When I was a teenager, my father brought home a computer and suggested I figure out how to use it — and I've been hooked on technology ever since. Now I write about it for a living, have advised retailers about what to sell in their stores, and test gadgets and software constantly. In short, I like this stuff. A lot. Still, I see no reason to waste time on tech that's not useful, which makes me a pretty typical woman.
Given the state of the economy, there's a special place in my heart for free gear, and there's plenty available. Check out my favorite Web ways to do more for less. (This is when being a geek pays!)
Virtual Personal Assistant
If I dare bring up PC-based calendars and content managers, my friends insist they're not willing to give up their paper planners. No argument — I, too, am at one with my Filofax. But I also love my digital personal information manager. Essential PIM Free, essentialpim.com, allows me to catalog thousands of contacts, update my calendar, and track my mile-long to-do list. I don't have to cross out an address every time my sister moves or changes boyfriends (or both). I can cut and paste a person's details into an e-mail when someone asks, and I can print out all or part of my address book to carry in said Filofax. I also like to put appointments that repeat on my calendar once and get a day-before reminder without giving it another thought. For a small investment ($40 for the Pro version and $25 for a synchronizer), Essential PIM will sync with your Palm or Google or Outlook calendar.
My 12-year-old son is, shall we say, organizationally challenged, so I wondered if a laptop for school would help. (Answer: Yes, FYI.) I chose a cheap Net book because he tends to lose things but then realized that installing a full-blown office program would negate my savings. So I downloaded the freebie suite from openoffice.org. How can these great word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing programs cost zilch? It's what's called open source software. In a nutshell, the open source movement was born of the old adage, "Many hands make light work." Somebody posts basic code on the Internet and other programmers build on it in their spare time. So the owner is not a for-profit company but a group of volunteers dedicated to their vision of a world where software is built by and for the people. See how cool nerds are?
Getting in Touch
My girlfriends love to dial my cell because I have the best voice mail service around. It welcomes callers by name or with a message I record specifically for them, and also e-mails me when someone leaves voice mail, so I know to check even if my phone is dead. Best of all is the nifty option to ditch someone — as in, if I'm being pestered by a telemarketer or someone I don't want to hear from, I can set it to play an out-of-service message and simply hang up. My pals assume that I pay for this. As if! Everything I use is free at youmail.com. Sign up at the site and prompts will walk you through replacing your phone's built-in system.
My family, friends, and colleagues are literally all over the world, from California and Canada to Ireland and Iceland. Do I drop tons of cash to connect? Nope. My cell plan is literally the cheapest one available and I don't even have a home phone line. I communicate with my broadband Internet connection, a PC, and Skype, skype.com. The software is free to download and lets me talk to anyone else with Skype via computer at no cost. For $3 a month, I can also connect to POTS (plain old telephone service!) phones and cell phones with my Skype account and get unlimited minutes in the U.S. and Canada. Another $30 a year buys me a direct phone number so people can call me, and Skype can also handle instant messaging, conference calls, and video chat if you have a Web cam.
Recently, my now-dating-again sister turned to me with this tech-y question: "My BFF met someone on eHarmony. A friend from yoga swears by Match. But is there any free online dating?" I suggest plentyoffish.com. There are more than 900,000 fish in that sea — so many she can trump her friends by meeting Mr. Right without ponying up a credit card number. All she has to do is register and answer some basic compatibility questions, then she can browse potentials on the house.
Photos and Video
Finally in possession of the digital camera of my dreams, I now take so many pictures, my family refers to me as the paparazzi. I also have a ton of photos taken with older cams. It got to the point that there were so many images scattered around my computer that finding a particular snapshot was an all-day project. Not anymore. I downloaded Picasa 3, picasa.google.com, and it hunted all over my hard drive (while I enjoyed a cup of coffee) and created a visual catalog of every image. Now I just scroll through these thumbnail-size pics to find what I need. I also use Picasa to do quick fixes as warranted — crop badly framed shots to make portraits and eliminate red-eye and blemishes.
I am so frugal that I flat-out refuse to pay for anything beyond the most basic-level cable service. My kids sometimes complain about this alleged injustice when they attempt to channel surf and there is literally nothing going on TV-wise. When that happens, I remind them we are geeks, hook up a laptop to the television and head to hulu.com. Suddenly there's plenty to watch: The Daily Show, Family Guy, Bones, Chuck, The Office, and lots of other good stuff along with full-length feature films and movie trailers. There are ads — and no, Smarty, you can't fast-forward through them — but you can search for the very thing you want to watch, like a certain show or actor, or more works by a specific director, or watch an entire series in sequence instead of tracking episodes being broadcast on the networks or cable stations. Provided you have broadband Internet, this is fab. As for the hilarious promos starring the incomparable Alec Baldwin — well, consider them the icing on the cake.
We keep an old desktop computer around for occasional kid Web surfing. I don't want to pay to keep this dinosaur virus-free but one of my unbreakable rules is this: Never connect to the Internet without protection. Viruses are the pits. To circumvent spending, I downloaded the free, basic antivirus tool AVG, free.avg.com. If I decide to upgrade later, I can go for the AVG Internet Security Suite or the user-friendly Norton 360, symantec.com. Meanwhile, he is covered.
As a rule I am definitely pro Internet filters for households with kids. There are plenty available for a fee, but before I buy anything, I look around the house to see whether there's something that could work. Take Windows Vista. Any computer running Vista already has outstanding parental controls built in. I enable them to limit gaming and Web surfing time so I don't have to watch the clock and be The Enforcer. Through the Control Panel, you will get enough choices to put your kids into a tech lockdown if you want to. Not running Vista? Your Internet service provider likely offers downloadable parental control tools. Worth looking into.
No expense aggravates me more than highway-robbery-caliber bank fees, overcharges, and late-payment penalties. But I work full time and have two tweens — left to my own devices, I always overlook something. These days, forgetting just one bill can cost as much as a new pair of kids' shoes. Ugh! To avoid this, and to create something resembling a realistic budget, I rely on Quicken Online, quicken.intuit.com. Initially it took me about 30 minutes (most of that time was spent trying to remember my passwords!) to give Quicken the log-in information for my credit cards, bank accounts, and loans. Then I kicked back while it gathered up all my transactions, due dates, and balances into a very organized page. Now, a quick glance tells me how much money came in last month, how much went out, and what's left. The program also hazarded some pretty good guesses at categorizing every expense it found so that I could create a budget based on actual past spending. Then I set up some limits and asked Quicken to text me when I'm about to go over in any category. It will also send me alerts — via text or e-mail — when bills come due so that no matter how faulty my memory, the payments get made on time. The bottom-line cost of all this fiscal automation? Zip!
Christina Tynan-Wood is the author of How to Be a Geek Goddess: Practical Advice for Using Computers with Smarts and Style (No Starch Press). She offers lots more tips for saving money and finding free services in her book and at her blog, GeekGirlfriends.com.
Originally published in the April 17, 2009, issue of Family Circle magazine.