Seven more things you need for your computer.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 13 2008 2:51 PM

Seven More Things You Need for Your Computer

Reader suggestions for software that you absolutely need to have.

Digsby is an all-in-one messaging application
Digsby is an all-in-one messaging application

Last month, I disclosed the contents of my computer to Slate readers: I went over the 18 programs and services that I use to surf the Web, manage e-mail, make phone calls, jot down reporting notes, and write articles.

I also asked readers for their own computing tips. The response was enormous. I got more than 100 e-mails—and dozens of "Fray" comments—from people who thought I'd overlooked certain apps or that I'd been using stuff that was hopelessly old-school. I've been trying out many of your suggestions since, and I've distilled them into this short list.

Advertisement

As always, if you've got any more suggestions, please send me an e-mail or post to "The Fray" and let me know. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Digsby. For many years, I'd been using a program called Trillian for all my instant-messaging needs. I loved that it connected to several different IM services (you can chat with friends on AOL, Yahoo, etc.) and that it had a slick, customizable interface. But lots of readers told me to ditch Trillian in favor of either Pidgin or Digsby. Each of these worked pretty much like Trillian, but they've both got one extra feature—they connect to the Jabber network, the same protocol that Google's chat service uses. That means both programs let you chat to Gmailers, too. (You've got to pay extra to get Trillian to do this.) Digsby is the winner because it adds alerts from Twitter and Facebook, making it a one-stop app for all-day procrastination.

AVG Anti-Virus. A few readers chided me for failing to mention any anti-virus programs in my line-up. (Mac and Linux users, you're exempt from this discussion.) The truth is, I hate anti-virus apps, and I've never used them very diligently. Many are resource-hungry (they slow down your PC and spin your hard drive for hours on end), and they're always asking you to update their virus lists, usually with some kind of pitch to get you to shell out for a "Pro" version. I'm not suggesting anti-virus apps are useless—I'm sure they've saved many machines. But in my years of using Windows computers, I've never had a serious infection, and my data is sufficiently well-backed-up that a serious infection won't bring me down. (And as I said last month, I do use an anti-spyware program, Spybot Search & Destroy.)

Still, to please the scolds, I went out in search of a good anti-virus app. AVG was the best I found: It doesn't seem to use every bit of computing power to scan my machine, and it doesn't constantly pressure me to buy an upgrade. (The basic version is free.) I set it to analyze my computer when I'm asleep, and so far, it hasn't worked my hard drive hard enough to wake me up.

VLC media player. I'd forgotten to add this great video app to my list, and lots of readers reminded me of my omission. If you download many videos in many different formats, you need VLC. This fast, free player works on Mac, Windows, and Linux machines and seems to handle just about every type of video file you throw at it, even files that are slightly broken.

PeerGuardian 2. This app prevents Internet addresses that are known to be harmful from connecting to your machine while you're using peer-to-peer file-trading programs. It's hard to know whether PeerGuardian is really keeping you safe from malware (or perhaps from detection by Hollywood), but several perhaps paranoid readers called it a must-have, and it works quietly enough in the background that I see no harm in keeping it on.

Evernote. Many readers were puzzled by my note-taking strategy—I keep a single text file and use it to store all of my thoughts, to-do lists, and other urgent messages. Lots of people told me to use Evernote instead. In fact, I've long been a fan of this online service that promises to store everything you put in it—pictures, text notes, Web pages, anything—forever. (Read my review of Evernote here.) Its best feature is its ability to extract text from photos: Imagine that you're attending a conference and you meet a guy who works at Microsoft. To remember him, just snap a picture with your cell-phone cam and stick it into Evernote. In a few minutes' time, the software will have crunched the picture, even converting your new friend's conference name tag into searchable text. So when you search Evernote for "Microsoft," you'll see the guy's photo and name tag. I still find my text-file method easier for most of my notes, but for remembering Web pages and things that I snap with my iPhone on the street, I often rely on Evernote.

Foxit Reader. This Windows app opens PDF files quicker and with fewer crashes than Adobe Reader. What's not to love?

MediaMonkey. Last month, I complained that I'd found few good alternatives to iTunes. Apple's music program looks good and is easy to use, but it's slow to load up, and it's constantly bugging me to install slightly revised updates, a process that can take 10 minutes or more. Many readers shared my frustration with iTunes, and several told me that I'd have a ball with a Windows program called MediaMonkey.

But after installing it, I can only give MediaMonkey a half-hearted recommendation. True, the app is packed with features that are great for people who are obsessive about keeping their MP3 collections under control. If many of your songs are missing "metadata"—song or album names, release dates, etc.—MediaMonkey can surely help you out. (It can extract tags from Amazon and other online repositories, and it's got several search options to let you see which songs are missing which tags.) Trouble is, you'll need to look up an online how-to—here's one, and here's another—to figure out how to use the software. MediaMonkey's interface is neither pretty nor intuitive, and it took me a while to understand how it was laying out my music and how to get it to do the many great things readers promised.

Other warnings, if you're thinking about switching: The app can't play any copy-protected songs or movies that you've purchased through the iTunes store (which, to be sure, is Apple's and the music industry's fault, not MediaMonkey's; consider buying your music from Amazon's DRM-free MP3 store). Also, some people have reported trouble getting MediaMonkey to hook up to their iPhones. But, hey, MediaMonkey is free (a slightly more feature-packed Gold version sells for $20), and it installs quickly, so give it a try. You might well find it better than iTunes.

Backup. How should you safeguard your precious data against your computer's inevitable demise? You should back it up. But how? In my last roundup, I didn't recommend any sort of backup program. That's because I don't use one—while I'm careful about saving my data, my strategies are kludgy, mainly involving manually copying important files and folders to external drives. I realize this is madness, and many readers offered better ways. But I'm still searching for the perfect backup strategy. If you've got a great backup tip, please let me know. I'll report back in a later column.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.