A LOT OF HOW-TOs

Capturing Video Highlights

One of our friends is writing her memoir about growing up in Iran. Since she reads it aloud to other writers through Zoom, the free video conferencing software, she was grateful that we could capture her part of the session in its own video clip.

We could have downloaded a program to cut out her slice of the two-hour meeting, but there was no need. A free screen capture program is built into Windows 10. It’s called “Game Bar.” Though it’s meant for saving your game highlights, it can capture anything you have in motion.

Once you have a video playing, bring up Game Bar by holding down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tapping the letter “G.” Then click the red dot to start a new recording. Click the stop icon when you’re finished. Your capture is automatically saved in your video folder. To find it, type “File Explorer” in the search box on the bottom left of your screen, then double-click to open the video folder.

 The most amazing thing about the session we captured is the lack of background noise.  At the time of our recording, the construction noise going on in the apartment next door was so loud we couldn’t hear the video. But Game Bar recorded it perfectly. If you want to add a voice over, or allow background sounds, click the microphone icon. 

If you have a Mac, open QuickTime and choose “New Screen Recording” from the “File” menu. You can capture the whole video, or click and drag your cursor to capture just a small piece of it.

If any of this sounds too much trouble, don’t despair. A company at Grain.co says they’re rolling out an easy way to get video highlights from Zoom. Basically, you put a smiley face on the part you highlighted and it’s captured. Price unknown as yet.

Emailing Large Files

One drawback to screen capturing your Zoom meetings or other videos is the size of the file. Our eight-minute video capture took up almost a gigabyte. 

On the other hand, emailing a large file is easy these days. If you have a Google account, which everyone who uses Gmail does, you’ll get a prompt when you try to email a file that’s over 25 megabytes. Gmail will automatically upload it to your private space on Google Drive, even if you’ve never used the Drive before. Gmail also adds a link to it inside your email. 

If you use Yahoo, Outlook, Thunderbird or some other service, get an online storage account if you don’t already have one, upload your video, and click the “share” icon next to the file name to email it. Popular choices include Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Box.com.

Fun with Landscapes

We’ve been playing with the free trial of “Landscape Pro,” from anthropics.com. It lets you turn dull landscape photos into something breathtaking.

Sometimes all a photo needs is a less boring sky. In some night-time shots, a reflective light from the moon on the water would add drama. In Landscape Pro, you can change things up by dragging labels into place, for “sky,” “ground,” “tree,” “building” and “object,” among others. The program will give each of these regions its own temporary colored coating. If it didn’t get it quite right, you can drag the coating over the bald spots. Then choose from a menu to replace the sky, remove an object or achieve other effects.

In our tests, Landscape Pro worked great with their sample photos, because they’re simple. We found that it was harder to get the regions clearly identified in our own photos. So Instead of using the labeling system, we got much better results with their presets. We clicked one, and the picture went from calm to dramatic. The price of hte program is $40 from anthropics.com.

Turn Alexa Off

Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo or Echo Dot, was overwhelming us with notifications. When flash flood warnings were in effect for several days, she never stopped telling us about it. She’d remind us of flash floods if we asked for the temperature. If we asked her if she had any notifications, she’d tell us about flash floods again.

The answer was to turn off notifications in the Alexa app. When you tap the app on your phone, then tap “Notifications,” you see lots of choices. After turning off the weather alerts, we tapped the shopping category. These might be a good thing: If you turn on notifications there, Alexa will tell you when your package has arrived. Set up “do not disturb” if you don’t want the notifications to come at night or in early morning. She lets you choose the schedule. She’ll also tell you when an event on your calendar is about to occur. Somehow, we turned on too many notifications, choosing “fanfare” as our alert signal, and got drowned in sound several times a day until we fixed it.

The Price Isn’t Right

We recently wrote about a Logitech webcam BestBuy was selling for $40; Amazon sold it to us for $240. A reader said he bought a Logitech webcam in February for $17. It was recently selling for $98 on Amazon. Of course demand soared during Covid 19 lockdowns, but that’s still quite a mark-up. It’s mostly third-party sellers who price gouge, he said. 

 

FUN WITH WINDOWS

How do tech writers spend their stimulus check? They buy software.

For $30, we got a bundle of 14 Windows programs from Stardock.com, called “Object Desktop.” One program Joy really likes is “CursorFX” which gives you a choice of 23 cursors. She chose the hand, which has gestures, like tapping its fingers when it has to wait for a program to load. Here are some other parts of the bundle we’re having fun with: 

  • “Deskscapes” gives you animated wallpapers for your Windows computer. Right now, we’re enjoying one that shows a vintage diner, motorcycles and a blonde talking to a guy in what looks like a 1950’s Ford Fairlane. Her skirt blows slightly in the breeze.
  • “Fences” lets you corral your desktop icons into clutter-free groups, such as your most frequently-used programs or your recent documents. You can also make them disappear, except for the title of the group, by double-clicking or dragging them to the edge of your screen. Get the icons back with a click. That way they don’t clutter up the magnificent wallpaper you’ve chosen to fill your screen.
  • ““Multiplicity” lets you control two PCs with one keyboard and mouse.
  • “Start 10” gives you the familiar Start Menu of Windows 7 in Windows 10.

Bitcoin Revisited

Bitcoin, the digital currency, was in the news recently when miners got the announcement that they could only produce half as much, as happens every four years. A digital currency exists on a computer memory bank; there is no physical coin. There are 3,000 varieties. Another popular one is Ethereum. 

Today, there are just three million Bitcoins left to be mined. By 2040, Bitcoin miners won’t be able to make any new currency. By then, the world will have reached the 21-million-coin limit, established by the shadowy founder Satoshi Nakamodo.

Joy invested in Bitcoin three years ago and lost money on it by continuing to buy it as the price went up and selling it after it crashed. We can’t say whether it’s a good deal now. It rose from around $3,400 per coin in February 2019 to $10,000 on May 7. (Note: You can buy partial coins.) 

We read about a guy who gave away the computer where he’d stored his Bitcoin super password, called a key. Without it, he lost access to his account. His 7.5 million Bitcoins, bought for less than a penny each, would now be worth over $71 billion. So remember this: If you buy Bitcoin, write down the key and store it in a safe place. Joy put hers in a book but then gave away the book. However, Coinbase, the site where Joy bought her Bitcoin, lets you regenerate it if you lose it.

Five years ago, Ben Horowitz, of the venture capital firm Andreesson/Horowitz, bet an NPR reporter that by now, ten percent of Americans would be using Bitcoin to buy stuff. Instead, according to surveys, it’s only three percent. Even that number is fishy, because many of those surveyed used Bitcoin only to buy other cryptocurrencies. Or they claimed they used it at stores that in reality don’t accept it, so perhaps they traded it in for dollars first. Its value is too volatile; most people buy it as an investment.

Horowtiz’s bet against the NPR reporter was relaunched for 2025, with a twist. He is now banking on increased global demand. More specifically, he’s betting that the use of some cryptocurrency will rise to 10 percent of purchases in Mexico. His firm has a $300 million investment in crypto-related firms. 

Recently China introduced a digital currency and is giving it a trial run. It’s called the “e-RMB,” and will be the first digital currency issued by a major economy. 

The Numbers Report

Microsoft’s Edge web browser moved up to second place, with 7.6 percent of the market. But Google Chrome is still far the most popular with 68.5 percent, according to data from NetMarketShare. Edge grew more popular after getting redesigned. Now it’s built on the same Chromium system that Chrome is. 

And Now, For Something Completely Different

A less well-known browser is Vivaldi. The new version has built-in ad blocking and tracker blocking. Download it for free from Vivaldi.com. We tried out the new version on our Android phone. It has a nice “speed dial” to take you to common sites, like Amazon or YouTube. When you hit the speed dial again, and add a site, you can switch back and forth between sites you have open. 

We like the Windows version even better than the Android, and there’s also one for the Mac. When you first install it, you’re led by the hand to customize it, choosing a theme like “Dark Mode” or another background, as well as many other features like note-taking and customized tabs. You tell it whether you want to block both ads and trackers or neither. It has quick commands for activities such as going to your notes page, looking at sites you’ve recently visited, and more. 

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  • NewDayNewChef.com has plant-based recipes from Amazon Prime’s new cooking show, “New Day, New Chef.” The show features an Olympic athlete, a rock star and an actress.
  • SimonandSchuster.com. If you go to the website and sign up for a free electronic book, they’ll let you choose  a new one every week, from a choice of ten of them, including several from best-selling authors. They’re all free.

 

 

THE WALKMAN LIVES

Image courtesy of TheVerge.com

The first portable electronics gadget we ever had was a tape recorder, though we both remember the portable record player in a suitcase. Later, we both had Sony Walkmans. Did you know they’re still popular?

Over 400 million Walkmans as of 2014– mainly used for listening to music on the fly — have been sold, according to TheVerge.com. In the 41 years since the first one, they’ve gone from cassette players to CD to Mini-Disc to MP3 to streaming music.

Recently, we wondered why people still buy Walkmans, instead of listening to music on their phones. A reader told us the Walkman is superior. For one thing, you can store music in the “wav” file format, which takes up more storage space but sounds better. “Why listen to a lesser-quality format with a device as terrific as the Walkman?” he wrote. “Plus it holds nearly my entire CD collection, while the phone is severely limited. Even with the MP3 format, there’s no way can I get the bulk of it on a 32 gig micro SD card, which is the largest capacity card my phone will take.” He bought a Walkman NW-A55, which came out in 2017, on Amazon for $219. It’s smaller than his phone.

“Single-purpose devices,’ he adds, “usually do a better job than those Jack-of-all-trades units.” We agree. “This is one of those things where you have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the difference,” he adds. “I can tell you what it’s like, but hearing is believing.”

Filter It

Now that everyone’s home, they’re all emailing us. Personal notes are great, but what about all those newsletters that come in? We say, “Filter it.”

Joy had to get her email from a site without filters recently. The difference was dramatic. Instead of 30 new messages there were 254.

Joy has 218 filters on her Gmail, all of which direct the mail to skip the inbox and go straight to the trash. Examples include realtor.com, truewellth and urbankayaks. We literally don’t know what Joy is missing. What is the wellspring of all these promotional messages? They’re free.

To set up a filter in Gmail, click on the message you’re tired of. Then click the three vertical dots. Choose “Filter messages like this,” then check off the box next to “Delete it” and then click “create filter.” If you just click “block,” they’ll keep coming back. Only filtering works. If you don’t use Gmail, look up the name of your email program along with the word filter.  For example, type “Yahoo mail filter.”

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Phrases.org.UK Ever since we gave away the complete Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve been wanting a site like this. Here we learned that “happy as a clam” was originally “happy as a clam at high tide,” a favorite phrase of President Ulysses S. Grant. “The cat’s pajamas” had its origins before the 1920s when all kinds of whimsical phrases came into use, such as “the bee’s knees,” “the kipper’s knickers” and “the monkey’s eyebrows.” “Cat” originally referred to a stylish woman but was later expanded to include men, as in “cool cat” or “hep cat.”

12 Board Games You Can Play with Friends from Afar” Search on that phrase to find an article from SmithsonianMag.com. Examples include Monopoly, “Ticket to Ride,” a virtual train game favored by our adult nephews, and “Settlers of Catan,” a race to settle an island with few resources.

BritishMuseum.org/collection gives you access to 1.9 million images. All are free to download, adapt and use for non-commercial purposes. Some, such as the Rosetta Stone, show more detail digitally than can be seen with the naked eye.

Apps on the Kindle Fire

A reader complained that his Kindle Fire is too heavy on Amazon stuff. That’s true, but you can add thousands of other apps.

Tap “App Store” on your Kindle Fire to search. Or, on a computer, start by doing a web search on “Amazon apps.” Once you’re on the page, tap the four stars off to the left to see the apps with the best reviews. Tap “Free” to see only the free ones. When you see one you might like, click it to get a description, then click “Get app.” It will be automatically delivered to your Fire.

To remove an app you’ve changed your mind about, tap “Games & Apps” at the top of your Kindle Fire screen. Hold your finger down on the app you want to remove till you see “remove from device.” Then tap it. The other option is “remove from home page.”

Speaking of Amazon, a reader wrote that he bumped up against a storage limit when uploading photos and videos. Didn’t we say that storage space was unlimited? Not for videos. We said it was for photos. You only get five gigabytes of free storage for videos. Go to amazon.com/clouddrive to see what you’ve uploaded and delete anything you don’t want.

Getting Faster

A reader wrote: “Having trouble with my internet speed dropping. Is there a way of checking the speed?” Sure there is.

Go to Fast.com. They’ll tell what your speed is. A good Internet speed is 10 megabits per second for download and five megabits per second for upload.

To speed things up a bit, try putting your router in a central location. When the AT&T guy did this for us in our new apartment, identical to the old one but on a higher floor, we started getting a good signal in the bedroom for the first time. The oft-touted mesh system by Google, which we thought helped at first, wasn’t nearly good enough. We dumped it. Also, take a look at “15 Tips for Faster Wi-Fi” from Techlicious.com.

ALEXA, TAKE A NOTE

We sometimes have a good idea late at night that we can’t remember the next day. Alexa, the voice inside the free Alexa app or the Amazon Echo smart speaker will remember it for us.

We say, “Alexa, take a note,” and she’ll say: “All right, what’s the note?” Recently, we said “Guy from Ipanema.” That’s because Joy thought it would be funny if her woman’s club’s musical revue did a “Guy from Ipanema” song instead of the original “Girl from Ipanema.” When we said, “Alexa, what’s the note?” she told us. That led Bob to wonder how long a note she could handle. Joy said: “I’m going to the drugstore later to get root beer, toilet paper and face masks.” Alexa was able to repeat it later, sort of, and asked us if she got it right. Bob said “Roughly.” She said, “Do you want me to take a note that says “Roughly?” “No,” Bob said. “Do you want me to take a note that says “no?” “No!” “I’m having trouble understanding,” she said. No kidding.

Fun with Photos

A reader wrote: “PLEASE… Can you recommend a good photo stick?? So many are advertised.”

Photo sticks, including the heavily advertised “The Photo Stick,” $54 on Amazon, are nothing but flash drives with software that copies the photos already on your computer. We looked at Amazon reviews for The Photo Stick, most of which are positive. But 29 percent said it stopped working or they had trouble with it. That’s huge. Fakespot.com gave the reviews a “B” rating for reliability.

You can do the same thing with any flash drive, some of which sell for as little as $8.

In Windows 10, find your photos by typing “photos” in the search box in Windows, then click on the photo app. Or click the start button and choose “File Explorer.” Then look for your picture folders or search for all jpg photos by typing *jpg in the search box in File Explorer. If you open File Explorer a second time, you can drag and drop them onto a flash drive. It’s even easier on a Mac. On the web, search on the phrase, “Transfer Mac photos to a thumb drive.”

Meet Google Meet

Everybody’s still meeting virtually. It turns out to be such a good business, that the leader Zoom has competitors galore.

Google, which already has one called “Meet,” is now rolling it out for free. Meetings can be any length for now, but in September there will be a 60-Minute limit on the freebies. Facebook is doing something similar but has yet to leave the starting gate.

We tried Google Meet and can’t recommend it. Take screen sharing, for example. It’s an easy thing to do in Zoom and is great for sharing a slideshow. When Joy tried it in Google Meet, however, she couldn’t figure out how to stop sharing and get back to the meeting. No wonder the son of Google’s Business Chief interrupted his dad’s session to say how much he and his friends liked Zoom.

If you want to try it for yourself, wait till it’s rolled out for everyone. Don’t do what Joy did. She signed up for a free trial of the business service Google G-Suite, which includes Meet. That spelled disaster. G-Suite asked her to link her account with the company that hosts our website. As a result, Joy stopped getting her email. Even after canceling G-Suite, she received nothing. A tech guy at Google’s Premium Support couldn’t solve the problem, though we noticed many web accounts of people tearing their hair out over the same issue. One guy tried re-signing up for G-Suite after canceling but that didn’t work either. Finally, we turned to our web hosting company, Ionos. After over an hour on the phone, they got it going.

So what’s to be said in favor of Google Meet? Besides the extra security layer, it makes it easy to kick out any participant who’s being obnoxious. But this isn’t worth much to us. So far, we’ve had no hassles with Zoom, except for the time Joy didn’t let her book club leader into a meeting because she didn’t notice she was waiting to enter and needed the host’s permission. She forgot to check off the option that lets everyone in automatically. Joy’s new name is Mud.

Dark Mode

Bob finds the bright white computer screen hard on his eyes, and studies back him up. So what he wants is a black background. The simplest way to do this in Windows is to   tap the Windows key and the “plus” keys together which activates the Magnifier. Once, that’s activated, if you hit the “Ctrl,” “Alt” and “i” keys, you toggle back and forth between a black screen and a white screen. But if there are any pictures in what you’ve called up, the Magnifier reverses those colors too. Your chance of recognizing the picture is nil. On a Mac, click the Apple icon in the upper left corner of your screen. Choose “System Preferences,” then “Accessibility.” From there, click “Display,” then choose “Invert Colors.” “Viola,” as we say in fractured French, you have white text on a black background, with pictures intact.

An alternative is “Dark Mode,” a free extension for the Google Chrome browser which you can find in the Google Chrome web store online. It puts a marker in the upper right hand corner in your screen; click on that to toggle between black screen and normal screen. The nice thing about Dark Mode is that any pictures you’re looking at remain normal pictures.

JUST GOOGLE IT

More often than not, the best way to solve a problem is to Google it in the same words you would use when describing the issue to your techiest friend.

Recently we were trying to digitize our CDs so we could play them on our computer, but Windows Media Player couldn’t identify any of the tracks. We were stuck with “Unknown Album” and “Track 1,” “Track 2,” etc.  Windows Media player is supposed to name your tracks automatically, but it didn’t.

The Windows Troubleshooter popped up to tell us that our media player was corrupted but offered no solution. It dumped us out on a general Microsoft page where we could search vast reams of info from other users. So we searched the web on the phrase “fix corrupt Windows Media Player.”  The first website we went to told us which files in the Windows Media Player folder to delete, and then told us to reboot the computer. That’s a trick we’ve noticed many times. If you delete something that’s not working, it gets reinstalled the next time you reboot if it’s part of the operating system.

App Happy

Coming up are tracking systems from Google, Apple and M.I.T. to tell whether you’ve encountered someone who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.

Of course, in order for this thing to work, you have to have tested a lot of people. In the first quarter of this year, approximately one million people were tested in the U.S. Since there are about 320 million people, 320 quarter periods would take 80 years at the same rate of testing. One begins to see the nature of the problem.

At the heart of this is an effort to create a kind of national health database. This seems like a really good idea, though the people who worry about their privacy will no doubt protest. The problem is so large and difficult, it may never happen.

A Virtual Tech Show

We recently video-conferenced with the founders of  tech companies who were showing off their latest products. Here are a few products that caught our eye. You can get more details at Showstoppers.com.

  • The “Envoy Pro EX” is a new four-terabyte solid state drive (SSD) from OWC That’s a tremendous amount of storage you can slip into your pocket and plug into your computer when you’re ready. It can hold 800,000 photos, 166 hours of video footage in 4K resolution or 1,437 hours of videos in standard resolution. Cost is $1,129. If you don’t need that much storage, you could get a flash drive from Sandisk with 128 gigabytes for around $19. Because solid state drives have no moving parts, data transfers from an SSD are almost instantaneous.
  • The $25 “Mountie” is a clip from TenOneDesign.com. It allows you to expand your computer’s screen size by connecting your iPad, Android tablet or phone to your computer screen so that you get an extra wide side-by-side display. Or you might want three screens, by using a clip on both sides. If you have a larger tablet, such as the iPad Pro, you’ll need the Mountie+, for  $35. This lets you watch the stock market, a sporting event or your favorite show while doing your work.
  • The new “Evolve2” headphones from Jabra.com let you work at home without worrying about disturbance from your dog or kid while you’re on an important call. They have three built-in microphones to make your voice heard over any background noise, and they make it easier to hear the person on the other end. What’s more, their software lets the company’s IT department monitor how good the sound quality was during your call. The Evolve2 40 is $139 for the stereo version. The Evolve2 65, a wireless version with stereo, is $299.

Crossovers

We came across a noise-cancelling headset with a microphone, the Rifleman Bluetooth Communication Hearing Protection, for $41 on Amazon. Joy put some Rachmaninoff music on real loud and then called Bob. The music was dampened to a whisper while the headset was on. It was easy to hear each other. This was initially designed and intended for hunters. This kind of cross-matching of technology is interesting. Several years ago, Bob noticed that hearing-enhancers for hunters, allowing them to track game, cost less than hearing aids. A national testing service rated them as almost equal to hearing aids. Some users say they like them better than hearing aids. We saw “Walker’s Game Ear” on Amazon for $144. But of course Medicare probably wouldn’t cover it.

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  • How to Make a Mask with a T-shirt.” Search on that phrase to get some clever suggestions. Joy had the idea of putting advertising on the face masks. For instance: “”Back off Buster,” “Hi, I’m Single,” or “Joe’s Pizza.”
  • View from Missoula, Montana

    View from My Window.” Type those words into the Facebook search box for some remarkable photos. People from all over the world are sharing what it looks like from the inside looking out and adding comments, during this Covid-19 crisis when we’re all staying home. We just looked at the view in Calarca, Columbia. Pretty nice.

  • Scullinsteel.com/apple2 has a virtual version of the old Apple II machine, which was sold new until 1993. You can try programming it in BASIC. It reminded Joy of why she decided she’d never be a programmer.

 

 

SHINY CHROME

Our four year-old Chromebook  started freezing on us. So we shelled out for a new one.

A Chromebook is a laptop using Google’s operating system. The best thing about them is their ability to fix themselves when you reboot, so they don’t slow down over time. The freezing we experienced on the Acer 14 was the first problem we’d had in four years.

The old Chromebook, an Acer 14, cost $274. The new one, the Pixelbook Go from Google, costs $649. Before taking the plunge, we asked: “What do you get for an extra $375?”

Number one is reliability: Our Acer should have lasted longer than four years. It was Joy’s favorite machine until it started freezing on her, just often enough to be annoying. We’ve had good results with our other Google devices so we decided to go with the latest version of their Chromebook.

The negative side is you can’t install programs, only Android apps. Almost everything you work on exists outside your laptop, somewhere in the refrigerated dungeons of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent. In other words, the cloud. Everything you download is encrypted, and getting started requires a password, so if you lose your laptop, no one can get at your stuff.

We use the free Google Docs, Google Slides and Google Sheets instead of installing Word, Powerpoint and Excel. But we also use the free versions of those programs on the Microsoft site, Office.com. If you like Photoshop, you can substitute the free Photoshop Express and Photoshop Mix from the Google Play Store. If someone sends you an MP4 file, (an audio or video file), drag it into the browser window in Chrome to play it. In short, all the software you need is free when you get a Chromebook.

The first thing we noticed about the Pixelbook Go is how light it is, 2.3 pounds, compared to 3.4 pounds for our old Chromebook. The second thing we noticed is the back-lit keyboard, which glows at night and is heaven to type on. The battery life is excellent at around 12 hours, but the old one was equally good. The sound quality is excellent: The orchestras we listen to on Spotify sound much better on the new laptop. It’s also lightning fast, with twice the amount of memory and a better processor, though the old Chromebook seemed plenty fast enough. And it has twice the storage space: 64 gigabytes instead of 32. But what really stands out is the resolution. Even in our bright, sunny, living room, it’s easy to see the screen on the Pixelbook Go.

The only thing we worried about was the display size: It’s 13.3 inches instead of 14. Would we have to squint? It seems fine, but we sometimes enlarge the font by holding down the “Ctrl” key and tapping the plus sign. This also works in Windows and on the Mac. But on the Mac, use “Cmd” instead of “Ctrl.”

Should You Buy a New Phone?

A reader wrote to ask if it’s OK to keep a phone when it no longer gets security updates after two or three years. Sure. All you need is a security app, such as the free one from Malwarebytes.com.

Our phone, a Pixel 2, is three years old and we expect to have it for years to come.

After starting with the free app from Malwarebytes.com, we bought the premium version for $12 a year. The premium version protects you in advance, the free version fixes problems after they arise.

Techlicious.com has a great article called “How to Make Your Smartphone Last Longer.” Here are four of their seven tips. One: get a new battery as often as every two years to improve performance.  Two: Clean the lint out of the charging port with a toothpick. Three: Remove the case and wipe the phone with a microfiber cloth that’s barely damp, using half vinegar, half water.  Four: If storage is running low, backup your files to the cloud and delete them from the phone.

A Boost From Apple Watch

A friend loves the activity app on her Apple Watch. “It starts you off each morning with three circles, and you have to move like crazy, all day long, to complete all three rings!  My husband laughs when he hears me upstairs walking quickly back and forth, to complete the green activity ring. I usually get that one finished in the morning on the treadmill. I might be watching a movie or sitting at my computer, and I’ll get a ding and a command to stand up!  I just love it.  I move all day long and it is really a good thing.” The green ring shows how many minutes of brisk exercise you’ve done. The red one counts active calories. The blue one tells you how many times in a day you’ve stood and moved for at least one minute.

If you want to compete against friends, tap the “activity” icon on the watch, which looks like concentric rings. Then go to the bottom of the screen and tap “Invite a Friend.”  Competitions last one week. Earn up to 600 bragging points.

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THE BEST WEBCAM

Harv and Marv

What with everybody staying home, so-called virtual meetings with Zoom are taking the lead. Some computers and all laptops come with a built in camera and microphone. If you don’t have one, there are plenty for sale for around $50.

Office Depot was out of almost everything but the thousand dollar models when we looked. Amazon didn’t have many either, but there we found a $240 webcam from Logitech, the C615 HD, which came out four years ago. (We were ripped off, we could have gotten it for less than half that.) The quality is great however, and we get a much wider view than we do on our laptop. We can even see Harv and Marv, Joy’s two stuffed bears, sitting on a bookshelf in the background.

By chance, we later found our long-lost webcam, the Microsoft LifeCam Studio HD we paid $80 for four years ago. The difference between that and the new one was slight. We used it for talking to Joy’s brother in Florida using the Zoom software, which is free.

Besides using a webcam for video conferencing, you can use it to take your picture or a video of yourself. You can also use it to copy documents. To do so, type “camera app” in the search box in Windows 10, then click on “Camera app” and watch the screen fill with your image. We snapped a picture, then switched it to video mode. This is a fun way to make a record of our thoughts on any given day, a sort of video diary.

Going to the Movies

You can go to the movies with a friend without either of you leaving home. There have been countless articles about apps that allow you to watch a movie with friends in other locations, such as “Netflix Party” and Kast.gg. We wonder if anyone really tests these things. We did. Zoom is much easier.

Joy and her friend used Zoom to watch “Virgin River” from Netflix. Joy could see her friend responding to the movie in a small window in a corner of the screen. She paused the video when anyone wanted to make a comment. The next day, they tried doing a yoga class together on YouTube. Our young relatives are using it to cook together. If there are three people or fewer present, Zoom lets you go beyond the 40-minute limit. Otherwise, you’ll need the $15-a-month pro account.

To host a movie on Zoom, go to Zoom.us and click “host a meeting.” This will prompt you to send an email to your guests with the link they need to join you. Once you’re up and running, click “share desktop” in the Zoom menu and go to Chrome, Firefox or whatever browser you are using to show your movie.

Staying Connected

In a video call with her Osher Lifelong Learning Institute discussion group, Joy lost her Internet connection. How could she have kept the party going?

One way is to position your laptop, computer or tablet close to the router. Another way is to be sure you don’t have a lot of programs running in the background. Shut down Chrome or Edge or Firefox or whatever browser you use after you start your video call. You might also ask participants to turn off their video camera when they’re not speaking, if things get bad. We found these and other tips at Techlicious.com.

A Sweet Deal

We wouldn’t have been ripped off on the webcam we just bought if we’d use the free Wikibuy or JoinHoney. They automatically inform you of sweeter deals.

Amazon’s prices are crazy sometimes. We spent $240 when we could have spent $39 at BestBuy, only they were sold out. Wikibuy told us where to get it for $103.

Internuts

  • YourCub.com: Click on “LEGO Stem Activities” for some fun stuff the site’s owner did with his son to ease the boredom of social distancing. “LEGO Marble Drop” lets you drop a marble from the top of your LEGO creation and watch it descend through various barriers. Another good one is “Exploding LEGO Targets.” A nerf bullet makes the loosely-connected LEGO wall with a figure on top go all over the place. Who doesn’t like to batter down walls?
  • Search on the phrase “53 Funny Things to Ask Alexa.” We didn’t think the answers were funny but a child might.
  • What a wonderful world shadow puppet.” Search on that phrase to find a remarkable YouTube video. This guy can make his shadow look like Louis Armstrong, then a rabbit, then a swan preening itself, then a baby’s hand grasping an adult’s hand and more.
  • Sorceress’ kit unearthed in Pompeii in 2019

    Take a Virtual Tour of Two Recently Excavated Homes in Pompeii.” Search on that phrase to find a Smithsonian article. This Roman city was buried in a single day by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.

Going Backwards

Using “System Restore” in Windows is a good idea when you want to get your computer back to the point where things were working properly. It’s harder to find in Windows 10 than it was in Windows 7. Here’s how.

In the search bar, type “create a restore point.” When that opens up, choose “system restore,” and select a recent date when all was well. System restore does not touch your files or email, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. However, you will need to reinstall any app that wasn’t there before the date you chose.

MOVE THOSE PHOTOS

We have several friends who bought new iPads when they ran out of storage space for their photos. That gets expensive.

Savvy readers will shake their heads. Why not use the cable that came with the iPad? All you have to do is plug it into the computer to transfer files using iTunes. For more info, search on the phrase “Use iTunes to transfer files between iPad  and Windows (or Mac).” If you don’t have enough space left on your computer, you can buy external hard drives dirt cheap. 

A reader asked if photo sticks would be easier to use. Some claim to instantly remove your photos from one device onto the stick. Then when you put the stick in your computer they automatically transfer the photos over. We’re zero for two in the two we’ve tried so far.

A few years back we tried the $36 – $50 “HooToo,” but it conked out and stopped working after the first few tries. More recently, we tried the 128 gigabyte  “iPhone Flash Drive” from SeaWolf. The price is great, just $17 compared to around $30 for other flash drives that can be used with iPhones and iPads. One end of the SeaWolf plugs into any USB port; the other end plugs into an iPhone or iPad. However the user guide is the size of a matchbook cover with type so tiny it can only be read by an ant.  

Our favorite way to free up storage space is to use the free Google Photos app. It comes on Android devices but can be installed on an iPhone or iPad. With Google Photos, you get unlimited photo storage. Just choose “high quality,” instead of “original resolution.” High quality is plenty good enough for viewing photos on a screen; in fact it’s 16 megapixels. Enable “automatic backup” in the app settings. Alternatively, if you’re an Amazon prime member, you get unlimited photo storage with the free Amazon Photos app.

Banking at Home

Chase bank encouraged us to use their free app to deposit checks. What the heck, it sounded like a good idea.

The Chase app works like a charm and we suppose other banking apps are similar. You log in with your username and password, then tap the link to deposit checks. If you choose the automatic method, the app snaps a picture of the check as you hold your phone over it. But here’s the weird part. Though the app had all our info correct as far as our Chase credit card and bank balance, it had an unfamiliar routing number and the wrong account number. We called Chase but the woman who answered sounded sleepy. So we went ahead and fixed the account number but couldn’t change the routing number. In any event, it worked. Within seconds, our $5 deposit showed up in our account. Whoopee! Feeling confident, we deposited two more checks successfully.

Turn out the Lights

The big name in smart light bulbs and smart switches is Philips Hue. But a cheaper way to go is TreatLife, from TreatLife.tech. You can get a four-pack of smart switches for $60 instead of a single Philips switch for $25. Smart switches allow you to use a stronger bulb when you want to create a light show or put your lights on a schedule. In our experience, the typical smart bulb is a dud.

TreatLife’s big innovation is their ability to control lights in two locations. You can use the TreatLife app or command Alexa or Google to dim the lights or turn off the fan. Unless you’re familiar with home wiring, however, you’ll probably want to use an electrician for installation, though there are YouTube videos showing you how to do it.

Internuts

  • Arches made of orchids, New York Botanical Garden

    Watch These Six Flower Bloom Events From Your Couch.” Search on that phrase to find links to the world’s great flower shows, now available virtually. They include the Chelsea Flower show in London, the Keukenhof in Lisse, Holland, and a native plant show in Los Angeles.

  • Ten Surprising Facts about Ordinary Household Objects.” Search on that phrase to find an article from SmithsonianMag.com. The fork was once considered immoral, unhygienic, and a tool of the devil. In 1004, when a niece of a Byzantium emperor brought a set of golden forks to her wedding, then died of the plague three years later, Saint Peter Damien pronounced it God’s punishment. Damien closed the book on the fork in Europe for the next 400 years.
  • Healthweather.us shows you where the Covid-19 virus is infecting the most people on a map of the U.S. Click the “Trends” tab to see how it’s going. The map was put out by Kinsa, the makers of a thermometer. Data from Kinsa thermometers, which is uploaded to the web, have been shown to be more predictive of virus trends than information from the Center for Disease Control.
  • MostCraft.com has lots of crafts you can make and sell, such as bath bombs. It also includes sketching lessons.

Print Friendly

If it annoys you to get ads in any article you want to print out or share, try the free “Print Friendly” extension from PrintFriendly.com. It works with Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. You can print out the article or turn it into a PDF for emailing to someone.

 

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID

The world has gone wild for virtual meetings and Zoom video conferencing is gaining competitors fast. The train is leaving the station.

A new Zoom competitor, RingCentral, a leading business communications company, is coming out with a new version in April. Recently, we tried another Zoom alternative — the free UberConference.com, which has nothing to do with Uber, the ride-hailing company.

Joy’s women’s club recently chose UberConference for their meetings for two reasons. First, participants don’t have to download anything. Second, some people are annoyed by Zoom’s privacy policy. Zoom collects your phone numbers, email addresses, Facebook profiles, info about your use of Zoom and the device and networks you’re using. They also get info from third parties who know things about you. And they gather info about anything you upload to your Zoom meetings. UberConference doesn’t appear to collect anything besides your name, billing address and physical address (if you’re a pro user), but their legal page is dense.

For us, the privacy issue wouldn’t be enough of a reason to prefer UberConference over Zoom. Companies collect data to bring us relevant ads. But UberConference may lead to fewer technical snafus. In one of our Zoom meetings, the first 45 minutes was wasted by tech talk. For example, one woman said she couldn’t see her own face though everyone else could see her. When it couldn’t be fixed, she kept bringing it up until Joy said “Let’s move on.”

Uberconference works best in the Chrome web browser. Or you can download their app. With the app we had no problem. But if you’re using it in Chrome, you have to click on the icon of a lock, next to the web address, and click next to the word “Camera” to change it from “Block” to “Allow.” Several people didn’t do this, so we saw a map of their location instead of their face. Bob says sometimes this is an improvement.

Disturbing

Our friend Barbara decided that the “do not disturb” function on her iPhone didn’t work for her. She was missing calls from her doctors. But she couldn’t get it to turn off.

Here’s how to fix that. First, be sure “Do Not Disturb” is turned off in “Settings.” If it is, and you’re still not getting calls, turn your phone off and on again. If that doesn’t work, reset your phone. On an iPhone, go to “Settings.” Under the “General” tab, tap “reset,” then “reset all settings.” You won’t lose data. On an Android phone, look for “Backup and Reset.” If you see an option to “reset settings,” take it. Don’t choose “reset phone” unless you want a factory reset that wipes out all your data. Alternatively, you could add your doctors to your contacts list and turn on the “Do Not Disturb” setting that allows all contacts in.

Good Ol’ What’s-Her-Name

If you’re tired of Alexa answering you when you haven’t asked her anything, consider changing her name. You have three choices.

Your choices are “Echo,” “Computer” or “Amazon.” To change her name to one of these say, “Alexa, change the wake word.” For us, those last two would wake her up when we least expected it, since we often talk about Amazon and computers. On the other hand, if you only use the free app version of Alexa on your phone or tablet, this won’t be a problem. She doesn’t wake up until you tap the communications icon.

Fun Podcasts

The Smithsonian’s website, si.edu/podcasts, includes some interesting radio shows you can play on your computer, phone or tablet. Some include video as well as audio and some are for iPhone/iPad only. Here are a few that interested us:

  • “AirSpace Podcast” from Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum: We tuned in as they were talking about tardigrades, also called water bears or moss piglets. These are tiny creatures roughly one hundredth of an inch in size. There are over 1,000 known species. One was recently discovered in a Silicon Valley parking lot. They’re hard to spot and harder to kill. Though discovered in 1773, scientists found out in 2016 that they can live for 30 years without food. They can even survive the vacuum in space, after drying out their bodies and rolling into balls. NASA says we may have left some behind when we landed on the moon, so we can’t get too excited if we find these critters there unless they’re in a part of the moon we haven’t visited. One of our probes was deliberately crashed into Saturn to avoid contaminating one of the moons under observation.
  • Pocohontas

    National Portrait Gallery podcasts include one called “Pondering Pocahontas.” They weren’t talking about Elizabeth Warren. The real Pocahontas died at age 22  and is portrayed in a National Portrait Gallery painting in elegant clothing suitable for her meeting with the Queen of England. Bob isn’t as interested in this stuff as Joy is.

  • Archives of American Art.” We listened to some interviews with men and women who helped reclaim art looted by the Nazis.
  • Tapestry of the Times” has music to fit themes. We listened to a podcast about saying goodbye to old jobs, sweethearts, families and childhood homes. The host shares liner notes about the singers, such as Woody Guthrie.

ZOOMING IN

Joy’s women’s club went virtual, starting with a group video chat on Facebook. It was great.

 Joy felt none of the shyness she often feels at ordinary women’s club parties. She could be blunt, telling the group to stop focusing on technical aspects of the conversation. “Let’s just have fun,” she said and so they did. But sometimes the sound quality was poor, causing the group to say they’d switch to Zoom software next time. Zoom is hot right now. It’s designed for video get-togethers and works beautifully. It uses the computer’s built-in camera and microphone, or you can use a tablet or smartphone.

 When you use Zoom on your phone, computer or tablet, you see the face of the person who’s talking looming large, along with live thumbnail pictures of everyone else in the group. These are easy to scroll through. If there are 100 or fewer participants, it’s free but limited to 40-minute sessions, unless you have three people or less. If you want to extend the number of people or the time, then get the pro version for $15 a month.

 To improve your appearance, click for a soft focus. Want a different background? Change it to Nob Hill in San Francisco or the Pyramids outside of Cairo. The first time Joy tried it on an iPad, there were 120 people present. People clicked a picture of a raised hand when they wanted to speak because the organizer had muted everyone. But he could un-mute the group so everyone could talk as the spirit moved them.

Free Audio Books for Kids

Rachel McAdams Performs Anne of Green Gables

With school out everywhere, Stories.Audible.com is offering free audio books for kids from toddlers to teens. No log on, credit card or sign-up is required.

 The performers are great. Scarlett Johansson performs ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Rachel McAdams performs “Anne of Green Gables.” Audible also has Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter, “Wheels on the Bus,” and many titles for the littlest listeners. For older teens, there’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and lots of new titles such as the Miss Peregrine series as well as Audible Originals. We saw more entertainment than educational titles, though they do have stuff like “The Three Documents that Made America.” You won’t see these freebies at Audible.com. You have to come in at Stories.Audible.com.

 New iPad

 Joy’s sister is finally getting a new iPad. Her old iPad got so creaky, she could tap an email and go get coffee before it opened up. Like many people, she likes using an iPad instead of a computer. The new iPad Pro is like a computer, thanks to the “Magic Keyboard.”

When the Magic Keyboard is in place, your iPad looks like a laptop. It attaches magnetically and you can adjust the viewing angle. Go to YouTube and search on “Magic Keyboard” to see it in action.

 Unfortunately, the cheapest iPad Pro is $799 and the cheapest Magic Keyboard is $299. That’s Apple pricing. You can get an Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet for $150. But according to Apple, the chip inside the new iPad will make it faster than most PC laptops.The iPad Pro’s camera can shoot video in 4K resolution. Its microphones have improved so it may be good enough for professional podcasts. But above all, it’s expensive, which makes the buyer feel special.

Mac Versus Windows

 We turned to an Apple Developer on Quora.com, the question-and-answer site, to answer the age old question: “Which is better, a Mac or a Windows computer?”

 On reliability, he says: “If Windows were a car, the windshield wipers wouldn’t work right, cruise control is a bit iffy. If the Mac were a car, it would work perfectly until the engine exploded as you cruised down the highway.”

 On safety, he says: “If you don’t install anything stupid, both are very secure.”

 On ease of use, he says it’s a mixed bag. Some things are easier in Windows, others are easier on a Mac. “Apple thinks good design is hiding complicated things. It’s not. Good design is making complicated things simple. Apple screws this up, Microsoft doesn’t even attempt it. Pick your poison.”

Internut

DoctorOnDemand.com, founded by TV personality Dr. Phil and his son, will assess your risk for the coronavirus Covid 19 for free. If you want more than that, it costs $75 for a 15-minute session. If your computer has a webcam, they can stare at your throat while you say “Aah.” If your throat’s not swollen and they don’t see signs of the virus, they tell you to stop worrying. They also cover other conditions, such as joint pain or headaches.

Numbers Report: Mad Macs

 We used to hear all the time that Macs never get viruses. We’ve owned Macs, and believe us, they do.

 According to Malwarebytes.org’s annual report, Mac threats increased by more than 400 percent, compared to last year. Mac users get an average of 11 threats a year, nearly double the 5.8 threats on Windows.The number of software tools that hackers use is up 42 percent. Adware, pushing ads to people, is up 13 percent. You can get more detail by looking at the blog at Malwarebytes.org.