Blog Archives

Set Up a Geeky Media Center that Non-Geeks Can Actually Use [How To]

I love messing with settings and geeky file-sharing programs. My spouse doesn’t, but digs Hulu and appreciates free. So I set up a media center that satisfies my geek cravings but is actually easy-to-use for non-nerds. Here’s what I pieced together. More » Boosts Your Pronunciation, Helps Avoid Embarrassment [Language]

People with uncommon names don’t expect perfect pronunciation the first time they meet someone, but they’re probably impressed when they encounter it. Get a jump on your next business meeting or speaking opportunity with, along with another pronunciation resource. More »

Use Better Tools to Be a Better Student in 2010 [Students]

Despite the proliferation of laptops and netbooks, the vast majority of students still use their computers like $500 typewriters. Stop working so hard and be a better student by leveraging some clever computer tools to your advantage.

Photo by Brad K..

Every semester I get a new wave of college freshman into my classroom, most of them armed with laptops. For the last several semesters, I have been informally tracking how they use their computers. I always assumed that my students were using their computers to their full potential to help them with school, research, and such, but almost all of them were simply using their laptops as extremely expensive typewriters and instant-messaging terminals.

What good is all the computing power of the pre-1960s world sitting on your lap if you’re not using it to make college life easier? The following is a guide for students everywhere that want to spend less time on the tedious stuff, and more time on the things like study and research that actually produce results.

Never Do Anything Yourself That Your Computer Can Do For You

Never, ever, do something the hard way without checking to see if any easy way exists. Applications come in every shape and form to automate tasks on the computer. Never undertake a tedious task on your computer without first visiting a search engine and searching for a method of automating it. Whether you're resizing photos for a class project, renaming files, or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, check for the simple—and automatic!—way first. Photo by striatic.

File Renamers: Renaming tons of files has to be one of the most boring and grinding tasks you can undertake. Never waste time renaming files. If you’re on a PC, check out the powerful Bulk Rename Utility for a dashboard of options and the less-overwhelming but still effective Ken Rename. If you’re on a Mac, you can download specialty apps like File List, but it pays to become acquainted with Automator, which can do so much more than simple file renaming.

Text Replacement: Unless you’re writing the next great American novel, chances are you type a fair number of things with a high degree of frequency. Your email address, common phrases you use, formatting you find yourself typing over and over again when working on papers or taking notes, and so on, it might not seem like much but you can easily save hours over the course of a semester by using text replacement. How does text replacement work? Each text replacement tool handles things a little bit differently, but nearly all of them have two basic methods: instant replacement and hot keys.

With replacement, you tell your computer to replace every instance of a string with another string—like notes1 becomes your favorite bullet-list format for taking notes, or mymail becomes your full email address.

Hot keys allow you to assign a phrase to a bit of shorthand plus a hotkey. For example, I have a phrase that is XXX+TAB. Typing it takes only four key strokes but it types out a phrase that would require 53 keystrokes if I typed it manually.

If you’re on a PC, you can try out our home-grown text replacement tool Texter, or other capable tools like Phrase Express. Mac users should check out TextExpander or become more familiar with the built in text-replacement tools in Snow Leopard, and Linux users can give AutoKey a whirl.

Regardless of what you’re trying to do, you’ll almost always be able to find a tool online to automate or at least make that task easier. Get in the habit of always asking yourself, no matter what the task, “Could the computer do this faster and with less input from me?”. Over time you’ll build up a set of tools for quickly completing common tasks.

Keyboard shortcuts

Learn the keyboard shortcuts for everything: your word processor, your note-taking tools, your email client. Slinging the mouse around for tasks that can be accomplished with a keystroke or two is a really inefficient way to work, and far less comfortable. If you’re furiously taking down notes in class do you really want to break your stride to dig around in the toolbar or menus for something like a bullet point activation? You can find shortcut lists for every operating system and application under the sun; hit up Google with a search query like “myapplication shortcut list” to find more shortcuts than you knew existed. Photo by John A. Ward.

Take Better Notes

Note taking is an art form, and it is most definitely not simply writing down everything your professor says or that is in bold print in your textbook. How you take notes is a highly personal thing and heavily influenced by your learning style, but everyone can stand to improve their note taking with a tip or two. Photo by D’Arcy Norman.

Study Note-Taking Techniques: We’ve shared tips with you on how to take more effective notes and how to utilize different note-taking styles and you’ll find no shortage of resources elsewhere on the web for being a more effective note-taker. You can further hone your note-taking skills by researching subject-specific note taking techniques—how you take notes in Medieval Literature won't be the same way you take notes in Organic Chemistry.

Ditch the Pen:

People who love to take handwritten notes love to take handwritten notes, and we don’t expect to dissuade the everything-looks-better-on-a-Moleskin crowd from abandoning their pens. For the rest of you, taking paper notes is, quite literally, so last century. It’s 2010, and there is no reason for you not to have dynamic, media-rich, cross-indexed, and always available notes. At the end of the semester, do you really want to pick through a hundred pages of hand written notes looking for specific bits of information? No, you don’t. You want to be able to search through your notes quickly and efficiently the same way you use major search engines like Google.

Two extremely popular note-taking tools are Microsoft OneNote and Evernote—so popular, in fact, we faced them off in a reader poll last year. The awesome features of the two applications are beyond the scope of a paragraph, but suffice to say they both have excellent systems for searching (with handwriting recognition!), organizing, and accessing your notes—I use OneNote for everything from graduate school to teaching to writing for Lifehacker. You can check out our overview of OneNote here and Evernote here.

Use the Computer to Network

We’re not talking about Facebook-ing everyone in your class. We’re talking about actively using online study and collaboration tools to interact with your classmates. Sharing notes, discussing assignments and class topics, and collaborating on group projects are but a few of the ways you can take advantage of the hyper-connectivity the information age has brought about. Photo by krossbow.

Share Your Notes:The first objection I usually hear to the idea of sharing notes is that people don’t want to share their hard work and they don’t think that other people should benefit from it. Fair enough, how you deal with who participates in your class-centered groups and note sharing sessions is your business but as an instructor I can tell you this: the kind of person who doesn’t bother to take their own notes isn’t exactly the kind of person you’re going to have to fight for the top grade in the class.

You can share notes and collaborate in quite a few ways but it would help your cause to stick with methods that have a low barrier to entry—most people don't want to sign up for a bunch of services just for a class. Google Notebook and Documents are great tools since having a Gmail account is nearly universal. You could also set up your own wiki with free tools like Luminotes or customize MediaWiki into your own personal collaboration server.

Build a Contact Web: Whether it's a group on Facebook, an email list, or a list of phone numbers for text messaging, it's wise to create a way you can quickly communicate with other students. Many times you have a question about an assignment, something that happened in class, or what you missed when you were absent and sending out an email to your fellow students will result in a faster response than waiting to hear back from the professor. It also helps you build a contact list of your peers—not as important in a freshman Psychology 110 course, but by the time you're in at the end of your schooling you'll be taking more focused classes and meeting people in your career path you'll want to stay in contact with.

Backup, Backup, Backup

You have no excuse for not backing up your data—none. The number and methods for backing up data, especially the small volume that constitutes text-based research and class notes, are so numerous that there simply is no excuse for doing something foolish like keeping all your hard work on a single hard disk or flash drive. Photo by Jeff Wilcox.

Dropbox: It's free, the basic account can more than hold a semester's worth of work—short of a film school project—and it syncs to all your computers and to the web. "I accidentally deleted my homework" wasn't a very good excuse ten years ago and it's an unforgivable one now. You can sync your passwords, your OneNote notebooks, and access your favorite portable apps from anywhere.

Online Backup: While Dropbox is great for syncing files, if you want to go all out you’ll definitely want to check out some full-fledged computer backup tools like Mozy and Carbonite. Check out our Hive Five on best Windows backup tools to get more information.

Have a tool you use to enhance your note-taking, studying, or school experience? Can’t believe we overlooked your favorite technique? Let’s hear about it in the comments below.

Create an Ad-Hoc Network Sharing Point from a Windows 7 Netbook [NetBooks]

Windows 7 Starter Edition, the version loaded onto netbooks, isn’t supposed to offer “advanced” features like ad-hoc network sharing. In this one case, however, finding this feature is as simple as typing the right phrase into the Start Menu search.

Rafael Rivera’s Within Windows blog points out that while the dialog that normally starts the ad-hoc networking process in Windows 7 is disabled in Starter Edition, simply searching for adhoc allows you to start it up. That means being able to connect other computers, smartphones, and Wi-Fi-enabled devices to your netbook when it’s got a net connection. It’s not quite as convenient as Virtual Wireless Networking, which you can enable with Connectify, but it does get the job done.

Wire Your House with Ethernet Cable [Weekend Project]

You’ve ripped a movie on your laptop, and now want it on that fancy new home theater PC next to your TV. If you’ve got the time, wiring your house with Cat-5e cable could make transfer times a distant memory.

Instructables user Rogue Agent gets into the nuts, bolts, studs, and boxes needed to wire a house with omni-present cable in a fairly professional manner. The tutorial is based on setting up an actual cable switching box on a server-type rack. For those who just need to run cable from one room to another, the tips on finding, mounting, and securing cable through the walls, without your home looking like the scene of a sledgehammer party, are just as helpful.

Have you taken the dive into home cable networking? What guides, tutorials, or tips do you wish you’d known from the start? Tell us, and share the links, in the comments.

Turn Your Windows 7 PC Into a Wireless Hotspot [Windows 7]

Everybody’s got a wireless network at home, but if you’ve ever wanted to get your iPod touch, iPhone, or other wireless device connected, but all you’ve got is a wired network at work, school, or elsewhere, Windows 7 makes this process trivial.

Not using Windows 7 yet? You can accomplish the same thing in Windows Vista, XP, and even OS X—the Windows Vista method is almost identical to Windows 7, but XP requires a few more steps.

Before we begin, you should make sure that you've got a laptop or desktop with a wireless card that isn't currently connected—if your laptop is connected to the wired network, your wireless card should be free, and we can use it to allow access to the internet. Note that you have to be plugged into a wired connection in order to share the connection wirelessly with others, or have a second wireless card. Readers should also note that this won't work on (some) work networks that use group policies to enforce TPS report cover sheet boredom and prevent you from having any fun at all.

You’ll want to start out by heading into the Network and Sharing Center through the Control Panel, or you can quickly get to it by right-clicking on the network icon in the system tray. Once you are there, find the link for “Set up a new connection or network”.
You’ll be prompted with a wizard that allows you to connect to VPNs, dial-up, or create a new ad hoc wireless network, which is what we want to do. You can easily use an ad hoc network to share files back and forth between two computers, but today we’ll be using it for sharing the internet connection.

You'll need to give your network a name and choose some security options—remember that WEP is extremely easy to crack—and you'll want to make sure to use at least a decent sized key even for WPA2. The really important option on this page is to remember to check the box for "Save this network".

At this point your ad hoc network should be running and ready to start connecting your devices, but you’ll want to hold off just a minute.

You'll notice that the ad hoc networks that you create get added to the quick-select wireless network list—when you disconnect from your ad hoc network, it's the same as stopping it. Connecting to the network is the same as starting it back up; this way you can quickly switch back and forth between connections with just a few clicks.

The last step is enabling connection sharing through your regular network card, which will allow anybody connected to your ad hoc wireless to use your internet connection. To do so, you'll want to head into the Network and Sharing Center, click the "Change adapter settings" link on the left, and then find your network connection in the list—it's very important that you only enable internet connection sharing on the adapter that is actually connected to the internet. In this case, my internet access at work goes through my Local Area Connection, so I've enabled it there.

At this point, you should be able to connect any wireless device to your new ad hoc network and access the internet, or even share files directly with your laptop.

Have you been able to successfully get your wireless device connected to your PC? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

The How-To Geek is having fun downloading apps to his iPod Touch while sitting at his desk at work. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.

Wireshark 1.2 Includes 64-Bit Support, Mapping Integration [Networking]

Windows/Mac/Linux: Popular network analyzer Wireshark threw a lot of useful features into its 1.2 update, giving net traffic watchers OpenStreetMap+GeoIP integration, new capture file support, and other updates.

The previously featured utility is just as net-geeky as ever, showing packet movements as they happen along DNS, TCP, UDP, and other protocols and interfaces. On top of that, the app formerly known as Ethereal added a bunch of conveniences and tweaks:

  • Display filters now autocomplete.
  • A 64-bit Windows (x64) installer is now provided.
  • GeoIP database lookups.
  • Improved Postscript print output.
  • Support for Pcap-ng, the next-generation capture file format.
  • Column widths are now saved.
  • Capinfos now shows the average packet rate.

Hit up the link below for the full release notes, as well as details on known bugs. Wireshark is a free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems.

Netalyzr Determines Your Network Health [Networking]

Beta web application Netalyzr is a free tool that analyzes your network for possible problems—large and small—helping you determine your overall network health.

As soon as you start the test (and agree to the security certificate), Netalyzer performs various tests on your computer’s connection. When the tests are complete, you’ll see an exhaustive rundown of all the results, including a handy “Noteworthy Events” section at the top that details the possible problem areas. Tests that pass are marked as green, minor problems are marked in yellow, and problems get the classic red. For a longer explanation of what each section is testing, just click the linked section title.

Did you give it a go? Let’s hear how your network handled the test in the comments.

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