OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG) Episode 5: The Tech Edition

Happy possibly-belated holidays, everyone! I hope you all were able to spend time with your loved ones this month, and that you’re
looking forward to a new year as much as I am. Since I recently came into possession of a shiny new netbook, I thought that rather than
give mini-reviews of A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, I’d focus on all the fun tech stuff
(hardware, software and cloudware) that I’ve accumulated over the past ten days. So if you want to know more about some of the best
free software out there today (including the program I’m using to type this post) read on!


HARDWARE


Asus Eee PC Netbook (1005 series)
– Okay, this one isn’t free. Nor is it software. But something’s gotta bring all those
neat programs to you, right? If you’re looking for a high-quality, extremely portable, easy to use netbook, your search begins and
ends with Asus’s Eee PC line. Asus is fast becoming THE name in netbooks, giving all the better-known companies a serious
run for their money. Here are a few details about my latest piece of hardware (click the title link for info on nearly the same
product from Best Buy):

  • Screen size: 10.1 inches (small enough to make it ultra-portable, but still readable)
  • Weight: 2.4 lbs (so light, you can carry it in your backpack with other stuff without straining your back!)
  • Processor: 1.6GHz Intel Atom
  • Battery type: 6-cell Lithium-ion (when given the choice between 3- and 6-cell, always choose 6.)
  • RAM: 1 GB (expandable to 2 GB, though I’m not sure what’s involved in that hardware-wise)
  • Storage: 160 GB (plenty if it’s not your primary computer)
  • CD/DVD Drive: None (a small price to pay for portability and battery life)
  • Wi-fi: Enabled (it’d be useless without it)
  • Bluetooth: Not enabled (why would I need that anyway?)
  • Battery Life: Up to 8.5 hours (though mine tops out at around 7)
  • Mouse: Multi-touch enabled touchpad (certain programs let you pinch and spread to zoom)
  • Operating System: Windows XP (Windows 7 Starter is so stripped-down, I don’t even know why they made it. If you’re not a
    Linux user, XP is definitely the way to go.)

Now for the personal part of the review: How it works for me. Basically, this is the laptop I’ve waited years for. The Eee PC ticks
the most important boxes for netbook expectations: It’s lightweight, extremely portable, lasts for a very long time between
chargings, and is easy to connect to the web. Though it’s tiny, I can still use it comfortably (except in total darkness.) The only
caveat that I should mention is that its AC power adapter has heat management issues and (I’m told) is prone to overheating and
breaking. There’s a home-spun solution, though: Every few times you use your AC adapter to fully charge your Asus Eee netbook, put
the adapter in the freezer for a few minutes beforehand. It may sound crazy, but I’ve seen it work with my own two eyes. I’ve
yet to experience any problems with my adapter, but as they say, praemonitus praemunitus.

SOFTWARE

AVG free virus protection – Before you do ANYTHING with a new computer, it’s
important to set up your virus and malicious software protection. Symantec and Mcafee are some of the biggest resource hogs in most
people’s desktops, so a more streamlined and stripped-down virus protection program is preferable on a portable device. Enter
AVG’s free antivirus software, available for download at their website. The software is comparable to its competitors, so as long as
you’re not taking unnecessary risks *coughtorrentscough* you should be fine. Be warned, though: The initial scans can take a
surprisingly long time to run.

Malwarebytes malware protection – Almost as important as virus protection is
malicious software protection. Of course AdAware and Spybot continue to dominate the recommended malware-busting tools list, but
Malwarebytes is the new favorite among … whoever makes these things popular, I guess. It’s a great program that can replace the
other two, but really should be run in addition to them. Great for portable and desktop users alike, and also free.

Mozilla Thunderbird – Up until now, I had used Gmail as my primary (and
secondary) email client. This was fine under most circumstances, but always presented me with two important problems: Gmail doesn’t
easily organize your inbox into folders, and there is (or was) no offline component. Enter Mozilla Thunderbird, the tool that let me
organize my Gmail more like Outlook (without actually being Outlook. That would cost me money.) Lo and behold, I can now
download my entire Gmail account to my local machine, and the folders I create in Thunderbird are somehow created in the web version of
Gmail as well (don’t ask me to explain that voodoo.) Now I can finally earn that Inbox Zero nerd merit badge (so far, 10 days of zero!)

Mozilla Firefox – Seriously, is there anyone who isn’t
using this browser? It’s fast (faster than Chrome under certain circumstances,) it’s secure (more secure than Internet
Explorer,) it’s simple (one of the simplest products available,) and as you’re about to see it’s easy to customize to fit your own personal tastes and preferences.
Chrome has some interesting ideas, but it’ll take a lot more than Google’s shown so far to topple this open-source giant. Rather
than continue to review a product you’re probably using to read this post, I’ll take a look at some of my favorite add-ons (a
dimension to Firefox I’ve only recently begun to delve into)

Tab Mix Plus – While this add-on has a number of interesting tab-related features, the only
one I really care about is the page download status indicator. Now, when you open a tab or load a page on a tab, a progress bar
behind the tab name shows the page’s download progress. It may seem like a small change, but it’s a welcome one.

Feedly – If ever there was an RSS reader that could convince people to use RSS readers
(other than Google Reader, which we’ll get to later) it’s Feedly. It creates a new optional start page for Firefox that
displays your RSS feeds/Live Bookmarks in a magazine-style format. Just imagine, all your favorite Bloggers coming together to create
a magazine full of articles you want to read, updated with new content as soon as it’s published, laid out like a print
magazine’s front pages. It’s enough to make the print industry cry itself to sleep at night.

Yoono – Firefox has its own social media aggregator add-on, which lets you check and
update your Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Flickr, and IM accounts without having to access each individual site. It even puts
your IM accounts in a sidebar, so you can continue to browse without having to dedicate an entire window to chat. If Firefox is your
primary browser, this all but eliminates your need for other aggregators like Digsby.

Google Desktop and Google Chrome – Between these two
programs, there’s not much you can’t find. Google Desktop is primarily a local indexing program, giving you the power to search
within your own computer with the same power and accuracy that Google.com lets you search the internet. Chrome, as mentioned previously,
is Google’s own internet browser that sets itself apart by actually becoming more efficient and effective with every tab
you open. Since these products are open-source (like Firefox), they have a slew of optional widgets/add-ons that you can use to
customize your user experience (like Firefox.) I’d cover these add-ons in more detail, but I really haven’t had occasion to use
most of them since I started using Firefox’s. To paraphrase Apple, though, I’m sure that no matter what you’d like to do,
there’s an add-on for that.

Google Talk – Google Talk is a tool that I’m super excited to try out, but have not yet
had the occasion to. It takes Google’s GChat feature a step further, adding full video functionality to conversation. While I’ve
not personally used it to converse yet (though my netbook’s built-in webcam and microphone now enable me to. hooray!) one of my
closest friends uses it to stay in touch with her boyfriend when they’re on opposite coasts. By the way, like everything else from
Google, Talk is free to download and use.

Google Voice – This technology is still in beta and available by invitation only, but
thankfully a friend had a spare invite and let me test out Google’s latest attempt to turn the telecom industry on its head. I’m
currently using Google Voice to support a second phone number that will ring my cell phone when a call comes in, record voicemails as
both voice and procedurally-transcribed text, and send free SMS messages via the web. With a little bit of cross-functionality between
Voice and Talk (and maybe Chat), Google could tackle not only Skype, but the entire phone system as we know it. These are exciting times
indeed…

Google Wave – … Sorry, I’ve got nothing for this one. Wave is supposed to be some sort of
replacement for email with regard to web-enabled collaboration, but nobody (including me) seems to know what to make of it yet. You can
check out Gina Trapani’s Complete Guide to Google Wave, or for a laugh check out
Easier to Understand than Wave. Until I get through with that guide,
though, I’ll call Wave the latest piece of technology nobody knew they needed (or knows how to use.) Oh, wait! Here are a few videos
for you to enjoy as well: a verrry simplified (to the point of being utterly useless) overview of wave, and Waving Goodbye to 2009.

Digsby – Possibly the most popular social media aggregation tool, Digsby combines all the same
things that Yoono combines (facebook, twitter, myspace, linkedin, flickr) plus a few others (gchat, friendfeed) and email into one
sidebar program. I could use it if I wanted to, but I personally prefer my current combination of Thunderbird for email, Feedly for RSS,
Yoono for everything else and iGoogle catching everything that might have fallen through the cracks.

Oh, and I’ve heard it doesn’t work on Macs. Sorry, Mac users.

Paint.net – I recently had to edit a photograph in a way that MS Paint just couldn’t do.
Unfortunately, I’m not a college student anymore and I no longer have access to Adobe Photoshop. What’s a fella to do? Why,
download Paint.Net of course! It doesn’t have every feature that Photoshop does, but it’s certainly on par with
Photoshop Elements and has more features than I’ll ever use. Plus, there’s an actual benefit to its reduced feature-set in the
form of reduced resource usage (which makes it great for netbooks.) Best of all, it’s FREE! Gotta love the open-source world we live
in.

Zoundry Raven – Hey, I’m using this program right now! Zoundry’s Raven is
the free, open, all-in-one blog publishing tool that lets you compose your work offline with a full WYSIWYG (and XHTML) editor, then
post directly to your blog without having to log into your blog’s site! Do you love using Blogger or WordPress, but hate typing your
full entry in the form box on the site? Then Raven is the product you’ve been looking for! It’s also great for anyone who has
multiple blogs, since you can key Raven to multiple accounts and post easily to any or all with the click of a button. This feature is
great for folks like me who still have a Livejournal in addition to their blog (shut up, I don’t wanna hear it.)

Windows 7 Ultimate (desktop) – Er, um, …. yeah. About
that. I installed Windows 7 on my desktop right before I left for the holidays, and it’s not exactly … what’s the word ….
working. No matter what I do or what programs I close, something in 7 keeps hogging all my CPU usage. It’s really quite
strange, and I don’t think it’s good for my computer at all. It’s a good thing I used a separate partition and kept my old
OS as well, otherwise I’d be forced to do everything from my netbook, which is kind of like trying to go furniture shopping when
your only vehicle is a moped. I’ve got to say, I see why Mac has so many loyal followers (and why Google will, once Chromium OS hits
next year): Their stuff just works. More news on this crisis as it develops.

WEBWARE (things that blur the line between websites and programs)

Teux Deux – I hear a lot of talk these days about Remember
The Milk
(and its various Firefox and Chrome add-ons) but something about the way it works does not appeal to me. The things I’m
looking for in a To-Do list are simple text entry, drag-and-drop reordering, and ability to easily export (be it through printing or
saving files.) Teux Deux does pretty much all of these things, but its exportability leaves something to be desired. Still, it can’t
be beat for the simplicity of adding and moving items to be done, and crossing things out is almost as fun on Teux Deux as it is in the
physical world. I highly recommend Teux Deux for anyone who benefits from listing their daily activities.

InterFaceLift – Have you ever spent hours looking through Google image search, trying to find a
great new background for your desktop or laptop? If so, I suggest you begin (and likely end) your search at interfacelift.com. I tend to
have very specific background needs (visually breathtaking, good use of negative space, and most importantly, make me think I’m
staring at something further than 14 inches from my face) and I found a fantastic background within 5 seconds of browsing the
site. You can’t beat that!

iGoogle – The first aggeregator I ever used, and still the most versatile, iGoogle is a version
of Google’s homepage that you can add various widgets to. These widgets can range from the extremely useful (Gmail, Google Reader,
Google Calendar, Twitter) to the completely inane (Pac-man, virtual hamster) and everything in between. If there’s something iGoogle
doesn’t have that you want, send them a message (though it’s likely it’ll have been added by the time you click
“send”.) If you can’t be bothered to check your Gmail, make your usual blog rounds, update your calendar or look up the
weather forecast, iGoogle will do it all for you – at once! It’s the pinnacle of internet convenience, and its widget-based system
means that it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

… and that’s it, folks! Tune in next time, for … whatever other things in the backlog I’ve managed to slog through. See you
in 2010!

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