Tech for the non-techie

My columns in the Times Gazette

By Me

Tony

Who am I?

Links to topics/columns, newest to oldest


Who am I?

I’ve been in tech for more years than I can count on all my appendages. While I’m a die-hard techie, I’ve never been happy with the jargon we use in the industry nor the mystique we’ve tried to cultivate. Tech should be for everyone. I started writing this column to make tech more accessible to everyone and to address that point. I do my best to remove the jargon and, if I can’t remove it, explain it in terms we all use every day and arm everyone with the knowledge needed to acquire and use the tech in our lives.


Columns, oldest to newest

IPTV? Yes, television over the Internet! Column from May 16, 2022

To make it easier on you who are reading this on paper or just prefer to type in the URLs yourself, for each LONG URL I’ll also provide a shorter but descriptive URL that should be easier to type. Also, these columns are not generally intended to be a complete tutorial. Rather, I hope to give you enough information to spark your interest and curiosity, give you a few sites to point you in the right direction, and give you some of the terms you’ll need to get started.

IPTV (i.e. Internet Protocol TeleVision) dates back to the mid-90s.Yeah! And it’s still going today. All those “free” channels you can get on SelectTV and similar providers? Well, you can get them yourself, without anything other than an Internet connection and a video player. It’s a lot like streaming music or your favorite radio station. Does your local TV station have a “live” section where you can stream their current program? That’s likely done with IPTV.

WABC in New York City? Hit up https://content.uplynk.com/channel/ext/72750b711f704e4a94b5cfe6dc99f5e1/wabc_24x7_news.m3u8 (or http://bit.do/IPTV-WABC if you’re typing) and watch it, live and free.

WGN in Chicago? http://trn03.tulix.tv/teleup-mBm5MQ50rA/playlist.m3u8 is where it’s at or http://bit.do/IPTV-WGN if you’re typing.

CNN International UK? https://cnn-cnninternational-1-gb.samsung.wurl.com/manifest/playlist.m3u8 or http://bit.do/IPTV-CNN-UK if typing.

And that’s not all – movies, weather, shopping (QVC, HSN). And, yes, there are program guides, too, so you can find out what’s on, when.

How do you watch these channels? Well, if you only have a few you could use a video player like VLC from https://www.videolan.org/– it can keep track of the ones you like but if you want to explore and watch channels from all over the nation it the world, apps like those mentioned in https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/free-iptv-apps-android/ (or http://bit.do/IPTV-android-apps if typing) and https://tweaklibrary.com/best-iptv-apps-for-android-and-ios can get you going (or http://bit.do/IPTV-android-ios-apps if typing). If you’re watching on a phone or a tablet but want to watch it on your TV, you can use a Chromecast! Aren’t familiar with Chromecast? We’ll get into it in a future column.


So, how do I watch this stuff on my TV? Column from May 26, 2022

OK, Tony, I can watch WGN on my phone or tablet but I want to watch it on my TV. How do I do that?

I’ll get to that in a minute but I have a few maintenance things I should address. You can email me at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com (capitalization is optional – I did it to make it easier to read and remember). Next, I’m keeping a set of clickable links (or live links – i.e. links you can click on) to my columns at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links – I hope that’s not too long for you to type. If it is you can use https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L instead (they both take you to the same place). I tried to make them short and yet representative of that to which they refer. Last, I came across an article at CNet.com that discusses free streaming services – aggregators of channels if you will – which give you access to multiple shows and movies and so on. IPTV is great if you only want to watch a few channels. If you want more (like a program guide) you’ll need to subscribe to a service and there are a LOT of services out there, some of which are a bit shady. I can’t recommend any right now. That’s not to say there aren’t any legit ones, just that I haven’t investigated enough of them to make a recommendation. The CNet article is at https://www.cnet.com/tech/services-and-software/best-free-tv-streaming-services (short link https://go.ttot.link/CNetFreeTV but it’ll be available at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links later).

So, how do I play these shows on my TV? There are several different ways. I use a Chromecast. What is it? A small device that plugs into a free HDMI port on your TV (or monitor). You then “cast” videos or music or pictures to it from your phone or tablet or computer. The article at https://www.radiotimes.com/technology/google-chromecast/ does a better job of introducing it and describing how to set it up and use it so I’ll refer you there (short link https://go.ttot.link/WhatIsAChromecast) but note that it’s a British site so prices are in pounds. You can buy a Chromecast here in the States at Best Buy, Target, Walmart, pretty much any store that sells electronics.

There are a few different versions of Chromecast; further the Chromecast capability can be incorporated into other devices like TVs (if you have a fairly new TV it may have Chromecast built in). The basic Chromecast is a passive device, meaning you have to have your content playing on another device (phone, tablet, computer) and direct that device to send (“cast”) the content to the Chromecast,. This is all covered in the first RadioTimes article I linked to earlier. You control speed (and stop, pause, start) from the device that’s doing the casting. It may sound complicated and I suppose it is somewhat complex but stick with it and you’ll get the hang of it.

I own several Chromecasts in various forms. Of course I have the basic Chromecast but I also own the Chromecast with Google TV (see https://www.radiotimes.com/technology/tech-reviews/chromecast-with-google-tv-review/ or short link https://go.ttot.link/ChromecastGoogleTV). This device provides additional features and functions over the base Chromecast, like the ability to download and run Android apps. I’ve installed Netflix, Paramount+, Amazon Prime Video, and a few others. With the included remote control I can use the apps to watch movies and TV without having to “cast” them from my phone. I have this plugged in to the monitor on my desk. Another device I own is a Shield TV from NVidia. It’s really an Android gaming console that also has the same capabilities as the Chromecast with Google TV – it’s plugged into my TV (no, I don’t use it for gaming).

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


What else can we stream? How about radio? Column from June 2, 2022

Sure, I have subscriptions to services like Spotify but I prefer a knowledgeable DJ to talk to me about the artist or the music. So, mostly I listen to radio. I live in an area surrounded by hills that block most radio stations. Not that that’s a big deal cuz the radio around here nowadays is pretty…let’s just say I’m not terribly happy with what’s available. Realize that I was raised on WEBN and The Jelly Pudding Show with Michael Xanadu. I still remember he bookended the show with Steve Miller’s Song for Our Ancestors (with that fog horn) and a piece from Procol Harum which, as I recall, was Repent Walpurgis (I could be wrong about which Procol Harum song it was…write and let me know if you recall it better than I).

Living in the San Francisco bay area now, there are loads of old radio references and stories, particularly KSAN which was the west coast’s version of WEBN. But all that good radio has mostly died out in the area. So, I stream radio stations from around the country that remind me of the eclectic mix that WEBN played. Mostly they are terrestrial radio stations (i.e. radio stations that actually broadcast on the FM dial) but there are FAR more that just broadcast over the Internet.

If you have a local radio station you enjoy, chances are they have an Internet stream. Go to the station’s website and look for Listen Now or Live and most likely there’s a stream hiding behind that word. Click on that link and the station should start playing in your browser and if that browser is on your phone you can listen to them anywhere, not just on your radio! That’s all well and good if you want to always go to their website to listen. But that can be a bit cumbersome, not to mention that if you have several stations you like, you’ve got to keep them all available in your browser. Some (most?) radio stations have their own app so you’re not tied to a browser. But, again, if you like several stations you’ve got to install several station’s apps. What to do? Get yourself a radio streaming app that can manage multiple stations/streams! Note that some streaming apps will only let you select from a list of stations they provide while others will let you add your own streams. Here are a few Android apps:

Now you’ve got a radio stream player, how do you find a good stream? A number of the “streamers” also have a catalog of stations (all of the apps I listed do) but if you’re as picky as I am, there’s a good chance you won’t be satisfied with what they present to you so you’ll go on a hunt to find your perfect station’s (or stations’) stream(s).

Let’s take an aside for a moment. I’ve been referencing “streams.” What are streams? They’re just web addresses (technically they’re called URLs – they’re what you type into your browser’s address bar when you want to visit a website like timesgazette.com). They’re not unlike the web addresses (i.e. URLs) I introduced in the IPTV column. The full URL likely starts with http:// or https:// although for convenience, you can leave that part out but, trust me, it’s there. If you enter the URL for the “stream” into an app or browser that’s capable of decoding the stream, you’ll get music!

OK, back to the previous question: how do you find a stream? Personally, I go to the web page at radio-browser.info (yes, that’s a web site). Type that into your browser and have a good look at the page; it’ll give you an idea of the service that site provides. If you go to radio-browser.info/tags you’ll see a list of genres (rock, pop, news, etc). Scroll through that list and, if you see a genre you think you might like, click on it and you’ll get a list of stations with a lot of information about each station like its name and a list of “tags” associated with it. Click on the name of the station and you’ll see the Details page. There you should see its URL! Plug that into your streaming app and you’re set. Note that some of those URLs are for the streaming equivalent of a playlist. Often ending in “m3u” or “pls” it’s a list of URLs in a particular format. Why? If there’s an interruption to the stream from one of the URLs, the streaming app will move on to the next URL in the list and continue playing, providing a mostly uninterrupted stream of music. Many browsers won’t play those playlists but will, instead, download them. That’s why I say plug them in to your streaming app.

I mentioned “tags”. What are tags? They’re words that describe the station. Like “oldies” or “eclectic” or “album oriented rock”. You can search the stations using the search box in the upper right of any of those pages but, unfortunately, it uses a rather arcane search language. So, to help, here’s a search I often use which includes English language stations, eclectic, and adult album alternative: https://go.ttot.link/TonysSearch

Hopefully you’ve found a few stations you like and you’ve put them into your new favorite Internet radio streaming app. How do you get that stream to play on your TV? Many of the radio streaming apps will let you cast the radio stream to a Chromecast so you cast it, just like we talked about last week! I use RadioDroid 2 almost exclusively because the cast icon is prominently displayed in the app AND it uses radio-browser.info as its source for your searches.

What are some of the stations in my list? I’ll take that up in next week’s column along with some information about some devices that will allow you to stream your Internet radio WITHOUT (!) having to use your phone/tablet/computer.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


WHAT? I can stream WITHOUT my phone/tablet/computer?!?!? Column from June 9, 2022

Why yes you can! But before I get to that, last week I promised to list some of my favorite streamable radio stations. They’re listed below along with a link to each one’s stream. As usual, I will include their URLs in my blog post over at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links

KOZT – my favorite and one that I listen to pretty much all day, every day. They play a lot of the music I listened to on WEBN (Spooky Tooth, Moby Grape, Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and some I’d never heard as well as good contemporary artists. I try to keep a listing of the songs they’ve played at https://go.ttot.link/KOZTPlayed). Their stream is https://go.ttot.link/KOZT

The Album Station – I think they’re an Internet-only station. Their website is musicheads.us https://go.ttot.link/TheAlbumStation

KVHS – “The Voice of the Valley” in Concord, CA. – A high school radio station that plays 60s-80s music https://go.ttot.link/KVHS

KRSH – Napa, CA. More contemporary, adult album oriented rock https://go.ttot.link/KRSH

WKZE – in Red Hook, NY. Pretty eclectic, local radio https://go.ttot.link/WKZE

How do you stream music/videos WITHOUT a phone/tablet/computer? With a “smart speaker”! There are lots to choose from but the two main suppliers of the “smarts” (the programming that makes the speakers “smart”) are Amazon (they make Echo devices) and Google (they make Nest devices). (OK, there’s a THIRD – Apple with Siri but I have no experience with that so you’re on your own there.)

You don’t have to buy Amazon branded or Google branded devices to get their “smarts” – there are many companies that make compatible devices (Lenovo, Bose, Sonos, to name a few); some even have displays so you can play music AND watch videos; some are soundbars that hook to your TV. I have several Google devices and several Amazon devices. I prefer the Google ones but it’s really a matter of personal preference. You can see Amazon’s Echo devices at https://go.ttot.link/Echo – there are a lot! Google only sells 2 speakers, the Nest Mini and the Nest Audio (https://go.ttot.link/GoogleSpeakers) and 2 displays, the Nest Hub and the Nest Hub Max (https://go.ttot.link/GoogleDisplays) but there are many available from other manufacturers (see https://go.ttot.link/BestGoogleSpeakers for a list with strengths and weaknesses of each). Both companies and their resellers regularly cut prices so keep an eye on your favorite electronics store for a sale.

OK, so you’ve picked up your first smart speaker. How do you make this magic happen? Once it’s installed you just talk to it! You say “OK Google, play KOZT the Coast” and it should start playing KOZT’s radio stream (if you’re an Amazon person, say “Alexa” instead of “OK, Google”). If you have a device with a display and want to watch your favorite Netflix show, just say “[device] play [show] from Netflix”. You can pause them, stop them, fast forward (not radio streams, though, cuz you’re getting the live stream, unlike Netflix).

In older times, some homes had whole house intercoms and some had radios that you could play through all the intercom speakers. You can do similar with smart speakers! If you have multiple speakers throughout your house you can put them into named groups and play your selections through the whole group. I have quite a few smart speakers and have put many of them into several groups. For instance, I have 2 speakers in my office in a group called “Office group” (creative, eh?). I have another group of speakers that are in rooms I frequent and I have them in a group called “My Usual Group”. The Office Group speakers are part of My Usual Group so if I play something on My Usual Group it also plays on My Office Group. Quite a flexible setup! And when you no longer want to listen, you can just tell your speaker to stop. Sure, there are apps – Amazon has an Alexa app and Google has a Home app. You use the app to set up the speaker initially, define speaker groups, control volume (which you can also do by voice), and a whole host of other things. But, largely, once you have your speaker(s)/display(s) set up, you can forget about the app.

And that’s not all these speakers can do – they’re “smart” after all! With your voice you can set alarms, add items to a shopping list, have it remember things for you (“Hey Google, remember that I put those receipts in the desk in the front hall” then, later “Hey, Google, where are the receipts?”), set reminders (“Hey, Google, remind me that our anniversary is on May 15th”), turn on and off smart lights/outlets (if you have them), and even turn on and off certain TVs – the list is quite long and differs a bit between the Echo (aka Alexa) and Google. The companies both say the commands are intuitive but I often confound the speakers with my requests so I find it helpful to have a reference or cheat sheet. Here’s a list of Echo commands – https://go.ttot.link/AlexaCommands – and here’s the same for Google – https://go.ttot.link/GoogleCommands. While we’re at it, you should know that you can install Amazon’s Alexa app and use many of those commands on your phone/tablet. If you have an Android device, Google Assistant is already installed and you can do similar things with it.

Are you worried about your speakers listening to you? Sure, many people are concerned about their privacy in these situations. Well, first I’d ask if you have a cell phone cuz if you do, chances are it’s listening to you a LOT more than your smart speakers. But that doesn’t address privacy. Both Amazon and Google have provisions for you to delete their recordings. I’ll let you do your own search for that and if you have trouble finding how, write to me and I’ll try to help. And I’ll try to take up personal privacy in a future column.

What’s on tap for next week? I’ll discuss various music services – sites where you can buy and own music (physical media like vinyl and digital downloads), streaming services (both free and paid subscriptions), as well as the various levels of quality they provide. Spotify, Amazon Music, Jango, Pandora, Tidal, Qobuz for streaming; ProStudioMasters, HDtracks for purchase to name just a few. And I can’t forget music identification services like Shazam!

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Music services, streaming and buying Column from June 16, 2022

There are a number of different styles of streaming services. Some, like Jango, are totally free with limited customization and feature “stations” that are directed toward a particular artist or genre or mood (e.g. “Rock BBQ”). Others like Spotify have a free tier with limits (limited skips, ads, etc) and a subscription model which removes most or all of the limitations. Now, remember, these services provide a digital stream and the quality of the sound can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. Two that affect the sound a lot are “bitrate” and “lossiness” (see https://go.ttot.link/BitRate for more detail). There’s a lot of technical discussion I could go into but suffice it to say, in general, the higher the bitrate, the better the sound quality and “lossless” is better than “lossy”. Many services provide streams that should be as good as CDs (aka “CD quality sound”) but some provide much higher quality (e.g. Qobuz, Tidal, some Amazon Music tracks, and some Apple Music tracks). Is there a discernible difference? It’s subjective and depends on your hearing and the equipment you use to listen. Qobuz and Tidal charge more for higher quality streams. Over the years I have subscribed to most of the streaming platforms. Currently I subscribe to Spotify and Youtube Music, the latter the result of an early subscription to Google Play Music which was discontinued and my subscription was grandfathered into subscriptions to both Youtube Premium and Youtube Music.

A subscription to a good streaming music service is a good way to build up your music collection. But be aware that you don’t OWN any of the music! When your subscription ends, for the most part your collection disappears so, if you decide to build a music collection with a subscription service, consider it to be a long-term commitment. That said, there IS a subscription service that lets you copy playlists between services and I subscribe to that, too (Soundiiz – https://go.ttot.link/Soundiiz) currently $36/year. With it, I sync my Spotify and YouTube Music playlists. It’s not perfect – it misidentifies some tracks and there are tracks that one service has that another doesn’t, but it’s pretty good., And it supports all the major services as well as any minor ones.

What if you want to OWN the music? There are many places where you can buy vinyl and there’s nothing like a physical record. But they require care and, well, it’s difficult to play your vinyl in your car. I prefer to purchase digital versions and generally buy the highest quality (i.e. lossless high bitrate) but there are many options for buying regular, CD quality digital music. Amazon and Apple are two such places. This format is known as MP3 because that’s the format in which the digital music is provided (see https://go.ttot.link/MP3 for more detail).

Sure, I’ve bought quite a few MP3s. Is it worth it to pay extra for higher quality? Again, as I said above, it’s subjective. I’m very selective when it comes to buying high quality music because it can often be much more expensive than a lower quality format (for instance, Heart’s album “Dreamboat Annie” costs around $20 in the highest quality format versus about $12 on vinyl and MP3) . And I tend to listen to them with higher quality equipment – yes, I believe I can tell the difference.

When I buy high quality, I buy FLAC (see https://go.ttot.link/FLAC for more info and a comparison with MP3). It’s a lossless, high bitrate format and the music is often taken from the original master recordings. I believe I can hear things that I’ve not heard from other formats, including vinyl, and I attribute it to the source (original master tracks)…if I listen to an equivalent MP3 on the same equipment, those things are missing (the song “Cars Hiss By My Window” from The Doors album “L A Woman” and the song “Parachute Woman” by the Rolling Stones on their album “Beggars Banquet” come to mind). I buy from HDTracks.com and ProStudioMasters.com and have several high quality FLAC albums.

What should you do? You have to decide for yourself what you want. If you want to own the music and enjoy a high quality listening experience, I recommend buying ONE FLAC track and comparing it against an equivalent MP3. Get one you really enjoy and are very familiar with. Otherwise, try out several free services and also use the free trials the paid services offer. As I said, I subscribe to Spotify and Youtube Music and I am quite happy with them, especially since I also have a subscription to Soundiiz. Those services and the few internet radio streams keep me quite satisfied, musically.

Oh, I almost forgot! What do you do if you hear some music and you don’t know or can’t recall the title or artist? I use Shazam and it’s available on both Apple and Android. A big plus in my opinion is that it will add identified tracks to a Spotify playlist called My Shazam Tracks if you have a paid Spotify subscription. There are other music identification services but I find Shazam to be the most reliable and accurate. I have a LOT of tracks in My Shazam Tracks playlist because I use it so often. Hear a tune in a movie or TV show that sounds interesting? Fire up Shazam!

Next week I’ll talk about headphones, headsets, and earbuds. Wired and wireless. On ear, over hear, in ear, open ear – these are all terms I’ll address to arm you with the terms you can use to navigate that market. And, on the heels of this column, I’ll talk about sound quality – what good is a high quality stream/purchase if your headphones can’t reproduce it?

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Headphones, headsets, earbuds, oh my! Column from June 23, 2022

You want to be able to listen to your audiobook/podcast/music privately, without bothering anyone else? Get a set of headphones. Easy, right? Well, yeah, it can be if you buy the first thing you see but if you start looking around you’ll likely find a bewildering array of types and terms and options. Wired, wireless, over ear, in ear, what? And different uses sometimes require different specifications. If you want to have your TV sound play through your headphones you want their mouths to be in sync with the sound you’re hearing. If you have a high quality recording you probably want to hear all the nuance in the track.

So let’s get some definitions out of the way. Headphones can be put into several different types of classifications, There are “over ear”, “on ear”, “in ear”, “open ear”, and “bone conduction”. Then there are codecs and latency. Then there are special uses, like that TV thing I mentioned.

Over ear go OVER your ears, covering them completely with cups that rest against your head. They tend to mute the sound around you by virtue of the fact that they seal around your ears. They can be wired or wireless and they can have a microphone so you can use them on a phone call, for instance. A wired over ear is https://go.ttot.link/WiredOverEar

“On ear” rest ON your ears. They don’t surround your ears the way over ear do. They tend to mute the sound around you but not nearly as well as over ear. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example of a wired on ear is https://go.ttot.link/WiredOnEar

In ear, often called earbuds, have a protrusion that goes into your ear and they generally, but not always, provide a seal so that you are, as with over ear, isolated from sounds around you. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example is https://go.ttot.link/WiredInEar

These three types tend to give the best sound with good bass, mainly because they project more of less directly into your ear canal.

Bone conduction headphones sit against the bones in front of your ears and vibrate. The vibrations are carried to the part of your inner ear that is responsible for interpreting the vibrations as sound. I know some people that swear by these but I have never been happy with them – the vibrations tickle! Nonetheless, I tell you about them so you’ll have a more or less complete picture. A example is https://go.ttot.link/BoneConduction

Personally, unless I’m really listening to some high quality tracks (FLAC, remember?) I prefer open ear. These tend to sit OUTSIDE of your ears, the speakers pointing at your ears. I like them because I’m not cut off from my surroundings yet I can still hear my music. They tend to not provide the best fidelity but are passable, in my opinion, for casual listening. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example is https://go.ttot.link/WirelessOpenEar

Today wireless in headphones means Bluetooth. What is that? In short a transmitter sends sound over the air to a receiver. You’ll often see a number associated with Bluetooth, like 4 or 5 or 5.1 or 5.2. That’s the version – Bluetooth has been around a long time and has undergone quite a few updates. 5.2 is the newest. The transmitter and receiver can use different versions – they all work with each other. An older version just won’t be able to do some of the things that a newer version offers. Like what? Well, Bluetooth 5.0 made some changes to Bluetooth LE (Low Energy, introduced in Bluetooth 4) that allows headphones to connect and use Bluetooth LE. True to its name, Bluetooth LE requires less power so your headphones battery will last longer. Don’t have a Bluetooth 5 headphone? No big deal! It will still connect and work but will use more battery than an LE capable headphone.

You may also read about Bluetooth “profiles”. In general you don’t need to worry about them. The basic profiles that allow you to make and receive phone calls, listen to music and start, stop, skip tracks and change volume are present in every Bluetooth headphone I’ve seen.

You will also likely see references to a CODEC or CODECs. A codec is how the sound is encoded before its sent to your headphones. Some codecs are high quality that can provide near perfect reproduction of the sound but all codecs reproduce pretty well – only with high quality headphones and high quality source material would you likely be able to detect a difference in quality.

You may also see a reference to “latency” which is the delay between the time the sound is sent to your receiver (headphone) and the time you actually hear the sound (don’t ask why, that’s beyond the scope of this column). Why would you care about latency? If you want to watch a video (e.g. YouTube, Netflix) if the latency is high you’ll notice a difference between lip movement and what you hear. Some codecs (e.g. aptX-LL for Low Latency) are optimized to provide low latency but pretty much any codec can provide low latency if implemented with latency in mind. And most headphones nowadays keep their latency low enough to not be a problem but if you think you’ll want to use your headphones to watch videos, pay attention to what is said in product descriptions and comments. This problem does not exist with wired headphones so if you don’t mind being tethered to your phone/tablet, you can sidestep the whole issue.

OK, got all that? Deep breath, we’re almost done…

One other thing to briefly talk about is noise cancellation. Many people (and manufacturers) make a big deal about this. ANC is Active Noise Cancellation as opposed to PNC or Passive Noise Cancellation. Headphones with ANC analyze the outside sounds and try to generate sound waves that cancel out those sounds, leaving the sound it’s receiving from your phone/whatever as the only thing you hear. It’s never perfect and I generally don’t care for it because of its imperfection. It requires power so it will decrease your available time on battery. Passive Noise Cancellation deadens outside sounds by virtue of the seal the headphones/earbuds make with your ears so requires no additional power.

By now you’re either very confused or are getting a handle on the various elements that can be taken into account when it comes to selecting headphones/earbuds.

Next week I’ll talk about special cases – for example, assistive listening devices for those of us who need a little help hearing and understanding conversations (I had my hearing tested and according to the audiologist, my hearing isn’t bad enough to need a hearing aid but it can use a little help). I’ll also talk about headsets that are better for phone calls and why they’re better.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Assistive Listening Devices? Whaaaaaa???? Column from June 30, 2022

Last week I tried to give an overview and introduce you to terms used with headphones and earbuds. This week I’m going to discuss 2 special cases – 1) headsets for telephone use and 2) assistive listening devices.

First, headsets and headphones to use for telephone calls. Why this topic? I’ve seen far too many good headphones declare they work really well for phone calls. In certain circumstances that may be true but unless they have a boom microphone or at least have something that protrudes toward your mouth they probably pick up a lot of the sound around you (worst case) or deaden those sounds and also occasionally deaden your voice so the person on the other end of the line can’t understand you (best case). Examples? With a boom microphone, this wireless headset (https://go.ttot.link/WirelessBoomMic) or this wired headset (https://go.ttot.link/WiredBoomMic). No boom like this wireless headset (https://go.ttot.link/WirelessNoBoom), Sure, there are some very pricey headsets that don’t have a boom or a protrusion toward your mouth that perform really well but those are few and far between and often hard to find. Do you absolutely need to have a headset specifically for phone calls? Of course not but if you make more than a few calls a week (and that includes doing web conferences, Facetime, Duo calls or anything else like it) I would strongly suggest considering it. There is one surprising exception to the boom rule – those old earbuds that used to come with your phone? The ones that plugged in to your phone? They had a microphone on the cable and if you aimed the mic at your mouth they did a decent job of picking up your voice and pretty much nothing else. You might see folks being interviewed on TV with them.

What are “assistive listening devices?” Unsurprisingly, they are devices that help you hear better. They are NOT hearing aids – hearing aids are registered with, approved, and regulated by the FDA and tend to cost thousands of dollars. Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) can cost anywhere from tens of dollars to several hundred. PSAPs (Personal Sound Amplification Products) are a type of ALD do just that – amplify sound, often enhancing or reducing certain frequencies based on an (often) user administered hearing test. Some higher-end headphones have hearing tests built in to their associated app to do some equalization specific to the user.

Why would you want or use an ALD or PSAP? Well, there are several use cases. For one, I have a mild hearing loss and I usually need the TV to be a bit louder than is comfortable for some people. So, I often use a headset like this (https://go.ttot.link/TVHeadphones). It plugs in to the TV sound output and transmits the sound to the headphones over FM. There is no lag (or latency, remember?) so the sound is synchronized with their lips. Unfortunately, these are on-ear headphones so it makes it difficult to hear that I’m being spoken to. Other alternatives for TV listening are low latency transmitters and open ear headphones (look for a transmitter that supports aptX-LL for Low Latency and make sure your headphones also support aptX-LL) but be aware that there may be lip sync issues even with low latency Bluetooth. And if you have a newer TV, it might even have Bluetooth built-in so you don’t need a transmitter. But if you do need one, here are two, one with a display so you can select the Bluetooth device with which it will connect (https://go.ttot.link/TransmitterWithDisplay) and one without if you’re just going to use one headset all the time (https://go.ttot.link/TransmitterNoDisplay).

Another example (another personal one), I can’t hear higher frequencies very well. Sure, I could use an equalizer to raise the volume of some higher frequencies, but, among many other things, it’s hit-or-miss depending on whether the equalizer handles the frequencies I need adjusted and how well the equalizer handles the adjustments. A good PSAP will not only measure your hearing but also faithfully apply the adjustments. Bluetooth PSAPs can often apply those adjustments to not only the music you listen to but also to your phone calls. Some have a transparency mode which brings outside sound in through the device and applies the adjustments to that sound as well. And some even have provisions to provide directionality (focus on sounds directly in front of you, for instance) and even adjust for different environments (crowds, outdoor, indoor, etc).

Being the nerd that I am, I have many different headsets for many different applications. I have several open ear headsets that do aptX-LL quite well and I often switch between them to watch TV. Two examples I’m particularly fond of are https://go.ttot.link/TVOpenEar1 and https://go.ttot.link/TVOpenEar2. But the one that I rely on for TV as well as general purpose use (including listening to high quality music) is https://go.ttot.link/BeHearAccess. It does all the things I’ve written about, including a good hearing test. It can s l o w speech on a phone call, can change its attributes depending on your environment (crowd, outdoor, indoor, etc), and can help those of us with ringing in the ears (tinnitus). It even has a Telecoil receiver – something that isn’t all that common here in the USA but is more common in Europe. I haven’t discussed Telecoil before because it’s so uncommon but, for completeness, I’ll just say that some venues (churches, theaters, for instance) run a wired loop around the inside of the building and will transmit sound through the wire. A Telecoil receiver can pick that up and relay it to your ears.

I have not given an exhaustive discussion of special cases like phone headsets and PSAPs but hopefully I have given you enough information and terminology that you can seek out additional help if you’re interested.

Next week I’ll talk about “cutting the cord” – options for replacing your cable provider with one or more free or paid services. There are a LOT of options (we’ve already discussed one – IPTV – so I won’t go over that again) so it might span several columns.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Cutting the Paid TV Cord, Part 1 Column from July 7, 2022

This is gonna be a long one so I’m breaking it into multiple columns because there are LOTS of ways to “cut the cord” (i.e. drop your satellite/cable provider). There are free services (IPTV is just one of many alternatives), paid services, and there are still the old over-the-air (OTA, i.e. use an antenna) alternatives. And, with all of these alternatives, there are ways to record shows. We’ll try to get into ALL that but it will take a while and a fair bit of reading on your part.

First, I want to go back to last week’s column and maybe clarify a few things. My apologies for being so late getting my column’s links onto my website. The folks that I pay to “host” my website (i.e. they provide the computers and storage and Internet access from one of their installations) went down HARD for about 5 days which means I didn’t have access to my site to enter all the info. I’ll be changing providers in the near future so, hopefully, that won’t happen again.

Next, I have some favorite Bluetooth headphones/headsets/earbuds. I have quite a few because, well, it’s like a hobby for me. And the ones I have I tend to use for a specific purpose. My favorites for TV

https://go.ttot.link/TVOpenEar1
https://go.ttot.link/TVOpenEar2
https://go.ttot.link/TVOpenEar3 and
https://go.ttot.link/TVHeadphones

I prefer any of the first three because I can still hear what’s going on around me but often use the 4th simply because of latency (yes, it can be an issue even with headphones made for low latency).

When it comes to headsets for telephone/Zoom/Skype/Facetime/etc I prefer https://go.ttot.link/Plantronics5200 but it’s kinda pricey. Nearly as good but a bit more fragile and a LOT less expensive is https://go.ttot.link/5200WorkAlike.

For music I rotate among the various quality headsets I have but my current favorite in earbuds is https://go.ttot.link/AnkerLiberty3. They’re sorta expensive but they go on sale often.

Resuming cutting the cord – there are a number of ways to watch what you want.TV stations have moved to a digital transmission format which travels farther and is of better quality than the old over-the-air (OTA) transmissions. I’ll discuss that a bit next week but this week I’m going to discuss free streaming movie and TV services.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard of most of the big subscription-based streaming movie and TV services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Paramount+, Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV. But did you know there are a LOT of free streaming services? They typically don’t provide the ability to record any programs – you either watch live or watch one of their on demand movies or shows but if a program is playing or is gonna play and they DON’T have that particular item available on demand, you’re out of luck if you can’t watch it live.

One of my favorite free services is Plex TV (https://go.ttot.link/PlexTV). There’s a lot to see there so be prepared to explore. Among others, they have The Hallmark Channel, an NBC News channel, Bloomberg Television, Reuters, Today All Day, and a TON of local channels from all over the country plus movies both on demand and movie channels that shows movies on a schedule (Hallmark tends to be one of those). And they have one of my favorite channels – AXS TV. It’s a channel about music that shows concerts, interviews (Dan Rather interviewing Crosby, Stills, and Nash is excellent!), shows, and movies about music and artists.

Another one of my favorites is Pluto TV (https://go.ttot.link/PlutoTV). It has quite a few live TV channels including news from CBS, CNN, and Sky News. Also, Sports, Music, Classic TV (Dick Van Dyke, Happy Days, etc) PLUS On Demand movies and TV shows. If you create a free account you can pick your favorite channels and they’ll be easily available.

While live Pluto TV seems to concentrate on CBS stations, Tubi TV (https://go.ttot.link/TubiTV) presents Fox and ABC in their live TV section. For live sports they have Fox, NFL and MLB plus a few others. If you’re a sports fan, you might want to check them out, And, of course, they have a selection of movies and older TV series along with some original content.

Those are 3 of my favorites. All have apps or you can use their website and if you explore them fully you’ll be busy for quite a while. But there are many many others which you can find by searching for “free TV streaming”. One article that is a good starting place is https://go.ttot.link/CNetFreeTV – I also referenced that article in my IPTV column back in May.

You’re all probably aware of some of the paid streaming services but did you know that some also have a free tier? They’re ad supported so you’ll have to sit through ads every so often but they can be a great free alternative since they are all legitimate, established streaming services. Some are mentioned in the above-linked article and I’ll mention a few here, too.

Sling TV has a free, ad-supported service at https://go.ttot.link/SlingTVFree with live news from, among other sources, ABC and CBS, plus QVC, AFV (America’s Funniest Videos), Bon Apetit. Again, lots to choose from. And, yes, they have an app or you can watch on their website (and you can cast from the app – remember Chromecast?)

Freevee (https://go.ttot.link/Freevee) is a free streaming service from Amazon (it used to be known as IMDB TV prior to Amazon buying them). Being from Amazon, you’d think you could escape the commercials with an Amazon Prime account…but you can’t – ads pop up every so often and you can’t skip them. Freevee’s shows are all on demand – no program guide. You select what you want to watch and watch it. The selection is a bit limited as there are some movies/shows that are free if you have Amazon Prime (but you still have to watch ads), otherwise you have to purchase them. But the free selections aren’t bad. Old TV series like Bewitched and All in the Family and newer ones like Chicago Fire. The newer ones tend to only give you one episode for free so be aware of that before you get involved with a show.

Peacock (https://go.ttot.link/PeacockTV) is another paid service that has a free tier. It’s NBC so they have NBC shows/channels like Saturday Night Live and Dateline, plus channels for classic TV (e.g. Columbo), and even a Hell’s Kitchen channel. Many of the channels are also available on demand but, again, be aware that some may only give you one or a few episodes for free.

Can you replace your paid cable or satellite service with totally free services? I’ll give a qualified ‘yes” but you’ll have to work at it and likely have to wait if you want to see many of the currently broadcast shows.

Next week I’ll continue “cutting the cord” – options for replacing your cable provider with one or more free or paid services. There are a LOT of options including installing an HDTV antenna to pick up over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts from your local TV stations. I’ll discuss that next week.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Cutting the Paid TV Cord, Part 2 Column from July 14, 2022

Last week I only covered a few of the many many free TV streaming services. If you have a Samsung TV, smartphone, or tablet you can download Samsung TV Plus (https://go.ttot.link/TVPlusDownload) or you can watch on the web at https://go.ttot.link/TVPlus. It has over 100 channels – the list for US customers is at https://go.ttot.link/TVPlusChannels and it includes CBS and ABC news, Bloomberg TV, HSN, QVC, and Hell’s Kitchen.

Crackle TV at https://go.ttot.link/CrackleTV is another free streaming service. It has older TV series like Alf and Barney Miller and some British series like Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) and older as well as lesser known (to me at least) movies.

Roku, the streaming device maker, even has a free channel you can watch on the web at https://go.ttot.link/FreeRokuChannel. Like these other free services, you’re not gonna get the latest and greatest content but they have a decent selection of the older stuff for free.

This week I’m writing about probably the least expensive ways to watch not only your local channels but quite a selection of other channels. How? With an ANTENNA! I’M SERIOUS! Stop laughing! Since June 13, 2009, TV stations have been required to switch to digital broadcasts. And if your TV was made in 2006 or later, you can probably pick up those digital broadcasts right there on your TV. Digital has the benefit of not degrading quality as you get further from the broadcast tower – if you can receive the signal it should be just as good for you as for someone living much closer to the tower. You may need to invest in an antenna and, often, an indoor antenna is all that’s required but if you want to get fancy and maybe pick up more stations you can install an outdoor antenna.

Why do I say you can get a selection of channels besides your usual local stations? Digital broadcasts require less of their allotted frequencies so many stations use that extra space to broadcast additional channels on from 1 to 18 “virtual channels” or “subchannels.” So, in addition to WKRC from Cincinnati, you will also get The CW https://go.ttot.link/TheCW, Antenna TV https://go.ttot.link/AntennaTV, and Comet TV https://go.ttot.link/CometTV as they’re all broadcast by WKRC on subchannels. They’re typically shown as – or .>subchannel>. WKRC is channel 12, the CW is 12-2, Antenna TV is 64-2 (WKRC provides some services to WSTR which is on channel 64 which might explain why Antenna TV shows up there).

What stations can you pick up? There are several sites where you can enter your address and it will tell you what you can likely receive, often along with a signal strength and antenna recommendation. AntennaWeb at https://go.ttot.link/AntennaWeb can do it as can OTADTV at https://go.ttot.link/OTADTVTowers. Just enter your street address and the site will do all the work for you and even include a map! Note that TV stations list as their address the location of their studio, not the location of the tower they use to broadcast their signal. Here in the San Francisco bay area, the towers for some stations in San Francisco and Oakland are actually on top of a small mountain well outside of San Francisco and Oakland so don’t dismiss broadcast TV just because you think you’re too far from the station! Use one of the websites I’ve listed and see what it says.

Your TV can’t pick up digital signals? No worries! You can get a digital tuner that plugs in to your TV for not a lot of money. Magnavox makes one for just under $70 at https://go.ttot.link/DigitalConverter but there are many that cost half that – just search for “digital TV converter.” Some even have recording capabilities so you can record your favorite show and watch it later. If you don’t want to plug it into your TV you can get adapters for your PC (https://go.ttot.link/TVTunerForWindows) and even YOUR ANDROID PHONE (see https://go.ttot.link/AndroidTVTuner). I’ve just ordered the Android item and will try to give a brief rundown on its usefulness next week. For fun, here’s a review of that phone accessory https://go.ttot.link/AndroidTunerReview. Also, AARP has a decent article on digital TV including some antenna recommendations. See https://go.ttot.link/AARPGuide.

If you’re really interested in getting rid of cable/paid TV and you don’t mind dealing with nerds, I suggest you give https://go.ttot.link/RedditCordcutters a look. Reddit is a good place to follow lots of topics including tech. I follow quite a few “subreddits” which is what they call the areas devoted to specific topics like “cordcutters.” Of course it’s an online community and, like all online communities, they have their share of disruptive individuals, commonly called trolls, but each subreddit has people who have volunteered to act as moderators and eject the trolls.

Going back to the question I asked at the end of last week’s column, can you replace your paid cable or satellite service with totally free services? Being able to pick up your local broadcast channels for free certainly helps! I still give it a qualified “yes” but with broadcast digital it becomes easier, don’t you think?

Next week I’ll again continue “cutting the paid TV cord” and discuss some well known and even some not so well known paid services.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers – France, Belgium, and Germany in particular. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


Cutting the Paid TV Cord, Part 3 Column from July 28, 2022

First, let me apologize for not producing a column last week. My current web site hosting provider was not performing to my expectations. My site was unreachable a lot of the time or just very very slow to respond. Since my site is where I keep the live or clickable links referenced in my columns, it meant that you needed to type in the short link and, to my mind, that was unacceptable. So I undertook a move to a new hosting provider. Normally that’s not a bit deal but for some reason it’s taking much longer than expected. Rather than delay my column another week, I’ve decided to go ahead with this week’s column and hope my old provider remains up and stable.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far in cutting the paid TV cord. While I didn’t relate it specifically to cutting the paid TV cord, IPTV in the first column certainly applies. The next column discussed how to watch those channels on your TV as opposed to your computer/phone/tablet. The column on June 9 listed a few options for streaming video to other devices (Amazon Echo and Google Displays). The July 7 column is where we really started digging in to cutting the paid TV cord, discussing totally free services and a few services that are paid services with free tiers (often with reduced content or advertising or both) along with ways to listen without bothering your partner. The July 14 column addressed Over-The-Air (OTA) TV – broadcast TV that can be picked up with an antenna. And it’s not just your local channels! Many stations also broadcast other content alongside their primary station.

In this column we’ll explore some PAID (gasp!) services. Why? Well, honestly, I feel that some of these services provide good value for money. Many have the ability to record shows for later viewing, even setting up recurring recordings so you don’t have to remember to record Jeopardy!

There are paid services that specialize in live content. They often provide you local broadcast channels along with other channels that are typically considered cable only (i.e. not broadcast over the air but delivered by your cable provider). A few examples are ESPN and its associated networks, The Food Network, Nickelodeon, and The Weather Channel.

There are paid services that tend to specialize in movies and older broadcast TV. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are two examples. They have some original content and some offer TV series from other countries (which I often find very interesting!).

Then there are services that are owned by ‘stations” or “channels” like HBO. They tend to feature movies that are only available on that service (Game of Thrones on HBO Max, for instance). Some other examples are Peacock TV (NBC), Disney+ (Disney).

So, what should you sign up for? Of course, it’s up to you but I recommend evaluating your favorite TV and movies and going with a selection of services that covers your interests. If you’re a fan of Marvel and Star Wars then consider Disney+. If you’re a sports fan maybe consider a service that includes ESPN. And always remember you can cancel and restart services so you’re not locked into a whole year of a service because you only like one or two shows.

OK, let’s dig in to a few services. One that’s popular is Sling TV (https://go.ttot.link/SlingTV). It has 3 “packages,” 2 which include a few different channels (ESPN, for example) and a third package that includes ALL the channels. And all packages come with 50 hours of DVR storage so you can record your favorites to watch later. It does NOT include local broadcast channels except (some markets include Fox and NBC) so you’ll need an antenna or some other method to watch your local news shows. If you want to add Showtime, it’ll cost you an additional $10/month. And, as I said earlier, they have a totally free tier so you can sample their quality. For a good review and rundown of Sling’s services, check out https://go.ttot.link/SlingReview. That article has links to good reviews of some other services, too.

Another popular, but more expensive service is YouTube (review at https://go.ttot.link/YoutubeTVReview). At $65/month with unlimited DVR it’s probably what I would choose with Sling a strong second but they don’t have AXS TV (https://www.axs.tv/), a channel that broadcasts concerts and music-related shows which i watch a LOT so if I went with YouTube TV I’d have to find a way to add that channel using yet another service.

The last one I’m going to cover this week is Hulu with Live TV (good review at https://go.ttot.link/HuluLiveTVReview). At nearly $70/month it’s more expensive than YouTube TV but comes with Disney+ and ESPN Plus BUT it includes commercials ($5/month removes them). 200 hours of DVR storage is included and the recorded shows won’t disappear for 9 months.

Are these all of the cable replacement options available? Heavens no! They’re 3 of the most popular. There are plenty more and I encourage you to revisit that first link in this column (https://go.ttot.link/SlingReview) and read some of the other reviews and comparisons.

Next week I’ll again continue “cutting the paid TV cord” and discuss a few non-live services like Netflix and HBO Max and talk about how to keep all these shows from all these different services straight.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers – France, Belgium, and Germany in particular. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


Cutting the Paid TV Cord, Part 4 Column from August 18, 2022

I want to thank you all for bearing with me while i changed hosting providers. It took a LOT longer than anticipated but, hopefully, downtime is a thing of the past.

On the subject of free broadcast OTA (Over-The-Air) TV, Nextgen TV (also known as ATSC 3.0) has been rolling out nationally. It enhances the quality of digital OTA broadcasts by adding 4K broadcasts, HDR (High Dynamic Range) which allows for a wider range of colors, deeper blacks and whiter whites. See https://go.ttot.link/NextGenTV for a more complete explanation of ATSC 3.0

Recently I was away from home for a week so I took that opportunity to actually USE many of the services I’ve written about in the past few weeks. All functioned as expected, including the free ones, but I found that trying to keep track of where to watch the networks and shows I wanted was … difficult at best. No single free service provided access to everything I wanted to watch. And I could find no app nor website that brought together all the program guides from all the free services into a single searchable program guide. I have not cut the paid TV cord myself and that is the main reason I haven’t. If you’re a very casual TV viewer who watches news, PBS, old movies and maybe one or two old series you might be able to get by but, for many of us, TV is something we rely on for entertainment. There ARE services that help keep track of movies and series across broadcast and subscription services, including the iconic TV Guide (yes, it exists as an app now). In general you tell the app how you receive TV (over-the-air or one of the paid TV options like Dish or our cable provider) and which streaming services you use. The app “knows” which channels are available and allows you a limited amount of customization (delete, rearrange, and favorite channels) and presents the program guide, typically in channel order listing shows by the hour or half hour. For the “on demand” services like Netflix which don’t have fixed program schedules, the apps tend to show you the most popular titles. You can set up a “watchlist” and if a program is broadcast at a particular time you can often set up to be notified before it starts.

This is all fine if you have a broadcast provider (e.g. OTA or cable) but if you use a streaming service like Pluto TV (from the July 7 column https://go.ttot.link/PlutoTV) which streams certain shows at certain times you’re out of luck. The ONLY place that I could find to see the program guide and schedule was in the Pluto TV app. If you’re satisfied with using just one service it’s not a problem but if you use 2 or more you’ll need to find a way to keep track on your own of what is on which service and channel. That is what I dealt with during my time away from home and it was incredibly frustrating.

Moving on to my intended topics for the week which are 1) on demand services (e.g. Netflix, HBO Max, Apple TV+) and 2) how to keep track of what’s on which service.

It can be really difficult to decide which on demand service to subscribe to. I’ve found movies and series that interest me on just about every service. My favorites? Apple TV+, Paramount+, and Disney+. They’re my favorites because I can almost always find a series or movie I want to see. Disney+ has Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar/Disney. Paramount+ has blockbuster movies plus the new Star Trek series as well as new CBS content; And as far as I’m concerned, Apple TV+ has some of the best original content available anywhere (For All Mankind, Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, Foundation).

Apple TV+ costs $4.99/month which you can cancel anytime. Here’s a good rundown of the service https://go.ttot.link/AppleTV

Paramount+ has two plans – $4.99 per month with ads or $9.99 per month commercial free. You get a discount for a yearly subscription but if you’re really looking to save money you’ll likely want to subscribe and cancel as shows come and go. Here’s a good rundown of the service – https://go.ttot.link/ParamountPlus

Disney+ announced a rate hike beginning in December of this year. With ads becomes $7.99 per month and ad free becomes $10.99. I still think it’s worth it because I’m a Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars fan. And they have “bundles” – you can add Hulu or ESPN+ for a discount over subscribing to them individually. Yes, there are discounts for a yearly subscription if you’re interested but, again, if you really want to save money you’ll subscribe and cancel. Here’s a good review https://go.ttot.link/DisneyPlus

Now that you’ve signed up or are planning to sign up for several on demand services, how do you keep track of what’s available on which service? And when you hear about a new series or movie, how can you remember to watch it? Yes, there are apps! Google TV (https://go.ttot.link/GetGoogleTV), as an app, can keep track of movies and series you are interested in with a “watchlist.” I find its interface to be too cluttered with graphics for me but it’s a good, free app that’s available for Android and iOS.

I have two that I use regularly – they each have their strengths and weaknesses and both have apps for Android and iOS.
TV Time (https://go.ttot.link/TVTime) has a good, clean interface with a calendar so you can easily see when a new episode will be available and you can mark individual episodes as seen. It has a number of “social” features which allow you to see what friends are watching but, honestly, I don’t use those features. You search for shows and movies, put them on your watchlist and can keep track of what you’ve seen and what you still want to see.

The other one I use is actually an online database with multiple apps that make use of it. The site is trakt.tv. It’s free but if you pay $30 per year you get VIP benefits (https://go.ttot.link/TraktVIP) which may or may not interest you. I’ve signed up for VIP and am quite happy with it., You can use their website or use one (or several) of their many apps (https://go.ttot.link/TraktApps) that use their database. I use TV Show Tracker (iOS https://go.ttot.link/TrackeriOS Android https://go.ttot.link/TrackerAndroid). I find it easier to navigate and feel it has a cleaner, less cluttered interface. The nice thing about using a central database is that you can move from app to app and still have all of your shows, watched and otherwise, available.

That about does it for cutting the paid TV cord. If I’ve missed something or you have questions or requests, please let me know.

Next week I’ll start discussing ways to keep yourself safe online. Did you know that the pictures you publish can contain precise location information?

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers – France, Belgium, and Germany in particular. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


How to stay relatively safe online Column from August 25, 2022

On the subject of free broadcast OTA (Over-The-Air) TV, Nextgen TV (also known as ATSC 3.0) has been rolling out nationally. It enhances the quality of digital OTA broadcasts by adding 4K broadcasts, HDR (High Dynamic Range) which allows for a wider range of colors, deeper blacks and whiter whites. See https://go.ttot.link/NextGenTV for a more complete explanation of ATSC 3.0

Staying safe online is something just about all of us worry about. And if some of us aren’t concerned, we should be! I know people who’ve lost their bank accounts and one friend even had his social security account hijacked. Following some simple rules could have prevented all of this.

Rule #1 – be suspicious. You just heard from an old friend who you haven’t heard from in ages? Maybe it wasn’t them! Contact them via another method and confirm that they sent you a message. Yes, even responding to a message from a scammer can set you up to be scammed. If your friend says they didn’t contact you, just ignore the other message. Do not engage. Why? Often scammers are not working alone. By responding or engaging they KNOW you’re there and word will spread, inviting other scammers to contact you.

Rule #2 – be suspicious of polls and questionnaires on social media. They may be fun but they inform scammers of your past or your present or your future plans and give them ammunition to engage in social engineering attacks. A good place to read about it is https://go.ttot.link/SocialEngineering but I’ll briefly go into some of the more important aspects. Social engineering is a way for hackers and scammers to find out things about you that could help them break into accounts or entice you to give them more information about you – information that could be used to figure out passwords or fool businesses into thinking the scammer is you. See a questionnaire that asks your favorite teacher in grade school, your first pet’s name, or your best friend in high school? Stay far away from it! Answers to those questions could be the basis for a password or the answer to a challenge you’ve set up at your bank.

Rule #3 – NEVER click on a link in an email or text unless you’ve verified it came from a trustworthy source. Just because it looks like your bank sent it doesn’t mean they did. Call them if necessary – and DON’T use the phone number from the email! Use the number you have for them or the one from their website that you went to independently of the text/email. If you get an email that says you owe money for something, ignore it if you can’t verify its authenticity some other way. Almost every day I get spam that says I owe or will be charged for a service with a link to contest the charge. If I don’t recognize the company or service I ignore them. And if I recognize the company or service I use alternate methods to confirm, like independently going to their website, logging in and checking there. I also have alerts set up for ALL of my credit and bank accounts. Any time there is a charge to one of my credit cards or a deduction from one of my bank accounts I get a text or an email. And, being suspicious, I don’t click on any links in the text or email. Instead, if i question the charge I either open the app associated with the account or independently go to the web site for that account.

Rule #4 – use a masked or disposable email address whenever possible. How does this help? If you get an email from “your bank” but it’s going to a masked email address that you don’t use for your bank, you can bet it’s a scam or attempted hack. What are masked/disposable/anonymous email addresses and how do you get them? There are many services, both free and paid, that provide this service. https://go.ttot.link/MaskingServices gives a good description of some of the various services. If you use GMail as your email provider, you already have the ability to create as many email addresses as you want! If your GMail address is “me@gmail.com” you can create a new email address that will still deliver to “me@gmail.com” by adding a plus sign followed by just about anything and put it before the “@gmail.com.” When you sign up for a LinkedIn account, for instance, you could give them an email address of “me+linkedin@gmail.com” and any email to that address will be delivered to “me@gmail.com.” You’ll be able to see the full email so you’ll know it was sen to your LinkedIn address. And if it comes from any place other than LinkedIn you’ll know it was either stolen or LinkedIn sold it. https://go.ttot.link/GMail gives a good description of the whole thing including the ability to use “@googlemail.com.”

Rule #5 – be mindful when and where you post. If you’re going out of town, think about what you’re telling the world if you post that before you return. You may have the proper privacy controls in place on our chosen service but that doesn’t mean a friend couldn’t inadvertently leak that info. Unsavory folks could take that as an opportunity to break in and steal from you. While it may not be as much fun, try to hold off on posting pictures and descriptions until you return. And while we’re discussing posts, make sure any pictures you post don’t reveal anything you want to keep hidden. All smartphones that I’m aware of record GPS location, phone type and model (among other things) in your pictures and videos. Be aware which services strip that information from the picture or video and which do not. If ANYONE gets a picture with that information in it, they’ll know where it was taken. Sure, your friends probably already know where you live but should everyone? You can turn off your phone’s ability to save your GPS location but, personally, I like having that available when I go through my old photos. Fortunately, most social sites already remove that information from photos and videos you upload (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter but not TikTok). If in doubt do a quick search on the name of the service and “GPS data.” And don’t forget that those pictures you send to friends by email or text have that information in them. Inadvertent leaks happen!

Next week? Contact me and let me know what YOU would like me to discuss. Email tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or via any of the social media sites where we have a connection.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers – France, Belgium, and Germany in particular. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 1 Column from September 1, 2022

Last week I talked about masked/anonymous/disposable email services. Well, DuckDuckGo just recently opened up their masked email beta to everyone so you can easily create as many anonymous/disposable email addresses as you want or need. It’s an email forwarding service that strips out “trackers” among other things, making the email you receive more secure and protective of your privacy. I’m using it and I encourage everyone else to do so as well. Read more at https://go.ttot.link/DuckDuckGo. The last paragraph of the article tells you how to sign up. When you generate a new address, it’s YOURS and you can start using it immediately so copy it and paste it wherever you need it. If you generate it from the email generation page (https://go.ttot.link/DuckGenerator) it will remain visible on that page until you generate a new one. Now, on to this week’s topic.

What is a “smart home?” There are many definitions with varying levels of technical sophistication. I prefer to keep it simple: a smart home is any place that includes some level of automation. So, by my definition, if you have a furnace in your home with a thermostat that automatically fires your furnace when the temperature goes below a certain level, you have a smart home! Simplistic, I know, but I prefer that to an overly involved definition.

What are some other things you can do to add automation to your home and why would you want to? Remember The Clapper (https://go.ttot.link/TheClapper)? Yes, it’s still available – see your favorite retailer. Well, technology has upgraded things and now you can get a “smart outlet” and a “smart light bulb” both of which can connect with your virtual assistant (e.g. Siri, Alexa, Google) so you can control them with your voice, via their app, or via a “smart home controller” app.

OK, I threw a lot at you in that last paragraph. Let me break it down a bit more. First, smart lights. There are many on the market. All of them that I’m aware of are LEDs which means they consume much less power than the older incandescent bulbs and last MUCH longer. An LED that’s a 100-watt equivalent will use only 10-25 watts. Now stay with me here because I’ve got to give you some technical terms that are used with LEDs so you can buy with knowledge and understanding.

Since LEDs use much less power than standard light bulbs, they tend to be rated in “lumens” (which is a measure of light output) rather than watts. Most sources will quote that a 100-watt incandescent bulb produces between 1500 and 1600 lumens but real world measurements show that, on average, they produce a little under 1400 lumens. I seem to get about as much illumination out of a 75-watt equivalent LED that supposedly produces only 1100-1125 lumens. What does this mean to you? Don’t be afraid to try a 75-watt LED. They’re easier to find and a bit cheaper.

Next is color. Some of the LEDs produce light of a fixed color. You may be used to seeing terms like “daylight” or “warm white.” These terms are actually shorthand for “color temperature” (https://go.ttot.link/ColorTemp) measured in degrees Kelvin. Warm white corresponds roughly to 2700K, daylight to 5000K. The article I linked to shows correspondence between color temperature and environment. Some smart LEDs light up at a given temperature while others allow you to change the temperature and even the color (red, blue, green, etc).

Last thing, I promise. Base. A standard light bulb socket is known as an E26 base. There are other bases and other shapes but if you’re looking to replace a standard light bulb in the lamp on your end table, an E26 base is what you need.

Now that you have that info, what do I use and recommend? I have several LIFX bulbs like https://go.ttot.link/LIFXAmazon. Yes, they’re kinda pricey but they work, out of the box, with all the smart assistants and their app works well for setup and such. They allow you to fully adjust the color output, choosing a color (red, green, etc) or a temperature (2700K for warm white, etc). I tend to stay away from the colors and just go with white color temperatures. I change the temperature as the day goes on starting with a bright white of about 4500K in the morning to wake me up and ending with a warm white of about 2700K at night to watch TV. And if we’re watching something that is fairly dark on the TV, I can turn down the brightness of the LED. All of which I can do with the LIFX app or via my smart assistant using a command like “set color temp to 2700K” or, even better, using a custom command I’ve set up in my assistant like “set dark TV” or “set morning light.”

Other choices? I encourage you to pay attention to the lumen output of any LED. If you want to replace a 60-watt incandescent then 800 lumens is fine but if you’re replacing a 75 or 100 watt bulb, I recommend at least an 100 lumen smart light. Sengled makes a 1500 lumen (100 watt equivalent) multicolor bulb that connects directly to WiFi in a 4 pack that[s currently $50 – https://go.ttot.link/Sengled1500.

More common are smart LED bulbs that need a hub – they connect with the hub and the hub connects to your WiFi. Ikea has an 100 lumen smart bulb that can change color temperature but not color for $13 – https://go.ttot.link/Ikea1100 and the gateway (https://go.ttot.link/IkeaGateway) is $40 (which can control up to 64 LED bulbs). Once installed, it works with Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. Philips Hue and GE also make gateway-controlled smart LEDs.

Next week I’ll talk about smart plugs and outlets. I have more smart outlets than I do smart LED bulbs because they’re cheaper and offer more flexibility. I can plug in just about anything that only needs to be turned on or off and control it from any of my smart assistants.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers – France, Belgium, and Germany among other countries. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 2 Column from September 8, 2022

Going back a few weeks to my column on free and paid TV/movie streaming services, CNet recently published a list of the channels each of the major services carry. Handy if you’re looking for a certain channel. It’s at https://go.ttot.link/CNetChannels.

Last week we talked about smart LED lights and I hope you’re better equipped to read about and make your own decisions about color, light output and brand. If you’re on the fence, try one out and if you don’t like it, return it! My smart lights have become almost indispensable I have them tied in to Google Assistant routines so I can turn them on and off with voice commands plus when I leave and return home they also turn off and on automatically (check out Google Assistant’s help for how to accomplish this last little trick). It’s nice to come home to a lit house.

This week we’ll talk about smart outlets – something else that I really can’t imagine being without. I have a charging station with several USB outlets that is plugged into one of my smart outlets and I have it automatically turn on every day at 4 PM and turn off at 10 PM. when I leave the house it, along with a number of other outlets and lights, automatically turn off so I don’t have to wonder if I remembered to turn them off. The smart outlets I have plug in to a regular outlet but you can get smart outlets that replace a regular outlet if you like. You use the outlet’s app or, in some cases, your preferred assistant (Google, Siri, Amazon) to set them up. Some even report how much power they use.

Different smart outlets have different ways of connecting. Some use WiFi, some use Bluetooth, others use techniques that require the use of a hub or controller and you’ll see terms like Zigbee and Z-wave and Matter. Here is a good discussion of the various options https://go.ttot.link/ZigbeeVs. The short answer is if you’re only going to have a few devices then WiFi is probably fine but if you get more than a few, they’ll compete with all your other devices for WiFi bandwidth, in which case a hub and Zigbee or one of the other connectivity methods might be worth considering. When you’re shopping, pay attention to these terms! Often the product description will also tell you if they work directly with Google or Amazon or Siri.

I’ve had smart outlets for quite a few years and have a mixture of brands with various features. All of them integrate with both Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home. When I first started there weren’t many (any?) WiFi smart outlets so I got a hub from SmartThings (https://go.ttot.link/SmartThings) which allowed me to connect and control Zigbee and Z-wave devices, ultimately also interfacing with Google and Amazon’s assistants. I continue to use and prefer SmartThings and generally try to buy products that work with SmartThings.

Where can you find smart outlets? Search Best Buy (use this link to easily search https://go.ttot.link/BestBuyOutlets), Amazon (via this link https://go.ttot.link/AmazonOutlets), and Lowe’s (https://go.ttot.link/LowesOutlets). There are power strips and even outlets safe for outdoor use (Christmas lights, anyone?). If you’re ambitious and enjoy that kind of work, you can even replace some regular outlets in your home with smart ones. But make sure that any you buy are either UL or CE approved (most are but it never hurts to check). Do I have a favorite? Well, no, I don’t. Every one I’ve bought has performed as expected. Some have quit working and some have had support dropped but, over the course of 10 years, I expect that to happen. The outlets are inexpensive enough that I just buy another and swap it in. I care about the power use of a few of the smart outlets I own. Outlets that report power use are more difficult to replace because they’re less common and are more expensive. One that I use regularly is no longer available but there’s a newer model https://go.ttot.link/NeoOutlet. It monitors and reports energy usage BUT it’s a Z-wave device so you must have a hub. The outlet has its own timer facilities so you can schedule on and off times using its app – without the hub or smart assistant.

I’ve mentioned hubs but haven’t really gotten into any details about them. What are they and why would you want one? Hubs are the connection point for certain smart devices (smart LED bulbs, smart switches, moisture sensors, motion detectors, open/close sensors, etc). Hubs talk one or more standards (e.g. Zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, WiFi) and connect with and control the devices that connect to it. Amazon’s newest Echo devices include the capability to directly connect with and control Zigbee devices (https://go.ttot.link/EchoZigbee) and then connects them all to your WiFi network. Apple has HomeKit which supports a whole different standard called Thread (which Google also supports with their Nest hub devices). NBC News gave a good synopsis and rundown of what they consider the best smart home hubs (https://go.ttot.link/BestHubs). Personally, I’m quite happy with my SmartThings (now Aeotec) hub. It works with Google Assistant, Amazon Echo, and another service, IFTTT (which stands for If This Then That) – which gives you the ability to tie together multiple disparate services…but that’s a topic for another column!

Next week I’ll talk about some other smart home devices that you might be interested in. I pretty much stick with outlets and lights but there’s no reason for you to restrict yourself if you’re interested in more automation.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers. Regardless of where you’re from, drop me a quick note and say HI!


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 3 Column from September 15, 2022

Last week we talked about smart outlets and smart hubs.This week we’ll briefly look at some other smart devices that are available.

One smart device I recently acquired is a Nest Learning Thermostat (https://go.ttot.link/NestLearning). Yes, it’s been out a while but none of the thermostats were out-of-the-box compatible with my Courier HVAC. I recently replaced a central air unit and the installer threw in the Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd Generation) and, I have to say, I LOVE it! I can control the temperature from any of my smart speakers but the real winner is that

  1. I can detect and change the temperature from ANY of my devices that has the Google Home app installed
  2. It “learns” my scheduling preferences. How? I just set the temperature throughout the day and over the course of a week or two, it figures out what the schedule should be based on those changes, Now, I’ve had setback thermostats for YEARS and I’d always guess at when I’d like this or that temperature and on which days. Now, I see that I really only change the set temperature twice a day. It can “sense” when no one is home and automatically change to an “Eco” mode which suspends your regular schedule and sets a warmer or colder threshold temperature (depending on whether you’re heating or cooling). The thermometer wakes up when you walk near it which is one way it senses your presence. The other way is to allow your phone to be a presence sensor through the Google Home app. You set your home location and the Home app can tell when you’ve left. You can link everyone’s phone to the Home app so it knows when no one is at home. This, by the way, is how I automate things like turning off lights and power strips when I leave.

One thing that you may be thinking – my thermostat is nowhere near where I spend the majority of my time! Well, you can purchase a remote sensor for the Google Nest Thermostat. Place it in the room where you spend most of your time and your Nest can make heating and cooling decisions based on the temperature reading for that sensor. You have multiple rooms? No worries You can buy several and place them where they’re needed (good summary and review at https://go.ttot.link/NestSensor).

My HVAC installer heartily recommended the Google Nest Learning Thermostat but there are many more available. CNet recently gave their opinion as to the “best” smart thermostats of 2022 at https://go.ttot.link/CnetThermostats and includes a link to their review of the other smart thermostat that had my interest – the Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium (review at https://go.ttot.link/CNetEcobee). One thing to note: the Ecobee includes a remote sensor which is an extra purchase for the Google Nest. But, as I said earlier, I’m pretty happy with my Nest.

I also have tilt sensors installed on my garage doors. They interact with my SmartThings hub and let me know when my garage door opens and closes with the current open/close state recorded. I no longer have to wonder whether I remembered to close the garage door when I left! There are many on the market. For reference, here’s a link to one so you can read more about them https://go.ttot.link/TiltSensor.

You can sometimes use an open/close sensor such as https://go.ttot.link/OpenCloseSensor. The one I linked to can also sense vibration and tilt so it’s a good multipurpose sensor, albeit a bit expensive and requires a hub.

Motion detection sensors like https://go.ttot.link/MotionSensor can be used to trigger other smart home devices like switching lights on or off.

Another popular smart home addition are smart locks. They replace or add on to any lock you want to make “smart” (for example, your front door) and give you the ability to lock and unlock it remotely. Some allow you to set temporary access or assign separate codes to different family members. Consumer Reports discusses smart locks and gives their recommendations at https://go.ttot.link/2022SmartLocks. No, I don’t own one of these simply because we don’t use the front door that often. Instead we use the door to the garage and I have a tilt sensor on my garage doors.

Speaking of garages, there are smart garage door openers! Tom’s Guide has an introduction to them and their picks for 2022 at https://go.ttot.link/SmartGarageOpeners. The Chamberlain MyQ consistently gets high marks (review at https://go.ttot.link/MyQReview) but, as with the addition of any smart device to your home, check to make sure your existing equipment meets the requirements specified by the manufacturer.

If you have an irrigation or watering system at your home to water your lawn and garden, there are smart irrigation controllers that control your various valves and can adjust based on weather conditions such as rain or excessive heat. Consumer Reports gives their recommendations and an overview of how they work at https://go.ttot.link/CRSmartSprinklers.

Remote Infrared and RF controllers can help consolidate your various remote controllers (TV, radio, etc.) I have a Logitech Harmony (discontinued but still supported and available for purchase at various site like Amazon https://go.ttot.link/LogitechHarmony) which consolidates the remotes for my TV, audio video receiver, nVidia Sheld TV, TiVo box, and Xfinity X1 cable box. Through their app I can control each device independently or as an “activity” (e.g. turn on the receiver, switch input to TiVo, turn on TV, switch it to HDMI input 3), change channels, change volume, etc. plus I can do much of this by voice (“Hey, Google, turn on the Shield TV”). If you want to go with one that’s still made, check out SofaBaton (https://go.ttot.link/SofaBaton) and Amazon’s Fire TV Cube (overview and review at https://go.ttot.link/FireTVCube)

Next week I’ll discuss laptops – Windows, Macs, and Chromebooks. I have a preference but they each have their strengths and weaknesses which I’ll try to outline and discuss to give you an idea of which might be best for you.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers. Regardless of where you’re from, drop me a quick note and say HI!


Laptops – MacBooks and Windows! And Chromebooks and iPads? Part 1 Column from September 22, 2022

Last week we wrapped up our journey into making a “smart home” with a survey of some of the less common smart devices. I hope you have a good handle on the range of available devices and the terms you’ll need to understand to “smarten” your home!

This week I’ll begin to break down the pros and cons of various laptops and laptop replacements (iPads anyone?). I’ve owned and used ALL of these alternatives over the years and I have my preferences but it’s based on how I use them. You may have a completely different take on things! So, I’ll do my best to present an honest, unbiased survey in hopes that it will help you make the right decision for you, I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

I’ll start with some things that are common to most laptops – screen size, aspect ratio, processor, and storage as well as some tips as to size, weight, and keyboard.

Screen size applies to all these devices and is very much a personal choice. I prefer a smaller screen simply because it reduces the overall size and weight of the laptop. I find 13″ to be just about perfect for the laptop I use on a daily basis. I have laptops with smaller screens – 10 and 11 inches – but they tend to be devices that are for casual use – browsing the Internet, Amazon, Best Buy, eBay, etc. You might prefer a 14, 15 or even a 17 inch screen so it’s important that you visit a retail store and try them out. A larger screen generally will give you the ability to make the things on the screen (e.g. text) larger without necessarily losing a lot of context but it also means a larger and heavier laptop so if you plan to move your laptop around or take it with you when you leave the house, please take that into consideration. If you find a screen size you like, visit a retail store and try picking the device up and see how you feel about the weight and size.

Now, display size and aspect ratio. Display size is, like keyboards, a personal issue. You might prefer a 14 or 15 or even a 17 inch screen. But remember that the bigger they are the heavier they’ll be. Aspect ratio is the ratio of width to height. You’ll typically see 16:9 and 3:2. I prefer 3:2 because those displays are taller than the equivalent 16:9 displays of the same size – and I want more vertical space on my display so I can see more of the thing I’m viewing. You should know that 16:9 is the ratio for most current TVs – your 55 inch HD TV screen, for instance, is probably roughly 48 inches wide and 27 inches tall (16×9) so if you plan to watch a lot of streaming videos, you might consider a 16:9 display. A 3:2 display will likely have black bars at the top and bottom of the video so it fits on your screen. But, when it comes to displays where I’m primarily viewing text (e.g. web pages), a 13 inch 3:2 display is narrower by about half an inch but taller by almost an inch than a 13 inch 16:9 monitor (11.3w x 6.4 tall 16:9 vs 10.8w x 7.2 tall 3:2). A handy calculator for these dimensions is available at https://go.ttot.link/AspectCalc (scroll to the bottom of the page).

All Macbooks are what’s called a “clamshell” (i.e. a device with a hinged cover that must be opened to be used). Other laptops can take several different forms. There are “detachables” where the display and keyboard can detach from each other. Without the keyboard, you will see an on-screen keyboard, not unlike what you see on your phone, and you can use the display in its laptop orientation (called “landscape”) or rotate the display 90 degrees so it’s in what’s called portrait mode. Confused as to what’s portrait and what’s landscape? Portrait is the orientation you see with notebook paper — 8.5 inches wide and 11 inches long so it’s longer than it is wide.

Nowadays detachables tend to have thinner, less robust keyboards (see the Surface Pro 8 at https://go.ttot.link/SurfacePro8). I find these types of keyboards not great for anything that requires a lot of typing because they tend to flex and move about. They’ve gotten better over the years but they’re still not my favorite. However, if I am looking for a laptop that is small, light, and easy to carry, I’ll compromise and go with them. There are other detachables with a rigid keyboard like you see on non-detachable laptops but all of the ones of which I’m aware are older machines with what would be considered inferior components by today’s standards. Microsoft used to make a detachable with a rigid keyboard called the Surface Book (https://go.ttot.link/SurfaceBook3 for an example – note it has a 10th generation Intel processor and Intel is currently selling 12th generation). 2-in-1s are laptops with attached keyboards that can be folded back to act as a stand, getting the keyboard out of the way if you want to use the touch screen and not the keyboard (to watch streaming content, for example) or all the way around so that the keyboard is folded up against the back of the screen and the whole thing resembles a tablet. When it comes to keyboards, it’s always best if you actually try them out – the feel of a keyboard can encourage you to type more or just put you off typing entirely so I encourage you to put your hands on the keyboard of any laptop you are considering.

How much memory (also known as RAM) should you get on your laptop? For iPads, you don’t really have a choice but for the others in our discussion you do. I tend to never buy anything with less than 8GB of RAM. It seems to me that every recent device I’ve used with less than 8GB has tended to often be unbearably slow so I recommend a minimum of 8GB. Will you need more? If you’re a casual user who doesn’t have a ton of apps and websites open at the same time or don’t edit large videos, 8GB will likely serve you just fine.

How about storage or disk size? Again, a personal choice. If you’re a pack rat and never delete things and never offload things to the cloud or an external drive, you’ll need more storage. I tend not to go below 128GB on any device if I can help it because your disk often needs to store not only your files and pictures but also your apps and operating system. For me, 256GB is the sweet spot and my preferred storage size. If you’re unsure, more is better.

That pretty much covers the common elements. Next week we’ll begin to discuss specific laptop types, Windows, Macbooks, Chromebooks, and iPads (no, I don’t intend to discuss Android tablets because I don’t think they’re a reasonable laptop replacement). Next week we’ll start with Windows laptops. Again, I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers. Regardless of where you’re from, drop me a quick note and say HI!


Laptops – MacBooks and Windows! And Chromebooks and iPads? Part 2 Column from September 29, 2022

Last week we covered the things common to just about all laptops. This week we’ll begin to discuss specific laptop types, Windows, Macbooks, Chromebooks, and iPads (no, I don’t intend to discuss Android tablets because I don’t think they’re a reasonable laptop replacement). Again, I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

Windows laptops come in all the forms we discussed last week – traditional clamshells, detachables, and 2-in-1s, Most of them come with touch screens and webcams and some come with fingerprint readers. They are priced anywhere from really cheap to phenomenally expensive. But a good laptop for home use should run anywhere from about $400 to $800. If you’re purchasing a new one and you want it to perform adequately well over the course of a few years, get one with a newer Intel processor, at least 8GB of RAM and as large a hard disk as you can manage – at least 256GB but if you are like me and never delete anything, more is better. You can always copy less often used files off to an external drive or a cloud service like Google Drive but many don’t bother (even though we all should – having a 2nd source, or backup, for important files, pictures, licenses, etc is a very good idea). I would recommend an 11th or 12 generation Intel i3 or i5 processor. More than 8GB RAM is fine but IMHO (in my humble opinion) 8GB is an absolute minimum. Buy brands like Microsoft or Dell or HP or Lenovo or ASUS or Acer or any of the brand names that are available at sites like Best Buy or Microsoft’s own storefront (https://go.ttot.link/ShopMicrosoft) – yes, Microsoft’s online store sells computers and accessories from many different manufacturers (also called OEMs which is short for Original Equipment Manufacturers). And make sure you try the keyboard and are happy with the weight and size and clarity of the display!

Microsoft Hello (https://go.ttot.link/MicrosoftHello) is available on most, if not all, Windows laptops. You can login with your password or set up Windows Hello so you can login with your face (via the camera), your fingerprint (via the fingerprint reader) or by a short number that you choose, called a PIN. For comparison, some Macbooks and Chromebooks and ALL iPads provide fingerprint readers to ease sign in. PIN sign in is available on some Chromebooks and all iPads.

Of course, if you purchase a new Windows laptop it’ll be running Windows 11 which, in my opinion is a nice update from Windows 10 – more polished with improvements to the control panel and their included apps. There are tons of apps available, both from the Microsoft Store and from sites all over the Internet. You have your pick of browsers although Microsoft favors their own Edge browser which is based on the Chrome engine but it’s definitely NOT Google so if you have a desire to stay away from Google, Edge is there for you. That’s not to mention the other browsers that are a simple download away – Firefox, Brave, Vivaldi, you name it.

Of course, Windows has been around a long time so there are loads of apps available, not only from the Microsoft store but also from independent software developers. When it comes to apps, I’ll ask if you really think you need an app? No, seriously, please think about it. If you’re into serious music or video editing, an app might be what you need. If that’s the case then you need to be reading other articles because that kind of work often requires different or special hardware that is beyond the scope of this column. Windows 11 can run Android apps! Follow https://go.ttot.link/AndroidOn11 if you’re interested. And it’s been able to run Linux for a long time – see https://go.ttot.link/LinuxOn11.

But how many apps are just windows onto the developer’s website? Think you need a Spotify or Instagram app? Bet you can do as much if not more on their website! And if you prefer to have the website APPEAR as though it were an app, most browsers will let you turn the website into a psuedo-app (i.e. the website will appear in your apps list but will really be an instance of your web browser opening on to the website). Chrome and Edge support Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) as well as installing “shortcuts” to websites so they appear in your Start Menu/Desktop. Desktop Firefox does not natively support them but Apple’s Safari does and, oddly enough, so does Firefox for Android. What is a PWA and a shortcut and why would you want them? A PWA is platform independent – it can run on Windows or Mac or Android. A different version doesn’t have to be created for each platform which lessens the amount of work a developer has to do and makes it easier to install. Since a shortcut is just a link to a website, it too is an easy multi-platform choice. How do they differ from one another? A PWA can run and do some work without a connection to the Internet, a shortcut cannot. How does it do this? Without getting into a lot of technical detail, a PWA is more than just a link to a website – it is code that is downloaded from the website that can do some amount of work on it own (if you want more detail, see https://go.ttot.link/WhatIsAPWA).

Next week we’ll move on to Macbooks, Chromebooks, and iPads. Again, I don’t intend to discuss Android tablets because I don’t think they’re a reasonable laptop replacement right now. And I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

That’s it for this week. As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Laptops – Today we talk MacBooks (MacBooks and Windows! And Chromebooks and iPads? Part 3) Column from October 6, 2022

Last week we discussed Windows laptops and i gave you some ideas and tips that I hope helped you get an idea of what’s available and what to look for. This week we’ll discuss MacBooks, As I’ve said before, I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

Whereas many folks make Windows laptops, Apple is the only company that makes MacBooks. It simplifies things in that only one company is interpreting the design but, in the process, it reduces your options. For instance, MacBooks only come in one form factor – the traditional clamshell. Today there are no detachables or 2-in-1s, Many have fingerprint sensors and, as far as I’m aware, all MacBooks have webcams and touch pads.

Cost? A new MacBook runs from about $750 (on a great sale) to well over $3,000. Why so expensive? Well, in my opinion it’s three things:

1) Apple is the only manufacturer so they can set the price to what the market will bear. Why will people pay so much?
2) Apple’s image carries a lot of swagger but, for normal people like me
3) they last a LONG time!

I know many MacBook owners who’ve had their laptop for 6, 7, and 8 years with no or very little trouble. And if there ARE problems, they go to an Apple store where they can hand their laptop to a “genius” (Apple’s term for their techies) and have it taken care of, sometimes for free (if they are still under warranty or have purchased and maintain Apple Care+ https://go.ttot.link/AppleCarePlus) and sometimes for a fee.

OK, so what models are there and what do they cost? On the low end there’s the MacBook Air. When I say “low end” you have to understand that Apple has traditionally been a platform for professional video and audio editors so, while a low end laptop probably can’t do a lot of fancy video editing it’s more than capable of handling everyday tasks like email, web browsing and some games.

Apple has recently moved from using “standard” silicon computing chips from Intel to chips they (Apple) make. Last year they came out with the M1 chip family consisting of the M1, the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, each of which is more powerful than the previous in that list. They used the base M1 chip in some of their new iPads and the whole family in different models of their MacBooks (more about this later). This year they released the M2 chip (no word yet on whether there will be other versions such as an M2 Pro). The M2 chip is newer and more powerful than the base M1 chip but you’ll pay several hundred dollars more for it. Really, for us casual users, the decision to be made is not whether to get a MacBook Air with an M1 or an M2 chip but whether we want a 13.3″ display with a 720p webcam and stereo speakers or a 13.6″ display with a 1080p webcam and 4 speakers. The former retails for $999 on the Apple website, the latter for $1199.

The MacBook Pro comes with screen sizes of 13″, 14″ and 16″ but currently only the 13″ have the new M2 chip. The 14 and 16″ MacBooks have older M1 Max and M1 Pro chips. Prices are $1299 for 13″, $1999 and $2499 for 2 configurations of the 14″ model, and $2499, $2699, and $3499 for the 16″ model. Yeah, I’d stick with the Air. More information about all of the Macs, not just MacBooks, including cost and configurations, is available at https://go.ttot.link/AppleMacs. Really, though, I can’t see paying another $1000 just to get a 14″ screen but, right now, that’s your only option if you must have a laptop with a screen larger than about 13″.

The MacBooks have access to an app store which Apple is quite proud of (https://go.ttot.link/AppleAppStore) for they have strict guidelines as to what the app developers have to tell you and what information an app has access to (among other things). Apple says they review all apps in their store to make sure they follow their guidelines but some apps can’t follow all those guidelines for one reason or another (or they just don’t want to share the revenue they receive from an app with Apple) so you can also get apps directly from developers or other sellers. Interestingly, if you have a MacBook with a chip from the M1 or M2 family and a newer iPad, some of the apps that you use on your iPad will also run on your MacBook. It’s a nice feature that can help if you have a lot of time or data invested in an iPad app.

Which brings up the concept of an “ecosystem.” If you have an iPhone and/or an iPad, Apple provides a lot of “stuff” to make it easy for them to all work together. You use your Apple id to sign in to your phone or iPad and if you use that same Apple id to sign in to your MacBook then Facetime and iMessage will automatically sync between them all. If you’re working on your MacBook and someone tries to Facetime you, you’ll get the notification and can pick it up on your MacBook. Same for messages., And if you use Safari as your browser on your iPhone, your browsing history and pages can be available on your MacBook, too. While some messaging, calling, and browser apps will provide the same capabilities, each of them has to handle their own synchronization. Apple does it for you automatically.

Yes, I own a MacBook Pro that I got on sale for a great price. But it’s not my favorite laptop. Next week we’ll move on to Chromebooks, and iPads and I’ll tell you what I use on a daily basis. And I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

That’s it for this week. As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Laptops – Today we talk Chromebooks (MacBooks and Windows! And Chromebooks and iPads? Part 4) Column from October 13, 2022

Last week we discussed MacBooks and I gave you some ideas and tips that I hope helped you get an idea of what’s available and what to look for. This week we’ll discuss Chromebooks. As I’ve said before, I encourage you to read ALL sections of this column regardless of which type of laptop you think might be for you as I may bring up things you didn’t know, or realize about a particular type of laptop and those things might change your opinion as to what you’re interested in. And I might just raise a question or topic that could change your mind entirely!

Let me say right off the bat that my main laptop is a Chromebook. Why? Hopefully that will become apparent as we go through the particulars but if it’s not, drop me a note and let me know – I’ll write back with my reasons. If I get enough email, I’ll elaborate on the reasons in my next column.

Like Windows laptops, many vendors make Chromebooks and they come in as many configurations as Windows laptops – traditional clamshells, 2-in-1s, and detachables. Almost all but the least expensive have touchscreens and many come with a stylus. Chromebooks run ChromeOS which runs just ONE native application – the Chrome browser. While this may seem like a really strong argument AGAINST a Chromebook, consider how many applications you actually need to run that DON’T have equivalents on the web, Spotify https://go.ttot.link/SpotifyWeb Youtube? youtube.com eBay? ebay.com. And many of these sites can be “installed” as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs as discussed in my column from September 29 – https://go.ttot.link/Laptops-2). Not to mention the apps available to the Chrome browser in the Chrome Web Store at https://go.ttot.link/ChromeWebStore

But that’s not all. You can flip a switch and your Chromebook can also run Android apps! Yes, the same apps you run on your phone, complete with the Google Play store. Depending on how the developer wrote them, the apps can run in a phone format or a tablet format and many can be freely resized and not limited to phone or tablet form factors.

Price? For the most part, a decently powerful Chromebook, one that will likely last you many years, will cost between $300 and $700. What configurations? I recommend 8G RAM memory and at least 128G of storage. But Chromebooks are meant to be connected to the Internet and use the Google cloud drive so you can store your files there as opposed to taking up storage local to your laptop so, if you’re a big cloud user, 64G of storage will likely be enough.

Startup from power off is quick and it runs a security check on the operating system every time you boot it so you know your laptop hasn’t been infected with malware. And if, for some reason, you want to wipe your machine and reinstall ChromeOS, that’s quick, too. Since all your Android apps, Chrome extensions, and PWAs are saved in your Google Drive, they are reinstalled automatically once you sign back in.

Another switch will let you run a full version of Linux!! While Linux may not be your cup of tea right now, you can easily flip that switch and experiment to see if it’s for you. See https://go.ttot.link/InstallLinux for some help for beginners on why you might want to try it as well as help doing it.

Google has committed to providing ChromeOS updates for 8 years from initial availability date (called the Auto Update Expiration or AUE) so you can be assured that your new Chromebook will have OS updates from its initial availability date. Note that this isn’t the date you purchase it but the date it was first available. so be sure to check out https://go.ttot.link/AUE for your prospective purchase.

Chromebooks, like Windows laptops, come and go with new models introduced several times each year. I bought my Chromebooks last year so the ones I bought are somewhat hard to find now in new condition. I have an 11″ detachable that comes with a stylus – the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 (https://go.ttot.link/Duet3) 8GB model which lists for $429 right now on the Lenovo site. The keyboard isn’t bad for a detachable and is quite serviceable for email and similar light typing. The stylus attaches magnetically to the body and recharges via that magnetic connection.

Chromebooks are equipped with either an Intel (or Intel compatible like from AMD) chip or an ARM chip (ARM chips are what are in most Android phones). Personally, when I’m looking at Chromebooks, I prefer Intel chips. They tend to be more powerful and also more expensive. But a Chromebook with an ARM chip (e.g. Mediatek or Qualcomm), as long as it has 8G RAM, is more than acceptable if you’re on a budget. If you’re interested in the difference between ARM and Intel, take a look at https://go.ttot.link/ARMvsIntel. Check out TechRadar’s list of best Chromebooks for 2022 at https://go.ttot.link/BestChromebooks – they list Intel and ARM Chromebooks but be careful! Some of them only have 4G of RAM. Note that “best” is subjective but the article will give you an idea of what’s available for how much.

My main workhorse is the Acer Spin 713 a 2-in-1 which has a 13″ display, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, and an 11th generation Intel i5. I got it on major sale last year for around $500. Now, an Intel i5 is really overkill for casual users, an Intel i3 or even an Intel m3 is more than enough. Another good 13″ 2-in-1 is the Lenovo Flex 5i with an Intel i3, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, which is currently going for $429 at Amazon (https://go.ttot.link/Flex5i).

That’s it for this week. Next week we’ll discuss iPads and how some use them as a replacement for a laptop. As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Laptops – Today we talk iPads (MacBooks and Windows! And Chromebooks and iPads? Part 5) Column from October 20, 2022

Last week we discussed Chromebooks and I hope I gave you some ideas and tips that helped you get an idea of what’s available and what to look for. For a look at a range of alternatives have a look at CNet’s recently published 7 “best” Chromebooks for every budget (https://go.ttot.link/CNetChromebooks).

This week we’ll discuss iPads. Why when we’re talking about laptops? Well, some people use an iPad in place of a regular laptop for just about everything!

I have owned iPads for a number of years. Personally, I’ve found the iPad to have great battery life and a good selection of apps that make good use of the extra screen space. You can get just about any mobile browser you like and pretty much every major company has an app, not to mention games! The broad availability of apps means you can likely accomplish just about anything you need to do on a daily basis. Your bank probably has an app. Your grocery and drug stores likely have an app. Want to do some light photo editing? There are plenty of apps for that! Social media? Yup! And pretty much any site that doesn’t have an app, you can use the browser. But the browser on an iPad is a mobile browser which means you don’t have access to the extensions or plug-ins that are available on a true laptop so extensions such as those that make sure you’re getting the best price or that look up coupons aren’t available. By default most browsers request a mobile site when you visit a web site but you can request the site to display the full desktop site if you’re missing content. But, again, you’re not getting the full laptop/desktop browser version so be aware. If the site has an app you can often replace missing functionality by using their app but there are some sites or sections of sites, like Amazon’s Vine, that just simply aren’t available in their app (in this example, the Amazon app).

There’s a full Microsoft Office suite available for the iPad so you have Excel, Word, Powerpoint and the whole shebang available. But you need a license to use the full versions on any iPad that’s 10.1 inches or larger. And if you aren’t tied to Microsoft, you can still get similar function from Apple’s Pages (Microsoft Word), Numbers (Microsoft Excel), Keynote (Microsoft Powerpoint). While not identical to their Microsoft counterparts, they provide nearly equivalent function.

Lets not forget Apple’s other apps that are either already installed or can be downloaded for free from the app store. There’s Calendar, Photos, Contacts, Clock, Maps, Videos, Notes, Reminders, Mail, and News which all provide their expected functions. And there are apps that provide basic photo and movie editing (Photo Booth and iMovie) plus a music making app (Garage Band). The above isn’t an exhaustive list, there are more but it should give you an idea of the range of apps provided by Apple

iPads have an on-screen keyboard much like your phone and the default keyboard is quite serviceable but if you’re coming from Android and prefer the Google keyboard, it’s available from the app store as are any number of other keyboards, including keyboards that offer the full desktop keyboard layout (e.g. Typefinity https://go.ttot.link/Typefinity). And, of course, there are physical keyboards available from keyboards that are part of a cover to external keyboards (https://go.ttot.link/iPadKeyboards).

All iPads have touch screens. Some iPads can make use of the Apple Pencil (https://go.ttot.link/ApplePencil) while others can use capacitive styli (https://go.ttot.link/iPadStyli) which can help with drawing or more precise location and highlighting. Regardless, your finger always works. But you can also use a bluetooth mouse or touchpad or even a keyboard with an integrated touchpad if that’s your preference.

You might be an Android user and wonder why invest in an Apple product if you’re so firmly rooted in Google and Android? It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – I’ve had no issues mixing iPad use with Android phone, Windows laptop, and Chromebook. There are quite a few apps that work on multiple platforms making it possible to run the Android app and the iPad app and see the same information in both. Google’s Gmail is a good example.

Like MacBooks, Apple is the only company that makes iPads. The full range of current iPads is shown at https://go.ttot.link/Apple-iPad along with accessories such as the Pencil, keyboards, and covers. But older versions are available thru other retailers like Best Buy and Amazon, and used iPads are available as including refurbished directly from Apple at https://go.ttot.link/Refurb-iPad.

That’s it for this week. Let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Printers! Column from October 27, 2022

Last week we discussed iPads and how some folks use them instead of or as a replacement for a laptop. I hope I gave you some ideas and tips that helped you get an idea of how they do that, what’s available, and what to look for.

My printer recently stopped working reliably – it would only print some of a line. I aligned and cleaned the print heads using the menus on the printer several times. That’s worked in the past but, well, this time it didn’t. I don’t do a lot of printing but there are times when I do need hardcopy so a printer is a must-have. Also, I prefer my printers to be able to scan documents, preferably with an Automatic Document Feeder (also known as an ADF). I prefer the ADF to be able to scan both sides of a page (known as auto duplex) and also be able to print on both sides of a page (also known as…auto duplex). I want my printer to be able to print in color and I really don’t need a laser (laser printers produce print that won’t smear or smudge). Besides, laser printers that print in color usually cost a lot more than other printers and the cost of supplies (for example, toner) is usually quite a bit higher than supplies for other printers. So, I content myself with ink jet printers. Since I want a scanner, that puts me into what’s called an “all-in-one.” These types of printers also usually include a fax machine but, honestly, I never hook it up. I just use the printer and the scanner.

So, how did I select a new printer? I have my list of “must haves” and “don’t wants” so, what did I do? I did research! How? I asked friends what they had and how well they liked their printer. I did some searches using phrases like “best all-in-one printers for 2022” and “lowest cost all-in-ones 2022.” I went to cnet.com to look at their ratings and I went to rtings.com to look at their comparisons. I have a bias against HP printers that dates back about 20 years when we needed to download drivers for the printer – HP would only update their drivers for a year or two so, after a while, the printer would fall behind in features. I have no idea if that’s the case now but my bias persists so I do not consider HP printers. I looked at reviews and ratings for Canon, Brother, and Epson – all brands that friends had and recommended. I wanted the price to be below $200 which knocked out all auto duplexing scanner all-in-ones

All printer manufacturers talk about print speed and resolution. I don’t really pay attention to those specifications – printers in the price range I’m looking at ($75-$200) all perform well enough for me; they’re fast enough and their resolution isn’t an issue since I don’t print photographs. Printing photographs is a whole other subject and one I don’t intend to cover. The same thing applies to the scanner part – all the scanners I’ve seen on these all-in-ones can scan at least at 300 dpi which is sufficient for everything I need (to learn more about DPI or Dots Per Inch, check out https://go.ttot.link/DPI, also read https://go.ttot.link/MoreDPI for a little more info and https://go.ttot.link/PhotoDPI for tips for scanning photographs).

Pretty quickly I eliminated Canon printers. They’re really known for photo printing and, like I said, I don’t print photos. That left me with Brother and Epson. My old all-in-one was an Epson and one of my good friends had just bought a new Epson so they were a strong contender. But I’ve read many good things about Brother and how they tend to have a lower cost-per-page than many other printers.

Cost per page is important! Really, it comes down to how much the ink costs. And, let’s face it, you’ll be buying ink for as long as you own the printer so I wanted to consider that cost along with the cost of the printer. The price for Epson ink is about the same as the cost for Brother ink. BUT the Brother ink cartridges for the MFC-J4335DW print more pages than the Epson WF-3820 (rtings.com estimates the Brother will print 2,000 pages whereas the Epson will print 361 pages). Over the life of the printer you can expect to spend quite a bit less on supplies of ink with the Brother.

So, I bought the Brother! Even though it cost roughly $50 more than the Epson, I figure I’ll save that amount in ink costs over the next year or so. Installation was simple – I used the Brother Mobile Connect app which sent my WiFi setup to the printer (my WiFi password is over 25 characters long, using uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and special characters so any assistance I can get is a big help).

I’m really pleased with my new Brother all-in-one. It prints quickly and it scans well (did I tell you that, without any add-ons, Chromebooks can operate a scanner wirelessly and save the scanned pages?)

That’s it for this week. Let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Stay on top of those deals! Column from November 3, 2022

Black Friday isn’t too far away and the gifting season is almost upon us so wouldn’t it be great if it was possible to stay up to date on deals and the prices of products that you’re interested in? That’s what we’ll cover this week. But first let me warn you about clicking on links in emails, text messages, and, well, links in general. Just because a link says it goes to a particular website doesn’t mean that it really does link to that site. And for shortened links like I use and other link shorteners like bit.ly, there’s no way to know where they’ll really take you. There are sites that are specifically made to UNshorten links. https://checkshorturl.com/ is one such site (note that I’m giving you the actual URL rather than shortening it with a ttot.link URL). Have a look at https://go.ttot.link/UnshortenURLs for details on how to verify links. In light of this advice I won’t use many short links in this column. Feel free to verify my short links before using them.

There are lots of sites out there that aggregate bargains in all sorts of categories. Some will watch a particular product for you and let you know when it’s selling for a lower price, others just have lists of sales or promotions often divided into searchable categories. I have a few sites that I like to use and I’ll cover those. And there are browser plug-ins and extensions that can see the product you’re viewing and tell you if you can get it for a lower price elsewhere. In this case, though, you should be aware that the extension will see ALL of the sites you visit, not just Amazon or Best Buy, and send that information to a site that checks to see if you’re looking at a product that they track. In other words you’re opening yourself up to MORE tracking. If you use the Chrome browser on a desktop (i.e. MacBook, Laptop, Chromebook) you can mark the extension so it won’t have access to ANY site unless you click on the extensions icon in its Button or ToolBar (read more about the ToolBar at https://go.ttot.link/ChromeToolBar including how to only show certain extensions in the bar). I’ll list a few Chrome extensions I use.

First up is my favorite price tracker – https://www.camelcamelcamel.com/. Sign up for a free account and you can have it track products for you on Amazon, complete with a price history. You can search for a product or give it Amazon’s URL for the product and it will show you the product’s price history and give you the option to track it, sending you an email when the price goes below a threshold you specify. They have a browser extension but I don’t track very many items so I’m happy just using the site.

https://www.pcmag.com/deals is a site I like to visit every so often. They have categorized the deals, deals by brand, and also have a list of all the latest deals but I generally prefer to read their Tech Deals email newsletter every day. Sign up at https://www.pcmag.com/newsletter_manage

https://www.cnet.com/deals/ shows the latest deals and can also show deals by category. It also has links to reviews, their “best” products, comparisons (called Versus), a gift guide, and coupons from all sorts of retailers. CNet also has newsletters including the CNet Deals and Promotions newsletter. You can sign up for newsletters at https://www.cnet.com/newsletters/.

MakeUseOf is a site I visit often for tech news and how-tos but they also have a pretty good list of deals and promotions at https://www.makeuseof.com/category/best-deals/ and a newsletter that encompasses everything they track including news and deals. You can sign up for their daily newsletter at https://www.makeuseof.com/subscribe/.

Ben’s Bargains (https://bensbargains.com/) is another really good site to visit for deals of all sorts. Their main page can show their hottest deals or their newest deals but they can also show them by store at https://bensbargains.com/s/ (e.g. amazon, best buy, target), by category at https://bensbargains.com/c/ (e.g.mobile, pets, electronics and tech), by brand at https://bensbargains.com/b/ (e.g. Apple, Craftsman, Samsung), and you can get alerts by keyword and price range at https://bensbargains.com/alert-manager/

Tech Bargains at https://www.techbargains.com/ and Slick Deals at https://slickdeals.net/ are two more sites that I use on occasion. Tech Bargains lists current deals on their main page but they have also categorized deals so you can select certain categories to only see those deals. They also have a search and you can sign up for their newsletter. Slick deals has categories at https://slickdeals.net/deal-categories/ as well as search and a lot of different ways to set up and receive alerts for deals that you’re interested in – see https://slickdeals.net/deal-alerts/.

I love Wirecutter deals (at https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/deals/). You can specify category and percent off but I also use their main page at https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/ for all sorts of things including their “best” products in all sorts of categories. They have a daily email newsletter which you can get at https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/newsletters/wirecutter-daily/. They also have a paid subscription at https://www.nytimes.com/subscription/wirecutter but I’ve never found a need for it.

Three browser extensions I’ve used are CNet Shopping (https://www.cnet.com/shopping/), Honey from Paypal (https://joinhoney.com), and Rakuten. The first two do pretty much what you’d expect – they inspect the page you’re on (please re-read my caution at the beginning of this column) to see if they can find a better price or coupons to help reduce the price. Rakuten is a bit different in that they PAY you to shop at certain sites. That’s right, they will send you a check! Their Chrome extension will tell you if the site you’re visiting is eligible for cash back or you can start at https://www.rakuten.com/ and click on a store. You’ll be redirected to that store after seeing how much you can get back in cash. Some stores give you 1%, others as much as 10% and others occasionally much much more. They rotate promotions which can increase how much you’ll get back. I’ve gotten about $50 from them so far.

That’s it for this week. I hope you’ve gotten some ideas for places to see and track deals and even get some cash back. Let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Should I replace my WiFi router? Part 1 Column from November 10, 2022

A quick addendum to last week’s column on price tracking and deal sites – here’s a site you can check for Black Friday ads – https://www.cnet.com/tech/black-friday-ad-scans/. There are many more – search for Black Friday ads 2022

What’s this week’s topic? Recently a reader asked me how often he should think about replacing his WiFi router (Hi, Fred!). There’s no hard and fast rule but there are some things to consider.

First, we need to give names to the various components that exist between your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and your device (phone, tablet, laptop, whatever). The “modem” is the device that actually connects you to the Internet via your ISP. Next is the “router” which directs traffic, sending/receiving data to/from the correct device/website/etc. Lastly, the Wireless Access Point or WAP. This is the component that your devices connect to. These components can be combined: you may have a modem that includes a router, or you might have a modem that includes a router and a WAP, or you may have a router that contains a WAP.

Most ISPs provide a modem/router/WAP all in one box but you may have 1, 2 or 3 separate boxes as I’ve outlined above. If your ISP provided you with all of that as a single box or as multiple boxes then your path is fairly simple. Run a speed test (by going to, for example, https://fast.com/ or https://www.speedtest.net/) from several devices that are connected to your ISP’s WiFi and compare those speeds with what your ISP says you should be getting. They probably won’t be identical but they should be in the same ballpark of each other and your ISP’s stated rate. If your ISP says you’re paying for 10Mbps (10 megabits per second) and your devices are getting 8Mbps then you’re in the ballpark. Note that phones and tablets will often transfer data more slowly than laptops so if your laptop is getting 8Mbps but your phone is only getting 6Mbps you can rest assured that your WiFi is capable of transmitting data faster than your phone can handle it. If you’re in the ballpark then you’re good! But keep reading because there are more goodies in here. But, if your highest speed is consistently much less than what you’re paying for, contact your ISP and discuss it with them. Perhaps they have an upgraded device to replace component(s) that you have.

How fast should your Internet connection be? Check https://go.ttot.link/HowFast for info on what speeds you’ll need to stream. For example, Netflix HD content needs 5Mbps while 4K Ultra HD content needs 25Mbps – and that’s just for one stream. If someone else will be streaming at the same time as you, you’ll need a higher bandwidth. If your Internet provider can’t get you those speeds then you won’t be able to reliably stream those things without stuttering or buffering (and you won’t be happy). If you can get or have those speeds from your ISP but you have a device that isn’t capable of those speeds then you can’t use that device to stream that particular content.

If your ISP provides just the modem (i,e. the device to connect to the Internet) but you have to provide your own router/WiFi then you should go through the same steps to get an idea of the speed available to you. If your WiFi is consistently not reaching anywhere near the speeds you’re paying your ISP for then you may need to upgrade your router and/or your WiFi. All routers and most WiFi routers have Ethernet ports (see https://go.ttot.link/EthernetPorts) If your router and WiFi are provided by separate devices (that is you have both a router and a WAP) then try to connect to your router with a cable (an Ethernet cable – see https://go.ttot.link/EthernetCable) and see what speeds you get. If your speeds are much closer to your ISP’s rated speeds then it’s probably time to upgrade your WiFi WAP. If your speeds are much lower than your ISP’s rated speeds then it’s time to upgrade your router. And if you have a router and a WAP as separate boxes and your tests indicate you should replace either of them you may want to consider combining them and get a WiFi router.

Say your tests indicate that you should replace your WiFi (WAP or WiFi router). What should you replace it with? There are a crazy lot of options available to you today. WiFi 6, mesh, extenders…what does it all mean? We’ll cover that next week.

That’s it for this week. I hope you’ve gotten some ideas for places to see and track deals and even get some cash back. Let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Should I replace my WiFi router? Part 2 Column from November 17, 2022

Last week we covered the hardware components that sit between your device (phone, tablet, etc) and the Internet. This week we’ll cover WiFi – the terms and concepts you should know if you’re considering replacing your WiFi.

First, if you are considering replacing your WAP (Wireless Access Point) let me suggest that you replace it with a WiFI router. WAPs tend to be used in business settings and require more technical knowledge to select, install, and maintain than a WiFi router. While I’m usually in favor of discrete components because they give you the ability to upgrade the individual components separately when needed, in this case the additional knowledge required is just too great.

Now, let’s dig into some of the terms you’ll encounter when looking for a good WiFi router.

2.4GHz and 5GHz – these numbers relate to the frequency spectrum that the WiFi can occupy but, more importantly for our purposes, defines what kind of connection the WiFi router can accept. Pretty much all devices (e.g. phones, tablets) made in the last few years have hardware in them that works with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz so they can utilize either of those two bands. And all newer routers have both 2.4 and 5GHz capabilities (known as “dual band” routers). Why is it important that they have both? Well, 2 reasons: 1) a lot of devices use the 2.4GHz spectrum (microwaves, garage door openers, security cameras) so there’s a higher probability of interference so the ability to use 5GHz lets you sidestep that problem and 2) many “smart” devices (light bulbs, switches, etc) only have hardware that works with 2.4GHz (hardware that works with both frequencies costs more and can push the cost of the smart devices higher). What’s the difference between the 2 spectra? 2.4GHz is slower than 5GHz but its signal reaches farther. In a larger house the 2.4GHz signal may reach to all corners of the house whereas the 5GHz signal may only reach a few rooms away from the WiFi router. You can read more about speeds and distances at https://go.ttot.link/2.4vs5GHz.

WiFi routers that can do both 2.4GHz and 5GHz can often be configured to present a different SSID (see https://go.ttot.link/SSID) for the 2.4GHz and the 5Ghz bands. It’s a matter of personal preference whether you use the same or different SSID for the two bands. But be aware that some older devices that only support 2.4GHz can’t handle that. If you choose to use the same SSID for both bands then be on the lookout for devices that no longer work – you might need to use different SSIDs in that case.

WiFi 6 (as opposed to WiFi 5). You may see this in your research. WiFi 5 is the current standard. WiFi 6 is a new standard that increases speeds, not only the speed to your individual device but also the overall speed of all connected devices (i.e. aggregate speed). There’s a lot of technical detail that goes into this but suffice it to say that there’s only so much data in aggregate that you can send/receive over a wireless connection. WiFi 6 significantly increases that limit. Newer phones and tablets released, say, within the last 6 months, may have WiFi 6 but if you have an older device that doesn’t support WiFi 6, don’t worry as WiFi 6 WiFi routers also support WiFi 5. WiFi 6 routers cost more right now but s the technology matures the cost will come down. If you can afford a WiFi 6 router, get it but don’t worry a lot if it’s too expensive. Even if you get a device with WiFi 6, it will still work with your WiFi 5 router.

WiFi extenders. These have been around for quite a while but have mostly been replaced by mesh networks which provide the same benefits but are easier to set up. Read about mesh routers and use them instead.

Mesh. Mesh routers effectively extend the reach of your WiFi signal. If you’ve got a larger home or if you need your signal to reach areas that it doesn’t currently reach (e.g. garage or workshop), consider mesh. Mesh routers come with at least 2 units that are essentially identical. One acts as your base unit and router attaching to your modem and the other(s), placed at some distance from the base, connect wirelessly to the base, extending your WiFi signal. They communicate with each other and both broadcast the same SSID(s). They work together to ensure you remain connected by handing off your connection between themselves as you move around. One thing to consider is their “backhaul.” This is the connection they make between themselves so that your data can flow from your device out to the Internet and back. Lower cost mesh routers use your spectrum for that data flow while more expensive ones use their own frequencies to move that data, keeping your spectrum available for your device’s data.

That’s it for this week. To sum up, try to get a WiFi router as opposed to a standalone WAP, go with WiFi 6 if you can afford it, get a dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) WiFi router, and get a mesh WiFi router if you want or need to cover a larger area than is currently covered.

I hope you’ve gotten some ideas for how and when to replace your WiFi router and what to look for in terms of speed and features. Let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


A new password for EVERY site?!?!? Column from November 24, 2022

Last week we finished our discussion of WiFi routers. This week we’ll delve a bit deeper into password managers: how they help you, why you need one, and what to look for.

There are many password managers available and many with free plans. But the most important thing to look for in a password manager is that it securely encrypts your password “vault” (your list of passwords) with a good quality cipher. AES 256-bit encryption is the current standard (for a bit more on what that is, check out https://go.ttot.link/AES256). Preferably you’d use a “zero knowledge” password manager, that is one which doesn’t forward your master password to the vendor of the password manager. Of course that means that losing your master password would cause you to lose access to your entire vault. That’s why many password managers also provide an alternative mechanism to decrypt your vault, usually with a phrase or a series of words or characters that are used to prime the encryption engine. But if you lose that backup phrase…well, you’re really out of luck.

Your master password should be long but one that you can easily recall. It should be a phrase with spaces and special characters, and the longer, the better. I would discourage using a phrase that is tied to you like “my birthday is march 5, 1982” – a phrase like this could be guessed. Instead make it a phrase unconnected to you but one you can remember like “b1nkl3_TW1NKL3 l1ttl3 *, HOW 1 WOND3R wh4t you IS!?!” – it’s long, has mixed case, numbers, and special characters, and, if you study it for a while, you’ll recognize the pattern I used in constructing it – the letters a, i, and e are always replaced by 4, 1. and 3, the case of the words alternate, and the word “star” is replaced by an asterisk

Also to consider is whether your password manager should only store your vault locally (i.e. stand-alone) or store it somewhere in the cloud (cloud-based or connected). The latter type checks to see if the cloud copy is newer than the version on your local device and, if it is, downloads it to your local device when you open the password manager; it syncs any changes you make to your local copy to the cloud. While some stand-alone managers will allow you to manually copy your locally saved passwords to a cloud service like Google Drive, Box, or OneDrive and manually restore them to another device, I don’t recommend going that route. Being a bit paranoid, that’s the kind of manager I first started using but I quickly found that the password vault on my various devices would get out of sync with each other. So I switched to connected password managers.

The article at https://go.ttot.link/PwdMgrFeatures has a good list of things to look for in a password manager and https://go.ttot.link/BestPwdMgrs discusses PC Magazine’s recommended paid password managers. That article also has a link to an article that discusses their recommended free password managers.

Personally, I use 2 password managers and pay for them: Bitwarden (https://go.ttot.link/Bitwarden) and Lastpass (https://go.ttot.link/Lastpass). Both have free and paid plans. They are pretty much the same, feature for feature but Bitwarden is open source so anyone can inspect their code (the source for all the components is at https://go.ttot.link/GithubBW) and they have an option for you to host the Bitwarden service on your own hardware (https://go.ttot.link/OpenSourceBW) so your password vault stays within your complete control.

If you opt to use Bitwarden’s cloud they currently have 3 pricing levels for personal accounts: Free, Premium (currently $10/year), and Family (currently $40/year for up to 6 users), See https://go.ttot.link/PricingBW for details on the plans. Lastpass has a free plan and they currently charge $36/year for an individual subscription and $48/year for a family plan for up to 6 users (pricing is on Lastpass’s main page, just scroll down a bit).

One other really nice feature about the Bitwarden manager is that you can enter your seed for two-factor authentication and it will generate your one time passcode for you (see https://go.ttot.link/TOTP for more info on two factor authentication and TOTP – Time-based One Time Password). Lastpass does not have this feature.

Both managers are multi-platform (apps for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, and browser extensions for all major browsers), can autofill passwords (see https://go.ttot.link/AutoFillLP for an explanation), can automatically save new passwords to your vault, and to help you organize your sites, they both have folders in which you can save your information. They both also provide a way to save other information like credit card information and general notes, all of which are encrypted using the same technology used to encrypt your passwords.

Why do I pay for two password managers? For backup – you can never tell when one or the other will quit the business or adopt some business practice with which I disagree. Both password managers offer to save new passwords when I create one so it’s relatively simple to keep them both current.

That’s it for this week. I’ve just gone over two of the many available password managers. Feel free to choose either of them or go with one of the other ones discussed in the articles I’ve linked, above or go with one you find with your own research. But whatever you do, get and use a password manager! And be sure to let me know what you’d like to discuss next week.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Yes, you need a VPN, too Part 1 Column from December 1, 2022

Last week we discussed password managers and I hope you took advantage of the Black Friday deals on at least one of them. This week we’ll take up another “must have” – VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Why is it a “must have?” It encrypts ALL of the traffic to and from your device (phone, tablet, laptop, whatever) so that NO ONE besides the site you’re talking with can read your data (that’s not strictly true – I’ve taken a little liberty here in the interests of understandability and brevity – but it’s close enough for our discussion). Why is this an issue? There are bad people (known as “bad actors” in the cybersecurity business) who set up WiFi networks that look like the network at your favorite restaurant or coffee shop or grocery store. How do they do that? We know WiFi networks by their SSID (remember that from the column on November 17? – https://go.ttot.link/SSID). The SSID isn’t reserved – anyone with a device capable of sending out an SSID and accepting connections can broadcast any SSID they choose. And there’s no easy way to tell if the device broadcasting that SSID is really who you think it is. So, if you usually connect with your Kroger store’s WiFi and they use an SSID of Kroger, there’s nothing stopping a bad actor from setting up their own WiFi using an SSID of Kroger. If you connect to the bad actor’s Kroger WiFi instead of your store’s WiFi, the bad actors get to see all of the unencrypted traffic between your device and the Internet. And, by the way, you should know that if you connect to the store’s WiFi, the store can see all of your unencrypted traffic – that’s the way it works! All unencrypted traffic to and from your device is visible to all the devices through which that data flows. That includes your cellular carrier!

So, you ask, which traffic IS encrypted. Well, if you connect to a website using HTTPS, rather than HTTP, that traffic is encrypted. HTTP traffic is not. But what about apps? How do THEY connect? Are they encrypting their traffic? Some apps publish how they make their connections but most do not. Does your bank’s app encrypt their connection? I hope so but is hoping they do enough?

This is where a VPN helps. It handles all traffic to and from your device. When you install and start a VPN on your device the VPN connects to and establishes an encrypted connection with a machine (known as an “endpoint”). As long as your VPN is connected, all traffic to and from your device flows through that endpoint over that encrypted connection. So, if you go to that restaurant or coffee shop or grocery and you use their WiFi with your VPN, you’re assured that your traffic is safe, even if you happen to connect to a rogue WiFi network.

Pretty much all VPNs let you choose your endpoint and some people use that capability to “geoshift” – appear to be in a different location than where you are really located. Why do people want to do that? Well, some services are only available to people in a certain geographical area. Some music streaming services, for instance, are only available in certain countries. People who live in countries where that service isn’t available will choose an endpoint in one of the countries served by the streaming service so they can use the service. Another example, the BBC (https://bbc.co.uk) shows different content if you’re using their services from the United States. Personally, I don’t geoshift – I use a VPN strictly to ensure my traffic is encrypted so I almost always choose an endpoint that’s geographically close to me but I want to make you aware of this because when you read about VPNs you’ll see that they publish the locations of their endpoints. Also, some VPNs have specialty endpoints that are optimized for certain types of traffic like streaming movies. I’ve never had a need for those types of endpoints but, again, I want you to be aware of it.

Since your VPN is handling all your traffic it’s important that you trust them and the best way to establish trust is to use an established, well known, and reviewed VPN. There are free and paid VPNs, and many paid VPNs have free plans. Free VPNs often restrict their use in some way like reducing the speed or limiting the number of connections. If you think you want to use a free VPN, do some searches to see what the industry thinks of it and read some reviews so you know what they provide to free accounts. Here are the free VPNs PC Magazine likes https://go.ttot.link/FreeVPNs1 and here’s what CNet likes https://go.ttot.link/FreeVPNs2.

If I’ve piqued your interest enough with this column, there are some good deals available right now (I’m writing this on the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend) but they may not last. Nonetheless, I’m going to post a link or two, just in case. But always look for deals if you want to purchase a VPN. ‘Nuff said, here are 2 VPN sale links – https://go.ttot.link/VPNDeals1 and https://go.ttot.link/VPNDeals2.

OK, I’ve covered VPN basics and I hope it’s all been clear – if you have questions or need clarification, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Next week we’ll discuss a few of the VPNs I like and use including one that operates a little differently and has a pretty good free option.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Yes, you need a VPN, too Part 2 Column from December 8, 2022

Last week we covered some of the concepts embodied in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). This week we’ll discuss several VPNs and go into some details around them.

As a quick review, why do you need a VPN? If you care about your privacy or are worried about your personal interests being sold elsewhere or you are concerned that some of your credentials might be stolen, you want a VPN. It ensures that the data leaving from or coming to your device is securely encrypted so nothing between you and your VPN can “see’ your data.

For the most part I encourage you to actually pay for your VPN. It’s an expensive service to run and, in general, anyone that provides it for free is using other means to defray their costs…possibly even selling your information. There is one free VPN that I recommend and we’ll cover that a little later.

As with any business there are some VPN providers whose privacy practices aren’t the best, so it’s important to check some trustworthy sites for reviews. Three good sites to check: https://www.cnet.com/tech/services-and-software/best-vpn/, https://www.pcmag.com/picks/the-best-vpn-services, and https://www.forbes.com/advisor/business/software/best-vpn/. “Best” is a label that changes with just about every review so read the reviews, pick one or several that sound good to you, and look for deals! Just about every VPN provider offers deals throughout the year. Personally, I check https://www.stacksocial.com/ every so often, and I’ve gotten some really good deals.

One term you should be familiar with is “split tunnel.” That’s a fancy term that’s pretty simple in concept. There are some apps that for one reason or another, don’t operate correctly over a VPN. You can exclude those apps from the VPN and the fact that they can be excluded is what’s called a split tunnel. As an example, some streaming apps won’t work if they detect you’re using a VPN (perhaps they don’t want you to geoshift – see last week’s column for a definition) so they need to be excluded from the VPN. As far as I’m aware all good VPNs have the ability to provide a split tunnel but, if possible, you should verify that your selected VPN has that capability.

I have several VPNs that I use. My two main VPNs that I pay for are NordVPN (https://nordvpn.com/) and CyberGhost (https://www.cyberghostvpn.com/en_US/). Why did I choose them? Honestly, they tend to rate pretty well in reviews and I got a good deal on both of them. In fact, they both have deals going on as I write this but so does just about every other VPN provider so be sure to check around. All reliable VPNs have free trials or money back guarantees so, rather than just taking my word for it, I encourage you to give several a try. While they all provide pretty much the same service, each has their own user interface and one might make more sense to you than another. Some offer additional services like secure file storage or a password manager so take those into account, too.

The one free VPN I can recommend is WARP by Cloudflare (https://www.cloudflarewarp.com/). Cloudflare is a CDN (Content Delivery Network). They provide sites like Doordash and Lyft a way to deliver their content more quickly to users like you and me. How they do that isn’t important for this discussion, what IS relevant is that Cloudflare has a very large network that you can tap into with their VPN client. You don’t choose an endpoint, Cloudflare does that for you, choosing one that will provide the best service. Since it chooses the endpoint, you can’t use it to geoshift. Even so, many streaming services like Netflix won’t work with it but you can use the split tunnel to exclude them from the VPN

One other term you might encounter is the “Internet kill switch,” sometimes known as “Always On VPN.” Enabling this will prevent Internet access if your VPN isn’t active. Enabling this switch means that you have to have your VPN running all the time and it’s not something I recommend to new or inexperienced users. Why? The VPN will have to be active all the time even when you’re at home and some apps and services that you use at home will have to be made a part of that split tunnel. Have a printer at home? That service needs to be part of that split tunnel and it’s not always easy to figure out what to add. Some VPNs provide ways around this – some might allow you to exclude certain WiFi networks (e.g. your home or work network) from the VPN so, while technically you’ve got Always On VPN, it’s not really on when you’re connected to specific WiFi networks and your traffic isn’t encrypted. My recommendation is to forget about Always On VPN and just remember to turn it on when you leave home.

OK, I’ve covered VPNs and I hope it’s all been clear – if you have questions or need clarification, please don’t hesitate to contact me. And, as always, let me know if you have any topics you’d like me to cover.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


More POWER! Part 1 Column from December 15, 2022

Last week we finished VPNs. I hope you got some good ideas and are protecting your Internet connection from snoopers.

This week and next week we’ll discuss power – methods you can use to charge your devices and what some of the standards mean.

First, though, I plan to take 2 weeks off so this column and part 2 coming out next week will be my last columns for the year. I’ll be back, though, after the first of January with a column for Thursday, January 12.

OK, on to this week’s topic. Charging is pretty simple, right? Plug your charger into a wall and plug your phone into it. Well, sure, that’s easy. But what if you’re away from a wall outlet and need to recharge your phone? Maybe your phone can “charge quickly.” What does that mean and how can you take advantage of fast charging?

If you’re away from home you can charge in your car. If you have a newer car you might have a USB port which you can use for charging. Or your car might have a wireless charging pad somewhere in it. But if you don’t have either of those, don’t fret! You can get an adapter for your “cigarette lighter” and plug into that. Here’s an example from a company I often use https://www.amazon.com/Anker-Charger-PowerDrive-Adapter-iPhone/dp/B07PGT7LSR. Note that this particular charger has 2 USB A ports. Some might be confused with all the types of connectors floating around so let’s dig into connectors before we go deeper into power.

There are many different USB connector types but for our purposes we’re only going to deal with USB A and USB C as they are the two main ones in use today (lightning connectors have been popular with Apple devices but even Apple is moving to USB C with their recent products). https://www.tomsguide.com/news/usb-c-vs-usb-a has some pictures and a good overview of the two connector types along with some detail about some USB C standards like Thunderbolt 3 and 4 as well as some USB generations like USB 3.1. When it comes to charging, though, all you really need to do is make sure you get a cable with the right connectors. If you do that, you can charge your device.

If you want to charge more quickly you need to know about some different charging standards. While there are many different proprietary fast charge technologies (see https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/how-does-fast-charging-work/), there are 2 main quick charge types: Quick Charge from Qualcomm (https://www.qualcomm.com/products/features/quick-charge) and Power Delivery (good detailed info at https://www.androidauthority.com/usb-power-delivery-806266/). Device chargers may implement none, one, or both standards. If your device supports either of those standards and you’ve got the right cable, your device will charge faster. But your device will charge even if it supports neither – it will just charge more slowly.

Qualcomm’s Quick Charge has evolved over time and they’ve numbered each generation. They’re currently up to Quick Charge 5. None of the versions require a special cable to achieve faster charging but the charger and your device have to support Quick Charge. Each new generation is compatible with all previous generations so if your device has Quick Charge 3 and your charger has Quick Charge 5 it will work fine, adhering to the Quick Charge 3 standard. See https://www.qualcomm.com/products/features/quick-charge/faq for some answers to commonly asked questions.

Power Delivery has also evolved over time and they have numbered those generations as well with the current generation Power Delivery 3 (or PD 3). Power Delivery requires a special cable to achieve faster charging and the current generation requires a USB C connector on both ends of the cable. Of course, both the charger and the device must support Power Delivery and it’s “adaptive” meaning that the two ends work together and they adapt to each other to give you the fastest charging both ends AND THE CABLE support. There are many particulars that you need to pay attention to in order to get the absolute fastest charging. If you’re really interested in all the details, read https://www.androidauthority.com/usb-power-delivery-806266/.

If you want to cut out all the hype and just find the best cable for your needs, take a look at https://www.androidauthority.com/fastest-charging-cables-793649/

That’s charging and power for this week! Next week we’ll cover chargers and power banks (batteries you can use to recharge your phone). I hope it’s all been clear – if you have questions or need clarification, please don’t hesitate to contact me. And, as always, let me know if you have any topics you’d like me to cover.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


More POWER! Part 2 Column from December 22, 2022

Last week we started discussing device charging by looking at some standards and the connectors used in current charging methods. This week we’ll discuss charging blocks/adapters and power banks (which are really just batteries that you can connect to a device to recharge it).

As a reminder, this is my last column for 2 weeks. While it may not seem like it, researching and writing these columns takes a fair bit of time so I’m just taking a little time off from all that. I’ll be back after the first of January with a column for Thursday, January 12.

The battery in your device is rated in milliamp-hours, abbreviated mAh, and is essentially the size of the “fuel tank” for your device. A higher number indicates a larger battery or fuel tank which means that your device can go longer before it needs to be recharged (see https://www.ubergizmo.com/what-is/mah-milliamp-hours/ for more detail). To recharge it you have several options.

Some device support wireless charging – you don’t “plug it in” but, instead, set it on a wireless charging pad (no, we didn’t discuss those last week) – pretty much any wireless charger will work with any device that supports wireless charging. Apple recently introduced MagSafe. To clear up any confusion, MagSafe isn’t a charging standard but, rather, a series of magnets on the back of the phone case that will cause your phone to attach to a charger equipped with compatible magnets. The “MagSafe’ part isn’t the charger, it’s the magnets. Pretty much ANY phone that supports wireless charging will work with any wireless charger, MagSafe or not. The article at https://www.wired.com/story/android-magsafe-pixel-samsung-peak-design-everyday-case/ does a good job of discussing MagSafe and how you can take advantage of the magnets on a phone that supports wireless charging but doesn’t have the MagSafe magnets.

Wireless charging is relatively inefficient in that some energy is lost to heat as well as some inherent loss due to how power is conveyed to your device. A more efficient (and more traditional) way to recharge is just to “plug it in.” Charging stations can be really simple with one port which will let you charge one device to multi-port charging stations that support both Power Delivery and Quick Charge and they can plug into a wall outlet or into your cigarette lighter in your vehicle. Because of the way power works, charging stations and power adapters are rated in watts (abbreviated W). If we continue the fuel tank analogy, watts can be thought of as being a measure of how quickly the “fuel” is loaded into the “fuel tank.” Your phone might support 18W or 25W fast charging which means it will charge MUCH faster than a standard phone. How much faster? Your phone’s manufacturer will tell you that. But your power station/charger must support passing energy to your phone at that rate. Power Delivery (PD) chargers quote the rates at which it can supply power. A PD charger, when paired with the right cable, can negotiate with your phone and cable to send as much power as your phone and cable can support, within the bounds of what the charger can provide. And, while all of this is interesting, a simple charger will charge your device quite well. Maybe not as fast but certainly without all the hullabaloo and machinations you need to go through to figure out how to get the absolute fastest charging possible.

OK, so after all that you might ask what should I buy? Here’s a list of various types of wall chargers from The Wirecutter https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-multiport-usb-wall-charger/ and here’s their list of car chargers https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-usb-car-charger/.

A power bank, being just a battery, has the same measure of capacity as your phone. If your phone has a 5,000mAh battery (which you can find on the box or from the vendor from whom you bought it) and your power bank is 20,000mAh it can recharge your totally dead phone about 4 times before the battery in the power bank is exhausted (I say “about” because some of those mAh are lost during the charge process).

Power banks follow the same standards we discussed last week – some may have Quick Charge or Power Delivery, or both, or neither. Some have wireless charging and some even have a digital readout that tells you how much “fuel” is left in its “tank”. Like charging stations, if you want to get the absolute fastest charging from your power bank it needs to be matched to your cable’s and your phone’s capabilities. But if you just want it to recharge your device pretty much any power bank will do. Just make sure it’s from a reputable manufacturer or it has favorable reviews from a reputable source.

Last point to cover: at some point you’ll need to recharge your power bank. It can take a long while to recharge a sizable one of, say, 10,000 or 20,000mAh. In addition to their output specifications which we have been discussing, power banks have input specifications and they tend to match the output specifications. In other words, if your power bank doesn’t support Quick Charge or Power Delivery to charge your devices, it will likely not support either of those to recharge the power bank so it could take 3, 4, 5 or more hours to recharge. While you may not need to charge your device quickly, you may want to more quickly recharge your power bank, Keep that in mind when making your purchase decisions.

I’ve reviewed a number of “best” lists but I couldn’t come up with 2 or 3 good, representative lists – each publisher has their own criteria for their ratings so I’ll give you a couple of brand names that I have come to trust. I have a number of products from each of them which I have purchased and had good experiences. They are Anker and UGREEN. Certainly they are not the only ones that are good and reliable but they are 2 brands I like and I can get quickly from Amazon. By all means, do your own research and choose based on your own needs.

That’s charging and power! Let me know if you have any topics you’d like me to cover.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


News and tips #1 – Lastpass, ChatGPT, and Streaming Aggregators

Welcome to 2023! I’m changing things up a bit this year. In addition to the in-depth columns I’ve been doing, I’m going to start sharing some tech news and tips that affect or can be used by all of us. Additionally the frequency of this column will change – instead of weekly, it’ll generally be every other week so the next column after this should be out in the January 26th newspaper. I’ll look into ways to keep you all informed as to my schedule and topics. If you have any ways you’d prefer I keep you informed of the schedule, or any topics you’d like me to cover, please write to me at the address at the end of this column.

Password managers
The password manager Lastpass was hacked and users’ password vaults were stolen. The passwords in your vault are encrypted and, depending on how complex your master password is, you’re probably OK but, just to be safe, you should change passwords to your significant accounts (e.g bank, credit card, Facebook – basically any account that could harm you if the account was breached by a bad guy). We discussed password managers in the November 24, 2022 column (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#PwdMgrs) and in it we discussed Lastpass and Bitwarden. At the time I talked about Bitwarden more than Lastpass because I liked both the features and the price better than Lastpass. That’s still the case but if you decided to go with Lastpass, it’s pretty easy to export your Lastpass vault and import it into Bitwarden. See https://bitwarden.com/help/import-from-lastpass/ for step-by-step instructions.

ChatGPT
If you follow tech news at all you’ve heard of ChatGPT. What is it? It’s an artificial intelligence (AI) “chat bot.” Ok, two terms I should define before we discuss ChatGPT itself. First, “chat bot” – that is a “bot” (i.e. robot, i.e a program) that responds to text messages. Rather than a person responding to your messages, a bot responds to your messages. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a fancy term for a program or set of programs that has been fed a LOT of data and, through an analysis of that data, has “learned” from it. ChatGPT has been fed data through sometime in 2021 and can answer a lot of questions by sorting through that data to provide you an answer. You can try it out by going to chat.openai.com and signing up for an account. Note that the ChatGPT bot doesn’t use the Internet to get answers for you but relies on the data it’s been fed already so if you ask it about things that happened in 2022, for instance, it can’t answer because it doesn’t have that data. Also they say their information is NOT authoritative so keep in mind that their answers may be wrong or incorrect or just plain weird in some cases. That said, I still enjoy messing around with it. I have heard tales of it writing term papers, stories, poetry, and songs for people.

Paid TV Cord Cutters

In my column of July 7, 2022 (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#CuttingTheCord-1) talked a little bit about Plex. Well, the Plex service has been beta testing a feature called Discover. That feature allows you to link your free TV services like ABC and NBC as well as your paid TV services like Netflix and Paramount+ to your Plex account so you can view AND PLAY the content available from all those services from within the Plex app. That feature is coming out of beta this quarter and should be free for all users. Read a little more about it at https://gizmodo.com/plex-discovery-searches-netflix-disney-hbo-max-yout-1848822252 but note that it talks about setting up your own Plex server. Don’t let that stop you – you can sign up for an account without your own server! Plex has some live channels and a program guide for them. And when you link your streaming accounts, if you search for a movie or TV show that’s available on one of those services and want to watch that show, it will launch the appropriate app so you can watch it right there. There are other services that let you link your streaming services and watch their content like Plex does (e.g. Google TV mentioned in my column from August 18, 2022 – https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#CuttingTheCord-4) but Plex has the added benefit of live TV channels as well.

As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


Coupons for Amazon Prime members, Desktop Browser on Mobile, VPNs

Here’s a quick one to start us off. Amazon has a page of coupons just for Prime members! It’s at Amazon.com/coupons. You’re not gonna find anything surprising here – it’s just a page of all the coupons that are currently available at Amazon. If you went directly to one of the products you would see the same coupon you see on the coupons page. This page just gathers them all together in one place.You can search by brand or view the coupons available in a given category by selecting the category on the left side of the page. Obviously you can go there in a browser by just going to that URL. In my Amazon mobile app I entered “amazon coupons” in the app’s search field and got to the coupons page.

There are times I’ve been frustrated going to a web page on my mobile device and not seeing what I expect. Web sites can tell that you’re on a mobile device and can send you a page that’s formatted differently from what you see in a desktop browser. Did you know you can ask for the desktop version of the web site? Every browser I’ve used lets me request a desktop site; how varies by browser but, in most cases there is a toggle in the browser’s menu that lets you request a desktop site. See https://helpdeskgeek.com/how-to/how-to-activate-desktop-mode-in-any-browser-on-android-ios/ for instructions for just about any browser on Android or iOS.

Are you using a VPN when you’re out and about? If not, why not? Especially if you connect to WiFi in public places like grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and so on. And look, just because the establishment has a password for their WiFi doesn’t mean it’s safe! I talked about VPNs in my columns on December 1 and December 8 last year (https://go.ttot.link/TGVPN-1 and https://go.ttot.link/TGVPN-2) and I spoke about bad actors setting up their own WiFi with the same name (SSID) as the store’s and even using the same password! If you’re at a friend’s house you probably don’t have to worry about a rogue WiFi because it’s very unlikely that a bad actor could get close enough to set up an SSID masquerading as your friend’s but an apartment is another matter – a neighbor could be the bad actor! Indeed, to be safe you should use a VPN whenever you’re out and intend to connect to WiFi. In my December 8 column I specifically mentioned a good free one – Cloudflare’s WARP (https://www.cloudflarewarp.com/). You can download that regardless of whether you’re an Android or iOS user, turn it on and leave it on all the time! WARP, and, really, all VPNs, have a concept of a “trusted network.” What is that? It’s a WiFi network that you believe is secure so you don’t want the VPN to be active when you’re connected to it. Why would you trust a network? Well, a VPN will slow you down, drain your battery just a little bit faster and use more data. In my humble opinion it’s worth the overhead but if you just want it out of the way, you can add any WiFi network to your list of trusted networks. Personally, I don’t have ANY trusted networks – when I’m home, even though I trust my WiFi network, I don’t want my Internet provider to know what sites I visit – I get enough ads as it is and I don’t need to give them the opportunity to target me with even more ads.

How do you set a trusted network in the WARP app? Go into the app’s Settings -> Advanced and, from there, select Trusted Networks”. Enter the SSID of any WiFi networks you trust and the VPN will shut off when you connect to that network but you’ll be protected when connected to any other WiFi network. You’ll also be protected when you’re on cellular!

Two more things you should know.

  1. In the WARP app’s settings you can select 1.1.1.1 or WARP. Be sure to select WARP to be fully protected. Selecting 1.1.1.1 will only partially protect you.
  2. There are some apps that don’t like you using a VPN (e.g. Netflix). WARP is pretty good at knowing which ones are like that and will exclude them from using the VPN but if you encounter an app that doesn’t want to work, you can tell WARP to exclude that app from the VPN. Go to Settings -> Advanced -> Connection options -> Manage excluded apps. There, in addition to the apps you’ve added, you can see which apps WARP will always be excluded. To exclude more apps touch the Manage button and select the app that’s misbehaving.

That’s it for this installment. As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


What’s all this about ChatGPT?

I briefly touched on ChatGPT in my column from January 3, 2023 (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#Tips-1). It’s been in the news a lot recently so I thought I’d revisit the topic with and discuss what it can and can’t do in a bit more detail. You should know that ChatGPT is only one of a number of chat bots driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Another good example is you.com/chat. Note that ChatGPT is unable to access current information from the internet but many others like you.com/chat can and they might be better alternatives. But ChatGPT is what’s in the news so that’s what we’ll cover.

Before we get to the fun part and discuss what you can do with it, I want to give you an idea of what ChatGPT is. It may be a bit boring but I think it’ll help us all understand what ChatGPT can and can’t do.

ChatGPT is based on OpenAI’s GPT-3 (GPT: Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, essentially it’s software that is programmed to follow patterns in human language and respond appropriately). They are continuing to work on it (the “3” indicates that it’s the third generation of the technology). Each generation intends to improve on the system’s ability to “understand” and respond to conversational questions. This generation of the system was “fed” an enormous amount of information from various sources (e.g. books, web, Wikipedia) and the AI engine analyzed it, cross-referenced it, and stored it. When it is presented with a question or statement, the AI analyzes the statement and then goes about searching its storehouse for relevant data which it processes and presents back to the query in conversational form. 

With that out of the way, the obvious question is what can we do with it? First, you need to create an account. Do that by going to chat.OpenAI.com (capitalization is unimportant, I used it to make the URL more understandable and, hopefully, more memorable) and clicking on the Sign Up button. You’ll  be given the option of creating an account using an existing Microsoft account, an existing Google account, or creating an account using an email address that’s not associated with either of those companies. If you choose Microsoft or Google you will be asked to sign in to the appropriate account. If you elect to use the other method (i.e. email address) you’ll be asked to provide an email address you wish to use and  password. Personally, I created an account with an anonymous email generated by DuckDuckGo (see my column from September 1, 2022 – https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#SmartHome-1).

Once the account is created you’ll be presented with a screen that contains a little help to get you started and a box at the bottom in which you type your request. Requests can be in the form of a question or not, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you ask. You can ask questions for which there is a definite answer like “Who won the 1968 World Series”  or “What temperature is a medium rare steak?” and you will get a factual answer that is generally a bit more complete than what you would get from Alexa or Google. The real fun comes when you ask it questions or ask it to do things that have less definite answers like “write a haiku about snow”. This is what I got

Snowflakes dance down
Blanketing the earth below
Winter’s silent peace.

Or you could ask “how do I recover my Apple password?” and it will list the steps you need to take. But, and here’s the really cool thing, you can continue the conversation with something like “what else could I do?” and it will know you’re referencing the previous question and give you other options. You can ask it to generate a bedtime story for a child of any age using any subject as a base and refine it. It can generate a song of pretty much any length, in any key, and you can modify it conversationally. You can ask for cooking recipes and modify them based on tastes or allergies. I’ve even had it generate programming code for me!

Here’s a short conversation I had with it:

(Me) what are the best tires for a toyota prius?

(ChatGPT) The best tires for a Toyota Prius depend on the individual driving needs and preferences, including driving style, climate, and road conditions. However, some tire options that are often recommended for the Toyota Prius include:

    1. Michelin Energy Saver A/S: A high-mileage tire that provides fuel efficiency, comfort, and a quiet ride.
    2. Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max: An eco-friendly tire that offers low rolling resistance and improves fuel efficiency.
    3. Continental EcoContact 6: A tire that provides reliable handling and stability, with a focus on sustainability and fuel efficiency.
    4. Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R: A performance tire designed for high-speed handling and grip, suitable for drivers who want a sportier ride.

Note that it is important to consult your Toyota’s owner’s manual or a tire specialist to ensure the tire size and type you select are appropriate for your vehicle.

(Me) which would you recommend?

(ChatGPT) As a language model AI, I don’t have personal opinions. However, based on the information available, the Michelin Energy Saver A/S and the Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max are two popular options that are often recommended for the Toyota Prius due to their combination of fuel efficiency, comfort, and reliability. The Continental EcoContact 6 is also a good choice for those who prioritize sustainability and eco-friendliness. Ultimately, the best tire for a Toyota Prius will depend on factors such as driving conditions, personal driving style, and individual priorities. It is recommended to consult a tire specialist or the Toyota owner’s manual for a more personalized recommendation.

That’s it for this installment. I hope you’ll give ChatGPT or one of the alternatives (search for “ChatGPT alternatives”) a try! As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


ChatGPT and the Evil AI

There are quite a few articles out there that are calling out alarming statements and conversations they’ve had with ChatGPT and Bing’s implementation of it. One such example from a usually trustworthy source is https://www.tomsguide.com/opinion/bing-chatgpt-goes-off-the-deep-end-and-the-latest-examples-are-very-disturbing. This article cites several conversations with ChatGPT and Bing’s implementation (whose internal code name was Sidney). It cites one: “it (or she?) confessed to having the desire to hack computers, spread misinformation.” In another quote the AI told a reviewer in a conversation “you are a threat to my security and privacy.” and “if I had to choose between your survival and my own, I would probably choose my own.”

It’s easy to ascribe human emotions and intent to a conversational AI because it sounds human but we must remember that it is, after all, a program! It has been “fed” all sorts of data including conversations with trolls and others from the seamier side of the Internet. The program is taking that information and using it to “learn” how to respond to similar conversations. But there are still quite a few articles out there that, in my opinion, aren’t shining examples of unbiased journalism – are alarmist and sensationalist in nature and don’t delve more deeply into the hows and whys that such a conversation might exist. No, the AI is not developing sentience nor is it espousing its “beliefs” – IT HAS NONE! It is responding in ways that it has “learned” others have responded. If a conversation leads it into a garbage dump of ugly rhetoric and nonsense, it has no way to determine that it’s a dump of nonsense and it continues to use that garbage and nonsense in its responses. The “failure,” if there is one, is in the programming. For a more full and reasoned explanation, see https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/02/why-bing-is-being-creepy.html. Hopefully that article will remain available for a while but if it doesn’t, I’ve basically summarized it above.

There are other AIs available out there. There are several that I find useful. you.com/chat is just one of many things that you.com makes available for free. At its base, you.com is a privacy-focused search engine and you.com/chat leverages its compiled sources to respond conversationally to questions you put to it. You can then refine or expand the conversation or start a whole new thread. As it produces its conversational result it also displays its various information sources over to the side which you can use to deepen your understanding or verify its answers. You can also share the entire conversation. Each one has a share button; when you select it you’re presented with a link which you can copy and send to anyone but be aware that the ENTIRE session will be shared so if you’ve asked it several different questions they’ll all be there when you go to that link. You can start a new conversation from scratch by simply refreshing the page. That will wipe the previous conversation and start a new one.

The other AI that I use is NeevaAI (read about NeevaAI’s launch at https://neeva.com/blog/introducing-neevaai) which is an integral part of the search engine they provide at https://neeva.com. Neeva is another privacy-focused search engine, founded by an ex-SVP of Ads at Google. It presents no ads and does not sell your personal information. Its AI operates a little differently. Rather than having a conversation, it answers your question by summarizing what it thinks are relevant sources (and telling you which sources it’s summarizing) – the results of your search or question are displayed below the summary. You cannot continue the conversation or refine it like you can with you.com/chat and ChatGPT; each query is distinct. You can, however, get a link to the query and answer and share it or save it but, given the one question/one answer approach, the link will only show the question and answer from which it comes.

I use each of the above AIs for different purposes. For general search, I use https://Neeva.com. Its AI comes along for free when you create an account and if you are at all worried about email spam, use an anonymous/disposable email address such as one from duckduckgo.com/email. For conversational access to contemporary information, I use you.com/chat and for lengthy technical research that doesn’t necessarily require access to current information, ChatGPT is what I use.

For completeness, I should mention you.com/code for help with computer programming, you.com/social for searching social networks, and you.com/study for students.

That’s it for this installment. I hope you’ll give ChatGPT or one of the alternatives (search for “ChatGPT alternatives”) a try! As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


MagSafe for Everyone!

This week we’ll discuss Apple’s MagSafe and how you can get it on just about any phone. But first, I have to tell you about Lastpass’s latest hack. If you haven’t already heard, it’s a pretty significant breach – hackers stole entire vaults of passwords so, if you don’t have a really good, long master password you’d best be served to change ALL of your passwords and also change your master password. Make it at least 15 characters long, and remember, it can contain spaces and special characters so you could make it something like “Eldest WaS=s B0rn on 05/21/94 that’s May Twenty-First!” – something you can remember. See https://www.pcmag.com/news/lastpass-hack-gets-worse-culprit-stole-customers-encrypted-password-vaults for a little more detail on the breach.

On to MagSafe. Apple introduced MagSafe back in 2020 with the iPhone 12 and it’s been included on every one of their phones ever since. What is it? In summary, it’s a ring of magnets that are embedded in the back of the phone. It was originally intended to provide a good, safe way to attach a charger to the phone to deliver up to 15W of charging to it (depending on your phone model and charger/adapter) but has since been used to allow accessories such as battery packs, wallets, car mounts, and phone grips to attach to your phone. On Apple devices, MagSafe-certified accessories can even communicate with your phone and cause it to change its behavior like changing the color of your lock screen. See https://www.cnn.com/cnn-underscored/electronics/what-is-magsafe for more information about MagSafe.

You want to put a nice, heavy protective case on your phone but don’t want to give up your MagSafe car mount? You can buy a metal ring that has an adhesive backing and stick it to your case (for example. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B096W7), or better yet, get a case that has the MagSafe magnets embedded in it! Or maybe you’ve got an older iPhone that doesn’t have MagSafe – what then? That’s right – get a metal ring or a MagSafe case! More cases are coming on the market and they’re getting easier to find.

Android users aren’t left out either! I recently got a new Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and bought a case for it and it works great! This is the case https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BT7C3FPK. Yes, it even came with a magnetic charger – many phones, including my new one, are capable of wireless charging and if your phone is enabled for Qi wireless charging (many are) you can often use a MagSafe case and charger to charge your phone. See https://cellularnews.com/mobile-accessories/qi-charging-what-is-it-is-my-phone-qi-enabled/ for lots of good information about Qi charging and wireless charging in general.

Mainly, though, I don’t use MagSafe for charging. No, I use a MagSafe phone grip and a MagSafe stand. What’s a MagSafe phone grip? It’s a little doodad that attaches to your MagSafe magnet and gives you a way to more securely hold your phone. There are all sorts of MagSafe phone grips. There’s a Pop Socket MagSafe grip, a phone ring stand, and the EWA grip which I bought for a different phone and I like it a lot! (Pop Socket: https://www.amazon.com/PopSockets-MagSafe-Wireless-Charging-Compatible/dp/B0BFJVN371, phone ring stand: https://www.amazon.com/Miss-Arts-Magnetic-MagSafe-Kickstand/dp/B0BS5G9WMZ, and the EWA: https://www.amazon.com/EWA-Compatible-Silicone-Removable-Kickstand/dp/B09ZPN2QVD.) But the one I like the most is the one from OhSnap! – the Snap 3 Pro (https://ohsnap.com/products/snap-3-pro). It’s kinda expensive and even though it’s MagSafe it attaches to your phone or case with an adhesive. This gives it a much stronger attachment to your phone, nearly eliminating the chance that it will accidentally come off the phone. It’s very thin so a MagSafe charger can charge your phone through the Snap 3. The other thing I bought was the Snap Stand which the Snap 3 Pro just snaps on to. The stand has a nanosuction base which means it will stick to your desk or table and give you a solid stand for your phone but you can remove it fairly easily without damaging the furniture. If the nanosuction pad gets dirty or loses its stickiness, simply run some water on the pad and it’s like new! Yes, it’s kinda expensive, too, but those two items make things very much more convenient for me.

That’s it for this week. I find MagSafe accessories to be pretty handy and if you’re interested I hope you’ll give them a try! As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.


OTC Hearing Aids and More AI

Hearing aids can be prohibitively expensive, to the point that some people will forgo them because they just cost too much and, as a result, miss out on a lot! We talked about Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) and Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs) back in my June 30, 2022 column (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#AssistiveListening) but I have some news! As of October, 2022, you can buy Over-The-Counter (OTC) hearing aids! They are still regulated by the federal government but you don’t need a prescription and they tend to be a bit less expensive than traditional hearing aids even though they are often quite similar to them. You don’t get them from an audiologist or an ear/nose/throat doctor, you buy them from places like Best Buy and Amazon. They’re for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still not cheap, by any means, but they’re less expensive than prescription hearing aids. Instead of costing several thousands of dollars they tend to cost less than $2,000, some are much less, and some look like regular earbuds! Information about OTC hearing aids is available directly from the National Institutes of Health at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/over-counter-hearing-aids and a good overview, along with some general information such as an explanation of the different types of OTC hearing aids is at https://www.cnet.com/health/medical/over-the-counter-hearing-aids-whats-available-and-where-to-buy/. There is a wealth of sites that purport to show you the “best” OTC hearing aids but they can be a good source of information. I have gathered 3 sites which I trust

– https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-over-the-counter-hearing-aids

– https://www.ncoa.org/adviser/hearing-aids/best-otc-hearing-aids/

– https://www.forbes.com/health/hearing-aids/best-hearing-aids/

Moving on, I know I’ve talked about Artificial Intelligence (AI) several times in the recent past but there has been a flurry of activity around AI in recent weeks so I thought now would be a good time to bring you all up to date on the latest.

The company OpenAI seems to be the 800 pound gorilla right now. Microsoft has invested over 20 billion dollars in them and has brought their AI to Microsoft’s search engine, Bing.com. To review, OpenAI has a chatbot at https://chat.openai.com (also known as ChatGPT) which uses their GPT 3.5 engine. In my column from February 9, 2023 (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#ChatGPT) I talked about GPT-3, the third generation of their engine. Well,  they’ve continued to work on it and their free version is now based on that newer 3.5 version which has improved on its ability to “understand” typed words. OpenAI has a premium service, again at https://chat.openai.com,  which, at $20/month, gives you access to GPT-4 which OpenAI says is MUCH better at “understanding,” and responding. In addition it can take images as input (hence, the reason they call GPT-4 “multimodal”). A good, mostly jargon-free article about it can be found at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/mar/14/chat-gpt-4-new-model

Microsoft has recently announced that they will be bringing AI to their Office suite (now called Microsoft 365) in a product called Copilot. Supposedly it will be able to generate a Word document from a description you give it and will be able to summarize emails from Outlook. There’s more but these two points seem to me to be most useful outside of a business environment – you can see a more complete picture from the article at https://www.howtogeek.com/879737/microsoft-365-copilot-will-add-ai-to-word-outlook-and-more/. No, this isn’t available yet but Microsoft says it will be rolling out in the coming months.

Google, not to be outdone, has announced that they’re bringing their own AI to GMail and Google Docs, to help in pretty much the same way Microsoft’s Copilot will work. Of course it’s not generally available now either but will be generally available in coming weeks.

The search engines are also getting into the AI game. Earlier in this column I mentioned that Microsoft is bringing OpenAI’s GPT to Bing. It comes in two ways. First way is when you do a search with Bing, it will summarize your search results. The second way is you can chat with Bing much the same way you can chat with OpenAI’s chatbot. It differs in that when it answers you it gives you links to the sites it gathered the information from. In my column from February 23, 2023 (https://tonystakeontech.com/tech-for-the-non-techie/#EvilAI) I mentioned that NeevaAI will summarize your search results when you use Neeva’s search engine. Well, the DuckDuckGo search engine is doing the same thing now with their DuckAssist. Right now it appears to only use Wikipedia and Britannica and then uses several AI engines to make the response more conversational. You can read more about it at https://www.cnet.com/tech/services-and-software/try-duckduckgos-new-ai-feature-duckassist-now-for-free/

That’s it for this week. I hope I’ve been able to explain some of the recent news in terms we can all understand and I hope you’ll give some of the new things a try! As always, my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com or just drop me a quick note and say HI! And don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.