Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Eeep, is that a toy or a laptop?

Sometimes I get emails from readers asking me why I hardly ever review products such as laptops and other fancy techno toys. The answer is simple: until a few weeks ago, I did not own a laptop and I don’t like to write about something I haven’t personally tinkered with. So now I bought the dinkiest laptop currently making tsunami waves. It’s called Asus Eee PC (pronounced “A Seuss E P C”) and it’s so tiny, the jury is still out on whether it’s allowed to call itself a laptop. Its weight (less than 1kg) along with its ease of use and reasonable price tag (around R3500 for the 4G model) make it an ideal starter PC for students and scholars. There are also no hidden costs involved when it comes to software, it prefers GNU Linux instead of Windows and OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office which are open source and free packages that adequately cover general user needs. These packages come preloaded as there is no CD/DVD drive from which to load them. Any additional software or access to data would need to either be downloaded from the web, or sucked off a memory stick, external hard drive or an SD card. It has three USB ports, a monitor output (which works, I tried it), an Ethernet port as well as a headphone and a microphone jack, even though there are speakers on board and a microphone pick up. Instead of a lumpy carry case, it comes with a lycra slip sock which feels like it was made from diving suit off cuts. They say it’s pretty robust, but I can’t bring myself to dropping it to test that statement.

I bought it for it’s portability: it will fit in my travel bag.
I bought it for it’s entertainment value: I can play multimedia files on it, including divx movies.
I bought it for it’s ability to stay in touch: It comes loaded with an internet browser and email as well as Skype and has built in wireless which searched and found my home ADSL connection without too much fuss. It also has a webcam.

Is the Asus Eee PC the trendiest answer for a business person who is always on the go? Not as a total PC replacement as there are a few prohibitive drawbacks:

The battery life is below average (they promise about 2 to 3 hours, but under intensive use count on an hour and a half), the keyboard is quite cramped and does not allow for fast nor accurate typing, the spacebar is a bit sticky and it only has between 2 and 4Gb of internal hard disk space, more than half of which is taken up by the operating system and the preloaded programs it ships with (including a number of games). Internet browsing and word processing is also a bit of a keyhole experience due to the 7” display.

For my immediate needs though, it’s perfect.

There is a bit of finality in me writing today as I will be taking a break from geek articles. I have, over the years, been humbled by the enthusiasm and support from geek article readers and I would like to express my gratitude. Many articles have been spawned by a tip, a chat or a need from people I’ve come in contact with and in this way I’ve come to learn about (and hopefully impart) useful computer related tools. My mission in life right now is to stay one step ahead of my offspring, who is already nipping at my heels, pushing me aside asking to play computer games. Maybe I’ll just hand over the Asus right now and be done with it?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Read, computer, read!

You could say I’m lazy. I could tell you that I like to work smart, not hard. We could debate the viewpoint while my computer does my work for me. Like recently, when the need arose to create a 16 page legal agreement, and there was only a printed hard copy to work from. I searched for a sneaky way out of having to type up all 16 pages again and discovered that my computer can read! I was pleasantly surprised and set it straight to work. Using an ordinary scanner, I scanned all pages into my computer using the black and white 300dpi or higher setting. Then I told the computer to go forth and recognise. I now know that the term scientists use is OCR which stands for optical character recognition and it is “the mechanical or electronic translation of images of handwritten, typewritten or printed text (usually captured by a scanner) into machine-editable text.” (sic Wikipedia).

Using the easy OCR wizard that came as part of the OmniPage software, which in turn shipped free with my Canon scanner, I was walked through the four steps of text recognition. These steps are: Start Processing (open program), Get Pages (scan document), Perform OCR (read, computer, read) and Export Results (dump text into MS Word). My printed template was recognised reasonably well; I would say it had 96% recognition and turned a scanned page of photocopied text into a page of text that I was then able to bring into my word processor and manipulate. The text layout was a bit all over the show, as bullet points and indents were wonky in places, but unless you’re a formatting fanatic, you could get by. As George and Fred Weasley would say: “Mischief Managed!”

Ever inquisitive, that made me wonder how well the OCR software would read my handwriting. Bad move, or shall we say: bad handwriting. Normally totally illegible, I put on my Sunday best and tested if the PC could make head or tail of it. My attempts failed miserably. When I wrote “Witness Geek”, the computer insisted I had said Wkne.’s Gee. My husbands attempts at “THE CAT IS BLACK” came back slightly better with the computer quoting “THE CAT IS LAC-K”. And that was written in bold painstakingly clear lettering that took both of us longer than it would have taken us to type a paragraph. So as for using this as solution to dump your lecturing notes, X-Nay, I’m afraid.

I got playful and took a photograph of my computer screen with this article open. I turned the photograph into a tiff file using my favourite photo manipulation program, FastStone, and told the computer to read, boy! I was pleasantly surprised that it came back with a very good rendition, the parts that were clear the OCR recognised 100%. So if there are any James Bond type spies out there, take note.

Doing a bit more reading on the internet to see what other people have discovered, I read that Microsoft Office ships with it’s own OCR facility inside Microsoft Office Document Imaging. Check to see if you have the program, too by clicking on Start, All Programs, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office Tools, Microsoft Office Document Imaging. This program can view, manage, read and recognise text in image documents and faxes as well as reading documents straight off the scanner. I found it to actually work better than OmniPage.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Treasure hunt on the Internet

Online File Sharing / Storage and Collaboration

Being secretary to a local woman’s’ association, I found that administration of, and tending to a huge database needed a plan B. I wanted a virtual place where I could squirrel away files so that they could be reached from any interface, in case our house burnt down (heaven forbid). That way the data files would still be retrievable even if the furniture wasn’t. Yes, backup CD’s or flash drives are good, but a burning house is no place for backup CD’s either. I wanted a Swiss bank account, of sorts, an offshore investment.

I trawled the net and thought that Google could help, but for once, they were not the front runners. I found a local survey which recently put it out to the users to vote for their favourite online file sharing services. There are various offers out there, amongst them Windows Live SkyDrive, FolderShare and FileFront. I investigated what came back as their favourite: Box Net. has a rather apt byline of “Store here, access anywhere”; you immediately get the general picture.

I’ve also watched too many action thrillers where the hero sends important files via email to a safe and secret place, or retrieves it likewise. I signed up with Box Net and chose the “Lite” option which allows me 1Gb of online storage space for free. If you sign up, too, beware that Box Net will try and urge you into the paying version, but if 1Gb is plenty space for you, don’t be fooled and stick to Lite.

Once the account is set up, click on the My Files tag and create a new folder or several folders or even subfolders. Via an easy-to-use interface, you’re able to upload any type of file to that folder, be it zipped files, photos, spreadsheets, documents or presentations.

The most important concept I had to wrap my mind around was that of “Collaborating”. Box Net has evolved according to users needs since 2005, and beyond the immediate virtual safety deposit box functionality, the website offers different users the ability to update files, too.

For example, a think tank document can be edited online by anyone with collaboration rights. These collaboration rights are assigned by the owner of the folder and hold true for all information within that specific folder. Of course you do not hand out your username and password to people who you want to view your files, you don’t need to. Let them set up their own username and password (for free) and you just rope them in as collaborators via an email invitation. Updating one document online eliminates the annoying “out-of-synch” upshot that a document would be reduced to that has been emailed backwards and forwards between a number of people. As soon as an update occurs, an email is sent out informing all collaborators. Comments and tags can be added and the online document edit feature is called Zoho, which allows you to open and edit the documents even if the computer you are working from hasn’t got MS Word or Excel loaded.

In this way you can share one folder with your work colleagues and another with your fellow stamp collectors and a third folder that you create can be for important family documents or address books.

Further uses of Box Net can include photo sharing or a place to plonk files that are too big to email. Also, if you have dabbled on eBay or bid or buy, you will know that you are expected to upload a photo of your goods, and Box Net is a perfect suppository for these photos. Box Net has an easy button which generates the URL, that you place as the link in Bid or Buy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Brabys has gone Digital, let’s catch up

The printed Brabys Directory has been a household item for over 30 years and I’m sure you’ve got a copy floating around your house as much as I have.

A C Braby (Pty) Ltd went digital in 2005, going into cahoots with Always Active Technologies(Pty) and Business Connextion (Pty) Ltd to launch Brabys Maps at . This is a most handy website for anyone needing to find their way around South Africa’s metros.

On the homepage you are welcomed by a map of South Africa and expected to click on a province. Brabys then loads a zoomed in version of the province and now you can specify a city or county. Only red-rimmed areas have Brabys maps loaded, so outlying areas such as Wartburg are unfortunately not yet uploaded, but Pietermaritzburg, Lions River, Umngeni, Howick, Midmar Nature Reserve, Merrivale, KwaMavana and Edendale are mapped. Now you are guided into ever closer maps, until you are at street level. Street names, suburbs and highways are clearly marked and you are able to immediately print or email the map for your own (non-commercial) use. This is a brilliant budget GPS tools for those of us whose pocket doesn’t stretch as far as an on board Garmin.

You can check a larger view of the map area which is 500 x 350 pixels, with a zoomed effect adjusting to 758 x 758 pixels. Zooming in or out can be done with the slider on the left.

If you want more than a quick map, here are some extra features BrabysMaps offers: you can switch any map to an Aerial View, or you can click on a particular location in the map and read the GPS coordinates off at the top. So you can even pass on the GPS coordinates to a Garmin owning advancing visitor and ease their way to you.

But wait, it gets better. Switching to the Directions tag at the top of the window allows you to put in two locations (A and B) and BrabysMaps will find you a route from the one to the other, with each turn and distance clearly marked. You can even choose different routes. Again, the result can be emailed or printed. Yep, free of charge.

In the top right corner is a blue windows which lists businesses by category. Choosing a category, for example Accommodation, and a subcategory such as Hotels & Other Accommodation, you will see red dots at certain places on the map where businesses in these categories are located. Hovering over the dots shows the business’ name and if you click on this, BrabysMaps will fetch all loaded details for this business.

But why stop there? If you ever wanted to know how far a crow flies as opposed to the extra miles streets add to our mode of transport, click on the How Far tag and again put in two locations before you hit the Calculate button. You will see the “As the crow flies” distance versus “Travel distance” as well as an estimated travel time.

If you find yourself using this website lots, you can register and bookmark your favourite places and routes for frequent and quick retrieval.

I was even able to embed a map into another website, giving ululations to BrabysMaps. This was made easy by a tool that allowed me to copy the javascript (aka doubledutch) which magically displayed the map on the other website. I did have to tell BrabysMaps my name and the website I pasted their map into. That’s a fair exchange, if you ask me.

Brabys disclaimer notes that its contents is proprietary to Brabys and only for general information and use, not for commercial use.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Grand finale to geek trilogy on video’s

Upfront, let me share a handy site a colleague pointed out to me recently: . What this site can do for you is convert an impossibly long URL into a bite size one, small enough to memorize.

So if you liked the idea of ripping DVD’s touched upon in my previous geek installment, surf to (that last digit is L as in Longbottom) and watch an interesting expanded “How-To” that worked for me.

But on with the show and the third and final part of my video explorations ended with me finding a video editing program for free. It’s called Pinnacle VideoSpin and does what Microsoft Movie Maker can (or can’t) do. Download this spyware devoid software from but give it time, it’s big: 150Mb in fact.

Once installed, it allows you to take video clips you have kicking around on our PC and intertwine them with nice titles, background music and transitions and voiceovers to round it all off. You can even string a photo slide show together using this software. You could also make one clip out of a handful of YouTube favourites or mix and match them with your own home videos and photos.

There are six basic and user friendly Album enhancements, all of which are activated from the icons on the left hand options. These are Video, Transition, Titles, Photos, Sound effects and Music. Click on each in turn, make your choice and drag it into the timeline at the bottom of the screen.

You can personalise the titles and even trim video’s, music and transitions. The preview on the right shows you a trailer of the final product.

Once you click on “2 – Make Movie”, you can choose avi as file type and hit Save. It will output an avi file that can be watched on a media player on your computer.

If you, like me, sometimes take video clips under poor lighting conditions, there is an enhancement available under “Settings” and “Options”, during step 2. It allows for a very basic Brightness and Contract correction, but don’t expect miracles. Take note that this will change all video clips’ settings in the current range, even ones that are not under exposed.

Pinnacle’s limitations are that after 15 days the program won't allow you to create nor edit MPEG-2, MPEG-4/DivX or Dolby Digital 2 Channel files anymore, but the avi’s and other features will still work.

So why would such a cool product be free when the cheapest video editing software goes for about R1000? Because it doesn’t have too many effects. For example colour correction or old film style. Pinnacle VideoSpin doesn’t have fancy panning and zooming on photographs like they do on TV and sometimes the program hangs if you’re overloading it, so save often. Luckily, even if you crash out of the program, it remembers where you were the next time you open it, so you don’t loose much work.

The good news is that if you like the freebie that much, you can pay and upgrade to all of these snazzy features. And now you know why the company is throwing VideoSpin out there for free: in order to get you hooked on Pinnacle products.

Another bit of handy info is that there is a comprehensive Frequently Asked Questions website for all your spin needs available at

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Converting PC multi-media to a DVD movie

If AVI and Codecs have you spinning on the spotex, readex this and clear up the jargon.

In a recent article, I unraveled how to save YouTube videos to your computer (, but I was seriously disappointed when burning the downloaded video file onto a CD and trying to play it back on my regular DVD player did not produce the desired results. I found out that I could not watch an avi file on an ordinary dvd player. Looking for solutions I discovered that video formatting can be a can of worms.

Trends change and move rapidly but at this moment the multi-media container (video format) of choice for computer viewing pleasure in my immediate circles seems to be AVI, which stands for Audio Video Interleave. This means that the video file will have an .avi extension and most media players such as Windows Media Player will be able to play it on your computer. The same cannot be said for playing DVD movies on computers. Yes, my computer allows me to open and view the .vob files that make up your normal DVD movie, but older media player versions frequently cannot. The done thing, and I speak for non-copyrighted movies only, you understand, is to convert the DVD movie to an avi format. This process is called “ripping to your hard drive” and has one other major advantage: a more manageable file size.

Other video file formats gaining favour are mp4, Windows Media wmv, Flash video .flv, Quicktime .mov and Mobile phone format such as .3gp and .3g2.

Many programs can be used to “rip”; some are pay software and some are not. NERO, which ships standard with most DVD Rom drives, has the ability to “rip”.

These programs use codec to rip. Codec stands for Coder/Decoder. Basically it is a piece of software or a driver that adds a support for certain video/audio format for your operating system. With codec, your system recognizes the format the codec is built for and allows you to play the audio/video file (=decode) or in some cases, to change another audio/video file into that format (=(en)code).

Compressing movies in this way has the lovely advantage of allowing about ten hours of viewing to fit onto one DVD. Imagine a 320Gb external hard drive filled to the brim with series, movies and your favourite programs that you are able to take to friends and plug and play for a slumber party. Aha, I hear you say, that sounds like fun.

But now lets look at bringing a computer friendly video format file such as an avi back to a format that ordinary DVD players can play back on your TV. For example a YouTube video you have recently downloaded. Here you are looking to convert to a vob format, inclusive of the correct video and audio folder creation, as well as info and backup files that make up the normal DVD movie setup. Again, there are many software packages out there, but the one I found to work and for free is called Sothink Movie DVD Maker and it can be downloaded from . Once installed, it can convert several movie files at once and it can even burn you a DVD in one foul swoop. Alternatively you can create a temporary folder on your hard drive to be burnt onto a removable medium later.

A wise word from someone who has wasted many, many DVD’s: Don’t try this on an underpowered computer and start with short movies and see if there are video versus audio synch problems when you play this back on the DVD player. They don’t sell computers aimed at videography with all the RAM and processor bells and whistles for nothing and your entry level PC might struggle.

Next time: Completing the trilogy on movies: how to do some video editing for free!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Let’s watch a movie, or lots of little movies

I, like many other enthusiasts, enjoy looking surfing interesting YouTube videos. From the first ever episode of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a documentary on how to play the bagpipes, you can find it on
But I don’t want to have to view it off the website all the time. I want to download it and view it at my leisure, on different computers, without having to eat into my monthly download cap and, most convenient of all - without the jerkiness that can be the plight of the entry level broadband.

I’ve done quite a bit of net trawling and I’ve tested numerous software packages that promise but don’t deliver only to finally hit paydirt. has, amongst various other interesting packages, a program called FreeYouTubeDownload.exe version, which clocks in at 5.6Mb. Download it and install it to start your epic collection of YouTube clips.

Launch FreeYouTubeDownload and open up . Once you’ve found a video clip you would like to download, ensure that the clip is the active clip because you are going to need to copy and paste the cryptic link which you will see in the Address bar at the top. It looks something like this: . So highlight the link and press Ctrl+C to copy it. In the FreeYouTubeDownload program, click in the window which says Input URL containing video and press Ctrl + V to paste the link in. Check that the Output format is AVI (which seems to work the best) and that the destination for the output file is somewhere where you will find it again. Other output formats available are MP4, 3GP or FLV files.
Now click on download and wait for the clip to download. Clips are usually short, I think this is because the sound versus video synchronisation goes a bit loopy if the clip is too long. So if a whole episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been uploaded, you might find that they have been cut into two or three bite size chunks to avoid sync problems. You will need to find all the parts and download them one by one.

Back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the downloaded avi you should now have on your computer. This avi can be played with a media player such as Windows Media Player. Using some of the funky features of the media player, you can create a playlist, in other words arrange a string of avi’s to play in a certain order, thus giving the illusion of a full length and non stop episode.

FreeYouTubeDownload version has the ability to download a batch of youtube video’s, if you want to set a bunch of them going while you run a bath. To give you an idea of how big clips are, electronically: a ten minute cartoon clocks in at 55Mb and takes about 5 minutes on entry level ADSL to download. If you have a cap of 1Gb, you would have used up 5% of your cap to nab this clip. The size versus length of the clip does vary depending on the quality of the clip. Some National Geographic clips have a phenomenal quality, while other clips have very poor quality and are only just watchable on the little window that opens on the youtube website.

You could, technically, burn this AVI onto CD’s and DVD’s but unfortunately it won’t play on your conventional DVD player connected to your TV. I found this out the hard way. The clip needs to be converted, but fear not, a geek article in the near future will reveal how you can do just that. In the meantime, pull up the couch in front of your monitor and view your selection of AVI’s on your computer using a media player.

Other interesting sites you can try for videos:, or . All three of these sites use videos which are Adobe Flash driven. Unfortunately, this means that they do not lend themselves to downloading with FreeYouTubeDownload.

The dvdvideosoft site also recommends that you stay updated with the latest version of the FreeYouTubeDownload program as YouTube change their video files hosting routine from time to time and the downloading might stop working until a fix is available.

If you just need to download one video and do not want to go to the trouble of installing any programs, try this site: . Paste the URL in the window provided and follow the instructions listed. The downside to this method is that the downloaded video will be in flv format which is not yet common enough for every media player to play back. Windows Media Player for example does not understand flv format.