My wife’s computer has been circling the drain for some time now and finally took a dirt nap two weeks ago. As a result I was forced to purchase a new computer a bit ahead of our normal schedule. In preparations for the new machine I had to do a lot of backing-up and shifting around of hardware throughout the house (I am the resident IT guy after all). As painful as this was, it was a great opportunity for me to take stock of the applications I currently own that are essential for me to perform my online work.
If you work online you probably have your own favorite applications, here are mine:
There are so many choices when it comes to browsers these days. Like every Windows user, I started with the default, Internet Explorer. Then I grew up and used Firefox. It was a solid choice at the time that allowed me to do things like debug web pages and install compelling add-ons to extend its capabilities. Then Google released Chrome. I tried it for a while and straddled both the Firefox and Chrome world for a while before I finally switched to Chrome as my primary interface to the world wide web.
Firefox is still a very nice web browsing platform, and I still use it on occasion, but Chrome runs significantly faster, allows me to do the debugging I need, supports third party add-ons which extend its functionality, allows me to drag tabs in and out of the browser creating and merging browser instances, and allows me to perform Google searches in the same box where I would normally type a URL.
A good antivirus program is essential for today’s always connected computers. I’ve used Norton and McAfee in the past, but three years ago I switched to Kaspersky. At the time I had never heard of them, but I was looking for a good alternative to the Big Boys (mentioned above) that would not fleece me and my family in the process.
Even though I was unfamiliar with this German-developed anti-virus program my research only returned positive feedback. To sweeten the deal even more, Kaspersky offered three licenses for the price of one, which means I could install it on every computer in my home. I tried them for a year and never looked back. They have a pure antivirus program but I use their Internet Security program which includes some additional features. Most notably a parental control feature which allows me to limit what web pages my 5 year old daughter can access.
PuTTY is a SSH (Secure Shell) and telnet client that allows you to remotely manage a computer (like your hosting server) via a DOS-like command interface. With it you can run commands as if you were sitting right next to the machine. It’s a bit of an advanced way to interface with your server so if you have no idea what I am talking about you could just skip it.
As a software engineer I’ve played with a variety of IDE’s over the course of my career. An IDE (Integrated Development Environment) is essentially an editor like Microsoft Word, except it’s for code development instead of letter writing.
Kimodo Edit is a scaled down, version of Activestates Kimodo IDE. Despite that, it does everything I need it to, all for the amazingly low price of FREE. If you ever have to modify code by hand you won’t want to be without some sort of IDE because they really can make your life a lot easier. If you are currently using Microsoft’s notepad to modify source code then you really need to stop and listen.
The features that make this my tool of choice for editing source code are:
- Syntax highlighting
- Remote File Editing
Normally I would have to download a file, edit it, and then upload it to see my changes. Remote editing means I can open the file sitting on my HostGator account and modify it directly. When I save, the remote file is updated for me. This has really improved my workflow.
WinMerge is an Open Source differencing and merging tool that allows you to quickly compare two files and locate differences. This is very handy when performing upgrades and tweaks to your site and something goes horribly wrong. Trying to locate that proverbial needle in the haystack has never been easier.
Below you can see an example of this tool in action. Here I have two different versions of identical files displayed. WinMerge instantly shows me the differences.
ALT-↓ allows you to step to the next line that is different.
ALT-↑ allows you to step to the previous line that is different.
ALT-← copies changes from the right pane to the left.
ALT-→ copies changes from the left pane to the right.
When it comes to editing graphics and images, Adobe’s Photoshop is the standard. I have it, and try to use it but it’s a powerful beast that can be complicated for non Graphic Designers (like me). Fireworks is a competing product created by Macromedia and aquired by Adobe in 2005. Adobe continues to support it and sell it as part of the many software packages they offer. Because I learned on it first, and it does a lot of what Photoshop does, I still tend to use it for all my graphic editing needs as I find it a bit more approachable.
For professional quality document designing I use InDesign. In my opinion it is the Photoshop of book design tools. Microsoft Word is cute if you are putting together a fax or a letter, but if you really need complete control over a document’s design and layout, InDesign is the tool of choice. There is a steep learning curve, this isn’t your Father’s text editor after all, but its insane power made me a believer. I still use a combination of Microsoft’s Word 2003 and Google Docs for everyday stuff, but for hardcore document layouts I put away those toys and pull out the BIG guns – InDesign.
Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Photoshop and Indesign can be purchased separately, but you can save a bunch of money if you buy them as part of a collection AND are upgrading from a previous version or competing product. I have Adobe Design Premium which includes all of them plus a bunch of other full featured programs like: Illustrator CS5, Flash Catalyst CS5, Flash Professional CS5, Acrobat 9 Pro, Bridge CS5, Device Central CS5″. Also, if you are a student or teacher you can get this package for about 80% off the retail price!
Last year I purchased Camtasia Studio to record instructional videos that I could upload to YouTube and I must say, I am very happy with that purchase. The tool is very well designed and makes recording and editing as simple and approachable as possible while still providing you with a good feature set to create extremely compelling videos. It ain’t cheap, but then again, nothing good in life is.
Since creating successful web properties is my business, it’s important that I am able to gain visibility into what people are actually searching for, determine the level of competition for a particular search phrase, track a sites ranking over time, and find good long-tailed keywords. That’s a tall order. Fortunately I have Market Samurai which does all that and more.
I was reluctant to add this to my list for fear of coming-off sales-pitchy (because I am an affiliate of theirs) but I literally use this tool 3-5 times a week (which is more then some of the other good tools I have on this list). Because of that, and the fact that I sincerely feel this is an indispensable tool for anyone who has or manages a website online, I am adding it here. Plus you could try it free (no credit card required) for 14 days which allows you to put both it and me to the test. If you think it sucks then don’t listen to anything I say again.
I have been a long time user of Microsoft Office, though I have to admit, my reliance on them has started to wane over the last three years. Google’s competing offering of free online tools accessible from my web browser, coupled with high speed internet, and the ability to access (and share) my information from any computer (or device) has weakened Microsoft Office’s value proposition and made me question why I would ever pay someone for an application that allows me to do the same things I can do for free. Not to be cheap, but I like having my documents available online and instantly accessible.
In any event, here are my Microsoft Office replacements that I currently use more and more:
I was a devout Microsoft Outlook user, but three years ago I started using GMail to send and receive emails and have never looked back. In fact, I don’t even install Outlook on my computer anymore. Here are the Gmail features I covet most:
- Find old emails Fast
- Globally accessible email
- Emails arranged into conversations
- Virtually unlimited storage capacity
- Spam guard
- Manage multiple accounts
- Clean interface
With the same speed we have come to expect from a Google search
even from my Droid X
Click one email and all the replies are listed together so you can easily follow the conversation thread
While not exactly unlimited, you do get a lot of space. I think it’s something like 7.5 GB of storage at the moment
Every mail client claims to block spam but Google does it best because Google users can instantly flag a message as spam. When enough people report it, the Google network stops sending messages from that recipient
I have several email accounts on a variety of networks. Gmail lets me read and respond to emails sent to any of them from a single centralized location.
Google is known for being sparse in their designs. Type www.google.com to see what I mean. Not a whole lot their to distract you. Gmail is the same. The buttons and links on your gmail account are primarily relevant and non-distracting. I have a yahoo mail account and I don’t visit it because their interface is a cluttered mess.
These are some of my reasons for using Gmail, there are a lot more you can read about here.
I still have a version of Microsoft Word 2003, primarily to look at old documents I have lying around my hard drive. But for new documents, I create them all with Google Docs. Google Docs doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Microsoft Office 2003 but to be completely honest, I probably only used a small fraction of its features in the first place. For the types of documents I write, Google Docs is more than sufficient. In addition, it pretty much has the same look and feel of the Microsoft’s 2003 version of Word and I’m OK with that.
BTW, Google Docs also grants you host of other document creation tools that sharply take aim at Microsoft’s Office product line. One of which, that I also use with some regularity, is a spreadsheet program that is essentially an Excel killer.
To access “Google Spreadsheet” go to Google Docs and select “Create New->Spreadsheet”. That’s it.
Google has a calendar program as well, appropriately named Google Calendar. I used it for a while but since I struggle sticking to a schedule (because my plate is always extremely overfull) I recently switched to Remember the Milk which is a fantastic online task management application.
It’s free to use and allows me to record things that I need to do without committing to a date on everything. This is important for me because I am most productive when I work on what I am feeling that day. Also, having a place to record ideas or tasks allows me to free up precious memory resources that would otherwise be spent trying to remember the litany of tasks I need to get done. Now I record them and move on.
If you have a home-based business and don’t want to give Ma-Bell more crazy money to install a second land line in your home Google Voice is the way to go. I discovered Google Voice several years ago when it was called Grand Central (Before Google bought it). It was great then, and continues to be a fantastic free service that allows you to create a virtual phone line (number and all).
This tool has a mad feature set that makes what the phone company gives you look like a pair of paper cups connected by string in comparison. Its a real, solid service that gives you total control over how and where calls are delivered.
1-Click Answers is a little application that runs in the background that allows you to ALT-Left Click your way to definitions of words on any website or local document you have open. I use it all the time to check my spelling or get a quick definition.
By default, Answers Bar will show a windows called “Today’s Highlights” every day right smack in the middle of your screen and an annoying “Answer Bar” at the lower right. Both of these can be turned off by going into the options screen and un-ticking their corresponding check boxes. Disabling them will not effect your ability to to use the 1-Click Answers feature
That’s it! That’s my list of 15 must-have essential software tools, apps, utilities, and online services. These are the ones that I install and setup on my computer first before all else because quite frankly, I can’t live without them. Do you have a tool or service you find indispensable? I am certainly open to suggestions. Leave me a comment. I would love to hear it.