July 25, 2007

Alignment, Justification and Bullets

Microsoft Word (and many other programs) let you justify, bullet and align text throughout your document. However, sometimes doing so can be confusing, and sometimes you'll feel like Word has a mind of its own.

The first thing to remember with alignment is that you can only apply an alignment command (like left, center or right) to a paragraph of text. So if you want to apply an alignment command like 'center' to a heading you'll need to make sure it is its own paragraph. Creating a paragraph is as easy as inserting a line break by pressing the 'Return' or 'Enter' key. One common mistake I see a lot is when users artificially create a new line when they don't need to. In the old days of typewriters you used to have to wind the typewriter back to start a new paragraphs. Modern word processors like Word automatically wrap text for you so you don't need to worry. You only need to use the 'Return' or 'Enter' when you want to force a new paragraph.

This leads me to the justify command which lets you align text along the left and right margin. This is useful when working in a column layout but sometimes leads to odd spacing between words. The odd spacing is often caused because of extra spaces or other formatting elements. If you notice the spacing looks strange make sure you don't have any spaces after the end of the text.

Bullet points and numbering is another source of confusion in Word but doesn't need to be. To create a list of bullet points or numbers in word simply go to the Format menu and select 'Bullets and Numbering' (rather than clicking the shortcut icon). In this window you can choose a bullet style or a numbered style. If you select a numbered style you'll also have the option of restarting the numbering or continuing from a previous list (somewhere else in the document).

July 11, 2007

Web 2.0

Next generation web sites, referred to as 'web 2.0' are springing up all over the Internet and changing the way we interact with the humble web page. A recent study by web audience measurement firm Hitwise showed that Web 2.0 style sites now account for 12% of US web activity, up from just 2% two years ago.

Where first generation websites were static and provided static information, next generation web sites let users interact with the page, often without the need to refresh the pages as the user makes changes. Web 2.0 sites rely heavily on programming in AJAX. AJAX sites make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes. The result is increased interactivity, speed and usability. So much so that often with a web 2.0 site you feel like you are using an application, running locally on your computer.

In fact, in writing this story I am using Google Docs, a web based word processor. Google Docs lets me type as I would into a word processor, like Microsoft Word but instead of running a large, memory and processor intensive application on my computer I am typing into a web browser. Google Docs automatically saves my work every time I type a letter. If my computer was to crash now I'd lose nothing. Apart from this aspect using a web 2.0 site like Google Docs also lets me easily share my work with others. I simply add them as collaborators and they too can add to my story.

Other web 2.0 sites like Geni.com let users from around the world build family trees together. At Geni.com you enter your immediate family details, including email address of everyone and Geni.com automatically emails them and asks them to do the same. Within weeks you can have a family tree that stretches for many generations. And like Google Docs, everything is backed up online so if your computer gets stolen or your hard disk fails you don't need to worry.

Probably the most popular web 2.0 site is wikipedia.com. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia entirely built from user content. Users create topics by adding pages and then other users add to these topics. Any user can edit any information in a web-based text editor. Users are also free to add links to other articles in Wikipedia, or to link to external websites. Wikipedia has become so dense with information a new online game has sprung up called 'Six degrees of Wikipedia' where you try and navigate through Wikipedia articles to get from one random word to another, with the shortest amounts of clicks (if you need help check out http://tools.wikimedia.de/sixdeg/).

The advent of Web 2.0 sites is tied to the increasing prevalence of broadband Internet connections. Without broadband many of these Web 2.0 sites wouldn't function quickly enough to create the 'local' application feel that they do. As broadband penetration and speeds increase expect Web 2.0 sites to become more powerful and feature rich.

Top Web 2.0 Sites

Property.com.au
Search Australia's largest list of properties for rent and sale. With interactive maps and photo galleries finding the home of your dreams has never been this easy.

Myspace.com.au

If you haven't heard of MySpace you must be living under a rock. MySpace virtual community site allows users to network, meet people, browse their profiles, and make friends from all around the world. Also contains spaces for bands to share their music and communicate with their fan base.

Docs.google.com
Purchased from writely.com Google has managed to create the best Free web-based word processor and spreadsheet. Users can share and collaborate easily. It's my word processor of choice.

Maps.google.com.au
Another Google property, Maps.Google provides directions, interactive maps, and satellite/aerial imagery of the whole world. You can also search by keyword such as type of business. In the US they have just introduced Street View that gives you images at street level - scary!

Omnidrive.com
Need to backup your computer but don't have an external drive. Omnidrive is an online storage platform that allows you to edit, share and store your files online and access them from anywhere with the speed of desktop storage.

Gnoos.com.au
A search engine focusing on Australian blogs and media, Gnoos lets users tag results and vote on them. Results can be commented on or expanded to read the full post without leaving the site.

Last.fm
Last.fm taps the wisdom of the crowds, leveraging each user's musical profile to make personalised recommendations, connect users who share similar tastes, provide custom radio streams, and much more. Check it out, you'll be amazed.

A Product a Day

Buying online is pretty popular these days. Virtual stores like Amazon.com carry many different items and choosing something to buy can often be confusing. Well, to solve your confusion and give you a great deal at a great price check out the new breed of online stores that offer only one product for sale every day. Zazz, Woot and Catch of the Day are three online stores dedicated to giving you the best possible deal on one product a day. Woot, the most popular and longest running site claims to have over 700,000 users and recently sold its millionth item.

The idea behind these 'one product, one day' websites is simple. They buy products in bulk (they never tell you how many they've got) and sell them on the website at a discount rate. I've been checking out these sites over the past week and the stuff you can actually buy ranges from practical and useful (like a kids toy from Fischer Price for half price to the completely useless, like an After Party Bundle USB Light and USB Fan kit). The trick is to join the their mailing lists so you can quickly check the product of the day and determine whether you need it.

After you've decided to purchase buying is easy. In most cases you enter your personal details, credit card information and a shipping address. I've tried out all three websites and all deliver the product as promised. Both Zazz and Woot specialise in gadgets, while Catch of the Day offers a variety of products including homewares, Manchester and electronics as well. If you're a bargain hunter these websites offer a great alternative to eBay and you can take comfort in the fact that when you purchase your items are new and ship with a guarantee.

July 9, 2007

Sandisk Cruzer Contour

I've had lots of USB memory sticks in my day. I remember my excitement when I got my first 128MB stick almost 4 years ago. Those were the days when almost anything fit on 128MB. Since then I've had numerous USB sticks but all of them have been badly built. My last one was beautifully small, but within a week of using it I'd managed to rip the back plastic attachment clean off, exposing the circuit board and all!

My latest USB stick is the Sandisk Cruzer Contour. Available in both 4 and 8GB varieties the Sandisk is unique in its build quality and clever mechanism that lets you hide the USB stick away when not in use. This is a real convenience as I was constantly losing those small caps that covered my other sticks.

If performance is what you are after the Cruzer delivers. With a write speed of 18 MB/sec2 and a read speed of 25 MB/sec. The Cruzer Contour also supports the ReadyBoost feature in Microsoft Windows Vista, which taps unused storage space on USB flash drives to improve system performance – especially when several applications are running simultaneously.

The Cruzer is at the pricey end of the scale, with the 4Gb costing $145 and the 8Gb cost $245 and available from most good retailers and online.

July 4, 2007

Apple TV

Apple TV is Apple's most recent foray into the consumer electronics market and is billed as the last piece of the 'media' puzzle. With Apple TV your iTunes content moves from the computer into the living room where it can be controlled with a simple 6 button remote and a gorgeous visual interface.

The best way to think about Apple TV is as an iPod that you plug into your flat screen TV. Instead of syncing with a USB cable however, you transfer content on to Apple TV via a wireless network. In typical Apple fashion Apple TV isn't a product that does everything, but everything it does, it does well.

Setting up Apple TV is marginally harder then syncing an iPod for the first time. Firstly, you'll need a wide-screen TV that has either composite, DVI or HDMI inputs. Secondly, the only cable that is supplied with Apple TV is a power adaptor so you'll need to make sure you buy the cable you require before you leave the shop. Lastly, to get content on to your Apple TV you'll need to have the latest version of iTunes running on your computer, version 7.3.

Configuring Apple TV is easy. Simply plug it in, select the resolution that suits your TV (Apple TV presents you with a list of 'recommended' options) and then set your sync preferences. Apple TV comes with a 40GB or 160GB hard drive that is designed to store your media locally so you won't need to have your computer running when your using it. It took me just over 2 hours to sync all of my content to my Apple TV using a standard 802.11G network. Apple TV only 'syncs' with one computer (like an iPod) but can 'stream' content from up to five additional Macs or PC's on your network. That means if your friend comes over with his laptop you can listen to his music, or watch his movies with a couple of clicks.

If you've played with Front Row on a Mac you'll be familiar with the Apple TV interface. The slick graphics zoom in and out as you press up and down on the remote. While most consumer electronic interfaces leave a lot to be desired Apple TV delivers the goods. The interface is silky smooth and never stutters. The fit and finish is pure Apple quality.

So how do you get content for your Apple TV? Ideally you buy it through the iTunes store. In Australia iTunes has the largest selection of music and podcasts but try to buy a TV show or movie and you'll be disappointed. Apple Australia hasn’t officially announced availability of either yet, but if the latest version of iTunes is any indicator it is coming soon.

In the meantime there are other ways of getting video content on to your Apple TV. You'll need to arm yourself with a piece of software called Visual Hub that lets you convert any video on your computer (including DivX files) to the correct 'Apple TV' format. Once you've made the conversion syncing video content is a cinch. Simply drag it in to the iTunes window and Apple TV takes care of the rest.

It's exciting to see a new family of product from Apple and Apple TV makes a lot of sense for those that have invested in some part of the iTunes ecosystem. Like other Apple products the thing you notice most about Apple TV is that it just works. There are other devices on the market that let you transfer content from your computer to your TV but they are complicated and more expensive (and they don’t work with iTunes). While Apple TV is a first generation product watch its maturation carefully. When iPod was launched critics damned it for being too expensive and basic. Yet 6 years later Apple has sold over 90 million of the players. Look for similar success from Apple TV.

Remote Control Computer

Did you know you can access your home computer from anywhere in the world? All you need is a little piece of software from Log Me In. Once installed, LogMeIn lets you literally take control of your computer from any PC anywhere around the world. All you need to do is make sure your home computer is connected to the Internet.

Installing and setting up LogMeIn is easy. Simple go to the website, register and then download the software. Once installed you'll need to enter your user name and password in the software so it knows who you are. When you log back in to Logmein.com you'll need to click 'Add Computer' and tell LogMeIn to look for your computer. Now you are set to remotely control your computer from anywhere.

LogMeIn works on Macs and PCs and you can control both from either platform. LogMeIn also offers 'premium' products that let you do more than just control your machine, including file sharing, guest invite and remote printing. The premium version costs $70 per PC per year with volume discounts available.

LogMeIn's Mac software is still in Beta so can be a bit buggy. If you need a more robust solution consider Apple's Remote Desktop 3. ARD lets you observe, control and manage the Macs and PCs on your network.

Setting up ARD is equally easy, in fact the software is built-in to most Macs, while the standard VNC software can be installed on all other platforms. Once you launch ARD all the computers that can be controlled appear on your network. To observe any machine just double click on the computer name. ARD can also be used to update software remotely and can generate software and hardware reports for each machine you monitor.