Friday, April 3, 2009

Why Gmail is the Best E-mail Service

I was having a debate the other day with a friend. I will not reveal her identity, but let's say she isn't very technically savvy. I tried to tell her exactly why she should switch to Gmail, but in the end she claimed she was too lazy to 1) learn another e-mail system, and 2) switch to a new e-mail address, since her preferred address was already taken.

This got me to thinking, as I've also tried to convince several other friends to make the switch to Gmail. Thing is, I can kind of relate to the people that are hesitant because I was once in their shoes. I had a hotmail account and a university account, both of which I sent to Outlook Express. When I graduated college, I figured it was about time I got a 'professional' e-mail address since my university address would be expiring, and I made my other one when I was about 12 years old (you can imagine the absurdity of the name). Alas, I gained the courage to see what this new, cool Gmail thing was all about. It's about two years later, and I'm blown away nearly everyday at how much I love it.

So without further adieu, I give you my comprehensive list of why Gmail kicks ass:

  1. Search - Gmail is built behind the principle that Google has thrived off of. How many times have you been digging for an e-mail that you just can't seem to find because it was months ago? You'd have to keep your folders (we'll get to that later) insanely organized to do this efficiently. But Gmail built it better, with search you really only need to remember one word about what that e-mail revolved around and you will find the e-mail.

  2. Archives - Gmail offered the most space when it first came out - other services made you pay for a bigger inbox. Because of this, they believe that you should never have to delete e-mail, you simply 'archive it'. That way, it's always there for you if you so choose to find it. If not, then no big deal. But now you don't have to wonder where an e-mail went or if you prematurely deleted it. I've been guilty of that a few times. I've been using Gmail for about two years and I've only used about 5% of my space. And I usually send/receive lots of attachements. It's amazing - I could never fill it if I wanted to, but it's that security blanket that I love having.

  3. Conversations - I have to say, this was probably one of my biggest pet peeves when it came to most other forms of e-mail. I would get a message from a family member or friend that was sent out to several people. Those people would in turn respond to everyone else, and before I knew it my inbox was cluttered with everyone's opinion on the funny video or vacation idea. NO MORE! Gmail groups all message with the same topic into a threaded conversation. Believe me, it may take a little bit to get used to this concept, but it is undoubtedly one of the best features of the service. I can't tell you how many threads I've had with 10+ responses - and now not only do they stay neat and organized in my inbox, but if I ever want to go back and check something out from one of the message, they are all in the same place.

  4. Filters + Labels - Google figured out a much better organizational structure to group e-mail compared to folders. Yes, in theory it is very similar, but the big difference is one e-mail can reside within multiple labels, whereas with the folder structure you had to choose one. Here's a great example - I forward all of my e-mail from my hotmail account to Google (with third party software - don't get me started with hotmail...). I have a label for 'hotmail', but obviously those messages will fall under the category of another label.

    Not only that, but if you use filters, you can automatically label e-mails as they arrive in your inbox. Even better, you can choose to mark certain e-mails as read, skip the inbox, forward them or delete them - automatically. Some of these features may not seem groundbreaking, but if you are signed up to mailing lists, get e-mails from professors, forward e-mail from several other addresses, etc, it is unbelievably useful so that you don't clutter your inbox with useless message after message.

  5. The '+' and '.' operators - this is one feature that is great in theory but doesn't necessarily work with some website mailing lists. Here it is... your email address is Your email address is Your email address is Yes, you can use any of these and they are all aliases of one underlying email address. The dot operators are essentially a means for making your e-mail address more aesthetically pleasing. You can put any phrase after the plus operator. Why is this useful? As I said, mailing lists or anything where you have to register with an email address.

    Case in point - you register for online banking with the email address You create a label called 'Banking'. You create a filter that takes anything sent to and assign the label Banking. From now on, your banking messages will be completely organized without any work. There is one problem that I've found - several sites will not let you use the '+' operator as a valid email address. Kind of sucks, but you gotta give Google credit for coming up with these great ideas.

  6. (Video) Chat - Gmail pioneered the in-browser chat (ok, maybe AIM Express did, but that sucked, let's be honest). Now when I'm doing work at my computer - which is often - I can chat with people while I'm being productive, and keep everything contained into a confined space. I'm sure this serves to distract some people, but I would bet that its intended use is for people working together that often send e-mails to each other. If they are on and available for chat, there is no need to write an e-mail and you can connect with them instantly - hence increasing productivity. And you can load your AIM buddy list if you'd like.

    They recently added a feature for video chat - so you can have someone come into your virtual office and talk to them without either person leaving their workspace. Or you can talk to a loved one instead of using the obsolete phone system! Maybe catch a glimpse of your new born son/daughter at home to see what they are up to while at work. Or just waste some time with a friend :P

  7. Drafts - I'm sure other email services offer something similar, but I'd bet the Gmail draft system is better. If you have an epic e-mail to write, or get called out when writing one, just save your draft and walk away. Maybe your computer crashes while your writing an e-mail - Gmail has you covered (to some degree) because they automatically save your e-mail every minute or so as you're typing. Another thing I use it for is file sharing between computers - Gmail provides you so much space that you can upload an important document before you leave work, and access it at home if you'd like.

  8. Better Spam Protection - Is Gmail immune to spam? No. But do they handle it better? In my experience, absolutely. I probably get a spam message in my inbox every 3 months or so. I used to get them almost daily with hotmail. You can check all spam messages if something goes in there accidentally.

  9. Keyboard Shortcuts - OK, I realize it doesn't take long to click on an icon, but you figure that if you're typing, it's easier to keep your fingers on the keep board to compose a mail or do something else. This kind of follows the Mac ideology of speeding up everything by making navigation easy with keyboard shortcuts. I don't personally use these, but I can see how they would be useful if you get used to them (which won't take long if you use Gmail daily).

  10. Add Multiple Accounts - Not only can you forward all your messages to and from other accounts, but you can also edit the settings so you can send e-mails from another e-mail address through Gmail. This is incredibly useful for me because I'm in graduate school, and I prefer to send anything related to that with my school e-mail address.

  11. Themes - Not only is Google's mail service incredibly functional, but it's also pretty! They have several themes you can choose from - maybe you wanna drift off to an exotic beach or check out the beauty of a mountain range... or if you want to get adventurous, you can create your own custom theme and choose any colors you'd like. Is it useful? Not really, but it's fun and that seems to be a theme with all of Google's products and services.

  12. Gadgets - You can add any gadget you'd like that can be placed on your iGoogle homepage. These can range from fun stuff like illusions and puzzles, or something that keeps you going throughout the day like your daily calendar schedule. Just use Google Calendar (again, the best online calendar there is, period) and you can keep your Gmail open all day - chat, check your schedule, interact with coworkers, keep tabs on your family, increase your productivity.

  13. Google Docs - This gives you functionality similar to Microsoft Word/Excel, and allows you to open these directly in your browser if you have an attachment from one of these sources. Again, convenience, productivity and elegance, that's the name of Google's game.

  14. Labs - I saved the best for last. Gmail Labs is the creative domain that drives the great ideas for email. I could probably write another 5 paragraphs on this alone, but I'll try and keep it as brief as I can. Let me address my favorite features:
    • Offline Gmail - This recently came out, and now allows you to download and sync your e-mail server with your home computer. That way if you lose your internet connection, you can still peruse your messages and write up a draft if you'd like.
    • YouTube/Picasa/Flickr/Yelp Previews - If somebody sends a link from one of these sources, you can preview it directly from your e-mail message instead of opening a new webpage.
    • Mouse Gestures - When viewing a message, I can simply right-click and drag right or left to go to the next or previous message, respectively. If I want to go back to the inbox, I drag up. Pretty cool, eh?
    • Snake - Remember that game from the cell phones about 7 years ago? Yea, you can play it in Gmail.
    • Drag 'n Drop - Choose where you place your chat box and labels... Right-side or left-side of the screen.
    • Forgotten Attachments - If you mention this word, but didn't attach anything, it will remind you. If you've never forgotten an attachment, I don't think you're a human, lol.
    • Mail Goggles - Ever send out a risque or stupid e-mail while drunk? I haven't, but I'd bank on this happening a lot, especially in college. Well, in order to make things a bit more difficult for the drunken fools, Google makes you pass a small math exam to test your sobriety before sending e-mails!
    • Multiple Inboxes - Remember how useful those filters and labels were? Well if you want to view all messages from a certain label in addition to your inbox, you can do it.
    • Text in Chat - Yup, you can do that too.
    • Signature Location - Gmail can detect where you are, and let people know in your e-mails through a small map in your signature. Preeeeettty neat.
So there you go, a crap-load of reasons why you should switch to Gmail. It's the most productive. It's the most creative. It's the most functional. It's the prettiest. It's intuitive. If it were a celebrity, it would be like Jessica Alba - a perfect 10 with almost no baggage. There are tons of fun tools and options to play with, and once you convert, you'll never want to go back. I pity the fool who does...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to Start a Website

How do you start your own website? This is a common question asked among beginners that need computer help. After you buy or upgrade your computer, and master using the internet, the next logical step is to create your own home within this virtual world. The nice thing is that technology has progressed to the point where there are nearly an unlimited amount of options if you do want to start up a blog or web page.

You have two ways to go about this adventure - learn from scratch and build your website alone, or pay someone with the experience and knowledge to do it for you. If you need business web design, the latter option is for you. You can talk to a new jersey wordpress designer specialist and get a site up and running in no time. If you are more of a hands on person, get ready to dig in to the world wide web.

I'll highlight some of the more common options, and give a few details of how to start a website that doesn't involve using a free online service.

1) Blogs, blogs, blogs... If you're just looking for a place to vent, write about friends and family, keep an online journal, or discuss your passion, the easiest option is setting up a blog. You may notice that this website is hosted on - you can build a blog here from start to finish in a few minutes! And it's 100% free, which is always attractive to the beginner who just wants to try something new out. This is not the only site where you can do this, though - you'll want to check out several free blogs and determine which you like best for starting a website. Some of the more popular options are,,, if you want to find more just Google something along the lines of 'create free website' or 'create free blog'. You will undoubtedly find more options than you could possibly want.

2) Buy a Domain - This is optional if you start a free online blog from one of the aforementioned websites, but usually you have the option to redirect your subdomain to a custom domain name if you do choose to buy one. You'll notice that most blogspot blogs use a subdomain of i.e. If you simply want this to be you need to buy that particular domain. This is actually very cheap - the most popular site to register domains is, and it only costs about $10/year. While this is not necessary for the free blogs, it is easier to remember and a little bit cleaner. You will need a domain if you choose to purchase a web hosting plan. Which brings us to our next topic....

3) Web Hosting - A lot of computer beginners do not understand the details of web hosting. They know it's necessary to build a website, but don't dive into to the deep end to figure out more. I'll likely post a more detailed entry about this in the future, but I'll keep things simple and clear here. There are plenty of companies that offer web hosting plans for your website needs. One of the more popular options is They usually offer several options, such as shared hosting or reseller hosting. If you plan to start a single website you only need a shared plan. This means your website will reside on a shared server that belongs to the hosting company, along with many other websites. A shared plan is actually pretty cheap, anywhere from $5-10/month. You must read the details to determine whether the plan fits your needs. You will see several options, such as storage space, bandwidth, e-mail accounts, ftp capability, operating system, database options, shopping cart etc., etc. If you are new to the game, this can defintitely make your head spin.

I'll keep things basic here - storage is self explanatory, that is basically your hard drive space on your portion of the shared server. Bandwidth is usually a monthly cap of how many MB or GB can be downloaded from your server in a month. So for example, if you have a one-page website that is 1MB, and your bandwidth is 1GB, in any particular month you can serve 1000 page loads (1000 visits x 1MB = 1000MB = 1GB). If person #1001 tries to load your website, they will likely get a message in their browser that says 'bandwidth exceeded'. If your website is mainly text, the chances of you exceeding your bandwidth are very low - high bandwidth is really only necessary if you are hosting a lot of images or videos.

4) Website Design - once you have your website registered, whether its through a free service or web hosting plan, the next step is to design it. This can be costly if you choose to outsource this, but if you are a beginner you will clearly be looking to learn a little and do this yourself. Again, if you are using a free blog, chances are there are a lot of templates you can download to really hide the details of this whole process. If you want to learn about design, I suggest you use a free template that you like and then dig in with some HTML or CSS code to get a basic understanding of what is going on behind the scenes. Web design is actually very fun when you get into it, because it brings together science and art in a very practical way. If you have any photoshop skills, it's definitely worth looking into web design because you can probably create a sweet site by your lonesome. Don't be afraid to go on forums and ask people for help, too. The best resource is a helpful person.

I've been through a few basics here, and I will surely write more detailed posts about web hosting and web design in the future. These are very hot topics when it comes to people who want to proudly display their website. In the meantime, look into some free blog or web services and play around. The investment is all time and no money, so you've really got nothing to lose.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Antivirus Software

Computer technology has advanced unbelievably quickly in the past decade. This has led to numerous solutions to ubiquitous problems in society, but at the same time it has introduced a lot of vulnerabilities to the computer systems that are used for these solutions.

While people generally associate the term computer hacker with bad guys, there are really two clear divisions within this term. The white hat computer hacker is a guy who simply wants to gain a deeper understanding of technology, and 'hacks' hardware or a computer program to do something it wasn't intended to - BUT it's important to note that they do not try to maliciously alter what they are hacking. The reason I make this distinction is because I currently work with a research group that involves people like this and they do not like the negative connotation of computer hackers.

Then there are the black hat guys. The guys that want to use their technological experience to compromise security of computer networks, steal someone's identity, spam your e-mail, make a profit off of innocent people, etc. These are the hackers that one needs to protect your computer from.

With this in mind, here are some simple steps to defend yourself from these bad guys.

1. The first step is to install antivirus and firewall software programs. I use the plural form because one single program does not usually work to stop everything. If you have multiple layers of software protection, there will be less of a chance that you install something you don't want. This type of software is best used for stopping internet viruses from being downloaded to your computer while you use the internet. Whether it's a virus, trojan, worm - you don't want it, because the possibilities of what this software can do is endless. It's really only limited by the imagination of the enemy.

2. Try not to store much sensitive or personal data on your computer, as this is what a lot of the bad computer hackers are looking for. If you do transfer this type of information over your connection, ensure you are using a safe channel, such as the https secure protocol, or some type of encryption, such as 3DES or AES.

3. Don't ever open files without scanning them antvirus software first. A lot of operating systems and web browsers have protection built in to do this for you, but it can't hurt to find additional software. The files you really need to look out for are executable files, or files with a .exe extension. Also, DO NOT click on links from an e-mail where you are unsure of the origin. This is known as spamming or phishing.

4. Use a firewall. Windows has a firewall built in, but many antivirus software programs have firewall protection built in as well. Essentially this is used to block incoming internet connections that may be a little shady. The antivirus software may only be able to scan files that are already on your computer.

You don't need to be a computer expert to protect yourself, but you do need a basic knowledge of the programs which will protect your computer for you. This is by no means an extensive list, but it should give you the basics to keep yourself protected from any unwanted outsiders.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Computer Buying Guide

If you have a computer at home that is five or six years old, it may be about time for an upgrade. People that have dealt with this process in the past know what to look for when purchasing a computer or laptop, but if this is your first time you are sure to have lots of questions.

You want to get a lot of bang for you buck but don't necessarily want to shell out a fortune, particularly now with the economy as bad as it is. With that in mind, here are several factors you must be familiar with before heading to the store.

1. Operating System - First and foremost, you need to decide upon the operating system. If you're not a computer geek, you can probably throw out Linux as an option because this is not very popular among newbies - it will ultimately boil down to Windows or Mac. You've probably watched enough TV to see those PC vs. Mac commercials and don't know what to make of them. Macs tend to be more popular among the artsy type people, but after using one I have to say I'm very impressed by the ease of use and the beauty of the system that PCs just don't have. Thing is PCs have a stranglehold upon the vast majority of people and they are unwilling to learn or switch to something different. If this is you, I have no problems with PCs. Yes, you will probably get more random errors, programs crashing, etc. But as long as you buy a good system from a trusted vendor you will get your money worth.

2. Desktop or Laptop - This decision is pretty simple. If you're looking for a home computer for the whole family to use, it's probably to set up a computer desk and get a desktop PC or Mac. You don't want a family computer floating around, and you will get more for your money with desktops as compared to laptops. If it is a personal computer and you travel a lot, or you would like the convenience of using the computer in any room of your house or apartment, a cheap laptop would be a great option. You do pay a little extra in the way of convenience for the small size, but even these models are becoming cheaper by the week. You might also want to look into a netbook - kinda like a mini-laptop.

3. Figure out the main use of the computer - If the computer will serve solely for web surfing, e-mail, and writing documents, you don't need too much in the way of extra or upgraded components. If you're into making movies or other forms of media processing, you will definitely want to look for higher end graphics cards - this is something a MacBook Pro is good for. If you're into music you'll probably want an upgraded sound card. If you're a multi-tasker and like to have many programs open at once, you'll want to get enough memory (RAM) to handle several applications running simultaneously. Another beautiful innovation in this respect is multi-core processors. This allows several operations to run in parallel which can greatly increase the speed, or reduce the lag time when you are doing a lot at once. I highly recommend Dell for building a PC - you can choose each component and customize your system based on your needs and preferences.

4. What Brand? - You might find some good deals on cheaper brands, but we can't recommend buying one. The bigger brands generally have better components, or at least allow you to upgrade to higher quality components. They usually have much better customer service which could be essential for a computer beginner. They normally have better warranty plans which might come in handy if you have rambunctious kids. This is one product where you really should stick to the better known names.

These are just a few simple suggestions for computer beginners. I highly recommend that you go to your local electronics store and at the very least ask some questions. You will probably find better deals online, so keep that in the back of your mind, but it's tough to rival person-to-person interaction in terms of getting answers to your specific questions. Hopefully this computer buying guide puts you on the right path to the right computer for you!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Internet Web Browsers

The issue of which internet browser is best often leads people to get a little feisty defending their favorite. There are several lesser known web browsers (Safari, Opera, Chromte, etc.) that perform nicely, but to keep things simple I'll talk about the two most popular - Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Due to Microsoft's command of the computer market, the majority of the people who own PCs think they are relegated to using it to search the internet. I was this way for the longest time. But during my time at college, many of my engineering cohorts turned me onto Mozilla Firefox - they claimed it was miles ahead of IE.

Every since switching, I have zero complaints and I've begun to understand why it was so popular, even if it is an 'underground' following.

First off, Firefox is completely open-source. For you non-tech junkies, this simply means that the source code that was written to create Firefox is made available to the general public. Why is this so important? Because it means that anybody with an inkling to improve or add-on to the existing code base can do so, and distribute their fine pieces of work on Mozilla's website. Because of this, you will find that Firefox has a ton of extra features (all user added) that make it much easier and more pleasant to use.

The second reason why open-source is great - again, the computer programmers who are interested in checking out the source code can find and report (or correct) many of the security vulnerabilities. Because of this, there is less of a chance of downloading a nasty computer virus that may affect your PC.

Meanwhile, IE was developed by Microsoft engineers, and outside of that small group of minds, their source code is kept private to the general public.

The power is in the numbers, people. Firefox allows any Joe Schmo to edit their code, but that is a good thing because it means much more brainpower goes into developing this program.

I know the ubiquitous option for web browsing is Internet Explorer, but I urge you guys to give Firefox a try. Peruse their add-ons and see if you like what they have to offer. If for nothing else, you will be better protected from the bad guys out there.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beginners that Need Computer Help

So if you are a casual user of a computer, you probably run into problems often that tend to frustrate you until you eventually give up. Does this sound like you? Then you are in the right spot.

I'm a computer engineer by trade, but my focus for this site is the computer beginner. If you need computer help, I hope to provide logical and easy to follow solutions for the most common problems that people encounter.

Some topics and computer tips that I plan on writing about include: using the internet, internet browsers, software issues (mainly Microsoft office), interesting tips and tidbits that you might not have known, among other relevant topics.

I currently own a PC running Windows Vista, a laptop with Windows XP, and a MacBook with an Intel processor (capable of running both Leopard and XP simultaneously with a virtual machine). If you have any specific questions which you would like me to help with, feel free to leave me a comment and I'll do my best to tackle the issue.