WinDirStat: A graphical folder display

Have you ever found yourself low on disk space and wondered where it all went? Have you ever needed to make extra room but not known which files/folders were eating up the most storage? If you've ever been in one of these situations, you can appreciate the value of a graphical storage display utility like WinDirStat.

In a nutshell, this application will scan selected drives or folders on any medium (hard disk, removable, flash drive, optical disc, network drive, etc) and display a graphical representation of how much space is consumed by each folder and file. Each folder is represented by a rectangle which may be comprised of smaller rectangles that represent sub-folders. Files at the same level in the hierarchy are coded in the same color. By looking at the relative size (area) of each block, it becomes easy to see at a glance which files and folders are taking up the most space. Selecting a particular block will identify the folder or file that it represents in the top pane of the window, and from there you can take appropriate action -- delete the file, move it, open it to see its contents, and so forth.

Recently I was trying to determine why my laptop hard drive had gotten full, and WinDirStat helped me to quickly identify a directory full of temporary Zune video conversion files as the offending culprit. I also caught an ISO that I had created but not deleted which was taking up another chunk of space. I was able to recover about 30 GB of space in a matter of minutes. Doing the same task by clicking through folders and checking properties could have eaten up half an hour. The simple genius of showing the space representation graphically cannot be overstated.

WinDirStat is free to download and use, but they do accept donations to support the project. After using it a couple of times, I think you'll agree that its worth at least five dollars. And if you're a Mac user, check out GrandPerspective which does the same thing on computers running Mac OS.

TrueCrypt: Free open-source on-the-fly encryption

Reading about others who have fallen victim to a steady stream of exploits has me extra-conscious about security these days. I'm trying to choose better passwords and lock down files with sensitive information. That latter point is especially important to me since I'm storing, transferring, and backing up more files through the cloud.

One of the best utilities for encrypting personal data is TrueCrypt. Using this freeware program, users can create single-file archives that encrypt any data stored in them. What makes TrueCrypt special is that these archives are mounted and accessed just like regular drives in your operating system. That means that you can save files from your favorite application directly into the TrueCrypt volume. You can copy, rename, or delete files using the same file managers you typically use. Once a volume has been mounted, no special accomodations are needed to store and retrieve files in it. It couldn't be easier.

Once the volume has been dismounted, it looks like a single file. That file can itself can moved or copied, and it will take all the encrypted data along with it. The file can be created at a fixed size or grow to accommodate data as it is stored in the volume (a less secure method, by the way). More advanced users may choose to encrypt an entire physical volume using TrueCrypt. This can be done if you want to encrypt an entire hard drive or flash drive, for instance.

TrueCrypt encrypts data using some of the industry's best algorithms, ciphers with names like AES, Serpent, and Twofish, alone or in combination with others. The volumes are password protected, which means, as always, that the protection your files enjoy is only as good as the password you choose. The encryption itself, however, is notoriously difficult to break.

TrueCrypt runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS, and volumes can be moved across platforms. It's free to download and use, but they do accept donations.

Doro PDF Writer

If you use computers long enough, you will probably come to a time when you need to create a PDF (Portable Document Format). PDFs are great for disseminating information in a read-only format (i.e. cases where you just need someone to see a document without being able to edit/change it) with the original formatting intact. What is especially useful is that the person viewing the PDF document only needs a PDF viewer like Adobe Reader or Foxit Reader, both of which are available for free.

The easiest and most reliable software that I have found for creating PDF files is Doro PDF Writer. Once installed, this program will add a printer driver to your computer. You create your document as you normally would using Microsoft Word or Publisher, Corel WordPerfect, or whatever software you like. When you're ready to convert it into a PDF, you use your software's Print capability but select the special Doro PDF Writer printer that has been installed.  Once you click the Print button, the Doro software will present you with a dialog box that allows you to choose a location and filename for your PDF file as well as some other descriptive fields about the document itself. You even get the option to open the file in your PDF reader so that you can see if it looks proper before sending it to other people.

One of the other nice features about Doro PDF Writer is the Encryption tab that allows you to encrypt your PDFs with a password during the creation process. Anyone attempting to open the document will need to enter the password before it can be seen in a viewer. Even Adobe's own PDF-creating printer driver cannot add encryption to the document as it is being created. On the down side, the encryption currently used is the 128-bit RC4 encryption of Adobe Acrobat 5.0 (back when it was called Acrobat Reader and not just Reader) and not the more secure 256-bit AES encryption currently used by Acrobat X. On the positive side, however, this does mean that the PDFs created this way can be opened with older versions of the software, and 128-bit encryption is still plenty secure for all but the most sensitive information.

Doro PDF Writer is available for free and works with all recent versions of Windows. Download it and start creating PDF files in no time.

Two Personal VPN Services: GoTrusted and blackVPN

Business travelers use virtual private networks (VPNs) to connect securely to their offices while they're on the road. The "virtual" part allows them to interact with their corporate network as if they were in the office; the "private" part is provided by encryption so that corporate transmission contents remain secret as they travel across the public Internet.

There are companies that provide VPN services to individuals for a fee. The emphasis here is more on the "private" than the "virtual," but VPNs may still be useful to security-conscious computer users. If you're conducting sensitive activities on an untrusted network (an airport or coffee shop, for instance) then you may benefit from having a personal VPN service.

I have used two VPN services that I liked: GoTrusted and blackVPN.

GoTrusted: $5.99 per month (server in Hollywood, FL)
GoTrusted is designed for simplicity. They provide software to install their VPN client on Windows PCs and Macs, which can be run like a regular application when the VPN is needed.  There are also easy instructions for configuring the VPN on iOS and Android devices in case you'd like to protect traffic on your mobile device also. I was a huge fan of GoTrusted until I upgraded to Windows 7. Now I experience intermittent disconnections while using the VPN client. Unfortunately, it's not always clear that I have been disconnected which I find unnerving. The only thing worse than not having protection is falsely believing that you do.

blackVPN: starts at €5 per month (servers in six countries and growing)
blackVPN is a tad more complicated to set up than GoTrusted, but just as easy to use and far more flexible. It can be configured using simple PPTP or the more secure OpenVPN, and it works on Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, and Android. With blackVPN I get connected quickly and stay connected. Transmission speeds are typically fast enough for me to forget that I'm routing my traffic across a VPN. There are several price points available depending on how many servers you wish to access (one, two, three, or all six) and how long you wish to subscribe (one, three, or twelve months). Please note that the cost is in Euros, so the actual cost may fluctuate along with the currency valuation.

At this time, I highly recommend blackVPN for anyone that needs a personal VPN. They have the best combination of price and reliability that I have encountered in the four different services I have used. In addition, they support a wide range of OSes and connection protocols, meaning that you'll probably be covered no matter what devices you use.

You can get two months of blackVPN service free when you pay for your first month if you use the referral code RUUMTNS on checkout.

Dropbox: Online File Storage

Many of us have more than one computer in our lives. Between desktops and laptops and smartphones or home and work and school, we often need to use different computers to access the same set of files.

Faced with this problem, most of us resort to flash drives or email. Sure, we can copy the files we need to a flash drive that we carry around with us, but that leaves the files vulnerable to accidental destruction, theft, or just being forgotten somewhere. Yes, we can email files to ourselves, but that requires mailing a file and then mailing it back if modifications were made. And if the files in question are large, forget about it; email is slow and cumbersome in that case if it works at all. And all of this assumes that you have the foresight and memory to know that you'll need the files before you leave.

If you've ever faced any of these situations, then you need Dropbox.

Dropbox is an online file storage repository. Your files are uploaded to Dropbox and then those files are available on any computer that has Internet access. Simple.

The are two ways to get files to/from Dropbox. The simplest method is to use a web browser to upload and download files individually or as a group. The more flexible method is to install a small client program that monitors changes to files and then synchronizes them between the online storage and specific folders on your target computers. This means that if you change a file on one computer, that changed file gets transferred to the online storage, and then any other computers with the client installed will download that changed file. This way, all the attached computers stay synchronized automatically with little or no intervention on your part.

There are a few advantages to using Dropbox over the email/flash drive methods mentioned above. First, files are automatically synchronized between computers, so there's no wondering about whether any computer has the latest file. Second, there's automatic redundancy/backup in the synchronization process. That means that even if your computer or hard drive gets stolen or damaged, your files are still safe online. And finally, there are options for sharing and distributing files so that large files don't have to be sent via email where they can clog up inboxes or be rejected entirely due to size constraints.

A free Dropbox account provides two GB of storage, larger more than most commonly used flash drives and easily more than email inboxes will allow. Paid upgrades to 50 or 100 GB cost $10 or $20 per month, respectively. Currently there are automated clients for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, with apps available on iOS, Android, and Blackberry.

There are competitors that have some advantages, but Dropbox beats most of them with reliability and ease-of-use.  If you've ever faced challenges from working with files on multiple computers or lost files when your hard drive died or your flash drive was lost/damaged, then signing up for a Dropbox account should be an easy decision.

PS -- Signing up with the referral links in this article will mean a 250 MB storage bonus each of us if you complete a few steps after signup. Please use them if you're feeling generous! :-)

Pros:

  • Files can be accessed from any Internet-connected computer
  • Automatic backup and synchronization of files across computers
  • Generate links to allow others to download/access files even if they are not Dropbox users
  • Share folders and files with other Dropbox users
  • Good cross-platform support for both PCs and mobile devices
  • Simple and extremely easy to use

Cons:

  • Competing services sometimes offer more storage at lower/similar price points
  • Only one "Dropbox" folder can be synchronized with options to enable/disable synchronization of individual subfolders. Folders in disparate locations cannot be synchronized.
  • Dropbox has ability to access users' files though they will only do it under court order.
  • No way to exclude particular files or file types (e.g. .BAK or .TMP files)
  • Versioning and undelete only available on paid accounts for extra $4 per month
  • Shared folders take up space in everyone's account, not just the originator's

OnLive Cloud Gaming Service

One of the great aspects of YouTube is that its videos are streamed. All that's needed is a small client or a web browser and a sufficiently fast Internet connection, and its entire library is there for the viewing with no storage or download requirements for the end user.

OnLive is for videogames what YouTube is for short videos.

OnLive is a technology that many pundits (including yours truly) did not think would be possible. You see, unlike videos which pretty much one-way, static communication, gaming requires input and fast response times. There are lots of calculations that need to be done to take those inputs and translate them into the visuals and sounds that make up a game presentation. It's taxing work on a computer in the same room; doing it across the no-guarantees Internet seemed highly unlikely. And yet, the geniuses at OnLive have made it work somehow.

Membership to OnLive is free. Once you have an account, all that is needed is to install a small client on your local computer.  Currently OnLive works on Windows PCs and Macs (no Linux yet).  In addition, there is a viewer for the iPad that allows you to watch videos and games in progress (more on that later) but not play any games, presumably because of the difficulty of mapping controls to a touch-screen interafce.  There is also a microconsole, a diminuitive device that can be hooked up to a television or monitor and played with a controller to give a more console-like experience. I have tried all of these options except the microconsole, and they all work quite well.

Because the processing for the games is done on OnLive's servers, the minimum requirements for your computer drop dramatically. Basically if your computer is capable of streaming high-quality videos, it can run OnLive.  The caveat is that playing games remotely places the onus for performance on your network connection. The faster and more reliable your Internet connection, the better your visuals and gaming experience will be. Like streaming videos, the graphical quality will degrade as your network connection declines, and below a certain threshold it will refuse to work altogether. But with a steady 3.0 Mbps connection, you can play top-flight games with great graphics on an eight-year-old PC or a netbook.

Games can be "purchased outright" via a Full Playpass at prices comparable to other services (like Steam) or rented for a period of three or five days. In addition, there are free 30-minute trials for most games to allow you to try before you buy.  There is also a PlayPack option which allows access to about half of the games on the service for a flat rate of $10 per month. If you want to see what other gamers are up to, you can check out the library of 10-second long brag clips, or you can go into The Arena to watch live games in progress. From there, you can rate gamers with a thumbs up or down or jump into the game with them (if their settings allow that).

Unfortunately, the list of games is presented in a sortable but linear fashion. This was fine when OnLive launched with a scant dozen or so games, but today there are more than 100 games available to play which can make it tedious to scroll through the list to find a specific title. Hopefully a more capable indexing system is on its way. It should also be noted that even when playing on the microconsole, OnLive offers the PC versions of games, so any controls and menus will have the same nuances as their PC counterparts.

The fear with a service like OnLive is always that it will fold at some point in the future and take your library with it. Having seen this with a number of music services, this is a valid concern. Even purchased games are only guaranteed to be valid until three years after purchase of a Full PlayPass. (It will be telling to see how they handle access for customers who paid full price for games once those expiration dates come.) But as of now OnLive appears to be growing steadily. Not only are there regular $5 Friday sales and specials offered via their Twitter feed, but they have recently added achievements, in-game chatting, and scheduled multiplayer nights for specific games. Add in the ability to record 10-second brag clips or to watch other players' gaming sessions live, and the service begins to rival or surpass the offerings from the big boys.

OnLive is a great service and highly recommended for gamers with fast networks and aging/multiple computers. There are no kickbacks to me for recommending the service, but if you do sign up, you can friend me as theKSMM. See you in the Arena.

Pros:

  • Free to sign up
  • Ability to try games for 30 minutes
  • Abiliity to rent games at low cost via three- or five-day PlayPasses
  • Monthly PlayPack subscription allows unlimited access to a growing game library at a flat rate
  • The Arena allows you to watch, rate and chat with other gamers as they play
  • Runs on multiple platforms and even low-end PCs

Cons:

  • Requires a very good Internet connection
  • Linear presentation of games makes scrolling tedious
  • Games offered are all PC versions which may make playing with controllers less than optimal
  • If service goes, your game library goes with it