August 22, 2002

By Karen Kenworthy


It sure has been busy here at the secluded Power Tools workshop! My old e- mail server, the computer that sends and receives e-mail messages for me and my elves, finally started showing its age. Now, from time to time, an e-mail message will get "wedged". The timid messages refuse to venture out into the exciting world of the Internet, preferring the safety and comfort of my server’s queues.

Sadly, the company that recently took over my e-mail server software isn't interested in supporting its users. They prefer I upgrade to a new product, one that supports millions of e-mail accounts, can send e-mail to PDAs and mobile phones.

Fortunately, there aren't millions of elves, hereabouts (how could I feed them all?). And none of us at the workshop know how to read our e-mail on one of those new-fangled gizmos. So the search for an e-mail solution continues...

Is Your Agent Calling?

In the meantime, I have some good news to report! For quite some time folks have been reporting a common problem with two of my Power Tools -- the Countdown Timer II, and the Power Toy.

Both programs can, with a little help, display animated characters Microsoft calls "Agents." These cute cartoons, similar to the "Assistants" found in Microsoft Office and some newer versions of Windows, perform on- screen tricks, gesture, move, even do a little dance. And with the right hardware and software, they are supposed to talk.

Ah, there's the rub. Most of us have the hardware needed to give these Agents a voice. All it takes is a sound card, or other built-in sound circuitry, plus a speaker or two. This is pretty much standard equipment on today's computers.

But the software that allows Agents to talk must be installed. First, you need a program, like my Countdown Timer II, or Power Toy, that knows how to command Agent characters. You also need at least one Agent file, a file that contains the Agent's image and repertoire.

Next, you need something called the Microsoft Agent core components. This software displays Agents on your screen, giving them their first breath of life. If you use Windows XP, Windows 2000 or Windows Me, you're in luck -- this software is already installed on your computer. But users of older versions of Windows have to add this software to their computers (more about that in a moment).

Now the worm turns. If you're using Microsoft's newest operating system, Windows XP, you require a bit of software most others can do without. It's called the SAPI (Speech Application Programming Interface) runtime v4.0. And it's this software, or rather its absence, that left so many of our Agent characters mute.

Finally, to top our software layer cake, every computer needs something called a "Text-To-Speech Engine." This software knows how to recognize written words and convert them into the sounds of various spoken languages. And it's this software, plus all the other bits and pieces mentioned earlier, that allow Agents characters to talk.

I know this all sounds a bit complicated. And it is. I'm often asked questions about this very subject. More than one person has had trouble getting all the Agent software parts to work together happily. Fortunately, in many cases, the missing link has been the SAPI v4.0 runtime. Adding it to most computers should turn your voiceless Agents into the chatter boxes they were meant to be.

If you'd like a complete list of Agent software, check out the updated the home pages for the Countdown Timer II and Power Toy programs. Now, they include links that let you download the SAPI v4.0 runtime, plus all other Agent-related software as before. The pages also indicate which software is needed by everyone, and which is only needed when running certain versions of Windows.

If you're having trouble with your Agents, or want to give the Countdown Timer II or Power Toy a try, visit their web pages at:

Take Control

I'm afraid we have a fontaholic epidemic on our hands. Every day, a new confession arrives in my e-mail. Many of you have hundreds of fonts -- some you've never seen, and some you don't remember buying or installing! Talk about a lot of lost weekends! :)

Fortunately, the Font Explorer Power Tool has helped lots of folks find typographic sobriety. Well, at least enabled them to use fonts in moderation.

The Font Explorer helps in two ways: It displays a sample of the text produced by each font, and it displays information, embedded within most font files. This information can include the font's designer, description, purpose, weight, character set, author, and more. Even better, besides displaying all this on-screen, the program can print out permanent copies on our printers, too.

Now, information may be power. But there's such a thing as too much power. And, apparently, there are times when a little less information is a good thing too.

I guess that's why so many folks have suggested that the Font Explorer produce a briefer printed report. Many people would like a report that shows a smaller assortment of sample characters in the chosen font. It should also print less font information (or none at all). Fewer font effects, such as italics and boldface, would be nice too. And don't forget to use a smaller font size.

The goal is understandable. After all, the original Font Explorer printed a full page of information about each font. Not exactly a sure cure for font addiction. But, unfortunately, there were as many suggested remedies as fonts on my computer. How to produce the ideal report, one that makes everyone happy?

The answer is simple. Each user should be able to design their font reports. Some could continue the old tradition of one font per page, each page packed with information and sample text. Others could condense the report into as little as a single line per font (just the font name). The rest of us could create anything in between, showing as much, or as little, information as we please.

Choices, Choices, Choices

If you'd like to try your hand at report designing, now's your chance. The new Font Explorer v2.0 gives you control, letting you decide what will be printed about each font. Once you tell the program to print a report, you'll be presented with these options:

Sample Text
Now you can specify the sample characters the Font Explorer will print. You can enter any text, as short or as long as you like. For example, you might try asking the program to print "Hello Karen" in each font. Or enter the traditional typing test string, "The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dogs." It's your choice.

The new program also lets you pick any of three pre-defined sample text strings. One exhibits all the upper- and lower-case letters in the English alphabet, plus the ten digits (0 through 9) and most popular punctuation marks. That's a total of 95 characters in all.

A second choice extends this collection, adding 128 additional characters. These include several accented characters used by many non-English languages, plus a few less common punctuation marks.

The third pre-defined sample shows off only the letters of the English alphabet (both upper- and lower-case), plus the ten numeric digits. This choice is ideal for creating a very compact font catalog.

Font Size
In the past, the Font Explorer always printed sample text using a "12 point" font size. Since each point equals 1/72 of an inch, this meant the characters averaged just 1/6th of an inch tall. That's about 4.23 mm, for those who use something called the "metric" system. :)

To those of us with young eyes, this size character shows a lot of detail. But if your eyes are as old as mine, a little larger font is a lot more revealing. Now you can pick the font size that suits you best.

Font Effects
The old Font Explorer liked to print each font sample four times. First, it printed the sample normally, without any special effects. Then the sample was three more times -- once in boldface, once in italics, and one more time in characters showing off both boldface and italics.

The new program lets you select which effects, if any, you'd like to see. If you'd like to see all four versions of the sample text, you can. Or you can see just one example, shown in any of the original four variations. And if you're really trying to save paper, you can tell the Font Explorer to print no sample text at all.

Font Information
Finally, you now control whether the Font Explorer prints its fun font facts. With the click of your mouse, you can tell the program to include the font file's location, copyright notice, description, author, and more, in each font's printed report. Or you can order the program to keep this information a secret.

If you'd like to give the new Font Explorer v2.0 a try, visit its home page at:

There you can download your free copy of the program. And as always, programmer types can download its Visual Basic source code too!

Karen's CD users have another option. You can run the Web Update program, included with your CD, or follow the CD Update link on your CD's Table of Contents.

Don't have a copy of Karen's CD? Or want to support Karen's Power Tools? Visit my CD home page at:

There you can order your own copy of Karen's CD, complete with the latest Font Explorer, and every other Power Tool. You'll also receive three bonus Power Tools programs not available anywhere else. Each CD even includes every back issue of my newsletters, and a special license that lets you use all your Power Tools at work!

Until we meet again, look for me working on my e-mail server, out under the old mimosa tree beside the secluded Power Tools workshop. I'll be the one in the straw hat, wielding the "binary" electric screwdriver and other appropriate Power Tools. :)

And whether you see me at work, or on the 'net, be sure to wave and say "Hi!"

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