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Power Up the Windows Clipboard

by Ron White

Like wearing pants with only one pocket, using the Windows Clipboard means you can stow away only one chunk of information at a time. Want to cut or copy another chunk? You'll have to get rid of the first one.

The clipboard in Microsoft Office is more like it. It's like cargo pants. You can collect several different blocks of data and keep them all on the clipboard until you need to paste any one of them. But, apparently in a bid to remind you that you should never buy any software that Microsoft didn't create, this fancy clipboard works only in Office.

No loss. There are better solutions than either of Microsoft's clipboards, and they work with any Windows program you pair them with. For example, take ClipMagic. Or ClipTrakker. Or ClipCache Plus, ClipMate, or SmartBoardXP.

All of these programs are close relatives of one another and are only distantly related to either of Microsoft's clipboards. All of them save any number of clips--text or graphics--that can be reused in any Windows program. Because the clips are written to database files, they are available for weeks, months, or as long as you may need them.

Most of the programs use a similar three-window display. One window maintains a list of clips and copies you've made, usually in the order you made them but also sortable if an alphabetical listing proves more manageable. The window also includes information such as the program the clip was taken from, the time of the abduction, and assorted facts that are vaguely likely to be helpful sometime. Clicking on any one of the clips makes it the active one, available for pasting. (Several clips can be joined into one big clip, as well.) Because the first window shows only the first few words in a text clip or a bare-bones description of a graphic, a second window shows the full text of the clip or a thumbnail of a graphic.

In some of the programs, this same window lets you edit text. You can, of course, edit manually, but the clipboard enhancers provide some handy shortcuts. Choosing from menu selections lets you strip carriage returns and line feeds, convert cases among uppercase, lowercase, mixed, and sentence case, and delete clutter such as the >> that precedes the old text in email replies.

The remaining window lists the different folders or collections to which clips may be saved. You can create new collections for specific purposes and move clips among the collections as you choose.

The database organization expands the programs into more than ad hoc clippers and pasters. Clips can be organized into categories and given descriptive names. That lets you create a collection of paragraphs for boilerplate letters, portable shortcuts to favorite URLs, or a menu of HTML codes that avoid typos and strains on human memory. Choosing a clip with the descriptive name "Italic red flush right," for example, would let you paste in the actual HTML code for creating red italic text aligned on the right side of an HTML page.

All of these features are common to all of the clipboard enhancers I mentioned earlier. And all cost in the range of $20 to $30. So how do you choose among such closely related programs? They are all available in fully operative try-before-you-buy versions, for one thing. Some of the programs have features the others don't. ClipMate and SmartboardXP, for example, both have spell checkers, which can be used on clips and on text in applications that lack spell checkers of their own. Are word counts important to you? Check out ClipCache Plus, which has that and other plug-ins, including one that extracts URLs from a clip. If you would like to capture windows or portions of the screen, you can with ClipMate.

You choice may, however, be based on the automation capabilities built into the programs. Variously called rule, scripts, and filters, they allow you to tell the clipboard products how to massage the text--whether with a spell checker, case converters, and the like--and in some cases what folder to save a clip into, based on the application a clip originated in. The set of rules in SmartboardXP is the most versatile and powerful. It's the clipboard to look at if you intend to process the clips rather than mostly moving text and graphics. You should certainly test-drive ClipCache Plus. It's the cheapest and lacks only some of the louder bells and whistles of its rivals.

Your choice may come down to subtle differences in look and feel. I'm more comfortable in ClipMate, despite an ill-organized set of menus that took a while to get used to. I wish it had more versatile rules, but then there's always a sacrifice somewhere. Whatever the sacrifice, it's nowhere as drastic as returning to the Windows Clipboard itself.

ClipMate exhibits the same three-pane layout used by most of the clipboard enhancers. In the top right are the clips that have been saved to ClipMate. To the left are the categories to which clips may be saved. The third pane show a thumbnail of a copied JPEG image.

ClipCache Plus, Xrayz Software, $19.95
Pro: Can take plug-ins to increase versatility.
Con: No serious flaws.

ClipMagic, Mjtnet, $29.99
Pro: Rules are versatile and simple to set up. Plug-ins can increase versatility.
Con: Graphically drab and unhelpful.

ClipMate, Thornsoft $29.95
Pro: Versatile, easy, and fast to use.
Con: Weak on rules and scripting.

ClipTrakker, ClipTrakker, $24.95
Pro: Adequate, but not flashy.
Con: Just doesn't stand out in any one operation.

SmartBoardXP, X2Net Limited, $22
Pro: Powerful scripting for a high degree of automation.
Con: Clips were at times reluctant to be pasted.

Ron White is a longtime technology journalist and author of numerous books, including How Computers Work.

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