Thursday, July 30, 2015

Amazon Dash buttons are here

A while ago my wife and I drove up to the Antietam Battlefield.  On the way back, I noticed several Fedex trucks in what seemed a very rural area of Western Loudoun County.

We stopped at one farm advertising farm fresh beef.  We had a nice talk with the young woman who owned the farm with her husband.  From the array of bicycles and toys, it was apparent they had several kids.

I'm always talking to people about the technology in their lives.  This young woman was extolling the value of Amazon in her life.  The nearest store was miles away, and the nearest mall further still.  She could order anything from Amazon and have it in a couple days; often faster then she could find time to get away from the farm, pack the kids in the car, and go to the stores.

To the Stout Family, Amazon is a convenience.  I understood that day that to many away from towns, it can be a real value.

To those frequent Amazon shoppers who find Amazon easier then getting to the grocery store, I began seeing the value of the Amazon Dash buttons I talked about in a recent column.

Today, Amazon began selling them.

The Dash button is a small button that, for example, you stick to your washing machine.  When you notice you are running out of laundry soap, you press the button.  It connects to Amazon via your WiFi network, and orders you more Tide detergent.

They have Dash buttons for 18 different brands.  You can set the specific product, quality, flavor etc. you want when you press it.  And their are safeguards should your toddler go hog wild pressing buttons.

Amazon Dash Buttons

Links to More Information About Windows 10

This column will appear online Saturday, August 1, 2015 at 9 AM EST.

When it is posted, it will be at this link.

It is available before in the July 31 issue of Prince William Today on sale at these retailers beginning this Thursday, July 30th in the afternoon.

As this column comes out, I have Windows 10 on my personal laptop.  I'd "Reserved" a copy using the Windows icon that appeared on everyone's Window 7 and 8 and 8.1 home installations several weeks ago.

Tuesday morning, I noticed that Microsoft had downloaded the upgrade files to my PC, something I'd agreed to when I reserved my copy.

Wednesday morning I was prompted to perform the  upgrade.  It took about an hour and went painlessly.  I blogged about it at the time.

And after using it for half a day Wednesday, I shared my first impressions.

Links about Windows 10 :

This is the first column I wrote about Windows 10 back in June :  Introduction to Windows 10 Family Tech column.

The best source for information on Windows 10, besides Microsoft itself, is Paul Thurott's Super Site for Windows..

One good one is a post on everything  about Windows 10 from installation to personalization.

As you would expect, Microsoft has a host of Windows 10 information online.

And WinSuperSite have a good handle on who gets free upgrades.

With a full year to upgrade, you are under absolutely no pressure to upgrade now.  Lifehacker had a great post on who should upgrade now.

Windows 10 has gotten one piece of bad press of charges it shares your WiFi passwords.  That's not quite the truth.  This article explains.

Remember, before you upgrade, make sure you have backed up your important files.  If not a full backup, at least copy to USB those documents and files you cannot get easily from another source.  Things like your photos, your work and school papers, legal, financial records etc.

Two columns and a lot of blog posts may seem excessive.  Windows upgrades do not come along often, and I think it fair to assume many of Family Tech readers use Windows.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My First Half Day with Windows 10

One half day does not an exhaustive test make, but my first impressions are favorable.  Windows 10 is working so far as it should.

By that I mean it has run every program I've gone to use today.  The user interface is enough like its predecessors that I can get things done, and enough changes to bring some variety into my computing life.

I've been alone most of the day, so I've asked Cortana to do a few things for me by speaking to her.  I am not sure if I'd do that with others around.  Cortana is Windows version of Google Now or Siri.  If I didn't want to speak to it, I could easily type in my query in the text box that is on the toolbar.

For example, instead of finding Word in the Start button's menu, I can type or say to Cortana "Launch Word", and Microsoft Word (purchased separately from Windows) launches.  That's pretty cool, and fast and convenient.

I'd tried to pair my Bluetooth headset I use with my phone to my computer when Windows 8.1 installed.  I could pair it, but couldn't seem to make it work.

Today, as soon as I turned on my headset, it connected to the laptop and Windows 10.

I love that the Calendar app links to Google Calendar account as easily as it does the Outlook calendar account, since I've used Google Calendar for years, and probably will for quite a while.

I expect the same when I start using Windows 10 Mail and other apps.

There's one feature of Windows 10 that I think will make the computing world a safer place, and replace an ongoing headache for typical users.  The Family Tech coming out in this week's paper, hitting newstands tomorrow afternoon and Friday, will talk about that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Updated 7/29 8:45 AM - Windows 10 is coming tomorrow

Windows 10 will start being available tomorrow.  If you "Reserved" your copy by using the Windows notifier that may have shown up on your Task Bar in the last few weeks, Windows 10 installation files may already be on your PC waiting for midnight (or so I hear) before prompting you to upgrade.

If you didn't reserve a copy, no worries.  You have up to a year for the free upgrade if you are a qualifying Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 owner.

Couple resources:  

This is what the button on your task bar looks like to reserve your copy.

Stay tuned here for my adventures installing Windows 10.

7/29/15 8:44 AM  

Woke at 6:40, and no update yet.  If you've reserved a copy, and do not have the update, invoke Windows Update, and check for updates.  Wait a few minutes and perhaps the upgrade may begin. If not, you'll have to be patient.

That's what happened to me.  Took about an hour or so to update, but did a good job of keeping me updated.  Did see a black screen when I looked in at one point, but told myself to be patient.  Went downstairs for something to eat, and when I came back up, the screen told me it was still updating.

So far, everything looks great.  I've already had a Google Hangouts video call and it worked well.

Windows 10 retained my desktop layout and graphic.  It kept my pinned to taskbar apps, and it even maintained the preferences I'd made to the toolbar notification section down near the date and time.

Off to a typical day of geeking.  We'll see how well Windows 10 holds up, but so far, so good.

I'm feeling generous, so I'll even use Bing today for my searches.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Family Tech: Ways to step away from a landline phone - July 24, 2015

When Bell Systems first began wiring the nation for the telephone, it must have seemed almost magical to a nation still recovering from the Civil War.

This week, I started to kill that magic.

As a kid in the 60s, a long-distance telephone call was special, frightening and horribly expensive. If Grandma called from Florida, I might get to say a quick “Hi,” but anything else was too expensive. One didn’t call long distance without a specific agenda, sometimes even a script.

And now, most phone calls within the country are free as part of your base service and even international calling is affordable. Yet, I am taking steps to avoid phone calls.

There are simply faster, less intrusive ways to contact people and to be contacted.

I feel guilty now calling someone. Are they alone or am I interrupting? Are they napping, in a meeting, having a moment with their loved one and forgotten to silence their phone? Are they likely to answer while driving, so my call is unsafe?

And I might find an incoming call inconvenient for any of those reasons. Yet, I am forced to be polite and responsive to a caller.

And most infuriating is that most of the calls that come into our landline are solicitation calls. Businesses, charities and the like call constantly asking the same question to which they have already received a negative answer from the 99 times they called before. Do Not Call lists and polite requests to never call again do not work for me.

There also are the lovely people from Microsoft Technical support calling to helpfully tell me they have found a virus on my PC. Of course, it isn’t Microsoft, but scammers hoping I’ll follow their directions to add malware to my PC they can use to steal my private information.

I decided enough was enough.

This week I recorded a new outgoing message for our landline: “Hello. We are no longer answering this phone due to the high volume of calls without a valid caller ID. The best way to reach us is by texting or calling our individual cell phones. You may also contact us by emailing <my email address> which may reach us faster than leaving a voicemail. Voicemails may not be listened to in a timely manner. Thank you.”

After recording it, I turned off the ringers to the landline phones.

I’d cancel the landline altogether, but it is better audio quality than my cell often times. If someone calls me at home on my cell and the quality is not good, I’ll call them back on my landline.

Verizon has a setting by which they email me when someone leaves a voicemail, and the caller ID of the caller so that I know when a message arrives. Its android app lets me listen to the messages and delete them.

And if someone calls us and does not have our cell phone numbers, a quick email from them telling me who they are, lets me decide if they should have it.

We spent the last week letting family and friends who regularly call our landline know about our new effort. They all seemed supportive.

And what if a marketer starts calling my cell phone? That’s even more intrusive.

The only phone number I hand out is not my cell number, but my Google Voice number. Google Voice gives me a phone number that when called, rings my cell phone. Google Voice has a lot of cool features.

For example, I could force callers to say their name first, and then I’m called with the name and can choose to take the call or not. I have that turned off.

But if someone calls me whom I don’t what to have the number, I can go to Voice’s website and say in the future to direct that call to voicemail or to a voicemail telling them why I’m not taking their call, or even to receive the “no longer in service” sound so they think my phone has been disconnected.

Even if you do not have Google Voice, your carrier may let you block numbers from reaching your phone. I know Sprint has that feature.

What about those times you do want to hear the sound of someone’s voice? Of course then, I still love to call. If I’m fearful if it is a good time or not, I’ll text first perhaps.

Besides using a landline or cell, I’m as likely to do a Google Hangout or Skype call so I can see them as well. The promise of a video phone first made at the AT&T Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair has been realized, and it is free, even internationally.

Links for this column are here.

To subscribe to the print edition of Prince William Today, visit their website.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Links for Ways to step away from a landline phone - July 24, 2015

This column will appear online Saturday, July 24, 2015 at 9 AM EST.

It is available before in the July 23 issue of Prince William Today on sale at these retailers beginning this Thursday, July 22nd in the afternoon.

Google Voice

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Family Tech: Now some advice on software, hardware for college students - July 17, 2015

Last week we talked about the PCs, Mac or Windows that new college students need. This week, let’s touch on some of the software and other hardware they might need.

In addition to a computer, most students probably need a second tech item – a smartphone.

A smartphone gives them the ability to stay in touch and on top of things. They can use the calendar to track school assignments or download one of the many school assignment apps in their app store. These apps will help them manage assignments and deadlines. Some even silence their phone for them during class times.

Phones let them pull up the internet for quick research even when away from Wi-Fi.

The camera on a phone can act as a scanner so they can make copies of pertinent pages in a book, illustrations, and professor’s whiteboards.

Today’s college students often do not have much paper flow. Assignments are done online or posted to school websites such as Blackboard. Information from professors is often posted to Blackboard or otherwise shared with students.

There are few, if any, handouts anymore. However, if your student is in an environment where they receive data on paper, a scanner might be a good addition. Printers are almost never needed, I’m told, but if an instructor does want print-outs, it is a good idea for the student to have their own printer. Centrally-located printers in libraries may not always be available. And having a printer allows a student to make last-minute changes to a paper.

University-level learning is about taking in information from textbooks, lectures, assigned reading and research. This information is then organized for learning, studying for exams, and for production of papers and other projects.

In my day, we took notes in class – and ideally – as we read and kept those notes in notebooks. When producing a paper, we copied our research notes to index cards to organize our data and then finally typed our paper on a typewriter. If we lost the notes or cards, we were in bad shape.

Apps such as Evernote and OneNote now let students store data on their PCs and have it automatically backed up to the cloud. Students can type notes directly into them, take photos, import document files, and even record and store short audio snippets. Once the data moves to the cloud, it is available on the student’s PCs, phones and tablets.

They have powerful search capabilities and notebooks and tags for organizing their data. A student can save every piece of information they obtain in them, and then easily find and organize them later for learning and study.

I recently learned of another app that replaces index cards for organizing information for papers, media productions and other projects.

Trello is a free app that lets you create boards, one for each project.

In a board, you make lists, and in each list is a card. A card can be a note, photo, checkbox list or web link.

For example, to learn about Trello I created a board with lists “Details,” “Mention Column,” “Not Worthy of Mention” and “Place in Links Post.”

As I learned more about Trello, each detail went into the details list. When I had finished making that list, I considered each card and moved each to one of the other lists. You move a card simply by dragging and dropping it.

As I write this, I have made certain to mention the cards in “Mention in Column.”

Students can use Trello to organize data for papers. And, it can be used to organize a student's schedule, tracking assignments, exams and projects. It is easy to move data from Evernote to Trello.

For more serious papers and dissertations, there is a classification of software specifically designed to gather PDF files of academic papers for reading, annotation and organization. These are not dissimilar to Evernote and OneNote, but they also allow for creation of annotations in one of the thousands of annotation styles your paper might require.

These apps backup your files online and can also support a group effort for research.

Your university may have a site license for one of these apps. The common ones are Qiqqa, Mendeley and EndNote.

Finally, of course, is Microsoft Office. It is pretty much a given students will need Word and Excel, part of Office. They may need PowerPoint as well and OneNote if they are not using Evernote.

Universities will be able to offer academic versions of Office, including a four-year license as cheap as a non-student’s one-year license of Office 365.

Links for this column are here.

To subscribe to the print edition of Prince William Today, visit their website.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Links for Now some advice on software, hardware for college students

This column will appear online Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 9 AM EST.

It is available before in the July 17 issue of Prince William Today on sale at these retailers beginning this Thursday, July 16th in the afternoon.







Saturday, July 11, 2015

Family Tech: Some advice in choosing a PC for a college student - July 10, 2015

In a few weeks, many of our recent high school graduates will be going off to college. How should they select the PC they should take?

I have my own thoughts on this, but asked some current college students what they thought and they said it depends on the student’s major.

Different majors need different software and some software needs dramatically more powerful PCs than others.

Hopefully, there is some guidance on technology in your freshman package or it is covered during orientation. If not, check the technology support pages on the university’s website for its recommendation.

Those support pages are a treasure trove for students. Universities often bulk license software and make it available to students for an extremely low cost or often at no cost. Before you buy any software, check the university or the bookstore’s website.

Bookstores often have low prices for PCs as well, but there is no guarantee that it’s the lowest. Be sure to check them out but don’t ignore your standard sources such as Amazon, Best Buy, Microcenter, etc.

In previous years, I advocated speed and storage as the most important features in a college-bound PC. I have since shifted my emphasis a bit. I’ve been exposed to some super lightweight PCs lately, with longer than usual battery life and realize how well these fit into a college student’s lifestyle.

Students use their PCs not only in their rooms to write papers, but in classes to take notes, in labs to gather data, in the library for research, and just about anywhere they have a free moment to study, do online research or online socializing. Thus portability and battery efficiency are big considerations.

Before, a typical laptop might weigh 4.5 pounds or more and have a battery life of three to five hours at best. Apple’s Macbook Air weighs just 2.3 pounds and has a battery life of about nine hours.

For Windows users, there is the Microsoft Surface. The Surface 3 is a tablet computer that runs Windows and will run the upcoming Windows 10. It runs Office and all the same software a standard Windows PC runs. A keyboard comes separately and makes the Surface 3 basically a laptop.

The Surface battery runs for nine hours. The Surface weighs a mere 1.37 pounds by itself, the keyboard adds 0.58 pounds, bringing the whole thing in under 2 pounds. There’s also a pen available so you can write or draw on it.

There are two versions of the Surface, the Surface using Atom processors and the Surface 3 Pro line using Intel processors. The Macbook Air also uses the Intel processor.

With the Surface 3 Pro and the Macbook Air you begin your selection by choosing the speed of the processor — i3, i5 or i7. An i5 meets most needs, but if your student is going to be running demanding software such as video editing, CAD or scientific modelling software, an i7 might be preferable.

Neither device has spinning conventional hard drives. Instead, they use internal Solid State Drives (SSD). These are sort of large USB drives. Being that all the data is stored on a chip, it makes device startup very fast and has a lot to do with the lower power draw leading to longer battery life.

Your next consideration is the size of your SSD drive. It depends on how much work you’ll want to store on the device. This is less of a concern since most universities now have excellent campus-wide Wi-Fi, so you can subscribe to OneDrive or Google Drive to store files as well.

One thing a Surface 3 Pro user told me she loves is the ability to write on the screen. She can use the pen that comes with the Pro 3 (a separate purchase on the entry model Surface) to take notes and draw. It is less intrusive in a lecture to write notes than to type.

The Surface is setup to store those handwritten notes in OneNote, Microsoft’s online note storage system akin to Evernote. OneNote can even decipher the writing to make it searchable.

The Air and Surface have cameras in them for teleconferences and calls home. They can also take photos of classroom whiteboards to capture the material on them.

Students today are lucky to have light weight, powerful computers with hopefully day-long batteries to help them get through their college day.

The disadvantage to the Surface and Air is they cost more than even mid-range laptops. You can save money if you are willing to haul around more weight and be tethered to an outlet more often.

However, then you may not have the PC at times when one might be productive to have.

Next week: More tech for the new college student.

Links for this column are here.

To subscribe to the print edition of Prince William Today, visit their website.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Links for: Some advice in choosing a PC for a college student

This column will appear online Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 9 AM EST.

It is available before in the July 10 issue of Prince William Today on sale at these retailers beginning this Thursday, July 9th in the afternoon.

Apple Air

Compare Mac laptops

Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3

Help me choose a Surface

Search handwritten notes in OneNote

7/21/15 : The website GottaBeMobile published this discussion of choosing the right Mac for college.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Family Tech: Here’s what to do when something goes wrong with your technology - July 3, 2015

We’ve all been there. Be it a PC that will not turn on, a blue screen of death or some other issue that initially has us flummoxed. And too often, the worst happens at the worst times.

If your computer or phone starts acting flaky, one trick fixes a lot of the problems. Simply restart it. If you call for tech support, they invariably will ask you to do that since it fixes so many problems.

Yesterday, the new Microsoft Surface in our home refused to turn on. I Googled the problem and found out that holding the off switch down for 30 seconds, then releasing it, and then pressing it once, would restart the recalcitrant device. That’s the second great secret of tech support. If you Google an issue, you’ll find others have had the same issue and hopefully you’ll find their solution.

Self tech support is easier if you have a second device you can use to search online for help. Even your phone will work.

Technology problems are inevitable so we must plan for them.

First, whenever you get a new device, take a few moments to read through the manual and play with the device. And after using the device for a few weeks, read the manual a second time. You will get so much more from it then, and probably learn new things of value about the device.

Take a moment to file away the receipt and manual so you can find them if you have problems. Personally, I scan the receipts into Evernote, and download PDF files or the manual off the web to Evernote.

Make sure your PC has a good antivirus application on it, and that it updates and runs itself at least once a week. If you do not leave your PC on all the time, be sure to put on your calendar or task list a reminder to leave it on all night the night it is scheduled to do the virus check.

Backup is critical should you lose everything. I have come to appreciate CrashPlan recently. For $5 a month for one PC, or $12.50 for the entire family, CrashPlan will make unattended backups to the cloud of all your PCs. That way, should your home burn down, or a laptop is lost, you have all the data elsewhere. It is worth it for peace of mind. There are other similar services, but CrashPlan covers multiple computers, and multiple drives on those PCs, something the other services don’t always do.

If your device does go bad at a critical time, having all your files backed up in the cloud lets you get at them from another PC easily. Say your PC goes bad as you are putting the final touches on a major paper, you can always go to the library and use one of their PCs to finish. Or use a family member’s PC.

If you do have to call for help from a family member, a support service or if it is your work PC, your company’s help desk, there are things you can do to help them help you.

First of all, be polite. As I read forum posts from help desk people, it is amazing they get calls from people horribly aggressive in their behavior. These same people would never call the Benefits Department and rake someone over the coals, knowing it would land them in hot water. But some feel they can berate Help Desk operators over things that are not in their control or that are happening because the caller screwed up. Be polite.

Second, think before you call and be ready to state the problem clearly. Don’t tell them what you’ve tried, unless they ask. Often, I’ll get a call from a friend and they tell me not about the problem they are trying to solve, but rather a problem they ran into trying to solve the original problem. Tell the Help Desk the original problem and let them guide you to a solution.

Be patient with them. They have to run through a script that will solve most of the problems for most of the people. If they ask you to restart your PC even when you’ve told them you have, cooperate. A lot of people do not want to restart their PC due to the time it takes, so they lie to the Help Desk. And restarting fixes so many problems; they have to do it first.

Nothing is more maddening to someone trying to help you then to hear this: “Just before the problem began I saw a dialog box on the screen. I forget what it said.”

Whenever a frightening or cryptic error message appears, write down what it says. Better yet, use the Snipping Tool to make a copy of it. The Snipping Tool has been a free tool on every Windows since Vista.

Links for this column are here.

To subscribe to the print edition of Prince William Today, visit their website.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Links for: Here’s what to do when something goes wrong with your technology - July 3, 2015

Not much in the way of links for this column.

The Snipping Tool is a tool for capturing screen shots.

Here is Microsoft's instructions on using the Snipping Tool.

This column will be posted online on July 4, at 9 AM EST.