TouchFreeze

I don’t own a desktop computer, so I do all my typing on my laptop. The keyboard is great, except for one major flaw: the position of the touchpad. It is very easy to accidentally brush the touch pad with the palm of my hand or my wrist as I type, causing my mouse cursor to move to a random part of the screen. This is annoying and can cause typos.

I can awkwardly hold my wrists in the air as I type, but this is uncomfortable. I can disable the touchpad, but then I have to remember to turn it back on every time I need to click. Enter TouchFreeze.

TouchFreeze is a simple utility that disables your touch pad whenever you are typing. As soon as you stop typing, the touchpad turns back on. It is complete automatic. Although TouchFreeze does need to run the background at all times, it is very lightweight and won’t slow your computer. I have been using TouchFreeze for about a year, and I love it. It is a simple, elegant solution for a simple problem.

-- Sylvia Richardson  

TouchFreeze
Free (donations accepted), Windows only.



Powerstrip Liberator Cords

When I discovered Ziotek’s Power Liberator cords years ago, my first thought was, “This can’t be safe.” My second was, “Oh my god, I need a dozen.” I was wrong on the first count and underestimated the second. All of Ziotek’s clever ways to “liberate” power outlets are UL approved, which is as reassuring as one could want. And I have at least two dozen, maybe three, scattered around my house and home office.

The “liberator” label referred initially to freeing unusable outlets on a power strip. Just a few years ago, most electronic devices (excepting some computers and all monitors) had hurking power bricks meant to plug into a wall outlet. If you plugged a power strip into a wall outlet, you still had the problem of placement: the bricks interfere with each other with most two-jack outlets. How many strips did you have or still have that have two or three awkwardly placed big-headed AC-to-DC adapters plugged in? It’s a waste. At times I had two or three daisy chained power strips (a practice not recommended by UL and others) to keep all my vampires sucking away.

The first Power Liberator alleviated that specific problem. The Power Extension Cable is 14 inches long with a three-prong plug at one end and a three-prong jack at the other. I have one power strip behind my home A/V cabinet that has several of these, each of which sports a brick at the end. (Some power strips have become cleverer, too, with rotating jacks or the ability to move outlets along the strip’s length.)

Since Ziotek’s introduction of this first cord, they’ve added eight more versions by my count. I own one or more of all of them except the monitor/power-supply models that extend a plug used with a display. The Plus model improved on the original by doubling outlets: every Plus plug has an outlet on its back plus the jack at the end of the dongle. Behind couches and beds, I use the Flat model for otherwise unusable outlets. And a Y Splitter gives you some space between two dongles with jacks on the end.

It’s true that manufacturers have gotten savvier about embedding smaller and more efficient power supplies inside devices, reducing wall warts. But the horror movie behind my television cabinet, with bricks of all sizes and shapes, indicates there are still plenty of outlets to liberate.

-- Glenn Fleishman  

[One particular model of Liberator was previously reviewed on Cool Tools. -- Mark]

Ziotek Powerstrip Liberators
Prices vary depending on model

Available from Amazon



ASUS RT-N66U WiFi router

For the past few years I’ve been using an Apple Time Capsule as my WiFi router. The range was awful but I kept trying to boost it with Airport Express devices. Finally I threw in the towel and bought a new WiFi router, the ASUS RT-N66U. Suddenly we have amazing coverage all over the house, even way down in our basement. I’m kicking myself for not getting this little powerhouse long ago.

-- Dan Lyons  

[After reading Dan's recommendation, I bought one of these to replace my Airport Extreme, which couldn't penetrate the chicken-wire Faraday cages in my house's walls. This greatly improved the range of our home Wi-Fi signal. - Mark Frauenfelder]

ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router
$150

Available from Amazon



EZ-RJ45 Connectors

I’ve been putting off buying RJ45 plugs for Ethernet cables because it looked like they all suck, and I’m not as young as I used to be, so cutting the wires exactly to fit might be a problem (even though I terminated hundreds of cables in my early networking career).

But recently I needed to help a neighbor who ran cables to relocate his wireless router. On a recommendation I picked up a box of the Platinum Tools EZ-RJ45 plugs and strain reliefs. The video below shows how you attach them to a cable by sliding the wires through and out the front.

I just installed them yesterday and had not a single failure (other than forgetting to slide the strain relief into the plug before crimping on the first one).

The are about one dollar each vs. a few cents for the Chinese & big box versions, but my hair is worth the money.

Platinum sells a special crimp tool that cuts the wires when it crimps. I wasn’t the mood to spring for another $50 for the the tool for my occasional needs so I used a regular crimp tool instead. I cut the wires after crimping with diagonal cutters and tidied up with a utility knife. Certainly if I was doing a lot of cable builds or for a business I’d buy the pro tool.

I bought a few of the Platinum Tools modular jacks, too, but I haven’t wired one up yet. You’ll see in the video that they look like a godsend, too, especially since you can reuse them with ease.

Platinum Tool EZ-RJ45 plugs are highly recommended!

-- Mike Andrews  

EZ-RJ45 CAT 5/5e Connectors
$15 / 15 pack

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Platinum Tools



Ambient Weather WS 2080

The Ambient Weather WS-2080 is a very full-featured weather station for the price. It uses a radio signal to communicate between the weather station and the display console, and updates the display every 48 seconds. The display shows a lot of information, and has a USB interface that allows a computer to capture the readings and create graphs from them. I haven’t used the USB interface yet, but it was one of the features that attracted me to this particular model.

It’s possible to adjust the calibration of the various sensors from the console, but for temperature it was close enough out of the box that I didn’t bother. We’ve had some rain a few times in the last month and it seems that the readings produced by the WS-2080 are on the low side, so I might end up calibrating the rain gauge. I did find the configuration procedure to be fairly confusing, with a lot of button-pushing to get to the various settings. You definitely want to have the manual in hand when you do it.

There is software that comes with the WS-2080 to configure it but it’s Windows-only and I have a Mac and Linux household so I haven’t used it. There is open source software for Linux that is supposed to be able to talk to the WS-2080 to capture the sensor readings, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

I mounted the sensor pod on my TV antenna mast above the antenna, which puts it only about four feet above the roof; probably not the best place for the temperature sensor. I did buy the accessory solar radiation shield for the temperature sensor, but a better solution might have been to mount the temperature sensor in the shade on the north side of the house. The various parts of the weather station connect together with phone-cord-like wiring with RJ-11 connectors.

Over the past few months, I’ve been very happy with this Ambient Weather station.

-- David H.  

Ambient Weather WS 2080
$110

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Ambient Weather



Tinkercad

If you want to introduce a kid (or yourself!) to CAD (computer aided design), Tinkercad is by far the easiest and most fun way to begin. Today I mentioned to my 10-year-old that our CNC machine would soon be up and running. He asked what a CNC could do, and I said one example would be to carve a battlefield out of stiff foam for Warhammer figures.

That got his attention ;-) . He wanted to know how to tell the CNC what to do. I explained a bit about CAD, and showed him Tinkercad, giving the example of one cube that you could stretch and change.

Then I got busy with something else and left him to figure out Tinkercad himself. I came back an hour later and the below is what he’d designed. A ten-year-old. No training. One hour.

 

The green stuff we’re going to CNC out of a sheet of stiff foam. The rest we’ll probably 3D print on the Makerbot. It will take a weekend, but this could be our first 100% digital craft project.

This is an example of what I talk about in Makers: manufacturing technologies are getting so easy and cheap (even free) that anyone can use them. Kids today can grow up as fluent in CAD as they are in everything else on computers. Democratizing the tools of publishing brought us the Web. Just imagine what democratizing the tools of manufacturing will do.

We’ve used the previously reviewed Sketchup and Autodesk 123D, and both are great. But Tinkercad just runs in your Web browser and its simple interface disguises a very sophisticated cloud-based CAD engine.

Tinkercad
Free trial, or $19/month for personal account (pro accounts vary)
https://tinkercad.com/



iFixit Magnetic Project Mat

In the past few months I’ve had to repair my iPhone, my digital camera, and my Macbook Pro. During this time I’ve found the iFixit’s magnetic mat indispensable. Not only does the magnetic surface mean fewer lost screws, but it’s whiteboard surface means I can keep track of what came from where. Intelligently, iFixit includes a very nice fine-tipped dry-erase marker from Staedtler for quickly jotting down repair notes (that also features a bit of wool on the cap for erasing them, too). The pro model mat, which I own, also features a nonslip foam backing much like that of a mousepad which when flipped upside down features cutouts that act like cups.

I like mine so much that it never leaves my desk as it serves as miniature whiteboard, mousepad, and DIY repair station.

-- Oliver Hulland  

iFixit Magnetic Project Mat
$13 or $19 with foam backing

Available from and manufactured by iFixit

Sample Excerpts:




Optical Drive to SSD Upgrade

Replacing my laptop’s optical drive with a Solid State Disk (SSD) was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the past year. I have an aging early-2008 Macbook Pro. I say aging because the computer itself is in great condition, and while it is suitable for 90% of what I do on a daily basis, I found that when editing photos in Lightroom or when working in Photoshop or anything video related it would slow to a crawl. The first thing I upgraded was the RAM which I doubled from 4 to 8 GB (which I recommend to everyone with an aging computer), but it still left me feeling I could do more.

So six months ago I decided that the price of SSDs had fallen enough to warrant upgrading the hard drive in my computer. When I first started researching the process, I stumbled across a few people who had decided to replace their optical drive with an SSD drive that fits into a specially designed caddy. I realized I could count on one hand the number of times I had used my optical drive in the previous year, and even then it was most often to burn a DVD; something which has, for the most part, been replaced by cheap USB flash drives.

So I made the decision to ditch my optical drive, and replace it with a 128 GB Sandisk SSD and a specially made SSD caddy which screws into the optical drive’s slot. Overall the installation took about an hour of careful disassembly and reassembly. As far as tools, I used the previously reviewed iFixit 54-piece kit. After installation I was left with a naked optical drive which, as it happens, functions perfectly when used with the previously reviewed SATA/IDE to USB adapter. Now when I absolutely need to use the optical drive, I have one available. I decided not to pick up a case for the optical drive given that I rarely use it but they are available from One World Computing for about $40.

Installing an SSD was only the first step in the process, however. The really important part was installing all of my critical software and most frequently used files onto the new disk. To net the biggest bump in speed it helps to perform a clean install of whatever OS you’re using directly to the SSD. I noticed gains immediately as my computer started up in under 30-seconds compared to two minutes before. After install the whole system was incredibly responsive, and programs that used to bounce up and down in the dock for thirty seconds or more opened with a new found urgency. I really hadn’t expected the difference to be as significant, but I can safely say that booting with and using an SSD feels like using a brand new computer. Outside of the immediate gains in speed, SSDs also use less power when compared to their spinning brethren. Since my most frequently used programs were loading from the SSD I saw around a 30-40% increase in battery life (around an hour and a half depending on use).

Overall, the upgrade cost me around $150, and in return I netted what feels like a much much newer computer. I also have the benefit of redundancy in the form of two hard drives, which means that I have an on-the-go backup solution (I have since upgraded my original 250 GB HDD with a faster 1 TB HDD). And it only gets better as I have seen increasing gains as operating systems are optimized for SSDs (in the case of the newest version of OSX).

 

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: It's impossible to keep up with the constant fluctuation of pricing for SSDs so always keep a look out for deals (for example, the price of the drive I used has fallen $68 in the six months since installation). In addition, I have heard positive things about OWC's Data Doubler which is a more convenient, albeit more expensive, package alternative to the DIY SSD replacement mentioned above. --OH]

Unibody MacBook Hard Drive Caddy Tray
$11
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Brain Trade

Crucial M4 128 GB SSD
$99
Available from Amazon
Manufactured by Crucial

Note: If you know of something similar for non-Apple products, please let us know and we will update the review.--OH



Logitech Performance and Anywhere MX Mice

I’ve been using Logitech’s Performance Mouse MX and its former model for about four years. They all have one important feature: hyper fast scrolling. Since I’m an engineer who has to deal with source code files that easily contain thousands of lines, I have to scroll an ordinary mouse hundreds of times to browse a file. With hyper fast scrolling, it only takes one single scroll as the wheel spins with minimal friction. This really reduce the stress on my fingers. It can also easily be switched back to normal scrolling behavior (by pushing down on the scroll wheel) when I’m not dealing those gigantic files.

— Jordan Cherng

Similar to Jordan’s Logitech Performance Mouse MX is the Anywhere Mouse MX that I’ve been using for the past two years. Unlike the Performance model, the Anywhere model is significantly smaller, and is easily packed in the included carrying case. Despite the small size, I find it to be one of the most comfortable mice I’ve ever handled which is especially surprising as I have large hands!

Outside of size, the two mice are remarkably similar. Like its bigger brother, the Anywhere Mouse also features “hyper-scrolling” which is very useful when dealing with large documents or long web pages. The scrolling (among other features) is customizable with the included Logitech software (that works for both PC and Macs). Outside of scrolling, they both feature programmable buttons, and most importantly very accurate tracking. Logitech calls their technology Darkfield which they claim is better able to respond to irregularities on a surface (and thus respond more accurately during tracking). I’ve used mine on many shiny surfaces which normally confuse optical mice without any problems, with the biggest surprise coming when I used it on a glass countertop which is normally a no go for laser-tracking mice.

The only other significant differences between the two are that the Performance Mouse can be charged via micro-USB, and that it has a few more buttons for those who want to maximize the customizability of their mice. Both use Logitech’s unifying receiver (which we’ve reviewed in the past) and have excellent battery life. My Anywhere Mouse gets about 4-6 months of use from two rechargeable AAs.

Despite being significantly more expensive than other mice on the market, I have found that these higher end Logitech mice are worth it. They are comfortable and reliable pieces of technology that seem to disappear in use, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

— Oliver Hulland

 

[Note: Apologies to all those readers who are left-handed as it doesn't appear either of these mice are ambidextrous.--OH]

Logitech Performance Mouse MX
$72

Available from Amazon

Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX
$66

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Logitech



Skitch

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Skitch is a free OSX (and iOS/Android) screen capture application that I use on a daily basis while editing Cool Tools. Like other screenshot utilities, Skitch allows you to capture the entire screen, a specific window, or drag a selection box across a specific portion of the screen. Skitch’s selection box features crosshairs that function as a loupe to show you what you’re capturing on a pixel level which makes capturing exactly what you want very easy. I am particularly fond of other touches like the ability to drag the image in order to export/resize to the desktop or a particular folder.

Once you’ve captured your image, Skitch features a host of useful tools like drawing, text editing, shapes, easy resizing, and a number of export options. Sharing, in particular, is well implemented, and allows you to either upload directly to Skitch’s servers, or to your own FTP, WebDav, and Flickr account. Given that Skitch was recently acquired by the previously reviewed Evernote, it also features solid integration with another of our favorite applications.
Skitch Screen.jpg
In the past I’ve used other screen capture applications like the lightweight Capture Me, Apple’s Grab, and the traditional screen capture via hotkeys, but nothing has come close to the ease of use and function of Skitch. While Skitch isn’t available on PCs, they have developed stand-alone apps for iOS and Android, however, it really shines on the desktop.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Skitch
Free

Available from http://skitch.com/