Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Snappy, effective backups

How many times have you experienced the morbid panic that only lost data can bring on? I have on a few occasions -- Word documents unexpectedly giving up and crashing, Windows randomly restarting, or just mistakenly deleting a document that was about to be submitted. All these horror stories can be averted if data is protected by a good backup policy. But then, hindsight being 20/20 vision, it's only until after the havoc has been wreaked that we know what should have been done. And by then, the data is lost. Forever.

SyncBack I've been using this neat little utility that's easily one of biggest blessings for my data -- a nifty little freeware application that automatically creates a backup of the files I specify, even while I'm working on them. It's called SyncBack Freeware. The beauty of this tool lies in its elegance -- it silently creates a backup, or synchronizes the contents of a folder you specify. The target for your backup can be an external drive, a network folder, or even an FTP server location. You can completely automate this backup by specifying the backup frequency (I'm paranoid -- mine is set to run every 5 minutes). The application also enables you to specify the exact types of files to include/exclude, along with what to do in case duplicates exist. Click on the above screenshot for a larger view. While the free version is slightly feature-restricted (it cannot copy open e-mail PST files, for example), it has plenty of features to satisfy most personal data backup requirements.

This granular level of control delivers a surprisingly powerful set of backup capabilities in a small, free and lucid package. So the next time you experience a data cataclysm, count on your up-to-date backup to bail you out -- elegantly and effectively.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The question of security

962334_secureThese days, almost everything that defines us (our thoughts, feelings, passions, hobbies, even dietary habits) are out there in some digital form or the other. Online services such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs let us share thoughts that we'd otherwise be quite averse to sharing with the world at large. Besides the stuff we intentionally want to share, there's a whole lot of information that should never reach the public domain -- credit card numbers, online bank passwords, official documents and all such. All these are prone to being left around, ready for an opportunist (or an active hacker) to pounce on. And so we wonder-- how secure is our digital data?

Over the past few years, I've used several software that can help protect 'eyes only' data. We all know the drill about how it's important to use strong passwords (long combinations of hard-to-guess letters and numerals), un-share folders so that they're not visible on a shared network, use the password protection feature for your documents et al. All this is just the first line of protection. To really protect your confidential information, you'll need to resort to more robust methods for locking down your data. So much so, that hackers with even the fastest computers in the world today would require decades to decode it. The key to your data's security is encryption.

Quite simply, encryption is a technique for encoding data, such that it appears random and indecipherable to unauthorized viewers. Think of it as a way of putting your documents through a shredder, and being able to magically re-assemble it to its original state whenever you want to view it. Encryption techniques are frequently used by government and military organizations (for obvious reasons), but the good news is that it's not so difficult for housewives, students, accountants, and shopkeepers to use either.

In itself, the process of encryption involves ultra-complex mathematical algorithms that process data in strange and wonderful ways to make it appear like digital garbage. If you're so inclined, see here for brief explanations of these different algorithms. You'd have to have a serious interest in advanced mathematics to dig any deeper. If you'd rather not, you can directly jump in and start using one of the several encryption applications available, and be on your way to locking down your data.

TrueCrypt On the desktop front, I strongly recommend TrueCrypt. I've been using this (free) application for years now, and have never felt more secure about my data. This encryption software (like several others), creates a 'container' in which you can copy any kind of file, just as you would copy to a pen drive or a folder on your hard disk. TrueCrypt creates a 'volume' that appears as a normal Windows drive that you can format or copy files into. But it encrypts your data in real time while copying files to the drive: no need to wait while you drag and drop files--it happens virtually instantly. The only way to view these encrypted files is by mounting the containing volume using a pass key you define. You can create volumes as small as a few megabytes (to store on a thumb drive, for example) all the way to hundreds of gigabytes -- yes, you can even encrypt your entire hard disk. While this application costs nothing, it sacrifices nothing by way of capability--it is powered by a variety of best-of-class encryption techniques that will more than serve your data security needs. If you like jargon, this application supports military-strength encryption KeePassPPCalgorithms including AES, Serpent, Twofish, and combinations thereof. The excellent Beginner's Tutorial will help you quickly get started, and if you need help while using it, there's plenty of it under the Help menu.

There are several such options on the mobile front. If you're using a Windows Mobile phone (Pocket PC 2003, WM5, or WM6) and would like to safely carry your personal information on your cell phone, I recommend an excellent encryption utility called KeePassPPC. It's quick, and it provides a secure zone for storing your credit card details, bank account numbers and even personal notes. Best of all, it's free.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Which personal laptop?

Laptop I often get asked about which is a good laptop to buy. Given the vast choices out there, it's easy to get lost in all that marketing jargon while selecting your perfect portable processing partner. Cheesy alliteration, but what the heck.

Basically, for home applications you would want to look at any laptop with the following specifications:

Processor speed At least 1.8 GHz (preferably Intel Core 2 Duo)
RAM At least 2 GB
Hard disk At least 160 GB
Screen size 14.1-inch is ideal
Other must-haves DVD writer, Wi-Fi, Windows Vista Home / XP
If these are also included, great Bluetooth, integrated Webcam, TV tuner, media card reader
Price Between Rs 36,000 and 42,000 depending on the brand

A good entry-level laptop for most home and personal productivity applications would be something like the Lenovo 3000 G410 204958Q.

Its specifications are: Intel Core 2 Duo T2390 processor (1.86 GHz, 533 MHz FSB), 14.1-inch WXGA TFT, 2 GB DDR2 SDRAM (running at 667 MHz), 160 GB Serial ATA hard disk, DVD recorder drive,  Bluetooth Version 2.0 + EDR, 802.11a/b/g wireless, 10/100 Ethernet, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950.
Price: Rs 31,490 (approximately)
Note: You will need to buy Windows XP/Vista separately in this model – that should cost an additional 5,000 to 7,000.

At the higher end, I would suggest a laptop like the Lenovo 7758 69Q.

Its specifications are: Intel Core 2 Duo T5550 (1.83 GHz, 667 MHz,  2 MB L2 cache), 2 GB DDR2 SDRAM, 250 GB Serial ATA hard disk, DVD recorder drive, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950, 802.11a/b/g wireless, 6-in-1 media card Reader, 1.3 megapixel webcam integrated, 15.4-inch WXGA screen, Vista Home Basic.
Price: 48,500 (approximately)

There are numerous other great laptop brands to choose from. I'd recommend Lenovo, Acer or Dell -- I've always had the best experience with their laptops. Find out more about their entry-level offerings at their respective Web sites here (Lenovo), here (Acer) and here (Dell).

My photography gear

I've been passionate about photography for several years now. I admit -- I wasn't that into the field during its film days (not like that was too long ago!), but I really got into it during its crossover into the digital realm.

As the former editor of a popular computer magazine in India, I've had the opportunity to work with numerous digital cameras over the years. I've owned several digital cameras during the time -- the Canon PowerShot A60, the Fuji FinePix S5500, and more recently the Nikon D40 (this is my second one -- the first was stolen. T'was indeed a sad, sad day in my life).

Nikon D40The best entry-level DSLR. Period.
I've been extremely satisfied with the D40 kit, and would dare say that it's the most brilliant piece of photography equipment in its class. It is compact, delivers excellent imaging performance, and is extensible. Right now, I really don't see any reason to upgrade to a camera beyond 6 megapixels (if I need to print photos, I can comfortably do so at A4 sizes at excellent detail levels). Given that this is an SLR -- and a happily compact one at that -- it blends in so well during my photography jaunts. I think the size of a camera has a fairly significant bearing on a photographer's ability to blend in. Walk up to someone while holding a huge camera and lens, and you're sure to get a dose of 'camera coyness', effectively destroying any opportunity for that desirably natural shot! Coming back to the D40 -- it embodies a blend of great usability characteristics and feature benefits. And it's got the lineage and DNA of great SLR performance.

It's all in the glass
I'm firmly believe that a camera is 90 percent about its lens. The rest follows. So when people ask me how many megapixels they should look for in a camera, or how much zoom it should have, I advise them to consider the following specifications: quality of the lens, sensor rating (size and megapixels--the more the merrier), form factor, creative functionality, battery life, and extensibility. Of course, the importance of these specifications decreases with your seriousness towards photography -- if it's a point and shoot pocket device you're looking for, where convenience overrides everything else, most cameras in this class are closely matched on image quality and functionality. The differences are more noticeable when you're looking for good imaging performance.
That said, the stock 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S lens that's bundled with the D40 is a pretty good performer, given the overall price bundle. But I was looking for a bit more telephoto performance, and a good portrait lens. Without breaking the bank, of course.
I found the answers in a Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM lens, and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D prime. 

Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM After much research (and diligently poring over imaging charts, sample photos, spec listings and price comparisons), I decided this Sigma 18-200mm was the lens I was looking for to serve my everyday shooting needs. It is versatile, capable, relatively compact, and offers pretty decent performance. Sure, it isn't best-of-class in any of these, but when it comes to lenses, it's difficult to get everything in a single package! The 18-200mm zoom offers pretty good wide angle and telephoto performance, the integrated motor plays well with the D40's requirement for AF-S auto focusing, and it has optical stabilization resulting in lesser motion blur in low light and telephoto shots. Spec for spec, I found this better than a similar Tamron lens. Of course, the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX is the best you can get in this class, but it's also priced 45 percent higher than the Sigma 18-200mm! *Sigh*

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8DThe Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D is a very interesting lens. It's a fantastic piece of imaging glass, boasts excellent clarity, and delivers delicious depth of field. Add to that, it's small and very light (not the kind that will intimidate your subjects!). It gets better--it's priced at under Rs 6,000! Too good to be true? Well there is one small downside -- this lens is not the AF-S kind, and therefore lacks the integrated autofocus motor. So, while the lens can autofocus when used with cameras that have a built-in focusing motor, the lens cannot autofocus with cameras like the Nikon D40. But I decided its pros far outweighed the cons. Plus, using the manual focus is easy after a bit of practice. Besides, manual focus builds character and puts hair on your chest! With the D40's 'green dot' focus indicator in the viewfinder, it doesn't take too long to get used to. At the end of the day, the results are well worth it. Check out some of photos with these lenses in my Flickr photostream.

RAW versus JPEG
I always shoot in RAW format, and I always process the images individually using Adobe Camera RAW. The world around us varies so much in lighting and environment, that it's necessary to work on photos to extract the best from them. People often argue that the best photos are the ones that aren't 'touched up'. I disagree. Digital photography now allows us to extend the capabilities of the hardware in ways that were never possible back in the film days. And it's faster and more convenient. So why not use the technology to the hilt? RAW processing has enabled me to take some pretty satisfying photos, and it's easy when you have a good workflow going. If you want to venture into the world of RAW photography, check out this excellent tutorial on shooting in RAW from one of the foremost in the field. Of course, if you couldn't be bothered with the added overhead of RAW image processing, you could always set your camera to shoot in JPEG. But that's less than ideal. And once you begin to experience the inherent superiority of a RAW-processed image, you'll never go back to JPEG -- I guarantee it.

I could go on, but let's leave some for another post! Leave a comment if you need more information on any of the hardware, techniques, or concepts I've touched upon here. Cheers!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

VideoJug: Like YouTube, only more useful

Videojug Now here's something useful. How many times have you found yourself asking, "I wish there was a way I could see how this is done." Be it tying a Windsor Knot on a tie, or techniques for winning an argument, this Web site lives up to its tagline splendidly -- Life explained. On Film. True, it isn't technically film, but why lose a good idea in semantics?

Head over here.

Check out the 'How to fold a T-shirt in 2 seconds' video. Awesome!

Related Posts with Thumbnails