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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Maximizing the potential of your Fitbit

Fitbit

This post was originally published in the May 19, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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You have probably heard about a wide range of devices that are now connected to the Internet — from smart TVs to thermostats and even coffee makers. This is often referred to as the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is basically the ability to connect our daily devices to each other via the internet in order to simplify our lives.

This can be along the lines of a refrigerator that adds eggs to a shopping list when you are running low, or a thermostat that cranks up the heat at home when you are leaving the office.

Jumping in with connected devices is not as difficult as you may think. IFTTT (which started out as If This Then That) is a simple app that allows you to create “recipes” that connect various apps and devices. The “recipes” automatically tell your devices to follow a certain set of instructions when a chosen action occurs.

This is not some futuristic concept. It’s here. And better yet, it’s totally accessible via an entry-level wearable — the Fitbit!

I have written before about my fondness for Fitbit, and here it is again — a great piece of technology that is a key to the Internet of Things. FitBits can easily track things like exercise, sleep and weight — and it can track your progress against set goals. With this information, and connecting through IFTTT, you can receive a weekly summary of your sleep or exercise activity in a Google spreadsheet, or you can automatically Tweet a message when you have reached your exercise goals.

What you want to track, how you want to be notified, and who you want to share the information with is completely up to you.

Anything that Fitbit can track — like walking/exercising, amount of sleep, total exercise time and more — can then be used in various ways across other apps and tools. For instance, you can use that info to share milestones via Twitter or Facebook, email yourself reminders related to your goals, or post data to a private or shared document. You can even set a reminder to go to bed early if your sleep log triggers a deficit.

Your Fitbit and IFTTT integration can even go beyond reporting and social sharing. Using IFTTT and a Wifi connected bulb, your Fitbit can automatically turn on the lights when you wake up, and it can turn off the lights when you have fallen asleep. You can also program the light to turn on once you’ve reached your sleep goal for the night. Think of this as a light-based alarm that only goes off once you’ve reached your sleep goal. While it may not be ideal for the work week, it could be a great option for the weekends.

You do not need to create your recipes from scratch —  there are many recipes already made and ready for you to use. You can also start fresh and create brand new recipes. The sheer number of Fitbit recipes are impressive to begin with and can help guide you in the right direction to think about and understand the options available and what future connected devices you may want to buy.

What do you think? Are you going to try out any recipes? Let me know how it goes.


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.

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Do you really need cable?

Coaxial Cables

This post was originally published in the April 4, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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How much do you pay for cable? The first year with a new cable or satellite provider is generally affordable with the generous promotions, upgrades, and free channels provided. However, after the promotional period ends, our bills always see to creep up a bit more here and there.

Every year the bloating gets larger — an extra fee for that second box we hardly use, all the movie channels that we don’t watch often, the amount of taxes and additional fees we have to pay, and so on.

All of this leads me to my next question. Have you ever thought about cutting the cord on cable or your satellite provider?

You have loads and loads of channel options through your television provider, but how many do you really watch? Channel surfing used to be the norm, but these days most of us have specific shows in mind — and we tend to be deliberate in how and when we choose to watch. Plus, having experienced TV without commercials (thank you, Netflix!), who really wants to have their favorite show interrupted by a commercial break?

The switch to being cable/satellite free is not as difficult as you might think. An over-the-air (OTA) antenna can pull in broadcast channels (PBS, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW) for free in full, glorious HD quality for live viewing.

Do you like to record your shows and watch them at your leisure? There are options for setting up a personal or digital video recorder (PVR or DVR).

Missing a favorite cable show? You can subscribe to some movie channels without cable, like HBO and Showtime. There are also options for pay-cable channels like CNN, AMC (Walking Dead), and the History Channel. You can also purchase entire seasons of shows that you like through services like Amazon and as they air on TV, and you’ll have online access to watch them (sometimes they are not available until the next day.)

So, with all of these options, what do you need to do?

First off, think about and write down the shows you like to watch. Be sure to note the channels they are on. Are they on broadcast TV? Great, you can watch them once you have an OTA antenna. Decide if you are comfortable and available to watch them live or if you need a PVR/DVR to watch them on demand.

Then look to see if you can watch those shows online through a streaming service like Hulu, HBO Now, or Sling TV. Or, explore whether your shows are available for purchase on a season-by-season basis through a streaming service like Amazon Instant Video, Google Play TV, or Apple TV/iTunes. Any of those options would be available on demand.

Unless you have a smart TV with Netflix and other video app services installed, you will also need to purchase a streaming device to watch streaming services on your TV (i.e. Roku, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, etc.) At that point, you can choose whether to pay on demand for the TV show or subscribe to a service that provides TV for a monthly fee (much, much less than your current monthly cable or satellite fee.)

Live sports are more difficult to get, but you can subscribe to many of the professional sports leagues directly and then watch them on your TV through a streaming device.

All of this takes a bit of research, and you’ll need to carve out time to set up accounts and get yourself up and running. However, once established, you will have the ability to watch the TV you want, at a price that is often much easier on the wallet than a cable or satellite subscription.

Please share any streaming tips that you have learned!

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 email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Best Bets for Wireless Routers

wireless router problems

This post was originally published March 4, 2016 in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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How’s your wireless router doing? Don’t you just love it? Do you even know where it is?

Most of us use the entry-level wireless router that comes with our broadband service. For many using Comcast, that is the big black Gateway device that serves as both your cable modem and wireless router. However, some of you even use your own router on top of Comcast’s, which is not a bad idea. With your own router you can gain more control over your wireless settings, although the newer Gateway devices from Comcast are an improvement of their earlier devices.

Understanding your various options to find the best router to meet your needs, well that’s a bit more complicated. First off, you have 802.11 standards, which are the universal standards for the transmission of wireless data. 802.11 started with “a” then “b” then “g” then “n” and now “ac.” The difference between them is the maximum throughput, so with streaming movies and the large photo and video files, newer standards will serve your purposes better. These days you should have a router that is either 802.11n or 802.11ac. Now you also have to make sure your hardware that is running wirelessly has the newer standards. The “ac” standard is much newer than “n,” so not as much of your hardware may have it, however routers tend to be backwards compatible, so you would still be able to use “n” on an “ac” router.

Next you have frequencies to look at. Most of us have a single band of 2.4GHz in our entry-level, older routers but newer routers come in dual band (there are even tri band, but we are going to skip those for now), which have by 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands included. The 2.4GHz is not as fast but has far reaching coverage, whereas the 5GHz is faster but does not have the range of 2.4GHz. However, by using both bands simultaneously, you spread out your Internet traffic and can reduce interference or your devices battling for bandwidth. An example would be to use the 2.4GHz band for your normal web traffic and then the 5GHz for your media streamer to watch movies and play videos.

Plugging your device directly into your router is the fastest connection you can get. Next, having your wireless router in the same room as your device is going to help you keep a clean connection. Beyond that, there are tools for testing router speed and looking for channel interference, but let’s look at simple fixes first.

The location of your router is important as far as the coverage you can get, so if possible, keep your router in the middle of your home. I have noticed that wireless seems to travel better upstairs than downstairs.

In order to get your wireless signal to those distant corners of your home, you can try wireless range extenders which help to relay your signal or powerline adapters which use your home’s existing electrical wiring to plug in an ethernet cable over distance without any additional internal wiring.

Of course there are quite a few tweaks that can be done to your router’s internal settings, but you can also cause some hiccups there too, so read up before your start working on the internal router settings.

Last, but definitely not least for today, is the reminder to setup a password for your router — do not leave it as an open access point for anyone who wants to jump on it. That is just safe behavior.

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 email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

Image by webhamseter via Flickr, licensed under CC BY

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Technology to help you get healthier

Smartwatch

This post was originally published January 26, 2016 by the Southwest Journal.

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It is the time of year when we have all returned to our regular schedules after indulging in some of our less than healthy pleasures over the holidays. With January being the time for fresh starts and resolutions, let’s talk a bit about health and fitness as we are easing our way into 2016.

Fitbit is a great health and fitness wearable device. I have been a Fitbit user for almost three years, and I’ve loved it. Fitbit is a mobile-connected activity tracker that comes in a variety of form factors including clip on, different bracelets, drop in pocket, and more. Fitbits have various features, but the most basic feature is a step counter and sleep tracker that tracks your daily, weekly, and monthly activity. I particularly enjoyed seeing how many calories I had burned just by walking. To track your activity, all you need to do is wear the Fitbit. Then, your mobile device or computer is used to analyze that information.

One of my really fun presents last year was a new smartwatch (more on that another time, but it is pretty awesome!). The smartwatch has a lot of the same functions as a Fitbit, but for a much higher price. Though, it also comes with many more features as well. My wife had been very interested in using a Fitbit solely to track her sleep patterns and see if she is really getting restful sleep. So, I reset my no longer needed Fitbit for her.

Cut to a couple of weeks later, and she is now consistently using the device for tracking her steps. She now understands why there were nights that I would walk in place while we were watching TV just to get my step count up to 10,000 — it really encourages you to move!

Fitbits are great for their simplicity and easy user interface. (I had an 81-year-old client who had bought a used Fitbit and was jumping right in using it!) Still, there are options available that allow you to utilize nothing more than your existing smartphone — so there’s no need to buy an additional fitness device.

One such example is Apple Health for iOS devices only (iPhone 4S or later). Apple Health provides a dashboard of your health and fitness information that you can follow. I have not personally used it, but have heard very good things about it, and developers are working with medical-grade equipment to utilize and share the results from Apple Health with medical providers.

Google Fit is the Android version for tracking your health and fitness data. You can set goals and challenges and use your phone as the tracker. It works with other apps, so you may have a running app that you like that will integrate with Google Fit.

Samsung has S Health built into their devices, and I have used this one a bit as well. It has some great reminders and encouragements that pop up on your phone. S Health works with all Samsung smartphones since the Galaxy S3 and any non-Samsung Android phones running Android 4.4 (KitKat) or later.

None of these devices are going to do the hard work for you, but they can all help with tracking and analyzing your information. Give one a try and let me know 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 www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Make your home smarter

Circuit Board

This post was originally published December 1, 2015 by the Southwest Journal.

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Hello, Southwest Journal readers! Gadget Guy here.

These days, smartphones are virtually ubiquitous. People across a wide range of age groups depend upon their smartphones for communication, entertainment, education, navigation, and more! But there’s also a new “smart” solution that’s emerging with greater popularity — the “smart home.”

Smart homes, or smart home devices, allow people to automate and control home functions such as lighting, heating, and electronic devices remotely from your smartphone or computer.

Some smart homes can be incredibly advanced with “intelligent” feedback systems. For instance, a smart home’s fridge could inventory contents and order additional items as food is used up. But there are also a lot of small steps that you can take to make your home more connected to your environment and, therefore, smarter. Here are smart home solutions that can give you greater control of home functions. Also, some of these examples can actually make your home safer as well.

— Connected thermostat: The Nest thermostat is a great example of a WiFi connected thermostat that can be controlled by a smartphone or computer. It is a learning device that will learn habits and patterns to create efficiencies in temperature and temp control. Nest and other connected thermostats can be connected to other safety, security and comfort and entertainment feature-enabled devices as well. These devices include door and garage sensors to know when you are arriving and leaving, automatic lighting, wearable devices that can tell your thermostat when you are waking up, and more.

— IP cams: IP cams can be used for security to simply keep an eye on your home, inside or out. However, they can also be great for those with kids and/or pets. With an IP cam, you can login from your connected device (smartphone, tablet, computer) and check in on what is happening when you are away, or just peek into different rooms in your home to see if your kids (or pets) are getting into trouble.

— Smart lights/bulbs: Smart lights can be as simple as a light bulb that is WiFi connected and plugs into an existing socket. With smart lights in your home, you can turn on lights when you are out of town or simply turn them on from a different room. You can set them to turn on or off at certain times and even to turn on as an alarm clock with a light bulb-enabled sunrise.

— Sensor lights: These are more commonly used for outdoor security lighting that is triggered with motion, but there are sensor lights that are designed to be installed indoors and can be used for safety to turn on lights as you enter the room or turn off lights when no one is present. These lights are great for kids and seniors to turn on room lights automatically.

— Floor lighting: Simple LED light strips can illuminate dark hallways for safer walking at night and can be added to either a simple timer switch, automatic brightness sensor, or other connected devices. This can make finding the bathroom for guests in the middle of the night a much quieter affair.

— Amazon Echo: This is Amazon’s new home “computer” for connecting with other devices and services through your home. Using voice commands, one can ask it questions, instruct it to play specific music, and add items to your shopping list and even do the shopping for you.

— Sonos and Chromecast Audio: With both of these devices, you can wirelessly send music anywhere in your home. Sonos has multiple wireless speakers available and Chromecast Audio connects to existing speakers. Both can make it easy for your music to follow you from room to room.

Some of the above are quite simple and some take a bit more time and effort, but they are each worth exploring. Minnesota Public Radio recently aired an NPR episode of All Tech Considered called “What Happens When Your Lights, Appliances Are Connected To The Internet.” One of the biggest issues raised on the program was around security; once all of your devices are connected to the Internet via your wireless router they can see what other devices on your network are doing and are susceptible to being hacked. This emphasizes the importance of having wireless security with an encrypted router and a strong password. The likelihood of you being hacked is pretty small, but the more connected devices you have, the more possibilities exist for weak security within one of your devices.

Another issue may arise if you want to connect all your devices together. In which case, you are working with disparate systems and they may not communicate with each other. It is getting easier with both Apple and Google coming out with kits to be the hub for your home, but there is no single, universal solution yet. And some devices work with only some hubs while others may work with another hub. Make sure and do your research before buying a bunch of separate devices simply hoping they will work together.

Please share with me some tricks you have used to make your home smarter at paul@gadgetguymn.com.


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 email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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