Get more from Google

Google provides a world of free software services.
Google provides a world of free software services.

Google is best known as a search engine, but it's simple homepage hides a world of useful computer tools.

Everyone knows that if you want to search the web, Google is the place to go. And if you want a free web-based email account then Google's Gmail service is right up there with Hotmail and Yahoo.

But there's more, much more, to Google than just super-fast searching or even free email.

The colossus of the dot-com world has scores of online services, all of them free but most of them undiscovered by those who rarely go beyond hitting the Search button on www.google.co.nz.

Here's a list of the best ways to get more from Google.

Sign up

All Google services are free but many require a Google account.

Happily, this is also free. Users with Gmail addresses are already signed up. Otherwise, step through this quick and painless process. Use an existing email address as a log-in or snaffle a Gmail account (which gives a new @gmail. com address) while there.

Search among the scholars

Google's standard search reaches far and wide around the web and homes in on the most popular websites; Google Scholar, however, narrows its scope to literature such as peer-review journals, theses and articles from academic groups and professional societies.

For a Google Scholar search, click the Scholar link on the Google home page or just go directly to scholar. google.com.

Find your way

Google Maps is one of those "wow" programs. Google Earth has "wow" times a hundred, of course, but Google Maps is far more practical.

Start at maps.google.com and enter an address in the search box. (The satellite-view button shows the same location on Google Earth's eye-in-the-sky satellite photos, or combinethe two using the hybrid button.)

Click the To Here or From Here links to have Google Maps plot a route to or from any other address, complete with a detailed set of driving directions that can be printed.

As with all Google services, a little experimentation will uncover additional tricks such as saving maps for future use and finding nearby shops, restaurants or other points of interest.

Made to measure

Google is famous not only for its rapid searching but its sparse home page -- but once a Google account has been created, a customised Google start page can be set up.

Click the iGoogle link at the top-right of the Google search page for a sampling of what's available.

Click the Add Stuff link to browse the extensive catalogue of web gadgets.

The iGoogle page can have additional search boxes to scour sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube and eBay; currency and measurement converters; world time clocks, news and weather updates and more.

Share your snaps

There are several free programs to help edit, organise and back-up digital photos, so why do we recommend you download Google's Picasa for Windows?

Because instead of emailing dozens of photos to all and sundry, which can often clutter up inboxes, images in Picasa can be uploaded to a password-protected web album with a single click.

Each Picasa account gets 1GB of storage, which is enough for about 4000 photos. Visitors to the site can download images to keep on their PC. Download the software from picasa.google.com and get access to web albums through a personal Google account. For Mac users, Google offers an iPhoto plug-in for directly uploading images to web albums.

Get some groupies

Google Groups are email-based mailing lists dedicated to a specific topic. This can be a professional or hobbyist interest, a community or sporting association or even a short-term effort such as a lobby group for some local project.

The real strength of Google Groups is that you can easily create your own group on almost any subject.

Emails are sent to everyone who's signed up to the group, although if the daily flow of emails is overwhelming the group's web page can be visited instead.

All together now

Google Apps rolls together other applications such as the online calendar, the Google Talk instant message and GoogleDocs for web-based word processing into a single package that Google promotes as being ideal for businesses, but they're just as attractive for a personal user.

The basic Google Apps service is free and more than enough for the average user. It includes all the standard Google applications plus mobile access to email and calendars and a customised start page (a private page, rather than a website or blog that's open to the public). 

One of the most appealing features is that Google Apps can be set up on a personal domain name, which Google sells for $US10 a year.

Instead of being tied to the email address issued by an ISP, a personal domain name can be bought through Google and used as a main email address.

The advantage is that users can change ISPs -- to get better service, or take advantage of a cheaper deal -- but still keep their email address.

Only US domain names such as . com and .net are available but they're automatically set up with Google Apps ready to roll.

Get the Google pack

The Google Pack bundles together a dozen free programs for WindowsXP and Vista, although only half are from Google itself. The most useful is the Google Toolbar, which is a plug-in for both  internet Explorer and Firefox web browsers and has short-cut buttons to popular Google services.

XP users may also enjoy the Google desktop, which provides super-charged searching of a PC (including email messages and documents) and a Vista-like side bar that lives on a desktop.

The pack includes the Google Talk and Picasa applications, plus the breathtaking Google Earth, which lets a user swoop from space down to almost street level in most countries. The latest version 4.2 also reverses the trip and head out into space.

A map of the night sky above the location can be seen with stars, constellations and planets marked, or a journey taken deep into the cosmos using high-resolution images capturedby the Hubble Space Telescope.

The rest of the Google Pack is a mixed bag: the RealPlayer software is of questionable value and we'd recommend the small and nimble Foxit PDF reader above Google's choice of the bloated Adobe Reader.

The StarOffice suite is good only if a no-cost alternative to Microsoft Office is needed. On the other hand, security programs such as Spyware Doctor and Norton Security Scan are well worth having, as is Skype.

 

The Press