Last month I discussed some hardware upgrades that have helped me get more work done. This time, let's look at software.
Supercharge Excel: As I've come to appreciate just how well Microsoft Excel can work, I've also gained a better understanding of its shortcomings, which is where a little $59-per-year gem called DigDB for Excel comes in. This program from Data Instruments Group adds handy features to Excel, improves existing ones, and makes the application easier to use. For everything from tracking down broken links to generating median values to trimming errant spaces, this software is certainly worth the price of admission--plus you can try it free for 15 days.
Ditch the fax machine: When I need to send a fax to my home office or receive one from there, I use TrustFax from Comodo. The service is less well known than eFax or MyFax, but what I like about it--besides its clean, easy-to-use Web interface--is its pricing options for light fax users like me. I pay TrustFax $30 a year for a fax number, 50 outbound and 150 inbound fax pages, and online storage. To use the service I scan my document in my multifunction printer, upload the file to the TrustFax Web site, and send it off. It doesn't get much easier than that.
Make pretty pictures: Sometimes I need more than a well-crafted sentence to get my point across--I need things like boxes, circles, and arrows. That's when I turn to SmartDraw, a business-graphics app from the company of the same name. After a free trial, it costs $297 (list). It's pricey, but you can often find it deeply discounted at SmartDraw's site, and if you've ever struggled to make flowcharts, time lines, mind maps, or even floor plans, you'll love it.
Try everyman's database: Though the term database strikes fear into many nontechie hearts, not all database apps require a knack for constructing clever queries. The venerable AskSam from AskSam Systems, now on version 6.1 (with 7 in beta), lets you store all sorts of data, from Word documents to e-mail to Web pages, that you can retrieve with simple, free-form word searches. I keep a close eye on several tech markets, and I use AskSam as my personal data clearinghouse. It isn't perfect--you'll spend a little time getting up to speed, and the 'Add Webpage to AskSam' feature works only with Internet Explorer (come on!)--but it's an immensely useful tool. After a free trial, the standard version is $150; the faster Pro version is $395.
Share and share alike: Besides making it dead simple to keep documents synced among my multiple PCs, Microsoft's newly revamped FolderShare service saved my butt when my beloved home-built PC failed to boot one recent morning. Since the files that I had been working on were synced to my work notebook before I shut down, I didn't have to scramble to retrieve them from my PC's hard drive (or even from my online backup service of choice, Carbonite; I reviewed this service in an earlier column). Best of all, the beta FolderShare service remains free.