and file folders, as well as to run troubleshooting tools, such as one that fixes corrupt .pst files. You can also solve one of the more annoying problems with Outlook: the program's insistence on blocking certain file types because it considers them insecure. This app will unblock any file type you want.

In addition, it lets you start Outlook with any one of numerous switches, and permits you to customize when and how Desktop Alerts appear to tell you that new mail has arrived. You can change the transparency of alerts, as well as determine how long they should stay visible.

Download OutlookTools | Price: Free

MAPILab Toolbox for Outlook

This excellent Outlook enhancer with 18 add-ons will make your e-mail life far more productive. For example, one add-on checks to see whether you've forgotten to include an attachment in an outgoing e-mail, while another lets you determine which attachments are secure or insecure. You can also schedule certain messages to be sent out on a particular day and time, send out e-mail in batches, autofill text in messages, and more.

It integrates directly into Outlook, and you can easily turn components on and off. It's particularly well suited for anyone who runs their own business.

Download MAPILab Toolbox for Outlook | Price: $24 (Trial)

PowerPoint and Microsoft Word Downloads

PowerPoint and Word don't have nearly as many helpful downloads as Outlook does, but some useful ones are around. Whether you want to slim down file sizes, find PowerPoint slides fast, or print to PDF, there's something here for you.

Slideboxx

Here's a great tool for PowerPoint jockeys. With this program you can find specific slides from any presentation with remarkable speed, and combine those slides into new presentations. Slideboxx indexes all of your presentations, and you search through that index, rather than through the presentations themselves. That way, you can find items much faster.

When you do a search, the program shows all results as thumbnails, so you can immediately spot the slides you want. Once you find them, you can drag them to a presentation pane on the right side of the screen and then build entirely new presentations from those existing slides. It's a great time-saver for anyone who reuses PowerPoint slides.

Download Slideboxx | Price: $99 (Trial)

PPTminimizer

Sending large files via e-mail these days can be problematic. Many ISPs impose file-size limits on attachments, sometimes as little as 5MB. So if you need to send PowerPoint presentations--or even large Word files--you're out of luck.

PPTminimizer is a great solution for the problem. It shrinks the size of PowerPoint or Word files, leaving their appearance and original format intact.

With its help, you can save plenty of space. In my tests, it shrank files by about 25 percent to almost 84 percent. The program leaves your originals alone and creates smaller copies. Just select any files you want to shrink and tell the program to go about its work. It integrates with Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, and Windows Explorer, too, so you can even shrink files from directly within the applications.

The program costs $40 to register, and has trial limitations. You can do only 5 optimizations before paying if you don't register, and 12 optimizations before paying if you do register.

Download PPTminimizer | Price: $40 (Demo)

PrimoPDF

Adobe PDF has become a popular file format for a wide variety of uses. If you want to retain all of the layout and font characteristics of a document, PDF is great for posting files to the Web, as well as for creating documents that will be used the old-fashioned way, in print. Many printers ask that you create brochures, business cards, and many kinds of documents in PDF.

Here's the problem: Word, by default, doesn't create files in PDF. If you have Word 2007, you're in luck, because you can download Microsoft's free PDF add-in. But if you have other versions of Word, you have to pay plenty for the capability.

Unless you use this free program, that is. It lets you create PDF files from any Word document--and from any Office document, in fact, as well as documents created in many other applications. It runs as a printer driver, so all you need to do is select Print and then choose PrimoPDF as your printer. After that you can choose from a variety of options for creating PDF files, such as including document properties like keywords and the author name, or encrypting the document.

Download PrimoPDF | Price: Free

Excel Downloads

You don't need to be a spreadsheet pro if you want to get more out of Excel. With the following downloads, you can create a calendar, and get hundreds of new functions for managing your business.

Excel Calendar Template

This program's name says it all: It's a template for Excel that lets you create a calendar. Included are 2008, 2009, and 2010, as well as several past years. The calendar covers popular holidays, and is elegant and easy to read; each month gets its own tab. It's great for printing, or for using right inside Excel.

You can customize the calendar's look by changing the color scheme. In addition to a month-by-month calendar, you also get a year at a glance, including a space for notes.

Download Excel Calendar Template | Price: Free

Business Functions

Looking to use Excel to run your business? Then you'll want this free add-in, which has 500 functions to help with just about any business analysis, budgeting, or tracking you require. Need functions specifically for real estate, such as those having to do with rent? They're in here. So are functions for other specific industries, as well as hundreds of general-purpose functions.

No need to run this program separately; it integrates directly with Excel, and is available as menu options. No matter what you desire for your business, it probably has something for you, including a nifty time-chart creator and much more.

Download Business Functions | Price: Free

This story, "Fifteen great Microsoft Office optimization tools" was originally published by PCWorld.

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