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Questions to ask before you buy

Shopping

This post was originally published in the June 29, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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When purchasing technology devices and systems like printers, computers, home theater systems and more, there are a number of things to look for. The following list is a starting point for questions to ask and information to gather while researching a technology purchase:

What is the warranty and return policy? Will I have the opportunity to test out the product?

Be wary of any products that do not guarantee satisfaction. Technology can be tricky and you may not know if it is a good fit for you without trying it out first.

What is their return policy? Does the warranty cover a year or only 30 days? I would be hesitant to purchase something with a very minimal warranty.

If the product is defective, try returning it to the retailer first; I have found returning to the retailer to be less time consuming than having to go through the manufacturer.

I am not a fan of extended warranties, but they can save you a headache later, especially for a high priced item. Keep it in mind and weigh the cost of the warranty versus replacing the product.

What additional hardware (computer, smartphone, tablet) or software (Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS) is needed?

Many devices run with a computer or smartphone being used to read results or track activity like a Fitbit or other wearable device. If it is software, make sure it is for the correct operating system. If additional hardware or software is needed, make sure you have that factored into the total cost of owning the device or system.

What is the initial cost? Is there an ongoing subscription fee? Is there any long-term commitment?

Understanding the price is always important, and sometimes there is a monthly fee associated with monitoring and/or servicing the device. Make sure you understand your total cost of ownership.

Don’t purchase a product with a subscription fee if you are not using the features. Look for a comparable product without monthly fees. The Ring Video Doorbell is a good example: It offers a small fee for recording and saving videos.

Once the product is purchased, is there a contract holding you to a period of time where you must continue to pay a subscription fee? TiVo is a great service, but in order for it to work, you either need to pay monthly or purchase a lifetime subscription. Just as suggested above, ensure you need the subscription and therefore the contract. If not, consider a comparable product without the long-term commitment.

When should you buy the most recent model versus an older model?

Technology changes quickly and it is often best to buy the newest model to ensure it will be relevant as long as possible. I would suggest this for computers. However, for smartphones you will get a better deal buying the slightly older model.

The same goes for TVs: If you don’t need the 4K TV today, buy the HD TV and save some money. Ask if they have an upgrade program to allow you to get a discounted newer model when available.

What are the features and functions?

Does this product fulfill my needs? Does it have the features and functions that I require? For many products, there are product options that are more or less full-featured and the cost will vary based on the features. Make sure the product you choose fills your needs fully; if not, find one that does. 

What do the reviews say?

If possible, read reviews on the technology product.

Do a Google search for reviews and see what others have to say. Go to the product website and see if there are reviews there. If the product is on Amazon.com, that is a great place to read user reviews; Newegg.com and Bestbuy.com are also good sites for reviews.

Is accessibility an issue?

Do you have any limitations or health concerns that may affect your use of technology? Are the buttons on the remote too small? Is it too hard to read the screen? Think about your current devices and any troubles you may have with them.

Purchasing technology can seem overwhelming if you are new to the device or system being purchased. Following the above list will help to ensure you are asking the right questions to enable you to find the appropriate technology for your needs.

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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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.home technology help

 

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A cheap, versatile home printer option

Printer

This post was originally published in the April, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Printers.

It used to be quite an investment to buy a new printer to go with your new computer setup. But printers have dropped tremendously in price and become disposable items with the replacement ink sometimes costing more than the printer itself.

Gone are the days of the slow dot matrix printers. Today, we get to choose between inkjet and laser printers. Laser printers are higher quality, but unless you are a professional business, an inkjet will fulfill all of your daily needs, including printing photos for personal use.

I like the all-in-one printers that include printer, scanner and copier options in one device. I also like the document feeder as opposed to only having a flatbed to lay down an image or document on for scanning, copying or faxing.

The faxing function is not one I truly worry about, but it is generally included if there is a scanning option.

If you really need to fax, and it is rare that you do these days, you can use an online service. I use faxZERO.com and it is a simple service. You scan in your own document and then the service faxes it for you; no need to use a separate phone line or have a traditional phone line for faxing at all. That specific service is free for faxes up to three pages plus a cover sheet and only $1.99 for faxes that are larger than that.

Personally, I have always been fond of Hewlett Packard printers. My recent go-to printer for clients has been a sub-$100 all-in-one inkjet, the HP Officejet 4650. It is a basic printer with a monochrome screen, but being well under $100, it is definitely a disposable that will at least last a couple of years.

The ink, for a two-pack of black and color, is about half the price of the printer, but that still isn’t much money. The printer also works with both Mac and Windows PCs, so it is an easy choice for most people.

The printer is also capable of a wireless connection with your computer, so there is no need for wires between the printer and your computer. Additionally, it can also print wirelessly from your Android or Apple mobile devices, which is a nice little bonus.

If you haven’t printed from your mobile devices like your smartphone or tablet, it is a nice treat to not have to open up your laptop or boot up your desktop just to quickly print out a PDF receipt or email.

If you are in the market for a printer, think about how you will use it and how often you realistically print and then consider an inexpensive option.

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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 at gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Smart as a doorbell

Doorbell

This post was originally published in the May 19, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I recently had the opportunity to test out two products available from Verizon Wireless, among other locations: the Canary security system, a video camera with motion alerts, and the Ring Video Doorbell, which is a one-way video, two-way audio doorbell system.

Canary has been on my wish list for quite some time, so when Verizon Wireless offered for me to try it out, I was looking forward to it. I already have a couple of IP cameras (wirelessly connected cameras) in my house, but the Canary is a security device, not simply a camera.

The Canary requires Internet connection. It has the usual HD camera with night vision and a 147-degree viewing angle with three times digital zoom.

Where the Canary begins to differentiate itself from other cameras is the built-in, 90-decibel siren and that it also tracks temperature, humidity and air quality. I could not pull that information to my Amazon Echo, so it appears to simply be useful information to know.

The Canary of course has native apps for both iOS (Apple) and Android smartphones.

What does it do? When I talk about it, I talk about it as a security system, not a camera system.

When opening the app, it does not automatically open to a live view of what the camera sees but rather a home page listing the environmental settings (temperature, humidity, air quality) with options to view live or view your timeline.

The timeline is pretty cool. Canary is set up to chirp at you (via your smartphone) when there is activity or motion in front of it. Other IP cameras can do motion detection, but they generally require some setup to enable that functionality. It also records a snippet of video around that notification so you can view, via your timeline, the video associated with the activity the camera saw.

Canary is a learning system and is supposed to have the ability to learn your schedule and automatically adjust the mode to home or away, but I have to admit it never thought I was home, so every movement in front of the camera triggered a notification. I have read that pets can trigger motion detection as well.

I had set my settings for when I was home to be private and not record video or give me notifications, but again, this didn’t work as set up.

According to Canary: “When set to private, Canary’s camera, microphone, and motion detection capabilities are fully disabled. Only temperature, humidity, and air quality information are uploaded to the Canary Cloud.”

Without membership, you get 24 hours of recorded video. With membership, starting at $9.99 per month, you get 30 days of stored video and reimbursement of your homeowners or renters insurance deductible up to $1,000 in case of a burglary, plus an extended two-year warranty for your Canary.

Unlike the Canary, the Ring Video Doorbells is meant to be installed at your front door. Ring Video Doorbell had never really interested me in the past, but I wanted to at least test it out.

I was very impressed. It is the product that I didn’t know I wanted or needed.

What does a video doorbell do, you may ask?

When someone rings your doorbell, you are notified on your smartphone (Android and iOS) and have the option to view the ringer through the installed HD camera in the doorbell. It also provides two-way audio so you can ask them what they want if you don’t recognize them.

Mind you, you do not even need to be home to answer the ring. I could be out and my kids alone at home and the doorbell rings; I can answer it, send the ringer away and notify my kids via phone that they should not answer the door.

You can turn on motion detection and get a notification each time there is movement in front of your doorbell, and you can always look in live.

With a paid account of $3 per month, it provides the ability to have all of your alerted events recorded and viewable in a cloud account for up to 6 months, plus a one-year warranty. You can even download or share the events — useful if it recorded an activity outside your door that you’d like to share with police. The free account simply doesn’t record anything.

You need to spend an additional $30 for the Chime accessory if you want it to ring a sound in your home. It’s free if you just want the ring on your smartphone. However, it is fully compatible with the doorbell you may already have wired, and it can use that doorbell for inside notification.

One drawback that I found with Ring was that it needs charging, even when hardwired.

If it is hardwired to your existing doorbell chime, that will hopefully keep it charged. But there is the following message on Ring’s website: “Note: Depending on usage and temperature, the power from the doorbell wires may not be enough to keep your Ring charged, and the battery percentage may drop slightly over time.”

From the forum posts I read, it sounds like you will have to take it inside to charge every once in awhile. Ring provides a proprietary screw and driver so that it cannot simply be removed by anyone who wants to steal it.

Unless you don’t mind a lot of false-alarm beeps, I would hold off on the Canary for now. But give the Ring Video Doorbell a try. It provides a fun, new experience and added security to your front door entry.

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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.

home technology help

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Troubleshooting home Wi-Fi

Wireless RouterThis post was originally published in the April 6, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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“My Wi-Fi doesn’t work.”

I hear this quite a bit. Wireless networks can be finicky and there are quite a few things to look at to ensure your network is working properly and to its fullest potential. Without getting into the deepest of technical details, the following are basic things to look at and correct when trying to improve your home wireless signal and coverage.

The first thing to do in troubleshooting is to connect a computer directly to your router via ethernet cable. This rules out that any connectivity issues you have are due to your internet service provider (ISP) such as US Internet, Comcast or CenturyLink. If you have a strong signal while connected via ethernet, then it is time to look at your router to see if you can fix the problem with the wireless signal that is being spread through your home.

Next, power cycle your router. Unplug the power cord, wait 10 seconds and then plug it back in, giving it time to get back up and running. This generally solves temporary problems, but will not fix any bigger problems or long-term issues.

If that doesn’t work, review the router’s placement. Routers can be placed under desks or behind other electronics like a TV, and if you have problems, shifting that placement can help. It may be that, for your setup, the router needs to be in plain view in order to maintain adequate coverage.

The construction of your home can be a factor here, and what may work in one home or even one room may not work in another room with a similar layout. The material of your walls matters; brick walls are typically not good for Wi-Fi signals. As I understand it, wireless signals are stronger going up than down.

If you have ever tried to get into the administrative settings on your router (logging into your router), you can see that there are a lot of settings that you may have never heard of before. One of these settings is “channel.” The channel is not something you normally need to change, but there are ways to see if the same channel is being used by your neighbors and causing interference. If that is the case, you can look for a stronger channel and manually change it.

Another way to improve Wi-Fi in your home is to use a powerline adapter, wireless extender or both.

Powerline adapters are quite amazing. They connect between two units, the first one directly connected to your router and the second one connected to a device of your choice (i.e smart TV, streaming box, computer, etc.) via ethernet cable. Both powerline adapter units plug into your wall outlets and use your home’s circuitry to send the wireless signal as though it were hardlined. It is a great way to get wireless to a smart TV or streaming box.

If you have an older house with old wiring, the powerline adapter may not work as well. Both outlets you use should be on the same circuit for optimal performance, however I have seen them still work well regardless.

Wireless extenders are another way of getting your signal to spread farther in your home. They just plug into an outlet and then take your existing signal and boost it. They create a new network name — “mynetwork_EXT,” for example, with the “EXT” for extender. You can keep them the same name as your existing network, but then your devices may be connecting to the weaker part of a network rather than the extender.

Be on the lookout for the new, up-and-coming option of mesh networks, like Google Wi-Fi and the Netgear Orbi system. Supposedly mesh networks offer much better wireless speeds than range extenders and blanket an area in wireless to lose dead spots.

Hopefully this will help with some basic troubleshooting that you can do to improve your home wireless network.

 

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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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

help with home wifi problems

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Surround Sound: From 2.0 to 7.1 and Beyond

Surround Sound

This post was originally published in the February 23, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Surround sound systems can be confusing when reviewing how many audio channels they have, and this includes sound bars, which are not simply one long speaker.

Let’s go through and review what the different numbers mean when you look at a system that says Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 Channel DTS. The gist is that the numbers refer to discrete speakers — or really channels, as you can have one speaker that plays more than one channel.

— 2.0 means right and left stereo sound with two distinct channels. This is just like your old stereo systems that separate sounds to create a more full experience. Almost all devices you have with two speakers will at least have stereo sound.

— 2.1 adds in a subwoofer for a separate bass sound. The subwoofer only gets counted as one tenth of a channel; this is because it is not distinct sounds that come through the bass, but rather low frequency effects. Many sound bars have 2.1 surround; you have stereo sound but also the subwoofer helping to fill in more depth to the audio. Sometimes the subwoofer is even built into the sound bar, which can muffle sounds a bit.

— 3.1 adds a center speaker to separate audio dialogue that has been processed for a distinct channel. The right and left channels are still distinct and the third channel/speaker is between them. This can be found in sound bars and home theater systems that have three speakers or a bar in the front and then a separate or built-in subwoofer.

— 5.1 adds in two rear speakers to the mix. The new channels offer rear surround sound and with higher quality processing on even right and left channels (Dolby Digital 5.1 has 5 distinct channels plus subwoofer, whereas the older Dolby Pro Logic only has the rear sound in mono as opposed to stereo). This is the sound that most people are looking for in a home theater system. When watching something move in a circle on TV like a helicopter, the sound can travel from directly in front of you (center channel) to your right (right front speaker), behind you on your right (right rear speaker), continue on behind you to your left (left rear speaker) and end on your left in front of you (left front speaker) — all the while with some bass added in for low-frequency effects.

— 6.1 adds in an additional back surround channel that is like your center channel, but for sound behind of you. This is a less common setup but still available, nonetheless.

— 7.1 adds in two inward facing side speakers, but my research shows that DVD movies are not made with 7.1 discrete channels for viewing in the home (Blu-Rays can be). Of course, in a movie theater there are many more channels and speakers!

With even more channels, there are more speakers added to create a complete surround sound effect. Systems can have 8.1, 9.1, and so on.

Confused yet? The most common configurations are 2.0, 2.1 and 5.1. If you want to hear the sound behind you, then 5.1 is the way to go.

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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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home theater sound

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Options for Online Video Streaming Services

online streaming movies and video

This post was originally published in the December 7, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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There are quite a few different streaming services out there and they all offer different features. One of the newest features is that many streaming services are now offering their own original programming, which you can only watch by subscribing to their service. Will a streaming service provide you with everything you need, or will it only supplement your viewing? Let’s find out.

Amazon Video

Amazon Video is most effective if you are already an Amazon Prime subscriber, as it includes loads of free movies and TV shows for on-demand viewing with a Prime membership. The shows are full catalogues (all seasons) of older shows, recently aired past seasons and original programming. You can pay to purchase individual episodes of current episodes or subscribe to a full season of a current show. It’s recommended as a supplement to live television either through cable, over-the-air antenna or live TV streaming service.

DirecTV Now

DirecTV Now is a cable TV replacement option with packages of over 100 channels available for live viewing. It does not offer the availability to pause live TV or to record shows for later viewing. It does however provide the opportunity to watch shows on demand for those that are made available. The channel offering is quite large and the packages start small and work up to fully loaded packages.

Hulu

Hulu airs television shows shortly after they originally air so that you can watch them at your convenience. There are commercials, but you can pay for a limited-commercial plan. There is also the rumored upcoming Hulu Live service, which will presumably offer live television. Hulu also has some original programming and non-original movies and TV shows in their back catalogue. It is easy to search the Hulu website to see if your favorite shows are included. Hulu also has non-first run movies available for streaming. Hulu is another potential cable replacement.

Netflix

Netflix provides past shows and movies as well as original movies and series. For the past shows, they generally have the full catalogue, or all past seasons of a show. While their original programming is available to all at the same time, their non-original programming, including movies, can be a bit outdated. It’s recommended as a supplement to live television either through cable, over-the-air antenna or live TV streaming service.

Sling TV

Sling TV has live television with limited channels and no ability to record shows for later viewing; you watch live television. Some of the channels allow pausing of live TV, but not all. The goal is to replace your cable with Sling, but, again, you need to confirm that their channel lineup has all of the channels you are looking for and ensure that you are comfortable solely watching live TV as it airs. Not all local network television channels are available, but you can add on premium movie channels. Netflix and Amazon Video are great options to supplement here.

Sony Playstation Vue

Sony Playstation Vue, to be clear, does not require that you have a Sony Playstation video game console (however, it can be played through the console). Like Sling, Vue plays live TV with a limited number of channels and does not include some local network channels. However, Vue includes a “cloud DVR” which allows you to record your favorite shows for playback at your convenience. The ability to record is what makes Vue stand out today and makes for a great cable replacement option (verify that it has the channels that you need). You can also subscribe to premium channels through Vue. As with Sling, Netflix and Amazon Video are great options to supplement here.

Viewing these streaming services still requires that you have the right equipment. Some of these are built into smart TVs (Netflix is built into everything). Otherwise, there are inexpensive streaming boxes that can be purchased to get you up and running.

Are you still subscribing to cable?

[Updated 2/12/2017 after DirecTV Now service is live.]


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.

cutting the cable cord

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What to do with old electronics?

Used Electronics

This post was originally published in the October 6, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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It is fun to get new electronics — or toys, as I like to call them.

I enjoying setting them up and always keep my packaging and boxes for a few months just in case I need to return something. I always recommend that clients keep their boxes too. So now that there is new equipment, what do you do with old electronics?

I get asked this question all of the time. If it is a printer or a home theater system, I often take the devices with me and see if I can find a new home for them. However, outdated computers and monitors are not so easy to find homes for.

Luckily, there are options out there to recycle your old electronics. According to recycling center Tech Dump, “The EPA estimates that there are 200 million recyclable cell phones stashed in drawers that could be recycled. Recycling those phones would recapture precious metals and rare earth elements for reuse and mitigate the environmental impact of our cell phone addiction!”

While there are quite a few options out there, most charge a recycling fee, so you want to look out for that when choosing where to recycle your electronics. Below are a few options to consider. Please do not just throw electronics out in the trash, as there are harmful components within them that can be bad for the environment. Also, in some of the cases below, there may be an ability to extend the life of your electronics.

To start, the City of Minneapolis allows electronics to be included in solid waste, and there is no charge for up to two items per recycling day. Items are left out on your curb or in your alley and are marked by trash collectors for later pickup. Items include TVs and monitors, which other places charge fees to recycle. Check out the city’s website (ci.minneapolis. mn.us/solid-waste/whattodo/electronics-recycling) for more info on which specific electronics can be recycled.

Tech Dump takes your electronics “and they turn unwanted electronics into jobs for folks with barriers to employment such as previous addiction or experience in the justice system,” according to their website. Computer recycling is free, and they guarantee that all of your data on the recycled computer is destroyed. There is a charge for TVs, monitors and printers, so check out their website before just heading over to them. They have even started a spin-off business, Tech Discounts, where you can buy refurbished electronics or have your electronics fixed (including cell phone screens). You can learn more and see all of the electronics that they accept at techdump.org/electronics-recycling/.

Free Geek is a nonprofit that trains people on how to repair electronics. The Free Geek website notes they “use these materials to build new computers when we can, or recycle the materials responsibly.” They ask for financial donations, as well, so that can afford to recycle the items that cost money. And they charge fees for recycling TVs, monitors and printers. More info on Free Geek can be found at freegeektwincities.org/about/donations/.

A great resource for recycling is Best Buy. They accept almost everything but ask that you limit it to three devices per day. Additionally, they also charge for TVs and monitors, but that appears to be their only recycling fee. You can find out more about Best Buy’s recycling program at bestbuy.com (just type “recycling” into the search bar).

There you have it — a good start on resources for recycling your electronics. Now, on to the fun part: Buying new electronics!


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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Kid-safe viewing

kids-playing-1253096_1920

This post was originally published in the September 8, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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On Aug.12, New York Daily News published the article “Junk food commercials are eating your kid’s brain.” The article discusses the negative effects that television commercials have on children, creating cravings specifically for the junk foods advertised in the many commercials children watch. At the very end of the article, the author suggests cutting screen time to reduce exposure or moving to commercial-free streaming services like Amazon Video or Hulu.

The article got me thinking about my own kids and the screen-time safety we put into place at home. Having locks on tablets and specific apps is a great start, but we choose not to let our kids use their tablets anytime they want. Screen time is not all of the time.

First, I couldn’t agree more that it is important to limit kids’ screen time and not begin screen time until an appropriate age. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time to no more than one or two hours per day.

This is in alignment with what we try to do in our home. With a five and a three year old, they are often watching different programs, and this is where it is handy to have them on tablets rather than buying a TV for each of them [which we would never do].

I also agree strongly with moving toward commercial-free services for kids’ screen time, rather than standard TV. In fact, while I do have live television via antenna in my house, it is not something my kids have access to or watch, and it very rarely used. We did recently watch some Olympics. Go Team USA! And until recently, my kids were not even aware of what television commercials were.

In my home, we generally let the girls watch Netflix and YouTube Kids, which is obviously focused on kids. Funny enough, one of my 5 year old’s favorite type of program to watch on YouTube Kids is the unboxing of new toys. Many of these clips do tend to be similar to the commercials that she’s missing out on from television; however, others are more strongly focused on simply playing with the toys. And, fortunately, these “toy casting” clips don’t contain [junk] food promotions, inappropriate advertisements or movie trailers.

Netflix also has a kids’ profile that can be set up which limits the type programs available for searching and viewing or even the programs that show up as recommendations. The interface itself is also kid-friendly, breaking into many categories and also listing many shows simply by a recognizable image or character from the show. Netflix’s catalog for children is also quite extensive.

Amazon provides many shows for kids, but as far as I have seen, it is more difficult to create a kids-only environment. They do have a paid program that you can sign up for, and I would recommend testing the program for ease of use and appropriateness before granting children access.

Amazon also has the option of adding a pin so that programs cannot be watched at all (or purchased!) without first providing the security pin. This feature can really lock down what is watched on Amazon.

Streaming services are a very positive opportunity for monitoring the content a child is watching, and streaming is not a difficult thing to do. There are myriad options available for streaming: smart TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, Playstation, Xbox, TiVo and many more. As long as you have a device capable of streaming Netflix and/or Amazon, you are off to a good start.

Now you can limit exposure to commercials, allow or deny watching of specific programming and control the amount of screen time in general that your kids are watching. The best way to monitor your kids’ screen time is to be an active participant.


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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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How to tap technology to make life at home easier

Robot Hand

This post was originally published in the August 9, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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As I wrote about in my last column, I am making a foray into smart home technology, using Amazon Echo as the hub for my “getting smarter” home. Now, I look at all of my plugs, switches, and everyday appliances and think about how I could automate them. Also, when I hear about friends’ frustrations with everyday household challenges, I notice areas where they too could use technology to simplify their lives.

For instance, a friend recently shared a frustration about lights being left on in the house. She said that when she comes home in the evenings, her family leaves lights on throughout the entire house. With a modest smart home integration, it would be easy for her to have household lights grouped together and then easily turned off all at once, or across specific groupings (such as upstairs or downstairs). A step further would be to use her Amazon Echo and just vocally ask Alexa to turn off all of the lights.

For my friend who has trouble remembering whether or not he locked his front door, a smart lock would be incredibly helpful. He could use a model that simply locks automatically when the door closes. Alternatively, he could use a lock that is connected wirelessly. The wireless lock can be monitored online through a smartphone or computer, so he could easily check his phone to verify the door was locked. There are smart locks and handles from traditional lock and key companies as well as market newcomers that focus on the deadbolt.

My parents, who are proud owners of two 60-pound boxers, would do well with a robot vacuum (like the Anker RoboVac 10 that I love, or a Roomba) to help complement routine floor cleaning. Also, a connected thermostat like Nest or ecobee3 would be a great device to help automate, control, and monitor usage of their heating and cooling in the home.

One of the newer sensors that I am using is a wireless switch, but it also can monitor the energy usage of any device connected to it. I use it in the master bedroom with a window air conditioning unit, and now have an idea of the monthly cost of keeping our master bedroom (a converted attic) cool and comfortable in the summer.

While recently traveling, I used wireless switches in my home and set up an “Away” mode which turned lights on and off at designated times. Plus, I was able to turn on some of the window air conditioners remotely and begin cooling my house to ensure our home was comfortable when we returned. It was reassuring while away to look at the app and see that my lights were on at the times that I had pre-programmed.

There are light switches, plug-in switches, sensors for windows, garage door sensors and switches, connected doorbells, and many more simple options make your home smarter.

For the most part, these smart home integrations are easy modifications. Though, in some cases, it does take time and planning to get all devices connected and set up; you have to consider how you want to control your devices and if they will all be connected through a hub or not. If trying to setup your own system, be patient and have fun.


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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Tablet Tips

 

child with tablet

This post was originally published in the June 14, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I have previously written about repurposing old smartphones and tablets for kids, and that is exactly what I had done for my youngest daughter.

About a year ago, I cleaned up my wife’s old tablet (a first generation Nexus 7) and put on some games and an app locker (creates a password for apps and settings in order to restrict access). Additionally, I put on a nice big, pink rubber bumper case on it. When I was done, it was fresh and safe tablet for my daughter to use. And she loves that tablet.

Unfortunately, my wife and I have noticed how much the tablet has slowed down over time. It can be very frustrating to my daughter when the tablet just hangs and won’t play her game or shows. I have done everything I can with that tablet — removing unnecessary programs, changing operating systems (Android and CyanogenMod), you name it. There was just not much we could do to improve the performance of the aging tablet.

So, for $69, we bought a brand new Amazon Fire tablet (you can get them for as low as $49). I had no delusions about this being a top-of-the-line tablet at that price. But the big thing to remember is that this is a budget tablet, but it is a solid budget tablet. It is a 7-inch tablet, and the version I bought has 16 GB of internal storage as opposed to 8 GB for the less expensive model. Both models have the option for expandable storage, and I immediately put in a 32 GB SD card (around $10) for saving music, movies, photos, and apps.

Amazon’s tablets run their own proprietary operating software, Fire OS, which is a modified version of Google’s Android operating system. However, because it is Amazon we are talking about, the Fire tablets have their own ecosystem and do not run the Google Play Store out of the gate. This also means they do not include common Google apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, etc. My daughter by no means needed to have access to Gmail and Google Calendar, but it was a big drawback that the Google Play Store was not accessible by default. (After all, her favorite games were all through Google Play.)

But in under 20 minutes time, following some very simple steps, I was able to add the Google Play Store to the tablet without doing anything that would affect the warranty. The tablet can now run any app from the Google Play Store.

For well under $100, I have put together a tablet that is quite capable for the needs of my youngest daughter. She can watch movies through Google Play Movies, Amazon Video, VuDu, and Youtube Kids. Plus she has access to any game we choose to install through the Amazon App Store and all of the games she previously had that were through the Google Play Store.

I even found a new pink, rubber bumper case for her. It is definitely a different user experience having the Amazon Fire OS for Android, but it is not at all difficult to use. And my youngest daughter seamlessly made the transition, being able to open up games and movies with ease.

Would you buy an Amazon Fire tablet as an entry level tablet?


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 www.gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help