Category Archives: Computing

Computers, Internet, technology, software etc.

Mac Freeware Essentials

Having used Windows computers much more than Macs there are certain applications I have come to rely upon which are available for free. The higher availability of great free applications has always been an advantage that Windows has over Mac OS, but there are now many great apps available for Mac OS, some of the ones I feel are particularly useful are listed below:

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Facebook’s New Messaging Service

Mark Zuckerberg introduces the new messaging concept
Mark Zuckerberg introduces the new messaging concept

[Facebook’s messaging service no longer offers the same capabilities that it did when the following was written…]

Earlier today, at a press conference in San Fransisco, Mark Zuckerberg and his team announced the latest big feature on offer from Facebook, a new messaging service that integrates with email. Facebook users will be able exchange messages with people who are not on Facebook with an email address which comes directly to their Facebook inbox, but this is not intended to simply be a new email platform.


Mark Zuckerberg started by referring to a conversation he had had with some high school students in which he was told that email is too slow, on questioning this and thinking more about why they felt this to be the case he decided that it was the process of writing the email address, the subject and the usual formalities of a letter that made email feel slow compared to other messaging systems, such as SMS text messaging and Facebook.


Currently about 350 million people use the messaging features of Facebook, sending over 4 billion messages to each other each day. In allowing Facebook users to integrate their communication with non-Facebook users by using email, they wanted a seamless messaging service that converges messaging between SMS, email and Instant messaging.


The new system will not be based upon subject lines, rather each group or person will have one conversation history, similar to Instant Messaging.

Facebook’s new system combats email overload with a “social inbox”, the settings for which allow users to choose which messages come through to it in typical Facebook style, allow messages from friends, or friends of friends etc – adding specific senders to the filters where they are not on Facebook. Meanwhile other messages all go through to a separate inbox that can be checked as desired. The plan is that contacts can easily be moved between the social inbox and the “other” folder. A separate spam folder is also to be offered. Facebook will also allow users to choose settings that will simply allow or disallow senders from messaging them at all.


As for the email address itself, on June 13th Facebook made it possible for their users to choose a username on the system that would be used as part of the profile address, my profile address for example is Now, once activated (the service is optional), this same username can used as part of a standard email address, giving me A degree of email integration was quietly launched a short while back with the new improved Facebook Groups feature, allowing group administrators to choose an address with which they could post content directly to the groups wall by email.


The announcement stated that the new service will start to be rolled out slowly as of today using an invite system, it is expected to take a few months to roll out completely across Facebook.

Finding large files with WinDirStat

Today I realised I was running short of space on one of my drives. With larger disks and online backup services it is not such a common problem as it use to be, but when it happens Windows still doesn’t offer a simple and intuitive way to find the largest files that are causing the problem.  Step in, WinDirStat!

WinDirStat (Windows Directory Statistics)  is a free program that makes finding and removing large files an easy, almost pleasing experience. It displays the contents of your disk as a colourful chart of grouped rectangles that helps you to easily spot where all your space has gone.

WinDirStat in action

WinDirStat (Windows Directory Statistics) cam be downloaded from here.

WinDirStat is, as the name implies, for Windows only, all versions,  it is quite old now so I don’t know if it works on Windows7 (thank you Brian Jacob). WinDirStat is based upon KDirStat which is still available for Linux systems. There is also something similar called GrandPerspective for the Mac.

I have used this software several times in the past and knew I needed it again today, in looking for it I realised it is not referred to in many places so, as much for my own benefit as for yours, I thought I would make it that little bit easier to find by blogging about it here.

Once downloaded, before it can display your disk in its useful coloured box format, WinDirStat  needs to look at your disk to see how much space all the files  are taking up. When you first run the program you are offered the choice between scanning all drives or selecting an individual drive (or even just a folder), if you are only concerned with one drive it will obviously be a lot faster to view only that one.

The next screen you see is  really just telling you that the software is getting the information it requires, the display shows pacman chomping through your folders, but rest assured he is not eating any files.

Once WinDirStat has finished analyzing your hard drive you get to see what I find to be the most useful representation of your hard drive for determining which files and folders are taking up the most space on your system. As shown above, the main window is full of coloured boxes and rectangles, each one representing an individual file on your system, grouped into larger rectangles representing the folders that they are within. As you move your mouse over the colourful graph you see the file names appearing in the status bar at the bottom of the screen. Click on any box and the traditional file manager view at the top of the screen will jump to that file. If you want to see how much space the entire folder that that file sits in is taking up simply click on the folder in the top left file manager and you will see the box representing its disk usage highlighted on the main chart.

Right click on any box or rectangle representing a file in the main window and you get the option to zoom in or out of the picture, giving you more detail on those numerous smaller files on your system.

Right clicking on any file or folder in the top-left file manager view gives you the option to delete it or open an explorer window onto it. When a file is deleted using this menu the image below is automatically updated to accommodate the change.

I hope you find this program as useful as I do!

How it is heard on YouTube

YouTube have publicly launched a captioning service that was previously only available on educational channels.

The service uses voice recognition to work out what is being said and to place captions at the bottom of the screen. Currently the service is only available in English and the quality of the captions depends on the quality of the audio track but even with high quality audio, beyond getting an idea of what a video may be about, the number of mistakes means that the service probably has more entertainment value than transcription value at the moment.

Captions of YouTube

Uploaders have the option of correcting the captions, which may be used in the future to enhance YouTube’s search capabilities.

Captioning is not yet available on all old videos, where it is available it can be accessed either via a “cc” icon or an upward pointing triangle on the video player tool bar.  Automated captioning in other languages should follow in the near future.

Windows Search vs Google Desktop vs Copernic Desktop

A couple of months ago I put the three leading free desktop search utilities to the test to see which one was the best.

The following versions were tested: Windows Search 4, Copernic Desktop Search 2 and Google Desktop Search.  The test was done using WIndows XP. WIndows Vista has Windows Search built into it and that is an improved version, as far as I understand, of what I was testing on XP. First to the test was…

Acronis Disk Director 10.0Google Desktop Search

Google Desktop has two main features, a desktop search engine that will index the files on your computer and search through them instantly, and side bar similar to the one that comes with Windows Vista, to which you add lots of gadgets including news readers, email notifications, calendar, slide shows… the list goes on. Personally I find side bars distracting and I have enough distractions off-screen without a side bar giving me more, but this feature is easily disabled. Once Google Desktop Search has indexed the computer it is extremely fast to find results in most file formats including Outlook emails. The software can be accessed in several different ways, my favourite method is as a search box docked onto the task bar at the bottom of the screen. As you type a search query into the box the search engines starts to provide matches to the partial word you have entered. What is particularly good about Google Desktop Search is that the results are all shown with a content preview, showing the text that surrounds your search string where it has been matched, this makes it extremely easy to find the very document you are looking for. The only problem I found is that not all the documents on my computer were being indexed. I uninstalled the software, re-installed it and ran a full index and still found that many of the documents I had were not indexed by the Google Desktop Search.

Windows Search

I was optimistic when I installed this given that the product should be as well designed for Windows as such a product could be. Windows Search did index all of my files but it lacked the context to the results on the search bar. When used as a full application the software offered the ability to open the found documents in a preview window so that you could then search for the result inside the document and realise the context, but this worked very slowly. On the whole I didn’t feel that Windows Search 4 made searching much easier than using the search features already built into Windows and Outlook, having used Google Desktop Search I had had a glimpse of how quickly a search tool could work, and by comparison Windows Search was painful to use.

Copernic Desktop Search

Copernic Desktop Search is similar to Windows Search in appearance and in its interface, it does offer filename matches very quickly from a search box on the task bar at the bottom of the screen but in order to get context you have to use the application Window and preview the matched document in a preview window, this was, however, considerably faster in Copernic than it was in Windows Search. Copernic also seemed to index every one of the files on my computer, including Outlook email, and the application interface is very easy to use. I found that once I had used Copernic a few times I was able to use its features to find the documents and emails I needed very quickly.


My favourite desktop search for WIndows XP is Copernic Desktop Search. I found the instant contextual results in Google Desktop Search superior to both Windows and Copernic but the incomplete indexing made it inadequate at the most important task of searching files on my computer. I did check through the support forums but,  like others before me who had had the same problem, I could not find, nor was offered, any solutions. Copernic was fast and intuitive, had I not seen the way in which Google presented results I would not have even thought it might be lacking in any department.

My tests were limited to the free version of Copernic Desktop Search 2, they have since released version 3 and that appears to offer “results as you type” in the commercial (non-free) versions, their web site does not specify if these are contextual results or not. If Google added an option that would allow you to force indexing of files and folders it had missed out then Google Desktop Search would be my winner, but at the time of testing there was no known way of doing this.

Links: Winner: Copernic Desktop Search, Second: Windows Search 4, Third: Google Desktop Search

Usable USB Backup

Trying to work from Ladan’s side I have used a number of old, second hand laptop computers that have been on their way to the the microchip graveyard. When a computer dies, be it a recoverable error or not, it often takes a while to get a system up and running with my email and important data in place, especially if I am in need of another computer.

Acronis True Image Home 2010I decided I needed a solution that would enable me to get working quickly from any computer, and i bought a 4GB USB Disk to try to set somehting up. Now, had I bought a 2GB disk I now realise I could have done something a little more clever that would have worked without the need for WIndows being installed, but I may well come back to that in a future post, for now I have a 4GB disk and am very happy with what I have got, which is this…

  • An encrytped, password protected, briefcase of my most important documents
  • An encrypted, password protected, backup of my Outlook email folders and settings
  • A one-click facility to synchronise my public and private documents, and email, with any WIndows computer (in the case of email it needs to have Outllok XP or better installed)
  • All my essential applications installed on the USB disk and launchable from there
  • A nice launcher that sits in the Windows system tray and accesses all the facilities from the disk

So, not only do I have my data backed up but I can use almost all of it without interefering with another machine. If I want to use my email on a friends machine I will have to configure a user account under my name to use a fresh copy of Outlook, but I can use webmail for email too. I did consider using Thunderbird as my primary email client and then not needing access to Outlook on any machine (as I can run Thunderbird from the USB Drive), but I prefer Outlook for email management tools.

Here are the tools I am using, and hereby recommending…

  • Truecrypt – This creates an encrypted briefcase file that I can “mount” as a drive when I need access to it.
  • Allway Sync – A utility that can be set to synchronize between certain folders on the USB and the host computer]
  • PStart – An application launcher, like the WIndows start button, that can be configured to work for all the programs on a USB stick.

I also have OpenOffice, Firefox, Mozilla, FileZilla, Gimp, GeoClock, CCleaner, Process Explorer, InfraRecorder, VLC Media Player, Notepad++, Audacity, and a large number of other portable applications installed which can run from the USB drive. Using PStart I can open my briefcase as Drive J: with just one click, and carry out synchronization of Outlook between computers I use with just one click.

One note about Outlook and Encryption, if you are familiar with creating a new .pst file in Outlook then you will know that you are offered three levels of encryption for your messages… None, Compressible or Best… Outlook does not compress the .pst file itself so unless you are going to compress it then the Best option is best!

Most of my blog visitors are not that technical minded to want to know more details about this, so if you do want to know more please le tme know.


Google’s new web browser, Chrome, was launched yesterday. When I ran it I was expecting a brushed metal look similar to Apple’s Safari browser but there is no visual chrome effect. It is still a beta release, meaning it is not expected to be reliable yet, so I won’t go into the problems i found with it, for the most part it functioned very well. The best new feature is the recently visited sites page that welcomes you when you open the browser window or tab, you get a selection of preview images of the sites you use the most. Another new feature that I have not yet experienced in action is the concept that when a page crashes it will only crash the tab and not the browser, meaning that other tabs are left open. In Firefox the other tabs are opened as they were prior to the crash when you re-start the browser , so Chrome takes this a step further. Chrome’s address bar is merged with the Google search box to offer a selection of suggestion web addresses, previously visited sites and search terms as you type. This sounds appealing but after a few uses I haven’t warmed to it yet, when I search in Firefox I get a lot more suggestions for search terms which is handy when you are not sure exactly what something is called, by combining the address bar with the search bar the suggestions become less plentiful or relevant. Finally, Google claim that this browser is faster with today’s application rich Internet… I haven’t really been able to detect the difference in casual browsing but I can confirm it is certainly not slower than its competitors. Currently I still prefer Firefox,  but with Chrome in development and Internet Explorer 8 being released soon, with an easier to use interface, the web certainly seems to be getting faster, easier and more powerful to use.

Google Earth takes to the skies

The latest beta version of Google Earth, available from has two new sky related features.

I was wondering if anybody had found a hack to make it feel like you were flying a plane over Google Earth scenery, and I was pleased to find that Google have done it themselves. If you hold down CTRL+ALT+A (according to their instructions) you launch a flight simulator, choose your aicraft from two available, choose a starting point, and you can take to the skies. I have tested it by crashing into some trees in Venice. Details on all the controls are here.

On my computer CTRL+ALT+A didn’t work, something to do with having a British keyboard layout, but using the right hand (as opposed to left) CTRL with A (no ALT) worked instead.

There is also an option, which I have not tested yet, to explore space. You choose a location on earth from which to look at the skies and then click the sky button, from there you can explore our solar system and much of the known universe beyond it.