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36 essential apps for managing a successful home office

10 June 2011, Nick Peers

More and more of us are working from home these days, and whether you’re in the service of The Company or working for yourself, your computer will play a vital part in your day-to-day routine. As with all tasks, there are tools out there that can transform the way you work and free up your time so you’re more productive (or able to devote more hours to Freeciv).

As established freelance homeworkers ourselves, we’ve built up a catalogue of useful free software that can help you when working from home, from the obvious (office suites and collaborative tools) to the less obvious (want to avoid RSI? Create a secure network over the internet? Access your computer while out and about?). Read on, then, for our choice of apps for those working from home.

Expand your office app
It’s almost certain you already have office software installed (if not, you can road-test Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows or Office 2011 for Mac, or opt for a free solution like LibreOffice or Lotus Symphony). If you’re running Microsoft Office, though, you’ll find a number of useful add-ins that can help boost productivity. If you’re currently giving Office a trial run in Windows, you might find 30 days isn’t enough time to decide whether it’s for you or not. Install Office Trial Extender and you’ll be able to extend this for up to a maximum of 180 days.

If you find yourself endlessly switching between open documents in the Windows version of Office, install OfficeTab, which allows you to display all open documents as a series of tabs in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, making it easy to move between them.

With people moving their files to the cloud for easy access, backup and collaboration, it’s worth noting that a couple of Windows-only apps help integrate your Google Docs account with Microsoft Office. Google Cloud Connect for Office automatically uploads your Word, Excel and PowerPoint files to Google Docs each time you click Save, while for Google Docs extends the functionality to Outlook, giving you direct access to your Google Docs interface for the purposes of sharing your files via links instead of attachments, reducing the load on your inbox.

Viewing and creating PDFs
If you’re sending a document to someone to proof, you can’t always be sure they’ll see it as you do, even if they have the same program installed. The best way to ensure they do see the same document as you do is to convert it into a PDF file. PDF viewers are free (Mac users even have it built-in), but while many people plump for the “official” program from Adobe (Adobe Reader if you were wondering), you could be missing a trick by doing so. Instead, consider Foxit PDF Reader, which consumes a fraction of the system resources and is quick and fast.

When it comes to creating PDFs, the most common solution is to use a virtual print driver, which “prints” the file to PDF via the File > Print menu. Again, Mac users can enjoy this functionality as part of OS X, but Windows users don’t have to worry. Both PrimoPDF and doPDF offer PDF printing capabilities for free, while Nitro PDF Reader offers the complete all-in-one tool: A PDF viewer offering tools for both printing PDFs and directly converting files to PDF from over 300 supported formats.

Stay in touch
Keeping in touch with bosses, clients and colleagues is obviously a key part of anyone’s working day, and homeworkers are no exception. The first thing to do is replace the built-in email client (assuming your PC ships with one) with something a little more powerful. You could plump for Thunderbird (Google Mail users wanting to resurrect the conversation view should subsequently install the Thunderbird Conversations add-in), but we’d suggest taking a look at the trial version of Postbox first. This gives you the best bits of Outlook without the hefty price tag.

If you find yourself impatiently awaiting the next email to arrive in your inbox, and you don’t want to be constantly opening your email client to find out if it’s arrived, try the free POP Peeper tool.

Email’s all well and good, but it can be slow. You could take to the phone, but that can prove expensive, so why not get the best of both worlds and sign up for a free Skype account? Download the correct Skype client for Windows, Mac or Linux (and, while you’re at it, grab the iPhone/iPad client too) and you can enjoy free voice and video chats with other Skype users, plus send instant messages and share files too. And if your colleagues or business partners insist on using another network instead, install Trillian instead, which is also available for Mac and a variety of portable devices including Android, iPhone and Blackberry.

True collaboration
There may come a time when you’ll need to collaborate with others. When that time comes, you’ll want an environment designed to make sharing files and other resources as simple as possible. TeamDrive is a cross-platform tool for the purposes of file sharing, with 1GB available for free accounts, and paid upgrades available should they be needed.

If you want to collaborate through the sharing of information, such as notes or web snippets, check out Evernote or Memonic, both of which synchronise to a web account and can be accessed from smartphone using dedicated apps too.

If you’re working on a major project with others, then check out Revolver Mail – this tool combines email server, personal information manager and project organiser to provide the potential to serve as the backbone for a small office environment, with up to 10 users supported for free.

If you only need to organise yourself, Revolver Mail may seem like a bit of overkill. No matter, because there are plenty of tools out there that will bring your life into order. One of the best freebies has to be TaskCoach, another cross-platform gem that’s lightweight and capable of managing composite projects with multiple goals. If you need something with more features, check out EssentialPIM (Windows) or The Hit List (Mac) instead.

Protect yourself
We’re not about to lecture you about the basics of securing your computer (click here for a guide to doing that), but you should take steps to protect your documents from data loss, and to keep them from falling into the wrong hands.

Start by ensuring your data is transmitted securely across any network, even public wi-fi spots. Setting up a Virtual Private Network is the answer here, and LogMeIn Hamachi is one of the best VPN tools out there.

What about the data stored on your computer? If you don’t want it falling into the wrong hands, particularly if it’s stored on a laptop that isn’t bound to a single location, you should store it in an encrypted folder. The best tool for the job by far is TrueCrypt, which allows you to both secure individual folders into which you store your sensitive data, or an entire drive, making it next to impossible for thieves to access the data on your drive should your laptop fall into the wrong hands.

What happens if you want to delete sensitive files from your computer? They’re not securely erased by default, so use Eraser to ensure every last trace of them is shredded from your computer.

Of course, you also need to protect your data from data loss (if you accidentally delete or lose a file, you may be able to get it back again with Recuva). If you’re in the market for a comprehensive backup tool that can back up your entire system as well as individual files and folders, check out Comodo Backup.

It’s always a good idea to have at least two backup plans, one of which is stored remotely offsite. The additional benefits of using an online backup tool like SugarSync or Wuala is that files can be synced between two or more computers, plus shared securely with trusted partners.

And there’s more
Before we close the door on improving your working life as a homeworker, there are two final tools we’d like to show you. What happens if you’re away from your desk and urgently need to access your computer? Install TeamViewer and you can remotely access and control it from another machine, your iPhone, iPad or Android device.

Worried that all that time in front of your computer may have knock-on health issues? A tiny tool called Workrave will help prevent the onset of RSI or eyestrain by reminding you at regular intervals to take breaks from your computer. It’s the perfect excuse for taking a coffee break…

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