Saturday, July 18, 2015

Free Phone Calls

Talking on the phone used to be terribly expensive for long distance calls.  Costs have certainly come down.  Most of us can make unlimited free nationwide calls for a small monthly fee. But making a completely free call has been difficult to do.

There are many options for free voice communications, such as MS Skype or Apple Facetime.  But to make those work, you need to have the other party using the same program and be online ready to receive the call.  That is great for some people, but there are a great many who don't want to be bothered setting up a new app or sitting by their computer waiting for a call.  There are also many people I don't know very well that I need to call.  They may use Skype, but I don't want to go through the bother of figuring all that out just for a quick call.

For this reason, I am a big fan of Google Voice.  Like Skype or Facetime, you can make computer to computer calls for video or audio chats, as well as instant messaging.  But there is also a dialer component.  You can call anyone on any phone by simply dialing their phone number and talking.  To the person being called, it is just like any other phone call.

The service is 100% free, at least for US and Canada calls.  For other countries, you may have to pay, although the rates are pretty good.

To set this up, you simply need a free Google account and use the free Google Chrome Web Browser.  Add the Hangouts App from the Chrome Web Store.  Dial a number and start have a phone call.  Of course, you will need a computer with microphone and speakers.  I prefer a USB headset myself for better quality.

Even better, if you have limited minutes on your phone, you can use the Hangouts App on your phone to make calls on the phone.  I have an old Android phone without any service on it at all.  I connect it to a Wifi connection and can make and receive calls (you can get a free phone number with your Google account).  I did my tests with Android, but Hangouts is available for iPhone as well.  Tablets of virtually any variety will also work fine.

Google Voice has many other benefits as well.  I can forward calls from my Google Voice to another number, or multiple numbers.  This means I can receive calls many different locations.  Google will also convert any voicemail messages to text and email the full message to me.

Monday, July 6, 2015

PDF Programs

While Adobe has made some wonderful products, I have never been a big fan of its business model.  Its products, aside from being wildly overpriced, come with highly restrictive licenses that make it almost impossible to reinstall the product on different computers.  As someone who is constantly using multiple computers, I just cannot deal with spending hours on the phone with support begging them to give me permission to use software I have already purchased on a different computer.

I had a particularly bad experience with my son's Photoshop license recently.  He broke the screen on his laptop.  Fortunately, I had an identical model computer available that I was not using.  I popped his hard drive into the new device and everything worked great, except Photoshop.  Photoshop apparently sensed that the computer was different and therefore violated the license.  It no longer permitted us to use it.  I now have to go through the hell of calling lots of automated recordings to find someone at Adobe who can help. Such strict licensing is a huge deterrent for me to buy anything from Adobe ever again.

That said, I used the free Adobe Reader for many years, but even it's free product was annoying. It constantly begged to be upgraded, and Adobe would not let me download the setup files to use on multiple computers.  Rather I got a small file that had to go the the Internet every time I did an install on a new computer.  For someone who sets up more than 100 computers per years, that can be a real nuisance.

So, I began a quest for better programs that would allow me to work with PDFs.  One tool that I have used for many years now is Bullzip PDF Printer.  There are many PDF printers out there, so if you already have one that works for you, great.  But for those unfamiliar, Bullzip operates as a virtual printer. Any program that has a print feature can print to the "Bullzip Printer".  But instead of generating a document on paper, Bullzip generates the printed document as a PDF to be saved on your computer.  Unlike PDF export features in some programs, Bullzip should work with just about any application on your computer.

Say you already have a PDF and want to mark it up for some reason.  For this, I used a program from Tracker Software called PDF Xchange Viewer.  Contrary to its name, you can do far more than simply view PDF documents.  You have a whole range of markup tools, to highly, underline, cross out, add notes, etc.  Use the typewriter function to add text.  Use the stamp function for insert other things.  I added a scanned copy of my signature as a stamp.  That way, I can "sign' a PDF document but stamping my signature right onto it.  Another great feature is OCR.  Say you have a scanned PDF document that does not allow you to search the text or do other things (such as highlight text).  OCR will recognize the text in the document and let you incorporate that information to make the document much more usable.

Tracker has recently also released PDF Xchange Editor which also allows full text editing of your PDF in its free version.  Editor is meant to replace Viewer eventually, so you are probably better off starting with Xchange Editor.

Alas, there are a few features unavailable in the free version that require you to pay for the Pro version.  One of the biggest is the ability to merge two or more PDF documents together into one, or to remove pages from a document.  If you want to do that for free, you will need to download a few more free programs.  XL Essential PDF Merger and Splitter are two programs that allow you to merge or split your PDF documents.  I find this very handy for large PDF e-books that I have downloaded, but just want to save a few pages.

With these tools, you should be able to do just about anything you need with your PDF documents, all without paying a penny!