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Tech tips and tricks

Sooner or later Murphy’s Law smites everyone who uses technology. And it always happens without the slightest whiff of a warning. So why loll around complacently, waiting for this ambush to strike you down? Only to fret and fume at the consequences and then flap around looking for a Great Indian Jugaad… Why not follow a few elementary tips and tricks to avoid the traps and save yourself a lot of time, effort, money and heartache in the long run?

So if you want to avoid panic attacks upon spotting Gmail’s rather alarming “almost out of space” warnings… or, learn how to deploy your phone as an intelligent Internet-synced, never-lose-a-scrap-of-info kinda notepad… or ensure that your phone’s ever-growing contact list stays safe and sound even if the hardware is snitched or snuffed out, read on. We’ll tell you how to go about all this and more.

Why is it important to secure your smartphone

Phones are getting smarter by the model. And we are depending on them as repositories of our personal data — nay, almost our entire digital lives — almost by the minute. Allowing your contact list to fall into the hands of a stranger who can misuse it all can have serious repercussions. And if you store your banking and credit card PIN and TPIN information on it — not to forget all the e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or other social networking site access — losing your phone is an even scarier thought. Therefore, be mindful of what personal and sensitive data you save on your phone. Either buy and install a phone security utility (that can wipe your data remotely in case you misplace the handset) like WaveSecure. Or at the very least deploy a PIN code to lock your phone. It is a good idea to install a phone security app as well.

Taking control of your overflowing Gmail account

Apart from our cellphone, Gmail is the centre of the communications universe for many of us. And never could we have imagined that one day we’ll amass close to 7.5GB e-mail here and start running out of space. Now, as this brims over at 95 per cent, that “You are almost out of space for your Gmail account” is both startling and bothersome. To trim the fat in your account, here’s what you should do.

The large e-mail attachments — video clips, photos, audio files, PPTs, etc. — must be killed first to free up space. A simple has: attachment string in the search box in your Gmail will show all the attachment-loaded e-mails you have sent or received. But we need to delete attachments selectively. Since the most expendable attachments are those frivolous videos, fire a filename:wmv query. This will ferret out all mails with Windows Media Video file attachments. Keep what you need and knock off the rest. For MOV files, type: filename:mov. A search for filename:mp3 will sift out mails with MP3 attachments and filename:pdf will fetch PDFs. A subject:fwd will list mail-forwards friends and colleagues have sent to you.

If you want to see e-mails with attachments that you sent and received before a certain date, fire a before:2008/03/31 in:sent has:attachment search, replacing the date mentioned here (2008/03/31) with whatever is appropriate for you.

Why you shouldn’t install (and then uninstall) everything that comes your way

Just because you’re getting a software program free, it doesn’t mean you should install it willy-nilly. Whether it is games, applications, widgets, toolbars, extensions, or whatever. For one, it could carry a piece of malicious code with it. Secondly, even if it comes approved and recommended, each successive program usually adds a few scraps of muck to the Windows Registry. So, even when you uninstall a program later, there’s a fair chance it’ll leave behind some traces that’ll not be purged. And this, over time, will cumulatively end up bogging down your system. And you’ll be left scratching your head for the reason behind your PC slowing down. The cleaner and meaner your software set-up, the longer your PC stays nimble.

The importance of being earnest about back-ups and doing it in the Cloud

You’re feeling mighty smug and invincible about the safety of your precious files and data ensconced in a new PC. But just think: You could still suffer a disk crash, or a villainous virus attack, or forgetfully hit the Delete. So, it’s always advisable to back up important data. And on separate mediums, ranging from inexpensive DVDs to external hard disks.

While this is very good, it may not be good enough against Murphy’s Law. External hard disks and DVDs are wonderful and fairly failsafe devices, but between office and home there are not too many places you can snuck them away out of harm’s way.... Forget chai/paani-spills, office/ home shifting misplacement or carelessly caused calamities … however minimal the chances, be warned that you can’t forestall mechanical failures, misplacement, accidents, theft etc.

To redeem this situation, off-site data backups are the best protection against almost everything. And perhaps the most convenient and safest off-site location for back-ups is the Internet. Or the Cloud, as it is called today. There are a number of easy-to-use, fairly automated Cloud-based services: Windows Live SkyDrive (http://is.gd/h7eJL), Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), MozyHome (www.mozy.com), and Syncplicity (www.syncplicity.com).

Keeping your mail and files organised and manageable

Most of us have this tendency to either dump all our files in My Documents of the desktop. Or any place that seems convenient at the time. Over time, all this accumulates and we forget where we saved what. To avoid this mess, learn to find a specific, obviously-named and logically locatable folder for all the files on your system. Create folders systematically and label them according to the appropriate subject, topic or sub-topic. This will not only make it simpler and quicker to locate files even after several weeks or months, but also help you back-up folders without any confusion. Ditto for e-mail. Keep only actionable mail in your Inbox. Move what you have actioned on, or would need later to an appropriately named folder or subfolder. Definitely filter those chuckle forwards and keep them in a separate folder. And delete what you don’t need. You don’t need us to tell you how unimportant trivia accumulates and starts swamping the vital and the necessary.

Taking your laptop for a walk? Don’t!

You may not have thought of this, but moving around your house or office — rushing up and down the stairs or running from room to room —with your laptop switched on can be disastrous. This is because when a laptop’s power is on, its hard disk is furiously spinning at anywhere between 4,800rpm to 7,200rpm. And a slight jerk can cause its head (barely a hair’s breadth away from the drive’s surface) to hit and damage it. Just because it hasn’t happened to you so far doesn’t mean it never will.

Higher-end laptops come with technology that “parks” the drive’s head upon detecting movement. For the rest of us, it’s best to power down your machine every time you’re moving it some distance. Or, at least snap the lid closed and let it enter into stand-by (default) or hibernate mode. You may also use the power options and configure Windows to shut it down completely every time you close the laptop’s lid if you want.

If you have a solid state drive (SSD) you can ignore this tip as these drives are devoid of any moving parts that can be damaged with your movement.

Learning to be gentle with gadgetry

Common sense tells you to keep your gizmos away from dust, grime, and damp. Common sense also tells you to be gentle with them. Yet, system crashes at critical moments, agonisingly long wait states, frustratingly slow boot ups and shut downs, and system freezes often cause momentary lapses in reason that result in bursts of violent activity with our fore/hind limbs.

Slaps and kicks will not automatically fix a machine. Rather, you could complicate the situation from an easily solvable software snag to a far more complicated hard disk or perhaps a hardware issue like a dislodged connector, cable, card, component or memory module. Always remember, it’s an inanimate object you are dealing with, so roughing it up and dadagiri won’t work.

Using your phone as a notepad

Despite all the tech around us, it is difficult to beat the sheer simplicity and usability of a pen and paper when it comes to note taking. But circa 2011, chances are that you’ll have your phone with you more often than a pen and papyrus. And life today is far too factual — cluttered with numbers, names, and things to do etc — to take casually, without jotting down. Now if you use a BlackBerry, Android, iPhone, or Windows handset, you can employ the next best thing to a pen and paper: It’s called Evernote (www.evernote.com).

This free, easy-to-use, “remember everything” application doesn’t just let you key in text and numbers like a simple phone notepad, it also allows you to record voice notes and capture photos. Further, it synchronises all these searchable entries automatically to an Evernote web account. This way you can easily access (and read, edit or copy) the info you’ve entered via your phone, on the Internet from a PC. So even if you misplace your phone, the information stays with you.

And how about backing up your phone?

Awful thought that, about misplacing your cell phone… especially in an age when even going to the friendly neighbourhood market sans your mobile is disconcerting. Apart from the fiscal blow you suffer upon losing your phone — to forgetfulness, physical damage, theft — it is repercussions of having lost all the data that’s invariably more irksome. And this could happen even due to software or data corruption. Or even a factory/hard reset during repairs.

Like with a PC, backing up your phone is the only solution to minimise the anguish. You can do this easily through the software accompanying your phone, like PC Suite, for example. Yet, perhaps a better option is syncing your phone’s contacts to an Internet address book syncing service like www.360.com.

Apart from Vodafone, this free service allows Airtel, Idea and BPL to back-up and sync your existing contacts here. Updating, editing, adding and managing contacts here is much easier than on a handset. The service also permits you to add contacts to the online address book via e-mail, instant messaging accounts and social networks. The changes and additions you make online are synced with your phone automatically. The service is compatible with most popular handsets from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, BlackBerry, HTC, Samsung and Apple.

Another free web service for securing your phone data online is www.mobical.com.

There’s an additional advantage of keeping your phone data on a cloud service like this. You can transfer contacts from one handset to another, or keep them on more than one phone as well. Bought a new phone? Just restore all information to the shinier device. This way you can also port your contact data from the handset of one manufacturer to another without facing too many—or maybe no—compatibility issues too.

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