Pixologic specializes in 3D sculpting software, such as the free and easy-to-use Sculptris. ZBrush is best thought of as Sculptris's advanced cousin, as it's also focused on sculpting 3D figures, but at an exponentially greater level of control. There are a ton of recommendations on ZBrush's website from 3D animators from films such as Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and that's because professional tool ZBrush ($700, 30-day free trial) is very intuitive to use.
Despite being somewhat of a 3D sculpting newbie (though I did review Sculptris), I took to ZBrush easily. It's got a high learning curve, but it's user-friendly at the same time. I managed to take a rhino figure and twist and distort it and even give it a sphere body with ease. Several more hours with this product would give me a lot of practice making 3D figures.
And that's what ZBrush is useful for: designing individual characters in 3D as if you were modeling them out of clay, and also designing environments. The nice thing is, if you want that simplicity that sister product Sculptris provides, it's easy to go back and forth between the apps using the Preferences -> GoZ menu. Files created in ZBrush can also export into many other popular 3D graphics applications such as 3D Studio Max.
If you're reading this, you may well be the go-to "tech guru" for your friends and family. Think back to the last time you tried to help someone with a computer problem over the phone without seeing their screen; was it fun? I didn't think so. Mikogo (free) is a powerful presentation and remote-control solution you could use in those cases.
One of Mikogo's key advantages is that it is free. Free as in beer, and not just for non-commercial use. The better-known remote-control program TeamViewer is free for personal use, but it employs a propriety algorithm to detect commercial use, and if it feels your usage pattern isn't "personal" enough, it may just shut down on you. That's something Mikogo would never do.
To test Mikogo, I used a long-distance link (Canada to Israel). Performance was excellent. I started by sharing my own desktop, and my fellow tester was able to see everything I was doing clearly and with a low lag. She also had a large red pointer to show things around the screen. With a few clicks, we switched things around, and suddenly I was viewing their desktop and pointing things out.
Anyone who's ever hired an architect or had a general contractor remodel a home knows that modifications to plans can easily cause the price to skyrocket, especially if you (or the person you've hired) can't visualize what you want. Home Designer Suite ($99, buy-only) can help you plan and communicate your interior and exterior design or remodel project in 2D and 3D with a simple one-click, drag and drop process.
Home Designer Suite offers templates as jumping-off points, including layouts for interior rooms, exterior landscaping, and entire home plans of various sizes and styles. In addition, you can set home styles that define the defaults for the design components, like certain cabinetry or flooring styles.
Outlining your basic room is as simple as selecting the wall tool and drawing the correct dimension-- the feet/inches or meters/millimeters display as you draw. Then, drag and drop details such as appliances, cabinetry, fireplaces, and furniture from Home Designer Suite's library. Home Designer Suite can specify the location of the tiniest and most mundane of items like bathroom fittings, electrical outlets, and individual plants.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Lego. Being able to take simple blocks and make them into complex structures which were just what I had in mind was a very powerful feeling. As a grown-up, I still sometimes have ideas and designs that I want to communicate, or see for myself if they might work. When that happens, I reach for Google's free SketchUp.
I first heard of SketchUp six years ago, in Kevin Kelly's excellent Cool Tools newsletter (which has since evolved into a blog). It was described as "the opposite of CAD," meaning, a very quick way to sketch out an idea and work out the details later. Back then, it was a commercial product costing $495. But then Google bought SketchUp--and its maker, @Last Software--and released a free version, and kept on making it even better.
Today, Google uses SketchUp as an important element of Google Earth: The 3D buildings you see all over the globe were made by Google Earth users working as volunteers and using SketchUp to create models of their favorite landmarks--crowd-sourcing at its best. The work of these volunteers is very much needed, as can be evidenced by these surreal bridges rendered on Google Earth.
When shopping for kitchen utensils, one piece of advice I hear time and again is "don't get a unitasker." A unitasker is a gadget that's good for just one thing, as described by "gastrophysicist" and Food Network star Alton Brown. I find the same concept applies for software too: When it comes to GUI applications, I generally try to avoid tools that do just one thing (scripts and shell commands are a different matter). In the case of free utility Folder Axe, I might make an exception.
In a nutshell, it's a folder splitter. You know all those utilities that split large files? Folder Axe is the same thing, just for large folders. If you've ever struggled to manage a folder with 8,000 image files, you might see why this can be a useful thing. Actually, a folder with thousands of image files is an easy case: How about a folder full of thousands of random files, with no rhyme or reason at all, like a typical downloads folder?
Folder Axe can make short work of any such folder, using five different slicing (or "axing," if you will) systems. First, it can split folders by the amount of files. You can just point it at the folder you'd like to split, and specify a number like "50." On my system, Folder Axe took less than five seconds to make a folder with 617 images into 12 folders with 50 images (and one with 17). That was fast.
Toddlers imitate what the big people in their lives do, so when they see big kids and adults using computers, they want to use them, too. For those who are brave enough to turn the computer over to a small child, DonationCoder founder Mouser's new Little Voice Commander (free/donationware) could be a good program to start with.
This simple program encourages toddlers to speak and experiment by showing pictures of words they are likely to know, such as "dog," "apple," or, well, "baby," whenever a word is spoken or when a key on the keyboard is pressed. A sound file also speaks the word out loud. Press K, see a kite, hear "kite." The pictures typically arrange themselves into a mosaic; sometimes these images are repeated. The translation of babyspeak into American standard English depends on Microsoft's speech-recognition engine, making it necessarily an inexact business, but that's part of the fun. For example, imagine a child saying "No!" and being rewarded with pictures of snow.
What do very young children get out of this? They learn that verbal commands and keystrokes can evoke increasingly predictable responses from the computer. The more they refine and improve their own delivery, the more predictable the outcome.
Maxthon (free) is probably the best Web browser you've never heard of. I reviewed it favorably in the past, when it resembled a cousin of Internet Explorer 7. Since then, it's changed drastically. Maxthon includes two built-in rendering engines, Webkit and Trident, and you can switch between them with a click,which means no website should be incompatible when browsing. One of the best uses for this is to visit ancient sites (like for work) that only work with Internet Explorer.
Maxthon can even search multiple search engines and display the results side by side--nice when Google isn't your only thing. This feature in particular is unique to Maxthon and gives you a nice, all-encompassing search across many competitive search engines. There's something to be said for Bing, after all, and running it in a column next to Google is wise.
The Maxthon browser includes an ad blocker, a screenshot taker, and even a YouTube downloader out of the box. It's loaded with icons. I especially like that it's got ad blocker standard, as it seems ads are becoming more intrusive all the time, and a simple pop-up blocker just doesn't do the trick anymore.