It is said we all have a great novel inside us. (My waistline indicates something from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series). Liquid Story Binder XE ($46, 30-day free trial) is a program designed to help you get your story written, offering a wide array of tools, screens, and features to organize and focus your work.
Many programs in this genre, such as Write It Now and Writer's Blocks, have interfaces stuck in the age of Doom and Pets.com; Liquid Story Binder XE does not. It has a slick, graphically intensive interface that seems almost Mac-like. Nonetheless, it for the most part follows Windows operating conventions, though some dialogs and key-bindings are altered. There's nothing wrong with a program looking pretty (hello, Scrivener for Windows!), as long as it also works, and Liquid Story Binder succeeds at both.
Liquid Story Binder XE starts with the binder, a collection of various files that go into making up your novel. These include planners (a way of organizing files into sequences, such as the chapters in your book), dossiers (which contain information on characters or other things), timelines (which help you make sure Bob doesn't kill Mary before Mary kills Joe), and several others, of varying utility depending on your tastes and needs. And this is the point at which Liquid Story Binder runs into one potential problem: There's a lot of it, and it's not always clear what parts to use and when.
WebFilter is a free Chrome extension designed to block access to objectionable or dangerous sites, including those that are pornographic, harbor malware, show drug use, or are heavy bandwidth users. It's a generally useful tool, although it is somewhat marred by its surprising inability to block at least one very obvious problematic site.
Setup is simple; simply download the extension with Chrome. At that point, WebFilter stops Chrome from visiting the dangerous or problematic sites. When you (or more likely, one of your children onto whose browser you installed the extension) try to visit one, you can't get there, and get a page that reads "Web Access Blocked: The following web Access is blocked by Cloudacl," followed by the URL of the site.
That's all well and good. But it won't block access to every objectionable site. For example, it didn't block access to sex.com, a surprising oversight. However, you can always add sites you come across to a blocked list. Still, if you're trying to protect a child, this won't help at all, because the child will have already come across the site, and isn't likely to block him- or herself from future visits.
Imagine that your boss asked you to provide a graphic mere minutes before a meeting. Or you need to add a sales map graphic to Powerpoint. Or you need to create an accurate engineering diagram. When you have a graphics project to pull together in a hurry, accurately, and with some shiny bells and loud whistles, you need a program like SmartDraw VP ($297, seven-day free trial). Billed as the world's first "visual processor," SmartDraw VP works like a word processor, but churns out graphics rather than words.
SmartDraw VP includes templates for pretty much any graphic you'd ever need to create--some more usable than others--including cause and effect models, charts, decision trees, engineering models, floor plans, flowcharts, forms, graphs, mind maps, regular maps, network diagrams, org charts, presentations, project management models, and timelines. Plus it includes unique forms, drawings, and templates for particular professions, such as accounting, education, health care, law enforcement, paralegal, and more.
Once you choose your template, SmartDraw VP's Smart Panel, library of shapes, and help menu automatically customize to contain relevant items. For example, if you need to create a floor plan, open a template and the SmartPanel will supply drag and drop furniture, fixtures, walls, windows, etc. You can access all of SmartDraw's library components regardless of the template you're using. However, the help menu--which acts like a step-by-step cheat sheet--while great for modifying a template, isn't searchable, which is frustrating if you're looking for something outside of your chosen template.
The quest to use a computer to emulate natural artistic media is not a new one. The allure of painting with something "just like water color" has tempted both developers and users for years, and Corel Painter 12 ($429, 30-day free trial) brings this dream closer than ever before.
Before I take you on a whirlwind tour of Corel Painter 12, I must admit I am by no means a painter. I've been using Corel products for many years, but mostly stuck with CorelDraw, which is my favorite vector drawing application.
To review Painter, I dug out my trusty old Wacom tablet (a Graphire 2 model aimed at consumers). The first thing that struck me about Painter 12 is the new Real Watercolor brushes. I picked out a brush and started clumsily scratching away at my Wacom. Paint showed up on the screen; so far, nothing new. But when I stopped drawing, the strokes I made suddenly blended into the paper, diffused, and actually "dried" right in front of my eyes, becoming slightly faded. That was a truly eye-opening moment--it is just like water color.
The free TrackMeNotFirefox add-on takes a unique and creative approach to protecting your privacy from search engines that can create profiles of you based on terms you search for. Rather than hiding your searches from them in some way, it takes the exact opposite tack: It inundates search engines with a blizzard of background searches from you, so that no practical profile can be built because there are too many random searches. It generates those search terms from a group of RSS feeds from sites including the New York Times, CNN, and others.
It does this for the most popular search engines, including Google, Bing, AOL Search, Yahoo search, and Baidu (China's most popular search engine). If you're a Chrome user, don't despair, because the Chrome version of TrackMeNot works the same way. Every time it does a search, you see a small indication at the bottom of the Firefox screen, showing you the search term, and to which engine it's been submitted. The searches are submitted in the background, so that you can continue using your browser as you would normally, with no effect on its speed.
TrackMeNot gives you a great deal of control over how you use it, including the search engines to which you want the searches sent, the number of searches done per hour, whether queries should be shown to you or remain visible, and so on. If you'd like, you can edit the list of feeds it uses to generate the terms. Go to the Options screen, and enter RSS feeds into the appropriate box.
It's a gray area--the right to back up your media, and breaking the copy protection to do so. The latter, which is what DVDFab Blu-ray Copy does to make copies, is technically illegal according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, break and copy is what this program does, and does fairly well.
Blu-ray Copy is actually a module in Fengtao Software's $199 DVDFab All-in-One program. All the modules, which include DVD copying and video conversion, use the same interface, but you can only launch or use the ones that you've paid for. That can add up, as modules run $40 to $60.
DVDfab Blu-ray Copy worked relatively well for me, copying two titles fine, but halting halfway through Casino Royale. The program will make 1:1 copies, as well as compress moves to fit less capacious types of BD discs. The backups will play on systems without HDCP monitors or video cards. My only real complaint is that you need the separate $60 Blu-ray ripper module to save the movie to your hard drive in playable format.
You can deride iTunes for its cut-off, protected environment. And you can complain about the iPhone's closed nature. But what you can't deny is that Apple's two products work incredibly well together, delivering a seamless solution for transferring data back and forth between a phone and a computer. It's exactly what's missing from phones running the Android operating system. And it's just what Wondershare's MobileGo attempts to deliver. This $40 application (a free demo version is available) lets you connect your Windows PC to your supported Android smartphone to transfer music, movies, pictures, and more.
Once MobileGo is installed, you connect your Android phone to the PC via USB and wait for the software to recognize the phone. I tested it with the LG Optimus V from Virgin Mobile, and MobileGo didn't immediately recognize the phone. I had to tell the app the name of the phone, and still had manually download a driver for the phone and restart both my phone and computer multiple times before I could establish a connection between the two. Wondershare says that the problem was likely due to the fact that the LG phone was not on their list of supported models. If your phone is not supported, you can send a request to Wondershare using an on-phone application. These requests are typically filled within a day, Wondershare says.
My experience improved dramatically when MobileGo was able to connect my phone and my computer. The application's interface is bright and clean, and nicely laid out. The home screen offers an overview of your phone's storage capacity, as well as the contents of any storage card you may have. Like iTunes does for the iPhone, MobileGo lets you see how much space is being occupied by music, photos, movies, and other content. Unlike iTunes, MobileGo does not detail how much space is occupied by any apps you may have downloaded, though.