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.