The Freebies Issue!

November 28, 2006 - 6:00pm ||| 0 Comments | Add new

In the seasonal spirit of giving, I thought it would be fun to share a selection of my favorite freebies on the Internet. Some of these are rare finds that I've guarded as my own aces in the hole; grudgingly e-mailing their URLs only to trusted friends or desperate clients. Others are pretty well known, I thought, but have come to learn they're still mysteries to the general hard-working designer and so are in need of more publicity.

In my debut list, you won't find free clip art or stock photography sources, free font libraries or template sites. Of course these exist, but there's a bazillion of them, and most designers know of at least one or two. Maybe a future issue will be devoted to these "free content" web sites.

Instead, the freebies below are immensely useful *services* … the kind where you think, there HAS to be a catch … how could they offer this for free?

Trust me — I thought the same thing when I first encountered these, and in most cases, carefully read through their Terms of Service and researched their reputations with existing users. These guys have passed the test. The worst intrusion is that in some cases, you see someone's banner ad when you visit their site.

Just beware that almost all of these companies offer fee-based services as well; and they're using the freebie to reel you in. As long as you can resist the temptation to upgrade, you should be able to continue using the free version for a long while. (I'll note any time limitations in my descriptions.)

I'd love to hear about your favorite freebies, if you know of any. E-mail me at amarie [at] senecadesign [dot] com with "My Freebie" in the subject line, and if I get enough good ones, I may include it in a future issue. (And yes, I already know about Skype! Saving that for later.)

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Free Acrobat Connect Meetings without Acrobat

http://www.adobe.com/go/aac_try
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Hands-down, Acrobat Connect (née Macromedia Breeze) is the easiest and most elegant "virtual meeting" service on the planet. Go to the URL above, fill in a few fields in a simple form, and you'll get a custom meeting room URL that's yours alone. Takes about 30 seconds tops, and there's nothing you need to manually install. They even provide a free phone conferencing number (you'll have to pay any long distance fees).

A basic Acrobat Connect account is free until December 31, 2006; after which Adobe says they'll be charging $39/month or $395/year for the service. There'll be a bigger, enterprise-level service available too. See the comparison here:
http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect/compare/

Last week I set up a free account and immediately invited a bunch of clients to join me in an impromptu test run by e-mailing them my brand-new meeting room URL. A couple minutes later I was doing an off-the-cuff "Adobe CS2 Tips" session with any of the invitees who happened to be around when my e-mail arrived. Simply amazing. Especially if you've ever tried to do the same thing with competing services WebEx or GoTo Meeting (aka "third ring" and "fourth ring" of hell, respectively). In comparison to those, Acrobat Connect was ridiculously simple to set up and use.

Interestingly, despite the name, you don't need to own Acrobat to use Acrobat Connect. They really have nothing to do with each other at this point. Acrobat Pro v8 integrates Connect (if you have an account) somewhat; but PDFs have nothing to do with the meeting software itself. All you need is a browser and a connection to the Internet, though the faster your connection, the better. It works on Macs and PCs just fine, as both host and attendee.

The basic Acrobat Connect account allows you to have an unlimited number of meetings for up to 15 people per meeting. You can share your screen with the participants, and they can share theirs if you allow them; you can "pause and annotate" (like turning your screen into a whiteboard, complete with drawing tools); and there's an integrated chat window. What you don't get is VOIP (Voice Over IP) … attendees can't hear you through their speakers, they have to dial into the phone conference number.

Note: During the free account phase, Adobe only has one server in North America running. If you set up an account and say you're from a different country, you'll get a "sorry, buster, can't set up an account for you" message. I've heard that you can just choose a North America country and try that; but I'd think the lag time from your international location to the server would be too much to bear. Proceed with caution.

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Free Big File Transfers

http://yousendit.com
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Designers often encounter the problem of being blocked from their client's e-mail servers when they're trying to e-mail them a file, especially if the e-mail attachment is a big one, like a 40MB high-res image or a PDF proof of a long document. Other problems have to do with the filename extension causing "false positives" with their virus software. I've found it more and more difficult to send .zip attachments to PC-using clients because the filters on their mail server or in their e-mail program assume it's an evil virus or something.

If you want to be *certain* that your client receives the file you're trying to attach to an e-mail, the best way is to upload it to an FTP server and e-mail your client a link to the file. They double-click the link in your e-mail and the file starts downloading in their browser, bypassing e-mail filters altogether.

Don't have an FTP server handy? Just go to the YouSendIt URL above and they'll take care of it for you. No need to set up an account or anything — just enter your e-mail address, your client's e-mail address, and click the Browse button to upload the file (up to 100MB) from your hard drive to their server. YouSendIt immediately gives you the download link which you can e-mail to your client (they e-mail the client the download link, too, but I like e-mailing it myself just to make sure). Files are stored for up 7 days, after which they're automatically deleted.

Tip: If it's highly sensitive information, you can send files securely (encrypted) by clicking the "Need secure transfers?" text link at the bottom of the form.

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Master iLife with Free Video Tutorials

http://www.apple.com/ilife/tutorials/index.html
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I bought a new Mac a couple weeks ago, and as usual, its Applications folder came with a bunch of free programs that I've never learned how to use very well: GarageBand, iDVD, iMovie, and iPhoto, and iWeb, all part of Apple's iLife suite of programs. (iTunes is part of the suite, but I've managed to figure that one out.) The online help files for these programs are too sparse, yet I don't use them enough to justify buying a how-to book about them.

Still, it'd be nice to figure out how to really work iMovie or iDVD so I can do something interesting with all these pictures from my digital camera.

That's why I loved learning about the free video tutorials Apple offers on their web site. There are about twenty or thirty Quicktime video lessons per program, and each lesson is couched in a page full of tips and step-by-steps so you don't have to write everything down.

I've gone through almost all of the ones for iMovie so far. They don't go terribly in depth, but they're detailed enough that I had plenty of new techniques to try out with confidence in my first movie.

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Master Microsoft Office with Free Video Tutorials

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/
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Microsoft wants its users to get up to speed with its software, too. The link above leads to the video tutorials for the Windows version of Microsoft Office (2003 and 2007), though many of the features are the same cross-platform so the link is useful for Mac users, too. (Microsoft has online Office tutorials in its ghetto for Mac users called Mactopia at http://www.microsoft.com/mac/, but they're all text articles, no video tutorials.)

To find the Windows tutorials, go to the URL in the subtitle above and scroll down the page to the Browse Training by Product tabs. Click on a product name and you'll see a long list of video tutorials available. As with the Apple tutorials, each video lesson appears in a page full of text-based tips and step-by-steps related to the concept being taught. Microsoft goes Apple one better by periodically linking to practice files which download and open in the product being learned. It's a great way to really understand the concept you just watched on screen.

Lately, I've been doing the ones on Excel, since I'm one of the few Excel users on the planet who don't understand formulas. I can't believe all the formula shortcuts that are buried in the program!

Tip: If you're on a Mac, you probably won't be able to see the videos in the Windows section. Find a PC to view these! The videos and practice files are worth it, even if you're using the Mac version of Office.

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Free Conference Calls

http://www.freeconferencecall.com/prodfreeconferencecall.asp
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I can't remember when I learned about this service, but I can tell you when I first landed on its web site, my scam-dar zoomed to Level Orange. First, the home page has that "I learned everything I know about web design in FrontPage" look.

Second, the offer itself is patently ridiculous: Your own, unique, permanent conference calling number, for free. (Not an 800 number, just a regular 10-digit number in the U.S., so you'll probably have to pay long distance charges. Still.) No strings attached, you don't even have to register with the site first or confirm anything. Just enter your e-mail address and click Submit, and the next page lists your conference dial-in number and access code.

There's more: Up to 96 people can participate in a conference call at once, and each call can last up to 6 hours. No reservations required, the number is waiting for you 24/7. During the phone conference the host gets all the features that come with expensive conference call services: Mute participants, selective un-mute, announce names, etc. Check out all the features you get as the host of the call:
http://www.freeconferencecall.com/instructions.asp

After each call, they e-mail you a report listing the duration of the call, number of participants, and their phone numbers. Did I mention that you can have them optionally record the conference, too, as an .mp3?

For free.

Okay, I don't know how or why they're doing this. But I can tell you that I took the plunge a couple years ago when my 3-way calling was one line short for a critical phone meeting. I used a temporary e-mail address (a Yahoo one I created on the spot) to get my number, thinking i would be inundated with spam. But, that hasn't happened… no more spam than usual, at least. I've used my Free Conference Call number many times since then with clients and family members, and they haven't been victims of a slew of telephone solicitations (my other fear) either.

In order to keep the same conference number, you have to renew every 120 days. But who cares if you forget to renew, just get a new number from their site the next time you need one. Fantastic.

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Free Hosted WordPress Blog

http://wordpress.com
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WordPress is one of the most popular blogging engines out there, for good reason. The software is free (just go to wordpress.org to download it and install), it's easy to understand and get started with (even for first-time users), easy to customize, and the support community is wonderful. David's and my blog at indesignsecrets.com is powered by WordPress.

Often, you don't even have to download it. Many web hosting accounts have a control panel button that runs WordPress's famous "five-minute install" to set it up on your server space.

But even that is too much of a hurdle for some users. What if you don't have a hosting account? (Or you don't want to include your personal blog on your business's hosting account?). What if the install doesn't work quite right?

For this reason, a lot of users have turned to turnkey, free, hosted blog services like livejournal.com and blogger.com … which are great, but you know you're at at a blogger.com web site when you see that hideous blogger-logo'd blue bar going across the top of every page at your site.

Earlier this year, the team at WordPress started up a blogger.com-like service called WordPress.com (sans blue bar). You can start up and run your own WordPress-powered blog in a few seconds, literally, for no cost whatsoever, and it's yours to keep. You can import your existing blog into it, and you can export your content out if you decide to move to a different service later on. You get your choice of dozens of great-looking templates and a few customization options. (More customization is available for really low fees, like $5/year.)

There are so many features that come with the free service, it's mind-boggling:
http://wordpress.com/features/

Your URL will be something nice and short, like "http://yourname.wordpress.com." If you don't want people to know you're using wordpress.com, for some reason, you can easily map your own domain name (www.yourname.com) to your free blog, though it'll cos you $10 or so. Instructions are on the site.

Best of all, the famous Akismet anti-comment spam plug-in is automatically installed in each wordpress.com blog. Not surprising, since the same people who came up with WordPress came up with Akismet!

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Free Incoming Voice Mail/Fax to E-Mail

http://fusion.kallback.com/k7
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When I first started to listening to podcasts, I was intrigued by how some of the hosts would include voice mails left by their listeners, usually questions about something or other in a previous episode. I wondered how they got the voicemail into the audio recording with such fidelity. Did they hook up their answering machine to the computer somehow? Have a secret way to convert ATT Voice Mail recordings to .mp3s?

Then I noticed that whenever a podcaster would announce the number for their "listener comment line," the area code was always the same, regardless of the podcast: 206. That's the Seattle area code. Was Seattle the hotbed of podcasting?

Turns out, no. After some digging, I learned that Seattle is the hotbed of K7.net, a company that offers free phone numbers for receiving voice mails and faxes, which it stores on its servers and optionally forwards to your e-mail address as attachments. If you can live with the 206 area code, this service is for you. (They also offer 800 numbers that auto-forward to your K7 number. You have to pay 6.9 cents a minute for the 800 number, though.)

Like the freeconferencecall.com service above, I was extremely skeptical about this service at first. How could they do this for free? Would I find myself the victim of spam emails and phone calls? Would my voice mail message be preceded by an obnoxious ad from K7? The fact that the podcasters kept announcing the same number assuaged my fears for the former. They would not put up with spam, that's for sure. And I called a couple of the numbers, and found that the podcaster had left a custom message in their own voice, no commercials for anything.

So I took the leap, and signed up for a free number for David's and my InDesignSecrets podcast: 206-888-INDY. I was able to get "INDY" because the site has a utility that lets you see what vanity numbers are available, and to reserve one that you like.

It's the coolest thing ever. Go to the URL above, try the vanity number thing first until you end up with something acceptable, and click the phone number. (You can skip this step if you like, and just accept whatever phone number they assign to you.) Then, just enter your e-mail address and a 4-digit security code that you make up. Choose a couple options, and bang! You've got your phone number. As long as it's used at least once every 30 days, it's yours to keep.

What I love about this service is the e-mail forwarding part. While the site will store up to 20 messages for up to 7 days (you can retrieve these from anywhere by using your security code), you can also have them e-mail you .mp3 recordings of voice mails and scans of faxes automatically. I convert the scans to PDFs in Acrobat and print them out for my records.

I love it. And if you have a virtual company as David and I do, it's a great solution. We both want to hear our site's incoming voice mails and we both want to see faxes people send us, but we live thousands of miles away from each other. So in K7's form, we just used an e-mail address that forwards to both of us. Problem solved.

  

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