Tuesday, July 27, 2010

MakeUseOf.com: “Cool Websites and Tools [July 26th]” plus 9 more

MakeUseOf.com: “Cool Websites and Tools [July 26th]” plus 9 more

Link to MakeUseOf.com

Cool Websites and Tools [July 26th]

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 08:31 PM PDT

Check out some of the latest MakeUseOf discoveries. All listed websites are FREE (or come with a decent free account option). No trials or buy-to-use craplets. For more cool websites and web app reviews subscribe to MakeUseOf Directory.

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Notepad.cc – When it comes to simplicity, nothing beats good old Notepad. However, the lack of portability and sharing features in the Windows based Notepad often make people look for alternatives. A great such alternative is Notepad.cc, a minimalist cloud based text editor that gives you a distraction-free writing experience. Read more: NotePad.cc: A Simple Cloud Based NotePad Alternative.


HowSecureIsMyPassword – Today hackers and malware have considerably advanced and can take down your strong defenses. If you have ever wondered about the strength of any one of your passwords, then HowSecureIsMyPassword has been made precisely for you. Read more: HowSecureIsMyPassword: Password Strength Checker.



MyeCoverMaker – eCovers have widespread applications. You could use one for an application you created, your website's introduction page, or an eBook which you've written. While creating an eCover, don't hire a professional designer. Instead of paying big bucks to him, consult My eCover Maker first. Read more: MyeCoverMaker: 3D eCover Creator Software Online.



Browize – Developers often wonder how their site will look on their visitor's screen resolutions. To know this, they have to test different resolution sizes to put themselves in their site visitor's shoes. But thanks to Browize, they will no longer have to shift back and forth from multiple screen settings. Read more: Browize: Easily Test Different Resolution Sizes Online.



FuelMileage – as the name indicates, lets vehicle owners track fuel mileage and then help them improve it by suggesting various methods. You can register on their site and then add your vehicle details. Multiple vehicles can be added to the dashboard. Read more: FuelMileage.com: Easily Track Fuel Mileage.


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These are just half of the websites that we discovered in the last couple of days. If you want us to send you daily round-ups of all cool websites we come across, leave your email here. Or follow us via RSS feed.

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6 Easy Tips For Taking Photos That Don’t Require Photoshop Fixes

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 06:31 PM PDT

how to take good photosPhotoshop is a wonderful tool. Expensive, but wonderful. With it you can smooth out Gran's chin, hide your ex or bring shame upon a local politician. Photoshop's forte however is fixing photos.

As a generation of photographers, we've accepted Photoshop as an “always there” resource for salvaging shaky shots but to really improve as a photographer, it's important to look at mistakes and learn how to take good photos.

Try and cut down on your Photoshop habit with these Adobe-busting tips on what to look out for.

Read Your Histogram

The histogram is a graph-like visual representation of light within an image, and an important aspect of digital photography to master. Digital SLRs, bridge cameras and some compacts will offer a histogram view after an image has been taken. A nicely balanced histogram will look something like this:

how to take good photos

All the colours within the image are correctly exposed, there is no clipping (loss of detail) and the histogram resembles a centralised curve. If I had overexposed the same image then the histogram would read:

taking good photos

Much of the recorded data has been blown out of exposure and now appears on the right (light side) of the histogram. Underexposed images follow the opposite pattern:

taking good photos

Reading your histogram in the field will give you a much better idea of whether your exposure is correctly balanced, and whether you have lost any detail. Unfortunately reviewing your images on the small LCD just isn't enough – especially in bright conditions.

Use Filters

There are an array of filters that come in all shapes and sizes to help your camera capture that perfect image. A simple UV filter will not only protect the lens, but will help cut through hazy conditions for shots with greater clarity.

Graduated neutral density filters are perfect for landscapes, and are used to reduce the brightness of the sky within the photo. This provides balanced exposures, with a high range of detail that Photoshop's Graduated Filter tool can struggle with (especially if the sky is badly overexposed). For deep blue skies and reflection-free waterways then a circular polarising filter is a must.

Watch The Horizon

Don't forget to check that horizon before pressing the shutter. A slightly wobbly horizon can ruin a good shot, and if you're not prepared to mess about in Photoshop then it's probably worth investing in a tripod. Many come with spirit levels built into the head to indicate whether the camera support is straight or not, allowing you to tweak and fiddle to your heart's content before hitting the shutter.

taking good photos

Delaying the exposure with the camera's timer (or using a remote trigger) will ensure there's no wobble when the shutter opens, giving you a blur-free shot.

Use A Custom White Balance

Using a piece of white or grey card it is possible to take a custom white balance, meaning your whites will be white for as long as you're shooting in those conditions. This is key to nailing skin tones first time, a fine-tuning process that can be very time consuming if you're using Photoshop.

how to take the best pictures

If your camera supports it, then you'll need to consult the manual to find out exactly how to do this. Generally, the process involves positioning your chosen card beneath a well-lit area, selecting a custom white balance and photographing the card. The camera will use your sample as a base for all other shades.

Preventing Red-Eye

how to take good photosRed-eye is the bane of many photos, and despite being a quick fix is still a problem many of us would rather avoid altogether.

When shooting with a flash, first ask yourself if you really need it. Many compact cameras default to an "auto" mode which is all-too-happy to fill the room with strobes, so try turning it off. If the room is fairly light or you are outside then it may be worth asking your subject to remain still and practicing your steadiest hand.

Digital SLR users with bounce flashes should use them to their full potential and bounce light onto their subject, which will deliver a softer overall exposure as well as reducing the likelihood of red-eye.

If all else fails, there’s a great online alternative to Photoshop for fixing red eye.

Know Your Lenses

I've got a couple of zoom lenses I find will always provide a pesky black ring around the edges of my photos at their widest angles, known as a vignette. Taking note of what your equipment can realistically achieve will reduce your processing time and avoid disappointment. So if you discover that trusty old 18-55mm vignettes at its widest point (as mine does), stop short of the mark.

Don't forget having filters and lens hoods on your glass may cause this to happen more frequently, so removing these extras will reduce your need for Photoshop's vignette fixer.


Don’t be content with the few shots you’ve already got, if you spot something worth the effort then keep that trigger finger itchy. It sounds like an obvious point to make, but digital photography (once you’ve bought your camera) is essentially free. Therefore use every byte on your memory card, you’ll be amazed how sometimes you get about 10 good shots from the 200 on your card.

Remember Photoshop isn’t a sin, it’s just time consuming. Hopefully by paying a little more attention to the very basics of how to take good photos you will be able to spend more time on the web reading articles like these and less time cursing the straighten tool for crashing Camera Raw yet again.

Be sure to check out our downloadable ultimate guide to Photoshop if you’ve not already, it’s all you need to become a Photoshop guru. Also, take a look at our Essential Guide to Digital Photography for some great photography tips. And of course, any other tips you can offer us in the comments section below would be greatly appreciated.

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6 Quick Fixes To Common Cell Phone Camera Problems

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 04:30 PM PDT

common cell phone problemsBack in May, MakeUseOf published 10 Tips to Take Better Digital Pictures With Your Phone's Camera.

In this article, I will address some particular common cell phone problems that users run into when taking photos with a cell phone camera; and we all know, there are plenty.

The problems addressed in these article will apply to most any cell phone camera, though I use the iPhone 3G camera for illustration.

Blurry Images

The easiest and probably most common cell phone problem with cell phone photos is they end up blurry. This occurs for a couple of reasons.

  • Cell phone cameras need to be properly held. You always want to hold the camera steady with both hands. The tricky part is clicking the shutter button after holding and composing a shot. So one thing to remember is that typically the shutter of the camera does not activate until the button is released. That means you can first push and hold down the button, frame your shot, and then release the button to release the shutter. Avoid trying to frame the shot while you push down the button.

    how to fix cell phone camera

    Also try to rest part of your phone on one of your fingers or in the palm of your hand to get a firm grip.

  • You might also try bracing your camera against a wall or on a table to help you steady a shot. Even setting up a tripod for your cell phone camera is a useful idea for portrait and group shots.
  • The less ambient light you’re shooting in, the more likely you’re going to get blurry photos. Because you can’t increase the shutter speed or open the aperture wider on a cell phone camera, you need to shoot in the brightest area possible, or use a flash if your camera has one.
  • If the shot is not blurry but still not as sharp as it needs to be, you can try using an image editor to sharpen the images — but this is less than ideal.

Shooting Moving Subjects

Because cell phone cameras have slow shutter speeds, it's nearly impossible to capture moving subjects. To address this problem, you might try using an iPhone camera application that delivers multiple shots (or what is called burst mode) after the shutter is pressed. Check out this article for a couple of great iPhone photography apps: The Best Free Alternatives To Top Commercial iPhone Photography Apps

Furthermore, to shoot moving subjects like children you definitely want to shoot in the brightest possible light to compensate for the slower shutter speed. The photo below is an example of the type of moving subjects that are nearly impossible to freeze capture using a cell phone camera.

common cell phone problems

Photos Lack Contrast

As with most digital photography, photos typically lack good contrast especially when shot in low light settings. The best solution for this is using an image editor and processing photos after they are taken.

how to fix cell phone camera

Image editors such as the free iPhone app, Photoshop Mobile, have automatic brightness/contrast tools that can make the colors in your photos pop.

how to fix cell phone camera

Subject Looks Too Small

There’s an easy solution to this one. Shoot close. You need to zoom in with your feet, even if you camera has a digital zoom. Fill the frame with the subject of the image. This is something that you do no matter what you’re using. In an image editor, you can also crop your images to make the subjects closer; however, because cell phone cameras have lower resolution than many point-and-shoot cameras, cropping too much may result in increased pixilation, especially when photos are printed. So zoom with your feet, instead of the lens, to get the best close-up you can. Experiment with shooting from different angles to get a better shot.

Images Are Dark

The obvious problem with dark photos is that there was not enough light when you took the shot. If your camera does not have a flash and you’re shooting in a low light area without a flash, there’s really nothing you can do to address this problem except get more light on the subject. Indoor lights at night are typically not enough light for cell phone cameras. You will need a flash.

common cell phone problems


Also, watch for what is called backlighting. That is, when there’s more light in the back of the subject than there is facing the subject. So make sure the light is coming from behind you and is facing the subject.

In my experience, camera apps like the free and pro version of Camera Plus for the iPhone address some the problems described above. While cell phone cameras may never be a good replacement for point-and-shoot cameras, the portability of mobile cameras make learning how to use them more effectively worth the effort.

Let us know how you fix particular common cell phone camera problems. Have you found an application or two that is helpful for your camera photography?

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7 Browser Security Tests to Try Out and Prevent Exploit Attacks

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 02:30 PM PDT

browser securityTo draw a comparison, the internet is like the badlands of the Wild West. Full of opportunities but also a free-for-all, where you don't know when the next attack is going to come from. The browser is one of the most vulnerable soft spots.

The browser remains our main porthole for viewing the web. It's also the main entry point for malware, Trojans, and others browser attacks of their ilk. Then there are the plug-ins like Firefox add-ons, Active X controls etc. There are many ways for a malicious code to punch a hole through. One of the worst is the ‘Man-in-the-browser’ attack.

Let's all be paranoid by default and get ourselves a good anti-virus and firewall to begin with. Then, it's always a wise idea to keep our software and sundry apps patched with the latest security updates. But most of all it pays to keep eyes and ears open to what's happening around us. The web may be like the badlands, but it also has heroic sheriffs and town marshals. A few online browser security tools play that role.


browser security

ScanIt puts your browser through 19 vulnerability tests. You can run all tests in one go, choose individual tests, or test for bugs specific to the browser (e.g. Firefox has 10 tests). The browser scanning tool supports Firefox, IE, and Opera. The FAQ will give newbies an idea of why browser vulnerability tests are important and the dangers of browser bugs.

Qualys Browser Check

browser security test

Qualys uses a plugin to check for exploit weaknesses in the browser. Qualys checks Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer for potential vulnerabilities and security holes in your browser and its plugins. It flags insecure and out-of-date versions that put you at risk with color codes like red for 'Insecure', or 'Obsolete'.

For any item that is insecure or out of date, a Fix It button appears. Simply click the Fix It button to download the latest update to fix your security issue.


browser security test

BrowserScope to start off is a bit geeky. It is an Open Source online tool to compare your browser against the community and see how it fares on security, rich text implementation, network latency, web standards support, and JSKB tests. You don't need to sign-in or download any plugins to run the tests.

You can compare all browsers on your computer and see how each scores. The table with the test results can also be used to see which browser in general is doing well. It seems Chrome is leading Firefox at least on security.


browser security test

Panopticlick checks if your browser's configuration is unique. The more unique your browser, the less easily it could be tracked. Web tracking is a privacy risk for users. Online advertisers usually resort to web tracking to collect usage information. Panopticlick collects anonymous data and compares it against its own 5 million strong database to get the score.

Panopticlick is run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to look into the privacy risks posed by web tracking.


browser security settings

ShieldsUP is a firewall monitoring and port scanning online tool. With detailed port testing, the scanning tool displays info on five categories – File Sharing, Common Ports, All Service Ports, Messenger Spam, and Browser Headers. You can also test individual ports (or sets) among the 65535 and lookup specific port information.

The real value of ShieldsUP is in the comprehensive information it provides on firewall security and what you need to shore up your defenses. You don't need to register to run the tests.


browser security settings

PCFlank is a website that tries to ensure that we stay protected on all sides with its range of six tests (and a connection speed test). PCFlank has Stealth Test, Advanced Port Scanner Test, Trojans Test, Exploits Test, Browser Test (for privacy), and a Quick Test that covers the Advanced Port Scanner, Browser and Trojans Tests.

Firefox Official Plugin Check

browser security

Our Firefox browser may have more plugins or addons than fleas on a dog's back. But outdated plugins pose the danger of a bite that's worse than a flea. In 2008, we had the first news of a password stealing malware disguised as a plugin. Plugin exploit attacks can be because of poorly written extension code or deliberate design.

I am not sure if Firefox verifies the authenticity of each addon, but the least we can do as users is to keep the ones we have constantly updated. Firefox does it automatically, but the Plugin website is a help.

A browser is just one of the bits that make for a weak or strong computer system. From unsecure Wi-Fi to infected pen drives, a computer user has to monitor both the front and back doors. Fortunately the user has help in the form of more advanced browsers with anti-phishing features, pop-up blockers, private browsing, JavaScript disabling etc.

Some more help can come from our rich list of posts covering everything on computer security and safe browsing:

Know any other browser security test tools? Let us know in the comments.

Image credit: pasukaru76 (away for 2 weeks)

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Hot Tech Deals [July 26th]

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 01:30 PM PDT

If you’re in the market for a new computer, laptop, mobile phone, games and other accessories; don’t waste your time searching online. We’ve taken the liberty of locating the best tech deals and unifying them into a single post for your convenience.

For more fresh hot deals, visit our Hot Tech Deals page, which is constantly updated.

  1. Nintendo Wii Summer Bundle w/ Sports Resort + Wii MotionPlus + Nunchuk $179.99
  2. Toys R Us Buy One Get One 50% off All Video Games
  3. HOT! eBay Beach Camera Coupon Code 10% off All TVs, 15% off Orders $2000+
  4. Samsung 2494LW 24in Widescreen LCD Monitor (1920×1080) $164.99 via code N9B9WPF6CWFTW6
  5. Hand Held Items Coupon Code 20% off All Apple iPhone, iPad & iPod Touch Cases via code 20iphonecs
  6. Sony BRAVIA KDL-55EX500 55in LCD HDTV (REFURB, 1080p, 120Hz) $1253.99
  7. Sony BRAVIA KDL-46V5100 46 inch LCD HDTV (REFURB, 1080p, 120Hz) $799.99
  8. Dell Inspiron 580s Slim Intel Core i5-650 3.2GHz Desktop (4GB/1TB/Gefore G310) $629.99 via code ?8CN$RJ?W5TQ0C
  9. Gamestop Power Saver Sale – up to 50% off + Free Shipping on New & Used Games

Image credit: Modified from Svengraph’s icon set

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How To Get Paid iPhone Apps For Free

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 12:30 PM PDT

iphone apps freeWhen most apps in the iTunes store cost from $0.99 to $2.99, you don’t really think twice about purchasing a few apps every now and then. But when you actually watch the figures accumulate, you could be surprised to see just how much money you’re spending.

The list below includes a variety of completely legitimate ways to get your hands on some paid iPhone apps for free. None of these methods require that you jailbreak your phone – but some of them do require a little bit of patience. From websites that send you notifications when an app’s price has dropped, to websites which feature one free app a day, you’ll find a few tips and tricks on how to get all your favourite paid iPhone apps for free, without spending a cent.

Free App Alert

FreeAppAlert is a great website that you can visit on a daily basis, or better yet, receive a daily email listing all the newly free iPhone apps for that day. The email contains links to view the app on the FreeAppAlert website, or on iTunes. Each app listing is accompanied by the information you would read about the app on iTunes.

iphone apps free


If you’re on the go and would prefer a convenient way to keep up with price changes in the app store, AppMiner [iTunes link] is a great way to do just that. Browse apps by category, or by the top rated apps. In each category you can view either the apps that have dropped in price but are still paid, or by those that have become free.

free apps for iphone

Each app is accompanied by the description and screenshots from iTunes. From there you can launch the App Store on your iPhone to download the app by clicking Get it. You can also see what other people have said about the app by searching for it with the Buzz button, share the link via email, watch the app for price changes or see more apps by the same developer. One way in which AppMiner sets itself apart from other apps of this kind is the use of push notification. You can search the app store for any paid app you like and add it to your watch list. If any changes occur to the app’s price, you will be instantly notified.


AppShopper lists all the changes in prices in the app store, including those that have gone from paid to free iPhone apps. You can narrow your results by iPhone/iPad apps and by categories.

free apps for iphone

You can also choose to list only the popular apps. Signing up for a free account gives you the added benefit of listing which apps you’ve already bought, and those on your wishlist. This gives you an easy way to keep track of the apps you want to snag for free, and you will receive notifications when their prices drops.

best free iphone apps

You can also browse the Top 200 iPhone apps, which can be further narrowed down by category or by paid/free apps. Each App listing is accompanied by all the information that you would read about the app on iTunes. Other sites that deserves a mention offering a similar service are Apptism and 148Apps.


FuelMyApp offers a slightly different method for getting paid apps for free. The catch is that you have to actually buy the app first. You will then be given 72 hours to review it on iTunes, after which you will receive a refund through Paypal. In order for FuelMyApp to work, however, it needs several elements – the most important of which is developers who are willing to add their apps to the site. Currently, the selection is quite limited. The site also enters a slightly grey area where it may seem that the reviews are being bought, although in theory, whether you give a positive or negative review, you should be refunded.

best free iphone apps

OpenFeint & FreeAppADay

There are also several sites that offer one free app a day, so check back with them on a daily basis to get iPhone apps for free. OpenFeint offers one free game a day.

best free iphone apps

FreeAppADay also promotes one app a day, some of which are free for just that one day.

free iphone apps


Another way to get paid apps for free is to keep on the lookout for giveaways. We have all sorts of giveaways right here on MakeUseOf, which have included iPhone apps in the past.

AppSafari has ongoing daily giveaway competitions which you can enter by following their Twitter account and tweeting about the daily free app.

free iphone apps

They also have a list of promo codes for various apps, which is updated every few days.

free iphone apps

Another way to get promo codes is by leaving a comment on the latest giveaways at AppGiveaway, and get yourself in the running for some free apps.

iphone apps free

If you’re looking for some free iPhone apps that are just as good as their paid counterparts check out the following articles:

Do you have any tips on how to get paid iPhone apps for free?

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Check In & Become Mayor Of Your Favorite Venues With Foursquare

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 11:31 AM PDT

mayor of foursquareAre you constantly on the move? Do you like finding new, interesting places to eat or hang out at, or do you welcome the familiar? Regardless of your routine, Foursquare can enhance your traveling and make wandering around your own town fun. Do it enough, and you could become the Mayor of a Foursquare location.

Foursquare – much like Gowalla – is a geolocation app for your phone, which means it uses your geographical location to work. Foursquare can tell you what’s all around you and can let you share what you’re doing with your friends. If you’re a Twitter user, you’ve probably seen an increasing amount of Foursquare tweets in your stream as of late.

Geolocation apps are becoming a popular trend fast, especially as businesses learn how to use them for their benefit.  Being that Foursquare is one of the most popular geolocation games in town, allow me to share with you everything you can do with this app.

Where Do I Get Foursquare?

First thing’s first, let me briefly cover where you can get this app. You can use Foursquare on any phone. If you have an iPhone, or one with Android, Blackberry, or Palm you’re in luck, because Foursquare has supported apps for those phones.

Don’t have a fancy phone? That’s alright, because you can simply go to the mobile site to use it with your phone’s web browser. If you have a phone that doesn’t have a web browser, you can check in by sending messages to 50500 (only available in the US).

Lastly, anyone can check into Foursquare from the regular website. To make this easier, you can try the Firefox and Chrome extensions.

Checking In With Foursquare

mayor of foursquare

The main idea behind Foursquare is to check into the places you visit (e.g. restaurants, bars). You access the app on your phone (by one of the many ways I’ve discussed) and check into the venue you’re at (e.g. Cafe 210, State College).

foursquare badges

Upon checking in, you will receive points and (eventually) badges – like being the Mayor of a Foursquare location. These ‘accomplishments’ will be added to your profile for all to see. Add friends (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook) to compete against. Once you’ve added a friend, you can then see all of their check ins and total points accumulated.

foursquare badges

Because you can check in from anywhere and there are points involved, you may want to consult the rules. Also, you can find a list of all the available Foursquare badges here.

How To Become The Mayor of Foursquare

foursquare badges

If you’ve been to a place more than anyone else, Foursquare will crown you “The Mayor” of that Foursquare spot. According to their website, they calculate ‘mayorships’ based on the most days with check ins in the past 60 days (so 2 check ins to the same place in one day just count 1 time).

If someone else comes along who has checked in more days than you, they will steal the “Mayor” title from you. A lot of bars and cafes now offer “Mayor Specials”, which is usually something like a free coffee or appetizer, or a discount of some kind. Some places offer specials to everyone who checks in. Watch for the yellow “Special Nearby” icon in your app.

[Note]: If you want to become mayor of Foursquare, you will need to have uploaded a profile photo.

I Can’t Find My Venue. Now What?

If the venue you’re looking for isn’t there, don’t sweat it. Foursquare gives you the ability to add venues. You can do this from your phone or the website. All you have to do is click on Add venue and add the necessary information.

what is foursquare

Just type in the name of the venue, along with its address and phone number (if you know it), and you’re all set. Foursquare will add the location to their database, along with a Google map and all of the information you provided. It’s a great way to get local venues discovered!

While entering information, you can also pick the category of the venue (e.g. Bar, Wings) and add tags and tips.

Wait, What Are Tips?

what is foursquare

Ah, yes. Foursquare lets you leave tips for your friends to discover when they check into places. You can leave tips to let people know about your favorite experiences (e.g. favorite foods, things to try) or anything you like.

mayor of foursquare

You can add tips to your To Dos list on your profile. Once you’ve completed an action, it will be added to your activity stream. Tips are currently tied to places, so you will need to type in the name of a place in order to leave a tip.

Still Don’t Know What Foursquare Is?

Check out this video for a visual recap of everything I’ve just covered:


Foursquare can be a lot of fun once you get into it. It’s a good way to compete with your friends and it helps you get out more. As more and more businesses get on board, I’m sure we will be seeing some interesting and creative ways to use such geolocation apps. Since Foursquare is one of the more popular apps out there, it will be particularly interesting to see where it is headed.

If you still have any questions about Foursquare that I did not address, you should check out their in-depth FAQ page.

Do you use Foursquare or any other geolocation apps? Where do you see this technology headed?  What have you become the Mayor of? Please leave your thoughts, ideas, and comments below!

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3 Smart Tips to Keep Your PC Secure When Downloading Files Online

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 10:30 AM PDT

secure downloadingEven though it is frowned upon, lots of us download copyrighted content online – legally and otherwise – from questionable sources. Be it may via BitTorrent trackers, Usenet, IRC or file sharing forums, there is no dearth of shady distributors of pirated content online.

Why are so many people willing to offer pirated content to you? To ensure that everyone of us can enjoy over-priced & DRM-ridden copyrighted material? Yes and no. Except for a few, the rest have an ulterior motive for peddling malware & spyware.

Often times software downloaded from these shady sites are tampered with to include backdoors and malware. And in recent times, fake audio and video files in zipped archives which when extracted and played, download spyware in the guise of acquiring codecs.

For the unsuspecting soul who thinks a file downloaded for free is awesome, here is an an opportunity to learn about the digital trapdoors, ways to avoid them and how to verify if it is the real deal before installing so that you can enjoy secure downloading.

Install Proper Tools

Getting an anti-virus is the first line of defense and it is better to get the comprehensive internet security pack complete with a firewall, anti-spyware etc. All of the downloaded files have to be scanned and make sure you have option to scan inside zipped archives turned on by default. Check out some free security tools here.

Secondly, use the most recent version of either Firefox or Chrome. Both the browsers have a fabulous built-in domain name checking engine. If there is a site that hosts & distributes malware, they are blocked and you will be shown a warning.

When you see either one of the following screens, find an alternate URL to download. If you want to be more immune to harmful sites consider installing some Firefox security addons.

secure downloads

secure downloading

Using Internet Explorer (definitely not IE 6) or Opera is alright but lack of security plugins takes them to the bottom of my list.

Find the Right Source

Pirating a copyrighted content is not a gimmick that every Tom, Dick and Harry can do. It needs exclusive access to pre-release material and some ninja reverse-engineering tricks. They are called SCENE groups and there are plenty of iconic names specializing in only one of the verticals (say movies, TV shows, software, games etc.).

Their first point of release would be leading Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, Usenet groups and Bittorrent trackers. Pointing you towards those sources is not exactly ethical and hence you should do some searching to find the right source.

secure downloads

For example, if you are looking for a TV show from a popular Bittorrent tracker, find the torrent files with the highest number of seeds and find who uploaded it. Check their track record, how long they have been uploading torrent files and most importantly if they have a verified account there. Checking the comments section of the torrent file also will save you a lot of time and bandwidth.

secure downloads

In the case of forums, find the ones with a lot of members and threads. It's extremely easy to begin a file sharing forum and distribute malware. Also, make sure to get the links from threads started by moderators or long serving members with a significant number of posts and reputation points.

Verify File Integrity

SCENE groups in almost all cases add a checksum file to check the integrity of the file. Checksum is like a unique digital signature of a file generated using algorithms to indicate that the file is its intended form.

Now if the file is tampered with, the checksums will not match the ones that were originally generated. Even a tiny change like renaming a file will result in the checksum error. Some of the common checksum formats are EXF, MD5, SHA, SFV.

safe downloading tips

To verify the integrity of files using checksum, we will need a free tool like Exactfile. While installing, keep all the checksum formats to be associated checked as it makes it easy to run the verification in just a single click.

Once you have downloaded the file, scan for viruses and extract it. Now, since we have associated all the common checksum file formats to Exactfile, just click on the file with the Exactfile logo (a stylish X) and the file verification will begin.

secure downloading

As you can see, I renamed a file from the same folder and a error is shown after the verification. So you can be confident that the file is in its original form released by the reliable SCENE group and you are good to go.

Final Thoughts

I strongly suggest you to verify file integrity when it comes downloading software from questionable sources. And if you opt to download scripts & server software, I can assure that you will be exposed to serious danger if the files are installed without any verification.

I would not delve into preaching mode by saying that it is illegal & unethical to download pirated files. It's a judgment call to be made by the individual, however, reckless pirating does hurt the developer/creator ecosystem which is definitely a bad thing. If you like the material you downloaded, fork out a few bucks to support the one who spent a chunk of life creating it in the first place.

Is there a tip you would like to share with the rest of us to escape from malware-ridden content?

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Faking It With Style – Enhancing Your Images With TiltShiftMaker

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 09:30 AM PDT

enhancing imagesThe idea behind tilt-shift is to make your photographs of real life-sized objects look like photographs of models.

No, not supermodels. That's a whole different subject. TitlShiftmaker makes this easy, and the results are great.

You can buy lenses for big cameras that do this stuff properly, but most of us will never find the money, justify the expense, or learn to operate the equipment. Get your tilt-shift fix here instead.

Where does this fit?

We've covered many image enhancement options before, from the simple to the ludicrously complex. This is a simple site with a simple aim, and it doesn't claim to replace either real tilt-shift lenses or the customisable effects from packages like Photoshop. But enhancing images with it is easy, quick, fun, and the results look very cool.

So if you want to have some fun with your existing images and see what you can do, here it is.

Getting your images into TiltShiftMaker

The front page of the site provides everything you need. You can upload images from your local computer, or from the web. Local files work just the way you might expect.

enhance images

Browse to the image you want to play with, and hit the upload button.

Take note of the maximums. No more than 6000 pixels on the long side, and no more than 8MB in size. And if you happen to be working with RAW files, remember to convert to JPG first.

enhance images

Web uploads are just as easy. Browse to an image, click the button. Now let's do something with it.

Making changes

We need an example, so let's start with a default conversion from this:

enhance images

TiltShiftMaker presents you with a set of options. By default, it's going to come out like this, but let's work through the settings:

enhance images online

enhance images online

A real tilt-shift lens is moved out of line with the normal path of the light through the camera, and as a result tends to end up with a very small depth of field (the part of the photo that is in focus). Adjusting the focus on the lens moves that band back and forth, and lets you choose the small part of the image that is sharply in focus.

enhancing images

On the website, moving the slider up and down has the same effect, and allows us to get the child in focus, while blurring the rest of the image. You can adjust the effect further with the Focus size slider, making the band as narrow as makes sense to you.

Hit the Preview button to get an idea of what you might be doing.

The last option in this section, Enhance colors, is an example of something that improves on the real world capability. You'd struggle to do this with an actual lens. Go for it. I won't tell.

enhance images online

Now that you're experienced…

There are some advanced settings you can use to make your image pop.

The first setting, Defocus strength, determines how much the blurry part of the image is blurred. For some images, it doesn't take much.

Defocus gradient sets the rate with which you slide from in to out of focus.

The last option, Enhance bokeh, might just require some explanation. Bokeh is a Japanese term relating to the way in which the out of focus background is blurred. This all gets deep really fast, but the short version is that the shapes that the background is made up of depends on the construction of the adjustable aperture on the lens. See what I mean?

In any case, the slider performs some magic in the background to make the bokeh look better. Your mileage will decidedly depend.

And from here?

Once you have the image you want, you can click on the Get full size button to save a copy locally, and then you can upload it to your favourite web location.

There are some places you might like to take a look at, to see what people have been doing. People who are a whole lot better at this than me. Firstly, check the gallery at the site. Then move on over to flickr, and finally take a look in the group at Photobucket.

enhancing images

We've covered a number of other photo-enhancement options in the past. You might also like to take a look at these.

A similar capability is available at TiltShift Generator. You can rescue some of your images at FocusMagic, and remove red eye here. Varun talked about a stack of enhancement sites in this list, and if you have any interest in digital photography whatsoever, you really need to take a look at Bakari’s stunning new PDF guide. Something to download and read thoroughly.

That's it. I'd love to know how you go, any other techniques you find useful, and perhaps some links to your results. Let me know in the comments.

Image credit: clarkmaxwell

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Never Forget Anything Ever Again With NotifyMe 2 and Bills [Giveaway]

Posted: 26 Jul 2010 08:30 AM PDT

Life on the fast track can be taxing. With the ever-growing list of responsibilities, we have more and more bills to pay and an even longer set of reminders and tasks there is to keep track of. Life on the fast track can be taxing.

In order to help reduce the burden of remembering the things you need to do and actually focus on the task at hand; we have 2 great iPhone apps to recommend. Both of these apps have been featured on MakeUseOf before: NotifyMe and Bills.

This week, we will be giving away 5 promo codes for each application. Find out how you can get one, after the jump.

But first let’s take a look at the apps individually.

NotifyMe 2

NotifyMe 2 is the updated version of NotifyMe and only supports iOS4. At the very core, it is still a reminder application. You create tasks/reminders which are synced over the air to NotifyMe’s servers. When your tasks are due, you receive a push notification sent to your iPhone.

All tasks/reminders can also be accessed online via the cloud server, notifymecloud.com and can be used to track your list of reminders easily.

In this updated version, you can also create local reminders which are stored on your device. This is a huge help you are only looking to create short-term reminders without internet access.

NotifyMe 2 also supports task sharing — any reminder can be shared with any authorised NotifyMe 2 user and will appear on their upcoming screen.

For a more in-depth review of the previous version (which will also provide you with a rough concept of how the app works), please read Never Forget Anything Again With NotifyMe for iPhone


Bills (also known as Bills ~ on your table) is a simple payment tracking application. This app helps you track pending bills and their corresponding due dates efficiently and elegantly as well.

Bills can be set to automatically repeat daily, weekly, monthly or annually. When a payment is due, you’ll receive a push notification with a gentle reminder (or pre-reminder, which you can set to occur days prior).

For a more in-depth review, check out Never Forget To Pay Another Bill Again With Bills ~ On Your Table

How do I win a copy?

It’s simple, just follow the instructions.

Join our Facebook page by clicking the Like button or you can follow us on Twitter, if you prefer. If you’re already following us, you may skip this step.

If you can’t see the fanbox, click on this link.

Here’s our giveaway form. Please fill it in accurately. Be sure to enter your real name and email address so that we can get in touch if you are chosen as a winner. Click here if you can’t view the form.

You’re almost done. Now, all that’s left to do is to share the post. There are 2 options to choose from or you can do both!

Share it on Facebook

Or on Twitter

And that’s it! You’re done!

This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, 30th July at 2100hrs PST. The winners will be selected at random and announced via email.

Spread the word to your friends and have fun!

MakeUseOf would like to thank Dominik from Powerybase for his generosity while participating in this giveaway. Interesting in sponsoring? We’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us via email.

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