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A device with a mission

Xtorch

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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This month I got to try out a product from EJ Case, a local startup company based in Edina that manufactures and distributes a multi-use device called the XTorch. The XTorch is a portable, handheld device — a rechargeable, solar powered flashlight, lantern and cell phone charger all in one.

It gets even more interesting. According to a statement on their website, their mission is: “To bring mobile light and power to those who suffer without; working in partnership with International Non-Profits in support of their efforts in disaster relief, refugee aid, medical and general humanitarian outreach.”

Said founder Gene Palusky: “The idea of the XTorch came to me after my time spent working in Equatorial Guinea, Africa and the Dominican Republic, where I witnessed the difficulties the local populations suffered each day and night due to the lack of reliable light and power.”

Palusky continued: “We have devices in over 20 countries, working in partnership with humanitarian non-profit organizations that focus on emergency relief, refugees, medical outreach and orphanages. We have also just begun to sell domestically, via our website and use part of the profits to donate devices around the world.”

Their website states that 25 percent of the XTorch’s retail net profit will be donated to assist non-profit organizations to support children’s education, women’s safety and small business development. Sounds like a great mission to me!

The company has already helped Compassion International, Haiti by providing 195 XTorches to school-aged children to help them with reading and studying in the dark. They also donated to Medical Ambassadors International for their midwife training programs in Argentina and Haiti, where midwives are often working and traveling in the dark.

The Xtorch is designed for camping and off-grid use, as well as emergency use when one’s home electrical power goes out. It is physically built for these uses too, being water resistant and built to float. Additionally, it has a spring-activated clip for hooking onto your other gear, a glow in the dark gasket and is built of high-impact ABS/polycarbonate.

XTorch

I love the company’s mission and the applications for the device. My main takeaway is that this is a flashlight and lantern first and foremost and a cell phone charger second.

The company claims that the XTorch can charge a cell phone up to 50 percent, and that is a great additional feature, but not a major selling point domestically in my opinion.

It was slow to charge my phone, but no complaints here, as this is great as a backup device for your phone: helping you get some juice into a dead device, as opposed to charging your phone up for a fresh day of use.

The XTorch sells for $44.95. And remember that 25 percent of retail net profit gets donated towards charitable causes.

The XTorch lacks any method of checking the current battery charge in order to tell whether it needs to be recharged or not. This would be nice feature to have, so you know whether you need to charge your charger so that it is ready when needed. It would also help to know how much time is left while it is charging.

It comes with multiple micro-USB cable connections for Android and a lightning cable connection for Apple devices. However, it is not USB-C compatible without an adapter or using your own USB-A to USB-C cable, and this is worth noting as many new Android smartphones are coming with USB-C.

Aside from its benefits to disaster relief and general humanitarian outreach, I consider the XTorch an excellent device for camping and keeping in the car or home for emergencies.


Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Samsung’s new galaxy

Galaxy S9This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Verizon Wireless sent me a brand new (not yet released at the time of my writing this) Android phone to test out recently, the Samsung Galaxy S9.

This is Samsung’s flagship phone for 2018, and it is quite a phone. I have been a fan of Samsung for years, and this phone shows why. Samsung also happens to be the largest mobile manufacturer in the world!

The specs are all state of the art with the newest chipset available for Android, the latest version of Android, expandable storage, wireless charging, waterproofing, headphone jack, Dolby Atmos sound with stereo speakers and more.

The 12-megapixel camera is great and has a variable aperture system that can seamlessly adjust the camera from f/2.4 to f/1.5 in low-light conditions. Colors are sharp and details are crisp.

There are neat features such as selective focus, which allows you to focus on a specific object and slightly blur out the background. When I tested the selective focus on some flowers, the photo came out great; the focus made the picture look like I knew what I was doing with photography.

For security, it has a fingerprint reader on the back. But more fun than that is the Intelligent Scan function, which uses facial recognition combined with iris scanning to unlock the phone. The only time I found that the Intelligent Scan didn’t work well was in a very dimly lit room with my glasses on; once I removed my glasses it worked fine.

While I think the Intelligent Scan is a very cool feature, it is slower than the iPhone X’s facial recognition and still requires a screen press prior to the Intelligent Scan before unlocking the phone.

Price appears to range from $720 to $800 depending on where you pick it up, but there are great trade-in offers from Samsung, Verizon and others as well. That is a great price point for a super-premium phone.

While I did not get a chance to check it out, I have read that the larger Galaxy S9+ model has more RAM (6 GB versus 4 GB), better cameras (the S9+ has the highest-rated camera ever, according to testing site DxOMark) and stronger Wi-Fi performance, according to PC Mag.

Both the S9 an S9+ have an OLED edge-to-edge “Infinity Display.” The Galaxy S9 has a 5.8-inch screen, while the S9+ has a 6.2-inch screen and dual rear cameras and costs about $120 more than the Galaxy S9. Both have a display with a ratio of 18.5:9.

I find the S9 to be a bit small for my liking. If I were to buy this phone, I would opt to pay more for the S9+.

I should point out, though, that I like large phones, and the S9 is small enough that it can be used with one hand. The S9+, like the Galaxy S8+ before it, requires the use of two hands to reach across the screen at times.

There are some innovative features — like the augmented reality stickers that you can make with your own face or the dual screen option that allows two apps to be open at the same time — but these are not features that I would use.

All in all, this is an excellent smartphone, albeit a bit small, with all of the bells and whistles you could hope for. The price is good and build quality is solid.


Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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A lesser-known flagship phone
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A lesser-known flagship phone

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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For my column this month, I have a smartphone review for you.

The friendly folk at Verizon Wireless sent me the LG V30 to check out. This is a flagship phone from LG with solid reviews, and I was looking forward to playing with it. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Google Pixel 2 XL which happens to have been built by LG, so I was hoping for this to be a sort of cousin to the Pixel 2 XL.

LG is a major Android smartphone manufacturer, but they don’t do as well marketing their phones and tend to be eclipsed by Samsung, the 800-pound gorilla. They have the hardware and software to keep up and still provide solid phones, but their reputation could use some help.

While the size is similar to the Pixel 2 XL, the LG V30 is its own phone. The 6-inch design of aluminum and glass does not feel as big as it sounds and instead rests nicely in the hand with a large screen including the now common 18:9 dimensions. It has an OLED display with Quad HD (four times as many pixels as a 1080p full HD display). The screen looks sharp and vibrant.

It has some nice features, including waterproofing, wireless charging, expandable microSD storage and more, such as a headphone jack. The phone has all of the features that I would look for in a smartphone, so it definitely has that going for it as far as a flagship smartphone. Waterproofing is a great safety feature, wireless charging is incredibly convenient and expandable storage means you are not limited to the phone’s built-in storage.

Even though the trend is that wired headphones seem to be going away, the LG V30 is getting quite a bit of attention for including the jack along with QuadDAC (digital-to-analog converter). LG claims it “sounds louder, cleaner, and more accurate — like the original live performance with the 32-bit QuadDAC.”

The LG V30 does not come with headphones, and all that I have on hand are inexpensive earbuds, but in testing it out, the sound was crisp, clear and rich and would no doubt sound even better with good headphones. Even when recording audio and video, it uses three separate microphones to maintain true sound for videos.

How are the photos? According to LG, “similar to DSLR cameras, the LG V30’s standard camera features a wide f/1.6 aperture and a glass lens, resulting in impressive low-light performance and improved color clarity.”

I noticed that colors looked warm and rich. Because of the dual cameras on the rear, zooming allows you to zoom in on any area of the image, and then you can control focus from there.

One thing that bothers me on this phone is the lack of an app drawer as part of LG’s own flavor of Android. An app drawer is a slide up or menu item that lists all of your apps and then allows you not to have them all displayed on pages like your home screen. It’s common for Apple to do this, but with Android I am used to only putting out the apps that I use on screens and leaving the rest in the app drawer. Not a major issue, but worth writing about.

A nice little bonus is that on top of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty, LG provides a second year of warranty upon registration. That definitely says something for LG believing in its build quality.

Additionally, the price is well below some of the newer flagships. The list price is about $840, but there are big incentives from the major mobile carriers, and it can be found for under $700 online.

All in all, the LG V30 is a solid phone that has the features most would be looking for. I may well consider this for my next phone.


Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Pixel 2 XL vs. the iPhone X

iPhone XThis post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Flagship phones are meant to represent the best that phone makers have to offer. I definitely found this to be the case while I testing out some demo units from Verizon Wireless.

They sent me the Android-based Google phone, the Pixel 2 XL, and the iOS-based Apple phone, the iPhone X (pronounced ten). I also got to try out the Bose SoundSport wireless headphones with each of the phones.

First off, I am an Android guy, but I love the iPhone X! Compared to the iPhones that I have been working with for the past few years, the iPhone X is a true upgrade with a new feel to the operating system since losing the home button. After using the iPhone X for a few minutes, it became very easy to navigate and swipe up on the screen to close apps and return home.

Before I lather all my praise on the iPhone X, I want to point out that the Pixel 2 XL is the best Android phone I have ever used and I am smitten with this phone too. There was nothing new to use on the Pixel 2 XL as far as operating system, but it is a fast phone and the display is crisp and clear.

Security on both phones is impressive. The Pixel 2 XL uses a fingerprint reader that is quite comfortably placed on the back and easy to access as you pick up the phone. It reads the fingerprint quickly and opens the phone all in one go.

The iPhone X uses FaceID, Apple’s facial recognition technology. FaceID was also incredibly fast and easy to use. I could be in a dimly lit room and it still read my face quickly and accurately.

As is currently popular, neither of the devices have a headphone jack. I rarely listen to music through headphones, so this was not a major loss for me. However, when I listened to music on both phones with the Bose SoundSport bluetooth headphones, the sound was great: robust, full bass and clear sound.

Google Assistant and Siri are the digital assistants on the phones, and both were easy to use. On the Pixel 2 XL, I could either say “Hey, Google” or simply squeeze the bottom of the phone to trigger it. For the iPhone X I could either say “Hey, Siri” or press the dedicated button on the right hand side of the phone. Both were responsive and helpful.

Both cameras are touted as the best cameras out there and I certainly had no complaints. Both were quick to take pictures, and photos looked sharp. Portrait mode is a feature on both phones that blurs out backgrounds and makes the main subject stand out clearly. On both phones, the portrait mode photos looked great.

The iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL are both built very well and feel solid in the hand. Personally, I like the larger size of the Pixel 2 XL. Even though the iPhone is the smaller of the two phones, the screen sizes are about the same due to the iPhone having such small bezels.

The iPhone is covered in glass, which would prompt me to get a case for it. Then it would start to bulk up in size. The Pixel 2 XL, on the other hand, has a matte coated aluminum backing that feels good and also makes one think a case may not be needed.

It comes down to the fact that, if money were no object, the Pixel 2 XL is the Android phone to get and the iPhone X is the Apple model to get. Both phones are pricey, with the Pixel 2 XL currently coming in at $775 and the iPhone X at $1000.

I plan to stick with Android, but the iPhone X sure is tempting. The easy holdout for me is that Apple phones are built for the Apple ecosystem and therefore have default apps (calendar, contacts, etc.) that are baked in to be used for system functions.

I can still download Google apps (again, like calendar and contacts), but they do not get the same attention as the built-in system apps do. Google phones are meant for Google’s ecosystem but allow a lot more choice in selecting the default apps to use.


Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Putting the Nest Cam Indoor to the test

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Security cameras are increasing in popularity and becoming easier and easier to set up.

I hear a lot of chatter around them, especially from users who want to track if someone breaks into their home (obviously) or simply to watch pets at home alone. I used to use mine to check in on the kids with a babysitter (always letting the babysitter know that we had cameras in the house).

Verizon Wireless recently loaned me a Nest Cam Indoor to try out. It is a small device that I was able to set up in minutes.

It takes a bit of time to register for Nest, but then you scan a QR code on the back of the camera and the smartphone (or tablet) app does most of the work to get you set up. Make sure you have your wireless password available.

The camera itself records video in 1080p HD, and it looks great. I set it up in my living room, and it picks up a nice wide angle (130 degrees) of the room.

There is two-way audio as well, which allows you to, say, talk to a pet in the room that you are keeping an eye on. However, I did not find the audio to be very clear during my testing.

Nest Cam Indoor also has night vision, which is essential for any security-type camera.

One thing it is lacking is the ability to control the direction of the camera. If you wanted a different angle, you would have to physically reposition the camera. You can, however, pinch to zoom-in on a specific area.

Where the camera really shows its intelligence is that it can track your phone’s location via a geofence to recognize when you leave or return home (optional) and will only turn on monitoring when you are out. What I mean by monitoring is that it has a great feature that provides you with notifications when it notices movement in the room. Again, this is an opportunity to speak into the room if there is motion you are unfamiliar with.

After playing around with the scheduling feature, I set some automatic times to reactivate the camera overnight while I was sleeping, even though the location of my phone was home, and I like that it does that.

I was out to dinner with some friends, and I received a notification that there was movement in the room. I jumped to the app to see who this intruder may be, only to learn that the culprit was my robot vacuum (Eufy RoboVac 11) doing its job cleaning the room. I thought it was pretty cool that it picked up that movement.

For a subscription fee, Nest will save your activity for either 10 or 30 days of 24/7 recording so that you can look back at your activity. I imagine this would be very helpful while traveling or if you owned a storefront.

At around $200, the Nest Cam is not the cheapest camera out there, but it is not the most expensive to offer security features either. The notifications seem to be pretty accurate, other than light triggering a false positive once in a while, such as a car driving by and lights shining through a window.

All in all, I like the camera and would recommend it as an easy one to install and have up-and-running quickly. Let me know if you try one out and what you think.


Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Testing digital voice assistants at home

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Personal digital voice assistants are becoming quite popular. They allow you to use voice search for queries and control connected items in your home

According to a Google study “more than half of teens (13-18) use voice search daily — to them it’s as natural as checking social media or taking selfies. Adults are also getting the hang of it, with 41 percent talking to their phones every day and 56 percent admitting it makes them ‘feel tech savvy.’”

Last month, Verizon Wireless sent me a Google Home digital assistant to test out. My goal was to try it against my Amazon Echo (first generation) — or “Alexa,” as it is referred to — and see how each does as a digital assistant. At this point, digital assistants have become quite popular and common; personally, I have three variations of the Echo in my house, one on each level of my two-story home and one in the kitchen.

The Google Home and Amazon Echo are really pretty similar. Both can control lights and other smart switches. Both can answer questions and set timers. Both have their own personalities with jokes and silly responses to questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” Both can provide the weather forecast and play music. Both have female voices as well.

One area that Google Home stands out for me is in its ability to connect to Google Play Music. As a subscriber, I can then play my playlists and subscription music.

Amazon has its own subscription service, but I have not subscribed to it, as Amazon Prime still provides users with a lot of included music. I have a playlist built out of that, but you have to pay more for the full catalogue of Amazon Prime Music, just as you have to for Google Play Music, but Google Play Music is not even available on the Echo.

Both assistants can tell me my calendar schedule — which is through Google Calendar — but, surprisingly, the Echo provides more detail and can read other calendars that are linked to mine, like my work calendar. Both the Echo and Home can recognize multiple voices and provide calendar information for multiple users, a feature that I did not try out.

The biggest area in which I saw a difference is what Amazon calls “far-field communication”, which is the ability to hear someone across a room. The Echo did much better than the Home hearing me ask for “lights on” and turning off the air conditioner while it was running.

The Home, being built on Google’s search engine, does a better job answering questions, while the Echo sometimes just doesn’t understand the question.

I tried making calls on both devices. You can use both devices as a speakerphone for your mobile phone calls when initiated through either the Home or Echo. They were pretty similar, but I did get better call quality from the Echo when I was further away; again, probably due to the microphones they use for far-field communication.

The two are very similar, and knowing how to use one makes it easy to jump right into using the other.

Voice control has become such an easy way in our house, via our Echos, to turn on and off lights, set timers, add to our grocery lists, play music and check weather forecasts. The ability to turn on lights helps my young kids turn on floor lamps that they wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Plus, my kids like to have Alexa tell them jokes, read stories and play music.

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Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Playing with possibilities

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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This past month, Verizon Wireless sent me a fun phone to try out: the Motorola Z2 Play.

Overall, it is a nice phone to play around with. The phone itself is an upper mid-range phone, but the range of possibilities it offers is the fun part.

Let me explain. The phone’s functionality is all around solid. In my use, it was speedy, lightweight, had great battery life of more than a day and had a very nice looking display. But my primary focus in testing the device was not really based on the phone functionality itself. Rather, I was in it for the Moto Mods (think modifications). This is where the fun part comes in.

I got to try out three of the different mods: a speaker, camera and projector. The mods attach via magnet and easily snap on or off. Other available mods include a gamepad, extra battery, 360-degree camera and more.

The mod for the speaker was the Soundboost ($79.99) made by JBL. Once attached, the speaker mod made the phone quite a bit chunkier, but it was better than carrying around a separate bluetooth speaker. It has a kickstand, and when in use it adds a nice full sound to the music being played.

Using the mod over a standalone bluetooth speaker is a slight convenience — one less thing to carry with you — but I didn’t find myself taking the speaker mod out of the house, even, as I was not listening to music through a speaker on the go.

The camera mod was the Hasselblad 4116 True Zoom ($199.99). Hasselblad is a well respected camera company founded in 1841. Once you click on the mod, it transforms the phone into a digital camera with an expanding lens and dedicated zoom and shutter buttons.

A very nice feature is the 10x optical zoom. It provides much more clarity than a digital zoom, which is just software creating the zoom feature. The optical zoom is just like using a zoom lens on a film camera.

The pictures I took looked great when I saw the quick preview that pops up onscreen immediately after taking the picture, but when I looked at them later on the phone they did not have the vibrancy that I had seen before. This could be due to screen calibration and the fact that I viewed them later on a different device.

My favorite of the mods that I tried out was the Moto Insta-Share Projector ($299.99). Wow! This is a fun mod that allows one to project anything from the Moto Z2 Play screen (or other compatible Moto phone).

I tried it out on my ceiling and it looked great. I also took it camping and projected Moana on the side of an RV so the kids could enjoy a movie. (I am the Gadget Guy; of course I enjoy camping with technology!) The only complaint I had was that the sound was not robust enough for us to hear the soudtrack by the campfire. You can only attach one mod at a time, so the speaker mod could not remedy this.

In the future, I would know to bring a bluetooth speaker for the audio to work with the projector. The projector mod also has a built-in battery, so it extends the life of the smartphone battery while projecting.

My favorite thing to do with the projector was lay in bed and watch on my angled ceiling. It projects up to 70 inches and looks crisp with deep colors. My wife and I have avoided a TV in our bedroom, but on nights when we are exhausted (with young kids, that’s every night), it is a nice option to lay in bed and stream Netflix.

The projector is a must-have if you get the phone, but the mods only work with the Moto Z line. If you want flagship phones by Apple (iPhones) or Samsung (their latest being the Galaxy S8 and Note 8), you are out of luck using the mods.

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Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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4 Electrical Safety Tips to Improve Efficiency at Home

Electrical Efficiency

Not a single day would go by without you using an electrical appliance at home. Since they are so common and using them would feel like second nature, people tend to forget the electrical risks associated with using the appliances carelessly. Here are some tips to maintain electrical safety at home and minimize the associated risks.

  • Update Aging Electrical Appliances

Check the age of your electrical appliances and electrical panels. When they age, the wiring gets frayed, there will be overheating issues and the components will get worn out. These factors are responsible for increasing the risk of electrocution and electrical fires in your home. These signs may also indicate that the appliances would run less efficiently than they are designed to. The issue will amplify if the appliances do not receive routine maintenance over an extended period of time.

You must conduct timely repairs and service the appliances regularly as it will ensure that your appliances run efficiently for a long time without presenting any risk of an accident. If you want to limit the energy wastage even more, consider upgrading the appliance with a new, Energy Star-rated model. Not only will it help you save money but assure you that the new appliance operates safely for many years.

  • Consolidate Webs of Extension Cords

Are electrical wire and cables running haphazardly on the floor or behind the furniture at your home? If yes, then the risk of electrical fires will go up. You can take preventive measures to make your home more energy-friendly and safe.

Swap out multiple extension cords with a single power strip. This will ensure that the room doesn’t consist of crisscrossed wires and people don’t trip on them. At the same time, the power strip will also ensure that the outlets do not get overloaded and affect the energy efficiency.

Invest in power strips that have a surge protector as it will further limit the chances of a house fire. Be aware of appliances that continue to drain electricity even when they are turned off. You can corral such appliances to their own surge protector as it will make it easy to cut off the low-key energy wasters at the source.

  • Investigate Light Flickering

If the lights flicker a lot, it indicates that there is an electrical issue. Generally, loose wiring splices, worn light fixtures and deterioration of light fixtures are responsible for the inconsistent flow of power and such wiring types need to be replaced.

Apart from interrupted power flow, flickering lights also indicate that the wiring setup within the house may need repair. Consider all the possible solutions that you can implement in order to protect your home and family from combustible consequences of wiring failure in the future.

  • Focus on the Outdoors

Don’t just focus on the wiring inside the house. It is equally important to place attention on outdoor electrical safety as numerous electrical hazards can be found outside the house too. Here are some ways to ensure safety outdoors:

  • Prune the trees away from the power lines overhead
  • Avoid flying model aircrafts, kites or balloons near the power lines
  • Avoid swimming or playing in water during an electrical storm, even if there is no rain
  • Don’t approach a downed power line to determine if it’s live or not, because even if it looks ‘dead’ it may be live and extremely dangerous. If you have a downed line, call the concerned authorities.
  • Inspect the surrounding areas carefully when you use a ladder or construction electrical products to ensure that they are free from power lines.

Don’t take electrical safety lightly! Instill safe electrical habits amongst your family members — you won’t lose sleep over their safety.

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Author Bio: Jeson Pitt works with the marketing department of D&F Liquidators and regularly writes to share his knowledge while enlightening people about electrical products and solving their electrical dilemmas. He’s got the industry insights that you can count on along with years of experience in the field. Jeson lives in Hayward, CA and loves to explore different cuisines that the food trucks in the Bay area have to offer.

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New Developments in VR Will Change the Way You Use the Internet

VR HeadsetIt’s fascinating how virtual reality trends in recent years have paved the way for a reimagined future for all kinds of businesses. The mere fact that you can put on a VR headset and transport yourself to anywhere without budging already screams limitless possibilities.

Decades ago, virtual technologies cost a fortune and were only assigned to certain scientific practices as well as military simulations. It was only with the sudden release of consumer VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and the PlayStation VR that companies called for an innovation in their current practices. According to a survey published by Education Technology, three quarters of people believe that VR will positively impact their lives.

Nowadays, you can see virtual reality being marketed in different industries, the gaming sector most especially. Since video games are an interactive medium that lets you escape to alternate worlds, incorporating virtual reality makes sense. Although, sometimes, depending on the game’s narrative, virtual reality can be a hit or miss.

A writer for TechRadar shared her thoughts on playing Rise of the Tomb Raider in virtual reality. She said that virtual reality brought a different experience to the game’s story elements. Since you literally play through the eyes of the protagonist Lara Croft, some emotional scenes weren’t as impactful, compared to when you see a visibly shaken Lara Croft onscreen.

For context, Tomb Raider was one of those 20-year-old classic games that long-time gamers hold dear to their hearts. The game’s reboot in 2013 made it an even bigger franchise, because it appealed to a new generation of gamers. Because of its widespread success, several other companies have adapted their signature games – partnering with the franchise because of its notoriety among gaming circles. For instance, Slingo launched a Tomb Raider-themed slot game to appeal to fans of the franchise. Similarly, Warner Bros. recently released a trailer for the live-action adaptation of the 2013 version of Tomb Raider, with the intent of introducing it to a much more mainstream audience. Since many fans have emotions attached to Lara Croft, who is now a household name, it was imperative for developers to provide other innovative ways for audiences to connect with her better.

The inclusion of virtual reality was one such method. But as previously indicated, good game design as well as a VR-friendly narrative would be integral.

Virtual reality is still in its infancy anyway, as companies are still exploring ways to utilize it. Aside from games, the Internet seems to be the next biggest beneficiary of this technology.

Google has just announced a new feature where you can browse the web through virtual reality (VR). Now most websites rely heavily on text, so it doesn’t seem very exciting to visit them in virtual reality. But other web pages will definitely take advantage. This new feature poses great opportunities for browser video games, hotels and real estate websites.

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines in 2014 when he acquired the Oculus for 2 billion dollars. He noted in a Facebook post, ”This is a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.” Zuckerberg’s aim is bring virtual reality to a more personal and social level. Just imagine a social media platform that gives an organic experience. Instead of browsing through your friends’ photos of their travels, you can be present with them, albeit virtually.

With Google and Facebook both investing in VR, it seems like the Internet is gradually entering a virtual reality revolution. Next thing we know, we’ll have virtual online dinner parties with relatives stationed all over the world.

The future is indeed bright.

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Software for child Internet safety

Internet safetyThis post was originally published September 7, 2017 in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I have never heard a client say, “I am happy that my child has complete access to the Internet. I don’t need to be aware of what they’re watching.” That’s because it simply isn’t true.

Parents want to protect their children and ensure they’re safe while using the Internet. And appropriate levels of access differ across age ranges.

For a while now, I have been using Qustodio, a great parental control software, for creating a safe Internet experience for my own children and setting it up for clients’ use as well. I have played around with quite a few different applications, and Qustodio is by far my favorite.

For me, it is about balancing both time limits and content safety, meaning the applications and services that are allowed to be used on their devices. But for others, it can be more about cutting off Internet access at certain hours — so that kids are not up all night on their phones, tablets or laptops — or being aware of the device usage and sites visited. Additionally, it can limit all sorts of access to the web and allow for tracking the use of their devices.

The software is fantastic. It has a web portal for parental control and it is installed as a background program, or app, on the kids’ devices. Once installed, parents can set up rules for time limits and specified hourly cutoffs, limit the type of online sites viewed and track social media, text and call info, even if it is deleted.

Qustodio is available for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS (iPhone/iPad) and Fire (Amazon) devices. It is free to install and use on one device, but for multiple devices there are annual fees — which most people will accept, as one generally wants to track a laptop as well as a phone, for example.

When installing the application, you have the option to choose if it is a child’s or parent’s device, meaning a tracked device or tracking device. You can also set it up so that it is not viewable on the child’s devices if you want to be stealthy about it. Note that regardless, kids cannot remove it from their devices or disable it without the password.

For my young girls, I turn off nearly all Internet access and only allow YouTube Kids, Netflix, Google Play Movies and Amazon Videos — plus games, which generally do not require Internet access. For parents with older children who want the Internet on, you can restrict types of sites like pornography, gambling, etc., and also see thumbnails of the sites that are visited. It is pretty impressive to see the actual sites visited.

There are hardware devices out there as well, like Circle with Disney, which control access to your wireless router and therefore can cut off Internet based on rules and times you set up. However, you do not get the granular detail of devices usage with Circle, such as seeing which websites were accessed, nor does it work away from your home network unless you pay for an additional service through them.

I much prefer the software control instead of the hardware control, as I have found Circle to be a bit cumbersome to set up and begin using. You can use it to completely cut off Internet at any time like a quick kill switch, which can be great when chores need to be completed before the Internet is turned back on.

Whichever route you choose to go, it is important to be responsible with children’s online usage. Having open conversations and sharing the basic dos and don’ts of their use is an important step in raising kids that are savvy and safe with online use.


Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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