SLOW WEB

Recently, we wrote about websites that hog your computer’s resources and slow down your world. We dug in and found that our own chief culprit was one of our favorite sites, Techlicious.com. Later we found out it was a temporary problem caused by one of their advertisers. The advertiser has since been shut down.

That’s good news. Even better, our Techlicious contact told us about a free plugin for users of Google’s “Chrome” browser, called “OneTab.” It takes all your open tabs (which show the websites you have open) and merges them into one tab. Collapsing all those tabs into one can cut the computer’s load by up to 95 percent. To find OneTab, search on the phrase “OneTab plugin.” Click the button that says “add to Chrome.” Then, whenever you want to make multiple tabs into one tab, click the OneTab icon. We liked the neatness of a having a list instead of a lot of tabs showing at the top of our screen but we didn’t notice a big difference in performance; maybe you will. It also works with Firefox browsers.

Show Watch

A reader asked us if we’d written about the difference between Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, or had she dreamt it? We hadn’t, so Bob asked her if it was a pleasant dream anyway. “LOL” (laugh out loud), she wrote back.

So we turned our attention to her question. Our attention has a short turning radius, so we were able to note some differences quickly. Netflix costs $10 a month and specializes in TV series, many of which are their own original shows, such as “House of Cards.” You can browse Netflix without joining, or sign up for a free 30-day trial. But if you’re not crazy about it, remember to cancel before the trial period is up or you will find that your credit card is being charged more or less forever.
We have been in an out of Netflix several times. As you browse, you can watch trailers. We tend to have a “Yuck!” reaction to most of these but somebody must like them. For example, their series called “The Santa Clarita Diet” is about a housewife who eats people. It was set in California, so at least the people were organic. The only Netflix original show we’ve ever liked was “Lilyhammer,” a funny crime show set in Norway.
We prefer Amazon Prime, a $99 a year service, which works out to $8.25 a month. Besides lots of free movies and TV shows, you get free shipping on most anything you buy. We loved their “Alpha House,” series about four Republican senators who share a house in Washington. And we got caught up in a CBS series they showed, called “BrainDead.”
Netflix is said to have a bigger selection, but we haven’t found this to be true for our old-fashioned tastes, unless you pay extra for their DVD mail delivery service. Netflix’s streaming service doesn’t have a single James Bond movie, for example, but Amazon has 16 free for Prime members. (There are 26 Bond movies in all; which is a lot of martinis shaken, not stirred.)
If you mainly want a lot of current TV shows, Hulu Plus may be the one to get. Like Netflix, it has a free trial. It airs new episodes just five hours after they’ve appeared on TV. On Amazon, it’s usually about five days later and it’s much longer on Netflix.

The Rise of Planet Chromebook

An insurance company called “Safeware” told us that two years ago only three percent of their policies for school computers were for Chromebooks, a computer designed primarily for web use. Currently 23 percent of policies cover Chromebooks, a 650 percent increase.
A big reason is price: Chromebooks cost $149 to $499 and the software is all free online. But compared to iPads, they get damaged accidentally 60 percent more often. This could be because a large percentage of them are used by small children. However, when damage occurs, Chromebooks cost only half as much iPads to repair. We turn to ours whenever our Windows computer gets so slow we’re tempted to fix it with a hammer.

Email Spoof

We’ve been spoofed! A friend told us an email that appeared to come from us actually came from someone in Russia.
Fortunately our friend read the message carefully and saw that it came from an email address that wasn’t ours. But the part that shows “display name” had ours. Apparently, you can set up an email account and use someone else’s name as the display name. It’s called “spoofing,” and some email services don’t permit it. In our case, the message read that it was coming from “Joy Schwabach” though the sender’s address was not Joy’s. If in doubt, contact your friend by phone or email instead of clicking on the message. It may well be that the action of clicking on anything in the message is what triggers some malware program.

Printer Scam

Our friend Ida had a strange thing happen on the website for Brother Printers. Clicking on a link on the official website led to a fake tech support number. When she called it, the person answering told her they needed control of her computer to fix the problem. She did what they asked (even though she’s not stupid). She could tell they’d done something, because all her familiar desktop icons disappeared.
We went over to her place and showed her how to do a “system restore.” (Type it into the Windows search bar or help section and follow the instructions.) Then we went to the Brother site ourselves. Sure enough, clicking on a legitimate looking link took us to a scammers’ website, this time with a link we could click to start a “fast install” program. (We are very reluctant clickers.) We told Brother tech support about it and they said they would report it to their team. Brother happens to be one of our favorite printer companies, so we have no doubt they got right on the problem. Still, it was a shock to see that kind of thing on the website of a large legitimate company.

RANSOM!

A reader writes to tell us her Windows files have been hijacked. The hijacker is demanding money to release her photos and personal documents. Here’s what to do and how to prevent that.

Restart the computer. Keep tapping the F8 key as you start up. A recovery option will come on the screen. This will take the machine back to a time before the hijack. (And to think that some people say time travel is impossible.) If for some reason this doesn’t work, there are lots more ways to do it in PC World’s article “How to Rescue Your PC from Ransomware.”

It’s better to avoid being taken for one of those rides in the first place by getting free anti-ransom software. Google the word “Cybereason” and click on the second result, “RansomFree by Cybereason.” The product has had over 50,000 downloads so far and customers report that it blocked ransom attacks. The FBI reports that ransomware is the biggest threat facing consumers in 2017.

Calling by Voice

In a previous column, we mentioned how nice it would be if Alexa, the voice inside the Amazon Echo Dot, (or Google Assistant, the voice inside Google Home), could make emergency calls whenever you said something like “Call Uncle Max.”  But you don’t have to wait for Google or Amazon to add this feature. You can command your phone to call someone, just by using your voice.

With Siri, start by tapping “settings,” and then tap to allow “Hey Siri.” Now she’ll answer your voice commands. Once you do that, a whole world opens. She’ll make a phone call for you. Siri will also read you the subject lines of your email, if you say “Hey Siri, read my email.” She’ll also read the news headlines, answer questions, start a game or some other app, if you name it. She’ll play music in your library, and do hundreds of other things. For a complete list, search on the phrase “complete list of Siri commands.” You can do similar searches for complete lists of commands you can give the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. You can ask Alexa to read you a book, for example.

On any Android phone with the Lollipop, Marshmallow or Nougat operating system, say “OK Google” to call anyone in your contact list, just by using their first name. (“OK, Google, call Stephanie.”) But you can also call those not on your contact list.  Say, “Call the Main Library; you have to add the town you want. If it doesn’t work, make sure you’ve updated the Google app on your phone.

If you have a Windows phone, or an older phone, try the free app “VoiceDial.” Tap its icon to dial with your voice.  Then say “Hello Blue Genie, dial Joe Doe,” or whomever.

We can imagine the following scenario. Your mother is sick and can barely move. Tell her to keep her iPhone plugged in and within shouting distance. Then she can say “Hey Siri, call 911.”

Automatic eBay

A friend of our inherited a collection of Robert Crumb comic art, more than a thousand pieces. Odd subject. Selling it piece by piece on eBay would be exhausting. We have an idea for her: “FedEx Valet.”

Most FedEx stores offer this service. They say “bring designer clothes, electronics, sporting goods and more to your local FedEx office.” Don’t even bother to pack it up. They’ll send your stuff to Valets who photograph, list and ship your stuff when it sells. You get up to 80 percent of the sales.

Internuts

— Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is still doing shows about nothing. That was the original pitch for the Seinfeld TV series. This new one is ComediansInCarsGettingCoffee.com. It’s very low-key, as you might expect, and we found it mildly amusing.

ClientsFromHell.net. Yes, there are people out there dumber than anyone you know. Hundreds of them. Remember: roughly half the population is below average intelligence.

Lights! Action! Special Effects!

We never asked for six camera angles, or text that follows our hero through the opening credits. But we always wanted to do that trick where one character or object is in color while everything else is in black and white. You can do that and plenty more with “VideoStudio Pro Ultimate” from Corel.

VideoStudio Pro is aimed at amateurs but has features that pros should adopt, such as “auto ducking.” We see — or rather “hear” — this problem in many older British films: We can hear the character’s crunchy footsteps on gravel but not what he is saying. Auto-ducking lowers the volume on the one so you can hear the other. We’d never think of attempting it in our own videos were it not for Corel’s tutorials, which are really good.

The tutorials are the first thing you see when you open VideoStudio. The guy leading them reminds us of David Attenborough, the famous narrator of Nova’s nature documentaries. He doesn’t have Attenborough’s British accent, but a similar gentleness makes you think “I can do this!” (We mean the video editing, not the documentaries.)

In less than a minute, we were using one of the many templates to turn our photos and video clips into a professional looking production. It began with photos scattered on a table, each one containing one of our images.

It takes patience to work through all the tutorials. Fortunately, you can backtrack to any segment. Sample them for yourself at Learn.Corel.com. The site also has a free trial version of the software, in two versions: $80 for VideoStudio Pro and $100 for VideoStudio Ultimate.

 

 

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.