JOY’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

Photo courtesy of TomsGuide.com

I’ve never been into the sort of video game where you jump through hoops and fire shots against  bad guys. Not since the days when I played “Fatty Bear’s Birthday Surprise” with my  nephew. But the Nintendo Switch brings exercise into the equation. That’s a game changer.

The Switch is similar to the Nintendo Wii. Both devices sense your movements. Either one can tell if you swing an imaginary tennis racket or land a one-two punch. But the Switch is getting rave reviews for portability and performance. It’s about the length of a ping pong paddle but is rectangular and narrower. It’s best if connected to a TV via a docking station, so you don’t have to squint.

 To get the most out of it, I bought an $80 game called “Ring Fit Adventure.” It comes with a “Ring Con–” a hoop reminiscent of the old “ThighMaster” from the 1990s. It’s a big ring you squeeze with your hands or pull apart while jogging or walking as your character senses your movements. Your body motions propel her forward through lovely forests and streams as she roots out evil. Holding the hoop low makes her leap.

To get started, a small controller goes into a pouch on a strap that fastens around your leg. The other controller slots into the Ring Con hoop, which you hold in your hands. Before you begin, Adventure Fit asks questions about your age and fitness level, and gives you a few strength tests. These involve squeezing the hoop, a sort of steering wheel, and pulling it apart. The game also tests your flexibility and ability to jog or run. If you need to protect your joints, you can define “jog” as a walking pace and “run” as a brisker walk. My character ran like mad when I barely jogged.

Photo courtesy of jelly.deals

The game gives you helpful prompts, so it’s almost impossible to get lost, though I did pause the game once or twice to do a Google search when I wasn’t quite sure what was meant. When I faced a bad guy, I knocked him over by doing squats, abdominal work, lunges, arm exercises or stretching, all led by an encouraging voice.

Moving on from “Adventure Fit,” I tried “Jeopardy,” a $10 downloadable game. I’ve never been so excited playing a game by myself. I felt as if I were on the actual TV show. The act of buzzing in to square off against computerized opponents was so thrilling I almost missed an important phone call. 

If you want to play with friends or strangers online, you have to join the Nintendo Online Club, which costs $4 a month or $20 a year if you pre-pay. But that’s not all you pay. The Nintendo Switch, docking station, controllers, holder for the controllers, 128 gigabyte memory card and carrying case costs $479 on Amazon. Eek! However, I figured it was a good way to spend my stimulus check. I can hardly wait to play with kids.

A Better Cell Phone

The reader’s Moto G Power in a leatherette case.

A reader writes that his new LG phone is a dud compared to his older one. No wonder LG is thinking of getting out of the cell phone business. They’ve been losing money since 2015.

The reader’s first cell phone, the LG Rebel 4, cost only $10 because Amazon threw in $40 worth of airtime on TracFone, which charges about $10 a month for the budget plan if you pay annually. His second LG phone, the Rebel K31, cost $50 without the airtime. You’d think the newer LG would be better but no. When using free calling apps like Signal, WhatsApp or Line,  the K31 produces a lag between the time someone speaks and the time the recipient hears it, making an odd gap in every conversation. It’s almost as if the person responding is slow-witted. That’s because the newer LG phone has an inferior processor. The  older one, the Rebel 4, though lower-powered, has a Qualcomm. With it, there are no lags.

 “The Rebel K31 was a turkey from the start,” the reader said. The phone he bought to replace it, the Motorola Moto G Power, with Android 10, “is a real smartphone, not a Rebel toy.” He continued: “The screen is so responsive. And there’s a solid feeling to the phone’s performance.”  The battery life is great too. It’s expected to last three days between charges. The reader said that after playing games and talking on the phone for hours one day, the phone still had a 75 percent charge the next day, and 50 percent the day after that. Amazon’s price is $133 if you get a Moto G Power with TracFone service. 

 If you’re wondering whether now is a good time to buy, experts suggest you upgrade when your Android phone’s operating system is three versions or more behind the current one, which is Android  11. Alternatively, you can install a good app, such as Malwarebytes, when your phone no longer gets security updates. 

Internut

RD.com/dentist has a Reader’s Digest story about a guy who opened his mouth to 50 dentists in 28 states, just to see how their advice would vary. The ones with no financial interest in the outcome said all he needed was a $460 crown. At the other end of the spectrum were those who recommended a $25,0000 reconstruction. The current issue of Reader’s Digest has an article about dentists who do almost as many root canals on a single patient as they have teeth. One lady spent $50,000 on non-existent problems.

 

 

FAUX FRIENDS ON FACEBOOK

I ignore Facebook friend requests from strangers unless I’m sure they’re faithful readers of this column. But some are tricky.

An apparent captain of an enormous shipping line requested a connection. I thought for a minute it was a legitimate request. One of my friends, a savvy public speaker, was Facebook friends with him. I decided to investigate, in hopes of warning her if he turned out to be a fake.

His Facebook photo, profile and name matched that of the captain he claimed to be, which I found on LinkedIn and on the shipping company’s website. So I accepted his request. Minutes later, I decided it was a risky experiment, so I unfriended and blocked him. That didn’t prevent him from sending me a rude message on Facebook Messenger. He chewed me out for blocking him. It was news to me that someone could write you from Messenger after you’ve blocked them on Facebook. Anyway, I blocked him from both. I can’t imagine a real captain getting angry so quickly.

There’s a lesson here: Identity thieves lurk in social media. I’m sure the real captain would be alarmed to know that someone is using his name and photo.

If someone steals your Facebook identity, go to the person’s profile page and click the three dots to the right of their name. Then choose “report.”  Facebook will investigate. The three dots also give you the option to block someone.

Reader Cuts Cable

A reader writes that he canceled his cable subscription but was unable to get PBS using an antenna. Best Buy’s Geek Squad installed the in-home kind after he had already tried the outdoor version on his roof. Neither brought in PBS.

I suggested getting a “PBS Passport” for $60 a year but he already has that. What he wanted was his local PBS channel. He said it was easier to find the programs that way. It beats wading through the entire PBS library, he says. 

I suggested he go to PBS.org and click “Live TV.” Whatever’s showing right now will start up. Or you can click “Schedules” to see the full line-up. Some programs require a PBS Passport, but many are free. While watching, if you get to a part you want to skip, use the slider to fast forward. The schedules are flexible. I started watching Rick Steve’s episode on the Swiss Alps at least 20 minutes before it officially started.

The reader said: “You’ve unlocked a door to PBS I had no idea was there. I love being able to open the TV listings. I love seeing so many options at once, so many things I didn’t know were waiting. I just watched a 55-minute program on my absolute favorite artist, Charles Marion Russell.”

Tiny Microscope

Want to have a tiny microscope on your phone? The iMicro Q2 fits on any smartphone lens, and can magnify objects 800 times. In tests it was shown to be as good as a desktop microscope. It sticks on your camera’s back camera and only weighs 1/60th of an ounce. It’s not out yet but you can pre-order one for $39 from Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo

How Computers Really Work

Years ago, I almost got a second degree in computer science. I wish I’d had a book called “How Computers Really Work,” which clarifies everything.

The book, by Matthew Justice, takes you from low level circuits to high level code. The author used his own young daughters as guinea pigs. His 17 years at Microsoft as a Windows debugger and automation expert didn’t hurt either. 

Though it takes work to learn it all, and more patience than I have, the book is much more understandable than most books of this type, even when the author delves deeply into machine code, programming languages, operating systems and the internet. He details 41 hands-on projects, including games, running a web server, and so on. It’s just right for the would-be software engineer. More details at NoStarch.com.

Photo Frame Saga 

I promised I would tell you how it went with my sister’s digital photo frame, the one I got her for Christmas. She gave it back to me.

It’s not that she didn’t like the “Aura Carver,” from AuraFrames.com. But Aura Frames are not compatible with 5G households. Hers is 5G.  

The Aura Carver has an ugly power cord, but that’s easy to hide if you place your frame against a wall that has an outlet. I put mine in the kitchen. The photos I’d previously emailed to the frame look great. Only one was sideways. The frame allows two vertical photos to appear side by side instead of leaving blank space. All settings are modifiable. I changed how long an individual photo displays from ten minutes to 15 seconds. 

Alternatively, you could buy an Amazon Echo Show, which has no photo size limitations, unlike the Aura, which limits each photo to no more than 9.5 megabytes. However, the Aura does allow you to display an unlimited number of photos. With the Amazon Echo Show, there is no restriction on size of the photo, or the number. And it has other features. You can watch Netflix, make video calls, play games and so on. But I like the ease of a dedicated frame.

 

GOLD VERSUS BITCOIN

Bitcoin, the digital currency, has been going up like crazy. But is it a better store of value than gold?

Last year, Bitcoin went from a little over $7,000 to over $26,000 per digital coin. On January 8, a single coin hit $40,675.80!

I’ve had some experience with cryptocurrency. In 2017, I bought part of a Bitcoin at Coinbase.com, when it was valued at around $4,000. I bought a bit more when it rose to $15,000. What can I say, I’m a gambler. Unfortunately, I sold it after it crashed below $4000. Disaster! I admire those who “HODL” a Bitcoin acronym standing for “Hold On For Dear Life.”

According to a deVere Group survey of their own clients, 67 percent of Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1996 — say the future is with Bitcoin, despite these ups and downs. But how much can we trust deVere’s prediction? Well, it’s a worldwide organization with 80,000 clients in 100 countries. Their survey went out to every one of those. They conclude that the Millennials’ preference for Bitcoin will be especially significant when a $60 trillion transfer of wealth takes place between them and the baby boomers.

Another reason for Bitcoin’s rise, deVere says, is inflation. When central banks around the world go overboard printing money, traders get leery of investing in currencies and look for safe havens. We’ll see.

Zoom Trick

A free app called “Overviewer” was recently developed by the husband of a kindergarten teacher. She wanted her Zoom class to look down on her while she drew, while also being able to see her face in a side window.

To help out, her husband used a stack of books to mount his iPhone from above, turning it into an overhead camera. Do a web search on “New App Lets Teachers Use iPhone or iPad as an Overhead Camera” for details.

Free Movies

I love showing classic movies to a 10 year-old girl I babysit, including the 1933 version of “Little Women,” with Katherine Hepburn. Such classics are free on YouTube and generate an interesting discussion about the difference between “the olden days” and now. (Update: The free version of Little Women is now for rent, but many other freebies remain.)

More classics are uploaded all the time. For example, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was placed on YouTube in June. Other freebies include “The Inspector General” with Danny Kaye, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,”“Jane Eyre,” and many others.

Free Books and Audio Books

“Library Explorer” lets you borrow books for free to read on a screen. I borrowed a 1996 Irish memoir titled “Are You Somebody?” The author, ever lonely, likes to say hello to the fridge when its motor gears up. You can borrow as many books or audiobooks as you like. I shortened the web address to: tinyurl.com/libraryexplorer. If your session expires, just click “borrow again.”

Low-Cost Cell Phone Service

A reader told me about Ultra Mobile, which uses the T-Mobile network to provide really cheap cell phone service. It gives you unlimited calling and text messages, plus a gigabyte of data for $10 a month, paid a year in advance. If you exceed a gigabyte, your internet experience slows down but never ends. “You could truthfully say it has unlimited data, if you have the patience,” the reader notes. Fortunately, he didn’t have to buy a device from Ultra Mobile. “I brought my own phone, a Motorola 5G+,” he said.

An Ultra Mobile user on Amazon objected that its free international calls shut off after 20 or 30 minutes. Another user argued that the phone service slows down after 500 megabytes, not a gigabyte. But it all sounds OK to me. An Amazon review explains in detail how to set it up. It’s a little techie.

The Stylus Revisited

A reader liked my suggestion of using a stylus to tap on a phone instead of smudgy fingers. But he feared losing it. So he bought the “Hprime 3 Pack Stylus Pen Holder, Self-Adhesive.” for $8. “I stuck one on the back edge of my iPhone case,” he said. That brought mixed results.

Going in and out of a pocket all day, the stylus hit a snag sometimes. It works better if you keep your phone in a bag or purse. But there’s no problem sticking a stylus on an iPad or tablet. The reader uses a $10 Diodrio pencil/pen holder, which attaches with an elastic band. Besides tablets, it works with any paper journal.

New from Google

The Chrome browser now automatically blocks ads that use an excessive amount of computer resources, according to bleepingcomputer.com.

In other news, Chrome now shows you the battery level of anything connected to your computer by Bluetooth, such as headphones or speakers.

Speaking of batteries, the new “Extreme Battery Saver,” which works with the Pixel 3 on up, pauses most apps and slows processing to save battery life even more than the regular “Battery Saver” does.

Also for Pixel owners, Google’s new “Hold for Me” feature works well. But I found it hard not to stay glued to the phone, watching the transcript roll by, as a voicemail message played silently. I got a bleep when it was time to talk to a representative. But at least I didn’t have to hear endless repetitions of: “Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line.”

SANITIZING THE PHONE

For Christmas, my brother-in-law got me a phone sanitizer that looks like a flower vase.

If I drop my phone into the $80 “Oblio,” I get a germ-free phone after 20 minutes. Or so the company claims. But the directions asked me to flip my phone to clean the other side when the 20 minutes were up. When I flipped it, the purple ultraviolet light, the one that cleans, did not come on. Tech support was no help. They asked me to send a video of the problem. That’s when I discovered that the UV light doesn’t come on at all now, even at the start.

A good alternative is the $80 “PhoneSoap” sanitizing box. It sanitizes both sides of a phone at once –no flipping necessary– and it charges your phone. The same company sells a product called “HomeSoap” for $200. It handles tablets and small household items. They use a clinical laboratory to prove their products remove 99.9 percent of bacteria. I have a PhoneSoap box myself. Wish I could figure out what I did with the charger.

Beware of Amazon Reviews

You’d think you could trust the average Amazon review. Not so.

Recently an Ars Technica reviewer bought a $24 drone after seeing thousands of positive reviews. It broke after an hour. He discovered that the bulk of the reviews weren’t about the drone. They were about honey! Amazon had been tricked into including five-star honey ratings in a drone score. That made the drone look like a big success.

It’s better to look at the most recent reviews. In the case of the $24 drone, some of the recent reviewers reported that their drones had broken after the first hour or two. On a competing drone product page, thousands of vodka, bracelet and Christmas card reviews were inserted to boost the score. A reviewer from Buzzfeed.com reported a similar experience.

When Amazon became aware of the bogus rating, the 6,000 comments about the $24 drone dwindled to 50.

Goodbye Free Ink

HP killed its “Free ink for life” deal. The people who had signed up for it were miffed. But HP’s latest deal sounds pretty good too.

HP charges 99 cents to ship you enough ink to print 15 pages a month. If you want 50 pages, it’s $3 a month. It goes up from there. Over eight million subscribers worldwide have signed up. Search on “HP instant ink printers” to find compatible printers, such as the OfficeJet Pro or Envy Photo or click here.

If you don’t already have an HP printer, however, I recommend a Canon inkjet or Okidata laser printer. My Canon has been trouble-free since I bought it. Okidata has rich color, is cheaper in the long run and has great tech support, unlike HP’s in my experience. When my HP inkjet printer was experiencing a minor software issue, their tech guy couldn’t handle it. He suggested I buy a new printer. The Okidata tech team, by contrast, has fixed all my printer problems for free for the last 20 years. I’ve never had to tell them I’m a reviewer.

Free Faxing

A reader writes: “I’d like to know if there’s a way to send a fax from my desktop computer.” Yes, but she’d have to connect to the Internet with a dial-up modem or use an app.

That reminds me: When the first version of Windows came out many years ago, I asked a salesman what it was good for. “Faxing,” he said.

Nowadays it’s easier to fax from the web. Go to faxzero.com, type in the sender’s info and the receiver’s info. Then click to attach the documents you want to fax. Who faxes these days? The hospital lab where my sister works, for one.

Recover Lost Text Messages

A friend told me she accidentally erased an important text message on her iPhone. How could she get it back?

With iPhones, if you have automatic backup turned on, you can retrieve messages from  your iCloud account. Here’s how: Go to Settings, tap your name, check to see that your iCloud account has some backups, and reset the phone. This erases everything, which is scary. But restoring the backup allows you to get your lost texts and everything else. There are detailed instructions at BusinessInsider. To find it, do a search on “How to Recover Deleted Text Messages on an iPhone.” For Android phones, try “SMS Backup & Restore,” a free app from the Google Play app store. Or use a service like Google One.

New App Helps with Speech Problems

Look to Speak” is a new, free app from Google that lets you use your eyes to choose a phrase to be spoken aloud. It’s designed for those with speech and motor impairments.

Before you start the app, prop up your phone so it’s just below eye level. On the screen, you’ll see a list of words. Some are listed under the word “left.” Others are listed under the word “right.” Choose from either list and keep glancing left or right as the list narrows itself down to the word or phrase you want, such as “Thank you.” When you’re down to one, it’s spoken aloud. You can edit the list of words and phrases if your favorites aren’t there.

When I tried it, it worked pretty well, though it takes practice. The inventor says it’s useful in situations where other accessibility devices may not be usable, such as in transit, in the shower, outdoors or in an emergency.

MASSAGE GUN GETS A THUMBS UP

I asked a friend who has arthritis in his hands and feet to test a cordless massage gun. He gave it a pleasantly-massaged thumbs-up. A good massage increases circulation, decreases pain and removes stiffness.

My friend reported back: “The Merach Pocket Nano Massage Gun is better than my Wahl Heat Therapy Therapeutic Massager, with one caveat. The hard plastic tips work well enough on muscles and fleshy parts, but pose a problem for bony parts. For instance, I usually run my massager over the tops of my hands. With this, I can only comfortably do my palms.”

But it turned out that massaging the palms worked its magic all the way through to the bony parts as well. It also worked well on the pads of his feet, going through to the top. In short, it’s a much better device than the Wahl. However, the Wahl is $37, the Merach is $99.

My friend’s other quibble is the charging light. “It could be bigger, and brighter. I didn’t know it had one till I read it in the instructions,” he said. “And a heated tip of some sort would have been nice,” he added. Finally: “The instructions are laughable, good only for amusement.” But overall, the Merach is a good massager.

Update:  I’m talking about the latest version of the Merach massage gun, which is shipping this month from this site: indiegogo.com/projects/nano-pro-the-smallest-and-powerful-massage-gun#/  Click here to order from AliExpress.  Click here for a similar Merach gun sold by Amazon.

Funny Video

I’d forgotten how funny JibJab is. It’s a service that drops your face into a zany animation full of singing and dancing. My niece sent me one showcasing her whole family rocking around the Christmas tree in an animated cartoon. What makes it so funny is how big the face is compared to the cartoon body, and how well the lips sync with the music. It’s well choreographed, but takes no work at all. The catch? It’s $24 a year. Well worth it for some.

Microsoft Works Still Works

A reader writes that she’s getting a Windows 10 computer and no longer has a copy of Microsoft Works, her word processor. Fortunately, a copy of the program is available for  free at winworldpc.com/product/microsoft-works/9x. Though the site says it’s compatible with Windows Vista, it also works in Windows 10.

Alternatively, upload your Works files to Google Drive, at drive.google.com. Then use a free program called “Cloud Convert” to convert them to “doc” or document files. If Cloud Convert doesn’t pop up automatically, go to cloudconvert.com/wps-converter. It’s great for converting other kinds of files as well.

Old Android Phones Get a Reprieve

You may have read that older Android phones– about a third of Androids out there — won’t be able to open secure websites after September 2021. That problem is now fixed.

Without the fix, phones with the “Nougat” operating system or older could only have opened insecure sites. There are fewer and fewer of those. The percentage of sites protected by encryption — the ones that use ‘https” instead of “http–” rose to 80 percent in 2019, up from 40 percent four years ago.

Leaving a Zoom Call

Ever feel like you’re scurrying to find the “leave meeting” link in a Zoom call? It can be embarrassing when you’re madly searching for the exit while all eyes are on you. But here’s some good news. A guy figured out how to use a lamp to end a Zoom call. All he has to do is pull the cord and he’s out.

This software is available for free. Look for an article called “Zoom Escape button is the Holiday Gift Everyone Needs.” Or go directly to github.com/lanewinfield/zoomout.

What to Do with an Old Computer

“CloudReady” can turn your old, slow computer into a fast Google-Chromebook-type machine. It’s great if you don’t need any programs that require a Windows or Mac operating system. CloudReady was created by “Neverware,” which Google bought.

But even if your old computer isn’t slow, you might want to convert it to the Chrome operating system to make it more secure. Microsoft no longer offers security updates for Windows 7 or Windows XP systems.

I love the Chrome operating system on my Chromebook, because it never slows down. Every time I reboot, it fixes any problems it may have. But there’s no going back. If you overwrite Windows with the Chrome operating system, that’s it.

 Internuts

  • Cato’s Human Freedom Index.” Search on that phrase to find a list of countries ranked according to personal freedom and economic freedom. It uses 76 indicators, such as religion, trade, safety and the rule of law. Based on 2018 data, the most recent available, New Zealand is first, Switzerland is second and Hong Kong is third. After the top three, we have Denmark, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Estonia, Germany and Sweden. America is now 17th.
  • OutsideOnline.com has interesting podcasts and articles. For example, there’s a recent interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook. He talks a lot about the need to get away from our devices when we’re out in nature. Another one, titled “How the Pandemic is Teaching Us to Listen to Nature,” is by the man who records David Attenborough’s films. Also on OutsideOnline, I read an article on “faux seafood,” which includes a section on a modern form of slavery where fishermen are chained to prevent them from jumping ship when another boat is near. There’s also a great piece called “This 10-Move Core Workout Will Kick Your (whatchamacallit.)”

PLAN TO LOSE YOUR PHONE

I was strolling in Chicago when my phone fell out of my bag somewhere along the river walk. I was notified by email right away. Wow.

“I hope you get this,” the email said. “My wife found your phone downtown. We left it with the front desk person at Boeing.” I was mystified. How did he get my email address?

It was simple. I’d allowed notifications for important messages to be displayed on my Android phone’s lock screen. My email address was listed at the top. I was lucky the phone hadn’t run out of juice and was still showing notifications. The couple who found it had tried calling me first, only to discover I hadn’t entered any contact info accessible from the lock screen.

I remedied that as soon as I got the phone back. First, I tapped the screen twice to wake it up. Then I swiped up to get the password page. Below the area where you can enter a personal identification number (PIN), trace a pattern, or use your fingerprint, there’s the word “Emergency.” Tap it and you’ll see a keypad allowing you to dial 911 or another number. You’ll also see “medical information” or some kind of prompt to get you to list your emergency contact info, address, blood type, allergies, medications, etc. If you’ve already added this info, you’ll see it when you tap “Emergency,” then your name. Don’t worry about privacy. The info is stored only on your phone. Of course, you could leave some fields blank.

If I hadn’t seen the email about my phone, I could have gone to Android.com/find, to see it displayed on a map. That’s because I had turned on a feature called “Find My Device.” Similarly, if iPhone owners enable “Find my Phone,” they can go to icloud.com for their phone’s location.

The husband-half of the couple who found my phone had a great suggestion. On the lock screen, he says, there could be a button reading “I found this phone.” Tapping it would automatically email the owner as well as a couple of friends or family members. After sharing this bit of brilliance with me, he said: “If you take that idea to Shark Tank,‘I want a cut of the earnings!”

What about people who break into a phone’s inner contents without a password? I read that without encryption and two-factor authentication, it’s easy to bypass the password requirement. Hackers can find out how in a Google search. That’s why you should remotely wipe your phone if you’re sure it’s lost for good. Of course, that requires that you set up “find my phone” first. If you do a search on “setup ‘find my phone,’” you’ll get instructions.

Making Music

The “Orba” by Artiphon is a $99 fidget toy for making music.

It looks like a small, lightweight hockey puck you tap to add sounds. I watched a musician play with it, by searching on the words “Orba YouTube.” It sounded as good as most other synthesizer music I’ve heard.

The Orba is both a music-making gadget and a MIDI controller. You can connect it by Bluetooth or USB cable to another synthesizer or app. It will record your creation, giving you a metronome to keep you on the beat. The Artiphon.com website shows you how to play it. It handles hip hop, ambient and pop music.

The Orba is much more portable than other synthesizers. Plug in a headset, stick it in your pocket, and no one will know you’re goofing off.

Group Calls

File:Cartoon Woman Watching A Sad Video In Her Phone.svgI use a free app called “Signal” when phoning friends who don’t have unlimited calling. That way our chats don’t count against their minutes. Here’s the latest news: group calling that’s free and encrypted. There’s a five-person limit, but you can see your friends in a grid, just like in Zoom.

The Signal app comes from Signal.org, a nonprofit. There’s only one problem. Your friend’s phone may not ring when you call them. Many people have reported this annoyance on the web, to no avail. To get around it, send your friend a text in the Signal app just before you call. Text alerts announce themselves with a few trumpet notes on my phone, but my friend gets more of a “whoo whoo.” I didn’t see a way to change it, but that’s OK.

Who Are You Going to Call?

A reader wrote: “Was wondering if you could give me any hints on what to do about my two-year-old Amazon Fire Tablet. Today it would not come back on. Would it be worth taking it to Best Buy’s Geek Squad?”

I told her to save her money. Amazon offers free tech support. To get it, go directly to tinyurl.com/AMZNtech and choose “start chatting” or “we can call you.” That’s what she did. Amazon fixed the problem for free.

Internuts

Havana

Driveandlisten.herokuapp.com makes you feel like you’re on a bike or behind the wheel of a car as you cruise around the world. My favorite was biking along the coast in Tel Aviv. In Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million in Eastern Russia, it was super snowy. That’s a place I’d never heard of, before using this website. I also discovered big cities in Turkey, previously unknown to me. Good geography lesson.

Having iPhone Issues? Here’s How to Fix it Yourself.” Search on that phrase to find a comprehensive article from CNET.com.

DIGITAL PHOTO FRAMES COME WITH A VARIETY OF OPTIONS, LIFESPANS

I love being in homes where I can see photos going by in a digital photo frame. But before ordering one, I asked for input from friends.

One friend has had four digital photo frames since 2011, all for around $60, all eight inches in size. Each had a lifespan of about three years. By 2023,  he will have spent $240 over 12 years on frames from Aluratek and Micca. That works out to $20 a year. He says it beats spending hundreds of dollars on a frame that might not last the decade. The problem is humidity, which  affects the contacts. After a while, the frame won’t turn on.

The cheapest digital frames are bare-bones, no Internet involved.  To show photos, you save them to a memory stick or SD card on your camera. Then you stick it in the frame. Fortunately, all digital frames, even the cheap ones, display videos, music and photos.

Though I like the resolution of the Aluratek frame, having seen it in person, I decided to spring for the $169 “Aura Carver” as a Christmas gift for my sister, in hopes that it will last longer. It’s Oprah’s choice, gets good reviews, and offers unlimited free storage in the cloud.

By buying from AuraFrames.com, I was able to load photos remotely with a link the company emailed me. Thirty-one photos were in the frame even before it arrived at my sister’s house, which was just two days after I ordered it.  I can load more photos any time; it holds an unlimited number. But that’s an AuraFrames.com deal.  if you buy one from another site, you have to have the frame shipped to you first. Then, once it’s set up, anyone with an invitation can add photos to the frame. In short, an Aura frame seems like a great deal.  I’ll  tell you more about if after my sister opens hers on Christmas.

A cheaper alternative is a so-called “smart display,” like the Google Nest Hub for $70 or the Amazon Echo Show 8 for $80. With the Hub, you make an album in your Google Photos account and load it remotely onto your device or a loved one’s. Then just tap a setting in the app to choose that album to display.  To have the Amazon Echo Show act as a digital photo frame, search on “How to Add Photos to the Amazon Echo Show.” Of course, not everyone wants a smart device that can listen to them. They might forget to turn the microphone off when they’re planning a heist.

Plank Machine

I haven’t had this much fun since I owned a Bongo Board. The $99 “Stealth Core Trainer” distracts you with video games while you’re toning your body.

To use it, get into a push-up position, either on your knees or toes, with your elbows on the board and your hands grasping the sides. Your phone is on the board in front of your face, either vertically or horizontally, offering you games through the Stealth Fitness app. You steer a game by rocking from side to side as you grasp the board, which pivots on its stand. You’re constantly turning or tilting left or right or up and down in order to steer. That works your core even harder.

The Stealth comes with a few free games. I enjoyed flying through hills, going through hoops and knocking down hot air balloons while avoiding big black birds and tall trees. To go beyond the freebies, you can pay $25 a year for 16 games with new ones coming in periodically. I signed up for the free trial and enjoyed racquetball. But I also discovered I could get a work-out just by watching part of a video while rocking around. When I joined the Stealth Facebook community, some were bragging about lasting one minute.

A family who visited me recently is totally onboard. None of them had done core exercises before, so they mostly did the push-up position on their knees. Their 6-year-old let her legs rest completely flat on the floor, only working her arms. When her dad tried it, he went for the more advanced plank position.  “Dad, you’re shaking,” his 10-year-old told him. More info at gameyourcore.com.

Buddha Board

Another big hit with me and my neighbors is the “Buddha Board.” It comes with a bamboo brush that you dip into water to make Japanese-style strokes on a white surface.

Since your masterpiece will evaporate in one to ten minutes, it’s a “live-in-the-moment” kind of experience. My neighbors’ kids drew faces, flowers, birds and leaves. They snapped a picture of their masterpiece before it disappeared.

The Buddha Board comes in three sizes. They’re all so lightweight, you could easily carry them into Nature to sketch.  Prices start at $15 and go up to $35, depending on the size. The smallest is a five-inch square, the largest is around 13 by five inches. The largest one has its own water tray that doubles as a stand. The smaller ones fold back to become their own stand.

Holiday Apps

  • Imagine AR” is a free “Augmented Reality”  (AR) app that allows you to look at Santa on your phone as if he were in your living room. I saw “Guitar Santa” in front of the TV.

  • Decorate your Christmas Tree” is a free app that lets you decorate a tree you can email or share on social networking.

 

KID PHONE

My neighbor’s ten year-old won’t get her first smartphone until high school. Unless her parents change their mind when they see my “Gabb Z2.”

The Gabb, sent to me for review from GabbWireless.com, is designed to be non-addicting. Its basic functions are text messaging and phone calls. Or you can enjoy pictures, videos and music transferred from a computer. There’s no Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, web searching or games.

The Gabb Z2 is an $80 ZTE Android phone with a $20-a-month unlimited talk and text plan. It has a few basic apps, like FM radio, but there’s no app store. A new “Find your phone” app for the parents’ phone allows the Gabb to be traced. 

The Gabb’s battery is great. It stays charged for two weeks on standby, or you can talk for 16 hours straight. In my tests, the call quality using the Verizon network was better than my four-times-as-expensive Google Pixel 3a. What’s more, the photos have truer color than the 3a does. Of course the Gabb can’t match the Pixel’s many features, such as call screening and image stabilization. But the videos I’ve taken with it so far are good, not too shaky.

 To transfer music to the phone, I opened File Explorer in Windows and dragged music into a folder on the phone. This works with pictures and videos too. There’s also a File Manager app on the phone.

My computer didn’t recognize the phone the first time. I had to unplug the cable going into the phone and re-plug it. The user manual is not much help, but you can find anything you want by Googling it. Overall, it’s a nice phone, about the size of a standard smartphone, without the addictive qualities.

Handy Stand

My pet peeve is Zoom callers on an iPad who put the iPad flat on a table in front of them. From that angle, the rest of us are staring into their nostrils. What they need is a stand to raise it to eye level.

Unfortunately, most stands are designed for flat surfaces. They topple over if they’re next to you on a couch or bed. A friend of mine loves her “Spider Stand.” It won’t topple, and her fellow Zoom participants can see her from the waist up. I couldn’t find it on Amazon but there are loads of similar ones. The Tablift Tablet Stand for $40 also has spider legs, which are adjustable. A strap holds your tablet in place. That way, even if you’re lying down for your Zoom call with your head propped up, no one will know.

Tech Gift for Fashionistas

Snapstyle Mask – DIY Printable” is a $18 face mask kit that lets you make four face masks to match any fabric, to go with your outfits, just by snapping a picture. Alternatively, you can create your own design by using a photo from your camera roll. After using an app to design it, print out the mask on an inkjet printer. The masks are 100 percent cotton and come with ear loops and nose bands. They’re approved by the World Health Organization.

Internuts

Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line.” Google that phrase to find a New York Times vaccine calculator. You can designate whether you’re a health care worker, essential worker, first responder, teacher or other. Being a teacher doesn’t help much. I put in my nephew’s info and it said there were 135.7 million people ahead of him. My spot in line is behind 268.7 million people. My sister, who works at a hospital, will be one of the first to get the vaccine.

TheStoryBehindpodcast.com explains the back story behind ordinary objects. For example, the founder of the “Slinky” eventually joined a cult in Bolivia, leaving behind a wife and six kids. She created the ads that made the toy a big success. She was also the one who came up with the name.

Marquee.tv films the performing arts, mostly dance performances such as “The Nutcracker,” so you can watch them on the web. Besides filming shows all over the world, they also live-stream performances from London’s Royal Opera House. There’s a 14 day-free trial of their $9-a-month membership plan. I watched a free four-minute ballet video. Outstanding!

 Google Maps Update

The free Google Maps app for Android and iPhone is adding crosswalk markings to streets and address numbers to buildings in certain cities. But the bigger news is that Maps is turning into a social network. The idea is to make it easier to find the 20 million reviews they get every day and to follow the experts you like best. By using the app on my phone, I found a bird sanctuary I didn’t know existed and some live-streamed jazz classics. 

But Google Maps can be frustrating. I couldn’t find the social networking feature at all on an older Android phone. Even on mine, I got lost in the various pages at first. What worked was to open the app, and type in (or tap the microphone and speak aloud) the name of  a U.S. city or destination. Then instead of tapping anywhere else on the page that came up, I tapped the back arrow next to the city’s name in the search bar. All I had to do then was scroll down to see recommendations,  local photos and people to follow.  If you tap “Contribute” along the bottom of the same screen, you can add your own review. To get back to the Maps social network, tap “Explore” on the bottom left.

 

 

GETTING ZOOM HIGHLIGHTS

I’ve often wished I could capture the highlights of a Zoom meeting in a short video clip. Now, with a free app from Grain.co, I can.

I started with a two-hour meeting recorded six months ago, which appeared in the Grain app automatically. I just had to click “import.” Then, by scrolling through the transcript underneath the video, I quickly got to the part where my nephew says “happy birthday” to my sister. When I highlighted the text and clicked the “share” button, Grain created a 17-second video clip, complete with transcript, ready to share in an email, on Facebook or wherever.

On Thanksgiving, I had a Zoom meeting with my brother, nephews and niece-in-law. I figured they wouldn’t want me recording the whole thing, so I didn’t hit “record” until we said “Happy Thanksgiving” in unison. Unfortunately, I was in “speaker mode” in Zoom. I should have clicked “gallery” in the upper right corner of my computer screen. Speaker mode only shows whoever’s talking at the time; gallery mode shows you the whole group.

You have to be the host of a Zoom meeting to record it, but the host can make you a co-host, by changing a setting in their Zoom account. Alternatively, they can turn the host role over to you during the meeting. When they do that, the record button will pop into view.

With the free version of Grain.co, you get 100 stored recordings, but only 15 of them include transcripts. The unlimited version is $36 a month, but you get a free three-month trial of that when you sign up. There’s also a $12-a-month plan.

Too Many Dings

I turned off notifications for most of my smartphone apps, or I’d get dinged all day. But I still hear a toot when messages come in from Facebook Messenger or my text messaging app. Sometimes, even these are too much. Two of my acquaintances send uninteresting videos every day. So I turned off notifications for those people.

Here’s how to do it. Open a conversation in Facebook Messenger. Then click in the top right and choose “mute notifications.” In my Android Messages app, I tapped a conversation, then tapped the three vertical dots. After choosing “details,” I toggled notifications off.

Life Saving App

OrganFlights.com offers an app that helps ensure organ transplants go smoothly. It might be something to mention to your doctor, if you or a loved one is in need of a transplant. A kidney only lasts about 30 hours, and a liver only 13. What’s worse, many things can go wrong when an organ needs to be flown to a waiting patient. Sometimes a pilot is not available.

The OrganFlights app coordinates everything that takes place between a hospital and a medical flight. The hospital or transplant center worker taps the app and enters the info. Everything else is handled by OrganFlights. OrganFlights finds the aircraft, arranges for ground transport when the flight arrives and takes care of the details. The company’s CEO has been in the business of getting organs to hospitals for 27 years.

Google News

  • Google Chrome is now faster. That’s because your current tab is prioritized over the others you have open, reducing the usage of your computer’s CPU five times.
  • Google Maps now shows you how crowded your bus or train will be. To see that, tap the bus symbol after typing in a location and choosing “get directions.” It will vary from “not crowded” to “full.” Google Maps also gives you driving alerts when you enter an area with increasing Covid restrictions.
  • Google’s Tree Canopy Lab helps cities decide where to plant trees, which keeps things cooler. It started with Los Angeles. Previously, L.A. sent people out to count trees or used LIDAR, which, unlike radar, uses pulsed laser light. It’s expensive and slow. Google’s new service is free. Canopy Lab discovered that over half of L.A. residents live in an area where trees shade less than ten percent of the neighborhood. The L.A. average is around 20 percent.

Firefox Update

Ever notice how even some websites are missing the “s” in their web address? Instead of https, they lead off with http. That’s insecure. But Firefox has an automatic fix.

If you turn on HTTPS-Only Mode, Firefox slugs in “https” whenever you land on a site that has “http.” I tried it with UCLA.edu, which surprisingly, has an insecure site. Worked great.

To turn on HTTPS-Only mode in Firefox, go to the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) and choose “Preferences.” Now click “Privacy and Security.” Choose “Enable HTTPS-Only Mode.”

The latest version of Firefox also includes a monitor. The monitor pops up to tell you if you’re on a site that’s been compromised. If such is the case, and you have an account there, change your password.

The Death of Laptops

Laptops can’t stand heat. Too much and they die.

To prevent them from overheating, make sure the vents on the bottom, if your laptop has them, are not covered up by your lap or table. This is especially important for Chromebooks, which don’t have active cooling systems. Chromebooks can overheat when you have too many tabs or apps open at the same time.

For laptops without vents, consider a cooling pad to rest your laptop on. The pad plugs into your laptop’s USB port. Some cooling pads, such as the “Laptop Cooling Pad,” $20 from GameNote, have two USB ports, one to connect your laptop with the pad, and one for other devices.

PORTABLE POWER STATION KEEPS DEVICES GOING

If you find yourself camping in the woods with all of your gadgets, consider a portable generator to keep everything charged.

I’ve been testing the “PS500N,” $490 from iForway.com. It could power a 60-inch TV for three hours if you want to lug it along to the woods. The PS500N is about the size of a breadbox, weighs 13 pounds, and uses no gasoline.

The user manual calls it a “Portable Solar Generator,” but there’s nothing solar about it, unless you add a portable solar panel, which iForway sells for $190. (A solar panel could be useful for topping up.) With just the generator, you could charge a phone 45 times, a camera 75 times, a tablet 12 times, and a laptop eight times. If you drain the generator completely, it takes six hours to charge it with a wall plug.

The fun part is the speaker. I connected my phone to the generator via Bluetooth, and played the Nutcracker Suite on Spotify. The sound quality is excellent. Next I tried the lights on the generator. They’re really powerful, whether flashing an SOS signal, providing a strobe, or flooding your camping or party site with light. The PS500N has two wall outlets, a headphone jack and three USB ports, including one for USB-C-type devices.

To compare other generators, check out the PC World article titled “Portable Power Stations, Perfect for Camping.” They range in price from $115 to $300 but don’t have the power or the features of the PS500N. It has a 462 watt-hour lithium-ion battery pack compared to only 150 watts for the $115 Aiper portable power station.

For emergency use when the power goes out at home, consider the $30 solar charger from Hiluckey. It can charge smartphones, tablets and computers and includes a flashlight. But if you want to light up a big area, get something like the $26 SUBOOS “Camping Lantern.” It’s rechargeable, weather-proof and has a power bank you can use to charge your phone. If the power goes out and the lantern itself is drained, it will continue to glow using alkaline batteries.

Better than Black Friday?

Amazon Warehouse gives you deals on stuff other people have returned. Each item is inspected 20 different ways to make sure it’s as good as new.

To shop in Amazon Warehouse, do a search on “Amazon.com Amazon Warehouse.” I saw an “Instant Pot 7-in-1 Electric Pressure Cooker” for $55 instead of $79. These things get constant publicity, but I haven’t found a good use for one.

Amazon Offers

When I bought my Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet, I had two choices: the $200 version without ads, or $150 with ads. I bought the ad-supported version. So did a reader, but the ads drove him nuts. I kinda like them.

If the ads bug you, you can pay $15 to switch to the ad-free version. Here’s how: In a Google search, type “Amazon manage content and devices.” Click the first link that comes up. Click the “Devices” tab at the top of the page, then click on the Fire. Under “Special Offers,” choose “Remove.” Alternatively, a new ad-free Fire HD 10 is now $165 instead of $200.

Zoom Update

I’ve yet to have a Zoom meeting interrupted by a so-called “Zoom Bomber.” But anything’s possible. The worst of the bombers push porn, heave insults and threaten participants. But now Zoom will tell you if your meeting link is vulnerable. If you get their message, just reschedule a new meeting at the same time with a different link.

Speaking of Zoom news, yesterday I was on a friend’s low-cost Chromebook during a Zoom meeting when the rest of the group said my sound was breaking up. I got an onscreen notice that the computer’s central processing unit (CPU) was overtaxed. No wonder. Zoom does a lot in the background, such as suppressing noise and showing you live videos of all the participants. So if you get a message in Windows that your CPU is overtaxed, check the Task Manager by right-clicking the start button. Click “More Details” to see what’s running in the background and end unnecessary processes. On a Mac, look at the Activity Monitor. On a Chromebook, hold down the “shift” button and press the escape key to see the task manager. Or do what I did: switch to a more powerful computer.

New from Google

There’s a new version of Google Pay, which you can opt into in the app on your phone. The new version lets you wave your phone instead of using a credit card, though not all stores accept it. With the new version, I can see my spending history at any store I’ve been to recently, such as Whole Foods or my favorite book store. The new Google Pay also lets me send money to friends. Some people won’t want Google to get so much information about them, such as what stores you go to. But unlike Venmo, it doesn’t sell your data to third-party marketers.

In other Google news, I tried out the new “Family Bell.” If you have a Google Home device, now called Google Nest, you can set up a school bell to ring for recess, class times and other events using the Google Home app. Tap the app on your phone, then the microphone and say “Assistant Settings.” Scroll down until you see “Family Bell.” Tap “Add a bell” and type in an announcement such as “Time to brush teeth.”