Category Archives: Uncategorized

Do you really need Windows / OS X?

If you are thinking of replacing your computer, it’s a good time to take stock of what you actually use it for.

Most people user their computer for researching, reading news, reading and posting social media, collecting pictures, listening to music, streaming videos, playing games, audio/video/text chat, and reading and writing emails, documents and spreadsheets.

You really don’t need a full-blown Mac or PC to do those things; they can be done using other operating systems like Linux, Android, iOS, or ChromeOS. The beauty of these operating systems is that they tend to be less expensive to buy, and both less expensive and easier to run.

One reason that devices running those operating systems are less expensive to buy is that they are not as demanding on hardware, so they don’t need the latest, fastest, most expensive hardware. Another reason is that those operating systems are free. They are cheaper to run because the apps that run on them tend to be less expensive, or free … they use less electricity … and they can often be run without additional security software because they aren’t prone to infection.

Those other operating systems tend to be easier to operate because they are built with the legacy of Windows/OSX as a model, without having to support the legacy of Windows/OSX. PCs, in particular, put in a lot of effort to be backwards compatible with (in some cases) decades-old systems.

A quick note for PC gamers: save yourself some money and switch to a video game console … they are a fraction of the price.

If you are hooked on one or more particular Windows or OS X programs that aren’t available on other platforms, then you have no choice. But in most cases, there are alternatives. So, if it’s time to replace that aging Mac or PC, give some serious consideration to Chrome/Android/iOS/Linux/console devices.

Best Practices – Internet Security

There are some good practices around Internet security that everyone should know and follow. I’ve said them all, many times before … but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them now and then … so here they are.

Use strong passwords

Use strong (either long or complex) passwords for all your important online accounts. If you use a “local” account to log into Windows, consider switching to a “Microsoft” account for extra security there.

Be confident of your firewall

Between the firewall in your wireless modem or router, and the one in your operating system, you are well protected; in my opinion, there is no need to buy a third-party firewall (like the one included in an “Internet Security Suite”). If you are concerned about your firewall, there are a couple of things you can do. First, reset it; there are posted methods for doing that for most operating systems. Second, test it; I trust the ShieldsUP! page by Gibson’s Research (grc.com/shieldsup) to tell me if my firewall is vulnerable.

If you are running Windows, you should run at least one antimalware program

The built-in “Windows Defender” in Windows 10, or “Microsoft Security Essentials” in Windows 7/8, give you good basic protection. There are other good free and paid programs around as well; just make sure they are always current and running. You should consider running “second opinion” programs (like the free Malwarebytes) every month as well. These measures are valid, but not as pertinent, with other operating systems like OS X, iOS, Android, or Linux.

Use encryption whenever possible

Encrypted websites appear with a lock symbol in your browser. Make sure that symbol is there whenever you are on a site that you would like to communicate with privately, especially for ecommerce. If privacy of your email is a concern, look at using encrypted connections there as well.

Do your updates

Operating-system updates fix known bugs and security flaws, so do them!

Back up

Even if you are being very careful where you click, you may click on the wrong thing one day, and poof … there goes your data. To avoid this, you should have a backup procedure for your data that is either automated, or very easy … and detached from your computer so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as your main data (particularly fire, theft, or corruption). Teky uses the free Windows program SyncBack. You should also consider encrypting your data and/or your backup if they are vulnerable to theft. Teky suggests using BitLocker (built into Windows Pro/Enterprise) or VeraCrypt.

Hanging out your shingle

There was a day when “hanging out your shingle” meant simply hanging up a sign to advertise your business. Over time, business advertising expanded to newspapers and magazines, radio and TV, and billboards and passing vehicles. Now, “hanging out your shingle” should definitely include an online presence.

There are many approaches to online advertising, but nothing builds credibility like having your own domain. Would it affect your impression of a company if they had a Facebook page, but not their own domain/website (e.g. joesgarage.com)? Would the quality of their website affect your attitude toward the company? Would it affect your opinion of that company if their email address was joesgarage@gmail.com rather than service@joesgarage.com (i.e. whether or not they used their own domain)?

For many consumers, it would.

To be taken seriously, a company today needs their own domain, an attractive and modern webpage, email addresses at that domain, and a presence on social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, and others. Some larger companies even have a full-time employee (or team of employees) dedicated to their web presence, keeping up their online appearances and responding to online requests.

The sky is the limit for what you can spend on online advertising, but the basics need not be expensive. A typical domain costs $2-$20/year. Webpage hosting starts around $5/month. There are ways to build your own website for free, or maybe you know someone who enjoys building them. Basic social media measures are free.

At this point, you should be asking yourself: If you’re not searchable in today’s online world, how are young folk going to find you?

To quote a great poet: “the times, they are a-changin’”.

Online Resources

One could write volumes on the topic of online resources. In this space, all I will have a chance to do is mention a few general areas, each with a few examples, one “more popular”, one “less popular” and sometimes an “honorable mention” or two.

Note 1: Capitals in web addresses are there for readability; web domains are case insensitive.

Note 2: All links are listed at blog.teky.ca where you can comment on these resources, and suggest others. Comments are only open for this article, and only for a short time.

Next time, I will explain what the http:// and https:// signify at the start of these web addresses, and the related change that is on the horizon.

Tweaking Windows 10

As good as it is, it is easy to get turned off by some “features” of Windows 10. Being Microsoft’s long-term operating system, it is best if we can figure out how to get along with it. In this article, you will find common beefs, and fixes, for Windows 10.

Microsoft was very heavy-handed when it came to rolling out Windows 10 … many people were “introduced” to it in a rather forceful way (some successfully sued Microsoft for this). On the bright side, it was offered as a free upgrade for those of us with a valid Windows 7 or 8.x license, and it is still possible to take advantage of their offer, long after it was supposed to end.

The shock of being upgraded to Windows 10 was exacerbated by the sneaky way Microsoft introduced us to their new browser (Edge) and email tool (Mail) by making these inferior products our default programs for those two functions. However, it is easy to fix this by going to “Settings | Apps | Default Apps” and changing them to better alternatives (IE/Chrome/Firefox and Outlook/Thunderbird).

Microsoft didn’t stop there … they also forced games and other apps upon us. These apps are easily uninstalled with a few clicks each (right-click one, Uninstall, and confirm) … and for the most part, they don’t come back. I’ve made a list of these bloatware apps, and other tweaks, here: https://teky.ca/download/Win10Tweaks.txt

As a final poke to their customers, Microsoft automatically turns on “Occasionally show suggestions in the Start”. (What are they thinking?) This setting is easily turned off in “Settings | Personalization | Start”.

Then there are “Tiles” … an unwanted carry-over from the much-disliked Windows 8. It takes about a minute to right-click each tile and choose “Unpin from Start” … making your Start Menu clean and efficient again.

Drivers can be a problem in Windows 10. Beware of “Driver Updater” programs, because they are nearly all riddled with spyware. It is safer to update them manually (Microsoft Article 4028443).

Updates can also be a problem in Windows 10. Firstly, I suggest being patient … some can take an hour or two. If updates break, you can often fix them using “Settings | Update & security | Troubleshoot | Windows Update” or with judicious use of a tool like tweaking.com. Sometimes updates happen right when we least want them … note that you can adjust your “Active hours” in “Settings | Windows Update”.

Finally, Microsoft seems to enjoy disabling our File sharing every time there is a major update. So far, you simply turn it back on again.

On the bright side, Windows 10 has been fairly fast, stable, and compatible with most PC hardware and software.

Mixed Reality

The term “Mixed Reality” (MR) encompasses the concepts of “Virtual Reality” (VR) and “Augmented Reality” (AR). Just like other Star Trek-like technologies, these are slowly making it into the mainstream, so it’s probably time to introduce you to them.

Virtual Reality immerses you in a 360-degree world with a head-mounted display, optional headphones, and optional controllers (usually some sort of 3D joysticks). Augmented Reality also has these components, but instead of immersing you, it incorporates aspects of the real world around you using cameras or transparent screens. As already mentioned, Mixed Reality loosely describes both.

First and foremost, these technologies are for gamers … immersing them in their virtual worlds. But lately we are seeing more applications that appeal to a larger audience: slideshows, movies, and other art—both produced and homemade—take on a new dimension (pardon the pun) when viewed in 360-degree surround. Cameras that take spherical pictures and videos are now available at affordable prices ($200+), as are 3-dimensional art and design programs, so we are seeing a lot more 360-degree content.

The hardware to enjoy this content ranges from the affordable ($20+ headset with your existing smartphone) to the more serious ($900+ PC with $300+ video card and $600+ headset).

I think the “killer application” for MR will be design collaboration. Whether you are designing programs, cars, or buildings, you can now do it in a virtual 3D environment … and even collaborate with others who live and work in other parts of the world.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just google videos on “Windows Cliff House”, “Ford HoloLens”, “Fuzor”, “Nvidia Holodeck” … or simply search YouTube for “360 video”. Of course, to fully experience Mixed Reality, you’ll need to get yourself inside a head-mounted display.

eReader and eWriter Devices

 

By now, most people know what an eReader is: a device that has advantages over computers, tablets, and smartphones when it comes to reading eBooks and eMagazines. Let me recap those advantages.

eReaders have longer battery life and work much better in bright light that those other devices. Some models also have self-lighting options for low-light situations. eReaders are typically smaller, lighter, and less expensive than their tablet counterparts because:

  • they are simpler devices because they are purpose-built
  • their price is somewhat subsidized by eBook purchases you make on them

The eReader has been around for more than 10 years … but now we have the option of the eWriter: a device with many features of an eReader, but with the added ability to act like a paper notebook or notepad. Sony quietly offered one model in 2014, discontinued it in 2016, then re-released it in 2017 as the DPT-RP1. Just this year, a startup company called Remarkable (remarkable.com) introduced a similar product: the RM100.

eWriters are big—roughly the size of a sheet of paper—but also thin, light, and durable. You can work anywhere with them, but they need wifi to transfer documents to and fro. They accept PDFs, and the Remarkable also accepts ePUBs. You can mark up these document types, or initiate your own notes.

These devices are great as oversized eReaders, but also as document markup tools, note-takers, and sketchpads. Think of that busy lawyer who takes notes in meetings and marks up existing documents, but must then get those scribbles off to their secretary for typing/editing. Or that person-on-the-go who is forever writing on scraps of paper … and then losing them. Or any designer who wants to save/share their sketches. eWriters are great in all those situations.

It is important to note that there are fewer distractions with eReaders and eWriters than with other devices. Your smartphone or tablet have similar functionality, but those devices are also bombarding you with email, texts, posts, and advertising.

The eWriter is a great new product, but at $879+, I would suggest most people wait for their prices to drop.

The Next Big Thing?

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t really know what the “next big thing” will be … but I do like to keep on top of the cool new tech.

In summer 2017, I thought Google Home was “it”: a device that can answer simple verbal questions, play music, and control certain devices around the home. It was originally priced at $209, reduced to $179, then to $149, and it still wasn’t flying off the shelves. A few months later, a Google Home Mini was released in Canada for $79. Acceptance is probably the issue here: Are you ready to ask Google questions verbally instead of typing on a keyboard or touchpad?

Another potential “next big thing” is Mixed Reality (MR): a technology that ranges from “Virtual Reality” (VR) to “Augmented Reality” (AR). Virtual Reality is a 360-degree world that blocks out the real world when you don the goggles, while Augmented Reality projects 2D and 3D images onto things in the real world. For some, the challenge may be wearing something on your head that covers your eyes and ears … and holding a motion controller in each hand … all-the-while looking pretty nerdy.

As you might expect, gamers have been the first to accept this technology. I believe the second group will be the designers: those designing programs, buildings, or other complex products, alone or in a team. Aspects of their design can be constructed in different virtual rooms of a virtual building, giving them access to as many 300-inch screens, or 3D models, as their design needs. Discussing aspects of their designs as a team in the same virtual environment as the design will save countless hours of travel and teleconferencing.

For the rest of us, our interest will grow over time. Want to escape to your virtual mountain chalet to sit by the fireplace and read? Want to meet people (via their avatars) from around the world in a virtual tropical paradise? Or would you like to take in a dome-theatre movie without having to drive to the nearest Omnimax theatre? Slip on your HMD (head-mounted display) and escape!

This will all be part of Windows 10 with Microsoft’s Fall Creators Update. For more info, google “Microsoft VR announcement” and look for any mention of their 03Oct2017 announcement date or 17Oct2017 release date, particularly the related videos.

Smart Lights, Outlets and Thermostats

It seems like the electrical industry is trying to catch up with the electronic industry.

Technologies like those mentioned in my last two articles (Logitech Harmony and Google Home) are part of the slow movement toward home automation. I says “slow” because home automation has been a catchphrase for decades … a technology that seems perpetually “on the horizon”.

Now that we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and other smart devices, the next step is smart lights, outlets, and thermostats. Oh, they’re out there now, but their price will have to reduce substantially to make them affordable enough to entice you to replace their “dumb” equivalents.

With smart lights, you currently have a couple of choices:

  • you can get smart light systems that includes a “bridge” that wirelessly connects each smart bulb to your home network
  • you can get smart light switches/dimmers that replace your existing switches/dimmers and wirelessly connect to your home network

With smart outlets, you simply plug a wifi-enabled outlet into an existing outlet and join it to your home network.

The going price for smart light switches is around $50/switch, and smart outlets are around $40/outlet. Philips has a smart light system called “Hue” that needs their bridge, but you can control up to 50 of their smart lights with that one bridge. Their starter kits (that start at $70) come with a bridge and 2 or 3 smart bulbs. Philips Hue lights have the added bonus of colour and dimming control.

The beauty of smart lights/outlets is: you can control them locally or remotely using a smartphone app, you can control them by voice by using Google Home, or you can program them to go on/off on a timer to make it appear that you are home. Some will even monitor the amount of power you are using with connected devices.

With smart thermostats, you can put one in place of an existing thermostat and connect it to your wifi. From that point, you can wirelessly/verbally perform the functions you would manually, including adjusting scheduled temperature changes. These devices are still in the $220-$320 range.

“OK Google, submit article.”

Smart Speakers

We live in a Star Trek world.

  • Early flip-phones looked surprisingly like Star Trek communicators
  • Virtual Reality is here (future article) … with similarities to Star Trek’s Holodeck
  • China reportedly teleported (“beamed up”) particles 500km into space earlier this year
  • And now, we can speak to “smart speakers” the way they speak to the computer in Star Trek

For a while now, you have been able to ask Google or Siri questions verbally on your computer/tablet/smartphone and get verbal responses. A few manufacturers have now put that technology into standalone devices that require only power and a wifi Internet connection.

Think about it. Instead of typing your question into a device and reading the response, you can speak it and get a verbal response! So far, there are a lot (but limited) number of questions that these devices can respond to, but something they do very well is offer verbal control of music. Both their hearing and their fidelity are very good … they can even “cast” to connected audio/video systems!

The only smart speaker product currently available in Canada is the $179 “Google Home”. (Amazon has similar products, but they’re not available in Canada yet. Apple plans to release the HomePod in US/UK/Australia in December, and the rest of the world in 2018.)

I have been playing with the Google Home for a few weeks now, and I like the functionality … even at this early stage. This doesn’t seem to be a ploy to sell more products and services, although the Google Play Music service ($9.99/month) does integrate nicely.

How these smart speaker products tie into my recent series of articles is that these devices can theoretically control other smart devices in your home. (I say “theoretically”, because this feature unfortunately isn’t available in Canada yet.) With a Logitech Harmony remote, you can ask Google to “turn on the TV”. With a ChromeCast, you can ask Google to “play my kitchen playlist on the kitchen speakers”. With certain lights, thermostats, or door locks/openers, you can ask Google to turn them on/of, up/down, lock/unlock.

But even without any other smart devices, you can ask Google to turn the music up/down/off, ask it to remember/recall something (like calendar entries), ask it facts, and even play trivia games with it.

Beam me up, Scotty!

Next day update: As of this week, Google Home can make phone calls to/from USA and Canada.

10-week update: As of this week, Google Home can now talk to Logitech Harmony remote. I have no website reference … just my own personal experience. Once paired, you can verball perform any Harmony functions with commands like “OK Google, ask Harmony to turn on the TV”.