Category Archives: Software

Two Online Storage Options (Box.net and XDrive)

To continue my recent interest in using multiple computers more conveniently, I’ve been seeking a new path: on-line file storage. I recently covered a way to store and synchronize Firefox bookmarks, history, and cookies (Google Browser Sync), and a way to write and store word processing documents on-line (Writely).

Today I will share a couple of ways to store regular files on-line.

If you spend much time hopping between multiple computers, such as work/home/other, sometimes it’s just convenient to keep certain files stored on-line. You always know that there will be a copy available if you need it. Even if you do not use multiple computers regularly, on-line storage is handy for archival purposes. If your computer crashes, you can rest assured that you have backups of your critical files. Let’s face it: keeping regular backups of your files is just smart, and there’s no excuse these days for NOT having backups. Hard Drives are rather inexpensive now. One can also “burn” backups to CD/DVD. On-line storage has the advantage of being off-site; in the unfortunate event that my house burns to the ground, I *still* have backups of my critical files.

On to business. There are quite a number of free file storage options available. Two that I’ve discovered that I like are Box.net and XDrive. The following is a comparison of the two.

Box.net
Storage: One gigabyte (free); 5-15 gigs (paid)
No advertisements
Easy sharing with other people
Limitations: Ten megabyte maximum file size (for free accounts)

While Box.net only offers a moderate one gigabyte of space for free, this amount should be plenty for the casual user. To make that space more attractive, Box.net offers a very slick flash-based interface. I had no trouble at all understanding how to use my allotted space. For ease-of-use, Box.net earns top honors. The largest downside is not in the amount of space, but in the restriction on file size for the free accounts. Ten megabytes is ok, but not stellar. I like to create password-protected archives of certain folders, and the resulting archives are often larger than 10 MB. I can get around this somewhat by splitting the archive into separate files, but this is somewhat inconvenient. Still, for free, one can hardly complain. Plus, there are no advertisements at all in Box.net, which is a nice benefit.

box-net.png

XDrive
Storage: Five gigabytes (free); 50 gigs (paid)
Slightly more cumbersome sharing
No limitation on file sizes
Somewhat cluttered interface

XDrive certainly offers more space for free, which is great. There’s also no limitation on file sizes that I’ve discovered. Earlier today I uploaded a single file that was over 350 MB without any trouble. These benefits come at a slight price, however. After using Box.net, the user interface for XDrive just seems clunky, and certainly more difficult to understand at first. Sharing files/folders is slightly more cumbersome as well, though not that much more difficult. Perhaps the main drawback of XDrive, in my opinion, is that it is a service provided by AOL. Yes, that’s right, AOL. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as one who feels that the AOL software package is practically a virus, this leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth. However, one is not required to install any extra software at all, so this point is negated. Also, if you already have an AIM screen name, you can use it to sign in for XDrive, so AOL integration can be seen as a good thing, depending on your perspective.

xdrive-pic.png

Final thoughts: Both services provide a great convenience for free: easy off-site backups that are accessible from anywhere, using any operating system. Personally, I use both services, though I wish I could combine the storage space and file-size capability of XDrive with the slick interface and ease-of-use of Box.net. Still, either program will get the job done.

Happy storing, and if you know of another free service that you like, feel free to comment below.

Discovering Writely…

Today I discovered Writely. Along the lines of Google Browser Sync, this free tool is useful for anyone who spends time between multiple computers. The difference here is that Writely is a free on-line word processor. Files are stored on-line, meaning that you can easily move from computer to computer and continue to work on the same file(s) without the “save – backup – move to other computer – save” shuffle.

Continue reading Discovering Writely…

Google Sync (for Firefox)

Do you have more than one computer, or do you find yourself in situations where you use more than one computer regularly (such as work/home)? Do you use Firefox?

If so, you owe it to yourself to try Google Browser Sync. This slick little extension for Firefox allows you to syncronize certain aspects of the browser across multiple computers. With Browser Sync, you can unify bookmarks, cookies, history, passwords, tabs, and windows “automagically.”

browser_sync.png


This is very convenient for me, as syncing bookmarks saves a lot of importing and editing time across multiple systems, and being able to close a set of tabbed pages and home and open them at work is very slick.

It serves its purpose well, but I would like to see an option to syncronize more aspects of the browser, such as themes and other extensions. Perhaps this will be possible one day. Until then, Google Browser Sync is a highly useful extension that can save lots of manual tweaking time.

Once again… detecting IE with PHP

The following is a remake of a post from my old site. I’m reposting it here due to its apparent popularity.

A friend sent me a link to explorer destroyer. It?s an interesting idea – detect whenever someone views your site with Internet Explorer and present them with the option to download Firefox. After some thought, I realized that one can use PHP to do a similar thing.

Continue reading Once again… detecting IE with PHP

Audio Player

I recently found a nifty plugin called Audio Player for WordPress. Its sole purpose is to embed audio files (mp3) into one’s WordPress site and use a little flash player to control the playback of said file. I think it’s pretty sweet.

To see it in action, go here. Look halfway down the page.

Windows XP Setup Guide

For some reason or other, you’ve decided to re-install Windows XP. Perhaps the registry was bloated and corrupted. Perhaps you ran into a bout of spyware and don’t trust the security of your system anymore. Perhaps a destructive virus laid waste to your filesystem. No matter the cause, you’ve said, “Enough is enough, Bill.” If you’re like me, you usually wipe the slate clean and begin with a freshly-formatted hard drive at least once a year. Since 2001, I’ve probably installed Windows XP for myself and others several hundred times. No kidding. The following is a personal guide that illustrates what *I* do upon a clean install. Some of my examples are for security reasons, some will remove bloat, and some are based simply on personal opinion and taste.

I make the following assumptions in this guide:

  • You have a Windows XP installation disk (Home or Pro), and NOT a recovery CD from an OEM builder (ala Compaq). Much of my guide will still apply if you have a recovery CD, but not all of it. I leave it to the reader to discern the differences.
  • You have a legal copy of Windows.
  • You have backed up your critical data and know how to restore it.
  • You know how to partition disks. This is necessary if you want to leave room for a Linux/BSD installation.
  • You actually know how to install Windows.
  • You are smart enough to USE THIS GUIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK. I am not responsible for any harm that you do to your system.

In a nutshell:

1) Create a CD that contains updates, drivers, and essential software.
2) Install Windows.
3) Install the service pack two update (and any other security updates).
4) Install device drivers.
5) Remove certain OS components.
6) Install a decent web browser, antivirus, and firewall.
7) Customize your GUI.
8) Disable unnecessary “features.”
9) Disable irritating sounds.
10) Optimize network settings.
11) Check for disk errors and fragmentation.
(Optional) Tweak registry settings.
(Optional) Create a custom, unattended install CD for future use.

1) Create a CD that contains updates, drivers, and essential software.

While this step could be considered optional, it will save you a lot of time once you’ve finished the initial installation. I recommend using a CD-RW (or DVD-RW) for this task so that you can update it later without using another disc. Data to add to disc includes:

  • XP service pack two plus any other post-SP2 updates that you find
  • All device drivers for your motherboard and peripherals
  • Major updates for applications that you want to install, such as Photoshop, SoundForge, game updates, etc.
  • A good web browser (don’t forget your old bookmarks), security / antivirus / anti-spyware software
  • Other applications that will fit on the CD, such as OpenOffice and iTunes

That is the bare minimum that I would add. Feel free to add to taste.

2) Install Windows.

You’re on your own here, but I will mention that I usually do this with the ethernet cable UNplugged from the computer. I also recommend that you use NTFS as opposed to FAT32. Good luck. See you on the other side.

3) Install the service pack two update (and any other security updates).

Congratulations, you made it through the initial install. The *first* thing that I like to do now is to go ahead and install SP2. At this point, you obviously have the least chance of causing a conflict with an existing application or device driver. Go ahead. This will take a while. When it’s finished, install any remaining security updates from the custom CD if you have any.

4) Install device drivers.

Once the updates are installed, it’s time to install device drivers. You did put these on the CD, right? Install the motherboard chipset driver first, then ethernet, audio, and video drivers (and whatever else you have). When prompted, reboot between driver installs, though I have pushed my luck by installing all drivers before rebooting.

5) Remove certain OS components.

By default, XP does not come with a lot of software, especially when compared to a typical Linux installation. Even so, I like to uninstall / remove access to certain components. Go to the Control Panel, switch to classic view, and launch ‘Add or Remove Programs.’ From there, click ‘Add / Remove Windows Components’ on the left side.

Add or Remove Programs

Uncheck Indexing Service, MSN Explorer (click ‘yes’ button to confirm), Outlook Express, and Windows Messenger.

6) Install a decent web browser, antivirus, and firewall.

Have you read my Windows Security Guide? If so, then you know how deplorable Internet Explorer is. I suggest using Firefox or Opera instead. Hopefully you already put this on your custom CD. For an antivirus, I suggest using an application like Grisoft’s AVG. Service pack two should have enabled the Windows firewall, but I usually disable it in favor of a third-party firewall, such as Zonealarm. To disable the built-in firewall, go to the Control Panel –> Network Connections –> Right click on your device and click ‘Properties’ –> Go to the ‘Advanced’ tab –> Click ‘Settings’ –> Now turn the firewall OFF. The security center will pop up and complain, but this will go away once you’ve installed a third-party firewall. Keep in mind that I do all of this stuff BEFORE plugging in my internet connection in order to give Windows a fighting chance against all the malware floating around on the internet. Sound unbelievable? Take a look at this article. Once your new browser, antivirus, and firewall are in place, go ahead and connect to the internet. Now is a good time to check if there are any other critical Windows Updates. If you’re interested, go ahead and install Windows Media Player 10 from Windows Update as well.

7) Customize your GUI.

Now it’s time to make that Fisher-Price graphical user interface (GUI) a little more livable. Here we go:

Under ‘Display properties’ (Control Panel –> Display):

  • Set your video resolution to its highest setting (Settings tab).
  • Change the color scheme to ‘Silver’ (Appearance tab).
  • Reduce the ‘Caption Buttons’ size to 20 (Appearance tab –> Advanced –> Change the ‘Item’ to ‘Caption Buttons’ and reduce the size).
  • Use ‘ClearType’ smoothing of screen fonts if you have an LCD monitor (Appearance tab –> Effects –> Change the screen font settings from ‘Standard’ to ‘ClearType.’)
  • Set a higher screen refresh rate (Settings tab –> Advanced –> Monitor tab –> Set the refresh rate to the highest supported)

General desktop settings:

  • Use toolbars, such as the Quick Launch and Windows Media Player toolbars. Right-click on the bottom toolbar, go to the toolbars menu, and select the toolbars that you want. If you use the Quick Launch bar, delete all shortcuts except for ‘Show Desktop’ and ‘Firefox.’ If you later install iTunes, you can also use an iTunes toolbar when you minimize the application.
  • Find ‘My Network Places.’ By default, Microsoft does a pretty good job of hiding networking functionality. Why? Stupidity, I guess. Let’s remedy this. Right-click on the start button, go to ‘Properties,’ click ‘Customize,’ and go the the ‘Advanced’ tab. Scroll through the list, making sure to put a check next to ‘My Network Places.’ I also set the ‘Network Connections’ to ‘Link to the Network Connections folder.’ You may also want to set the ‘System Administrative Tools’ to display on the All Programs menu.
  • Set a few desktop shortcuts. I like to have a clean desktop, but I do set a few shortcuts, namely My Computer, My Documents, and My Network Places. To add these, click the start menu, right-click your desired shortcut, and select ‘Show on Desktop.’
  • Find a better wallpaper. You’re on your own again for this one, but some nice places to look include http://wallpaper.deviantart.com, http://www.digitalblasphemy.com/dbhome.shtml, and http://art.gnome.org.

That’s the majority of my GUI tweaks. I like to focus more on functionality than pizzazz.

8) Disable unnecessary “features.”

Now it’s time to adjust some system settings. Some of these will collectively help to speed up your system, and others remove possible chances of security breaches.

Show all file extentions. Open any folder, such as ‘My Documents.’ Click the ‘Tools’ menu, click ‘Folder Options,’ and then click the ‘View’ tab. Look down the list until you see a checkmark labeled ‘Hide Extensions for Known File Types.’ Remove the check from that box. While you are in here, scroll down to the bottom and uncheck ‘Use Simple File Sharing’ (XP Pro only).

Under ‘System Properties’ (Right-click on ‘My Computer’ –> Properties):

  • Disable ‘System Restore’ (System Restore tab –> check the box to turn it off). Though this probably isn’t necessary, in four years I’ve never had a use for it.
  • Change ‘Automatic Updates’ settings (Automatic Updates tab). Select the setting that you desire. I usually tell it to notify me, but don’t download or install anything.
  • Disable ‘Remote Assistance’ (Remote tab). Uncheck the boxes to allow users to send remote invitations and to allow users to connect remotely to your computer.
  • Disable automatic restarts (Advanced tab –> Click ‘Settings’ under ‘Startup and Recovery’ –> Uncheck the ‘automatically restart’ option). This is Microsoft’s sneaky way of hiding the blue screen of death (BSOD). Granted, it occurs much less frequently than in the 98/ME days, but it still can happen, mainly when a device driver fails. When this happens, I want to know.
  • Disable error reporting (Advanced tab –> Error Reporting). I usually leave the option to notify me when a critical error occurs.

Automatic Updates_Error Reporting

While you’re at it, delete unnecessary users. [Right-click on ‘My Computer’ –> Manage –> Expand ‘Local Users and Groups’ –> Select ‘Users.’] I usually delete all users except the Administrator, Guest, and my own account (plus others that *I* have created).

9) Disable irritating sounds.

I get really tired of the Windows default sound scheme and usually opt to disable all sounds. To do so, go to the Control Panel, open ‘Sounds and Audio Devices,’ click the ‘Sounds’ tab, and change the sound scheme to ‘No Sounds.’ Whew. That’s music to my ears.

No Sounds

10) Optimize network settings.

Right-click ‘My Network Places’ and click ‘Properties.’ Now right-click your network device and click ‘Properties.’ Select the QoS Packet Scheduler and click ‘Uninstall.’

11) Check for disk errors and fragmentation.

Though this probably will not affect you after a clean install, it is a good idea to check for errors and defragment now and then, though not as frequently as required during the 98/ME days. To do this, open ‘My Computer,’ right-click your hard drive (usually C:) and select ‘Properties.’ Now select the ‘Tools’ tab. Click ‘Check Now’ to open the ‘Check Disk’ box, and select ‘Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors.’ Click ‘Start’ and go get a cup of coffee.

Disk Tools

To defragment, click the ‘Defragment Now’ button. The ‘Disk Defragmenter’ window should open. Select your hard drive and click ‘Defragment.’ Go get a refill on your coffee.

(Optional) Tweak registry settings.

If you are feeling daring, there are a number of registry tweaks that you can do to further customize your system. Hundreds of them can be found here. Be careful with these, as you can destroy your Windows installation by messing with the registry. Make a backup of your old registry first.

(Optional) Create a custom, unattended install CD for future use.

One nice thing to do to speed up this process in the future is to create a Windows XP Unattended Install CD. Instructions for doing this can be found here. In essence, you can create a bootable CD that partitions your drive(s), installs Windows with your serial number, user account name, additional Windows updates, registry tweaks, and additional software ALL without any interaction from you. This is a slick tool to have if you have the time and patience to learn how to do it.

There you go. You are free to install all additional software that you like. Have fun.

—- Brian Bondari —

10 Must-Have Free Applications for Mac OS X

01.19.05

The following is a list of free applications that greatly enhance Mac OS X at zero cost to the end user. I compiled this list with a few key points in mind.

  • The application has to be free. No shareware allowed. It IS ok if a free application also has a paid version if the paid version has added functionality, similar to AVG Free versus the paid versions in Windows.
  • The application should be relatively easy to use.
  • The application should do a good job at providing some specific functionality.
  • The application gets added points for beauty and elegance. After all, this is OS X.

I want to acknowledge that limiting myself to ten applications was difficult. Therefore, I decided to list a few runners-up at the bottom. I also want to emphasize that the items listed are in random order! All of these applications provide a different functionality, and ordering them by rank is futile and pointless. Finally, this is a subjective list; others will certainly disagree with my choices. I am fine with that. That said, here we go. This is *my* list of ten “must-have” applications for OS X.

—- (In random order) —-

1. Mozilla Firefoxhttp://getfirefox.com

About:
Firefox is a terrific open-source browser that blocks pop-ups and features tabbed browsing. While Safari is also a great browser, Firefox adds a more functional search box, and the availability of themes and extensions greatly enhance its looks and functionality. Want to control iTunes from within Firefox? Done. Want to completely block advertisements (including flash ads)? Done. Firefox also has a slick, “find-as-you-type” search feature.

2. Cyberduckhttp://icu.unizh.ch/~dkocher/cyberduck

About:
Cyberduck is a free, open-source FTP client that is also capable of handling sFTP. The “bookmarks” are a nice touch, and it even interfaces smoothly with TextWrangler (see below)!

3. TextWranglerhttp://www.barebones.com/products/textwrangler/index.shtml

About:
Once a commercial application, TextWrangler is now free. TextWrangler is a “high-performance” text editor whose sole purpose is to produce and change content, and it excels at manipulating generic text files and source code. Not only does it include FTP and sFTP support, it also interfaces seamlessly with Cyberduck and Applescript.

4. NeoOffice/Jhttp://www.planamesa.com/neojava/en/index.php

About:
NeoOffice/J is an aqua port of OpenOffice.org, which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, an HTML editor, and more. Because it runs natively in aqua, it uses the same fonts as other OS X applications. While it will not yet suit the needs of those who rely heavily of Macros and scripting, NeoOffice/J will suit the needs of 95% of users. (Aside: I have had a handful of crashes on startup with NeoOffice/J, but it is still impressive enough to make the top ten. This is still “beta” software, and will improve over time at no charge to you, the user.)

5. RsyncXhttp://archive.macosxlabs.org/rsyncx/rsyncx.html

About:
RsyncX is a implementation of rsync (a Unix tool for intelligently backing up files) that has support for HFS+ file systems and also utilizes a GUI. Use this powerful tool to make backups of selected files to another place on your machine or over a network. You can even use RsyncX to “push” a copy of your booted volume to a networked computer, bless it for either OS 9 or OS X, and then reboot the remote machine.

6. VLChttp://www.videolan.org/vlc/

About: VLC (VideoLAN Client) is an open-source, highly-portable multimedia player for various audio and video formats, as well as DVDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols. It functions well as a stand-alone media player, but you can also use it as a server to stream in unicast or multicast.

7. Audacityhttp://audacity.sourceforge.net/

About:
Audacity is a free, open-source audio editor. While not yet in the same league as the larger commercial applications, Audacity will easily fit the needs of someone who requires a simple, easy-to-use multi-track waveform editor. Be sure to grab the extra packages, such as Lame (for mp3 exporting), the VST-plugin enabler, and the manual.

8. WhatSizehttp://www.id-design.com/software/whatsize/index.php

About:
WhatSize is a neat utility that allows you to quickly calculate the size of a given folder, its subfolders, and all files contained within. While it is calculating, you can open subfolders to browse their contents as well. WhatSize also reports information about hidden files and cache files. (Aside: This is one of those slick little applications that you do not realize how much you need until you try it.)

9. BitTorrenthttp://bittorrent.com/

About:
BitTorrent is a tool used for distributed file sharing. It works by “seeding” files and tapping into the unused upload bandwidth of any computer running it. To use it, you have to upload while you download; no “leeching” allowed. While BitTorrent can certainly be used for “illegal” file distribution, there are many perfectly legal uses as well, such as downloading various Linux distributions. Use wisely.

10. Handbrakehttp://handbrake.m0k.org/

About:
Handbrake is an easy-to-use, open-source DVD to MPEG-4 (or AVI) converter. It can encode directly from DVDs or from VIDEO_TS folders. It also supports 2-pass encoding, picture deinterlacing, cropping, and scaling. It encodes audio in either AAC, MP3, or OGG formats.

Runners-up:

GIMP – http://gimp.org/macintosh/

About:
The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a powerful image editor. Though not quite on the level of Photoshop, the GIMP is a “creme- of-the-crop” open-source application that will easily suit the needs of all but professional graphic artists. The only reason that GIMP did not make the top ten is that it has to run in X11 as there is not (to my knowledge) a native aqua port, and this may cause confusion for people who do not have X11 installed.

Adium X – http://www.adiumx.com/

About:
Adium X is an open-souce, multi-protocol instant messaging client that is based on GAIM. It looks similar to iChat, but allows you to connect to different IM services from within one application. It is a “must-have” for those who like to chat. (Aside: I did not include this in the top ten because I do not really like to chat. Yes, it is personal. After all, this is an opinion piece.)

SoundFlower – http://www.cycling74.com/products/soundflower.html

About:
SoundFlower is an open-source audio system extension that allows you to “pipe” audio from one application to another easily. Once installed, SoundFlower simply shows up as another audio device. One example of a use for SoundFlower is to record streaming audio from iTunes into Audacity. I did not include this package in the top ten simply because most people would not have much of a use for it. Also be sure to check out “soundflowerbed.”

Blender – http://blender3d.org/

About:
Blender is an open-source 3D graphics creation suite that includes modeling, animation, rendering, post-production, realtime interactive 3D, and game creation, all in one package! You have really got to see it to believe it. While extremely impressive, this package did not make it to the top ten because of the rather steep learning curve. There are lots of great tutorials available on the web site though.

3ivx D4 – http://www.3ivx.com/

About:
While 3ivx is more of a codec toolkit than an application per se, it is important enough to include on OS X. Not only does 3ivx allow you to decode most MPEG-4 files, it allows you to encode video MPEG-4 at a higher quality and with higher compression than Apple MPEG-4. 3ivx is completely compatible with Quicktime and Quicktime- compatible encoding applications. The only problem is that it may have some issues playing certain AVI files. Though you can download a separate application from them to fix this playback issue, it is enough to keep it from the top ten.

MacTheRipper – http://www.ripdifferent.com/~mtr/

About:
This is an open-source DVD ripper that has the ability to remove CSS encryption. That said, it is intended for use on DVDs that you actually own. It works perfectly well, but due to speed issues it did not make the top ten, though perhaps that is not fair. Ripping the same DVD on my “less-beefy” PC only took one-third the time, and this may be an optimization issue with OS X or with my Superdrive, and not necessarily with MacTheRipper.

—- Brian Bondari —-
Copyright 2005