Like most people nowadays, I use a computer for lots of purposes. Using a computer is all about using software. If a particular program does the job for you, to a large extent it does not matter what kind of computer you have, so long as it supports the chosen software. Along with the operating system, which, in my case, is Windows, there are a number of “standard issue” business programs that most people use – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook etc. – and we may or may not have an opinion about these, but they are a given.
Other software we get to choose and that is what I am pondering today …
For my work, apart from the normal Office suite, I also use the software products produced by my employers – specifically the Mentor Graphics embedded software development tools. But away from my work, I use software in support of my other interests and I thought that it would be interesting to highlight my six favorite programs.
A program, that I use absolutely every day, is Evernote, and I use it for a wide variety of purposes. Broadly, it is a tool for organizing and locating information. The concept is that everything is stored in a “note”, which is a titled text document, which can be unformatted or rich text and may include images and have any number of other files, of any type, attached to it. Notes are organized into a “notebook”, which can, in turn, be grouped into “stacks”. Notes can also be tagged in order to filter out specific material. The Evernote program has extremely powerful searching capabilities, so finding any information is a breeze.
Although I use the Windows program all the time, Evernote does not stop there. Notes are synchronized into my online account [if I want them to be – it is not compulsory, but very useful]. I can then access all my notes from my iPad or iPhone [using the iOS app] or from any Internet-connected computer using the Web app.
My Web browser of choice is Chrome. I was initially attracted to its clean and simple user interface and the possibilities of plug-ins. I suppose it just works in a way that I am comfortable with, which I could never say with Internet Explorer. I use the odd website which specifically requires IE, but I have a Chrome plug-in that means I do not have to change browsers – it just uses IE to render the specific site. I can even tell the plug-in to remember which sites need this treatment, which makes it quite transparent. I have the Chrome app on my iPad, so I benefit from the ability to synchronize my favorites/bookmarks across devices.
Photography is my #1 hobby and, of course, digital photography needs software. For me, the absolutely necessary, “go to” software for working with images is Adobe’s Lightroom. At its heart, Lightroom is a database manager for images. You can have one or more databases, called “catalogs”, which keep tabs on the location of the image files [you can keep them anywhere you want – Lightroom does not restrict you]. There are some useful organization tools – tags and collections – which, along with other image “metadata” [like shooting time/date/location] make organizing and finding images very easy.
The coolest thing about Lightroom is the way it tracks changes to images. The original image file [which can be RAW or JPEG or other formats] is carefully protected. If you make changes within Lightroom – and there is a very extensive array of tools for image correction and enhancement – the changes are simply logged in the database. If you want to print or share a finished images, you just export it: Lightroom creates a new file, in a format of your choosing, with all the changes applied. You can even have “virtual copies” of an image with different sets of adjustments applied. If it turns out that you need to do some image changes that are too demanding for Lightroom [which I find is rarely the case], you can seamlessly invoke Photoshop [or the image editor of your choosing] to work on a copy of the image and Lightroom catalogs the new file.
As photography is so important to me, other relevant programs make my Top 6. Although many serious amateur photographers regard full Photoshop as essential, I have never agreed, as the price tag is just too high. Although nowadays it is subject to a usage fee, which makes it more accessible if you are on a budget. On the other hand, Photoshop Elements, which is very cheap, has just about all of the functionality that even a very serious amateur would need. It is a true bargain and plays very nicely with Lightroom.
FastStone Image Viewer
Sometimes I just want a very quick way to look through some images, which, for whatever reason, are not cataloged in Lightroom. That is when I turn to FastStone Image Viewer. This free tool provides a very fast viewing environment, along with the ability to make “quick and dirty” image adjustments and perform ad hoc slide shows.
Family Tree Maker
Another hobby of mine, in which I dabble from time to time, is genealogy – constructing and maintaining my family tree. I have made use of the online service ancestry.com and periodically subscribe to their facilities to search family records. Although their Web-based service is very good, their Windows client – Family Tree Maker – offers much more flexibility in the display and management of genealogical data, which can be synchronized with the online records straightforwardly. Incidentally, their iPad app enables me to access the online records when I am out and about. So, if I am doing research away from home, I can store my results and then sync them down into Family Tree Maker.