Friday, December 24, 2010 “Cool Websites and Tools [December 23rd]” plus 9 more “Cool Websites and Tools [December 23rd]” plus 9 more

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Cool Websites and Tools [December 23rd]

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 07:31 PM PST

Check out some of the latest MakeUseOf discoveries. All listed websites are FREE or come with a decent free account option. You can make use of them without spending a dime. If you want to have similar cool websites round-ups delivered to your email daily email subscribe here.

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Free File Converter – There are different online tools that can be used to convert files between formats of certain file types. This means you need to bookmark a separate conversion site for video, audio, and document files. Fortunately FreeFileConverter merges all of those conversion tools and presents them on a single dashboard. Read more: FreeFileConverter: Various File Format Conversion Tool


ShirtFitFinder – Shopping online for a dress shirt is a very tricky task as manufacturers have different standards when it comes to sizes. The Shirt Fit Finder is a web service that can help you find dress shirts online with the best fit for you. All you have to do is indicate the brand of the best fitting shirt that you have, its size, and how it fits your body. Read more: ShirtFitFinder: Finds The Best Dress Shirts That Fit You



Sniply – If you are preparing a project that requires you to gather information from the web, then you probably bookmark many websites to read snippets of text on them later. When you revisit the bookmarked sites, rediscovering the snippets you found interesting can be quite time consuming particularly if the page has a lot of text on it. But thanks to Sniply, this problem now has an effective solution. Read more: Sniply: Save Text Snippets from Websites As Shortened URLs



Blekko – Search engines normally focus on automatically providing you with the latest and most relevant results. However they do not let you filter the results. Blekko, however, is one search engine that gives you a lot more control over the search results you see. By default the results it displays are the latest and most relevant ones. But you can do your own filtration as well. Read more: Blekko: Search The Web Effectively Using Slashtags



Issue Burner – One use we put emails to is assigning tasks to others. But emails do not help us track the progress of those tasks we are collaborating on. IssueBurner has come up with a solution for this. IssueBurner is a free to use email task management and collaboration service that lets you collaborate on tasks via emailing. Read more: IssueBurner: Email Based Task Management & Collaboration Tool


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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5 Fun Online City Building Games That Run In Your Browser

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 05:31 PM PST

city building gamesI’ve spent hours of my life toiling over virtual cities in Maxis’ Sim City series, and it must have rubbed off after all these years. I still enjoy meticulously planning infrastructure, zoning and carefully tweaking finances to this day.

The other day whilst trying to work, I accidentally (oops) went looking for some online heirs to the Sim City throne. Despite simple Flash games lacking the depth of even the original Sim City, I guessed there had to be a few decent, free city building games out there.


city building games

A simple turn-based Flash game created by New Zealand energy company Genesis Energy to give players young and old a shot at managing a town or city’s growth and impact. Players must pay close attention to the levels of energy used, sustainability and environmental factors.

Players are given 151 turns to alter tax rates, build things, destroy things and generally oversee the planning of a city from an environmental point of view. It is up to you to keep your citizens happy, maintain finances and get the highest score possible out of 100 available points.

If you’re seeking inspiration then there’s plenty of completed cities to gawp at, and you can even save your progress and come back to it at a later point. Remember – it’s all about balance.

IBM CityOne

free city building games

A very in-depth city management game that allows you to choose one of four aspects of city life to manage – energy, water, retail and banking. This game also uses a turn-based system which scores you after each turn made.

There’s a fairly chunky registration form to fill out before you can play (which asks for all sorts of intrusive data) but the game itself functions well, especially if you’re a business-minded individual.

Your city starts off sketchy and greyscale, with colour gradually introduced as you implement much-needed change. At times it plays like a big advert for IBM, but remains enjoyable and looks pretty good to boot. Probably not great on slower PCs, especially those with an aversion to resource-heavy Flash.

City Creator

free city building games

Not necessarily a simulation or a management game, City Creator simply allows you to do just that – create a sprawling landscape from a set of pre-fabricated buildings and features.

The game features charming pixel art from and an isometric viewpoint, which complements the laid back style of play. Simply drag items from the left hand side of the screen to your city on the right and see what you come up with.

There are 3 building sets to choose from, each with their own unique style. If you register on the site you can save your creations and share them with your friends. If you just want to build a city then City Creator should entertain for a while at least. Be sure to check out their other project Castleford.

Zanpo Virtual Cities

free city building games

Lovers of Minecraft and pixel art rejoice in this Flash block-based city building game. Instead of building preset structures and features Zanpo Virtual Cities allows you to build fairly detailed city blocks using individual building pieces.

Users then vote on the best ones, and they get added to the virtual city. This one strikes me a bit like online Lego, and the emphasis is very much on building and not management.

You’ll need to register to build, or you can simply choose a city from the drop down list and click City View and see what everybody else has been building.


city building games

I know, I know. You’re sick of FarmVille, so why on earth do you want to hear about CityVille? Well considering there’s already more than 20 million people playing it I figured it would be an injustice to not include it on the list.

If you’re fine with yet another application accessing all your personal data and posting whatever it feels like to your wall then CityVille might appeal. The game is a casual Sim City-esque sim in which you take a humble town and turn it into a sprawling metropolis.

Graphically the game looks awesome, and there’s the added social interactions provided by the Facebook platform. If only it didn’t clog up your feeds, eh?

There are a few more Facebook games, that I’ve left out (it’s quite a saturated market, and Facebook isn’t for everyone).  If you’re interested, they were:

Have you found any other cool city building games? Do you prefer building or managing? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit : Shutterstock

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3 Resources For Windows 7 Printer Drivers To Get Your Printer Working

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 03:31 PM PST

windows 7 printer driversUpgrading to a new operating system comes with a lot of benefits. New shiny graphical interface, more features, and if it came with a new computer, you will also enjoy an enhanced performance. Unfortunately, the problems start when you try to connect peripheral devices.

Back when you bought that printer, Windows Vista was probably still called Longhorn and no one expected Windows 7 to follow so quickly. Quite expectantly, the manufacturer didn’t deliver a driver compatible with the new Windows fleet. It becomes worse, when Windows doesn’t recognize your device because the respective driver is not included. Is that the end?

Definitely not. There are several sources to turn to for Windows Vista and Windows 7 printer drivers. The respective hardware manufacturer should be number one on your list, followed by the sites that I introduce below. Only if an extended online search for a compatible driver yields no result should you consider to give up your prematurely antiqued printer and invest in a new one.

Windows 7 Compatibility Center

If you haven’t upgraded to Windows 7, yet, visit the Compatibility Center to see whether your printer is compatible with Windows 7. Switch to the > Hardware tab, mouse-over > Printers & Scanners, and start clicking through to the right category. You will find a list of compatible printers sorted by manufacturer.

windows 7 printer drivers

USB Printers

Are you trying to install a USB printer on Windows 7? Always try to connect the printer to the computer, regardless of what the manufacturer’s instructions say. Once the device is connected via USB, Windows 7 will detect the hardware and attempt to install it. That’s when you will see whether or not Windows is able to find the driver on its own.

Note that you can often use Windows Vista drivers on Windows 7 since the two operating systems are based on the same ‘architecture’.

Manufacturer Websites

If your printer isn’t listed as compatible with Windows 7 and if the plug-and-play install didn’t work, you should turn to the manufacturer. Here is a list of the most popular printer manufacturers with a link to their drivers download page, where possible:

  • Hewlett Packard - Enter the product name / number. Be sure to check the additional information, like how to install the driver or troubleshooting guides.
  • Canon - Pick your geographical location from the map, then click the > Support & Drivers link in the top right and click your way through to the product your own. Once you’re there, you can select your operating system from a drop-down menu.
  • Epson - Select your location from the map, find the > Drivers & Support link in the top menu, enter the product name into the > Product Finder field or visually browse by category and device.
  • Lexmark - Click on > Select Your Product and visually scroll through the category and devices or directly enter the product name.
  • Brother - > Select Product Group then > Select Model and click > View to see available drivers and information.
  • Dell - Select your location from the top left drop-down menu. Then selet your support category and navigate your way to your product. Note the > Drivers and Downloads category in the left-hand menu. Click on > Drivers Home and > Select Model to proceed to the printer category and a list of devices.

Finding a driver isn’t rocket science. However, Windows isn’t Linux, so if the manufacturer’s website doesn’t provide a compatible driver, chances are low that you will find the driver somewhere else. It’s still worth looking, though. The last resort for finding a compatible driver are the following two sites and a plain old Google search.

Driver Guide

On this website you can search for the device model name and number to find available drivers. You can also browse by manufacturer or device to quickly get to the source. It’s a great tool not only for finding printer drivers, but also for updating all hardware drivers on your system.

A major drawback is that many drivers are not free. However, at least you will know that a driver is out there. And if a valid driver exists, chances are good that you can get it for free somewhere.

installing printer drivers in windows 7

Like the previous resource, this site will find your drivers for all sorts of hardware. You can browse their index by category or company. Below is an example for a driver search result after passing the CAPTCHA test. Downloads from this site are generally free.

windows 7 printer drivers

Finally, if none of the above resources knew about a Windows 7 driver for your printer, you can still search Google and hope for a small miracle. I do hope, however, that you found the driver you were looking for and are now wondering how to install it. In case you’re stuck with, this Windows 7 Printer Drivers resource from iYogi should help.

Are you new to Windows 7? Want to know more? Have a look at the following related resources:

Were any of the above resources helpful? How did you solve your Windows 7 printer driver dilemma? Where did you find your driver?

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4 Online Self-Publishers To Help With That Book You Said You’d Write

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 01:31 PM PST

print on demand publishersDid you just promise yourself you’d write a book? Many of us make resolutions at this time of the year to finally start writing a novel or a picture book for children. If you’re one of the many, you’re probably not expecting a book deal. Rather, you’re just looking to get it written and put it out there for those who are interested in reading it.

If this is you, then a print-on-demand publisher is exactly what you’re looking for. You don’t need to spend much (or any) money upfront – all you really do is publicise your book and the buyers can get one made when they want it. Meanwhile, you could be making a small amount or a large amount in passive income and it hasn’t cost you much except your time spent writing. Sounds good?

Choosing your print-on-demand (POD) book publisher is another thing entirely. In the end, it comes down to your needs and your particular book. For instance, some publishers are better at printing novels or photography books than others. Some will give you better royalties, while others will do a better job of helping you with promotion. To help you choose, here’s a list of four of the best online print-on-demand book publishers and a few of their key features.

1. Lulu

Lulu is one of the larger publishers and will happily cater for many types of books. You can easily publish a novel, a cookbook, or simply create a photo book for your family. They have the ability to publish and sell eBooks on your behalf and claim to have the largest distribution channels of all online publishers. Useful free services include consultations, while paid services offered include cover design, ISBN purchasing and distribution. If you choose to sell in the Lulu Marketplace without an ISBN, your upfront costs are negligible.

You can also set your profits by choosing your own royalties and Lulu makes its money by taking a small cut from your sales. Lulu pays royalties via Paypal or cheque. Read more about publishing with Lulu here.

print on demand publishers

2. Blurb

Blurb is well known for its full colour photography-based books, however it also offers a couple of black and white text novel options. You can either use their online software to prepare a book or you can upload a pre-prepared PDF. Whichever option you choose, there’s no upfront costs.

When you sell the book, Blurb takes a small fee. Plus, you can set your own prices and thereby choose your own profit margin. Blurb offers payments through PayPal.

print on demand

3. Wordclay

Wordclay offers a basic DIY publishing service which is free for publishers. If you wish to pay a modest fee, services such as editing, ISBNs and distribution are available to you as well.

Again, you can choose your own royalty and Wordclay takes a cut from your sales. Wordclay sends US cheques.

print on demand

4. CreateSpace (aka Booksurge)

CreateSpace offers a DIY “no fees upfront” royalty-based publishing option to complement their regular publishing offers. They are actually part of the Amazon group of companies, so there’s no extra fees involved to distribute your book through Amazon. ISBNs can be obtained for free via CreateSpace.

CreateSpace also claim to offer the best royalties in the business — plus they allow you to choose your own royalty. Royalties can be paid by US cheque or to a US bank account.

print on demand publishers

Words of Advice

When choosing your publisher, make sure you research well and ensure it’s a good fit for you before you commit your time and money or sign any agreements. Companies such as these do have the occasional unhappy customer but it’s not the norm. Here’s a few important things to look out for:

  • For non-US citizens, remember that different companies have different tax witholding requirements and that the cheque fees and your ability to deposit US cheques may de-value your earnings somewhat.
  • Having your book formally listed with an ISBN will often require you to ensure the quality of your book. This may require you to purchase a copy of your book each and every time you make a change (this can include price or directory changes). If you sign up for an ISBN, read the fine print, be prepared to purchase if required and don’t make changes to your book after this unless it’s very important.
  • No-frills DIY publishers will endeavour to make money from added extras such as cover art, editing and ISBNs. If you want to use these services, ensure you compare the prices between publishers and the cost of doing it yourself.

More about Self-Publishing and Writing

You might also like these articles on publishing and creating books:

If you’ve written your own book and have self-published, let us know about your experiences with the publishers. Who did you choose and why? Were there any unforseen problems? Were you happy with the book quality? Let us know in the comments!

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Hot Tech Deals [Dec 23rd]

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 12:15 PM PST

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. Dell Vostro 3300 Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz 13.3in Laptop (Aluminum, 2GB/250GB) $599

  2. LG 55LH85 55in LCD HDTV (1080p, 120Hz) $1299.99 Free Ship

  3. TODAY ONLY Dell V515W Color Inkjet All-in-One Printer w/ Fax, 802.11n Wireless $79.99 Free Ship

  4. TODAY ONLY Logitech V220 Cordless Optical Mouse $14.99 Free Shipping

  5. HP G62 Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz 15.6in Laptop (3GB/320GB) $429.99

  6. LG 55LH85 55in LCD HDTV (1080p, 120Hz) $1299.99 Free Ship

Image credit: Modified from Svengraph’s icon set

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5 Services That De-Clutter The Web For Readers

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 11:31 AM PST

readable onlineThe web is a very cluttered place. Everyone is competing for your valuable attention, so they fill their sites with ads, social media buttons and countless other distractions. If you’d rather your attention was devoted to the article you’re currently reading, though, consider removing everything from the screen except the text you’re currently reading.

There’s a variety of free web apps and browser extensions out there to help you accomplish just that, and all of them are free. If you’d like your reading to be more peaceful, one of them is right for you. Everything here is free, so you might as well try them all and find out what service you like best.


readable online

You could argue this is the original tool for this job, and it’s good at it. Working on any browser with bookmarks, ReadAbility is installed by dragging a bookmarklet to your shortcut bar. Then, when you’re reading an article on a particularly busy site, you can simply click your bookmark to remove all formating. Nice!

There are even plugins for Chrome and Firefox, both of which allow you to customize the look and feel of pages you make readable. Check out Readabiliy.

Safari Browser

readability web application

If you’ve got Safari, you’ve got a simple way to reduce online clutter while reading. One of the useful features of Safari 5 is the “Reader.” Based on ReadAbility, this plugin provides a simple way to just see the article you’re reading. Click the “Reader” button in your taskbar and you’re good to go. It even parses multi-page articles to one page, meaning you don’t have to keep clicking “next page” to keep reading. Brilliant!


readability web application

Want something like Safari Reader in Chrome of Firefox? You’re in luck! You can download iReader, an extension for decluttered reading in Chrome and Firefox. Like Safari’s Reader, iReader parses multi-page articles for you. Unlike Safari’s Reader, you don’t have to use Safari. Nice.


readability web application

More than a way to remove distractions for an article, Instapaper is a way to manage your bookmarks and reading list. Heck, it even offers you an iPhone app, a Kindle subscription and an ePub download, meaning you can read your saved articles on practically any device. If you’ve got such a device, you’ll love Instapaper. Even if you don’t, though, it’s a pretty great tool for saving articles you want to read later – and reading them distraction-free.


readable online

This one’s pretty. Like Readability, installation is as simple as dragging a bookmarklet to your toolbar. Unlike Readability, you can quickly and easily change the text and background color: just select from the options at the top-right. It doesn’t seem to support pictures at all, but it’s still a great option to check out if you’re not quite happy with any of the above plugins and tools. Check out NotForest right now.

Know of another? Please, share it below. As usual, also feel free to ask anything about how to use these plugins, because I like to help.

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Manage All Of Your Google Tasks With Integrated Gmail For Firefox

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 10:31 AM PST

how to open a gmail account with firefoxI have to admit that over the years I’ve slowly gravitated toward utilizing Google apps for just about everything. First it was Gmail. Then, it was Calendar and Tasks. Finally I started using Google Reader, Google Notepad and most recently Google Voice.

While I love each of these services, the one thing that irritates me the most is that you would think it would be easier to view all of the data from each of these Google services in one spot. While there are apps that will import some of your Google information like DocsInOffice, which imports Google Docs into Office, or the 5 apps Jason covered that let you access Google Tasks from your desktop, it’s hard to find a way to draw multiple data streams from your Google services into a convenient central point.

There are ways to do it, and maybe you already have your favorite method to access multiple Google apps, but once I discovered the Integrated Gmail Firefox plugin, I knew I’d finally found a keeper.

Setting Up Integrated Gmail

Once you install Integrated Gmail into Firefox, make sure to click on the Options button in the add-ons window so that you can set up Integrated Gmail to work with all of your Gmail accounts. In my case I have my personal account, and then a couple of accounts that I use with other clients that I work with. By utilizing Integrated Gmail, you can configure each Gmail access point as a collection of a list of your most important Google services, like Calendar, Tasks, Reader, Voice and more.

how to open a gmail account with firefox

For each Gmail account you want to set up, click on “Add” and add each Google service you want to include within the Gmail page for that account. For example, in my case I’m going to include Reader and Voice for my private Gmail account, but for my MakeUseOf account I’m going to stick to Calendar and Tasks.

For each service, there are a list of settings that you can configure for how that service will display within your Gmail window in Firefox.

gmail firefox

Now, when you go into Gmail and log into that account, the plug-in looks up your configuration settings and loads all of your preferred services into your Gmail display. As you can see below, now you can access every one of these services within one Firefox tab, just by clicking on the “+” button to expand that service.

gmail firefox

Below, I’ve dropped down my Google Reader account within Gmail. I have to be honest, I rarely ever take the time to visit Google Reader. I have it all set up to pull in feeds from some of my favorite blogs, but I rarely, if ever, take the time to go in and check it out. Well, now that it’s right there within Gmail – I can glance through the titles in my favorite blogs at the same time that I check my emails every day.

gmail firefox

And then there’s Calendar and Tasks. I have periods where I spend hours configuring one of the most well thought out schedules that incorporates every single thing I have to get done for the month. I might even configure email reminders for important tasks so that I don’t forget when they’re due. However, nine times out of ten, after the first few days of the month, I just stop visiting Google Calendar. Well, now you can have it right within Gmail, as another drop down only a click away.

open gmail with firefox

Another nice feature of Integrated Gmail are the “collapse” arrows. Both the left menu bar and the top search bar feature green arrows that, when you click, let you collapse the navigation bar to make more room for the content that you want to view in the center pane.

open gmail with firefox

Now, once you configure different Google accounts within Integrated Gmail, when you log into your other Google Account, the tool immediately recognizes this and utilizes your settings for that account. For example, when I switch to MakeUseOf, my Gmail page features the unique Calendar and To-Do list for that account. This lets you quickly and easily switch between your roles, with all of the Calendars, Tasks, Docs and everything else nicely organized within the Gmail page for that account.

open gmail with firefox

As a final useful feature, the Gmail tab also gives you a quick view of all of the content within Integrated Gmail. It’ll show you the number of new email messages, reader updates, voice messages and so on.

how to open a gmail account with firefox

There are a few things that I would probably add to this tool, like the ability to reduce the size of displayed items in the dropdown window, and also the ability to organize them side-by-side rather than just one on top of the other. However, as it is, the plug-in does exactly what I’ve been looking for – it transforms the Gmail page into a central data feed for the most commonly used Google services.

Give Integrated Gmail a try and let us know what you think. Do you know of any other plugins or desktop tools that do the same thing? Share your own ideas and insight in the comments section below.



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Other Ways To Send Emails & SMSs If You Hate Mobile Touchscreen Keyboards

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 09:31 AM PST

sms text messagingOne of the most common complaints about smartphones heard around the office is that they “do not like the touch keyboard!” Surely this is a very important concern for someone who does not like the lack of tactile feedback or is just not very adept at typing on a touchscreen while on the go. This should be a major consideration during the smartphone purchase but there are a number of reasons you might be stuck with a touchscreen keyboard. Maybe the device is mandated by your work or you are stuck with your phone until your contract is up.

Whatever the reason, we feel your pain and are here to offer some alternatives which should help you during your daily text-input needs.

Speech to Text

One of the best ways to replace a touch screen keyboard is to “talk” and have your device automatically convert your speech to text. Android devices, since 2.1, have this feature built in on any text fields, making it very easy for someone to talk in their text and have it transcribed for them. See below for solutions on other platforms.

Dragon Dictation

sms text messaging

Dragon is a famous name in text-to-speech circles since the 1990s and is also a leader in both speed and accuracy. You used to have to train your program to learn your voice and its nuances but now it can readily convert just about any voice to text.

It is available for both iOS devices and Blackberry, but does not have tight integration with the original applications. The program works to transcribe your speech, and then you can send it to the application you want to have the text display in. Dragon Dictation is free. (iOS, Blackberry)


Vlingo is another stand alone application that turns your words into actions. For example, you can say “Email Samantha” or “Text Kate” and Vlingo will prompt a box where you can then say your message and send it, right from the program. It is available for many platforms (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile) and has a free parts but text transcription for sms and email is paid portion which costs about $6.99.

“Quick Replies”

A “Quick Reply” also known as a “Template” is a prepared message that you can select to send out to your contact. It saves you from having to type in the entire message, instead relying on you selecting the message from a menu. It is a good way to continue using your touchscreen while making it unnecessary to use the keyboard to actually compose an exact message. They can also be considered a timesaver since you can use the template and modify it to your needs.


sending sms

BiteSMS is free but available for iOS jailbreak devices only. In addition to a lot of other features, it includes templates that you can send to your contacts – text messages only – by selecting them from a menu. Of course the downside is that it is for Jailbreak only so this limits who will use this application.


sending sms

Txeet is available for iPhone and Android and is a standalone app which includes lots of text templates that you can send to your contacts via SMS or email. SMS integration isn’t that great, but with email you can select your requested template and it will automatically compose the message. An alternative for Android is Handcent.


sending sms

On the Blackberry side of things, xTemplate is a utility that tightly integrates with the Blackberry messenger system to allow you to send templates into the text input area. It seems to work really well as a “Quick reply” function, but the downside is that it costs $4.99. For a free alternative, check out Autotext which is built directly into BBM. With a little tweaking, you can create a short code which will expand into a longer message which is exactly what we get with an external program.

Keyboard Alternatives

Finally if you are just tired of the keyboard altogether there are some alternatives. Unfortunately for iPhone users, Apple has a tight control over the keyboard and as of yet does not allow programmers to replace the currently keyboard with any sort of customized one. Even if your phone is jailbroken, there are just no alternatives yet.


send sms

Swype is a keyboard alternative where you draw on the the screen instead of “typing” letters. Android users I know who use it swear by it and say it saves them a ton of time typing in messages. I would have to agree with them, this is basically the “evolution” of the keyboard for mobile devices. It is available on certain handsets and may soon be available on Blackberry.

Bluetooth Keyboard

sms text messaging

Obviously this is not an alternative if you are on the go, but if you often find the need to type in long messages on your phone, a bluetooth keyboard would be invaluable. Once you pair the keyboard to your phone, you use it just like the keyboard at your computer to type in a message. Some friends I know of actually use this method to replace an entire laptop on trips, since you can still type in long messages – just with a tiny screen.

What Works Best For You?

Each person’s phone usage is different, so the bottom line is to try out different programs to see what works for you. If you have any solution that you feel is worthy, make sure to share in the comments below!

Image credit: Shutterstock

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How To Set Up A Cron Job To Automate Your Domains & Databases

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 08:31 AM PST

cron jobIn a very basic sense, the computer was created to make our life easier – to take repetitive tasks out of our hands so we can focus more on the creative side. Imagine what kind of Internet life we would have if the computer couldn’t – for example – detect and block unwanted malicious sites automatically. Doing that manually on a regular basis would eat up our precious time so much that it would not be worth connecting to the Internet in the first place.

Automation is an inseparable part of the computer universe. We have different applications to do different kinds of automation on our computer.  On the server side, that automation agent is called Cron.

The Definition

The first place that I’d go to find a definition would be Wikipedia. Here’s their explanation of Cron Job:

“Cron” is a time-based job scheduler in Unix-like computer operating systems. The name cron comes from the word “chronos”, Greek for “time”. Cron enables users to schedule jobs (commands or shell scripts) to run periodically at certain times or dates. It is commonly used to automate system maintenance or administration, though its general-purpose nature means that it can be used for other purposes, such as connecting to the Internet and downloading email.

If you manage your own website(s), or self-hosted blog, you will likely come across cron jobs at some point. But please note that not all webhosting accounts includes cron jobs. It depends on the plan that you subscribe to. If you want to try creating and running one yourself, you should contact your hosting company regarding this matter.

Cron jobs have served server admins for ages, but that doesn’t mean ordinary webmasters can’t use the tool. Here are several possible – humbler – usages of cron jobs :

  • to regularly and automatically back up database(s).
  • to automatically deactivate expired accounts in membership sites.
  • to do regular web maintenance such as checking broken links.
  • to send regular newsletter emails.
  • to update your database with traffic summaries.
  • to send updates of your web status to your email.

How To Set Up Cron Jobs

Before we start anything, please remember that different hosting companies have different ways to do cron jobs. The most common location of this feature is in the CPanel. But again, please consult your hosting company regarding this matter. The example below is done on my hosting’s CPanel.

cron job

Even though there might be some differences in the setup between webhosts, the basic settings of cron jobs are similar:

  • defining what command to execute,
  • where to send the result,
  • and how often should the repetition be.

cron job definition

A cron job could execute either a simple one line Unix command like:

echo “You can write anything here”

Or a set of complex command lines. But if there is more than one line of command, everything should be compiled into a script and uploaded into a location on your web host. Then write down the path of the script in the “Command to execute” field. By writing down the file path, you are telling cron to run that script at the pre-determined time cycle.

It’s advisable to put your scripts above your web’s main directory so that they won’t be accessible in the browser. Create a new folder and save your scripts there. This is an important step to keep your scripts from the public eye.

cron job definition

But some hosts restrict users from modifying this area. If this is the case, you can put the scripts within the main directory, but make sure that the location stays secret.

Real-Life Examples

Let’s look at some examples of setting up cron jobs. The first one is using a simple one line command to execute.

Step one is writing down the command. In this example, I use:

echo “test”

which tells cron to generate the text: “test” (sans quote) at regular intervals.

cron jobs tutorial

I defined the email address where the generated text should be sent to, set the interval to 5 minutes, and clicked “Add Crontab” to activate it.

The result of this setup is that every 5 minutes I will get an email containing the word “test”.

Now let’s move to another less simple example. I want to set a system to backup my WordPress database automatically. Since I’m not good with scripting, I’ll just use a ready made WordPress database backup script available here.

I downloaded the script and uploaded it to my WordPress server using the online file manager within the CPanel.

cron jobs tutorial

Then I made a note about the path where this script is located. Since different hosting providers use different systems, you might see different settings. Please consult your hosting company about this file path.

cron jobs tutorial

I wrote down the file path as the command to execute, set the interval every midnight twice a month, and clicked “Add Crontab” to activate it.

cron job

These two examples demonstrate that setting up cron jobs is not as scary as many people imagine it.

Cron jobs might not be something that common internet users would often use. But knowing more about it and setting it up yourself might come in handy at a time when you have to automate a certain server-side task.

Have you ever set up a cron job for your websites? What was it for? Share your experiences using the comments below.

Image credit: dreamsjung

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3 Ways Windows Defender Can Protect Your PC

Posted: 23 Dec 2010 07:31 AM PST

windows defender Microsoft has always been criticized for the security of Windows. The company’s isn’t deaf or blind, however, and over the years has added numerous features to its latest Windows operating systems in an attempt to shed this bad reputation. This includes applications like Windows Action Center, Microsoft Security Essentials, and Windows Defender.

Windows Defender is a built-in anti-spyware application. It is not an antivirus, for the most part, although it does have a limited ability to find and remove security threats. Its main function is to find and delete spyware that might slow your PC. Let’s take a look at what Windows Defender has to offer.

Anti-Spyware Protection

windows defender

The main purpose of anti-spyware software is to protect from spyware, and alas, that’s what Windows Defender does! Like most such programs, the primary method of protection is the good old-fashioned scan. There are three options available in Windows Defender – quick scan, full scan and custom scan. The quick scan and full scan features behave as you’d expect, while the custom scan lets you scan specific drives and folders instead of your entire PC.

what is windows defender

As is the case with many free anti-spyware applications, in-depth reviews are hard to come by. Back in 2007, CNET reviewed Windows Defender and found that it was actually very effective for a free solution, but it fell far behind the best paid software. Other tests were harder on Windows Defender, but again, they date to 2007. What is certain that some anti-spyware protection is better than none. Just be sure not to confuse this with an antivirus, because it isn’t meant to be one, and doesn’t provide (much) protection against such malware.

Windows Defender can also run scans automatically. This feature can be adjusted in the Automatic scanning section of the Options menu.

Real-Time Protection

what is windows defender

Windows Defender doesn’t just attempt to find spyware when you are scanning your PC. It also has real-time protection, which is designed to stop any spyware that is detected on your system the moment it takes root. These features can be found in the Options section, under the Real-time protection section, and are turned on by default.

The real-time protection includes the ability to scan files and attachments that you’re downloading to determine if they carry any spyware. If they do, Windows Defender can alert you and, if you wish, quarantine or remove the files. In addition to this, the program can intercept spyware that is actively attempting to run on your PC. As with file downloads, Defender can alert you if a program on your PC is known spyware.

The severity of Defender’s reaction to detected items can be found in the Default actions section of the Options menu. By default, the program will take a recommended action based on the spyware that is discovered. However, you can adjust these settings to ensure the spyware is automatically quarantined or removed no matter what type of threat is found.

Peer Protection With SpyNet Community

windows defender The ominously named Microsoft SpyNet is one of many recent examples of cloud malware protection. The idea behind it is that even the smartest group of security experts could never detect all spyware all the time. There will always been new spyware, or old spyware that slipped through the cracks. The only way to minimize this problem is to catch problems as they occur – and that means enlisting user computers in the fight.

Computers enlisted in SpyNet share information about the spyware they encounter through Windows Defender, creating a catalog of spyware that was not officially diagnosed but rather picked up by one of the member PCs and then determined to be spyware by Defender. This helps aid everyone’s security. Microsoft is far from the only company doing this – many antivirus programs use a similar tactic.

You can opt out of the SpyNet community if you’d like. Otherwise, you have the choice of a basic or advanced membership. Both memberships send information about spyware detected, but advanced membership lets Windows Defender send information about the software impacted, including the file names of programs and documents and detailed information about the spyware’s damage to your PC.


Windows Defender should be seen for what it is – a simple free anti-spyware program. It isn’t very advanced, but it does offer basic protection and peace-of-mind.

Currently, Microsoft seems to be in a transition period, as the functionality of Defender overlaps with that of Microsoft Security Essentials, the free anti-malware software from Microsoft. I suspect that Microsoft does not ship Security Essentials with Windows 7 only because it wants to avoid any accusations of monopolistic behavior by antivirus companies. However, the information I provided here also applies directly to Security Essentials. It too offers scans and real-time protection, and it too includes Microsoft SpyNet functionality.

If you already have anti-spyware functionality provided by other software, it’s wise to disable Windows Defender, as doing so will eliminate the possibility of conflict between programs.

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