Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Continuing Typewriterless

I’ve been writing this column for more than six years. I receive a number of comments from people about the columns I write, but none more than the one I wrote in 2005 about my trusty IBM Selectric typewriter.

At the time, I still felt I needed one around for the various tasks that are needed in everyday life, including addressing packages and envelopes, filling out forms and various other home tasks.

But I actually sold my typewriter at a garage sale a few years ago and have been typewriterless ever since.

At first, it was hard to go without my typewriter, but I’ve actually managed to do without it quite nicely. Two things have helped with that:

First, I purchased a label printer that hooks up to my computer. It’s a Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo. With it, I can print address labels, name tags and even postage stamps.

The software integrates with my contact management software, so I can print a label to a person without having to re-type their name and address. The software even looks up their ZIP code, inserts a postal bar code and reformats the address to the U.S. Postal Service specifications.

The software allows me to do a mail merge so I can print just a few — or hundreds — of labels automatically.

Where I used to print labels on my laser printer, this label printer has completely eliminated the use of both my laser printer for printing labels as well as the need for my typewriter.

Brother also makes a competing label printer, but I’ve not given it a try.

The only downside to the label printer is that it connects to my computer via a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port rather than to the network with an Ethernet port.

I did see recently that Dymo now offers a device that allows the LabelWriter to connect to the network so that all computers in my home can use the printer, but the device costs $100, so I haven’t sprung for it, yet.

Second, Adobe Acrobat’s form filling feature makes the use of my typewriter unnecessary.

What the form filling feature does is allow the user to see a form and type on the form just where you would normally handwrite or type. The rest of the form remains uneditable.

Acrobat allows forms to have not only fields where you can enter text such as your name or company, but it also allows check boxes to select items, and numeric fields, such as order forms or tax forms.

While Acrobat has had a form filling feature for a long time, most Acrobat PDF files didn’t use the feature. This is because the creator of the form has to tell Acrobat about the nature of these fields to be filled in.

The United States federal government has made most of its downloadable PDF files fillable using the Adobe Acrobat software. Most state governments have followed suit. Cities and towns I’ve informally experienced are less consistent in their adoption of fillable PDF files.

Adobe freely distributes the Acrobat Reader software. It includes the ability to fill in forms, but not to create them. To create Acrobat documents, one of the fee-based software products is needed, typically Acrobat Standard, Pro, or Pro Extended.

Creating forms using Acrobat is pretty easy, but it does require some additional work on the part of the forms creator. The amount of extra work is based on the complexity and length of the document. I’ve seen some basic “fill in the blanks” PDF documents as well as some PDF documents that perform calculations and have a lot of dynamic content.

But my point is that as Acrobat has come into its own and I have not regretted giving up my Selectric. In fact, my mother is getting ready to downsize her home and has a Selectric sitting in her office that she’s not going to keep. As fun as it would be to have, I’m going to let a historian have it for his museum.

This column initially appeared in the Wednesday 25 March 2009 issue of Westport News.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Not to Buy a New Computer

I love the latest techy gadget as much as the next person. They're fun to play with, show your friends and goof around with. Some of them even make it into my life, adding real value.

One of the most important items in my life is my personal computer. Hardly a day goes by that I don't use it. It has to work well or I'm in deep trouble.

My reasons for not buying a new computer have nothing to do with the current economic condition or any technical reasons. It's just a lot of work after I open the box.

I am an admitted fan of Toshiba laptop computers. Toshiba doesn't have the market share like the Dells, Lenovos and HPs, but I've used most of the major brands and Toshiba laptop computers have served me well over the years.

So when my old laptop needed to be replaced, I went out and bought a new one. I ended up with another Toshiba and the latest version of Vista - the 64-bit version.

My reasons for not wanting to replace my computer were realized in full again.

Because so much of my life is spent using a personal computer, the biggest hassle of a new computer is moving all of my old stuff to my new computer and getting it all to work.

If I didn't have to retain any old files and e-mails or integrate into a network at home or in the office, a new computer would be a breeze.

But it just ain't so.

Part of it is my own fault because I'm a packrat when it comes to saving files. Part of it is because my technical environment serves me quite well when it's running right . . . but I don't have an off-the-shelf technical environment.

The challenge starts with purchasing upgrades to most of the software, this time ensuring that it's Vista 64-bit compatible.

If there are any device drivers, such as for printers or scanners, you have to go find all of the latest drivers and install them. As my home and office environments are reasonably complicated, this takes some time . . . meaning a couple of days.

While I found that most of my equipment is compatible with the new hardware and software, I was disappointed with two major items:

First, I discovered that Quicken 2009 is not compatible with the Hewlett Packard printers I have under Vista 64-bit. A fix was announced for January and checking the Quicken Web site this morning, the fix is not yet available.

Second, I discovered that my Canon digital camera, which was purchased two years ago, is incompatible with Vista 64-bit. Where I used to be able to plug the camera into the USB port on the laptop computer, Canon support attempted to convince me that it's actually more beneficial to buy a $10 conversion gadget that will let me transfer my photos to my computer. The problem is not with spending $10, but the fact that this is an extra thing I have to carry with me.

Moving word processing, spreadsheet, photos and other files from one computer to another isn't all that difficult. Microsoft actually offers a free utility that will move your files and preferences from one computer to another. The utility will even configure your e-mail account, as long as it's a Microsoft product, such as Outlook.

As I don't exclusively use Microsoft products, moving files from one computer to another can be time-consuming and tedious at best. Most software manufacturers don't offer utilities - or even instructions - on moving applications and data from one computer to another. This necessitates taking some calculated, but necessary risks to set up the new computer. Sometimes the move doesn't work, so it needs to be done a couple of times.

I'm also an advocate of online remote backups of data. I happen to use Mozy (www.mozy.com), although there are a number of very good alternatives. The problem with a new computer is that I have to re-backup the new computer. Given that I backup more than 40 Gb of data, this easily takes a day of the computer doing nothing but sending data to the backup site over the Internet.
So, while I'm very pleased with my new computer, it's not something I relish doing frequently. In fact, I'll typically trudge along with an older computer for an extra year or so rather than face the work needed to get the new computer.

Now that I've had my new computer for a couple of months, it's almost all set up. Now I don't have to worry about a new computer for a couple of years.

This column originally appeared in the Westport News on Wednesday 11 March 2009.