Web tools make everything easier
Each quarter, Associate Editor Gail Overton presents her view of what the World Wide Web offers optics and photonics engineers, researchers, and technical professionals.
Each quarter, Associate Editor Gail Overton presents her view of what the World Wide Web offers optics and photonics engineers, researchers, and technical professionals. Topics help readers identify Internet sites that provide links to databases, online shopping sites, technology licensing opportunities, scientific blogs and chat rooms, and other online resources of interest. To share your best Web site finds with our readers, please contact Gail Overton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether you’re a scientist or just someone who uses a computer for business or personal recreation, some very good Web tools are available that can make your life easier. As a technical writer, I use tools such as xe.com, which provides international currency conversion, and mailbigfile.com, which allows you to do just what its name says: e-mail big files without having to use special compression software. And believe it or not, there is indeed a way to “talk” over the Internet for free: Skype.com is a simple software tool that allows you to talk to (or view) another Skype user free of charge. What will they think of next?
Everybody knows about the Google search engine, but there is an easier way to perform Google searches: add the Google toolbar to your Web browser window. If you go to toolbar.google.com, you can download the toolbar for free. Once installed, it’s no longer necessary to open a web browser window and type in www.google.com to begin searching. You can simply enter a search term in the Google toolbar that appears at the top of any open browser window and search instantly.
Not only does the toolbar reduce your search time, but it also has a built in pop-up blocker. I’ve had the toolbar for about a year now, and more than 2000 pop-up windows have been blocked. And, if you’re tired of typing in your personal information every time you shop online, the Google toolbar also has an AutoFill function that lets you type in your address and credit card information once, and then use a single click to populate these fields on any shopping site (while password-protecting your credit card information).
I have never used a paid-for Internet phone service like Vonage (www.vonage.com), but Skype has a significant advantage-it’s free. But knowing that nothing is really free, there is a small catch: the other people you want to call for free must also install and use Skype. However, you can pay a small service fee to call non‑Skype users and add additional features like voice mail and call forwarding. Skype is also a video- as well as audio-capable service. That is, you can use audio and video devices already installed on your computer (such as microphones, headsets, and Web cameras) for live audio and/or video chats.
Although www.skype.com has excellent Skype-to-Skype user quality, Vonage users say the Skype-to-non-Skype user call quality could be improved. And beware that if you have satellite Internet service and try to use Skype, the satellite delay during an audio conversation can be so annoying as to make the service unusable (even though it is still free).
Who can deny the unending need to perform mathematical and other calculations and conversions in the course of the workday or over the weekend? At www.onlineconversion.com, there are selections for conversion of time, temperature, volume, energy, frequency-really, any conversion task you may encounter. It also has a finance converter, which takes you to additional functions such as loan calculation tools (although I prefer www.bankrate.com for a more sophisticated loan calculator that also provides an optional payment schedule). As the metric system continues to dominate the scientific community, those mile-to-kilometer conversions are certainly handy.
I’ve used other currency conversion tools such as FXConverter (www.oanda.com/convert/classic) and www.gocurrency.com, but XE.com is, in my opinion, the easiest to use. You simply enter the amount and select the type of currency you want to convert and the currency you want it converted to, press go, and the conversion amount is clearly displayed. Other conversion tools are a little more complex with multiple drop-down menus and additional items that need to be selected before the currency conversion function is performed.
The XE.com Universal Currency Converter also prides itself on using live mid-market rates (gathered from sources all over the world) that are updated every minute, as well as offering 180 different currencies compared to FXConverter’s 164.
There’s unit conversion, currency conversion, and believe it or not, many free language conversion sites on the Internet today. The best one I’ve used is by Applied Language. You simply type in or cut and paste the text you need translated, select the desired language, and the translation is performed automatically. Of course, Applied Language is in the business of making money with professional language translation services by experts for about 200 different languages, compared to the free services that cover only about 17 languages and limited word count. However, the free services are usually more than adequate for most noncorporate needs.
Let’s face it, sending big files through any e-mail server can be problematic. The server often chokes and files cannot be transmitted. Fortunately, services like www.yousendit.com and www.mailbigfile.com are an easy way to solve this problem. These services work by uploading large files on a central Internet server and then downloading them to the e-mail address you have identified. The nice feature of this “central storage” method is that it is not necessary to download application software; unfortunately, file sizes are limited (512 MByte for mailbigfile.com and 100 MByte for yousendit.com), although you can pay a fee to increase the allowable file size. Also be aware that file security is an issue with a centralized server.
Other more secure “peer-to-peer” or “point-to-point” (P2P) services like Pando (www.pando.com) differ from central storage services in that large files are sent directly from personal computer (PC) to PC-a central storage server is not involved. The advantage is secure, free file transfer (up to 1 GByte); however, an application does need to be downloaded.
Have you ever wondered just how fast your Internet connection is? Because it was difficult for me to trust the diagnostic tools provided through my satellite Internet service provider, I was able to find a number of online speed tests that tell me just what my upload and download speeds are. The home page of InternetFrog has an easy-to-use broadband speed test. Just click the link and your upload/download speeds are numerically and graphically displayed against a speed chart that outlines the approximate transfer rates all the way from dial up to satellite through cable modem and even beyond Ethernet communications.
Another good speed test site is www.speakeasy.net/speedtest. This service allows you to test your upload and download speeds to servers in different locations across the U.S.