Posted on Aug 02, 2011

I recently had my desktop PC give up the ghost, thanks to a burned out mother board, hence my lack of posts for the last bit. Happening just 2 weeks before I started up my company and a new contract job with a new, unfamiliar technology, this added a stress meatball to my already very full plate of technology spaghetti.

However, if there was ever a good time for a computer to fail, it was probably now.  As a freelancing web developer I was going to need to get mobile, with my "office" being where ever I happen to be that day, so this was a perfect opportunity to pick up a laptop.

It's always both frustrating/refreshing to get a new computer. You've gotta reinstall all your apps, maybe find alternatives if they no longer run on the new OS, dig up serial keys, update drivers.  But you're also forced to take a good hard look at you document structure and the programs you've been hanging onto but not using.

Going through this process reminded me that there were a whole bunch of other applications that I rely on for my day-to-day computing.

Grindstone: At my previous job, we had a very stringent time tracking policies.  They didn't have to be accurate, but they did have to be submitted every day.  I could never remember exacty what I did each day or how long I did it, so I started using a time tracking program called Grindstone.  You set up tasks, and have a floating timer on your desktop where you can switch from task to task and put time against it.  Most importantly, when you walk away from your desk and come back, Grindstone will keep track of that time and ask if you want to put it against a particular task.  This is great for when you get pulled into impromptu meetings or conference calls.  The app will be getting even more use from me in my new freelancer reality. Grindstone is free, and if you work on larger teams, you can get a subscription to Task Force, a very affordable cloud-based time tracking system for small businesses.

Workrave: RSI, wrist and back problems are the wages of sin for a tech worker.  We do mean to do better, but we don't always.  Workrave is a great little "nanny" application that helps you actually "do better".  It will quietly (or dramatically, depending on your prefrence) remind you of when to take a short or long break, and suggest excercises to stretch our your wrists, arms, shoulders as well as give your eyes a break.  It will even lock up your computer until the rest period is over!  During really busy times or if I'm "in the zone", I'm ashamed to end up shutting this handy application down, but when things are a little more normal, this is a great reminder that while work needs to be done, it shouldn't be at the expense of our health.

Launchy: I recently came across this open-source, donation funded "Quicksilver-like" utility, thanks to Lifehacker.  With a couple of keystrokes you can fire up any application on your computer, and I loves me some keyboard-only computing.  It's a bit "quicksilver-lite" as well, as it only does application launching and web searches, it won't index your entire HD and show you suggestions for documents or mp3s, which might be a good thing depending on your level of paranoia.  You can configure it to index things though, if you dig into the settings.

Auto HotKey: This app helps you automate and make short cut keys to do almost anything in Windows.  I just use it reprogram the Windows key so I can launch my favourite programs (even faster than Launchy), but you can do all kinds of things with it, even reprogramming mouse buttons.

TweetDeck: I'm not a big tweeter, but this helps me keep track of the Twitter users I really care about in a very nice interface.  I just wish the "favourite" button wasn't two levels deep in the menus.

MozBackup/Thunderbird MBox Import and Export Tools: Most people have their email "in the cloud" these days, but for the rest of us, there's Tunderbird.  I do most of my email through a browser these days, but I still like to archive old, well written correspondance with my friends and family.  I've got 10+ years worth of this stuff, and there's a lot of memories wrapped up in those zeros and ones.  Mozbackup will turn an Mozilla profile (Thunderbird, Firefox, Seamonkey) into a single compressed file that can be packed up and restored (using the same tool) later should you need it.  This is great as a backup tool, but what if you want to archive some folders and don't want them in your main profile? This Thunderbird import/export tool will take your folders and sub-folders and compile them into the open mbox format.  If you wanna get really crazy, you can check out the Mbox to XML tool so you can view your email forever in a browser.

7-zip: Better 'n faster than WinZip or Windows built-in zip utility, it'll handle *.rar's, plus you get access to the far more efficient 7z compression format.

Click Repair: I discovered Click Repair years and years ago when I first started digitizing my Dad's old 45s.  It gets rid of pops and scratches, just like you'd expect, and offers a few simple but succient levels of modifiers for controlling how much gets cleaned up.  The main thing I like about it is that not only do you get to hear what he cleaned up audio will sound like, you can hear exactly what Click Repair is removing as well.  Sometimes click algorithms can be too agressive and start removing parts of the actual music, so this feature is great for hearing what you're losing.

BIAS Sound Soap: Another audio clean-up utility that I use, mainly for removing tape hiss and background noise from bad recordings.

Picasa: My goto photo manager.  I'm not really one for creating "abums", so I don't really use those features.  I'm mainly concerned with meta data (EXIF and XMP data in JPGs and the like), as this is the modern method of "writing on the back of the photo".  When my Mom passed away, she left beind a lot of photos without any descriptions or labels, so we don't know who is in many of them, why the photos were taken.  With EXIF and XMP, you can not only label the photos so the description will go where the file goes, you can even add in GPS location data and show where the photo was taken.  Picasa makes this kind of work pretty easy, and even adds on another layer of organization by doing facial recognition on your photos and tagging them automatically for you.

Adobe CS Cleaner Tool: I ran into some issues with some Adobe products when I did a system restore to a point that I thought was pretty safe. (I had lost all my old Palm Pilot contacts, memos and datebook on the old machine, and was trying to install an older version of the Palm Desktop tool in order to get at them; no luck)  Apparently the restore point wasn't so safe, and the Adobe products were only partially installed.  They wouldn't uninstall or re-install properly, and I thought I was stuck.  Fortunately, Adobe has their own utility for cleaning up such a mess.  It goes through your machine, removes directories (or tries to) and registry keys and so on, cleaning the machine as best it can.  It'll work for all versions of Creative Suite from 3 on up. I admit, this is not really an essential app as I hope not to ever use it again. :P