Free software and websites that really, really, really help me

From time to time, I go searching for a utility, website, or document to help me with whatever I’m doing. It usually takes no more than 15 minutes to find, install, or read whatever I find and implement it towards a solution. The solution typically completely satisfies the need and sometimes goes beyond. Some discoveries, however, go so far above and beyond what I was attempting to do that they integrate themselves completely into my digital life and make me wonder what I did before finding it (which always leads to the now philosophical question, what did I do before the internet). The following computer-based implements have become so essential to me that I would pay good money to keep them. They happen, however, to be completely free.

Syncback Freeware backup software

Get Syncback Freeware back-up software here (click “DOWNLOAD” next to “Syncback Freeware)

Sometimes, with software this useful, I want to direct people to the paid version so I feel better about using the free one but, alas, I serve my audience.

This program makes backing up all of your data VERY, VERY easy. It also makes keeping an up-to-date USB drive VERY, VERY easy. It also makes web development VERY, VERY easy (well, at least a component of web dev. Here’s what I use Syncback for:

  • I still carry around a USB drive (keep reading and I’ll tell you why that’s a little silly) but keeping the information current is a pain in the butt. I used to keep a mental log of all the files I changed and then copy them over to the USB drive so I had an extra copy. I’d forget which folder I had open, start to work on the USB files and just end up irratated. Now, I set up a back-up profile for my USB drive, set aside a contingent of folders that I keep all my current work, school projects, and important files, and just run a one-way synchornization with the USB drive. Old files get over-written, new files get copied, and deleted files get removed. What used to consume potentially an hour or more a week now takes, literally, less than a minute.
  • I have an external back-up hard drive that I keep in a separate location from where I live (it does not make a lot of sense to keep your back-ups right next to the computer being backed up… if that place burns down, everything is lost). I used to save documents to a “staging area” so I knew what needed to be backed-up but that made two different places to find files. I also used to burn DVDs but that was a major hassle. Now, once a week I plug the external drive in, run a sync profile for each main storage area, and bask in peace-of-mind.
  • For anyone that develops in PHP (creates themes for WordPress or Pligg), Syncback has been a great tool. Since you can’t just open the files on your harddrive and you can’t install WordPress on your machine like a regular application, I use Syncback along with a localhost installed with XAMPP (another great piece of software). When I want to work with PHP files, I copy everything from one folder to a test folder for XAMPP. I can run MySQL database applications about ten times faster locally than on-line which really helps cut down on dev time. Also, I can write to the files in the local directory without worrying about screwing anything up and without the hassle of uploading via FTP.

A few resources for you:

Dropbox file synchronization

Get Dropbox synchronization software or find out more about it

It’s hard to express in words how amazing I think this software is. It definitely begs a quick description before I start making over-the-top proclamations of how great Dropbox is.

I mentioned before that I use a USB drive (well, I did until I lost it recently). The reason for the drive was that I had 3 computers I used on a regular basis (home desktop, office desktop, laptop) and needed the same data on all three. If I had to work at home, I’d copy the right files to my USB and hope I didn’t forget anything. If I wanted to do write at a coffeeshop, I’d make sure my USB was up to date and take my laptop. Dropboax makes this totally unnecesary.

This is how it works:

  1. Make one folder to hold the documents you want to designate as your “Dropbox folder.” Make a set of folders in there to separate the different files you’ll have (work and personal or different clients or however you’d like).
  2. Download and install Dropbox (you’ll need to create an account). Choose the containing folder as your sync folder.
  3. After you have everything set up, install Dropbox onto all the other computers you want to be synced. All done!

I’ve never had a problem with Dropbox, it’s never deleted files, and I’ve never had a conflict. It runs in the background, doesn’t suck memory, and just makes my life better. It’s a great way to stay productive on different machines but it’s also a triple back-up for the really important files that I’m currently working on. I have copies on three different computers (plus the external back-up).

Dropbox gives you 2 gigs of storage which is quite a bit for what I need. If you’re only working with documents, you won’t get anywhere close to that. Image files and photographs stat to eat up space so you can upgrade to the 50 gig plan for $10/month. I have a lot of different files synced and I’m only at about 50%.

Remember the Milk (RTM) online to-do list

Rememberthemilk icon by moutzouris

Sign up for Remember the Milk

When I first found RTM, I was not too sure about it. Yeah, it worked well, seem intuitive, and had a clean interaction but I just didn’t think I’d ever use it. At the time, I was using my Windows Mobile phone synced to Outlook for tasks and that was working just fine. More than 6 months after signing up, I finally decided to really give it a try and have never looked back.

The best thing about RTM is the level of functionality that it has but does not force upon you. Can create lists of things to do, add locations on Google Maps, add priority, URLs, notes, due dates, everything. It’s a bit overwhelming what you CAN do with the software. But nothing forces you to use any of this. I made a few lists and added a few items and started small, ignoring about 80% of the functionality. Then I started using it from my phone via their mobile web interface which was great. Now, I’m using all kind of stuff with it:

  • I sync it with my Google Calendar and use it through Gmail
  • The three levels of priority (hint: use the “more actions” drop down at the top of the list) making sorting much more helpful than due dates
  • I add little notes all the time so I don’t lose anything
  • I added RTM friends and share lists (I share a project list with one colleague and a tasks list with my girlfriend)

And that’s just the half of it! You can sync it with your phone (part of the Pro account for a measly $25 per month), add pins to Google Maps, add time estimates to help planning, and add tags to help search. RTM has made me a lot more productive but, more than that, it’s really helped me get organizaed and not miss all the little things.


Software and websites like the ones above are excellent tools not because they are absolutely essential but because they help automate things that make you successful. Ignore the whole time-saving aspect and think about what these things can help you accomplish and how much better they make you look. A couple examples:

  • I’ve been able to produce files that clients of mine though they lost themselves. I’m like their backup for the projects files we’re working on. The answer to the question “do you still have that file I sent you” is always “YES” and that makes them more comfortable and me look like a supah-star.
  • I’m not forgetting the little things anymore. If you ask your web designer “can you correct this little thing” and he or she doesn’t do it after you remind them 4 times, it’s a bit irritating. Are you going to leave them? Probably not because you have a good relationship with them. But if they do everything you ask and even a fwe things you forgot about, doens’t that make you want to come back? Doesn’t it make you want to recommend them to other people?
  • Having my files backed-up and always available is just a great feeling. I’m covered, I’m fine, a big problem would not be a huge disruption. My photos are safe, my music collection is safe, I always have everything I need wherever I go. This not only makes me look prepared, it makes me FEEL prepared and that’s key.

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