All posts by J.D. Biersdorfer

Hollywood in Your Pocket

Ready for the fall movie season? Plenty of apps aimed at movie lovers are out there, but two stand out for their versatility and ability to work on most major mobile platforms. Yes, we speak of Flixster and Fandango.

Flixster.com, which is owned by Warner Brothers, is a movie recommendation site that’s recently been refocused to promote the use of the UltraViolet cloud-locker system. In fact, if you sign up for the UltraViolet service, you can actually stream full-length movies through the Flixster mobile app.

But even if you aren’t using UltraViolet movies, the Flixster mobile app still has a ton of features for cinephiles. You get a list of films opening each week, where they’re playing in your area, movie news and quizzes, actor bios, DVD release schedules, film trailers and ratings from the from the Rotten Tomatoes site that aggregates reviews from major news outlets. Since movies are a social event, you also get links to theaters, Yelp reviews of nearby restaurants and nearby 7-11 convenience stores if you’re really on a budget. In some cases you can even buy your movie tickets through the app, but that is not available at all theaters.

The Fandango site, that of singing paper bag fame, had a mobile app out early on smartphone screens. The site later added a beefier tablet version that offers perks like what movies are selling the best on Fandango. But on either version, you can search for movies and theaters — and buy your tickets on the run, without having to be in front of the regular Web site.

In theaters than have the right scanners, you can get a QR code for your Mobile Ticket sent to your phone that gets you in fast – and able to skip the line of people fumbling with their credit cards at the ticket-printing machines. In addition to ticket buying, you can watch film trailers and read cast and production information through the app. Fandango does have some social-media elements as well, including a measure of positive tweets about a chosen flick and a place for you to tap if you’re going to go see it. You can log in through Facebook or set up a Fandango account with a saved credit card for speedy purchases — which comes in handy when you absolutely, positively have to be there at the first midnight showing.

 

Episode 14 News: ’Cause the Man from Mars Won’t Eat Up Bars Where the TV’s On…

The first round of the Apple-Samsung legal slapfight over patents wrapped up last week, with Apple winning a large chunk of change in the decision and asking for an injunction against the sale of several Samsung Galaxy phones. While Samsung vows to fight on in this case, the company is going about its business elsewhere, including in Germany, where it introduced three new Windows 8 desktop computers due out later this fall.

Apple isn’t sitting around basking in its legal victory either. The latest grind of the rumor mill now suggests two major Apple product announcements this fall instead of just one mega event. Amazon, in the meantime, is getting out ahead of any of Apple’s rumored showcase dates with an event of its own in southern California next week. While the shadow of iPhone 5 may loom over much of this fall’s mobile news, LG Electronics is diving in with the Optimus G, a 4G LTE Android phone with a quad-core Snapdragon processor, Bluetooth 4.0 and a big honkin’ 13-megapixel rear camera.

Dropbox, the online storage and file-sharing site, has had its share of security issues the past year. The company is busting a move, though, and has announced it’s adding two-step authentication to help keep those cloud accounts safe and sound. The procedure is still being tested and sounds a bit buggy, but will hopefully get smoother and make things safer for Dropboxers everywhere.  While Dropbox’s new security system is working out the bugs, researchers from the computer science and biology departments at Stanford University are studying them. It turns out the behavior of harvester ants is quite similar to the algorithm used in the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol. Yay, Anternet!

NASA’s mission for the Curiosity rover has gone beyond rolling around and taking pictures on the surface of Mars. The exploratory vehicle also belted out will.i.am’s “Reach for the Stars” this week — and it was the first time a song has been broadcast from another planet. Now, if only Curiosity can tap into The Walker Art Center’s star-studded Internet Cat Video Film Festival and share even more quality Earth culture with any galactic neighbors that might be around.

Time Flies (in the Cloud)

Summer is pretty much over and autumn looms. If you find yourself geting a little busier with work and school and want a convenient way to keep up, consider an online calendar. With free software, you can share schedules and keep everyone on the same page — no matter where you (and they) are.

Most major online calendar sites support sharing, including Google Calendar, Microsoft Hotmail/Outlook.com, Yahoo Calendar and Apple’s iCloud. Google Calendar, perhaps the most versatile of the bunch, also supports syncing with mobile devices and even has little perks from the experiments whipped up in Google Calendar Labs to try out.

Online calendars have other perks as well, including the ability to subscribe to calendars created by other people, whether you known them or not. Google supports calendar subscription, as does Hotmail, Yahoo and iCloud. Some sites that track schedules (like the White House) let you add events to your calendar with a click. Most calendar services have a file of holidays you can add in to your personal calendar, which is useful for scheduling and seeing when the kids are off from school. Dedicated calendar-sharing sites are another source. Although it has a lot of outdated material floating about, iCalShare is a good place to browse, especially if you like international football (or NASA mission launches, or the Washington Capitals 2012-2013 season or events in American history.) While designed to work best with Apple’s iCal program on the Mac, you can usually cut and paste the site’s calendar URLs into other programs. For fans of Major League Baseball getting serious about the Series, MLB.com has downloadable schedules for all the teams (click your team and then chose Downloadable Schedules on the next page; here’s a sample).

Episode 13 News: Mobile. Gaming.

Microsoft’s Windows Upgrade Offer site is now taking registrations so if you’ve purchased a new Windows 7 PC since this past June 2, sign up to get Windows 8 Pro for $15. You’ll likely see Windows 8 before RIM’s BlackBerry 10 OS arrives, and we may soon see the Windows Phone platform slipping past BlackBerry in U.S. smartphone market share, if StatCounter’s extrapolated numbers hold up. Windows Phone 8 models are expected to be popping up this fall, and Nokia undoubtedly hopes to increase its customer base here in the States to match its Windows Phone domination worldwide.

If you’re worried about smishing (SMS phishing) after that iOS security researcher figured out a way to spoof SMS messages on the iPhone, check out PC World’s article for a good backgrounder on the topic. While Apple’s initial suggestion was to just stick to its iMessage service to protect yourself from phishers, maybe they could add a little code to iOS 6 to zip up that security flaw since not everyone has an iOS device.

Speaking of iOS 6 and its new features, those wanting to stay chatty in with FaceTime over an AT&T cellular connection must switch to one of the new Mobile Share data plans — a requirement some advocacy groups are questioning on legal grounds. For those who prefer the multiplatform Skype app for VoIP and video chats, the new Skype iOS apps now allow photo sharing.

Gamers should have plenty to look forward to this fall. Nintendo’s preview announcement for its new Wii U game console on September 13th. Rovio, the folks behind the insanely popular Angry Birds game, has teamed up for a new 10-level version of the game with the punk-pop band Green Day—who happens to have three new albums in the works. To give you a little taste of the action, the game trailer features a bit of the new Green Day single, “Oh Love.” And if you’re into games and trailers, check out the one for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, an upcoming film about how table-top roleplaying games changed the world. The movie isn’t supposed to be out until 2014 and its creators are doin’ the Kickstarter thing now, but for those who can’t wait, there’s a book called Of Dice and Men on the history of the game due out next spring.

Like a set of dice, the Mars rover, Curiosity, is rollin’…around Mars this week.  Curiosity has its own Twitter feed if you feel like following, and there’s also the unofficial parody account, @SarcasticRover, if you like your robots with a little sass.

Apple for the Teacher

Summer is winding down and a lot of students are headed back to school. Even if you’re not stuffing your life and laundry in the back of a Honda and rolling toward campus, you can keep learning on your own. Free classes from places like MIT OpenCourseWare and Coursera are among the options for higher learning online. If you have an iOS device, Apple’s Podcasts and iTunes U apps offer plenty of brain-burning educational material that make it easy to absorb it all at your own pace—even if that pace is a steady jog down a quiet road.

The standalone Podcasts app pulls all the episode management and playback controls out of the Music app on iOS devices and gives them their own place to play. The Podcasts app is not universally loved, but it does round up all your shows nicely. It could be the only place to get them if those rumors about Apple cutting the Podcasts section of the iTunes Store loose this fall are true. Recent user reviews of the app seemed to have improved with an update earlier this month, and Apple has a Podcasts support guide for those still wrestling with it.

Podcast content ranges all over the place, but if you’re looking for something specifically educational, the iTunes U app points you to what Apple calls “the world’s largest online catalog of free education content from leading institutions.” There are about 500,000 audio and video lectures in there, plus presentations, documents—and some classes even use interactive iBooks textbooks (which are a lot lighter than those heavy old tree-based tomes that pile up, hog shelf space and fall over all too easily).

The iTunes U course topics range all over the place from science and math to literature and cultural studies. Stanford’s got a 10-week course on iPad and iPhone App Development and Harvard has a 12-week Intro to Computer Science class. Oxford University has a series of short lectures on why great writers are inspirational. The University of Arkansas has 5-minute Spanish lessons. If you like a little sociology mixed in with your Hollywood blockbusters, check out the lecture series from Emory University for video lessons with titles like The Mathematics of Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes: Species Misunderstood.

Since it arrived last January, the iTunes U app itself has been downloaded 14 million times already. Yay, rah, Fightin’ Downloaders!

 

Episode 12 News: May the Swag Be *Ever* in Your Budget

As it announced in a recent blog post, Google is changing up its search algorithms in what some are calling an attempt to impose a “pirate penalty” on those who illegally post copyrighted content online. The new Google math is designed to push sites with valid copyright removal notices farther down in the results rankings so that legitimate content sources will rise to the top. Skeptics to the new policy are concerned that Google’s own YouTube and other popular sites like Facebook will likely escape the dragnet anyway. (And on the topic of original content, Google is buying some: the company just bought travel-guide publisher Frommer’s from John Wiley & Sons.)

Moving to Android news, HTC stated on its Facebook page that the update, also known as Android 4.0, will be rolled out by the end of August for several popular handset models including the Thunderbolt and the Desire S. Okay, who’s up for Jelly Bean?

You don’t need an invitation to join Pinterest anymore, but the FBI says you should decline the invitation to give ransomware hackers a bunch of money to unlock your virus-snarled computer. The agency has been receiving complaints about malware known as Reveton, and it and can be installed with just a drive-by click on a poisoned Web site. Check out the FBI’s Reveton warning page and tips for dealing with the scumware if it latches onto your machine. The Internet Crime Complaint Center lists other current scams as well.

Even serious stuff, let’s talk entertainment. For starters, if you want a color e-reader with a little mini-tablet mojo, Barnes & Noble just whacked the price tag on several of its Nook devices. If this weekend’s opening films on the Forever Geek movie calendar don’t pique your interest, there’s always the Saturday release of The Hunger Games on home video. Target is totally jumping in to the whole Merchandising Games, with all sorts of pricy collectibles including a $349 Katniss Everdeen replica leather jacket a solid 14-karat gold Mockingjay pin for $999. Well, at least the official District 12 socks are only $9…

An Early Start with Windows 8

Windows 8, Microsoft’s overhaul of its flagship PC operating system, isn’t due out in final form until October 26th. If you’re curious about it and just can’t wait to kick the tires, the company has a free Windows 8 Release Preview edition you can download and try out for yourself.

So, what are the system requirements to run this Win8 beta? According to Microsoft, the requirements are mostly the same for any PC running Windows 7, although there are some stricter screen-resolution requirements if you want to get 100 percent out of the experience.

As for the PC hardware you need to play along at home, here’s what the FAQ on the Windows 8 Release Preview site says:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver

Additional requirements to use certain features:

  • To use touch, you need a tablet or a monitor that supports multitouch.
  • To access the Windows Store and to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1024 x 768.
  • To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768.
  • Internet access (ISP fees might apply)

Before you get rolling, be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions page before you start, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Microsoft also has a Windows 8 Release Preview information page and a very colorful 25-page PDF guide to the software that automatically downloads if you click here.

Just remember, once you install the Windows 8 Preview, you can’t magically undo it and go back to your previous operating system without doing a full reinstall with all the hassle THAT involves. So if you’re going to try out the unfinished Windows 8 — which is still a technically a beta — it’s best to do it on a PC that’s not essential to your daily functioning computer life. There’s no guarantee all of your programs will function properly. There’s no real tech support outside of online forums. Consider yourself warned there — and have a great time if you just can’t wait until fall.

If you do want to wait for the finished version of Windows 8 this fall, it won’t sap nearly as much coin as previous versions of Windows used to demand. An upgrade download for Windows 8 Pro will be available for about $40 and if you’ve purchased a new Windows 7 PC since June 2, 2012, and your chosen model qualifies with Microsoft, you can get a Windows 8 upgrade for $15. (Seriously, that last one’s cheaper than the cost of a 3D IMAX movie ticket in New York City…)

Episode 11 News: Let’s Be Careful Out There

If Web browsers could compete in their own Olympics this summer, Google Chrome would take the gold. For July 2012, the traffic-measurement company StatCounter, puts Chrome’s global market share at 33.8 percent. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer takes the silver with a 32 percent share and Firefox lands the bronze with 23.7 percent. Not making it to the podium: Apple’s Safari with a 7.1 percent worldwide market share and Opera, with about a 1.72 percent share of the global browser market.

Luckily for Apple, Safari is not its only piece of software and the company has been keeping busy prepping its coming iOS 6 system for iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches. Google’s map cartography has already been tossed overboard for the new system, and now YouTube is getting dropped from the default apps on the Home screen. One hopes that Apple is also investigating a battery issue with its new OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion system, as a number of online complaints have popped up from folks reporting that their laptop battery charges haven’t been lasting as long since they Cougarized their Macs.

Microsoft has been keeping itself occupied as well, revamping its Windows Phone developer portal into Windows Phone Dev Center and overhauling Hotmail into its new Outlook.com Web mail site. (At least one review rather likes the new Outlook.com interface, but remember, we can’t call it “Metro” anymore.)

On the mobile front, AT&T is launching its Mobile Share wireless plans for people with a lot of devices and who don’t want to ride herd on multiple data plans; AT&T explains the new stuff here. (The company says you can also keep your current plan and won’t shove you onto one of the new ones.)

Like satellite radio but never have time to listen to it when you want to? SiriusXM Radio has just announced its new service, SiriusXM Radio On Demand, which lets subscribers using its iOS app (or online media player) pick out and listen to their favorite episodes from 200 different shows to listen to whenever they want. And Android version is in the works.

In legal news, U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has introduced a federal law that, if passed, would put warning labels on cell phones and create a national research program to study cell phone radiation levels. The bill, formally known as H.R. 6358, is casually referred to as “The Cell Phone Right to Know Act.”

Finally, it you missed the writer Mat Honan’s sad tale of cloud power gone wrong, give it a read. It involves security flaws at Apple and Amazon, hijacked accounts, lost data and a lesson for all of us who keep part of our lives online. As a result of Mr. Honan’s misfortune, Apple and Amazon have made some changes to their policies and, there’s been a renewed interest in Google’s two-step account authentication process and helpful articles offering tips for better personal security.

Gimme Some Space!

If NASA’s latest mission to Mars has you all hepped up on the space program again, you don’t have to go farther than your smartphone or tablet to touch the sky. The agency itself has several software goodies, including the official NASA app for iOS and Android so you can keep tabs on the Mars Curiosity rover and other projects in the works. (Speaking of Curiosity, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a nifty new iOS app last month called Spacecraft 3D that lets you virtually check out the rover up close.) Remember, if you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, you can also find most of this stuff on the official NASA Web site.

For real space heads, it’s not just about NASA, though. Just search for astronomy in your local app store, and odds are you’ll get plenty of hits (even the BlackBerry PlayBook has the $2 Stellarium app in the BlackBerry App World). For example, there’s the $3 Star Chart and the free, open-source Sky Map for Android, which had a lot of input from Google and Carnegie Mellon University. Deneb Software has a similarly named app called SkyMap for Windows Phone for less than two bucks.

On the iOS side, there are plenty of astronomical options, including a pair of slick apps from Vito Technology called Star Walk (for stargazing, $3 to $5) and Solar Walk (for a 3D solar system experience and on sale right now for a buck). Many advanced astronomers favor the $7 Luminos app for iOS for views of 3D textured planet and moons in detail. Space Junk Pro is a similar app — for $5 you can track satellites, planets, stars and other stuff floating high above your head and it’s available for both iOS and Android.

Need more astronomy apps? Check out these roundups and collections for Android, BlackBerry, iOS and Windows Phone.

And while it’s not quite mapping the sky, the free Planetary app for iPad maps your music collection to a series of animated intergalactic visualizations.  While the deep-space picture show may seem a little weird when listening to, say, banjo music (unless you have the right song), it really rocks the screen if you tap up a bit of Gustav Holst.

Episode 10 News: Summer Games

The 2012 Olympics are underway in London and although social media and streaming apps are bigger than they’ve ever been during the Games, not everything is going swimmingly. The US television network NBC has been getting some criticism as viewers complained about the Opening Ceremony commentary and for editing out a sensitive section of the show that dealt with terrorism

The tweetstorm also raged against Twitter when company suspended the account of journalist Guy Adams after he posted an NBC exec’s corporate e-mail address as part of a rant about the TV coverage. (The Adams account was soon reinstated, but the whole episode should have won Twitter a gold medal in the Synchronized Kneejerk event. But at least the company has apologized.)

Facebook, another pillar of online activity, has its own issue this week with allegations of click-fraud. Limited Run, a small startup company, said it could not verify 80 percent of the clicks on its advertisements and wonders “Who let the bots out?” Limited Run (which has deleted its Facebook page) was also involved in another spat with Facebook over changing the name of its company page. Facebook has said it’s looking into these matters.

Hulu Plus has landed on the Apple TV, but what the tech blogs are more concerned with is that Apple may be making new product announcements on September 12. While we wait to find out, we can always try out Google’s revamp of video chat for Gmail.

Not everyone is down with Valve Software’s efforts to bring Steam games to the Linux paltform. Richard Stallman, the founder of The GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, has some concerns. Whatever your feelings on the matter, we hear Left 4 Dead 2 (4 Linux) is coming along nicely. Also on a gaming note, Ubisoft has patched a major security vulnerability in its Uplay browser plug-in. Players, please update your software.

We’re into August (and our 10th episode!) and there’s still time to enjoy the idle pleasures of just parking it for summer with visits to state parks, car trips to National Parks and all-day passes to theme parks. Just wait until they fix the Superman Ultimate Flight roller coaster at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California before you hop aboard, okay?

If you’re like The Kaiser, though, you may be spending your lazy days of summer upgrading your computers. (Ubuntu Linux frequently releases updates and that little company in Cupertino just popped out a new cat called OS X 10.8, you know.) As he reports this week, make sure your Mac has the hardware chops to wrestle the Cougar and prepare it properly before you jump into the App Store and slap down an electronic Jackson. The loss of the RSS Feeds feature in Safari and Mail is a bummer, but as with most things, there’s a hack to recover your lost Mail feeds for use elsewhere and a handful of other options for RSS fans who might be a tad peeved about the situation. Now that the brave and fearless early adopters have taken the Mountain Lion plunge, it won’t be long for the rest of us to catch up. Probably best to get it done before September 12th, just in case there are new things to occupy one’s attention.