How to Do Everything Faster

How to Do Everything Faster
Graphic: Serge Bloch and Robert Cardin
Time isn't money; it's much more precious than that. Whether you're doing something creative like making a podcast or building a blog, or slogging through chores such as backing up data, removing viruses, or calibrating your high-def TV screen, you want to get things done and move on to the fun.

I have a ton of time-saving tips, including tricks to help you clear space on your hard drive, e-mail massive files, make money from your Web site, and even calculate the mileage on your jogging route.

The quickest way to tackle many tasks is to use applications that probably already exist on your PC. However, for occasions when Windows' built-in tools aren't enough, I've listed some great, free programs that are just a download away.

But enough of this dilly-dallying, already. Let's get on with the tips!

In This Article

Move Your Media Files to an External Drive

Shifting your music to a secondary drive will open up lots of space on your main hard drive.
Hard drive filling up? Nothing frees space faster than moving your music library to an external or second internal drive. First, close any music-playing software. In XP, open My Documents and drag the My Music folder to the external drive. Windows will figure out that you're moving a special folder and will change its own settings accordingly. (If you don't use the My Music folder, just drag the folder you use to the drive. Windows doesn't have to treat it as a special folder because, well, it isn't.)

In Vista, click Start, right-click Music, and then select Properties. Click the Location tab. Change the path to a folder on your new hard drive and click OK. If Windows asks whether you want to create a new folder, click Yes. When Windows inquires whether you want to move all of the files, click Yes again.

If you use Windows Media Player, open it after the move and press F3. Select the new Music folder and let the application search for files.

Back Up Your Data

Back in the March issue, I recommended using MozyHome as the easiest way to back up your PC's data. Easy, yes. But also horribly slow.

For fast backups, invest in an external hard drive whose capacity is slightly larger than your internal hard drive's. If your PC has an eSATA port, buy an eSATA drive to take advantage of its fast data-transfer speeds. Otherwise, USB or FireWire will do.

For a quick, one-time data backup, plug in the external drive. When it's up and Windows recognizes it, press Windows-R, type %userprofile%, and press Enter. Drag the Documents (or My Documents) folder to the external drive. If you have Vista, you should also drag the Music, Pictures, Saved Games, and Videos folders (XP users don't have to worry about those because they're inside Documents). If you don't store your data within the Microsoft-sanctioned folders, you'll need to drag any other folders you use to the external drive as well.

Want automation? Select an external drive that comes with a backup program (most do), and use that.

Reinstall Windows

So your PC is acting wonky and you need to reinstall Windows. Starting from scratch can take hours. The faster solution is to back up your data (as described in the item above) and then use the recovery tool that accompanied your PC. The tool usually comes either as a bundled CD or DVD or as a hidden partition that you can access at boot time. Consult your computer's documentation to see which setup applies.

Here's a handy video on How to Install Windows Vista:

And here's one on How to Reinstall Windows XP:

Recovery tools usually work by overwriting the data on your hard drive with a fresh image of the factory-default software. Windows will be back up and running quickly, but it won't have the programs you installed on it, or your settings. Restore your personal files from the backup you made before starting this process, and then reinstall any applications you need.

Open a Favorite Folder

Quickly get to folders that you use all the time by putting them in your Favorites folder.
If you go to a certain folder all the time, put it in your Favorites folder, so you can always reach it from the Start menu. This setup is especially convenient if you normally don't use Internet Explorer, because you won't see your favorite folders mixed up with your favorite Web sites.

To place it in Favorites, drag the beloved folder from Windows Explorer to the Start button, and from there to the Favorites menu. In Windows XP, you also have the option of opening the folder and then clicking Favorites, Add to Favorites from inside the Explorer window.

E-Mail Huge Files

You can move big files to a colleague without the hassle of an FTP transfer, by using YouSendIt.
E-mailing a hilarious video to friends may not endear you to them if it arrives as a 6MB file. After all, if they use a POP-based e-mail program such as Outlook, they'll have to download the entire message before they can even see that it's from you--or before they can download the next message in the queue. If any of the recipients are on a slow connection, they may never speak to you again.

My rule of thumb: Never e-mail more than 1MB of content without the express permission of the recipient. As an alternative, try YouSendIt, a brain-dead-simple take on the FTP transfer. The service is free for any file under 100MB, and individual files can be downloaded up to 100 times. You don't even have to sign up and enter a password (though the service offers additional features if you do, and even more if you pay). Just enter both e-mail addresses, point to the file, and click the Send button.

Create a Bootable Rescue Disc

How can you reach your precious data files when Windows refuses to boot? Use a friend's PC to download Puppy Linux. It comes as an .iso CD-image file that you can use to burn a bootable CD. (And if your PC hasn't yet bitten the dust, it's good to make a rescue disc before it does.)

Chances are you or your friend will already have software on the working PC that can burn Puppy Linux to a CD. Double-click the file, and the software (possibly Nero, or Roxio's Easy Media Creator) should launch. If Windows informs you that it doesn't know what to do with an .iso file, you should download and install a free burner such as ISO Recorder.

This Puppy isn't the most powerful version of Linux by a long shot, but it handles NTFS drives well and is easy for Windows users to figure out. Once you have used the bootable CD to access your problematic machine, you can copy files from the hard drive to an external drive, or even edit .doc and .xls files.

Build a Web Site

One of the quickest ways to put together a Web site is to use the free tools at WordPress.com.
No matter how much time you spend online, you can't consider yourself a true Netizen until you have your own Web site. And these days, it's hard to beat a blog for quick and easy updating of your content and for versatile design.

If you prefer simplicity but don't want to compromise on class, go with a free blogging service such as Blogger.com or WordPress.com. With either service, you fill out a form and select a template that controls the look of your blog--and off you go.

One more nicety: You can post entries that you've composed in Word 2007 directly to your Blogger or WordPress blog. Just click the Office button and select Publish, Blog.

Keep Tabs on the News

Google Reader presents a never-ending river of RSS news items.
It's an election year; do you know where your favorite candidate is? Following are just a few simple ways to take control of the information onslaught.

You probably already know that RSS news feeds offer a convenient way to get all the news you want delivered straight to your PC. You can make RSS feeds even more efficient. If you prefer reading in a browser, I recommend Google Reader, which lets you surf through the headlines.

A number of free services can send you RSS feeds over e-mail. My favorite is SendMeRSS.com, which is so easy that you don't even have to register with the site, although doing so will make adding feeds simpler. Just enter the URL for the RSS feed you want, type in your e-mail address, and click Feed. From then on, new items will automatically appear in your inbox.

RSS feeds are great for tracking what the New York Times is writing about, but Google Alerts keeps tabs on a particular subject across a huge range of publications. Go to Google News, enter a search item, and bring up the current stories. Then scroll to the bottom of the page and click the link within the sentence 'Get the latest news on your search criteria with Google Alerts.' Just one piece of advice: Use Google Alerts for specific subjects, not broad (or extremely popular) ones. Set up a search for "Paris Hilton," and the resulting deluge will overwhelm you.

Correct a Photo's Exposure

The photo editing site Picnik.com has sophisticated but easy-to-use tools.
Let's say that you have a photo with severe brightness and contrast problems. If you're in a hurry and you haven't been trained in the art of photo manipulation, you need a program with separate sliders for adjusting the highlights and shadows. The concept is easy to grasp, and it gets the job done.

Where can you find such tools? If you use Photoshop Elements, you already have them, on the Quick tab (Quick Fix in version 5), under Lighting.

Alternatively, you have two free options. Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery app improves on Vista's Photo Gallery program. Select Fix, Adjust Exposure In Windows Live Photo Gallery (which runs in both Vista and XP), and you'll get both Highlights and Shadows sliders and a histogram, as well as the familiar old Brightness and Contrast options.

If you'd rather not install any software, try the free photo-editing site Picnik. Click the Upload Photo button. Then click Exposure, Advanced to access the Highlights and Shadows sliders, plus a histogram. When you're done making adjustments, you can save the image back to your PC.

Change Your Monitor's Resolution

After installing the MultiRes utility, you can quickly change your monitor's resolution.
As a general rule, you should keep your monitor adjusted to its highest resolution. There are exceptions, however. Some programs, especially games, run better with fewer pixels displayed. And if your laptop becomes confused (as mine does) when you plug it into an external monitor, you may find yourself having to revisit the Settings tab of Windows' Display Properties box annoyingly often.

That's why I recommend MultiRes. This simple, free utility creates a system tray icon from which you can select any available resolution, screen depth, and refresh rate for your display.

Copy Your Events Calendar to Your Not-So-Smart Phone

Have a dumb phone? Clue it in by 'inviting' it to meetings in Outlook. Afterward your calendar will send your phone SMS reminders of your upcoming events.
Even if your cell phone doesn't qualify as "smart" by today's standards, you can use it to track your busy schedule. From Outlook or Google Calendar, you can send appointment reminders to your cell phone as text messages.

When creating an appointment in Outlook, click the Invite Attendees button (Forward in Office 2007). In the To field, enter your phone's e-mail address, such as 2135551234@vtext.com (the @ portion of the address, of course, will vary from carrier to carrier).

Alternatively, Outlook 2007 users can work with SMS Link for Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, which permits them to send appointments, contacts, and tasks to their cell phone as text messages.

Google Calendar directly supports SMS, so you don't have to pretend that your phone is an e-mail account. To set the feature up, just click Settings, Mobile Setup and follow the instructions.

When you're in the process of setting up an appointment, select SMS as your reminder. You can arrange to have more than one reminder scheduled, and you can set them to alert you up to a week ahead of the actual appointment time.

Scan for Malware With Online Tools

Protect against malware without installing new software, with Ewido's online scanner.
The best way to keep your PC free from viruses and spyware is to run a good antivirus application and keep it updated. But if you've been bad and left your computer exposed to the depredations of the malevolent, you can quickly find and eliminate skulking intruders either by running a portable security program--one that doesn't have to be installed onto your system--or by using a Web-based scanner.

Conveniently, Ewido Networks (now part of Grisoft, which produces the AVG antivirus utility) provides excellent tools in each category--and both of them are free. Try the online Ewido scanner (which works only with Internet Explorer) or the free stand-alone program, which is available for downloading. Both versions update their definitions when you use them. Other good options are ClamWin Portable and Kaspersky Lab's Web scanner.

Find the Mileage of Your Hiking/Jogging/Biking Route

Measure your peregrinations with Gmaps Pedometer, which calculates the length of trails.
It's easy to figure out the mileage for a car trip: Just go to Google Maps or MapQuest and ask for directions. But those services ignore footpaths and bike paths, and they won't direct you to go against traffic on a one-way street, though such routes are perfectly fine for pedestrians. And let's face it, getting the exact mileage is important when you're moving under your own muscle power.

That's where the Gmaps Pedometer comes in. This Google Maps mashup allows you to trace your route and get mileage figures. To use it, go to gmap-pedometer.com and zoom in on your location. Since Google's map view doesn't show paths, click the Hybrid button to combine the map with a satellite photo. Click Start Recording, and double-click on the starting point of your journey. Then double-click on points along the route as you watch the distance, which is displayed on the left, grow.

Create a Podcast

Gcast.com allows you to record a podcast through your cell phone.
Movie critics sometimes pan a performance by saying that the actor just "phoned it in." But if you are audio-podcasting with Garageband's Gcast, phoning it in is actually all you have to do.

To get started, sign up for a Gcast account with a password and a four-digit PIN. Once the site assigns you a URL, recording a podcast is no more difficult than leaving a message on a friend's voice mail. You simply dial the toll-free number, enter your PIN (Gcast recognizes your account via caller ID), wait for the beep, and then start speaking.

Afterward, you can go to your Gcast site and edit the podcast's properties to make it easy for people to find.

Burn a Playlist CD

If you want to take your favorite music with you on the road, put together a playlist in iTunes and then burn it to a CD.
Having your entire music collection loaded on your iPod won't do you much good on a long trip if your car lacks an iPod adapter. To take your favorite playlists with you on the road, burn them to multiple audio CDs automatically.

In iTunes, select a playlist and then click the Shuffle icon in the lower-left corner (when you shuffle the list, the icon turns blue). Select File, Burn Playlist to Disc. When the CD drive slides out, put in a blank disc and close the tray.

A dialog box will pop up to warn you that the job requires more than one CD. Click Audio CDs and don't worry about the warning. When the first disc's burn is finished and the CD drive opens, remove the disc, put in a new one, and just go about your business. iTunes will figure everything out.

In Windows Media Player, you can click the Library tab and select your playlist, or you can click Songs for a truly random set of music files taken from the entire collection. Start playing the top song on the list. Click the Burn tab and then select the first option on the Burn menu, which will be either Now Playing or the playlist's name. When the dialog box asks for a blank disc, click Cancel.

All of the songs included in the playlist will now appear in the right pane, below a Burn List drop-down menu, from which you should select Shuffle List Now. The action will not only shuffle the songs but also divide them across multiple discs. Click the Start Burn button as soon as it ceases to be grayed out. The burn will start automatically in a few seconds. If you're spanning multiple discs, just stop by and swap in a new blank CD whenever the previous one is full.

Add Online Payments to Your Web Site

To accept payments for products or for a charity featured on your Web site, your best bet is to use PayPal.
When it comes to attracting people to your site and persuading them to give you their hard-earned cash, you're on your own. But once you've taken care of those preliminary details, here's how you can ensure that the money has a safe journey into your pocket.

If you have a service people might pay for or a charity they might donate money to, go with PayPal. You'll need a Premier or Business account; to upgrade an existing Personal account, go to PayPal. After logging in, click the Merchant Services tab for options.

Of course, you don't have to sell anything to make money online. Google AdSense will put advertising on your site in minutes. To participate in the AdSense program, you'll need a Google account, but it's easy to set up. When you're done, the site gives you a snippet of code to insert into your pages. Just don't expect much: Depending on your traffic, it may take months or even years for your earnings to reach $100.

Share Photos With Family and Friends

In Windows Explorer you can quickly change your photos' dimensions to a size that makes them easy to e-mail.
When you get back from your summer vacation, you may be tempted to send a huge batch of your favorite photographs as e-mail attachments, but dispatching a 20MB e-mail message to all of your contacts is both clumsy and annoying. Instead, upload the pictures to an album on a photo-sharing site and invite your relatives and friends to view your shots at their leisure.

The trick is to upload your pictures directly from the local application that you'll be using to organize your photos, whether the particular program is Windows Live Photo Gallery, Picasa, or something else.

In Photo Gallery, select the photos you plan to share, either with tags or by clicking them while holding down the Ctrl key. Once they're selected, click Publish, More services, Publish on Flickr...

You will need a Flickr or Yahoo log-in name. The uploading process is exceedingly simple. Afterward, you can log on to Flickr and tell your contacts that the photos are ready for viewing.

In Picasa2, select the photos in question and click the Web Album button. If the various files are not already collected in the same album or folder, you'll find that it's easier to create an album in Picasa2, put the images there, and then create the Web Album.

After signing in (you'll need a Google account for this), complete the resulting form and start the upload. When that's finished, click View Online. If you are happy with the result, click the Share Album button to e-mail anyone the link.

Most good photo applications include a similar feature, so take advantage of yours to simplify the process of sharing memories with your loved ones.

Add Titles to Your Home Movie

Movie Maker comes on any Windows machine and makes fast work of adding titles to your videos.
If you've just shot some video with your camcorder, you can add titles to it in a few minutes with Windows Movie Maker, which comes with every version of Windows.

To get started, import your video and enter Timeline mode. In the timeline at the bottom of the window, select the clip that you want to superimpose the title over (in most instances this will be the first clip). In the left pane, under Edit Movie (just Edit in Vista), click Make titles or credits (just Titles and credits in Vista).

Click Add title on the selected clip in the timeline (just Title in Vista). Type in your title text, and watch it appear in the view screen (which may be displaying a black screen instead of your video at this point).

If you don't like the way the title looks, use the links located below the text field to change the animation or font. I recommend the Fade, Slow Zoom animation.

Last, click Done, Add Title to movie in XP (or just Add Title in Vista). Then play the video and see if you like it.

If you're unhappy with the result, double-click the title in the timeline's Title Overlay band to change it.

Identify a Hoax E-Mail Message

We've all received forwarded e-mail messages from relatives and friends. Some of these missives warn of devastating viruses that require immediate attention; others alert us to predators lurking in shopping-mall parking lots. Many are obvious hoaxes. But if you're not sure, here are some telltale signs that a newly received message is bogus.

The hoax: If you have a file with a particular name, you're infected.

The truth: Real malware changes its name from infection to infection, or replaces an existing file. The file named in the e-mail alert is more likely a standard part of Windows, and removing it will probably mess up your PC.

The hoax: The virus will wipe your hard drive--or do some other horrible thing--if you don't remove it.

The truth: Malware no longer behaves that way. Bad guys find it much more profitable to steal a victim's passwords and credit card numbers, quietly.

The hoax: This virus is so cleverly crafted that McAfee and Norton software can't identify or remove it.

The truth: If that were really the case, you wouldn't be able to identify and remove it simply by deleting one file, as these messages often advise.

Adjust Your HDTV

Any DVD in your library with the THX logo will include tools to help you optimize your HDTV.
So you spent a fortune for your high-definition TV, but when you sit down to watch something, all you get is 1080 progressive lines of off-color junk? Let's fix that.

The fastest way to improve your TV's image is to turn off whatever fancy dynamic mode (sometimes called "Movie" or "Sport" mode) it happens to be in. Using your TV's image-adjusting menus (I can't give you exact instructions for navigating them because TV menus differ considerably), set the mode to Normal or something similar. Then turn the brightness and contrast down to about the halfway point.

If you're still not satisfied, search your DVD collection for a movie with a THX logo on the box. Among the extras on the disc, you'll find the THX Optimizer, an excellent set of test patterns that will help you adjust your TV.

The few minutes you spend with the Optimizer are well worth the time, but there are two caveats. First, to get the Optimizer's full value, you must order a pair of special, blue glasses from The THX Store. The cost is $2 plus a highly variable shipping and handling fee, and it also requires a few days' wait.

Here's a video showing how to fine-tune your HDTV:

The other factor to keep in mind is that most high-definition TV video settings are specific to the inputs, which means that the adjustments you make with a DVD will affect only what you watch through the DVD player. What you watch through your DVR or over your direct connection won't be improved.

You can jot down all of your settings and manually re-create them, but that's a hassle, and the right settings for composite video may not be appropriate for HDMI.

If you receive HDNet through your cable or satellite company, you have another option: The station broadcasts 10 minutes of test patterns every Saturday at 6:30 a.m. Eastern Time (3:30 Pacific). That's a harsh time to wake up, but if you have an HD DVR, it isn't a problem. For more tips, see "Fine-Tune Your High-Definition TV's Settings."

Take Linux for a Test Drive

Trying out a new operating system can be intimidating. But you can give Linux a whirl quickly and painlessly.

The latest version of Ubuntu, Hardy Heron 8.04, comes with easy installation options. The fastest method is to burn the OS to a CD and then reboot the PC from that disc. Ubuntu will start up in Live CD mode, which lets you work with most of its features without installing it.

A better choice is to insert the CD while Windows is running and use the Wubi installer (it should run automatically). Wubi lets you install Ubuntu just as you would any other Windows program. When you reboot the PC, the Windows Boot Manager will give you the choice of running Windows or Ubuntu. You can use all of Ubuntu's features--including the 3D desktop effects that Linux users are bragging about. If you decide you like it, don't change a thing. If not, reboot in Windows and run the Wubi uninstaller from the Add/Remove Programs control panel.

Publish Home Movies

The quickest way to share your home movies with friends is to post them on YouTube.
Windows Movie Maker comes equipped with a 'Send in e-mail' option. But you shouldn't even think about clicking it unless you don't mind angering your friends. Why not make everyone happy instead by using YouTube to share your home videos? The site accepts a wide range of video file formats, including .wmv, .avi, .mov, and .mpg, and handles the format and resolution changes itself.

From Windows Movie Maker, you have to output the video in a YouTube-friendly format before you can upload it. Click Save to my computer under 'Finish Movie' in XP, or click This computer under 'Publish to' in Vista. Follow the resulting wizard, saving the file to a convenient location, and selecting Best quality for playback on my computer. In response, Movie Maker will output a .wmv file that YouTube can accept.

You must be a YouTube member to upload files, but signing up for a membership is free. Once you're in, click the yellow Upload button and follow the prompts.

Wait a few minutes after the movie has finished uploading; then click My Videos, select the video, and watch it. (If the video is not there yet, wait a bit longer.)

You can click the Share icon to tell your friends about it, or you can copy the URL and paste it into an e-mail. And if you'd rather not share your movie with the world, set Broadcast Options to Private and name the contacts you want to share it with.

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