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Five great freebies improve your Office experience

Find the best time for meetings, remove hidden data, send text messages from Outlook, teach Excel new tricks, and add YouTube videos to PowerPoint presentations.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

Microsoft Office is so jam-packed with features that an entire industry has been created to help people find the ones they need. (An example is Addintools' $30 Classic Menu for Office 2007.) Why would anyone suggest that you add even more functions to Office apps? Because the best free Office add-ins can save you considerable time and trouble, without costing you a red cent. Here are five of my favorite Office helpers.

Poll attendees to find the best time for a meeting
Everybody's busy, as anyone who has ever tried to schedule a meeting with more than two attendees quickly learns. TimeBridge Personal Scheduling Manager is an Outlook add-in that lets you send e-mails to the attendees with as many as five proposed meeting times. They select the times they're available or not, and they can even mark one of the times as "best." Once all the people respond, the program sends you and the attendees an e-mail suggesting the best time, which it adds to your Outlook calendar. The program places a toolbar in Outlook 2003 and 2007, from which you can create a new meeting, view your scheduled meetings, and edit your account settings.

TimeBridge Personal Scheduling Manager
Propose as many as five different meeting times and let TimeBridge Personal Scheduling Manager poll attendees find the best one.

You have to register (name, e-mail address, and time zone) to send meeting invitations, but attendees need not sign up, though they can invite others, and add the meeting to their Outlook or Google Calendar. You can also network your calendars to see who's available when prior to scheduling the meeting.

TimeBridge Personal Scheduling Manager meeting information
View the responses of meeting attendees by clicking a link in the TimeBridge Outlook toolbar.

Keep people from viewing the data hidden in Office docs
You may be sharing more information than you intend to when you send someone a Word document, Excel worksheet, or PowerPoint presentation. If two or more people have worked on the file, there's a good chance that anyone who opens the file subsequently can view insertions and--more importantly--deletions made by each person, as well as any comments they may have made, and other personal information relating to the file's creator. Microsoft's Remove Hidden Data program for Office 2003 and XP will remove such data in a file before you share it. (See below for a description of Office 2007's built-in Document Inspector, which functions similarly.)

After you download and install the program (and after Microsoft "validates" your copy of Office), you'll find a Remove Hidden Data option on the File menu of your Office apps. You can also remove the hidden information from several files at once by running the program separately. Among the information the program removes are comments, revision marks, deleted text, user names, and macros.

Office 2007 adds the Document Inspector that cleanses Word 2007, Excel 2007, and PowerPoint 2007 of revisions, versions, presentation notes, hidden rows and columns, and other metadata, including personally identifiable information. To activate this feature, click the Office button and choose Prepare>Inspect Document>Inspect. After it runs, select Remove All as necessary.

Microsoft Office 2007's Document Inspector
Keep your secrets by running Office 2007's Document Inspector before sharing your files.

Teach Excel some new tricks with ExTools
If you could create your own Excel toolbar, it would probably include a list of your favorite worksheets, a super-clipboard for storing text you reuse frequently, and the ability to save and back up a worksheet with one click. It may also let you switch a vertical range to horizontal (and vice versa) with a single click, reverse the order of a row of cells just as quickly, and save a selection as an Excel, text, HTML, or comma-delimited (CSV) file. You get all these features and more with ExTools, and its partner for Office 2007, ExTools RX.

I counted 67 different features, though more are being added all the time. While technically free, ExTools is officially donationware; the developer requests a donation of $5 or more, so if you find it useful, drop a few dollars in the e-hat to help ensure that the features keep on coming.

YouTube comes to PowerPoint
No matter how many fancy transitions, jumping graphics, animated lines of text, or "borrowed" comic strips you add to your PowerPoint slides, your audience will be sawing logs unless you provide them with content that matters. Shyam Pillai's YouTube Video Wizard lets you insert a YouTube video in any version of PowerPoint from 97 to 2007 with just a few clicks. After you download and install the program, just click Insert>YouTube video, insert the video's URL, choose to play it once or loop it, set the size and placement of the playback window in the slide, and then run your presentation. The video will be embedded in a slide, complete with Flash control. You must have a working Internet connection to run the video, and there's not much you can do to embellish the slides they appear on, but now you can let lonelygirl15 help you get your message across.

Send text messages from Outlook
If you use Outlook 2003 or 2007 and you're having a hard time keeping track of your text messages, why not let the program manage your SMS correspondence for you? The Microsoft Office SMS Add-in lets you treat each message like an e-mail: save drafts, view all sent items, forward them as e-mail or SMS, even spell-check messages before you send them. There are some restrictions, however: you can send messages to any phone on a GSM network, but you can't retrieve messages from the phone, and the program does not support Flash SMS or the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS).

Tomorrow: For bullet-fast app launches, skip the menu and go straight to the command prompt.