No doubt you've mastered the basics of life in the Internet age—e-mailing, banking online, Googling favorite actresses, and so on. But many of the most useful online opportunities don't reveal themselves through casual browsing—you have to stumble on them accidentally, delve into the thorny underbrush of computer magazines, or pick the brains of tech-crazed guys like me. Here, then, are the leads you need to get more from your Internet experience—all completely legal, some free, others inexpensive and none demanding fluency in geekspeak.
Back Up Your Files Online
Electronic hiccups have harried computer users from the beginning, and most of us have learned to back up files as a means of damage control. While backup media, from floppy disks to recordable CDs to today's inexpensive, portable, external hard drives, have gotten better and easier to use, they are no help if some catastrophic event—a robbery, a fire, a meteor strike, whatever—wipes out your office computer and the backup drive. As a matter of reasonable paranoia, I want backup copies of mission-critical files—including my address book, financial records, a novel-in-progress—stored somewhere else. Now I can accomplish this important task, conveniently and for free, by periodically saving copies online. Having backup copies of important documents available on the Web has an important side benefit: those files are available for downloading anywhere you have an Internet connection. What happens if you're traveling to a crucial meeting with a vital PowerPoint presentation on your laptop, and the laptop "walks away" in transit? A borrowed computer, a quick download of your backup copy, and the meeting can proceed without a hitch.
Yahoo! offers free accounts that include a host of valuable features, including an e-mail address (very useful for responding to online offers without giving up your regular e-mail information to potential spammers) and a Yahoo! Briefcase, with 30 megabytes of online storage at no charge. How big is 30 megabytes? Well, the entire text of A Tale of Two Cities fits in less than one megabyte. As for backing up large photo and video files, see below.
Yahoo! Briefcase briefcase.yahoo.com
Control Your Computer From Anywhere
A few months back I traveled to Tokyo on a business trip. One evening I picked up my accumulated phone messages and learned that one of my editors needed a revision to a story I'd submitted two weeks earlier. A revision based on research stored on my desktop computer, 12 time zones away.
In the old days, this would have required a marriage-threatening long-distance maneuver in which I send my noncomputer-using wife to my office and try guiding her by phone through the process of finding the required file and e-mailing it to me. This time out, though, I had everything I needed to solve the problem on hand: a laptop computer, a high-speed Internet connection in my hotel room, and a subscription to the GoToMyPC service. A few well-placed mouse clicks and two passwords later, the screen of my home computer appeared as if by magic on my laptop. What's more, I had complete control over the home system, just as if I were sitting in my office and moving the mouse myself. This, my friends, is powerful tech mojo.
There are other ways you can remote-control your computer over the Internet, but GoToMyPC has three features that make it indispensable. It works right through the Web browser of any Internet-connected computer running Microsoft Windows. It's very easy to use. And it's secure—the firewall software I use to keep hackers out of my system stays up while GoToMyPC lets me through. For a single user and a single PC, the service costs $20 a month or $179.40 a year, and corporate plans are also available.
Get an Earful
You like the idea of accessing music online, but you don't relish having the FBI burst in on you as if you were a felonious teenage girl just because you shared files, nor do you like getting popped for 99 cents every time you want to hear a tune. Then consider another online music concept, one that flopped when introduced but offers intriguing listening alternatives today.
I'm talking about online music subscription services. While each service varies somewhat in the specifics, the underlying idea remains the same. For a set monthly fee you can listen to an extensive array of songs right over the Internet. You don't download them to your machine—they're piped to your computer (a process known as streaming) when you ask for them. Listening to as many tunes as you like while exploring new artists and discovering new songs is a compelling proposition in an era when broadcast radio plays a tiny group of artists over and over ad nauseam.
Several subscription services offer downloadable songs. Napster 2.0 (the fully legal service that's related to the original Napster file-sharing service in name only) and RealRhapsody offer more than 500,000 songs each in a wide variety of popular genres—not much classical, but you will find jazz and country represented alongside rock, hip-hop and pop—for $9.95 a month. You can choose an artist and listen to individual songs, or select a virtual radio station featuring a particular musical genre. America Online subscribers can sign up for the similar MusicNet service, with 600,000-plus songs available for $8.95. Yet another option, Musicmatch MX Platinum, offers both an extensive selection of preprogrammed online radio stations and the option to listen to a particular artist for just $4.95 a month. While the Musicmatch alternative doesn't let you choose a specific song for streaming playback, it has one key advantage: it's built right into the Musicmatch Jukebox software, my favorite way to create, organize and enjoy MP3 music, so your streaming music and the MP3 songs you already own are all in the same place.
This is not to say that buying music outright online doesn't have certain advantages. If you know exactly what songs you want, with a few mouse clicks, they're on their way to your hard drive—permanently. If particular CDs have only one or two tracks worth owning, for 99 cents each, you can effectively separate the hits from the filler—and save yourself a lot of cash in the process. And while the audio quality isn't quite up to CD standards, it's not half bad.
On the other hand, if you do want a complete album, paying 10 bucks for the downloaded version isn't the world's greatest deal when for a few dollars more you can buy the CD version and, if you want, easily store it on your computer. Most important, downloaded music is encumbered with digital rights management software. You can play songs freely on the computer on which you bought them and use them to burn audio CDs, with some limitations. However, you can't simply place a purchased music file onto any computer and play it, the way you would with a standard MP3—the computer must be registered with the music service, and only a limited number of machines per account can be included. Similarly, even legally downloaded songs will only work with select portable music players. For Apple's much-ballyhooed iTunes store, for example, your purchased tunes will only play on an Apple iPod, which is a far cry from buying an audio CD and listening to it using any CD player on the planet.
Audiobook fans should check out the downloadable bounty at Audible.com. The company offers a variety of fiction and nonfiction titles, in both abridged and unabridged editions, all with the same production quality you find on traditional cassette-based audiobooks. The version you download from Audible.com, though, can be played back on a wide range of portable devices, including popular PDAs and portable music players. I never get on a plane without a few books loaded on my Dell Axim PDA—in addition to the primal pleasures of having someone read you a story, it's a whole lot easier than shoving one of those fat Stephen King novels into my carry-on bag.
Napster 2.0 www.napster.com
Movies to Go
The files needed to store a standard DVD movie are simply too enormous to pipe over the Internet to your computer, so those shiny discs will still have a place in film lovers' hearts for the foreseeable future. However, movies can be compressed to sizes that will travel via the Net. While not high-resolution enough to look great on a big-screen TV, they are fine for watching on a computer screen, which makes them an interesting option for laptop-lugging travelers. Two services, Movielink and CinemaNow, offer downloadable movie rentals, including both classic films and new releases that are just hitting the DVD shelves. New releases run $3.99 to $4.99, while classic films go for $1.99 to $2.99. You download the movie to your hard drive at your convenience (the process takes from one to four hours, depending on your connection speed), but the rental period doesn't start until you begin to watch the movie. From that point you have 24 hours (or, for some films, 48 hours) to watch as many times as you like.
Both services have similar movie selections and prices, and the audio/video quality is about the same as well—not perfect, but an absolute godsend when the in-flight movie is Duplex with Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. While researching this article, I was intrigued by an additional option offered by CinemaNow—subscription services providing unlimited access to a subset of its film library. I consider myself a movie buff, so this sounded like a promising idea at $50 a year for the Premium level or $100 a year for Premium Plus. When I searched the site to see which films were available via subscription, though, I was mystified. All those new releases? Forget it. All the classic films? Nope. We're talking Addicted to Murder II: Tainted Blood. Teenage Bonnie & Klepto Clyde. Oliver Twisted, starring the incomparable Erik Estrada. Why should I spend money subscribing to this dreck? Then I found the answer. While it doesn't come up in a standard search for subscription films, there's a section on the Web site titled "After Dark," featuring dozens of porn titles available as part of the subscription deal. Honest, honey—it's research!
Online Magazines and Newspapers
Even in the age of digital everything, ink on paper remains a technological wonder. Buy a newspaper or a magazine and you get a huge amount of information and entertainment in an inexpensive, highly portable product that never runs out of battery power and doesn't break when you drop it. Despite my enthusiasm for the medium that pays my mortgage every month, I also use online versions of many publications on a regular basis, including several that I receive in print.
For example, I buy PC Magazine even though everything that goes into the print version appears in the online edition for free, because the physical magazine is more convenient and I find that reading lengthy texts on a computer screen is uncomfortable. On the other hand, the online edition lets me search for a word or phrase throughout the entire magazine in a matter of seconds. What's more, all the previous editions are available and searchable, so I was able to trash my precariously stacked collection of back issues.
I rarely pay for online content, but I did pony up for an online subscription to The Wall Street Journal. I don't need most of the paper edition, but the Journal's personal tech coverage is solid, and everybody in the computer business is required by unwritten law to know what Walt Mossberg has to say. Rather than receive pounds more paper destined for recycling, I get the Journal online and read what I need.
Far-flung newspapers that you'd only find at a specialty newsstand are also available at home online. As someone immersed in technology, I need to heed the pulse of Silicon Valley even though I live on the opposite coast. On the San Jose Mercury News Web site, I access the excellent tech coverage produced by the Valley's hometown paper, and it doesn't cost me a dime. While I rarely see a paper version of USA Today, if it isn't left outside my hotel-room door, I can enjoy its interesting, fast-read coverage on the Web. The Onion is a satirical newspaper that is pretty rough-edged and satisfyingly tough on politicians of all stripes. While it's distributed free, if you don't live in a major city or on a college campus, you'll have better luck finding it on the Net than in one of its curbside newspaper boxes.
Unlike newspapers, the Internet outposts of newsstand magazines vary widely in the amount of online content they provide and how much is free. Many, from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone to Cigar Aficionado, offer excerpts from recent issues plus additional archival features (The New Yorker has all of its 2004 election coverage online, Rolling Stone provides all of its historic covers plus an encyclopedic guide to rock history, Cigar Aficionado has an extensive database of cigar reviews plus select feature articles online). Consumer Reports offers a selection of articles free, but for $26 ($19 for magazine subscribers) you gain access to its ratings archive for the past four years. Entertainment Weekly posts its entire content online, but only for print-edition subscribers and customers of conglomerate-mate AOL. Business Week offers quite a bit of current content free of charge, the full issue to print-edition subscribers, and an online-only annual subscription for $29.95 (versus $45.97 for the print edition).
Of course, this is just a smattering of the thousands of conventional magazines and newspapers that are now available online. For a topic-by-topic guide, try Yahoo!'s News and Media list.
And then there are the online-only publications, which range from oddball "zines" serving niche interests to major productions boasting highly professional presentation. Salon is a freewheeling online news and entertainment magazine, well written and thought-provoking. The free version is advertiser-supported, though the pitch isn't too obnoxious. Depending on your interests, however, the premium version may be tempting for its extras: in addition to avoiding the ads, premium subscribers get a free six-month subscription to the print version of The New York Review of Books as well as the chance to purchase yearlong subscriptions to Granta (the British literary magazine), Wired, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic Adventure—worth $106 in all—for $35.
Two companies, NewsStand and NewspaperDirect (with its PressDisplay service), now offer newspapers and select magazines from around the world, displayed on your computer screen exactly as they appear in print, on the day of publication. You can magnify pages, scroll around them, even perform searches on the text. The NewsStand service requires separate subscriptions to each publication, but lets you download an issue to your laptop so you can read it while traveling. PressDisplay subscription plans let you pick and choose individual issues of 180 newspapers from 45 countries, but require you to be online to read them.
PC Magazine www.pcmag.com
The Wall Street Journal www.wsj.com
The New York Times www.nyt.com
San Jose Mercury News www.mercurynews.com
USA Today www.usatoday.com
The New Yorker www.newyorker.com
Rolling Stone www.rollingstone.com
Cigar Aficionado www.cigaraficionado.com
Consumer Reports www.consumerreports.org
Entertainment Weekly www.ew.com
Business Week www.businessweek.com
Yahoo! News and Media dir.yahoo.com/News_and_Media
The Onion www.theonion.com
Make Phone Calls
In the past several years there have been many attempts to pull an end run around traditional phone service and make calls directly over the Internet. Some of these ploys work reasonably well for two people sitting at their respective computers—in fact, with an inexpensive video "webcam" plugged into your machine and a high-speed connection, you can cobble together a respectable videophone system. Yet, computer-to-computer communication is no substitute for the ease of picking up the phone and placing a call. Recently, though, Internet-based telephone systems, using what's called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, have become practical and, while not free of charge, can potentially save you quite a bit every month. As a bonus, you get some fascinating features unavailable with a standard phone connection.
I've tested the Vonage VoIP service and I have to say I'm impressed. All you need is a high-speed Internet connection (cable modem or DSL), a conventional telephone and a subscription, which runs $34.99 a month for unlimited calls throughout the United States and Canada, or just $14.99 for 500 minutes of talk time. You receive a box called a Digital Phone Adapter that connects to the Internet. Plug in a phone and voilá—there's a dial tone. You get a regular phone number people can call, plus voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling and more. Because it's Internet-based, you can retrieve your voice messages from any Internet-connected computer through a standard Web browser. You can also take your phone and plug adapter anywhere on the globe that has a broadband connection and call home to the States or Canada for the same price you'd pay from your home phone (free if you have the unlimited plan). And those calling you are only charged for a call to your home number. (See Good Life Guide, Cigar Aficionado, April 2004.) The VoIP concept is available from many cable Internet providers. AT&T is testing a version in about a dozen area codes in New Jersey and Texas and plans 100 more markets by year's end.
Share Your Photos
Potentially, one of the most useful benefits gained by switching from film to digital photography is easily sharing your pictures with far-flung family and friends. After all, it's much faster and simpler to send a file electronically than to have prints made and mail them, right? And for those of us who are chea… er, frugal types, it's certainly more appealing to let Aunt Gladys print pictures on her own dime.
Because sharing photos efficiently by e-mail is not quite so easy—picture files can be large, making them difficult to send in any quantity, and virus-phobic recipients may be afraid to open any documents attached to an e-mail—printing-oriented Web sites, such as Shutterfly, Ofoto and Snapfish, have become popular. These services are easy to use and access, as well as being free—a concept I embrace. The online albums you create are a bit stripped down but functional, and you can make basic image fixes (crop, brighten up a shot and remove red-eye) right online. You or the folks you invite to share the photos can order prints from a simple 4 x 6 to a customized jigsaw puzzle or a mug emblazoned with your mug, all of reliably high quality.
There are limitations, though. The images you see on your computer screen when visiting these sites are pretty small. More important, even if you own a photo-quality printer, you can't download a high-resolution version of the images to print at home.
That's why I started exploring the new paid photo-sharing services, with very good results. One easy-to-use choice is Photosite, which offers a free account (limited to 150 photos), 1,000-photo capacity for $39.99 or unlimited storage for $70 a year. To share pictures, you download the Album Builder program (Windows users only), which lets you manage your photo files, tweak the color, brightness, etc., and decide on the page design for your site, then upload the whole shebang to Photosite. It's easy for folks to find your pictures—you can create a simple site name, such as yourname.photosite.com, at no additional charge. Your friends can download image files suitable for printing at home up to 5 x 7 inches, or order prints online. You can even view the pictures you've saved to your Photosite on a Web-enabled cell phone.
Another option that's reasonably priced and sleekly styled is SmugMug. For $29.99 a year you can store an unlimited number of photos on the site and display them on-screen in a variety of formats (I especially like the Journal style, which lets you run photos and detailed text side by side). Unlike Photosite, visitors can download the full original-resolution files for home printing (if you choose to let them). Auction sellers can easily store pictures on SmugMug and link to them when creating eBay listings. Plus, you get a seven-day free trial and the option (for $49.95 annually) to share both photo and video files, making SmugMug a top pick.
Finally, OurPictures Network is building a service that should satisfy both the tech-savvy and the digitally impaired. It adds the option to order prints online and pick them up at a photo lab in your neighborhood. Share your account with Grandma (up to four users get access for $50 a year) and you can send photos right to her computer—she doesn't have to fuss with finding and downloading them herself. Even those who aren't OurPictures members can receive your photos easily enough, by following a link in an e-mail notification you send them. Either way, recipients can order professional prints online or easily make prints on their own computer printers (the software does a nice job of formatting photos and optimizing settings to suit particular printer models). The company's working on additional consumer-friendly photo-sharing options, including viewing images on your TV set. A free preview version, with basic photo-sharing capability up and running, is available on the company Web site.
Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York.