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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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The benefits of soundbars for home sound systems

Sound Equalizer

This post was originally published in the October 21, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Around two decades ago, I bought my first Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround sound home theater sound system. The 5.1 number includes both left and right front speakers, a center channel, two rear surround speakers, and a subwoofer. Nowadays there is an option for 7.1 surround that adds two more side speakers, and options exist beyond 7.1, so be sure to research it.

With the 5.1 system, I loved demonstrating to my friends how sound could travel around you in a circle like the sound of a helicopter. Especially for movies, the sound can immerse you within the setting and truly make you feel like you are part of the action. Action is where dynamic surround sound excels.

Over the decades, I upgraded my systems and continued to enjoy my true surround sound.

Cut to five years ago when my first child was born. We had six months or so until our eldest daughter started crawling, and I knew that I’d have to find a way to make those speaker wires far less accessible to a curious toddler. We were renting an apartment in Washington D.C. at the time, and running wires through the walls wasn’t an option.

The alternative solution was to buy wireless speaker adapters so my rear channels and subwoofer could run without having wires tucked along the carpet. The wireless adapters were decent, but not great. Our speakers were baby proofed, but the rear sound would occasionally cut out. Overall, the wireless setup was worth it to maintain kid safety and a dedicated rear surround sound.

A couple years ago, we moved into our home in Southwest Minneapolis, Kingfield specifically. The house is over 100 years old and wireless signals just don’t travel as well throughout it.

On top of that, my home has a lot of wireless devices all competing for bandwidth — we have multiple smartphones, tablets, laptops, an extender, and WiFi IP cameras all running on wireless and competing now with the rear wireless adapters and the separate wireless subwoofer adapter. Needless to say, everything was starving for the WiFi bandwidth. The rear speakers were regularly cutting out and the subwoofer simply wasn’t even connecting wirelessly most of the time. It was a tough decision, but since I was not consistently receiving rear sound anyway, it was time to look at a different option for our sound system.

I decided to go the route of a soundbar (or sound bar).

Soundbars are just what they sound like — they are long, narrow speakers that are generally placed under the TV. They have multiple speakers built into them to produce multi channel sound. Some even come with wireless rear speakers and a separate subwoofer. Soundbars also have the receiver/amplifier built in, so there is a lot less equipment on your shelves. I opted for one with fewer speakers: it has front right and left speakers and a built in subwoofer that provides some light bass. On some soundbars, some of the individual channels have multiple (mini) speakers.

Based on the room it is being used in, soundbars can create a virtual 5.1 sound that bounces audio off of walls to sound more dynamic throughout the space.

It really does create a more full sound throughout the room. With that said, a soundbar in no way replicates the true sound of having speakers behind you. For the past couple of years, I have been quite content with this sound. It is a great option for limited space, simplicity, and a quick way to improve a TV’s natural sound. (Note: Whenever connecting to an external sound system or soundbar, remember to  completely turn off your TV’s natural audio.)

Recently I set up a man cave and reconnected the older system I had with the full 5.1 surround sound, and it really does make a difference in sound quality. Having dedicated rear speakers creates such a full sound, and it really does immerse you further into the movie.

At the end of the day, optimal sound is not always the ideal for a particular room setup, and I stand by having a soundbar for the family TV room. It really does allow for simpler, yet still satisfying sound.

You have options! Based on your room, your environment, your use, and the level of sound you are looking to achieve, home theater systems can be tailored to meet your needs. Let me know what works for you.

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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Making the most of the Google app

Google Search

 

This post was originally published in the September 22, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal.

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Hello, Journal readers! Gadget Guy here.

I wanted to share about a not-so-secret weapon that I use to solve problems and answer many questions. You may have heard of it before — Google, the search engine that has spawned loads of cloud-based productivity software.

While there are still legions of fans using Yahoo for search, I would be shocked to learn that you don’t use Google to search for websites or restaurants. However, how many of you are using the Google app on your phones? There are specific Google apps for both Android and iOS/Apple. If you aren’t using it, you should be.

Some people refer to the Google app as “Google Now,” but that is only a part of this fantastic virtual assistant (some call the app Google Search, some Google Voice Search). The Google app allows you to ask a question either via voice or type it in. With voice, it can be set to automatically begin listening to you when you say, “OK, Google.” The app can answer questions directly or send you to specific websites, just as a normal Google search from your desktop would. You can also tell it to call someone, set a timer, set a reminder, open a specific app, or bring up your calendar or set an appointment.

I should point out that Apple has Siri and Microsoft has Cortana. Both are capable virtual assistants that can help you find information and answer questions for you, but Google’s virtual assistant is built on Google’s search engine and we all know who the king of online search is. Compared to Siri, the Google app is very utilitarian, without much of a personality — that is not necessarily a bad thing though, if you just want functionality. There are a few Easter eggs thrown in. For instance, when you ask the app to make you a sandwich, one of the responses is “Poof; you are a sandwich.”

In addition to searches, the Google app includes Google Now which is contextually aware and learns from your searches, calendar, calls, and more to create a landing page filled with useful information. If Google Now sees you have a calendar appointment, it coordinates with Google Maps and your location to give you a notification of when you need to leave to arrive on time. It will even make you aware of any traffic hold-ups enroute to your destination.

I check Google Now in the mornings and see my appointments for the day, upcoming birthdays or anniversaries, tracking information for packages that it recognizes from my email with shipping information, events near me, sports scores that I am interested in, and important news related to searches that I have performed or shown interest in. You can continue to customize Google Now by responding when the app asks if the information it is displaying is useful or not.

While I love Google and have built most of my digital ecosystem around it, depending upon your device, you may want to stick with the native virtual assistant: Google on Android, Siri on iOS, and Cortana on Windows Phones. The native assistant will work the most seamlessly with your internal operating system. With that all being said, I do recommend trying the Google search app on any device.

As I shared in my last article, it is fun to bump into people in the neighborhood and discuss my articles. Please continue to send me questions that you would like me to answer in my column, please email me at paul@gadgetguymn.com. Thanks!


Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman and Digital Dad. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

photo credit: Vielleicht… via photopin (license)

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A Primer on Roku

Roku Streaming Stick

 

This post was originally published in the August 24, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Greetings, Southwest Journal readers! Your friendly, local Gadget Guy here.

A client recently shared an article idea with me. The idea was sparked when he was out to dinner and sharing about his new setup with a Roku stick. As the client talked about his Roku, he realized that he had no idea how it worked. Figuring that others may be in a similar situation, he suggested I write an article about it. So, let’s dive in.

What is Roku?

Put simply, Roku allows you to stream movies, TV shows, music and more directly to your TV. For the past decade (probably even longer), content and software providers have been working to provide Internet-only options for viewing TV and movies without physical media (DVD, Blu-Ray) or cable service. Some have been truly successful like Roku, while others have been acquired and shuttered like Boxee. Have you heard of Boxee? I didn’t think so.

Roku boxes have been around since 2008. There are multiple models with various features and they even have a “stick” version which is not much larger than your thumb. The Roku stick plugs directly into an HDMI port with no other noticeable equipment. (It does require power, but that is presumably behind the TV.)

An added convenience of the Roku stick is its radio frequency (RF) remote. Unlike infrared (IR) remotes, which are the most common, radio frequency (RF) remote controls are easier to use because they don’t require line of sight and do not have to be aimed at the equipment. The drawback with RF is that the midrange and lower universal remotes will not be able to control it.

Essentially, Roku boxes and sticks are mini computers that run Roku’s own interface — Roku OS, which is based on Linux. They connect to your Internet with wireless or wired options, depending on the model.

They are connected to your TV by HDMI, composite, or component video, again depending on the model (all of them have an HDMI option, but some provide older connection methods). Once connected, you choose channels that you would like to include on your device. These range from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Now, and PBS to channels of interest such as cooking or photography. With some channels, you have to have a separate subscription (i.e. Netflix), but many are free.

The Roku device pulls the show you want to watch and streams it to you on demand, generally with the option to pause, rewind, and fast forward.

There is no DVR function, as everything is at your fingertips on demand. There are also apps for both iOS and Android that allow you to control your device from your smartphone or tablet, as long as you are on the same wireless network.

There are, of course, devices other than Roku which allow you to stream shows and movies to your TV. I’ll cover a few of those options below. Also, all of the following devices, including the various Roku options, are under $100 — and some are under $40!

Apple TV is very similar as far as offering programming. However, a major downside to Apple TV is that you are limited to Apple’s closed ecosystem. This means, you won’t be able to access competitor services like Amazon or Google via the Apple TV.

Another option is Amazon Fire TV (also available in stick version), which is based on Android. Though, being a competitor to Google, it does not allow Google content. The device is built around Amazon’s own ecosystem and focuses on pulling in and offering content from Amazon’s own library. However, Netflix and other services are still available.

Google’s Chromecast is a bit different. It is another stick (or dongle, as it is often referred to) that plugs into an HDMI port. Then, you use  a smartphone, tablet, or computer to “cast” a stream to the Chromecast. Then, the Chromecast makes the connection, and you automatically start streaming from the Chromecast rather than your smartphone. Essentially, Chromecast allows you to “cast” movies, shows and music from your phone to your TV.

Chromecast is a great option, as you have any app available as long as it has Chromecast abilities built into it. For instance, Netflix, HBO Go and Now, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, and more all have this casting ability baked into their iOS and Google apps. One downside is that you do not have a separate remote to control it; you use your smartphone, tablet, or computer only.

At the end of the day, Roku is my current favorite because it has provider agreements with Amazon and Google (for Google Play TV and Movies), as well as the other usual suspects such as Netflix and Hulu.

Though, I should point out that even Roku has its own drawbacks, especially if you are part of the Apple ecosystem with your iPhone or iPad. It does not provide any connection to your iTunes music or movies that you have previously purchased. For me that is not a deal killer, but it is something to consider. Let me know if you have any questions.

It is fun to bump into people in the neighborhood and discuss my articles. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer in my column, please email me at paul@gadgetguymn.com. Thanks!

Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman and Digital Dad. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gagdetguymn.com.

photo credit: Roku via photopin (license)

cutting the cable cord