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Earlier this year, at the end of my first year of graduate school and in the middle of paper-writing season, my laptop died. It had been lying innocently in my bag when they both toppled over and crashed onto the ground. The impact affected the monitor; it wouldn’t turn on. I don’t think there could have been a worse time. Deadlines were approaching and tensions were mounting. Thankfully I had been using Dropbox and, commandeering a nearby desktop computer, I was able to continue working without missing a beat.

The reason my working documents (including a powerpoint presentation and relevant images) were saved is because Dropbox, like Google Apps (explained previously), use cloud computing to save (or “sync”) your files online. For me, what’s special about Dropbox is threefold: For one, the service functions seamlessly with how you use your computer already. Dropbox is represented on your computer simply as a folder like any other. You drop files and organize subfolders as you would anything else. The difference is that this folder’s contents are backed up online. Which brings me to the second aspect I enjoy about this service: it is passive. That means that you don’t need to do anything for it to be doing its job. When my computer suddenly became inaccessible due to a broken screen I could be confident that the most recent version of the files I was working on would be available online, from any computer. This brings me to the third feature. Again like Google Apps, I can access my own Dropbox folder from any computer (through a login at the Dropbox website) and can even have files publicly accessible for others should I choose.

Go ahead, get Dropbox here.

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After many weeks talking about doing it, and many months recognizing the need, I’m finally posting the first of a four-part weekly series on the ‘tools I use.’ As a (potential) academic-in-training I’ve been enjoying the relative downtime of the summer to reflect on my own habits that contribute to productivity or procrastination. This reflection has given me the chance to appreciate the tools that have consistently made my life and the work I do as a writer/researcher more bearable. It is in this spirit that I share some of the software tools that have worked the best for me. I hope to not only introduce these tools to readers who might not have heard of them, but also to highlight the ways I have personally used these programs and how they’ve helped me. Everyone’s got their own workflow, and at the end of the day we need to work in the way that works for us. These tools might not be your thing. They might even hinder your work. My goal is to make you aware of these wonderful tools, use them as you may, or ignore them all together. But hopefully I’ll be able to share something new with you and if I am able to make your life just a little easier, then I will consider it a success. All of the software highlighted here will be free, easily accessible, and user-friendly (I promise).

To begin this series, I will introduce the cornerstone of not only my academic work but, dare I say, my wired life itself. That, of course, will be Google Apps – and includes, Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Reader, and even Youtube. The range of Google applications extends beyond my ability or need to go over each of them and their uses in detail. Many of them will not factor into your daily workflow and since there exists a variety of tools available that do the same thing, I am not confident that Google necessarily provides the best of all worlds. There are three apps that I do use on a regular basis, and I will explain why below.

Before we continue, it’s important to understand broadly how Google works. This concept, ‘cloud computing,’ will apply to all of the tools I will be introducing in this series so it is worth beginning with this:

The first is Gmail. Gmail is my primary email and I have my other (school) accounts forwarded to my gmail. Doing this is pretty straightforward but differs by account type. You’re also able to reply to email inside your gmail using other accounts, which is handy if your gmail emails are being bounced back or being filed as spam. Internet-based email has the obvious advantage of being accessible from any computer, and therefore suffers from not being accessible when offline (which has never been a problem for me – and is apparently no longer the case). Gmail also offers great customization and organization (such as labels and stars). Google has published a guide to becoming a “Gmail Ninja” that walks you through your own personal setup depending on your familiarity with the service. It’s also worth mentioning that the Gmail blog has some really useful tips and advice for getting the most out of gmail. For example, a recent post offers a “grandmother’s guide to video chat.” Oh, and did I mention the instant messenger and address book built into the app, unlimited* storage and the ability to search through email the same way you would the Internet itself?

The second is Google Calendar. In addition to many of the perks of gmail (such as customization and being accessible from anywhere), the thing I really appreciate about the Calendar is its ability to provide reminders of upcoming events. I love being able to insert a birthday, indicate that it repeats every year, and give myself a ten day reminder (enough time to pick out something nice and have it send in time for birthday arrival). Being able to share calendar events with groups of people (such as a study group) doesn’t hurt either. It is definitely worth checking out.

The third is Google Docs. To be honest, I only started using Google Docs again quite recently. It is an extraordinarily useful tools, but it mainly caters to collaborative work, whereas I have been mostly engaged in solo projects. The original setup also left something to be desired, it was a bit clunky and didn’t integrate greatly with other apps. That, apparently, has changed:

However, as useful as Google Docs is for collaboration I don’t use it for the sort of frantic notetaking that is an essential part of my research and writing practice. For this I use a specific tool which I will introduce in a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

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