Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The best new Windows programs of 2008

There were a lot of high-profile updates in 2008, and the line between traditional software downloads and Web applications blurred significantly. The browser especially has become, for some people, the only program they need.
There were several stand out new applications, though, and here are six of what I think are the best ones. They range from traditional Web browsers and browser hybrids to communication tools and utilities that should help you work faster and help maintain your system.
Google Chrome : The one application that probably going to be on everybody's Nice list this year, Google Chrome unexpectedly redefined the highly competitive browser market. While the summer months saw major updates to Firefox and Opera, Google showed in September that Steve Jobs isn't the only guy who knows how to make a big "boom."
Google Chrome has thrown the browser wars on its ear.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
Google Chrome is notable on several fronts, even if browser traditionalists dislike the lack the extensibility. The capability to rip off tabs from the main window and drag them to your desktop to save as discrete Web applications goes a long way to blurring that between Web applications and traditional software. There's also the fact that Chrome is arguably the fastest browser on the market. If it's not, it's certainly tied with the second Firefox 3.1 beta.
Chrome's speed at starting up, at loading Web pages, and at returning URI bar search results have helped push the focus of browser development back onto performance. I still use Firefox as my default browser, because what I lose in performance, I gain in add-on tools that I consider essential for work. But if you haven't yet checked out Chrome, you're missing out on more than just the Google Kool-Aid.
KidZui: KidZui takes the tried-and-failed child-control methods of Web site blacklists and keylogging and abandons them in favor of something far more sensible: an extensive whitelist. First released back in March, KidZui looks and acts like a browser, but instead a closed system of editor-approved sites.
KidZui is the kids browser that's both a bit more and a bit less.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
These editors, made up of parents, teachers, and former teachers have compiled database of 800,000 Web sites the last time I saw KidZui's stats. At-home parents can approve specific Web sites, such as a family photo gallery, that KidZui users couldn't otherwise see. KidZui is more than just a safe browsing environment, though. It combines that most essential of computer tools with social networking features. Children can rate sites, videos, and images, and share those ratings with their KidZui friends. Parents get the peace of mind that comes from weekly browsing and logging updates, and can further block approved KidZui sites if they deem them inappropriate.
It's not a program for everybody, obviously. What it does do, though, is create a uniquely safe way to teach children about surfing the Web and the power of exploring information without worrying about sketchy shenanigans.
Songbird: Songbird was in beta development for more than a year, and finally reached a stable release just after Thanksgiving. Originally designed as a balanced mash-up between Firefox and iTunes, it's instead used Mozilla's Gecko engine to drive music content. You can still browse the Web with it, but it's no accident that Songbird opens up to your music library.
It's a browser! No, it's a jukebox! No, it's...
(Credit: Songbird)
Also taking a page from its Firefox roots, Songbird lets users create add-ons with ease. These aren't limited to skins--"Feathers" in the Songbird argot. Songbird's add-ons include a Cover Flow-styled album art browser, lyric windows, and Last.fm and mashTape support. As much as people love their MP3s, it's amazing to me that it's taken this long for a serious and slick cross-platform jukebox competitor to get onstage. And as much as I love MediaMonkey, it's starting to look like there might be a software-based "Battle of the Bands" on the horizon.
Secunia Personal Software Inspector: Secunia PSI seeks to address an often-overlooked software security issue: the out-of-date program. It makes sure that your applications are up-to-date, which is great not only for ensuring you've got the latest features, but it also takes care of any bug-fixes that might patch previously-unknown exploits. What's important about Secunia is that while it will notify you of updates, it only provides direct links. It won't automatically upgrade your software unless you tell it to.
Secunia PSI keeps track of program updates.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
Based on the Web-based Secunia Software Inspector from 2006, and in development since late 2007, Secunia PSI should appeal to both casual computer users and those who think they know what they're doing. If you're the former, the Simple layout provides basic information about the installed program statuses, with a chart to gauge their security over time and a simplified listing of any errors. Clicking on an error leads you through the proprietary Easy-to-Patch program update process, which automatically excludes more challenging updates.
If you're a power user, Secunia's Advanced layout tab exposes more details and more updates. It also checks your Microsoft XML, your Adobe Flash player installation, and others programs, looking for mission-critical holes and their respective updates. Scanning wasn't like trying to use a 56k modem to stream video, but for a program that runs in the background, I expected it to be a bit faster. It didn't slow down my computer's overall performance, though, and the update process went smoothly. All that makes this a highly-recommended freeware.
Smart Defrag: Smart Defrag is another excellent program that left its beta training wheels behind in 2008. Yeah, there are a lot of defraggers out there. Some are free, some are trialware. Smart Defrag stands out for two reasons.
Speed demon Smart Defrag is much faster than you'd expect.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
It has the quick analysis and scan times that are practically required to be competitive in the field. Alongside those, it boasts an automated defragger that continually defrags the files that you use the most, and does it without becoming a persistent drag on your system resources. The program eats up a small amount of RAM when running in the background, so it's possible to run it smoothly on older machines. Throw in a scheduler you can set up to defrag whenever you want and some customization features like running a defrag when you boot up or shutdown Windows, and Smart Defrag makes a great tool for users of all experience levels.
Digsby: Digsby got off to a bit of a rocky start, a bit like the kid in school who you think would be a lot cooler if it just stopped trying so hard. The problem was that Digsby wasn't particularly stable, was pigging out on every user's RAM, and was offering something fairly unique at the time: a multiprotocol chat client that also pulled in Web mail, and access to MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts.
Digsby offers multiprotocol chat, social networking, e-mailing, and more skins than you can shake a stick at.
(Credit: CNET Networks)
About six month later, in late September, Digsby released a massive update that fixed most of the RAM-hogging issues. Firing up the program is still a bit wonky for me, but there's no doubt that once it's going it works better than it has before. Digsby should easily be the instant messaging freeware of choice for the super social set. It supports the major IM networks of Yahoo, MSN, AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber.
Updating Twitter is a breeze from the application's main interface, though users wishing to do anything more than read Facebook and MySpace news feeds will be redirected to their online accounts.
Users can initiate text, video, and audio chat from the conversation window, and transfer files, send SMS, and compose short e-mails. POP and IMAP accounts are supported alongside Web mail. The notification pop-ups for every activity can get distracting, though a deep preference options control nearly every aspect of the display, including a wide variety of skins and those pesky pop-ups. Although many people had written off the application as too cumbersome in the past, the current build is well-worth downloading and exploring.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

10 useful iPhone tips & tricks

1. Scroll to top

Tapping the status bar (the bar at the top with the clock) will make scrollable content scroll to the top. It comes in handy in situations like when you’ve scrolled down a long web page or mail message and you quickly need to get back to the top.
scroll to top
This may be the most convenient, yet hidden feature on the iPhone. I had my phone for months before stumbling upon it (and I didn’t even stumble upon it by playing around with the phone, but by reading the programming documentation on scroll views).
As far as I know, there’s no corresponding way to scroll to the bottom, though.

2. Screenshots

Simultaneously press the Home and Sleep/Wake buttons to take a screenshot of your current screen. You’ll hear a camera shutter sound, your screen will flash white, then the screenshot will appear in the “Saved Photos” library of the Photos app.

3. Saving images in Safari and Mail

Touching an image in Safari or Mail for a couple of seconds will present you with an action sheet which will enable you to save the image. As with taking screenshots, the image will get stored in the “Saved Photos” library of the Photos app.
save image

4. Caps lock

Double-tap the Shift key to lock it.
This one’s actually somewhat intuitive but I was surprised by how many people aren’t aware of it.
shift key
keyboard options
Note: For this to work, you need to make sure Enable Caps Lockis turned on in the Keyboard section of General settings.
Along somewhat similar lines, a handy way of saving a tap when you need to type a capital letter is to touch the Shift key then slide over to the desired key. This behavior also works for the Number key.
quick capitals

5. Extra keys

Do you need to type an umlauted-u (ü) but you’re not using the German keyboard? Touch and hold the U key and you get a set of additional keys to choose from.
This works for several of the alphabetic keys, enabling you access to letters such as éîçåß, etc.
curly quotes
In addition, there are several punctuation keys that behave similarly, so that you can type curly-quotes, etc.
top level domains
And furthermore, when the keyboard is in “URL-mode”, where the “.com” key is available, touching and holding it pops-up additional options for quickly entering .net, .edu, and .org domains.

6. Lock / shut down / force quit / reset

You’d be surprised to know how many people don’t know how to turn their phone completely off. I’m not talking about “locking” the phone where you simply press the Sleep/Wake button on the top of your phone.
For a while, I was under the false impression that locking the phone was equivalent to putting your Mac to sleep. But when your phone is locked, the screen turns off but the app that’s running at the time continues to run. For instance a relaxation app is able to continue playing sound but save battery power with the screen off. So, locking your phone is actually more like “display sleep” on your Mac (⌃⇧⏏ or Control-Shift-Eject for those of you who can’t read Macroglyphics).
So to ensure that your phone is using as little battery as possible, you’re best off always pressing the Home button before locking so that no app remains running.
Note: Most apps do nothing while the phone is locked but I’ve seen too many apps where this isn’t the case, so I say “better safe than sorry” and usually quit before locking.
To turn your phone completely off, press the Sleep/Wake button for a few seconds then drag the red slider that appears.
turn off
When should you turn your phone completely off? The two situation that I usually do this is when I’m almost out of battery and when my phone is acting kind of wonky.
If your battery’s almost dead and you’re nowhere near some way of charging it your best bet is to turn it off if you’re going to need it to make a call or check something on the ‘net (assuming you can forego and incoming calls/SMSs).
And if your phone’s been acting flaky, where apps are starting to get really slow or behave unexpectedly, turning your phone off then back on usually gets things back to normal.
Have you ever been using an app and it’s become very unresponsive or completely frozen? You can force quit it by pressing the Home button for at least six seconds.
force quit
And finally, if your phone seems to be completely frozen where attempting to turn it off or force quit the current app does nothing, you can force a reset of your phone by pressing both the Sleep/Wake and Home buttons for at least ten seconds. Note that while Apple technically calls this a “reset”, it’s actually more like a “reboot” and none of your settings will be changed.

7. Home button options

home button options
A very underused, yet convenient feature is that you’re able to set the function for double-clicking the Home button. By default, this just brings you to the Home screen, meaning no different function than clicking the Home button once.
But if you go to the Settings app then navigate to General then Home Button, you’ll find a few handy options. I have mine set to go to my Phone Favorites but you can also set it to open the iPod app, or just show the iPod controls when music is playing.
And something I recently noticed after updgrading to the newest iPhone OS is that when you now click the Home button while already on the Home screen, it’ll quickly take you to the first page of apps. This is a great feature if you have your phone filled with apps… and who doesn’t these days?

8. Swipe to delete

In the Mail app and many others that use lists of items, you’re able to quickly delete an item by swiping your finger across the item… sort of emulating crossing something off a list. Doing so exposes a Delete button so that you’re able to confirm your action.
swipe delete

9. Register your Wi-Fi

can’t determine location
Skyhook WPS is the service that, via Wi-Fi, enables your iPhone and iPod touch to locate where you are if GPS isn’t available. It generally gets you more accuracy than the cell tower triangulation method. The big issue with this method, though is that if the router that you’re currently connected to isn’t in the Skyhook database, you’re out of luck.
But after a ton of digging I was able to find the web page where you can add your router to its database:
After a few simple steps and an “up to 7 days” waiting period, the router should be available to help you and others get improved location positioning. This helps us all so do your part and register your router, especially if you live outside a major metropolitan area (since Skyhook usually has the big metro areas covered already).

10. AIM mobile options

If you’re like me, you find the AIM app for the iPhone to be pretty useless. AIM (iChat on the Mac) is my main form of communication these days but if I’m not actually online, I don’t want to be seen as being “online”. One thing I find pretty annoying is IMing someone then not getting a response until like half an hour later. This is the nature of the AIM app on the iPhone so I don’t subject others to behavior I don’t like myself.
There’s a much better way of being “connected” to AIM without having to appear as if you’re there. With AIM (the service, not the app), you’re able to setup your account with a service called AIM Mobile Forwarding so that IMs to you when you’re offline get forwarded to your phone as SMS messages. This isn’t something specific to the iPhone but I found it to be most useful once I got my iPhone because of the iChat-like way that the SMS app works.
AIM Mobile Forwarding can be invaluable in emergency situations if someone has your AIM screenname but doesn’t have your phone number. This actually happened to me recently where the macheist.com domain accidentally expiredand I was immediately notified while I was on the road… thanks, Cindy! (In my defense, there’s a long story involving a stolen credit card, defunct phone numbers, and some weirdness with an email address.)
When you have AIM Mobile Forwarding setup and you’re offline, here’s how you appear to others in their buddy lists:
SMS buddy in list
If you’d like to set a custom staus, simply change your status to what you desire before you go offline and it’ll remain while you’re offline:
SMS buddy in list with custom status
The beauty of this is that it instantly conveys, “don’t bug me unless it’s really important”.
Note: It’d be nice if your mobile status got set automatically when you went offline but there’s no simple way I know of doing this. I tried creating a small AppleScript that sets the desired status and set it to run when I logged out. But it needs to run right before logging out so it doesn’t work here. If anyone knows of a non-convoluted way of doing this, I’d really appreciate it if you’d post how in the comments below.
log out script
So how do you setup AIM Mobile Forwarding? Simple… if you use iChat, open Preferences and just click the Configure AIM Mobile Forwarding… button in the Accounts tab. This will open a web page where you can enter your info and get it rolling. For those of you who don’t use iChat, the web page is here(warning: will foolishly resize your browser window).
AIM Mobile Forwarding
Similar to AIM Mobile Forwarding, you’re also able to send SMS messages to other’s phones right from iChat (or any AIM client). Just use the Send SMS…item from the File menu.
send SMS
And you can also setup “mobile buddies” so that your buddies who haven’t setup AIM Mobile Forwarding function as if they have. All you have to do is add their mobile phone number as an AIM account, beginning with a “+1”.
setup SMS buddy
And while you’re at it, you may as well add yourself to your buddy list like this. This is very handy for when you’re about to hit the road and you need to send yourself a quick note. It’s definitely one of the easiest ways to to send yourself a note and is a few less steps than sending yourself a note via email.
SMS to self
mobile AIM numbers
Note: SMS messages that come from AIM Mobile forwarding come from the numbers 265-060, 265-061, and 265-080 through 265-089 (possibly more but I haven’t seen any others). So if you have these numbers in your contacts and use a name like “Mobile AIM” for the contact, the incoming messages will look a lot neater and will be more easily identifiable to you since they won’t be listed with some seemingly random phone number.
I created a vCard so that you can easily set this up. Simply download it on your Mac, open it to add the contact to your Address Book, then sync to your iPhone and you’ll be good to go.
Mobile AIM.vcf Mobile AIM.vcf

Top Technology Breakthroughs of 2008

The economy may be tanking, but innovation is alive and well.
When it came to products, incremental improvements were the name of the game this year. Phones got faster (iPhone 3G anyone?), notebooks turned into netbooks and pocket cameras went from recording standard-definition video to HD.
But the world's corporate and academic R&D labs were busy laying the foundations of some amazing future technologies in 2008. They produced concepts such as silicon chips you can swallow for personalized medicine from the inside out and a fourth fundamental element in electronic circuitry. And engineers cranked out a few less groundbreaking — but no less important — inventions, like a space-age swimsuit to help Michael Phelps slice through the water faster than a river otter on a jet ski.
Here's our countdown of what rocked our world in 2008 — and what will change yours in 2009 and beyond.

10. Flexible Displays

Flexible displays are likely to be a reality by 2010 or 2011. 
Courtesy Phillip Spears
A sliver of the future can soon be tucked into your back pocket. For years, researchers have worked on thin, paperlike displays that can be folded, rolled or sewn into the sleeve of your hoodie. Flexible displays could change the way we interact with the info-universe, creating new kinds of cellphones, portable computers, e-newspapers and electronic books.
This year, the research moved from the realm of science fiction to plausible reality. With help from the U.S. Army, Arizona State University's Flexible Display Center has created a prototype for soldiers, and hopes to have the devices in field trials in the next three years. Startups like Plastic Logic and E-Ink have been developing similar technologies.
Meanwhile, Hewlett Packard announced a manufacturing breakthrough that allows the thin-film transistor arrays to be fabricated on flexible plastic materials, enabling manufacturers to "print" displays on big, newsprintlike rolls. Samsung showed off a mobile phone prototype with a flexible display that folds like a book.
Outlook: A Minority Report-style digital newspaper that you can roll up in your pocket isn't happening before 2010 at the earliest. But to quote science fiction novelist William Gibson: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet."

9. Edible Chips

Grandma's pillbox with the days of the week neatly marked is set to go high tech. Tiny edible chips will replace the organizer, tracking when patients take their pills (or don't) and monitoring the effects of the drugs they're taking. Proteus, a Redwood City, California, company, has created tiny chips out of silicon grains that, once swallowed, activate in the stomach. The chips send a signal to an external patch that monitors vital parameters such as heart rate, temperature, state of wakefulness or body angle.
The data is then sent to an online repository or a cellphone for the physician and the patient to track. Proteus says its chips can keep score of how patients are responding to the medication. That may be just the beginning, as the chips could improve drug delivery and even insert other kinds of health monitors inside the body. Now doctors may have a better answer to a common patient complaint — they will know exactly how it feels.
Outlook: If proven in clinical trials, edible chips could let physicians look into a patient's system in a way that could change how medicine is prescribed and how we take the drugs.

8. Speedo LZR

Michael Phelps. 2008 Olympics. Enough said. Phelps and others were able to log faster times because of Speedo's LZR swimsuit. It blends new materials and a dose of NASA rocket science to boost the speeds of elite swimmers — legally.
Viscous drag on a swimmer can be as much as 25 percent of the total retarding force. But Speedo's suit, with its ultrasonically bonded seams instead of stitches, low-drag panels and a mix of polyurethane layers, can cut resistance and help swimmers move through the water faster. It also has a rigid, girdle-style structure that helps position the swimmer's body in an optimal position. Did it have anything to do with Michael Phelps' amazing eight Olympic gold medals? Probably not, as nearly every swimmer at the Games was wearing a Speedo suit.
Outlook: We're hoping at least some of the technologies in the LZR will trickle down to the consumer level so we can slice through the water at the Y.

7. Flash Memory

When Apple blessed the iPod with flash memory, it gave new life to a technology that had long played second fiddle to hard disk drives. Now flash memory is a mainstay of most consumer electronics products, from ultralight notebooks to digital cameras and media players.
Next, the who's who of the tech industry — EMC, Sun Microsystems, Intel and Hitachi — are championing flash drives for larger business users.
The advantage? Solid-state flash drives offer faster response times than hard disk drives and they require much less power. The hitch is that they are almost eight times more expensive than hard disk drives. But with the star power behind flash storage, the prices have nowhere to go but down.
Outlook: More data centers are likely to move to flash storage in 2009, which is likely to drive prices down further. If this trend takes off, say goodbye to the hard disk drives in your house. It will be time to flash your drive.

6. GPS

The Global Positioning System is old, old, older than you think. The system has been operational since 1978 and available for commercial use since 1993, but for years its use was relegated to expensive personal navigation devices and the dashboards of high-end cars.
This year, suddenly GPS popped up everywhere else, from the iPhone 3G and the T-Mobile G1 to notebooks such as Fujitsu's LifeBook series.
And devices that couldn't or didn't include true GPS made do with cell-tower triangulation or geolocation based on Wi-Fi hotspots. Now getting lost is no longer an option.
Outlook: With widespread GPS capabilities throughout the gadget world, services that make use of geographic data, like Loopt and Yahoo's Firebird, will be able to build critical mass.

5. The Memristor

It's not often that a fundamental tech breakthrough has the potential to change how we compute. Nearly 37 years after it was first described in a series of mathematical equations, researchers at HP Labs proved that the fourth fundamental element of electronic circuitry is for real. The "memristor," or memory transistor, now joins the three other widely known elements: the capacitor, the resistor and the inductor.
The discovery will make it possible to develop computer systems that remember what's stored in memory when they are turned off. That means computers that don't need to be booted up and systems that are far more energy efficient than the current crop. Researchers also hope the memristor can help develop a new kind of computer memory that can supplement or ultimately replace dynamic random access memory, or DRAM — the type of memory used in personal computers.
Outlook: Memristors are still primarily confined to the lab, so don't expect commercial products based on this kind of circuitry for at least five years.

4. Video-Capable SLRs

Video-capable SLRs will meld high-def moving and still images. 
Courtesy of Nikon
For years, high-end single-lens reflex cameras have been unable to do what even $100 pocket cams can do: Shoot video. That's because of the type of imaging chip used by SLRs.
This year, the camera industry overcame that limitation. Two new cameras, the Nikon D90 and theCanon 5D Mark II capture top-notch still images, but let the photographer to shoot high-definition video. No longer do SLR users have to stand by, while friends mock them for their expensive camera's inability to shoot video.
Outlook: Shooting high-def videos with an SLR is cheap compared to using professional video equipment — and it gives photographers access to a wide range of lenses. In 2009, we predict this will lead to an explosion in arty, high-def videos shot by professional still photographers.

3. USB 3.0

Fasten your seatbelts. The data-transfer freeway is set to turn into an autobahn. The Universal Serial Bus, or USB, a popular standard for transferring files to your PC or charging your iPhone, got its first major update in eight years. USB 3.0 will be 10 times faster than the current USB 2.0 standard, and will increase the amount of electrical current that can be delivered through a USB cable.
Users need the increased speed — 4.8 gigabits per second, to be precise. Digital cameras and pocket-size HD video recorders generate a torrent of bits, all of which need to be transferred quickly to computers, so they can be uploaded to YouTube, adding to the internet video that only a handful of people will ever watch.
And as consumers carry around more devices, charging them off a PC using a USB cable will be much easier than carrying multiple chargers. With the USB 3.0 specifications nailed down this year, the standard will bump up the power output to 900 milliamps from 100 milliamps, allowing more devices to be charged faster.
Outlook: We expect the earliest USB 3.0 products in mid-2009.

2. Android

Handset makers from Motorola to Sony Ericsson are rushing to add Android to their lineup. 
Jon Snyder/Wired.com
There were many reasons to dislike the T-Mobile HTC G1 phone: its color, poor battery life and a touchscreen that isn't super-responsive. And the numbers reflect that. Only about 1.5 million units of the G1 have been sold since its October 2008 launch. Compare that to the 3 million iPhones that sold when it debuted.
But the G1 scores with its operating system. It runs Android, the free mobile operating system from Google. It's the first mobile OS to make its debut in years and the G1 is just the first of what will be many phones that use it. With its open source base, growing developer community and dozens of cellphone manufacturers pledging to make Android phones, Android has the potential to reshape the wireless industry in significant ways.
Outlook: At least half a dozen manufacturers are likely to release Android phones in 2009, increasing the pressure on other smartphone operating systems. The iPhone is likely to remain the top-selling smartphone through the end of the year, however.

1. Apple's App Store

Until this year, mobile app developers lacked an easy way to get their software into the hands of consumers, forcing them to make deals with finicky and power-hungry carriers if they wanted to get any distribution at all. Apple's App Store changed all that. It made creating and distributing mobile applications for cellphone users easy — jumpstarting the mobile-app development market and creating clones such as the Android Market. It even forced Research in Motion to offer a BlackBerry Application Storefront. For thousands of programmers, the cellphone is the new PC.
Outlook: App stores have changed forever the way we use our phones, turning them into personalized devices filled with utilities, handy tools and copies of Tap Tap Revenge.


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