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How to protect your privacy online: Disconnect and Ghostery

imageA while ago, I noticed a quite popular extension for Google Chrome called “Disconnect”. I do use Chrome on occasion, but mostly Firefox, and I was disappointed that Disconnect wasn’t available for it. What Disconnect does is automatically prevent popular websites (such as Facebook and Google) from “tracking” you. This sort of thing is done by a LOT of websites that install “tracking code”. Often they’ll be using Google Analytics or something else that most people would consider “harmless”, but the whole point is that places you visit are matched to your IP address (ie your unique identity on the web, which in the US will also pinpoint your geographical location) and sent to websites which record and use that information. I intensely dislike that idea. If I’m on widgets.com, I don’t want Google to know that I was there at 7:15am on Wednesday 1st June 2011. If I’m on bollocks.com, I don’t want Facebook to be “told” that IP address such-and-such has visited that site.

So I was understandably thrilled when I heard about Disconnect. Even more thrilled when I discovered recently that it has become available for Firefox (finally!)

And overjoyed beyond belief when I discovered through the feedback comments for Disconnect that there is another addon out there called Ghostery which does even more than Disconnect to protect your privacy online. Their website succinctly sums up what it does: Ghostery sees the invisible web – tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons. Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity. After showing you who’s tracking you, Ghostery also gives you a chance to learn more about each company it identifies. How they describe themselves, a link to their privacy policies, and a sampling of pages where we’ve found them are just a click away. Ghostery allows you to block scripts from companies that you don’t trust, delete local shared objects, and even block images and iframes. Ghostery puts your web privacy back in your hands.

I recommend you install one of these addons as soon as possible. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and ad networks don’t need to know about you. Especially without your permission. They’re both completely free. My vote is for Ghostery, mainly because it has more capabilities.

Disconnect | Disconnect Author’s Blog | Ghostery

Diablo III for PC: countdown

I will seriously buy ALL the Monster energy drinks from the local Frys and take a week off work when this thing comes out.

Amusing how my blog has regressed to be a game countdown. I promise I’ll have something sensible and useful posted on here soon. I’m sure it’ll be the first time for both.

Recommended Firefox addons

imageLast post of the year. Following on from my “The Dhry Way or the Highway” Android essentials post, today I’ve decided to make some recommendations about Firefox addons that improve my productivity at work and play. Avid followers of my blog will recall that at one stage I hated Firefox but gradually warmed to it as the dealbreakers started to crumble. Now that most websites actually WORK in FF, I probably couldn’t live without it and this is mainly due to the extension of its capabilities via small addons. This is not to say that I probably couldn’t get similar stuff working with IE and Chrome but I’m just so used to FF these days. If only it loaded as fast as Chrome..

Anyway, on to the addon recommendations. Note that some of the addons below are for older versions of Firefox and you may need to reconfigure your FF to disable addon compatibility checking in order for them to work. Relax, doing this is harmless.

Classic Compact: Coupled with Classic Compact Options, this is my skin/layout of choice. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s wasted screen real estate – too much padding in tables, menus and buttons too large. I’m not blind and ninety years old yet! This skin allows me to fit a very large amount of bookmarks, buttons and other items at the top of the screen in a relatively small space so that there’s more room on the screen for the actual website.

Echofon: Makes it very easy to post to Twitter from your browser without having to login to the site – considering that the browser is the one program I can guarantee will be open 100% of the time while I’m at my machine, this is quite handy for me. Manifests as a small icon in the browser status bar; click it and voilà, a popup window allowing you to read and post to Twitter for multiple accounts. LINK REMOVED: Echofon for Firefox doesn’t exist anymore.

Greasemonkey: Definitely can’t live without this. It’s a framework that allows you to write code which kicks in whenever you visit a page or range of pages. I use it in its most basic form to replace fonts and change CSS padding etc on pages that I regularly visit in order to optimize my browsing experience, but it’s possible to completely change the functionality of sites. There are heaps of user scripts on, wait for it, userscripts.org. Greasefire checks userscripts.org automatically for each site you visit and shows a list of scripts that are enabled for that site and may be of interest.

Firebug: A very good plugin for web developers. Firebug breaks down websites into a lot of technical data, popping a window at the bottom of the screen which allows you to, for example, hover over screen elements and determine the files that they are pulling their CSS from. As well as this you can load a site and find out in realtime which elements are taking the longest to pull from the webserver etc. Helps immensely with my Greasemonkey script development when reverse-engineering sites in order to twiddle them.

DownThemAll: A pretty cool download manager plugin. If you regularly download files from websites, this plugin is invaluable. Works in multithreaded mode too, which allows you to download files faster. I‘ve never managed to figure out why downloading a file from start to finish takes x seconds, while downloading it with eg ten threads takes (x ÷ 10) seconds. Maybe one day I’ll discover the reason.

Tab Mix Plus: Adds functionality to the browser tabs in FF – multiple rows, change tab background and text color, little close-buttons on each tab, min and max tab width, and plenty more.

Shorten URL: I use this many times each day. Very good for sending links to friends or posting them on Twitter. Visit a web page, click this button and it instantly makes a long URL into a short one using one of dozens of selectable URL shortener websites such as bit.ly.

Text Link: In order to click text and have your browser take you to a site, the text has to be a hyperlink. Like the word hyperlink that I just wrote in the previous sentence.. However, unless you hyperlink them manually, text URLs don’t do squat when you click on them. Like this: www.yahoo.com. If you had Text Link installed, you’d be able to doubleclick on that Yahoo URL and have it work exactly like a live hyperlink.

Toodledo: Toodledo.com is probably the web’s most popular reminder system. This plugin allows you to easily add new tasks for yourself on toodledo.com without having to load the main site. Also enables a nice sidebar in FF showing your current tasks.

Mouse Gestures Redox: Once you get used to using this addon you won’t be able to do without it. Essentially it allows you to trigger browser actions by holding down the right mouse button and “drawing” a shape on the screen. For example, drawing an L shape with the right button held down will close the current page, and drawing a line from right to left will make the browser go “back” a page. After you get used to it it saves quite a bit of time and clickery.

Add Bookmark Here²:  Allows you to bookmark a web page directly into a location in Firefox – for example, a folder in the bookmarks toolbar or menu. (Normally adding a bookmark makes you perform an additional step in telling FF where the bookmark should be positioned.)

No Color: I use this often. Click it once and it removes all color and background images from a website so all you see are the tables and black and white text. Handy for websites with godawful color schemes; makes the text much easier to read. Click again and color is restored.

OpenDownload: THIS addon was one of the main reasons I started using Firefox after bitching about it for years. It fills a giant gap in functionality by allowing you to “open” a file from a website, similar to how IE does it (Chrome still cannot do this – freaking useless!) Without this addon, Firefox will force you to save a file to your hard drive, whereupon you then need to minimize FF, browse to that folder and manually doubleclick on that file to open it. Pfft.

Textarea++: Ever tried to add a comment or fill in a form on a website, where the text area you’re given is barely the size of a matchbox? This neat plugin allows you to resize any text entry box directly within the webpage giving you a little more textual breathing room. Also adds scrollbars to text areas.

Retro Find: God how I love this plugin. When you press Ctrl-F to find text on a website, Firefox opens this awful, immovable find area at the bottom of your screen. I’ve hated that thing so much, you wouldn’t believe. Retro Find turns the find option into a floating dialog box (similar to what you get with every single other program on earth, eg Microsoft Word, Notepad etc) that you can drag anywhere you like. Yays.

SyncPlaces: A big failing with FF is the inability to export a range of bookmarks so you can use them on another machine. For example, I have a crapload of work-oriented bookmarks on my office laptop, but how to transfer them to my home machine? You can’t, unless you use this addon. Allows to export all, or just some bookmarks, including to an FTP server – and then retrieve and inject them easily into another FF instance elsewhere. However, I’ve found that later versions of SyncPlaces are broken – the last version that worked for me is 4.07 and I recommend you use this too until they fix the damn thing.

ViewSourceWith: FF’s default source viewer sucks. This plugin allows you to use any third-party source viewer you like. My preference is Notepad++.

Edit 20180213: Please visit this site for some webextensions that work with the new Firefox Quantum, which can hopefully replace the older extensions you used to use. –Dhry

That’s all, folks! Have a great New Year!

Starting off with Android? Here’s a list of essential apps..

imageLately, a couple of friends have gotten themselves Android phones and have asked me for a couple of tips on which apps to start off with. I’m coming up on about one full year of fiddling around with Android now, and have been through and tossed dozens and dozens of apps (as usual). I’ve got a list of my votes for cream of the crop below, but first, a layout tip. Set your homescreens up in a useful, ergonomic fashion. Some flavors of Android give you a default set of widgets on several homescreens and I can’t help but think that plenty of people just “get used to” the layout they’re given and decide it’s not worth the trouble of tinkering. Trust me, it is. Widgets are extremely useful and a very powerful part of the Android system, and with a little arrangement you can actually cut out several fingertaps because you’ll have arranged your desktop in such a way that your info is instantly available when you look at your phone. You’ll only need to do this once, maybe twice until you’re comfortable. I haven’t changed my desktop layout in maybe three months now. It just works really well for me. Time, date, weather and quick call icons plus some essential apps on the main page, calendar info to the right and Twitter, Barnacle, my to-do list and a couple of news apps on the left. Even my wife’s layout is more complex than that, but like I said, mine works for me.

Now, on to the apps!

Jorte: Strange name, but it’s an awesome free calendar application. It can synchronize with a Google calendar or an exchange/corporate one, and even syncs with Google Tasks. The real power of the app comes in its almost frighteningly huge number of widgets. There are daily, weekly, monthly and task view widgets available in every size from 1×1 through 4×4 allowing you complete freedom to design one of your homescreens with the productivity view that suits you best. Install Jorte, hook it into your calendar and decide which one (or two) of its widgets you like the best. I use the 4×3 month-view and a 4×2 task view (yes, I have 4×5 icons available on my homescreen, more on that in a sec). If you don’t use the widget(s), the app itself is still a fantastic replacement calendar tool.

LauncherPro: Android gives you a standard “home” application – the system that controls the number of desktops you have, number of icons on the desktop etc. LauncherPro is a “home screen replacement” which extends the capabilities of your homescreen environment, giving you the ability to have more icons on each screen, a great scrollable “dock” at the bottom, more homescreens (up to seven, if that floats your boat) and everyone raves about how smooth it is visually. It’s free, but you can pay for additional features.

World Forecast Clock: This is a nice widget app that shows you the time, date and weather for a particular city. Being Australian, I have two of these widgets – one showing the current time/date in Brisbane AUST and the other showing details for my current city of residence in Arizona USA.

K9 Mail: This is a “killer app” for Android. Nobody should be without it. It’s an email application, with a huge amount of features. Forget about using the built-in apps, this one runs rings around them. Can save email/attachments on your card etc. And it’s completely free.

AndExplorer: Once you get well and truly stuck into Android you’ll want to start nosing around your directories on your SD card. This is a nice, small and free file browser. I like it because there’s a nice big button at the top that you can click to jump straight to the root dir of your SD card. And because it’s free.

BeyondPod: If you like reading news on your device, immerse yourself in the world of RSS with BeyondPod. Can sync with Google Reader and update feeds on a schedule. I set mine to update all feeds once every 8 hours, ie 3 times a day. Then the phone is jam packed with fresh news from Engadget, Gizmodo etc for me to read when I’m eating lunch or when I’m (cough) waiting in traffic (cough). Free, but you can pay for additional functionality.

NoteEverything: This is a fantastic app for writing notes – text notes, picture notes, and checklists. I use it as an electronic shopping list. It’s comprehensive, straightforward and just one of those apps that you can’t do without.

Facebook: Blah blah blah, not much to be said about this one, eh? Unfortunately it doesn’t support multiple accounts. Oh, what’s that? You use your real name on there and why would ever want to do anything else? Shame on you. *8-) Android’s FB app isn’t as good as the iPhone one, apparently because only one dude was in charge of writing it and Google “poached” him (pissing off the Zuck in the process) but development has started on it again so it should catch up in terms of features soon.

Multicon: I would have recommended More Icons Widget at one stage, but this one’s free and does just as much. It’s an absolutely essential addition to your homescreen. Basically it takes the form of a widget, but within the widget you can create smaller “icons”, effectively allowing you to have a huge amount of icons on your desktop instead of being constrained to 4×4 (or indeed 4×5 with LauncherPro). Icons can be shortcuts too, so I’m using this to have a sort of “dialer bar” with icons allowing me to quickly text, email and call my wife. YMMV, of course. You can create as many of these icon-containing widgets as you like.

Timeriffic: This is another awesome idea. Basically this app controls settings on your phone based on time of day. Like their description says, you can have the program “unmute audio @ 7am; turn off vibrate and audio at 10pm for sweet dreams.” I have this set up to decrease my phone volume at 9am (work) so I don’t annoy my coworkers, increase it again at 6pm, drop the brightness to lowest at 11pm and mute the phone, and reset stuff (including unmute) at 6:44am before my alarm goes off at 6:45am. All completely automatic. For more functionality (but not free), check out apps like Settings Profiles (hey, they have a lite version now, I never knew!) and the big daddy app of this genre, the ever-popular Locale. Ten bucks for the latter is a little steep though.

Android OS Monitor: No self-respecting geek should be without this (or a similar) app. It’s a task monitor like you get on Windows. Provides an animated tray icon showing you how much CPU power is being used, run the app from the windowshade area and you can see a list of all apps, their cpu %usage and more. Has other stuff like network interface info, established TCP/IP connections and some other tech data. Free.

Meebo: I’m not a big IM’er (I use it for work but not really anytime outside of that) but if you are, check out Meebo. The app can either hook you into Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, MSN, Google Talk etc, or else it can link you to your account on the meebo.com website. On their site, create an account and then add in all your other IM accounts, and you can then log into multiple IM systems from one central “middleman” concept. Handy, unless you’re paranoid and think that Johnny Meebo might steal your shizzle. In which case, please sell your Android phone since Johnny Google is far worse..

FBReader: There are two great ebook readers on Android. The most popular is Aldiko which has a fantastic interface and some awesome features, pretty much rivalling the iPhone’s flagship ebook reader app Stanza. But I prefer FBReader. It just loads faster and takes me straight into a book if I’m in the middle of one, rather than jumping to the bookshelf mode and forcing me to reopen the book I’m reading. Both are free; ebooks are typically not (unless you get stuff from Project Gutenberg). A hint –> get the awesome but sluggish Calibre prog for Windows if you’re considering hardcore ebook reading. By which I mean “you intend to read a lot of ebooks in the future”.

Gentle Alarm: My favourite alarm clock app. Set an alarm (like your favourite MP3 – I myself have Visa Röster’s Human Race Subtune 4 as my wake-up alarm of choice) to play a minimum volume, and a duration that should pass before the gradually-increasing volume hits maximum. After the trial, the app can fire your alarm on every day except Wednesday to convince you to buy it. Pfft. I just use my iPod alarm on Wednesdays. *8-) This prog also has a unique “pre-alarm” feature, where it does a tiny beep about 30 mins before the main alarm fires, to kind of gently “nudge you up” from delta to alpha sleep in preparation for wakey wakey time.

Universal Androot: Android OS’s typically come “locked down” by the provider/manufacturer. Meaning that there are certain system-level things that you are not permitted from doing. You need to hack the system and gain “superuser” rights before a new world of functionality opens up for you. Most people don’t need this. If you’re a nerd who just got Android, you need it. Unless you’re a Mac nerd, in which case you’re not a nerd at all and you don’t need it. But I digress. The method of gaining superuser permission on Android is commonly known as “rooting your phone”, a term which may make some Aussies chuckle. *8-) Once rooted you can run programs like Barnacle (a program which shares your phone’s internet via adhoc wifi) and Titanium Backup, which backs up your entire phone to the SD card but for some arcane reason needs root access to do it.

Handcent SMS or ChompSMS: Both of these free apps replace the default text messaging app, and both of them have immense amounts of customizability. They’re really neck-and-neck in terms of which one you’d want to use, but my preference leans toward Handcent – purely because Chomp forces you to use the “bubble conversation” visual style made famous on the iPhone, and I prefer text that isn’t encapsulated in gay crystalline speech bubbles. YMMV.

Supacount: Just a simple countdown app, but you can have multiple timers running simultaneously if you so choose.

And now for the last-but-not-leasts:

Yelp is great for finding local food reviews and “checking in” to restaurants during a visit. Touiteur is the best Twitter client on Android, and has a great widget too (although TweetCaster is really close behind). Better Cut allows you to create shortcuts on your desktop but select your own names for them rather than being stuck with the default app name. Dolphin HD is probably the most popular browser replacement on Android. CacheMate is for rooted phones only and allows you to clean out caches and junk to restore free space periodically. Quick Settings is a great control panel program for fiddling just about every setting on Android. Got To Do is a task/to-do app, which allows you to sync with the hugely popular Toodledo website (you don’t have a free Toodledo account> – GO GET ONE NOW!) and gives you a task list widget to help keep you organized. WidgetLocker allows you to put widgets on your lock screen so, for example, you can see your calendar or to-do list while your phone is still locked (== awesome). Voice Recorder allows you to record your voice – duh! SpringPad is a free note-taking app that syncs your info with the website – have a look at the website and create a free account to see everything it can do before you decide if you’d like the app.

And finally, if you have the cash, you might like to invest in the mighty Tasker. At $6.30, it’s not cheap, but it does everything. Don’t believe me? Check out the tour of the app’s capabilities on its website. After viewing the tour, I guarantee you’ll be pleased you invested in an Android phone.

The End. Comments welcomed. Seacrest out – phew!

My new tech: the iPod Touch 4G (gasp!)

image Boy, it’s been a while. Thank god for Twitter – at least it allowed me to jot down some quick day-to-day notes instead of forcing me to settle down and write a huge, long-winded paragraph about something mundane (like I ever do that). However, I’ve decided to bust WLW out after months of absence due to the following news: I bought an iPod Touch 4G!

This may surprise some and outright flabbergast others, but if you fall into either of these two categories you never really “listened” to anything I’ve said over the years. I’m not anti-Apple, anti-iPod or anything like that. I’ve always liked all sorts of technologies and greatly enjoy playing the good points off the bad for each particular program, platform, device, whatever. What pissed me off most about iPhones after the “flocking” started was, put simply, uneducated decisionmaking. I asked iPhone owners who I actually respected technically what the deal is with them months and months ago, and this is what led to my disillusionment post back in July last year. Since that post, Android arrived and fulfilled pretty much everything I needed in a smartphone. But as predicted, now that everyone else has caught up to (and in several cases, far exceeded) where the iPhone was – at least in terms of the touchscreen display and app store/market concept – Apple has been forced to get off their arses and furiously gallop with the rest of the OS and device manufacturers. Single-tasking isn’t good enough. 320×480 displays were around back in 2002. Cameras on PDAs were around at approximately the same time.

I bought my wife an iPod Touch several months ago. I knew that most of the stuff it did would be stuff she liked, and most of the stuff it couldn’t do wasn’t stuff she would care about. In fact, she now has a DroidX and absolutely loves it – and the old iPod has been filled with toddler games. My kid now enjoys stuff like Angry Birds, Luxor etc when we need to keep him occupied. Fast forward a bit to when the iPhone 4G was released in June of this year. Finally, they’ve updated the resolution on the system – they forged to the front of the pack with a 960×640 display which impressed even me. Still, here in the US, AT&T is classified as one of the worst carriers in the country, and having an exclusive deal with Apple for the iPhone has been a dealbreaker for many, even above the shortcomings of the device itself. Then, on Sept 1st, Steve Jobs announced that the improvements to the hardware and OS in the iPhone 4G would be brought to the iPod Touch product range. And that’s when I decided to buy one.

Make no mistake, I would never choose an iPhone in its current incarnation for a smartphone – I’m still extremely happy with my Droid – but the Touch is a different story. For a screen that still remained more or less the same physical size as the previous Touch, 960×640 is an astronomically high resolution. The single-tasking concept is still there, but with the faster processor this actually works in its favour. Now, with a phone that I run my life off of, I WANT background apps running at all times to give me reminders, tell me the weather, show me my battery usage etc. All that is mandatory. But with a “fiddle device” like the Touch, I prefer that other stuff not be running. Because I plan to just fiddle with it – play games and the like. I won’t be using it for reminders, I won’t be using it for any sort of office productivity – my Droid does all that far, far better. I don’t even think I care much for Apple’s push notification stuff, and I sure as hell will be jailbreaking it as soon as the exploit is available for IOS v4.1 (any day now, apparently) because at a very base level I resent something that I own being sectioned off from me doing whatever I like with it or to it. And yes, jailbreaking is explicitly exempted from the provisions of the DMCA. According to Wikipedia, anyway.

For those who have been under a rock for the last few months, here’s some brief specs on the iPod Touch 4G: 8/32/64Gb models available. Front-facing AND rear-facing camera – about time. Built-in microphone – about time. Slimmer – in fact, at 7mm thick, I would say it’s actually a little TOO slim – very prone to slipping and sliding around in your hand – I’d have appreciated a grippier back, but I’ll get a case for it soon. And that high-resolution display; they say that the pixels are so small that you can’t even see them anymore, and after a lot of squinting I’d have to agree. The visuals are sensational. Came bundled with headphones, but they all do these days. HD video recording – 720p – isn’t anywhere near as good as my Kodak ZI8 but see, that’s why I actually own a Kodak ZI8. The camera allows you to tap on the screen to focus in that particular area and gamma up or down as necessary – a nice touch, if you’ll pardon the pun. Photo quality is blah, but then one can’t really expect too much from a pinhole camera in a device thinner than a typical pocket notepad or ballpoint pen.

image So now I want to talk about the lie that is Apple’s “multitasking”. With the new OS versions, you can double-press on the button at the front to bring up a pop-up dock of the most recently used applications. This allows you to switch to one app from another, without having to go back to the homescreen first. The net effect, my friends, still remains the same. Apple are doing this in a very similar way to Palm OS’s “multitasking” in that almost all apps will simply freeze their current state – usually “remembering” the screen you were on in that app – and then go away and not continue to run when you start a new app. This has a very few exceptions, such as Pandora being able to continue to play music in the background, but it’s not multitasking. In fact, all it does is clutter things up – imagine I use twenty apps, then double-press the home button. All I see are the last twenty apps I used. I can slide left and right to select any of them, but what’s the point? I could hop back to the homescreen and select another app just as quick, sometimes even quicker. I don’t care, because as mentioned the Touch is just something to futz with in my spare time. But I still maintain that nobody in their right mind should ever consider their primary PDA/phone to be a device to that is patently incapable of doing something while something else is running – triggering a backup, showing you a to-do reminder, etc. Android is still streets ahead in practicality. Apple just temporarily leapfrogged Android devices with the screen resolution. I promise, it’ll be a temporary lead – like all tech innovations these days.

image Since Android has allowed developers to access such a vast amount of system internal workings, I think devs have started to get a sort of “unix” complex about programming. A HUGE percentage of apps now on Android concentrate on multitasking, background services and allowing you explicit control over the guts of the thing – battery usage on a per-app, per-time-period basis with graphs and pie charts and the like, the phenomenal Tasker program which allows automated control to an extent that blows my mind, and more widgets and readouts than you’ll ever need in your life. But when you go looking for games on Android, you get what? Connect 4, Solitaire, brick breaker and a couple of other things that a first year compsci student could program blindfolded AND drunk. Admittedly, there’s maybe ten or less actual quality games out at time of writing. But development is slow, and the very feature that makes Android so cool – MULTITASKING – works against the concept of something which has typically needed exclusive usage of all your device’s resources. Bonsai Blast on my Droid, for example, is jerky as hell. And yet there are hundreds of very high quality games on the Apple platforms – PLUS the OS by default gives you everything it has for the foreground app. You know, what Android really needs is a “system exclusive” mode that forces every single third-party background app to freeze while the foreground app runs so that you can get 100% juice on-demand. I hereby copyright that idea *8-) It’s obviously still early days with Android app development now, but I’ve started to get a little tired of waiting for the creative breadth of apps that Apple has to make their way across. Where’s Luxor? Where’s SIDPlayer? Now I don’t have to wait (shrug). And maybe I’d have had to wait a long time..

I’ll leave you with the funniest YouTube video I’ve seen in a long time (thanks Rob J!)

PicPick: freeware screen capture tool with annotation support

image So up until this point I had been despairing of a good free screen capture tool. There are several of them out there (including the infamous WinSnap – was free and then sadly went shareware), but what I really need is the ability to annotate your screen captures. When putting together technical how-to documents with screenshots, you want to be able to circle the button that should be clicked, or draw an arrow to a particular object of interest in the capture. Or add a border, or dropshadow, etc etc. Now, you can put your capture into Microsoft Word and then use its drawing tools. But that’s not great for quickly emailing something to someone. At work, we have licenses for SnagIt, but what about the poor masses out there? Best thing I’d see to this point was FastStone Capture, but it’s shareware and my thirty days of joy and delight with it were up all too quickly.

Then I discovered PicPick. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in this type of tool. The amount of features it has blew me away when I first saw it – not only do you have the regular screencapture tools (including rectangular area, window [with vertical scroll support, so you can for example capture tall webpages etc], freehand area, full screen) and border/dropshadow frame effects, but you also have fantastic extended features such as “whiteboard” mode – allows you to draw on the screen so that you can make your presentations or tech sessions a lot cooler, a “protractor” mode so you can measure the angle of something on the screen, no idea why you’d want to do that but hey, it’s a free program! – and even a color picker and palette mode which helps when you’re coding eg. CSS and want to grab a color from the screen to match to a border or font or whatever. I was going to make a criticism about how it has those horrible Vista-style ribbon menus, but then I noticed that there’s an option in there to turn them off completely and go to classic menu mode. Hooray!

The only problem I’ve found with it that kept it from getting one of my esteemed “hot download awards” is the fact that the autoscrolling window capture mode doesn’t appear to work with Firefox. Works with Chrome, works with IE. Hopefully it’ll get fixed though, and it’s pretty far from a dealbreaker for me anyway.

Get this program. It’s terrific.

PicPick

Edit 20100725: Now warrants a Hot Download award!

First week with the Motorola Droid – a techie’s perspective

image I’m really going to have to concentrate on making this post reasonably-sized. If I do this, the post will probably be only book-length. If I don’t, I’ll run out of hosting gigabytes before I’m even half done.

You may recall my previous post about cellphones and how disillusioned I have been about what’s on offer. If you didn’t read that post, go ahead and do so now as it’ll give you some background into where I was at mentally as I took the dive into Android. I already explained my technical pedigree in the previous post so you should assume that what you read next is not just fanboy drivel but legit observations made by someone with absolutely no predisposed loyalty to any particular brand. If I had any kind of soft spot for Palm, it’s gone now that I’ve seen the Centro. And my faithful Sony Clie is like a ragged teddy bear missing one button eye. Stuck with me through the years, but it’s time now to mature and move on (dabs at teardrop with kleenex).

I had planned to make this a “first weekend with the Droid” post, which began in my mind as a rebuttal to the post made on the appropriately-named blog by Matt Haughey, “A Whole Lotta Nothing”, where he writes completely biased pro-Apple crap about the Droid versus the iPhone. Of course, he’s entitled to his opinion; it’s just a shame that his opinion will wind up inflaming the passions of so many other people with iPhone Stockholm Syndrome. I also initially did not want this to be a shoot-out between the Apple and the Google OSes. But that’s what it has inevitably turned into. Unfortunately my weekend report now has to be a week in review because last week was real busy for me and didn’t afford me a chance to blog.

So, in no particular order, I herewith roll onward with my observations about my new Motorola Droid after one week of solid futzing (and when I mention iPhone below, it’s only because it’s faster to type than iPod Touch).

  • Pre-purchase skepticism: I was initially skeptical about the Google OS. Someone at work already had the T-Mobile G1 and was extolling the virtues of Google Android to me in the lunchroom one day. But I’d freshly come back from my cellphone disillusionment post and was in no mood to seriously consider anything written by “big brother” in the smartphone arena. How wrong I was. It only took me about fifteen minutes of playing around with a Droid at the local Verizon store before I knew I desperately wanted one and that it looked like it would allow me to check off possibly all of my smartphone wishlist items.
  • Look and feel: This thing looks insane. I’m talking graphically; the resolution is an unbelievable 480×854; compared to the Blackberry Tour (480×340), the Palm Centro (320×320) and the iPhone (320×480). Externally, it’s kinda bland – just a piano-black rectangle without anything particularly sleek about it, but that suits me just fine. The screen resolution make the device’s GUI look so phenomenally crisp and detailed that I almost can’t stop looking at it, regardless of what’s actually being displayed. Then again I have been known to have shiny-ball A.D.D. syndrome, often staring at the graphical display of programs defragmenting my hard drives in slack-jawed, brainless delight, so take this observation bearing that in mind. *8-}
  • Operating system architecture: Perfect. As perfect as you could hope for. Firstly: multiple applications running at the same time – a no-contest win over the iPhone. Point #10 on Haughey’s blog post claims that the OS provides “way too much technical detail” and that he believes that Android’s capability of showing which application is using the most battery power is something that only an app developer would need. In reality, every single proper techie that I showed this feature to dropped their jaw in amazement. Being able to figure out what apps are battery hogs so you can make decisions as to which to can and which to keep based on usefulness versus resource drain? OMG. Count me in. And it looks like it’s Unix under the sheets – another plus.
  • Widgets: Boosts the user experience tenfold, if not a hundredfold. In addition to simply having icons on the desktop, you are allowed to install various “widgets”. These are floating information windows, some 1×1 icon sized, others taking up larger amounts of screen real estate, which can update in realtime with widgets that display everything from the current weather conditions in Zanzibar through to RSS feeds, your Outlook email and calendar, and much much more. There are some widgets that come by default with the Droid, others with various capabilities can be downloaded for free or a nominal sum from the Android Market. Each widget links to some sort of background service or process and therefore can be made braindead if you kill the wrong subsystem using a task manager – care has to be taken if you’re “going there” or you might wind up with widgets that are frozen and don’t update because you sliced their throats in your taskmgr app. But just the joy of being allowed to do this is pants-wetting stuff.
  • Market: One of the things that I came to appreciate about the iPhone/iPod Touch was the much-touted App Store. This is an online interface for downloading of free or paid applications which enables instant installing and use. Android has the same thing. Each store has categories with "top paid” and “top free” apps in each category. The iPhone’s app store inches ahead in design while actually IN the store, as far as I’m concerned, but where it falls down is directly after you choose to install an app. At this point the app store quits out and you see your program icon appear greyed out, and a little bar inching across the screen as it downloads before it lights up and is available for use. At this point you are free to reenter the app store and select another app. Tedious if you want to install multiple apps – you’re far better off using the iTunes desktop application for this (IMO one of the clunkiest user interfaces of all time). With Android, you remain in the Market app while programs are downloading, and can download multiple apps and watch nice progress bars download in serial from the notification area (that can be dragged down from the top of the screen at any time). Something else that made me rapidly clap in glee is one single option in the system settings. You can either check or uncheck an option to “Allow install of non-Market applications”. Market apps are safe, but if you don’t want to ride your bike with a safety helmet, you’re allowed to make that choice and download rabid freaky non-sanctioned apps from anywhere. Like Truman leaving his artificial reality through a door in the side of the world. Again, pants-wetting stuff. And WHAT I WANT.
  • App range and quality: The iPhone is streets ahead in the sheer volume of apps available at time of writing, but it’s still early days yet for Android. About 100k apps for iPhone, about 20k for Android. The difference is that Android apps can be designed to run in both the foreground and background, pushing and polling data if applicable on a schedule you choose. You can immediately assume that something you run (like an RSS feed reader) will simply drop into the background when you return to the desktop and run something else. My delight at using a real task manager app was and still is boundless. Various taskmgr programs out there can allow you to “endtask” one or multiple apps to reclaim system resources if needed, and have ignore lists (“don’t ever kill this particular app when you’re asked to end all apps”) and often widgets that you can install on the desktop for a single-click method of ending all background apps. One taskmgr I found even periodically polls the system for apps that aren’t “in use” but that are wasting system resources, and auto-kills them. I haven’t even found that sort of thing on Windows! Windows Mobile has a similar OS, but my experience with the HTC Titan (Verizon XV6800) running WinMo 6.1 was horrible. The apps were large and clunky and the OS appeared to have the rights to simply terminate apps without prejudice whenever you started to run out of resources, which was ALL. THE. TIME. With the Droid, I’ve comfortably run ten or more apps at a time (god knows how many background services that wound up being) and not even come close to running out of mem. I have a widget right now telling me I’m using 70Mb out of 261Mb resources. Despite it being early enough in my fiddling that I’m not exactly sure what that translates to (memory usage versus app space usage), that still reads pretty reassuring to me – especially considering how many apps I’ve already downloaded and am running in the background.
  • Resource availability: There appears to be an inherent limitation in Android’s available space for apps. Whereas you are allowed to use ALL of the iPhone’s system resources (8Gb, 32Gb or whatever) to store whatever you like – music, pictures OR apps – the Android is limited to built-in system memory for apps. You get a 16Gb SD card in the box with the Motorola Droid, which I thought was fantastic, but the reality is that only app DATA (you know, like downloaded podcasts, ebooks etc) can be stored on the SD card. The app itself has to exist in internal memory. More information here. This makes Android very similar to the Palm, but I’m betting that pretty soon Android developers will solve this problem the same way it was solved on Palm – launcher (replacement desktop) apps on the Palm allowed you to “install” apps on the external storage card, and when you click on those apps, the launcher plays a little trick and copies the app into internal memory first before running them. That might be slow and unwieldy on the Android system given the number of files that comprise apps (apps are written in Java, after all) but it might be a possibility. This really translates to a default ~256Mb of RAM for apps which IMO is a fundamental limitation – in the future, it may become a more serious issue to me than it is right now.
  • Customizability: God, it’s just amazing what you can do with Android. There are various desktop replacement systems, such as Open Home and Panda Home, which extend the default capabilities of the desktop environment with zero hacking required. Out of the box, the Droid has three virtual screens which can contain up to 16 icons, or widgets of varying size that fill up your 4×4 grid. There is a notification “drawer” at the top of the screen, similar to just about every other smartphone, which shows you the time, battery life and various notification icons, but you can slide this downward to show more detail. There is also an “app drawer” that you can slide UPward from the bottom of the screen, containing every single app that you have, arranged alphabetically. A ‘”longpress” on an icon allows you to drag it – either out of the app drawer and onto the virtual screen of your choice, or else from your screen to a trashcan icon at the bottom. This latter move doesn’t uninstall the app, it just removes the icon from the desktop – exactly the same effect as selecting an icon on the Windows desktop and pressing DEL. Your background can be changed at any time – there are built-in backdrops, or you can use a photo that you’ve loaded into the phone (or taken with the phone), or you can use the free Backgrounds app to allow you instant access to a crapload of internet-delivered backgrounds representing various categories. I’m not a bling-hound, but what I like doing is chopping and changing my operating environment to work better or smarter – so even the concept of being able to remove ALL customizations and have a solid black or blue desktop with plain white Arial icon text is just as appealing to me, as making the entire phone look like a rainbow threw up on it might be to someone else.
  • Processing power: Looks like it has loads of it. The Droid has the same CPU and GPU as the iPhone 3GS. Apparently the iPhone’s CPU is clocked at 600Mhz while the Droid’s is at 550Mhz. The OS slides and fades and other graphical delights are very similar to the iPhone’s – I noticed that they were a tiny bit jerkier at times, but that’s understandable when you consider the resolution difference – 320×480 versus 480×854. Higher resolution = more GPU power required. The implication here is that the GPU might be a little underpowered, but only for graphical motion bling. I didn’t buy this guy to play games, essentially, but then again I haven’t yet downloaded any high-motion games to try so far so maybe my fear is legit, maybe not. I’ll find out eventually. With what I’ve seen – scrolling through lists of contacts etc – it performs great, and PDFs look wonderful on it. If it can replace our iPod Touch with toddler games, so much the better! Giraffe’s Matching Zoo on Android would make my kid’s day.
  • User interface/keyboard: The screen is exactly the same capacitive touch sensing system as on the iPhone. I was skeptical about this (you can’t use it with a stylus or while wearing gloves, etc) until I saw just how easy and intuitive it was to use for my toddler to use the iPod Touch. Touching, flicking, wiping and pinching your fingers on the screen is a very natural user experience and I’m liking it a lot. Default apps on the Droid don’t seem to be as enhanced in a graphical sense as the iPhone – the Gallery picture viewer doesn’t let you flick pictures left and right – but I’m hoping third-party apps will give you these features.
  • Browser: Fantastic. The default browser is good, but I installed something called Dolphin which gives you more capabilities, including pinching to zoom in and out of webpages, along with double-tapping to “lock onto” and reformat a page paragraph so it fits neatly on your screen for reading. Beats the iPhone’s Safari hands down, but there still aren’t Flash capabilities available. Apparently Flash will be available early next year for all mobile platforms. Bring it on, Adobe. We’re waiting.
  • Camera and camcorder: 5 megapixel camera, autofocus, twin-LED flash capability. Camcorder records at 720×480, 24fps. Other features in there, like macro mode, white balance etc. Pics look great – very detailed, although the white balance inside turned pics a little too yellowish for me. Nothing that Photoshop can’t fix, of course. 16Gb SD card to store it all on. At time of writing, the largest SD card you can get is 32Gb, but Toshiba have a 64Gb card in the works. Neato.
  • Voice recognition: I’ve always thought this entire concept was a crock of bollocks, until I actually put it into practice. The Droid comes with a “Car Home” application which purports to allow you to speak into the device, then acts based on what you asked (like looking something up on Google etc). Last week I activated the voice recognition and said, in my Australian accent, “Navigate to Uncle Sam’s restaurant, 83rd Avenue, Peoria, Arizona”. Not only did the word-for-word text of what I said appear seconds later on the screen, but it then went into Google Maps mode, activated the built-in navigation system, located me on GPS, then plotted a course to the restaurant and began using it’s own synthesized voice to tell me which way to travel and turn. Jesus christ in a birchbark canoe. I was flabbergasted.
  • Killer Apps: This is the stuff I’m really about – stuff that makes your computing life a little easier. Even though for me it’s mainly a novelty, I (like the rest of the world) am blown away by Shazam. Imagine there’s some music playing and you want to know who sings it. You just activate this app and hold your phone up to the playing music. It samples the music for a few seconds, then compares it to its evidently incredibly extensive music database. A few more seconds and you have the name of the tune and artist on your screen. What the?! This ALSO dropped jaws of people that I showed the feature to. Other apps of note include App Organizer (an easier, more intuitive way of arranging/categorizing applications on your desktop), AndExplorer (a file explorer that allows you to examine your internal as well as external storage), BeyondPod, one of the best RSS/podcast aggregators I’ve ever used on any platform and Aldiko, an ebook-reader that blows the iPhone’s Stanza out of the water. I haven’t even scratched the surface, I’m sure – there are thousands of other apps out there and I’ve been having quite some difficulty trying to juggle my home chores, professional responsibilities and other entertainment ventures (== XBOX360 and telly) with frantic website browsing trying to pinpoint the best Android apps in order to save installing and uninstalling seventeen thousand apps myself. Just not enough hours in the day! I wish I was retired. Like today. Like right now. Retired. So I can play games and futz with this blasted thing all day long. Nnrgh! (stares at phone in trembling hand) I recently bought a copy of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book and god I hope it helps me in the new year.
  • USB mounting: Works great. Plug the Droid into your PC via USB, and you can then use the notification area to instantly mount your SD card as a removable device. Copy all the music and photos you want, disconnect and there they are – for ANY app to use. Impossible with the iPhone, in particular that latter bit.
  • GPS Navigation: Far as I know, this is the first Verizon phone where the GPS capabilities have been left intact. Verizon usually cripple built-in GPS with their phones, so that they can gouge you $15 extra per month for their crapburger VZ Navigator service. The GPS on the Droid is great – gets a location fix in seconds when outside and the Google Maps application looks extremely nice, especially when animating as you drive in navigation mode. It just made my Tom Tom GPS completely and utterly redundant. Craigslist, here it comes.
  • Google synchronization: Being a Google-created OS, it interfaces seamlessly with everything on Google – Mail, Calendar, etc. You can set up multiple accounts and sync all their data in the background in a fully-integrated way. Jack into Facebook, Google and your corporate mail system and you can aggregate ALL your contacts and have them available for phone calls and email across the entire device. Sensational in the extreme. But scary. Just what are you handing over to Google when you do this?
  • Productivity:Touchdown” is an Outlook synchronizer – email, contacts (including GAL), calendar and tasks – it’s not free, but what I’ve seen of it could convince me to buy it for work. “Astrid” is a free task manager that even enables you to sync with http://www.rememberthemilk.com – probably the most-loved online task management system around. Craploads of other stuff out there – and I hold out hope that Pocket Informant will become available for Android in the near future. We live in Salesforce.com at work – they have a mobile interface for smartphones (not available for Android just yet) – but the Droid’s web browser is so good that it actually negates the need for a separate mobile app. You can browse SFDC on your Droid almost as well as on a desktop.
  • Rooting: I don’t know enough to go into too much detail about this one (I haven’t felt the need to do it yet, but I’m sure I will at some stage), but essentially it is possible to “root” the phone. In British and Australian slang this sounds a little off-colour, I know, but in technospeak it means that you can hack into the operating system and become “root user”, allowing you to delve into functionality and areas that regular users are locked out of. Tempting, but an apple (ha ha, pardon the pun) that I’ll possibly take a bite out of a little later on, when I run out of beginner challenges.

Sigh. I knew it! This post turned into a freakin book. I have to stop now – the wife’s probably already pissed at me for not helping her with the Christmas baking, but I had my own bun in the oven and finally it’s baked and cooling on the windowsill now. I feel much better. Android is the bee’s knees of smartphone OS’s. And since it’s an OS, it can be run on multiple phones from multiple providers – whereas the iPhone is only Apple. And, here we go – iPhone’s OS SUCKS by comparison. My ask.metafilter.com response to a question from a user asking whether they should get the Droid or the iPhone might be fun reading at this point. But as for this review, it’s officially over. I’m off to download some more apps help the wife clean up the house. I hope this article served as a more realistic counterpoint to Haughey’s waste of time blog post. Seacrest out.

UK’s Kalender; freeware calendar/to-do program

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Long-time fans of me (pauses.. buffs fingernails on shirt..) will know that I’ve always been a fan of WinDates, a shareware network-enabled calendar program which I used for a long time, on and off. Unfortunately the author of WinDates got a job working for a place that makes online calendars, which meant that continuing to develop his own program constituted a conflict of interest. He quit writing WinDates and a fantastic program winked out of existence, despite an email I wrote to him a year or two ago asking him to opensource the program since he no longer maintained it.

Now that I’ve wasted a paragraph on barely-relevant stuff, here’s the deal with UK’s Kalender (and it’s got nothing to do with the United Kingdom, although you could definitely be forgiven for thinking that at first, and no, I’m sure that the author knows how “calendar” is spelled in English *8-). It’s BETTER than WinDates, by leaps and bounds, and it’s completely free. I mean sure, the author asks for donations (and I’d say this one is definitely worth it), but that’s a heck of a lot better than getting 30 days to figure out whether to drop US$20 on a calendar tool or on clothes for your kid when you’re in the middle of a recession. But onto the features (click the link for more informative information about these features):

Automatic saving | Unlimited Undo and Redo | Minimize to the system tray | Network support | Repeating events | Forewarn time and snooze function | Multi day events | Event categories and templates | Acoustic reminders | Event driven program execution and document opening | Marking and hiding events | Four event views | Tooltips for events and todos | Alarms can be deactivated | Highly configurable display for events and todos | Configurable tray icon | Search and filter functions | Clipboard support | Export to HTML- and CSV-format | Holidays

The program appears to be tightly-coded (not sluggish/bloated-feeling, and doesn’t force you to use godawful skins, such as Rainlendar) and has a stack of very useful features. There is only one major omission preventing me from using it, and I have emailed the author in the hope that he will be able to find the time to include the feature. UK’s Kalendar does not support .ics format. Quoting the author from the “what it doesn’t do” page: “[…] has a proprietary file format. Neither does it understand the file format of other applications nor does it support the export of foreign calendar formats.” This is a big issue AFAIC. If it doesn’t support other calendar formats, you may not be able to export your existing data and migrate to this program, nor might you be able to easily migrate from it at some point in the future. Another missing feature which completely prevents me from using it is the fact that it cannot sync to an online calendar, such as Google Calendar, and it doesn’t support multiple simultaneously-open event files. My current calendar program, Mozilla Sunbird, allows syncing to Google Calendar with an add-on, and has multi-calendar support built-in. ICS and online calendar support would have given this program a definite Hot Download award since not only would you then be able to subscribe to your own calendar online but also hundreds of free online calendars. As it stands, it’s still an excellent calendar tool, both standalone and in case you need to share events with others on your local network. And like me, if you want ICS support, go ahead and email the author!

UK’S Kalender

Service+: enhanced Windows Services control utility

imageAs a professional tech, I spend plenty of time using the Windows Services MMC snap-in (Administrative Tools –> Services). The interface has always been slightly annoying. It allows you to get the job done but the window size cannot be saved (I find myself immediately resizing the window to full-screen – I could probably use some sort of macro utility to do this for me but.. why should I?) and it always takes a few seconds to start up.

Enter Service+. There are two versions of it – the light version (which I’m using, is free, and which is the basis for this article) and the full version. The light version does everything I, and probably most people, will need. The program appears to be installed in the form of a Control Panel applet, but it is able not only to automatically run at startup, but to provide you with an easy-access system tray icon just like any “regular” app. From this interface you are able to see all services, start and stop them (this includes multiple services at the same time – which is AWESOME), and doubleclick on them to view their properties and disabled/manual/automatic startup settings. Apart from that it’s very lightweight (only takes up 7Mb in the background) and given the fact that you’ll never need to run the Services snap-in again it’s definitely worth it.

The full version has more features, so, from their webpage, FYI here are the differences between paid and free: missing from the free version are the possibility to kill a dead service that no longer responds to the stop command (this lets you restart a failing service without having to reboot the server), changing multiple services password or startup settings at once (this feature can save you hours of work if you manage a large number of servers), removing a service (this will let you cleanly remove a service without having to edit the registry and reboot the server), and automatically attaching a debugger to a service.

Service+ (freeware)

TinyResMeter: system information tool

image I’ve been using this tiny, well-written and very comprehensive tool for a while now. While v0.96a is freely downloadable from their website, v0.97 for some annoying reason has been restricted for distribution only to users who subscribe to their mailing list. Free is free and I’m not thrilled with having to drop my email address off on a mailing list that will prove completely useless to me only to secure a copy of the program. So.. enjoy downloading the bizarrely exclusive TinyResMeter v0.97 right here.

[download id=”1″]