4 Free (or Super-Cheap) and Useful Computer Tools

In honor of the giant PHEW I breathed when my hard drive went kaput a month ago and everything I owned (intellectually) disappeared — and then magically reappeared — I wanted to share with you my four favorite computer programs that are free or so cheap and useful that you won’t care they’re not free.

If you use more than one computer: Dropbox (Free)

I can work hard on my desktop during the day, but when the sun goes down, I love cuddling up with the MacBook Pro laptop my dad handed down to me.  (Thanks, Dad.)  What a buzzkill, however, when I have to get up off the couch into the cold air and go email myself something I left on the other computer.  Life is hard, isn’t it?  (If I worked outside the home, I’d be similarly bummed if I realized mid-commute that I’d left an important document on my home computer.)

Another problem with emailing yourself documents is that you end up creating several versions of the same document, which can get very messy and confusing.

Enter Dropbox.  After downloading the software to your computer, a little Dropbox folder will appear.  You just drag and drop into the Dropbox folder any documents or photos or things you want to have when you’re on vacation or otherwise away from your main computer, and voila’, there they are!

Up to 2 GB of stuff is free and you can download it onto as many computers as you like.

If you write a lot: Notational Velocity (Free)

I love Microsoft Word to make complicated things like tables or footnotes or flyers with graphics, but using Word for plain text documents is like asking a team of Disney designers to draw a smiley face.

I had been using the simple TextEdit that came with my Mac, but when I read about the quickness and simplicity of Notational Velocity on the mnmlist, I had to try it out. So far, I’m loving it.

I write a lot of notes and ideas for articles or blog posts, which end up cluttering up my desktop or lying fallow in some dark folder. Notational Velocity lets you create new documents lightning fast, without a mouse and without having to choose menu items such as New Document, Save As, or Close Document.

I love that creating a new note (or draft or document) means simply typing a title and then hitting return. To find notes, you just type in a key word and — as you type — documents that have that word in the title or body start appearing.  This software would also be great for people who have to take notes at meetings or conferences.

Two added pluses:

1.  You never a need to save, since the program is constantly saving your work automatically.

2.  You can have your work saved in your Dropbox folder so you can access your notes from any computer. (If you want to do this, follow these important configuration instructions.)

Notational Velocity is only available for Mac right now.  Windows users might want to try a similar program called Notes.

If you need to know what to wear: Weather.com Gadgets (Free)

You already probably know about Weather.com’s little buttons you can install on your own computer, but I had to include them in this list because I use them every day.

My second- and third-graders want to know if it’s a long- or short-sleeved day while I’m still clearing the sleep from my eyes, so I like how keystroke-free these buttons are.  After downloading a widget to my Mac (or gadget for Windows users), all I do is click on a button and I get the day’s highs, lows and forecast.

Since I also love walking my kids to school, I often check my favorite feature: Hourly. A click on this button takes you to the Weather.com website, and hour-by-hour precipitation reports automatically appear for your area.  Also, gotta dig the “feels like” feature.  Because even if it’s technically 50 degrees out, the wind chill might make it feel like 32.  Long underwear!

If you hate backing up your computer: Backblaze ($5/mo.)

I hate to use the word hate, but before I found Backblaze, I felt that way about backing up my computer. It was worse than a chore. At least with chores, you are rewarded with the tactile satisfaction of a clean pile of laundry or a neat closet.

What’s great about programs like Backblaze is that — you don’t have to do a thing! They work in the background — backing up everything that is on your computer without your even knowing it. And unlike backing up to disks, external drives or other websites, with Backblaze you get unlimited storage.

I officially became a big fan after Backblaze rescued me when the worst happened. Our desktop computer wouldn’t start up. I wasn’t a true believer until we got our new hard drive installed and I requested a restore file of all my husband’s work documents and all our photos — 10,000 of them (we have enthusiastic grandparents).

True to its promise, Backblaze sent me a zip file 36 gigabytes big and — after a download that took all night long — I am one happy mama. Everything is there — from my old college term papers to pictures of my firstborn in the arms of her late grandmother.

$5 per month is not free, but if the ease of this program (that is, you do nothing) means your priceless stuff gets safeguarded, then it’s worth it.  The alternatives are scary:  you lose everything, you sink thousands of dollars into DriveSavers, or the worst case scenario — both.

p.s. I hear that newer versions of Mac computers come with a similar program called Time Machine. If you’ve got that, you’re even luckier!

What free (or cheap) software programs make your life easier?

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1 comment

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