Graham searches for the best new free software

Standard Notes

Note taking is never given the attention it deserves. It's an important skill that many of us neglect. But it's not just the notes themselves that we neglect, it's the medium we use to take them. Many of us still seem to take notes using either a pen and paper, for example, or by emailing ourselves or creating random files in something like Google Drive. But these methods, like others, suffer from the same problems of findability, portability, and security. You often need to take notes at short notice, and equally, store those notes away. This makes them hard to find and hard to contextualize later when you need them.

This application, called simply Standard Notes, tries to solve these issues. Findability comes from tags that you can quickly drag and drop onto each note, along with a prominent date and time field. Portability comes from the application's being available on all popular operating systems and hopefully soon on Android. To create a note, you just start typing. Changes are saved immediately. But the clever part is that those changes are saved to an encrypted file held on a server, making your notes accessible to all your devices. You can run your own Standard Notes server, or use one of the publicly accessible servers provided by the developers. Notes are encrypted with your own password and can't be retrieved if you happen to forget it, but that's a privacy feature rather than an inconvenience. You can also install extensions, and there are currently two: one for syncing your notes with a Dropbox account and another for turning your notes into a personal blog. Separate tools can also be used to export notes to Evernote. But even without these features, a simple note-taking application that silently and securely saves your notes to the cloud is still very useful.

Project Website

Standard Notes is a simple note taking application that saves your notes to the cloud.

Media Transcoder

Handbrake 1.0

It's taken 13 years to get to a 1.0 release, but there can't be many Linux users who haven't heard of Handbrake. It's a brilliant utility that converts media, usually videos, from one format to another. Back in the dark days of Linux, back when Internet Explorer was considered a web standard, Handbrake was often the only way we could play formats created by recording equipment, or even purchased online. It was also fabulous at archiving video off optical media, or converting it for use with MythTV or Kodi, and it was one of the only ways to get Linux-generated video and squeeze it into a format Apple's products could use. It's still great for all these things, and what makes Handbrake so powerful is that you don't need to be an FFmpeg expert. Thanks to its use of presets that act as target profiles for specific uses, it's easy to create a file that will play on Android at 1920x1200/60 FPS, for instance, or on a Chromecast, or even as an autoplaying Gmail attachment. Select a source, select a preset, and start encoding.

The big update to accompany this release is the addition of new online documentation. At the moment, it feels more like a series of articles than a comprehensive overview of the software, but it will still be incredibly useful for beginners. There are excellent documents that walk you through the encoding process, for instance, which will help you get your head around the sometimes perfunctory user interface. But the best thing about Handbrake is that it works without crashing or breaking compatibility. It does a great job at hiding the transcoding complexity and producing high-quality conversions, which is remarkable when you consider how the codec/DRM/video landscape has changed over the past 13 years.

Project Website

One of the best uses for Handbrake is to extract the 5.1 surround audio from a music DVD or performance.

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