Software


The best thing about the music service Soundcloud is that is that as a listener, it feels like it does everything you want without any catches. You get commercial free audio, available on any device, free downloads if the sound’s creator allows it, and you don’t have to pay for any of it. You can get a similar experience by getting the paid version of Spotify or Google Play Music, but with Soundcloud it’s all free.

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What makes Soundcloud tick? It’s kind of like a cross between YouTube and Twitter, but for audio. Listeners can follow audio creators to get all of their releases visible in a stream on the web or in the Soundcloud mobile apps. There are all kinds of audio content from artists who upload their whole catalog, podcast creators, and an especially thriving remix community.

Soundcloud offers a really beautiful mobile experience, that unlike Spotify or Google’s music offering, you don’t have to pay to take full advantage of. A well designed and functional app works really well in today’s mobile, data integrated world. Soundcloud plays tracks from the cloud rather than local storage, but it’s very seamless and integrates play controls on your lock screen and Airplay capability for iOS.

Since Soundcloud releases are often coming directly from the artist, it’s a really easy way to stay on the bleeding edge, getting previews or even full tracks before they’re released through traditional channels.

Soundcloud lets you comment at specific times while playing an audio file, so it’s like viewing realtime reactions to what’s playing. You can see what others said when they heard the exact thing you’re hearing. Social sharing outside the app is similarly effortless. While other music players can have a rather clunky experience because of long page load times, when you link to a Soundcloud track, it is very easy to access.

Another killer feature is the ease with which users can embed a Soundcloud track inside a blog post. For this reason it’s become a go-to player for many music blogs looking for a better way to share music that doesn’t rely on a more subscription-centered service like Spotify. Soundcloud just wants to play the music.

What Soundcloud lacks is some sort of play queue. While you can make playlists from the app, it’s nowhere near being a full featured player. It feels more limited to playing tracks in reverse chronological order of their posting. If they added the ability to queue tracks up without going through the process of creating and naming a new playlist, it would be really useful.

Of course if they did that, more people might start using Soundcloud, and they’d have to think seriously about adding ads and otherwise supplementing their revenue. But for now, Soundcloud puts artists and listeners closely in touch, and it’s so great because everything about it seems designed for convenience instead being full of the restrictions other services have.

This post is part of a series exploring companies I love and the things that make them great.

Recently I needed to convert some figures from British pounds to dollars for use in a spreadsheet. My original idea was that I’d just plug the numbers into a converter on the internet and then copy and paste. That would have worked well enough, but it wasn’t the best way.

Google has all kinds of little tricks up their sleeve and built right into Google Spreadsheets. You can even build a formula that asks Google Finance for the latest info on currency exchange rates between the currency of interest. It looks like this:

=B3*GoogleFinance(“Currency:gbpusd”)

The gbp is for pounds, and usd for dollars, and you can easily swap them if you want to convert the other way, or find the symbols for other currencies. Of course, you replace the cell number with the one you’re using.

Awesome.

Now that the holidays are over, most of us are ready to be done with holiday music for a while. The problem is that sometimes our digital music collections have a mind of their own and start playing holiday music even in the middle of July. CNET’s Donald Bell suggests several ways to make sure you don’t have this problem, including storing all of your holiday music on a special flash drive. But if you don’t want to go to all the trouble and expense of his methods, there is a simpler way for those of you who use iTunes on a Mac. It’s easy to setup, doesn’t require any additional materials or software, and works year after year without any user intervention.

1. Make a Smart Playlist
Create a new smart playlist from the iTunes File menu and set it to contain all of your holiday music. You can make this as simple or complicated as you want by using different rules. If you haven’t carefully organized all of your music by genre, just set several rules including genre searches for “Christmas” and “Holiday” and even the word “Christmas” within the song or album title fields. Then set the playlist to include tracks that match any of your rules. As an added bonus you now have all your Christmas music in a single playlist for all of your holiday parties.

2. Make An Automator Workflow
Open up Automator on your Mac and create a new workflow. Add the action “Get Specified iTunes Items”, and select your new holiday music smart playlist. Your second action should be “Set Options of iTunes Songs”. After adding this, select the option “skip when shuffling”. Then save your workflow.

automator-ss

(If you’ve never used Automator, this site is full of examples and explanations.)

3. Make an iCal Plug-in

Use the File menu in Automator and select “save as . . . plug-in for iCal”. iCal will then open and automatically create an event that runs your new workflow. All you have to do is make sure the event is set for the appropriate date after the end of the holidays and make sure it’s scheduled to repeat yearly.

4. Add Your Music For Next Winter
Modify your workflow so that it sets your playlist to be included in shuffle. Then save this plug-in and schedule an event that will add your music back to your library before the holidays begin.

Pretty simple huh? If you get your hands a little dirty up-front you’ll never have to worry about a surprise Christmas song out of season again. Unless of course you like Christmas music enough that you enjoy listening to it year round. In that case, this project is definitely not for you.

Note that this tip works for Mac users. If any Windows users have ideas on how to accomplish this in Windows, mention them in the comments.

I purchased my first Mac recently and the switch opened up new doors for me because there are many software options that aren’t available for PC. Apple’s default web-browser Safari recently became available for Windows as well, but I didn’t bother to try it out until I switched to OS X. Safari is an interesting browser, and far better than Internet Explorer, but it falls far behind Mozilla Firefox 3 in my opinion.

One important reason I installed Firefox on my Mac is the ability to easily add powerful add-ons that increase browser functionality. A less obvious Firefox feature that I started missing immediately while I was using Safari was the ability to add keywords to bookmarks.

By taking a little extra time to designate your most used bookmarks by a memorable keyword, you can easily pare down the time it takes to open web pages. For some web sites I use frequently, like Gmail and Facebook I use keywords that are only two letters long. I can type “gm” in the address bar, hit enter, and the full address for my gmail inbox is filled in. It’s a huge time-saver.

To add keywords to your own bookmarks in Firefox open the bookmark organizer. With Windows you can right click on a bookmark, select properties, and then enter the desired value in the keyword field. With OS X select the bookmark and then click the arrow next to “more” at the bottom of the organizer window.

Put in a little time up front and you can start launching your favorite web pages with three key strokes.

Sometimes the best solution to our overwhelming problems is to just take a break and start again later. The same thing goes for our PC’s. For a while you can just reboot the computer and you’re good to go, but eventually it gets beyond that. It’s time to reinstall Windows.

If you’re at all like me, and you’ve never done that before, it sounds a little frightening. I used to be worried about somehow getting lost in DOS, a place where I had never been, and destroying the computer for good. Fortunately, the process of reinstalling the operating system isn’t really as scary as we novices might think. It’s actually just like installing a really big program and the worst thing we have to worry about is losing some of the files on the hard drive. With a little caution, even that can be avoided.

I prefer to totally start over, reformat the hard drive partition, and then go from there. That destroys whatever data is on the hard drive, so before getting that far, it’s very important to thoroughly back-up whatever files you want to keep. Saving the whole My Documents folder is a bit of a no-brainer. It’s the first data I’d think about. I just move it over onto an external hard drive. But to be thorough, it’s important to dig a bit deeper and think about things like browser bookmarks, Outlook emails and addresses, any program data that you need to keep. Also double check that you have the license keys for Microsoft Office, Anti-Virus, and any other paid programs you have installed. The key to this process is being thorough. I suggest working your way through the Start menu looking at all the programs you have installed and making sure you have everything you need to get the essentials working again after your OS reinstall is complete.

Starting the installation process is as simple as putting your Windows CD or DVD in and following the instructions. From there on in, while the process isn’t exactly snappy, it’s not very difficult. Finish up with Windows and then move your data back and install your more important programs. I usually install the rest of my programs over the next couple days when I suddenly remember that I need them.

Reinstalling Windows is not without hassles. It can be time consuming, and it can also take a bit of time to get your system customized to your tastes again. But when the computer is really getting bogged down, it can do wonders for your speed and your mental health. Watching the Microsoft logo all morning will give you a little variety, and your computer will gain new life and speed you didn’t remember it had.

I’m a neat freak. I hate it when things get cluttered up. My desk can sometimes be a contradiction to that fact, but still, I’m a minimalist at heart. I like to keep the distractions limited to exactly what I need for the task at hand.

It drives me nuts when a computer has so many open windows that you can’t find one from another on the taskbar. It really slows me down if I have to click the Windows Explorer button and dig through the pop-up to figure out which of the four open windows is actually the one I’m looking for at the moment. What this means practically is that any time I have more than 6-7 windows open I consider my taskbar cluttered.

There’s been a bit of a buzz around the web recently about how having more and bigger monitors can increase your productivity. It’s certainly true that you can increase your productivity by increasing your screen real estate. Depending on the project it’s almost hard to work without one or more big screens in front of you. The big 22″ widescreens can have a hefty price-tag though, and there is a solution to your screen space problems that is a lot easier on the wallet: Virtual Desktops.

For those of you who haven’t used virtual desktops before, a virtual desktop manager basically gives you multiple desktops on the same computer. You can have multiple screens with separate programs running at the same time. If you switch to a different desktop, you immediately leave all your open programs on the old one behind. This is great for working on separate tasks while still leaving the original task all set up so you can go back to it later on.

In addition to the multi-tasking benefits, it’s also a great clutter reducer. When my screen is all full of various windows I can easily switch gears by hitting a hotkey and I’m suddenly switched to a clean desktop where I can get started on a new task or just open more windows that wouldn’t easily fit on a single desktop.

There are many different programs out there that give you virtual desktop functionality. Dexpot has worked very nicely for me. It’s light on the system resources when it’s running in the background. It supports up to 20 separate desktops, which would seem to be a bit of overkill unless you have a supercomputer to keep all those programs running without filling your RAM to capacity.

Anyone have experience with Dexpot or other virtual desktop programs? Let’s hear how they’ve worked out for you in the comments.

I read Lifehacker on the Firefox 3 beta, and as a testimony to how totally unable I am to think for myself when Gina Trapani recommends something, I went and upgraded to Firefox 3. I didn’t just go for the portable version, I went whole hog. Here are some details on my experience.

I’m not sure if it was just me, but when I got the Firefox 3 installed, there were no back and forward navigation buttons on the toolbar. At first that’s disconcerting, but you’ve got to love people who have enough faith in keyboard shortcuts to remove the buttons that do the same thing. (Lest mouse lovers be frightened, it is possible to add the buttons through the customize menu.)

A cool feature that I just noticed is that when I have two Firefox windows open and one is not maximized, I can still use my mouse to scroll in the other one, even if it’s not focused. That’s pretty cool because it allows you to move through the background window even while you’re working in the foreground. In the particular situation I noticed it in, I was making a comment in a pop-up window on a post that was in my un-focused window. In spite of these benefits, for some reason I can’t open more than one window at a time except when I run into a pop-up. I rely on tabs most of the time anyway, but sometimes even the tab bar gets so crowded that I open a new window so that I can start filling that up with tabs as well. Hopefully that feature will get worked out in the future.

The tab bar itself has seen a little bit of improvement. The button for opening a new tab isn’t visible by default, which is a plus in my book, because it gets rid of one more thing to accidentally click. Scrolling through tabs is also better when you have so many tabs open that they don’t all fit across your screen. The scrolling feature that allows you to view the hidden tabs is improved in the beta. It looks very nice in action and it will only stop when the entire width of a tab is displayed.

A feature that I noticed back when I tried the portable version a few weeks ago, is that tab switching is incredibly fast. It’s really almost instantaneous. You click on a tab and you’re there.

When I was trying to run one of my extensions I accidentally discovered a new feature. Hotkeys Ctrl+Shift+S will open a screenshot dialog at the top of the screen which gives you some nice options for capturing web browser screen shots. Much better than “Print Screen” and without having to install another application.

Bookmarking capability has improved. The address bar now includes a star at the right side. Clicking it will give you some bookmarking options. In addition to this up-front improvement, the organize bookmarks dialog has improved considerably.

There are still a few things to get worked out, because it is only a beta, but so far Firefox 3b5 has worked pretty well for me. Any other early testers out there?

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