Thursday, August 2, 2007

Some killer apps I've discovered recently

Usually the CD enclosed with the Maximum PC magazine isn't worth much, but I found a few gems on it this month. Or should I say next month, it's the September issue, which was probably written in May and June and printed in July, because I got it at the end of July. Weird; I shall never understand the magazine industry. But be that as it may, there were some good finds on the CD, regardless of what month it is.

1. Dark Room

I had no idea what this was, but the name sounded cool so I tried it. To my surprise, the whole screen went dark save for a few arrows, and a blinking cursor for text entry. "WTF is this?" I asked myself, typing around in it. I hit Escape, and lo and behold, it's just a text editor. One that fills the screen and has green text. Which is really ironic, because my trusty text editor, Editpad Lite, is configured to have a black background and green text. When you have a widescreen 32" monitor, well, it attracts flies and mosquitos like nothing else, so the darker I keep it, the better.

Dark Room does have a bug that annoys me, but it's not that big a deal. If you resize it to see around it or whatever, it won't always go back to fullscreen, obscuring part of it behind the taskbar and you can see a few pixels on the right. The solution is simple: quit and start over. Also, it maintains the text inside when you close it and reopen it, which can be confusing but not bad.

2. PortableApps

I had only heard of this, and it's ironic that MaximumPC included it, because I just got a USB keychain drive - 2GB to be exact. Now what can you do with a thumb drive? Sure, you can tote 2GB of files around with it, but so what? DVD-RW is 4.5GB, maybe a little less but still more than 2GB. DVD-RAM holds a little more than 5GB. A USB drive is a little more portable, but what can you do with it? Really?

Well, you can install PortableApps on it. There are three versions: Standard (includes antivirus, Sudoku, an office suite (OpenOffice), Firefox, a scheduler (Sunbird), a universal instant messager (Gaim) and an email client (Thunderbird). The next one down replaces OpenOffice with AbiWord, a word processor. And the base one has only the menu. All of these programs run from the drive and don't store any settings or files on the "host" computer, so you can take your software with you wherever you go. And has more programs you can put on your USB drive that integrate right into the menu.

PortableApps does have an interesting limitation, however. It only uses open-source applications, programs where the source code can be freely modified. Perhaps this is so the application can be configured for the PortableApps menu, but I don't think so. I'm sure there are software providers out there who would (and maybe they do) provide a PortableApps package, but I get the impression PortableApps is more interested in pushing the open source movement than diversifying available software - and that's fine, open source has a lot to offer. I just don't think it should be a limitation. I would give an open source app a chance to replace a closed-source freeware (and especially a closed-source commercial) application, but choice is an important element. Rather than having an all-opensource set of apps, I would rather have a set that does everything I need.

But, that aside, PortableApps is great. I've updated to the latest Firefox (which works with all the extensions, like Adblock), installed KeePass (a password vault with government-level-plus security), dropped Thunderbird (I use Gmail), and installed VideoLAN (aka VLC, this is a media player), VirtualDub (video editing), and Gimp (a Photoshop clone). Oh, and Audacity (an audio editor). It needs more stuff - how about a music player? The open source Winamp clone, XMMS, was fun to use in Linux. It needed work (lots!) but I'm sure it's more usable now. And CD burning. And more games. Maybe a download manager, a simple photo editor like Microsoft's. So I'm watching, hopefully they get more stuff.

3. Instiki

This wasn't on the MPC CD, but it should have been - along with Ruby, but I'll get to that. There was an article in Maximum PC about "setting up your own Wiki". Any of my faithful readers can tell you I am a big fan of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia subject to edit by anybody. A lot of my links go there when I want to give the reader a chance to learn more about a particular keyword or thing. One's own Wiki isn't going to have the extensive knowledge of Wikipedia, to be sure, but it does give one the ability to run this sort of interconnected web of pages that any user can edit, and they're all linked. It's like a text editor, maybe word processor, database, all rolled into one and accessed through your web browser.

Getting this thing set up and running isn't quite as easy as Instiki's site makes it out to be, but it's not hard, either. First of all, Instiki requires a much larger installation first, a development environment (thusly in the same category as the .Net Framework, or Java, or Flash or Shockwave) called Ruby, also known as Ruby on Rails. Ruby does nothing more than allow Ruby-based applications to be ran; without Ruby, stuff written in Ruby does not work. Once Ruby is installed, you can install Instiki and get it working.

Now you just unpack the Instiki installation to a folder. I recommend C:\Instiki if you have space on your C drive and you don't reformat often. If you don't have the space or like to reformat, then X:\Instiki where X is your other hard drive's drive letter. Then go to Start, then Run, and type in CMD, hit Enter. You'll be at a command prompt. Without the quotes type "CD \" to get to the root. If you put it on another hard drive, simply type X: where X is the drive letter. Then, "CD instiki". CD isn't CD-ROM here, it's "change directory". Then you just type "instiki.cmd", hit enter, and let it do its thing. Shortly, your web browser should open and present you with the configuration page. Once you've configured it, the Wiki's main page will load. Bookmark this now. Note that your firewall at some point may warn you. Just hit OK, allow, whatever.

To actually use the Wiki... Well, I'm still learning that. To the right of every edit page is some instructions, but they're fairly basic - you can do more than it lets on.

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