Archive for the 'Product Reviews' Category

Simplicity, Productivity Boosting, and My Kindle

I'll be covering this topic.

I’m challenging myself to cover three huge topics and do it in as short a post as possible because I want you to actually read the whole thing.

Ready?

Go.

Simplicity has always been a thing for me. I have an entire site set up dedicated to seeking elegant simplicity in the things I own (though it’s been neglected for a while). Then, I read a book by Joshua Becker called Simplify. After reading it, I knew what I had to do. I had a vision of what I wanted my home to look like.

It was clean. It was orderly. We only had the things we absolutely needed or really, really wanted. No junk. No perpetual messes. No clutter.

But I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. So I had my wife read the book on my Kindle. She agreed that it would be good for us to change the way we view our stuff, and we began.

That was back in January. So far we’ve de-cluttered over a third of the rooms and spaces in our home, and the areas we have cleared out are still immaculate. It feels great. I am a little less stressed even. I can’t wait to be done, but I suspect it will be less of a destination and more of a mentality, a lesson for our children, and a process. We will forever be questioning what we own, what we need, and what we use. It is a beautiful thing.

Along those lines, and before I move on to the second topic, I have to mention the simplification of my digital life (which began before even reading Simplify).

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while you’ll know that I have gone back and forth with Facebook for a long time. My last post on the subject mentioned that I had divided my Facebook existence into two accounts as an experiment to see if I really needed or wanted it.

Well, the experiment ended about four months ago. I realized that I just didn’t really need or want Facebook, so I shut down my accounts entirely.

Hurray for scientific experimentation.

On to topic number two: Productivity Boosting.

So last week I stumbled upon this article about fixing procrastination. Being the procrastinator that I am, I bookmarked the article and decided to read it later.

Then, the next day, I realized the irony of that approach with that sort of an article, and I printed the article, thinking that if I carried it around long enough I’d feel more pressure to read it than if it sat in my inhumanely long list of bookmarks in the To Do folder.

An iron, because I said irony.

So I carried it around in my book bag and even kept it on my nightstand for another couple of days, hoping I would read it.

Eventually, when I was about to condemn myself to a life of expert-level procrastination, I read the article.

I liked it. It was simple. I like simple. I could start immediately. Well, sort of… OK. I started the next day.

I highly recommend you read the article, but here’s what you need to know in order to follow along: The idea is that you pick three or four broad-ish goals to accomplish every single day, and if you meet your goals you put a big, fat, gratuitously gratifying “X” for the day on a special calendar reserved for this process. If you miss a day, you break the chain of X’s, which is bad, and you… um, you… well, you just allow yourself to feel horrible about breaking your chain, then you renew your resolve and go at it again the next day, or something like that.

In the end I wound up having to adapt the idea a little, since some of the specifics wouldn’t work for me and I kind of got lost on a couple of the ideas since my printer had an issue with figuring how images and text interact.

So I drafted up my Productivity Plan (the four goals), and decided that I would only hold myself to completing three of the four goals each day.

My goals are to exercise, simplify, write, and relax. I don’t want to expect myself to do all four every day because I don’t believe in exercising every single day (I have to have at least Sunday off, RIGHT?), and some days I just don’t have time to simplify something, or maybe I just can’t work up the energy required to do any writing because my soul has been drained by my sadistic government employer… I wanted some leeway to account for non-perfect days.

Vacation time, sick time, and other extraneous circumstances can be explained in the calendar by, instead of marking an “X,” marking an “S” for “sick,” a “V” for “super rad vacation that was totally too awesome to afford me any time to be productive,” or an “E” for “END OF THE WORLD, FORGET MY GOALS.”

Mostly, I anticipate a string of X’s.

So I printed off some pages of calendars. I wanted all of the days in the year to be on one sheet of paper, so I went with this calendar. I printed three years’ worth to keep me busy for a while. Then I got a super cheap-o folder from Target, and picked up these fat markers for $3.50 while I was there (sometimes Amazon prices are awesome, other times they are scary dangerous – as of this writing those same markers are selling for over $8 on Amazon).

You can't tell me this isn't an awesome hat.

To help with the exercise thing, I got a nice pedometer a few weeks ago. I also got a really awesome hat, but that’s completely unrelated.

Then I stapled the current year sheet to the front of the folder, put the extra year calendars inside with the article printout and my Productivity Plan, and started marking X’s the next day. Today is the second day of working under this slave-driver. So far, I’ve been quite productive and I like it. I also really like my hat.

Because one of my goals (the relax goal) deals with reading, it’s now time to mention my Kindle.

I decided to get a Kindle a while ago, and I did. And I’m very glad I did.

I didn’t promise a review, but here it is: I really love my Kindle and if you are on the fence between nook and Kindle, do your stinking homework. Don’t just ask me what to get. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, and the decision is yours because we live in a free country where choices are awesome. Embrace the choice.

The only “problem” is that now I have way too many books to read. I already had a pile a mile high (closer to three feet wide, in the bookshelf) of physical books to read (though those are very lazy-making since I think I have a paper allergy or something). Now I have over a hundred books on my Kindle that are waiting to be read.

It’s just too easy to add books to your Kindle library. They have this Kindle Daily Deal thing where books are put on super-sale. I know I picked up at least one $14 e-book for just $1.99 (a great book that I wanted to read – don’t judge me; I know you’re thinking back to my spat about simplification). I also picked up one of my favorite titles, which normally lists for $11.95 (but currently sells for &7.81), for just ninety nine cents! You can see how books can start to pile up. Some of the daily deals are free books, and I regularly catch wind of book promotions through Google+ where authors are giving their books away for free.

So I’m in the middle of reading the Hunger Games trilogy (almost done with book 2), but when I finish I’m going to have a reading list that puts all of my other “to do” lists to shame.

Oh, and they have this Kindle Owner’s Lending Library where many of the best-sellers can be borrowed for free. Indefinitely. You can only have one borrowed at a time, and you can’t borrow more than one per month, but that gives me easy, free access to so many good books it makes my head spin. That’s how I’m currently reading the Hunger Games. All of the books in that trilogy are free for me to borrow, for as long as it takes me to read them.

Crazy.

Alright. That’s enough for this post. I sure would like some comments from you brave, intrepid souls who made it to the end of my post. What are you currently reading? Do you use an e-reader? Do you have any productivity tricks? Do you like hats?

Nook vs Kindle: The Story of My Personal Decision

A Picture of a eBook

Image via Wikipedia

Ever since before we pre-ordered my wife’s first generation Barnes and Noble nook two years ago (probably even two years ago today since it first shipped November 30, 2009), I knew that I wanted an ebook reader that did not use a back-lit screen.

Back then I was aware that Sony and a few other companies already had expensive devices on the market that made use of the e-ink screen technologies I had read about a few years prior in Popular Science, and I had followed the release of the Amazon Kindle closely. This was a technology I knew I would use because I love to read, I love using gadgets, and I can’t read from a back-lit screen for too long before my eyes grow tired. As much as I love reading real books, the fact is that I get lazy about carrying around a whole book. I worry about tearing or creasing pages. And oddly enough, I have a sensitivity issue with paper.

Every once in a while, physical contact with paper is somehow registered as pain on my skin. I always loved to write, but my writing didn’t flourish until I could abandon the pain of resting my palm on paper and take up the keyboard. I have tried using gloves, lotion, petroleum jelly… You name it. Paper hurts my skin. Not all the time, but sometimes it’s so bad it becomes unbearable.

So I knew I needed an ebook reader.

I tend to shun products that quickly dominate a market and garner an almost cult following (ehem: iProducts).  I try to promote “the other guys” when it comes to making technology purchases, especially when the difference between the less popular product and the insanely popular product is negligible. And the Kindle had just about become such a product in the months leading up to the release of the nook.

Barnes & Noble nook (ebook reader device)

Image via Wikipedia

And so when Barnes and Noble announced the nook, I poured over the facts and decided that the  nook was a worthy competitor for the Kindle. When my wife expressed an interest in getting a nook or a Kindle, I helped her look at both as objectively as possible. In the end, she liked the openness of the Android platform, the fact that the nook would take the EPUB format, and she even liked that the nook offered competition for the Kindle. She opted for the nook, and we haven’t at any point in time regretted that decision.

So I guess a part of me always assumed I would get a nook. And recently, my desire to read and my desire to avoid touching paper books collided again and I found myself in a Barnes and Noble store holding the newest nook Simple Touch ereader. I loved it. Dark bevel (I heard once that the darker finish helped increase the perceived contrast of the e-ink screen). Slim profile. Compact design. Touch screen. And the price wasn’t bad at $150 (this was a month ago or so, before all the price changes).

I made the decision to get it. I knew that as the holidays got closer prices might go down, and I knew that some of my relatives might send money. I was too poor to just take the thing to the checkout then and there, but I knew I had a nook Simple Touch in my reading future.

It was just a matter of time.

Then Amazon did something crazy. They released an extremely similar product, at a lower price, with an ugly silver bevel. No worries. I still wanted the nook. But the Kindle was cheaper. But the nook had the dark bevel, and I was sure Barnes and Noble would match Amazon’s price soon enough (and I was right). So I stuck with my determination to get the nook.

Then Amazon did something else. They announced the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. Essentially, it meant that I, as an Amazon Prime member, would have access to hundreds of bestselling books for free. Sure, it’s only one at a time, once a month. But these are not books that can be read for free on the nook. Most of them won’t even be on the library network where you can borrow books for free. And as a slow reader, I appreciate that the new Amazon service doesn’t have a due date. I can borrow the book indefinitely. This is a big deal for me.

But is it worth reading on a device with an ugly silver bevel?

Maybe.

So at this point my decision to purchase a nook wasn’t quite as solid. I had doubts. Also, somewhere in there I realized that the Kindle no longer held a firm, ridiculously popular grip in the ereader market. I realized that I wouldn’t have to feel like buying a Kindle was really just a pitiful cry for social help.

It was time to do what I do best: crunch some numbers.

I have used spreadsheets to analyze many things, and I knew that a spreadsheet could help me resolve this conflict. So I went to my bookshelves at home and wrote down the titles of almost forty of my favorite books that I already own (shamefully, a few of which remain unread). Then I went to my Amazon wishlist full of hundreds of books that have been recommended to me, or that I had planned on purchasing and reading in the future. All in all, I assembled a list of 103 books that were all relevant to my interests.

I decided that whichever service provided the greatest selection of books that I would be interested in reading would win. I put the list of books into the spreadsheet, then began pulling prices from Amazon and Barnes and Noble for the ebook versions.

Keep in mind that I put the spreadsheet together quickly, without doing a bunch of digging around. I went with the price for the first version that popped up, I didn’t do searches for variations or special editions or anything of the sort. I searched, I clicked, I got the price. That was it.

Oh, and I didn’t include expensive ebooks in my average price calculations. To me, any ebook that costs more than $20 should be ignored. If it’s that expensive but you just have to read it, find the hard copy in a library or check ebay.

Behold: MY SPREADSHEET.

I found out a couple of things right away. First, I have spent so much time on Amazon making music, movie, game, and grocery  purchases that I am way more comfortable with Amazon than I am with Barnes and Noble. I love going to a Barnes and Noble store in person, but I found their website nearly offensive in some cases. I can’t pinpoint exactly what I found so distasteful, but navigating it felt like trying to ride a bike through a rock garden, even after searching for 103 titles.

Second, and this one is important, I realized that Amazon does digital distribution better than Barnes and Noble. Amazon makes the entire process easier for me. Finding the books I wanted was easier and faster on Amazon, and since I already have an intimate relationship with them, the process for purchasing a book from them was easier (I found this out while trying to get free ebooks as a test of the system).

The results of the spreadsheet war? Amazon had 72 of my target titles in their Kindle library (69.9%) at an average price of $9.35 per title. Barnes and Noble had 63 of my target titles in their nook library (61.2%) at an average price of $9.32 per title. I found one book in the nook library that was less expensive than the version I found on Amazon. There were nine books that I found on Amazon that were not available for the nook. Not a single book from my list was only available for the nook.

All this meant that owning a Kindle would mean having access to all of the books I wanted to read in the nook library, plus some that I wanted to read that I couldn’t read on a nook, and it meant that I would have access to a constantly changing list of bestsellers that I could borrow for free indefinitely, in addition to all of the free books nook and Kindle can access equally (Project Gutenberg, the OverDrive library loaning network, and others).

Even with only a difference of 9 books between the services, a clear winner had emerged for me.

And since aesthetics are never a primary factor in my decision-making process, the Kindle Touch won by a landslide based on the Amazon architecture.

Plus, if the silver bevel does become a problem, I can always get a darker skin decal or a rubberized cover.

So last week I placed my pre-order, and today Amazon began shipping the devices, a whole week early.

I am very happy with my decision. I would promise a full review after I get it in the mail, but I’m afraid that I will be doing a lot more reading than writing.

New Computer? – Start Here

**EDIT**

If you’re just looking for a list of free software to install on your computer, I’ve created a Springpad notebook full of links to my favorites. If I find anything else to add, I’ll put it there.

I want to start out by saying that I am just a guy. I wasn’t paid to write any of this, I don’t work for any of the companies mentioned, and these are all just my opinions. If any of the mentioned companies wanted to pay me because I wrote all these nice things about them, I’d be willing to talk to them about an arrangement. 😉

Having said that, here are the chronicles of my recent adventure procuring and setting up my new laptop. I’m going to break this down into three separate categories: Hardware, Pre-installed Software you Don’t Need, and Free Software you Might Need. Lucky for you, I’m all about free, open-source and simplicity; so the only part that I spent money on was the hardware.

I’ve designed this as a sort of guide to assist YOU in purchasing and setting up a new computer. People are always looking at my glasses. After they get a good look at my glasses, they say, “Hey, I need a new computer. What kind should I get?” People with new computers are always asking me, “Is it better to just use Internet Explorer, or should I get one of those new browsers?” Also, it has been my own experience that just using all of the default software (that ships with the system) for document editing, virus handling, and many other tasks is a bad idea. So, here are all of my answers and tips in one place. This may not be the definitive guide to getting a new computer, but it is MY definitive guide for those who need it.

So, without further chit-chat, let’s look at your hardware options.

HARDWARE

This one’s easier than you might be inclined to believe. Sure there are a lot of choices, but it all comes down to what you want to use the computer for.

The computer I wanted this time around was a laptop I could actually take places. Last time I got a laptop (over five years ago) it weighed ten pounds, it was more of a desktop replacement and cost me over two thousand dollars. Now I’ve got a desktop, and I wanted an inexpensive computer that could go places with me AND do stuff. I’ve got an Asus eee PC (a netbook), but that thing can’t really do stuff. I mean, it can do some stuff (I use it for NaNoWriMo every year), but it’s a little wimpy when it comes to multitasking and other processor/RAM intensive activities.

The Argument for Desktops

First, if you’ve got the space for it and you don’t need to move it, get a desktop. Laptops have really gone down in price lately, but an equivalent (as far as hardware and capabilities) desktop will always cost less than its laptop counterpart (as of this writing).

Desktops have the greatest range in options as well. You can get a cheap-o system that is really only good for running your web browser and a word processor for under a hundred dollars, or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for systems that can perform at speeds rivaling supercomputers. No matter what you’ll be using the desktop for, you can always find a system that perfectly meets your needs without spending more than you have to. Always.

The first step in selecting a desktop is to imagine yourself using that computer for the next two years. What will you use it for? Do you play many games? You might need to spend more for a system that will be compatible with future game releases. Will you be hooking it up to your TV to watch shows and movies? There are a lot of media center pc options. If you’re a Mac person (which, I might be if I had more money), you might want an Apple TV rather than a new computer.

Just decide what you’ll need the computer to be able to do, and consider these simple guidelines (which, unless you’re a “power user,” will more than cover the basics). I don’t need to say it, but if you know enough about computers to know that these guidelines aren’t comprehensive, then these guidelines weren’t written for you.

  • RAM – For most users, this is arguably the most important decision. More RAM means faster, smoother, more powerful computing. You want to open and use every program installed on your computer at the same time? You need lots of RAM. Will you only do one thing at a time for the rest of the time you own the computer? You can get by with 2 Gigs or less (depending on that one program you’ll be running!).
  • Operating System Bits – Related to RAM, but separate, is the operating system you’ll be using. Right away I have to mention that a 32 bit operating system cannot handle a full 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and certainly not more. If you will want 4 Gigs or more of RAM, you’ll need a 64 bit OS. Otherwise, 32 vs 64 bits will not have much of an impact on you.
  • Operating System Flavor – Which OS you choose will depend on many factors, but at the risk of bringing on hoards of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and simplify things this way: If you’re lost when it comes to choosing your operating system, just get Windows 7. Sure, Macs are simple, but getting software for them can be a hassle. Windows may have a poor track-record when it comes to stability and ease of use, but I’m putting a lot of faith in Windows 7, and I think it’s a safe choice for YOU. If you know you want a Mac though, please get it!
  • Processor – When it comes to desktops, you’re really only going to concern yourself with how many cores and processors you want. Adding processors and cores means better ability to process multiple instructions at a time (translating to blazing speed and excellent multitasking), while a single core on a single processor will more than meet the needs of most users. Don’t get the fancy processor set-up unless you know you need it. For most modern operating systems and software, though, I recommend at least a single processor with dual cores. More than that and you’d better be doing some serious video editing or 3D graphics (like games).
  • Hard Drive – If you’re doing video editing or if you’re archiving your DVD collection on the hard drive, get something huge. If you’re just surfing the Internet and writing papers in Word, you don’t need much hard drive space. Even the smallest hard drives shipping these days are more than ample for the average user. Note that media center systems should have more hard drive space to store videos or recorded television.

Sure, there are more factors than just these to consider, but if you’re not a power user who already knows about the other factors, then you don’t need to worry about them. What you don’t know can’t hurt you here.

The only other thing I would caution is to avoid brands you’re not familiar with and be wary of prices that are significantly lower than competing systems with similar capabilities. Your desktop shouldn’t be too expensive, but don’t be a cheapskate once you know what you want. Just pay what the trusted manufacturers are charging.

I currently use a first generation HP TouchSmart for my desktop, and it’s held up very well in the two years we’ve owned it. Both of my laptops are Toshibas, and we love them. Namebrand systems are always a good bet.

Where Desktops Fail

The only problem with a desktop is that it is not very portable. Sure, some of the newer CPU box form-factors (especially in the case of media center computers) are very small and lightweight. However, the screen and input devices are not built in, thus to use the system it must be hooked up to these things, and to move it you have to unplug everything. Convenient? No.

So what if you really need something you can take to class with you? You need either a laptop or a netbook. Can’t decide which one? Consider this:

I thought I could get a netbook and do the same things with it as I do with my laptop. I was wrong. Even with a full size keyboard attached and an external mouse, the netbook screens are too small to be practical in a number of applications. For a true, natural computing experience, you’ll still want a larger system. They make laptops that are much closer in size (and price) to netbooks, but they are much more convenient. If you’re not sure about getting a netbook, don’t. Just go for a smaller laptop. I promise you’ll be happy with it.

If you know you want a netbook, get it. If you’re not sure, don’t. You’ve got to be committed to liking your netbook, or you’re going to hate it.

Other than the netbook vs laptop decision, there isn’t a whole lot more to think about. How portable do you want it? There are a range of sizes from 13 inches to over 18 inches for screens. Some are less than an inch thin, and others have huge 12 cell batteries that lift them about three inches off your table top. Some run hot from having their hardware crammed in to a small space, while others have minimal hardware configurations and are quiet and cool. Again, the considerations for desktops will all hold true for laptops, but you might want to consider the following IN ADDITION to the desktop suggestions:

  • Overall Size – You’re getting a laptop because a desktop isn’t portable enough for you, but how portable do you need your laptop to be? If you are still just going to leave it set up in one place for long periods of time, you might consider a larger desktop replacement laptop. These systems offer the same performance as a desktop, at often competitive prices, but at the end of the day the screen folds up and you can pack it away in a bag. Expect these to weigh close to ten pounds though! Then there are the ultra portables that weigh in at under five pounds (mine weighs like three pounds!). Keep in mind that a netbook can weigh close to one pound, but you’ve already decided you want a laptop, right?
  • Battery Size/Usage – Some laptops these days are being designed as marathon machines. They can squeeze almost a full day of usage out of a single charge, but that efficiency comes at a price (both in dollars and performance). Most laptops are designed to fully contain a six cell battery, but by doubling the number of cells to twelve (and subsequently, increasing the size of the battery pack itself, causing it to protrude out the back or bottom of the computer), you can double the life of the battery. Also, Intel and AMD make processors specifically designed to use less power. They usually run at far less than 2 Gigahertz, and they cannot handle too many big tasks like gaming and video editing as well. You could try, but if that’s what you need the system for (primarily) you’ll just have to charge the system more often.
  • USB Ports – If you use a lot of devices at once, you’ll need at least three USB ports. I always recommend using an external keyboard and mouse with a laptop whenever possible simply because they can be replaced much easier than the built-in devices. The less you use them, the less likely they are to break. So, with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, you will want to have at least one more USB port for external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras or whatever else tickles your fancy. A few laptops only have two ports (one on each side), most have three, and a few have up to five USB ports. Get as many as you can without spending too much just for that feature. Also keep in mind that some USB devices have a special “Y” shaped cable that plugs into two USB ports. If you might need one of these devices, you’ll want a laptop with two USB ports that are close together, not one on each side.

In my most recent purchase, I wanted something far more portable than my old laptop but more capable than a netbook. I went with a Toshiba Satellite, ultra thin system. This particular system (like most ultra thin, lightweight systems) does not have an optical drive (no DVD or CD drive). That wasn’t an issue for me because I knew that all of the software I could ever need I was going to download for free once I got it connected to the Internet. If you install a lot of software from disks but still want a system like mine, there are some great external drives that will meet your needs. I may end up getting one too so I can watch movies on my laptop, but for now I’m fine without an optical drive.

Accessories

The final hardware consideration is, what else do you need? Some people need lots of storage but end up choosing a laptop with a smaller hard drive. In that case, just get an external hard drive. Do you transfer a lot of files between systems? Get a thumb drive. Actually, I recommend that people get thumb drives even if they don’t need them for transferring files. They make a great place to keep backups of your most important files.

Keyboard:

The only thing I know you’ll need if you got a laptop is a mouse and keyboard. There’s no getting around it – using the laptop keyboard puts wear on it that could eventually require maintenance. If you use an external keyboard, and it breaks, you can just unplug it and get another one. My favorite typing keyboard ever (that I’ve used anyhow) is the Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It currently sells for $13.99 on Amazon.com, it is comfortable, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I love it.

Mouse:

I do recommend spending a little more for your external mouse though. Touch pads are great for basic navigation and occasional clicking, but nothing beats a scroll wheel on the Internet, and when doing graphics work or gaming you just can’t live without a mouse. My current favorite is the Microsoft Explorer series. Specifically, my wife and I love our Explorer Mini mice. Amazon.com sells them for about $40, they retail for about $60, and there is currently a vendor on Amazon that is selling them for under $20 (with $4 shipping). The great thing about the Explorer mice is that they will track on literally anything but glass and mirrors (although in some tests these mice have actually tracked on glass and mirrors!). We can use them on shag carpet, glossy surfaces, pitted surfaces, hair, clothing, anything at all, and more. If you want a great mouse, Microsoft actually has a great product.

PRE-INSTALLED SOFTWARE YOU DON’T NEED

All computers come with what is lovingly called “bloat-ware.” This is software that people pay the manufacturer to include pre-installed from the factory. In some ways I guess it’s good because I’d like to think that the money they earn from that endeavor goes toward keeping costs lower for me, but I rather doubt it.

Anyhow, the first program I highly suggest you uninstall (if it’s installed) is Norton Anti-Virus. Many computers come with it pre-installed along with an offer for a whole year or month or day of free updates. It’s not worth it. Microsoft has a free program you can download right away that does the same thing (well, roughly the same thing).

To get rid of Norton (or any program, for that matter), just go to the control panel and look for “Add/Remove Programs” or something like that. Find the offender, click “uninstall,” and follow the directions. Most virus protection software will require that you restart after removing it. That’s OK.

Now, I don’t recommend you leave your computer virus-protection-free for long. It is a dangerous thing. So once you’ve finished uninstalling the crud you don’t need, make sure you immediately download the “essential” software I have listed below, in the order I’ve listed them.

First though, look for any programs that say “offer” or “setup” next to them and get rid of them (still in the Add/Remove Software tool). Also, some systems (most Toshibas and HPs) come with some kind of game portal that you should get rid of.

Many people will tell you to get rid of a lot more than this, but it’s not always necessary. After you’ve been using the computer for a month or so, go back to the Add/Remove Software tool and look over the list. If you recognize the program and you know you use it a lot, don’t get rid of it. If you recognize it and you know you don’t use it a lot, get rid of it (just make sure you know what it does first!). Everything else is probably OK to leave installed.

FREE SOFTWARE YOU MIGHT NEED

Some of these are more essential than others. I’ll categorize them to simplify this. In some cases it won’t matter what program you get as long as you get something that does the job. So, if you’re ready to get started, open Internet Explorer (unless your system came with another browser pre-installed, in which case you should DEFINITELY use the other one!).

Note: This list is designed for Windows users ONLY. Many of these programs are cross platform, but I’m not going to say which ones because I’m not making this list for Mac users. Sorry guys. Maybe another time.

Essential Software

These are programs that you will need to get – almost everyone needs these programs. Right away, before downloading anything, you need virus protection!

  • Virus Protection – Search for “Microsoft Security Essentials,” or go to http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/. Click on the big “Download Now” button, save the executable and run it. Make sure you have already removed any virus protection that shipped with your computer, then close your web browser while the program installs. Once it installs make sure it runs OK, then let it scan your system. Depending on the size of your hard drive, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Since this is the first thing you’re doing on your new system, everything should be clean. After it scans your system, you may proceed with this list.
  • New Browser – DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Sure, there are a lot of sites that require it, but I can show you how to get around that later. For now, just download one or both of the following browsers and try them out. You won’t miss Internet Explorer after a few days. I promise. My favorite is Google Chrome, but I was once a die-hard Firefox fan (I even have an embroidered FireFox shirt). They are both worlds better than IE, more secure, faster, and prettier. While I might catch some heat for this, I am going to recommend that you just get Google Chrome. It’s better. Once you’ve downloaded and selected a new browser, close Internet Explorer and never open it again (unless you really have to).
  • Free Office Software – While there are a few options for this, my favorite (and arguably the most user friendly and robust) is OpenOffice.org. Just go to their website in your new, shiny browser, and download. It’s that easy. The installation is easy and the program operates a lot like Microsoft Office. There are some differences, but OpenOffice.org can do just about anything Microsoft Office can do, and in some cases it does it better. If you ever find that OpenOffice.org just isn’t meeting your needs, feel free to go back to the Microsoft version, but I don’t think most people will ever need to.
  • Media Player – Windows Media Player is pretty good, but there are a lot of things it can’t handle. For everything else, there’s VLC. VLC can’t do everything, but I’ve never found a video it couldn’t play.
  • Photo Organizer – Since most people maintain some kind of image collection (from digital cameras, web graphics, etc.), you’ll probably want a good program to organize and lightly edit those photos. Google Picasa is a great product that is completely free and I recommend it to everyone.

Everything Else

Those, to me, represent the bare-bones necessities for a new computer. If you get nothing else, make sure you get those things. The remainder of my list is specific to my needs and wants, based on what I want to use the computer for. If you know of other great free programs that aren’t listed here, please add them in the comments.

  • Dropbox – This is a really cool file program. It creates a special folder that automatically backs itself up online any time you add or change files in the folder. If you install Dropbox on other computers and link them with your account, Dropbox will synchronize all of the folders across all of the computers and devices you have Dropbox installed on. I love it.
  • Notepad ++ – If you do any web development or coding the old fashioned way (in notepad) you might want to try Notepad ++. I found this little gem several years ago and have installed it on all of my computers ever since.
  • Skype – For video calls and VoIP, my favorite is still Skype. We’ve been using it for quite a while now and we love it.
  • Google Talk – Actually, I didn’t download the Talk program, I installed the Video and Voice plug-in. While most of our video chats are handled over Skype, we have more friends with Google accounts than Skype accounts. With this plug-in, I can have a video call with any Google Talk contact who is also using the plug-in or the desktop client. I’ve only done it once, and it was a long time ago, but this is a valuable thing to have on standby.
  • Google Earth – There’s nothing cooler than exploring your planet in 3D with a nearly infinitely scalable, detailed and textured model with Google Maps plastered all over it. This is as fun as it is useful.
  • Google SketchUp – I am a bit of a 3D hobbyist, and SketchUp is a great way to rapidly visualize a model. It’s a wildly different experience from most of the 3D software I’ve used, but once I got the hang of it I realize it was easier and more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever tried. Plus, it’s free!
  • Blender – On the subject of 3D, how does a free 3D program with advanced features sound? SketchUp may be easy and fast, but it’s not anywhere near Blender’s level. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Blender is extremely un-intuitive to learn. However, I’ve seen what it can do, and I’m impressed enough to trudge over the learning curve and figure it out.
  • Paint.NET – If I’m going to make awesome 3D images in Blender, I’ll need software like Photoshop to make textures, composites, do touch-ups, and more. Windows Paint won’t do any of that. In fact, Paint is nearly useless. Luckily, there’s a better Paint. This program can do layers, adjustments, transparency and even some cool effects. Sure, there’s a lot that it can’t do, but it’s free. If it does what you need it to then you’ve lost nothing, right? I even made the cover for my new book entirely in Paint.NET.
  • Inkscape – Paint.NET can handle most of my 2D needs, but it is primarily for raster images (bitmaps). For vector images, I love Inkscape. It’s relatively easy to learn, and it can handle almost anything you can dream up.
  • GIMP – Many people believe GIMP capable of anything Photoshop can do. I don’t agree, but I do think GIMP is better than Paint.NET for more advanced jobs. A lot like Blender, I find GIMP hard to learn, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I want to learn it so I can see how long I can live without Photoshop. Someday I’ll be rich and it won’t matter. Until then, I’ll be struggling with GIMP.
  • WavePad – I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a free audio editing tool that I hope will allow me to make simple audio tracks for animations or an audio book. We shall see. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll write a review (and link to it from here).
  • VideoPad – Like WavePad, I downloaded this to see if it would be suitable for creating simple promotional or family videos. I just want to be able to cut scenes together, edit things out and add simple effects. If this program is a winner, I’ll write a review.

CONCLUSION

I hope this helped. As I use my system and learn more about what programs are meeting my needs and which ones I don’t have that could help, I may modify this list.

I’m 100% sure of all of the hardware tips though, as well as the “essential software” bit. The important thing to remember is that there are hundreds of thousands of free programs out there that you can find that will do the same things that more expensive software can do. Look to the free stuff first, and if it doesn’t work out, pay for what you need.

Good luck and happy computing!

A Couple of Great Films

I had, in the last week, the delightful opportunity to see two wonderful, awe-inspiring movies. I’m sure you’ve heard of them.

First, I saw Avatar with my wife and brothers.

Avatar Movie Poster

Avatar

This movie was nothing short of magnificent. I did see the film in 3D, and aside from a few small gripes I have with today’s 3D film showing technology, the 3D added more than just another dimension to the movie.

What made this movie outstanding for me can be illustrated in just two solid points.

First, I went in to the movie knowing full well that the plot was essentially ripped off from Pocahontas (though I don’t believe Cameron did it on purpose), and still James Cameron’s storytelling kept me engaged and entertained to the end. If you can go into a movie knowing how it ends and what will happen around every turn, and still enjoy it thoroughly, then it is a good movie.

Second, as someone who loves movie special effects, I am familiar with a tendency in Hollywood to allow the special effects to steal the show. Many a good movie has been nearly or entirely ruined because the effects were too good for the viewer to allow them to fade into the background of the story. In Avatar, the effects perfectly faded into their rightful place as a storytelling mechanism. They were nearly perfect in every way (and where they did not excel, they receded even further into the back of the viewer’s mind).

I had no problem believing that the world of Pandora was a very real place to the characters I saw on screen, and at no time did I feel like I was experiencing another Jar-Jar-esque CGI character while watching the Na’vi. For some, the world was not only real and beautiful, but it was so much better and alluring than Earth, that they are dying to visit.

After such an epic movie (and “epic” is my favorite word to describe Avatar), I was hesitant to watch anything else for a while.

Later the same week, though, my wife and I went on a date to see Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes Movie Poster

Sherlock Holmes

This Sherlock Holmes installment was the most beautifully rendered of any I have ever seen. As a huge fan of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I have always been looking for a suitable film adaptation of his original characters. Unfortunately, most of the previous Holmes films I had seen had failed miserably.

Shortly after watching this new Sherlock Holmes movie, I was in a rental store and saw the cover of a Sherlock Holmes movie I had never heard of: Murder By Decree.

Murder By Decree Poster

Murder By Decree

On the cover you can see that someone once considered it the “Best Sherlock Holmes Movie Ever Made.” That statement is attributed to Rex Reed, of the New York Daily News. The movie was released early in 1979, just over thirty years prior to the newest movie staring the master sleuth. The cover certainly makes the movie look quite appealing, and it currently resides at the top of my Netflix queue. I will then report on if that film remains the “best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made.”

As for my current belief, Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes better than any man before him, and Jude Law made a singularly perfect Dr. Watson companion to him. The two played very nicely together, and the depiction of their characters was precisely as I had envisioned it during my reading of the stories. For me, Sherlock Holmes staring Robert Downey Jr. will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes movie.

Finally, before I let you go, I have to apologize for getting ahead of myself earlier. I rushed to offer my new book (Facebook Drives Me Nuts) for sale before it was ready. So, the first edition, which nobody bought, is immediately discontinued, and the second edition, which is currently undergoing review, will be offered for sale before the end of the month (if all goes well). I am thinking of sending out a few signed copies to my closest friends and family, in hopes that they will read the book and spread the word. Of course, if they don’t like the book, such an act could backfire on me most horrendously. I shall have to proceed with caution.

Watch for an announcement here followed by copious amounts of self promotion through all of my available channels once the book is approved for sale.

Review: Pokémon Diamond (Game for Nintendo DS)

Game Cover

Game Cover

I first played the original Pokémon Red and Yellow versions for the old Game Boy system many years ago and fell in love with the simple RPG style game play, cute Pokémon creatures, and the ability to link up with my brother to trade and battle Pokémon. I felt that 150 different species Pokémon were more than enough though, and stayed away from the subsequent iterations of Pokémon games out of a fear that the addition of more Pokémon and more things to do would complicate things and take away from the elegant simplicity of those first Pokémon games. Plus, I grew up and decided that the whole Pokémon thing was a little childish.

For anyone who hasn’t played Pokémon before, see below for an in-depth look at what is so fun about it (for adults and children). If you’ve played older Pokémon games but aren’t sure about this one, you’re in the same position I was when I got my DS.

In Diamond (and Pearl) there were many new ideas for me: berries and poffins (not new to those who have played Pokémon on the Game Boy Advance), seals to decorate Pokéballs (I guess, though I haven’t gotten into it much), more in-depth relationships with your Pokémon, contests (kind of like beauty pageants, but for Pokémon), an underground cave system for use with wireless multiplayer, and many other things I can’t even think of because I don’t use them. That’s right, even though they went and complicated the game by adding stuff, you can still enjoy the basic game the same way you could back with the first games. These additions only add to the experience for those who wish to participate in them.

There are other enhancements as well. The interface for navigating menus, viewing information, and battling has improved drastically (especially since there are two screens on the DS), and they have finally incorporated some true 3D elements (mainly just in the environment, the characters are all still 2D sprites).

While this version may not represent a huge leap forward in the Pokémon series, it certainly does take a few steps forward, and no steps back. Anyone who has ever enjoyed another Pokémon game will appreciate Pokémon Diamond (or Pearl), and anyone who has never played a Pokémon game would do well to give this game a chance. Pokémon may not be for everyone, but many have fallen in love with these simple RPGs, including me.

If you’ve never played Pokémon, allow me an opportunity to sell you on the idea. It turns out many adults can enjoy this sort of thing as well as children (even if the story is a bit childish).

Pokémon are creatures that inhabit the land in the Pokémon games. In Japan, the game is called “Pocket-Monsters” (I believe). The first generation of Pokémon came around the time that virtual pets were becoming popular, so essentially these Pokémon were modeled after the virtual pet concept (just without the little buttons for “feed” and “clean up mess”).

In the Pokémon games, you become a Pokémon trainer – someone who catches and trains Pokémon to battle. Though the monsters battle, the loser simply runs out of energy (measured in HP – health points) and faints – nothing ever happens that is graphic or unfriendly to children.

As you wander around the game (not aimlessly, there is always something to do), you encounter more and more monsters and use special capturing balls (Pokéballs) to catch more Pokémon (you may recall the catchphrase – “gotta catch ’em all”). You battle your Pokémon against other wild Pokémon or against those of other Pokémon trainers and any Pokémon on the winning team that participated in the battle gets experience points (and the trainer gets money to spend on stuff for the Pokémon). As they grow in experience they level up, learn new moves, and sometimes they evolve into more powerful Pokémon. In this way you raise the most powerful team of Pokémon to win every battle and become a Pokémon Master (lame, I know).

The trick is that you can only carry six Pokémon with you at a time (the rest are stored in a computer system), so you must assemble a team that is diverse enough to tackle any foe. There are many kinds of Pokémon (flying type, fire type, water type, electric type, etc) and some are more effective against others. Most of the time, these pairings make sense – a water type Pokémon does very well against a fire type for example. The same goes for the individual moves they know (one Pokémon can not know any more than four moves to use in battle at a time).

The basic formula is simple, easy to understand, and allows for a lot of strategic consideration. The execution in the game is challenging (but not too hard), fun and great for multi-player experiences. From the beginning, the franchise has focused on allowing game pack owners to trade Pokémon and battle them with friends. These days, on the Nintendo DS, trading and battling other Pokémon players has never been easier. There are no cables, and you can even connect over the Internet.

A lot of people criticize that the story in every Pokémon game is basically the same, but that is what I love about them (not that I wouldn’t enjoy a departure from the formula). You start out some place where there is someone that wants you to go out and see/catch all of the local kinds of Pokémon and you are given a starter Pokémon. There are side missions, caves, an evil group/entity at every turn, other trainers, and of course your rival to deal with, in addition to gyms, badges (earned by defeating gym leaders) and the Elite Four. The above description is good for basically every Pokémon game (as I understand it, though I haven’t played ALL of them).

A final note for those who are not familiar with the Pokémon franchise: You may be asking yourself what the difference is between Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. Simply put, there isn’t enough of a difference for you to worry about it. Since the first two were released (Red and Blue) they have always released Pokémon in pairs (with the exception of an occasional special edition – Yellow was a special Pikachu edition, and Platinum is a special DS version with even more side features than Diamond and Pearl). Each version has a few things here or there that are marginally different, most notably there are usually a few Pokémon you cannot catch on your game pack so you must find someone else with the sister game pack and trade them for it (especially since you have some on yours that they can’t find in their game). Don’t worry though – you don’t actually have to catch all of the Pokémon to win the game – you can do it without having both game packs.

Update: A Kindle for Authors

My Kindle for AuthorsMy Kindle for Authors

Alas, there is still no Kindle for authors in the sense of a low cost, feature rich, power sipping device dedicated to the act of writing. For now, my favorite writing implement is my Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It is a simple plug-and-play USB keyboard that supports everything from Mac to Windows – Linux and even my Wii included. It’s extremely comfortable to type on, and I use it on my old desktop replacement laptop (a once powerful machine that is now on the verge of death) and on my EEE PC. I love the EEE for its portability, but being a first generation model, it lacks some of the refinement most of the newer netbooks have (a slightly larger screen/keyboard, for example).

However, some netbooks are losing their identity and so I am proud to own a true netbook. I do not like the trend to put traditional hard drives in netbooks. A netbook should have solid state memory, even if only a little bit of it (mine has 4 gigs, and that’s plenty for writing and browsing the Internet). Companies are trying to dress the netbook up like a laptop – making them larger, more powerful, able to do things that a laptop should do. If I want a laptop, I will buy a laptop. Laptops should cost $500 – $2,000, depending on what I’ll use it for. Netbooks should cost $200 – $400.

My Asus EEE PC 4G Surf

My Asus EEE PC 4G Surf

 

Now people are trying to sell you laptops that cost $450 and do little more than a netbook, and netbooks that cost $500 – $600 and do everything a laptop should do. Personally, I don’t even think a netbook should be running Windows. I’ve heard that Microsoft is aiming to make Windows 7 able to run on netbooks (less of a RAM monger than XP and Vista, maybe), and in that case I might consider Windows an option. Until then, though, Linux works just fine on my little Asus. Sure, it’s not as user friendly as Microsoft’s OS (Linux has too many different Kernal versions for software installation to be user friendly, among other little problems), but it gets the job done just fine. I’m personally a huge fan of OpenOffice.org, and all of their applications run great on my Asus EEE.

You could always use this...

You could always use this...

If you’re really, really interested in something portable, that lets you write stuff and transfer it to a computer later, has good battery life and doesn’t do much more than that, the AlphaSmart products might work for you. I’m considering the act of sharing this with you my good deed for the day, since I was looking for something like this for almost a year before I stumbled upon it. Maybe I’m just bad at looking for things, but these devices don’t seem very prominent on the Internet. I discovered the AlphaSmart only months after I purchased my EEE. I’m still glad I bought the EEE instead of an AlphaSmart, but I intend to add an AlphaSmart to my writer’s toolbox in the future simply because it’s not a computer.

I hope you found something here to help you find what you are looking for. If you have any additional questions, or actually wanted me to go into more detail about any of this, leave your comment and I’ll get back to you.

Review: Lock’s Quest (Game for Nintendo DS)

Summary: Surprised me…

Pros: Excellent music, great replay value, good game-play variety.

Cons: Can get monotonous, can’t skip lengthy title screens when starting the cartridge, a little frustrating at times.

 

Game Cover from Best Buy

Game Cover

This is one of those games I would never have thought to get for myself. It looked like just another run-of-the-mill RPG, but then the product description mentioned something about building fortresses and I wondered if I might like it.
You see, ever since I was a young child I have been obsessed with castles, fortresses and defensive architecture. If you’ve ever had an interest in any of those things, this game might be for you.
This game is an effective mix of some of the best elements of Desktop Tower Defense, Defend Your Castle and the Final Fantasy series. Ok, so maybe not the best elements of those games, but it’s a delightful blend of features borrowed from all of those games (or games like them).
If you’re familiar with Desktop Tower Defense, you’ll be used to ideas like building walls, slowing the advance of the enemy to give turrets more time to attack, strategically placing and strengthening offensive and defensive weapons, and using weapons that do a variety of attacks for ground or airborn enemies.
In Lock’s Quest you are an “archineer” – that’s the job title, though you’re really just a nobody from a small village – who is given the task of defending important things or people from the invading “clockwork” army. You build walls, turrets, gates, traps and many other defensive implements with the aim of defending a “source” well (source is what the people in this universe use to build things, among other nifty uses), some soldiers, or who knows what else. From there, Lock’s Quest departs from the Desktop Tower Defense model and adds some cool new features – like prototyping new weapons before being able to build them (a fun puzzle-like segment of the game), and ocasionally having to man a turret tower.
Battles are fought day by day (a system closely related to Defend Your Castle – you even see the sun travelling across the screen) and at the beginning of each day you must repair and add to your defenses. One of the best parts of the battle sequences is that you don’t have to just sit there and watch the little robot dudes tear your walls down and smash your turrets. Your character, Lock, can run around repairing damaged units and even engage in combat. Throughout the game you learn new moves for attacking (all of them simple to execute), but you must watch your health bar to avoid fainting.
There are other modes as well, such as wandering around talking to people, and a side view mode where you are manning a turret. You purchase upgrades for the turret at the end of each day, and blast enemies as they come toward the wall and attack. This portion of the game reminds me of Defend Your Castle, without being able to fling people into the air – you’re shooting at them instead.
Occasionally, navigating Lock around obstacles can be frustrating. Or sometimes I’ll tell him to repair a turret (something he usually does from inside the fortress) and he will run out through the gates instead, where he gets beat up a bit before I tell him to run back inside and try again. Otherwise, the controls are relatively natural and smooth.
Perhaps my biggest complaint comes from the title screen. Every time you start the game (as in, turn on the system and load the cartridge) you are forced to watch the opening splash screens for the companies involved in making the game. I don’t mind being shown the logos, I just like being able to rush through them so I can jump into the game. The titles don’t last all that long, but they seem to take forever when you just want to flip it on for a second to do a quick round.
I think my favorite part of the game is the music. The game-play is fun, the graphics are nice, and the controls are comfortable, and the story is ok, but I could say that about a lot of games. When was the last time you heard a video game score that really impressed you though? Zelda games usually have good music (Twilight Princess was awesome) and Final Fantasy games are usually pretty descent (Sid’s theme, anyone?) but the focus on games in the last few years has been on graphics, not music. Some big names have been called in to compose scores for a few games lately in an attempt to revitalize video game music. David Franco did the score for Lock’s Quest, and though I hadn’t really heard of him before, it looks like he’s done quite a few scores for television and has been involved with movie music for a while.
Most of the score is powerful and fun to listen to, but I feel that the music is a little hit and miss – with far more hits than misses. I think Franco lacks the polished experience of some composers, but the average game player will appreciate the work he put into Lock’s Quest. Overall, it is a pleasure to listen to, and it really adds to the experience of playing the game.
If you already know you love thinking defensively and you don’t mind fixing things that people break (sometimes over and over again), then Lock’s Quest is perfect for you. None of the battles I’ve fought so far have lasted more than five or six days, so you’ll never find yourself locked into the same old motions for more than forty five minutes, and so far I’ve won all of them. The wins don’t come too easily, but it’s not impossible – it’s just challenging. I haven’t tried the two player mode yet, so I can’t include that in my review, but overall I am glad I played this charming game for the Nintendo DS.

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