I was suddenly taken aback the other day when I realised just how many different online communications services I used. I have five email accounts though I actually only use four of them. I have four IM accounts though I only use two of them, and one of those is Facebook Chat. I am registered with five social networks though only use ... two of them regularly. And then there's Dooyoo as well, which doesn't fall into any of those categories.
So, how do you keep up with all the updates to all of these services? I'm sure I'm not alone in this dilemma. As with many faced with the same problem, I am looking for the perfect solution. My perfect solution is something which is easy to use, not too intrusive, covers as broad a spectrum of services as possible and is portable, in other words, something I can run from a thumb drive.
This last is a habit born of my long-term use of the Thunderbird email client. Yes, all of the email services I use also provide webmail access and, true, you can simply leave all your email "out there". I, however, prefer to remove my email from potentially prying eyes, to Portable Thunderbird, where I can, if required, browse it offline. This, of course, doesn't apply to Hotmail as MS insists on keeping you Hotmail email on its servers, even if you use Windows Live Mail.
My first dalliance with agglomerated services involved just IM and was very much restricted to portable solutions. There are centralised IM services such as eBuddy, which are purely web-based and I'm sure they work very well; my son uses that one at work. I wanted something I could load onto my thumb drive.
I looked at Trillian and it was a reasonable tool, until they upgraded to the latest release, which now uses their central services to consolidate your IM conversations rather than just a local client. I then tried Pidgin (formerly Gaim), which has the advantage of being purely client based but has usability issues I don't like. So, whilst the new Trillian seemed to offer a reasonable compromise (local client accessing Trillian's servers), if that has to be the way to go then why stop there? Why not look for something that consolidates all services, not just IM?
Now, first, before you say, "Ah, but..." yes, I know, Digsby isn't portable... yet. There are several threads on the Digsby Forum about this and the Digsby Developers have said it's something on which they are working. Several interim solutions have been proposed but as yet I have not chosen to try any of them.
Digsby is not the only player in this game. I have come across a web-based service which seeks to achieve the same objective, called Power.com. It seems to be based in Brazil and had Google's Orkut as its first focus. I have tried it but it seems somewhat flaky and immature. Also, Power.com does not offer the option of a local client.
Digsby seeks to bring together into one place your eMail, IM and Social Networks and to keep you posted "instantly" about all of the updates to each. Your starting point is the Digsby website, where you download the client software to your computer. The Home page has a big Download button and clicking this offers you the choice of platform of Apple, Windows and Linux (the link takes you to CNET for your download). Below this you can also click a button to watch a video intro to Digsby.
Part of the install process is that you have to sign up to Digsby for an account with which to manage all the other accounts. So, yet another userid and password to remember! When you fire up the Digsby client you enter this userid and password after it has first done a check to see if there any updates to the client software to download and install. These updates seem to happen on a fairly regular basis, though more about the changes and interaction with the user community later.
The Digsby client puts its icon in your System Tray in the bottom right-hand of your screen (assuming you don't have Autohide on your Task Bar). From here you can either double-click the icon to launch the Buddy List window or else right-click to select such as Preferences. Preferences is probably where you will want to go first, in order to set up the accounts you want to manage.
Account setup requires that you accept that your userid and password for each service will be stored on Digsby's servers so that it can automatically log you on to each. Digsby makes great play about the security surrounding this information. I have been mostly against this in principle but I have to accept that if services like Digsby are to offer the advantages we end users are seeking then its the price we have to pay.
For each service you define to Digsby a new icon for that service is opened in the System Tray. Clicking the icon pops up from immediately above it a window displaying all of the latest updates on that service. The icon itself has a little number in its bottom right-hand corner indicating the number of items in the list. So, for an email service it's the number of unread emails in the Intray; for Twitter it's the number of messages you would see if you logged in native to Twitter itself. The pop-up remains open only so long as you keep the cursor hovering over it; move the cursor away and it vanishes.
Right-clicking the icon offers you an number of other options, some of which will require direct access to the website and will result in it being launched for you by Digsby in you Web Browser of choice. However, some actions such as Delete for an email or Reply for a Twitter Direct Message, for instance, can be done directly from the message entry in the pop-up list.
The one exception to the rule (isn't it always!) is Facebook. When I first started using Digsby it opened a dedicated window to interface to Facebook which was clearly a cut-down Web Browser. I don't know what rendering engine it used; it was very simple and for things like Refresh and Back you had to use the right-click button. The window contents didn't respond to the scroll wheel on the mouse but did to clicking the mouse wheel and moving the cursor relative to the on-screen scroll icon. It would only minimise to the Task Bar, not the System Tray and clicking the "X" closed your Facebook session down.
None of this was very satisfactory and I had raised a couple of issues about it on the Forum on the Digsby website, only to find that with the next client update the Facebook browser had disappeared completely! Now, clicking the Facebook icon in the System Tray pops up a list just as with all the other icons, containing what you would find in the middle section of the page you see when you click Home on the Facebook Menu. Anything else, other than "Set Status", results in the Facebook website being launched for you in your normal browser of choice.
The Facebook Chat facility, though, is different yet again. Your Facebook online chat friends appear along with your other IM contacts in the Buddy List you get by double-clicking the Digsby icon in the System Tray. However, even if you have grouped your Facebook friends, all of the online ones (it only shows online friends) appear under the general heading of "Contacts". Against each is their Facebook profile picture with the little Facebook "f" in the bottom corner, to show that they're on Facebook Chat.
Hovering the cursor over any entry in the Buddy List pops a window out alongside it to give more information about the buddy and access to options such as "Send a Message". Similar options are also available by right-clicking the entry.
Engaging in an IM conversation works pretty much the same way most IM clients work: a separate window opens for the chat, laid out in the conventional way. Opening two conversations at the same time tabs them in the same window with the currently active chat named on the Title Bar at the top of the window. The buddy name there gets changed to add (Typing) alongside it when they are adding chat, which might get missed more easily than where it appears with most other chat clients; small issue! Once again, the chat window minimises to the Task Bar, not the System Tray.
When the chat is on Facebook then if you switch to your Facebook session in your browser you will see the chat repeated in the pop-up chat box in the bottom right-hand corner of the Facebook window.
One thing where Digsby seems to score over other "universal" IM clients is that it appears it supports video chat. I haven't tried this yet but if it works, and I have no reason to suppose it doesn't then this is definitely a one-up to Digsby.
Digsby supports many other services than the ones I have mentioned here. I haven't commented on them because I don't use them. Digsby is pretty flexible in trying to incorporate all of the popular services out-of-the-bag. For instance, I use an email service that is not one of those listed by default. However, there are also POP and IMAP email options, which you can use in order to define your own chosen email service to Digsby.
You can customise Digsby for things like Notifications, so as to just play a tone when something happens or, more usefully, to pop up a small notification window briefly in the bottom left-hand corner of your desktop. Where the notification pop-up is for an IM update, a reply can even be entered in a reply box in it there, so long as you're quick enough to catch it, without even opening the actual chat window itself. You can customise other things as well, such as skinning the interfaces and the layout and design of the Buddy List.
So far I have only been using Digsby a relatively short time but I have to confess it's growing on me. It's not perfect; what is? However, it does do a good job of keeping me up-to-speed with most of what's going on in all of the online services I use, and that is, after all, the object of the exercise.
Most of all, I really would prefer the local Digsby client to be portable so that I can take it with me wherever I go. Hopefully that won't be too long coming. It would also be nice if Digsby really got its Facebook act together. At the moment it's good enough to let me know when most updates occur but I still have to use the proper Facebook interface via my browser in order to do anything really useful.
For email, it will not persuade me to abandon Thunderbird. When clicking on an email identified directly from the service icon in the System Tray, it would be nice if Digsby launched Thunderbird instead of taking me to the service's webmail site, but I can live without that.
For IM, though, it is good enough. It does what it has to do in a fairly efficient manner and that's what I need.
So, I can reservedly recommend Digsby if you are looking for a service of this type. It does appear to be undergoing continual development and so I can only hope that the issues that I find in need of improvement get addressed. You may wish to see other things. Join, as I have, the Digsby Forum and contribute to the discussion. I can't promise that your ideas will be acted upon but, if you don't put your hand up you can't expect to be heard, can you?
UPDATE - Nov 2009
I have discovered through the Digsby Forum that a French guy (madcow41 - http://www.mcsoft.online.fr/madcow/?Ninja-Digsby.html#forum49) has written an application to make Digsby portable. I've installed it on my USB thumb drive and it works a treat. It is batch driven but none the worse for that. At least you know what's going on. Recommended until an official version is produced, assuming I don't die first!
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Web of Trust: WOT
Wot is one of the things that can really help to protect your computer. Made in 2006, it has grown to be a hugely popular in the online community including winning "Gizmo's Top Pick for Best Freeware Internet Security Check". WOT is a very simple concept, but it works very well. It works with both Firefox and IE, But ... I am reviewing only on what I know about the firefox version. There is a little circle near my address bar. On this site I can see it is green, meaning it is a well trusted site. If I click on the circle, It will tell me the community rating for Child safety, Privacy, Vendor reliablity and Trustworthiness. I can see that these are all highlighted in green, showing they are all ok. If Privacy was yellow, I would know that it is not the best site in the world for Privacy. If it was Red, I would know that it was not that good. But lets say it was a very very nasty website, and they are all red. It is no good if I go on the site, right? WOT has thought of this, and if that is the case, a warning will pop up, blocking the website. I can then go onto the website if I wish, or go to the WOT site, to see what people have wrote, or just leave the site.
But if I go on a website, and everything is green, and I disagree.I can rate them bad, and then my rating would count towards the overall rating. But it is rare that your rating would compleatly be different to other peoples, and because of the huge amount of people that do report the correct ratings, generally you will get the correct rating for a site.
But people that try to manipulate the website to try to make WOT unreliable, will find it very hard. This is due to the fact that a trusted user has much more power over the ratings than a random person who is trying to mess up the data.
If you do have firefox, I would strongly reccommend getting it, as it just help you find good websites, and just protect your computer.
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--------------- What is Ventrilo? --------------- Ventrilo is a free 'Voice over IP' application which enables you to speak to other people who use the application, anywhere in the world via your internet. --------------- How does it work? --------------- It is much like making a ... conference call on a telephone without having to dial in, all that is necessary is for one person to be the 'host' and everyone else a just a regular user.
The host is a literal name, he is required to set up a server which is then hosted on his home computer. He can turn it on and off at will, and it only runs whilst his computer is on.
Now this can be quite difficult as setting up the server requires a number of factors such as by passing your firewall, forwarding the required ports on your computer and setting up a static ip address and staying on top of your external ip address so regular users can access the server.
Admittedly it sounds technical, and truthfully, it is, and whilst its only a couple of things, it can take a lot of work and their are some small semi-risks. First, when allowing access through your firewall, you need to know how to select individual programmes, and NOT just lower your firewall protection, as that lowers your protection from ALL your web surfing, meaning you could pick up a virus or somesuch from a wholly unrelated website. Now, whilst Ventrilo does not have viruses or any kind of danger to your computer in its system, the methods you can take to allow it access can make way for such issues as I have just explained, so you must be careful to take the time to learn about your firewall and find out how to allow it access without lowering your protection.
Now that's the easy part done.
The next is the bit which takes most time, setting up a static IP address. Now this time I'm not going to explain how to do this because it genuinely would turn this into a 4000 word review, and in truth setting up the static IP is just preparation for successful running of the server. But I'll give it the basics so, to set up your static IP you first need to find out all your IP details, subnet mask, gateway etc, then make a note of them. After that, you go to your connection info, chose to set up a static IP and enter all that info whilst choosing your own static IP. After that you use these details to forward specific ports. To do this you enter your IP address into your web browser (not Google or Ask, but the actual bar where you type your "www." addresses) then you access the configurations to forward your ports then choose the ports put in the information (including your chosen static ip) and away you go.
Sounds both complex and easy doesn't it? Well you're right, it is both complex and easy. There are websites around that will help you out with this if you need to do it, some are very good, and assuming you go through this rigmarole you will find that its not incredibly complex by the time you finish, but you probably won't really have understood what you have done.
Now here's the kicker, setting up a static IP can cause you to completely crash your internet if you do it wrong. Now this isn't the end of the world. If you had the good sense to write down the ip, subnet, gateway etc originally, you just put them back again after having changed them, and your internet will work again. If not you will need to call your ISP and they will help you fix it, but in truth, if you muck it up, repairing it is actually much easier.
There is another option, you can rent servers which are hosted by groups and websites licensed to host these servers. Prices vary depending on requirements, but be thinking double figures of pounds if you consider this option.
Is it any good?
The actual programme itself is very small in terms of computer space, around the 10mb mark, which, to use a rough analogy, if you're computer memory was represented in pounds, the average computer would have £8000-10,000 and this software would take up about 1p.
OK so lets assume you have a server running. Now you come to use the system and you will find that it is far and away too technical to really understand. This service has so many tabs and options to consider for every possible thing that it really takes away from what these programmes are about, simple access to a programme so you can talk to other people anywhere in the world without having to make a phone call.
Oh yes, this system works, very well in that regard, you log in with your chosen username and password and talk as much as you like, simple enough, but the sheer amount of configuration options is truly overwhelming. If you can't hear, or people can't hear you, the programme will bamboozle you with the options it presents. It presents far more complications than it does help in that respect.
As for the quality of the audio, well its decent, but that's it. You can hear, but its like talking to someone on a mobile phone with 2 bar signal. You can hear them well enough, make out what they say without any difficulty but the actual sound is rough and grainy, sounding nothing so much like someone talking with a mouthful of sandpaper in a wind tunnel. And here's the problem, there COULD be a way to rectify that, but at this point nobody really cares enough because fathoming out if its possible, let alone how to actually do it is incredibly difficult. At this point people just want to chat, not faff around optimizing the experience. They would if it was made simple, but it isn't and this application really falls down at this point.
Everything about getting this application working is a chore, just to find the chat quality needs work, which is also a chore, its just too much. Especially when there are competitors around. The two of note are Skype and Teamspeak (both of which I have also reviewed).
Skype as you may or may not know, is more of a traditional phonecall system, it works exactly like your phone, except you can call over the internet. You can call actual telephone numbers, but they do cost money, or you can talk to other Skype users for free. Compared to this its easier to set up and use, but far less reliable as the signal will often cut out and drop the call.
Teamspeak is far more like Ventrilo, in fact it is nearly identical. It takes the same work to set one up, but once done, it is actually far more reliable, and much simpler to use. The tabs and options available are more basic and efficient.
Out of all three, I rate Ventrilo equal to Skype, and Teamspeak as the best option.
So why use Ventrilo? Well, these programmes are by majority used by gamers and are particularly useful for gamers who run big clans or teams.
In both Ventrilo and Teamspeak, you start with a basic channel that everyone joins automatically, then you can create more channels for whatever you want. whether its specific games, or subject or whatever you want. Ventrilo allows creation of far more channels and allows far more people on the servers than Teamspeak. In this case it is a very worthy choice, especially for larger clans of gamers.
Speaking on the system is actually very simple, it recognizes all input types whether headset or microphone, jack's or usb's, all are catered for, and it is simply a case of using them normally. It is considered good manners to set yourself a mute or 'push to talk' button, as people don't want hear everything you do, and this is easily set up in the options (one of the few easy things to actually set up).
The service is regularly updated for new browser software, so if you change to Linux, or you upgrade to Vista you are covered. Such is the speed of updating the system I would expect that it would only be a matter of weeks at most before the software is ready for use with Windows 7 when released.
To sum up, I will use refer to ratings I gave for quick reference.
Plenty, but far too complex.
Very reliable, rarely crashes, expect some server maintenance if you rent a server. Whilst reliability is high, quality of audio is consistently average.
Not in the slightest, however it IS the best option to cater for large volumes of channels and users.
Actual software, very easy, however it requires lengthy preparation which can be irritating and confusing at times.
Constant. The service is always kept to a good reliable standard.
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Surround sound voice communication software.
Manufacturer: dotSyntax / Communication / Type: IM Freeware - Manage one buddy list with one tool - digsby, the multiprotocol IM client that lets you chat with all your friends on AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber. Get e-mail notification and keep up-to-date with your social network!
Communication / Keep yourself safe from unreliable online vendors, spam, spyware, adware, and viruses.
Communication / Macromedia Web Essentials is a special promotional offer combining Dreamweaver, the leading visual tool for professional Web site design, and Fireworks, Macromedia's innovative new Web graphics creation and production tool. Dreamweaver is the only visual
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