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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.

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Chargers and Cables

Charging Cable

[Author’s Note: This article was written prior to the release of USB-C and does not include the new reversible connector used on the newest Apple devices and others like Google’s second generation Chromebook Pixel.]

As a father who loves technology, over the years, it is easy to collect a lot of different cables and chargers. I have found that it is worthwhile to keep them around, even when the devices they were included with are no longer in use; I enjoy having the right cables and chargers available for my kids’ need).

I am NOT an electrical engineer and my thoughts here are based on practical use, not on technically documented specifications. In the mid-nineties, we were introduced to universal serial bus (USB) connections for our computers. USB was great because it provided plug and play capabilities. USB connections are now everywhere and makes it very easy to connect peripheral devices.  USB has also expanded as the charging cable for many devices including camera, smart phones, tablets, and more.

Having USB on one end of the cable begins to simplify things. The next thing to look at is the end of the cable that connects to your device. Very common these days are the micro USB connections, specifically micro-A. For me, I have had multiple phones, tablets, cameras, GPS and more that all use micro USB, so keeping these charging cables around allow me to have extra cables for charging and connections my devices.

Now, there are other connectors that are worthwhile to keep as well. Another USB connection is mini USB which I have often seen used by Motorola. I came across an old bluetooth headset of mine and needed to charge it. Well, it was easy…I grabbed my box of extra chargers, found a mini USB charger and was all set.

Now Apple uses proprietary cables which are worthwhile to keep around as well. As your collection of gadgets grows, you have extra chargers. A relative was recently visiting and had forgotten their iPhone’s charger. Between the iPhones and iPods that my wife and I have owned over the years, it is easy to find a charger to lend as needed.

Extra chargers for your devices allow you to not have to transport cables from room to room and can keep your kids from losing chargers. You can leave extra cables for your nightstand, in your suitcase/travel bag, in your living room, briefcase or purse; even leave one at the office.

Another note to make is that the power adapter itself (the actual box that connects via USB to the cable and then plugs into the wall) can vary in the power that it can supply (output). Some stop charging when your device is fully charged, others will keep sending power to the battery regardless of how full it is.

To go deeper into charging cables and to learn about the actual differences that you can see in the cables themselves, you can read up here.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Thanks for stopping by!

– Paul Burnstein, aka Gadget Guy MN – Tech Handyman and Digital Dad


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App Lockers for Smartphones and Tablets

app locker - tech safety for kids

What is an app locker, or applocker, and what do you need an app locker for?

App lockers are great for allowing your kids to use your smartphone or tablet without allowing them full access to everything on your device. Additionally, they can be used on a child’s tablet to again restrict usage of apps that may not be appropriate. The reasons can vary from disabling the ability to purchase other apps or allow viewing of any movie on the device, to locking the internet or ability to get into settings. I should point out that this is most applicable to Android devices as iOS (Apple) does not have app lockers, but I will discuss that a bit further down.

With some systems, an app locker may be preinstalled as part of the additional software provided by the manufacturer (often known as bloatware); this is what I have used for my daughter’s tablet…the tablet that used to be mine. Other options include using the app lock feature from within in another app such as Clean Master (Speed Booster) by Cheetah Mobile or AntiVirus Security Free by AVG Mobile (for the app lock portion, there is a 30 day free trial and then available for purchase) [Note: While I have both of those apps installed, I have not tried their app lock features]. You can do a quick search on Google Play for app lock or app locker and you will have MANY options to choose from. I recently tested out AppLock from DC Mobile and it was quite simple to use and rated very highly by over 2 million users.

All in all, they tend to work the same. You select a secret code that only you (or other parents in your household) know and then you simply select which apps require that code in order to be run. Without that code, the locked apps will not be able to run.

Now, I would never suggesting relying on an app locker as a security feature for saving passwords or protecting against hackers, but they are a good secondary defense once someone is on your phone (after it has already been unlocked) to deter usage for the methods described above. Someone with a bit of knowhow can get around them as shared on the site Make Tech Easier, but for the protection of children and their access to your credit card, they are well worth having.

While Apple (iOS) does not have app lockers like Android, it does have a nifty feature built in to protect snooping on your device once you have shared it with someone. Within settings, you can restrict accessibility through Guided Access. The app will already be open, but you can block out portions of the app and keep the user on that app without the option to play around on the device. Now this solution will not work for protecting a child’s device, it will work to keep your children from playing around with your device and making any changes to settings or making purchases.

I would love to hear what other uses you have found for locking apps on your smart device.

Thanks for stopping by!

– Paul Burnstein, aka Gadget Guy MN – Tech Handyman and Digital Dad

Image byErvins Strauhmanis via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 


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Kids and Tech Hurdles

toddler and preschooler using tablet

I have no issues letting my children use technology. I am a dad who loves sharing tech with his kids. I think it’s great that my kids want to play with it, but I also want their tech playtime to be educational – not just full of SpongeBob SquarePants videos.

My 4 year old daughter loves playing on her tablet, which is my old tablet. The tablet is stripped down with an app locker added – this way, apps are locked so she can’t access the Internet, YouTube, email, Netflix, etc. I also added a thick, pink silicone case. Recently, I showed her that we have a keyboard dock for the tablet. Now it’s no longer her “tablet,” but her “computer” or “laptop.” She loves to sit next to mom or dad and type on the keyboard – or work on her “texts” as she likes to call it.

But back to her tablet use. When it comes to installing apps, I tend to be pretty selective. I’ve added some great memory games as well as letter and word games. But I’ve also installed a few “fluff” games – some of her favorites are a cooking game, a baby care app and a pet care app.

Which do you think she prefers?

Despite my better wishes, my daughter sways toward the “fluff” games that offer little to no educational value. And some of those apps are pure bait designed to purchase other games or in-app purchases. Also, I recently installed the YouTube Kids App, and now all she wants to do is watch clips. I can’t blame her. But streaming video after video wasn’t our intention with giving her the tablet.

So how do we strike a balance?

For starters, we track her overall screen time. We also put limits on that time. And at four years old, we feel like screen time is still something special. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a part of her everyday routine. For instance, there are days when she asks to play on her tablet and we simply say no. (Like on bright, sunny days when we’re all better off running and playing outside.)

Additionally, we monitor her use and recognize that it’s a tool for us to use together. My plan tonight… and in the next few days, is to sit with my daughter and remove some apps that are complete rubbish and find educational games that interest her. In short, I include her in the process.

I am amazed to see how she gets around the tablet and easily does things – like look at the list of recently used apps and close them out, or click the cancel button when an app wants her to buy something (mind you, the Google Play Store is locked so that she can’t actually buy anything without my assistance). She says the app is teasing her if it keeps trying to get her to purchase an upgrade or another app.

While technology is wonderful, we need to protect our kids. It’s challenging to find the right balance between supporting my little tech natives’ curiosity with technology, and gauging when enough is enough… like when the real paints and paint brushes need to come out and the paint app needs to close down.


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Kids and Technology Introduction

20150310_172416 (1)

Sometimes I allow my kiddos to eat lunch at a side table with small stools in the kitchen, instead of our usual dining room lunch routine. They love it. But the challenge is, my 2 and 4 year olds just don’t sit still. Sure, antsy pants are expected at this age. But for some reason, lunching in the kitchen amplifies their fidgeting. Not to mention, there seem to be a lot more distractions (“Squirrel!”) in the kitchen.

Anyway, one day I was encouraging my lovely antsy little children to finish their lunches. And I decided to play some music to help. And not just any music… I offered to play the Frozen soundtrack if they would agree to eat. They were game.

So, I grabbed my phone and went straight to YouTube. I quickly found the soundtrack play list and tapped play. I was delighted that my plan seemed to be working.

But then my kids started begging, “I want to watch. Can I see? Daddy, I want to see!” Of course, I should have expected this. But I didn’t.

Anyway, I briefly showed them the screen for a few seconds. Then I flipped the phone over and explained that we weren’t doing screen time now. “Girls, it’s lunchtime. Not screen time. We’re just going to stream music.” I told them.

They were content. But more importantly, they were eating. They were eating their nutritious lunches instead of squirming around the kitchen.

When their lunches were finished, “Fixer Upper” from Frozen was nearing its end. And, not surprisingly, their demands for video resumed.

But this time, I gave in. Their bellies were full. And they hadn’t had much screen time for the day. So I sat on the floor cuddling my girls. And together, we watched Sesame Street: Star S’Mores (Star Wars Parody).


I want to continue to share my experiences as a father integrating technology into my family’s lives. I hope you will share your own experiences as I delve into topics such as IP cams, allowing and limiting screen time, and using technology for education.

Please share your comments or questions below.

Thanks for stopping by!
Paul Burnstein, AKA Gadget Guy MN


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Sleep Training with a Video Baby Monitor

sleep training video monitor

In our home, we love having a video baby monitor. It’s great for keeping an eye on your children when they are sleeping, and really nice to be able to easily (and quietly!) look in on them to ensure all is okay. Did I mention how great it is to peek in on them without the possibility of waking them?!!?

Another time when a baby video monitor can quite beneficial is when you’re sleep training your little one. Being able to quickly peek in without having to crack open the door (and risk further frustrating your baby!) is important. What parent doesn’t want to pick up his baby when she is crying? But it isn’t that simple, babies need to learn to soothe themselves. And as parents, we need to help establish good sleep patterns for our children.

When our children were about 16 weeks old, we started sleep training. We used the “cry it out method“, where we let our babies cry it out (for a brief period of time) before offering comfort. And from my experience, it was much harder on mother than baby! When your baby was crying and frustrated, having the video baby monitor helped ease our fears on whether our baby was in need of attention, or simply didn’t want to be alone.

I can remember nights with my wife when we were staring at the monitor watching our baby “beg” for us to come get her out. Of course, it wasn’t easy. But having the monitor helped. Not only could we hear our baby’s cries, but we also had visual cues to help us better know when it was time to step in.

Even today with a four year old and a two year old, the convenience of having a video monitor has definitely helped put me at ease. If I hear a strange noise at night, I can easily look in on the monitors to see what’s going on. Not to mention, the ability of having night vision in the room via the video camera is better than if I were to walk into the room in person…I can’t see as well as the camera can!

How have you found video monitors to be helpful with your baby?

11/30/2017 ADDITIONAL RESOURCE UPDATE: Reviews.com sat down with parents to find out which baby monitor features really mattered and then personally tested seven top devices on the market. They looked for options that offer high-quality video and sound features, but most importantly gave parents the greatest peace of mind: https://www.reviews.com/baby-monitor/

Image by Steve Evans via WikiMedia, licensed under CC BY


wifi ip cam baby monitor minneapolis

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5 Things I Love About My IP Cam Baby Monitor

sleeping baby - baby monitoring

As a techie, I love gadgets. As a father, I love using those gadget for family purposes. When my first daughter was born, I of course had to have a video monitor. My wife and I were thrilled about the idea of peeking in on our new baby throughout the night and checking in as needed.

Needless to say, we got a lot of use out of that baby video monitor. About a year later, the video monitor no longer held much of a charge, and it had to be plugged in in order to use it. And that long cord trailing behind the monitor pretty much meant portability was thrown out the window.

But in our one-level condo, we really only needed the video monitor at night. So the dead-battery, long-corded video baby monitor became more of a bedside staple. And, much to my surprise, we made it another year without the cordless option.

But then, we began planning for our second child.

Of course, I did my research and looked into buying a second camera that was compatible with our video baby monitor system. I also looked into buying a new battery for the existing monitor.

The bad news… The battery was nearly the cost of a new camera. And the camera? Well the manufacturer had a new model of camera, which was unfortunately incompatible with our now 2 year old system. My options? I could search around and find another older model camera that would work with our existing system (and eat the cost of a new battery), or…

Or I could ditch the whole “out-of-the-box” video monitor system from Baby’s R Us and put together my own system.

I researched wide range of cameras – wireless, cloud-based, IP cams – along with smartphone apps, and I pushed forward with the DIY route. Since then, we’ve been using two smartphone integrated IP cams with night vision for each kids’ room. Both my wife and I love it!

So what do I love most about the IP cameras?

1. Pan and scan! I can look around the room and see where my kids are when they get out of bed. (My four-year-old resting/hiding under her bed was a bit of surprise once!).

2. Zoom. “Does she have something in her hand?”

3. Ability to view on my phone, my wife’s phone, tablets, PCs, etc. We can even leave a “guest” tablet for the babysitter so she can check up on the kids without waking them.

4. Ability to check in on my kids while traveling for business, or while out on date night. Point being, I don’t have to be on my home network to use the video cam.

5. Ability to use any smartphone app that fits my needs.

Yes, the option to go with an out-of-the-box baby monitor solution is definitely appealing, if you want to take the easy route. But, if you want the right features for your system and if you want greater flexibility for system expansion, then custom solutions are much better way to go.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my family, I want to make sure I am doing everything I can to protect them and using the right tools allows me to do that.

What baby monitor solutions have you found useful for your family?


wifi ip cam baby monitor minneapolis