Over the years I have found a number of applications which have made my life much easier. I thought I would share these with you. Believe it or not, almost all of them are free to use. I’ve grouped the entries into:
- Web 2.0 Applications
As the list has grown I’ve been asked for my top favourites. These are:
- Teamviewer – The ultimate way to control computers remotely
- Joomla – The best way to manage a web site
- Secunia – Essential – keeps all your software up to date
- Skype – Free phone calls
If you work in countries like China where there are national level firewalls restricting open access to the Internet, then you want the XeroBank Browser (was called ‘Torpark’). Based on Firefox, the xB Browser allows you to securely and anonymously surf the internet, bypass firewalls and website censorship. For enhanced privacy, xB Browser clears history of browsing and deletes cookies when you close the browser. The main advantages compared to other anonymous web browsers is that xB Browser requires no configuration, technical knowledge, or installation in order to achieve anonymity. xB Browser is open source so you can feel safe knowing what goes into xB Browser. Additionally, it is even portable on a USB stick so you can take it to work, school, or on vacation.
I’ve used it to access sites from China that are regularly blocked, such as Wikipedia, so I can attest to its effectiveness. It works by routing traffic through a series of ‘onion’ servers which obscure the originating address by re-routing messages through an unpredictable path. For more information check out the Wikipedia article (using xB Browser if you are currently in China!). Free.
Update 12/2007: I recently had some problems with TorPark in China and found another option which seems to be even easier – and more reliable. OperaTor. Based on the Opera Browser it also runs from a memory stick and has fully anonymous browsing. It worked when TorPark would not. Check it out at: http://archetwist.com/opera/operator
This is a great free program from Microsoft which is all that most of us need to ensure that our computers are safe from viruses and malware. Simple to install and use, the security signatures are updated regularly. No nagware, advertisements, or other bothersome features. It’s found and removed a number of nasties, as well as intercepted others. Highly recommended. Free
There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to fit an image into the viewer of your digital camera. That problem is history thanks to Microsoft’s Image Composition Editor (ICE). Free, yes that is an oxymoron when it comes to Microsoft software, it allows you to take a series of overlapping photos and then combines them into a seamless image.
For example, the following six images were taken in Armenia. I then imported them to ICE which combined them into a single panorama. Once cropped, I saved to a file. Free.
Raw Images (Taken with camera vertical – recommended!)
Imported and Stitched Together by ICE
One of the problems with DVDs is that they are usually only playable on a computer with the correct region code. While there is software out there which claims to be able to remove the regional codes, I found them to be unreliable. A much better way is to have a ‘Region Fee’ DVD Player. You use these to replace the default DVD player in Windows. After testing quite a few I decided on the ‘DVD X Player’.
Not only does it play DVDs, but also VCDs which are common in Asia. It will also let you record part of your DVD to an MPEG2 file or all of it to an MP3 file. I purchased the professional version for its ability to record 45 minutes of the DVD. Lets me take my exercise routines on the road without the DVDs. $50 for standard version; $70 for professional version.
In some countries you are not allowed to rip your DVD movies to hard disks. However, if it is permitted then you want to get a cop of ImTOO DVD Ripper Platinum. It will rip DVDs into a variety of formats so they can be played on everything from your iPhone to a computer. Great for backing up DVD libraries if you are a regular traveller. $46.
As an engineer I’ve often wanted to reproduce (or reanalyze) data which is in someone else’s report. This is especially true when I want to include an older figure which doesn’t scan well in a new report. The Excel application ‘Grab It’ is magical. You scan in the chart and then click on the origins and limits of the X and Y axes. After entering in the minimum and maximum values for the axes, you then click on each data point. The program creates an Excel workbook with the corresponding values for each (x,y) pair. $70.
Another joy of upgrading to Vista is that Windows Explorer’s FTP client no longer worked properly with my web server. This was solved by using FileZilla as a dedicated FTP program. Very powerful with all the features you want from an FTP client. Much faster than Explorer as well. Free.
Another program I’ve been playing with is Rightload. This program installs to your browser and you can right click to immediately upload files to a pre-defined folder. Free.
My favorite is Google Earth (GE). With its images of the entire earth – and now space – GE is very hard to beat. Yes, you have limited analysis tools available, even in GE Pro, but if you want to visualize the geography of anywhere on earth, GE cannot be beat. I use it with my GPS enabled camera, or GPS PDA, to easily map where I have been. Free.
If you do anything with Global Positioning System (GPS) data, then you should check out GPS Utility. This is an incredibly powerful application which will let you do everything from storing to manipulating GPS data. You can import/export data, convert between different formats, convert between datums, analyze data, convert/create waypoints, etc. $55.
For years I used FrontPage for managing my web site www.lpcb.org. One of the main functions for the site was to provide people access to engineering technical reports. As the library grew so did the effort of editing all that HTML. I decided to look for a better way and stumbled upon Joomla. An amazing Open Source ‘Content Management System’.
Not only does Joomla let you create and manage a web site, but there are a mind boggling number of extensions available which make it powerful beyond description. I found an excellent document management system and this has reduced my maintenance efforts by a factor of ten. Joomla can be set up to allow different users to create content, it has an array of style sheets available for different looks and feel, etc. When creating content I have found some issues with Internet Explorer, but otherwise works fine. One warning: it is database driven so you’ll need to have MySQL available on your web host. Free.
One of the challenges when your web site becomes very large is finding out if there are broken links. This is particularly a challenge with data driven CMS like Joomla. There is a solution: Xenu. This is a great program which will test all the links on your site, internal and external, identify broken links, and give you sufficient information to correct the problems. Free
If you don’t want to buy Acrobat check out PDF Creator which allows you to create PDF files by simply printing to the PDFCreator printer driver. Unlike may other programs, there are no annoying ads or popups. Other excellent options are PrimoPDF and the PDF Toolbox. For other PDF tools check out here. Free.
Have you ever been sent a PDF file and wished that you had all the information in a Word document or Excel workbook? Look no further. Able2Extract is a program which will convert the most PDF files into Word, Excel, Powerpoint, html, image and text files. It is very effective and has saved me many hours of retyping when OCR wouldn’t work effectively. $100.
I use Google Picassa for my images management. It catalogs all your images, lets you create albums, and share online. Images can be edited and retouched. One particularly useful option is the ability to create GoogleEarth files. These use GPS data to associate your photos with specific geographic locations. Free.
PowerPoint plug-in iSpring converts your PowerPoint presentation to an interactive Flash video with the click of a button. Not only is iSpring a great way to make your PowerPoint presentation more portable (not everyone has PowerPoint, after all), but as Digital Inspiration points out, an exported movie even preserves all of your slide transitions, animations, and hyperlinks. iSpring is freeware, Windows only, works with PowerPoint 2000 through 2007. Alternately, you can upload any presentation directly to the SlideBoom web site (which appears to convert and host Flash movies made with iSpring) if you don’t want to host the presentation yourself. Free.
When you’re in a shady internet cafe in Bangkok and you’re worried about rogue software logging your passwords as you type them, you need a USB drive with Neo’s SafeKeys on it. Neo’s SafeKeys is a small, mouse-based keyboard that shows up on your screen in different places each time you run it from your drive. You click the SafeKeys keyboard to enter your password, then select it and drag and drop it to the password field to bypass keylogging AND clipboard logging software. A great addition to your portable apps collection. Free. Another option is to have an online manager such as Passpack which gets around the USB key issue (can’t always use them).
The whole world talks for free … After e-mail, this is my main mode of communication, especially when I’m traveling. I use the Skypeout option to call land lines–it is only $0.021 per minute to North America. I far prefer Skype/Skypeout to regular phones. I just sit back and talk to my computer, listening on the speakers. Far more comfortable than having a phone to my ear. Free for calling other computers. Costs vary for calling land lines.
If you work on multiple computers you need to have a way of ensuring that the files on all the machines are synchronized. I have a work desktop, a work notebook, a home desktop, and three external hard drives all of which I keep synchronized. For years I’ve used the program ‘File Synch’ to do this. It is a simple to use program which compares two sets of folders (and subfolders). It shows which files are missing or different on the two machines. You can then decide to synchronize them, reverse synchronize them, update time stamps, etc. Other options are Microsoft’s Synch Toy which is free and the $30 Beyond Compare. $15.
One of the curses of being a geek is that one has to maintain the family’s computers. Nothing ruins a visit to the family than having to battle with their computer problems. It is even more difficult if the systems go down and you are nowhere near – a real problem with my parents and Canada, my in-laws in Australia and my living in Washington D.C., and working internationally. Oh yes, I also have to maintain my wife’s computer while traveling.
If this is a familiar scenario to you get the team viewer program. It is so simple to use that anyone can use it. One major advantage over other applications such a VNC is that you don’t need to do anything to the firewall on the router to get access.
The program works by you and the other person running the TeamViewer application on your machines. You enter the ID of the partner machine and they give you the password. Life is easier if you both have Skype installed so you can talk them through the process.
Once you have the password and are logged on you have complete control over the other machine (see below). You can copy files, update settings, etc. I’ve used it for everything from replacing drivers, updating settings, to finding lost files. Some of the very special features include a VPN and presentations. This is great software – try it! Free for home use.
Have you ever wanted to save a video from YouTube or another internet source? If so, this is your solution. TubeMaster is a great all-in-one solution for grabbing and converting audio and video from nearly any web site that can stream it to you. The no-install app launches as its own application with a built-in, tabbed
browser—simply launch it, head to Last.fm, YouTube, a site with proprietary Flash video, or nearly any other streaming media, and hit “Start Media Capture.”
The files you grab are lined up in a queue for you to decide how to convert and save, and TubeMaster’s built-in media search tool covers nearly 100 video and audio-sharing sites. There are browser plug-ins and apps that do some of the same things, but none quite as comprehensively as TubeMaster Plus. Free download for Windows systems only; upgrading to a paid version unlocks downloads from adult sites.
Compared to many blogging applications it is very easy to use with readily accessible formatting options.
It works with all blogs (so they claim) and I’m using it to write this post! Free.
This is absolutely essential software for all users. Secunia scans your computer and identifies all software which is out of date. It then gives you a link which, when clicked on, will download the latest software. Free for personal use.
As most users of Windows computers knows, over time they slow down. There is only one solution for this: to reformat the hard drive. However, if you have ever done this you know that it can be problematic finding the drivers for all the hardware you have on the machine. The best solution for this is the program Drivermax. This exports all your current drivers to a file where they can be reinstalled after Windows is reinstalled. Free.
One of the big problems with Windows is that you never know what has installed itself on your machine and is running in the background. Winpatrol is the solution to this. It allows you to review the programs that are running and to disable and even remove them. Free.
When e-mails get forwarded multiple times from older e-mail clients there can be problems with lines having one or more ‘>’ characters in it. These can also lead to problems with the lines being wrapped around so that they are broken in the wrong place. E-mail Cleaner will fix this. It removes the ‘>’ characters from forwarded e-mails and fixes the line breaks. Free.
AM-Deadlink is a great tool for managing your bookmarks in Internet Explorer or Firefox. It analyses the links and then gives you a list of those which are no longer valid. These can be easily deleted. Free.
Digital cameras save images at a much larger size than is required for many applications, especially if all you want to do is to use them in a blog or paste them into a Word Document. I used the ‘XP PowerToys’ image resizer but of course this wasn’t supported by Vista. However, I found the ‘VSO Image Resizer’ which works even better. You select the size of the images you want, select the images, and they will all be resized. If you want a more powerful tool check out the Xat system which is not free. Free.
Netstumbler is a powerful utility which will locate wireless networks–apparently even those which do not broadcast their SSIDs. Unfortunately, it only works for some wireless cards. Helpful when for some reason Windows will not locate the network even though you know it exists. Free.
If you ever have to edit an MP3 file – for example to shorten it – check out WavePad. It has a very simple to use and straight forward interface and after only a few minutes you will be editing MP3s. Free for basic edition.
Have you ever burned a CD to MP3 and found that there is a problem with the song names? Can be very inconvenient to have your MP3 labeled as ‘Track 1’, ‘Track 2’, etc. This is no longer a problem with the ‘MP3 Tag Tool’. This great program lets you edit the ‘Tags’ on your MP3 files and give them the correct information. Be sure to give the information in the ‘ID3v1.1’ and ‘ID3v2x’ boxes. Free.
This program (MRename 1.7) lets you rename multiple files – for example all your photo images instead of being ‘DSC00001.jpg’, ‘DSC00002.jpg’ could be renamed to ‘Christmas 07-01.jpg’, ‘Christmas 07-02.jpg’ etc. It installs in XP as an extension to the Windows Explorer browser so you highlight the files, right click and select the options. The learning curve is a bit steep, but once you understand how it works it is a real time saver. Free.
Have you ever had to reinstall an application but you can’t find the CD key? This program will solve your problems. It displays the ProductID and the CD-Key of MS-Office, Windows, Exchange Server, and SQL Server installed on your computer. You can view this information for your current running operating system, or for another operating system/computer – by using command-line options. Very useful when you need to reformat your hard disk. Free.
If you’ve ever wanted to take a screen shot, or even better part of a screen, Vista has a great program called the ‘Snipping Tool’. The Snipping Tool can take full-screen, particular window, any rectangle or free-form “snips” of your screen and open it in an editor. There you can highlight parts of the screenshot and draw on it with a free form pen of different colors, thickness and tip styles. You will find it under Start|All Programs|Accessories If you are not a Vista user (lucky you!) there are programs such as Snippy (free), Fastcapture ($20) and SnagIt ($40). The functionality increases with increasing price. Free.
When it comes to shutting down Windows 2000/XP one often has to have the patience of Job. It can take forever to do this, unless you have ‘Super Fast Shutdown’. One click and almost instantly the computer is shut down or rebooted. Install it as a ‘Quicklaunch Icon’ so you can get at it easily. Free.
Web 2.0 Applications
If you do group collaboration, check out Air Set. It is a powerful application which lets you share calendars, contacts, information online. I like the way that I can synchronize my Outlook calendar using their desktop synchronizing tool. The system will e-mail reminders to you about upcoming calendar items. Another good collaboration tool is Central Desktop. Free.
I used to be big fan of box.net for online file storage then I discovered dropbox which is an amazing program. You create a folder on your computer and then identify it as a dropbox folder. Anything put in that folder will be automatically synchronized to the web. You can share online folders with others. It is a magical program. Free.
As someone who travels for a living, I am the subject to interminable flight delays and cancellations–especially given the pathetic nature of the US airline industry. This site is wonderful. I can set up a trip in the site and it will send me alerts via e-mail and/or SMS (which I haven’t used) on the flight status. Free.
I’ve had my own e-mail server for many years, however, spam became a real issue. I migrated to Gmail since it has such a great spam filter, and is also much faster when using web access. One very nice thing about Gmail is that you don’t need to use the web to get your mail. You can set it up so that Outlook will download your e-mail from the Gmail server (this is done through the ‘Settings’ tab under ‘Forwarding and Pop’. You will still need your existing e-mail server for outgoing mail. So what happens now is that my personal e-mail email@example.com is redirected automatically to my Gmail account and I then download the e-mail – without spam – from Gmail. I have also synchronized my Outlook contacts to Gmail (unfortunately you need to manually export them as a .CSV file) so that I can access them while travelling. Free.
The online storage of health records can be useful if you are a traveler – ever wonder when you had that vaccination? I’ve be playing with iHealthRecord. It is a bit too structured for my liking, but serves its purpose. Microsoft has recently introduced its Healthvault which potentially could take it to another level as your health provider will be able to supply digital information for sharing with other providers. Free.
Zinkmo makes a copy of your IE and/or Firefox bookmarks on a secure server. You can log in and use them from the server which is very handy if you are on someone else’s computer. Even more useful, it will synchronize the bookmarks on multiple computers. I really like the way it identifies dead and duplicate links. A very useful service – try it, you won’t be sorry. Free.
If you want to start blogging skip sites like Blogger and go to WordPress. The main advantage WordPress has over the other sites I tried is there is much more user control. I also like the fact that you can download many different templates. Another option is to use Serendipity which was my initial blogging application. This is an Open Source application which you install yourself on your server. However, Worldpress offers much of the Serendipity functionality and is easier to maintain. Free.