Saturday, March 27, 2010

Google Documents

I'm getting a new computer soon, so I'm using that as motivation to try to upload all of my documents to Google Documents and not purchase a new license of Microsoft Office.  Recently Google added the ability to upload any file type to Google Docs.  So in addition to all the Microsoft Word and Excel documents I have, I can also upload assorted image and sound files, and even zip files and executables.

There are some big advantages to storing your documents "in the cloud" instead of on your computer.
1. You can access them from any computer with an Internet connection, anywhere.  Not to mention any capable phone.
2. You don't have to worry about losing documents if your computer crashes and you haven't made a recent backup
3. Google Documents is free, so you can avoid buying a Microsoft Office license.

Some people worry about being able to access your documents if Google goes down, but I consider that less likely than my own computer going down.

Still, there are some definite disadvantages:
1. You need an Internet connection to view your documents.  This isn't usually a problem unless you're trying to work outside or in some restaurant without wireless.
2. Privacy - Google technically does have access to the contents of your documents, if that bothers you
3. Google Documents lacks many features of Microsoft Office

So the first two disadvantages I listed aren't that big of a deal to me, but the more I've used Google Docs, the more I've missed a few key features found in Office.

First off, although Google Documents has its own revision tracking for changes made withing Google Docs, it did not successfully import Microsoft Word's revision tracking last time I tried it.  This can be a real problem if you are sent a Word document with revision tracking as you'll have no way to view it.  I've read that Open Office can interpret Word's revision tracking though.  So if that comes up again, I'll plan to install Open Office just for the sake of reading the revisions.

Second, when typing a regular document, Google Docs does not give you any indication of where the page breaks will be.  So let's say you're typing a letter and you want it to fit on one page, there's no way to tell when you've reached a full page while you're typing.  The only thing you can do is use Print Preview, which will convert your document to a PDF to show you how it will print.  This gets pretty annoying when you're trying to trim out words and lines to see if it gets down to one page and have to keep going to Print Preview over and over.  Apparently I'm not the only one bothered by this.

And the third issue I've found is that the charts in Google spreadsheets are not as robust as the charts in Excel.    I've always been pretty impressed with how easy it is to create an Excel chart, and customize it.  The first time I made a chart in Google Docs, it took me some time to figure out how to get both the data and labels on there.  It seems that the columns have to be adjacent, so I had to make a dummy column of labels.  And at least for the pie charts, there weren't as many options for how to label them.  But Google's do have a clickable "pop-out" functionality that's pretty nice.

If you've already made the switch from Microsoft to Google for your documents, let me know how it went!  Thanks!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Meetings - Scheduling and Calendars

To many people’s frustration, meetings are an essential part of any office place.   If your organization is very small, like two people, then meetings may always just be informal turn-your-chair-and-talk meetings.  But once you need three or more people to be in a room and focused on one topic at the same time, then you’re probably going to have to schedule a meeting L

There are a few different web-based tools to help you schedule your meeting around multiple people.  One of the best is called Meeting Wizard.  Meeting Wizard lets the organizer specify multiple possible times for the desired meeting on the site.  Then the organizer sends an invitation to each participant asking each one to specify which suggested times they would be able to attend and which ones they wouldn't.  After all participants have replied, its easy to view the grid of participants vs. times to find the best time for the meeting.  Definitely beats a big long string of emails.

Once you have scheduled your meeting, you’re going to want to put it on your calendar, which means you need a calendar program.  Perhaps the most popular calendar product is the Microsoft Outlook calendar, but his the big disadvantage of only being on your desktop computer or work network (unless you synchronize with a handheld device).   Outlook also requires a license from Microsoft, which isn't great for small businesses or non-profits.

Luckily, there an online option that not only works very well, but is also free!  Goggle Calendar allows you to perform all the tasks vital to any personal calendar application.  Beyond that, you can set up shared, and public calendars so that you can schedule your own time and share your schedule with whomever you choose.  You can have it email you event reminders (or text them to your cell phone).  And you can even use it to schedule resources, like meeting rooms.

The first thing you’ll have to do is set up a Google calendar account at the link above (if you use GMail, then you already have a Google account, and you’ll find the Calendar link at the top of your Inbox page).

Once you’ve logged in, you’ll be viewing your personal calendar.  Above the calendar on the right there are tabs to switch between Day, Week, Month, Next 4 Days, and Agenda view.  Let’s use month.

Now click on a day and you should get a bubble pop-up.  Just type something as a test, like “6pm dinner with Eric”.  That’s it!  You can click on the event and then on "edit event details" to add more information if you want, including location and reminder details.  Note that this is a personal event, so nobody can see it but you.  Now let’s talk about shared calendars.

On the left side, under the "My Calendars", you should see a "Create" link.  Click that to make a new calendar to combine with your personal calendar.  This will be your shared office calendar.  So for the name, use “My organization”, whatever it is.  The “Share with everyone” setting should be set to “Do not share with everyone”.  In the “Share with specific people” section, enter the email addresses of the people with whom you would like to share the calendar.  Now click “Create Calendar”, and those people will receive invitations.

Now try adding another event.  You should now have the option of adding the event to your personal calendar or to your organization’s calendar.  Enter your meetings as organization events, and then everyone will see it, and so theoretically nobody should forget to show up! J  That’s really all you need, but you can also check out the different reminder settings and using invitations to invite people to events that don't have the flexibility in timing that requires a Meeting Wizard.  

Last, you might want to add some public calendars to your own calendar, like "U.S. Holidays" or the schedule of your favorite sports team.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hard Disk Drive Space Visualization Tools

For a long time I've been using this very old piece of software called SpaceMonger. Its a great tool. It scans your whole hard drive and divides it into blocks to show you which folders are taking the most disk space.


Today, Lifehacker had a post about Disk Space Fan, a tool that does essentially the same thing but instead of using a square grid of blocks, it uses a circular fan. And its free. So I was happy to see there was another free option that was more updated than my old SpaceMonger.


I was about to try it, but in the Disk Space Fan article, they mentioned another free disk visualization tool: WinDirStat. WinDirStat is like my old SpaceMonger in that it displays the disk space usage as a series of color coded blocks. So since I'm already comfortable with the block map, I decided to download and try that one.

WinDirStat adds a couple neat features to my old SpaceMonger. First it color codes by file extension instead of by folder. This actually makes the graphic a little harder to interpret, in my opinion, but it does also provide additional interesting data. And it makes it clear which file types use the most space, like .mp3's or .jpg's. And the other neat thing is that it has a directory tree view pane, so if you click on a file or folder in the block map, then it scrolls to the file or folder in the tree view and you can see additional statistics there.


I was wondering if WinDirStat might have copied SpaceMonger's idea, so I did a Google search for SpaceMonger and found their site.  The first interesting thing is that there is a much more modern version of SpaceMonger than I'd been using.  Their latest version is multi-tabbed and has some pie charts, so it may even be better than WinDirStat.  The catch is that it isn't free, but its only $24.95 and there is a 30-day trial.  In regards to whether the idea was copied, I  found this interesting passage on their site:
In case you're curious, SpaceMonger's display-layout system is not unique; it uses a technique called treemaps that were originally developed at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory by Dr. Ben Schneiderman. You can learn more about them on his Treemaps Page. SpaceMonger doesn't use any of their code, but it uses a similar idea.
If you're using one of these disk space tools or some other one, let me know which one you like best!