The 18 things you need for your computer.

The 18 things you need for your computer.

The 18 things you need for your computer.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 16 2008 4:54 PM

The 18 Things You Need for Your Computer

My favorite programs and Web services.

Screen capture from Rescue Time.

A few months ago, I downloaded RescueTime, a hardworking little program that monitors everything I do on my computer. Its ostensible purpose is productivity: By cataloging my pursuits—how much time I spend on every application, how long I linger at every Web site—RescueTime aims to shame me into procrastinating less. During the last three months, for instance, I've logged 34 hours on Slate. Thirty-four hours! Not that Slate isn't fun, but I could have read Anna Karenina in that time. Curses, "Explainer"!

So far, RescueTime hasn't increased my productivity one iota, but its reports are still illuminating. Since July 21, when I installed the app, I've spent 727 hours on my desktop computer. That's 30 full days out of just 87—one-third of my life whiled away at the screen. It's a wonder that I haven't developed pressure sores.


What I've found most fascinating is the rundown of which programs I use most often. It's a huge list, actually, and one that I thought might be fun to share. Here's what I'm betting: Lots of people have questions about the best way to go about managing their e-mail, organizing their appointments, searching for files on their computer, or any number of other common tasks. I have questions for Slate's readers, too: Am I using the right apps? Is there something better?

Here, then, is the software I use most often, along with brief explanations for why I prefer a particular program. Maybe you'll learn something—and if I'm using something lame, send me an e-mail or post to "The Fray" and let me know. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Mozilla Firefox, Version 3. There is much to dislike about Firefox—it crashes often, it hogs your computer's memory and processing power—but I've found it to be the most flexible Web browser for my needs. In particular, I'm taken with its huge library of add-on programs, helpful little apps that increase the browser's functionality. The add-ons I use regularly include: Foxmarks, which synchronizes my bookmarks across different computers; Tab Mix Plus, which lets me save sets of tabs even if I shut down the browser; Scrapbook, which saves Web pages to my local machine; Mouse Gestures, which lets me navigate the Web by flicking the mouse forward or backward; and Ad-Block Plus, which does just what its name suggests.

Gmail. I'm an e-mail archiver; for as long as I've been using e-mail, I've tried to save every nonspam message I've sent and received. Desktop e-mail programs like Microsoft Outlook couldn't handle my archiving obsession; they didn't work well when overloaded with thousands of messages, and I'd always have to worry about transferring my huge cache of mail every time I got a new computer. Gmail, with its enormous storage capacity and fast, intuitive interface, is an archiver's dream.

Google Calendar/Outlook. I store all my appointments on Google's online calendar app, which is everything a digital calendar should be—easy to use and available everywhere. Unfortunately, my iPhone can only sync its calendar with Microsoft Outlook, so I also run Outlook, and I keep it mirrored with my online calendar through Google's handy Sync app.

Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, this is a must-have: Load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. I also dig its share function, which lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Trillian. Think of it as a universal remote for instant-messaging programs. It connects to several IM services—AIM, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ—allowing you to chat with all your pals from a single interface.

TextPad. Programmers and Web designers use text editing apps to write computer code, but I use this program for all my reporting notes. I keep one file—scratchpad.txt—in which I write down everything: notes on every phone call I make, story ideas, to-do lists, grocery lists, and a lot more. (I save the file every day, adding a date to the filename so that if I ever lose one version, I can always go back to yesterday's.) This is the easiest way I've found to keep track of what's going on in my life: TextPad beats Windows' built-in Notepad text editor because it offers a number of keyboard shortcuts and a very powerful search function that lets me find phone numbers and names from years ago. Plus, because the file is just text, it's very small—I can easily transfer it to different computers, and I can open it on any machine, including my iPhone.

Google Desktop. A search engine for your computer, this lets you find obscure files and e-mails strewn about your machine. It's particularly helpful for Windows users. (The Mac OS's built-in Spotlight feature does the same thing.) I use it mainly for launching programs—rather than find iTunes from the start menu, I can use a shortcut key to bring up Google Desktop, then type I-T-U ... and before I'm finished typing, the iTunes icon pops up. The app also provides useful alerts from other Google services, including Gmail—a little notification pops up when you've got new mail.