Saturday, April 27, 2013

The next big thing in presentation software.

I hate PowerPoint.  To be fair, I hate MS Office all together.  But that is something I will rant about another time.  What I'm talking about is PowerPoint presentations.  I hate them.  It seems PP has taken over the learning format for almost anything.  Every conference, lecture, classroom session, or even TED talk seems to involve a PP presentation.  I get it.  They are easy to make and edit, and, in theory, make a lecture more interesting.  But that is also part of the problem.  If you don't put much time or thought into your PP, it doesn't bring anything to the table.  I was discussing with my wife a couple weeks ago about how we have become desensitized, in a way, to PP presentations.  If I sit down for a lecture, as soon as a screen turns on with some basic cheesy PowerPoint fonts, I immediately start to loose interest.  Last week I listened to a presentation that blew the old stand-by out of the water.

The presenter used a program called Prezi.  I had never heard or seen it before, but it made a huge difference in how I viewed the presentation.  In fact, the presenter wasn't particularly good and the content was novel or interesting, but the Prezi presentation added enough variety to keep it fresh. I think too many presenters rely on PP to present their information in outline form.  Prezi makes a presentation into a much more effective visual aid; an accompaniment to a presentation, rather than the main body of it.  Check out their website here.  They have free and paid subscriptions.  You can also explore public Prezis that people have made.  Embedded below is a TED talk inspired Prezi about identity.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This page is incompatible with Internet Explorer....

If you are still using Internet Explorer to browse the internet from your PC, you might still be accessing the web via dial-up.  Seriously, IE has been left behind by other web browsers as far as features and performance are concerned.  It is still the most popular browser on the web (most likely because it comes with Windows as the default internet browser) but its market share is slipping as time goes by.  Other browsers simply have more features, are faster, and are even able to display certain web pages better.  There are many alternatives to IE, but which one is the best for you?  The other major players in this game are Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Maxthon.  (Apple’s safari browser is no longer being supported for Windows).
Back in the days of dial-up, I was blown away by how much faster the Opera browser made my web experience than using IE 6.  Ever since the advent of broadband, I have been using Firefox.  Last year I switched to Google’s chrome, and I have to admit, it is a great browser.  The sign-in feature syncs your browser across all the different devices you access the web from.  Tom’s Hardware rated Chrome first place, with Firefox in second, in their March WebBrowser Grand Prix.  So why did I switch back to Firefox?
For me it came down to a few factors.  First, I have doubts about Google’s respect for my privacy.  Although I am a GMail user, I have been trying to find a way to wean myself from Google for a while now; more on that later.  Chrome’s Do Not Track privacy feature is hard to find and disable -no thank you.  Second, maybe it’s just human nature to cheer for the underdog, but I would rather support the not-for-profit Mozilla foundation than the huge multibillion dollar Google Corp.  Mozilla seems like one of the last bastions of the early days of computing, the web, and software, when information was supposed to be free, shared, and collaborated on.  To be fair, Chrome is open source.  Finally, while Firefox’s sync takes a little more time to set up, it is more secure than Chrome’s and works just as well.
So, while Chrome does technically finish first in performance, Firefox is a close second.  As far as the other browsers are concerned, Opera’s performance has been subpar for the last several releases.  Maxthon is another interesting choice, but it lacks hardware acceleration.  One place I do use the Maxthon browser is on my android phone.  In the Tom’s Hardware review on browsers forAndroid devices, Maxthon finished second to Dolphin Browser, but in the speed tests, beat out Dolphin.  Finally, if you are using an iOS device, according to THW, the best browser is the default Safari.  This is due in part to apple’s requirement that any browser made for iOS must run on Webkit. (Webkit is what Safari and Chrome are based on).
The performance gap between all of these choices seems to be closing, and each one offers different advantages.  My recommendation is obviously Firefox, but try the different choices for yourself.  If you have never used anything but Internet Explorer, you’re in for a treat.  Check out PCMag’s browser review for additional information.
Finally I will leave you with some of my favorite Firefox add-ons:
-Flash Video Downloader - YouTube Downloader
-GMail Notifier
-Integrated Google Calendar
-RoboForm Lite

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A quick update to my article on internet TV

Check out this link:

Boxee TV becomes Boxee Cloud DVR, adds free 'Basic' DVR service

D-Link is releasing a new Boxee Box with a cloud DVR option.  I don't know of anybody else who is doing this yet.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cloud Storage Solutions

I have recently been looking into lots of different cloud storage options.  I have tried several, and I have found my favorite.  First let me say that I am only considering free options.  I don't need that much storage space because my NAS is accessible remotely via the internet.  For my use the cloud will mostly be used for sharing large files with friends.  My two favorite sites for product reviews are and  Both have published articles this year reviewing cloud storage companies.  SugarSync and DropBox are two that both sites rated highly.  However, these two options only give you 5GB or less for free.  5GB isn't very much, even as little as I use it.  Microsoft's SkyDrive is another option, giving you 7GB for free.  I have found it to be very user friendly.  My personal favorite, and the product that I use is from Yandex.  Yandex is basically the Russian version of Google, and they have been producing some very solid products.  Yandex.Disk is their cloud storage option.  New users get 10GB for free. (Technically you get 3GB until you install their software and upload your first file).  If you have been referred by another user via link, you start with 11GB.  You also have the option to increase your storage up to 20GB for free by referring friends.  Aside from having some of the most free storage, Yandex.disk provides a desktop app for Windows that will sync whatever folders you choose to your cloud storage.  The app is simple and easy to use; a very elegant solution.  If you have ever used Google's Drive software, it is very similar.  Another necessity for me is mobile applications.  Yandex.disk has android and iOS apps.  (In fact, most apps by Yandex are very good.  I also use their mail service).  The android app integrates seamlessly with the share button on your device.  iOS users will be able to access their disk files via the app too, but run into problems if you want to edit or upload them.  For example, QuickOffice, which is one of the only office products for iOS only has a deal with specific companies like MobileMe, Dropbox, Google Drive, Egnyte,, Huddle, SugarSync, Evernote, and Catch.  These are the only options that come up when you try to sync a QuickOffice doc to the cloud.  Unfortunately because of the tight way Apple controls how software integrates, users who plan on editing and uploading documents will probably want to choose a different solution, like SugarSync.  For anyone wanting to try Yandex.Disk, please use the link below.  You will receive an extra 1 GB for following the referral link, and I will get an extra 500MB for each referral.  Thank you. 

Click here for additional information from Tom's Hardware.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Root Root Root for the home team...

                I recently “rooted” my Samsung Galaxy S II SGH-I777 Android phone from AT&T.  I have been hearing for months about how the new Jelly Bean OS for Android would be officially released for the GS2, and the date seems to keep getting pushed back.  I had previously updated from Gingerbread to the official Ice Cream Sandwich release when it was put out by AT&T & Samsung, but I had never tried to install a custom OS before.  To me it always seemed like an awfully big risk.  Well, I finally decided to try it, and found mixed results.
                First of all, let me say that rooting your phone is actually really easy.  Anybody who is moderately computer savvy can complete this task.  There are seemingly endless websites on the internet that explain how to do this.  The first time you do it is going to be nerve racking.  But really, as long as you follow the instructions, you can’t mess it up.  In theory you can always go back to your default OS too.  I’ll come back to that point later.
                The first problem with rooting your droid, is deciding which “ROM” to replace your OS with.  There are probably hundreds of choices for each phone.  I tried reading several review websites to choose the best one for me.  Now supposedly these releases will be labeled stable if they are no longer in development, but I did not find this to be true.  I probably loaded 10 different ROMs before I found one that worked well for me.  I couldn’t find a single Jelly Bean based one that worked well for my GS2, even though various sites suggested them.  The biggest problem I had was getting them to sync to my Google account.
                The other problem I had was that I was not able to reload my stock OS onto my phone.  I downloaded the file form the internet and flashed it to my phone via a connection to the PC and software called Odin.  However, once it was done, the phone would not load past the AT&T welcome flash screen.  At that point I knew I was stuck, and if I didn’t want to buy a new phone, I would have to use a custom OS.
                Luckily, I did find a ROM that worked well for me.  It is called Serendipity 9.4 and it is an ICS based ROM with the TouchWiz launcher from the GS3.  I heard about it here, and here is a link to the official website.  So far if you are reading this and you have never rooted your phone, you have probably been convinced not to attempt it.  I will say that in the end, I am really happy that I did it.  The Serendipity ROM is faster and more stable than my default ICS from AT&T.  I was having a lot of problems with my phone turning off for no reason.  It hasn’t done that since the switch.  Battery life is noticeably improved, and of course, it doesn’t come with any of the “extra” software from the manufacturer that cannot be uninstalled.
                So, in the end, I am glad I did it.  I was getting frustrated with my year old GS2 and was ready for something new.  I ended up with a better product than I had before.  If you are trying to decide whether to take the plunge, I would suggest you give yourself enough time to try out several different products to find the one that works best for your phone.  Good luck.

* Update! * 3/15/13: An unanticipated consequence of rooting the phone is that it can now be used as a mobile hotspot without paying the extra fee required by AT&T.  This definitely makes it worth doing!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Internet TV is the Future, So Why Can't Anybody Deliver?

Internet TV devices are becoming a standard in American living rooms, so why don’t any of them meet expectations?  There are a lot of hardware and software options, and the list gets bigger all the time.  From the huge tech giant Sony that has been in the game for some time, to the Boxee Box released in 2010, consumers have plenty of choices.  As more and more people cut the cord on cable and satellite the demand for these devices will keep going up.  I’m going to tell you why every single one of them has got it wrong.

First, let me briefly explain internet TV devices.  These products allow the user to stream videos over the internet.  They can generally play subscription based content, like Hulu Plus and Netflix, or videos from free websites.  Many of these devices can also play videos that you have shared over your local network or on an external hard drive.

The Playstation 3 (PS3) was released in 2006.  This device was really at the forefront of internet TV.  It supports almost all the major subscription services and plays shared network media.  Taking into account that the major advertised purpose of the device was to play Blu-Ray movies and video games, this is a pretty impressive piece of hardware.  My wife and I have been using a PS3 in our home primarily as a media device for about the last 3 years.  We cancelled our Dish subscription, put an antenna in the attic, and have been very pleased with the results.  The problem with the PS3 is that it isn’t terribly user friendly.  Most people who own the device probably don’t realize this, but watch have a non-gamer try to operate it and you will see what I mean.  The controller might as well control a space ship for them.  It took my wife quite a bit of coaching and practice to become proficient at navigating the system.  Try writing out printed instructions on how to access a network video through the PS3 for a beginner and you will end up with several paragraphs of confusing and complex instruction.  I did this for our dog-sitter.  Playstation does make a remote for their product, but after spending $250-$350 dollars on the system itself, who wants to buy another piece of hardware?

Some other players in the market are Apple.TV, WD TV Live, Roku, Boxee, Vizio Co-Star, xbmc, Netgear’s NTV200, and the LG Network Media Player (SP520).  Each of these play various combinations of internet content.  The major content providers, in my opinion are: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon,, NBA League Pass, NHLGameCenter Live, Vudu, YouTube, and Pandora.  The devices that play the most are the Roku, the PS3, and the LG device.  The only service the last two don’t provide is NBA League Pass.  Roku won’t play YouTube.  However, only seven of these devices will play shared network content.  (Roku will not.  Apply TV will play iTunes content, but only if you have iTunes running on a Mac sharing the media.  In my opinion, you should not have to have a computer running in one room just to watch your videos in another.  This is too inefficient to consider.)  Now the devil is truly in the details.  Of the seven I listed that stream network media, only two do it right.

XBMC was originally created as a media center application for the original Xbox game console but is today officially available as a native application for Android, Linux, BSD, Mac OS X, iOS, and Microsoft Windows operating systems.  I built a custom HTPC running xbmc to improve the experience of playing local network content that the PS3 could not execute eloquently.  Xbmc is only software, and it doesn’t include any of the internet TV channels listed above, so you may wonder why it is even included in this discussion.  The reason is because it plays network media so well.  Rather than presenting you with a simple file browser interface, like all the other devices that can access your local network, xbmc pulls information from the internet to enrich your browsing experience.  The problem with the PS3 is that when my wife browses through the folder of movies; all she can see are file names.  If she doesn’t recognize the name of the movie, she has no idea if it is something she wants to watch or not.  Xbmc pulls from IMDB and presents you with a movie poster, plot summary, cast, and other links for additional information.  It does the same for TV shows and music files.  It does this all seamlessly and aesthetically.  There is such a huge difference in the user experience I find it amazing that nobody else is doing it. This brings me to the Boxee Box.

Boxee Box began shipping in November 2010.  The interesting thing about Boxee (made by D-Link) is that the software shares it origins with xbmc.   It also plays the many of the traditional content providers like Netflix and Pandora.  To me, Boxee offers the best of both worlds, and is why I recently purchased one.  The reason the even Boxee hasn’t got it right, is that two major content providers are missing; Hulu Plus and Amazon.  NBA League Pass is also missing.

As I have explained, none of the currently available options have all of the features they should.  Keep in mind I am only rating these devices on content capability rather than user experience.   All information has been gathered from perspective manufacturers’ websites, and I have done little or no physical testing with some of the models.  So which device is right for you?  If you have lots of media on a local network drive or an external hard drive, the Boxee Box is the best choice.  If you want all of the major internet channels, go with the LG device, which can still browse local network content, or the Roku if you have no local network content.  Finally, the Apple TV should be mentioned for its ease of use, and for integrating with other Apple devices.  Please leave your comments and feedback.  If you have experience using some of these products, please describe it.