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LaunchMate and Switching Video Modes
By Thiravudh Khoman

On weekends, my youngest daughter Wow (a precocious 6-1/2 years old), wakes up earlier than the rest of the family. What she does when she wakes up is to tip toe over to an adjoining room, closes the door, turns on the TV (UBC channel 26 or 27) and then turns on her computer. Sometimes she plays games on the computer, and sometimes she just prints out a cartoon outline and colours it with coloured pencils.

Windows and Video Modes

Wow's computer has always been a problem for me. Not that it doesn't work properly - it does - but the fact that she and her elder sister Waew have been using it for a few years now means that they have a collection of older games which run in 256 colour mode as well as newer games which are best played with 64,000 or even 16.7 million colours.

Wow's computer is a Windows 98-based PC and Windows isn't particularly adept at changing colour depth (i.e. the number of colours displayed) or screen resolution (640x480 or 800x600 pixels) seamlessly. Windows 95 will always require a reboot if you changed either, while Windows 98 will offer to make the change for you without rebooting if you insist, and ask for confirmation that all is OK afterwards. In either case, you won't be able to make the change on the fly or without some technical interaction (which Wow wouldn't be able to handle).

This seems to be either a Windows or PC anomaly. I believe Mac's - and even eons ago, Apple II's - are/were able to switch video modes under software control automatically. And just as important, switch them back to the way they were when they were finished.

In Wow's case, she has to choose whether she wants to play her 256 colour games or her newer 64K colour games. She can't play both in the same session. If she wants to switch, she has to call me and I have to make the video changes (Control Panel, Display, Settings). Being a lazy sort of person, I find this to be a chore after the umpteenth time.

LaunchMate and Me

Frankly, I never went in search of a video switching utility, but quite by accident I found one. I was looking for a new toolbar/launchbar type of program to replace my Microsoft Office 97 shortcut bar (hereafter "OSB"). I've always harboured the suspicion that Office's shortcut bar was a drag on the system and wanted to try another one to test my theories.

After searching Winfiles.com (https://www.winfiles.com), I came across a program called LaunchMate (https://www.tdrware.virtualave.net/LaunchMate/). Like most of my recent acquisitions, I had my eye on freeware first and yes, LaunchMate is free.

After downloading the latest version (870kb), I removed my OSB from the startup folder, and started to customize LaunchMate so that it looks like my OSB. While LaunchMate's bar doesn't look exactly like the OSB, it's pretty close (figure 1). Also, LaunchMate is highly customizable. In fact, if you don't have experience customizing the OSB, you may very well have trouble putting this one together (I did at the outset) because there are no pre-defined buttons.

Feature-wise, LaunchMate can do what OSB does: "dock" on all four sides of the screen, either in "stay on top" or "auto-hide" mode. Programs, folders, shortcuts, and special system functions (e.g. show desktop, reboot, shutdown, etc.) can be assigned to buttons, and of course, programs can have command line parameters. You can also set up "categories" (OSB calls these just "toolbars") which allow you to save buttons in functional groups.

What LaunchMate has that OSB doesn't is an extensive array of colour customizations. Each button can have its own background colour, rather than just default light grey, and button shapes may be varied and separators re-sized. The toolbar itself can sport a spiffy graphic background rather than just a plain colour or gradient fill.

LaunchMate and Wow

LaunchMate's most interesting feature - at least in Wow's case - is that it allows her to launch programs and switch video modes on the fly (at least with Windows 98). You can specify the number of colours and screen resolution for each individual button/program and optionally have these reset back to the original settings when finished.

In a nutshell, this is what I did for Wow's computer. Programs which can run at the default 800x600 resolution and 64K colours are placed on the desktop. The 256 colour games, meanwhile, are grouped together in a LaunchMate window (when LaunchMate isn't docked at the sides, it looks like an open folder). And of course, Wow doesn't need to call me to switch video modes any more.

Final Notes

  1. Both Wow and I have used LaunchMate for a few weeks now and the program has fared pretty well. So far, the only problem I can see is that if the cursor is left on a LaunchMate button when a program is run, the program label bleeds through a program. This can be dismissed by moving the cursor over the button again.
  2. As I've hinted above, just because LaunchMate is easy for a child to use, doesn't mean it is easy to configure (even for an adult). It's not. Expect to spend a bit of time learning the ins, outs and how-to's of the program.
  3. By the way, games aren't the only programs that are rooted in 256 colour mode. At work we have some test programs which also require 256 colour video modes and I'm sure there are many more such programs out there. Guess where I'm going to install LaunchMate next?
  4. While I discussed using LaunchMate as a replacement for OSB, you can actually use both concurrently. In fact, this is how Wow's computer is setup. Her OSB bar is docked at the right, while LaunchMate floats as a window on the desktop.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman