Monday, March 28, 2011

(Software) Tools of the trade

Now that I've finished my PhD program and I will be spending my last day at OldEuropeU this week, I've also found out that I must return my 4 year old laptop. This tank is archaic, with under 100 GB of disk space, a wireless card that's on the fritz a lot, and a fan that reminds me of my knees after I've ran a 10k. Yet, at the same time, this computer is my life blood. I've managed to wrangle another few more months because I won't get my new SnowU computer until I officially start in a few months.

One of the things I'll have to do with the new computer is transfer data and reinstall a bunch of software. This post will help me do two things. One, this forces me to categorize my main software tools. I'll probably have to update to newer versions but at least it's a start. Two, you can suggest different software tools that you use and why they might be better than my current stuff. I'm always looking out for the easiest software tools to perform a particular task. Here goes:

Basic Internet Tools:
  • Chrome with Gmail Notifier (great for not having a browser open) and Minimize to Tray for Chrome (allows you to free up your taskbar). Generally, I leave an incognito window in my taskbar for GEARS stuff (email, twitter).
  • Dropbox is great for file sharing. NewPhD introduced me to it and it has worked really well for keeping up with the latest data sets. I'm contemplating getting the 20 GB extension unless I can figure out a better way share whole folders in Google Docs/Sites. Dropbox is a $5 monthly for whereas Google charges $5/year. I'm cheap like that.
  • Skype: in-laws need to see NanoGEARS while we're overseas. Also, I hired a PhD student over it and DrWife had her interviews over it as well. Would be better if my wireless didn't suck.
  • AIM and MSN for keeping up with old friends. Can't we pick just one instant messaging program and stick with it?
Productivity Suites:
  • MiKTex 2.7: I know I need the newer version but it is a hefty 7 GB download and I can't handle that right now. MiKTex, for those that don't know, is a LaTeX distribution for typesetting and making professional documents. I used it for my thesis and for all of my journal papers. It's great. I'll probably upgrade at MiKTeX 3.0.
  • Crimson Editor: General purpose text editor. It handles everything. Tex/bib files for LaTeX, M-Files in Matlab, C/C++, Java, tons'o'other programming languages. It's fast and compact. The downside is you have to make batch files to link your LaTeX compilation to your command prompt. Once you have it set up though, it's fine. FYI, never crashed on me once. I think they've stopped upgrading it or working on it.
  • JabRef 2.4: Fantastic reference manager. Natively supports LaTeX and it's free! Can export to a bunch of file formats including EndNote and Office. Helps organize all of my references and papers that I've read. They're up to 2.7 now... I think I need to upgrade.
  • MS Office: Yes, I mainly use it for PowerPoint and making presentations. I could use LaTeX but that's much more time consuming. Also, I'm working on a book with a colleague and we've agreed to use Word. Sucks but that's life sometimes.
  • MathType for MS Office: I wasn't sold on MathType but it was required for this book. But, now that I've used it a bunch, it's not so bad. Still a clunky interface and prone to MS Word crashes but when you have know choice, you make do.
  • Inkscape: Inkscape is the open source Illustrator or Corel Draw. I need it for EPS figures and making line drawings. It's still not a version 1.0 (or even 0.5 for that matter). The interface isn't intuitive at all and it never actually takes the dimensions that I want. With that said, it's easier to use than Illustrator and cheaper. I've managed to use it successfully for simple line drawings but anything advanced is way over my head.
  • Adobe Suite: I have the full suite but I mainly use Acrobat and Illustrator. Illustrator is a clunky interface but it can save EPS figures so I need it. Acrobat is something I use sparingly because there is...
  • Foxit Reader: Waaaay Faster than Adobe Acrobat. Also, blocks the "section reading" attribute for PDF files which is great. When I click and drag the page with the hand tool, I don't want it to resize or zoom in.
Power Tools:
  • Matlab and Simulink: I've already posted here about how I love Matlab for templates. I use it for data analysis and plotting. I'm probably not the power user that DrWife is but she's slowly converting me.
  • Labview: I use Labview less because I think Matlab does everything that Labview does and does it better. Graphical programming is terrible and it's supposed to make things easier for non-programmers but I find it only makes it more confusing. There is one caveat. The NI FPGA module can only be programmed via Labview so when I want to use that, I have no choice. Oh, an it's default 3-d surface plot format is better looking than Matlab.
  • Solidworks: Wow, about 7 years ago, I was introduced to Solidworks as an alternative to Pro/Engineer, Pro/E2 and Pro/E Wildfire and I've never looked back. Even better if you can afford COSMOS, their FEA package.
  • Ghostscript: Ghostscript is good for converting EPS to PNG pictures and is a general tool in conjunction with LaTeX.
  • Keil uVision: Software for programming the microcontrollers that I use. It's C and I hate C, but ehhh, gets the job done. The software is fine. C Sucks.
System/Miscellaneous Tools:
  • 7-Zip: Better zipping program than native Windows XP and it's free. Works well with ZIP, RAR, JAR, and tar-balls (you crazy linux folks...).
  • Eagle PCB: I don't do it often but when I need simple PCBs, I turn to Eagle. I use it in conjunction with the Texas Instruments Analog Design software and FilterPro for making and proofing simple circuits. Also, for checking the Gerber files, I use GC-Prevue.
  • HijackThis: Sometimes, you just need to take back Windows XP from itself.
  • InfraRecorder: Simple CD/DVD burner software.
  • Daemon Tools: Ever have an ISO file that you don't want to burn to a CD? Use this to emulate a CD rom drive in a windows folder.
What are you go-to software tools? Any suggestions for better software?


  1. Regarding dropbox:
    If you register your university mail to your dropbox account you will get 500 mb for each new member you them. The maximum free data storage will also be increased to the double.

    As latex writer i used Texniccenter in windows. The 2.0 alpha version was pretty good.

  2. I would prefer to for Google to buy it so it can work with Picassa/Sites/Docs etc.

    Google: $5/year for 20 GB is 4 GB/$/year
    Dropbox: $100/year for 50 GB is 2 GB/$/year

    Actually, now that I actually looked up the cost per GB per year, they're not bad.

    I used to use Texniccenter. I found it somewhat lacking and prone to crashing. Maybe newer versions have changed.

    FYI, if anyone knows of a Latex editor that can do track changes, please let me know.

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  4. Miktex is not nearly that big. You merely need to install the bare bones profile and other packages as needed.