(This article was published in the September, 2008 issue of Family Motor Coach Magazine. It is repeated here (with permission) complete with links to the programs mentioned.)
Check out these downloads and Web sites that cost nothing but have big value.
The World Wide Web originally was designed as a tool for the free exchange of information. In fact, in the early days if you were found abusing this wonderful communication system for your own personal gain, you would be “flamed” — an online equivalent of being stoned or pilloried — by the other users. The Web has since developed into a colossal marketplace of commerce and personal gain, but free stuff is still available. Unfortunately, some of the free material offered online is a scam, a way to get you to pay for something else, or a means to deliver payloads of viruses or spyware to your computer. So you need to be informed and stay alert to these types of dangerous offers. Still, there is plenty of useful and beneficial information available, and the free stuff described below is nothing short of amazing. Some of the best software I’ve ever used is included!
Picasa For Managing Digital Photos
RVers take a lot of digital photos, and it can be very confusing to decide what software to use to manage them. There’s the program that came with the camera to transfer photos to the computer; Windows for organizing, printing, and e-mailing them; Photoshop Elements or IrfanView for editing them; and dozens of Web sites for publishing them. Then you also need CD-burning software to make backups or copies to give friends.
The first thing that’s so great about Picasa, available free from Google, is that it does all of the above. You only need to learn the one program. The second thing is that it’s quick and easy. One click and you can e-mail one or more photos — and it takes care of resizing them on the fly. One click prints your photos. And it lets you preview exactly how the pictures are going to fit on the paper before you waste all that ink. One click and you can burn a CD with a slideshow to give to your friends. One more click and you have a Web site for your photos; it’s called a Web Album.
Probably the feature that we love most about Picasa is that it makes it so fast and simple to improve the quality of images. I receive a lot of compliments about the photos on our blog (http://www.geeksontour.blogspot.com). I know it’s because Picasa helps me improve every picture. And it does it without changing my original image. I don’t have to make a copy before I start editing, as with other programs.
I’ve been teaching computer software classes and seminars since 1983, during which time I’ve covered probably a hundred different programs, and I can confidently say that Picasa is the most useful software I’ve ever known. I love the things it does, but I think it’s even better for what it doesn’t do. Because it doesn’t do serious editing (such as erasing a power line from the sky), Google has kept it lean and mean. It does 90 percent of what we need on a day-to-day basis and it does it quickly, easily, and for free. For the other 10 percent you still need Photoshop Elements, Fireworks (the software I use), or some other photo editor.
Picasa is for the Windows platform only, at http://www.picasa.google.com. Sorry, Mac users, but you have iPhoto, which is very similar.
Movies From Photos With Photo Story 3
Picasa will impress your friends with a simple slideshow, but put your photos into a movie and it will knock their socks off. Photo Story 3, a free program from Microsoft, makes it so easy. Just follow the wizard, which guides you through all the steps necessary to create an impressive photo presentation. Import and arrange the photos you want to show, and then click the “Next” button. Add titles, narration, music, and movement. It is so simple. And the results rival productions that took thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment only 20 years ago.
Photo Story 3 can be downloaded for free from Microsoft’s Web site. This is also Windows-only software.
Every Traveler Needs A Blog
Ever wished you could write travel articles for a magazine? Now you can write the whole magazine. It’s called a blog and it’s a special kind of Web site that anyone can create with the help of the free Blogger.com Web-based software from Google. As long as you have a computer, an Internet connection, and something to say, you can have a Web site. The word blog comes from Weblog, meaning a log or diary on the Web. So, any day you feel compelled to write, you can log on to your Blogger.com account and have at it. You also can upload photos, videos, and links to other Web sites.
Blogger keeps everything organized. It date-stamps your entries and publishes them in reverse order so the most recent is always on top. You can write for years this way and Blogger will keep your archives in order as well. Want to see what you were doing in December 2005? Just look it up in the blog. I’ve been keeping our blog since May 2003. You can even search our blog with a convenient search box provided at the top. Want to see the pictures we took at Devil’s Tower or the video of kayaking at La Jolla? Just go to the blog (http://www.geeksontour.blogspot.com) and search. It’s such a great thing for fickle memories.
Since Blogger is Web-based, it doesn’t matter what kind of computer you’re using, so this one can be used on Mac systems as well.
Virus And Spyware Scanners
Unfortunately, it is a fact of computer life that dangers lurk on the Internet. Your computer needs to be protected with antivirus and antispyware programs. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of choices. Some cost a lot, some cost a little, some are free, and some are scams. It is a common consensus among geeks that the Anti-Virus Free software from AVG Technologies (formerly Grisoft) is one of the very best programs available.
You should use only one antivirus program. But in the antispyware category, you can install more than one. There is so much spyware out there that no one program catches everything. Two good programs that also happen to be free are Spybot Search & Destroy by Safer-networking.org and Ad-Aware by Lavasoftusa.com. But our favorite is Defender by Microsoft, primarily because it does everything automatically on a schedule. You install it and forget it. The other two need to be manually run. These are all Windows programs.
Maps And Globes
This category has a ton of offerings. MapQuest, Maps.Live.com, and Yahoo! Maps are all free offerings. They are also all Web-based, so they will operate on Macintosh as well as Windows systems. We have the most experience with Google Maps and Google Earth.
If there’s anything that makes a traveler drool, it’s a good map. If this describes you, get out the bib before you look at these programs. These are so much more than maps. Sure, you can get directions from Google Maps (maps.google.com), but you also can create your own custom map, complete with a line for your route and markers for your various stops (sample: Geeks on Tour 2008 Travels). When a viewer clicks on a marker, they can see your photos of the place, anything you have to say about it, and links to other Web sites. This program does not require a download.
Did you ever dream of having a magic globe? Want to point to a place on the globe and get answers to questions about that location? That’s Google Earth (earth.google.com). You can explore photos and information about any spot on the planet that will keep you occupied for hours. It’s not a map. It’s a globe-based information system that you download to your computer. Photos, Web sites, news feeds, encyclopedia entries, videos, and more are all referenced by latitude and longitude, available just by clicking or searching. After watching one of our Google Earth seminars, I remember hearing one woman exclaim, “My poor husband is going to starve!” She apparently felt there would be no more time for cooking once she got started on Google Earth.
The programs mentioned above are just some of the more visible choices. We teach seminars on all of them, but there are many more. If you need a spreadsheet to keep track of expenses but don’t want to shell out the cash for Excel, you can use Google Docs online for free, or you can download the complete productivity suite of OpenOffice, also for free. Yes, you read right — a complete office suite that allows users to work on documents, spreadsheets, databases, presentations, and illustrations. OpenOffice can open and save Microsoft Office files. It is now available for Macintosh as well as Windows and Linux.
Need a free e-mail account? Choose from Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and more. How about an online calendar? Google Calendar can be used by you individually, or you can share it with a team. Want a free Web site? Geocities, Google Pages, Yahoo!, and so many more are available. Just use Google to search for “free Web site hosts.”
A good way to get any of these programs is by visiting Download.com, a service of CNET. I have long trusted CNET as a kind of Consumer Reports for the computer world. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on Download.com, you probably don’t want it.
Oh, I can’t go on without mentioning the free investing tools available online. Yahoo! Finance and MSN’s Money Central are goldmines for stock charts, company research, and analysis. These are two I use, and I’m sure there are many, many more.
Why Is It Free?
It’s important for me to understand why something is free; otherwise, I don’t trust it. I think there are three reasons why software is available to the public at no cost.
First, companies use it as a “presale” or free sample in hopes that people will like it and buy a more full-featured version later. Second, they use it to sell advertising. The more page-views a Web site receives, the more a sponsor will pay for their ads to be placed on that page. Finally, it is used to build a community of loyal customers. The Web today is all about community. The larger your community, the more you can be supported by just a few chargeable items.
Some software has no good reason to be free and may end up costing you in the long run. Some software is nothing more than a scam to gain access to your computer. After you download it you will notice all sorts of pop-ups on your computer; it will become infected with a virus; or you may find that your computer has been turned into a zombie that does only the bidding of the company you downloaded the product from. Remember, get your downloads from Download.com or from another site that has been recommended by someone you trust. Be careful and stay informed, but don’t be paralyzed. Go ahead; use the good stuff. Haven’t you heard? The best things in life are free!Chris Guld is president and Web master for GeeksOnTour.com. She and her husband, Jim, live full-time in their motorhome and tour the country conducting seminars at RV parks, conventions, and rallies, including FMCA events. They recently presented a number of topics at FMCA’s 80th International Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tutorial videos are available on http://www.geeksontour.com.