Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Essential software

Unless you've had a pretty nasty computer crash and lost a lot of irreplaceable data then you don't really appreciate the value of backups. I had this happen to me a few years ago... I stupidly let a neighbour-from-hell near my computer and he fried one of my hard-drives (literally - the circuit-board on my drive partially melted as a result of him switching the 110/240volt setting on my power supply).

The hardware is replaceable; I hand over some money to a shop and they will hand back a new computer. But that's not the problem. The data on my hard-drive was NOT replaceable and none of it was backed up. I lost hundreds of digital photos which had never been printed out or written to a CD: photos of cats now dead, of birthday parties, candid shots of friends and families. There were documents on there, emails, you name it... all gone forever.

Since then I've been especially careful to backup my data at semi regular intervals. Nowadays, storage is cheap - what people lack is just the inclination to do it.

I mentioned in another post that my desktop computer decided to go to silicon heaven recently, so I have replaced it with a laptop. The only problem was, my hard-drives were designed to be used inside a desktop computer case, not plugged in to a laptop, so it left me the problem of how do I get the data that's on the drives onto my laptop?

Help was at hand, thanks to a rather splendid IDE-to-USB adaptor courtesy of Rachel. Insert the connector into the back of your hard-drive, then connect the power cable, and finally plug the USB cable from the drive into your computer's USB port and switch on. Windows detects the hard-drive, assigns it a new drive letter and you're away! Transferring files to and from the drive is as fast and simple, no different than if the drive was inside your computer.

Now I have all my data back, but I have very few programs on my computer for it to be useful.

I like my computer to be fast and responsive at all times (Rachel's got an unfeasibly powerful and expensive machine which ran like treacle when I first got my hands on it, due to all the junk she had loading at startup. Since my intervention it now loads up in about 1/3 the time it took before). I like software which is small and fast, yet still very powerful, so I generally spend hours scouring the web for the perfect app.

Also, I'm resisting the temptation to pirate any software. If you look hard enough, there is enough quality free software out there to do 98% of what the average person needs to get done. There's really no point installing Adobe Photoshop (or worse - buying it for £600) when you don't need to. I've seen people load it up (the latest version takes ages to load even on a fast computer), rotate an image, save and close it again. It's crazy.

For the same task, I use Irfanview. Not only does the program load up almost instantly (I hate waiting for software to load), but it's actually easier to rotate or flick through umpteen photos in the same directory than it is in Photoshop.

Two of the most useful features in Irfanview are it allows you to:
  • losslessly rotate images (meaning they don't lose any quality when you rotate them)

  • "Batch process" images. Select a bunch of files and have the program go through every single one, open them up, rotate, resize and resave them with a different name. Imagine how long it would take to do this by hand...*shudder*
Irfanview is good but it doesn't allow you to draw or paint on top of the images, or add text or arrows etc. This is often why people turn to Photoshop... but again that's like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Another really good piece of freeware is Photofiltre (ignore the French spelling, the software is in English).

Again, this loads up very quickly, and allows you to do probably 95% of what Photoshop can do - image resizing, rotating, adjusting brightness, contrast, cloning parts of the image, adding blur, sharpening, making photos look older with Sepia-style effects, and so on. It lacks layer support and most of the advanced features of Photoshop and PaintShop Pro, but for the price (free!) it's worth a look.

My other recommended freeware must-haves are:

Open Office: a decent alternative to Microsoft Office. It has coped with every Word document and Excel spreadsheet I've thrown at it (and even some which made Word crash), and there's also a decent PowerPoint clone in there too. It takes a bit longer to load than MS Office but there's the advantage that it's about £300 cheaper ;-)

uTorrent: A very small but feature-packed Bit Torrent client. I can't believe I wasn't using this sooner. It's a tiny (150k) download and seems to do everything Azureus does apart from hog all my memory. Azureus is excellent but gobbles up huge amounts system resouces, probably because Azureus uses a lot of Java code and uTorrent doesn't. Give this a try and I bet you ditch Azureus within a day.

Firefox: This web browser just keeps on getting better and better. It provides a much safer way to browse the web than using Internet Explorer, and there are more features too. Anyone still using IE as their only browser are either misinformed or very brave!

Opera: Probably the best browser ever created. Some of the features include tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, zoom in/out, fit to page, easily reopen closed pages, integrated search, speech synthesis (the computer will read the web pages to you, voice control (control the browser by speaking commands into your microphone), saved sessions (if the browser crashes it resumes from exactly where you were before), ability to open all pages in a folder at the same time, built-in mail and chat clients, you can view WAP pages, force pages to fit to a certain width if they are not displaying properly, advanced popup blocking, the list goes on. And it's also very secure compared to Internet Explorer.

SyncBack: Taking us nicely back to where we started from, this software is excellent for backing up your data. Tell the program which files or folders you wish to back up (they can be on your local hard-drive, or a network drive), and tell it where you wish to copy them to (local or external hard-drives, CDROM or DVD drives, USB pen drives, network drives, you can even backup to FTP servers).

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