Using Low Cost Tools to Increase Your Productivity and Accuracy
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This article covers the following topics:
- Tools to "Let the computer do the working"
- Advanced utilities
- Keeping your computer safe with shareware tools
- Other useful tools
- Sources of information about shareware
Tools to "Let the Computer Do the Working"
Some of the very useful tasks that you will do often working in the technical writing field include the following:
- Comparing sets of files, versions of files to see what files changed and what the differences are
- Searching and replacing text
- Using advanced text editors to edit content outside of a mainstream authoring tool for a variety of reasons
- Copying large or many files from your location to another location
File / Folder Level Comparison (Differencing Tools)
Two very useful tools are:
- Beyond Compare- Does folder and file level comparison for both ASCII and binary files. Can detect that ASCII or binary files are different but can only show the differences in ASCII files, not binary files. Highlights the specific characters different between two ASCII files. Has a 30-day free fully functional trial. Beyond Compare is $30 from www.scootersoftware.com/.
- Araxis Merge - Does folder and file level comparisons for both ASCII and binary files. Retail price is $129 from www.araxis.com/merge/index.html.
Search and Replace Tools
Funduc - Searches and replaces both folders and zip files. Will search and replace ASCII files. Will search binary files but cannot replace by itself. Has plug-ins for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Funduc costs $25 from www.funduc.com. Many other tools are available here also.
FAR (Find and Replace) - Provides a search and replace tool and help decompiler / comparison tool. Has a two-month free trial. Cost = buyer's choice. FAR is available at www.helpware.net/FAR/.
These tools are very useful for tasks such as:
- Searching for strings, tags, names, product names, glossary terms, variables, etc. in binary files such as Frame/Word
- Replacing product names in ASCII files such as HTML
- Searching e-mail folders for e-mail addresses
- Searching for misplaced files / passwords
Advanced Text Editors
Two very powerful "smart" text editors are:
Both tools have spell checking. A big plus if you work in a mixed OS environment is that neither tool inserts Windows-style line feed characters in Unix files. They provide auto-save capabilities. You can use them to strip leading/trailing white space and search and replace for information such as pathnames for image files in HTML files.
NoteTab Pro has a wizard for inserting html tags. It comes in three editions: Pro ($30), Light ($5) and Standard ($20). The vendor provides many other tools also. NoteTab is available from www.notetab.com.
Uses for NoteTab Pro:
- Very good for adding HTML / XML tags to text copied to source code files from other file formats
- Powerful HTML wizard - auto-creates tags for you
- Apply HTML / XML coding to text using the built-in easy to use HTML wizard
EditPad Pro has color-coding for custom html tags. JG Soft has other tools such as a PowerGrep tool, Registry editor, and others. Cost = $50. It has a 30-day free trial. A free Lite version is available. EditPad is available from www.jgsoft.com.
Uses for EditPad Pro:
- Auto indent / tab
- Color-coding for custom html tags
- Auto-sorting - Allows you to spot and remove duplicates
- Specifying line length per file type
- Very good for adding / revising text in source code files (C, Java, and C#)
Transferring Files via ftp
Filezilla is open source software to transfer large files from one computer to another. It is easy to use with an intuitive GUI. It also has a powerful Site Manager and transfer queue. It provides the following features:
- Cross-platform. Runs on Windows, Linux, *BSD, Mac OS X and more
- Available in many languages
- Can specify Bookmarks
- Supports transfer of large files >4GB
- Supports drag & drop
- Supports FTP, FTP over SSL/TLS (FTPS) and SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP)
Filezilla is free from http://filezilla-project.org/.
Tools of the Evil-doers
- Spyware - Uses your computer for another's benefit. Usually, these tools do not self-replicate. Typical tactics include unsolicited pop-up advertisements, stealing personal information (including financial information such as credit card numbers), monitoring browsing activity and sending reports of sites you visit to others for marketing purposes, or sending you to advertising sites when using a browser.
- Spam - Commonly known as "junk e-mail". The bigger problem is that spam can infect your computer to use it as a proxy computer to send out spam messages to other users, especially everyone in your e-mail address book.
- Key loggers - Captures your keystrokes (passwords or account numbers). Use common sense. Note any new installed programs or devices connected to the USB ports. Enable a good firewall to detect and prevent these from being installed.
- Ad-ware - Displays advertisements, usually without your consent. These often show-up as pop-ups in your browser. It is a good idea to leave the default security settings alone in Internet Explorer, although recent versions of IE are much safer than years ago.
- Phishing - Attempts to acquire your sensitive information by masquerading as a trustworthy person or business in an apparently official electronic communication. Typically done using email or an instant message. Beware spelling/grammar mistakes, or impersonal greetings, such as "Dear Customer".
- Extortionware - Runs a free test to detect infections. Then, it either infects your computer or falsely reports problems and offers to remove them if you buy their product. But, they often only remove the "false positives" after you "pay the ransom".
- Root kits - Controls the operating system at a low level. Can install key loggers and backdoor programs silently to allow spying on your computer activities and take remote control of your computer (also known as "zombie computers").
Best Practices for Keeping Your Computer Safe
- Firewalls - Use only one as they can clash. Windows firewall only restricts incoming Internet traffic, does not restrict outgoing. So, if your computer is infected, people can use your computer as a "zombie" to send out messages, spam, spyware, etc.
- Anti-virus: Use only one as they can clash. Need to keep whatever anti-virus software you use updated.
- Spyware tools: Most experts running several tools as not all tools will catch everything.
Recommended Tool Suite
Trend Micro Internet Security (www.trendmicro.com) is an excellent set of tools that provides a firewall, anti-virus, and spyware protection. You can but a single-user license for $29 or a 3-user license for $40. This was recommended by a trusted pc repair shop I use. I buy Trend Micro for family members and friends to keep their computers safe.
Tip: If you are running Windows 7, it is a good idea to leave the User Access Control (UAC) set to their default. This means that any program that tries to install on your computer will result in a prompt asking you if you want to allow the install to continue. Being diligent about this can prevent unwanted software from installing on your computer, especially without your knowledge or consent, which is how many of these tools try to install.
Keeping Your Software Updated
Secunia Personal Security Inspector is an excellent program to monitor the software installed on your computer and alert you when patches/updates are available. It helps secure your computer from software vulnerabilities. It is highly regarded by experts. It is both easy to use and free from https://psi.secunia.com/.
Securing Wireless Networks
It is a good idea to secure your home wireless network to prevent neighbors / drive-bys from "poaching" into your network.
To secure your home network:
- Log into your router.
- Use encryption: WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is best. (Usually, seen as WPA-PSK (pre-shared key).
- Change your computer's settings to use the encryption set in step 2. For detailed instructions, go to www.komando.com/tips/index.aspx?id=1629
Desktop Indexing / Search Utility
Instead of using the Windows Search utility, I recommend using Copernic Desktop Search. Like Windows Search, it searches files, e-mails, videos, pictures, etc. It works in background to index continuously and does not use a lot of CPU time. Copernic Desktop Search is free from www.copernic.com.
Two very good backup utilities are:
Tip: Do a full backup / image of your computer when you get a new one. Some pc vendors are not shipping system restore disks/OS disks anymore. This gives that security of a known good backup from when the computer was pristine. Then, once you remove all the demo ware loaded on your pc and have it set up the way you want it, do another full backup / image. Use meaningful names or comments so you know what each backup contains or when it was made!
Improving System Performance / Reliability
- Backup regularly to multiple copies
- Backup data, browser favorites, and e-mail files
- Use automated backup utilities - Carbonite, Mozy, and iDrive are highly rated automated backup services.
- Use daily backup directories - create a file named Monday for Monday's work, copy Monday to a file named Tuesday to work on Tuesday, etc., until you check-in to source code control. Then, you can delete the old working folders.
- Reduce the number of shortcuts on your desktop to those you frequently use - Windows Registry has to find all the pointers to your desktop shortcuts on booting, so delete seldom-used shortcuts to shorten boot time.
CD Burning Utilities
Advanced Maintenance Utilities
Several low-cost utilities will help keep your computer running faster by keeping your Registry clean, keeping files as contiguous as possible, and fine-tuning how your computer starts and what programs start when you boot your computer.
- General all-purpose "housecleaning" tool for computers - Cleans temporary internet files, your browser history, cookies, empties the Recycle Bin, deletes temporary files/Windows log files, cleans your Registry and makes backups of it.
Recommended tool: CrapCleaner, cost = $20 (Everyone who donates $20 / £15 / €20 or more will be emailed all releases before they are available to download from www.ccleaner.com/.)
- Registry cleaner - The system registry is one of the core components of Windows; a neglected registry can become bloated with useless information, resulting in performance degradation and may result in strange error messages or crashes.
Recommended tool: Registry Mechanic, cost = $30, www.pctools.com
- Disk defragmenter - A badly fragmented hard drive can have a major performance drawback; this is especially true if you have never defragged your drive before (but that also depends on how much usage you get out of your PC).
Recommended tool: Ashampoo Magic Defrag, cost = $29, www.ashampoo.com
- Configuring Windows to work for you
Recommended tool: Tweak UI, cost = $0 windowsxp.mvps.org/tweakui.htm
Web Site Tool
If you want or need to build a web site, Yahoo Site Builder is an excellent free tool to prototype, design, and debug your web site. It has the following features:
- Easy to use
- Easy to update
- Not restricted to Yahoo for hosting
I used it to design my web site, www.MarshallDocumentationServices.com. My start to finish time was 3 hours!
Recommended Listservers / Newsletters
Other Sources of Information
Ed Marshall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent technical writing consultant and sole proprietor of Marshall Documentation Consulting (www.marshalldocumentationservices.com), with more than 23 years of experience. He specializes in APIs/SDKs (application programming interfaces/software development kits), Web services products, and other types of documentation aimed at developers. Throughout his career, Ed has developed expertise in using tools to "let the computer do the work," such as advanced tools for editing files, comparing files, and searching and replacing text in files. Ed is a popular speaker at a variety of professional development conferences, locally and nationwide. His previous appearances include events sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication (STC), WritersUA, and DocTrain. He is an Associate Fellow of STC.