Tuesday, March 9, 2010

10 Web tools, programs and applications that keep me sane

The very first thing I do every morning when I get to the lab is turn on my laptop (this is unless I did a bacterial transformation the day before, in which case the first thing I’ll do is check the incubator). Then, I usually review a number of things: I check my email, check the latest updates from my favorite journals/blogs, manage my PDF library, etc., in addition to organizing my lab day (although I usually do this the night before). To keep track of all this (which can be a lot) I use several tools and applications without which I would be a mess. Here’s a list of some of my favorites.

Let’s start with the Google stuff:

1) Gmail. OK, this is fairly obvious. I did try some alternatives, but let’s face it: Gmail rules.

I have customized my Gmail homepage though, using some gadgets from “Gmail Labs” (check for this logo () in you Gmail page):

a) Right-side chat: Moves the chat box to the right side of the inbox. This gives you some extra space on your left sidebar to put other things, for example:

b) Google Calendar gadget: Adds a box in the left column which shows your Google Calendar. See upcoming events, locations, and details (See image on the left and #4)

c) Google Docs gadget: Adds a box in the left column which displays your Google Docs. Shows recent docs, starred docs, and has fast search (See image on the left and #2).

d) You can add other stuff, by using “Add any gadget by URL”: adds a "Gadgets" tab to Settings, where you'll be able to specify the URL of any gadget. This gadget will show in a box in the left column. There are several third-party applications that you can add.

e) And finally, “Navbar drag and drop”: Allows you to reorder the items in your navbar using drag and drop.

2) Google Docs. As you can “create and edit web-based documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and store them online so that they can be accessed from any computer”, it is ideal for documents that are frequently used and updated by all lab members. Be sure to back-up frequently: you never know.

3) Google Reader. Fantastic web-based aggregator to keep track of all your favorite journals, blogs, news, etc. You can easily add subscriptions, email content to colleagues, add tags, share with friends, organize using folders, etc. You should definitely use this or some other sort of RSS aggregator/organizer (if you don’t even know what RSS is, see here).

4) Google Calendar. I use it to schedule meetings, appointments, etc. A great thing about Google calendar is its very customizable “Notification” system. You can ask for pop-ups, emails and even free SMS to be sent to you at any time you specify before a scheduled event.

Note that all of these fantastic tools and many other Google applications work on phones (and not only iPhones). Check Google Mobile for more info.

OK, enough with the Google stuff. What other tools and applications do I use?

5) Remember the Milk (RTM) A great customizable task manager (like a to-do list). Normally I’d simply use pencil and paper to organize my daily tasks (e.g. Neurospora transformation, colony PCR, etc), but this has worked great for me: no risk of losing the sheet of paper.

A cool thing about it is that you can add your list as a gadget to your Gmail homepage (see image on the right and #1d), so you can check and manage your tasks, email, calendar and access your shared docs all in the same place (your Gmail page). Some may argue that this is the same idea behind iGoogle, but the gadgets in iGoogle, particularly Gmail, are very limited. You can also access RTM through your phone and it's compatible with Google Calendar.

RTM is free, but you can pay for some additional functions.

6) Tweetdeck. I really like this (free) software for managing my Twitter account. It has a multiple columns format, an in-built URL shortener, and many cool features. Further, I like the interface. It’s also available for the iPhone.

7) Mendeley. Free reference management program. I only use it to manage my (huge) PDF library and access the articles quickly (like “Papers”, but for Windows PC). Its MS Word plugin for managing references in a document isn’t quite there yet: it still can’t manage journal abbreviations, so, for example, it won’t give you a bibliography in Nature’s format. For managing references in documents I use Endnote (and Endnote Web), although I may try CiteSmart soon: it seems simpler and quicker (both Endnote and CiteSmart are non-free).

Note, however, that the “Journal abbreviation” feature has already been suggested at Mendeley’s website.

8) Foxit Reader. A (free) small, fast and rich PDF reader (there's also a paid version with more functions).

9) Mozy. An online backup service. You can select what folders to back up (backup your lab folder!), and the software will do that on their servers automatically. If you have more than one computer and need backup and syncing, you may find DropBox more useful.
Free and paid plans.

10) Microsoft OneNote. For those ready to make the jump to a digital lab notebook, this is a very good choice. I must admit that there are several other alternatives out there that I haven't tried yet, but this works fine.

You may find many more useful tips, tools and applications over at ProfHacker (which you can also follow on twitter @ProfHacker), Lifehacker and Hackademe.

(Image sources: RTM Gmail Gadget, Calendar and Docs gadgets)

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biochem belle said...

Coincidentally I was just pulling up Mendeley to share with some of my labmates. I started using it a couple of months ago, and it's great for organizing my library of pdfs.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

Yes, it certainly is. I'm sure that when the plugin issues are overcome, it will be the software of choice.

Franko said...

Evernote is a good choice over onenote... although I prefer the latter...

Lucas Brouwers said...

I love Mendeley for creating some order in my digital stack of papers! I'm surprised that most librarians still haven't heard of it or use it.
I'm a big fan of evernote, the synching between laptop, lab-pc and even phone is a big plus for me!

Mr. Gunn said...

I hear you on the Mendeley Word plugin, but let me tell you that I just saw a demo of the citation style editor (for all those little tweaks that different journals need) and it looks pretty rockin'.

A new feature was just added to the bookmarklet for saving web page snapshots, too.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

@mr.Gunn I talked to R. Vidal quite some time ago about this issue so I'm glad they are considering it now.

As I said, if those few details are fixed, I have no doubt that Mendeley will be the software of choice.