04 October 2008

#76. What I Did Last Summer

Hello again, dear Tool Bar & Grill patrons. Yes, I’m back after a summer-long hiatus, along with my colorful colleague and Linux Room manager Mark Lautman. I apologize for having been too busy to blog lately. I finished a big documentation project for my principal client, caught up on some personal and family matters, and even got married to the lovely and patient Louise. And along the way, I discovered a few new tools to make my computing life easier and more efficient.

No-Thinking Syncing

I don’t think much about synchronizing any more. I might just have found the synchronization solution I’ve been waiting for.

Loyal Tool Bar & Grill patrons might remember that I have been searching high and low for the perfect file and folder synchronization tool (see post #58). I continued to use my favorite, Allway Sync, having found some ways to avoid bumping up against the free version’s limit on the number of files (for example, by zipping multiple files into one). And I found some other sync utilities that met some of my needs, but not all. But this still means remembering to bring my USB flash disk with me to work and back home again, and remembering to take it out of my shirt pocket before it goes in the washing machine – and my memory isn’t what it used to be.

The alternative is syncing over the Internet. I hesitated to trust my precious data to the cloud. But I am constantly on line anyway, and the advantages are enormous. So I looked into a few Web-hosted services, such as BeInSync, which requires a paid subscription. And I tried out Microsoft’s free Windows Live FolderShare, but it has other drawbacks, such as requiring all synced computers to remain on line and littering my hard disk with temporary files.

Then, while I was wait-listed for its beta trial, Dropbox became available to the world in early September. Now I don’t have to think about syncing, because Dropbox does it all for me. Dropbox automatically (and quickly) encrypts and synchronizes the contents of the folders you designate on each computer you register. You get 2 GB of backup storage on line, including older versions of updated files, and you can buy more space when you need it. So when I get home at night, I find all the files I worked on in the office waiting for me when I go on line. I can work some more, and the updated files will be on my office computer the next morning. I can also find my files on the Dropbox site.

Dropbox is not without drawbacks, but they are minor. First, of course, is the reliance on the Internet, but there’s no way around that. Also, you have to move any folders you want to sync into the My Dropbox folder under My Documents, so your folders are already buried a couple of layers deep. I already have gotten used to navigating straight to My Dropbox, and bookmark tools (such as Favorites, or the bookmark function in xplorer2 or FileBoxExtender) help.

Dropbox is not alone; its main rival is Syncplicity, which is equally simple and efficient. Syncplicity’s added advantage is that you can designate folders to sync in place, without moving them. However, Syncplicity’s free 2 GB account is limited to two computers, and when Syncplicity comes out of beta, it will start charging for this account too.

Microsoft Live Mesh, currently a “tech preview,” is another promising Web-hosted syncing and backup service. Live Mesh promises 5 GB of free storage. I look forward to trying it out soon. In the meantime, I am delighted to have found Dropbox.

Travel Cheaply

I have had to plan a lot of travel lately, and am happy to rely on the SideStep.com travel search engine to find flights, hotels, and rental cars. SideStep searches many other sites (claiming about 200), including those of individual airlines, hotel chains, and car renters as well as other aggregators such as Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Cheaptickets. Besides saving a lot of time and trouble, SideStep presents its results clearly and usefully. Better yet, in my comparisons, SideStep always found the cheapest price.

If you observe that Kayak does the same, take note that Sidestep and Kayak have merged, so you’ll get the same results from both.

Great New Updates

Some of my favorite programs have been updated recently. Notable among them is Picasa from Google, among the best free photo management utilities. Its new version 3 offers more and better picture-editing tools and even smoother integration with the Picasa on-line photo sharing service. The Web service also recognizes faces, so once I tag my adorable grandson's picture with his name, Picasa on-line will tag every other picture that includes him with his name. It's a cool
idea, but don't expect perfection.

My favorite timesheet shareware program, TraxTime, is now even better with version 5. I use it daily to punch in and punch out of client projects, and recommend it to anyone who needs to keep track of their work time (see my review in post #22). When I recently got a new computer, I tried a number of free time clock utilities, but none met my needs, and I bought the TraxTime upgrade.

Now let’s find out what Mark has been doing in the Linux Room all summer. I think I smell fresh paint back there....

It’s a Colorful World

by Mark Lautman

“Boss, you can’t go out like that,” said Peter, my trusty bartender.

“Out like what?” I asked. Except for hands and head, I was fully clothed in an impeccable hand-tailored suit recently purchased in Hong Kong.

“Your Mojave Gold tie clashes with the Hampton Green socks. Everyone will notice.”

“Oh, really? And what color does go well with Mojave Gold?” I asked.

“I’d go with a Beachwalk Brown,” he replied.

“Peter, we run a bar here, not a lipstick counter! So get your Pineapple Fizz rear end back to work before all our customers run out on us!”

Matching colors isn’t easy for a lot of people, myself included. I’ve been chastised many times for wearing brown socks with blue pants, or for creating Web sites with hallucinogenic colors. Fortunately there are lots of good tools to help us navigate these treacherous waters.

ColorSchemer has a basic online tool for matching colors. This page provides a pallet on which you click, and the Web page responds with a variety of matching colors. The online tool I like better is at DHTML Goodies. This site has multiple ways for precisely selecting your initial color, and displays all the mathematically complementary colors.

Colors are used in more than computing, of course. For those looking for ways to brighten up a home, the Behr paint company has a fabulous color coordinator called ColorSmart. The site is designed very intuitively, giving you options for matching trim or main colors.

Sherwin Williams, as well as other major paint suppliers, provide similar tools.

EasyRGB is the Internet’s Travelocity for paint manufacturers. You type a red-green-blue value, and EasyRGB returns the manufacturer’s product with the closest match. In the following example, the closest colors Sherwin Williams has for midnight blue (RGB = 25,25,112) are Morning Glory, Honorable Blue, Valiant Violet, and Full Purple.

I’ll be extending the use of color checkers to our menu in the Linux Room. I wonder what color ketchup goes well with tuna fish? —Mark Lautman

I hope you’ll all come back for more great utility and Web site reviews at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, and bring all your friends. You can also help keep this blog alive by visiting our advertisers. Though my schedule is still packed, I will try to post useful new information as regularly as I can. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.


  1. Glad to have you back & mazal tov!

  2. Congrats on your wedding! And welcome back! = )

  3. As usual, a very useful and entertaining post. Dropbox sounds like a winner to me.

    Happy New Year!

  4. Ditto, on "glad you're back." My syncs are mostly computers on a local net, but the availability of tools that use the Internet brings a whole bunch of useful ideas to mind.

  5. I discovered Dropbox two days ago, and it is indeed brilliant. Tip I learned: create symbolic links from the dropbox folder to the folders you want synched. That way you don't let Dropbox dictate your folder structure, and as a side bonus, you avoid the annoying green checkmarks on the file icons.

  6. Well Jonathan you did indeed have a good excuse for being away! I am very pleased to see you back. As always your reviews are very useful.

  7. Dear readers, thank you very much for your kind words. I'm glad to be back to blogging, and will try my best to keep up a steady stream of reviews and recommendations of useful utilities and Web sites. (You can help by visiting our advertisers -- and not just the Pam Anderson one, guys!)

    Noam, your Dropbox link idea is very clever. However, I really like and use those green checkmarks that tell me that my files have been synchronized. And I've already gotten used to my folders' new locations.

  8. Welcome back!

    You have probably noticed that DownloadSquad reviewed Synkron on Mon Oct 6. I'm downloading it now but DownloadSquad feels it is better than the free version of Allway Sync. Interested in your impressions.

  9. Finibus, thank you very much for your hint about Synkron. I have downloaded it and will try it out as soon as I can.

  10. I enjoy your blog Jonathan and have gleaned many useful tidbits of info and learned about utilities that were previously unknown to me. However in your latest post, the following jumped off the page at me. "In the meantime, I am delighted to have found Dropbox". Men don't use the word "delighted". Please Jonathan, put this word in your autocorrect dictionary and replace it with an appropriate, manly word. I won't suggest what word to use - you are a profesional writer and I'm sure you will come up with the gender correct equivalent.

    Mr. Lee

  11. Dear Mr. Lee: Thank you very much for reading my blog, and for taking the trouble to write in and share your thoughts. In future columns, I will try to be more careful in my choice of words -- although I checked a number of dictionaries and consulted with a grammar expert (the lovely and linguistically literate Louise), and found no evidence of the rule you cited that men can't be delighted.

  12. Congratulations on your marriage :)

    You’ve been quite busy! The leaving USB in clothes and ending up in washing machine made me chuckle LMAO.

    The synchronization reviews you posted are great! The synchronization over the internet is popular, but I am weary of letting a company handle my files and put them online though. One thing I used to do is have a FTP server (SERV-U) setup on my home computer to download files from wherever I am with Filezilla Portable edition and have my FTP locked to an external hard drive and also my comp was protected with firewall and additional measures so that "visitors" won't intrude :D

    For synchronizing on my computer alone I use Total Commander.

    Its funny I use Kayak.com for traveling as well :D

    For keeping track of client work I use Xpert Timer, but I may try your suggestion Traxtime to see how they differ, that’s the beauty of shareware :D

    I actually use Color Schemer Studio :D

    LMAO @ "I wonder what color ketchup goes well with tuna fish?"

    Great informative post!

    My Latest Video Tutorial: Default Browser, How To Set In 2 Easy Steps Any Browser In Windows To

  13. Hi, its great to find people that introduce good programs.

    As for syncing files from usb or network drive i found myself a great program called DSynchronize (http://dimio.altervista.org/eng/)

    its really simple and can sync even in realtime.

  14. Imre, thank you for visiting and for your comment. I did evaluate DSynchronize and liked it -- the interface is a bit difficult to figure out, but it has most of the functions I want in a sync tool. Another reader recommended it to me after my last sync tool roundup (post #58). However, since then I decided to try Web-hosted syncing with Dropbox, Syncplicity, and others, and never looked back. I am very happy with my current arrangement. But thanks again for the great suggestion.

  15. Congrats on your wedding! I have also used bookit.com for hotels, they seem very reasonable on there!

  16. I (perhaps questionably male) was delighted to find the link to the Behr color selection program. I visit your site all too infrequently, but it appears I visit about as often as you update! I look forward to your next update and will add your site to my RSS. Hope all is well and you're just too busy to update your blog.


  17. Mike and Online Data Backup, thank you very much for writing in. I regret that I simply have been too busy to maintain my blog. It took a lot of time and energy, which I needed for other pursuits that either generated much-needed income or were personally important, such as my new grandson and new wife. Sadly, therefore, I doubt that I will resume blogging. However, there are many other good blogs that cover the same territory, for example, FreewareGenius.com. I do appreciate your loyal readership, and am sorry to disappoint you and the other readers who have asked what happened to me.

  18. Hi Jonathan:

    Since I downloaded it on Oct 6/08, I've been using Synkron http://synkron.sourceforge.net/ with great success to sync files between a couple USB drives and my hard drive. Haven't tried it over a network though.

    The default interface is rather sparse [that's good!] but a number of sync options are available simply by clicking the "Advanced" checkbox at the bottom left. The default interface uses tabs. The nice feature of the tabs that they are automatically named upon creation [ie., "Sync # 1", "Sync # 2"] but can be named & renamed very easily. By default, each tab offers two sync folder labels but an extra folder label is added each time the "+" button is clicked. Each folder label is followed by a "Browse" button to enable direct addition/change of the sync folder's location.

    Synkron does offer extension-based file filters as well as a related "Blacklist" but I use them only to prevent copying of backup and temp files. Note that the Blacklist can also exclude entire folders as well as specific files and files with specific extensions.

    The only major function I haven't used is "Multisync"; I'm not sure what it does and thus am afraid to try it.

    So far, the biggest sync job I routinely use involves comparing about 4,000 files in 6 folders [plus subfolders] across 2 USB & one hard drive. The only fault is that the "Sync" function doesn't remember the results from the "Analyse"-only function; it re-analyzes for file date changes, thereby slowing the synchronization process. This slowdown is particularly noticeable when slower/older USB drives are involved [due to inherent USB data transfer speed limitations].

    Although I use it exclusively in manual mode, Synkron does have a scheduler but doesn't offer real-time on-change syncing. Nevertheless, I've been very pleased with Synkron. A portable version is also available.

    Today, I noticed Fling http://www.nchsoftware.com/fling/ on DownloadSquad and AppScout. It is quite small, free, and apparently offers syncing across networks and over the internet via secure FTP. Worth a look as it seems to be more in line with what you were seeking.

  19. I know what you did last summer... And I am very impressed! This post gives me some good ideas on what I can do this summer. Thank you.

  20. Hi Jonathan,
    You said in one of the previous comments: I'm glad to be back to blogging, and will try my best to keep up a steady stream of reviews and recommendations of useful utilities and Web sites.

    Well, so far you're not very successful in trying :o)

    I used DropBox for some time too. But the fact I had to move my files didn't feel right. Now I'm using SugarSync and I'm quite happy with it. The free version is limited to 2PC's and 2GB storage, but that's OK for me since I mainly use it to the sync between my home PC and my PC at work:
    - the (encryoted) data files of my password manager(s)
    - my todo list and
    - some documents I always want to have at hand

    Kind regards,
    and I hope to see you blogging again very soon.

    an addict of small, preferably portable, applications that make my digital daily life easier.

  21. Dear Geert (Zzynks): Thank you very much for your comment. You are quite right, it has been very difficult to find time to write blog posts. I have been very busy with my paying clients, my children, my new wife, and my new grandson. However, I have been storing up ideas for new topics, and started a few posts that I hope to finish and publish soon.

    I have seen very favorable reviews of SugarSync, but the 2-computer limit troubles me, as it also did with the similar Syncplicity. Dropbox is more flexible in that regard. I quickly got used to keeping all my synced files in the Dropbox folder and its subfolders, after moving them there at the beginning. For those who don't want to move folders, though, and who don't mind the 2-PC limit on free accounts, SugarSync looks like an excellent option.

    Meanwhile, for pure Web-hosted backup (without automatic synchronization capabilities), I've been trying Microsoft Live Skydrive (25 GB), Humyo (25 Gb for media files), and most recently, ADrive (50 GB free!).

    Thank you again for visiting my blog, and I hope I can provide material for future visits sometime soon.

  22. Jonathan, so glad to see you back. However, I seem to be having trouble getting your feed back into Feed Demon.

    I've been using Syncplicity for over a year now in order to keep files sync'd between my two offices. I like it so much I pay the annual fee in order to keep most of my important files in sync.

  23. Johnathan,

    I'm a longtime reader of your blog. I read you're saving up ideas. I keep checking back to see if there is anything new. Much to my dismay, nothing of late. Hope you eventually find the time to start writing again as your blog is fantastic.

    Thanks for the good words!

  24. Tom, thank you very much for writing. I apologize for not keeping up my blog. It took me around 10-12 hours a week to research and write it, and after a couple of years of hat I just couldn't keep up with real life. I started it as a labor of love, and enjoyed the many compliments I got from loyal and appreciative readers like you. But I found it hard to keep justifying the time when the effort put no food on the table (very few readers clicked on the ads, so I made no money).

    I do hope your blogging experience is better. I've just visited your blog again (www.becoming-a-writer-seriously.com), and was very impressed by its quality, design, and range of content of interest to writers (including me).

    I don't know why my blog's RSS feed doesn't work, except perhaps that there is no new material to feed. I do maintain and update my bank of ideas for future posts in the hope that someday I will return, but regrettably, I can't do it now. And I see that you have to click the comments link at the bottom of my last post to see the comments, I suppose because there are so many now. I hope that works.

    Finally, if you like Syncplicity, try Windows Live Mesh (www.mesh.com), which syncs and backs up in the cloud and gives you 5 GB free (and 25 GB if you use MS Skydrive for cloud storage). I haven't gone over to Mesh and Skydrive yet because I still haven't used up my free 2 GB with Dropbox, but eventually I will.

    Thanks again for contacting me, and best of luck with your wide-ranging endeavors.

  25. Wormmyone, thank you, too, for taking the time and trouble to write. My reply to Tom explains again why I have not been posting new material. I am very grateful for the loyal attention of you and some other readers, and hope I can reward it with more new posts -- but I can't do that now. Thanks again!

  26. It was certainly interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.