Yes, siree! There are some amazing things you can do with your PC that you probably never thought of. Here are 35 of our favorites.
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Williams: dead. Gottlieb: dead. Sega: dead. The biggest names in pinball manufacturing have all shut their doors, but their glass and solenoid tables endure in surprisingly true-to-original form, thanks to Visual Pinball and PinMAME computer simulation. Visual Pinball is a table editor/game engine; PinMAME emulates the actual processors and ROM chips that powered the final wave of real-world tables. Once you install both programs, you can rifle through the Internet’s generous collection of tables and ROM files for the pinball games that once ate all your quarters.
Getting started is a bit confusing, as this virtual pinball thing is documented in only the most haphazard manner, but once you get your first table a-blingin’ and a-blangin’, you’ll be overcome with joy. Your key starting place for software, tables, and ROMs is www.vpforums.com, which has links to downloads and a vibrant user community. Just remember you’ll need four ingredients to actually play: Visual Pinball, PinMAME, table files, and ROM images appropriate to those tables.
Google Alerts will notify you, via email or RSS feed, whenever a particular search returns new results. You can configure everything from the frequency of the search to the number of terms searched for. You can check out and configure the service at www.google.com/alerts, but we have a few sample uses you can try.
The computer usually tempts us to stay inside rather than to get some exercise, but Map My Run (www.mapmyrun.com) keeps us motivated. The site allows you to not only create and share maps of your runs and rides but also keep an online training log and list of goals. Skip the $5/month premium membership, though—you get all the good stuff for free.
It’s no secret that YouTube is the place to go to keep current with the latest Internet meme, revel in a celebrity’s public disgrace, or kill countless hours of productivity. But the video-sharing site is also a handy source of practical instruction and personal growth. Indeed, amid those millions of minutes-long video clips are complete demonstrations of truly useful tasks. Think peeling and seeding a tomato, playing basic guitar chords, or ironing a dress shirt. We could all stand to broaden our skills and we’re far more likely to master a process if we actually see it performed.
The prime directive of ringtone creation? First, do no harm. That means no boy bands, no YouTube no-hit wonders, no German language covers of ’80s soft-rock hits for the sake of “irony.” If you’re going to roll with a custom ringtone, realize that the chance of irritating your coworkers is high if the Jonas Brothers’ “Hold On” starts emanating from your handset. How about a little “Mama Said Knock You Out” to signify that dear old ma is on the line? Also possible: “Papa Don’t Preach”—Online Editor Norm Chan’s signal that Will Smith is calling.
For the iPhone: If you don’t want to give Apple your $2—$1 to buy a song and $1 to convert it into a ringtone in iTunes—the simplest, and cheapest, way to make a ringtone is via the audio-editing program GarageBand. Import the song you want to use, select the section of the song you want for your ringtone (it must be less than 40 seconds long), and then select Send Ringtone to iTunes from the Share menu. Unfortunately, the app is Mac only. On the PC, use an audio-editing program such as Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) to select the part of a song you want. Next, export the edited file to iTunes and convert it to AAC.
In Windows Explorer, change the file extension from m4a to m4r and the add the file to iTunes again and sync.
For Windows Mobile: Use Audacity to edit your song. Next, use ActiveSync to upload your new ringtone to \Application Data\Sounds.
If you knew you looked like a celebrity, would it make you more confident? Put a little swagger in your step? If that’s all it takes, you need to hit up Myheritage.com. The site uses advanced facial recognition technology to tell you which celebrities you most resemble—and to what degree. Just upload a picture of yourself through the site’s easy-to-use interface and watch the results pile onto your screen.
By now, most folks are familiar with Seti@Home and Folding@Home, the distributed computing projects devoted to uncovering extraterrestrial life and the mysteries of protein folding, respectively. But many other large-scale tasks can be tackled using the idle CPU cycles of numerous volunteer computers, such as yours.
Before you pay big bucks to have an image permanently emblazoned on your bod, doesn’t it make sense to try it out first? (Does a lovingly rendered likeness of PIPBoy really suit you?) The solution is simple: Get a sheet of waterslide paper (www.misterart.com) and make a wearable print of the design you have in mind. Using a freeware program like Gimp (www.gimp.org), you can edit your favorite image or create an all-new pattern; then print it on the waterslide paper using a standard inkjet or laser printer. Apply the paper to your skin, dampen it, wait a minute, then peel back the paper. Voila—it just might save you from a lifetime of regret and embarrassment.
You forgot your Windows XP password? No problem. With a handy PC lockpick you can crack that OS wide open. To make one, all you need is a PC, an empty 2GB USB key, and an Internet connection.
First, download the USB version of Back Track 3 from http://remote-exploit.org/. This Linux-based distro is made for penetration testing of networks and computers, and it’s free (although donations are welcome). Extract the contents of the Back Track 3 ISO to a folder on your desktop using WinISO (http://winiso.com) or Universal Extractor (http://legroom.net).
Next, format the USB key as a FAT32 drive from Windows. Copy the contents of the ISO to the flash key. Now go to Start, then Run, and type cmd; go to the flash drive by typing G: (or whatever letter was assigned to the drive). Type CD bootinst, hit Enter, and then type bootinst to start the batch file that creates a bootable master boot record (MBR) on the flash drive.
To try out your lockpick, reboot the machine and either manually change the boot order in the BIOS or use the usual shortcut that most machines have today: hit ESC, F10, or F12 during boot to choose from a list of boot devices. Choose the USB key option. You should see Back Track 3 loading on the screen as you would any OS. You’ll then have a choice of multiple versions to run—we’ve had the most success with the VESA version. (If you’re successful getting the key to boot once, but it stops working after a reset, you may have to go back and run bootinst again to re-create the MBR). Once you’re in Back Track 3, you can pick from numerous penetration methods, but for a simple password change, use winlockpwn.
Back Track 3 isn’t just a lockpick—it offers a huge assortment of publicly available tools all rolled into one multi-tool for cracking Wi-Fi, spoofing, and sniffing.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s never been easier to get a published byline. Many websites need regularly updated content to stay relevant, and they’re willing to pay for it. The going rate for a blog post is $10 to $15. Do several a day over the course of a month and… well, you do the math. What’s more, concepts like formal training and previous experience often don’t apply online like they do in print. As long as you have basic research and writing skills and a reliable work ethic, you’re in.
Turn your shutterbugging into cold, hard cash by selling your pics online. A number of sites let you upload and sell your images, but we like iStockphoto (www.istockphoto.com) best. After registering and taking a short quiz on copyright law, you’ll send in a sample image to see if you have the right stuff. Once accepted, you’re free to upload as many images as you want (though the site may decline photos that do not meet its standards). IStockphoto does, however, make explicit what types of photos are needed—increasing your chances of actually making a sale.
You have a laptop and a desktop sitting on your desk. Wouldn’t it be great if you could move seamlessly between the two, using your desktop PC’s keyboard and mouse for both? It doesn’t take a clunky KVM switch to do that. The free Synergy app (http://synergy2.sourceforge.net) lets you share not only input devices between two or more machines (even those with different OSes) but also a clipboard, all by harnessing the power of the network.
First, decide which computer’s mouse and keyboard you want to use. Download and install Synergy on that PC. That machine will be the server, and the others will be clients. (In our example, we’ll assume you have two machines; the server will be a machine named Desktop, and the client will be a machine named Laptop.) In the Synergy app, click the radio button for the “Share this computer’s keyboard and mouse option” and click Configure. Add each computer you want to connect to the top window—to keep things simple, you should configure Synergy with each computer’s network name as the screen name. Next, you need to set up the rules for cursor movement. If the secondary PC’s screen is to the right of the primary PC’s monitor, set a rule that says “0 to 100% of the right of Desktop goes to 0 to 100% of Laptop.” You’ll also need to set the inverse rule (0 to 100% of the left of Laptop goes to 0 to 100% of Desktop), or your cursor won’t be able to move in the other direction.
Now install and launch the Synergy app on your laptop. Select the “Use another computer’s shared keyboard and mouse” and enter the hostname for your desktop PC. Press Test and you should be connected!
The art of papercraft—assembling 3D models with paper— is like origami for geeks. It’s a lot of fun cutting and folding paper mock-ups of robots and videogame characters from blueprints found online, but it’s much more rewarding to craft a model of your own design. It’s easier than you think!
Download Google SketchUp (http://sketchup.google.com), a free and simple-to-use 3D modeling program. Follow the tutorials on the website to design an elementary 3D object or download samples from Google’s 3D warehouse (http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse). Save your Sketchup model, and use the program to export it to Google Earth 4 format (.KMZ extension).
Download and install the trial version of Pepakura (http://tamasoft.co.jp/pepakura-en) and import the .KMZ file. Press the Unfold button, and Pepakura will automatically generate a papercraft design. Print out the sheet to start cutting and folding your model!
Keep in mind that if your Sketchup model is too complicated, the papercraft design will be extremely complex. Don’t go overboard!
There’s nothing worse than the nagging feeling that you forgot to close the front door—or that you left the garage door up, or the lights on, or the water running…. Eaton’s Home Heartbeat System (www.homeheartbeat.com) can provide peace of mind by letting you remotely monitor aspects of your home with the use of strategically placed sensors. When something’s awry, you’re sent an email or text message. The $200 Starter Pack includes a wireless base station, an open/closed sensor, and a Home Key for programming the system.
Take courses from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States—for free. We like to fill our brains via MIT’s OpenCourseWare program (http://tinyurl.com/2t2rfj). Simply browse through the course offerings and download lecture notes, reading materials, tests, and videos for the classes that interest you. Go ahead and take that course in the thermodynamics of biomolecular systems. Be warned that the university states that OpenCourseWare isn’t a replacement for an actual MIT education.
Imagine playing a computer game that plays back—one that starts intruding on your real life, calling you at home, sending you emails at work… freaking you out. That’s the appeal of alternate reality games (www.argn.com), a form of interactive storytelling in which the audience becomes a willing participant in the intrigue.
ARGs hinge on an exciting story—say, a stranger who has uncovered a conspiracy and needs help. Map your complete tale into chapters, with puzzles as milestones. Create cryptograms (http://tinyurl.com/66ejxp), dabble in steganography (http://tinyurl.com/4aphq), or use any of Unfiction’s puzzle tools at http://tinyurl.com/5snq3h to keep your players interested.
Then give your fictional characters full online identities—email addresses, blogs, Facebook and IM accounts—and digitally role-play with your friends. You’ll use all those vehicles to tell your tale in small, real-time chunks over about two weeks. For extra intrigue, make first contact via an anonymous remailer (http://tinyurl.com/5wffqv). The more intrusive the storytelling, the better—call players from and at pay phones or arrange live online chats at specific times for real-time spookiness. After all, it’s just a game, right?
With popular video sites such as YouTube and Dailymotion funneling thousands of new videos to the web every day, it can take some serious effort to keep up with them all—not to mention, keep track of your favorites. Make it easier on yourself and download and save the ones you want for future viewing. Use Moyea FLV Downloader (www.flvsoft.com). The app is free and easy to use, and it comes with an FLV player, letting you watch your downloaded videos without going online. Convert your videos to MPG or AVI with the free app Pazera (http://tinyurl.com/5r2u33), so you can upload them to your favorite media player.
If your idea of finding someone is doing a simple Google search, you’ll never get your $200 a day plus expenses. Even though your best bet is to burn shoe leather, there are certainly better tools a mouse detective can use than a basic search engine. We always begin our searches at Zabasearch.com. Where the data comes from we don’t know, but we often don’t have to look much further than that site.
Phone listings are another reliable resource. We prefer Anywho.com, but there are a number of other white page directories online as well. The key is to search not only for the person’s full name but also just their last name.
You don’t need to sell your soul to get your music into the major digital music stores. TuneCore (www.tunecore.com) makes it possible for you to distribute an album through iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, Napster, and other sites with very little hassle and minimal expense. It’s the service Trent Reznor is using to distribute his album Ghosts. Here’s how it works: You pay $19.98 a year for TuneCore to store your uploaded album, plus a one-time fee of $.99 per song on the album and $.99 per store you want your tunes sold through. TuneCore passes along all the money from your music’s sales and you retain all the rights.
U.S. state treasuries are safeguarding $32.87 billion that comes from a variety of sources, including lost or forgotten tax rebates, insurance refunds, traveler’s checks, and bank accounts. And some of that cash might be yours. To find out if you are in for a payday, go to MissingMoney.com. Enter your name and the site will search a database of 41 states, as well as several Canadian provinces. MissingMoney also links to databases for states that are not yet part of the site.
You finish downloading a file, your computer pops up a little window. Your friend logs online, another message pops up. You’re at 20 percent battery life, another pop-up.
A free application called Snarl (www.fullphat.net) collects all of these notifications and spits them out under a single manageable interface. Plus, there are plugins available that let you add pop-up support for your favorite apps: See what song just loaded in iTunes, what friend just signed on in Pidgin, or what email just arrived in your Thunderbird inbox.
The last thing you want to deal with after a devastating fire is wrangling with an insurance company. You can make the process less painful and recoup more of your losses if you have a thorough, up-to-date accounting of all your stuff. Enter the Insurance Information Institute’s free Home Inventory software (www.knowyourstuff.org). The app lets you create inventories for all of the rooms in your home. You can include information such as each item’s purchase date, serial number, and price, and even a digital picture if you’re really meticulous. Then make sure you save a copy of the inventory outside your home!
CrimeReports.com lets you check out how safe a neighborhood is before you move in. Type in a zip code or intersection and a map pops up with color-coded icons showing what crimes have occurred over a day-, week-, or month-long period. Familywatchdog.us is a similar site that maps sex offenders by region or name.
Put your hours of web browsing and meme tracking to good use. Entrepreneurial Internet junkies should be able to spot trends just as they’re emerging and capitalize on their impending popularity to make some dough. An example: Buy up domains of hot branded properties before they hit the mainstream. If you stumble onto the next Harry Potter or Twilight, take a risk and buy domains related to those brands (e.g., harrypotterthegame.com or harrypottermovie.com). Claiming URLs for unannounced sequels (bioshock3.com) or common typos (microsuft.com) also works. And don’t just domain squat idly while waiting to be bought out—fill your site with Google ads to milk page views from unsuspecting visitors. We know a colleague who rakes in a $1,000 a month just from ads placed on his otherwise unpopulated Grand Theft Auto IV-related domain.
Don’t stop at domains, either. With a little more investment, you can turn budding Internet memes into lucrative T-shirt and decal enterprises. The first person to offer American Idol-washout William Hung-branded merchandise sold 15,000 shirts in a month.
The first step in making a killer home-cooked meal is having the right recipe. And for that you need look no further than Google Base (http://tinyurl.com/27hmql). The user-generated database is a source of hundreds of thousands of recipes that can be easily searched by keyword, course, ingredient, etc. If your tastes run more along the lines of corporate cuisine, you’ll want to dig into Topsecretrecipes.com: Whether you have a hankering for a 7-11 Cherry Slurpee, Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies, or KFC cole slaw, you’ll learn how to make it here.
Forget about paying a week’s wages to have a leaky pipe fixed or a furnace maintained. You can get tutorials on these jobs and a host of other home projects at HGTV.com and DIYNetwork.com. Between the two sites, you can learn everything from basic plumbing techniques to the proper operation of woodworking tools to the steps required for a complete kitchen remodel, often with the aid of video.
Never again will you have to walk up to your coworker and ask, “What’s the name of that song that goes, ‘Hmmmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmmmm’?” At Midomi.com you can simply press the Sing or Hum button on the site and then warble into a microphone attached to your computer; your attempt is uploaded and compared to a database of songs, providing artist and title information if it finds a match. If you want to become a star, you can also upload your songs to the site for others to hear.
To get control of your finances, first you need to figure out how much money you bring in each month and where it all goes. While an Excel spreadsheet will get the job done, Mint (www.mint.com) makes the job even easier. By linking all your bank accounts, investments, and liabilities, you can track your spending. Mint will also look at how you spend and save, and suggest ways to make your money go farther. While linking all your financial info to a third-party site might seem scary, Mint doesn’t store your password or account information, nor can you transfer funds on the site.
Using a data-logging device velcroed to your dashboard, you can quickly learn what your car is capable of: quarter-mile times, lateral Gs, and much, much more. Devices such as the DL1 ($965, www.race-technology.com), Traqmate ($700, www.traqmate.com), G-Tech/Pro RR ($300, www.gtechpro.com ), and various cheaper solutions use GPS signals and built-in accelerometers to gather the data, which you later view on your PC via bundled software. (The higher-priced models come with extra features and slightly more accurate technology.)
If you’re looking to create movies reminiscent of videogame replays—speedometer readouts, track maps, and all—TrackVision software ($195, www.trackvision.net) can quickly sync your logged data with in-car footage. Just drive safely, Mario, or take your ride to a real race track to record its bad-assedness. We also can’t help but mention the iPhone app Dynolicious ($13, http://dynolicious.com). The iPhone isn’t a PC, but it is a computing platform, and its built-in accelerometer can deliver a rudimentary set of performance metrics for an extremely low price.
Achieving web fame by scoring millions of video views on YouTube is no easy task. You either have to get lucky like Tay Zonday (the “Chocolate Rain” guy) or become a shameless exhibitionist like the Obama Girl. Stack the odds for exposure in your favor by following these best practices for posting.
OK, cream puff, you know you need to drop a few pounds, but you’re not sure exactly how to make it happen. FitDay ($30, www.fitday.com) will come to your rescue. This oh-so-comprehensive app will help you manage your diet and exercise so you can shed those unwanted pounds. All you need to do is enter everything you eat into the program and then tell it how much you exercise, how much weight you want to lose, and when you want to lose it by. FitDay will do the rest… well, except for the exercise.
We’ve all experienced it: an epic late-night Civilization game that leaves you too tired to set your alarm clock. If this happens to you—or if you don’t actually have an alarm clock—you’ll want to check out Kuku Klok (www.kukuklok.com).
This alarm clock works just like any other. You set the time you need to wake up and choose one of four interesting sounds (try Slayer Guitar). Since the clock is one giant flash script, it’ll go off even if you lose your Internet connection.
Rarely does a room’s arrangement come together perfectly on the first try. You can risk bodily injury lugging your furnishings about, drive yourself nutty meticulously sketching out plans on graph paper, or let your PC do the work using SeeMyDesign.com. This free web app provides sample floor plans that you can resize, refurnish, and rejigger to your exact specifications. It’s so easy you could end up rearranging every room in your house. As an added bonus, the site lets you experiment with different wall paint, trim, and flooring combinations for some serious interior designage.
The premise of CouchSurfing.com is simple: It’s a social network that hooks travelers up with a place to sleep. You can use the site to offer visitors to your area a spot on your couch or find free lodging for your own travels. While it’s not for everyone, the site offers user reviews of both hosts and guests, and we’ve heard loads of positive testimonials from couch surfers who’ve met exciting new people and seen cool new cities, all without being dismembered and buried in some dude’s basement.
Originally published; 2008-11-05 10:30:00