Google Notebook Upgrade

I’m going to be starting college soon and when I do, I’m quite certain that Google Notebook will be one a vital research tool. As a result, I’m quite interested in any updates or changes that happen to the service. Google Notebook recently got a facelift, and I like the changes. It looks sleeker, more streamlined and web 2.0-ish and seems to borrow some elements from the Google Docs UI. The major functionality upgrade comes in the form of basic text formatting tools right at the top of your screen, making it simpler to add quick notes with some simple formatting. You can also alphabettically organize your notebooks and add maps to them. All in all, a good upgrade.

I’ve always considered Google Notebook’s UI to be sleeker with fewer frills than the Clipmarks UI, and this recent upgrade makes me love it all the more. Of course, I’m still waiting for Zoho Notebook to be released, becuase it looks like it will be one hell of a show-stealer. And for all you fellow Google lovers out there, April 1 is just around the corner so keep your feed readers and browsers listening for Google’s customary April Fool’s Day joke.

Firefox Extensions I Couldn’t Live Without

One of the major things that makes Firefox a great browser is the vibrant community of extension developers that have grown up around it that makes a growing number of little programs that makes your browsing experience that much better. There are over two thousand extensions on the official site and they can supply your browser with a feed reader, blogging client, FTP client, music controller and a host of other tools. Here’s a list of my favorite extensions:

1. Del.icio.us Bookmarks

Since I move between computers and operating systems rather frequently, it’s good to have my bookmarks somewhere where I can always get at them. Del.icio.us lets me store and organize my bookmarks online and this extension brings the service into the browser. It lets you save bookmarks along with tags and comments also creates a toolbar and menu allowing direct access to your bookmarks, without having to visit their site.

2. DownloadThemAll

This is a download manager which makes the default download manager look like something out of the stone age. Not only is the interface much nicer, it packs a punch under the hood. You can download all the links on a page with a click (hence the name), pause and restart downloads, set priorities and queues and setup filters for different filetypes. And if you’re on a slow connection, you also get a significant speed boost.

3. Greasemonkey

Take back the web with this masterpiece of an extension. It lets you use pieces of code (mainly JavaScript) to alter the way various websites work. You can write scripts to club together various internet services, gather data from various sites and put them together or simply just change the look and feel of your favorite sites to suite your tastes. There are a number of scripts available at Userscripts.org and you’re sure to find something that you can put to good use.

4. GSpace

Turns your 2.8 GB Gmail inbox into an online file storage solution. It looks and acts like an FTP client, letting you upload and download files in bulk, rename them and put them into folders. Once you have this up and running you’ll probably never want another way to store files online again. This one of the few extensions to have actually been bought by a large company, in this case, FON, who plan to use it as part of their wireless storage technology.

5. FireFTP

While GSpace may look like an FTP client, this is one. It’s a full-featured FTP client with message logging and support for multiple FTP accounts. There’s also a handy little feature where you can right click on a file and “View it on the Web”. Handy if you’re a web developer and can’t remember what that oddly named file is supposed to do. And for those of you worried about security, there is support for SSL encryption, so you can rest assured that your data is safe.

While these are the ones that I currently use the most, there are a lot more useful ones out there. You might want to check out my Superfox Series for some more cool extensions (and web services) that will make your life easier.

Top Web Tools for Students

Being a student myself, I have to use the Internet regularly for things like projects, papers and sometimes just looking for new things to do. Here’s a list of online services that will make your life as a student easier.

1. Mozilla Firefox Web Browser

If the internet is going to be a friendly companion, you’re going to need this. Standards compliant, feature-rich and most importantly, extensible. Opera comes in at a close second, but there a number of web services that still don’t work properly in Opera.

2. Gmail

The best webmail service on the internet. Not only does it have the largest inbox, it has the best spam filter I’ve seen and it’s use of filters and labels makes it a snap to keep your mail organized. If your working on a collaborative project, and documents that you’re emailed can be opened, edited and saved using Google Docs. Furthermore, using tools like Gspace or Gmail Drive, you can turn your 2 GB of inbox into an online file storage system. But that’s not the end of Gmail’s capabilities, here’s an article about using Gmail to do everything from storing bookmarks to managing your schedule.

3. Online Office Apps — Zoho

Zoho provides a wide-range of online, free office applications including a word processor, a spreadsheet program, presentation creator, a wiki and a planning tool that can come in very handy. Zoho provides a one-stop shop for almost all of a student’s needs. Everything can be stored online, shared with other Zoho users and exported to a number of formats including both Microsoft and OpenDocument formats. Zoho has recently tied up with a number of online storage providers, including OmniDrive, Box.net and myDataBus. Any documents stored in these services can be edited using Zoho’s tools and stored back, without requiring you to download a copy. Unfortunately there is no way to open email attachments with Zoho (at least not if you use Gmail). If integration with your Gmail account is a must, you might want to take a look at Google Docs and Spreadsheets, but it is an inferior product.

4. Google Search

Google Search can be an extremely powerful tool for online research. Unfortunately, most students simply don’t know how to use it properly and as a result, they often don’t find what they’re looking for. If you intend to make your use of Google more efficient, you’re going to need to learn some hacks. Google has a cheat sheet of simple operators and there is an interactive tutorial to help you learn more. And if you’re really determined to become a powerful Google Hacker, get the book from O’Reilly.

5. Google Notebook

This is just what it sounds like: a notebook. You can create a notebook and by using a browser plugin, you can select almost anything off the internet and save it to your notebook. The URL your information came from also gets saved which makes things a lot easier when it’s time to write references. You can reorganize your notes, add or delete them, or move them to another notebook. Once your research is done, you can export your Notebook to Google Docs, which means that you get a skeleton document to start off with (and a lot less copy/pasting). Sharing and searching is also supported, but the search is rather basic.

Clipmarks offers a similar service, and its plugin makes it somewhat easier to add content, but I feel the interface is unnecessarily cluttered and it provides more emphasis on sharing your information. And there is no export feature. Zoho is also working on it’s own Notebook product which should be out soon and from the demo video it looks like it’s going to be a killer app as well.

6. Online Calendars and To-do-lists

You won’t be much of a student if you don’t manage your time properly luckily the internet is there to help you out. There are a number of online calendars out there, out of which Google Calendar is the one I like. But 30Boxes is a strong contender and there are a number of people who swear by it.

While talking about to-do-lists, Remember the Milk beats them all. It’s simple, uncluttered and gets straight to the point. It’s also easy to integrate it into Google Calendar, giving you an all in one time management tool. If you want a heavier management system, you might want to look at Backpack, though its calendar is only in the non-free version.

Many of the above aren’t as feature-rich as their desktop equivalents, but that will probably not be a problem for most students. And of course all that is balanced by the fact that your data is available anywhere, anytime (as long as you have an internet connection). It takes some effort juggling multiple services, but if you invest some time in learning your way around, you’ll get better benefits in the long run. If you have your own can’t-live-without web services, do tell me and I might include it in a future update.

Saving and Making Money From Software

Since I started using Windows XP again a few weeks ago, I’ve been looking for good freeware products to spruce up my desktop. Thanks to Carol, I came across Give Away of the Day, a site which gives away each day, for free, a piece of software that you would normally have to pay for. While the idea is a pretty good one (both for the end user and the software maker), the things they have given away makes one think about the type of things people try to sell and the things that some people will pay for.

For starters, let’s take a look at Nature Illusion Studio, graphics editing software that lets you add “motion effects” such as running water, weather effects and some sound effects to your digital photos which can then be saved in a variety of formats such as AVI, GIF or as a screensaver or standalone executable. It costs $49.95 and if I was into graphics and animation in a big way, I’d probably consider that a fair price. Then there is the Earth 3D screensaver, that turns your screensaver into “a realistic space shuttle window!” The makers of this piece take obvious pride in the level of realism that this screensaver achieves, but seriously, would you dish out $17.95 for something that is, for all intents and purposes, a toy? Sure, there is the novelty value, but there are far better toys that you can get for the same amount, and the novelty will barely last a few days. There is also Chronograph, whose purpose in life is to keep your computer’s clock up-to-date, by syncing it over the Internet. Not entirely useless, but to do this manually would probably take less than minute every few months. Would I pay $19.95 for that minute? I don’t think so.

Of course, there are a lot of things that I think are very reasonably priced. Aston Shell is a good grab for $30, especially if you’re into customizing your Windows box. For all you audiophiles, AVS audio editor for $29 and Zortam Mp3 Media Studio for $24.95 might be worth the money. I would be interested in knowing how many copies of Chronograph or Earth 3D screensaver get sold per year and how many people actually use them over the long term. I suppose it would make a good case study for economics students.

Overpricing seems to be a rather common syndrome is the software world. Look no further than Microsoft and it’s 20+ year history and you’ll see that charging extra seems to be a way of life for them. I suppose it isn’t unusual for some people to take a leaf out of Bill Gates’ book and try to sell software at absurd prices, but there is one thing that is worth bearing in mind: in most cases you’re not selling something that does even 10% of what an operating system does. Is it fair to expect people to pay 10% of the price? Software like Photoshop or Flash Professional can charge upwards of $500 because they aren’t ordinary pieces of software. The people who are buying these tools are essentially making business investments. That $500+ is going to make them many thousands of dollars in the form of design or graphics contracts. So the next time you try selling or buying a piece of software ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the functionality justifying the price?
  2. If it’s something that will be used to earn a living (or get a degree), will the returns justify the investment?
  3. Will it be used long enough and often enough to make it worth it?
  4. Are there free alternatives available? If yes, does the paid product have a significant edge over the free ones?

After all, if you’re spending money on something that you will almost never use, you might as well just flush that cash down the toilet.

3 Linux distros to meet your every need

There was a time when Linux-based systems were exclusively for the technologically inclined, who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty with code when the need arose. But time goes on and things change. Not only can Linux now do everything that other operating systems like Apple’s OS X and Microsoft Windows can do, I’m willing to wager that Linux can do a number of things better than either of them. So here are three Linux distros that can meet your every need.

The Best General Purpose Distro: PCLinuxOS

This was the second Linux distro that I used, after Ubuntu and I think it is one of the best. It is released as a LiveCD, which means you can try it out to see if you like it and the installer is right in the LiveCD itself. It comes with over 2GB of compressed software on the CD meaning that you’ll probably find an application for everything that you need. In case you, installing new software is a snap using the apt-get/Synaptic. Synaptic is one of the best package management systems and the developers have done a good job of getting it to work seamlessly with the RPM package format.

Though PCLOS was originally based on Mandrake, it is now a completely new distro in it’s own right and I personally believe that it has in some ways surpassed Mandriva. Almost everything works out of the box, including support for mp3s (I’m not sure about DVDs though). If you’re a new user, then this is definitely the one that you’d want to use. The default desktop is KDE, without too much branding. It’s pleasing, but you’ll probably be changing it sooner than later. A brand new release (PCLOS 2007) is due soon with a host of updated software and new features, be sure to grab it once it’s out.

The Best Geek Distro: Arch

Linux wouldn’t be Linux if it weren’t for the thousands of computer geeks hunched over their keyboards at all sorts of unsociable hours. Gentoo is probably the geekiest of them all, where you have to compile all your own software, but my personal favourite is Arch. I like to think of it as something of a binary Gentoo. Arch is built from i686 optimized binary packages, which means that it is almost as fast as a compiled system without all the waiting around for everything to finish itself together. Instead of using one of the common package managers, the Arch developers made their own: pacman. Pacman is a fast, efficient, no-frills command-line package manager. There are a number of command-line switches which let you search for, install, upgrade and remove packages and there is a simple fire-and-forget way to install your whole system in one go with a single command. There isn’t an official GUI, though there are a number of graphical front-ends developed by the community.

The philosophy of simplicity carries over onto other aspects of the system as well. The install is a simple text-based affair and you’re expected to manually edit configuration files to get your system up and running. There are no GUI configuration tools in sight, the command line and the text editor is going to become your best friend. Arch isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re brave enough to get your hands dirty, you’ll be rewarded with near-infinite opportunities for customization and and endless supply of bleeding edge, up-to-date software. Arch follows an entirely rolling release schedule, which means that once you’ve installed your system you can use pacman to keep your system up-to-date forever without having to reinstall ever again. I’m willing to bet that even the hardiest geek will have a good time with this one.

The Best Portable Distro: Puppy Linux

Don’t have a laptop, but want to carry around your customized Linux system? Get a Puppy. Puppy is a LiveCD but unlike other live CD distributions that have to keep pulling stuff off the CD, Puppy in its entirety loads into RAM. This means that all applications start in the blink of an eye and respond to user input instantly. Puppy Linux has the ability to boot off a flash card or any USB memory device, CDROM, Zip disk or LS/120/240 Superdisk, floppy disks, internal hard drive. It can even use a multisession formatted CD-R/DVD-R to save everything back to the CD/DVD with no hard drive required at all!

The basic Puppy is about 86MB in size, but it is easy to add more software later. In fact, Puppy comes with a number of tools that make it fairly simple to make your own customized Linux CD with all your often-used software and data. You’ll find a number of such special Puppies in the user forums. If you’re a Linux user on the move, you’re going to fall in love with this Puppy.

You’ve probably realized that all of the above are somewhat small distros without the huge communities or corporate backing of more common distro’s like SUSE, Red Hat, Ubuntu or Mandriva. I think this is a plus because it means a smaller, more intimate community. In fact in the case of Puppy and PCLOS, the lead developers actually stop by the forums regularly to help out. There is also a shorter time between the time that a user makes a package request and when it is added to the software repositories. In PCLOS, there’s in fact a separate forum for requesting software and Puppy and Arch actively encourage users to contribute software to separate, semi-official community repositories.

Try them out, I think you’ll fall in love with at least one of them. Then come back and tell me about it.