Saturday, 29 September 2007

"Can you hear it?" Three Freeware Audio Applications

Winamp has long been a popular mp3 player developing a large user community. Members of this community submit a plethora of skins, plug-ins and other add-ons to the Winamp website. Winamp also offers support for iPods and other mp3 players, and functions as an adequate video player.

If you have ever made an audio mix CD from mp3 files, you have probably been annoyed to find that all the tracks play at different volume levels, spoiling that overall ambiance you wished to create with your selection of top tunes. If this problem is a source of vexation for you, try mp3gain. With this program you can quickly balance the levels of a selection of mp3 files, so as to further impress that prospective partner, work colleague, or friend with your eminently good taste.

The best freeware audio editor available is Audacity. It provides support for mp3 files - as well as a number of other formats - and offers enough editing features and effects to meet most user's needs. Unfortunately, Audacity does not support proprietary formats such as wma, but there are plenty of audio file converters available like dBpoweramp.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: Excel

Following on from the megapost of word-processing keyboard shortcuts from earlier this month, here is a selection of keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Excel.

  • You can navigate around the grid of cells by using the cursor keys.
  • Hold down Ctrl and press Home to jump to the top right cell (A1).
  • Hold down Ctrl and End to jump to the last cell on the spreadsheet with any information in
  • If you wish to edit the contents of a cell press F2

As with word processing, you can hold down the Shift key to select: if you hold down Shift and press the right cursor key then you will select the current cell and the one to the right of it. If you continue to hold down the Shift key and press the down cursor key you will also select the two cells below the ones you already had selected. You can thus hold down the Shift key and press different cursor keys to select different rectangles of cells.

Many of the keyboard shortcuts that work for word processing also work in Excel: holding down Ctrl and pressing B selects bold text; Ctrl and C will copy text, etc.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Word to the wise: webmail woes

This is an issue that has cropped up a couple of times at the university where I work.

If you send yourself a document that you are working on, to continue working on it on another PC, remember to save the attached document onto that machine before you start to make changes to it. It is easy to forget this, open the document and start making changes. If you then hit the save icon it will not always save and when you then close whatever program you are editing the document in, your changes will be lost. This is particularly the case for documents accessed via webmail. If you remember to 'Save as' rather than just 'Save' you will be OK, because it will prompt you for a name and location where you wish to save it. Nevertheless, it is better to get into the good habit of copying the document you attached to the email onto the PC before you expend effort making alterations.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Weekend website: What is this file?

So here is the scenario: you have been sent a file attached to an email. You double click on it - after making sure that it is not a virus or some other malicious file - and you are told that it is an 'unknown file type'. You need to find out what type of file it is, and what programs will open it.

To do this you look at the last few letters after the last '.', e.g. word documents will end with '.doc' (you may not see these extensions for file types that your installation of Windows recognises - to see them: double click on 'My Computer'; select 'Options' from the 'Tools' menu; select the 'View' tab and deselect 'Hide extensions for known file types'.)

So you know what extension the file has, but still don't know how to open it. There are a number of web sites that provide lists of know file extensions. All offer a search tool, so you can just type in a file's extension and find out what programs you need to open it. So here are a few such sites:

Check out this post for details of a website that will convert files to a type that you may be able to open with your existing software.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: Firefox

This week's keyboard shortcuts are all for Firefox - some of them may work in Internet Explorer. Recently, Microsoft have started copying features previously implemented by Mozilla in Firefox, possibly including the keyboard shortcuts. Please let me know which ones work in IE.

To cycle through your tabs rightwards: hold down Ctrl and press the Tab key.

To cycle through tabs leftwards: hold down Ctrl and Shift and press the Tab key.

To open a new tab: hold down Ctrl and press T.

To close the current tab: hold down Ctrl and press W.

To jump to the address bar - where you type in a web address: Press F6 (thanks to glytch for this one).

To open and close the Bookmarks tab: hold down Ctrl and press B (Note: if you are in a rich-text editor on a webpage this will select bold text instead.)

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

What to do when your PC hangs

So, your PC isn't doing anything, the screen is a mess, the hard-drive is whirring away. Is there anything you can do, rather than just reach for the reset button?

Here are my top tips for dealing with those times when Windows hangs.

Don't keep clicking things

Windows buffers (remembers) all these clicks and will implement them when it catches up, preventing you from continuing with what you want to do, and possibly causing havoc. Show a little bit of patience.

Check to see if your PC has crashed
Before you hit that reset button it is wise to check if your PC has actually crashed. To do this simply press the Caps Lock key, and check whether the Caps Lock light goes on or off; if it does then your Windows session may be recoverable. You may have to wait a few seconds to see a response.

Use the Task Manager
All recent versions of Windows have a built in application called 'Task Manager.' To run it simply hold down Ctrl and Alt, and press Delete (note: Windows 2000 users will then have to press the 'Task Manager' button on the dialog box that opens.)

As with all these tips, you will have to wait a while to see if it appears. When it does, check the 'Applications' tab to see if any of the programs you are running have a status of 'Not Responding.' If they are, click on one to highlight it then and click the 'End Task' button. Do this with any other programs that are not responding, then cross your fingers.

If Windows starts working again it is best to save all your work and restart the PC. A clean restart is always preferable to a nasty reset.

Making Windows run faster: upgrade your PC

Mo' Memory
One of the major causes of windows running slowly is a lack of physical memory (called RAM). When this physical memory becomes full, Windows shuffles the information used by inactive programs into a file on your hard-drive called a 'page file' (or sometimes a 'swap file'). This shuffling back and forth of information takes time and slows the operation of your PC down.

Buying and installing more RAM is one way to give your PC a speed boost. There are many different types of RAM available, and you have to install the one that is correct for your PC. You can use the Crucial Memory Advisor™ tool to find out what types of memory your PC supports (Crucial are a major supplier of memory with prices often cheaper than you will find elsewhere). If you need advice about installing your new RAM, check out the How to install RAM article at lifehacker.

Veni Video Vici
Many computers these days have video controller built onto the motherboard (the motherboard is the big circuit board in your PC that all the other devices connect to). If you have such a system, the PC will allocate part of the available RAM to your video hardware, thus making it unavailable for Windows. Also, some software - especially games - relies on a sizable amount of video memory being available. So, another way to give your PC a speed boost is to upgrade the video card. Check out Ryan Pollack's article How to Upgrade and Install a Video Card?

If you have inbuilt video hardware on your motherboard you may have to switch it off in the BIOS (this controls the hardware of your PC before Windows starts), in order to do this consult your manuals. Note: if you have lost the manual you may be able to download it from your PC manufacturer's website.

Pimp my PC
Of course the best upgrade to make your PC run faster is to replace the processor (also known as CPU) with a faster one. The CPU is analogous to the engine in a car, so the powerful it is, the faster the PC will run. Replacing the CPU is not a simple task and should be avoided by computer novices. Your PC may not support all processor types and the actual task of replacing a CPU can be rather fiddly. For this, it would be best to seek the advice of an expert.

Note for laptop users
Of these three upgrades, only the first really applies to you. Changing graphics and CPUs on laptops would either be impossible or expensive. From personal experience I warn you to never take your laptop apart, the manufacturers really jam everything in there, and the whole thing becomes some sort of fiendish puzzle.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Weekend website: More anwers than questions

Yahoo Answers offers you the chance to ask questions in a user-friendly open forum. The forum is broken down into various categories such as 'Pets', 'Health' and, of course, 'Computers & Internet'.

CNET provide various forums (or is that 'fora'?) where you can ask computer-based questions; including one aimed at 'Computer Newbies' in particular.

Both sites require registration to submit and respond to questions. I check both regularly for opportunities to share my *ahem* sagely advice.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: Shut `em down

After last week's mammoth collection of word processing keyboard shortcuts, this week, I present a short and sweet way to close any window.

Simple hold down the Alt key and press F4... Hang on! Don't do it now... Oh, too late.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Five top freeware applications

Before spending your hard earned cash on software, it is always worth looking to see what is available for free. In this article I will look at five free applications that I use myself.

First up, and probably most importantly, we have a virus checker. AVG anti-virus free edition has all the features I want from anti-virus software. It loads quickly, doesn't take up much system resource, updates itself regularly, and only bothers me when it finds a problem.

After viruses, spyware is the next major problem that arises from using the Internet. I use Spyware Terminator, which has many of the same virtues as AVG anti-virus, in that it is not constantly bothering me with messages. In my opinion, such software should sit quietly in the background doing its job.

Quick tip: when you run a scan on your PC looking for spyware the software 'looks' at each file, which means that the virus checker also checks that file. So by running a spyware scan you also effectively run a virus scan.

Do you use Windows Media Player to watch video files? Do some videos not load into it? Does it complain about needing something called a 'codec'? You can do worse than try the VideoLAN VLC media player. VLC supports most common media types, both audio and video, and is available in versions for Linux and Macs too.

The last two freeware applications have been featured in previous articles here. TreeSize is a program that provides a graphical representation of how much hard-drive space each folder is using; very useful for working out where all your hard-drive space has gone. The other is Startup Control Panel, which provides a means to manage which programs run automatically when Windows starts.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Weekend website: Media Convert

Anyone who has used Windows for a while knows there are a dazzling array of file types. Maybe the word processor you use at home is different from the one you use at college; maybe your job requires all reports to be submitted as pdf files; or maybe someone has sent you an audio file in Ogg Vorbis format and you are completely nonplussed. As not all applications support all file types you need an easy way to convert some files into a format you can use.

The Media Convert site enables you to quickly convert files from one format to another whether office documents or video files. I have used it a number of times and have found it a lifesaver. Media Convert supports dozens of file types and is definitely worth bookmarking.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Keyboard shortcuts of the week: Faster word processing

Do you wish to be able to use your word processor more quickly? Do you want to be able to edit a piece of text without having to reach for the mouse every few minutes? Then this week's mega-selection of keyboard shortcuts are for you. They should work in any text editor on Windows, whether a word processor or a comments box on a web page. I have included a text box as part of this article so you can play around with the various key combinations. For those interested, the text in the box is the opening paragraph of Candide by Voltaire.

We will start with quick navigation links.

  • The Home key will move the cursor to the beginning of the line (on most keyboards this key is in a collection of 6 keys located above the cursor keys).
  • The End key will, unsurprisingly, move the cursor to the end of the line.
  • If you hold down Ctrl and press Home, the cursor will move to the beginning of the document. Ctrl and End will take the cursor to the end of the document.
  • The Page Up and Page Down keys do 'exactly what it says on the tin'; they move the cursor one page up or one page down.

You probably already use the cursor keys (the ones with arrows on) to navigate around your compositions, moving one character at a time. If you hold Ctrl and press the left or right cursor keys you can jump one word at a time, left or right.

You should now be able to whiz around your documents, but what about keyboard shortcuts for selecting bits of the text? To select, simply hold down the Shift key as well as the key combinations I already mentioned.

  • Holding down Shift and pressing a cursor key will select one character to the left or right, dependent on which cursor key you press.
  • Hold Shift and press Home to select the text from the cursor position to the beginning of a line. Shift and End selects the text from cursor to end of line. So, a quick way to select a line of text is to press Home, then Shift and End.
  • Holding down Shift and Ctrl together and pressing Home will select all the text between the cursor position and the start of the document. Shift, Ctrl and End will select all the text between cursor and end of document.
  • To select the whole document you could press Ctrl and Home to take you to the top, then Shift, Ctrl and End to select to end, but it is much easier to use the keyboard combination for selecting the whole of a text: Ctrl and A.
  • Holding down Shift, Ctrl and pressing a cursor key will select one word left or right, dependent on which cursor key you press.

So, you can whiz through your document selecting chunks of text as you go. The last selection of key combinations in this article enable you to do stuff to the text.

  • Hold down Ctrl and press C to copy the selected text.
  • Hold down Ctrl and press X to cut the selected text - that is to copy it and delete it.
  • Hold down Ctrl and press V to paste the copied text where the cursor is located.

Whereas, it is easy to remember the key combination for copy (Ctrl+C) the combinations for cut and paste are not so intuitive. When I first started using these particular keyboard shortcuts I remembered the cut combination because the X looks like a pair of scissors, and the V looks a little like an upturned glue pot (a little imagination is required I know).

Play around with all these key combinations in this text box.

Some text boxes allow you to use 'rich text', that is, text that has extra formatting options such as bold, italic or underline.

  • Hold down Ctrl and press B to make the selected text bold.
  • Hold down Ctrl and press I to make the selected text italic.
  • Ctrl and U will underline the selected text.

Thankfully all three of these are intuitive, so no need for imaginative mnemonics to remember them.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Weekend website: Google Groups

I doubt that anyone visiting this page hasn't heard of Google, however, some of you may not be aware of Google Groups. From this site you can search a variety of Usenet newsgroups (a forum/BBS system that predates the web), as well as Google's own groups. This page can be exceptionally useful when you are searching for help and advice about computer problems - after you have checked for help on this page, of course. The chances are you are not the only one with a particular problem. Someone has probably asked for help with it before and maybe received an answer on Usenet.

Students should also be interested Google Scholar, which can be used to search for academic books and journal articles.