ZDNet names first three deputy testers of the week to get free tech

In case you missed it, last week, I announced ZDNet's Deputy Tester of the Week program. I came up with the idea after realizing that solution providers (hardware, software, services, etc.

In case you missed it, last week, I announced ZDNet's Deputy Tester of the Week program. I came up with the idea after realizing that solution providers (hardware, software, services, etc.) were sending far more products to me for testing than I'll ever have time to get to. The truth is, I want to write about all of them.

Here at ZDNet, one of our goals is to help our readers make informed technology purchases and then, once those purchases have been made, to help readers get the most out of those purchases. So, when there's some technology that shows up on my doorstep and I don't have the time to give you my impressions of it, I get a little anxious about the situation. After all, if I have "access" to information that could make just one ZDNet reader's life a little bit better (either by making him or her aware of a useful solution they were previously unaware of or by saving them from wasting their money), but am unable to get that information out, I worry that that somewhere out there are some ZDNet readers, even if it's just one of you, that could end up wasting their money.

In addition to that, even though I've been testing and writing about technology for over 15 years, the truth is that for any given product, there are probably members of ZDNet's audience who are better qualified to test it than I. Maybe their usage scenarios are more real world than the ones I might have to invent. Maybe they are experts with competing solutions (putting them in the position of offering a comparative context that I'm unable to offer). Maybe they have the time that I don't have to give the solution a thorough workout.

Bottom line: In one corner lies a pile of products that might never get tested. In the other is a group of willing and able technology buffs that would love to give those solutions a try. Especially if they get to keep the technology. What to do next -- match them up -- was such a no-brainer that I'm surprised we didn't think of it 10 years ago.

If all goes according to plan, each week, we'll be making some matches (using a process explained here). Last week, the first product to go up for grabs was Balesio's PPTMinimizer 3.0. It's a $30 utility for compressing PowerPoint files (including PPTX files -- the new file format that goes with PowerPoint 2007). I announced that I had three copies to give away and then invited ZDNet's readers to use the TalkBack feature on ZDNet to tell me why they deserve to be a ZDNet Deputy Tester of the Week. The resulting discussion thread really blew us away. Not just because of all of the ZDNet readers who wanted to be deputized. But also because of of how well it proved my point about how there are other experts out there; some in a better position than I, to test products like PPTMinimizer and others who, even without the product in hand, were offering their own insights into the product category.

For example, as alternatives to storing presentations with PowerPoint, some ZDNet readers mentioned Flash and PDF as solutions to the same problem that PPTMinimizer solves. Others responded. Even if you still end up staying with PowerPoint, the discussion is good food for thought. One ZDNet reader went to the trouble of downloading the trial version, testing it, and reporting some important findings:

The file size of [a] static (good resolution) images-only PowerPoint [file] was rather impressive (from 6.7MB to 0.72MB !). But, when testing a PowerPoint file containing images and a sound track, the reduction was VERY minimal (from 3.716MB to 3.660MB).

I checked with Balesio (the developers of PPTMinimizer) and they confirmed that with some embedded objects like audio, their software can only go so far before the integrity of the content gets compromised. So, they're drawing a line. It's proof that, as I said in the video, depending on your situation, your mileage with PPTMinimizer could vary.

Then came the all the job applications -- explanations, some detailed, some not, from ZDNet's readers describing why they deserved to be deputized into our tester of the week program. Whereas there were a few nasty comments that derided our program for giving away a $30 product (trust me, there will be others greater value), those comments were well-outnumbered by the number of submissions from people where budgets are tight and ever little bit helps.

For example, the number of submissions involving teaching, training, or some other classroom scenario where, not only are software budgets tight, but so too are the computing resources (eg: limited shared hard drive space where multiple teachers must store the many space-intensive presentations they use in class). Hard drives may be getting bigger, better, faster, and less expensive. But that doesn't mean organizations like schools and churches have the luxury of buying the newer gear. Many of them are getting by on technology that's prehistoric relative to what's out there today. So, in the name of their virtually non-existent technology budgets, anything (anything like a PPTMinimizer) that puts off the inevitable just a little bit longer is apparently very welcome.

Schools and churches aren't the only companies facing storage challenges. The IT policies of a great many companies, even Fortune 500 ones, are putting the squeeze on end-users too. For example, about every two weeks, I get an automatic e-mail from CNET's Exchange Server telling me that my inbox is over the limit in terms of the shared hard drive space it's consuming. The network administrators here at CNET have no interest in upping my limit. Why? If they do it for me, not only would they have to do it for everyone, we'd all just hit that limit to. In the name of stockholder value, the line has to be drawn somewhere. So, what's the first thing I do? I look for e-mails with big attachments to delete. In most cases, those attachment are PowerPoint files (what would be REALLY cool is if PPTMinimizer could seek out and compress-in-place every PowerPoint attachment that's currently in my inbox).

Real IT policies aren't the only problem. Some Internet e-mail services won't allow attachments beyond a certain size. For example, one ZDNet reader who uses Yahoo's e-mail service wrote:

My boss and I both have free Yahoo Mail accounts, which limit attachments to 10mb. The last presentation I sent him was 15mb...

Ouch. Several users talked about how they have to manually divide their big PowerPoint files into smaller ones. Not just for e-mailing, but also for storing on USB drives.

Then, there was the entry that touched our hearts that had to do with Kimberly Aisha Hashmi's search for family members who disappeared in 1992. Kimberly apparently uses PowerPoint to help others avoid the same plight.

So, suffice to say that there's an extremely diverse range use cases for something like PPTMinimizer. Not only that, budgets are clearly strapped to the point that even a free $30 utility can make a difference. So, without further adieu, here are the three winning entries.

From silberj comes an application that deals with a very real problem on the front lines in combat situations:

Having spent 20+ years in the military (Army specifically), this seems like a must have product. As mentioned in the other post, broadband connections are not always readily available, especially in forward deployed areas. Having conducted briefings while in Iraq, I can say that Powerpoint is used very heavily and every briefing on every basecamp every morning is mostly likely conducted using Powerpoint. Most often these briefings are put together by several individuals off site, and have to transport their material on flash drives, CD's, etc. This would be a great way to carry more data using less space. Please consider how this application might make our operations more smooth and easier to conduct.

Then, one of the first readers to respond had another real world problem (thus producing a great enterprise testing scenario). His problem? The huge PowerPoint files that his end-users crank out are congesting his tape backup system to the point that everything's not getting backed up in the allotted time frame. Here's what he had to say:

I've got gigabytes of PPT files that our marketing department has generously created that I need to backup on a regular basis. It's currently taking me about 14 hours to back them up and, with only two tape drives available, makes it extremely difficult to backup the 4+ terabytes of total data on all of my servers during the available backup window. If this product really works, it could reduce the file sizes substantially, thereby reducing the time it takes to back them up and ease my burden (at least for now).

Finally, there was the aforementioned Yahoo e-mail user. This ZDNet reader faces multiple problems. First, just to keep the PowerPoint file sizes manageable (for transmission across Yahoo Mail), s/he uses Photoshop to resize the digital photos that are embedded in the slides. Having personally done this hundreds of times to make ZDNet's pages load faster, I can really appreciate what a time-killer that is. Another problem? Budget. The outfit s/he works for is a non-profit called the Develop Asia Foundation. In fact, s/he is a volunteer.

At non-profits everywhere, there are volunteers like this one who undoubtedly dip into their own pockets in the name of the efficacy of their organizations. It's evidence of how strapped for finances these outfits are and how any contribution -- even of a $30 software product -- can potentially make a big difference (a lesson for those of you who cast aspersions on our program because of the retail value of our first giveaway). Here's what s/he had to say:

I work as a volunteer for a non-profit, "Develop Asia Foundation." My boss travels around the world presenting noble causes that need financial assistance--such as giving scholarships to students who survived the massive landslides in Guinsaugon, Leyte, Philippines last year. I make the Powerpoint presentations for him. He is new to computers and is not tech-savvy, so I try to make everything as simple as I possibly can, so he will not have a hard time getting presentations by email (I tried winRAR before but he got so confused, I decided never to try it again).

The last presentation I made contained more student profiles and was too big for his email account, so I uploaded it to a website and provided him a link to download it. However, this didn't work out well for him, because his internet connection was probably too slow and he often got a "server not responding" error. I had to resort to chopping up my presentation into three parts and providing a URL to click on at the end of each set of slides, and then emailing each part to him.

I do not get paid in dollars, and my normal job's monthly wage is way below the standard in order to get a credit card. Hence, I cannot buy this software online.

We couldn't say no.

If you recognize your post as one of the "winning" entries, please contact me by e-mail at david.berlind@cnet.com and we'll get the software out to you (to confirm your identity, I will ask you to make another post with some specific text under the same ZDNet user ID that you used to post the winning entry).

If you didn't win this week, it's not because we didn't like your entry. We liked them all (except the ones that were mean and nasty to people about using PowerPoint... those accomplished nothing). If we could send software to all of you, we would. Also, if at first you don't succeed, try try again! We'll be giving away another product next week (due to the Memorial Day Holiday, I will start on Tuesday instead of Monday).


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