The Best Of….

This gem of a website will show you the top 10 songs from an artist. This can be great for introducing someone to a new band or artist you really like. Also handy if you want to quickly hear the best songs from an artist you already know and love.

Here my friend is recommending Pop Evil. I like it. No need for more cowbell.
Here my friend is recommending Pop Evil. I like it. No need for more cowbell.

Songza

I am the type of person who would have music playing all day every day if I could. It improves my mood and my songzaproductivity and tedious work is easier to do with the right playlist. And the playlist is the key. I have a huge library of music (over 300,000 songs) and sometimes the hardest thing to do is decide which existing playlist will work, or what songs to put on a new one. If I’m going to shovel snow for 2 hours, my “workout” playlist really doesn’t fit. And I don’t have the time or the energy to create a playlist at 5 am when I have to clear the cars and driveway to get everyone off for the day.

 

Over at Songza they have a solution for me. Just tell Songza what kind of task you’re doing (housework, cooking, working in an office) or what kind of mood you’re in and you’ll instantly be served with playlists created by experts based on your specs.

The Songza main screen.

 

I chose Decades for this example, and then browsed through until I got to 80’s rock. ON the right you can see the different pre generated playlists to meet my hairband fix.

songza 80srock

You can create an account or sign in with Facebook. I really think this is a better way to listen to music online, and if you think so too, check out  Songza on the web.

What Files Should I Backup?

I am constantly reminding people to keep regular backups of their files, but what does that really mean? There are hundreds of folders and sub folders on your computer, so which ones should and shouldn’t be backed up?

pcoverhaul-files

 

First of all,  let’s talk about the software you can use to run the backup. There are lots of programs you can use to back these files up. New computers often have some sort of backup software installed and some external hard drives come with pre-installed backup software as well. A backup feature is also sometimes built in to some of the large antivirus suites. But if your computer or external drive doesn’t give you a backup option, don’t panic. If you have Windows 7 or Windows 8 or Windows 10, a backup feature is built in.  And of course there are several great free backup tools out there, like Redo Backup & Restore, Create Synchronicity, and Free File Sync. It’s not important which backup software you use, just be sure to get one that you are comfortable using and use it or schedule it to run regularly.

Free File Sync's interface. The 'Source" drive is shown on the left, the "Target" on the right.
Free File Sync’s interface. The ‘Source” drive is shown on the left, the “Target” on the right.

 

And one more important note-  one backup is never enough. That external hard drive you are using to back up your files is likely going to be in the same location as your computer in order to run these backups. If you have a theft, a natural disaster like a fire or flood, or a power surge fries your computer, chances are the backup drive will meet the same fate. So the key is to have a backup that’s not located wherever your computer is. Most people use a cloud backup for this. If you are confused about the cloud, it basically just means it’s kept on a server outside of your location. Free services like DropboxGoogle Drive, Box,  JustCloud, and Microsoft’s Onedrive may be enough if you only have a few Gigabytes of data to back up. If you have a large amount of data, paid services like iDrive, Cloudwards.net, or even Amazon’s Cloud backup solution are a better option. They allow you to upload very large document, photo, video and music collections (or whatever else you need to store) to a secure account and usually the cost is under $10 a month. Spending $100+ a year to backup your data may seem like a lot of money, but when it’s compared to the $1000-$1600 data recovery companies usually charge to attempt to get your files back after a hard drive crash, it’s a very good investment. DVD or BluRay media also make an excellent backup for files that won’t be changing, like years of older photos. these can be put in a fireproof safe, safety deposit box, or even given to a friend or family member to keep at their place so you will always have a copy “offsite” so to speak.

 

Carbonite's different plan options for home users.
Carbonite’s different plan options for home users.

 

Before we select the folders to back up, there are some hidden folders we need to be able to see, so you should change your settings to make them visible. You can do it manually, or I have a handy little script you can download that will do it for you.

You can manually show hidden files too.

Click on START->COMPUTER->TOOLS and then select the Folder option button.

To show hidden files in Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8, select Tools, then Folder Options
To show hidden files in Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8, select Tools, then Folder Options

 

Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.

Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.
Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.

 

Finally, the files you should backup.

Files to back up for Windows XP
Files to back up for Windows XP

 

♦  Documents: Your documents folder is an obvious choice. This folder can be a catch it all for some people, with files of various types from actual documents, resumes, tax forms, to downloaded exe files, photos and subfolders created by programs on your computer. Depending on which version of Windows you have, this may also be called “My documents”.

♦ Photos & Videos: The “Pictures” or “My Pictures” folder and the “Videos” or “My Videos” folder are the most important folders I back up. Most of us have been using digital cameras for at least 10 years now and don’t have any negatives to fall back on if we lose these originals (like we did in the old days). Unless you are a professional photographer these have no monetary value, but preserving these memories is priceless. I back these up to disk and the cloud, but also burn a DVD at the end of each year as a set of permanent negatives. Mine are BluRay discs, which cost roughly $1 each but it’s well worth it knowing every photo ever taken of my children are safely stored away.

♦Music: “Music” or “My Music” folder.  –My Mp3 collection is huge and includes stuff I ripped from CD years and years ago, songs I converted from cassette of my old high school bands, and download music. If you use Itunes, this is where the Itunes data is stored for your music, playlists and apps.

♦Application Data: “AppData” or “Application Data” folder. This is that hidden folder we need to back up. The subfolders inside here contain settings and preferences for your software, as well as your PST file for Outlook that is used to store all of your Outlook data, including your emails, contacts, calendar, and more.

♦Bookmarks: For Internet Explorer, these are stored in “Favorites”. If you use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, there are in a subfolder of your AppData folder.

Of course, you can always just back up your entire User profile. The downside to this is you use more space and end up backing up lots of temporary files, but it’s one way to make sure you get every file you need without missing anything. This could be found at C:\Users\Username in Windows 7, 8  or Vista, and C:\Documents and Settings\Username for Windows XP.

You can back up the entire user profile. This is the default Administrator profile in Windows XP.
You can back up the entire user profile. This is the default Administrator profile in Windows XP.

 

Don’t bother backing up the “Windows” or “Program Files” folders, since you can’t restore your Operating System or your programs without completely reinstalling them.

 

 

VLC- The only Media Player You Will Ever Need

At some point, everyone runs into a problem opening a multimedia file (usually a video) . VLC player can solve most of these problems. It has a simple interface that’s very user friendly, but also enough extra features to keep you happy if you’re an advanced user. You can drag and drop music or videos into the player, use the file menu to open them, or click on them in Windows explorer once you have selected VLC as your default player for that file type.

The basic VLC interface. You can drag and drop any audio or video file right into the player or use the File menu.
The basic VLC interface. You can drag and drop any audio or video file right into the player or use the File menu.

 

Multimedia files are coded a certain way when they are created, and your multimedia software decodes them. This is done using software called a CODEC, which stands for CODE/DECODE. Widows comes with some codecs by default for the file types most used by windows. As you install other multimedia software, like CD and DVD burning software,  Itunes, or other media players,  you pick up new codecs and expand the file types your computer knows how to open and play.

There are all-in-one codec packs out there on the internet that try to provide all the codecs you will ever need for every possible file type, but they often come bundled with toolbars and other unwanted software. You don’t want that junk cluttering up your computer.

VLC player comes with a slew of codecs built in, and no configuration is needed to get them to work. VLC will open all the common audio and video filetypes and includes support for subtitle files.

A list of video file types VLC will play for each Operating System. Courtesy of videolan.org
A list of video file types VLC will play for each Operating System. Courtesy of videolan.org

 

VLC includes support for subtitle files if your video includes them. Even if you’re not going to watch something in a different language the subtitles can be useful. I’ve used them when my infant son was asleep and I couldn’t have the sound at my normally preferred earth shattering volume. They can also be used to decipher the dialogue in scenes that are just plain hard to hear.

Turning on subtitles is easy. Right click on the video and navigate the menus to Subtitle->Sub Track-> and then your language,
Turning on subtitles is easy. Right click on the video and navigate the menus to Subtitle->Sub Track-> and then your language,

 

One of my favorite features is the equalizer, under the extended settings button. There are separate controls for both audio and video tweaking.  I use this for brightening up older videos or home videos that are not the highest digital quality, but there are dozens of options starting with the basic brightness, contrast, saturation, hue and gamma controls. But it was also let you make the image negative, turn it sepia, rotate it, and even add a logo or watermark to it. Not bad for a free program!

Before the equalizer is used, the picture is fairly dark.
Before the equalizer is used, the picture is fairly dark.

 

The above image is before using the equalizer on the video. You can see the difference below after a few minor tweaks to brightness, contrast, gamma and saturation.

The red arrow points to the equalizer button. You can see a notable difference once I've tinkered with the settings.
The red arrow points to the equalizer button. You can see a notable difference once I’ve tinkered with the settings.

 

In the event that your audio and video are not matching up, there’s a submenu here for synching them together.

Easily fix audio and video that are out of synch
Easily fix audio and video that are out of synch

 

And VLC player give you the option to take a screenshot of any part of your video. Just go to the video menu and look all the way at the bottom.

Capture an image of the screen by using the Take Snapshot option in the Video menu
Capture an image of the screen by using the Take Snapshot option in the Video menu

 

You can set the default save location, file type and naming scheme for your snapshots under the Tools -> Preferences -> Video menu, shown highlighted here.

Snapshot settings
Snapshot settings

 

There are literally hundreds of other features to explore if you are into that sort of thing. Or maybe you want to simply watch a  movie and not have to do anything but click and drag. Either way, VLC player is the best free media player to suit your needs.