17 June 2008

#75. Your New Browser Has Arrived

Note to Readers
23 June 2008
Jonathan's Tool Bar & Grill is going on temporary hiatus. Due to backlogged commitments in the real world, Mark and I will not be able to post on our regular schedule for a while. Please bear with us, and remember to check back here from time to time, because we will provide you helpful new
software and Web site reviews and tips whenever we can. Meanwhile, be sure to dig around in the archives to catch up on all the great information you might have missed!

Dear readers, I apologize for posting this entry a bit later than usual. But I'm sure you'll understand when you remember that Download Day is finally here. The browser wars have flared up again, with the long-awaited final release of Firefox 3.0 today, the Opera 9.5 release last week, and Microsoft testing a new, improved Internet Explorer 8. That means I've been very busy evaluating the new offerings for you.

Firefox 3 Hits the Street

I have been using and recommending Firefox for at least several years, and love it more with each new version. Version 3, which became available today (Firefox Download Day), is the best yet. I have had so much fun experimenting with the recent "release candidate" versions that I've hardly found time to write my blog.

Why should you change your browser? First of all, chances are you don't have to... because about 60% of Tool Bar & Grill readers, naturally smarter and more sophisticated than everyone else, already use Firefox. Another 8% or so use Opera, and about 30% use Internet Explorer. Among the general Web-surfing public, about 15% to 20% have adopted Firefox.

If you are still using Internet Explorer, consider switching to Firefox. The reasons are legion: it's much safer than IE; it's a lot faster; it's highly compatible with Web standards; and its memory usage now is quite reasonable (version 2 could be a resource hog).

Firefox 3 doesn't look very different from its predecessor, but the big changes are under the surface. It is easier than ever to install and to use. It sports some great usability features, like an address bar that suggests your favorite sites when you start typing, streamlined bookmark management, more convenient password management, and an improved download manager. And it now warns you not only of potential phishing sites, but also of Web sites known to inject malware into visitors' computers ("drive-by" infection is a growing problem).

Opera also is an excellent browser – fast, light, and very user-friendly. I've been using it for years too. So why does almost everyone recommend Firefox instead? It's the
add-ons. Firefox is an open and extensible platform, and programmers have created literally thousands of plug-in utilities that vastly multiply the browser's usefulness and versatility. I listed my essential favorites in post #33, and I've got a list of dozens more I plan to tell you about whenever I get the time. Some add-ons have not yet been updated to work with Firefox 3, but nearly all the ones I find essential now work fine, and the rest can be expected to catch up soon.

I found the Firefox 3
official download site overloaded most of the day. You also can download Firefox 3 from FileHippo, SoftPedia, and other download services. Then find out what's new in Firefox 3 and how to use it in the free e-book Field Guide to Firefox 3.

So what are you waiting for? Stop reading this blog, download and install Firefox 3, and then come back and finish reading Mark Lautman's survey of the best Linux videos.

Linux Goes to the Movies!

by Mark Lautman

Peter, my trusted bartender in the Linux Room, came in one day looking all dejected and frustrated. He always looks dejected and frustrated, because to get to work he first needs to pass through the Tool Bar and Grill.

"Boss," he said, "do you know what the difference is between the Linux Room and the Tool Bar?"

"Peter, we've been through this before. The Tool Bar has the furniture, the decor, the clientele, the reputation. But those things are all an illusion. Look at our modest establishment; can't you see why we can call this our 'home'?"

Peter had that look on his face that said "I'm going to quit right now."

"OK, Peter, I'll cave in to your epicurean aspirations. What do you think we should do to make our place more 'acceptable'?"

"Boss, the first thing we need is a full-size flat-screen monitor. And I have a list of just the videos we should play on it."

Peter enthusiastically compiled a list of must-see Linux videos. Here are his favorites, all of which express the theme that Linux is as good as or better than Windows or Macintosh. Next week I'll scour the Internet and list the most effective and efficient tutorials for the Linux beginner.

The following videos are appropriate for all audiences and ages:

Microsoft and Apple claiming to be #1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtp5gNhBZgo&feature=related

Microsoft and Apple corporations running Linux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pa1RCg-Ccp0&feature=related

Linux users sharing fashion trends: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVOnFdMf0RU

Comparison of the desktop features between Vista and Ubuntu with the Beryl desktop; fabulous music accompaniment:

Powerful, Matrix-like Linux announcement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwEWxpOWOok

During the late-night hours, when the avant garde, progressive artists arrive, we show the following:

Troubles of upgrading a PC or Mac: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-L-0s-7-Z0

Anarchist view of Linux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBUgEx_91BU

Mark Lautman

Thank you for tuning in to the Tool Bar & Grill. We hope you have learned something as well as been entertained. Tell us what you think about it by clicking the Comments link below or e-mailing jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. See you here again next week!

09 June 2008

#74. I Want My Old Office Back!

The Tool Bar & Grill kitchen is the equivalent of an executive’s corner office for this chef. And apropos to Office, I’ve been cooking up some new treats for you. But first, let me tell you a love story…

My Love Affair with Microsoft Word

Relax, there is none. I hated Word when I first started using the DOS version in the early ’90s (WordStar, I miss you!), soon followed by Word 2 for Windows 3.1 (WordPerfect, I miss you even more!). I hated Word 6. I hated Word 95 a bit less, and Word 97 even less than that. I still hated Word 2000, which moved a lot of menu options around, and I hated Word 2002 (XP), though a bit less. I hated Word 2003 less than any of its predecessors. And I hate Word 2007 the most of all.

Lest you assume that my attitude stems from ignorance, take note that much of my income over the past 15 years has derived from my expertise in using Word. I design and program templates, and train others how to use Word. No, my frustration with Word developed through intimate familiarity with its innermost secrets.

Office 2007 adopted the “ribbon” interface instead of tool bars. As I complained in post #70, I now have to spend extra find hunting for commands that are no longer in their familiar places. Back then, I told you about the Search Commands add-in for Office 2007, which helps you find commands that the new Office 2007 ribbon interface misplaced.

Tool Bar Nostalgia

Now thanks to fellow Tool Bar & Grill reader Shailesh Shah, I have another great way to cope with Office 2007. In a comment to post #70, he pointed me to his Web site, where he provides classic Office menu add-in templates for Office 2007, free of charge.

These add-ins display the Office 2003 menu bar, Standard tool bar, and Formatting tool bar in the Add-Ins tab on the Office 2007 ribbon. Because my other specialized templates appear there, I found myself clicking back and forth between the Add-Ins tab and other tabs (mostly Home). Here’s the Word version:

Now all the functions I need are on one tab, and in their familiar places (though many shortcut keys are still a problem).

Add-ins are available for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access 2007. Here’s the Excel version of the Office 2003 add-in:

I do wish the tool bar were customizable, so I could add or remove buttons. But this is a minor problem. Those of us who feel punished by Office 2007 owe a great debt of gratitude to Shailesh Shah for his contributions to easing our misery. His home page offers a number of other useful-looking Excel utilities.

And now, here is Mark Lautman with his take on the latest Ubuntu Linux release.

Some Laurels for this Hardy
by Mark Lautman

I recently went with my mother to a steakhouse. “I'll have the ground round steak,” she said to the waiter. “Please tell the chef I want it well done.”

“Why do you insist on well done?” I asked after the waiter left.

“Because when it comes to ground beef, you never know what's really inside it. Ordering well done means all the bugs and bacteria are properly removed.”

The first thing that came to my mind was shock and disgust: why do we eat food that has such a problematic history as industrialized meat? The second thing that came to my mind was, again, shock and disgust: why do we use software that, like steak, has bugs and bacteria in it?

I haven't purchased a copy of Windows Vista, but from all the bad publicity, it seems that XP is a better product.

The most recent version of Ubuntu, called the Hardy Heron, doesn't have a lot of bugs, but it has a different kind of problem. Ubuntu, like any other Linux distribution, is a collection of the Linux kernel and a variety of programs, such as OpenOffice, Firefox, media players, and an email application. The people who manage the distribution decide which programs to include, and which versions of those programs to include. In the case of Ubuntu’s Hardy Heron, things got a bit ahead of themselves. For example, the version of Firefox included with the Heron is a beta version for release 3.0.

This version of Firefox isn't available to the general public; you can only get it as a “release candidate.” (http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/all-beta.html) However, as part of the Hardy Heron, it is readily available. One consequence is that one of my critical plug-ins, Foxmarks, doesn't work until it is also upgraded.

Another indication of an unripe distribution is the number of upgrades that are installed. Ubuntu uses the Debian package manager, which automatically checks for upgrades to programs. Since installing the Hardy Heron one month ago, I've downloaded at least 200 MB of individual updates. This is a sign that not everything was properly integrated. Below is an image of a typical upgrade notification.

In spite of my complaints, the Hardy Heron is yet another reason why Ubuntu continues to be the most popular Linux distribution. Networking, Web surfing, emailing, and playing media are effortless. Most importantly, the upgrade from Gutsy Gibbon was seamless: just start the download/install routine, go watch a movie, and by the time you come back you're all upgraded.

The Hardy Heron includes some fabulous improvements. The best one is Wubi. (Wubi is an African term that means “Do I get potato with my sirloin?”) Wubi installs Ubuntu onto your Windows machine like any other application. In post #48, I recommended virtual machines as a way to try out Ubuntu. That avenue is now obsolete. Wubi is a much better way to go. I tried it, and it works perfectly. If you have 8 GB of free drive space and a fast Internet connection, you'll be running Ubuntu in 10 minutes.

Other enhancements include packages for Inkscape (which I discussed in post #56, the latest Gnome desktop, and a remote desktop viewer that can connect to more than one computer. The full list of the Heron's features is here. From the list you can see that the folks at Ubuntu have indeed been busy!

In the future, I'll wait a few months before upgrading to a new version of Ubuntu. That gives it a chance to get cooked well done, with a nice char-broil sear on the outside, like the way my mom likes her steaks. Incidentally, she loved her ground round side. Not a single cell of bacteria was on it. I ordered a vegetarian dish, a raw spinach salad. Two hours later I was in the hospital with E. coli poisoning! –Mark Lautman

Thank you all for dropping by my office today. I hope it has been beneficial; if so, please bring your friends next time. Did I overlook your favorite utility? Tell me about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And please show our appreciation to our advertisers by clicking through to their sites.

03 June 2008

#73. What’s In a Name?

I get hung up on names sometimes at the Tool Bar & Grill. I take a lot of digital pictures of the numerous celebrities who drop by for a snack, as well as of my new grandson. All these photos must be renamed if I’m to make any sense of them later and then sell them to major news magazines. And then there are all those music files with strange characters or mistakes in their file names (how many ways can you spell Shania Twain anyway?). What to do?

A Rose By Any Other Name

The Internet is full of utilities that rename multiple files all at once according to your specified formula or pattern. Many sophisticated file manager utilities – including my favorite, xplorer2 – also offer powerful batch file renaming functions, but the interfaces of specialist utilities make the job much easier. Most of the best ones cost a few dollars, but I tried out a lot of them, and found a few really good ones for free.

It was a tough choice, but I think my favorite batch file renamer is Flash Renamer. This clever program can rename any selected group of files and folders (including subfolders) in just about any way you want – add, remove, or replace characters, change case, trim spaces, add or change numbers, set file attributes, and more. Wild cards, regular expressions, and batch scripts are supported. “Visual Assist” supplies examples from your files on which to experiment. Preset jobs are provided for common tasks.

You can drag and drop files into Flash Renamer, a major convenience. The interface is relatively easy to figure out, and shows a live preview of the effects of your changes before you execute them. It also displays picture thumbnails, extracts dates from JPG photo files, and provides metadata and ID3 tag support for MP3 files.

The free version annoys you with a nag screen when you launch it, so you might want to pay $20 just to get rid of it.

Tied for first place is JoeJoeSoft’s Rename Master. It does nearly everything Flash Renamer does, including add, replace, and remove characters, change case, add a counter, and much more. You can use wild cards in replace operations, execute multiple changes at once (with live preview), and save batch scripts. You also undo your last change, and drag and drop files into the program window, and view thumbnails. Rename Master also supports JPG and MP3 metadata. It is not quite as flexible as Flash Renamer, though, and doesn’t trim spaces.

Best of all, Rename Master, like JoeJoe’s other great utilities, is freeware and therefore does not nag you to upgrade. However, I urge you to contribute a donation if you like the program and use it regularly.

Rounding out the top three is Denis Kozlov’s ReNamer, whose very simple interface hides functionality similar to Flash Renamer and Rename Master (in some cases even broader). The key is the Add Rule button, which opens a window that helps you formulate renaming rules relatively easily. Thumbnails, however, are among the few features that ReNamer lacks.

ReNamer also is free, but donations are accepted and well deserved.

I also like File Renamer Deluxe, shareware which I am enjoying for free thanks to giveawayoftheday.com. I like its cheery, clear graphical user interface (GUI). The free version has most of the deluxe version’s important functionality, including drag-and-drop, live preview, and the wonderful ability to specify a different output folder… but the price, and lack of wild cards or thumbnails, dragged it down.

Some other reviewers, including my esteemed colleague Samer the Freeware Genius, have plunked down in favor of freeware Bulk Rename Utility. While BRU offers wide-ranging functionality similar to the two programs name above, its interface is complex and intimidating (see below), and it shows only one picture thumbnail at a time.

News Flash: Backup Utility Free, This Week Only

This just in: NTI Shadow 3 software for local backups is being offered for free, but only if you act by June 8. This is the full $30 version for Windows or Mac OS X (only the Windows version will burn backups to optical media).

NTI Shadow 3 is generally well regarded as backup software. Its special advantages include ease of use, flash disk recognition, and file versioning. I especially like the ability to back up files as soon as you save their changes (like my favorite file synchronization utilities) as well as on a schedule. It has shortcomings, too, such as over-simplicity (resulting in a lack of options), and the lack of file compression or encryption. (You can read a recent PC Magazine review here.) However, its functionality falls well short of my favorite easy-to-use backup shareware, Titan Backup (see my review in post #40). And I just discovered that when burning a backup set to DVD, NTI Shadow can't span discs; whatever doesn't fit on a disc is logged as an error.

NTI Shadow Version 3 is now about two years old. Could it be offered for free in the anticipation of an upcoming new release? I don’t know. But if you need a simple local backup solution, it’s certainly worth trying NTI Shadow 3 while it’s free this week.

Now special guest blogger and Linux guru Mark Lautman has a scary story to tell…

Shelter from the Virus Storm

by Mark Lautman

The wind was howling around the modest hovel, rain lashing against the window panes. Inside a terrified young mother was clutching her hungry toddler, desperately searching for some ray of hope that would relieve their hopeless situation. A coyote howled in the distance, and the toddler clutched ever harder to his mother. Gazing onto the prairie, the woman saw headlights approaching in the distance. “Don’t worry, my child, help is on the way.”

It was only six months ago when we purchased a new Windows computer for our youngest son. I got lazy and didn’t install any antivirus or anti-spyware software. Within two weeks my son was asking me some very embarrassing questions, like why he’s getting the blue screen of death, why the web browser suddenly closes, and why I never invested in Woodward Governor. Once again I learned that Windows is amazingly susceptible to viruses. Fortunately, things are much different for Linux and Macintosh.

Discussions about Linux viruses tend to be short, and that is because of Linux’s (and Unix’s and Mac’s) inherent concept of file permissions. For example, most of the critical programs used to run Ubuntu Linux are in the /sbin directory. Wiping this directory will make the computer useless. The following image explains why only a single user can access those files.

As the screen shot indicates, only the “root” user can create and delete files the directory. (The root user is similar to an Administrator in Windows.) All others can read the files, but not use them. In order for a virus to erase that directory, it needs to be executed by someone who is the root user. Most of the time people are not signed on as the root user; when I use my email program, I am logged in as a normal user like “handsome” or “successful” or “popular.” If I run a virus, it can affect only those files to which I have access, typically in my home directory. In addition, anything you download from the Internet, including email attachments, is automatically designated as non-executable; you can look at the program, delete the program, but you can’t execute the program. Nothing can “automatically” delete any file unless I explicitly take an action.

In spite of all these inherent safeguards, there are a few known viruses affecting Linux. For those who want the added protection, you can choose from the top two AV packages: Clam and AVG, both of which are free. Other products are also available.

Interestingly, if you do run Linux “naked,” the biggest damage you incur is against other Windows machines. Even though Linux may be immune from virus programs, they are not immune from passing them on to other computers in your local network or across the Internet. Therefore, if you are running Linux within a home or small business network, you might want to install anti-virus just to protect the other computers.

The last component of desktop security is blocking spyware or adware. Firefox has an add-on for blocking ads called Adblock Plus. Jonathan mentioned it as one of his Firefox favorites in post #33. This approach works only for spyware coming through the browser. If, however, your email client displays content from web sites, then you need additional protection. The most comprehensive approach is to modify your /etc/hosts (Linux) or C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc\hosts (Windows) file by including the MVPS hosts file, located at http://www.mvps.org/winhelp2002/hosts.txt. Request to connect to any of the garbage domains in that file are simply dropped. The disadvantage with this approach is that you need to manually pull and install this file from the Internet; automatic updates aren’t available.

The headlights belonged to a delivery truck, which parked next to the frightened woman’s home. “Thank you so much,” she said to the delivery man. “Son, we won’t have to fear a virus attack any more. We just got our Dell laptop with Ubuntu Linux! Now run along and play that violent, sexist, and debilitating computer game while I crash your uncle’s wireless network.” –Mark Lautman

That’s the name of the game for this week. We laughed a little, cried a little, and learned a little together. Please return next week for more great utility and Web site recommendations, and tell all your friends about us. And do feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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