Technology is supposed to make life easier, but it doesn’t seem that way when you’re struggling to wrangle 289 new e-mail messages, dealing with a hard-drive crash, or suddenly realizing that you left an important file on the office computer. Thankfully, plenty of tools can help. We’ll tell you which ones are worth trying, and we’ll also suggest some practices that you can incorporate into your workday to use tech tools more effectively and efficiently.
1. Telecommute by Remotely Controlling Your Office Computer
You can work from home–but use the computer in your office–through remote control software such as LogMeIn (free version available) or TightVNC (free). You can view the remote computer full screen, launch and close programs, read e-mail, copy and paste text between PCs, and access any files you left behind. Save money on gas, claim home equipment on your taxes, and convince your boss that you’ll be more productive without leaving your house. Even the iPhone has some VNC clients, such as Mocha VNC and Teleport.
If you don’t need full remote control but you do require access to your office or home files, set up Microsoft’s free file-syncing tool, FolderShare. Your files will always be up-to-date, no matter where you’re working or where you last updated them.
2. Schedule Automatic Hard-Drive Backups, Locally and Remotely
Backing up your critical files is as exciting as purchasing home insurance, but just as important, too. Don’t risk losing your irreplaceable digital photos by making empty promises to yourself to burn a couple of DVDs every few months. Instead, set up software and services to do the job for you while you concentrate on more-exciting projects. First, save yourself from an “OMG my hard drive crashed!” catastrophe with a top backup program. Or get started now with a free copy of SyncBackSE, and schedule regular backup jobs to your external FireWire drive, thumb drive, or network drive. (If you have FTP-server access, SyncBack can back up to that as well.)
Of course, local backup isn’t enough. To protect your data against fire, lightning, theft, or other disasters, you want to back up your data to a remote server over the Internet. Both Carbonite and Mozy Home offer affordable unlimited server space and utilities that quietly back up your data in the background while you work.
3. Work Faster and More Efficiently Without a Mouse
Streamline your computer work by teaching yourself keyboard shortcuts for your common actions, such as Ctrl-S to save, Ctrl-T to open a new tab in Firefox, and Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy and paste (see our list of additional shortcuts). Then, become a keyboard master with the help of a keyboard launcher such as the free Launchy (Windows) or Quicksilver (Mac). You can start programs, open documents, and even do advanced actions such as resizing images and moving files without moving your hands from the keyboard.
You can also assign key combinations that automatically type out common phrases–such as user names, passwords, addresses, and e-mail signatures–with utilities like TypeItIn (Windows) or TypeIt4Me (Mac OS X).
4. Lose Weight, Get Fit, Save Money, and Increase Your Mileage Online
A new crop of social self-improvement sites help you monitor how much you’ve eaten, exercised, and spent, to motivate you and keep you on track.
If Quicken or Microsoft Money has become too complicated to update, you can track your spending, balance your checkbook, and run charts on expenditures versus income at personal-finance sites Mint.com and Wesabe.
As for your car, avoid online gas scams. Additionally, you can squeeze the last bit of mileage out of every expensive tank of gas with a miles-per-gallon tracker like Fuelly or MyMileMarker. Entering your information into such sites gets you personalized suggestions, comparisons, and a community of like-minded people who can offer support and suggestions.
5. Clear Out Your Inbox Every Day
Beat e-mail overload once and for all by emptying your inbox completely–and keeping it that way. The “Inbox Zero” philosophy says that e-mail messages are just calls to action–not clutter that we need to hang on to. Create three folders or labels in your e-mail client: Action, Later, and Archive. Each day when you check your e-mail, make a decision and do something with every new message you’ve received until you’ve moved them all out of your inbox and reduced your message count down to zero. Ruthlessly delete the messages you don’t need, on the spot. Respond to the ones that will take under 2 minutes. File messages that you want to keep for future reference in the Archive folder, those that will take longer than 2 minutes to reply to in Action (and add those to-do items to your list), and messages you need to follow up on at a subsequent date (such as Amazon shipment notifications) in Later. Then breathe a sigh of relief when you see that glorious declaration: ‘You have no new mail.’
6. Get Your Cables Under Control
When you have a tangled mess of dust-coated cords knotted into a bundle under your desk, disconnecting a laptop or setting up a new printer can be impossible. The cords for power, USB, speakers, and FireWire all look the same. Simple labels can help you avoid accidentally killing your entire rig by pulling one wrong plug. Print out your own with a label maker, or buy a prefab pack of Pilot ID labels to stick on your home-office or living-room plugs. When the cat knocks one out or it’s time to rearrange, you’ll be glad you did. Then, get cords up off the dusty floor with an under-the-desk cable tray such as this $10 Ikea model. To keep gadget and laptop cords from falling off the back of your desk when they’re not plugged in, affix a simple cable catcher (or a binder clip) to the edge of your desk to hold them. Finally, plug your workstation and your collection of peripherals into a single power strip or UPS to shut down the energy hogs with a single switch when you’re not using them.
7. Stay on Task With the Right To-Do List
The key to staying on track with the stuff you need to get done is writing it down and checking it off–whether you do so online, on your desktop, on your smart phone, or in a plain text file. PC World has tried a number of online task manager sites, and our pick is Remember the Milk. It provides all the bells and whistles you’ll ever need in a to-do list online, on your desktop, and on your phone. RTM offers task categories (such as Work and Home), file attachments, notes, priorities, tags, due dates, and even “honey do” items (you can send tasks to other RTM users, such as your spouse or assistant). RTM also offers a Firefox extension that integrates the service with your Gmail inbox, so you can turn e-mail into tasks. Of course, no matter how good your software is, nothing can replace the visceral satisfaction of crossing off a line on your paper to-do list with the stroke of a regular old ballpoint pen.
8. Replace Your Laptop With a Thumb Drive or iPod
Instead of lugging a laptop on your next trip, save your aching back by taking your computer’s desktop with you on a thumb drive or iPod. Portable Windows software offerings such as MojoPac and U3 put a full desktop on your USB thumb drive (or disk-use-enabled iPod), letting you run applications like Microsoft Outlook and save documents all on that drive. All you need is a host computer: You can plug the MojoPac drive into your in-laws’ PC or a coffee-shop workstation, for instance, to access your documents and applications without leaving a trace behind. Alternatively, you can save and run free portable applications–like the Firefox browser, Pidgin IM client, and Sumatra PDF reader–from your thumb drive. Download those and other programs for free at PortableApps.com.
9. Use Your Camera Phone as Your Digital Photographic Memory
Almost every cell phone model now includes a built-in camera, and they’re good for more than just snapping pics of your buddies’ bar shenanigans to blackmail them with later. Use your phone’s camera and memory card to capture the spot where you parked, the label on a bottle of wine your spouse loved, the price on a new gadget to look up online, or an amazing meal you’d like to try to cook at home. A new crop of Web services can turn digital photos of whiteboards and documents into searchable PDF documents, too. E-mail your camera-phone shot of a whiteboard or document to Qipit, and the service will recognize the text and e-mail you the resulting searchable PDF.
Deal search engines such as RetailMeNot.com or SearchAllDeals.com and social sites like BeatThat are great at finding the best prices before you buy, but PriceProtectr.com and similar services will save you money afterward by monitoring over 130 stores that have price-protection policies. If the price goes down after your purchase, that store might owe you money, but knowing whether the price went down is the trick. You can take advantage of price guarantees by going to RefundPlease.com, or track items on your wish list by using the free Amazon Price Watch software. Travel sites like Farecast and Orbitz also have price-protection systems and e-mail alerts for when prices reach a certain low point.
11. Consolidate Multiple E-Mail Addresses With Gmail
You have more e-mail addresses than you do pairs of socks–so it makes sense to keep them all in one drawer. If you have mail coming to your ISP’s account, your work address, your school address, and your throwaway Yahoo account from 1998, and you’re having difficulty juggling everything, it’s time to consolidate all those messages into one inbox. Google’s free Web-based Gmail service is both an e-mail host and an e-mail client. Use Gmail’s built-in Mail Fetcher to retrieve messages from up to five external e-mail accounts using the POP3 standard. In Gmail’s Settings area, visit the Accounts tab to set up your external e-mail addresses, and you’ll then receive all your mail in one roomy inbox. You can even send mail from your non-Gmail addresses via Gmail’s Compose screen, too.
12. Never Forget a Birthday, Teeth Cleaning, or Oil Change Again
When you’re tired of scrambling to send Mom flowers at the last minute every year, set up a scheduled e-mail reminder for her birthday–and for any other long-term recurring tasks. Google Calendar can send upcoming-event alerts via SMS (“Pick up the dry cleaning at 3 p.m. today”) or e-mail (“Schedule a hair appointment; it’s been six weeks!”). Most Web-based calendars (like Google Calendar) and task managers (like Remember the Milk), as well as Web sites such as HassleMe and Sandy, support e-mail alerts.
Your Web browser can save your user name and password for sites you log in to often, but you still have lots of other passwords to remember–Wi-Fi network names and passwords, computer log-ins, PINs and passphrases, even security questions and answers. Instead of writing everything down on a sticky note tacked onto your computer monitor, lock up your store of sensitive passwords in a secure, encrypted password database. The free KeePass works in Windows, Mac, and Linux, and assigns one master password to your database. Park your passwords, PINs, and software serial numbers in your personal secure database, and save yourself the hassle of having to call the IT department the umpteenth time to reset your password.
Everyone has a folder or two of private files that thieves, children, competitors, coworkers, or casual passersby should never see. Whether you want to secure your stealth startup’s business plan or some personal photos, the free, cross-platform TrueCrypt encryption software (review; download) is ideal for storing sensitive files in a password-protected virtual container. Only someone with the master password can open that container and read or write the files within; to everyone else, it’s a nondescript single file full of jumbled-up junk. TrueCrypt can secure a single folder on your hard drive, or an entire disk–it’s great for a thumb drive carrying precious data that could be exposed if the drive is lost or stolen.
15. Stream Content From Your PC to Your Tivo, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii
You don’t need yet another box under your TV in the living room to enjoy your digital music and videos. If you own a game console or TiVo box, you’re ready to start streaming media from your PC today–no Apple TV or set-top media box needed. Find out how to get started.
Microsoft also recently announced that, by this holiday season, Xbox 360 owners who are also Netflix subscribers will be able to stream “thousands of movies” using just their game console. In the meantime, you can stream Netflix movies from your PC to your Xbox 360 with the vmcNetFlix plug-in.
17. Reach Favorite Sites and Searches Faster With Firefox Keywords
You probably hit the same Web sites and search engines several times a day. Why not get to those pages as quickly as possible? Instead of typing out long URLs by hand or hunting down the right search box, use Firefox keyword bookmarks to navigate to your favorite Web haunts instantly (here’s how to set them up).
To search Wikipedia for George Washington, for example, you could key up to Firefox’s address bar (Ctrl-L), type w George Washington, and press Enter to go directly to that topic page. You can use the same technique for Web pages that don’t involve searches, too–for example, try setting the compose keyword to open a new Gmail message. To associate a keyword to a bookmark, enter a short, easy-to-remember keyword in the bookmark’s Properties dialog box. Once you’ve set up a few keywords, you can use your Firefox address bar as a powerful, customized command line.
Bonus tip: Sync your Firefox bookmarks from home to the office to the laptop using the Foxmarks extension; it will keep your keyword vocabulary up-to-date wherever you’re working.
18. Tweak, Monitor, and Extend Your Wi-Fi Network With a Firmware Upgrade (or Aluminum Foil)
Extend your router’s signal, throttle your bandwidth, review usage charts, and more with an open-source router-firmware upgrade. The free DD-WRT and Tomato firmware each offer advanced features for managing your wireless network, including bandwidth monitors, quality-of-service graphs, and even router overclocking to extend your signal.
Want to make your Wi-Fi router’s signal reach the attic and the basement the low-tech way? Some sites say they’ve achieved gains by fashioning a foil “windsurfer” parabola and attaching it to the router antenna.
19. Master Search Techniques to Pinpoint Files or Web Sites
Drill down through millions of search results for popular Google search terms by mastering advanced search operators. Enclose phrases and proper names in quotes (as in “Don’t tase me bro” or “Michael Phelps”) to get exact-phrase matches. Use the + and – signs to specify meaning, especially for words that have more than one definition (for example, salsa -dance), and use the filetype: operator to find certain kinds of documents (as in budget filetype:xls).
You can even search for all the ingredients in your fridge with the word recipe to figure out what to have for dinner tonight.
Then, take your search chops to your desktop, where organizing files in an elaborate folder scheme is no longer necessary. Use Windows Vista’s Saved Search folders to build a dynamic store of all the files that contain the term “NYC,” for instance, or all the digital photos taken on your birthday.
Gmail’s built-in e-mail search capabilities are also killer. Use the from:, to:, and subject: operators to find specific messages, as in from:”Bill Gates” subject:”dinner date”.
You’ve already paid an arm and a leg to refill your home printer, so get into some smart printing habits to save money on ink and paper. Wherever possible, preview your document before you print, and shrink the selection down to fewer pages, or print only the pages you need in the document. Set your printer to the lowest quality (draft mode) when possible, and opt for double-sided printing or print several pages per physical page (when you’re printing out PowerPoint slides, for example). When you’re printing Web pages, use the Aardvark Firefox add-on to delete big colorful advertisements and other unwanted elements before you print. When you don’t really need a hard copy, opt to print to a PDF document instead. Mac users can do this by default; Windows users can download the free CutePDF to print any document to PDF.