21 September 2009

Working tools

I've been thinking a lot lately about my changing work practices, in terms of the tools I use to improve the way I work or just offer different, more interesting ways of getting things done. Here's a quick run-through of stuff I've tried, tested, stuck with, abandoned or am just doing differently.

I've always had a desktop PC and fixed-line broadband. My router (a BT HomeHub) has wifi too - cued into this are my netbook and phone (see below for more on these). For a long time, the PC was my main work tool, except when I took the laptop away on business trips or holidays. It still is - I like to sit in my front window and watch what's going on in my street while beavering away. Admittedly, my street is fairly quiet but seeing my neighbours going about their business or watching the squirrels racing around helps me feel connected. I've just replaced the previous PC, which was bought off the shelf 6 years ago and was too old to patch up any more, with a custom-built monster capable of handling my work needs for quite a few years to come. I have the latest processor, oodles of RAM and storage space and can appreciate the benefits already of working on a more efficient machine designed for how I work.

I sold my laptop to a friend/colleague not very long ago. There was nothing wrong with it - it was only 5 years old, ran on Windows XP and had a wifi card plus Firefox and Open Office, which was enough on the hoof for checking email and surfing the web, plus working on documents. But the battery was knackered, so I had to be plugged into a socket to do anything, and I was fed up of having to cart a laptop bag everywhere as well as my handbag. And I had my eye on a shiny new netbook. I had my purchase customised with extra battery life and a few other extras. It looks funky (swanky scarlet, with matching mini-mouse) and weighs just over a kilo. It's small enough to fit in my handbag, meaning I can now escape Wordsmith Towers when I have cabin fever and go and work in a café for a change of scene while catching up with friends in town. Adding a pay-as-you-go dongle means I can get online easily, should the unthinkable occur and there's no free wifi (which is abundant in my city). The netbook also has way more capacity than the old laptop so I've been able to install more software, giving me yet more work options.

This has been the most revolutionary change for me. My 5-year-old Nokia was due for replacement and after a couple of friends let me tinker on their iPhones I was hooked. I've had my iPhone since April and can't imagine using anything else now. It's not just that I find the touchscreen easier to type on than a traditional mobile phone keyboard (or that the spell checker is preferable to predictive text). It's the apps that make the difference. I can sync lots of things now with my desktop and netbook, so wherever I am it doesn't matter what kit I'm using, I can still match things up. The only drawback is I haven't yet found a way to sync the built-in calendar (which is fantastic) with ReminderFox on my desktop PC or, indeed, Google Calendar, which I use occasionally. If anyone has an answer to this, I'd love to hear from you.

I'm discovering the joys of using some really useful web-based applications that can be synced - for a freelance on the move, this can make a big difference to accessing things you might suddenly need. I do carry a flash drive with me when I take my netbook out, but it's only as good as what I've stashed on there. Web-based apps mean I can access more documents while on the go. I follow a couple of useful blogs that recommend new apps - AppsFire and Web.AppStorm - which have given me the heads up for the newest software, and sometimes offer access to invite-only beta versions with special promo codes.

I can't shout loud enough about how brilliant this is. I have Evernote installed on the desktop, netbook and iPhone, plus Firefox. I use it for jotting down ideas for pitches, tasks lists, snippets of software code I need to work on a CMS that I'll never remember, even shopping lists. The syncing means I'll never forget anything again and the beauty is you can dump anything in it - text, photos, even voice.

Like Evernote, DropBox is web-based and can be synced across devices. I've never used Google Docs as I felt uneasy about trusting lots of data to their servers. With Dropbox, I can just dump files in it before I go on the hoof and retrieve them to work on wherever and whenever. I can share files, too, if I want, it backs up automatically on a save and I can also recover previous versions of files if I need them (very useful if you accidentally delete something). So far, I've found to be amazingly simple and utterly reliable. I'm still discovering features on it and when the iPhone version is approved I'll be even happier.

My desktop PC is set up so Firefox saves my passwords for the various websites I use. Obviously, having the same set-up on a portable is less advisable and while I keep a file of sites and their passwords, I was never particularly happy about either copying it over to the laptop or netbook, or keeping it on a flash drive, which is even more likely to become lost. My solution was to open an account with PasswordSafe. This nifty app allows me to stash all my passwords and lock it with one. I only need to remember that one password, so I'm now far safer when working away from home. Result.

I've only just installed Subernova, which is a project-management application that runs on Adobe Air. I've not used it long enough to appreciate all its features but because I have a diverse work portfolio that includes journalism, editing and corporate writing, I need a tool that enables me to keep track of what I'm doing and when I have deadlines. Putting the latter in my calendar apps is fine up to a point but it doesn't really crack the problem of juggling everything then remembering to bill someone (this is vital if you're invoicing in stages). So far, Subernova seems to be meeting a lot of these needs for me. And again, it has an iPhone version. This is the only paid-for app I'm using. I'm on the free 30-day trial as I write this - if it proves it's worth by mid-October, I may well fork out the US$5.99 a month to keep running it.

I just discovered Wakoopa today and I'm addicted already. It installs a little widget on your computer and tracks all the apps you use. Ok, that doesn't sound that enticing but it does much more than tell me what I'm using. Wakoopa's tracking tells me how much or how little I'm using a particular program or widget. I've already decided to uninstall a couple of things as I was barely using them. Where it gets really useful is that I can add tags to what Wakoopa is monitoring, favourite them and share them with other Wakoopa users. And by looking at the page for each app, I can see ideas for similar apps to try out as well as click though to others' profiles and see what they are using. Everything can be rated and reviewed - this has almost instantly become one of the most useful tools I have for discovering other useful tools.

If you have other suggestions for harnessing tools that help the hard-pressed freelance, do leave a comment!
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Dilyan Damyanov said...

If there is one thing missing from this list (intentionally, as you make clear, but still) it's Google Docs. I've been using it for several months now and I am very impressed with every bit of it. Initially, I too had my concerns about security but I figured if anyone so badly wanted my files that they would break into Google's servers, they would probably have it much easier to break into my own PC.

Unknown said...

I think my aversion to using Google Docs comes not from the security issue but from fear of Google dependency! I have a gmail account (one of a total of about a dozen addies I have for various purposes), and I use Google Reader for my RSS feed. I just dislike the idea of depending on one company to fulfil all my needs. It's not a fear that Google will go under, more about not wanting to be in their power.

I don't doubt the functionality of Google Docs but the big advantage of using Dropbox instead is that I can work in my own programs - whether that's Word, Open Office, Excel, Acrobat or whatever - and retrieve them in the same format. And I don't need to "convert" them from Google's own format.