Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gifts for geeks - November 25, 2016

The best kind of gift, someone once told me, is one someone wants and would never buy for themselves.

That theory works well in choosing gifts for the geeks on your holiday gift list.  I’m not using geek as a pejorative, but rather to refer to someone who enjoys technology, clever gadgets, superhero stories and science fiction.  When you look at how many people watch “Star Wars” and the movies with Marvel and DC heroes, you realize geeks are all around.

So how can you buy them gifts they will enjoy?

The good news is you can, and should, avoid the big ticket items. We geeks are extremely choosy about our phones and laptops.  We have to choose those ourselves.

And we will put more effort into that than we did into choosing a college.

The most expensive things I’d suggest would be an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. Both are small devices you place in your home. The device hears your commands when you call it by name, and you can ask it to do a variety of things: answer questions, set timers, tell you the weather, play music, etc. 

The Echo will let you order items directly from Amazon.  The Google device lets you add items to your Google Calendar and reads you your Gmails. Unfortunately it works with only one Google account. The Echo and Home cost $180 and $130, respectively.

These devices fall into the nice-to-have category and are not must-haves, so they fall squarely in the thesis of the gift giving I mentioned at the start.

In previous years, I have sung the virtues of Google’s Chromecast as a way to get streaming video to your television.  By now I hope most of you have something like Chromecast, such as Roku, Apple TV or the many alternatives.

Google recently came out with Chromecast Audio, which hooks to your speakers and lets you stream audio from your phone, PC or tablet. You may have the music coming to you from the music services available from Google, Apple, Spotify and many others.  Chromecast Audio is $30.

Fairfax based has always been a go-to place for geek gadgets, do-dads and clothing.  I personally love the Jedi Fleece Robe and the Chewbacca robe.  They both look quite warm and powerful.

Is your geek a little forgetful?  The Tile device is a small square you can attach to your keys or slide into your wallet, purse, backpack or laptop case.  If you misplace an item, your phone can help you track it if it is in Bluetooth range--basically inside the house.

If you lose your phone, push a button on any Tile, and your phone beeps.

If your Tile is outside your phone’s range, but within the range of another Tile user, you will be told where your device is. The other Tile user will not know your device is close by.

The Automatic Pro is a device that hooks into the diagnostic port on your car.  It reports data to your phone via the cellular network, telling you statistics about how efficient your car is, the location, how much gas is left.  It will even tell you speed statistics if you want to spy on your teen driver.  And it elaborates on the check engine light and tells you more about what is wrong. 

The Harmony remote system is a small box you place in the line of sight of your AV equipment. Then using one of its remotes, or an app on your phone, you can control the device even when you are not in the line of sight of the devices.  Conventional remotes communicate by infrared so the remote normally has to be where it can “see” the device. I might misplace a remote, but I generally know where my phone is.

And you do not have to remember what channel ESPN is on. Just push the ESPN button in the app, and your TV turns on and goes to the ESPN channel.

A geek loves little gadgets and tools.  Microcenter up in Fairfax has a long windy checkout area full of little tools, gadgets and inexpensive USB drives to delight a geek. is a great source for additional phone chargers and cables.

No matter where you shop, compare prices to Amazon. Especially if you have Amazon Prime and can often get two-day free shipping.  If your geek does not have Prime, that in itself is a great gift. For $99 a year they get free two-day shipping on many purchases as well as a lot of free movie streaming and even some free online storage for photos.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Links for Gifts for Geeks

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"Gifts for Geeks"- November 25, 2016

This column will appear on this website November 26, 2016 at 9 AM.

Amazon Echo

Google Home

Apple TV



Chromecast Audio






Amazon Prime Benefits

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Saturday, November 12, 2016

On a road trip to grandma’s, take up reading - November 11, 2016

“Over the river the and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.  The self-driving car knows the way to carry us through the white and drifted snow.”

OK, so self-driving cars are still a few years away, and their ability to work on snow has yet to be proven, but there are some tech tools to make long road trips a bit less painful for families this time of year.

Grandma may have once lived two farms over, but now she’s more likely to be in Florida. Costs for flying a family of any size that far pretty much means a road trip down Interstate-95.

On my family’s road trips as a kid, my mother was sure reading would cause car sickness so we were not allowed to read in the car.  As an adult, I found out I could tolerate it better than expected. I found a few tips on avoiding car sickness while reading.  

Reading in the car is a good way for kids to pass the time, and it promotes literacy too.  And parts of the trip that have sporadic cell coverage are a good time to promote reading.

The books can even be on their phones by using the Kindle app, and there are free e-books from the public library. If your child wants to read classics that are now in the public domain, they are totally free from the Gutenberg Project.

Watching movies in cars used to require a portable DVD viewer, and while they are still available even more affordably than ever, kids are also amazingly comfortable watching video on the tiny screens of the phone they might already have.

Streaming video from Youtube, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon might be a bit difficult on a road trip where cell coverage might be spotty.  Usually coverage along interstates is fairly good. Away from the interstate is where you might run into problems.

With videos from Youtube or Netflix, an interrupted movie is no big deal; you can watch it anytime when you get better connectivity.  With iTunes or Amazon, once you rent a movie, you have 30 days to watch it. Once you begin watching it, you can watch it as many times as you want in 24 hours. Google Play works the same, except with 48 hours to watch. Check your individual movies in case of exceptions.

It is more reliable to simply download the movie to your device, something you can always do if you purchase a film.

Movies rented from Google Play can be downloaded to Android or Apple IOS devices.

What happens if your kids have tablets for surfing the net at home?  Often those devices are Wi-Fi only and won’t work in the car.

Most cell carriers have the ability to let you Hotspot a cell phone. One cell phone in can act as a Wi-Fi source for three or more devices. The devices login  to the Wi-Fi on the phone, just as they might login to a Wi-Fi router at home. The phone takes a request from the tablet for say a web page, and fetches it over the cellular network.

It will be slower than Wi-Fi, and will cost an additional fee from your cell provider. Sprint at least lets us buy Hotspotting prorated so it is less than a dollar a day while we travel.  Contact your cell provider a few days before any trip to see what they offer, and make sure your phone supports hotspotting.

And Google Maps not only can navigate your way to Grandmas, but it can help you find gas, food and lodging on the way. It works hard to find spots that take you only a minimal distance off your route. It can even help find the cheapest gas.

A few past columns offer some useful information for trips.

A column from April considers how to consolidate the photos everyone in the family takes so they truly become family memories.  There is a link to the column and a how-to article I wrote in this week’s link post.

And while visiting family, you may be asked to help out with their technology.  I’ve written about that in the past and have links for those as well.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Links to "On a road trip to grandma’s, take up reading - November 11, 2016"

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"On a road trip to grandma’s, take up reading "- November 11, 2016

This column will appear on this website November 12, 2016 at 9 AM.


Read in the car without getting sick

Kindle app  IOS  Android

e-books from the PWC Library

Gutenberg Project

Watching Videos

Affordable DVD Players

Movies from iTunes
Movies from Google Play
Movies from Amazon Prime Instant Videos (Amazon Prime subscribers only)

Finding things along your route

Consolidating Photos

How to on Consolidating Photos

Family Tech Support

Last year's column

2014 column

Sunday, November 6, 2016

LastPass multi-device support is now free

If you are not using a password vault, LastPass now gives you one less excuse. Their free level now lets you use it on multiple devices. Before you had to pay $12 a year for that feature.

I gladly paid the last couple of years. It made managing a multitude of passwords for my many sites easy when using either my PC or my phone.

LastPass is well regarded.  You should consider using it to help keep yourself secure.

Signup for LastPass

Crosspost from my personal blog.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"You can get the best tech tools, but…" - November 5, 2016

If you are into tech as I am, it is a never ending cornucopia of new apps to try, new gadgets to covet and new capabilities to instill that “We live in the future” feeling.

Alas, like everything though, there is a certain amount of housework to do.  Without the drudgery of protecting our devices and networks from viruses and attacks, the fun soon comes to an end, and what should be a friction-free environment for work and fun gets bogged down and aggravatingly useless.

Anti-virus and their ilk are boring to think about. I’ve even put this column off for months as I found more entertaining things to write about.

If you are running an antivirus on your PC already, give yourself an atta-boy.  Then go check to see if it is indeed still running.

Many of us get a free 90-day subscription to McAfee with our PCs.  Problem is that after 90 days we get nagged to pay for the subscription and, instead of paying, often just turn off the nags.

If you did pay, find the McAfee app on your PC and check to see when it expires. And check too for the last time it updated its signatures and actually ran a scan.

If you did not subscribe and it is not running, there are better choices out there than McAfee.  In fact, on the ratings site, McAfee is not near the top.  That site tests and lists the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac and Android devices.  Microsoft’s Defender, a free tool built into Windows, is next on the rating list. If nothing else, use Defender.

The No. 2 choice on the list of top antivirus apps is free. Avast does a great job protecting my system. Yes, they want me to upgrade so I get the occasional popup, but it is not too intrusive. I may subscribe now, but I wanted to experience the free level for column purposes.

If you choose to go with their paid level of service, it is $50 a year for one computer or $70 a year for three computers[1] .  There is also a five PC level.

AVG, another well regarded antivirus suite, is No. 3 on this list.

The paid suites also offer firewalls, although they do not call them that. Avast calls theirs “Home Network Security.”  These apps go a long way in keeping hackers from penetrating your system and installing botnets or other malware.

Windowshas a built-in firewall.  It is a good idea to make sure it is turned on if you do not have any other firewall product installed.

Another useful tool in your battle against those with evil designs on your PC is MalwareBytes.  It is a free or paid app, that scans your PC for malware, Trojans and adware, and removes them.

A app like MalwareBytes is not perfect. It is a race between hackers and apps like MalwareBytes, but use it, upgrade it frequently and ,best idea of all, buy a subscription to it.  

Only download Malwarebytes from its own site or from, a reputable no-malware download site. also has Spybot 2 an excellent tool for ferreting out tracking cookies that tell advertisers and others where you visit on the web.

Be sure to Google the reputation of any tool you are tempted to use.

And never, ever fall for an ad you encounter on the Internet that looks like a dialog box telling you your PC is infected.  The antivirus it encourages you to purchase is likely worthless and, worse, might be malware itself.

Once you have protection software installed on your system, put a monthly item in your to-do list to make sure it is working. If it is set to automatically update its signatures and run scans in the middle of the night, check its history to make sure it is doing it and nothing has happened to prevent it.

If you are to run the updates and scans manually, remember to do them.

You can purchase the best tools, but if they are not running as and when they should you are not protected.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Links for "You can get the best tech tools, but…" - November 5, 2016

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"You can get the best tech tools, but…" - November 5, 2016

This column will appear on this website November 6, 2016 at 9 AM.

Comparisons of Anti-Virus applications

Firewall in Windows 10