Monday, March 30, 2020

Videoconferencing zooms during quarantine

Over the years, we’ve used FateTime and Duo to connect with family members across the country (and across the street) for one-on-one video conferences. But yesterday was our first Zoom party.

Zoom is a free videoconferencing app that works on the full range of desktop computers, tablets and mobile phones. And, in this time of life under quarantine, it’s taking off like a . . . well, you know.

The New York Times reported that Zoom had recently zoomed to the top of the free download list in Apple’s App Store with downloads reaching almost 600,000 on one day.

Yesterday we used Zoom to join a family gathering of my wife’s four siblings. We are scattered across the country, from Louisville to Detroit to Denver and Chicago and hadn’t been together since our daughter’s wedding six years ago.

For almost an hour, we complained about the coronavirus, got updated on our children and grandchildren, traded tips for staying safe and exchanged a few recipes. It was so enjoyable that we decided to meet this way every Sunday afternoon.

FaceTime and Duo both support group session, but I found Zoom to be both easier and more enjoyable. The audio was good and consistent and the video images were sharp and crisp for those of us who had light on their faces. The app highlights the person who is speaking, making it easy to follow the conversation.     

One Zoom feature that I really liked is the option to change backgrounds without a green screen behind you. You just upload a photo from your collection and you’re instantly chatting from a cafe in Paris or a ski resort in Aspen. The Times said one college student posted a looping video of a male stripper as his background.

For our family chat two of us chose photos of places we would rather be. One of my in-laws appears in a view from his lakeside cottage while I chose a sunset shot on a Florida beach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

These magnifiers help with gadget repairs

It’s been many years since I opened a computer with a soldering iron in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. But even with today’s sealed systems, I’ve encountered many tech tasks that required magnification.

Like reading the teeny-weenie type on so-called user manuals that come with many gadgets from China. Or the model numbers and other tiny text embossed on the back of my current desktop computer, mouse and external hard drives.

And then there was the time I had to make some repairs to a drone that hadn’t completely survived a crash landing.

Fortunately, I found a couple of new magnifiers that are proving to be well suited to these sorts of jobs.

One is shaped like a traditional magnifying glass with a large (3.5-inch) round metal lens and a long handle. The lens offer 5X magnification with a small clear bubble on one side that will bump an image up to 10x.

A key feature is the ring of 12 LED lights built into the lens ring and powered by a pair of AA batteries in the handle. The lights are activated by a thumb button on the side of the handle. One press turns on the lights and a second press bumps them to a higher level of illumination.

The same company offers a second magnifier that has a slightly smaller lens that also has 5X and 10X magnification.

This one has a ring of eight LEDs powered by three AAA batteries and an USB charging cable if you're using rechargeable batteries.

This smaller version unfolds to turn a hand-held magnifier into a static desktop magnifier. That setup is perfect for times when you need both hands free. I used it when I had to remove several super-small screws on a the case of a toy I wanted to open.

Both magnifiers are available on Amazon. Current prices are $19.68 for the Metal Lighted Magnifier and $14.59 for the Folding Desktop Magnifier.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Twisted 23 reimagines classic slider game

I called him Uncle Al, but he wasn't really my uncle, just a friend of my parents. As a 7-year-old kid, I thought Al had the coolest job in the world. He owned string of gumball vending machines and always had loads toy prizes and tchotchkes.

One of my favorites was the slider puzzle. It held 15 numbered squares in a plastic frame. Players would slide the pieces around the frame and use the lone open square to rearrange them into numeric order.

I was reminded of Uncle Al and the sliding puzzle game when I came across Twisted 23. It's also a sliding number puzzle but recreated for playing on an iPhone or iPad.

Early slider puzzle.
Twisted 23 expands the old slider concept. It has a larger game board with 24 slots and 23 tiles. Then it tilts the board on its side to present a diagonal playing field. It also adds a couple of other enhancements.

A game starts with numbers arranged in a specific order. When the player taps the "Shuffle" button, the tiles reappear in a new order and a play clock starts ticking.

The goal it to arrange the board in its original order with the fewest moves or fastest time, then compare your score with others on a leader board. The app also has an optional  4 x 6 puzzle that's similar to the conventional 15 square slider puzzles.

Twisted 23 is available to download from the iTunes App Store. The app is free, with ads, or you can remove the ads for $.99.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Need a faster note taker? Check out JotBlue

There was a time when I always carried a pen and few scraps of paper. I wanted to be ready to jot down a phone number, a reminder, an appointment or something to add to my shopping list.

Of course those days are gone now that everybody carries a computer -- their mobile phone -- in their pocket or purse. And those phones offer several apps to capture notes or reminders. But so far, I haven't found one specific app that will quickly and efficiently capture and file every piece of data.

JotBlue just might be the one. It's a recently upgraded app for Android phones that can handle and manage a wide variety of information bits. For instance, you can type in text or activate the phone's microphone to dictate a note or appointment.

And it solves a problem I've had with Evernote, one of the most widely used apps for capturing and storing notes. When I want to take a note with Evernote, I have to find the topic I want it to be stored under, otherwise it just becomes a generic catchall memo.

JotBlue uses a clever letter code to tag a note right from the start and direct it to the proper folder. The letters correspond to topics: A = Appointment, B = Buy, C = Call and so on.

Need a reminder to buy a gift card for your brother? Type B, then a space, then "gift card for Pete." Type a D to make an entry in your diary or E to record a business expense.

Here's one more feature that I like about JotBlue: You don't have to give up Evernote. If you sync Jotblue with Evernote, all of your Jotblue notes will also be recorded in your Evernote App.
JotBlue is available as a free download in the Google Play Store. For more details, check out the video below and visit the JotBlue website. JotBlue is also on Facebook and @jotblue on Twitter.

ZeusPro boosts a router's WiFi coverage

There's a reason why most WiFi routers come with antennas. Those pointy Batman ears emit the radio waves that deliver your Internet connection to your devices: phones, tablets and speakers as well as door locks and security cameras.

And all's well unless your network had dead spots. In my house, the signal can tail off when I get too far away from the router or behind too many plaster walls.

One way to attack that problem is by focusing the signal on the problem areas. That's what the ZeusPro WiFi amplifier does.

The ZeusPro uses a curved surface to concentrate and amplify a router's radio waves in the same way that the curved surface of a satellite receiver amplifies transmissions from space. And it doesn't require an electrical connection.

The ZeusPro, developed by Mizeus, is designed to strap onto the existing antennas on a wireless router. Once it's in place, Mizeus says the device can boost a Wi-Fi signal by two or three times and decrease lags and disconnections during online gaming. using two ZeusPros can enhance WiFi coverage over a 36-degree footprint.

The ZeusPro is currently on sale for $9.99 or $18 for a two-pack, at the Mizeus website.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Boxaid offers remote PC repairs

All computers have occasional problems. The challenge for the owner is finding the fastest, most convenient and most affordable way to get it fixed.

Over the years, I lugged my computers to various repair shops, including those guys in the white shirts and black ties. But the most satisfying repair experiences I've had occurred when I didn't leave the house. Instead, I connected online and on the phone with a skilled technician who takes control of my ailing computer.

That's how the people at Boxaid operate. Anyone with a PC problem can call the company's toll-free number and get connected to a technician based in the US. You can describe and discuss the problem to see if it's a software issue that can be repaired by remote and decide if you want to proceed.

If you agree to use the Boxaid service, the technician will have you download and install software that creates a secure encrypted connection between the tech and your PC. You can watch each step of the process.

The Boxaid techs will tackle simple problems such as an error message, printer connection or an application issue for $29.95. A 60-minute tune-up that covers sluggish PCs, network issues or email troubles costs $59.95 while a complex virus removal runs $89.95. I've paid considerably more for similar work done in repair shops.

In each case, the tech will provide a price quote before any work begins. And you're not asked for  a credit card until after the work is completed and you're satisfied with the outcome. When everything is finished, the tech will permanently disconnect from your computer.

The Boxaid website includes recording of audio reviews by Boxaid customers, links to reviews on Facebook and Yelp and a reprint of a Wall Street Journal article that tested Boxaid and three other similar remote repair services.

For more details, check out the video below and visit the Boxaid website. You can also follow @Boxaid on Twitter.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Upgrading multiple PCs? Check out Migration Manager

Several years ago when I worked for a large publishing company, my staff and I would be thrilled whenever the company upgraded our computers or installed a new versions of the Windows operating system.

But while we were celebrating, we knew the people in the IT department would be in a bad mood for weeks. They had the unpleasant job of moving all of our software and personal settings to the new machines or platforms.

That task has become much faster and easier these days with new software that eliminates much of the manual drudgery that our IT folks dreaded. A good example is Migration Manager for Windows created by Tranxition, a software developer that specializes in PC migration tools.

According to Tranxition, Migration Manager can reduce updating time by more than 60 percent, compared to other widely-used migration programs:

A 10GB persona is fully-migrated in 29 minutes instead of one hour and forty minutes.

Migration Manager also handles other chores during the migration process such as reorganizing user document storage, dealing with Outlook PST scenarios and upgrading Microsoft Office during the migration.

To test drive the software, visit the Tranxition website where the company offers a free download for a 30-day evaluation.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Doorbell cameras become crime-fighting tools

Last summer someone cruising our alley in red pickup swiped three nice bicycles that were parked behind a neighbor's house.

My front door and my Ring doorbell have a view of that alley. So when I heard about the missing bikes, I browsed through my stored videos and there it was - a red pickup truck with the bike clearly visible among the stuff piled in the back.

The video didn't capture the truck's license plate. But after I posted a still image on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-focused social network, I heard from several neighbors who recognized the truck. One of them knew the owner, a man who frequently cruised the neighborhood streets collecting discarded items.

Doorbell video cameras like mine have become watchfull eyes all across America, according to a story published yesterday in the New York Times. The article recounts a number of examples of how the cameras have foiled criminals and assisted neighbors, including a woman who had been locked out of her home on an icy winter night.

It also reports that police agencies in many communities have obtained access to Ring doorbell videos, with the permission of their owners, to assist in criminal investigations. That hasn't happened in my community, but I think that if asked, I would be inclined to agree. How about you?

Here's a link to the Times' story and a YouTube video of a thief stealing a $100 item -- the doorbell that recorded him in the act.


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