Everyone knows Photoshop is the standard for graphics professionals, but did you know you can edit photos like a pro with just your web browser?
Read more at CNET.com…
Everyone knows Photoshop is the standard for graphics professionals, but did you know you can edit photos like a pro with just your web browser?
Read more at CNET.com…
Founded in 1987, TechSmith has been a pioneer in screen capture and recording technology for Windows computers since they released Snagit, 20 years ago. How could a company thrive for over 20 years, selling software that does something that the Windows OS has always been able to do for free?
I used to use Snagit several years ago to create instructional documents for IT staff. The print screen option in Windows (via the Print Scrn key) created a lot of extra work because I had to crop just the sections I wanted and the resolution wasn’t optimal. Snagit was a godsend for its ability to capture just the windows I needed and the resolution was more ideal. Windows print screen hasn’t evolved at all, but with the release of Windows Vista and Windows 7, Microsoft added a new tool called the Snipping Tool. The Snipping Tool is better than just print screen, because it allows you to capture windows, rectangular areas, and in free-form. It even allows very basic markups. For the casual user, the Snipping Tool is all you will need. However, the reason why Snagit has been so successful for all these years, is because it’s always been able to do moren––much more. The Snipping Tool is basically what Snagit was, maybe 10 years ago.
Snagit 10 can capture a region, windows, fixed region, or active window. It can include or exclude the cursor, capture an entire web page (rather than just what’s visible on the screen), capture text and video. Video screen captures are very basic, so any heavy screencasting projects should be done with a dedicated screencasting tool like TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio.
Though you can choose specific capture methods, I only use the all-in-one tool because it’s drop-dead simple to use. Captures can be outputted to a variety of file formats including PNG, JPG, GIF, and PDF. Capture files are clean, clear and look great. One feature I like is how captures of windows include the curves on the corners. You may not have noticed, but Microsoft Windows windows aren’t perfect rectangles; they are curved in the corners. If you use the Snipping Tool, captures are a straight rectangle, which means a portion of the background is captured with it.
When I first began using Snagit 10, I really didn’t expect to use the editor. I figured it was just a throw in and it wouldn’t be a compelling part of the package. After all, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements, GIMP, Corel Paint Shop Pro, and Paint.NET for graphics, so what would I need a built-in editor for, right? Simply put, I use it for the incredible selection of markup options. My presentations look professional and clean. There are many options to choose from and their selection of effects are also very cool. In addition to the amazing selection of markup tools, I’m also in love with the blur tool and spotlight & magnify tool. The blur tool allows me to easily blur certain parts of a capture I don’t want to share, like serial numbers, names, phone numbers, etc. The spotlight & magnify tool, allows me to put the focus on a specific part of the capture.
The editor isn’t perfect, however. I would suggest to TechSmith that they improve the quality of their stamps. Stamps are graphics that look like a hand-drawn circle or maybe a mouse cursor clicking on a button. I really would like to use these stamps but to be perfectly honest, they look amateur––like clip art from the 80s. Also, resizing captures seem to reduce the image quality when compared to the same action in Photoshop Elements. One last feature I would love to see in the Editor, is a “save for web” feature, like in Photoshop Elements. Sometimes my captures end up being rather large in size, so being able to reduce the size without reducing too much of the overall quality would be a huge benefit for me. As it is, I end up working on my captures in both Snagit Editor and Photoshop Elements. I do any resizing, or cropping work in Photoshop and then use the Snagit Editor for the effects and markups.
The capture library in Snagit Editor is a nice feature. It allows you to keep track of all your captures in a neat, organized fashion. You can tag your captures and then find them later using those tags. The library also organizes images by date and by folders. The lower part of the Editor screen also displays thumbnails of your most recent captures so you can quickly access images you’ve been working on. The default size of the thumbnails is medium, which I find hard to use since many of my screenshots look pretty similar. Luckily, you can increase the thumbnail size to large. You can also hover over the thumbnails to get a preview of the image but it takes a couple of seconds to display so I prefer just using the large thumbnails to start.
I prefer to have the Snagit program minimized and out of the way when I begin working. Unfortunately, there is no option to start it up minimized. You have to minimize it yourself when it starts up or manually edit the shortcut to have Windows minimize it on start up. It’s not hard to edit the shortcut, but I can’t imagine it would take much to add the option to Snagit either.
Snagit was a godsend 10 years ago and it’s a godsend today. Snagit 10 is the most powerful screenshot program that I know of and is a steal for $50. The efficiency I gain from using it is well worth the price. If you’re a teacher, trainer, writer, or someone who needs to take screen captures to do their jobs, it’s a no brainer; you need Snagit.
Available from Amazon.com.
* Review license provided by TechSmith
“Have you defragged your hard drive?” That was my response to the hundreds of end users and family members that would call me to complain that their Windows PC was running slow. It was as natural as asking them if their computer was plugged in. On my own systems, I always made sure that I defragged my disks regularly, even back on my first IBM clone, a Magnavox 486SX/33 system running DOS.
Since the mid 90s, Diskeeper has been an essential tool for keeping Windows systems running smoothly. I ran it on workstations and Windows servers that I maintained. The Windows defrag program was subpar, when compared to the power and performance of Diskeeper. Also, there just weren’t any alternatives to Diskeeper at the time. These days, Diskeeper has stiffer competition. On the commercial front, there is O&O Defrag, Raxco’s PerfectDisk, and Noton’s Speed Disk (part of Norton Utilities). Free alternatives include Auslogics Disk Defrag, Defraggler by Piriform and many others. Read on for my thoughts on Diskeeper 2011 and if you should consider choosing it over free alternatives.
The whole point of defragmenting your hard drive is to maintain top performance. To that end, Diskeeper keeps its promise of “Optimum system performance. Always.” After install, I ran an analysis on my system and data drives and it defragmented my physical disks quickly. I also configured Diskeeper 2011 to automatically defrag them. I’m not talking about scheduling a defrag job, because that would be so 1999. I’m not even talking about running a defrag when your system is idle; that would be so 2005. What I’m talking about is proactively defragmenting your system in real-time. It runs in the background with no noticeable impact in your system’s performance. Diskeeper Corporation (formerly Executive Software) created some fancy terms to describe the technology that Diskeeper 2011 uses, but all you have to know is that it works. Diskeeper 2011 will try to prevent fragmentation before it even happens and then to instantly defragment it should it occur. Diskeeper 2011 is the most powerful program of its kind that I have ever used. I no longer worry about my hard disks, even after working with large multimedia files like 18MP RAW photo files, 1080p HD videos, and lossless compressed music files. In the realm of performance, there is just no denying that Diskeeper 2011 does its job very very well.
There are also some side benefits to keeping your system defragmented. A defragmented hard drive decreases wear and tear on the drive. Remember that your hard drive is one of the few components in your computer that actually has moving parts. A hard disk that isn’t overactive also consumes less power, resulting in some slight energy savings. It also will give off less heat, resulting in a cooler hard drive and computer, which is beneficial for the life of the disk and other PC components.
INTERFACE & USABILITY
The Diskeeper 2011 console has two sections. The top section of the console is a list of volumes (hard disks) and the bottom section has one tab each for the Dashboard, Log, and History. The data in the Dashboard is a bit hectic and I find it hard to find useful statistics, at a glance. Since it is the first and primary tab, it is intimidating to look at upon launching the console. I appreciate all the data provided in the Dashboard but it could use some work in how it’s presented. Fortunately, once you configure Diskeeper 2011, you will rarely have the need to go back to the console.
LICENSING, COST & EDITIONS
Diskeeper 2011 can only be installed on a single computer. Many homes now have two or more computers and I find the restrictive nature of the license to be somewhat arcane. There are no discounts for multiple licenses unless you are a business and request a quote for volume licensing. Home users with two or three computers are forced to pay full price for each license. The basic Home edition costs $39.95 for one license without the HyperFast add-on (for SSD drives). I would love to see a family pack or 3-user license offered for the same price.
The four editions of Diskeeper 2011 are, Home, Professional, Pro Premier, and Home Server. The comparison chart for the editions is very long. I counted 43 rows of distinguishing characteristics! The Home edition is probably sufficient for most users, but it lacks file optimization technology. On NTFS volumes only, this technology (i-FAAST) organizes your files intelligently so that files can be accessed on average, 10-20% faster. i-FAAST is only available on Professional and Pro Premier. The only difference between Professional and Pro Premier is the inclusion of the Terabyte Volume Engine, which is optimized for larger volumes. Since I don’t span my disks, the largest volume in my system currently is 1TB. I’m not certain whether having the Terabyte Volume Engine will significantly improve the handling of my 1TB disk, or my planned upgrade to a 2TB disk. If it does, then that feature should really be included on all Diskeeper editions. The technology for it was created in 2003, when 1TB volumes were unheard of in home computers. 1TB or greater disks are now commonplace and a premium should not be placed on supporting common hardware.
Diskeeper 2011 is a great Windows utility, no question. Microsoft engineers have said that performance gains from defragmenting hard disks in modern systems aren’t as great as they once were. Still, if you want your system running its best, it is advisable to continue defragmenting hard disks. Diskeeper 2011 can get costly and I’d like to see more flexible licensing options. Free alternatives like Auslogic’s Disk Defrag do a good basic job and I recommend them for the greenback challenged. However, those who need the absolute best performance, Diskeeper 2011 still reigns supreme.
Available from Diskeeper Corporation.
* Review license courtesy of Diskeeper Corporation
Premiere Elements 9 is the latest version of Adobe’s consumer-oriented video editing software application. Until about a month ago, my exposure to video editing software was fairly limited. Corel’s VideoStudio Pro X4 was my first serious experience with such software and I was very impressed with Corel’s offering. I was very excited to give Premiere Elements 9 (PRE9) a try next because I just knew that it would take my video editing to the next level. I had a stellar experience with Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 so I expected more of the same from PRE9.
Generally speaking, video applications tend to have some of the highest system requirements of any program you could run on your computer. Professionals have large budgets so they can afford the best hardware for their workstations. The average home user on the other hand, may have once had a top-of-the-line system, but might now be anywhere from 1-5 years old. For everything but modern high-end games, this is usually just fine. My home-built system is about 3-4 years old but met PRE9’s system requirements easily. It ran Corel’s VideoStudio Pro X4 fairly well so I had no worries about PRE9– that is, until I started using it.
When working with a video clip, I was able to preview the clip without a glitch. However, as soon as I began adding effects, transitions, or titles, the preview was almost unwatchable. It stuttered so much, that it would completely skip over elements like the transition. I was unable to actually preview the work I was doing. Scrolling through the included titles was slow as well and my cursor would show busy for up to three seconds before allowing me to continue scrolling.
I ended up calling Adobe support and they were very helpful and polite. Unfortunately, resetting my default settings didn’t help, nor did any of their other suggestions. They suggested that there was a newer version of my NVIDIA video card driver, but when I went to the NVIDIA website, the latest driver was the driver I was already using. I even uninstalled my driver and reinstalled it to no effect. As a last straw, I even overclocked my video card– something I never do. That didn’t help either.
PRE9 is separated into four distinct functions–Organize, Edit, Disc Menus and Share. It’s very similar to VideoStudio Pro X4 except that PRE9 includes the Disc Menus option. Organize is the first option in PRE9 and allows you to easily import videos from a variety of sources and add them to an album.
After you’ve dragged a clip from an album, you can click on the Edit tab to start working on it. If all you want to do is get your video clips onto a DVD or upload them to YouTube, you can go straight to the Share tab. However, if you want to try and improve the video quality or add titles, a soundtrack, or do some other fun and creative things to the clip, you can do so in this tab.
The default layout of the Edit step works well and is almost exactly like VideoStudio Pro X4. It’s broken down into three sections. On the top left, you have the video preview screen. On the top right, are effects, transitions, filters, themes, and clip art. The entire bottom half of the layout is the timeline (or sceneline). This is where you insert all the videos, effects, and audio. It’s pretty intuitive. The timeline reads from left to right and there are multiple rows of “Tracks.” By default, three Video plus Audio tracks are listed, three additional audio tracks, a narration track and a soundtrack.
Adding elements to these tracks allow you to customize each track and then match them up to work with the entire project. It’s a fairly simple process to add your own music as a soundtrack or effects to express your creative side. Of course, because I experienced performance problems, it did get cumbersome waiting to scroll through the different options and once I added them, I was unable to preview their effect on the video. One effect I was actually able to observe was the Auto Level effect. It cleaned up some of the lighting issues on my clip and improved the overall quality.
If you want to create DVD’s of your videos, menus are a good way to make the DVD more fun to watch and easier to find segments or clips. PRE9 includes a separate tab to help create fun looking menus but the selection of menus is fairly limited. I would have appreciated at least one generic-looking menu template to go along with some of the fun styles that were offered.
The last function of Premiere Elements 9 is the share function. This allows you to create a disc, record to DV tape, upload online, and create a video file. The options here are fairly self explanatory and are easy to use. Online uploads are limited to just YouTube, Photoshop.com, and Podbean. The process of creating a video file is called rendering. Rendering can take a long time, depending on how long and complex your video is and the type of file you’ve chosen to save it as. Knowing which type you should use is important before you render it because you could end up wasting a lot of time waiting for the render to complete, only to find out that the file you created isn’t going to work for you. I should mention that even though I had performance issues that caused problems previewing clips as I worked on them, that once I rendered them, they came out perfectly.
Adobe Premiere Elements 9 isn’t quite what I was expecting. On the one hand, it has lots of useful tools that work well to improve videos and add some creativity to them. On the other hand, working in PRE9 was frustrating because of performance issues that I should not have experienced, given that my system exceeded the system requirements. In my opinion, Adobe should have done one of two things to really help consumers who were looking at PRE9 as an option. They should have either optimized the application better to work with older hardware or published a more realistic system requirement. I highly recommend downloading the 30-day trial to see how well your system runs PRE9 first. If it works, then I have no problem recommending PRE9.
30-day trial can be download HERE.
Available from Amazon.com.
* Review license courtesy of Adobe Systems
It seems like just yesterday that Adobe first introduced Photoshop Elements to the enthusiast market. In fact, it’s been almost a decade, which is right around the time I bought my first digital camera. With the introduction of the digital camera in the mid-90s and widespread adoption in less than 15 years, the demand for an easy-to-use, but powerful photo-centric program for enthusiasts was inevitable. Adobe met that demand with great fanfare, though version 8 disappointed some users. Will Photoshop Elements 9 quell the unsatisfied voices of the previous version?
Organize Tab If you’re like me, then you probably already have a sizable library of photos. Mine consists of over 18,000 photos, taking up nearly 80GB of space, from a wide variety of sources including several different digital cameras, mobile phones, scanners, and webcams. Until about five years ago, I used to just organize them within my file system (windows explorer) and managed to get by okay. Then I had kids.
An explosion of photos followed and it was becoming impossible to manage, so I enlisted the help of Google’s free Picasa software. PSE9’s organizer has many of the features and capabilities of Picasa including people recognition, multiple album support, tags, geotags with maps, rating, cropping, simple fixes, effects, creative projects, and sharing. Most of those features tend to be more advanced or more flexible on Photoshop Elements. For example PSE9 has an auto-analyzer feature that will use Smart Tags to allow you to distinguish your photos using some preset tags like, photo quality or contrast. The people recognition feature worked about as well as Picasa, though I preferred PSE9’s because I could name the faces quicker and easier in PSE9 than Picasa. Some photos were completely ignored though, even if they had clear, unobstructed faces in them. Interestingly, Picasa and PSE9 both missed the same photos.
Overall, I preferred working within PSE9’s organizer. Unfortunately, I won’t be giving up Picasa as my primary organizer because of a major issue I had importing my photos. For some unknown reason, the PSE9 organizer failed to import my photos. I selected a top level directory and told it to scan subfolders. After a few thousand photos, I got a message saying that the import failed and none of my photos showed up in the catalog. I resorted to importing individual folders and began to notice that it was hanging up on importing photos I had taken with an LG Dare phone, though it didn’t have any problems with photos taken with a Blackberry or Android phone. If it had been one or two photos, I would have been okay with omitting them from the catalog, but not ALL of them. Until I can figure out why those particular photos were rejected, I can’t stop using Picasa in favor of PSE9’s organizer, which is too bad because I would prefer to settle on one organizer so I don’t have to double up on tagging.
Fix Tab Within the organizer, there are a few options for fixes, though they are all auto fixes, except for the crop feature. I love the crop feature because you can free crop, or use one of the preset aspect ratios. For example, if you wanted to crop a photo using the 4×6 preset, PSE9 locks the ratio so you can’t use an odd ratio that won’t print on 4×6 paper. Most novices will be reasonably happy with the auto fixes available but for advanced users, you can also launch the full blown editor from the fix tab. A cool touch is the ability to also launch a different editor of your choosing.
Create Tab Within the create tab, you have the ability to create projects like photo prints, photo books, greeting cards, calendars, etc. It’s a neat touch to allow users to create the projects from within PSE9, then print them locally or use a vendor to have the project printed. The problem for me is the limited number of third-party vendors to choose from. If you happen to use Shutterfly or Kodak Gallery, I guess you’re okay, but I use Costco and they are not an option. Ideally, Adobe would make available every major photo site there is so that users have choices and can use their preferred print provider.
Share Tab The share tab allows you to upload photos, create discs, or email them. The built-in share sites include Flickr, Facebook, SmugMug, and Kodak Gallery. Some of the features are only available if you happen to also have Premiere Elements 9, which can be purchased separately or as part of a bundle with Photoshop Elements 9. Again, more choices for sharing sites would have been awesome, but Flickr and Facebook are probably two of the biggest photo sharing sites around so it’s a good start.
When it comes down to it, the meat of Photoshop Elements 9 is the editor. If you just wanted the organizer, you really could just get by on cheaper or free alternatives, but what really sets PSE9 apart from the others is the editor. A really nice feature of the editor is that you can use it in three modes: Full, Quick, and Guided. The full editor provides full control over all the editing while the quick editor focuses on a few specific areas of editing –– lighting, color, balance, and sharpness. The guided editor is a very nice feature for inexperienced users. It basically guides you through the process of making all kinds of edits, enhancements and effects, while explaining each change in detail. It is so useful for learning that I’d recommend everyone but the most experienced users try the guided editor at least once to learn everything that’s possible with PSE9.
I can’t possibly go over every single effect, tool, and feature of the editor. I would however, like to show an example of one of my favorite tools –– the spot healing brush tool. Since most of my photos tend to be of people, the ability to touch up a person’s face (usually my own) is really cool. Hey, not everyone can look beautiful all the time, right? I still have an occasional breakout now and then but with the spot healing brush tool, it’s like it was never there. You can take it a step further and use it to repair old damaged photos or even remove objects from a photo.
In the example above, you can see the dramatic improvement from the before photo (left) and the after photo (right).
The photo above was taken from the fire escape of my old apartment in San Francisco. You can see the large black cable/wire across the top that sort of ruined an otherwise nice photo of the San Francisco skyline. The spot healer did an amazing job removing it from the photo and the whole process took me less than a minute to complete! Blown up on a computer screen, you can tell where the cable was, but on a 4×6 print it’d be very hard to spot. The spot healing brush tool is one of many useful, interesting, and fun ways to edit your photos using Photoshop Elements 9. With this kind of creative control, you can snap your photos without worry because PSE9 can remove unwanted clutter, enhance lighting, add cool effects, and much more.
My computer is no slouch, but it definitely can’t compete with computers you can buy off the shelves today. That said, I had no problems maneuvering around Photoshop Elements 9 and did not once experience a crash during my week or so of testing. Other than when running the auto analyzer and when PSE9 was busy building thumbnails from huge imports, I found it to be quite responsive.
Windows 7 64-bit
Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 (2.2GHz)
Nvidia GeForce 8600GT (256MB RAM)
4GB system RAM
I am not a fan of launch screens. When you launch PSE9, you get a welcome screen that’s used to log in to your Adobe ID and or launch the Organizer or Editor. I prefer to have separate shortcuts for each than having to go through a two-step process for getting into whichever part of PSE9 I want to use. You can configure it to automatically launch the editor or organizer, but after it launches, you still have to close the welcome screen.
If you sign up for an Adobe ID, you get 2GB of free storage at Photoshop.com and access to basic tutorials. That’s twice the storage of Google’s Picasaweb. For an additional $49.99/year, you can upgrade the free account to a “Plus” account that allows for 20GB of storage and more tutorials as well as access to more backgrounds, frames, and artwork for projects.
For more help on using PSE9, go check out The Missing Manual series from O’Reilly.
Photoshop Elements 9 is a fantastic photo editing tool for enthusiasts. The organizer in PSE9 could still use a couple of improvements, but mostly needs to stop being so finicky about importing photos. In all honesty though, even if Adobe removed the organizer altogether, the editor itself would be worth the asking price. With its solid performance and an array of powerful editing tools, it looks like Adobe’s Photoshop Elements is back on track as being the best photo editing program for enthusiasts, not just the best selling.
For a 30-day trial, go to http://www.adobe.com/go/tryphotoshop_elements.
Available from Amazon.com.
* Review license courtesy of Adobe Systems
I wanted to share a list of free software programs that I either use or recommend. I have been asked on numerous occasions to recommend programs and lots of times, I end up recommending free programs because quite frankly, they are as good or better than a lot of “boxed” software. So here it is.
PDF Reader – Foxit Reader
Most people probably just install Adobe Acrobat Reader without a second thought and leave it at that. Problem is, Acrobat Reader is a bit bloated, slow, and a security risk that requires constant updates. The solution? Foxit Software’s Foxit Reader. It has a much smaller footprint, is very quick, and to date, I have not found that it lacks anything that Adobe’s Acrobat Reader has.
CD/DVD Mastering Software – CDBurnerXP
Many moons ago, I used to use Adaptec EZ CD Creator to copy or create CDs. I moved on to Nero but even Nero became bloated and slow. A few years ago, I discovered CDBurnerXP. Not only is the GUI prettier and easier than Nero, it does pretty much everything Nero can do, including mastering CDs and DVDs, supports ISOs and Blu-Ray. It installs in seconds and doesn’t take up a lot of space either.
Antivirus/Anti-spyware – AVG Free
I’ve used a bunch of free antivirus programs over the years. I’ve recommended them to others as well and I somehow always come back to AVG. It definitely isn’t better than using Norton or Kaspersky, but if you need very basic protection or can’t afford to buy the best, then AVG Free deserves a look. Still, if you only buy one piece of software every year, I would buy Norton Internet Security or Norton 360. Stop upgrading your Quicken or Adobe Photoshop Elements every year and get something actually worth buying.
Photo Organizer – Picasa
I have yet to find a better photo organizer, paid or otherwise, than Google’s Picasa. It also does amazingly well at face recognition.
Photo Editor – Paint.NET
I don’t do a whole lot of photo editing because I’m just not that good at it, but whenever I’ve had to, Paint.NET has been pretty easy to use and had most of the tools I needed. Not quite a Photoshop replacement, but it probably has 80% of the tools that 80% of people need.
Photo Editor – Gimp
I saw Gimp back when I initially started fooling around with Linux and it was a pretty decent, yet basic editor for Linux environments. Nowadays, Gimp is a much more powerful editor and is now compiled for Windows. I rarely use Gimp because it can be quite complex and is a bit slower to load than Paint.NET, but it’s worth checking out.
Sound Editor – Audacity
If messing around with audio files is your thing, Audacity has no equal. There is a learning curve for newbies but it is quite powerful and worth learning. Available for Mac OS X and Linux as well.
Password Manager – LastPass
I’ll bet that a lot of people I know are using the same password for everything on the web. Tisk tisk. Terrible idea. The only problem with creating unique passwords for every website or forum is that there’s no way you can remember them all. The solution is of course a password manager. I bought and used a program called Roboform for many years. The problem was that I had to buy a license for every computer or device I had and I had to manage the passwords on multiple computers. Ick. Then came LastPass, which would allow you to install it to any of the major browsers, including Chrome, and it would sync. I was initially very weary of storing my passwords in the cloud, but I’ve since become convinced that it’s not a problem.
Defrag Utility – Auslogics Disk Defrag
While a defrag utility comes with Windows, they’re usually very basic and hard or impossible to schedule. The Auslogics Disk Defrag will defrag your hard disk when idle, so you don’t ever have to manually defrag it or worry about making sure your computer is on during a scheduled job. Would I rather have Diskeeper? Yes. But not for $100.
General System Utility – CCleaner
CCleaner, which once stood for crap cleaner, is a good general purpose system tool. It does a number of useful things for your system. It will get rid of all the temporary files and cookies from web browsers, your Windows system, and even clean your registry. It even has a secure delete function so you can get rid of any sensitive files without worrying about someone recovering it.
Office Suite – OpenOffice
OpenOffice is probably the program I recommend or install for people the most. Why? Because people think that they need Microsoft Office so that they can write a letter or school paper. Nope. In fact, OpenOffice is compatible with MS Office so you can open Word or Excel files with it.
Word Processor / Spreadsheet – Google Docs
Keep your documents in the cloud! Very convenient to use though not as full featured as a local office suite. I love it for the ability to collaborate with others by sharing documents.
MP3 Ripper – LAME/Exact Audio Copy combo
If you happen to be one of the few people who DO NOT own an iPod, iPhone, or iPad and don’t use iTunes, then you might be wondering what the best way is to rip your music collection to MP3s. For pure sound quality, that solution is the combination of the LAME MP3 encoder and Exact Audio Copy CD ripper. It’s not super user-friendly, but it works well and sounds great. Best of all, it is free.
Music Player – Winamp
Yes, believe it or not, I still use Winamp. I think it has gotten bloated by trying to do too much over the years, but I still really like its library management. I used to use MusicMatch but then Yahoo! bought it and ruined it.
Music Player – foobar2000
I only recently discovered foobar2000 but I really like it so far. It is very customizable, very light, speedy and powerful. It supports just about every audio codec there is, including my personal favorite, FLAC.
Video Player – VLC Media Player
If Windows Media Player isn’t cutting it on your system and you don’t want to pay for WinDVD or PowerDVD, then VLC Media Player is your best bet. It supports all sorts of video files. It doesn’t have the prettiest GUI, but it does the job.
File Compressor/Archiver – 7-Zip
If you don’t zip or compress files on a regular basis, then 7-Zip will more than meet your needs.
File Synchronization – Microsoft SyncToy
If you prefer synchronizing your files for backups rather than archiving them, SyncToy is a very simple way to do that. It works especially well for photos. It has some things that annoy me, but it IS free.
Hard Disk Sanitizer – DBAN
Darik’s Boot And Nuke application is one of the best ways I know of to sanitize your hard drive before you sell it or recycle it, other than physically drilling several holes through the platters. It looks intimidating at first but it’s quite easy. You have to create a boot disc with it then boot to it using the disc. Once there, you can select a number of different methods of erasure to sanitize your disk. If you do not wipe your hard disk, your files can be recovered. Just deleting your files or even reformatting it will not completely destroy your files. Caveat emptor.
This is just a small list of free programs that I have experience with and enjoy using. I hope this list is useful for those seeking out free alternatives to commercial software. I am sure there are other great free programs out there. If anyone feels another program should be added to this list, please feel free to leave a comment.
Backups are a joy! It’s something everyone loves doing. Family & friends often gather ’round after dinner, discussing backup strategies with each other. Rigggghhht. Unfortunately, computer backup and disaster recovery is a growing necessity of everyday life. Computers are no longer a luxury good for the geeky, educated, or the wealthy. Computers are important tools for the masses, yet backups are often the most neglected of maintenance tasks. It’s not difficult to understand why. Backups are often very tedious and complicated. Some people might not even see the need. I read an Amazon review once in which the author said that they didn’t feel that they should be required to backup their data because they felt that hard disks should never fail. A pipe dream if there ever was one. A myriad of occurrences could easily result in losing valuable data. Natural disasters, electrical power surges, malware, theft, and user error are just some of the mishaps that come to mind. Software and hardware companies for years have been trying to come up with a simple and effective solution for the home user with mixed success. True Image Home 2011, once a disk and partition imaging-only application similar to Norton Ghost, is Acronis’ attempt to simplify this historically arduous task.
I used Ghost as my imaging application for decades. I used it professionally to deploy hundreds, maybe thousands of computers to end users. Several years ago, True Image was getting a lot of press for finally giving Ghost some serious competition and doing some things Ghost couldn’t do. I finally decided to give it a try about 6 years ago and haven’t looked back. I wasn’t compelled to upgrade from my last version, True Image 11, but since True Image Home 2011 was offered to me from the Amazon Vine Program, I was happy to give my 4th version of True Image a try.
When I received the boxed software, I went straight to the Acronis website and registered the exorbitantly long serial number to my account. I was then able to download the latest version of TIH 2011 from the website and run the installer. I never even bothered to take the CD out of the sleeve. Installation took me less than 10 minutes and I had to reboot just once to complete the install.
My basic system details are:
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Intel Core2 Duo 2.2GHz
320GB System Drive (C:)
1TB Data Drive (D:)
DISK & PARTITION IMAGING
Casual computer users may not understand or see the advantages of imaging their disks or partitions. I tend to create a new system image whenever I get a new version of Windows, or when I get a new computer. On brand new computers, I image the entire hard disk before I do anything on it so that I have a factory build as a backup, without having to go through the process of creating a set of the manufacturer’s restore discs. When I upgrade operating systems, I like to create a fresh install of Windows with just the latest drivers and Windows updates. I then create an image of that install and keep it on an external drive or if small enough, burn it to a DVD. I do this because for years, I have reloaded my computer on an annual basis. The time it takes to reinstall Windows has varied from version to version but it could easily take an hour or longer. Using an image can reduce that time down to 15 minutes. Would you call that an advantage?
There are two ways you can create or restore an image using True Image Home 2011. You can perform all imaging functions directly from within Windows, or you can use bootable media. Bootable media can be a CD/DVD or even a USB flash drive and True Image walks you through creating it. The space required to create bootable media is about 75MB. I used an old 128MB USB flash drive AND I also created a bootable CD in case I needed to use it on older systems that can’t boot USB flash drives. I used the bootable USB media to create a backup image of my current system drive, which had 46GB of used space. It only took True Image 14 minutes to create the image onto my external USB 3.0 drive, though the estimated time initially said it would take 7 minutes. Creating and restoring images is easy once you understand what you’re doing. Unfortunately, I found that there isn’t enough on-screen help to walk a new user through all the options. I’ve been doing this for 15 years so it’s simple to me, but I can’t imagine giving this to my father to use on his own. It also doesn’t help that Acronis doesn’t include a printed user guide. To my dismay, the lack of a printed manual with software is standard practice these days. For imaging, I found the menu in the bootable media to be much easier to figure out. Still, once you understand the concept of imaging (think of it as taking a snapshot of your computer), it’s a fairly quick and easy process from within Windows too. You’re basically telling True Image which partition or disk you want to image(backup) and where to put the image file.
Restoring the image is the same process, but in reverse. Pick the image file you want to restore and to which drive or partition you want to restore it to. Remember, this is restoring the entire partition or disk. However, a neat thing about using True Image from within Windows is that you can actually look and restore specific files inside a True Image image file. I recommend storing backup image files on an external hard disk for safe keeping.
Creating an image of the Windows system partition only protects the operating system, but not your data. For data files like photos, music, videos, documents, etc., you need file level backups. My own backup procedure involves creating an image of my system drive (C:) then using a file level backup solution for my data drive (D:). My personal preference is to use a synchronization application to basically mirror my data from my data drive to an external hard drive. This has the advantage of being able to simply drag and drop files when I need to restore them. Most backup programs, including Microsoft’s built-in backup program and True Image, back up to archive files. This means that you will need to use True Image to look inside the archive in order to restore files. I set up a file level backup job and found it really easy to configure. The default backup scheme performed a Full backup then Incrementals afterward. I still prefer file synchronization for my data backups, but archiving and restoring files using True Image Home 2011 wasn’t too difficult.
Another file level backup option available on True Image is called Nonstop Backup. This feature backs up files you choose, in near real-time (every 5 minutes). This too was simple to set up and was practically identical to setting up regular file backups. This feature requires True Image to be running in the background all the time. It didn’t seem to bog my system down at all and it only used up 8MB of RAM while in a monitoring state. I found this backup feature to be useful for folders and files that changed more frequently than others. If you’re a writer or student who maintains a folder of material that you are constantly editing, Nonstop Backup might become your best friend. It even keeps different versions of those files so you can recover the exact version you need.
Two other useful features of True Image Home 2011 are using Secure Zone and Try & Decide. Secure Zone is essentially a hidden partition on your hard disk that stores your backup image files. This helps to keep your image files from being accidentally deleted or impacted by malware since it’s only viewable by True Image itself. When used in combination with the Acronis Startup Recovery Manager, you can restore backup images without booting into Windows or using other removable media. When your computer boots, you can hit the F11 key to start Recover Manager and select a backup image to restore from the Secure Zone. This can be useful for public computers like at libraries, schools, or Internet cafes. At the start of a new business or school day, you can boot those computers back to their original state, relieving any stress you may have had about possible problems introduced by users. I personally use it on computers I’ve set up for my friends and family so that if they start to have system problems, I can tell them to just hit F11 and restore the computer back to the way I had set up for them.
Try&Decide is basically what is called a “sandbox” environment. It creates a virtual environment for you to work in and is useful for times when you don’t feel completely confident in the activity you are about to perform. For example, maybe you want to apply a software patch on your computer but aren’t sure if it’ll break it. Or, maybe you got an email with an attachment you’re suspicious of. Well, you can activate Try&Decide and open that attachment or apply that patch and see what it does to your system. If it causes problems, then you have no worries because it only happened in the sandbox. If you feel safe and want to commit those changes, you can do so to your real world environment.
There are a few other useful tools included with True Image but the one I find the most useful is DriveCleanser. When you are ready to dispose of, donate, or sell a used hard disk, it’s always wise to sanitize it before doing so. Deleting files or formatting the drive is not enough to keep the files you used to have on your disk from being recovered. I used to use a free program called DBAN to sanitize old disks, but it required me to boot to it to use it. The problem was that in order to perform a very secure sanitation, it could take up to 24 hours or more depending on the size of the disk. This meant that my computer was tied up performing the sanitation for the duration. With TrueImage, you can do the same thing, but within Windows. It supports most of the popular algorithms, like USDOD method, Peter Gutmann’s method, and Bruce Schneier’s method.
The Plus Pack that is offered as an add-on True Image Home 2011 is a separate product requiring a separate purchase and license key. It adds 3 additional functions that some may find the need for. The first feature is full support for dynamic disks. Dynamic disks are supported in more current Windows operating systems and are more flexible than the older basic disks that have been around since the DOS days. With the added flexibility, dynamic disks also become more complex. Chances are, most users, myself included, are still using basic disks. It’s just simpler. However, if you do happen to have a system using dynamic disks, you won’t be able to use TIH2011 without the Plus Pack.
The second feature is support for Microsoft Preinstallation Environment. WinPE is way beyond the scope of this review, but essentially it is a deployment tool that is useful for large deployments. It is useful for large IT departments that have to manage a large number of nodes. For the home user though, it is not necessary.
The last feature that the Plus Pack adds is support for what Acronis refers to as Universal Restore. Universal Restore refers to the ability to restore your system images to a dissimilar system. Simply put, if you created an image for your computer but then decided to upgrade the motherboard or even the entire computer, you can still use TIH2011 w/Plus Pack to restore that image to the new hardware. Unfortunately, I found it a bit too complex and time-consuming to be useful for the average home user. Don’t get me wrong; it is useful. I just don’t think it’s a good fit for most home users. Below is a blurb from the help file about Universal Restore:
A system disk image can be restored easily on the hardware where it was created or to identical hardware. However, if you change the motherboard or use another processor version, a likely possibility in case of hardware failure, the recovered system could fail to boot.
Trying to move the system to a new more powerful computer will usually produce the same result. This is because the new hardware is incompatible with critical drivers included in the image.
Microsoft System Preparation Tool (Sysprep) will not resolve this problem. Sysprep allows you to replace only Plug-and-Play device drivers (sound cards, network adapters, video cards etc.).
However, System Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) and mass storage device drivers must be identical on both the source and the target computers (see Microsoft Knowledge Base, articles 302577 and 216915).
Acronis Universal Restore technology provides an efficient solution for hardware-independent system restoration by replacing the crucial Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) and mass storage device drivers.
Acronis Universal Restore is applicable for:
- Instant recovery of a failed system on different hardware
- Hardware-independent cloning of operating systems
During installation, Online Backup was initially selected to install, but I unchecked it and elected not to install it. I dislike the idea of putting my data on servers that are not my own, permanently attached to the Internet. I don’t trust it. There’s also the monthly costs and performance limitations from slow upload bandwidths that don’t make it as convenient as it sounds. I would rather perform my own scheduled local backups and keep my media off-site or in a physical safe. But that’s just me. If you’re comfortable with it, Acronis’ service is competitive with similar services, like Mozy.
True Image Home 2011 is definitely the most feature-rich version of TI that Acronis has ever released. It certainly added a lot more features since version 11. It’s not quite user-friendly enough for me to recommend to complete newbies, especially since no printed documentation is included. For newbies, I would probably recommend using Norton 360 as an all-purpose security solution. Norton 360 has simple file backups too and the interface will probably be much easier to understand. I have my own parents using Norton 360. But for those with a little more experience or patience, TIH 2011 is a stud application. It’s very flexible, has great performance, and offers a collection of tools that any hardcore user can appreciate. Should Acronis decide to add a full-featured file synchronization option to True Image, it will become the only backup application I use.
Available from Amazon.com.
* Review license courtesy of Acronis Inc.