Demystifying the Digital World – Part 7 – TV

In the beginning, there were TV antennas. Big ones on the roof, rabbit ears on top of TVs, small round ones on the back of TVs, and many other shapes and sizes. Then Cable TV became popular in the 1980s which made it possible to get rid of that ugly antenna and pay a monthly fee for dozens of local and special interest channels, back then 50 channels cost around $20 / month. Over the next few decades cable and satellite TV options exploded into the market. Soon there were hundreds of channels and costs skyrocketed. By last year, it cost over $100 / month for basic service which consisted of local channels plus hundreds of “special interest” channels that were anything but interesting.

So my wife and I finally became “cord cutters.” It wasn’t just the cost that was an issue, but ugly dishes and lousy digital video recorders (DVRs) finally swayed us. It was scary at first, but in the spirit of adventure, we tried Hulu, Sling, and Google TV (unrelated to YouTube). Unfortunately despite “Cloud DVRs” and the convenience of TV over the internet, they all had serious shortcomings and still cost around $40 / month.

The solution was to go back to the 1960s technology, an ugly antenna on the roof, but with a modern twist: a standalone DVR called Tablo. Now we get local channels (including PBS) in High Definition, record what we like, and watch it when we like. For movies and many older TV shows we have Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime Video.

For a total of $324 we purchased:

We actually used an existing bracket and cable on the roof so we only spent $288 and many people already have something that can take the place of the Roku so the total could be as low as $225 and even lower if you can use an indoor antenna. The Tablo works with Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, some Smart TVs, and even an Xbox. Monthly charges are minimal and include $5 for the Tablo digital TV Guide (not required, but useful), Netflix $8, and Amazon Video $0 (included in Prime Membership). For people who have good reception, who only rarely watch local channels, and who can live with commercials, there are $20 indoor antennas that connect to any TV made in the last decade. Done.

Of course, some people are in apartments or locations that do not receive over the air (OTA) television so it is best to start with some online research. Websites like AntennaWeb.org (or the FCC website) can predict reception based on your address. On this website yellow does not mean caution, it means a small antenna could work. If reception seems possible then take the next step. An indoor antenna (purchased somewhere with a good return policy) connected directly to a TV is an inexpensive way to confirm. We needed a rooftop antenna because of a small hill near us, but an indoor antenna still picked up several stations.

How do we like our new TV world a couple months into this experiment? We LOVE it. There are no more complex boxes behind our TV with a rats nest of wires or an ugly dish on the roof. We can watch TV from our iPads if we want and even watch recorded shows when we are away from home through the Tablo. The Roku stick works very well and streams other services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. There are tons of other streaming apps available also like Acorn TV for British shows, PBS for streaming older shows, Vajra for Buddhist TV, etc.

It is funny though how we have come full circle. At least the indoor antennas are much more interesting now. Who thought the antenna below that looks like a piece of paper could save you $100 a month?

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 6 – For an iPad?

The previous post in this series provided some compelling reasons to ditch Windows for the Google Chromebook. Chromebooks are inexpensive, easy to switch to (especially if you already use the Chrome browser), secure, and have long battery life. Why even consider an alternative like the Apple iPad?

There are several reasons. Maybe the most important of which is that using a Chromebook implies that you are not only trusting Google’s cloud computing system, but also giving Google access to your data. Despite all the businesses Google is involved in, at its heart it is an advertising company. Your data is used to tailor ads delivered to you and others. That’s the price we have always paid for “free” Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Photos, Cloud Storage, etc.

Apple on the other hand has made it perfectly clear that “Apple’s customers are not its product” and they go to great lengths to be transparent about privacy issues. However, more compelling than vague discussions about privacy is the fact that if you use an iPhone, the iPad can run the same high quality apps. This is a MAJOR advantage over the Chromebook. Take a photo on your iPhone and it magically appears on the beautiful screen of the iPad. The same for bookmarks, contacts, calendars, reminders, notes, text messages, passwords, and the other bits and pieces of our digital lives. Sure Google can do this as well, but an iPhone paired with an iPad is a powerful, very well integrated combination. You don’t even have to pay for the app again. If you bought it for your phone, you can use it on you iPad for free.

The iPad also has outstanding technical support of AppleCare, 90 days are included and up to two years if you choose to purchase it. Even though I’ve rarely used it, I have always found AppleCare to be the best support in the technology world. Even their post-support surveys reflect their commitment to helping people solve their problems quickly and painlessly. In the screenshot of a survey below, Apple asks about “Compassion for your situation.” How many times has a tech problem been so frustrating that a little compassion by the support person would have been just the ticket?

Other benefits of the iPad include a wonderful size, excellent battery life, and high quality hardware that is supported by software updates from Apple for years. While the lack of a physical keyboard is an issue for some people, it comes in handy on cramped flights and makes the iPad much easier to hold for long periods of time. Like any high tech product though, the iPad is not without its issues. Copy and paste can be fiddly and file management is still a bit obscure since apps typically have not supported files the same way a laptop does. Also, the iPad doesn’t have proper “windows.” Apps take up the whole screen with one exception called “split screen” which is awkward to use.

Can the iPad replace a windows laptop? The answer is a definite yes. I sometimes go days without touching my desktop computer. Is it worth the extra cost? An entry level iPad costs only $329 compared to an entry level Chromebook’s that range from $199 to $299. Not much difference considering the risk involved. Is a Chromebook from Asus better than Acer, how about Samsung or HP, which model has the better screen, keyboard, warranty, reliability rating, etc.? There is such a thing as a Google Chromebook. It is called the Pixelbook and starts at $999, a whole different category of pricing.  If you buy an iPad, you get an Apple iPad, period.

So there’s less reason than ever to keep struggling along with a Windows based computer. If you’re still not convinced, buy an iPad. Apple has a 15 day, no questions asked return policy. If you live near an Apple Store, make an appointment at the Genius Bar to help you get started. I’m 95% sure that you won’t be taking advantage of that return policy.

The next post in this series will be discussing a slightly different topic, demystifying one of the most challenging parts of the high tech world: watching TV! Stay tuned!

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 5 – For a Chromebook?

The last part of this series ended by introducing two of the most popular options for getting rid of Microsoft Windows: the Google Chromebook and the Apple iPad. I hope you had a chance to watch the video “Is this a computer?” because it provides a brief humorous summary from an expert in the field.

First up is the Google Chromebook because it is probably the most cost effective and familiar option for people who have only used Windows in the past. A Chromebook works just like the name sounds, a notebook computer (aka laptop) that runs the Google Chrome browser as its primary operating system. This fact alone addresses many of the problems that face Windows users. The change is not as jarring because chances are you are reading this post using the Chrome browser (60% of people use it to access the internet). Also, Gmail users already have a Google account that stores bookmarks, contacts, calendars, etc. If this is the case, the switch is very easy and Google even provides a handy guide. To summarize the three steps:

  1. Sign into Chrome on your Windows computer (if you haven’t already). This synchs bookmarks, passwords, and settings.
  2. Back up your files, photos and music. The links associated with each of these will take you to the associated Google service.
  3. Sign in to your new Chromebook and open Google Drive. The files, photos, and music should magically appear.

In terms of software, a Chromebook can run 80%+ of the applications people use everyday including Photos, Music, YouTube, Google Docs (to replace Office), Skype, Dropbox, Netflix, etc. Chromebooks also update quickly and automatically, have built-in virus protection, long battery life, and typically cost a fraction of the price of a Windows laptop.

Does all of this sound too good to be true? Well of course it does! Google wants to make the switch seem as easy and painless as possible or nobody would do it. What are some of the downsides of the Chromebook? First and foremost, you have to trust storing your files in “the cloud.” Google has an excellent track record for storing users’ files, but not having files stored locally makes some people uncomfortable. Related to this is the fact that storing files online means that you have to (mostly) be connected to the Internet to use a Chromebook effectively. In fact, most Chromebook’s only have 32 GB of storage compared to most modern laptops that have upwards of 256 GB. There are ways to enable offline use, but these require a bit of extra effort to setup and maintain. Finally, printing can be a hassle because Chromebooks require “Google Cloud Print” instead of the more traditional USB or WiFi connection.

Despite these drawbacks, Chromebooks still have a lot to offer at a very compelling price, which is why so many K-12 schools have adopted them for use in the classroom. (As an added bonus, this means that tech support is as close as the nearest 11 year old!)

The Apple iPad will be explored in the next post in this series. Is the best option yet to come? Maybe, but if you’re already sold on the Chromebook after reading this post, make sure to get one from a store with a 30 day return policy because despite the higher price, the iPad also offers a lot to switchers, especially considering the popularity of iOS and the iPhone.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 4 – Ditching Windows

All I am saying is that getting rid of Microsoft Windows is so easy, even a child can do it and if you think about it, they already have! In the past few years people who spend any amount of time around children immediately notice that kids are glued to their phones – traditional computers are nowhere in sight. They do everything online through them. They Snapchat, send text messaging, use Facebook / Instagram, watch YouTube, listen to Spotify, etc. all through that tiny screen. What’s more, they seem to use all these apps and services effortlessly. I wrote about this in detail in the recent post, “Mommy What’s a Computer?

Why do children have such an easy time with tech? Probably because their natural drive to explore combined with a lack of fear of the consequences creates the perfect learning environment.  “Oh look, if I click here, then this happens. What does this button do? Oh, that’s cool! That didn’t work like I thought it would, what if I try this instead?” Then they show off their discoveries to others and the learning snowballs. Instead of being embarrassed by posting a silly video, they have competitions to see who will post the silliest. It’s all a game, a virtual world full of stimulation from hundreds of sources. By comparison, what do adults do? “Oh no, I clicked there and THAT happened, now what?! I’ll never understand this crazy computer.”

For some interesting examples of the concepts above, the article, “What younger generations think of their elders online” is a fascinating glimpse into their world view of technology and buried in this article is the fun Buzzfeed post “My Little Sister Taught Me How To ‘Snapchat Like The Teens” where the author, who is only 29 and deeply involved with technology, is floored by the tech abilities of his 13 year old sister.

It might be good to keep these ideas in mind as we tackle one of the biggest projects of this series, ditching Windows. First though, you have to have good reasons to make this shift because there is a fair bit of work involved. For example:

  • Did a Windows update make your three year old computer barely usable?
  • Did you get a virus / malware / ransomware / phishing attack / etc. and pay hundreds of dollars to get your computer “cleaned?”
  • Have basic tasks like finding a recent photo, file, or email become an exercise in frustration?
  • Are you reading this post on your phone waiting for “Windows 10 Spring Creators Update” to install and wondering if you’ll ever get to use your computer again?
  • Does sitting down to do any task on your computer give you stress?

In general, if you are already thinking about buying a new computer and aren’t excited about any of the options available, this might be a good time to switch. Just one encounter with malware is enough to push most people over the edge while it might take several annoyance type problems to make this project worth the effort.

The next part of this series will cover two of the most popular recent options, the Google Chromebook and the Apple iPad. Until then, the recent video “Is this a computer?” is a good, brief summary of these options. Also, Steve Jobs famously introduced the idea of the “Post PC era” in 2013 in this three minute video, equating traditional PCs to large trucks. While it might be fun, do you really need a full sized F-150 to go grocery shopping?

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 3 – Email

I know I promised a brief guide to getting rid of Microsoft Windows for this post, but I recently had an email epiphany and wanted to share an interesting story. The problem was this, somehow my wife and I have ended up with eight domain names, four websites, and about a dozen email addresses. It crept up on us over the past 20 years. First came the domain name for her business, but it was too long so we registered a shorter one linking to the same website. Next was a domain name for my business, domain names for a personal project (.net and .org too!), another business domain name, and another personal domain name. Each domain name has a couple of email address and … well you see how things got so complicated.

Most of these domains receive very few emails so it would be silly to pay $5 / month / domain for hosting plus another $5 / month for email. Therefore we use free Gmail for the non-professional addresses. Gmail has a generous free account and its spam filtering is outstanding but how does one connect all those domain emails to a couple of Gmail accounts?

At this point you might be asking what has this to do with the average person with one (usually Gmail) email account. Even if your online life is much simpler, you might want to consider getting your own domain name for email and starting switching over gradually. Why switch? First, email is more central than ever to our online identities. Keeping a semi-private email out of the prying eyes of hackers is a great way to add another level of security. Second, as the website POBox explains, “Email is never free. Like all other services, it costs money to provide. If you aren’t paying for it, someone else is. Sometimes that someone is the service developer. Most frequently, that someone is advertisers.” Third, if you have ever had to switch away from an email service (remember AOL email?), you can now easily do so if you have your own domain name. Lastly, it is easy to setup, As my other favorite service ForwardMX explains, “Sign Up, Change MX Records, and Receive Your Emails.”

As an advanced tip, I also keep a “throwaway” Gmail account for newsletters / online offers and only give out my personal email for important correspondence. That keeps the spam level to an absolute minimum in my main account.

If you already have domain name(s) registered somewhere else, my favorite way to get the emails delivered to one place is by using ForwardMX. They are fast, easy, and inexpensive. For more complex arrangements (especially if you want to get away from Google), POBox has several tiers of options. For the least expensive arrangement, register a domain name at NameCheap and use their free email forwarding with a Gmail account.

Finally, a few tips for a successful transition:

  • Get a .COM address – Those  $0.48 / per year “.PARTY” domain names look fun, but emails from them often get marked as spam by ISPs.
  • Choose a domain name carefully – If your name is John Porterdorfer, you’re in luck. You can have John@ Porterdorfer.com! If your name is Smith, you’re going to have to be creative.
  • Give it time – It took me months to make the transition from the email I had used for years to the new name and five years later, I STILL get a few emails at the old address.

In the long run it is worth the effort. People still smile when I tell them my email address, it looks professional, and is easy to give out since it is based on my own name. Also, my spam folder is no longer overflowing with “Miracle Cure” emails and emails from several domains all come to one Inbox now. Ahhh, email nirvana!!!