Saturday, August 14, 2010 “Cool Websites and Tools [August 13th]” plus 10 more “Cool Websites and Tools [August 13th]” plus 10 more

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Cool Websites and Tools [August 13th]

Posted: 13 Aug 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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Readernaut – Is reading books a hobby of yours? Do you have a circle of friends who enjoy reading and sharing their knowledge about books with each other? If you answered yes to either question, then Readernaut is the perfect website for you. It is a free to use website which acts as an online social network for book lovers. Read more: Readernaut: Social Network For Book Lovers.


MovieBodyCounts – If you are an ultimate movie addict and would like to know the dead body count of your favourite movies, you might want to check MoviebodyCounts. This community-based site tallies the actual, visible, on-screen kills/deaths/bodies in various action, sci-fi, and war films. Read more: MovieBodyCounts : A Chart For Highest Body Count In Movies.



Big Stretch Reminder – Are you the type who just can't get off your computer once you start working? Perhaps you are just too indulged with what you are doing that you tend to forget about taking a break and getting off the PC? In these cases, you might be needing the help of the break reminder program Big Stretch Reminder. Read more: Big Stretch Reminder: Free Break Reminder Program.



UpsideDownText – Have you ever seen text written like this: "¿noʎ ǝɹɐ ʍoɥ 'ıɥ" You might have wondered how that upside down text was created. Some of you might have found a font that lets you reverse text upside down. But a much better and simpler tool is "Upside Down Text." Read more: UpsideDownText: Invert or Reverse Text Upside Down.



Nibbo – I am a big fan of Google Search. But sometimes I mistakenly execute searches in 'web' when I actually want image or video results. Shifting from the web to image results requires an additional mouse click, which I would be happy to eliminate. That is where Nibbo comes into play. Read more: Nibbo: Improved Way To Search Google.


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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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The 5 Best Questions From You [MakeUseOf Answers]

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 06:31 PM PDT

MakeUseOf AnswersIf there was one thing you could change about MakeUseOf Answers, what would it be? If you have ever asked or answered a question, you may have some useful feedback for us. So the question is “How can we make MakeUseOf Answers better?” Please let us know!

Now let’s reveal this week’s Best Answer of the Week. The winner is Josh Fox for his answer to the question “How do I prevent these Windows blue screen messages from happening again?” Congratulations Josh!

The contest is open to everyone who is not an employee of MakeUseOf. All excellent answers are considered. To contact the winner, we need their email address, Disqus, or Facebook ID. No strings attached.

And here are this week’s best questions:

  1. How can I fix a slow Windows XP computer?
  2. Can you recommend a browser for my pocket PC?
  3. What is an acceptable pause between blog updates?
  4. How can I autiomatically start a sleeping computer?
  5. Is a constant installation and uninstallation of programs harmful to my laptop?

More questions you never dared to ask can be found on MakeUseOf Answers. Browse by Latest Questions, Unanswered Questions or Most Popular Questions. For regular updates subscribe to the Answers RSS Feed.

Need help? Ask your question at MakeUseOf Answers!

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15 More System Preferences Items A New Mac User Should Know About

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 04:30 PM PDT

mac preferencesIn part 1 of this article, I covered some basic items in Apple's Snow Leopard System Preferences. In this second part, we'll cover a few more basic items—and for some Mac users, perhaps a couple of hidden items which are not regularly used. I'm skipping over the Internet & Wireless items in System Preferences—namely because I assume if you're reading this that you have your Internet connection set up properly.

MakeUseOf has also published a few other articles on wireless connections that you might find useful. Those include "How to Share the Internet Connection Between Mac and PC" and another article on sharing file between Mac and Windows computers. There's also an article on setting parental controls on your Mac. Not to be missed, MakeUseOf’s handy PDF guide: The Mac Manual.

Here are the preference items we’ll be looking at.

mac preferences

Energy Saver

Though computers are nothing more than machines, they still need their rest — not only to maintain performance but also to save energy. In Energy Saver, you can set controls for when to put your computer to sleep, as well set times for it to shut down and start back up (click the Schedule button to set shut-down and restart times). I personally only restart my computer about once a week, but I do make sure it automatically put to sleep when not in use.

Software Update

One of the best ways to keep your computer in tip-top shape is to keep it backed up and updated with the latest versions of software. When Apple releases the latest version of its operating system or software, it will send a notice to your computer to download and install that update. If you want to find out whether you missed one or more updates, click on the Check Now button and it will verify if you need to update the operating system or other Apple software installed on your Mac. Note, however, that it will not check for third party applications.

Clicking on the Installed Software button will reveal what versions of Apple software are already installed on your computer. You can also run this check by clicking on the Apple icon in the upper-left corner of your Mac's menu bar and selecting Software Update.

Text to Speech

MakeUseOf has already covered the Speech Recognition feature of System Preferences, but there's also a feature called Text to Speech which is a handy tool for having your computer read aloud text. I have often use this feature for when I'm too tired to read articles or when I'm editing my writing. It's of course also useful for Mac users with impaired eyesight.

If you want to use this feature, you can set a keyboard shortcut to activate it. After doing so, select some text in any application, such as Mail, and then hit your assigned keyboard shortcut. The computer will read the text aloud.

Also, if you want or need additional computer voice assistance, click on the Open Universal Access Preferences for several useful features.

Date & Time

No doubt by default, you already have the date and time clock set up on your Mac; it can be done automatically. But if you ever need an audio timer, such as for work purposes, you can set one up in Date & Time, in which your Mac will announce the time on the hour, every thirty or every fifteen minutes. This is not a feature you will run 24/7 but it's a quasi built-in timer that might come in handy.

Time Machine

I know of no better and easier back up system than Apple's Time Machine. If you're not using it, you should. All that is required is an external hard drive, of say 500 or more gigabytes. Attach it to your computer and open the Time Machine item in System Preferences. From there, click the Select Disk button to do the initial setup. You can click the Options button to selectively exclude data on your computer that you don't want backed up. Read this article for additional information about Time Machine.

Startup Disk

If you ever need to troubleshoot your Mac or test out some questionable software on another hard drive, use the Startup Disk feature. You will need to have a bootable backup drive connected to your computer to use this feature.


If the last section, Other, of your System Preferences is not very populated, you're probably missing out on many useful plug-ins and enhancements for your Mac. One particular item that every Mac user will want installed in this area is the Growl notification program. This free plug-in literally works with hundreds of Apple and third-party applications.

If you ever need to remove items in this section, it can easily be done by right- or Control-clicking on the plug-in or application and selecting the Remove… button.

mac preferences

You may not open System Preferences on a regular basis, but knowing about its powerful features can enhance what you do on your Mac. Let us know about overlooked features in System Preferences that you think should have been covered in our two-part article.

Again, if you’re a new Mac user, check out MakeUseOf’s handy PDF guide on how to overcome the fear of switching and a couple of Mac apps you have to try – The Mac Manual.

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Compare Services And Reduce Your Bills With BillShrink

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 02:31 PM PDT

compare wireless phone servicesIt happens to all of us. You sign up for a service – like cable or a cell phone – and you use it for months and months, only to find later on that you could have got a better deal. One of the easiest ways to save extra money is to cut down on your bills, but that usually means calling different carriers or researching online to find the best rates.

Back when we first covered BillShrink in our directory, it was solely for comparing phone plans. Even then we knew it was a very useful comparison site that could reduce bills and save you money. Well now you can save even more because BillShrink offers comparisons of not only cell phones, but credit cards, gas stations, CD rates, and even television.

In this article, I am going to cover all of BillShrink’s features, showcasing the various ways you can reduce your bills and save money with the service. Even if you’re locked into a plan or don’t currently want to switch, BillShrink has something you’ll find useful. Besides, it is always a good idea to know where you stand, as well as what the competition is when negotiating rates.

BillShrink – A Free Way To Save Money

BillShrink is an unbiased, independent company that allows you to compare different services and plans. It enables you to see how much you will save in real-time and provides you with links to various retailers so you can go and sign up for your new services quickly. You can also setup BillShrink to monitor plans and alert you when there are any new ways to save.

For an excellent overview of how BillShrink works, watch this Howcast video:

You can also check out BillShrink’s Facebook page for more information. They have a very nice welcome tab, I must say.

Wireless Service

BillShrink has always incorporated wireless service into its features since – let’s be honest – wireless bills are where people tend to get screwed over the most. Pricing plans fluctuate so much between different plans and services, and a lot of the time you’re confused as to what you are actually paying for. It is especially tough when you consider that a lot of plans lock you into a 2 year deal.

compare wireless phone services

On BillShrink, just select the Wireless service tab, fill out your information (current carrier, current cost), and hit Go>>. BillShrink will then ask you for your usage information, which – in most cases – you can sign into your service provider and grant BillShrink access to the statistics.

After BillShrink has all the necessary information, you can begin viewing potential savings. You can enter your email address so the service remembers your settings, also.

Credit Cards

compare bank services

For credit cards its the same thing. Just select the information pertaining to your credit usage and hit Go>>. Then you will have to fill out a little more information to narrow down what you’re looking to accomplish with the service. Whether you’re looking to get a new credit card or are attempting to get your very first one, BillShrink can accommodate you.

Savings & CDs

compare bank services

BillShrink can also find you the best rates on Savings and CDs. After you fill out how much you could afford to save each month, BillShrink will search through hundreds of savings accounts, finding and matching you with the ones that best fit your saving profile. It also computes the amount you will earn in interest per year, minus fees.

Gas Stations

compare bank services

Finding the cheapest gas stations is something everyone should be able to take advantage of immediately. Enter in your most frequent destinations (i.e. home, work) and make/model of your car and BillShrink will find and display all of the cheapest gas stations in your area using Google maps.

Television Service

reduce bills

The television service feature on BillShrink is listed as beta, but there’s really nothing beta about it. To compare cable and satellite bills, enter in your address, current provider, and how much you currently pay to see how much you could be saving with an alternate service. BillShrink makes sure to only list the services available in your area, which I thought was pretty cool.


If you use BillShrink properly, you can potentially reduce your bills and save yourself a lot of money. It’s a pretty straight forward service and is generally very easy to use and navigate. BillShrink is definitely one of the sites I will be incorporating into my money-saving arsenal (along with Mint).

What do you think of BillShrink? Do you use any other online services to save money? Leave a comment below!



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Hot Tech Deals [Aug 13th]

Posted: 13 Aug 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.

Keep reading to find out today’s Hot Tech Deals.

  1. Sharp LC-60E88UN 60 inch LCD HDTV (1080p, 240Hz) $1599 via code QDFL8GW9D?SLMZ
  2. Antec Six Hundred Black ATX Mid Tower Computer Case (200mm Top Fan & 3x 120mm Fans) $57.95AR via code HARDOCP811C
  3. New ShoeMall Coupon Code 20% Off + Free Shipping via code BK2SCHOOL
  4. Dell Inspiron 15 Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz 15.6in Laptop (3GB/250GB/Win7) $499.99 via code ?8CN$RJ?W5TQ0C
  5. Dell Inspiron 14z Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 ULV 14in Laptop (4GB/500GB/2yr Warranty) $700.79 via codes 6KWMM0JFLZK0W? and ?8CN$RJ?W5TQ0C
  6. Vizio M320NV 32in Razor LED-Edgelit LCD HDTV (1080p) $469.99 via code B3M5FSN$8NCFTW
  7. Sony SA-VS350H 5.1/7.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System $399.99 via code SONYSAVS350H
  8. Lenovo Coupon Code up to 15% off Lenovo ThinkPad Laptops via code USPTHINKDEALS

Image credit: Modified from Svengraph’s icon set

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The Top Ten Dead Google Projects Floating About In Cyberspace

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 12:31 PM PDT

google projectsIt has recently been announced that Google Wave’s development will be coming to an end.  There are many different people giving their own opinions on why Google Wave didn’t take off.

The subject is largely up to interpretation and I’m sure you have your opinions, too.  All we know is that it didn’t take off, Google is ending its development, and Google plans on integrating much of the tech behind it into other Google products (check out 4 new features that make Google Docs even better).  Read the report yourself to try and get a grasp on what went down.

This heart-wrenching news brings us to remember the vast list of other Google projects that have also gone by the wayside.  Check out ten more dead Google projects floating around in cyberspace and our minds.

Google Video

google projectsWhen Google Video was around, they offered much of what YouTube did/does.  Then they acquired YouTube.  They attempted to rebrand YouTube into Google Video but to no avail.  Now Google has effectively replaced Google Video with YouTube and the need for Google Video is lost.

The good news is that they are only ending the uploading.  The videos already uploaded will remain there for now.  (Read Google’s announcement).

Google Catalog Search

The Google Catalog Search project was Google’s scanning of product catalogs and using OCR to make the texts able to be searched.  It started way back in 2001 and Google has been able to gleam much knowledge from the project and implement it into Google Books.  They are blaming the need for closing it on the lack of popularity in recent years.

However, they are saying: “This was our first big effort to make offline information available online – and we learned a lot”. (Read Google’s announcement).

Google Notebook

google projectsNotebook gave us a good way to take notes while web browsing.  It hasn’t really taken off that much recently but there are still some users.

Google is stopping development for Notebook.  They say they are going to continue maintaining it for current users but for how long?

A downside of this is that they are not going to support the extension.  Access will only be available via the web interface, apparently. (Read Google’s announcement).


With Dodgeball users were able to text their location to the service and find out about friends and locations nearby.

Google has discontinued its use and effectively replaced it with Latitude (check out Ryan’s article about using it).  Looks like a good replacement.


Jaiku is a micro blogging medium.  It is similar to Twitter but didn’t take off with quite as much vigor.  It looks cool but without a real user base like Twitter’s, it kind of loses its appeal.

cancelled projects

Technically Jaiku is still open.  Google itself stopped development of it and open sourced the code to let others work on it and keep it going.  Now a team of Google Volunteers keep things running in their spare time.  (Read Google’s announcement).

Google Mashup Editor

Google Mashup Editor was a place for developers to test and run what they were working on.  Wikipedia doesn’t even have a full article on the project, just a stub so what does that tell you?  Maybe not much. The reasons for stopping its development have more to do with having something better to offer.  Google chose to replace it with their App Engine so I guess everything’s OK.  (Read Google’s announcement).


cancelled projectsFrom what I can tell, Lively isn’t very lively anymore. Lively was a social networking type of site, it used avatars and it allowed you to create stuff like rooms, clubs, space stations, and more.  You could then chat with other users and I hear it was actually pretty cool.

The experiment was to help users find more ways of expressing themselves on the Internet.  Why it ended I’m not sure.  Maybe they weren’t making any money on it, who knows.  (Read Google’s announcement).

Google Print Ads

Google Print Ads was Google’s way of bringing AdSense type of advertising to print publications.  Google says that they attempted to do their part in helping the newspaper industry but that Google Print Ads wasn’t the right solution.

It is clear that the current Print Ads product is not the right solution, so we are freeing up those resources to try to come up with new and innovative online solutions that will have a meaningful impact for users, advertisers and publishers.

(Read Google’s announcement).


cancelled projectsGoing directly to the SearchMash website will not tell you much about the service.  You can check out Will’s article about 5 unheard of search engines to find out a bit more.

I can tell you that it was a testing ground for Google to test some search features and such.  In fact, Google didn’t even brand it as being Google’s.  The only information you will find at the website is that it “has gone the way of the dinosaur.”

Google Answers

Did you even know Google had an answers community?  Yahoo Answers took off quite well which is funny because I find Yahoo’s search engine quite annoying.  Anyways, there are many answers communities out there and some even narrow in on specific topics (Like MakeUseOf’s tech-related Answers community).

Even though Google Answers is now retired, you can still search the database for answers already given.  That is if you can’t find the answer you need from one of the many alive answers communities already out there.

Tell us which dead Google projects ones you (will) miss and those you won’t.

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10 Simple But Useful Ways To Use The Character Map & Your Lesser-Used Fonts

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 11:31 AM PDT

character map in windowsTake a look at the Character Map in Windows and tell me your best 'font friends' on it. Usually, it doesn't go beyond the Arial font family, the Times New Roman font family, and a few neighbors like Comic Sans coming into your circle. But even then, are you pally with all the members of each font family? Well, that's quite impossible.

But maybe once in a while we should take a stroll through the 'characters' in each of the font families and see what unique uses we can put the lesser known fonts to.

The Character Map installed on each system is a motley of nice upright fonts, crazy scrawny ones, and of course the symbols and the dingbats. Just take the dingbat fonts (Webdings and Wingdings); they are a rich collection of symbols and small pictograms we can use. From religious symbols to the computer parts (even a ticking bomb), you will find something of use there.

Just to give you an example of using the lesser fonts creatively – you can take the 'scissor' character from Wingdings and put it next to a dotted line. It illustratively tells you on a printed sheet – cut along the dotted line.

So open up the entire character set and let's put down some more rapid fire uses of the lesser used fonts instead of making them feel like orphans.

On Windows XP - Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, point to System Tools, and then click Character Map.

On Windows Vista / 7 – Click Accessories, then System Tools folder to access the Character Map in Windows.

Or alternatively, click Start, then the Run dialog…type in charmap.exe; hit OK.

Deck Up Your Text With Fancy Bullets

character map in windows

If any, lesser used fonts can find their most creative use as fancy bullets. For instance, instead of repeatedly using the default ones, the dingbat fonts can be brought up. One of the tricks in 4 Custom Bullet Tips and Tricks for Microsoft Word 2007 referred to their easy handiness as decorative bullets.

Express Yourself With Dingbat Smileys In Yahoo Messenger

free windows character maps

The entire Character Map can be your smiley sheet. Open up the Character Map, select the dingbat font of your choice, click on Copy. Type in your text with a regular font and then choose the dingbat font from the dropdown before pasting the character from the clipboard.

As with any text you can adjust the font size and color of the dingbat font. Oh, dingbat fonts do have regular smileys of their own.

Make Them Stand-In As Clipart

free windows character maps

Fonts which resemble graphics can be good substitutes for cliparts. Take a look at the screenshot above – the uncomplicated lines of the 'His' and 'Hers' is as good as any clipart.

That's from Webdings. Any number of these symbolic fonts can be used to deck up your presentations or publications.

Visual Cues In Your Notes

free windows character maps

Nearly every font has characters which resemble symbols. Take Arial for instance. While writing notes in a text editor, these 'symbol' characters can be used as visual cues for interpretation. Combining them with characters from Symbol, Webdings, or Wingdings further enhances your text.

Place A Non-Graphic Checkmark Or A Quick Checkbox

windows character map

A simple checkmark has its uses in everything from lists to PowerPoint presentations. Head to Wingdings and its last row for the check and the cross non-graphic symbols. Typing one or a few letter C's in Webdings creates a series of checkboxes which can be symbols for entering numbers like ZIP codes or phone numbers.

Make Your Folder Names Stand Out

windows character map

Letters, numbers and a few special characters on your keyboard are run of the mill for folder names. But how do you get more creative with it? You use the Character Map to insert meaningful characters to the folder (or file) names. Using the characters in the right sequence also helps to arrange specific folders in an order.

If your default UI system font is Tahoma, then open up its character set and choose a unique character to set off your folder name differently. Of course, if you change the system font to something like Arial then you have a better set of characters to choose from like the character which symbolizes a musical tune or the light and dark shades characters.

For The Microsoft Logo

windows character map

Just next to it is the last character in Wingdings. The Microsoft logo finds a lot of uses; from illustrating a Windows shortcut to just suggesting that this is a Windows tip.

Design Your Own Logo

You got the Windows logo easily. You can also play with the variety of characters in the Character Map to design your own simple logo. Open up your graphic editor; start off by typing the chosen character as text or copy pasting it from the Character Map.

The text can be rasterized, turned into a path, or a shape. You can go to work on it with all the graphical tools in your program. Two or more such characters can be combined to create creative but simple logos.

Copyright & Trademark Symbols With A Keystroke

Creative commons (even then see the next point) is fine but with the kind of plagiarism going on, you do have to spread your copyright and trademark around. Check out the details on inserting a copyright, registered or trademark symbol in Microsoft Word, Windows applications, or a webpage.

Another instance could be to download the Creative Commons logo and icon in an embeddable TTF and use them from the character map.

Map An Unused Key To A Special Font

character map in windows

This has become especially relevant for me as an Indian. The new Indian currency symbol is not a part of keyboards but it can be downloaded as a font file and mapped to an unused key for use in personal documents on the computer.

There are a thousand and one creative uses of fonts. But away from typography and graphic designing, what simple but creative uses can you come up with by just looking at the Character Map? Maybe it is for special accent symbols or simply putting the degree sign. Do type it in the comments.

Image Credit: FontFont

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Saddle Up! Leather Laptop Bags & iPad Sleeves Up For Grabs [Giveaway]

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 11:00 AM PDT

We’re quite fortunate this month to have Saddleback Leather Company sponsor some of their best leather products. You might wonder, what’s so great about their stuff? Well, to start, they’re so confident about their craftsmanship that they offer a 100-year warranty against defects in materials and workmanship. Impressed yet?

Besides that, Saddleback Leather products have no breakable parts, only use thick full-grain, fully-tanned leather and some are 100% waterproof!

Until the end of August, Saddleback Leather is offering 2 laptop bags and 2 iPad sleeves (worth $956!) to MakeUseOf readers. Find out you can be in the running to win one!

First, let’s take a look at the iPad sleeve, which normally retails for $55 each. As you can see, it’s a pretty snug fit. To test how well it will hold my iPad, I carried it for a while upside down — the iPad stayed in! When it’s new, the leather is fairly hard but will soften after use.

The iPad slides in and out easily without getting scratched due to its pigskin lining.

The entire sleeve is made from a single piece of leather (making it stronger) and has a couple of very interesting qualities to protect your iPad in case you drop it. Check this video out to see what I’m talking about.

Now, let’s explore the laptop bag, otherwise known as the thin briefcase because unlike other laptop bags, you can use it to store your documents and books in addition to your laptop. This is the large model, which retails for $423. And it comes with the standard 100-year warranty. When you see the bag, you’ll understand why.

As you can see, the leather is very thick and fully-tanned. Rivets are placed at specific stress points, can you find them?

One interesting quality about this bag is that it can be switched from a sling bag to a backpack, if necessary. Here’s the bag with my MacBook to help you gauge how big the bag is.

The large model sports enough room for a 17″ MacBook Pro and any other stuff you might want to fit in it.

The thing about this Saddleback laptop bag is, it isn’t your carrying case. You’re pampered with leather’s strength and durability, and yet have enough room to fit all of your everyday stuff. Although it’s a pretty dear price to pay for a laptop bag, you can surely see yourself using it on a day-to-day basis without ever having to worry about breaking it. Ever.

So, have I managed to win you over? Want to get your hands on one of these items? Like all MakeUseOf giveaways, this one is open to readers worldwide. Let the giveaway begin!

How do I win one?

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, 28th August 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 Saddleback Leather Company for their 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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3 Touch Up Tricks For Photoshop To Enhance Your Photos

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 10:31 AM PDT

enhancing photos with photoshopThe problem with exceedingly better cameras is that, besides every beautiful detail, they also manage to catch every blemish. The time when you could get away with sunburn, or even something as small as a mole is long past. Those details will be engraved in virtual stone as well.

Nowadays, everyone realizes that movie stars don’t look all that perfect in real life and that Madonna doesn’t look like a twenty year old, but rather thrice that number. It’s the fault, or blessing, of Photoshop, a premier photo editing application.

In this article, I’d like to teach you three rather simple tricks on enhancing photos with Photoshop to fix nearly every blemish. More so, this article is intended for junior editors, like myself. This means that :

  • You don’t need extensive experience with Photoshop.
  • You don’t need a steady hand (i.e. no airbrush techniques).

In other words, everyone can take this tutorial and expect to follow it through to the end. If you watch where you step, you will get great results from very little effort and experience.

1. Remove Moles & Other Blemishes

In Photoshop CS5, there’s an amazing new feature, called content-aware. Instead of sampling from one particular area, content-aware will try to reconstruct spots with little image-parts grabbed from all over the canvas. You can use it to fix a skyline, delete a tree, or to remove blemishes.

enhancing photos with photoshop

Simply select the Spot Healing Brush tool from the left sidebar, and make sure content-aware is turned on. You might also want to change the brush size in the top left corner, until it just covers the blemish. One short click, et voila. At times, content-aware may mess up, though. In those scenarios, either try again or use one of the manual techniques discussed below.

In earlier versions of Photoshop, we have not yet been blessed with content-aware. On the other hand, we do have the spot healing brush tool. Select it from the left sidebar (see above screenshot), check your brush size, and make sure you have selected ‘proximity match’. Again, one click and you’re done.

Instead of reconstructing the spot, Photoshop will sample it with one that approaches it in color (and hopefully misses the mole). If your result seems faded, change the mode from Normal to Replace and try again.

edit photos photoshop

Alternatively, you can select the Healing Brush Tool from the left sidebar. You can find it by long-pressing the spot healing brush tool. Instead of sampling a random (proximate) match, hold the alt-button on your keyboard and click to select the place from where you want to sample. Then click the blemish. If your result seems faded, change the mode from Normal to Replace and try again.

You can do more than remove moles with this technique, though. Leftovers from suncream, dirty mouths and wrinkles all qualify, although you shouldn’t always bother. ‘Natural’ still has a certain charm, and you want to avoid the Madonna-syndrome.

2. Fix Overshadowed Parts

Sometimes, especially in heavy sun, your image is overshadowed in places. This shadow can even obscure important details, like a smile or the twinkle of an eye. Here’s how to (largely) remove it.

Go to Image -> Adjustments -> Levels. These levels, in a much too concise explanation, mark the distribution of shades and highlights across your image. In other words; using it, you can master the shades.

edit photos photoshop

The far left slider will control the limits of the darkest shades, the far right one that of the brightest highlights. We will need the middle one, which determines to which side (light or dark) your image inclines. To remove our shadows, we want to limit the darker areas and give light some place to roam, so we will pull the middle slider a little (or a lot, depending on your image) to the left.

edit photos photoshop

Playing with levels can create an overly dark or – in our case – slightly faded image, though. If that’s the case, go to Image -> Adjustments -> Brightness/Contrast. And pull the Contrast slider a bit to the right. This will make you blacks blacker and your overall image less faded.

fix photos with photoshop

Here’s an overview of how we fought off those shadows. From original, to adjusted levels, to adjusted contrast.

3. Fix Discoloring

Whether because of a sunburn, a bad skin-type, or bad lighting, somehow your skin will manage to screw up a perfect picture. In my case it was a sunburn that gave me overly red ears. Here’s how to fix that.

Select the Color Replacement Tool by long-pressing Brush Tool and set its mode to Saturation – the intensity of a color. This brush will change the saturation of your picture to that of the selected color, but leave all the rest intact.

fix photos with photoshop

For our purpose, we want a less saturated color. You can see the kind of color I picked in the screenshot above, but please do play around with it for a bit. In essence, we want the ear to stop being red.

You’ll notice, however, that my ear now looks like it was made of clay. That’s because a less-saturated red skin is not the same as a normal skin. There’s still a difference in color behind the saturation.

fix photos with photoshop

Still with the Color Replacement Tool selected, set the mode to color. We want to give our clay ear a more natural color. To do so, hold alt and select the predominant color on your face. Imagine it to be the color of your ear if there were no shadow at all. Now paint over your clay ear to make it come to life.

Our ear may still look a little fake. This is less of a problem with most other body parts, because an ear has a lot of diverse shadowing going on. While fixing our saturation and color, we also messed with the natural shadows. You can use the burn tool, as can be seen in the screenshot above, to introduce some new shadows. Don’t try to be an artist. Simply swipe it over the ear, and adjust the exposure if necessary. The burn tool will add shadow, but will mostly leave the rest of your colors alone.

Above is the process of our ear-recoloration. From original, to ’saturated and colored’, to ‘one swipe with the burn tool’.

Note that you can use this same technique to increase the saturation (and sparkle) of eyes, whiten your teeth, and change the color of your shirt. The possibilities are effectively endless.

enhancing photos with photoshop

A final comparison in the screenshot above. To the left is the original, with standard color-improvement from iPhoto; the one on the right is touched up manually, with less than a couple minutes of work. With more time and effort, this picture can be further improved, i.e. by toning down some of the reds in the face and increasing the saturation of the background.

What do you think about enhancing photos with Photoshop? Soon to be common practice? Let us know your thoughts and other tips in the comments section below!

Note: For other great Photoshop tips and howto’ s make sure to download MakeUseOf’s The Idiot’s Guide To Photoshop.

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Monitor What’s Really Going On With Your PC With System Explorer

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 09:31 AM PDT

system explorerOne of the biggest problems with being addicted to new software is the tendency for “leftover” processes and files to remain throughout my PC – sometimes even viruses, adware or malware.

One of the reasons I was most motivated to write this article for MakeUseOf was because I found that my computer startup time was crawling, and I would always end up with two or three windows opening that I didn’t recognize. Annoyed with my inability to see everything going on with my computer, I decided to strike out in search for a killer application that would give me that power back.

I am pleased to report that the free utility called System Explorer will return power over your own computer back to you.

Use System Explorer To See Every System Detail

The reason that my own computer usually gets so muddied up with junk is not because I don’t know how to track down the running processes, identify the culprits and eradicate the files. The problem is that I just don’t have time to dig through the system to find dll’s, startup folders, services, registry keys and everything else.

Here at MakeUseOf, we’re always trying to offer advice on how to troubleshoot your computer problems. Bakari wrote a great writeup with 8 troubleshooting resources for Mac users, and Saikat covered how to troubleshoot Windows with MSConfig.

The beauty of System Explorer is that it collects, organizes, and rearranges all of the information you need about your system into one central location.

system explorer

There are obviously a few items that you could see by just doing a quick Ctrl-Alt-Delete and opening your Task Manager. However, the Processes display is actually an enhanced version of the Task Manager processes list.

diagnose computer problem cpu usage system explorer

How is this view enhanced? Well, it not only lists every single process running on your machine, as well as all of the details about each process – but if you see one that’s questionable, you don’t have to try and guess what it is.  If you click on the “Check” link, you’ll go to an online database of file type explanations and reviews from experts regarding whether or not the file is considered safe or unsafe.

diagnose computer problem cpu usage system explorer

Troubleshooting System Problems

Let’s face it, sometimes even the best antivirus apps will not pick up on some of the latest threats. Harmful programs eventually make it onto your PC. A good place the start is the System Performance display, which provides a graphical view of processor, network and RAM usage – and much more.

diagnose computer problem cpu usage system explorer

As you’re reviewing each process that’s running, you can also right click a file, click “File Check” and use either or to check if the file is a virus.

computer processes

Is your network graph maxed out? If it appears that your Internet bandwidth has been hijacked, then click on the “Connections” option in the left menu and you’ll see every last process that’s accessing the Internet, the protocol being used, and the “to” and “from” domain addresses. This can help you identify applications that are sending traffic to questionable domains.

computer processes

Clicking “Startups” displays every program configured to launch up on startup. This include shortcuts in your Startup folder, and items in your registry. See one that you don’t want? Just right click and disable or delete.

computer processes

Other Cool Features

If you click “Additional Info,” you’ll find your processor speed, used and free memory, drivers, registered DLLs, and even every font that’s installed on your system!

When you’re satisfied that you have your computer cleaned up and things running smoothly again, you can perform a quick “snapshot” of your system. Later, when your computer starts acting strangely again, take another snapshot and compare the two. System Explorer will tell you files and registry keys that have been added since you took the first snapshot.

Even when you’re not using System Explorer, you can keep it running in the task bar. Just hover your mouse over the icon and get a quick look at the current behavior of your system, including CPU stats, memory usage and battery life.

system explorer

System Explorer helped me to resolve my system startup issues, and I plan to use the snapshot utility often to identify any new issues that crop up.

Have you ever tried System Explorer? What do you think? Do you know any other similar free system troubleshooting tools like this? Share your insight in the comments section below.

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JetAudio Basic – A Free Alternative Media Player To iTunes

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 08:31 AM PDT

free alternative to itunesThe popularity of iTunes has made it the default media player for many users, but it isn’t everyone’s favorite program. It is also a less obvious choice for a media player if you do not have an iPod or iPhone and instead use a different MP3 player or a smartphone with video and music playback capability.

JetAudio Basic is a free alternative to iTunes that should be considered by those who dislike the iTunes interface. JetAudio Basic is similar, and can be set up to look very much like iTunes if you prefer. However, JetAudio Basic integrates more closely with alternative media sources like YouTube and Amazon MP3.

Media Player Basics

free alternative to itunes

Most users of JetAudio Basic will probably want to use Media Player View. This is the view that emulates iTunes most closely. On the left of the program is a tree menu that displays all of the options that are available, while the right of the program serves as a means of organizing playlists and navigating Jet Audio’s features.

And there are certainly plenty of features. Since JetAudio doesn’t have a proprietary store, the Music Store section of the media player instead focuses on eMusic, Amazon MP3 and other alternatives to the iTunes store. The jetToy Youtube download service is included as part of JetAudio, enabling .flv and .mp4 downloads.

You can also access Leo’s Lyric Database and from within JetAudio through the built-in browser. Some will question the usefulness of this, since it is the laziest way to integrate a service. Still, I find running in JetAudio to be more convenient when working with many browser windows open.

The Media Library is of course the meat-and-potatoes of the program, and Jet Audio works quite well in this respect. It doesn’t have any fancy tricks, but it organizes your music and videos as well as any other player, and it does so very quickly. Although I did not test it with a stop watch, adding files to the media library seems lightening-quick, and browsing is also snappy.

JetAudio is somewhat less resource intensive than iTunes according to Windows Task Manager – it consumes around 58,000K of memory, while iTunes consumed 82,000K.

itunes alternative

The Media Player View also includes a portable device manager that can be used to add files to a portable media device. The program warns that it may not work well with all devices (they’re no doubt making reference to iPod and Zunes) but it had no problems with my Samsung P3 player.

Playlist View

itunes alternative

While the media player options available in JetAudio are good, you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to. Instead, you can use JetAudio as a simple playlist player that doesn’t manage your media files in any way. You can set it up this way during installation and you can switch between Media Player and Playlist View at any time by opening the menu and selecting the view you prefer.

There are very few options to mention in Playlist View, which is probably just as well. You open files using the drop-down menu at the top of the window and browsing. You can also open playlists that you may have created in Media Player View.

Ripping & Conversion

itunes alternative

In addition to being able to play media files JetAudio is able to convert files between different file types and rip/write CDs. These functions can be accessed by opening the menu and going to Tools or by using the button in the upper right hand corner of Media Player View. You can also record audio and add that audio to a playlist or to your media library.

The Rip CD and Create CD options work about as you’d expect them to. You can rip files to a variety of formats including WAV, WMV and OGG. The CD Creation options let you select the gap between tracks and adjust the CD’s volume. It is also very basic, but it is more than enough for managing your media library.

free alternative to itunes

Conversion features exist for both audio and video. The audio conversion outputs are the same as those available when ripping a CD. The video conversion outputs are most interesting. AVI, MP4, FLV, WMV and MKV are supported (among others). Jet Audio also includes presets for a variety of devices including the iPod/iPhone and Sony’s PSP portable game system.


JetAudio is a solid media player overall and a good free alternative to iTunes. It has a lot of options, views and skins that have a significant impact on how the player looks and operates. Unlike iTunes, JetAudio readily bends to the desires of its user, making it great for users who don’t mind digging into the options and tuning a program to their preferences.

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