Thursday, January 24, 2008

Free Programs Help Make The Most Of Digital Photos

These days it's getting harder and harder to find good freeware programs to do some of the most common tasks for many computer users.

One of the areas where there continues to be an abundance of good free programs, however, is in the area of digital photo processing.

One of the first things to check your computer for is to see what photo programs may have been included with the preload of your PC. In many cases, useful programs have been loaded by the manufacturer that are not trialware like so many other PC offerings.

The second place to look is at the programs that came with your digital camera. Again, in many cases, there are solid programs that are included as a part of the software included with most digital cameras.

A third source of excellent programs for digital photography that you may already own are those included with flatbed scanners, or with the very common all-in-one printer/copier/scanner combination units.

Once you've looked for those items, the Web is a great source for more free programs that can be used to process and catalog digital photographs. Here are some worth checking out:

Picasa – This freeware program from Google is one of the most useful and easy to use photo cataloging and processing tools out there. And while it's photo precessing tools are limited in number, they are some of the easiest and most useful ones most home photographers will need.

Although there are plenty of photo album programs out there, Picasa is one of the most useful of any of finding all the pictures on your computer, cataloging them by folder and date, and then presenting thumbnails of a size useful enough to be readily visible.

Once the program has done its initial cataloging, every time you open it it scans your computer again and adds new pictures as they are available. Unlike a lot of other album programs, Picasa doesn't show many computer program-related pictures that are included by the thousands on most computers.

If you think your computer has an image on it that you can no longer find, install Picasa and if it exists, Picasa will dig it out. Picasa also finds most common movie formats and presents a thumbnail of their opening frame as well.

Picasa's photo processing effects include basic exposure controls, film effects, and a very useful fill light feature.

Picasa can also create quick slideshow movie files small enough to e-mail that will play through almost any video player. You can download the program at

Another useful free photo program is Serif PhotoPlus 6.0. The program features an interface similar to older versions of the famous Adobe Photoshop program.

An upgraded version of the program can be had for an additional $10. Either can be downloaded at

A third useful free program is the long-available IrfanView. This program offers a simple user interface for common photo editing features, but also contains many more powerful tools for the photographic pro. Find it at most major Web download sites or via

Finally, for those who really want to get into heavy image editing, GIMP is a free Open Source image editing program that will do almost anything possible with a digital image. You can get the latest version of GIMP with an easy Windows installer via

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Video Card Upgrades Need Careful Choosing

One of the most common upgrades to a desktop computer is the video card. Most often, it's due to users seeking better performance for gaming and graphics, or a desire to run multiple monitors from one PC system.

However, these choices are often confusing and prone to mistakes, which can lead to frustrated returns to stores and mail order firms and hefty shipping and restocking fees.

The most common mistake made in choosing a video card upgrade is selecting the wrong interface. Many inexpensive desktop computers come with built-in graphics on the system motherboard, but those graphics are often quickly overwhelmed when faced with much more than Web surfing and simple video playback.

Many recent low-priced desktop systems from vendors such as Dell and HP came with onboard graphics, and they also offer a variety of possible slots for upgrading graphics, with many offering only a PCI slot. A few small-form cases also require a “low-profile” card to fit in the case.

There are three choices available for video card upgrade, PCI, AGP and PCI Express. The fact most major video card retailers offer similar looking packaging for many cards makes selecting the correct card even more confusing.

If you're looking to do an upgrade, you need to find out which video interface your system has. This is the slot in your computer where your card will plug in.

PCI slots are available on nearly every computer, but are also the slowest for running gaming and other graphic-intensive applications.

If your system has either an AGP or PCI-E(xpress) interface, be sure to choose a video card that will use that, rather than PCI, as it will provide better performance, often at lower cost. In a future column I'll talk about choices in AGP and PCI-Express cards.

PCI video cards also use slower graphics processors than other choices. Two basic current video card chipset providers are available, NVIDIA and ATI.

In the NVIDIA chipset the choices include the FX5200 and FX5500, and the GeForce 6200 GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). Cards are available with either 128 or 256MB of graphics memory. A good rule of thumb is usually the higher the number of the GPU and the more RAM, the better the likely performance (and the higher the price).

ATI-based cards are generally sold under the Radeon banner by companies including Visiontek, Sapphire, MSI and Best Data/Diamond.

The current Radeon PCI choices are the X1300 and X1550 with either 128 or 256MB of RAM. The ATI cards offer somewhat higher performance than the NVIDIA cards in many cases, but are also more expensive. ATI drivers also often provide fewer choices in resolutions, especially in common 5x3 HDTV capable monitors (such as 1366x768).

It's also important to check the monitor output choices, which vary from card to card. Some video cards, especially the NVIDIA FX5200 and FX5500 series, only come with a standard 15-pin VGA output, and don't have a DVI connector.

Many other cards feature one VGA and one DVI connector, with others including an S-Video or component video output which can be used to hook a computer to a standard television monitor.

Still others include two VGA or two DVI connectors, which can be handy for attaching multiple monitors to one computer.

It's also extremely important to check the size of the required power supply, as a few cards (such as the Diamond x1550PRO), require a power supply well in excess of 300 watts, and can burn up the cheaper power supply found on many inexpensive desktop computers.

PCI video card upgrades can cost from $50 to $150, so be careful to make the right choice.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Good Ideas In Wireless Accessories

Wireless devices have been around for a long time, but in recent years have become both more reliable and more useful. It's worth taking a look at what's out there to see how going wireless can help improve your computing and other high-tech experiences.

Bluetooth Headsets
– One of the best developments in recent years have been Bluetooth headsets, mainly for use with cell phones.

A number of states are mandating that drivers must use a headset if they want to use a cell phone while driving. Having a Bluetooth headset can make a world of difference in minimizing distractions and maximizing safety when it comes to cell use at the wheel.

A Bluetooth headset allows you to accept calls automatically without having to reach for a cell phone. On many headsets audio quality is as good or better than it will be using the phone itself, and the person on the other end of the call will often notice the difference as well.

Optional voice dialing plans available with some carriers and phones also allow users to make calls without using a keypad, which can be extremely useful for those needing to make calls from their vehicles.

If the phone is used for music playback and is stereo capable, Bluetooth stereo headsets such as the Motorola HT820 provide full stereo while continuing to serve as a phone headset.

Costs of Bluetooth headsets have fallen dramatically over the last year, with discounted units selling for under $25.

Wireless Keyboard/Mouse Combos – Many PC users have gone to using Wireless keyboard and mice over the past few years. The main reason for doing so has been to eliminate the need for cords to be running across desktops and workspaces, and the optical mouse has largely eliminated the need for mouse pads.

However, a somewhat harder to find item can be even more useful – the wireless keyboard containing a built-in pointing device.

The keyboards come in three general types, those with a trackball, others with a joystick that also functions as a mouse, and a few that feature a laptop-style touchpad with mouse buttons.

The trackballs in these keyboards are optical as well, allowing for greater precision and avoiding dirt. Mouse buttons and scroll wheels are located elsewhere on the keyboard, and most normal buttons including volume control, media playback and related functions are also enabled.

On keyboards with a mini-joystick, the joystick functions as either a mouse or a game controller, which can be especially handy for PC gamers who have their PC's hooked up to large monitors in a living room-type setting.

A third style featuring a laptop-style touchpad functions much the same as a laptop keyboard, with touch tapping and mouse buttons.

Many newer HDTV monitors have PC style DVI or VGA inputs, and computers designed for gaming and HD or Blu-Ray high-definition DVD playback are becoming more common. Hooking a PC up to one of these large monitors can make a huge difference, especially for gamers.

Both laptop and desktop computers are also available with Digital TV tuners and TIVO-style capture capability, making the long-touted Media Center PC ever-closer to reality, especially when used with a wireless keyboard combo.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Latest PDA Phones Make Even Better Choices

It seems like every week there's a new phone on TV being touted for it's high-tech features. However, obtaining most of these phones at the advertised prices requires a two-year commitment with a specific carrier, so choosing the right phone is an important choice.

PDA Phones offering the convenience of a PDA/Mini-Computer continue to expand choices and features. There are a bewildering variety out there, but a few phones stand out from the pack.

Apple's iPhone has come down in price from its original hyped launch to a more palatable $400 for the 8GB model. While it isn't as advanced as Apple's super-slick advertising leads most to believe, it does what it does better than most phones. Web browsing, picture taking and music and video playback are better than on any other phone out there.

The iPhone's biggest drawback continues to be its sole availability through data-slow AT&T EDGE network, and its pricey phone plans. An announcement of an improvement to full 3G connectivity for the iPhone is rumored to be happening shortly. While the iPhone takes some of, if not the best pictures of any cell phone, it doesn't take movies. Instant Messaging is another missing feature from the iPhone some will find lacking.

Windows Mobile 6 is now in full release, and there are a number of excellent devices out there that use the improved Microsoft mobile operating system to good advantage.

One of the best is the new HTC Mogul from Sprint, sold as the XV6800 by Verizon. This phone is the successor to the very popular PPC-6700, which was the clear leader in Windows Mobile 5 PDA phones.

The Mogul/XV6800 uses the fastest EV-DO data netorks, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for the strongest connection options of any device on the U.S. market. It features a large slide-down keyboard, a blessing for those seeking a larger keypad to type large amounts of instant messages or text.

The Mogul/XV6800 can also be used as a high-speed modem to connect to a laptop, a handy feature for road warriors, especially in areas where free Wi-Fi can be difficult to come by.

It also records decent video and pictures, and can be used for video playback much like a video iPod. Sprint continues to lead the way in having the most reasonably priced data/voice combination plans in most cases.

AT&T's best bet in Windows Mobile 6 phones is the Tilt, which features a leading edge 3 Megapixel camera, multiple Bluetooth pairings including stereo, Wi-Fi, slide-down keyboard and a tilting screen that makes it the easiest to use for working on Microsoft Office documents or video watching. The Tilt is probably the most capable Windows Mobile 6 phone on the market, save for its lack of EV-DO data capability.

T-Mobile's best choices include the Sidekick LX, Blackberry 8800 with GPS navigation, and the Wing, which resembles the Mogul/XV6800 in having a slide-down keyboard, large display screen, Windows Mobile 6 and Bluetooth/Wi-Fi connectivity.

Palm's future has again become uncertain, and while its Treo line of phones remains the most popular and useful to true PDA Phone junkies, its lack of genuine improvements in the past year is beginning to show. The Palm Centro, the latest offering, offers a slicker looking device that has few real improvements over the 700-series phones that set the standard for PDA phones in recent years.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at