Archives for July 2011

Introducing the Catalyst WordPress Framework!

Out with the old, in with the new! I’ve managed to make another theme change for AnotherWindowsBlog and hopefully this time around, I’ll stick with it for as long as possible. We all know how important a theme is to a blog or website. It can either make or break your reputation. It’s really sad in my opinion that it has to come down to that but I’m sort of an old-school type of guy. I value information and content first rather than fancy graphics and fonts. However, not everyone is as boring as me. So, I’ll have to play ball if I’m to keep my readers and visitors happy. I didn’t really have a problem with my old theme but it really wasn’t what you would call “customizable”. I didn’t want to install dozens of extra plugins nor spend time researching how to code just to do the things I want. It was time for a much needed change.

Switching to a different theme is always a pain if you’re not a PHP or HTML expert like me. You have to make sure you are comfortable with maneuvering around the theme, how it’s structured, what features it has and how to enable them and all that other stuff. Luckily with WordPress, plugins you’ve installed and have activated will remain in place even after switching to a different theme. You might have to adjust some settings to match your new layout but for the most part, they shouldn’t be a big problem. Also, your pictures and other embedded files will also remain in place. The majority of the problems I encountered was things that worked in the background such as importing custom functions and CSS settings.

The old theme I used was called Brainstorm and can be found at Themeforest, which is a huge repository of custom WordPress themes (among many other types) that could be purchased. Luckily for me, the developers provided awesome support. Each and every time I had a problem with something in the theme, they replied back to my emails within a day or two. As mentioned earlier though, I wanted a theme that had more features integrated into it by design rather than having to spend time manually configuring them (it probably wasn’t even possible given the limited knowledge I had) and Brainstorm didn’t provide that. It was a great run but its time to part ways even though Brainstorm is such a beautifully designed theme.

Brainstorm

WordPress Catalyst Framework

More information about the Catalyst theme and framework can be found here and no, the theme is not free.

After debating for a long time after having seen literally hundreds of unique and beautiful WordPress themes, I’ve decided to give the green light to the Catalyst Framework. It’s really hard to describe this awesome theme in a few words because it has so much features and settings that it will at first give you a headache. I’m not kidding.  However, once your brain settles down, you’ll find that no other WordPress theme offers as much customization options by default (built-in) than Catalyst. The important part? It’s dead simple to use the theme. I mean drop dead simple. With that being said though, you can still use Catalyst to build sites as complicated or as simple as you want them to be. Let your imagination run wild but hopefully not too wild as you’ll likely experience another headache!

The Basics

It’s not possible for me to go over each and every feature of Catalyst. Their website contains pretty much all you’ll need to know about this awesome theme and framework. They also have a showcase area where you’ll get to see firsthand what others are doing on their site using the Catalyst framework. They have provided many video instructions and tutorials showing you how to get started with the theme. Again, you’ll initially feel overwhelmed by what the theme offers you and you might feel a little intimidated but once you get a hang of it, everything will fall into place. You’ll just have to trust me on this one!

What makes Catalyst so freaking amazing for people like me who can’t code even if their life depended on it? Every setting that pertains to a element or section of your website is grouped neatly into different categories. That’s it you ask? My answer is yes, that’s it. But here is the interesting part. All those settings and options you get to configure are extremely easy to use. You do not have to type in any code at all for the majority of them. Catalyst presents you with settings along with the options for that setting, you make the choice that best suits your needs, hit the Save Changes button and that’s it! Many of the options consists of either drop-down menu choices or check-boxes. Settings like customizing your sidebar widths and whatnot you’ll have to obviously type in your choices but what really makes Catalyst so easy to use is that everything is brilliantly described for you. Rarely will you have to scratch your head wondering what a setting will do because Catalyst explains them to you in a way that just about everyone can understand.

Options

You’ll have three main sections to configure in the Catalyst theme. The first is what is called your Core options. Catalyst is a framework meaning you’ll usually use a child theme to lay over that framework. Think of a parent to child relationship with Core options being the former. These Core options are the main settings for your website. The settings here you usually just configure once and never have to touch again. Things like SEO, your header type and navigation bars are all considered Core options. In the picture below, you’ll see the navigational bar consists of many different sections relating to a website. Clicking on a tab will lists all the options and settings for that element or section. This is how the majority of the Catalyst framework works. Easy right? Just think of category and settings.

Core Options

Next you have the Dynamik options. This is the child of the mother in the relationship model. These are options and settings for your child theme (called the Dynamik theme). This where you’ll do the bulk of your customization. In other words, the place where you’ll configure the look and feel of your site. Here is a perfect example. In the Core options, you’ve enabled a search form and button on the right side of one of your navigational bars. In Dynamik options, you get to configure how this search form and button will actually look. For example, how long should the search form be, what color comprises of the borders, how thick those borders should be along with font type and background color to use, etc. You’ll be shocked at the level of customization Catalyst allows you to configure. It’s crazy!

Dynamik Options

Last but not least, you have the Advanced options. This is the hardcore stuff but don’t worry as once again, Catalyst makes it extremely easy to use. A busy website or blog will have many different widgets displayed. However, many themes only allow you to place widgets on the sidebar. If you want to place them elsewhere, you’ll have to do some coding. Catalyst eliminate the coding steps for you and allow you to create custom widget areas just about any where you can think of on your site. It’s unbelievable. Here on AnotherWindowsBlog, I’ve created a custom widget area right next to my header to display a advertisement ad. Without Catalyst, I wouldn’t even dare dream about doing such a thing with my older themes as it didn’t give me that option. The cool part is I’ve enabled that widget area in less than a minute! Catalyst includes many ‘hooks’ where you can simply call them to do your bidding. That avoids you the hassle of having to create those hooks by yourself which I’m sure many of us don’t even know how!

Advanced Options

Catalyst’s website provides you a screenshot of every admin area in the Catalyst theme. Please check it out to a get a more in depth view of what you can do with the Catalyst theme.

My Dilemma

With such an awesome array of customizable options and settings, I don’t even know where to begin! As of this moment, I’ve just applied the Catalyst theme and made a few changes just so that everything looks presentable. Therefore, it’s looking pretty bland and boring. I haven’t even begun to think about how to style AnotherWindowsBlog with the Catalyst theme! I’ve definitely played around with the theme prior to applying it here but nothing was really finals. Just because a lot of things are customizable doesn’t mean that you need to do so just for the sake of change. I really don’t want to make that mistake. However, I knew that I had to apply the theme right away because if I would have waited until I’ve decided on a specific style, Catalyst would never see the light of day!

Luckily though, I have created a test website to mess around in. That way, I can easily test how my site would look if I were to configure it a certain way such as applying different background colors and whatnot. If you are also planning on switching themes, a very good technique to get yourself familiar with that specific theme is to use it on a dummy site. You can do so without having to spend a penny but following the instructions I’ve gone over here on how to create your own self-hosted WordPress installation for free. This allows you to play around with your theme any way you want to without fear of affecting your live site. Once you’re comfortable enough to finally roll it out on your live blog, you’ll know exactly what to do.

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Freeing Your Computer From Expensive Software!

Free software, also known as freewares, is one of my main motivation for starting AnotherWindowsBlog. I love telling users that they don’t have to break their wallet even further after just purchasing their new computer by just using freewares. Not only does freewares help users save money but they also help to discourage software piracy. People will always find a way to download cracked software and whatnot and that’s inevitable, I know that. But for many other users out there, they simply just don’t realize that there are alternatives to using that $400 program! A friend recently purchased a spanking new laptop and asked what quality software to get. I told him that I mainly use freewares to get the majority of my tasks done but he didn’t believe me. So, I challenged him to use only free software on his new laptop and see how long he could ‘survive’. So,I’ve compiled a list of my favorite and most used freewares to share with everyone.

There are literally hundreds and hundreds of freewares available. Please do not get mad if I somehow fail to mention one that you hold in high regards. Let your voice and opinion be heard in the comments below! Most of the listed freewares are one’s that I personally deem the most useful on a daily basis. For example, I will not be listing the many security freeware tools to help get rid of your malware infections nor the many dozens of web browsers you can choose from. Only software that I personally have installed on my computer is on this list. This is a list that I will continue to improve on as time goes by. As long as free software gets developed, I will continue to use them.

Security

TrueCrypt

TrueCryptIf you haven’t heard or read about the Bitlocker feature within Windows, you really should because it can protect your data from ending up in the wrong hands should your computer be stolen. It does so by encrypting your entire hard drive. However, if your not currently using the Windows Vista/7 Ultimate edition or have no plans to ever do so, then you won’t be able to utilize this awesome security feature. TrueCrypt however, shall set things right. It is an open source encryption software that allows you to encrypt your entire hard drive just like Bitlocker but it has a lot of extra features too such as hiding a partition from normal view as well as encrypting your personal own storage space which can then be placed anywhere without fear of strangers or hackers breaking into it.

Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft Security EssentialsThere’s definitely no shortage of free antivirus products to choose from. However, Microsoft Security Essential stands out from the rest as being the less resource intensive and most unobtrusive. It certainly doesn’t rank the best in terms of actual protection strength but in my opinion, it should be good enough for most casual users. The fact that it’s free and comes from Microsoft definitely have heads turning. Another plus is that it is so easy to use.

OpenPGP

OpenPGPWant to encrypt your emails so that even your government will have a hard time decrypting it? OpenPGP allows just that. While this email encryption technology is very strong, it’s only useful if your email recipients are also on board. That’s the hard part. It’s not a one way street. That’s why its imperative that you help spread the word about OpenPGP if you care about your email privacy!

LastPass

LastPassThis is one of my most recommended security browser add-on. Being that you rely solely on passwords as an authenticating factor when logging in to your favorite websites, it’s crucial that you use strong a strong one to prevent others from guessing it. This isn’t a problem if you have only one highly secured password to remember but often times, you’ll have a lot more. LastPass promises to be the last password you’ll have to remember and if you value your identitt, you’ll be well advise to start using it.

Hotspot Shield

Hotspot ShieldThis is my favorite security tool to activate whenever I’m on a public wireless network (or any other network I don’t trust in general). Your miles may obviously vary but I found Hotspot Shield to be the fastest proxy server I’ve ever used. Once activated, Hotspot Shield will create a secure tunnel between your connection to their private servers. This tunnel helps keep malicious users on that same unencrypted wireless network you are also on from sniffing your data as it travels to the router. As a proxy server, Hotspot Shield can also help mask your public IP address when visiting websites.

DeleteOnClick

DeleteonClickFiles you empty out from the Recycle Bin are not ultimately deleted at first. This is a security risk, especially with stolen laptops, as data thieves can run simple file recovery utilities to retrieve data that you thought was deleted. While you could technically perform a secure wipe of all the ’empty’ space on your hard drive, you can get into the habit of securely deleting only files you deem important and one’s that you never wish to make recoverable again. DeleteOnClick helps you here.

Multimedia

GIMP

GIMPThis is a big one. If you look at your Start Menu and find Photoshop in there but didn’t remember paying for it (maybe because you thought it was free), I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that the software actually costs near $700. Yups, you read right. $700. I have seen so many people use bootlegged versions of Photoshop that I get tired of repeating the lecture over and over again. I always ask them why they feel the need to use Photoshop and their answer usually ranges between getting rid of the red eye effect, resizing pictures, adjusting color hue to the likes of adding text, erasing some content within the photo and drawing things. Well, a popular saying goes that these users are only using about $5 worth of Photoshop! Try GIMP out for a change and you’ll be able to do all that plus a whole lot more but for free. Like I mean really free.

Format Factory

Format FactoryIf you just want to use a media converter that can do it all without giving you the run-around, Format Factory is what you’ll want. From converting your videos to be compatible on your portable device to downgrading 1080p videos to 720p to save hard disk space, Format Factory is bound to satisfy. Want to extract only the audio from a video file? No problem as well. I’ve had countless friends thank me for recommending them this awesome utility because let’s face it, multimedia conversion is not what you would label the easiest of things to perform on a computer and yet Format Factory makes it seem so.

CCCP + Media Player Classic

Combined Community Codec PackComing across so many different kind of media files, it’s hard sometimes to figure out which player plays what. If you’ve ever encountered a situation where you’re just staring at a blank screen where instead a movie should be playing or where you just hear the audio but see no picture, then you’ve got a codec issue. Installing the Combined Community Codec Pack along with the bundled Media Player Classic movie player allows you to just about play any movie file you come across.

DVDFlick

DVDFlickAlthough Blu-Ray and high definition formats have skyrocketed due to cheap HDTV’s and playback devices, I still have the occasional need to teach others on how to burn their movies onto a standard DVD to be played back on any DVD player. Managing and manipulating multimedia movie files can be quite stressing even if you’re quite computer literate. Try explaining it to your average user and I’m sure you’ll go well past your boiling point. DVDFlick takes this insane task of burning movies onto a standard DVD and breaks it down so that even the most computer illiterate of users can do it.

Audacity

AudacityWant to start your own podcast or radio show? Audacity, one of the top free audio editing software, can help you in your endeavors. Personally, I don’t have a great radio voice so that idea doesn’t work for me. However, I use it for two main reasons. One is to create my own ringtones for my iPhone. If you’re still paying for those, you need to stop now! The other is to trim songs that have ridiculously long intros and outros that I have no intent on listening after the first time.

MP3Tag

MP3TagI don’t always tag my songs but once I decide they belong in my library on a permanent basis, I always make the effort to do so. Nothing irritates me more than listening to a track on my device only to have its cover art missing or that the song title is not the way I want it to be. Tagging your music library collection is not hard to do at all but it can be very time consuming. However, it can be very rewarding in the end.

IrfanView

IrfanViewIf there’s one picture utility that can do them all, it has got to be called Irfanview. This nifty utility will handle almost any type of pictures you throw at it. Plus, you can easily apply simple effects to your pictures with a couple of clicks. I use IrfanView all the time to crop banners from much larger pictures for my articles along with using it to blur out private information from certain parts of a photo. If you need a batch photo re-sizer, IrfanView got you covered as well.

Productivity

OpenOffice and LibreOffice

OpenOffice and LibreOfficeThis is probably the biggest of them all. Everyone needs a office productivity suite to help get their work done. Whether it’s a word processing document, spreadsheet or graphical slide presentation, Microsoft Office has been known to be the default. However, it’s far from free and this leads to a lot of bootleg installs. OpenOffice and LibreOffice both tries to fill in the gap as the free alternatives. It’s far from perfect though. However, the only way you’ll know whether it works for you or not is to just simply try it. There are also a lot of online alternatives, which you can take a look here.

TeamViewer

TeamViewerForget about every remote desktop software you’ve heard about and just use TeamViewer. It’s just that damn good! Why travel across miles and miles of terrain just to help a client or family member troubleshoot their computer when you can do it comfortably in your own home or office? No more worrying about whether being behind routers and whatnot. TeamViewer will do its best to traverse these devices as it uses standard Internet protocols to make the connection. No need to perform any port forwarding from either party. Trust me that once you use TeamViewer, you’ll never want to use another remote control application.

Firefox

FirefoxPretty much my browser of choice. Its add-on support, security, ease of use and speed makes it a very attractive choice from the default Internet Explorer. There’s really no reason why you can’t choose to use the other browsers on the market or just stick with plain ol’ IE. My honest opinion is to just stick with what makes you happy! My only suggestion is to give all the other browsers a try first before giving each the death penalty.

Thunderbird

ThunderbirdThis is a no-brainer. If you need a free desktop email client, Thunderbird comes to the rescue. Many casual users don’t see a need for email clients since almost every email service can be accessed via a web browser. However, if you have many email accounts, it’s usually more convenient to be able to access them all in one location. If you want more control over your emails, using a stand-alone email client is usually the way to go as well.

Dropbox

DropboxDon’t be a slave to manual file synchronization! Redefine how you work across multiple computers and devices with Dropbox. There are many online services out there that helps you to back up your data and Dropbox certainly can do that as well but it is so much more than just a ‘backup service’. Whether you use it to host images for your website, to share pictures with your friends and family to sharing data with your colleagues, Dropbox has something for everyone. It’s extremely easy to use and understand once you get a hang of it and I promise you’ll be left wondering why you haven’t used this earlier! Use my referral link to sign up and we’ll both (not just me, but you as well!) earn an extra 250MB of free storage space instantly!

Stardock’s Fences

FencesIt’s not unusual to find a client desktop littered with program and file icons. Besides, the desktop is the screen/area that we get to see most often so there’s good reason to put our most used applications and files where we can access them the easiest. If you do find yourself doing this, you’ll definitely want to use Fences to help organize those icons into groups. Once grouped, your icons will always be in that location. For example, you can place your most important files to the right edge of your screen and most used applications to the top, etc. Fences is especially helpful on big screen monitors.

Skype

SkypeWhether you love or hate Skype, you can’t deny what it has accomplished and that is helping users communicate with one another no matter where they are in the world all for free. You and I both probably have no idea how much money using Skype help users save but I’m guessing that number would be enormous. Whether you use Skype for business or personal needs, it should satisfy everyone. There is no denying of the many other services like Skype but it just seems so much more professional when you give someone your Skype contact information rather than the one you use for Yahoo Messenger or AIM, for example.

Windows Preme

Windows PremeWindows Preme is a very unique Windows utility that aims to help you do more with your mouse with less clicks. I simply fell in love with this freeware as soon as I tried it and get a little sad whenever I work on a computer that doesn’t have this installed. My two favorite features allows me to minimize any window by simply scrolling down on my mouse wheel while the mouse cursor is inside the title bar or by closing it by clicking the wheel instead. The Touch Slide Window feature is also very useful if you frequently work with 2-3 windows at a time.

Desktops

DesktopsIf you think working with just one virtual desktop space is not enough to hold all your opened files, folders and applications, then you need to try Desktops by Sysinternals. This lightweight utility gives you the ability to create additional virtual desktop windows. You can use one to host all your work applications, one dedicated to your Photoshop work, the third for your research work and so on. You can then easily flip between virtual desktops with a few keystrokes. Whoever said you could only work with one desktop? Break that habit now!

Everything

EverythingEverything Search Engine is an extremely lightweight and super fast indexing utility for Windows. It only indexes a file’s file name and location and not contents within those actual files. Everything is useful if you’ve somehow misplaced a file and now have a hard time finding it. Windows definitely has a built-in indexing tool but Everything indexes almost every single file that exists in your system, hence the name.

Microsoft Expression Encoder 4

Expression Encoder 4This one is a hidden gem. Expression Encoder 4 allows you to easily record screencasts to show off on your website, Youtube or simply used as video training sessions in your workplace. Why repeat how to do something over and over again? Record your actions once, save it and then distribute them however you like. Hopefully then you won’t be bothered by your friends or colleagues to show them yet again how to do something on their computer!

Folder Guide

Folder GuideI try very hard to not clutter my desktop with icons. For the icons that have to be there, I use Fences to organize them. However, to access my most frequently used folders, I use Folder Guide. This utility allows you to access any of your favorite folders with a simple right-click of the mouse. Folder Guide helps eliminate the need for placing shortcut icons on your desktop. Folder Guide equals less folder hunting and less mouse clicks!

Files and Hard Drives

Foxit Reader

Foxit ReaderThere’s nothing wrong with using your standard Adobe Acrobat Reader application to read your PDF documents. However, it’s widely known that Adobe Reader has many flaws and hackers have been known to take advantage of these flaws to exploit your computer. Foxit Reader is a very popular third-party alternative. Not only can it give you more features than Acrobat Reader but it’s also more secure. Also, Foxit Reader is much more faster than Acrobat Reader in general.

7-Zip

7zipLet’s be honest with ourselves. WinRar is not free even though we can continue to use it past the trial date. I’m not sure why that is but that’s a fact. If you want to get rid of some guilt, switch over to 7-Zip. I promise you’ll never notice the difference. Why? Because I bet 99% of users only use WinRar to extract and compress their files. Rarely do they need anything else and 7-Zip does that just as well as any other file compression utility.

SyncToy

SyncToyThere’s bound to be a user that loses his or her important data every single day and moment. Don’t let this happen to you! SyncToy allows you to easily transport and sync your documents and data between two different locations. Files you modify or create in location A will get synced to location B. This frees you the hassle of having to manually copy over new files to the new location. I use SyncToy exclusively to sync my entire music library to my external drive for backup. I no longer have to remember which albums I’ve downloaded since the last backup.

Recuva

RecuvaIf you’ve ever deleted a file that you wish you hadn’t, you’ll need some sort of file restoration utility. There’s definitely a lot to pick from but one of the more popular utility is Recuva. It easily allows you to select which type of file you are trying to recover such as music, documents or pictures. This makes it very user-friendly. It’s obvious that we never want to use any type of file restoration utilities if we can help it but you’ll want to keep one one hand just in case something happens!

Easeus Partition Manager

Easeus Partition ManagerSplitting that large hard drive you have right now into several chunks can be scary work. Therefore, you’ll want to give Easeus Partition Manager a try. It is one of the easier partitioning tools I’ve come across and it has never disappointed me. Creating partitions is useful if you want to separate your important data from your other files. This helps you be more organized in the way your work.

Others

FeedDemon

FeedDemonWith so many websites created every day, you’re bound to find dozens and dozens that peaks your interest. The problem is how do you keep up with so many websites especially when many of them gets updated on a daily basis? Rather than going to each website one by one you can instead use FeedDemon, which utilizes RSS feeds to bring the latest updates of all your websites right within the program. This way, you get to choose exactly which articles you want to read. FeedDemon also synchronizes with Google Reader but it can also be used as a stand-alone.

Linux Ubuntu

UbuntuMany freeware lists don’t exactly put an entire operating system on that list but I say why not? Ubuntu is the most popular version of Linux and it’s the best version to use if you’re a beginner. It doesn’t require a lot of resources to run so if you’ve got an old machine lying around the house, dump Ubuntu on there and use it as a guest machine or simply donate it.

CDBurnerXP

CDBurnerXPOne of my favorite disc burning program. It doesn’t claim to do everything as a disc burning program but for the things that it does, I can perform them easily. Most people don’t need a bloated disc burning program that claims to give them X amount of features and separate them into dozens of different utilities. All they want is to be able to burn music tracks to a CD playable on any CD player, make a duplicate copy of a disc, burn data for file archiving or sharing and erasing RW discs. That’s what most users will ever need to perform and CDBurnerXP can definitely do all those.

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How To Brew the Best Cup of Coffee!

Prior to writing an article here on AnotherWindowsBlog, I always like to brew a cup of coffee to help me relax and concentrate. I don’t really consider myself a legit coffee addict but I am consistent in drinking 1-2 cups a day. A good cup of coffee just makes your morning a whole lot better. The smell and aroma is what you would call addicting. Coffee is just plain awesome! However, one major factor in deciding whether a cup of coffee is up to standards is in the way you actually brew it. More correctly, the method used. Many people are most familiar with the method of brewing coffee using the standard electronic machines seen in so many restaurants and offices. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using this method to brew your coffee but the results is not what you would call the “best” in terms of quality. It’s fast, gets the job done and cleanup is a breeze. However, if you want to step it up a notch and see how coffee really should taste like, you’ll need to use another brewing method. Rather than automating the brewing process with a machine, we’ll now be manually performing the steps with a very simple device. You’ll be shocked at the difference in terms of quality. Sometimes, it’s the more traditional methods of doing things (and often more laborious I might add) that yields the better quality when compared to it being automated.

 French Press

The manual process I mentioned above in brewing your special cup of coffee is called the French Press style. I had no idea just what the heck a French Press was until I heard about it from a friend. Of course, I then did a research online to find out all about it and I immediately knew I had to try it. This method of brewing coffee is extremely easy to understand. At it’s core, what you’ll be essentially doing is pouring coffee grinds directly into a cup, pour hot water over it, let it sit for a couple of minutes and then squeeze the coffee grinds to the bottom of the cup with a plunger and then pour the coffee out. Easy right?! This simple process allows you to get the most flavor out of your coffee grinds so each cup of coffee you drink will always be of the highest quality. The process I’ve just described is easy enough to follow but to really get it right, there are definitely other things that you’ll want to remember when brewing your coffee French Press style and I’ll go over it in the steps below.

Requirements and Recommendations

A french press device

Your favorite brand of coffee beans or coffee grinds

Coffee grinder if you’re using whole beans

Glass water kettle with filtered water (optional)

French PressThere are a lot of french presses out there to choose from. Prior to choosing a brand and model though, you’ll want to think about the quantity of coffee you’ll be making each and every time. Obviously the more coffee you’ll be brewing, the bigger the french press cup will need to be. In my situation, I’m the only coffee drinker in the house so it doesn’t make sense for me to get a 32oz french press. A 12oz will suffice very well. What this means is that I’ll be making about a cup of coffee each and every time with my french press. If I want to make more, I’ll need to brew another cup from scratch. As you may have notice, this 12oz french press is hardly the ideal size when you have guests over for coffee. Once you’ve gotten the size desired, you’ll then need to choose from a brand and model. My personal recommendation is to go with Bodum. I’ve used their 12oz Kenya french press model for a long time and it brews a perfect cup of coffee for me each and every time.

Colombian CoffeeI mentioned above that you can use either whole beans or your regular coffee grinds (used for drip coffee). To get the best results though, you’ll want to purchase whole beans and use a coarse grind. A coarse grind usually consists of the coffee grinds being a little bigger than the grinds used for drip. You do not want to use a fine grind as the french press plunger might miss them, which will then result with grinds in your cup of coffee. Although many people do not recommend using pre-grounded coffee grinds for french press, I’ve tried it anyways and didn’t find any problems whatsoever. You just have to make sure that they are not grounded too finely. If the coffee you buy has a coarse grind, definitely go for that one instead of the regular drip grind. I’m a big fan of Colombian coffee and right now, I’m drinking the Eight 0′ Clock Colombian brand.

To get the best results, it’s recommended that you buy whole beans and grind them yourself as I mentioned above. You’ll get much more flavor out of your coffee by grinding only what you need. Pre-grounded coffee is OK but only if it was recently grinned and provided that you use it within a fairly short amount of time. Please realize that you do not need to spend big bucks for a dedicated coffee grinder. I’m sure there’s a difference between those $100 coffee grinders and the one I’m currently using for $14 but I’ll live with it. If you’re the sole coffee drinker in the house like me, get yourself a cheap one-cup coffee grinder if you don’t want to break your wallet. The one I’ve listed here is perfect for making french press coffee because it grinds the coffee coarsely. This is a bad coffee grinder for making espresso (since it needs a very fine grind) but it’s awesome for french press style coffee brewing!

There’s a lot of things to get right when trying to brew a perfect cup of coffee. One very important aspect is the water used. You’ll definitely want to use filtered water if at all possible but if not, tap water is OK as well. However, I highly recommended you use a glass water kettle to boil your water because using traditional metal kettles can leave your boiled water tasting foul along with other impurities left behind. A very easy way to ruin a cup of coffee is not paying attention to this fact. By using a glass kettle, not only will it be safer for you but it’ll also make a better tasting cup of coffee! I’m currently using the Medelco glass kettle and it is one of the better investment I’ve made for such a low price.

Brewing the Best Cup of Coffee

Alright, so let’s get into how to actually brew the perfect cup of coffee using our french press!

Requirements

Please understand that although there seems to be a lot of steps in the process, it will come second nature to you once you’ve brewed 6-10 cups using this method. Please also read my pro’s and con’s of using the french press at the end of this article.

First things first, you’ll want to boil some water. A very important thing to remember is that you absolutely do not want to pour boiling temperature hot water into your coffee grinds! You are not cooking soup! Using hot water right after reaching boiling point will not doubt burn your coffee grinds and result in a more bitter taste or worst. My suggestion is to let the water come to a complete boil first and let it sit at room temperature for a few seconds to help cool it down before pouring it into your grinds. The same can also be said when brewing tea.

Boiling Water

Next, prepare to grind your coffee beans, if necessary. My mini coffee grinder already grinds coarsely without any special setting. In fact, I can’t grind any finer even if I wanted to! If your coffee grinder has different settings, then make sure to use the coarse setting each and every time. Dump the grinds directly into your french press cup. The general recommendation is to use two tablespoons of coffee per 8oz of water. You’ll need to experiment with this to get it right for your taste buds. At this point, you can also pour cream and sugar in your mug while waiting for the water. I personally believe that the coffee tastes better when I put the cream and sugar into the coffee as opposed to pouring the coffee into it. However, I get lazy at times so I just dump everything in the mug beforehand.

Coffee Grinds

Once your water has boiled and you’ve let it cool down for a couple of seconds, slowly pour the water into your french press cup. Immediately, the coffee grinds will rise to the top. It’s important to not fill the french press to the top with water. You’ll need to leave some breathing room at the top because you’ll cover it with the plunger in a bit. In the picture below, I used even fewer water because my mug is pretty small. Once the water has been poured in, start your timer. The magic brew time for a french press cup of coffee is 4 minutes. However, don’t cover it just yet. Once 30 or so seconds have passed, use a spoon to gently stir the grounds around. This allows the grinds to sink towards the bottom for a bit and allows your coffee to be a bit stronger. Eventually, the grinds will float back to the top.

Stir Coffee Grounds

Right after stirring the grounds, pop the plunger piece over the top so the coffee can brew. Make sure that the opening is not facing towards the pouring spout because you do not want the steam to escape. At this point, your timer should be down to almost 3 minutes or so. Let it continue to brew for the remainder of that time.

Wait for Brew

 Once the time is up, simply plunge the plunger towards the bottom of the french press. You’ll want to do this slowly because if you plunge it down to fast, some of the grinds might escape and end up in your coffee. Once the plunger has reached the bottom, simply rotate the cover at the top so that the holes align with the pouring spout. Pour your coffee into your mug and enjoy the best cup of coffee possible!

Plunge

 

 Pro’s and Con’s of Using a French Press

Quality. There’s no question about this. Using a french press results in one heck of a cup of coffee. If you think your cup of coffee tastes good right now using an electric brewer, wait till you try it french press style.

Money Saved. Brewing your own coffee rather than buying it from a cafe can definitely save you a lot of money in the long run. Of course, this is true whether you are using the french press or not but by doing so, your cup of coffee can rival that to your favorite coffee purchased in cafe shops. A cup of coffee costs around $1.50-$2.00 give or take. My 2lb bag of Eight 0′ Clock coffee costs me $12.00, which allows me to easily brew 50+ cups of coffee. You do the math.

Environmental Friendly. I’m sure by now you noticed that I didn’t mention anything about using a paper filter. Well, that’s because a french press doesn’t need one! This is one of the reason why your coffee will taste so good. It’s like you are brewing your coffee grinds purely, just like how it was meant to be brewed. Coffee filters are cheap no doubt but thecosts adds up the more you drink. French presses is the cheapest method to brew a cup of coffee because it doesn’t require any filters and it doesn’t require electricity like those automated brewers.

Time Consuming. French pressing your coffee takes time in order to achieve the best results. Some coffee drinkers may not like that idea. Remember, the ideal time for a french press is to let the coffee brew for 4 minutes. That could be an eternity for coffee drinkers in the morning who need to get out of their house as soon as possible.

Cleanup. While not hard to cleanup, it is a chore. Your french press plunger and rod is most likely stainless steel but you’ll still want to make sure that each piece in the kit is as clean as possible. Another way to ruin a cup of coffee is to use dirty equipment. Trust me, I’ve experienced this before. Some people like to just take apart the plunger and just give it a rinse but I prefer to soak it in warm soapy water first.

Hotness. Because of the time consuming process used to brew with a french press, many coffee drinkers shy away from it simply because the resulting cup of coffee is just not hot enough for their liking. If you’re one of those coffee drinkers that like their coffee piping hot, you might want to think twice about using a french press.

As you can tell, you’ll definitely need to put in more work if you want to be able to enjoy a better cup of coffee. I admit that I don’t always brew my coffee french press style. Everyone gets lazy once in a while. However, for times that I do want the best tasting cup possible, there’s no decision as to how I’ll brew it. Whenever I try a new brand of coffee beans, I immediately put it to the french press test. If you still want to make a perfect cup of coffee but don’t like the idea of it being warm after being through a french press, I highly suggest you try brewing your coffee with a Melitta coffee filter instead.

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Remotely Control Windows from Your iPhone!

So a good friend recently came down for a visit. Being the tech geeks that we both are, a lot was discussed on recent technologies, gadgets and the such. One of the things he displayed that stood out to me, although nothing new, was being able to remotely control his laptop back at his home directly on his iPhone. Again, remote desktop is nothing new and I’m sure there are dozens of iPhone apps out there that can already do this. But when he told me that he could do all this for only $.99, I was shocked. I’ve never had a big need to access my computers at home remotely since Dropbox allows me access to my files from any computer. But for the price of just $.99, it was really hard to resist! Not only are you able to just access your files but remote desktop allows you to pretty much do anything you could on your computer/laptop right on your iPhone or iPad! That includes streaming videos, listening to your entire music collection without having to load it onto your phone first and even as far as playing video games! Of course, I ultimately gave in to pressure and decided to try it out for myself. I sure as heck spent a lot of money in the past for products that cost a deal of a lot more so what’s $.99 to me?!

Splashtop Remote Desktop

The name of the app and service is called Splashtop Remote. For a limited time only, you can get the iPhone or iPad app for just $.99 in the Apple Store. Regular price is at $4.99. In my honest opinion, that is still a extremely good deal.

You can download and find more information about Splashtop from here. Also note that there is a free version for download as well. However, this free version limits each session to only five minutes before cutting you off. This is an excellent way for you to test Splashtop first before plunking down your hard earned $.99! If you want a absolutely free alternative to control your desktop computer with your iPhone or Android device, take a look at TeamViewer’s smart phone app.

There is two pieces of software to make the magic happen. The first is the streamer piece, which you’ll install on your computer or laptop. This piece is completely free. The second piece, which allows you actual access to the remote computer, is the Splashtop app which you can currently download from the App Store. There is also a version for Android based devices so don’t feel left out!

Splashtop Streamer

So first, we’ll install the streamer piece. The download currently weighs in at a little under 9MB. The current supported operating systems includes Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and the Mac. The streamer installs effortlessly. In fact, once you accept the EULA, the installation proceeds automatically. After two welcome screens, you’ll be asked to configure a password which will allow access to this computer remotely with the Splashtop app. As usual, you must make sure that this password is strong and cannot be easily guessed. Once you’ve set the password, that’s it! The streamer piece is now ready to accept incoming connections! However, there are still some other important pieces of information we need before being able to make a connection.

WelcomeSecond Welcome PagePassword CreationFinished

The Splashtop Streamer application will sit in your system tray from now on waiting for incoming connections. Open the application on your computer and you’ll see some very important information. Let’s go over each one (except the About tab).

In the Status tab, you’ll see your computer’s IP address. If you are behind a router, this IP address is most likely an un-routable IP address (should usually start with 192.x.x.x). This means that you can only use this IP address to connect to this computer if your iPhone or iPad is also connected to that same network segment. For example, if you are upstairs in your bedroom connected to your home Wi-Fi connection, you can use this IP address within the Splashtop iPhone app to connect back to this laptop or computer sitting in the living room downstairs. Once you travel elsewhere, say when you’re at work, you cannot use this private address. For that to work, you’ll need to use your public IP address instead. I’ll talk about this later.

Steamer Status

The second tab is Settings. You’ll be allowed to configure whether the Splashtop Streamer application starts automatically upon computer startup, signing in to your Google account for more connection management options, and whether or not to redirect sound of the remote computer to the client (your iPhone). In most cases, the default settings should suffice.

Streamer Settings

On the Security tab, you’re allowed to change the password.

Streamer Security

Under Network, you’ll see the current network port used for incoming connections. This setting is very important. Think of this port as a door. You can assign a different network port for Splashtop incoming connections as long as it’s not already in use. Splashtop will also use the next two consecutive port numbers from the one you have designated. When you initiate a connection to your remote computer using the Splashtop app, it needs to know which “door” or port to enter through otherwise it would get lost. For many, the default port should suffice. If you want a little more security, go ahead and assign it a different port number. When you use Splashtop on a different network segment than the remote computer, you’ll need to configure port forwarding and these port numbers are needed. I’ll go over this part towards the end.

Steamer Network

Splashtop iPhone App

Once you’ve got the app installed on your device (free or paid version), fire it up. Immediately, Splashtop will scan your local area network for any computers configured with the Splashtop Streamer application. This saves you the hassle of having to manually type in the IP address and port number. But remember, the computers will only show up if you are on the same network segment as it. Prior to making the connection, you’ll definitely want to configure the resolution used on your device to view the remote computer. Simply click on the blue arrow next to your remote computer and hit the Advanced button. My laptop’s screen resolution isn’t that big so that’s what I’ll be using.

Once you’re ready, tap on your remote computer’s icon to initiate the connection. You’ll then be presented with the password screen. Type in the password you’ve configured earlier in the Splashtop Streamer application. When you’re through, you should then be presented with the Hints screen. This screen shows you how to access your remote computer using your device. Close that screen out and you’ll be presented with your remote computer!

Computers FoundSplashtop ResolutionSplashtop HintsSplashtop Desktop

Usage

From my usage so far with Splashtop on my iPhone 3GS, I can definitely say it works as expected. However, it’s always difficult to navigate your way around a full size computer, laptop or desktop, from such a small screen. I would think that the experience would be 10x better if the device used to access the remote computer was on the iPad instead. Expect to be zooming in/out of your screen a whole lot. Please remember that the windows and applications you open on your remote computer stays the same. Their buttons and text don’t somehow magically re-size themselves to be easier to press or to be read on your device. There are a lot of videos on the Splashtop website submitted by users showing off the remote desktop component in action. Check them out in the Videos tab of this webpage.

Speed wise, I’m pretty shocked at how well Splashtop performs. Of course, there is going to be some lag between what happens on the remote computer and your Splashtop device. Even in your home network under the perfect conditions, there still will be some lag. Accessing my remote laptop with a 3G connection again was very smooth and very workable. I wouldn’t want to stream a movie through that connection but for editing files and doing other types of trivial tasks, Splashtop definitely excels in that area.

You must also remember that when you connect to your remote computer, the processing is done on that computer and not on your Splashtop app device. Splashtop is in charge of streaming whatever is on the screen of the remote computer to your device. For example, you can use Splashtop to connect to your remote laptop at home and have it convert a 1080p video file to 720p using your favorite media converter. The processing is performed only on that laptop. However, once you begin watching that video, it’s Splashtop’s job to sync whatever’s on screen. Even though the movie plays fine on the laptop, it might skip when you’re watching it on your iPhone because your connection might not be able keep up with streaming that huge amount of data.

Using Splashtop Outside of your Network

One of the major uses of Splashtop is allowing you access to your computer when you’re not at home. However, for that to work, you’ll need to do some configuration, especially if you’re behind a router of some sort. What I displayed above worked easily because my iPhone was connected to my home Wi-Fi router and my laptop was similarly connected to the same network segment. Once my iPhone travels outside that network, it will no longer be able to access that laptop. Here is where things get iffy for many users. You’ll need to program your router so that it will allow a Splashtop incoming connection to our remote computer. For that, we need to perform port forwarding. You can read more about how to do that from article link below in the Wake-On-Lan section. Here is a quick rundown:

To successfully configure port forwarding, we need our public facing IP address, our remote computer’s private IP address and the network port Splashtop uses for incoming connections (default is 6783-6785). I’ve also configured a port forward for the WoL packet to that same computer’s private IP address (default port is 9 for WoL).

Splashtop Port Forward

Next, we create a new computer listing from within our Splashtop app. All we need to tell the app is the name of the computer (could be anything you want) along with the public IP address on which this computer can be found in the big wide world of the Internet (remember, we are trying access this remote computer from *outside* of our network). If everything went correctly, you should be able to connect to the remote computer via your 3G data connection or from a different wireless network. When you initiate the connection, the packets will get sent to our router. The router knows that this connection uses ports 6783-6785 (remember the doors?). It then consults the port forwarding table. It sees that anytime a connection is coming in from those port numbers, route/forward that connection to the IP address listed in that table (in this case, it’s to our remote computer). The connection succeeds. If port forward was configured incorrectly, the router will not know how to forward the packets/connection and will drop it instead.

Custom Connection

Wake-On-Lan (WoL)

With every remote desktop technology, WoL always gets mentioned because it plays such a big part. Being able to access your computer remotely from anywhere in the world is awesome but in order for the remote computer to accept incoming connections from your Splashtop app device, it needs to be turned on! Do you really want to leave your computer turned on 24/7 each and every time you leave the house just in case you might have a need to remotely connect to it? I highly doubt it. WoL is a feature that allows you to wake your computer up from a suspend state (sleep, hibernate, shutdown). A special network packet is sent to your router and that in turn gets sent to your WoL enabled laptop or computer. Because the network card is still functioning even if the computer is turned completely off, it can still process this packet and wake the computer up. It sounds really good on paper but it doesn’t always work as it should. I’ve written an article dedicated to this subject matter here. I highly suggest you to read it over if you will be using Splashtop on the go.

In the End…

Seriously, how can you not like Splashtop after reading about it? If you purchase it right now, you’ll have the ability to remotely control your computer on your iPhone for just $.99. That’s less than a cup of coffee or a bottle of soda. It might however take some time for you to configure Splashtop to work correctly outside of your home network. Also, the biggest issue right now in my eyes is WoL. It’s a distraction because for many people, WoL works sometimes but not others. But whatever the case may be, I’m sure there were a ton of things you’ve regretted buying that costs more than $.99. Definitely give Splashtop a try and impress your non-techie friends!

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Reclaim Space by Converting 1080p Videos to 720p

So one of my friendly clients got a new problem for me to solve. He uses a Sony digital camcorder that allows him to record videos in true high definition with a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080p). Well, he uses that camera a lot to record his dancing video lessons and suffice it to say, he is tired of not only having to make room on his existing hard drives for these humongous videos but also from having to buy new one’s. Prior to purchasing the camera, I’ve warned him that by recording in 1080p resolution, the file size for each video will be skyrocket high. He insisted that he wanted to record his videos in the best quality possible. Of course, I suggested to record in 1280×720 (720p) resolution but he felt that by doing so, he wouldn’t be doing the camera justice! Well, that was a couple of years ago. Today, he’s desperately seeking a solution to trim down his existing 1080p video library while still trying to preserve the quality of them. And yes, the process has to be as easy as possible.

Notes to Consider

– The videos I’m working with here consists of files made up with the .mts file extension. Consider this as the file container for the video file. The actual codec used to encode the video is AVCHD. If you also have a digital camcorder that can record in high definition, especially 1080p, there’s a good chance that your video files are also using the same codec and container. I cannot guarantee that you will get the same results shown here if your video files are of different types.

– I am basically cheating here by converting his original 1080p videos into a lower resolution of 720p. If you are put off by this tactic, then I apologize if you’re original intent was to keep the file resolution the same. After much debate with my client, I finally got him to agree with the downgrade in resolution. In fact, he doesn’t even have that many 1080p playback devices! He was just greedy with being able to record in the highest resolution possible so he took advantage of that without fully understanding the consequences nor the reasons for following that route. If you take a look at your video collection right now, ask yourself if every single video needs to be in full high definition.

– My friend was happy with the results of the conversion because the converted 720p file still looks very good when compared to the full blown 1080p version. Of course, your miles may vary and everyone has different opinions on what looks good or not. If you are curious as to how your converted video will look like, then simply follow the tutorial below. Your original 1080p file will not be altered in any way, shape or form so no harm will be done.

Using Format Factory

Once again, the utility I will be using to convert the videos will be none other than the super awesome Format Factory, my favorite media converter. Below, you’ll see the original file size of the video I am trying to convert. This video comprises of only about 2 minutes and 42 seconds of video footage! My friend’s digital camcorder records in files of about 12-13 minutes each before splitting it into a new file. Each file is about 3GB in size.

Original Size

You can download Format Factory from here. Post Format Factory installation, you’ll noticed the Ask Toolbar installed on your browsers along with your homepage being altered as well to the Ask.com’s search page. Although this is a very shady tactic of any software, you can easily uninstall the toolbar and reset your homepage to what it was before
  1. Open up Format Factory. One the left pane, simply select the “All to AVI” button.
  2. Click on the Output Setting button in the resulting window.
  3. You’ll see a lot choices and options to play with in the new window. We’ll need to configure only about 2-3 different settings. First is “Video Encode”. This is the codec used to encode our new video. Remember, AVI is the container but the codec is the setting that ultimately decides how our video will look. You can leave the option set to the default (MPEG4 Xvid) or use AVC (H264). I found the latter option allowed me to save a little more space as the resulting video was a bit smaller than one encoded with Xvid. However, the video looked the same when compared to each other.
  4. Next we have the “Video Size”. This option allows us to set the resolution of our video. I highly suggest you to select the 1280×720 (HD Device) option. 720p is still considered high definition. Of course, 1080p is better but the purpose of this project is to save space while still trying to preserve quality.
  5. The last option we need to set is the “Aspect Ratio”. The video’s I’ve seen recorded in 1080p or 720p for that matter usually yields a aspect ratio of 16:9. This ratio is meant for widescreen monitors. So, that’s the option I’ll suggest you to select here.
  6. Once we have selected our three options, hit on the OK button. Now we need to browse for our original video file to be converted. Click on the Add File button and browse to your video file. If you’re doing a test run, it’s best to just select a small sample file to convert first so you can preview the results. Hit OK once you’ve added your files.
  7. You should now be taken back to the home screen of Format Factory. Each video to be converted is considered a “job” or “task”. Hit the ‘Start” button at the top to begin the conversion process.

All to AVIOutput Setting ButtonVideo Encode OptionVideo Size OptionAspect Ratio OptionAdd FileStart Conversion

Video conversions are usually very CPU intensive. The bigger and better quality your original video file is, the longer it should take for the job to complete. Of course, it also depends on what options you have selected. Once you’ve gotten an idea of how long one video takes to be converted, the other videos (assuming they are of same quality and size) should take about the same amount of time.

Once the conversion process has finished, you can then access the video file. By default, Format Factory will store your converted files in:

C:Users* || username* || Documents|| FFOutput

Below you’ll see the file size for my converted video, which I’ve managed to shave off 310MB give or take, from the original:

Converted Video Size

Of course, it’s really hard for me to show you the video quality differences between the original video and the converted video so you’ll just either have to take my word for it or perform this little experiment yourself if you are looking for ways to shrink your recorded high definition videos. The process I’ve described above in my opinion is fairly easy to perform and I’m sure you would agree as well. I’ve managed to help my client save about 1/4 the hard drive space for each of his 1080p video file. So, for every 1080p file he had previously (each file being 12 minutes long and about 3GB in size), he can now fit 4 of them in its place. These savings are huge considering how much videos he has in his collection. I’m sure he had a lot of fun performing the conversion process. OK, maybe not.

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Remain Anonymous While Surfing the Web!

There was always a need for some users to remain anonymous on the Internet. They don’t want their identity to be known. I don’t really care what those “needs” are but you get the point. One of the biggest determining factors on tracking who did what on the big wide Internet world is by something called an IP address. If you researched about anonymous internet surfing before, you’d no doubt come across something called an IP address each and every time. Everyone of us, and yes that includes you reading this article right now, has a different IP address that uniquely defines our presence on the web. This IP address gets assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which is the company that routes your Internet data to the web such as Verizon, Oceanic Cable, Comcast, Clear, Earthlink and the likes. Here’s what you have to understand. Every time you visit a website or pretty much whatever it is you do, your IP address is needed to communicate with that resource. In many of these instances, your IP address might actually get recorded or archived.

So why should we worry about trying to be anonymous on the Internet? The answer is you don’t have to. Honestly. The old saying is if you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you hide or be afraid? Let’s ask ourselves why should we care if Microsoft found out we visited our Hotmail account on specific day or why Google should care as much that we searched for alternative search engines? The reason is we shouldn’t. But what about other things such as accessing a website on how to make bombs or how to hack the government computers? Well, that’s certainly a different story! But the saying still goes that if you don’t do anything bad on the Internet, you really shouldn’t worry all that much about remaining anonymous. So, what the heck is this article for?

There are other uses for remaining anonymous on the Internet even if you have nothing to hide. One of those main reason is none other than security related! Don’t think about when you’re connected to your home network. Think about times where you connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot or any other network that was not your own. How do you know that network is not being snooped by strangers? For example, Starbucks and McDonalds offer free Wi-Fi connections for their customers in an attempt to bring in more business. Because anyone is allowed to connect to that hotspot, what makes you so sure that the guy sitting way back in the room isn’t actively running some sort of packet sniffer to sniff your data?

Hotspot Shield to the Rescue

One of my favorite security tool used when accessing public networks has got to be Hotspot Shield. This nifty utility not only allows you to access the web via a different IP address but it also creates a secure virtual private network (think of a tunnel) between your computer and their servers. This basically defeats the middleman (guy sitting by himself at the back of Starbucks) trying to sniff your data even on a open Wi-Fi connection because they can’t penetrate that tunnel. Website requests that you make route to Hotspot Shield’s servers rather than where it was originally intended for, which in most cases would be the ISP of the network. Think of Hotspot Shield as our trusted middleman. Requests we make would go to their servers and then they re-route that request to the actual destination using a different IP address than what we had originally. The request is granted and is routed back to Hotspot Shield’s servers. Hotspot Shield then finally routes it back to us. The process continues until the connection to Hotspot Shield is closed. The process I’ve just described relates to how many proxy servers work in general.

How to Use

You can download Hotspot Shield from here. I’ve read that Hotspot Shield imposes a 3 gigabyte bandwidth limit per user, per month.

Once installed, you should see a red shield icon in your system tray. This indicates that Hotspot Shield is not enabled and that your Internet traffic is flowing as usual to your ISP. To check if Hotspot Shield indeed works, I suggest you find out your current IP address by visiting this website. Note your current address.

Hotspot Shield Icon

Current IP

To enable Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the icon and select the Connect/ON option. Hotspot Shield will begin work right away by opening a new page on whatever default browser you are using at the moment. It will let you know the steps it’s performing such as assigning you an IP address and whatnot. Once the request has been completed, Hotspot Shield will then take you to their home page and from then on, your data will be routed through to them.

ConnectAssigning

Once connected, you’ll also notice that the Hotspot Shield icon now turns to green to properly reflect its status. You can check on your status at anytime, such as your current VPN address being used and how much amount of data has been routed through Hotspot Shield, by simply right-clicking on the icon and selecting Properties. Next, click on the Details link and you’ll see the appropriate data.

Details

Simply revisit the website I’ve shown earlier to find out your current IP address. It should have changed since activating Hotspot Shield.

IP Changed

Another method to test Hotspot Shield is by using a built-in Windows command line utility called Tracert. This handy utility allows us to trace the route a packet takes to its destination. Below, you’ll see two pictures. The first is shown the places my packet will travel to to get to Google.com without Hotspot Shield enabled. The second picture shows what happens with Hotspot Shield enabled. You can clearly see the first few entries of the second picture that my packet took a completely different route than the first. It seems as if it completely bypassed my default ISP routers/servers to get to the same destination. (Click them to enlarge)

Default RouteEnabled Route

To deactivate Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the green shield icon and select Disconnect/Off. In the resulting webpage that follows, click on the big red Disconnect button and that should do it. The icon will then return to the red color and your traffic will flow as usual to your original ISP.

Bypassing Limitations

The other use of a proxy server such as provided by Hotspot Shield is to bypass limitations set upon your current network or IP address. For a lot of companies, the IT administrators purposefully block sites such as Facebook, Twitter or other time-wasting sites from ever reaching their employees desktop. A simple method employees found to bypass this limitation is to use a proxy server. Just because the administrator says that the Facebook’s IP address range, say 1.2.3.*, is blocked doesn’t mean that the address 11.10.9.8 which belongs to Hotspot Shield for example, is blocked as well. Since the employee is accessing Facebook through that proxy server with a different IP address, he/she should be able to access the site. I say “should” because there are ways for the company to detect the use of a proxy server and if you’re caught, well, I’m sure you know of the consequences.

A friend of mine travels a lot. I remember him begging me to help him access his Facebook account while in a certain country, which blocked access to that site. I recommended to him Hotspot Shield and it worked like a charm. In the country he was in, the government I’m sure banned all of the IP addresses belonging to their country from accessing Facebook. Because Hotspot Shield’s servers resides elsewhere and the government didn’t put a ban limiting access to that service, my friend was able to access Facebook once he enabled Hotspot Shield. Of course, I warned him not to brag in public or let any government official see him accessing the site because he might get arrested or who knows what. Point is, a proxy server can help bypass these limitations.

Have you ever stumbled across a online service where it discontinued your access to that service if you’ve been using it after a certain amount of time? A good example of this is from a online video service called Megavideo. They allow regular users to watch 72 minutes of videos and after that, force them to wait a certain amount of time before being able to continue. That or pay for a premium membership. How do that they do? Well, of course by IP address! Hotspot Shield immediately eliminated the “waiting” and allows the user to resume watching. After their 72 minutes is up on the Hotspot Shield IP address, they simply deactivate it and continue watching back on their original IP and so on. Clever but of course, my advice is if you love a service, then pay for it!

Video Limt

Cautions When Using a Proxy

It’s very easy for me to write about how awesome Hotspot Shield is. But there still lies a very important question that needs to be asked: How can we trust Hotspot Shield with our data?” My answer is you can’t. Therefore, you must use Hotspot Shield along with any other proxy service at your own risk. Surely there must be some people behind the scenes working for Hotspot Shield. Can we really trust them? Remember, our data has to go somewhere in order to reach its destination. Just because you want to visit a website doesn’t actually make the website appear on your screen as soon as you hit enter. A lot of things happen in the background, especially the route a packet takes from your computer to the ultimate destination. My advice stays the same as always. If your business can be put on hold, then do it. Is it really that important for you to buy that item on Amazon while on Starbuck’s open Wi-Fi network (even with Hotspot Shield enabled) than if you waited half an hour till you got home? Is it really that important that you check your banking statement using a public hotspot you’ve just connected to as opposed to doing it at home at a later time? I assure you your bills will still be there!

In the End…

The reason I vouch for Hotspot Shield as opposed to other proxy services is mainly due to speed and how it seamlessly integrates with Windows. With other proxy services, you usually access them via a web page. These are useful for viewing static sites and whatnot but once you need to watch videos or perform other tasks on that website, it can become difficult. Hotspot Shield doesn’t really affect the way you browse the web once it’s enabled. You’ll see advertisements but that can easily be taken care of by a ad-blocking software. Because your data is routed elsewhere, it makes sense that your browsing speed be hindered. While I noticed this for the many proxy services I have tried, especially when trying to download a larger file, Hotspot Shield remained relatively fast. This alone makes me recommend the product to other users who are looking for a security solution when accessing public hotspots.

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Have you Considered Buying Used Books?

Do you love reading but don’t like the idea of spending anywhere from $9-$11 on a new book only to read it once and never again? If so, you seriously need to consider buying used books instead! I was always a big fan of reading but up until purchasing the Kindle, I have always purchased books right off the shelf or directly online at the highest prices. I hardly stopped to realize that I could enjoy the same book at almost half the price or more by purchasing one that has already been read and used. You have to realize that I’m not really the type of person who will re-read a book no matter how interesting or good it is. It’s just a waste of time for me because I could spend that time reading a new and different book that might be even better. This is the same for me when it comes to movies and DVDs. When I first purchased my Playstation 3 video game console, I started collecting Blu-Ray movies. About 20 Blu-Ray movies in, I started to realize that what I was doing was completely a waste of time and money because I never re-watch a movie! As of right now, I have many books and Blu-Ray movies sitting in my shelf doing nothing but collecting dust and who knows what else. Point of all this? Don’t be like me. Realize what’s happening before it’s too late! Save money now while you still can!

Advantages of a Used Book

I really don’t want to bore you with the details because I already have a feeling most of you know what goes in to buying a used book. However, some very important points bear repeating here:

  1. Money Saved.
    A used book will usually cost less than a new copy. How much less depends on how long the book has been published, the rarity of the book, and the condition it’s in. For many cases, a used copy of a book that was just recently released a couple of days ago might not help you save a lot money. In these situations, it might be better to just spend a couple more bucks and get the new edition if you cannot wait. If you’re looking to purchase a used technical book or textbook for school, the amount of money you will save here will even be greater because these books are generally very expensive. A used copy of these books, if you can find them, can help yield tremendous savings.
  2. Environmental Friendly. It goes without saying that buying a used book can help save a tree. In fact, you could go as far as re-selling that used copy at the same price or less after you’re done with it in hopes to benefit another individual out there. Why not just rent from the library I hear you saying? Well, that certainly does have its merits but I’ll leave that choice up to you.
  3. Uncertainty. When you’re about to enter a book series that spans 3 or more books, you could purchase a used edition of the first book in the series. This lets you see how good the author is in their writing and also to see if the book can hold your interest. If you later decide to continue, you can help support the author directly by buying a new edition of the next book in the series.

Disadvantages of a Used Book

There’s not really a whole lot going on in the disadvantage department:

  1. Unfairness. With a used copy of a book, just like with every other used item you buy, the money you spend for it doesn’t flow to the original author or supplier. As times are getting harder, the “used item” industry is gaining ahead in steam. Whether you feel like cheating the original author or not when purchasing a used book is totally up to you to decide. Just realize that purchasing used items is definitely not illegal unless specified. My take is that if you do think the author is being cheated, then you might as well petition to have public libraries removed as well.
  2. Condition. If you’re lucky, the seller of the used book will specify beforehand what the condition the product is in. However, there might be times where you purchase a used book only to have some pages torn out or markings on it making it impossible to read the words. I’ve never experienced this before but it’s definitely possible. My take is that as long as the used book is still intact, have no missing pages and the words clearly readable, I really could care less about the other factors such as bent or wrinkled pages, words being highlighted with a marker and page stains.

Places to Purchase Used Books

There should be many places of opportunity for you to purchase used copies of books. In fact, many online shopping places you currently do business with already allow you to purchase used books.

Amazon

You’ve probably searched for a product on Amazon’s website and have seen other users offering to sell the same product either new or used as well. This goes the same for books. Simply search for a book you’re interested in or head directly to the book section. Once you’ve found a book of interest, you’ll easily see on the product page the lowest price other users are selling the used copy for. Click on the link and you’ll get to see all the other sellers that are trying to sell their used copy of that book from lowest price to highest.

Amazon UsedMore Used

eBay

eBay is a great resource to help you find pretty much anything. There are definitely a lot of used books on sale from many different sellers. Not much to say here other than to look carefully at the product description and most importantly, the shipping charges! Also, you can visit half.ebay.com to get more book listings along with numerous other purchasing sources.

ThriftBooks

 Since discovering the Thriftbooks website, it has been one of my favorite destinations to purchase used books. They have a huge assortment of used books (although many new titles are missing) and you can’t beat their shipping if you’re in the United States: free. Many books cost about $3.95 and in many other online places, that’s how much you need to pay for shipping alone. This makes Thriftbooks one of the cheapest places for used books that I know of. They also have various shipping centers around the country so you can pick the closest one to you for faster delivery. I highly recommend this place.

Your Local Shops

Last but not least, you might be able to find a local bricks and mortar bookstore that also sell used books. The advantage of buying locally includes not being charged for shipping fees, not having to wait for the book to arrive in the mail and the ability to browse through the book to preview its condition prior to putting your money down. Oh, and you’ll also be supporting your local businesses by purchasing there so that should be reason enough!

Local

In the End…

Although I’m currently using the Kindle to do the majority of my book reading, I think I might still purchase a used book from time to time. The problem with e-reading devices is that there is no “used” copies of a book because it’s a digital edition. Therefore, you don’t have the benefit of being able to save money by buying a used copy.

If any of you have other resources for purchasing used books online for cheap, please let us know in the comments!

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