a giftYears ago we would do a gift guide at this time of year, but we gave it up. Why? One reason is everyone and their Uncle Max does them and you can’t help but see several such lists each holiday season. The other reason is Bob came to distrust them.

Companies that market a lot of gadgets will have some good stuff in their lists but they will also have things that didn’t sell and have been sitting in the warehouse for a year or more – usually for good reason. How do you tell the good from the bad? Well, by trying everything out, which is extremely time consuming and ultimately mind numbing. So instead, we’re going to suggest the best gifts you can download for free this season. Put them on a $5 thumb drive for someone else, or keep them for yourself.

We love these programs. Bob’s choice is  CaptureWizPro, a free trial from – more on this bottomless pit a little later. Joy likes Jing, which is completely free from Other nice freebies include Picasa for photos, Audacity for sound recordings and Evernote for note taking.

We use CaptureWiz and Jing almost every day. What they do is allow you to capture any part of what you see on the screen, including the whole screen or scroll down and get continuing screens. They also capture video. If you have the patience you can capture a whole movie as it plays on your computer screen. They can capture just audio, should you want to save a lecture or a TED talk.

When you capture something, save it to disk, send it to someone, put it in a folder of similar captures, print it, etc. You can also save a capture as a “sticky note.” This is a note pasted on the screen, much like a Post-It note. It can be moved around or off the edge. What’s so handy about it is you can save a list of statistics or quotes from somebody as a sticky note and refer to it quickly for whatever you’re working on.

Now, let’s get back to using There are thousands of programs stored there, most of them free or free to try. Many of them are great. Download sites are supported by payments from companies that want their programs loaded onto your computer along with the ones you chose. You’ll see then come up if you choose “custom install,” otherwise they load automatically. In the custom install, there will be a list of boxes already checked off. Unless you see something you want, uncheck them; getting rid of some of this stuff later can be quite difficult.



THE_CHROMEBOOKSales of Google “Chromebooks,” computers that run the Chrome operating system instead of Windows, Mac or Linux, were up 67 percent in the third quarter of 2014, according to market research firm ABI Research. ABI predicts this year’s Chromebook tally to be double last year’s.

Chromebooks are computers that fix themselves every time you boot up. Nearly everything you do takes place online, so they make a great second computer for email, social networking and the like. They stay fast because they don’t get bogged down with spyware and sluggish programs. And they’re cheap: around $200 at stores like Best Buy.



3_androidThe worst feature of a smart phone is its fast-draining battery. As we’ve written before, an app like the free “Battery Doctor” helps with that. But the most important thing, we’ve found, is to tap “settings” and turn off Wi-Fi. After that, decrease your screen brightness. And use a program like the free “Clean Master” to get rid of junk files.

If you’re having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or your cellular connection, put your phone in airplane mode for a few seconds, then try to connect. And if the screen is unresponsive, turn the phone off and wait a few seconds before turning it back on. There are more tips at



huminHumin is a free iPhone app that remembers contacts the way you remember them, which is not necessarily by name. If you tap “met this month,” you’ll see just those contacts. Or you might remember they live in Texas, and see just those contacts. The app gives you details, like where they went to school. (Bob is thinking of getting business cards that say “Some guy I met at a trade show.”)



wolfie_for_piano“Wolfie For Piano” is an iPad-based music education app that transforms sheet music into an interactive lesson.


NEW TRENDS IN BUSINESS has book, audio and other     summaries. has book, audio and other summaries.

GetAbstract gives you summaries of the latest business books, articles and Ted talks. They put out 50 new summaries a month. Get up on the hot new trends in business – maybe you’ll learn how to kill an existing product with a new version. Starts at $89 a year.



sci_projectsSearch on the words “8 YouTube Science Projects Kids Will Love” for some neat stuff.

One is called “Milk into Stone: Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic.” It shows you how ordinary milk and vinegar can be poured into a cookie cutter or other mold. After a couple of days it’s as hard as stone.

In another project, a video showed how to use tonic water to turn potatoes into something that glows in the dark. It can also be done with corn starch, for a lot less work.



man versus womanOne in five men would rather have an iPhone 6 than a girlfriend, according to a Yahoo survey. That’s worse than last year, when only one in eight said they’d rather have a girlfriend than a new phone. Girlfriends are losing ground.



santaHere are some easy ways to send out holiday greetings: turns email into greeting cards for users of the Chrome web browser. Whatever you type can be printed inside a ready-made card you choose. Starts with one free card. lets you choose from hundreds and have your message inside. They print it, stamp it and mail it, and can use your address book so you don’t have to retype anything. has lovely digital greeting cards for $12 a year. We like it even better than, though we’ve noticed that only a few of our friends like digital cards. Most prefer the paper kind; that includes us.



Corel Painter Essentials 5“Corel Painter Essentials 4″ can turn photos and drawings into pieces that look very much like paintings. It’s not the only program that can do this, but it’s based on one of the earliest. It has been seven years since the last version and with this version the company has managed to take a giant step backward,

It’s not that the program’s new tools aren’t fun. Most of them are. It’s that the previous version from seven years ago had outstanding videos that practically held your hand every step of the way as you learned. You worked along with the guidance of a professional artist and the results were great. The company dumped all of that. Now if you click on “tutorials,” it takes you online to fast-paced YouTube videos with no audio instructions. Blink and you miss a crucial step.

The old version also had rich menus with many choices; the new one cut some of those. You could choose to make a photo look something like a painting done by Van Gogh, Georges Seurat or John Singer Sargent. Van Gogh made the cut. Seurat got dumped. Read more »