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Working in the cloud with free software

This post comments briefly on some of the "cloud"-enabled software utilities that I have started to use more and more. Short definition: these apps will allow you to work from different computers or devices on your data, yet are more optimized and user-friendly than a web page, despite the javascript goodness that seems to flood many new "organizer" and "authoring" and "managing" projects.

I'll discuss Dropbox, Evernote, Skitch and Mendeley Desktop. Not CAD this time, but usable and free utilities that I have start to rely on, almost every day.

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This one is quite popular. You want to access your files from different places and possibly share them with others. Dropbox provides a free 2GB (with some more to obtain when referring others) to host your files.

Files are synced, you can work offline, you can have a local folder on your computer (Windows, OSX, Linux) or on one of your devices (Android, iOS etc...).

Just do what you usually do: open and edit files and save them. But rest assured that you will be able to access them on another device as well.

For me, it replaces to a large extent other means of sharing (e.g. ftp) or sending large files (e.g. YouSendit). And when installed as an app, compared to the web-interface, you get notifications for updates and an additional bonus space.


At my latest conference, someone pointed me to Evernote. This is a note-taking application, where you can start taking notes. By tagging them and organizing them into notebooks, you can structure them at will. E.g. I have personal projects, research, teaching and general computing notebooks, where I edit stuff. You can even add audio or webcam notes alongside HTML-based text-nodes. Images can be included as well and there are some helper tools to snap websites or part thereof.

It also integrated with a wide variety of other tools, so you can e.g. take and annotate a screenshot inside Skitch and have it added to Evernote as well.

Works on almost any device and also through a browser.

I would like to also have an integrated mindmapper (e.g. such as Freemind) and also a simple vectorial drawing tool supporting links (e.g. VUE) so all my note-taking can be merged and synced.


This is a free Mac screenshot application, but nicely done: it integrates well, includes annotation with ease and also allows easy dragging of any screenshot to an image file or share online with Skitch or to Evernote (they are part of Evernote now).

Now available in the Mac App Store, but also on Android and (soon) iOS.

I've used it for all screenshots on this blog post.

Mendeley Desktop

This is a bibliography organizer for scientists. You can use it to collect, tag and annotate PDFs of publications (articles, books, conference proceedings). It will be synced online and can be used to share publications as well.

There are some lookup features e.g. retrieve from the title using Google Scholar (hit-and-miss) or from the doi-code.

It also integrates with Word or OpenOffice to insert citations and a bibliography and several reference-styles are supported.

While you can use it for non-PDF based documents, this is somehow less convenient. I've started from the BibTex file from my PhD, to insert most of the references I collected and also pointed to a folder where I store most Articles and digital copies of proceedings. That said, it'll take a while to properly organize, tag and correct the entries, but the software is quite helpful.

Not sure why it is free, as the similarly oriented EndNote is not. It is a good alternative. And works on Windows, Linux and OSX and there are iOS versions too to access your references on location. You also receive 1 GB of webspace (500 MB personal and 500 MB for sharing), but more space is not free.

I've had it crash occasionally on certain PDF files, but no harm was done. And sometimes the automatic lookups give false results, but you have to be quite attentive to correctness anyway. Good thing: automatic imports are classified as "to review" and you have to explicitly mark them as "correct" before they are included in the regular database.


  1. That are some handy cloud tools you have shard, Thanks. I am using Dropbox for sharing and some file backup right now, its work great. They only problem is the storage capacity, but its free so compensated that somehow.

  2. It's getting used to. Dropbox has become the easiest way to sync and share files between different computers. For me it's quite important that I can work offline as well. Not online all day, e.g. during meetings or while traveling.

    Evernote is now one of my major thought-organizing applications. Limitations? No offline notes on my phone with the free version (favorites do seem to work and I can start a note offline to be pasted into an online note later on). I'd welcome some more structure in the note itself (e.g. HTML headings instead of formatting) but it's OK. And keeping some figures, screenshots etc is very handy. Sharing notes is also not available with the free version, alas. I'm using tags more and more. Initially, I added some tag-like note in the title, but this gives you less preview of the title itself.


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