The toughest problem in all of computing is the 'open with' conundrum.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Stop paying for software:
Easy fix for toughest problem in computing

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   The best way to save money is to stop spending it. That's the idea behind my series on the best free software for Windows and Macs. This week I'm recommending free file-association managers.
   Say what you want about viruses, security glitches and spam. The toughest problem in all of computing has nothing to do with these annoyances. It's the bane of nearly everyone who's ever touched a keyboard.
   It's the "open with" problem. You come across a file that refuses to open when you double-click on it. Windows says it can't "associate" the file with any program. Or the Mac -- the computer that's supposed to do everything right -- sits there dumb as a stump and refuses to do anything with the mystery file.
   To show, edit or play a file, your computer has to "open" it. If the file is a song, it should play it. If it's a photo, it should show it. If it's one of those boring end-of-the-quarter reports in some sort of dreadful text-filled slide show, it should show you all the dreadfulness without skipping a boring beat.
   In an ideal world, all files would spring to life knowing which programs were needed to open them, and all programs would know which files needed their assistance. To put it in Windows' terms, all programs would know which files to be "associated with."
   But this ideal world doesn't exist. Clueless friends send you e-mail attachments you can't open, your boss wants you to download a report that might as well be gobbledegook, and your sister-in-law gave you a CD with photos you can't view no matter what.
   Time to fix the problem for good. First, find out the file's type, using the extension on the filename, after the period. It's the three- or four-character code that is supposed to tell your computer what kind of file it is -- such as "DOC" for a Microsoft Word file or "JPG" for a photo. (Get the file's properties in Windows by right-clicking on the file or on a Mac by pressing Cmd-I.)
   Then look up the file extension at www.openwith.org, a site that lists thousands of free programs that will open nearly every kind of file. Files are listed by their extensions, and every program associated with files is linked to a download site. Most of the free programs are for Windows, but there are many Mac and Linux programs as well.
   Don't celebrate yet. You can install a free utility that can make your computer automatically open the correct programs (once you've installed them) for oddball files.
   The one for Windows is Default Programs Editor, from defaultprogramseditor.com. It can easily organize file associations in ways Windows can't do alone. It's easy to install and goes to work right away.
   The one for Macs is RCDefaultApp, from www.rubicode.com/Software/RCDefaultApp. It's also easy to install and simple to use.
   I use both of these programs on my Windows and Mac computers. They've made my life at the keyboard much easier.