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Archive for July, 2009

Organisation with Chandler

July 30, 2009 2 comments

I love organising things. Anything that involves putting bits of paper in different trays according to content or importance; putting work into folders; or planning my day, is bound to cause me to get slightly heady with excitement at the prospect. You may have already read about my love affair with Soshiku when it comes to organising educational work, but I’ve stumbled upon a piece of software which aims to organise my entire life, rather than just my work. I’ve been putting the smashing application through its paces to see if it’ll become part of my regular rotation of organisation. It goes by the name of Chandler. “Could it be any more organised?”

The Dashboard page shows all current task in a convenient list.

The Dashboard page shows all current task in a convenient list.

First impressions weren’t too good. It’s written in a programming language called Python, which, whilst being extendible and apparently smashing for cross-platform software, seems to be a bit clunky and slow loading. I have to wait for what feels like too long for an out of place looking ‘loading’ splash window to finish shoving a bar across itself to show me how close it is to finished shuffling about. This is a bit of a let down since you’re likely to want your to-do list to pop up quickly so you can view and edit it in a short amount of time.

Putting this aside, the first thing which stood out was the ability to separate tasks and events into categories. I therefore set about creating one for each school subject, followed by a few others such as ‘Wedding’  and a category called ‘Revnews’. Within these categories tasks you can create tasks by typing a name for it in the text box at the top of the window, and then pressing enter. You can then edit and add extra details about the task and set when it must be completed by. This seemed a bit limited since I would like to be able to set specific dates, or even times, for when something must be completed by. It is possible to create calendar events which specify an end time, but this isn’t implemented for tasks. Therefore there’s no page which sorts your tasks in the order that they need to be completed, but simply shows them by whether you’ve selected – ‘now’, ‘later’, or ‘done’ for each task. This also needs to be manually updated by clicking the ‘Clean up’ button which will sort the tasks into the aforementioned completion categories; it won’t do it automagically when you change a task’s status, another example of how the software felt a bit clunky at times.

I was, however, happy with the different categories for the tasks. Whilst I would place each task in its relevant category, I am also able to see all currently outstanding tasks on the ‘Dashboard’ page, which sorts them by their completion categories. This is good for organising a whole day (or longer) by seeing all tasks which need to be completed that day, rather than just those in one category. If particularly important tasks aren’t standing out enough, you can put a star by them, and then choose the option to show only the starred items. This might be helpful for prioritising a multitude of tasks.

Chandler also has email functions which allow you to send notes or events to others – they can either view them in Chandler if they have it or add it to other calendar applications. I haven’t tested this feature because I have no intention of emailing my to-do list to other people, but at least the feature is there, ready and waiting to be set up in case you can make use of it.

Despite the negatives it’s still a very good bit of software. I think it’s going to become my standard organiser, though Soshiku still has a much simpler interface and is generally better for the purpose of organising work for school, so I’m likely to stick with Soshiku as my primary organiser for school work. You can download Chandler from www.chandlerproject.org.

Online gaming with Crowns of Power

July 28, 2009 1 comment

I used to be a fairly fervent World of Warcraft player. This obsession ended when I realised how much money (about £100 per year) I was wasting on a game which wasn’t enjoyable for me anymore. However, this enlightenment didn’t mean that I suddenly lost my nerdy streak and wanted to give up on MMORPG games forever. For this reason, I went on an quest to find a free or cheap replacement. After trying a few free options and trials of a couple of paid ones, I gave it up, assuming that I could never find an alternative to satiate my former love for Warcraft. However, today I may have found a game that can fill the void in my soul – Crowns of Power.

Crowns of Power Screenshot New

The graphics, whilst not amazing, are very good, especially for a free game.

Whilst I think it’s a rather smashing game, my first impression was one of melancholy. There is very little choice when it comes to character customisation – you can only play as a human who is either male or female, and your only choice when it comes to customisation is the hairstyle. You can’t choose hair colour, facial hair, or face characteristics as you can in just about every other MMORPG under the sun. This is a shame as you end up with most characters looking very similar. I, like most players, like to have more control over my characters. A slightly miffing fact is that you can pay real money to further customise your character. Money can also be used to purchase other upgrades to your character; seems slightly unfair, but it’s understandable that the game needs a source of revenue.

Despite this, I was impressed with the class customisation – or lack of. Bear with me on this. In most MMORPGs you’ll need to choose a specific duty for your character – warrior, preist, mage, etc. However, Crowns of Power differentiates itself in this aspect in that you don’t need to choose a specific duty for your character. You do, however, choose a spell path. You can then use the spells which you can buy and inscribe into your spellbook as you level up to complement your more traditional combat with a weapon.

Another thing which miffed me whilst I was playing is the lack of maps for each zone. Being used to the cotton-clad World of Warcraft, I expect a mini-map which shows my surrounding area, coupled with a large map which shows the whole world, with new areas appearing as I discover them. This lack of maps left me a little bit confused. I’ve an awful sense of direction in real life, so it’s even worse when I’m trying to navigate around pixels in the shape of hills and trees. Therefore, wandering around and looking a bit confused became one of my character’s favourite hobbies.

The graphics aren’t awful, but they won’t blow you away either. Considering the game has a very small development team, they do a fantastic job of making things look good. You can alter the video settings – such as increasing the resolution and level of detail to make the game look better. Another setting I instantly changed was ticking the ‘full-screen’ box; I like my games to splodge the entire screen rather than live in little windows, since I don’t plan on multitasking whilst saving the virtual world from bears, undead, and any other evils which come my way.

Despite my criticisms, it’s still a very fun game to play. It’s currently managing to provide a good alternative to the Warcraft which I once loved. The download was fairly fast considering the large file sizes that are associated with games, so even if you don’t like it, a catastrophe will not ensue. It’s also still in active devopment, with features and other such jazz being added fairly often. You can download it to give it a try at www.crownsofpower.com.

Photo fun

July 26, 2009 2 comments

Fiddling with photos is fun, isn’t it? Whether you’re an advanced Photoshopper or a casual photo snapper, it’s always nice to be able to have a bit of fun with your masterpieces. I won’t be talking about smashing free photo manipulation software in this article – that may be saved for the future – but I will be pointing out a couple of fun websites which let you style your photos in a more exciting manner by allowing you to turn a dull mugshot or landscape into something far more exciting. These  selected online photo tools come in the form of BeFunky, PhotoFunia, and Dumpr.

BeFunky allows you to apply a number of photo effects, in addition to adding items - such as this Halloween Mask

BeFunky allows you to apply a number of photo effects, in addition to adding items - such as this Halloween Mask and red lips.

Let’s begin with the first of these strangely named beasts – BeFunky. This is my personal favourite of the three, and it differs a bit from the other two. This site is more geared towards adding effects to photos of people, especially faces. There is a small selection of techniques which can applied – such as Warhol, charcoal, and patriotic. After choosing an effect there are also a bit of additional fine-tuning which can be done to the effect. There are sub-options within the main option. For instance, choosing ‘Patriotic’ will change your photo to a typical red and blue style, reminiscent of stereotypical presidential candidate posters. However, this base effect can also be changed by selecting other options within that category, one of which will add a star effect to the photo. Another rather smashing feature of the website is the ability to add extras to photos – anything from hats to red lips are available for your customising pleasure. After completing your masterpiece you can download it your PC for keeping, or send it to a friend so she can marvel at your handiwork. A feature I especially like about this site is that it’s incredibly easy to change the effect you’ve applied without losing the other additions you’ve made to the photo. Pop along to www.befunky.com/photoApps.php to begin your epic quest to change a photo.

Photofunia has a wide variety of backdrops for your photos

Photofunia has a wide variety of backdrops for your photos

The second website is PhotoFunia. This one is more centred upon putting a face on landmarks or objects. For instance, you could have your mug carved into Mount Rushmore or printed on a dollar bill. Some of the effects come out better than others – a lot of it seems to be dependant upon the size of the photo; if it’s too small you might have trouble making it look right on some of the designs. However, when they do look right, they’re very good. I was especially impressed with how the dollar came out with Bill Gates’ head on it; it looked very realistic. You can test these out at www.photofunia.com.

Bill Gates has conquered the final frontier - the Rubik's Cube

Bill Gates has conquered the final frontier - the Rubik's Cube

Finally, we come to Dumpr, the most strangely named of all the strangely named websites. This one is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s some rather smashing photo effects – the Rubik’s cube being my favourite – which will make your images look rather dandy. There are also some more dull ones, which won’t really make them look very interesting at all – such as Lomo, which seems to some sort of faded film effect. Some of them are very clever though, such as the one which adds someone taking a photo of your photo as if they are a famous person (it makes more sense if you see it yourself.) You can test these at www.dumpr.net.

Run other operating systems with VirtualBox

As promised in the Windows 7 review, I’ve penned (or more accurately, typed) a review of Sun VirtualBox. This software allows you to install multiple OSes without overwriting or risking your current setup. Being the cautious fellow that I am, this prospect sounded appealing since I wasn’t willing to install it in a separate partition for fear of causing my files to implode. Therefore, Sun VirtualBox sounded like a smashing way to test out Windows 7.

Running Windows 7 on an XP host

Running Windows 7 on an XP host

After downloading and installing, you’re greeted with a window which allows you to add new operating systems. Clicking ‘New’ launches the wizard which guides you through adding one. You’ll need to fill out such things as name and type of operating system (eg, Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux, etc.) In addition, you’ll need to select how much RAM and video memory to devote to the virtual machine. I’d suggest not going past half, or you might end up with your host OS getting a bit upset. In addition, you will need to set up a virtual hard disk to store the operating system on; this will put by a defined amount of storage space for the virtual machine to use. Once you’ve walked through all the steps, you’ll probably want to check the settings of the OS before you run it. Click the newly listed item and then click ‘Settings’ to check everything is dandy. If you weren’t asked to do it during the setup process you’ll need to tell the software where to find the OS file. This is a .iso file which contains the stuff needed to run your OS. Choose ‘CD/DVD-ROM’ in the settings, and tell VirtualBox where to find the iso file. This will either be a downloaded file, or a disk. You can find much more in-depth help through the help menu within VirtualBox itself.

The first time you start your virtual OS, you’ll probably notice that the size is very small, and your devices might not work quite right; this could include audio or video cards not functioning correctly, and it’s also very likely that your Internet connection won’t work in the virtual machine yet. These mild catastrophes because the drivers for your PC haven’t been installed. Luckily, VirtualBox will do this automatically for you if you click on the ‘Devices’ menu, followed by ‘Install Guest Additions’. This will then mount a virtual CD which can then be run in the usual way in the guest OS which installs drivers to make things work properly. After a restart, everything should work smashingly; unless you’re using Linux, where getting your devices to work might be a little bit more a struggle.

Naff instructions aside, the software itself is rather smashing. You have the choice of running the machine in a few different ways. The first being in its own window like any other programme. This allows you to move it around, resize, or maximise it. The second is running it in full-screen mode, which gives the illusion of being the only running OS on your system. Finally, you can run it in in ‘Seamless mode’, which allows you to use both simultaneously – for instance it will place both taskbars at the bottom and you’ll be able to work with applications from both OSes on one desktop.

Performance seems pretty good, but this is primarily dependant upon the specification of your computer. You can alter the settings later until you achieve the right balance – such actions as upping the RAM allowed or enabling 3D acceleration show improvements when using the virtual OS. You can download the software from www.virtualbox.org.

Watch media files with VLC

Whilst Windows Media Player suffices for most video files, it’ll refuse to play some without installing numerous codecs. These codecs can cause slowdown, and some video types don’t have codecs that work with Media Player. Therefore, you’re going to need an alternative if you want to play some odd video files. VLC Media Player allows you to this, and best of all, free of charge.

Playing a .vob file in VLC

Playing a .vob file in VLC

When running the software you’ll be greeted  by a simple interface. VLC lacks the media library and such features that Media Player sports, but it seems to be intended for a slightly different purpose. Media is opened from the ‘Media’ menu, where you can then browse through your folders to find the file, folder, or disk that you want to play. You can even open media streams from a local network through the same menu.

The quality of the playback seemed to be pretty good; possibly better than Windows Media Player’s offering, but with no obvious differences between them. However, it’s difficult to judge since Media Player won’t play most of the files which VLC will, so I can’t compare. The interface, whilst not being the most attractive offering, is feature-rich and customisable if you’re willing to explore the menus and options within. I was very impressed with the various choices which are available; everything from audio output to network proxies can be set. This plethora of options lets you customise just about every detail of the software, allowing you to make it work exactly the way you want it to.

If you think of yourself as being one of those artsy types, you might not be impressed that VLC doesn’t, visually speaking, look quite right when compared to most of your other software. Luckily, like-minded people have come to the rescue by creating skins which can be downloaded from the VLC website. These can be downloaded and applied to your player to change the way it looks. You might want to consider the Media Player theme, which makes it look the same as Windows Media Player – the software you’re probably used to grappling with. Or, if you’re a fan of Apple’s brushed aluminium style, you might wish to opt for an iTunes or Quicktime lookalike. However, all these themes seem to take it upon themselves to hide the menus away, making them difficult to access, and unless I’m missing something, making some of them impossible to access until you revert to the default theme. This is fine if you just want to open files, but I like to have easy access to the menus at whim.

VLC is a smashing little bit of software for playing obscure video and audio files. It’s also very small in size and pretty lightweight, so it won’t be a drain on your hard-drive or system resources. You can download it from www.videolan.org.

Avoid spam with 10 Minute Mail

We all get spam. Even the careful among us who treat their email address to careful primping and grooming and rarely giving it out to websites, are still likely to encounter helpful Nigerians who wish to give us some of one of their client’s money. Or perhaps carefully crafted works of literature which flog Viagra or endow us with sex tips: (“Love Maaking Tips That Will Blow the Cobwebs From nAy Relationship That’s Struggling sexually”.) As useful as these adverts are, you may, for some strange reason, wish to keep your inbox for only real emails. Heaven forbid you’d want to do such a thing. 10 Minute Mail provides a solution to all that wonderful spam by giving you temporary email address which you can use for registration or when it’s demanded of you by a source you’re not quite sure about.

A 10 Minute Mail inbox

A 10 Minute Mail inbox

As the name of the service implies, it gives you an email address that lasts for 10 minutes. These are a randomly generated series of letters and digits, such as: b187136@tyldd.com. Below the box which gives you your email address is a simple interface for seeing your incoming emails. You’ll need to refresh the page to have it updated. Much like a standard email client or webmail provider, incoming emails are listed and you can click an email’s subject line to view the text in its entirety. You won’t be able to send emails from it, but that’s not really the point of the service. Its intention is to allow you to use an email address that you don’t care about in order to register for a service or download a piece of software. This saves you giving out your real email address, and therefore prevents you receiving any spam from them or other parties who they might pass it on to.

10 minutes might not be long enough to get your stuff done. Therefore you’ll be able to extend the time if it runs out. You can extend the life of your mayfly-like address in ten minute intervals each time. I’m not sure how many times you can extend it, but you should be able to do it enough times to easily finish the string of registration or download emails you’re sorting out, which usually doesn’t take long at all. If it does run out or you don’t renew it in time, you can always get a new one to use for any other registration or downloads.

If you need to save any of the information, you’ll have to copy and paste it into a document or save the webpage, since your generated email address will implode after the given amount of time and you won’t be able to access the emails after the implosion has taken place. You can grab your temporary email address from www.10minutemail.com

Download old versions of software with OldApps and OldVersion

July 12, 2009 1 comment

Software companies always seem to be updating their programs with new releases. New features and security improvements are usually added, which is of course spiffing. However, you may have downloaded a new version of software and found it bloated, slow, or simply broken. Therefore it’s always nice to be able to download older software to use instead. Whether you pine for the rustic days of iTunes 4, or you’re in need of an old version of Firefox for testing purposes, you’ll be covered at oldversion.com and oldapps.com.

Various downloads are available from the two sites.

Various downloads are available from the two sites.

Both sites contain large directories of different types of software, ranging from web browsers to graphics software. Each category contains various software, all with a number of different versions. You can choose one of these to download and install. If you already have a newer version of the software installed, you’ll probably need to uninstall that first, or it will likely detect it and refuse to install.

Both websites contain forums where you can request software which isn’t currently in the archives, or discuss with like-minded people the ancient software which you’re using. You can also receive support for things that might have gone wrong with your software or PC.

Whilst older versions of software can bring back memories of simpler times and be useful, you should exercise caution when choosing to use dated versions; there are likely to be security holes which haven’t been filled and will therefore potentially put you at risk from attacks. However, if you’re convinced that newfangled software isn’t for you, older versions will go well with your pennyfarthing. Since newer isn’t always better, you can get yourself over to www.oldversion.com and www.oldapps.com to sample the delights of software from years past.