eM Client: a prettier Gmail

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When Firefox 29 was released a month or so ago, it convinced me to abandon my browser of choice for a few years – Google Chrome. The latest version of Firefox looked modern and slick and it performed very fast, enough reasons for me to switch.

Google needn’t worry, however, because browsers aside, it is still running my life. I use Gmail for email, Google Calendar to organise my appointments, and Google Contacts to maintain my, well, contacts. All three Google applications perform flawlessly. The email is fast with plenty of storage, the calendar has all the features I need, and my contacts are always backed up. I particularly love not having to re-enter my contacts when I buy a new mobile phone – all I have to do is synchronise my Google account with my mobile phone and all my contacts magically appear.

Now, call me old fashioned but I still prefer to use a desktop email client or a Personal Information Manager (PIM) when I’m using my computers at home. It makes working with email, calendar and contacts a lot easier – and prettier, too. If there’s something negative I can say about the Google apps, it’s the fact that they look quite plain in the browser. A PIM adds a prettier shell which gives a little bit of life to what can be monotonous and mundane tasks.

The most well known PIM is perhaps MS Outlook. This is a great application but it is not free and it is not fully compatible with Gmail. The last time I tried it, I had problems synchronising it with my Google Calendar, and I could not synchronise my contacts at all.

Enter eM Client. Now in version 6, eM Client is described on its website as the “best email client for Windows” and I tend to agree. The free version is fully functional (without adverts) although if you want to use it with more than two email accounts, you will have to pay $50 for the “pro” version. I must admit that this is a rather a large amount to pay for an email software but most people will not need the pro version.

eM Client is compatible with Exchange and most email providers. It is particularly suited to Gmail which is the reason why I like it so much. eM Client fully synchronises my Google email, calendar and contacts – it even imports the photos on your contacts if you have them. It really is Gmail on a desktop: all three apps work smoothly, almost as though eM Client was made specially for Gmail.

Setting up accounts is as easy as entering your username and password and navigation is simple. If you’ve used Outlook, Thunderbird, or other email clients, you should have no problems getting to work straight away.

It is a shame that the free version allows you to set up only two accounts but if you love Gmail, you’ll love eM Client. There is no better email client available.

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Remembering my Amstrad PCW

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Amstrad PCW 8512: a complete computer system

My love affair with computing properly began when I was in the sixth form in the late 80s and took up word processing as one of my subjects. I fell in love with both the machine and the program called WordStar which allowed me to create, edit and print documents as though by magic. Before that, I had only used a humble typewriter.

It was no surprise that as soon as I had a job and could afford it, I bought my own word processor. It was an Amstrad PCW 8512 and to me it was the most marvellous piece of kit ever. The Amstrad PCW series was a range of personal computers produced by Amstrad. When first launched, the cost of a PCW system was under 25 per cent of the cost of almost all IBM-compatible PC systems in the UK. Because of this, PCWs became very popular in the home and small office markets and convinced even technophobes to use computers.

Many described the Amstrad PCW as “the bargain of the decade” and rightly so. For under £500, I had a complete computer system including a monitor which also housed the CPU, RAM, and floppy disk drives, and a printer was also bundled with it (my model had a dot matrix printer). On the software side, the package included the LocoScript word processing program, the CP/M Plus operating system, Mallard BASIC and the LOGO programming language.

MicroDesign 3: a powerful desktop publisher for the PCW

MicroDesign 3: a powerful desktop publisher for the PCW

I spent many happy hours creating beautiful word processed documents but I did not stop there. While some critics dismissed the PCW as “just a word processor”, it could do other things as well with third party software. Many applications were written for the PCW including spreadsheet, accounting, database, and other programs. My favourite was MicroDesign 2 (and later, MicroDesign 3), a powerful desktop publisher which produced results that I thought was only possible with an Apple. MicroDesign certainly fuelled my creative side: one of the things I produced with it was a monthly family newsletter which I sent to my relatives abroad.

My first inkjet printer

My first inkjet printer

Hardware manufactures also saw the potential of the PCW and produced add-ons for my beloved machine. Among other things, I bought an external hard drive, a hand-held scanner (called ProScan from the makers of MicroDesign), and I replaced the noisy dot matrix printer with an all-singing, all-dancing Hewlett Packard Deskjet 500. That was it – I was hooked on technology and there was no turning back.

To this day, I remember the Amstrad PCW 8512 with great fondness. I still miss it despite the fact that the computers that I have now are many times more powerful and sophisticated. The PCW was my first love in the computer world and I will never forget it. If The Chronicles of Narnia gave me hunger and passion for more fantasy novels, the PCW triggered my addiction and craving for gadgets.

Renting software? No thanks!

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A few weeks ago, someone about to make his first foray into photo editing asked if I would recommend Photoshop. Money was no object and the enquirer was technical enough to have found Photoshop intuitive to use, but in all conscience I could not recommend Photoshop.

Don’t get me wrong: in the past, I have been a big fan of Photoshop and I still think it is the best image editor available (capable of doing anything you could possibly want to do with a photo) but I stopped endorsing the de facto standard of image editors when Adobe introduced Creative Cloud and stopped issuing perpetual licences for all their products.

This means that if you want to use Photoshop and all other Adobe products, you will have to pay a monthly subscription (currently $19 for a single application or $49.99 for the complete suite). For as long you subscribe, you can install and use the application(s) on two computers and avail of any updates. The sting in the tail is that if you cancel your subscription, you will no longer be able to use the programs no matter how long you have subscribed.

Compare this to the old licensing system: you paid the full retail prices for the programs (which were admittedly hefty) but you got to keep them forever.

As a student, I can subscribe to Creative Cloud for a reduced rate (currently $29.99) but I refuse to do so. I refuse to “rent” applications on principle. When I cease to be a student, I would either have to pay the full rate or lose access to the programs. I think that this is extremely unfair. It’s almost like being held hostage by Adobe.

I am thankful that Adobe do not have the monopoly on photo editing software. There are numerous alternatives out there that are much cheaper and you can actually own. My top recommendation is Serif PhotoPlus X7. It looks, feels, and works like Photoshop and costs just £79.99. PhotoPlus does not pretend to have all the high-end features of its Adobe equivalent but it has all the power that most users would need from a photo editor.

Serif has an alternative for all the major Adobe products including the excellent desktop publisher PagePlus X7 and web designer WebPlux X7. If you’re still not convinced, Serif offers free starter versions of all their programs while the full programs come with money-back 30-day guarantee. Go on, take the plunge and discover a world outside Adobe.

Feel at Home

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Studying in Rome has its many privileges but one of the drawbacks is that it’s not home. I love London – the place and the people – and being so far away from it can sometimes lead to loneliness.

My coping mechanism for this is to create the illusion that I’m still in London. I do this by ensuring that I have easy (and cheap!) ways of communicating with friends and relatives back home, and that I still have access to British TV.

Maintaining contacts with those you love at home is important for me especially at times when I struggle with life in seminary. Facebook has proven itself a godsend in this regard but often there is no substitute to a real telephone conversation. And thanks to today’s technology, calls to the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) need not cost a fortune.

I have a virtual London telephone number through Skype which means friends and relatives in the UK can call me for the price of a local call. This virtual 020 number goes a long way in making me feel that I am still at home.

Last summer, my mobile network, Three, introduced Feel at Home which means that I can use my mobile phone in 11 countries (including Italy) without roaming charges. Put another way, I can use my call and data allowance in Rome without paying a penny more. I can use my free minutes to call the UK and I can also take advantage of my unlimited internet in Rome. And of course, people in the UK can call my mobile number as though I’m still in London – no roaming charges means I don’t pay extra to receive calls.

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Being able to watch British TV is also a must for me. Nothing reminds me of London more than EastEnders, the BBC’s flagship soap set in the East End of London, and I love being able to keep up with what’s going on in my home country by watching the BBC News Channel.

The internet has made all this possible … but it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The British TV websites that stream live and on-demand programmes including the wonderful BBC iPlayer are all region locked. This means they are intended to be viewed in the UK only and they cannot be accessed from abroad – unless you take certain steps to fool them into thinking that you are browsing from the UK.

There are free and paid-for ways of creating this illusion. The simplest free option is using the Media Hint add-on for your browser (either Firefox or Chrome). This will allow you to watch streams on any official TV website (UK and other countries) but the downside is that it does not let you download programmes from the iPlayer. This is a problem for me because I prefer to download my programmes to watch later (and also because my internet connection is rather erratic which causes a lot of buffering when I try to stream).

To get around this problem, I pay for a British IP address by subscribing to Virtual Private Network service. I use Hotspot Shield Elite (one of the cheapest and most popular VPN providers). With a British IP address, as far as any website is concerned I am still in England and I can watch the antics of the EastEnders as much as I want.

So there you have it: I’m physically in Rome but virtually in London at the same time. Who said you can’t be in two places at once?