29 July 2007

#31. Here Comes the Big One

Hello again from Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill. This week let’s sit in the corner booth and talk about what happens when size really matters. It’s an increasingly common problem that frequently causes frustration and embarrassment. More and more we hear questions like “How do you expect me to take that huge thing?”

Yes, sending big files used to be a hassle. The wired world’s needs to exchange more digital photographs, movies, music, and other large files sometime seem to outrun the network’s limits. Though Gmail (also known as Google Mail) allows you to send and receive email attachments of up to 20 megabytes, sometimes media files or collections run to hundreds of megabytes, or even over a gigabyte. But worry not; clever Internet entrepreneurs keep finding new solutions to our new problems.

Not for Flower Deliveries

FTP (that’s File Transfer Protocol – not FTD, the florist) is an old Internet standby for large file transfers. Using FTP has become much easier than in the old command-line days, when we had to remember arcane command syntax. Today many FTP utilities offer familiar graphic interfaces, usually resembling Windows Explorer. Highly rated examples include CoffeeCup Free FTP (available from http://www.coffeecup.com/free-ftp) and CoreFTP (free from http://www.coreftp.com/).

In fact, you don’t even need to install a new utility. Add-ons (also called plug-ins) for your Web browser, whether Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, or others, can handle FTP transfers without separate software. A good example is FireFTP for Firefox (free at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/684).

Even so, using FTP can be somewhat challenging for non-techies (for example, the sender has to learn how to set up an FTP server account). And FTP often is no longer necessary, now that a new crop of Web sites have simplified large file transfers even more. Read on….

For Heavy Lifting

Many Web sites enable you to transfer large files – even one to five gigabytes – for free. For starters, see my list of on-line backup sites in post #26 (24 June 2007) and my update about DivShare (#27, 1 July 2007). You can upload a file to one of these sites, then give your user name and password to the recipient who wants to download the file.

Is that still too complicated for you? Then you can just log on to a Web site and supply the location of your big file and the recipient's email address. The site uploads the file from your computer and sends an email notice to the recipient, who simply clicks on the link in the email to download the file. That is the promise of this selected list of free services:

Some other services are personal peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks, which are a bit more complicated and require both sender and recipient to download and install software. Examples include Civil Netizen (http://www.civilnetizen.com/), with a 4 GB per file limit; Pando (http://www.pando.com/), limited to 1 GB per file; and FolderShare (http://www.foldershare.com/), with a 2 GB limit.

For a very comprehensive list (without personal recommendations) of free file transfer sites, sorted by size limit, see the recent entry at the ever-helpful "Fix Your Desktop" blog.

I hope this information is helpful to you. If so, please tell everyone you know about my blog. Do send me your suggestions, either by posting comments below or by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And don’t hesitate to click on any advertisements that might interest you. See you here next week!

22 July 2007

#30: Now It Can Be Told

Thank you, loyal visitors, for tearing yourselves away from the new Harry Potter book long enough to read some real adventure at the Tool Bar & Grill. I’m sure you’re all wondering how this week’s installment will end – while I’m still wondering how to begin.

Pixel R.I.P.

Have you just bought a new laptop computer or LCD monitor? Before you do anything else – especially before you throw out the box – run Dead Pixel Buddy on it.

Dead Pixel Buddy is about as simple as a utility can get, and as useful. It displays one color at a time over the entire screen, making defective pixels (dead or undead) obvious.

Despite recent advances in LCD manufacturing techniques, even a single bad pixel can drive you nuts. Dead Pixel Buddy ensures you won’t be stuck with a defective new screen because you didn’t notice the problem right away.

Dead Pixel Buddy is free from http://www.laptopshowcase.co.uk/downloads.php?id=1, but is not Vista-ready yet.

Desert Island Disk

Remember the famous “Desert Island Disks” radio show, where celebrities would choose the eight or ten records they would want when stranded on a desert island (presumably, a desert island with a stereo system)? I faced a similar choice recently.

I had to set up a few laptops at one time for various family members. So I decided to load one CD with the essential free utilities that I intended to install on all the computers. This made me think (I hate when that happens!) about the most important tools that every computer user should start out with.

Here is my list (in no particular order) of the gotta-have utilities that I installed on the new computers:

  • xplorer2 lite file manager
  • ZipGenius for file compression and extraction
  • Firefox browser (in a future post, I’ll share my favorite add-ons)
  • AVG Free antivirus (or one of several other equally good ones)
  • Comodo firewall (ZoneAlarm Free is a fine alternative)
  • WinPatrol start-up and process manager
  • Spyware Terminator or Spyware Blaster real-time anti-spyware
  • Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy anti-spyware (one can’t be too careful)
  • Windows Defender anti-spyware (what the heck, it’s free)
  • SpamFighter anti-spam (one of various good tools)
  • CrimsonEditor text editor
  • ArsClip clipboard manager
  • Advanced Windows Care Personal Windows and Registry maintenance
  • TClockEx or AlfaClock tray clock enhancer

The following favorite utilities are not essential start-up gear, but are nice to have and fit on the CD:

  • Copernic Desktop Search
  • CFi Lockdown Caps Lock alert (one of many good alternatives)
  • FileBox Extender for shortcuts to most-used files and folders
  • Foxit Reader (PDF reader)
  • ToDoList (task list manager)
  • TaskSwitchPro (Alt-Tab task switcher)
  • WordWeb (dictionary)
  • VoluMouse (volume control from the mouse wheel)
  • Restore Desktop icon layout saver
  • Slawdog Smart Shutdown
  • WhatsRunning startup and process manager
  • PC Decrapifier for removing unneeded trial programs and promotions from new computers
  • FastStone Image Viewer for picture viewing and simple manipulation

These utilities can get a new computer off to a good start, and at no extra cost. All are free for personal use (though I encourage you to send donations to the authors who accept them).

I have reviewed many of these programs in the past, and you can find my comments by using the Search box at the top of this page. I plan to review the others in the future.

No doubt many of you have your own essential utilities, or will take issue with my list. In fact, if I took more time to think about it, I might make some changes myself. All my readers and I would like to hear your suggestions, so please chime in by posting comments and suggestions below (you also can write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com). And do drop in to the Tool Bar & Grill again next week!

15 July 2007

#29. The Calculating Type

Come right in to my Tool Bar & Grill, where this week we use a better calculator to figure your tab, and where phish is once again the main course.

Say Bye Bye to the Windows Calculator

You get a free, general-purpose and scientific calculator accessory with Windows. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. But what’s right with it? The Internet offers many replacement calculators that do much more for the same price.

My favorite is Moffsoft FreeCalc from http://www.moffsoft.com. It biggest advantage over the Windows calculator is the handy tape feature, which prints the history of your calculations on screen just like an old desktop adding machine. Here, for example, is how I wish my monthly earnings were calculated:

You can copy and paste results, and you can save or print the tape. Moffsoft FreeCalc also offers various color schemes and a resizable window.

If you need advanced financial functions, conversions, and lots more sophisticated features, consider the Moffsoft Calculator 2 shareware. Note, however, that the publisher’s Web site does not claim Vista compatibility for either product.

Gone Phishing

Here is another reminder of the vital importance of using the security tools I described in post #10 (25 January 2007): McAfee SiteAdvisor and the security alerts built into Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2.0. Though phishing is on the rise, you can avoid becoming the catch of the day.

Google researchers recently surveyed billions of Web sites for evidence of drive-by downloads – malicious software acquired unwittingly from visiting the sites. A tiny proportion (about 0.1%) of all the sites were dangerous. However, when the Google team then analyzed a large sample of the suspicious sites in depth, it found that nearly 10% of those were indeed propagating malware. An even greater number of sites appeared to contain code that could be used maliciously.

Interestingly, Google also found that the number of sites using Microsoft IIS Web server software that distributed malware (49%) was more than double Microsoft’s overall share in the sample (23%). The market leader in server software, Apache, held a 66% share but also accounted for 49% of the malware exploits.

Google maintains a list of Web sites that carry malware. Firefox users can choose to either download Mozilla’s blacklist periodically, or to refer to Google’s list when turning on Firefox’s anti-phishing alerts. You can find more good anti-phishing advice from the Internet industry’s Anti-Phishing Working Group at http://www.antiphishing.org/consumer_recs.html.

The danger is growing rapidly. Internet security consultants Sophos found in May that the number of new malicious web pages was about 1,000 greater every day, compared to the preceding month, and that about 5,000 new drive-by attack pages were created every day. Many of these are unlikely to be among your favorites, as they are the pages you reach if you click on spam e-mail for miracle cures, sex or weight-loss drugs, cheap loans, and the like – but some of the infections are on legitimate Web sites, whose owners are not even aware they are spreading malware. StopBadWare.org offers tips for keeping your own Web site clean at http://www.stopbadware.org/home/security.

LinkScanner is a new rival to SiteAdvisor. It, too, shows safety rating icons next to links in Google, Yahoo, and MSN search results. Detailed information on any link is a right-click away. It works in IE 6 and 7 and Firefox with Windows 2000, XP, and Vista. LinkScanner comes in two versions: Lite (free for personal use from http://www.explabs.com/products/lslite.asp) and Pro (annual subscription includes network traffic monitoring). You also can submit a suspect URL to the LinkScanner site version at http://linkscanner.explabs.com/linkscanner/default.asp for an instant evaluation.

However, McAfee SiteAdvisor (http://www.siteadvisor.com) is still my choice. It has been around longer, so I expect it to have a more comprehensive database, and it receives higher ratings from various software download sites.

You’re always an honored guest at the Tool Bar & Grill, where we chalk new utilities and Web sites on the specials menu every week. Feel free to comment below or to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And come back with all your friends for next week’s specials!

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08 July 2007

#28: Syncing Spirits

Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away, goes the lovely jazz standard. It seems like only last week that I wrote about Allway Sync, a free file synchronization utility (see #27). Now, after the passage of so much time, I feel obligated to update my recommendations.

Sync Hole?

When I looked again at my posting about Allway Sync (#27), I noticed that one of the Google advertisements alongside it was for GoodSync, another synchronization tool. Like any good Tool Bar & Grill reader, I clicked on the ad to see what it was all about. What I saw surprised and mystified me.

Like Allway Sync, GoodSync also is free for personal, nonprofit use. The paid version costs $19.95, just like Allway Sync Pro. Nothing strange about that. But what about the two products’ absolutely identical logos and tag lines (“File synchronizer that works”)? Or the eerily similar wording of the product descriptions on the two Web sites, and the nearly indistinguishable legalese of the two license agreements? Even the two technical support ticket systems are identical except for the product names.

Allway Sync is published by Usov Lab of Virginia; GoodSync is published by Siber Systems, who also publish RoboForm, the well-known password management utility – also of Virginia. And both products are clearly of Russian origin. Is there a connection? (Why we should care is another question; I’m just curious.)

So how good is GoodSync? It seems to work just about the same way as Allway Sync. However, GoodSync does not offer a portable version like the Allway Sync ’n’ Go that I am using. And it is more strictly limited: the free version works only for up to three jobs of 100 or fewer files each.

GoodSync’s interface is a bit simpler and clearer, presenting fewer options, but also a bit prettier:

GoodSync also appears to be a worthy rival (or cousin?) to Allway Sync. Try it out for yourself by clicking the ad alongside this text, or go to http://www.goodsync.com.

That Syncing Feeling

I also was reminded this week of another file synchronizing tool that I should not have forgotten: Microsoft’s own SyncToy. It’s part of the PowerToys utility suite for Windows XP and Vista that Microsoft provides for free (at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx) but does not officially support. (My thanks go to the excellent Windows Secrets newsletter, whose premium edition mentioned both SyncToy and GoodSync this week.)

So how much fun is SyncToy? Less than Allway Sync or GoodSync, although it does not impose any limits on free use as they do. For starters, SyncToy requires Microsoft’s heavy, but increasingly unavoidable, .Net 2.0 Framework. After you set up one or more folder pairs, you’ll have to choose the type of action to perform: synchronize, echo, subscribe, contribute, or combine. These complex choices actually provide only a few more options than Allway Sync’s and GoodSync’s simpler approaches.

SyncToy’s interface is attractive, but much less informative than the others:

To see the files that SyncToy plans to process, you have to click Preview. But you see all the files in one list, rather than in left and right folders. This makes it much harder to figure out what’s going to happen when you click the Run button:

I can’t evaluate or compare the various utilities’ synchronization algorithms, but in the end they all synchronized my simple lists of files correctly. So I’m sticking with Allway Sync because of its portable version and the less-stringent limits on its use for free.

Thanks for bearing all the "syncing" puns, which are included in the service at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill. Feel free to comment below or to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And come back next week with all your friends!

01 July 2007

#27. Sync or Swim

Devoted readers already know that I use ToDoList to manage all my task lists (see #12, 25 February 2007), both in the office and at home. To synchronize the two computers’ task lists, I copied the latest files onto my USB flash disk and then copied them again to the other computer. Yes, it was primitive and a bit of a pain. I knew I had to either find a way to sync my computers or swim in senseless extra work.

Everything but the Kitchen Sync

After a bit of searching and experimenting, I went with AllWay Sync. AllWay Sync boasts that it can synchronize files in all directions among multiple folders, disks, and portable storage devices. It also synchronizes entire folders, and works over networks and the Internet, too.

I decided to use a specialized version, AllWay Sync ’n’ Go, which is designed to work directly from any portable device (even MP3 players, digital cameras, or rewritable CDs). I installed it on my USB flash disk and set up a “job” for ToDoList task files. Now when I plug my flash disk into the USB port of any computer, AllWay Sync ’n’ Go launches the job automatically. It compares the ToDoList folders on the flash disk and the hard disk, and clearly shows which files need to be copied in which direction.

Here’s an example of how it looks. The files in the flash drive (E:) folder are listed on the left, and the hard drive (C:) folder is on the right. The arrows between them indicate the newer files in both folders.

Just click the Synchronize button to finish the job. There is a progress bar below the buttons, and an event log in the bottom pane.

Though you see manual synchronization here, you also are offered the choice to synchronize automatically when the program launches, though this does not seem to work for me. Other options include automatic synching at specified intervals or whenever file changes are detected.

You can set up many jobs, and you can configure all the options separately for each job you set up. For example, you can define filters to include or exclude certain files or folders, and you can tell AllWay Sync to save deleted files in a subfolder and to move overwritten files to the Recycle Bin. I discovered the value of the latter option when I failed to realize that deleting a file on the flash disk causes the file on the hard disk to be deleted, too.

AllWay Sync Free is free for personal, nonprofit, and student use, and supports all versions of Windows from 98 to Vista. However, the license agreement notes that the free version is restricted to 20,000 files per 30-day period, and that this can change without notice. The Pro version, of course, has no such limits. And there is also a U3 version for advanced USB devices. Download your choice at http://allwaysync.com/.

I tried only a few other synchronization utilities before settling on AllWay Sync. I’m reasonably happy with it, but if you know of other tools that are even better, do please let us all know in a comment (click below). You also can write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

Update on Web Backup Services

After last week’s roundup of free on-line file storage and backup services, an alert reader pointed out the existence of DivShare, which offers unlimited data hosting forever for free – and isn’t that what the world is waiting for?

DivShare could be a great solution, but it is not perfect. DivShare is supported by advertising, though they promise ads will not be intrusive. DivShare does not offer backup software, so you need to select files and upload them. Also, the company mentions in nearly hidden comments to its blog that free account uploads are limited to 200 MB per file – a limit not explained anywhere on their clean, simple Web site – though there is no limit on the number of files. Finally, the company is only six months old, so one might legitimately worry about the service’s longevity.

Despite my reservations, if DivShare sounds like just the ticket for you, try it at http://www.divshare.com/.

Thanks for checking in at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill. Be sure to tell all your friends to visit here every week for more helpful utility reviews!

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