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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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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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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)

home technology help

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Calm Your Remote Control Chaos

Remote Control Chaos

 

This post was originally published in the July 1, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I was recently looking at the remote controls around my entertainment center and realized I have six separate remotes!

Count them up, how many do you have? One for the TV, another for the DVD, Blu-Ray, or VCR(?!), another for the stereo. Cable box? Apple TV or Android TV? It is easy to accumulate remote controls. Over time, we learn to use our systems, but what about visitors or even spouses? (Children generally don’t have problems figuring out remotes. Somehow, they always seem to easily figure out how to access their shows.)

Fortunately, there are options to bring order to remote control chaos.

A first step is to look at your current remotes. Many will allow you to program in another device. For example, your DVD remote may also control basic TV functions. In this case, you can stow away your TV remote.

But simply reducing the remote clutter by one or two may not cut it. To really simplify and streamline things, universal remote controls can be a big help.

Universal remotes are capable of being programmed (or taught) to control almost all your devices.

Universal remotes offer the ability to use the most common features from all of your remotes in a single controller. This means you can stick with one remote, rather than four or more. While this option can cut down on remote control clutter, you still can’t quite get rid of your old remotes, as you’ll need them for some of the more advanced features that the remotes can offer such as system settings or things like picture-in-picture.

Universal remote controls come in a wide range of prices from around $10 to hundreds of dollars.

The less expensive ones (under $50) are quite straightforward: power, volume, channel selection, keypad, input selection, and some other common features. You can program them by typing in number codes on the keypad based on the device manufacturer of your components. The process takes a bit of time to load in proper codes, and it often takes attempting more than one code per device before you find one that works. If you add a new device at a later time, it may be difficult to reorder your devices if you want to match input numbers or have a specific order for tracking devices. Operation is very straightforward. Since the basic features are provided, it is not difficult to understand which buttons do what; it does take a little bit of time to get used to ensuring you are on the input (device) that you wish to control.

The pricier (over $50 to hundreds of dollars) universal remote control options allow for online programming. This makes setup much easier. With online programming, you can choose your device, and the appropriate codes are added to the remote control. You can also generally reorder your devices without having to reprogram them all. Other features more common in the pricier remotes include: QWERTY keyboards, LCD screens, touchscreens, and radio frequency (RF) or bluetooth connectivity to devices.

Determining the right solution to fit your needs doesn’t have to be complicated. Below are a few general guidelines.

If you just need to combine a TV and say a DVD player, first see if one of your two current remotes will allow for basic programming. If not, an entry-level universal remote should cover your needs.

However, if you have a TV, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and a home theater audio system, consider getting a pricier universal remote. The $60 range can get a great remote, and I see little reason to jump into the $100 plus range unless you need some of the advanced features like bluetooth or the ability to control with your phone.

Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman and digital dad who lives in Kingfield. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. Contact him via www.gadgetguymn.com or email paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help