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January 13, 2006

Software Review: Picasa

Filed under: Recommended,Reviews,Software — Michael Silver @ 2:27 am


PicassaVersion 2.0

I searched long and hard for a good photo manager to manage our growing digital collection. I looked at Phoa, but due stability problems, I stopped using it. There were several commercial products, but I have been burned too many times paying for a product that soon becomes obsolete or often the product is just too expensive.

Enter Google. Google bought Picasa on July 13, 2004 and quickly offered it for free. I installed and kicked the tires and was hooked. Here are the features that make it stand out from other products:

  • Pictures on disk are never modified. Picasa allows you to sharpen (and a very good sharpen at that) and apply many adjustments to your pictures. Ingeniously, it does not modify the picture, but stores the changes seperatly, allowing you to go back and undo adjustments at a later date. This feature is invaluable and will help preserve your picture collection from edit after edit.
  • Smart crop. This may be a common feature, but is great for printing pictures. It allows you to crop at the standard photo print sizes, 4×6, 5×7 and 8×10.  This ensures your pictures fit the entire print.  Since the actual picture is never modified, you can go back and change the 4×6 crop to a 5×7 with ease.  You can also perform a freeform crop which doesn’t bind you to any of the existing ratios.
  • Terrific UI. The user interface is what hooks you initially. It is very pleasing to the eyes and easy to navigate. All picture adjustments are very fast and intuitive.  Resizing all thumbnails is painless and fast.
  • Picture Tray. This makes selecting pictures a breeze. You add them to the tray and then perform all the actions you want on the tray. It works for rotating, printing, emailing (which also allows you to automatically resize), ordering prints or exporting.
  • Numerous Other features. There is simple too much to list here, but this is a sample: Send pictures to one of many popular print services, ability to handle movies, can import right from scanner or camera, resizable thumbnails, gift CD creation, Poster printing (prints multiple pictures and you paste them together), crop, fine rotation, redeye removal, auto and manual color, auto and manual contrast, numerous brightness adjustments. Numerous effects: sharpen, sepia, B&W, warmify, file grain, tint, saturation, soft focus, glow, filtered B&W, focal B&W, graduated tint.

Problems with Picasa (Yes, it isn’t perfect, but the problems are worth living with):

  • TAGS!! One of the requirements I had for album software was to be able to easily tag pictures so I could perform searches. Picasa does have Keywords and it partials meets my needs, in that you can search very easily on any keyword, however editing them is a difficult process. It does not remember previous keywords, so you have to re-enter them every time. There is no reason there can’t be a drop down list to choose from, and preferably a tree list of keywords. The keyword dialog isn’t even available from the right menu.
  • Scratch removal. While there numerous effects and adjustments that can be made to pictures, being able to remove scratches from scanned pictures would eliminate the need to other photo editing software.
  • Library Disappears. I have my picture library on a network drive. On occasion I will lose the network connection and thus the drive letter. When this happens and I load Picasa, it forgets about all the images in it’s library. Picasa will rediscover the pictures again (slowly), if the directory is set to autodiscover new pictures. It does remember all the edits you made to pictures, but it would be nice if it could recover more gracefully. This also won’t affect most people.
  • No direct export to Gallery. I will admit this is hard to call a problem, and it is a little selfish, but it sure would be nice. I use software called Gallery to display pictures on the Internet. Being able to export selected pictures right into Gallery, or for that matter Flickr or other popular photo sites would be the bomb. To their credit, you can export to Blogger, which is also owned by Google and is a free service. Ideally, some sort of API or SDK would be nice allowing the amazing gallery developers to hook in. There was even some code written for Gallery to import Picasa exports, but I have yet to look at it.
  • Problematic DVD backups. I have attempted to backup collections to DVD, but it something goes wrong with the process, you pretty much have to start over. I still prefer the old method of just copying the actual files to DVDs.

Picasa is one of those applications I simply can’t live with out. It is a true photo management system. It isn’t a replacement for simple photo viewers like Irfanview, and it isn’t suppose to be. If you take digital pictures, you need this software to manage your collection, no questions asked.

January 9, 2006

Software Review: HotKeys

Filed under: Recommended,Reviews,Software — Michael Silver @ 12:08 am


Version 1.2.1

HotKeys doesn’t really do much, and there are probably other programs that do the same thing. What sets HotKeys apart from the pack is the interface and the use of the Caps Lock key (and a few built in functions).

HotKeys allows you to set hot key combinations with the windows keys, found at the bottom of your keyboard (at least most keyboards). There are several that are already built into Windows, such as win-i for Internet Explorer, etc. With HotKeys, you can reprogram the existing ones and add your own by mearly dragging a shortcut or application icon onto a keyboard that appears when you hold down one of the windows keys for a few seconds.

HotKeys has two built in functions, which are very nice. win-PageUp and win-PageDown control speaker volume and display a nice graphic to show the current volume level. win-T displays a clock with the current time.

I have always preferred keyboards that click when you type and those have become hard to find or when found, expensive. I still use a vintage 1987 IBM keyboard. No other keyboard is as durable or has the same feel. The down side to using older keyboards is they don’t have many of the specialized buttons the new ones do, such as volume or even the common windows keys. While I am old school, I still would prefer some of the luxuries of the newer keyboards. HotKeys fills this much needed void. You can program it to use the Caps Lock key as a windows key. This opens up all the windows shortcuts for us retro programmers. The down side is I no longer have a Caps Lock key, although it’s really a good trade off. After all, when was the last time you used your Caps Lock key?

Even if you don’t have a retro keyboard, I highly recommend this software.

Software Review: Find and Run Robot

Filed under: Recommended,Reviews,Software — Michael Silver @ 12:05 am

Find And Run RobotVersion 1.07.21


Find and Run Robot allows you to run applications quickly by using a handful of keystrokes. I find it useful instead of using the Quicklaunch bar included with windows. It does require you know the name of the application you wish to run.
The Find and Run Robot sits in your icon tray and upon pressing Alt-Spacebar a quick search dialog appears. You can then begin typing the application you want to run and as you type it will guess the application you want to run and display it in the list. Once you application appears in the list, you just hit enter and you application loads. It requires no setup since it builds it’s index of applications right from the Quicklaunch bar and the Start menu. You can also tell it to index the Program Files dir or any other location. You can also create shortcuts, name them whatever you want and they will appear in the Find and Run RObot with the name you entered.

I use it both at work and at home and while I don’t feel naked without, it is a great utility worth installing. It seems to appeal to those who use or feel comfortable with a command prompt, since we probably type a little faster and the mouse usually slows us down when having to stop and click on the Start button.

The Alt-Spacebar combination does conflict with Window’ default behavior which is to show the control menu. I have set it up to use the Windows-A key combination, via HotKeys, which eliminates this conflict. It also works, by default, with the Pause key. While the Pause key is used for almost nothing, it is still a bit of stretch when you want to load an application quickly.

January 8, 2006

Software Review: StrokeIt

Filed under: Recommended,Reviews,Software — Michael Silver @ 1:39 am


Version 0.9.5

StrokeIt is one of those applications you can’t live with out, at least not if you have a mouse. Once installed, you wonder how you got along with out it. It’s grip on you becomes apparent when you use someone else’s computer that doesn’t have it installed.

What does it do? StrokeIt allows you to use mouse gestures with any application in Windows. What are mouse gestures? Click and hold the right mouse button and move the mouse in the form of a C or L, or dash or any other movement. That is a mouse gesture.

With StrokeIt you can program these gestures to perform numerous functions. For example, to close an application, I click and hold the right mouse button and draw a small C with my mouse. The application I draw the C on closes. It is much quicker than pressing Alt-F4 or clicking File and then Exit since you can do it anywhere on the application’s window, even if the window isn’t in the foreground. Also, as you draw a gesture it writes the gesture on the screen in blue, although I have heard turning this feature off improves reliability, which only suffers when processor is being slammed. In these situations, a mouse gesture may not work since the processor is too busy to process the mouse stroke.

I first encountered mouse gestures in the Opera web browser, but I had to be talked into using them by a friend. Once they were turned on I was hooked and scratched my head why Microsoft didn’t think of it (since they have a multi-billion dollar research budget).

Stroke it comes with tons of default gestures, so many that you may never need to add your own. You can also customize gestures to work differently among applications.

I highly recommend this software and install on all my computers, except laptops, when I limited to a touch pad.

StrokeIt is Donationware.

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