Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas is coming - and tablet decisions as well

Now that full sized tablets are firmly entrenched in our personal and business lives, a growing crop of mid-sized devices are entering the fray. I mentioned this last month and now that reviews are in on the new Apple iPad mini it's likely many of you will take the plunge.The major choices are Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Barnes and Noble Nook HD, Apple iPad mini and Google Nexus 7. All but the iPad mini have base prices of $199 while the mini is $329.

When you do compare prices make sure you look at what you'll actually buy not just the base price. For example many tablets come with a wall charger but it's extra on the Kindle. The Google and Apple tablets are considered full tablets with access to their respective app stores but the Amazon and B&N tablets are a cross between an ebook reader and a tablet.

What's the deal with Apple Maps anyway?

Have you heard the one about the guy using Apple maps who walks into a bar, or maybe it was a church - or bowling alley? You've probably know by now that Apple messed up when it replaced its previous map app with a new version in September. In a nutshell, the previous version was based on Google maps and Google and Apple are fierce competitors so they had to do something. The Google version was crippled on Apple devices and did not provide turn by turn directions like it did on Androids. My only complaint is that everything in Bemidji is one block west and fifty feet north of where Apple says it should be!
The biggest complaint is that there is no "street view" as in Google. I can live without that considering how great the turn by turn directions work. However the most important hidden new feature is the significantly improved graphics engine. This new design uses vector graphics to drastically reduce the amount of data received which can be a boon on a limited dataplan. It also means you can navigate in areas with no phone service. That part is pretty amazing when you see it in action. As you zoom in and out - even in a remote area with no cell coverage - you'll see high resolution images at any magnification - no more reloading images. Google is reportedly putting the finishing touches on its own map app for Apple. More on that later. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Microsoft Crashes the Tablet Party

Will the recent twin announcements of the Microsoft Surface tablet and Windows 8 be game changers? An early adaptor I spoke with recently was thrilled with both the Surface tablet and the new OS. Certainly Microsoft is late to the touch screen tablet game but the Windows ecosystem and user base are both huge so maybe not too late. If you're not a pioneer, I'd advise waiting on the Surface till more reports are in. It's not likely there's a big penalty for waiting three or four months but a premature wrong decision could be painful. It so often comes down to "can I run Office on my tablet" - a subject I've discussed many times before. In summary you'll never get the full Office experience on a ten inch tablet no matter who makes it.

The reviews of Windows 8 have been universally bad and sales have reportedly been slow although no official numbers have been released by Microsoft. Their stats usually refer to copies delivered to resellers - not sold to customers. It's easy to try out Win8 now since PCs are widely available at electronics stores across the country and most have touch screens as well as a variety of tablet/screen/keyboard configurations. If you absolutely need a new PC and don't find Windows 8 appealing, check with the company before you buy to see what it will take to downgrade to Windows 7. Most new Windows 8 PCs come with advertising apps (bloatware) preinstalled; for a fee you should be able to have them removed.

You might want to check out this Windows 8 Cheatsheet. It's a lengthy discussion of some things you'll need to know as you switch to this significantly different version of Windows. And if you want even more information USA Today compared Lenovo and Toshiba hybrids (laptops with touch screens also called convertibles) running Windows 8 in this review.
In many ways the Surface doesn't seem to be a real threat to Android or Apple tablets since it costs twice as much, is heavier and has half the battery life.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Microsoft Windows 8 and Surface tablet now available

Both Google and Apple have made major tablet announcements recently but the one (actually two) many people have been waiting breathlessly for came from Microsoft in October. The Surface tablet is notable for several reasons. The "Modern UI" interface - formerly called "Metro" is a touch screen using "live tiles". These are colorful rectangular boxes of all sizes that are used to launch apps and display real time information - Facebook updates, weather, news, etc.
Windows 8 Touchscreen

The second but related announcement was the release of Windows 8 to the public. The core of this updated OS is basically Windows 7 minus the start button. When running Windows 8 you need to click a new button that will takes you to the Modern UI screen with the colorful tiles to switch programs, etc.

The previews of both products have not been kind. There were complaints that the tiled touch screen interface was sluggish although I did not notice that during a demo at the Microsoft store recently. I also tried Windows 8 on two of the 13 inch ultrabooks in the store. It did not take long to get used to touching the screen instead of using the mouse to make selections although I'm sure this will be confusing for some as they make the switch. And of course anyone installing Windows 8 on an older machine will not be able to use the touch screen.

The touch screen tile interface is not new. Microsoft has a long history of tablet development and this interface has been available - but not widely used - as Microsoft Phone 7 for nearly three years. The big question is whether companies will gravitate to a somewhat confusing interface - live tiles on one hand and Windows 7 on the other - or will they just stay where they are for the present and concentrate on Android/Apple app deployment.

The geeks among us will be anxious to try out Windows 8 and help us judge its likely future. Because Microsoft is four years behind Google and Apple in mobile technology, it will be interesting to see if this new combination is enough to light a fire under the company and its users.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another remarkable phishing scam

I just received an email about the delivery status of a parcel with no alarmist message, misspelled words or anything else to make me suspicious. And by coincidence, I had ordered a product to be delivered to a third party at about this time. In this very well designed and formal looking document I had to look carefully for some place to click for more information and noticed that the Tracking Number was clickable - again a very normal situation. But since I'm always suspicious, I did what everyone can and should do, copied the link where the tracking number led and checked the two characters I discussed in my previous post below and low and behold, it was a site registered in South Africa.

To do this on my Mac I right click a link, select copy link  and paste it into the address bar of my browser. A similar procedure works on Windows. Then I look at the characters before the first slash - normally COM, EDU, etc. If there are two characters such as ZA or US it is a country code and a simple Google search using TLD ZA will return a result showing that Top Level Domain is assigned to South Africa. You cannot just avoid the pleas from deposed dictators to share their stolen loot anymore; the same people may be behind the schemes but they have evolved greatly since the early days.

Monday, July 2, 2012

One thing you should absolutely know about the Internet

Most people I know don't want to be techies and I don't blame them. But there really are a few things you should know to keep you out of trouble and one of the most important and easiest to do is to understand web addresses. A large number of scams involve tricking you into visiting a malicious web site and many of them are very easy to spot. Email and web addresses up to the .com/ part is what matters.

There was a time when fraudulent messages were so phony they were easy to spot - not any more. I'm going to show you three real messages I received and how I determined they were all fakes. In every case, I looked at the two or three characters preceding the first slash; this is called the top level domain. The IRS for example would likely have a TLD of .gov. It may be exciting to say a message from Christmas Island but it is unlikely the IRS would have a site registered there - .CX. To see a complete listing of TLDs including generic ones (.US, .GOV, EDU) and country codes (.US, .CA, etc.) click here.

FIRST EXAMPLE (appears to let you see your credit scores)
Friday, May 4, 2012
____View your-scores from all three-credit-bureaus__
//////Verify_Yours@___ (the TLD is .in so it is registered in India)

SECOND EXAMPLE (requesting information about a job application)
Dear job applicant
Thank you for submitting your information for open work opportunities.
We look forward to reviewing your application, but can not do so until you complete our
internal application.
The pay range for open openings range from $35.77 /hr to $57.62 /hr.
Before you are being considered, we will first have you to formally apply.
Please go here to begin the process: (.ca is a site registered in Canada)
Also, the following benefits are potentially open:
- Paid Vacation Time
- Health Benefits Package
- etc, etc
Please take the time to follow the directions and complete the complete
application process.
Yours truly,  Tod Acosta

THIRD EXAMPLE (probably the scariest one since it looks like a tax problem.
(Big official IRS Logo at the top)
Sent from email address IRS@Gov.US (email return addresses are easily faked)
Dear Taxpayer,
This is to Inform you the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is conducting a new Intelligent Citizen online tax payers personal Information and Profile update that has just being Initiated by the united states government (Uncle Sam) for those who are regular tax payers to file for their tax returns.Please pay attention, that IRS [Section 6038(b)(1)]assigns a money penalty to the amount of $10,000 for each [Form 5471] that is sent later than the due date of the income tax returne, or does not comprise the thorough information described in [Section 6038(a)].
You we be released from the penalty if the taxpayer shows that the failure to meet the deadline for filling was caused by substantial reasons.
Please use the link below to enter our official site and obtain more information.
Yours Faithfully,
Internal Revenue Service United States
Department of the Treasury
(You cannot tell by looking at the link address but if you copy and paste it into your browser address bar, it takes you to a site called - not quite were you'd expect to go for IRS info.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

New words hide stupidity

Don't you hate it when people make up new words to obscure stupidity?

"Company XYZ is doing really well - now they just have to figure out a way to monetize their business model" - we used to say "make money". Can you imagine what people would have said thirty years ago if a major auto company said, business was great, people like our cars now all we have to do is figure out how to make a profit!
The sure way to make money gambling is to own a Casino. The way to make money on an over-hyped tech IPO like Facebook is to be an insider who arranges the "deal", lines up the suckers and takes the money before the bank opens. Of course this headline days before Facebook went public didn't help:
In case you don't know it, Facebook and Google are both built around the concept of selling ads to people who think it is worth it. To revise a very old saying - "If it's not good for General Motors, then (maybe) it's not good for the country." Certainly it's not good for the investors who have been losing ten percent per week since they bought Facebook stock.

How to choose a smartphone - and when to play dumb!

Right off the bat I'd like to say if you don't plan to use a smartphone as a smartphone - which usually means downloading apps - then don't buy a smartphone - buy a dumb phone. There's no shame in that - it doesn't mean you are dumb. Now, for those of you who do want a smartphone, it's time to listen up. I frequently get questions from people with an "xyz" smartphone about how to use specific features. Unfortunately most of the time I have to say I don't know - not a fun prospect for a life long geek. I have to explain there are hundreds of smartphones and I don't even try to learn about them all.

In the good ol' days when PCs were a hot topic, there really was only one basic PC and nobody had to make hard decisions. How can that be? Simple. The hardware consisted of the latest Intel processor, the largest hard drive available (made by a company no user could identify) and the only thing different about them was color and price. At the office, you probably didn't even get a choice of color and it wasn't your money anyway. The software consisted of the current version of Windows and a copy of MS Office.
The upside of this uniformity was that you knew many people with the same computer as you - maybe with a different company logo on the outside but the same computer no less. Have a problem with Windows XP, your friends, co-workers and everyone at every electronics store was familiar with it. Not so today. If you have a problem with your "xyz" smartphone, there's only a very small chance a friend will have one like it. Now repeat after me "not all Android phones are the same". As I've mentioned in the past, people are buying on features and price and not on the OS. There are currently dozens of variations of the Android OS out there. The latest one - Ice Cream Sandwich - is only installed on a small percentage of devices and we're now hearing about "Jelly Bean". To amaze your friends tell them Android operating system names are derived from treats in alphabetical order - originally called deserts - but you have to stretch it when you run into some letters - Ketchup for desert anyone?
The rapid roll out of Android versions and the fact that carriers freely modify them is causing havoc for the developers. When I do get the questions about a phone, I always ask "how did you pick that one?" The responses are incredible - "I liked the feel of it in my hand", "the salesman said this was the best one for me", "I didn't want an iPhone since I use PCs" - huh? The most important missing question when a smartphone decision is made is "who am I gonna' call when I have questions?" Unless you know the answer to that question you should never commit to spending two thousand dollars for a two year contract on any phone.
In the category of "how times have changed' when you see someone with a shiny new laptop, you don't often ask about megahertz or megabytes (you never really understood those anyway). No, you ask those all important questions:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Office on an iPad? YES - and Windows too.

If you been searching for the fountain of youth, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or a way to run Microsoft Office on a tablet, be careful what you wish for. There are now several ways to run full versions of Office on an iPad. I've tried OnLive and CloudOn and they were both easy to install and easy to use and worked like Windows/Office would work with a ten inch screen, virtual keyboard, no mouse and a moderate speed Internet connection - not very well actually.
Imagine creating an Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation on a very small screen. Functionally they seemed to work since you are using full Office applications in the cloud. The tablet is a dumb terminal as old timers would say. If you were to develop a great PowerPoint presentation in your office with a fast Internet connection and then try to show the presentation in a location with slow or no Internet access, you would be in for big trouble. For a good review of OnLive check out this column by Walt Mossberg. Because they are free and easy to try, go ahead and try them out.