Tech 101: 5 online tools that will make your life easier
The Internet's a big place, and it's easy to get lost. Make your web use more organized and efficient with these handy online toolsBy Mark Stachiew
1. Set up a personalized home page with RSS feedsHave you ever wondered when you visit a website what that little orange icon with the letters RSS or XML means? Well, those are links to the site's subscription or RSS feed. RSS is an acronym that stands for Really Simple Syndication, and RSS feeds are a great way to efficiently keep track of information on multiple websites. Instead of visiting 10 (or 100) sites to read headlines and see what's new, you can collect all of those sites' feeds together on one page, where you can quickly scan them and only click on what interests you.
A good way to get a taste for the power of RSS feeds, which are also known as news feeds, is with Google's iGoogle page. Sign up for a free account and you'll be able to add a variety of feeds suggested by Google such as those from CBC, CNN, TSN and a myriad of other sites. As you gain familiarity with the service, you can start personalizing it with feeds from sites that are of interest to you, such as our own Best Health feeds. You can also add a bevy of other widgets to the page to customize it even further by adding weather forecasts, horoscopes, health and fitness tips, sports scores, games and much more.
There are many other sites that make it easy to manage a list of news feeds. Some of the more popular ones include:
• Google Reader
2. Subscribe to audio and video podcastsWebsite visitors are frequently invited to subscribe to podcasts, but not everyone knows what they are, let alone how to use them. In essence, a podcast is an audio file, often in mp3 format, that you can download and listen to on your computer or portable music player. There are also video podcasts, which are video files that you can download for later viewing. Still confused? Think of podcasts as radio shows or TV programs that you can carry around with you to watch and listen to when and where you want. The word "podcast" was coined to piggyback on the success of the name of Apple's iPod music player.
The easiest way to subscribe to either form of podcast is to use Apple's popular iTunes software, which you can download for free for both Windows and Mac OS. Most podcasts are linked to with a graphic that says "subscribe." There is also often an iTunes logo on the button. Simply click on that icon and iTunes will add that podcast to your subscription list and download the latest episode. It will then automatically alert you every time you launch the program if new episodes are available and give you the opportunity to download them and copy them over to your portable audio/video device.
If you don't use iTunes, you can choose to simply download the podcast files, which are usually MP3 audio or MPEG video files that you can then load onto your portable player using the software that came with it.
3. Create a music playlistDigital music is great, but it's easy to amass a large collection of songs that quickly becomes unmanageable. One way to tame the mess is to create playlists. These are collections of songs that play in a specific sequence. They could be all the songs from a particular album, songs for your workout, songs to help you relax or any sequence you can imagine. They are this generation's version of the mix tape.
If you use the Apple iTunes program mentioned earlier, it is easy to use it to create playlists. Apple offers an easy tutorial online that explains how to do it.
There are other programs you can use to create playlists, such as Windows Media Player. Microsoft offers an excellent tutorial, complete with video, that shows you how to get started.
Other media players to consider are WinAmp and Ultraplayer for Windows machines and Audion for Apple computers.
4. Keep track of your favourite sitesA lot of people bookmark so many websites in their browser that they quickly lose track of them. There is a better way to organize your favourites and that's through the use of social bookmarking tools like del.icio.us and ma.gnolia.com.
These free sites offer you the tools to easily save and organize bookmarks, usually through the use of keywords or tags—categorizing words, such as "health," "recipes" or "fitness"—that make it a breeze to browse and search them later on. These sites also offer the benefit of storing your bookmarks online rather than on your personal computer, which means you can access them from home, work, school or anywhere you are connected to the Internet.
The social aspect lets you browse the bookmarks of other people so you can explore all sites tagged with certain keywords or just see what interests other people. Note that for the sake of privacy, you can choose whether to share some or all of your own bookmarks.
5. Share your family calendar onlineThrow out that paper calendar on the fridge that you use to coordinate your family's activities. The web provides a host of electronic calendars that make it simple to keep everyone organized, and let you access the calendar when you're not at home.
Start out with the easy-to-use Google Calendar, which lets you enter your events online and share that calendar with others or keep it private if you wish. You can also have it send you email reminders so you won't miss a birthday again; you can even send reminders to your cell phone if you prefer.
Users familiar with the popular offline calendar program Microsoft Outlook may prefer the online version offered by Windows Live.
30 Boxes is another simple calendar website that eliminates bells and whistles in favour of simplicity.
If none of those choices interest you, here is a list of 65 calendar sites and tools that you can explore.
If you already have an offline calendar on your computer, virtually all of these sites show you how to import the data so that you can manage it online.
Mark Stachiew is a technology columnist for canada.com
Web exclusive: July 2008