How many programs do you have open on your computer right now? My guess is that the number is less than you had open last year.
As we move forward into the future, one platform is helping to consolidate everything we do on computers; that platform is the web. Much of the work that used to be done in standalone desktop programs can now be done with web apps. This platform shift brings about two chief benefits. First, you only need one program open to do much of your work, rather than having a program for each task. Second, you can do your work from any computer.
Web apps are certainly the future. To an extent, they’re also the present. As a student, you can do much of what you need to get done using web apps. Gone are the days of needing one dedicated computer with an expensive suite of programs to get everything done. Now you can grab a cheap laptop — or even make do with computer labs — and take care of business. All it takes is knowing about the tools available. Here are five web apps I use on a daily basis that I believe no student should be without.
Evernote is one of my most-used and most-loved programs I’ve found since starting college. Essentially, Evernote is a note-taking app — but it’s one of the most robust note-taking apps you’ll ever find. Not only are there both Mac and Windows versions, but there’s also a fantastic web interface, as well as mobile versions for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm and Windows Phone 7.
The application lets you create text notes, picture notes, video notes from a webcam and even “web clippings” — saved web pages that you can view offline. In addition, everything you create is stored in the cloud and synced to each device you use, so your notes can travel from your computer to your phone in a snap. However, the coolest feature of Evernote is its text-recognition feature — scan in your handwritten notes and Evernote makes the text searchable. It works even if your handwriting is fairly terrible like mine. Check out the second half of this article to learn how to incorporate this feature into your workflow.
Evernote offers paid accounts; however, as a student you’ll never need anything more than the free account as long as you’re not creating long video notes every day. For taking notes of any kind, Evernote is the perfect student companion. I don’t know how I ever got along without it.
Dropbox is a program that syncs your files between all your computers and makes them available from any internet-connected computer or smartphone. Just install the application on your computer and a “My Dropbox” folder will appear on in your file explorer. Any file you put in this folder, or any folders inside it, will be synced to Dropbox’s servers and to any other computer where you have Dropbox installed.
The benefit of this functionality is obvious — say you’re working on a paper late at night on your desktop, and it’s due at 1:00 the next day. If you don’t finish it that night, you can simply take your laptop to your 11:00 class, open it up and all the changes you made on your desktop will have been synced.
What if you forget your laptop? Simply log into Dropbox’s website from any computer and you can download your file. This really comes in handy if you forget to print a paper and have access to a public computer lab.
Lastly, you can access all your files from your iPhone or other smartphone with the Dropbox app. There are a lot of other cool (and unexpected) uses for Dropbox — be sure to check the blog for some of these in the near future.
Every student needs an external system (read: something other than your brain) to help with time management. Google Calendar is my favorite calendar app, mainly because it’s free and it’s part of Gmail. Additionally, Google Calenar syncs with many of the excellent calendar apps for iPhones and Android phones.
One of my favorite features of Google Calendar is that you can create multiple color-coded calendars. You can show or hide these calendars individually, so it’s good to create a separate calendar for each facet of your life. I have calendars for classes, work, student events, homework and my businesses. I also have another calendar that I hide by default for professor office hours. Each semester, I create a recurring event for each professor’s hours, just in case I need to visit them.
If you want, you can even use Google Calenar’s built in to-do list. It’s not as good as Wunderlist (listed next), but it does get the job done.
There are a lot of task management web apps out there — Remember the Milk, Toodledo, Teuxdeux, Producteev, Flow, Nirvana, Google Tasks, Todoist, Springpad, Apollo… the list goes on. If you want to look at it from an objective standpoint, Producteev and Toodledo are probably the best ones in terms of features and (lack of) price. However, my task management app of choice is Wunderlist. Why? Simplicity and beauty.
Wunderlist is a really simple task management tool based around lists. The interface is stunningly beautiful and there are apps for almost every platform — Windows, OS X, Linux, iPad, iPhone, Android — as well as the actual web client. The desktop apps even support natural language commands, so you can create tasks with due dates just by typing something like, “Do programming project on December 5″. You also have the ability to append a note to a task if you need. The UI is snappy and responsive, so you won’t feel like your task management is a task in itself (the same can’t be said for some other apps).
The list-based approach of Wunderlist is extremely useful if you’re a student. I create a list for every class, as well as for every other part of my life — blog posts, web design projects, my job as an RA and my random personal to-do’s. This way, I can see at a glance what needs to be done for a certain list. Wunderlist also lets you view tasks from every list that are due soon, so nothing can ever slip under the radar. You can even set it up to email you tasks that are due the next day.
At the end of the day, my favorite feature of Wunderlist is its simplicity. It’s so much easier to use than some of the other apps out there. Of course, if even this sounds too complicated, you can always try Strike — there’s literally nothing simpler.
Google Chrome — yep!
“Wait a minute — Google Chrome is a browser not a web app!”
You’re absolutely right — at its core, Google Chrome is a web browser, meaning it is a standalone program on your computer ñ not a web app. So why am I including it here? Applications and extensions.
Google Chrome’s growing library of apps and extensions has turned the browser into what is essentially a cloud operating system. That’s not an overstatement — Google is even selling specialized laptops called Chromebooks that run literally nothing but Chrome.
The browser’s start page serves as a launching station for applications. Applications are essentially links to websites; however, since these websites all contain web apps, you can think of this start page as your desktop. Here are some recommended applications (which technically make this article more than five apps):
- Aviary Image Editor — edit images online in a really powerful image editor.
- ShiftEdit — an online IDE that lets you code from any computer and sync to an FTP server or Dropbox.
- Springpad — an app that lets you organize and save anything (similar to Evernote, but more suited to saving content rather than taking notes).
- Kindle Cloud Reader — read your Kindle books right in the browser.
- Fieldrunners — a great tower defense game and one of my favorite time-wasters.
Extensions are slightly different — instead of launching websites, these actually modify the browser and make it do something new. Some extensions will install behind the scenes and simply execute without making themselves seen. Others will add a button next to the browser’s address bar so you can use them when you want. Here are a few extensions you should definitely check out:
- StayFocused — probably one of the most important extensions a student can have. This blocks access to distracting sites like Reddit and Facebook when you need to get work done.
- iReader — Pulls the article out of a website and displays it in a clutter-free page.
- Evernote Web Clipper — clip articles or full web pages and save them in your Evernote account.
- LastPass — the best password manager around. This extension will automatically log you in to any website you have stored in your vault.
Of course, I couldn’t call Chrome a web app unless you could access all your extensions and settings from any computer. You can, actually, and it’s done with Google Chrome Sync. Set up Sync with your Google account on any computer you use and all your stuff will follow you. You can even do this with a portable Chrome installation that you can keep on a flash drive.
Countless other web apps exist that can help you get work done. If you go through these and find yourself wanting to try more, check out Appstorm Web. It’s one of my favorite places to find new apps.
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