THE RIGHT BROWSER

Which is the safest way to browse the web: Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox? According to the blog “How to Geek,” Edge has a slight edge. Many say Firefox has the last word on privacy and we find that’s it pretty private.

In 2015, Firefox instituted “tracking protection.” It removes all tracking elements from pages you visited using the “private browsing” feature. To use private browsing in Firefox, hold down the “Cntrl” (or “Cmd” on the Mac) and the “Shift” key. Then tap the “P” (for private) key.

It was news to us that advertisers and websites can track you in Google or Microsoft’s browsers even if you use the “incognito” or “InPrivate” modes. All those modes do is prevent your browsing history, cookies and cached data from being stored on your computer. You’re still tracked, unless you use Firefox.

We don’t care if we’re tracked, because it means we’ll see ads targeted to our interests. Of greater concern are viruses and hackers. Microsoft and Google use what’s called a “sandboxso that each component of your browser is kept separate, making it hard for a hacker to join them together. Firefox has over 18,000 “extensions,” which are apps that live in the browser. As you might expect, sandboxing all of them has been a problem. They’re still working on it. Google has over 50,000 and managed to do it.

The only reason Microsoft Edge might be considered slightly safer than Google Chrome is that it keeps a better list of bad websites, making sure you steer clear of those. However, this shouldn’t matter if you use anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Unusual Web Browsers

And now for something completely different … There’s much more out there than you can ever find time for:

Opera Mini. For smartphones and tablets, Opera Mini claims to save up to 90 percent of data costs; we saved 50 percent. It also blocks ads and makes multi-tasking a breeze. In our tests, it was just as fast and lovely as any browser, even when watching a movie.

ScienceDirect,for phone, tablet or computer. Browse through the titles of 14,324,115 journal and book articles on just about any scientific research topic you can think of. Shouldn’t take you more than a few decades. See anything you like? “Open access” books and articles are free, others are $35.

Torch” is a favorite of video pirates. (Computer only.) Has a built-in feature for downloading music and video from YouTube and Vimeo. Uses Bit Torrent for rapid downloading of videos. Has lots of games.

Beware the Mac App Store

If you use a Macbook, you’ve probably noticed apps for sale in the App Store; scammers lurk there.

The most benign offer to sell you something you can already get for free, such as the online version of Microsoft Word. The worst install malware on your system. Look out for apps offering Microsoft templates. Get those for free at Templates.Office.com. For other apps in the Mac App Store, look at reviews. Often, the first few are phony. Scroll past those to see what victims are saying.

NOTE: This sort of thing goes back many years, in fact for all of the 36 years we’ve been writing this column. An easy way to get a product to sell is to find one that already exists for free and offer it for a price. We have seen this done with bundles of free programs as well as single ones. Take a look at Ninite.com for totally free programs.

Speeding up Your Computer

If your Windows 10 computer is running slowly, open Windows’ “Task Manager” or the “Task Manager” in your web browser.

There are at least three ways to get to the Windows task manager. Bob uses “Ctrl-Alt-Del.” That means holding down the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys on your keyboard and tapping the delete key. (“Ctrl-Shift-Esc” also works.) Or, right-click the taskbar at the bottom of your screen and choose “Task manager.” Each item on the list that comes up under “more details” is one of the processes or programs running in the background and almost certainly slowing you down.

Joy’s computer is often running at 99 percent of its brain chip’s capacity, so clicking “task manager” is an everyday thing for her. When Bob checked the brain on his PC, it was running at just three percent of capacity. (He says that fits well with his own brain activity.) Recently, a “speech engine” was hogging the lion’s share of Joy’s computer’s resources. Since she hadn’t been talking to Cortana (Window’s voice assistant) lately, she clicked it and chose “end task.” We also shut down “Microsoft Search Protocol Host.”

But it could be that having too many tabs open in your web browser is the culprit. Rather than shutting them all down, find out which one is the resource hog. In Google Chrome, look for the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the screen. Click “more tools,” and then “task manager.” When we did this, we noticed one website was the real pig. So we closed that tab. Or rather, Joy did. Bob tends to be a one-tab-at-a-time kind of guy. (You can do something similar in Firefox with an add-on.)

Chrome also has a “reset” button. Type chrome://settings in the search bar and when you get to settings, type “reset settings.” You can bring Chrome back to its original state. It keeps your bookmarks but gets rid of the junk that bogs you down.

Internuts

MyReps.Datamade.us will tell you the names of all your political representatives, right down to the local sheriff. Next to each name is a “contact” button. There are also links to their websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages.

Step into a Miniature World of Paper.” Search on that phrase to find a National Geographic video full of leaping and flying paper creatures. It’s origami gone wild.

Cute Animal Tweet Off.” Search on that to find a Mashable article with cute baby animal photos.

WORTH FIVE BUCKS

Cartoon Portrait by a Fiverr Artist

Ever watch a video of an artist drawing? These quickly-drawn cartoons are used in ads and training videos. We got one for fun. It cost $5.

Our interest began when a reader asked for our recommendation on “whiteboard animation software.” That would be software that creates cartoon videos. “PowToon” and many others are free, but we weren’t sure about the art part. That’s when we turned to artists on Fiverr. There are hundreds and most are super cheap. Fiverr.com is a marketplace for people who sell services in dozens of fields at surprisingly low prices.

Wouldn’t it be fun, we thought, to have a video clip for our history club? We’re doing “history of fashion” and a plain PowerPoint presentation might be dull. Add a video clip and interest always picks up.

So we chose an artist whose sample video looked good. He’s in Pakistan where the average income is about $1200 a year, so $5 goes further. We gave him 15 photos to use as inspiration. We just wanted drawings but what we got were all the photos arranged as a presentation. Still, it was okay for $5. For hand-drawn art you have to go Fiverr’s “graphics” section and choose cartoons or comics that can then be animated. Or you can use stock comic characters that the whiteboard artist already has.

Next we had a technical problem with our website and we hired a guy from India who fixed the problem within a few hours, again for $5, The total price was $6 with Fiverr’s $1 processing fee. All payments are handled through Fiverr, which you pay either with a credit card — like any normal purchase, or through PayPal. The only downside is you pay upfront when selecting a vendor.

Besides programming and whiteboard animations, other Fiverr categories include music, advertising, “fun and lifestyle,” illustration, writing, business advice and so on. Under the “fun” category, we found $5 charms sporting a tiny map of your hometown or favorite location.

Update: Be wary of any vendor on Fiverr.com who needs a user name and password. The guy who worked on our website may have hacked it. We’re in the process of making it bulletproof now.

App Happy

  • CamFind” is a free app that tries to identify what you take a picture of. It might be handy for foreign signs. We tried it out on a German sign on a web page, saying “Ein-U Ausfahrt freihalten” and found out it meant, roughly: “Don’t block the exit.” (Well. anyone would have known that.)
  • SendOutSupport” is a 99 cent app for those suffering from depression, stress, bereavement and other mental problems. Users search professional support networks and get helpful tips.

Giving Google Home Its Due

Most of the write-ups about the new digital assistants focus on “Alexa,” the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Its main competitor is Google Home. You can expect at least a half dozen more competitors this year because this is the hottest new tech product this side of the Andromeda galaxy.

We have both and they’re both great, but Google Home lets you command your TV.  For example, we were looking up Elke Sommer on IMDB (the “Internet Movie Database”) and noticed she was in a “Bulldog Drummond” detective movie, “Deadlier than the Male” that we’d never heard of.

Well, we like those Bulldog Drummond movies so we tried to find it on Amazon, which didn’t have it for rent or sale, except for a British DVD that doesn’t play on American players. So we said to Google Home, “Hey Google, play the movie “Deadlier than the Male,” on YouTube on BobJoy. (“BobJoy” is the name of our Wi-Fi connection.) The movie promptly started right up on our TV.  It turned out to be a double feature. Afterwards, another Elke Sommer movie started up. This also works with Netflix movies, if you’re a Netflix subscriber. So basically, you can order even obscure movies and if they’re available on YouTube or Netflix, you said the magic word — or in this case, “words.”

Now, you know that the great rule in the digital world is “whatever you get, you have to get something else to make it work.” So here you also need a $35 Chromecast plugged into your TV. It’s about the size of a flat mini donut. Once it’s plugged in, anything on YouTube or Netflix will start playing on your TV when you give the proper voice command. Remember to press “input” on your TV remote and choose the setting the Chromecast is plugged into. They have slightly different names depending on your brand of TV. Our Sony, for example, offers a choice of HDMI 1, HDMI 2, and so on.

Faceoff – Free Word versus Paid Word

Zinn Art

A reader pinned us down on differences between the free “Microsoft Word Online” and the Microsoft Word that is part of Office 365.

Here’s one: The Office program you pay for lets you work offline, the free version works only online. Once, while working with the free online version, Joy struck a few keys and lost several paragraphs. For some reason, the “undo” feature failed to work and those paragraphs drifted off toward the Andromeda Galaxy. It shouldn’t have happened, but the Universe is a strange place.

One minor difference: The paid version of Word, like the paid versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Access, has a few more options compared to the free one. But more options are exactly what drives us nuts in all the Microsoft products. The free versions have too many options already.

Internuts

  • ZinnArt.com has the humorous works of David Zinn, whose cute mice and alien creatures appear to descend into the sidewalk all over Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and many others come up if you search on the phrase “100 street art examples on YouTube.”
  • Top 100 Sand Castles.” We put that phrase into the search box at YouTube and saw some awesome sculptures. Several of the women made of sand looked like goddesses. The video is followed by time-lapse photography showing you how these sand marvels are made; it’s a lot of work.

 

THE MATCH GAME

Is online dating the worst way to find a mate, or the best? In any event, it’s much more popular than we ever thought.

According to a Consumer Reports Magazine survey of 115,000 subscribers, 44 percent are in a long-term relationship or got married through online dating.  Yet reader satisfaction with these sites is lower than for any other service the magazine rates. They even rate lower than tech support. Now that’s the pits.

As chance would have it, we know four women (no men) who have used online dating services. Two are happily married to the men they met this way, a third is happy in her new relationship and the fourth is still looking and not at all happy with the results. This last one lives in Florida, which might make it tougher to find a mate since that state’s population is heavily weighted toward the elderly and women tend to live longer. Despite the fact that we personally know no men who are looking, or at least acknowledge that they are looking, the overall statistics say more men than women are looking for a mate.

Some dating — or perhaps we should say “mating” — services are quite expensive. Selective Search, for example, charges $25,000 before they fire up their computers. (It’s free for ladies who don’t need client services. That’s for the va-va voom crowd.)

The magazine’s highest ratings went to the top free services: Tinder, OKCupid and PlentyofFish. But a high rating simply meant not quite as bad as the others; only one, Tinder, managed a single rating above “neutral “out of 11 categories.

This is serious business, and we don’t mean just the business part. People’s emotions, health and in some cases wealth as well, are at stake in seeking a partner.  According to the FBI, in a study of six months in 2014, fraudulent date and mate seekers took $81 million through online dating.  In some cases, only the victims’ relatives prevented the searcher from sending cash. When it became apparent no money was forthcoming, the “date” vanished.

From the earliest days of personal computers they were seen as a broader way to meet people than just running into someone where you lived or worked. The fact that it works at all is sort of astonishing but also hopeful, because proximity — direct contact, is necessarily limited. But none of the research on the efficacy of online dating and mating accounts for meets through special interest groups. These have expanded enormously because of online links; we’re talking about people who meet because they like to take cruises or are interested in tropical plants or books or Broadway shows and so forth. None of that is known or counted as online dating, though the computer and the internet brought them together.

Reader Problem

A reader said that when he watches a movie online, it often stutters and stops until it’s finished loading. A way out of that is to download the whole thing first.

Netflix recently started offering movie downloads — as opposed to movie streaming, and Amazon offers it too. For Netflix, first download the app for your smartphone or tablet. Tap the “Available for Download” option. The downloadable movies don’t include the whole list: it’s mainly TV shows and Netflix originals. (Netflix offers a free trial for the first 30 days, then the basic service is $10 a month.)

For Amazon, start by downloading the free Amazon Video app. If you’re a Prime member, there will be some freebies for download. For non-Prime members, TV shows are $2 in standard definition. Amazon doesn’t list all the programs available for download. Find something you like and then search to see if it’s available for download. One of the best thing about downloads is that you can then watch them offline, when you’re traveling for example; we’ve noticed many people doing it on airplanes and train rides.

Internuts

  • 10 Instances of Medical Quackery.” Search on that phrase to find an incredible list of bizarre episodes in American history: how George Washington died when they took half of his blood to cure him of strep throat, the first snake oil salesman, and a guy who died just a few years ago after turning himself blue by ingesting colloidal silver. Teething babies used to go to sleep sipping a combination of alcohol and opium.
  • Two Centuries of U.S. Immigration.” Search on that phrase to find an animated map. Colored dots move from countries around the world. It was almost all from Europe and Mexico until this century.

Getting Windows 10 for Free

If you refused to get Windows 10 during the free period, and now wish you had, it’s not too late, no matter what Microsoft originally said. Search on the phrase “Download Windows 10 from Microsoft.com” and be careful to click on the actual Microsoft site, not one of the ads at the top.

But should you upgrade? Microsoft says Windows 10 is the most secure system ever. And yet, security updates for Windows 7 users will be available until the year 2020, and Windows 8 users have until 2023. One of our friends still uses Windows 7 because her printer failed to work when she tried Windows 10. An update to the printer probably would have fixed the problem, but she prefers Windows 7. If you search on the phrase “revert to Windows 7,” you can find out how to go back. But in our experience, it only works if it’s been 30 days or less since you upgraded.

Even then, you may run into problems. A reader tells us he got a “restore failure” message when he tried to return his machine to Windows 8 from Windows 10. Windows 8 had been restored, but all his data was lost in the process. Whoa, that is heavy duty serious. Fortunately, he’d backed up everything before he started the conversion. You should do the same.

 

 

WORLD’S EASIEST TABLET

A reader asked us for our recommendation on the easiest tablet to use – the iPad, the Kindle Fire or something else? The easiest tablet is nearly always the one your friend has, because they’ll help you out.

We always regretted getting an iPad for our aunt, because she never learned to use it. All her friends had computers, but they were thumb-dumb when it came to the iPad. If we’d thought of it, we would have told her to watch YouTube videos. There are good ones on every kind of tablet. So, go to YouTube.com and search on “how to use an iPad” or “how to use the Kindle Fire.” What could go wrong?

Basically, all tablets are similar: Tap on icons to launch activities such as email, movies, books, or the web. Keep in mind that you don’t have to spend $400 on an iPad Mini, or $600 on an iPad Pro, though they are wonderful machines with excellent sound and picture quality. The Kindle Fire 7 is similar, costs only $50, works great, and now comes with “Alexa” built in. Alexa is the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Press a button and ask for a song, a podcast, the weather, an audio book, a game or the answer to unlikely questions, like “Who were the Ink Spots?” (She knows.)  Or use it to order stuff. A six year-old girl used it to order a dollhouse. When she described the experience on a talk show, saying “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,” Echo devices hearing this sprang into action and ordered dollhouses. (Alexa asks you to confirm any orders. Of course the little girl did say yes.)

If you want some Kindling, the Kindle Fire 7 can run for seven hours before recharging. The Kindle Fire 8, a slightly larger tablet, costs $89 and runs for 12 hours on a charge. Amazon Prime members get some free books and movies thrown in.

App Happy

  • MyScript Nebo” is free for the iPad and Windows 10. It’s a note-taking app that was named winner of the 2017 Mobile Apps Showdown competition. It’s the superstar of note-taking apps. It uses handwriting recognition that converts scribbles, mathematical formula, diagrams, or drawings into neat looking results. The only catch? You either need an Apple Pencil ($99 from apple.com) or a Windows 10 computer with a touch screen and an active pen. It’s “coming soon to Android,” as programmers like to say.
  • WithJoy is a wonderful wedding app. (Or you can use the website WithJoy.com.) Our nephew invited us to his wedding this way. We logged in with a special code that arrived on a lovely invitation by regular mail. Then we were invited to share a memory of the bride or groom, add photos, and interact with others.

Internuts

  • What Each State Googled More Than Any Other in 2016.” Google those words to find a fascinating map. In California, they Googled the phrase “2016 Worst Year Ever,” searching on that issue more than any other state. In Montana, it was “Cupping Therapy.” (Movie and Olympic stars like Jennifer Aniston and Michael Phelps use suction cups on their backs to revitalize. It produces giant red welts and dates back to ancient Egypt.) In New Jersey, “Donald Trump” topped the Google queries, in nearby Delaware it was the “Brangelina Divorce.” In Missouri, they were just fascinated by “McDonald’s Breakfast All Day.”
  • Best Metro Areas for STEM Professionals.” Search on that phrase to see the list. WalletHub.com did a survey of the best places to live for scientists and engineers. On the top of the list are Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, and Boston. Among the worst were Birmingham, Memphis and Honolulu.

Chromebook Considerations

Some of our readers bought a Google Chromebook after reading our column on the topic. These laptops are cheap, lightning fast and trouble-free. But there are some considerations to keep in mind.

One reader wrote to say that the Chromebook doesn’t work with his Okidata printer. It turns out that only a limited number of Okidata models work with Chromebooks. However, HP, Canon, Epson and many others have no problem. Check yours by searching on your printer’s name along with the word “Chromebook.”

Or use a workaround: Use Google’s “Remote Desktop App” to direct your PC to print something for you. Basically, this means you are temporarily working on a Windows, Mac or Linux which is controlled by your Chromebook over the Internet. Joy used her Chromebook to direct her Windows computer to make and print a greeting card. It was real fast.

One reader was disappointed he couldn’t use Quicken on his Chromebook, though he did remember that we warned readers that Chromebooks don’t let you install programs. On the other hand, there’s nearly always an online app that works just as well. For example, search on the phrase “Quicken substitute” to find an article from InvestorJunkie.com. It lists several.

Screen size: Chromebook’s normal font looks awfully tiny. One savvy reader suggested changing the screen resolution, and voila, problem solved. To do this, tap the picture in the right-hand corner, choose “settings,” and in the search box, type “resolution.” Choose a larger number to get a larger font. This works on regular computers too.  An alternative method: Hold down the “Ctrl” button (or the “Cmd” button on a Mac) and tap the plus sign to increase the font size.

HEY BOO BOO

Google Home

We’re going to talk some more about the digital assistants put out by Amazon and Google. Those would be the Amazon “Echo” and Google “Home.” They are small, relatively cheap (from $50 to $129), and they answer questions and do requests. This is the future.

Essentially what we have are two devices that listen to what you have to say — with sometimes less accuracy than you would expect — and then respond. They can play music, occasionally with nonsensical results, and respond to more direct questions, such as “how many calories are there in an apple?”

This is all new stuff, the edge of wedge if you will. It’s potentially an encyclopedia on your end table, along with lectures, songs, weather, books and history. Some of it will be dead wrong, just as some items in Wikipedia are wrong. This will all get edited and corrected along the way, hopefully, but right now it is what it is, as the Zen Buddhists might say.

The potential is both enormous and obvious. LG recently paired a refrigerator with Amazon’s Alexa, the voice inside Echo, and you tell it what you want delivered. But don’t wait for the fridge, you can do that now with the Echo or Echo Dot. Just tell it what you want; not just food but for your whole life: books, clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, news, movies, and on into the night. Just ask and they will check your credit card and deliver. The number of businesses and jobs that will be wiped out by this technology may lower many people’s credit ultimately, but that’s the way things crumble, to paraphrase a common saying.

If you have a Chromecast or Amazon Fire Stick, ($30 to $40), you can cast a movie, TV show, or news shots onto your TV by voice command. Later — and probably not much later — we can expect the little boxes to come with cameras as well as microphones. They could take your picture and estimate the correct size and color for your wardrobe.

Now some of the people we have shown these gadgets to, and talked about their potential, are worried about their privacy. Well, a lot of people are worried about their privacy, but we fail to see the threat here: You can always turn the little box off. The counter argument of course, is that it may be possible for someone outside to hack in and turn it on without your knowledge. Definitely; it is absolutely possible. The final defense is simple enough: drape a hand towel over it.

Now that we’ve had more time with the Amazon “Echo Dot” (The cheapest version of their information device) and Google “Home,” we’ve noticed some differences.

Let’s start with how we talk to them. With the Dot, we say “Alexa,” to wake her up and get weather, music, news, podcasts and games. With the Google Home, we say “OK Google,” or “Hey Google.” We’ve found it also works to say “Hey Boo Boo,” and we encourage people to try other approaches, like “hey Schmoo-hoo.”

It’s hard to say “Hey Boo Boo” with a straight face, and it works best if you say it softly, not too clearly, so that it sounds like you’re saying “Google” but have marbles in your mouth, or have lost some of your marbles.

Joy feels that both devices are a great way to spontaneously ask for a favorite song or podcast. (Bob is still grumbling about the quality of some of those selections.) Google Home gets its music from YouTube, which, on the plus side, often means original recordings. For instance, we asked for music from “The King and I” and got a couple of songs before it switched unannounced to “The Sound of Music.” On the Amazon device, we got the 2015 Broadway cast of “The King and I,” which was slightly different. On the other hand, the Amazon Dot kept playing “The King and I.”

Amazon Echo Dot

The Amazon Dot gets music from Amazon Music, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Pandora and, if you’re a premium subscriber, from Spotify. Bob says that’s not enough, though we haven’t yet added Spotify. If we ask for music from Bach, for example, Alexa plays a pop version of some Baroque tune. It works better to ask her for Baroque music, but Bob is dissatisfied with the recordings so far.

Bottom line: Amazon’s Echo Dot is cheaper ($50) and does more. Joy uses it to play audio books from Audible.com, something the Google device can’t do. Alexa has thousands of apps called “skills,” which can be enabled through your smartphone. We tried “Magic Podcast,” which lets you use your voice to find a podcast on the topic of your choice. Worked great on Joy’s searches, not so good on Bob’s. Podcasts remind us of the early days of the Internet. There are a lot of amateur shows out there, such as one called “Hardcore History.” We had better luck with Alexa playing “Jeopardy.”

In any event, this is the future. We mentioned the tie-in with Amazon and an LG refrigerator. New connections are coming in fast: The “Nucleus Anywhere Intercom” gives you all the existing abilities of Alexa and adds phone calls, either as an intercom or to the outside world: “Alexa, call Uncle Max.” Likewise, a chef’s “sous vide” system from ChefSteps tells you how to control your cooking with ziplock bags, using water at various temperatures. There are also Alexa-enabled lighting systems, weather stations and a universal remote from Logitech. The Logitech “Harmony Elite” ($300) works with over 270,000 devices: It lets you use your voice to control your TV, satellite or cable box, Apple TV, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray player, game consoles, connected lights, locks, thermostats, sensors and so on. Even as we wrote this column we received notice of a new link to control your burglar alarm system.

In conclusion: Watch what you say and don’t walk around naked.

 

 

GOOGLE WIFI

Google WiFi

From the earliest days, one of the primary rules about computers and related technology has been “No matter what you get, you have to get something else to make it work.”

For example: We wanted our new Amazon Echo Dot to play thunderstorms in the bedroom as we were going to sleep. (This is one of those digital know-it-alls that you place on a table and ask it to tell you things, usually simple things, like “what’s the weather out there?”)

Naturally enough, this didn’t work, because the bedroom was too far from the office router — all of 30 feet. So we bought a “Google WiFi” extender to extend our Internet signal there. This is what is often called a repeater, because it picks up an incoming signal, gives it a kick in the pants, and sends it on for extra distance. So when we add this all up it’s $50 for the Amazon Echo Dot and another $129 for the Google Wifi to make it work.

Our AT&T router should have been enough to do this on its own. After all, we’re only talking about 30 feet, but it couldn’t do it. An AT&T tech guy came out and installed one of their own range extenders to boost the signal but it wasn’t able to bridge the gap, as they say, and so we shelled out for the Google extender. That actually works. In fact, it works so well, that they’re on back order and we had to wait a couple weeks to buy one.

One nice feature: Google WiFi allows you to pause the Internet on various devices. Perhaps you want to be free from the distractions of email and Facebook, for instance. Tell Google, by way of your smartphone, with an app you can get for free, to keep the Internet off for a specified period of time, on a single or multiple devices. This is a good way to prevent children from over-using the web. In other words: shut up, everybody.

The Best Free Anti-Virus

One of the questions we get most frequently is what’s the best free anti-virus program? We went to AV-Test.org, an impartial third party tester, to see what they had to say about the matter.

Panda Free Antivirus” got the highest marks, but close behind were “Avast,” from Avast.com, “Avira,” from Avira.com and “AVG,” from AVG.com. If you go to YouTube and search on “Best Free Anti-Virus,” there are good explanations of pluses and minuses. All three of these freebies work for Windows and Mac.

The three top paid programs for Windows and Mac are Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Trend Micro. The one we use currently, Bullguard, wasn’t far behind.

For many years Mac users didn’t worry about viruses because they weren’t a rich enough hunting ground to bother with. But according to recent studies by Bit 9 and Carbon Black, malware for Macs increased by 500 percent last year, more than the past five years combined. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Interests on Pinterest

Pinterest.com is a website where people pin up pictures. There are about 50 million subscribers to this site — its free, and at least double that number who go there once in a while. From the beginning you could always go on and browse through pretty and unusual pictures, but later they put them into categories, like vacations, properties, art work, etc.

Go to Pinterest.com/categories. We clicked “art” and discovered Stan Ekman, whose works could easily be mistaken for those by Norman Rockwell. Like Rockwell, he illustrated the Saturday Evening Post, especially in the 1940s.

We clicked “Film, Music and Books,” and found some fun posters for old movies, like “To Catch a Thief.” We clicked “49 Underrated Books You Really Need to Read,” and discovered George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” (It’s a bulbous tropical plant with big leaves.) Watch out for the ones showing beautiful pictures of resorts for your vacation. We went to one in California that ranks itself as best in the nation and advertises “walk to beaches.” That walk turned out to be well over a mile, crossing a six-lane highway and then through a whole lot of scrub brush.

As with Facebook, you can follow friends on Pinterest and they can follow you. When you see something of interest, click the icon to pin it on your board. Create as many boards as you like. A few days ago, our niece started a new one with jewelry pictures.  A hint perhaps? Tough luck for her, because Bob doesn’t like jewelry.

News on the FitBit Front

Those who use movement trackers like FitBit had a bit of discouraging news recently, when a University of Pittsburgh study showed that those wearing them didn’t exercise any more than they did before they got their device. The constant monitoring either made them complacent or discouraged. However, a new study by Indiana University showed that using a FitBit, a Garmin VivoFit, or some other “wearable” did make a difference if live coaching was added.

For Christmas, Joy received the new Garmin VivoFit 3, an improvement over the original VivoFit. The original version popped off her wrist one day and was lost forever. The VivoFit 3 has a small round disk on the band that locks it in place when you turn the dial.

The VivoFit 3 also does a better job of tracking a variety of exercises, such as swimming and biking. The earlier version gave Joy credit for only 500 steps — even after she swam nonstop for an hour! Is that a dirty deal or what?  The new version gave her over 3,600 steps. A half hour on a stationary bike earns about the same number (if you wear it on your ankle). A red line streaks across the screen after one hour of inactivity.

The Family Segway

A guy we know gave a Segway miniPRO to everyone in his family. This is a smaller, much cheaper, version of the adult scooters, that Silicon Valley hotshots touted a few years ago as “the next great thing.” (Was it even the next good thing?)  We saw the new Minis on Amazon and elsewhere for $600. The scooter goes 14 miles on a single charge, and charging takes about four hours. It weighs 28 pounds.

Like the Segway, the miniPRO is a two-wheel platform that you stand on and control by way of a stick between your knees. It won’t let you go faster than four miles per hour until you’ve mastered a few tutorials, using a free smartphone ap. Then it can go up to 10 mph. One 63 year-old guy says that he and his wife ride theirs to the grocery store.

 

 

 

THE NEW CHROMEBOOK

It’s been four years since we bought our first Chromebook, a remarkably cheap, self-repairing computer from Google. The original one may have walked off with a sticky-fingered repairman. We were overdue for a new one anyway, so we bought a “refurbished” Acer 14, for $274. (Saved $25!).

We are now up and running with the kind of computing power familiar to several million six-year-olds. (Now in 50 percent of schools.) Compared to Windows machines, which slow down as you add more programs and tabs, nothing bogs down a Chromebook. It stays lightning fast, because it fixes problems every time you reboot, and nearly everything it does takes place online.

Unlike Windows, a Chromebook starts up in a few seconds. But even if you don’t mind going for a cup of tea while your Windows PC climbs out of bed, the slow loading of web pages is enough to drive some of us crazy. (It’s a short trip.) Joy typically has 12 web browser tabs open at once, and on the Chromebook they still load quickly. For her, getting a Chromebook for Christmas felt as good as a shiny new bicycle.

The Acer 14 isn’t the top of the heap, but somewhere in the middle. Chromebooks start at $149 and go up to around $700. The 14 (14-inch screen) has great resolution, and feels as thin and fancy as a Macbook costing a thousand dollars more. We didn’t feel the need for the high-end model, which would be good for gamers or video editors.

Chromebooks have come a long way toward ease of use since the first ones came out. A tiny start button with your picture of choice is on screen in the lower right corner. On the lower left, there’s a green “help” button, with links for doing work, playing music or video chatting.  A help section called “App replacements” has links to free substitutes for programs you might miss, such as iTunes, Skype and Photoshop. The lower left area of the screen also has icons for Gmail, Google Docs and YouTube.

We’re using our new (refurbished) Chromebook to write this column, update our website, edit photos, create a new website, answer email, listen to music and play videos. The battery life is a seemingly forever 12 hours according to the manufacturer, though PC World tests clocked it at a real world nine hours.

There are drawbacks. (Key ominous music in the background.) You can’t install any Windows programs. Well, we guess that’s a drawback, but increasingly it seems like  everything we do takes place online anyway; think of all the smartphones in constant use by anyone under 30.

There’s plenty of memory. Download anything you want to its 32 gigabytes of internal storage, or attach a thumb or flash drive to either of its two USB 3.0 ports. So we’re happy with all this — and we’ve become several decades younger. The Acer 14 also has an HDMI port, in case you want to connect it to a big screen TV. Yeah.

Wanna Be a Windows Insider?

Anyone can be a “Windows Insider,” by typing “Windows insider” in the Windows 10 search bar and signing up.  Insiders get new Windows features before other users do. So far, the best thing we found was “Paint 3D.”

This is a new version of the classic “Paint” program that has been a part of Windows since 1985.  It allows you to create a scene with what looks like 3D characters. You can take a selfie and pop that picture into an astronaut’s space suit. Or take a picture of a porpoise and drop it in to your aquarium picture. It comes into the 3D scene without its background, which photo editors call “masking,” and is a real pain to do. It’s perfectly cut out and looks like it belongs.

You don’t have to use your own pictures to add elements to a scene. There are hundreds of free 3D objects at Remix3D.com. Go to Remix3D, choose an object and then click “open in Paint 3D.” We added an elf, a toy soldier and a reindeer to our snow scene. Once in there, it was also easy to move them around.

If you select “print” while in Paint 3D, it may ask you to click “repair” to fix the object first before clicking “order online.” We know this all sounds complicated, but it’s much easier than signing up for health insurance.  Theoretically, anything you build here can be printed as a 3D object and delivered to your home for a price. But we have enough junk, so we skipped that part.

Internuts

  • Twiggy

    Upworthy.com has real news, instead of what happened yesterday. For instance, an article on inflation in women’s clothing sizes points that when the ultra-thin actress “Twiggy” was buying pants 50 years ago, she wore a size 8. Today that would be marked as size 00. We also read that Sweden is running out of trash they burn to heat homes. Boy, have we got a new source for them. The site also has videos, and will send you a daily news briefing to your email if you wish.

  • Glamping refers to “glamorous camping.” Oprah Winfrey told Michelle Obama they should go glamping together, and listening to the interview, Joy thought, “what is glamping?” (She is so out of touch.)

From Camcorder to TV

A reader wondered how to get the video files from his Canon camcorder to a DVD so he can play them on his TV. Thank heavens he asked. We would use a free program called “Ashampoo Burning Studio Free,” from Ashampoo.com.

Burning Studio is great at turning “VOB” or “AVCHD” and other strings of meaningless letters into playable DVDs. But how do you get the files off your camera onto the computer? Watch a video on how to do it, on YouTube. One of those is entitled: “How to Transfer Video From a Canon Camcorder to your PC.” In the search box on YouTube, you can put in the kind of video camera you have.

A friend gave us a flash drive full of “VOB” files. Ashampoo’s program turned those into a playable DVD. (It was pretty boring stuff, actually.)

 

 

 

DRONE ENTREPRENEURS

First there was the Drones Club, then Drone Racing and now: making some money with drones.

Our friend Lee gets his family a tech present every year. Last year it was drones. Lee’s 20-something daughter, a civil engineer, started using hers to offer aerial photography and video to construction sites. Then she started her own drone business, offering these services as a certified remote pilot in Wisconsin.

If you Google the phrase “how to be a drone entrepreneur,” several sites come up. The first, from Virgin.com, describes several possibilities. One is farming. Drones have been crop-dusting in Japan for 15 years, and U.S. farmers are getting started. American farms are much larger and farmers here are looking for drones that can carry more, are made from cheaper or disposable hardware and can stay in flight longer. Basically, these are the same features the military are looking for. Other areas for drone entrepreneurs include mapping, 3D modeling and surveying. An outfit called Conservation Drones is using them to monitor Sumatran rain forests (they count orangutan nests), Bolivian fresh water fisheries, and plantation health all over the world.

It’s the Tech Support, Dummy

Hardly any companies pay much attention to tech support. They should. Top tech support was a major reason for the rapid rise of Dell in the early days of desktop computers. Those days are gone.

Looking at the latest Consumer Reports Magazine “Buying Guide for 2017″ (available in most public libraries), we found an extensive review of computer company tech support. Apple got a good rating; everyone else flunked. Microsoft came in second, but with a negative rating for online support. All the rest had the worst possible ratings for tech support. These included Dell, Lenovo, HP, Asus, Samsung, Acer/Gateway and Toshiba.

What’s our own experience, which as tech columnists for more than thirty years is pretty extensive? The worst has been Hewlett Packard, which not only has not solved a problem when we call in, but tells us the best solution is to buy a new Hewlett Packard computer or printer. Gosh, that’s helpful.

The best tech support we have ever found, including all of the known universe and parts of New Jersey, has been from Okidata, which just makes printers. Their phone tech support is available 24 hours, every day, and in thirty-five years they have only once failed to fix the problem. That one time, they just sent a new printer, and asked us to use the same box to return the old one. Now, what to us is an interesting thing about their printers is the quality is the best and yet you never see them for sale in any of the big office supply stores. Why is that? A mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Way to Scan!

Epson just introduced the fastest low-cost scanner we’ve ever come across: “WorkForce ES-400” and the “Workforce “ES-500W.” They can scan both sides of a document at 35 pages per minute. That’s both sides of a page about every two seconds and the capacity is 50 pages at a time.

Now we have absolutely no use for something like that but we’re charitable in our tightwad way and figured that it might be pretty handy for law firms and government agencies. Anybody who likes to have a backup copy of printed material.

The scanned image shoots right into storage sites, like DropBox, SharePoint, Evernote, and Google Drive. The scanners can handle ID cards and business cards, receipts, extra-long pages, and so on. They say it’s virtually jam-proof. (They haven’t tried one on some of our relatives.)  The machines come with lots of software: Epson Document  Capture, ABBYY FineReader and NewSoft Presto! Bizcard. The wired version is $349, the wireless scanner is $399.

By the way, we haven’t talked about ABBYY Fine Reader for a few years. This is a program that lets you edit a scanned document. You see, when you scan any document, what you get is an image of that document, not the actual text. If you want to make changes, you need a program like ABBYY.

App Happy

  • “AOL Alto” is yet another way to manage more than one email inbox on your iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet. You don’t need an AOL account to use it. You can bring in mail from Gmail, Yahoo and all the usual places, and swipe between the accounts for various family members. There are tabs for photos, shopping, travel, personal notes and attachments and other categories.
  • “RedZone,” from RedZoneMap.com, identifies high crime areas in the U.S., pinpointing areas of assault, shootings, theft and other crimes. It was iPhone/iPad only when we mentioned it eight months ago. Now it’s out in a version for Android as well. The new version sounds an alert when you’re navigating within five miles of a crime zone. (That cuts out most of any large city.) It pinpoints crimes committed within the last 48 hours.
  • We first tried the “7 Minute Workout” using the Amazon Echo Dot, but it’s also a stand-alone app for iPhone, iPad and Android. It’s an amazing way to build strength. Start from the easiest level and before you know it, you’re doing advanced pushups.

Internuts

  • Worldfitnesslevel.org will judge your age based on your fitness level. Joy is 33. Bob doesn’t want to know.
  • PaperlessPost.com has online greeting cards that unfold on the screen like a traditional card. At the site, click “online cards” at the top of the screen. Their main focus, despite the name, seems to be printed cards. We dropped three photos into a “Ho Ho Ho” card, one next to each “Ho.” Well done.

 

A WORD TO THE FRUGAL

wordA reader wrote to say his copy of Microsoft Office failed and the Microsoft Help Desk suggested he buy a new copy for $150. Of course they would, but …. no need to do that; freebies abound.

“OpenOffice” works great. Basically, it does everything that MS Office does and it’s free. It’s been around since 2000. You can open Word documents, create your own, and save them in the familiar “doc” format. It’s free at OpenOffice.org.

google-docsAnother nice free option is Google Docs from Docs.Google.com. All your stuff is saved online, and from there you can download everything to your computer. If you’re writing a novel, as Bob is, and would rather speak than type, click “tools” and then “voice typing.” Or try Google “Keep,” a free smartphone app. Use it for dictation and send the results to Google Docs, just by clicking “send.” This is the author on the beach approach; it will take down everything you say.

Now back to Microsoft Word: There’s a free version online. Everything you write goes out online, but you can also save it to your computer. Find it at office.live.com/start/Word.aspx.

Joy uses Microsoft’s Office 365, for $70 a year, which works offline or on. It automatically saves a copy online, which syncs with her other devices. Bob only uses Microsoft Word for this column, otherwise he finds it too cumbersome and annoying and prefers to write with a text editor called Q10. There are dozens of these text editors, so pick and choose as you like.  Dark Room is another one he likes.

Smart Shopping

shopping-onlineOver 54 million Americans pay $99 a year to get free two-day delivery on Amazon, as well as other perks. But there are additional tricks to being a wise Amazon shopper.

Take a look at their outlet store. Where it says “all departments” in the drop-down list, choose “Amazon Warehouse Deals” to see used and refurbished products. But watch out: Sometimes the supposed good deal is nothing special; we saw a used Playstation 4 for $242, but that was only $27 less than a new one. So, price check everything.

Going beyond Amazon, there’s the “InvisibleHand,” from GetInvisibleHand.com. (A tip of the tam-o’shanter to Adam Smith.) It notifies you of price drops on shopping, flights, hotels and rental cars. The name comes from the famous statement by 18th century economist Adam Smith, who pointed out that the invisible hand of the marketplace does a better job than government in allocating goods and services.

Managing Bookmarks

bookmarkWe tend to accumulate Internet “favorites” or “bookmarks.” After a while, the list is so long, we can’t find anything. Here’s what to do.

In Google Chrome, click on the three dots in the upper right of the screen and choose “Bookmarks,” and then “Bookmark Manager.” Highlight the ones you don’t want and click “delete.” Bob accidentally deleted a bunch he did want, so it’s best to save the list to your machine first. Click the picture of a little gear and choose “Export bookmarks.”

For Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari and other browsers, find the bookmark manager easily by searching on the name of the browser and the words “Bookmark Manager.”

Where Am I?

internetIn Kansas City, some mansions are so large, housekeepers get lost. We heard from someone we know there that one puzzled maid was adrift in the west wing and finally called the owner to ask: “Where am I?”  That can happen to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) too. They think they can pinpoint the location of your computer. They can’t. Ours says we live in Cicero, Illinois. We don’t. Al Capone liked it there but it’s nothing special to us.

A reader told us that every time he visits HomeDepot.com and similar websites, they peg his computer as located in a town at least an hour away. So if he wants to shop online and pick up stuff in person, he has to change the location they have or take a long drive. Same thing happens to us. It gets annoying. Some people have their location pegged to another state.

Experts have suggested calling your Internet Service Provider and telling them to fix it. That didn’t work for us with AT&T. In fact, after being connected to a help person in India and following her directions, we temporarily lost all connection to the Internet when they did a reset. We then we lost our TV service and they had to send a technician. He was local.

Our reader’s ISP is CenturyLink. When he called, they said they had one smart guy who could fix it, though they haven’t yet; maybe he was out sick. So instead of the fix, they offered a faster service and a new modem for the same monthly price he was already paying. So it pays to complain now and then and see what they offer. (Yes, we know we’re troublemakers.)

Those Annoying Ads

adsA reader wrote us that he’s saved a lot of money buying his car tires from eBay and Amazon. But now, no matter where he goes on the Web, he gets ads for tires. He says it gets “tiresome.” (People just want to have pun.) There are ways out of this.

On your computer, search on the term “Google Ad Settings.” Uncheck the box next to the word “Personalization.” You can accomplish the same thing on an iPad or iPhone, by tapping “settings,” “Privacy” and “Advertising.” Then tap “limit ad tracking.” On an Android phone or tablet, tap “Settings,” then “Google,” then “Ads.”  Then tap “Opt out of Personalization.”

Bob has his own swift method of killing ads that come up because they’re just following along with some search he did. Those ads usually appear in a column on the right-hand side of the screen. Do the “control” and “plus” keys together to enlarge the display on the screen. Keep doing it until the ads move off screen and out of sight.

 

 

A HARD MASTER

Well we won’t make that mistake again; we’ll make a different mistake.

Some readers wrote to say they were confused by our advice on the use of DOS as a quick and easy way to control PC computers. Most readers were not confused, but those who got lost were confused because while DOS, the operating system underlying Windows, is easy to use, it is super strict about grammar. Yet it’s common to type an extra space or key.

All this reminds us of one of C. Northcote Parkinson’s famous “Laws.” That is the one that states: No matter how many times you search for a mistake in your work, the first person to look over your shoulder will see it immediately. His most famous law is that all work expands to occupy the time allotted to its completion. A corollary to that law is that anything left until the last minute will be done in one minute.

Parkinson, by the way, was a British bureaucrat who several decades ago wrote an essay in the Economist Magazine about the way the world, particularly government, actually works. He noted, for example, that while the British Empire was shrinking rapidly, the number of people who worked for the Foreign Office, which was charged with managing that empire, was continually increasing. (Thomas Jefferson, attempting to halt the same kind of bureaucratic problem, complained about “the bloated war department,” which had increased to three people.)

So things do sometimes get out of hand and we got a lot of very pleasant reader mail about our attempt to simplify computer control. One fellow wrote to say he used to program in “Assembly” language, but retired and switched to painting. (He’s pretty good: Take a look at blackwoodart.com.) Then he got a dog, a beagle, and slacked off on the painting. Assembly is what’s called a “low level language.” Not because it’s low class but because it’s very close (nearly one to one) to the instructions the brain chip actually understands. High level languages, like BASIC or C++, are so-called because they are far removed from chip talk.

But we digress, as they say, and must move on.

Plug Me In

hootooShowing off photos on your iPad is fun. But getting them there can be a hassle. We use the “iPlugMate,” a $35 gadget we found on Amazon.

The iPlugMate, from “HooToo,” is a tiny flash drive with two working ends. On one end is a “Lightning Connector” which plugs into an iPad, Macbook, iPod or iPhone. The other end is a USB 3 connector which plugs into a Windows computer. Plug it into your computer to get the photos you want on the flash drive. Then plug the flash drive into your Apple device to transfer them, using a free app. It also works in the other direction.

We tried it with an iPad, a couple of Windows XP machines and a Windows 10 machine and in every case it worked great. Huge photo folders transferred quickly over to the tablet and we of course kept the original photos on the drive as a backup.

Another way to transfer photos is Apple’s free iCloud service. Unfortunately, iCloud doesn’t work with Windows XP, unless you use a techie workaround that was too techie for us. ICloud sers get five gigabytes of storage space, but you have to choose a folder you want to keep synchronized. If you have lots of photos in separate folders, drag them all into the iCloud folder and they’ll stay in sync.

Animate That

MakeaGif.com, a free site, lets you make animations from still photos. If the photos aren’t similar, it will look more like a slideshow than an action shot. The nice thing about the GIF file format is that it loads much faster than a video. So if you put it on Facebook, your friends won’t turn to stone waiting for it.

After adding your photos and clicking to turn them into a GIF, you can add photo captions if you like. Or download it. Or click to get a link and share it in an email or on Facebook and other sites.

Gamer’s Keyboard

ornata-chroma-keyboardThe “Razer Ornata Chroma” is a $99 keyboard for gamers and it’s pretty fancy. We fell in love with the backlit keys, which cycle through all colors of the rainbow. Joy is using it as her regular keyboard now.

This lighting is nice to have when you stumble into the office at night. It’s also good in the daytime if your office is a bit dark. You can customize the colors and display to get various effects. Tap the “fire” effect and the keys appear to be smoldering.

The key strokes are short and spring loaded. This reduces the time between striking and having your actions register, crucial when you’re in a high-speed game. You can give it ten commands at once and its own memory keeps track.

You can assign keys to specific functions for quick and sure action. These shortcuts, called “macros” have been around since the earliest days. When Bob was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the copy desk editors had a shortcut key for “Zbigniew Brzezinski,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Tap a key and Zbigniew was slugged in.

What we have found interesting about this sort of thing over the years is that equipment made for video game players — who always want fast action and lots of options, is often the best of its type (so to speak).

Last Pass

A reader begged to differ on our password advice. We warned against the free version of “LastPass,” because it’s had a couple of security breaches.

There would have been no security problems, he notes, if people had used LastPass with two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication means that no one can sign in to your account because they won’t have the code that was sent to your phone or tablet. To use it with LastPass, you need a premium account, which is $1 a month. Then click on your account and “multifactor options.”

Besides Last Pass, the reader recommends using 2-factor authentication with all your online accounts. His Facebook account was hacked recently, so he added two-factor identification to it. Search on the phrase “Lifehacker two-factor authentication” for an article with links to automatically enable it on a wide variety of sites, such as Dropbox, Twitter and Gmail. (Many holiday thanks to our reader for supplying this reference.)

To recap the main feature of Lastpass, it saves the effort of writing down dozens of passwords, which in many instances must be changed on a regular basis. You only need to remember one master password, which is not recorded by LastPass. Knowing it unlocks all the others. At least that’s the theory; for some reason, it failed to log us in on half the accounts we have passwords for.