JOY CATCHES A PHISH

Recently we told you about a Google quiz from phishingquiz.withgoogle.com. It lets you know whether you’re good at spotting hacking attempts in your email. Even so, we almost fell for one ourselves.

We got an email that seemed to be from AT&T, telling us: “You recently talked with someone at AT&T or told us online you forgot your User ID.” It listed our user ID and links to going paperless, setting up auto-pay, or getting AT&T news. All of that looked exactly like a standard AT&T email. It even listed the correct phone number for AT&T.  We called it up and the rep said the email was a phishing attempt. She warned us not to click on anything.

But it’s safe to right-click a link and paste it into Word. When we did that for each link, they all had a phony address in common: clicks.ATT.com, with a long trail of characters after that. Joy accidentally went to clicks.ATT.com when she just meant to Google it, and it looked like the kind of site a beginner would create 20 years ago. The real AT&T address is www.att.com.

Phone Fun

Here are some fun and useful things to try on your iPhone with its latest operating system, version 12. (Android tips later.)

  • Do notifications drive you crazy? You’re in the middle of something and your phone sounds off to tell you the latest news from Zanzibar? Swipe right on the notification and choose “manage.” Then choose “Deliver quietly.”
  • Can’t remember what the doctor said? That’s OK. He doesn’t remember what you said either. Record it. Tap “voice memo,” and hit the record button. Back it up to your private space on iCloud by going to “Settings” and tapping your name. Then tap “iCloud” and “Voice Memos.” Toggle it to the “on” position.
  • Change Siri’s accent to Irish or South African. Go to “settings,” tap “Siri and Search,” then “Siri Voice,” and choose.

Android users who are bothered by the constant ping of notifications can tap “Settings.” Under “Sound,” choose “Default Notifications.” Then choose “My Sounds,” select “None” and “Save.” That silences them all. If there are apps you want to hear from, go to “Settings,” “Apps & Notifications,” and make adjustments. For example, in “Messages,” tap “Notifications,” then  “Default,” “Advanced,” and “Sound.” We like “Gentle Gong.”

To change the voice of Google Assistant, a free app on your Android phone, tap and hold the Home button on your phone, click the funny symbol on the right, click the three dots in the upper left, choose “Settings,” tap “Assistant” and then “Assistant Voice.” Tap the voice you like best. We chose “British Racing Green.” (By the way: It’s called that because it is the color assigned to cars from Great Britain in international races.)

To make a voice recording on an Android phone, tap the “Keep Notes” app, which is located in the “Create” group. Under “take a note,” tap the microphone and blast away. That note can contain thousands of words. The app does transcripts too. But we also like the free apps “Smart Recorder” and “Otter,” for either Android or iPhone.

Password Check

Recently, we mentioned a website, HaveIbeenPwned.com, which tells you if any of your passwords have been stolen. Unfortunately, if it says yes, you have no idea which one it was or when it happened. Now Google offers a free extension for Chrome users called “Password Check.” It alerts you before you enter a bad password.

Get Password Check free from the Google Chrome webstore. Once installed, every time you sign into a website, you’ll get an alert if a password isn’t OK. So far, all of ours have been fine, despite the warning from HaveIBeenPwned.

Book Me a Ride

Here’s a fast way to find the best deal from Uber or Lyft. Use Google Assistant.

Your Android phone comes with Google Assistant built in, but it can be downloaded for free to iPhones, using the app store. To use the Assistant for Uber or Lyft, say “Hey Google, book me a ride to the airport.” (Or wherever you are going.)

You’ll see an estimate of the price for both services. It might be something like “$7 – $24.” The low end would be for car pooling. Tap the one you want, then tap “open app.” You won’t commit  yourself in the Lyft app until you tap “Select Lyft.” In Uber, you won’t commit until you tap “Request Pool” to share a ride with someone else, or “Confirm UberX,” to go on your own.

Those without smart phones who want to use Uber or Lyft can call “Go Go Grandparent” or visit their website. They’ll call  Uber or Lyft for you, no smart phone required. Their fee averages $2.50 a ride.

Internuts

RD.com/funny-stuff has fun pages from the Readers Digest. This is one of those rare internet addresses with a hyphen, so be sure to put it in. Once you’re on the page, take a look at these:

  • “Funny Town Names.” These include Embarrass, Minnesota, Burnt Corn, Alabama, and Hell, Michigan, to name a few. Embarrass claimed to have had the coldest day in America during the recent Midwest Polar Vortex, but they have no proof. It was so cold, the thermometer broke.
  • “Banned Baby Names.” The name “Robocop” was banned in Mexico. “Ikea” is off limits in Australia. No Chinese parent can use the “@” sign for a name. All of these names were tested in court.
  • For a change of pace, go to YouTube.com and search on “Fun to Imagine.” Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman shares his thoughts on the universe.

 

SLEEP TIGHT

A reader wrote to say his bed no longer communicates with the Internet. It’s a modern problem.

He and his wife have a “Sleep Number” bed with “Sleep IQ” sensors that tell them how often they toss and turn, how they’re breathing and what their heart rate is. This baby costs anywhere between $499 and $5,199, depending on the model. Some models raise the head of a snoring spouse, saving their life and marriage. They also warm feet, and offer “zero gravity” positions. This prepares you for your next trip to the moon.

Our reader’s first Sleep Number bed was so great he bought a second and then a third. When the new one wouldn’t connect to the web, however, its sleep IQ fell to moron level. The couple thought  it was the router, but they already had the recommended kind, which is either single “n-band” or “dual n-band.” They tried disconnecting the first Sleep Number bed and Ah-Ha! The new one came online.

Tech support has not been great. They suggested unplugging, replugging and trying again. Still, the couple is satisfied for now, as long as their guests on the number two bed don’t demand their sleep IQs. The number one and three beds are OK.

As savvy consumers, they wondered if a “mesh” router might fix the problem. We wondered that too. We use one ourselves, called “Google Wi Fi,” to boost the signal to our bedroom. Previously, it wasn’t getting any Internet at all. Now it works most of the time.

App Happy

We’re trying out the free “Acorns App”, which rounds up your credit card purchases and puts the remaining cents into an exchange-traded investment fund, or ETF.  So if your bill is $10.70, it adds 30 cents to your investment portfolio. Or you can start out with a deposit. We invested $50 and made 71 cents by the next day. A 3.5 percent return, not bad. If the market continues at this rate, we will reach a million in only 3,859 years. Things are looking up.

The app has 3.5 million users  and the Wall Street Journal says the company is going public soon, for an expected valuation of $860 million.

We first heard about Acorns when it came out in 2012, but were put off by a few things. You have to give them your Social Security number, for one. You have to link a credit card, for another. But Joy likes the idea that professionals and Nobel Laureate economists choose wise investments, based on your preferences. So we decided to give it a shot. Bob is worried that professionals and Nobel Laureates are choosing the investments.

What companies do they invest in? Find out by going to acorns.com/invest. They don’t list the companies, which are a broad collection of firms in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S& P 500, but they will tell you their approach depending on the style you choose. We chose “moderately aggressive.” (The most conservative position is 80 percent government and corporate bonds.) We wondered immediately how to get our money out, so we Googled it. To withdraw, go to the app and tap “Invest for your Future,” and then “withdraw.”  This is Bob’s favorite feature.

They’ve added lots of new features since the company began, including a way for them to make themselves some extra money. Tap “found money,” and buy something from one of their partners, such as Apple, Airbnb, Amazon and Macy’s; they’ll add three percent or more to your account. Tap “Grow” to read interviews and news. They are rolling out a “spend” feature which lets you round up debit card transactions, and invest 10 percent of purchases from retailers that aren’t among their partners. They also offer $25 gift cards to let  you help someone else start investing. The “Later” feature lets you invest in an individual retirement account (IRA).

If you don’t think the pennies are adding up fast enough, you can invest a set amount every month, or add a multiplier effect to the amount you round up. The average contribution is $60. The commission they charge is $1 a month for any amount under a million. That sounds reasonable, but if you’re only investing $10 a month, it’s a ten percent charge, which is too high.

 Premium TV on Roku

If you have an iPhone, you can try out a new feature from Roku, which makes a stick you plug into the back of your TV to get extra channels. Now, you can get premium Roku channels on your iPhone without the stick. Android owners can get the channels later this month.

The feature is called “Premium Subscriptions,” and if you guessed that “Premium” means you pay for each subscription, go to the head of the class. Currently, they have Showtime, Starz, EPIX, CollegeHumor, Curiosity Stream, FitFusion, The Great Courses, Smithsonian Channel Plus and many others, each with their own price and free trial period.

If you already have a Roku stick, which starts at $29 for Roku Express, you’ll be able to start watching a movie or TV episode on your TV and finish it up on your phone.  To see the offerings and sign up for free trials, go to TheRokuChannel.com.

 Too Darn Loud

Have you ever wished you could whisper something to Alexa and have her answer back in a whisper? Now you can do it. It might be handy if your baby is sleeping, and you must know the weather outside, Tom Cruise’s age, or the year Cortes met the Aztecs.

Here’s how to do it: Say to Alexa, “Turn on whisper mode.”  Don’t forget to turn down Alexa’s volume first, or her response might wake up the whole family.

Blockchain Trends

Despite the crash of Bitcoin, the digital currency, at least one state government is forging ahead. Which U.S. state is farthest ahead in e-cash? According to DECENT, which runs digital currency conferences, it’s Wyoming.

DECENT reports that Wyoming is a crypto-friendly haven for individuals and businesses. Several months ago, the state legislature ruled that virtual currencies are exempt from money transmission laws and regulations. Wyoming does not tax virtual currencies as property.

CAN YOU CATCH A PHISH?

A quiz by Google reveals how good you are at spotting the difference between a legitimate email and a phishing attempt. Phishing is a way that thieves try to steal your password and credit card information while concealing their identity. The message may even appear to be from someone you know.

Learn to avoid the punches at phishingquiz.withgoogle.com. They’re not as obvious as you might expect. One of the emails in the quiz provides a link to what looks like a document from Google Drive. But  a couple of dashes in the link should tip you off that it’s phoney. The trick is, you’ll only see those dashes if you hover over the link in the email.

In any email you aren’t sure of, hover over the “reply to” address and look for clues, like misspellings. For example, there’s one in the quiz that spells “fax” as “facks.” Also look out for emails from “google.support;” the real address is support.google. In fact, Google always puts the subject first, as in mail.google.com, maps.google.com, calendar.google.com and music.google.com. Look out for addresses that start out correctly but have something odd after the dot com. Don’t open any attachment unless you’re expecting it.

Now Backing Up

A reader using Windows 10 writes that he hasn’t been able to backup his files to a thumb drive. Here’s an easy way:

Type “Backup Settings” into the search bar at the bottom left of the screen. When it comes up, click “add a drive” and choose the thumb drive or hard drive you plugged into your PC.  Click “more options” and “backup now.” Scroll down to where it says “Back up these Folders.” Click on those you don’t need and choose “remove.”

After finishing the first backup, Windows backup will go into backup mode whenever you add a new file or bookmark a favorite website. Put it on a schedule by choosing a backup every 30 minutes or even every ten. To satisfy yourself that it’s working, try deleting an unimportant file. Then type “restore files” into the Windows search bar and choose what you want to restore.

For Windows 7 users: Select the Start  button, then Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Backup and Restore. In Windows XP and Vista, click “Start” then “Run” and in the search box type “ntbackup.exe” (without the quotes). From there, it’s easy to follow the prompts. When you’re ready to restore files, just click on the file you saved and the prompts come back to guide you.

Print Your Chicken Nuggets

The Wall Street Journal writes that kids will soon be able to 3D print their chicken nuggets using “Foodini.”

The Foodini allows you to put ground chicken in one container, bread crumbs in another and choose a shape, like a dinosaur or star. The commercial version, now used by restaurants to make fancy desserts and signature garnishes, costs $4000, but a consumer version is coming out “soon.”

On Second Thought

In a recent column, we warned against a virus called “Blueborne,” suggesting that you turn Bluetooth off on your phone when you don’t need communication between devices, such as a wireless headset. A reader writes about her Apple Watch, which requires Bluetooth to be turned on. Oops, our mistake. Apple Watch and iPhone users are safe even with Bluetooth on all the time.

In short, Apple watches are not vulnerable to a Blueborne attack. Neither is any iPhone with the latest operating system, OS 11, which is compatible on all iPhones going back to iPhone 5s, which came out in 2013.

Hacked

A hacker who gained access to 723 million email addresses and 21 million passwords. is calling it “Collection #1.” He’s selling it for $45 to other hackers. To find out if yours was hacked, go to HaveIBeenPwned.com.

One of Joy’s email accounts had been “breached” 14 times, another account was hit nine times, and a third five times. Two of Bob’s had been breached six times, and a third five times.  To combat this, we changed the passwords for all of our accounts. The danger is that someone will use your login info  to sign onto another site. So it’s a good idea to have different passwords on different sites.

HaveIBeenPwnd.com suggests using a password manager, but we’d rather manage our passwords ourselves. Joy keeps a list of them on a Word document on her local machine, under a name only an alien would guess. To be even safer, set up two-factor identification wherever it’s available. That means you’ll be asked to reveal a code sent to you by text or email whenever you sign on using a new machine or phone. For instructions on how to set it up, do a search on that phrase along with the type of email you use, whether it’s Gmail, Yahoo or whatever. To read more on this issue, go to Techlicious.com or search on the words “773 Million Email Addresses Compromised in New Data Breach.”

Internuts

  • AccountKiller.com lets you instantly delete any account, whether it be on Facebook, Instagram, Skype or a dozen others.
  • Ideas.Ted.com. Instead of the videos you find at Ted.com, this site has text articles, many of which are on self-improvement. We read tips for remembering people’s names, and took a quiz to find out if we’re an introvert or extrovert. Joy turned out to be an “ambivert,” in between the two poles; she can use either head.
  • Mix.com used to be StumbleUpon.com. This was one of the cleverest sites we ever stumbled upon. It was kind of a wheel-of-fortune way to find odd sites. You’d click the “stumble” button to find them. Now the site presents three tabs. One has sites geared to your interests, another shows you what’s popular and a third lets you follow people you find interesting. It’s kind of confusing but still interesting.

 

 

 

RETURN OF A CLASSIC

A reader wrote to say she had been using a Windows XP computer forever. But recently she bit the bullet and bought a Windows 10 machine. Ouch! The wound still hurts.

Mainly, she hates the clutter in the Windows 10 start menu. We suggested she try “Classic Shell,” which is free from classicshell.net. It replaces the Windows 10 start menu with something that looks a lot like Windows XP but makes no other changes to your computer.

The main difference between the XP start menu and the one in Windows 10 is text, or the lack of it. Windows 10 seems to assume you’re either an idiot or you don’t speak English. At first, everything is an icon, not words like “start” or “shut down.” But if you click the hamburger icon (upper left after you click the start button), you’ll see the categories in text. In your new XP-style menu from Classic Shell, you’ll see your program list in text, without colorful squares. Click “Documents” to see a list of what you were working on recently and you can go right there. When you click the icon for documents in Windows 10, you land in File Explorer. Better bring a compass.

There’s more. When you click the start button in Classic Shell, then  “Settings,” you’ll see the things you want most: Control Panel, Printers, PC settings, Network Connections and more.  When you click “Search,” you can immediately search for files, folder or contacts. In the start menu, there’s also a link to the word “run” in case you want to use an old DOS command.

Classic Shell is a shell on top of Windows 10, which is good, because you still need the Windows 10 operating system for added security. It should be noted that  it doesn’t give you the XP system, so you might not be able to run XP programs. You can try running Windows XP programs by right-clicking the program you want and choosing “run as administrator.” Then, if necessary, try right-clicking again and choosing “run compatibility troubleshooter.” This hasn’t worked for us, but techies tell us it should. So for $70, we bought a refurbished XP desktop computer from Amazon. For sure, it runs XP programs.

Alexa, Hypnotize Me

You don’t have to own the Amazon’s “Echo” smart speaker to use its go-to gal Alexa. Download the free Alexa app to your phone or tablet, and try the latest commands. With some trepidation we said, “Alexa: Hypnotize me.”

When you say that, you’re asked to say “list” to choose from a list. But we found that no matter which one we chose, what came up was relaxation therapy. Joy became so relaxed she felt drugged and turned it off midway through. The second time, she let it put her to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The voice comes from Barry Thain, a British man, who has an actor’s genius for suggestion. He’s a licensed hypnotherapist.

We also tried “Women’s Health Yoga.” The first lesson, just a couple minutes long, focuses on resting. If you search on the phrase “Alexa skills,” you’ll find a list of the most popular ones.

What’s My Phone Worth?

A reader wrote that three friends gave her their old cell phones and she was thinking of selling them.

“What’s My Phone Worth?” is a free app. (Android version) It instantly analyzes your phone and gives you an estimate of its worth. Like Flipsy.com, it has links to sites that are ready to buy from you. Tap to describe the condition, from “broken” to “like new,” to get an accurate price.

We sold some stuff on eBay last summer and here’s a warning: They don’t save records from transactions more than four months old. So it’s hard to see what you sold, unless you save the details yourself, or check your account on PayPal.

Email on Your Phone

A reader said she finally got around to trying out “Unroll.Me,” which we mentioned as a way of unsubscribing from all those emails you never meant to sign up for. But she was put off by the privacy warning.

It didn’t bother us, since it’s a bot (a program) reading your mail, not a human. However, we understand the concern about data collection. Another option is to click on a message, then click “spam.” You should see a link that says “unsubscribe.” This works for us in Gmail, but in AOL we keep getting an error message.

Edison Mail” is a faster way to unsubscribe from dozens of promotions and newsletters in one fell swoop. It’s free for Android and iPhones. You don’t give up Gmail, or whatever email service you use, you read your mail inside Edison. However, sneaky newsletters will add you to a new mail list as soon as you tap “unsubscribe.”

Besides getting rid of junky newsletters, Edison lets you swipe left to archive a message and swipe right to delete it. As with earlier versions, it automatically sorts email into categories such as “travel,” “receipts,” “packages,” “entertainment” and “subscriptions.”

We tapped “subscriptions” and saw 60 newsletters we didn’t know we’d subscribed to. How did that happen? We unsubscribed to Hilton Hotels, our grocery store, Nordstrom’s, DSW Shoes, and a host of others. Some were regular requests for donations. All it took was a tap on an “x” and they were gone. Andy Rubin, also known as “the father of Android,” is one of Edison Mail’s users.

 

FIRE UP THE TABLET

Joy left her Kindle Fire tablet in the gym. At first we thought it was somewhere around the apartment but it never turned up. So she decided to bite the bullet and buy Amazon’s “Fire HD 10.” It’s $150 and looks as good as an iPad for less than half the price. She got it in blue.

She knew the old one had been stolen as soon as she turned on the new one; now there was one Portuguese and two Chinese dictionaries. Some circumstantial evidence is pretty suspicious. So she went to the “Manage your Kindle” section of Amazon and de-registered the old device.

The Kindle Fire HD 10 and HD 8 come with Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant. It can do tons of things; play music, show a movie, tell you the weather, read a book aloud, etc. If you say, “Alexa, switch to Show mode,” you get even more options. See the lyrics as a song is sung. We told Alexa to “show rock ‘n’ roll playlists.” When playing “Jailhouse Rock,” the screen showed Elvis Presley’s face with the lyrics floating by. When we paused, we got the time in the upper corner, the weather, “trending topics,” and news that two packages had just arrived. You can also call someone, using video or not.

The Fire Tablet seems like a better choice than an iPad for newbies and not just because it’s cheaper. It plays an introductory video the first time you turn it on, followed by a tutorial that’s easy to follow.

Bluetooth Blues

Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it. You’ll save battery life and avoid an attack called “Blueborne.”

Bluetooth is most commonly used with wireless headsets. When you see someone apparently talking to themselves, they’re not necessarily schizophrenic, they’re on the phone. Blueborne is a vicious bit of code that lets hackers steal your personal information. It has put a billion phones at risk. Most phones have been updated, which corrected the problem, but some may not have gotten the memo. An attacker would have to be less than 33 feet away to steal your information, but maybe you’re being followed.

Phone Scams

A reader wrote to complain about spoofing calls. A spoof is when you see your friend’s phone number in the caller I.D. area but it’s really some hacker.

Our reader was worried that blocking the number would block his friend, but that doesn’t happen. The number you block when you block the call is the hacker’s number. If you doubt that, call up your friend and ask if they just called.

We’re using the built-in “Screen Call” feature on a Google Pixel 2 phone, which asks the caller to state their business. Spam callers almost always hang up at this point. We also use a $12 app called Malwarebytes Security, which seems to permanently block the few who might otherwise get by. Find out how to use your phone’s built-in call-blocking feature by searching on that phrase.

Bye Bye Spam

A reader is annoyed by the “smart loan” messages he gets in his email, no matter how he tries to filter them out. Just when he’s got them cornered, the spammers change their subject lines, so he can never obliterate them for good. We suggested he bring his SBC Global mail into Gmail, which does a terrific job of ousting spam.

You can bring any email account into Gmail by using their import function, which only has to be done once. Your correspondents will never know the difference. Any mail you send will continue to be sent from your old address if you choose that option. Anyone writing you at your old address can still reach you, but you can read their messages in Gmail. Here’s how to do it.

First open a free account at mail.google.com. Then click the picture of a gear and choose “Settings.” From there, choose the “Accounts and Import” tab. One of the options under that tab is “Import from another address.” Now comes the tricky part: You have to fill in the “SMTP server” address and “Port” number. It’s usually filled in for you but sometimes it’s wrong. For our reader, “Prodigy” was filled in, but we happen to know that SBC Global uses Yahoo mail.  So we searched the web on the phrase “Yahoo server,” and found out the correct server address is SMTP.mail.Yahoo.com. “SMTP” stands for “Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.”

To send a message from your old Yahoo or any other account from within Gmail, go to settings, “Accounts and Import,” and select “make default” in the “send mail as” area. Choose your old Yahoo email or whatever other email you use as the “reply to” address.

Internuts

  • JustWatch.com helps you find movies and TV shows. It searches 40 streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, YouTube and iTunes and shows you rental prices for each item. You can search by category: mystery, adventure, romance, etc. It’s available in 32 countries.
  • DifferenceBetween.com is a site we often land on. For instance we were recently looking up the difference between paid and free versions of Pandora radio. Go to the site to see the difference between an egg roll and a spring roll, a creek and a brook, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and many others.

Numbers Report

This year, according to eMarketer, 58.8 million Americans will engage with “Augmented Reality” or “AR” at least once a month. That’s a jump of nearly 15% over 2018. AR makes you see video in the air in front of you, usually a cartoony figure. A good example is the “Pokemon Go” game.

“Virtual Reality,” or VR, on the other hand, puts a 3D movie or game in the space in front of  you and makes you feel as if you are there. About 50 million Americans will try it out at least once a month this year, an increase of nearly 35% over last year.

 

 

WHO’S ANONYMOUS?

Many readers have written to rave about the search engine “DuckDuckGo,” because it promises privacy as you search the web. But we learned that it’s only partially private. DuckDuckGo itself doesn’t track your movements, but you can still be “seen” by the websites you visit, for marketing purposes.

An alternative is Startpage.com. Search on anything and when the results come up, click “Anonymous View” next to the site you wish to visit. Your computer’s address will be masked. So will your location, your browser, operating system and personal information.  So … when you go on Facebook or Twitter, those sites can’t share your activities with the websites that advertise with them.

We actually don’t mind advertisers collecting data on us, since advertisers use it to show ads for stuff we might be interested in. But just like a late night TV pitch, it turns out “that’s not all they’re getting.” A report from thezebra.com, a site that helps you find cheaper car insurance, says your search habits can, and often do, influence what companies charge you. For example, if you search for auto insurance on a computer, you would save 5.49 percent compared to the average payment. If you search with an Android phone, you’d pay an extra 2.25 percent. Searching with an iPhone would cost you an extra 4.93 percent. We’re guessing that’s because smart phone users are assumed to have more money than computer users. However, your email address also makes a difference, with Gmail users paying more. Even the time of day you search makes a difference, with morning users paying less.

Word Alternatives

Wow, our lead item last week about Microsoft Word touched a nerve. That’s the nerve inside people’s wallets. A bunch of readers weighed in after we said we were cutting ties to Office 365 and going back to an earlier version of Microsoft Word. Here’s what they’re using instead.

One guy said he refused to pay $100 a year for Office last year, and started using the free Google “Docs” instead of Word, and Google “Sheets” instead of Excel. “Docs is totally free and is very similar to Word, plus, everything is automatically saved to Google Drive.”  We tried it too and find it works well.

Another reader said he likes Google Docs, but when he wants to work offline, he uses LibreOffice, free from LibreOffice.org. “Libre does everything I need, is totally free, including periodic updates, and always works. I can open and edit any file types, including Microsoft files (.doc & .docx), OpenOffice documents (.odt) and ordinary text (.txt & .rtf); it can also save to these formats.”

Another reader says he wouldn’t mind giving up Microsoft Office when he retires, but he’ll miss Outlook, the email program. We told him there’s a free version of Outlook at Outlook.com. We tried it and it works well. He said “I like it that Outlook syncs with my iPhone contacts and syncs the email accounts so if I send, delete, or receive one, it’s the same on my home computer and iPhone.” But this is also true of Gmail, Yahoo and other services.

App Happy

  • Tipster Guide,” free for iPhones only, gives tipping advice for the whole world. When you cross a border, you are immediately notified of tipping etiquette for restaurants, bars, hotels, taxis and more. It also tells you which currency you should be using.
  • “Afterlight 2” is  photography app, free for Android and $3 for iPhone. We were impressed by its ability to take a dull photo and liven it up. Among its special effects, it can turn a photo into a letter of the alphabet, filling in a hollow version of the letter.
  • KeyMe” lets users scan their house or car keys and order a duplicate to be sent in the mail. They also have kiosks in places like 7-Eleven and Bed Bath and Beyond, where the key is duplicated on the spot.
  • QuizUp has 20 million players in five languages. You choose a category, like geography or tech and play a random player if you wish. Dots on the map showed players all over, including Africa and Australia. When we played we met our match in a top-ranked player from Portugal.

Numbers Report

According to a survey of 1,108 U.S. millennials who bought tech products on Amazon this year, there are some surprising trends, says Max Borges Agency, a public relations   firm.

  • Fewer than one in four say they would buy a tech product if it’s not available on Amazon. They like Amazon because of Prime (two-day) shipping.
  • Around 77 percent said they’d rather give up alcohol than Amazon; 44 percent said they would choose Amazon over sex.
  • 90% consult Amazon Customer Reviews before making a tech purchase on the site.
  • A mere 8% of millennial buyers are likely to make a tech purchase on Amazon with a 3-star review, but 47% would purchase when the star count hits 4. The majority require a 5-star review.

(Note: Bob has long been skeptical of reviews on Amazon and other web sites, such as Yelp. Of course he tends to be skeptical by nature.)

The report also analyzed when millennials are shopping on the site, with 61% shopping in the middle of the night, and 57% while working. Almost half of millenials shop in the bathroom, and 19% admitted to purchasing tech goods while intoxicated.

Tech purchases outweighed all others, at 61%, followed closely by clothing, shoes and jewelry at 60%. However, smartphones are least likely to be purchased on Amazon, as respondents still look to brand retailers for assistance, pricing and compatibility. Over 71% shopped for tech products on their mobile device.

 

COMING CLEAN

A cell phone has 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats, according to scientists at the University of Arizona.

We got on this because Joy got an antibacterial box for her cell phone, the second one we’ve been sent in a few years. The first one was a royal pain to use, which made her turn to soap and water, which of course killed the phone. Yes, we know phones are  waterproof now, but they weren’t then. Reminds Bob of his first video tape player, a Japanese model which came with a manual advising the user to avoid turning it on underwater. Good thinking.

Despite the soap and water hazard, the name of this gadget is “PhoneSoap Go.” It involves no soap or water but instead uses ultraviolet light to kill little bugs and other stuff that just does not like a day at the beach. The phone goes into the box, and the box has a  battery. Press the button on top and in 10 minutes, the light kills the bugs. Well, most of them anyway. Hospitals and labs also use ultraviolet light as part of their sterilization arsenal, so this is not exactly a new thing.

PhoneSoap Go costs $100 and weighs one and one-quarter pounds. (Yes, we weighed it.) So that makes it portable, and it also charges your phone from its own battery, while you wait, or travel or whatever. It can disinfect the phone 45 times on a single charge. You could also put in your keys, credit cards and earbuds to sanitize those.

Pump and Dump

Wonder why Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were on a roller coaster last year, and now are in the doldrums? Okay, so you didn’t wonder, and maybe didn’t even care. But here’s what seven economists writing for the Social Science Research Network found :

There were 4,818 “pump” signals, which were sent to hundreds of millions of users of two apps, one called “Discord” and the other called “Telegram.” Those signals led people to buy cryptocurrencies over a six-month period. The economists also found thousands of “dump” recommendations, encouraging people to sell.  It’s a fraudulent practice well known from the early days of the stock market. We think it was early days.

Internuts

  • NetbookNews.com has some tips on speeding up your computer. Click on “tips” in the upper right part of the website screen. Tips on buying a new laptop look good too. Speeding up a computer is a particularly popular thing with video game players. A Google search reveals all. Take a look at HowtoGeek.com’s article, “Do You Really Need to Reinstall Windows?”
  • Plastic shopping bag.” Go to wikipedia.org and type in those three words to learn the history of the plastic bag. Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide. We re-use paper bags.

App Happy

Malwarebytes for Mobile” is a free app for Android and iPhones that has really cut down on the number of spam calls we get. It also scans for malware, bad apps and “ransomware.” Ransomware locks down a phone and demands, well, ransom money  to unlock it.

The app comes with a 30-day free trial of the Premium version, which is $12 a year. The only difference between the two is that the Premium protects you in advance. The free version cleans up the security breach after it’s happened. The same is true for the free and paid versions of Malwarebytes on your computer.

We really liked the call-blocking feature. Of course it means that we miss out on wonderful deals for cruises, time-share vacations and lowering many other special deals. Every time a call looks suspicious, Malwarebytes prompts us to add it to the blocked list. Most spam calls are blocked automatically. Try to explain that to your mother-in-law.

Oki Okay!

Our Okidata laser printer, the C331dn, had a paper jam. We couldn’t find it, so we called 800-Okidata. You have never seen tech support like their tech support. You have a problem at three in the morning on a Sunday, they’re there for you.

Like NASA’s mission control, when you call for help, they look at the problem by going over to a machine that is just like the one you’re calling about. This way they can duplicate what they’re asking you to do. That was pretty impressive, since our Okidata printer is at least ten years old. Our C331dn was discontinued years ago.

In our case, we had to lift out the toner and the drum, retrieve the trapped paper and put them back. The tech told us exactly how to line them up to get them back in, because he was looking at the same thing we were. Tech support has always been free, even for old printers.

Reader Fitness Question

A reader wondered if Siri or Alexa or Google Home would organize her health data into a usable graph or chart. She’d like to say, “Siri, my blood sugar is 140, I did 20 minutes on the treadmill, I had three shots of tequila and half a bag of chips.”

If you have a FitBit, the little step counter that goes on your wrist like a watch, and an Echo or Echo Dot, it can work with Alexa, the voice inside your Echo speaker. (Go to Amazon’s Alexa section to browse the various applications, called “skills,” and turn on as many as you like.) Once enabled, Alexa can give you a Fitbit report, saving you the trouble of cycling through the options on your wrist. Ask “Alexa, how am I doing today?” Or “Alexa, how many stairs did I climb on Wednesday?” and a host of other questions. You can get a list of possible questions by searching on the phrase “Alexa and Fitbit.”

 

CUTTING OFFICE TIES

A few readers have asked us what would happen if they stopped paying Microsoft $70 to $100 a year for Microsoft Office 365. Would there be a knock on the door late at night? Men in black suits? These are questions we have asked ourselves many times, usually just before breakfast.

We ask no more. That’s because we switched back to Microsoft Word 2007, which is free, more manageable, and of course out of date. So the next question to be answered is this: Does it matter? In short, what do you use Microsoft Office for? Most people get Office 365, the $100 a year version, just to use Word. That’s their word processor. The other popular feature is Power Point, for presentations.

So the next question  to ask – my god, there are a lot of them –are you a business or a home user? Because if you’re not a business, one with many demands from the computer, it’s hard to justify paying an annual fee.

The next, next question is: so where do we get the earlier version? Do a web search and you get prices ranging from around $60 to $150. You can go to WPS.com and get a program very similar to Office for free; it’s gotten good reviews. Walmart has a $29 program similar to Office called LibreOffice. OpenOffice.org has a free program very similar to Microsoft Office and it’s been available for decades. These are not made by Microsoft, of course, but they work and you only have to answer the last question of … just what do you really use it for?

How it all began:

Our rejection of Office 365 was triggered when Joy couldn’t get her computer started, and we had no idea why. At the boot-up screen, she couldn’t type more than a few letters of her Microsoft password before the computer stopped accepting keystrokes. So she used the Windows recovery option to reformat her computer. This is a drastic solution, and recommended only in dire circumstances The recovery held on to her files  but wiped out all of her programs. This turned her computer into a speed demon. The central processing unit used to run at close to 100 percent, and so did the disk. Now, when we check “Task Manager,” both are usually running at less than five percent.

Windows put a list of the removed programs on our desktop as a reminder to re-install them. It’s a long list. We are pack rats and tend to keep all the programs we’ve ever used. We have stuff that’s still on floppy disks and even old hard drives that have been removed from our computers when we replaced them. We have a tape drive printer that went out of production forty years ago. (There were only six of them.)

Chief among those programs she decided not to reinstall was Office 365. We have a perfectly good copy of Office 2007, and there are many things we like about it. For one, although Office 365 claims to keep whatever files you save to “One Drive,” available right there on your desktop, synchronized with your private One Drive storage space online, it never did. Every week we save a rough draft of our column to One Drive but when we went to look for them, the most recent one they saved online was from last June. It turns out you have to be signed in to OneDrive, by clicking on the icon in your taskbar. But it’s flawed. You can right-click a file to “keep it on this device,” meaning it’s on your computer and in the cloud. But if it’s accidentally erased on your computer, it disappears from your online account too.

We love the old Office 2007 file-listing feature, which is also present in previous versions of Office. By clicking the “orb” in the upper left corner of Word (or clicking the word “File” in previous versions), you can see a list of whatever files you most recently worked on and then click on the one you want. Office 365 removed that ever so convenient orb and now the files list opens up in a separate app. The programmers probably probably laughed all the way through that meeting.

So why did we sign up to renew our subscription to Office 365 last year? There was a dire warning about losing our files. But it turns out this only happens after thirty days, which gives you plenty of time to move the files to a new folder on your computer, or to an external drive. Thumb drives are real cheap these days.

To cancel a subscription to Office 365, search on “cancel Office 365.” We went round and round a couple of times till we found the billing page. To save time, go straight to account.microsoft.com/services/office/billing. (There should be no hyphens in that address.)

App Happy

  • Drops” is a free app for learning a language in five minute sessions each day. (We’re trying German, since a couple friends of ours recently moved there to open a barbecue place, of all things.) It’s called “Drops” because the German word drops into place, with a picture of the thing that fits the word. The founder says you only need a couple hundred words to get by in most situations, and learning food words first builds confidence. (Do they understand “hamburger?”)
  • “Sleep and Relaxation Sounds” is one of the top Alexa “skills” of the year. To turn on any skill, go to the Alexa app on your phone and tap the three lines in the upper left, then “skills.” Search on “sleep sounds” and then click “enable” next to whatever you fancy. Bob likes thunderstorms.

That Gosh-Darn Dash

A reader wrote to Joy, saying his note to Bob came back to him. That’s because he had a hyphen in the address, between the “Bob” and the “Schwab.” It should read bobschwab@gmail.com (no hyphen). If you see a hyphen printed in a web or email address, take it out.

 

NEW ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER

We were roped in by Google’s one-day offer of a nice discount on a new phone; it came with a gift card from AirBNB, worth the cost of the phone, plus $225 for our old phone.

But when we got the new phone, the Pixel 3, we decided to return it. The sound quality was muffled, said Bob. Joy couldn’t tell if it was better or worse, but she’s not the audiophile Bob is.

This opens the way for a bit of high dudgeon. That is to say, an incensed tirade. One of the great flaws of the high-tech industry is adding improvements where none are needed. We have been writing about this stuff for so long that we now get asked to review products we first looked at twenty years ago. “Yeah, but this is a new version,” they tell us. They mean, new to them.

Internuts

  • Italy

    Ball Lightning.” Joy had never heard of this phenomenon when it came up in a sci-fi story, so she looked it up on YouTube. It’s real and it’s rare; it looks like a mysterious ball of light from another world. Who knows, maybe it is.

  • CnTraveler.com, online home of Conde Nast Traveler, has an interesting article on “The World’s Best Cities for Arts and Culture.” Bob has been to all of them, Joy just two: New York and Washington, D.C.

More Cheap Phone Services

A reader wanted to use his wife’s old iPhone and was looking for a service to go with it. It turns out his current service “Net10,” lets you use most phones.

Net10 is just one of many cheap ones; it starts at around $35 a month. It gets poor marks for customer service. Well, win some, lose some. But what mattered most was he was already using Net10, so why mess around with something unfamiliar.

We searched on “how to bring your own iPhone to Net10.” As expected, there was a YouTube video on the topic. It tells you which activation kit you need, which was enough for him.

Why does he want a smart phone? For the maps and directions, the GPS that tells you where you are now and how to get where you’re going. Bob hates it. The directions are sometimes just dead wrong, and their usual approach is to take you to the nearest Interstate highway. What a great idea – not! – because then you can compete for road space with tractor-trailer trucks five times your size and weight, all going 60-70 miles per hour. Joy disagrees totally. Without GPS, she’d be lost most of the time.

But you can go even lower than Net 10. “Tello,” which uses the Sprint network, costs $14 a month for unlimited talk and text and one gigabyte of data on a 4G network. “US Mobile,” on the Verizon and T-Mobile networks, has a $6 a month plan. It offers 40 minutes of talk, 40 texts and 100 megabytes of data. That sounds low, but GPS only uses about five megabytes per hour of driving.

Replacing Windows Movie Maker

A reader asked us for a substitute for Windows Movie Maker, a nice program no longer available for Windows 10. “Microsoft Photos” has taken its place. You can get it by typing “Microsoft Photos” into the search bar in the lower left of your Windows 10 screen. It lets you put video clips and photos into a movie or slideshow.

Microsoft Photos starts by asking you whether you want the program to create a video for you, or whether you want to edit one yourself. We chose the automatic option, checking off the photos and video clips we wanted to include. The program pulled these together and added some jazzy music. After they make a movie for you, you can edit it, adding captions and even 3D effects. Share the movie as an email attachment or click the “share” button to upload it to YouTube, Facebook, Skype and all the usual places.

Disaster Averted

Our new-ish Lenovo Idea Centre 510 desktop computer wouldn’t start, alarming a reader we had just recommended it to. We tried to warn him but it was too late. He had just bought one for his wife. Fortunately, we fixed it. Disaster averted.

Telling you how we did it is a great example of what’s sometimes called “Nerd-jacking.” That means hijacking someone at a party and making them listen to a nerdy explanation.

It turned out that a thumb drive plugged into the back of the machine was causing the PC’s failure to launch. When we took out the memory stick, Windows 10 came right up. This had to be a “BIOS” problem. BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System. It’s been there since the earliest days and it tells the computer what to do, basically how to get up in the morning. When you flip on the power, the current goes to the BIOS chip or part of a chip, and triggers built-in instructions like “Go to the hard drive, see if you find an operating system and poke it in the ribs if you do.”

However, it can also be set to go to an outside drive at startup. Why would it ever do this? Well now we can get really nerdy. You might have more than one operating system. Some people like to use a Linux system, but still keep their factory system. LINUX is a system derived from UNIX, which is what giant main-frame computers used. It’s still around. Every time you search the web or send an email and put that “period,” usually referred to as a “dot,” as in “dot com,” into the address, that is an old UNIX command telling the computer to go to a certain place and look for what this guy asked for. (We warned you this could get nerdy.)

What used to be called the BIOS is now called “UEFI,” which stands for Unified Extensible Firmware. It works the same way but by changing the name the folks in Silicon Valley can make it their own and keep the rest of us from catching up too fast. Actually, the real reason for the change is that storage drives have gotten very large and the old BIOS didn’t recognize anything bigger than 2.2 terabytes.

 

 

THEIR ART ON YOUR TV

We downloaded our favorite paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, which just made over 52,000 works from its collection available in high resolution. Then we put them on our TV and cycled through some favorites, like Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”

You can download what you like to your phone and then make a nice background show on your TV. To do this, we first tried the slideshow option on our seven-year-old Sony, but the images looked faded. We could have burned them to a DVD and used that to improve the colors but turned instead to try Roku and Chromecast.

We have the cheap version of Roku, the $30 “Roku Express.” This has worked okay with family photos, so it’s handy for the holidays, but it didn’t work with the paintings from the Art Institute. We’re not sure why. We turned to our Chromecast, which immediately stopped working. But … a call to their free tech support fixed it right up. Somehow it had gotten on the wrong network.

To cast photos from your phone to your TV using a $35 Chromecast device, which plugs in the back, first find the photo album on your phone. Then tap the “cast” picture, which looks like a square with a rainbow in one corner. Then tap the three vertical dots in the upper right of your phone screen and choose “slideshow.”

If you have any trouble with your Chromecast, call (844) 400-2278. If you want to add those Art Institute paintings to your phone or computer, go to artic.edu and click on “The Collection.”

Internuts

  • PoetryNook.com has poems for every occasion. Joy likes “Volcanoes Be in Sicily” by Emily Dickinson. Bob thought it was so-so. He prefers Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • Clever Mason Jar Hacks” is a YouTube video with great ideas for replacing the top of a Mason jar with something more useable. For instance, cut a circle around the top of a soy milk carton and use it with the rim part of a Mason jar lid and you can then pour the ingredients, from juice to nuts.

Dump Your Web Browsing History

A reader said that learning how to dump her browsing history “has been a life changer.” It certainly can speed up your web browsing experience.

We found a shortcut for this, which works in all the browsers we’ve tried: Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Opera. Just hold down the “Ctrl” (or “Cmd” on the Mac), and the “Shift” key at the same time and tap the “Delete” key. Then click “clear” or “clear data.”

Adding to Your Google Play Music Library

Do you ever wish you could listen to the music from your CDs away from home or your home computer? Here’s how to do it on Google Play Music.

Go to Play.Google.com/music. Select the three stacked lines and then “upload music.” Select music from your computer to upload. (If you don’t have any music on your computer, you can pop CDs into the DVD drive and they will automatically get added to your music folder.)  If you use iTunes, you can drag and drop music from your iTunes library into the upload area.

A Better Uninstaller

High among the many things that bog down a computer: Installing programs and uninstalling them. That covers most of it. You’d think that uninstalling gets rid of programs, but there is usually junk left behind. These bits of flotsam eventually slow things down or worse. A friend of ours who has never added a thing to her Windows PC never has any problems.

We’ve had a couple of uninstallers over the years, and they work all right, but most recently we like Ashampoo’s Uninstaller, now out in version 8 for $20. It seems a small price to pay to keep a computer running smoothly. This version is easier to use.

Infuriating Pop-Ups

It turns out that it wasn’t notifications that were bothering a reader who wrote to us, but the kind of ads that didn’t get blocked by an ad blocker. Must have been a virus. In one evening, he said, he got 25 of them, mostly sex-related. “Just infuriating.”

We suggested he should make sure his anti-virus program was doing weekly or daily scans, and also try the free program from Malwarebytes.org. If that didn’t work, he should do a System Restore. Since he uses Windows 7, that means clicking “start,” “All Programs,” “Accessories,” “System Tools” and finally System Restore. System Restore leaves your documents, photos, music and other data intact. It only restores the system to a point where everything was working. In Windows 10, type “system restore” in the search box to find it. His McAfee anti-virus program finally solved the problem.

Free Books

A website called “JoyofAndroid” (no relation to the Joy we know and love) has some great tips for finding free books, as well as other articles on how to get the most out of your Android phones. Here are some suggestions.

  • Free Books,” a free app for Android and iPhone, has 23,469 classics for free.
  • Moon+ Reader” is a good guide to the most popular, free books from Project Gutenberg.
  • Wattpad” is a site we’ve mentioned before, but parents beware. There’s a lot of free fiction aimed at teenagers, but some of it can be crude. For example: number one in the sci-fi category is “My Sexy Alien Boyfriend.” Over 123,000 people have read it. Amateur writing, but popular.