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Computing Q&A - David Einstein - RSS Feed

Updated: 2012-01-12T21:37:40Z


Smart devices not a smart choice for now


Why does Stephen Curry wrap the ball around his waist while he’s driving toward the basket before feeding a perfect bounce pass to a teammate for a slam dunk? Because they can. Approach your front door and the lock senses your arrival. When a smart camera senses motion while you’re out, it turns on the lights (that’ll foil those burglars). [...] when a smart smoke detector detects smoke, it can tell another device to turn on your lawn sprinklers (I kid you not). The prime example of this new wave of connected devices is Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat, which serves as the centerpiece of the Nest connected home system. Both Google’s Nest system and Apple’s HomeKit system use smartphones to manage connected devices. When I got Vonage World service a few years ago, it cost me around $25 per month. [...] it’s gone up to more than $37. BasicTalk, a “light” version of Vonage that costs $10 per month for U.S. calling, and Ooma, which offers free U.S. calling once you purchase the $130 Ooma Telo box. Both are Internet-phone services like Vonage and come with voice mail, caller ID and 911 capability. Smartphones are designed to limit the amount of memory that can be hogged by apps, but when you get near the limit, some apps can get sluggish, especially browsers.

Smartphone trends are hurting Apple, Samsung


The real problem for Apple and Samsung is that consumers couldn’t care less about the technology inside their smartphones. Sure, they want a big screen and a great camera, but those are staples of phones from half a dozen manufacturers. The specifics of things like processors and operating systems, which formed the basis of competition during the heyday of the PC era, are lost on people who consider phones part of the daily kit that includes their wallet and car keys. Smartphone makers know this, but they’re hard put to come up with other factors to distinguish their models from the rest of a crowded field.

Digital hoarding not dangerous, but a nuisance


External hard drives sold at places like Best Buy and Costco can store up to 5 terabytes of data. Huge servers in the commercial world are the bedrock of online banking and shopping, and massive online databases let you search for flights and hotels, enjoy music videos on YouTube and watch movies on Netflix. Unfortunately, excessive storage also has led to digital hoarding, a condition indicated by having thousands of photos that you seldom if ever look at scattered around the hard drive of your computer, and thousands of unread e-mails languishing in your inbox. More importantly, you can search a hard drive for most items with a few keystrokes, an easier proposition than combing through boxes, shelves and drawers. What’s more, digital hoarding on home computers is declining, thanks to streaming music and online storage services, which eliminate the need to keep — and back up — documents and photos on a computer. [...] storage services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud and Dropbox discourage hoarding by limiting the amount of data you can store for free. Most smartphones let you automatically upload every photo you take to the cloud — and that can add up to a lot of take-and-forget snapshots eating up your free storage space. The Apple Watch has a brighter display than the Pebble Time, along with several features missing in the latter, including haptic feedback (it taps your wrist for alerts), a speaker that lets you conduct brief phone calls, a built-in heart rate monitor, and the ability to use Apple Pay. The Pebble Time boasts better battery life (seven days vs. 18 hours for the Apple Watch), can use standard watch bands (the Apple Watch has dedicated bands), works with both Android smartphones and iPhones (the Apple Watch works only with iPhones) and costs less. There just doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to spend hundreds of dollars on a wearable calculator, especially when it requires a smartphone to do anything more meaningful than tell time. Is stereo dead? I’m an old guy who listened to vinyl records through some pretty nice speakers prior to the digital revolution.

Apple Watch technology is not exactly impressive


Last week’s news conference to formally announce the company’s first major product since the death of Steve Jobs four years ago seemed, to me at least, to carry an air of sophisticated desperation. Apple CEO Tim Cook and his supporting cast spent way too much time showcasing the shiny metals and multiplicity of bands that Apple hopes will make its smart watch more than just a gizmo unable to do much of anything without an iPhone connected to it, like a dummy to a ventriloquist. Cook emphasized that the three versions of the new watch come in aluminum (or “aluminium,” as Apple’s British designer Jony Ives eloquently intoned in his narration of a video about it), stainless steel that the company says is “cold-forged to make it up to 80 percent harder” and 18-karat gold that’s “twice as hard as standard gold.” Even if the gold was forged in the fires of Mount Doom, as one online commenter quipped, it would add maybe $3,000 to the price (making it still 10 times more expensive than the $349 entry-level Sport version). Cook also boasted about the Sport version’s fluoroelastomer band, which sounds exotic but turns out to be synthetic rubber that has been used for more than half a century for seals and O-rings in car engines and other machines. A number of smart watches running the Android Wear system have the same key features, like notifications of incoming calls and texts so you can ignore them. [...] new models coming from the likes of Samsung, Sony, LG and especially Pebble (whose watches work with both iPhones and Android phones) should match and even overtake the capabilities of the Apple Watch. Having concluded that its first-generation watch isn’t going to wow people with its technology, the company is positioning it as the must-have fashion accessory of 2015. In newer versions of Office, or the stand-alone Word program, make sure the Home tab is open in the ribbon menu at the top, then click on the arrow at the bottom right corner of the Font group. DVDs and DVD players are coded for different geographical regions to give film studios control over international release dates.

Making your movies, music ready for the future


Today, we can listen to music or watch movies simply by touching a smartphone’s screen or clicking a TV remote. CDs are gathering dust as people shift to music streaming. Sales have plummeted with the growing popularity of streaming services that let you rent movies or buy them and build an online library. If a music CD you own is available for streaming from Amazon or Apple’s iTunes, those services can simply add it to your online library. [...] Walmart’s Vudu online movie service can do the same thing with many if not most of your Hollywood movies. Just insert a DVD in your computer, and if it’s available on Vudu, you can have an online copy of it. With it, you can stream movies and TV shows and use your phone for e-mail and the Internet without dipping into the data allowance in your wireless plan. Is there a cable that would let me link my iPad to a hotel room TV and watch the game on a bigger screen? Either an Apple Composite AV cable or Apple Lightning Digital AV Adapter would work, assuming there are empty ports for them on the back of the hotel TV. Some readers might be asking themselves, why not just take a Roku Stick or Amazon Fire Stick along and plug it into the TV? Because you won’t be able to authorize the device on the hotel’s network. The more important issue is whether your hotel offers unlimited free Wi-Fi, with a connection speed fast enough to ensure smooth and continuous HD video on a TV. What could be worse than watching a play at the plate unfold, only to have the picture cut out with Angel Pagan rounding third base?

Future of TV, cord cutting still jumbled


Television is a mess, and I’m not talking about the collapse of “Duck Dynasty,” but rather the battle taking shape that will determine how we will receive and pay for programs. CBS and HBO are testing the waters for “over-the-top” delivery of live programming via the Internet, and Dish Network has announced a slightly more ambitious online offering — a small bundle of cable networks, including ESPN. The Dish service, called Sling TV (no connection to Slingbox), is particularly fascinating, because it cannibalizes Dish’s own satellite TV business. Perhaps Dish is betting that in the end, all TV will be delivered via the Internet, eliminating the need for satellite dishes. Dish has announced that Sling will be available on all manner of devices, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Microsoft’s Xbox, and select TVs. [...] of whether TV programming comes from a satellite, a cable or the Internet, eventually the dam of traditional channel packaging will break, and we will finally have the a la carte services we’ve been yearning for. Will sports be available on demand, or will you have to subscribe to Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL network so you can watch all the 49ers games? Some PC manufacturers ship computers with Windows Defender turned off, because they offer free trials of security programs from companies like McAfee and Norton. Is it legal for me to use my neighbor’s Wi-Fi network if I have his permission and he gives me his password? I would be paying a portion of his monthly fee. First questions first.

Pendulum swinging from tablet to laptop


In what is slowly but surely turning into a paperless society, computers are the tool of choice for things like doing taxes, banking and investing, completing the formerly arduous paperwork of a real estate loan, applying for Social Security and Medicare, and checking your medical records. Tablet sales are flattening out and even falling for some brands, while the decline in PC sales has slowed, and some manufacturers are predicting a renewal of growth. For one thing, it turns out that, aside from a slightly bigger screen, tablets have no advantages over large smartphones. [...] laptop computers have been getting more powerful, lighter and less expensive, to the point where a decent laptop now costs less than a full-size iPad. The biggest question mark is the future of 2-in-1 devices like the Microsoft Surface — essentially tablets with detachable keyboards. Costco, Best Buy, Staples and even Walmart and Target sell them, you can go to an Apple or Microsoft store, or you can buy online from Amazon, eBay, or directly from manufacturers including Dell and HP. Is there an alternative security system for my computer that’s more affordable or even free? Both offer free security software that could provide all the protection you need, and there also are premium/pro versions that cost far less than what you have now. The size of your photo collection won’t by itself slow down your computer, unless you have hundreds of photos open simultaneously, which could bloat your RAM (the internal memory that holds stuff while it’s being worked on). [...] once the backup is complete, follow these instructions from Apple for rebuilding the library: (1) Quit iPhoto if it is open; (2) Hold down the Command and Option keys on the keyboard; (3) Open iPhoto; (4) Keep the keys held down until you are prompted to rebuild the library; (5) A dialog box will appear with rebuilding options. Last time, I posited that giclée, an advanced form of inkjet printing, produces better color rendition and longer-lasting copies of photos and art than traditional lithography.

4K TVs will be the big story in 2015


The consumer technology landscape didn’t change much this year, and 2015 promises to be similarly lackluster, with few, if any, major product breakthroughs and incremental advances in mobile phones, tablets, laptop computers and wearable tech like smart watches and fitness bands. Next year will see the mainstreaming of 4K TV, which offers four times the resolution of 1080p, the current standard for HDTV. Vizio recently introduced a line of 4K TVs starting at less than $1,000, and by the end of 2015, the market should be replete with affordable 4K sets from all major brands. Sales of 4K TVs, will, in turn, put pressure on broadcast and cable networks to finally increase the resolution of their programs. [...] streaming services like Amazon and Netflix offer lots of 1080p stuff, and even selected programming in 4K. The networks haven’t moved to 1080p because, except on a really big screen, it’s hard to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p. [...] 4K offers a much better picture than 720p, and unless the networks increase their resolution to at least 1080p, users will have yet another reason to shun traditional TV in favor of online streaming. The gallery owner told me that meant it had been printed on a special inkjet printer, and that giclée prints are actually better than lithographs. [...] there are printers specially designed to create large-format giclée prints on media including fine art paper and even canvas, using long-lasting archival inks. Press the TV button at the top of the remote, then press the TV/VCR button near the bottom (it also has a tiny “Input” label above it).

Apple’s 2 moves highlight ho-hum tech year


With no new product categories and no breakthroughs in wireless communications, we found ourselves squaring off against a market trying to push existing technology into places where it doesn’t really fit. [...] we got things like cars with wireless hotspots, which could come in handy if you want to watch a movie on your laptop while waiting for a tow truck. Or the Bluetooth electric toothbrush, which tells you, via a smartphone app, to brush harder, softer or longer. Each panel has an LCD screen with a big number denoting the toasting level, and bars that disappear one-by-one as toasting proceeds. [...] it’s just a toaster, with same basic mechanism the things have employed since it became a must-have appliance in the 1930s. [...] they were business moves by Apple: the acquisition of Beats Music, which spells victory for streaming music over downloads; and Apple Pay, which uses tap-and-pay technology that Google and others have been trying to seed the market with for a few years. The Google apps — things like Docs, Gmail, Maps — are embedded in the Android operating system. For most people, that’s not a good idea, because rooting requires some tech savvy along with Internet research to find and use the necessary software. The best way to speed things up on an Android tablet or smartphone is to back up all your data and perform a factory data reset, both of which can be done by going to Backup & Reset in the main settings. A friend told me I would need the original remote control for my TV, and that’s gone missing (I haven’t needed it because I’ve been using the remote I got from Comcast). Remotes from Comcast and other TV providers can’t switch sources.

Flash drive usually is best option to store crucial data


Cars with much more horsepower than we need, hundreds of TV channels we don’t watch, and cameras capable of taking photographs that would look sharp on a billboard — even though we view them on small screens. Which brings me to the most trenchant example of excess in the name of technology — digital storage, which has mushroomed to the point where even an entry-level personal computer comes with a terabyte’s worth of hard drive, and you can buy a 4-terabyte external hard drive at a big-box store. Today, a smartphone app can take up more than 10 megabytes, while a terabyte can hold around 167,000 high-quality jpeg photos or 20,000 music CDs. With the growing popularity of streaming services for movies and music — not to mention online storage for data and photos — big hard drives are losing their allure. [...] what’s the best way to store your essential data, like legal documents and archival photos? Is there an easy way to copy or transfer data from an Android tablet or smartphone to a flash drive? I know I can use my PC as an intermediary to transfer files between my phone and a flash drive, but it would be nice if I could connect the phone directly to a flash drive. What you want is a dual USB drive, which sports a standard USB connector at one end and a micro USB connector at the other. SanDisk and Hyper even make dual flash drives for the iPhone and iPad (which have proprietary Lightning ports rather than using the micro USB ports that have become standard for Android devices). [...] when I use the free Wi-Fi hotspots at airports and at Embassy Suites, about all I can do is e-mail and some Internet browsing. The weather thing sounds odd, but the Netflix issue is a no-brainer: the airport service and the hotel block Netflix so it can’t be accessed on their hotspots. The hotel, on the other hand, blocks Netflix because it wants you to pay for its on-demand movie service. [...] lots of hotels block Netflix, so I’d advise putting it on your checklist of essential amenities before booking a room.

Consider buying an unlocked smartphone online


Wireless carriers have glommed onto a marketing scheme that offers several options for buying a mobile phone: Pay for it up front; make no down payment and pay off the device in monthly installments; or get the phone for a low price in return for committing to a two-year contract. Why? Because they can’t charge you twice for the phone. When you make a down payment, the remaining price of the phone is spread over the life of the contract — which means it’s in your monthly bill. Besides price, the big advantage of buying a Blu or Huawei phone online is that it will come unlocked, which means it won’t tie you to a particular carrier. Most Huawei phones will work on any U.S. network, while Blu will work on AT&T and T-Mobile, the two U.S. carriers that use the GSM wireless protocol. [...] it won’t even recognize the content on the hard drive. Each TV service provider uses its own proprietary file format to record video, and those videos can be played only on DVRs from the provider. IMHO (Internet-speak for “in my humble opinion”), the government should regulate the TV industry better and force providers to use standardized technology (just as wireless carriers should be forced to sell unlocked phones, which I mention as a carryover from my opening-item rant).

Online shopping has many benefits


Online shopping has many benefits According to Adobe’s Digital Index forecast, the combined take for online purchases made on Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday (that’s today) will be in the neighborhood of $6.5 billion this year — up substantially from 2013. The robust growth is not surprising when you consider how easy it is to shop online, especially compared with what you must endure to shop the traditional way, by getting in the car and driving downtown or to a mall. Online shopping also can save you money, but you need to be diligent. Many large stores now charge sales tax on items they sell online to customers in California, but smaller sellers with no physical presence in the state may not charge sales tax. The only national electronics chain still standing is Best Buy, and it offers a limited selection of computers, tablets and cameras at its stores. LeapFrog (, Nabi (, Kurio ( and even Tesco, the big British retailer, sell durable tablets for the preteen set. Most come with learning and entertainment apps, and feature parental controls to shield kids from age-inappropriate Internet content. There’s no proof that a tablet can accelerate learning, and even if it does, the long-term benefit is questionable. [...] there are a couple of ways. The easiest is to open the page in Chrome, go to Settings (the three vertical dots at the top right side of the screen), then choose “Add to homescreen.” Press the Action button at the bottom of the screen (it’s a rectangle with an arrow pointing upward).

Our online privacy is sacred, unless we can get free stuff


The findings of a new Pew study on privacy in the digital age belabor the obvious. Americans think the government may be spying on them and Internet companies are using their personal information. What’s interesting is that the Internet has thrown the spotlight on privacy, even though in some ways, people have more privacy now than they had half a century ago. [...] in many homes, folks still had party lines, which let them snoop on their neighbors’ phone calls. Today, the government can appropriate your e-mail and mobile phone records — modern incarnations of phone tapping — but technology also has made it possible for online merchants to use your shopping history to tailor ads for you, or social networking sites to exploit your phone’s address book to expand their business. The Gay Blade: You know, as the Alcalde’s wife, I must play many, many, many roles, but the people only see the part I play in public. [...] Facebook recently disabled messaging on its mobile website and told me that if I want to use my phone to send a message, I must download the Facebook Messenger app. The list of permissions required by Facebook Messenger is long, but it’s consistent with what other messaging apps want — like access to your contacts and calendar, photos and media files, as well as your identify, location and device ID. Keep in mind that many apps seek permissions they don't actually use (the whole permissions thing is a bit arcane and at some point should go away). Facebook dropped its mobile messaging feature in favor of a dedicated app because it wants to become the default messaging service for the entire universe. If you regularly exchange text messages with Facebook friends, go ahead and install Facebook Messenger.

Choose cheapest smartphone plan with amount of data you need


In recent weeks, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, et al, have upped the ante by increasing — in some cases even doubling — the amount of data in monthly plans without raising prices. To require more than a gigabyte of data per month, you would have to be addicted to movies and TV shows on your phone — and you would have to watch them away from your home wireless network without the benefit of a hotspot. Carriers will still claim to have superior coverage over their rivals, but if you live in a metropolitan area, as most people do, chances are the coverage is about the same for all carriers. [...] they all now boast 4G LTE speeds, and they all offer the latest-and-greatest phones. Networking equipment generates electromagnetic radiation that takes the form of heat, but it can't disrupt molecules and turn you into a remake of “Attack of the 50 foot Woman.” [...] the heat dissipates quickly, so that if you’re a foot away from the device, you’re safe. [...] if it concerns you, why not move the modem away from the bed?

PonoPlayer could hit right note for audiophiles


While the audio quality of services such as Spotify, Google Play Music and Beats Music is obviously good enough for the masses, a significant number of listeners (judging from comments I received) can hear the difference between music streamed in MP3 format and the same music played on a CD or vinyl record. Streaming requires music files to be compressed — which results in a loss of sound quality. [...] compression isn't necessary to download music, and we're beginning to see online services for downloading high-resolution music (lossless playback at up to 192 kHz/24-bit), as well as mobile devices that can play it. [...] some smartphones, including the LG G3 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, already are high-res capable. Last month, I discovered that my thumb drive had been completely encrypted and all of my mostly Word and Excel files converted to gobbledygook. [...] since I don’t have a computer, I use my thumb drive on a PC at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library. If this had happened while you were using your own PC (and storing files on its hard drive), you might have been able to use Windows System Restore to retrieve previous versions of the files. A cheaper alternative is aCalendar, an app that isn’t really a stand-alone calendar, but rather an overlay for the Google Calendar.