24 June 2007

#26: Back ’Er Up, Fellas

At the Tool Bar & Grill, we encourage all our patrons to cut calories, sample all the food groups in their proper proportions, eat plenty of fiber, and back up their computer files frequently. Everyone agrees it’s right, but how many really follow through?

Be proud of yourself if you bother to back up your files at all. Remember, though, if you copy your files to another folder on your hard drive, consider the consequences if your hard drive dies. If you back up to an external hard drive or to removable media (CDs, DVDs, etc.) and store them next to your computer, what will happen if there’s a fire or earthquake?

I know I would sure hate to lose all the letters and e-mails I’ve written to Shania Twain, so recently I started evaluating free backup utilities that make it easier to copy and store valuable data. I will report my findings in a future post.

The safest approach is to store file backups on safe media in a secure place other than where you work. One way to do that is to use the Internet. So today we review free Web-hosted backup and file storage services.

On-Line Data Backup

If you want secure off-site backup for free, consider the advantages of Web-based services: security (with encryption), immediate access from any computer, the ability to share stored files with others, and no need for buying, burning, and storing discs. On the down side, uploading lots of files can take a long time, especially for a full backup. (Later incremental backups take less time, and can be done in the background). And some sites limit the volume of file transfers or the total amount you can store for free, though you can always buy more.

Here are some of the major sites that are focused on backing up your data and are likely to be reliable. (The descriptions of all the sites assume you register for a free account.)

  • Xdrive: This AOL subsidiary provides 5 GB of on-line storage for free and gives you handy backup software that enables you to drag and drop files to Xdrive and to schedule unattended backups. http://www.xdrive.com/
  • Mozy: Provides 2 GB of on-line storage for free and relatively flexible and efficient backup software. http://mozy.com/
  • MediaMax: On-line storage up to 25 GB, but transfer volume is limited to 1 GB per month. The backup software is in beta, and is not as feature-rich as some others. http://www.streamload.com/
  • BeInSync: This service is primarily intended for synchronizing specified folders on two or more computers, but also provides 1 GB of on-line storage and automatic backup software. http://www.beinsync.com/

The following sites offer file storage but do not provide specific backup functions:

  • GigaSize: Unlimited storage for free, but for only 90 days. The size of any one uploaded file is capped at 1.5 GB, and downloads per day are limited. The provided file management software does not include automatic backup features. http://www.gigasize.com/
  • Files-Upload: Unlimited storage, but uploaded files cannot exceed 1 GB each for FTP transfers (300 MB for HTTP transfers). Downloads are limited to 30 files at a time, and files are deleted after six months if left untouched. http://files-upload.com/
  • MediaFire: Unlimited storage but limited to 100 MB per file. http://www.mediafire.com/
  • RapidShare: Unlimited storage but limited to 100 MB per file. http://www.rapidshare.com
  • 4shared: 1 GB of on-line storage, and basic file uploading software. http://www.4shared.com/
  • FileFactory: Limited to 10 files of no more than 300 MB each. Basic file uploading software is provided. http://www.filefactory.com/
  • Gspace: If you have a Gmail account, you probably have over 2 GB of mailbox space lying around empty. Gspace is a FireFox browser add-on that enables you to store files in your Gmail account as if they were e-mails. Uploading is slow, though, and don’t upload everything at once because Google might block Gmail accounts with large data transfers (such as 1 GB in a day). http://www.getgspace.com

If your primary backup needs are photographic, consider using backing up your photos and videos to one of the many picture-sharing sites. Among those with relatively generous on-line storage policies:

Update Bulletin: ZoneAlarm Firewall for Vista

ZoneAlarm is one of the most popular firewalls, and deservedly so. Last week, ZoneAlarm released its newest version, 7.1, which now is compatible with Windows Vista. It is free for personal and nonprofit use, and you can download it from http://www.zonealarm.com/. For users of Windows XP and earlier, I stand by my previous firewall recommendation, Comodo Firewall from http://www.personalfirewall.comodo.com/.

Note To Readers

This week I started experimenting with contextual advertisements in the blog text. When you mouse over the double-underlined terms, you will see advertisements for products that are relevant to those terms. The advertising supplier warns that it might take a few weeks to discover the most relevant links, so please bear with me. And please feel quite free to click on any of the ads in or alongside each blog posting!

We care about your health and your computer’s health here at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill. Please post your comments and suggestions below, or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And check back here next week for another roundup of helpful tools.

17 June 2007

#25. For Desktop Neatness Freaks

As your devoted Tool Bar & Grill chef, I admit to more than a touch of what the nice man with the white coat and butterfly net said is “anal retentiveness.” Apparently, this is a common ailment among chefs as well as technical writers. I’ll have to take his word for it, because they don’t let me have any books in here since I bounced them off the walls. Certainly, I can spend hours keeping my computer tidy and clean.

Organize the Desktop Clutter

I recently stumbled across 8start Launcher, a free utility for bringing order to the Windows desktop chaos. I don’t usually spend any time on cosmetic utilities like screen savers, launchers, and other desktop accessories. But I gave 8start a chance to organize my icons into categories and subcategories (called groups) when it got increasingly harder to find anything in the forest that was my desktop.

Here’s my desktop before 8start:

Setting up 8start through its graphical user interface (GUI) is very tedious. I had to create categories and at least one group under each category. Then I could select only one item at a time (shortcuts or files from the desktop, Start menu, Favorites, or My Computer) to copy or move into the group.

Using a file manager like Windows Explorer to set up 8start was a lot faster and easier – especially with a dual-pane file manager like my favorite, xplorer2 (reviewed in #5, 25 October 2006). After using the GUI to establish categories and groups, I could drag and drop multiple items into the 8start group folders. Soon I had nearly cleared my desktop of icons. (A few Windows system icons could be copied but refused to be moved off the desktop, as you can see below.)

Here's my desktop after 8start:

I am quite pleased overall with the new sense of organization that 8start Launcher lends my desktop. It takes more clicks to find and launch a program, but at least now I can find it quickly, and see it together with all other related programs.

Some helpful suggestions to the designers of 8start: In the setup GUI, 8start should remember my preference for moving rather than copying; I should not have to reselect the Move option for each file, and then confirm each move. Multiple file selection would be nice for each action. After each action, the cursor should remain where it is in the item list, rather than jump back to the top each time. And is it just me, or does 8start seem upside-down? It seems to me more natural to place the category buttons at the top of the 8start window and the groups at the bottom.

Otherwise, the 8start GUI is highly customizable. Many skins are available for download at the 8start Web site (the default out-of-the-box skin is shown above). And you can customize the button appearance, for example by adding labels as shown here for my Internet category:

You can download 8start Launcher version 1.4.1 (with Vista support) at http://www.8start.com, where you also will find a help file and additional skins. The author encourages PayPal donations, and I hope they will be used for English lessons.

Caution: If you decide to stop using or uninstall 8start, you’ll need to move your icons back to their original positions (use your file manager). 8start won’t do this for you.

Despite the tiresome initial setup, I can recommend that you try 8start. But for all I know, there may be dozens of similar free tools out there. If you have a favorite, please share it with the rest of us by commenting below or emailing jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

Update Bulletin

Last week I told you about Phrase Express. This week there’s a new version (4.1.12) with a new wizard for importing Autotext and Autocorrect entries from Microsoft Word. Visit http://www.phraseexpress.com for the update.

You also can obtain today's utilities, and thousands more, from C|Net's http://www.download.com. I especially like download.com for its Watch List function, which alerts you by e-mail to any new updates to programs you previously downloaded.

Thanks for visiting. Do come back next week for another snack at the Tool Bar & Grill, and don't forget to bring your friends!

10 June 2007

#24. Get Your Blah-Blah Out

It’s always words on the menu at the Tool Bar & Grill. Lots and lots of them. For us professional writers, words – and knowing how to string them together – are our stock in trade. So anything that helps us get the blah-blah onto the screen faster and easier is a blessing.


We’re all familiar with Microsoft Word’s™ time- and finger-saving AutoCorrect and AutoText features (or the similar functions of other word processors). AutoText spills out a predefined word or phrase when you type its assigned abbreviation and press a hotkey. AutoCorrect does the same when it recognizes the assigned abbreviation followed by a space or punctuation mark.

PhraseExpress brings that functionality – and much more – to every program you use. How wonderful it is to enjoy autocorrect and autotext in a relic application like FrameMaker. Or if I am writing in HTML for a Web site about celebrity couples of country music, such as Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, I don’t have to spell out their names more than once. I can just select a phrase, maybe “Tim McGraw and Faith Hill,” and add it to PhraseExpress with a unique abbreviation or hotkey. And I can do the same for “Mutt Lange and Shania Twain” or “Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn.”

PhraseExpress goes far beyond simply throwing text onto the page. You can organize stored phrases into folders. You can assign multiple trigger words or abbreviations to one entry, so if I’m creative enough to type “shouild,” “shold,” and “sohuld,” PhraseExpress corrects them all to “should.” And if one abbreviation applies to multiple phrases, PhraseExpress displays them in a pop-up list for quick selection.

You want more power? You can insert macros in boilerplate phrases that perform a specified action or insert dynamic data every time you invoke the related text. Here’s an example from the phrase library:

PhraseExpress also works in Web forms, instant messengers, and everywhere else. For example, I can spill out my name, address, or phone number with just a few keystrokes when buying things over the Internet. If I’m drafting a letter or a contract, I can insert standard boilerplate paragraphs instantly.

PhraseExpress is free for personal use, and a new version has just been released that supports Vista and well as previous versions of Windows. Professional writers and enterprises should buy the commercial version for $19.95 (or the network version, if you need it) from http://www.phraseexpress.com.

Some weeks ago I recommended Smart Type Assistant (#14, 25 March 2007), which also does an excellent job providing AutoText- and AutoCorrect-like functionality in all applications. However, Smart Type Assistant does not offer the extensive macro support of Phrase Express, and it costs $19.95 even for personal use. So my vote goes to PhraseExpress.

Important Updates

Lavasoft Ad-Aware is one of the best known and most effective free anti-spyware tools. Its brand-new version, Ad-Aware 2007 Free, is revamped with a new interface and, reportedly, much-improved malware detection and removal capabilities. While you’re downloading it from http://www.lavasoft.com, read up on the new Plus and Pro versions, which offer even greater functionality.

PKWare SecureZIP earned a glowing review recently in PC Magazine (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2121158,00.asp). I have not had a chance to try it out yet, but it appears to be a great tool both for compressing and extracting files from various kinds of archives, and for ensuring privacy by encrypting your files (it even supports public key encryption). SecureZIP integrates with Outlook to compress and encrypt both attachments and messages. And if you publish utilities, its ability to create a Start menu item and run a command from a self-extracting executable file can serve you as basic program installer. For a limited time, PKWare is offering this well-regarded tool absolutely free, so get yours at http://www.securezip.com and let me know what you think of it.

Blogs for Technical Communicators

This blog is now listed in the directory of technical writers’ blogs that Tom Johnson maintains at http://www.techwriterblogs.com/doku.php. (Johnson also writes the interesting “i’d rather be writing” blog at http://www.idratherbewriting.com and distributes his podcasts on technical writing at http://techwritervoices.com.) Not listed in the directory, however, is my companion blog especially for technical writers in Israel, http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill, so please pay a visit there, too.

I’ll be waiting for you again next week, right here at the Tool Bar & Grill, with another helpful review of great software. Please feel free to comment below or email your thoughts to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

03 June 2007

#23. Better Windows Accessories

Hello again from Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where I live just to tell you about great free or cheap utilities and Web sites that solve the little problems in your computing life – sometimes problems you didn’t even know you had. This week I recommend two desktop accessories that are big improvements over the ones provided with Windows.

See the Task You’re Switching To

Veteran Windows users know they often can flip more quickly from one open window to another by pressing Alt+Tab than by clicking the desired window’s button in the taskbar. When you press Alt+Tab, a small window pops up to show you icons representing all your currently open windows, with brief descriptions. The problem is that sometimes these are not enough to enable you to distinguish one window from another, and confusion ensues.

The solution is TaskSwitch XP Pro, which replaces the Windows function when you press Alt+Tab. TaskSwitch XP Pro shows more text and a live preview of each running application in a larger window. Now each window’s contents are immediately apparent.

You can freely configure the sizes of the preview and file list panes, font, and everything else about TaskSwitch XP Pro. Versions are available in various languages. TaskSwitch XP Pro can occasionally drag your computer’s performance down a bit, especially on systems with too little memory – but it’s still faster even than Kenny Chesney's marriage. Once you try TaskSwitch XP Pro, you’ll never want to go back to the basic Windows function.

TaskSwitch XP Pro works on Windows XP and 2003, and can run on Vista in compatibility mode, but only without the Aero interface theme.

I have tried a few similar free utilities, such as Microsoft’s TaskSwitcher Power Toy and Alt-Tab Thingy, but TaskSwitch XP Pro is my favorite for its appearance and configurability. TaskSwitch XP Pro is absolutely free from http://www.ntwind.com/software/taskswitchxp.html, though the author does accept (and deserve) donations.

Only the Paper Is Missing from This Calculator

Do you miss the paper print-out of the old calculator that sat on your desktop – your real desktop, not your computer screen? The basic Windows calendar accessory won’t help. However, Moffsoft FreeCalc will. This full-featured calculator includes a scrolling “tape” window that shows all your previous calculations. And if you really do want the tape, you can print or save it.

FreeCalc’s size and appearance are configurable. It is, as the name implies, free from http://www.moffsoft.com (donations are accepted), where you’ll also find a more sophisticated shareware version. FreeCalc runs on all versions of Windows through XP, but Vista is not explicitly supported yet.

Moffsoft FreeCalc is not the only free tape calculator, though it is one of my favorites. Another is the venerable TapeCalc from the PC Magazine utility treasure chest, but you must pay to enjoy the excellent PC utilities.

As always, I urge you to support your favorite freeware by sending contributions to the authors.

Please do stop back in to the Tool Bar & Grill every week for more useful tips on handy software tools and Web sites. And while you’re here, feel free to comment below or email your thoughts to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.