cheap phonesA reader wrote to tell us his young daughter got separated from him and his wife during Mardi Gras. Instead of it being a desperate situation, she called and told him where she was. “I found her in short order,” He says. His daughter uses an old LG flip phone with $10 a month service from

This made us think of other ways out of tough situations. Since she had an old-fashioned flip phone, it lacked apps, including the Uber app for calling a cab. With services like Uber and Lyft, no cash is required because a credit card is linked to your account and charged automatically. So if you have no money — say you’ve been robbed or lost it — you can still call a car to drive you home. Our Mardi Gras reader thought it would be nice if his daughter could order an Uber with her flip phone, and asked about “Texber.” As we wrote recently, Texber was supposed to let you call an Uber through text messaging but it never got off the ground. uberDespite much fanfare, the website isn’t there and the only “Texber” app in the app store does something else.

But that sent us on a quest to look for another way to use Uber or similar services.  If you want to call Uber from your computer, you can, but the first time out you have to go to to request permission and sign up for an account. After getting it, you can call an Uber cab at from then on. This would be handy for those without phones. They could call from their computer, but unless they have a cellular connection built into their laptop and are willing to lug it along, they’d have to borrow a phone or a computer for the ride back, and log on to again. But often you can get access to a computer at a library or a hotel.

Another alternative is to get a cheap smart phone. We saw the “LG Tribute Duo” at for $30, with service at $35 a month.

The Persistence of Flip Phone Users

Hard to believe, but not everyone wants a smart phone. Last year, 24.2 million flip phones were sold, two million more than the previous year. Flip phone users praise their long battery life –two weeks to a month without a recharge, and the peace and quiet of not knowing what your friends and acquaintances are doing every minute.

The happiest flip phone users seemed to be TracFone users, who can pick them up in  many drugstores stores for around $15. We have one flip phone and one smart phone. Joy uses the smart phone for navigation, photos, text messaging and apps. Bob likes the flip phone. He uses a printed map or asks for directions if driving out of state.

roomiappApp Happy

  • Roomi, a free app for Android, iPhone or from, helps you find an apartment to share, or a roommate for the apartment you’re in. Right now, they’re just in a dozen or so major cities, the latest of which is Boston.
  • “Robinhood” is a free app for Android or iPhone from It lets you buy stocks without paying commission. Given that a typical brokerage fee is $10 a trade, the Robinhood people say they’ve saved investors over $22 million so far. You can trade any of 5,000 stocks and ETFs (exchange traded funds) on the U.S. exchanges, but no options or mutual funds. You have to give them your Social Security number to get started because it’s required by law.
  • Via” is a new app that competes with Uber and Lyft, but is only in Chicago and New York so far. If you find yourself in either place, you can really save money. If it’s not rush hour, rides in Chicago are a flat $4 (no tax) and $5 plus tax in New York. The reason they’re so cheap is that you have to share the ride with others. “UberPool” is similar. “Lyft Line” is in six cities.

Numbers Report: Robocalls

robocallMost of the calls to our landline phone are “robocalls” — calls made by a robot. It may not surprise you to know that they want to sell us something. Every second, 963 robocalls are made in America according to YouMail. That’s 2.5 billion robocalls in March alone. For four months, Atlanta has been the most robo-called city.

Getting on the “Do Not Call” list is not enough. Call-blocking apps are better. We use the free “TrueCaller” app on our Android phone. On the iPhone, blocking is built in.

Ransomware on the Rise

Just the other day we got a call claiming to be from a “Microsoft Windows expert” who could improve our computers. We hung up; Microsoft doesn’t call you, you call them.

Most likely, this was the beginning of a “ransomware” attack. “Ransomware” is a kind of computer attack that either steals your data or locks it up in a file that needs a ransomwarecomplex code to open. It’s called “ransonmware” because the crooks say your files can be recovered if you pay a fee. One time, Joy thought a call was legitimate and after handing control of her computer to the bad guys over the internet, the destruction began. She hung up when Bob urged her to and had to totally reformat her computer. (Joy is really too trusting. Bob, on the other hand, is a cynical reporter.)

Ransomware infections more than doubled last month. Every month this year had more attacks than the month before, according to Enigma Software. They looked at more than 65 million ransom attacks going back to 2013 and found these attacks hit hospitals, school districts and government offices, not just personal users. Here’s the report.



videoBoth Windows and Mac come with free tools for capturing whatever you see on your screen and attaching it to an email or using it elsewhere. But if you need high resolution screenshots, or want to capture video, add voice over or turn it into a brief animation, the new Ashampoo Snap 9 is a handy Windows program for doing that.

Basically anything you see on your computer screen can be captured in up to 4K resolution, which is quite sharp. Add special effects, or time the video capture for a precise start and stop, or even pause it. The program can also do “OCR” (optical character recognition). So if you want to capture a news article off the screen, for example, Snap 9 can turn the image you get into text that can be edited. (Would people ever use this to change the text to their liking? Unthinkable.) There’s a free trial of Snap 9 at

Word Wizardry

snoopyBob astonished Joy the other day when she was working on a website for a nonprofit. The website pages all had a lavender background, yet their new logo had a block of white around it. How do you give a logo a transparent background, or one that matches the page you’ll put it on? “You can do it in Word,” Bob said, and he was right.

In Word 2007 and 2010, start by calling up a picture either one of your own or from clipart.  This brings the picture on to your page. On the “Format” tab at the top, choose “recolor.” Then click “set transparent color.” Now click anywhere in the background.  Voila! This works best if the background is a solid color.

In Word 2016, you have’s almost infinite library of photos and clipart. Click “insert” and “online pictures.” After choosing one, click the “Format” tab and “remove background.” Expand the cropped area if necessary, then click “keep changes.”

Bing has a lot of images of Snoopy. You could create personal stationery or notepaper by simply adding Snoopy and removing any backgound box that came with by making that background transparent as we did before. There is no problem using the Snoopy image if you are not doing it for commercial purposes, meaning not selling it or using it for advertising.  Give the notepaper to your youngest relatives with self-addressed envelopes and they may actually send thank you notes, a practice that seems to have fallen out of favor.

A Microsoft Anomoly

Office 365, which includes Word 2016 among other programs, is the only reliable way we’ve seen to have your Office files automatically loaded up to Microsoft’s OneDrive at You’d think that since Windows 8 and Windows 10 computers have a built-in online folder called “OneDrive,” anything saved there would be saved online. Fooled again! We usually have to manually upload our files. Now that we’re using Office 365, however, we watch Office documents automatically upload as soon as we close them.  (We’ve heard that most people use other services, like Dropbox, Google Drive and Box.)

flipsyContra eBay

A reader said he was glad our eBay experience went well. He no longer uses them because the customers frequently don’t pay. “Too many grifters claim they don’t get the product,” he said. “Even with proof of delivery, eBay sides with them.” People buying toys often say they’ll pay top dollar if the auction is closed for their sake. Then they don’t pay.

Here’s an alternative: It lists dozens of alternative sites where you could sell electronics and books, putting the best offer on top. Had we checked them first, we would have seen an offer for our Samsung Galaxy S3 phone for $104 from Amazon, nearly twice as much as we got from eBay. When we cruised Amazon, we didn’t see this offer; Flipsy put it up front.

Revisiting Silica Gel Packets

After writing about the many uses for those little silica gel packets that often come with boxes of electronic stuff. We heard from a reader who majored in physics and chemistry.

“These things will saturate with time and have to be re-activated,” he says. “The most authoritative-sounding articles seemed to agree that you have to heat them in an oven between 200F and 250F for at least 12 hours.”

He goes on: “I believe that many of the alleged uses of these packets are overstated.  There is a limit to how much water one of these can absorb and it’s not much, 40% of the weight of the gel itself I think.”


  • has animations showing the evolution of American currency. 
     $1 Bill History

    Watch George Washington’s face morph into Martha Washington’s as you see the $1 bill change from 1862 to the present. Running Antelope, an advisor to Sitting Bull, used to be on the $5 bill. “Lady Liberty” was on the twenty.

  • “How Much Income You Need to Live Comfortably in the 50 Biggest Cities.” Google that phrase or click on the link to compare high-cost cities, like San Francisco, where they say you need $110,000 a year with low cost ones like Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas, where they say you only need $40,000.
  • has a “state of the air” report showing the most polluted cities in America. Los Angeles is still number one, as it has been for the 16 years since this report began. If you Google “More than Half of All Americans Live in Polluted Air,” you’ll find The Smithsonian’s report. The cleanest cities are in Vermont, upstate New York and Hawaii.

The Numbers Report

How much time do children spend online? Lots.

Over half of kids ages 3 to 16 go online every day, according to Futuresource Consulting.  Among ages 3 to 4, only 25 percent never go online, and only 10 percent of 7 year-olds. Watching funny videos are the most popular online activity in the U.S.. In China, it’s cartoons. In Germany, it’s music videos.  Seventy percent of parents with children ages 3 to 12 have parental controls to restrict Internet access and provide a time limit on Internet use.




spillJoy converted to using a Mac a couple months ago, after her Windows 10 machine became so slow she almost tossed it out the window. Then Bob spilled tea on the Mac (It was an accident! Really!) and the rest is history.

The genius at the Apple store’s “Genius Bar” told us it would cost $750 plus tax to fix it. A new Macbook Air is $899. Not much difference. Windows 10 looked good again.

We’d already done a lot to speed up our HP Pavilion computer — an all-in-one, heavy-to-move, they-discontinued-it — by getting rid of so-called “browser extensions” and other programs running in the background. For a while things seemed better. But then they got worse. The central processing unit (the “CPU”) would huff and puff at 99 percent of capacity. (You can check that kind of performance by right-clicking the strip along the bottom of the screen and choosing “task manager.”) One culprit was our computer’s power setting. If a PC hibernates right after you leave it, an anti-virus scan can get interrupted and take forever to finish, hogging computer resources all the while.

Another way to speed things up is dump your wireless connection, if you have one. A wired connection to the Internet is much faster and more secure. It uses Ethernet cables to connect computers to the network router. The bad side is your computers are now tethered to that router box. But the speed-up is tremendous. After we connected both of our Windows 10 computers, we were amazed. The HP’s central processor, instead of running at 99 percent of capacity as before, now typically runs at around 10 percent. The only exception is when we have a dozen websites, including video, all open at the same time. But whose fault is that?

So just remember this: to look at the Task Manager, right click the bottom of the Windows screen to see what’s hogging your computer, and either click “end task” or uninstall the offending program. If it’s still slow, switch to a wired connection.

The Flip Side of Instant Updates

marshmallow for androidA reader wrote recently to say that an Android phone upgrade is not always a good thing. After he upgraded to the new Android “Marshmallow” operating system, one of his email accounts stopped working. The only way he could get it going again was to change his server’s security settings to less-than-secure.

He spent three hours on the phone with Samsung tech support, but didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Next, he asked the tech support team at Best Buy about downgrading his phone to the previous “Lollipop” Android system. They said the process might break the phone and he’d be out $600 for a new one. So for now, he says, he’s going to have to continue to run his business using server settings that “make my email address a great candidate for purchase for $10 by a Nigerian prince.” (Our offers of Nigerian riches always come from widows of Nigerian Generals.)

According to a team of researchers from Indiana University and Microsoft Research, vulnerabilities in the Android system can allow a seemingly harmless app to automatically acquire extra permissions without a user’s consent. That’s if they upgrade.

But according to Digital Trends, most Android phones need updating. Most of them lack bug fixes and critical security patches. Some phones never get the latest operating system, which was true of our Samsung Galaxy S3. For others, the process takes a year. By contrast, iPhones and Nexus phones get updates within hours or days, direct from Apple or Google.

The Story of Upgrades

fixThis is an old story we have written about many times for many years. The title of the story is: “Just because there’s a newer version doesn’t mean it’s better.”

So-called upgrades to fix bugs often result in the installation of new bugs. Some software upgrades make the software incompatible with previous versions. Microsoft once did this with Word, which then could not edit documents written in earlier versions. (They fixed that.) Programmers even joke about it: they say “It’s not a bug it’s a new feature.” Yuk, yuk.

We have talked with sales people in office stores, computer stores and even dealers at flea markets and they all say the same thing about this: the customer always asks if it’s the latest version. If it’s not, they’re not interested.

There’s an old farmer expression which goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We use some programs that are 15 and 20 years old. They not only haven’t been upgraded, the companies don’t exist anymore. But the programs still work, and they’re nice. The latest thing isn’t always the greatest thing.

More Reader Insights

We couldn’t get a wireless signal in the whole apartment, so AT&T sent out a tech guy. He installed a “repeater,” also called a “range extender.” Took him two hours. The Internet connection was still bad. A savvy reader told us why.

“You need another router to be placed some distance from your main router/modem and connected to the main router with a cat 5 cable.” That’s the tech name for an Ethernet cable. In our case, this would mean running a cable down the hallway, around doorways and along the edges of rooms. Time to suck your thumb on that one. The reader had good results with the Asus RT-N12 D1 router from Amazon for $34, he said. But that’s after he ran an Ethernet cable to the basement.

Games Writers Play

Mystery of Mortlake Mansion gameWatching strange rooms fall to pieces and come back together again, solving puzzles, talking to ghosts: We’re having more fun with “Mystery of Mortlake Mansion” than any game we’ve played in a long time.

It’s part of a three-game set from Playrix Games, $7 at Amazon. Two of the games are turkeys, but Mortlake Mansion is fun. It’s a so-called “hidden object” game, a kind of “Where’s Waldo” for adults and kids. Unlike others we’ve played, this one has great puzzles and challenges. (We found a couple too hard, but most are fun.) In the meantime, we’re trying to escape a mansion full of surprises and mysterious events. If we don’t get out soon, send the Sherpas.



Bluetooth_Logo_RuneWe heard from a reader who wasn’t sure what Bluetooth was and why she needed it on her new iPad Mini. The answer is (the envelope, please): It’s a short-range radio transmitter and receiver, and she doesn’t need it.

No doubt you’re wondering why it’s called Bluetooth, and who wouldn’t. Harald Bluetooth was a 10th century king of Denmark — which back in those days included more than just Denmark. He had a dental problem. One of his front teeth was discolored, sort of bluish, you might say. So people used to call him — you guessed it — but not to his face, of course.

Bluetooth (radio version) has become common for communication between your watch and your smartphone and your tablet and your computer and any other device, gadget and gizmo that has the tiny hardware for receiving and sending the signal. Range is 30 feet, sometimes up to 300 feet, depending on conditions. We once used it to control an air filter with our phone, but it was actually easier just to press the button.

If you think your phone or tablet needs to communicate with another gadget, go to “settings” and tap “Bluetooth” to set it up. It has to look around (feel around?) to see if there are any brethren in the area and it will then get in touch, so to speak. For example, you might want to listen to music on a wireless headset, or transmit statistics from your Fitbit to your phone. But using Bluetooth drains batteries, so if you don’t need it, don’t use it.

Our eBay Experience

ebay logoWe thought it would be easy to sell our old phone on eBay and it was.

As you know, eBay is an auction site. You can click a “buy now” button if you’re willing to pay the asking price, but most people wait until the final hours of a sale to get a lower price. Sellers don’t pay a listing fee on the first 1,000 items, but most people wait until the final hours of a sale to get a lower price. Sellers don’t pay a listing fee on the first 1,000 items, or the first $25,000. That may seem like a huge number of transactions but some people make a business of it and buy and sell hundreds of items regularly.

EBay suggested we start the bidding on our four year-old Samsung Galaxy S3 phone at $48. As the ten-day deadline approached, it was bid up to $56. We had four bids and the winner paid within the four-day deadline. (if they don’t pay by then, you can file a complaint. The deal can be canceled and a new one begun.)

The money went right into our PayPal account. If you don’t have a PayPal account, you’ll be prompted to create one, an easy process. If you link your PayPal account to your bank account, your PayPal funds can be transferred automatically. We didn’t bother with this step. Not only do many websites accept funds from PayPal, it’s an easy way to pay freelance contractors, relatives, and even some stores. Office Depot, for example, accepts payment from PayPal right there at the cash register.

EBay made it easy to ship our item out, providing the shipping label. You can pay for the shipping cost or let the buyer pay. We let the buyer pay. That’s because they were getting a great deal anyway.

We could have sold our phone to Amazon, but they would have only given us $36 ($20 less than eBay). Still, it’s worth checking out “Amazon Trade-In” for ideas on stuff you might want to sell. Joy’s yoga book would bring us $10. Amazon will also buy stuff you didn’t get on Amazon, but prices are dismal. Forty cents for our CD of Bach partitas? Ridiculous; that’s Glenn Gould playing.

App Happy

crime app showing new york“Redzone,” from, is a free app for iPhones that identifies “red zones,” by which they mean areas with high crime rates. Pins on the map show you the exact location of shootings, assaults, thefts or other crimes occurring within the past 90 days. Areas mapped include the U.S. and Israel. An Android app is due “soon,” they say.


  • offers hundreds of free scientific books in subjects such as quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, math and astronomy.
  • is from the U.S. government’s transportation administration, with the idea of speeding up the security lines at airports. Enroll online, then show your passport in person at one of their security centers, and every time you fly, you can get in a faster line
  • is an online marketplace for books and educational supplies from pre-kindergarten through college. Their best-sellers were mostly one/third off the regular price.
  • has an article about protecting yourself from malicious advertising — ads that have been hijacked. These ads have even been found on sites like the New York Times. One remedy is a free program from, but there are others. For more info, go to, click “technology” and scroll down to the article on “Malvertising,” or click here.

 Tips and Tricks

silica gelIf you’ve ever bought anything electronic, you’ve probably seen those little bags of silica gel in the box. Don’t throw them out.

We watched a YouTube video called “Why You Should Never Throw Away Silica Gel Bags,” from These little bags, full of silicon dioxide, are non-toxic and will absorb moisture from anything around them. Throw them in a gym bag, and they may hinder bacteria or mold from growing. If your phone gets wet, put it in a jar with these bags and you’ll have a better chance of saving it. Put a few bags in a box of old photos to prevent them from sticking together. Your razor blades may last longer if you put them in a container with some silica bags.



marshmallow for androidLess than five percent of Android phone owners have the new “Marshmallow” operating system. A third have the previous version, Lollipop. the rest are so far back the operating systems were written on stone tablets.

Online forums are full of complaints. “When are we getting an update?” they ask.

Unless they have a Google Nexus phone, the answer is vague. This was a big reason Joy pushed Bob to get the Google Nexus 6P. In fact, it’s the first time we’ve felt up to date since we started saying “Xerox” instead of “mimeograph.”

The current “Marshmallow” flavor is version 6. Our old Samsung Galaxy S3 was stuck on “Jelly Bean,” version 4.3. (Bob doesn’t care for jelly beans.) Expect some other flavor in October. We hope it’s pumpkin pie.

Everything about Marshmallow is more convenient. Your most frequently used apps are at the top of the list. Swipe down to see the whole thing at a glance, instead of looking for apps page by page. Swipe from the top of the screen to get notifications, then swipe a second time to get options, such as a flashlight, airplane mode, data usage statistics and “do not disturb.” When the phone goes idle, put your finger on the back to start it up again. (This doesn’t work every time. Cold fingers seem to confuse the fingerprint sensor.)

We were awed by the new “Now on Tap” feature. Suppose you mention a movie in a text message or email. If you hold down the home button on your phone, you’ll get little thumbnail images along the bottom of the screen. Tap one to see a trailer, read a review, get the cast list, watch the movie, see images of it, or find its location on a map, while you’re still in the message.

Any phone with the Marshmallow system will have terrific battery life. That’s because it knows when it’s been idle and enters hibernation mode. With earlier Android versions, a phone might lose 12 to 25 percent of battery life overnight if left on. A Marshmallow phone will lose just three to five percent. What’s more, individual apps will go into deep sleep if you left them open but aren’t using them, rather than run fully in the background as before. Read more »


Portrait Pro before and afterIs it hard to believe a celebrity is really in her 60s when she looks 25 in a photo? Is there some trick to it? You bet.

There are programs out there which do the touch-up automatically, no skill involved. We’re thinking of “Portrait Pro,” a $40 program now out in a new version, with a free trial available at

When last we tried “PortraitPro” Joy was so pleased with her enhanced photo, she was reluctant to accept her old look. As we noted then, she would only walk outside with the “Portrait Pro” photo pasted on her face. (This has caused some comment.)

The new version is easier to use than ever. Each effect you may want to apply has a slider control. Slide a little or a lot when adding mascara, eyeliner, lipstick, hair color, “baby skin,” and other effects. The program also fixes “selfie distortion,” caused by wide-angle lenses. The skin controls give you options from “healthy glow” to “nightclub” look. There’s even a child mode. Your baby won’t be mistaken for some teenager, even after you apply the effects. Read more »


NEXUS PHONESometimes we pay attention to our own column. Right after we wrote about Google’s “Project Fi” phone service, we ditched our T-Mobile service and signed up. It was, as they say, a moment of epiphany.

It’s not that our three-year-old Samsung Galaxy S3 isn’t a great phone, it is. But with Project Fi, we got unlimited talking and text for $20 a month. We only pay for the data we use, an extra $10 for each gigabyte, and they reimburse us for what we don’t use. The catch is, to be a Fi user, you have to buy a new phone, either the $199 Nexus 5x, the Nexus 6 (around $300 on eBay)  or the $499 Nexus 6p, made by Huawei, (pronounced “wa-way.”) Surprisingly, Huawei is the largest telecommunications company in the world.

We went for the top of the line, and had it in mind to sell our old Galaxy S3 on eBay to defray the cost. It came in the mail and it was beautiful. The service plan  combines T-Mobile, Sprint and Wi-Fi into a virtual network.

The Nexus 6p is about an inch longer than our old phone and a little wider. It’s sometimes called a “phablet,” for phone/tablet. The large screen makes it easier to type and the phone feels light in the hand. For us, who are very thrifty phone users, the battery lasted several days before needing a charge. The recharge took an hour and 20 minutes. Read more »


Car Hacker's Handbook“The Car Hacker’s Handbook,”  by Craig Smith is for the techie in the family. It’s an in-depth look at the computer-based systems in modern cars that make them vulnerable to attack. The book is $50 from No Starch Press.

The book teaches you how to write programs to remotely take control of a car’s engine, steering, brakes, temperature control, door locks and more. We hope no bad guys are buying this book, but people who want to prevent bad things from happening. The author says the book will help you understand the inner workings of modern cars and encourages you to let manufacturers know about the vulnerabilities. Sure, sure.


dead car batteryWe stopped paying for AAA road service after they refused Joy’s call for help. Joy’s car was sandwiched tightly between two others in a crowded medical parking garage and she couldn’t get in. She finally got help from a building employee.

So that made us wonder what we would do if our car needed a jump start and our cell phone was dead. There are a couple of portable jump starters you can get at car parts supply stores. We saw the “Road Boost XL,” a portable jump starter for $73 at Amazon. It was cheaper than AAA.


GmailSay you’re on a train without a connection to the Internet. If you’ve previously downloaded “Gmail Offline,” you can answer mail. It will be sent out the next time you’re able to connect. This is free for computers and phones. You’ll need to use the Chrome web browser. If you don’t have it, you can get it at; it’s free.