Friday, December 12, 2014

2014 Holiday Tech - Tablets

Time to look at this year's tech for the holidays.


Apple® - iPad Air 2 Wi-Fi 64GB - Gold

Apple has just released its latest updates to the iPad line: the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3. Most of the tech pundits seem to think that if you're looking to upgrade from an earlier iPad, say pre-Air or just looking for the best overall tablet on the market, that's the iPad Air 2. Apple has made some significant improvements to the camera so those people who like to haul an iPad around for photos will finally have photo quality commensurate with the bulk. In addition it has the fingerprint sensor that the iPhone has had for 2 years. They've also boosted the processing speed and made it slightly thinner and lighter. The original iPad Air is still a great tablet and can be purchased cheaper as last year's model. Apple continues to corner the market on app availability, user friendliness, and resale value.

The only change in the iPad Mini 3 from 2 is the addition of the fingerprint sensor. If this a device you're going to be hauling around with you on a daily basis that might be enough of a reason to go for the 3. If not, choose the 2 and save some money. The original iPad Mini is also available at a discounted price in the 16 GB only capacity. But I think the retina screen is a good reason to go with the Mini 2.

I'd also go larger than 16 GB. The recent update to iOS to 8 meant that many of us with 16 GB devices had to clear off most of our apps and data to be able to update the OS. I think 32 GB is the sweet spot which Apple has unfortunately phased out with this year's models. But it gives a good price comparison point.

Apple iPad Air 2 16 GB - $499
Apple iPad Air 16 GB - $399
Apple iPad Mini 3 16 GB - $399
Apple iPad Mini 2 (Retina) 16 GB - $299
Apple iPad Mini 16 GB - $249

Compare iPad models

NY Times Personal Tech: IPad Air 2 and Mini 3 Review: Fantastic, but Largely Unnecessary, Tablets

Android fansite picks iPad Air 2 as top tablet

I don't think there are any real standouts in the Android tablet market. Samsung continues to offer a dizzying array of options. But there are two distinct classes of tablets: the Galaxy Note focusing more on productivity and the Galaxy Tab which seems more recreational. Within the Note class is the higher end model the Galaxy Note Pro which is a 12 inch tablet touted as "Secure for enterprise with Samsung’s Knox solution." Galaxy Tabs come in a numbered version, currently 4, I believe and an S version. The S version seems about $150 more expensive than the numbered. Most come in a variety of sizes and capacities. The Notes come with the S pen which enables you to write on your tablet. There are lots of special deals for the holidays. I have no idea which one might be the right one for any individual. There is such a thing as too many choices.

Samsung - Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 - 16GB - Black

Samsung Galaxy Tab Website - the manufacturer's website may be a good place to start if you want to try to figure out which model is best for you. They enable you to break it down by size, wifi vs. LTE. Then I'd probably look for online reviews of the model I'd selected. Some rate better than others.

Google - Nexus 9 - 8.9" - 16GB - Indigo Black

For the Android purist, Google Nexus 9 is the latest Google branded device running the latest version of Android 5.0 Lollipop. While most tech journalists were quite enthused about earlier Nexus tablets, especially the Nexus 7, reviews of the Nexus 9 have been mixed. The primary reason to get a Google branded Nexus tablet or phone is that they don't come laden with the extra bloatware that manufacturers and carriers often put on Android devices. Neither do they have any customized User Interfaces. You get the device with the operating system as Google intended it. They also generally get updates sooner than devices from other sources so you're generally running the latest version of Android.

Google Nexus 9 from Google Play Store - 16 GB - $399

There are Android tablets made by other manufacturers. A quick check of BestBuy online shows that Samsung seems to really dominate this market. But you may find good tablets made by manufacturers such as Asus and Toshiba. They're worth considering. I'd probably look for some online reviews of the models you're considering. I think you do want to find something with a reasonably current version of Android on it. Android devices are a bit weak in the update department so you may very well be stuck with the version of the OS that you buy. If it's too old you may run into compatibility problems with current apps. As I said in the section on Nexus 9, the current version of Android is 5.0. The next most recent is 4.4. I'd try to stay close to that in any hardware I was buying today. My one caveat is to avoid the really cheap no name $100 tablets you might run into at Walgreen's or Shopko. These are often running really outdated versions of Android and may not even have access to the Google Play Store. This means you may not be able to do much with them at all.

Amazon - Kindle Fire HDX - 32GB - Black

I'll include Amazon Fire tablets here. They are running Android after all - a forked highly customized version of Android but they do fit the category. People seem to really like their Amazon Fire tablets. I think it's due to ease of use and generally low expectations. If you're looking for a tablet for someone who just wants a mobile device to surf the web, read and view Amazon content, and maybe play a few games, these tablets have decent hardware at reasonable prices. I think they could be a good value particularly the lower end models in the $99 - $179 price range. They're certainly a lot more useful than the no name tablets mentioned previously. But when you get to the higher end HDX 8.9 starting at $379, you're getting into the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy price range. Unless someone is a real Amazon devotee, the others offer a lot more options for apps, including Amazon.

Compare Fire Tablets on Amazon

A big subcategory of tablets this year seems to be tablets directed toward children. There are some manufacturers who specialize in this area notably LeapFrog and VTech. I can't say I know anything about either of those manufacturers. I'd probably do a little research if you're interested. But what struck me was the entry into this category by Samsung and Amazon Kindle.

Samsung - Galaxy Tab 3 Kids Edition - 7" - 8GB - Yellow with Orange Case

This is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids Edition - $199.99 list price

Amazon - Fire HD Kids Edition - 7" - 8GB - Black with Blue Case

And the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition - $189.99 list price

The nabi that I talked about in previous years is also back. But the nice thing about these kids tablets from major manufacturers is that you can no doubt share apps across devices. They're standard Android and/or Kindle Fire but with extra protection against drops.

Microsoft - Surface Pro 3 - 12" - Intel Core i5 - 256GB - Silver

The final entry into the tablet category are Windows tablets. 2-in-1s also fit into this category. Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is at the top of the line. Interestingly, Microsoft targets them in ads against Apple's Macbook Air tablet computer not against the iPad Air 2. And that's the price range you're looking at starting at $799 for a 64 GB model and goes all the way up to $1,949 for a 512 GB. These really are meant for people who want a touch screen laptop running Windows that can be taken apart and used as a tablet as well. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. It is a niche that will probably appeal to business users and those who want to do serious computing. But you're giving up the beautiful simplicity of iOS and/or Android in favor of a Windows computing experience.

There are a number of other manufacturers making Windows tablets and 2-in-1s among them Lenovo, HP, Toshiba, Acer, many of the computer laptop manufacturers with which you may be familiar. These are often cheaper than the Surface Pro 3. Once again, I'd look at online reviews if I were serious about purchasing a device in this category. And it never hurts to go to a store and try them out to see if you like the feel of a particular keyboard and test the weight.

My overall advice hasn't changed particularly from year to year. If you're buying a tablet for someone new to tablets, it's hard to go wrong with an iPad. Apple makes great hardware. The software and apps ranks highly for usability and availability. Since Apple makes its money off the hardware, they're pretty open to software and will run just about anything including Google and Amazon apps. If you're buying for someone who is already invested in the Android ecosystem, it's probably a good idea to stick with whatever s/he is most familiar with - Samsung, HTC, etc. If you're looking for a bargain for someone who is new to tablets and/or a heavy user of Amazon services, go with a Kindle Fire. They rank highly for usability but may prove frustrating to someone who wants to use Google or Apple services. Kindle Fire is pretty much limited to the Amazon App store and Amazon books, music and movies. It does run Netflix and Hulu Plus and some other streaming services.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bytes and Megabytes: What does it mean?

Interesting presentation that helps make sense of bandwidth capacity and usage:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Internet TV

Over the past several years, we've seen a proliferation of devices designed to bring the Internet to your TV. There are smart TVs where Internet access is built in. There are also game consoles like Sony PlayStation and XBox that include Internet capabilities. Recent Tivo boxes include access to various Internet services.

Then there are small boxes and now dongles that hook into you TV and wireless to provide that access. I'll look at a couple of the most popular options available today.

Before we look at the boxes, let's talk a bit about the content that's available via these boxes. There are free and subscription channels available. Some like, Netflix and HuluPlus (the free version of Hulu is not compatible with set top boxes or mobile devices) require monthly subscriptions. Amazon has a streaming service that is available free to Prime subscribers but you can also buy or rent individual movies, TV episodes and/or seasons of shows. iTunes allows you to buy or rent content as well. In addition, there are some channels that are only available to you if you have a paid cable or satellite TV subscription. These include HBO Go, ESPN, etc.

Apple TV $99 - Apple has had their little box available for the past several years. The main distinction for Apple TV is that it allows access to purchased iTunes content. It also has a number of channels that allow access to other streaming services, e.g., Netflix, HuluPlus, PBS, YouTube, Disney channels, etc. but does not provide access to Amazon or Google TV content. You need a wifi connection to access the Internet. You can control Apple TV with the remote provided. You can also stream content to it from iPads and iPhones using AirPlay.

Roku has several different models ranging in price from $49.99 to $99.99. Their latest device is an HDMI streaming stick similar to Google's Chromecast (see below) for $49.99. Roku claims to have 1000+ channels available. Roku does stream Amazon content but not Google or iTunes. Nor does it stream YouTube content. You can control it via remote or an app on a tablet or phone. You need a wifi connection. I've had a Roku box for several years and use it all the time. It's particularly useful for cord cutters (people who've cut off their cable and/or satellite TV subscriptions). I have paid subscriptions to Netflix and HuluPlus which are the channels I watch most often. Most of my other viewing is limited to tech content from TWiT and Revision 3. Both are free channels.

Chromecast is Google's entry into the set top box. It's an HDMI stick like Roku's and sells for $35. You control it with a portable device either a tablet or a smart phone. There are apps available for iOS and Android. You can also use it with the Chrome browser on a Windows laptop. The channel selection is currently fairly limited. You can get Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube, HBO Go and Google Play content. But that's about it at this time. Some people like the control by tablet. I find it a bit clunky.

One piece of general advice. If you have a lot of purchased digital content from iTunes, Amazon or Google Play Store, you'll want to choose the device that will provide access to that content. Also, understand that you'll be determining where you get your content by the device you have. But if all you're looking to do is stream content from Netflix or HuluPlus, just about anything will do. They're very good at making their content widely available.

CNET Review - Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Roku 3: Which media streamer should you buy?

Monday, March 3, 2014

If you can't let go of XP...

We all know by now that WindowsXP has reached its "end-of-life" and will no longer be supported with updates. It's been around for a long time and if you're still using XP machines it really is a good idea to get something new (that hardware is getting pretty old too!). Of course there are reasons why that might not be possible. So, until you are able to upgrade here are a few tips to help ease the fear of a complete hacker invasion on your network between April 9 (the day after support ends) and the time you are able to upgrade. (highlights taken from this article - read the full text for more information)

As with any computer, an antivirus program is essential, and continue to update regularly.

The operating system is important but so is all the other software installed. Make sure to keep those installations updated as well.

Now is the time to let go of Internet Explorer - the version that works with XP is too old, leaving the door open to more attacks. Move on to Firefox or Chrome (or both - you don't have to limit yourself to just one!). The tip (in the article linked above) about disabling Java in browsers is also a good one.

Here's the best idea: if not done already, set up a "limited" user account on every XP machine, and use that instead of the administrator account. The limited user can't install, remove or make other system changes. If you've got "admin" and "public" accounts, be sure the "public" account isn't set up as an administrator (find the type of account by checking User Accounts in the Control Panel - if it is, change it). When changes are absolutely necessary log on as the admin, do what needs to be done, then log out and continue with the limited account.

As mentioned in the previous post, XP machines can still be useful for applications that don't involve the network; just be careful if you decide to keep them online.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

It's time to bury Windows XP

Update 1/24/2014 - Techsoup's Microsoft discount program is only available for public access computers. This is from their page on eligibility requirements:

Microsoft - Restrictions for the Software Donation Program for Nonprofits and Public Libraries
"Public libraries may request Microsoft software donations through this program only for use on public access computers or on computers that are used to directly manage either the public access computers or the library's public access program."
Microsoft has decided that it's no longer going to support Windows XP after April 8, 2014. This is from the Microsoft website:

Support is ending soonOn April 8, 2014, support and updates for Windows XP will no longer be available. Don't let your PC go unprotected.

If you follow the link to that web page, you'll get information from Microsoft on how to check and see which operating system your computer is running. It will also tell you what the end of support means. Your computer(s) will continue to run but they'll be increasingly vulnerable to viruses and other attacks particularly via the Internet. Some security experts fear that hackers are now saving up their attacks and will unleash them after April 8. It could get ugly out there in a hurry.

Microsoft also provides a link to Windows Upgrade Assistant. That will tell you whether or not your computer, software applications, printer, etc. are compatible with Windows 8.

I'm thinking that might not be the best solution for older machines. I'd suggest seeing if your computer is compatible with Windows 7 instead:

Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor - Find out if your PC can run Windows 7

If your computer won't run Windows 7, I'd suggest taking it offline before April 8. It might still have some usefulness for you running Office apps or other software that isn't dependent on the Internet. But you don't want to keep it as an Internet connected device.

Another option for older hardware is to consider running Linux on it instead of Windows. This doesn't require as much tech savvy as it did in the past but you'll need someone who's not afraid of a little command line coding.

If your computer will run Windows 7, is a great place to look for discounts on Microsoft and other commercial software. Here's their Microsoft Product page:

Microsoft Product Catalog

Under browse products, you'll find a dropdown box with a number of software options, you'll probably want to look at Microsoft Windows PC Operating System Upgrades for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 options. Their admin fee is only $12. It's well worth the cost and the hassle of upgrading to avoid problems with your library's network.

Techsoup also has some useful information on how to upgrade your computer:

Windows XP Upgrade Tips – Will Your Existing Software and Hardware Work?

Microsoft is also ending support for Office 2003 in April. So, you'll want to look at upgrading that as well. Techsoup can help with discounts on Microsoft Office. In addition, there are open source alternatives. PCWorld looks at 5 of them in this article:

5 free open source alternatives to Microsoft Office

Would love to hear what your experience is with various open source options. Which would you recommend and would you be willing to advise and support library colleagues? You can comment and if we get enough response, I'll post in a separate blog post.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Online digital literacy courses

Each year people get new gadgets for Christmas and are confronted with learning how to use them safely and effectively. While librarians frequently provide orientation to get people started, we generally don't have a lot of curriculum available for really making people digitally literate. Luckily, there are a lot of resources available online for people to work through.

  • Montana State Library Learning Portal Digital Literacy - Jennifer Birnel put together a lot of great digital literacy resources when she was our BTOP traininer. It's a great place to start looking for items that may be useful for your library's patron needs. It includes some video tutorials on mobile devices that may be a bit dated by now but can help you get oriented.
  • Microsoft Digital Literacy - includes basic courses on computers and Microsoft software as well Internet and computer security and privacy.
  • Google Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum - Google focuses on evaluating online content, avoiding scams and managing your digital footprint.
  • - PLA and IMLS funded site - includes basic computer training (including Mac OS) as well as job searches, email, Internet.
  • WebWise - BBC site so the examples tend to be British but has extensive online courses available including social media, cell phones as well as basic computer and Internet.
  • Northstar Digital Literacy Project - an online assessment tool developed in Minnesota.
Do you have any favorite websites you refer people to who are learning computer and Internet basics?

Friday, December 6, 2013

E-reader update 2013

I realized after I finished my gadget update post that I had neglected to say anything about e-readers. And that probably says more than I need to here. It's a category that's a lot less important than it was a few years ago. I think that tablets have really taken over the market. There's an appeal to a device that "does it all." Yet, I still find I have an affinity for the dedicated e-reader. They may be limited in function but they do make for an enjoyable reading experience. They're inexpensive, small and light weight, perfect for reading in bed. Nor do you have the distractions of Facebook, email, games, etc. that you have on a tablet.

I even bought a new e-reader this year, a new Kindle Paperwhite wifi with special offers for $119 from Amazon. I really like it. I liked the original but the screen had some odd discolorations so I opted for a new one that seems to have worked out those bugs. I sold the old one back to Amazon. I did learn an important lesson with the first gen Paperwhite and that was to forego the 3G in the future and save $70. I'd really found 3G useful in an earlier Kindle. I could get on and browse the web and check email in a pinch using their cellular data connection. But Amazon seems to have tightened down on 3G use on their Kindles so now I could really only use it to buy additional content and whispersync with other devices. I found it wasn't worth the extra cost and I got very little back for the extra expenditure upon resale. I think I only got about $5 more for the 3G version than they were offering for wifi only. So, unless you have no wifi in your home and/or you travel a LOT, I'd suggest going with wifi only. But check first to make sure they have coverage in your area. AT&T is the 3G provider and there are still a lot of blank spots in their coverage in Montana. As for the special offers, they seem to be limited to promoting books at this point in time and I don't find that off putting at all. Amazon is also still offering its basic Kindle @ $69 with special offers.

I don't think there's anything new in Barnes & Noble's line of Nook of e-readers. The Nook Simple Touch has been marked down for the holiday season to $59. Such a deal that it's temporarily sold out online as of this writing. I thought that was a really nice little e-reader. Also, a sell back as I just wasn't using it. But I could easily recommend it to someone who's just looking for a nice, basic, inexpensive e-reader. It's better hardware and software than the basic Kindle. The Nook answer to the Paperwhite is the Nook Glowlight @ $119. I've never actually used one of these but I'm sure it's very comparable to the Kindle in price and features. The main difference is that it's a Barnes & Noble product instead of Amazon so if you're into the B&N ecosystem, this is probably the one to choose. It also has the advantage of in store support if you happen to live in an area with a store. But, like Amazon, B&N seems to have shifted most of its attention to tablets.

Also, still in the running in the e-reader category, is the Kobo line. They seem to be a lot more prevalent in Canada and overseas so if you're shopping for a non-US reader, I'd definitely give Kobo a second look. Their smallest and most inexpensive model is the Kobo mini @ $59. I do have one of these and I think it has to be the cutest and most portable e-reader ever. They've upgraded their first gen Paperwhite and Glowlight competitor known as the Kobo Glo (still on the market @ $129.99) to the Kobo Aura @ $149.99 and Kobo AuraHD @ $169.99 (you can get $20 off with code on most Kobos during the Christmas season). The Aura is not a model I've had a chance to test so I can't tell you whether or not I think it's worth the extra cost. It's main selling point seems to be a larger size - 6.9" instead of 6" which seems to be the standard for e-readers. Kobo also has several tablets in their Arc line that come in different sizes and screen resolutions. Once again, probably comparable to Amazon and B&N's tablet line. All the Arcs are Android based with the unadulterated Android that uses the Google Play Store. So, there's another plus.

Sony has apparently abandoned the e-reader market in the US. That's okay with me because they made devices that I really wanted to like but just couldn't. Somehow, they just didn't perform as well as their competition. They always seemed a bit clunky, technologically behind and overpriced. I still have a lovely red PRS-T2 that I bought because I loved the idea of being able to access MontanaLibrary2Go directly from an e-reader without the aid of a computer and Adobe Digital Editions. Unfortunately, it is so difficult to navigate from the Reader and the constant slow screen refreshes blind me that I find it's virtually unusable. And none of the buy back companies want it. So, if you're coming to Offline and want a Sony Reader of your very own, let me know and it's yours. It needs a good home. Sony also makes tablets.

Basically, the hardware from all of these manufacturers is similar. The big difference is from whom you get your content. All will work with Overdrive and MontanaLibrary2Go for e-books. None of these e-readers plays downloadable audiobooks. I believe all Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Sony tablets will. Kindles use Amazon's proprietary format. Nooks and Kobos use EPUB. The EPUB readers generally require Adobe Digital Editions. I HATE Adobe Digital Editions. The nice thing about buying EPUB books is that you chan choose from a variety of online booksellers. So, you needn't spend a lot of time worrying about the future of Barnes & Noble or Kobo. But it will be easier to stick with the online bookstore on your device.

What I continue to like about Kobo is their partnership with independent booksellers. You can buy a Kobo from an indie bookstore and set up an account with them. Then a percentage of the money you spend on content from Kobo will go back to help support that bookstore. It's a great idea. Unfortunately, I don't often remember about it and have a tendency to go to Amazon first. It doesn't hurt that I often have a credit with them. But if you want an e-reader and want to support an indie bookstore, Kobo is definitely something to look into. You can even do a search and find out where there's an indie bookstore near you supporting Kobo ebooks - And I believe you don't have to use a Kobo e-reader to support an indie bookstore. You can buy content from Kobo and read it on a tablet using their reading app.