Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Tinker's Toolbox: Part II

As promised, here are some essential applications and software I lean on, not just to get work done, but to make my Linux machine really feel like "home".

-----iGoogle-----
http://www.igoogle.com

iGoogle has become an absolute essential for me. When you're on as many different machines as I am in a given day, it's nice to have everything follow you around. I am a heavy user of Goggle Documents for all my spreadsheets and word processor files. I'm addicted to Google Reader for my RSS feeds.

A brief aside on RSS: RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. When done right, it is a godsend for information junkies. In short, your RSS reader grabs simple XML code for the pages you have subscribed to, and the posts to these syndication feeds are piped directly to your computer. Imagine a tickertape for your most commonly viewed websites. My RSS feed is like a perpetually updated custom newspaper for me. It should be noted that RSS feeds are only as good as their authors, and many sites seem to misunderstand the purpose, or have co-opted it, and give you little more than a headline. Stick with the feeds that send the full articles down.

Of course, Gmail is on the main page, as well as Chat. I'm holding my breath for the release of gDrive, a shared network drive that you can reach from any computer. In the meantime, I make extensive use of Notepad (as well as it's companion FireFox extension) to make quick notes on ideas for future blog articles. My various activities are plotted via google's calendar.

-----VLC-----
http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

This is a must-have. It's the universal media player for Linux, and it covers just about every codec and format you can think of for video and audio. Grab this, and forget about having to look for the right app for a particular format. Of course, it won't save you from DRM hell, if you're moving over from iTunes on a PC or Mac, but we can address that in a different way. (DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is any number of custom formats that folks like iTunes and Microsoft force you to use. It limits your ability to move or play your music to cut down on illegal sharing). Search Synaptic for VLC.

-----Amarok-----
http://amarok.kde.org/

This is your new iTunes replacement. You'll find the features very familiar, and some additions to a standard iTunes interface that should please everybody. Let it search your hard drive or network for all your audio files, and watch it catalog them. It works flawlessly with an iPod, but it may screw up your current list when it syncs, so make sure you convert all your music over to mp3's and get it into Amarok before trying to sync. So long as your musical house is in order on your PC, the iPod will do just fine. (I've also had good reports from Zuners too.)

Sadly, it can't play your blessed DRM files that you purchased off iTunes, but that's what we get for playing with proprietary closed systems, isn't it? The only way to grab your music as MP3s, if you purchased it from iTunes, it to rip it out to CDs and re-import it into MP3s. (I'm hunting for a better method, I'll let you know when I find it). The first time you play it, it will grab the codecs for whatever non-DRM format your music is in. But moving forward...

-----AmazonMP3-----
http://www.amazonmp3.com

If you have followed my lead, and installed Gutsy Gibbon (Ubuntu 7.10), just follow the links on the main page. It will install your MP3 downloader in about 10 seconds, and give you a free song to test it with (you'll want to put in your credit card info here for future purchases, but this one will be free). No more DRM!! Amazon's MP3 catalog is extensive (easily matching the selection of iTunes), and better than that - it has a massive collection of Classical music, something iTunes is horrible at. Most songs are 89 cents per song, so it's even cheaper than iTunes. So, why are you using iTunes again?

-----Dia-----
http://www.gnome.org/projects/dia/

This one really belongs in my previous post, as I use it almost exclusively for work, but this is your (superior) replacement for Microsoft Visio. It's excellent at cranking out network diagrams, and they can be cranked out as PDFs when you're done. Like most Open Source analogues to the M$ world, it's smaller, faster, simpler, and more robust than it's proprietary counterpart. Per usual, grab this package via Symantec.

If you've been following these last two posts, your Linux box should be feeling an awful lot like your old Microsoft home.

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