17 free tech tools that I like

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Over the course of the last few years I’ve collected a well-vetted stable of free tools, apps, and web services that add significant value to my life by freeing up my time for more important things. This post is intended to shine a light on some of my favorites, in the hopes that you’ll get the same benefit out of at least a few of them that I do; please share some of your favorites that I’ve missed in the comments.

I’m an iOS user myself, so there are a few in here that are iOS-only, at least for the time being…and if you’re not already using Gmail as your primary email service, I highly recommend opening an account and making the switch :)

Here they are, in alphabetical order by category:


1. Credit Karma shows you your current credit report, along with your credit score, and automatically keeps tabs on it for you and alerts you to major changes. It’s simple, well-executed, and fills a need that many of us don’t realize we have.

 2. Doodle is the answer to group scheduling—rather than going back and forth on email, you create a quick poll, send the link to everyone you need input from, and then just pick the time that works best once you’ve heard from everyone.

 3. Google Drive (née Google Docs): Most of you are probably intimately familiar with Google’s excellent and free cloud-based competitor to both Microsoft Office and Dropbox; for those of you who aren’t, here are the top three reasons that you should start using it immediately:

· Its core spreadsheet, word processor, and slideshow products are great lightweight alternatives to Microsoft Excel, Word, and PowerPoint, respectively, but with the incredibly useful ability for multiple people to work collaboratively on the same document in real-time, without having to worry about all of the version control and forking that comes with trying to work together on one static file via email or a corporate intranet.

· Its Forms and Fusion Tables products go far beyond the functionality of Office and make it really simple to create and distribute easily customizable web forms that feed back into a standard spreadsheet (Forms) and create custom Google maps based on a spreadsheet from Google Drive or your hard drive (Fusion Tables—see here for a good batch geocoder, which converts addresses into latitude and longitude coordinates).

· You can install your Google Drive onto the hard drive of your computer as a replacement for your My Documents folder—I have mine installed on my home PC, and any changes I make to any documents in the source folder automatically sync in both directions, so regardless of where I am (my home PC, my work PC, a friend’s Mac, my iPhone or iPad) I always have access to the latest versions of all my files. The first 5gb are free, but you can scale up as high as you want to go.

 4. Instapaper is a service that saves plain-text versions of articles you want to read later and syncs them across all of your mobile devices, including e-ink Kindles. If you have 20 different tabs of articles you want to read later open in your browser at any given time, Instapaper is the solution to your problem; I personally love it because it lets me pull out longer articles that I want to sit down and enjoy properly from my feeds as I’m scanning them over the course of the day. For more about my full news-reading system, which involves multiple apps and devices, see my earlier blog post here.

 5. Kayak is the best one-stop-shopping travel site around—it works by searching other travel sites and search engines to find you the best deals on airfare, cars, and hotels, and it very rarely fails to find the best price on airfare. Naming your own price on Priceline will generally get you a better price on hotels, though, and I’ve consistently found the lowest prices for rental cars on Hotwire.

 6. Mint.com is the best online budgeting system that I’ve found—you plug in all of your accounts, and it automatically monitors and categorizes your expenses, income, etc. and makes it really easy to set up and track your progress on budgets and savings goals.

 7. The New Organizing Institute’s Tip of the Day isn’t an app or a website—it’s a campaign-related daily email—but there are periodically some really great tech tips in there. It’s how I learned Twitter’s @-mention rules, discovered Rapportive, learned to send mail merges using Gmail and Google spreadsheets, and lots more. Not every post contains a great tip, but I generally find that I average one significant new skill or piece of knowledge per week from it.

 8. Rapportive is an add-on for the web version of Gmail that adds a social layer to your email by taking over the real estate to the right of the message pane and using it to pull all of the publicly available data from major social networks about any email address that you hover over in a given message.

 9. Toggl is the best time-tracking software that I’ve found. I use it at work to keep a detailed, down-to-the-minute record of everything that I do while I’m on the clock, something that I wouldn’t even attempt in its absence because none of the alternatives are this dead simple. You don’t even need a special app—the desktop and mobile web versions are easy to configure, and switching from task to task takes seconds. If you want to figure out where all of your time is going, this is a great place to start.

 Smartphone apps:

1. Cocktail Compass is a location-aware happy hour app for iOS and Android that helps you figure out where your next cheap drink is going to come from. Enough said.

 2. Fitbit is a central clearinghouse for all of your quantified self info, including a huge number of API hooks on the back end to connect it to virtually any other health tracking app that you can imagine—my personal favorites are EveryMove, a “frequent flier program for your health” that rewards you just for being active; My Fitness Pal, which is the best calorie tracker that I’ve found; and RunKeeper, which tracks your runs automatically via GPS. There’s an accessory device that goes with the Fitbit app that I highly recommend for tracking how many calories you’re burning per day just walking around and how much sleep you’re getting, but you can also estimate both of those and enter them manually.

 3. Taxi Magic is the best way that I’ve found to hail a cab in most American cities—it taps directly into the same dispatch system that the taxi companies use and lets you either call a cab immediately or schedule a future pickup, and it’s like Uber in that it lets you pay entirely through the app…although unlike Uber, you get to set your own tip amount. There are a handful of cities (Seattle’s not one) in which Uber links up directly with taxi companies, and in those cases I’d recommend it for its generally quicker routing, but Uber towncars are significantly more expensive than cabs.

 4. TripIt is a great app for anyone who does a lot of traveling—you set it up to scan your inbox for travel itineraries, and then it automatically imports the details into a simple mobile app so that you don’t have to go hunting around your inbox to figure out exactly what time your flight leaves or what the address of the hotel is. It is for itineraries what Apple’s Passbook is for boarding passes.

 5. Twist is a location-sharing app that lets friends know when you’re arriving at a specific address via car, bus, or foot, and keeps them automatically updated on your progress via text messages. For the duration of your trip it also includes a link to a Glympse-style map of your current location in case they want a more accurate view of just how far away you are.

 iOS-only apps:

1. Google Maps: If you’re still using Apple Maps on your iPhone, stop what you’re doing right now, download the iOS version of Google Maps, and never open Apple Maps again. It’s the best mobile mapping app that has ever existed, bar none.

 2. Haiku Deck is iPad-only, but if you have an iPad and you ever need to create PowerPoint presentations, do yourself a favor and download this one immediately. It’s the best way I’ve found to make simple, beautiful slide decks quickly and easily, and it’s super simple to publish your finished product to the web for easy sharing or export it as a traditional PowerPoint file.

3. Mailbox is an iPhone-only (for now) Gmail client that’s really popular right now—you may have to sit on their waiting list for a month or two before you get access, but it’s the best way I’ve found to process Gmail on the go. There are some other good mobile Gmail apps (most notably Google’s own), but Mailbox stands out for the ease with which you can archive, delete, or label a message quickly, and also for its proprietary system of temporarily removing a message from your inbox and then scheduling it to go back in at a later date (similar to Boomerang for the desktop, but easier to use).

That should be enough to get you started—if you have a favorite app or three that I’ve missed, let me know in the comments.

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