Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Recall Center

Samsung threw in the towel this week on the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone after the replacement version of the device also proved a little too hot to handle for some customers. But while the drama with the Galaxy Note 7 was very public, not every product with a safety hazard gets such media attention.

If you’re worried about other electronics — or anything else in your house — carrying a risk of fire, injury or other personal danger, check out the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s website for the government’s latest warnings, news and official recall information. As the agency’s name states, it’s all about keeping consumers (you) safe.

In addition to seeing what products are currently under recall, you can report your own problems with specific products, view somewhat morbid statistics related to injury and even read up on the latest regulations. To go right to the hit list, though, just click the Recalls button and then on Recalls List at the top of the page to see the current roundup of products deemed unsafe for use.

The Consumerist blog from Consumer Reports is another great site to browse for news and information regarding customer rights and safety.

Not all electronics are dangerous, but you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using them. Always use recommended chargers with battery-powered devices (and not flimsy third-party knock-offs of suspicious origin) and don’t leave stuff plugged in forever. Stay safe, Jammers!

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Share and Share Alike

Smartphones and online calendars have certainly made it easier to get a handle on your daily schedule, and if you’ve gotten used to the concept of calendar events and alerts from your office or job, think of how handy these could be for keeping track of your family’s whereabouts. You can do this by setting up a shared online calendar to use for appointments, and all your family members can subscribe to it on their own smartphones and computers. When someone enters a a new event on that shared calendar, everybody else subscribed to the calendar then sees it — hopefully clearing up confusion about who’s doing what on any given day.

Sure, you can find plenty of third-party solutions like Cozi or the HUB Planner that have limited free versions and more expansive paid plans, but if your family’s needs are not complex – say, you just need to keep track of softball practice, book club, dentist appointments and so on – you might be able to get by with software you already have: The calendar component to your free email service.

For example, Microsoft has ways to share calendars using Outlook and Outlook.com. Yahoo Calendars can also be shared with family members.

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Now, for iCloud. If you are an Apple-oriented group of people, you can share an iCloud calendar with others, but you don’t have to stop with just the datebook. If you have kids with their own iDevices wanting to buy stuff on iTunes, you can even set up Apple’s Family Sharing feature that lets parents approve their children’s iTunes and App Store purchases remotely, share photos and location — and yes,  there’s a family calendar.

Don’t worry, Android folks, if you’re tapped into the Google Play store and spurn iTunes, there’s also a family management tool to set up and you can always use the Android Device Manager to GPS your child’s location. If you’re a Gmail family as well, check out sharing with Google Calendar.

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It may take a little work to get used to having a family calendar and entering events on it, but once it’s in place, perhaps those days of forgetting to pick up Junior from soccer practice (whoops!) will be a distant memory.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Fast Living

It’s not just the gamers and the streamers clamoring for more pipe. Some national governments have even recognized that high-speed broadband is becoming increasingly important to a nation’s economic and cultural growth — just check out the Federal Communications Commission’s annual checkup or even the Queen of England announcing that “measures will be brought forward to create the right for every household to access high speed broadband” in her speech at the State Opening of Parliament last month.

On a more personal level, with more of our home entertainment coming from streaming media — and more of it in increasingly high-definition — keeping an eye on our network speeds is vital to a good, unbuffered experience. Netflix, one of the major video-streaming sites out there, knows this.

Not wanting to take heat for slow-connection choppy streams that aren’t its fault, the company has been regularly posting its monthly ISP Speed Index rankings for the United States (and the other subscriber countries) based on its own calculations on its official blog. Last month, Netflix even went so far as to release its own Internet speed test tool.

Unlike other well-known broadband-speed testing sites like MegaPath’s Speakeasy, BandwidthPlace, SpeedOfMe or Ookla’s Speedtest.net, Netflix’s testing site only measures download speed. However, it also isn’t slathered in advertisements and doesn’t use Adobe Flash.

The site is just a simple page with a logo, white background and big numbers that tell you how fast data can download to your home over your broadband connection. It’s also got a memorable URL: https://fast.com. A small link on the main page gives you a chance to cross-reference your result with Ookla’s Speedtest site.

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Now, some people claim that Internet speed tests are rigged because the ISP’s give them a fast lane when they sense a request from one of the testing servers, and that may be true in some cases — especially if you use a speed-test page provided by your own service provider. You may also get varying results depending on the time of day, the general state of Internet congestion and activity on your own network.

But keep testing, use different test sites and various times of day and let your ISP know when you’re not getting your advertised rate. Even if it’s a technical problem on your end like a weak connection or frayed cable, you want to make sure you get what you’re paying for because reliable broadband is an important part of modern life. Her Maj thinks so, too.

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(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Sky Talker

Hate pecking away on a tiny glass keyboard? While that sort of thing may be okay for texting and other short bursts of data entry, it can become wearisome when you want to process a significant amount of words.

Voice search and dictation programs have been around for a while, and both Windows and OS X have had their own speech-to-text recognition functions for years. As we all know, Google Now, Cortana and Siri all response to brief voice commands. But if you want to compose that great American Novel on the go, you can do it without having to download a third-party dictation app, thanks to built-in functions you already have on your mobile device — as long as that device is running a fairly recent version of its maker’s operating system.

Both Android and iOS include the dictation feature, but you may have to enable the service in your system settings if you start yapping and nothing happens. Also, keep in mind that in most cases, your words are being sent up to a server in the sky for translation, so manage your own privacy expectations.

In recent versions or Android, you can dictate documents in Google Docs open in the Chrome browser — and even add punctuation and editing by calling out the commands. Just open a Google Doc and either tap the microphone, or go to the Tools menu and choose Voice Typing. Then dictate your thoughts.

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If you get no reaction from your Android device, do into the Settings app to Language and Input and make sure Google Voice Typing is enabled. You can tap further into the settings there to make adjustments, like activating the ability to record through a Bluetooth headset or to block any offensive words that may (accidentally, of course) slip into your speech while dictating.

On a compatible iOS device, turn on the speech-to-text feature by going to Settings > General > Keyboard. Flip on the button next to Dictation to enable it. Now, when you want to recite a lengthy bit of text in Notes, Mail or another wordy app, tap the small microphone icon that now resides on the iOS keyboard and start talking.

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The dictation feature may not be as precise as an real, live human secretary, but it should get you that first draft with a minimum of actual typing. So grab your phone, yell “Take a memo!” as you tap on the microphone and start talking your typing.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Set the Scene

We’ve all gotten used to using filters and camera apps on our smartphones to produce interesting photography for our social-media lives. But if you’ve still got a separate stand-alone camera and are only using it in its Automatic setting (where you just snap the photo and go with minimal fuss), you may be missing out on some handy built-in shooting and exposure modes that can give your photos more zing when you actually take them.

modedialMost decent point-and-shoot models have these modes, which you can usually find on a dial or in a menu in the camera’s controls. On the dial at the top of your camera, you may find settings for Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual and whatnot. There may also be a dial setting to take you into Scene Mode — or you may find that in one of the camera’s menus. The scene modes have names like Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Macro, Night and so on. The names typically refer to the type of photo you’re trying to take, and the camera’s settings are adjusted accordingly.

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Take Portrait mode, the one you would use when you’re trying to capture an image of someone in the middle of the frame. In most cases, switching to Portrait mode will have the camera switch to a large aperture to narrow the depth of field — which means your subject is nicely in focus and commanding attention, but the background and any distracting elements are blurred.

Other modes adjust the flash, shutter speed, exposure settings and more to capture the gist of the situation. Sports mode, for example, kicks up the shutter speed to capture more of the action in focus.

Your camera’s instruction manual should have a full explanation of the settings and shooting modes your model offers. (Some of the better cameras even have an automatic setting that picks the scene mode for you based on the shooting conditions it senses.) If you’ve chucked or lost your manual, worry not.
You can usually find copies:

On the manufacturer’s website. Look for a PDF download — Canon, NikonSony and others usually have them posted.

• In the app store you use with your mobile device. You might luck into a free electronic version or manual viewer.

Around the Web. The comprehensive  ManualsOnline.com quite possibly may have your model’s guidebook.

Or, you could do what many nerds do: Just fiddle around and press buttons until you get the machine to do what you want.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Patched In

Ah, the first half of the month, when rents are traditionally due and software is often patched. But while these program fixes and security updates are meant to fix problems in software, they can sometimes create even more problems.

Take for example, the recent iOS 9.3.1 patch that was intended to fix the crashing-links problem — but inadvertently created a security exploit on some iPhones. Or Google’s patch last year that was supposed to repair the Stagefright-sized hole in Android but didn’t cover everything the first time around. You win some, you lose some.

Now, many people just get an update notice and install whatever software arrives with the notifications. Or they have automatic updates turned on — and pay even less attention. Patches are generally a good thing and designed to keep your computer and data safe. But if you’re the type that wants to know what’s going on your hardware (or what scary thing you’re being protected from now), hit up the support area of the manufacturer’s website for detailed notes.

Here are a few of the major players:

  • Adobe Security Bulletins and Advisories. Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader are two of the most hacker-targeted pieces of software out there, and so security updates to sew up those holes are issued regularly. Find your Adobe product on the list and click through for the details on each update.
  • Apple Security Updates. Apple makes a lot of system software, including OS X, iOS, tvOS, watchOS and all its in-house applications, and you can find information about everything security-related here. Links on the site also take you to the downloads and supporting documentation, in case you didn’t let your Mac update the software automatically (or your iOS device, for that matter).
  • Microsoft Security Tech Center. Thanks to decades of Windows, the Redmond giant is an old pro at the security-update game. The company celebrates with new bugfix releases on Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of every month. All the latest security bulletins are posted there so you can read up and see what’s getting fixed this time. (The site is a little techie, but Microsoft has a Safety & Security Center site written for less-technical home users as well.)

Additionally, Amazon’s site has a Device Support page for its various Kindle, Echo and Fire hardware, along with information about software updates.

All updated with nothing to read now? Microsoft’s next Patch Tuesday is next week, so you don’t have long to wait.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: ICE? ICE, Baby!

If you were in an accident or had a health situation, do you have a way for first responders to find your emergency contact or know important particulars about your medical history? If you don’t wear a medical-alert bracelet, you can have your phone handle the job of communicating life-saving information when you can’t do it, thanks to the category of “ICE” apps — ICE, short for In Case of Emergency.

The Health app, first introduced in in iOS 8, let you record and track your personal and health and fitness data. But even if you never look at the built-in step counter or share your calorie intake privately with your phone, you can use the handy Medical ID screen.

medIDYou can get to Medical ID by opening the Health app and tapping the Medical ID tab. The screen is sort of like an electronic medical-alert bracelet. You can list any major health conditions, medications you’re allergic to, your blood type and the phone number for your emergency-contact person.

Even if you have a passcode on your phone, someone can see your Medical ID info by tapping the Lock Screen, tapping Emergency and then tapping Medical ID. Granted, if you have privacy issues with any of this, don’t use it, but it can be helpful if you are unable to respond to an EMT or police officer.

While pure Android currently doesn’t have a built-in health app, you can find similar free or inexpensive medical ID apps in the Google Play store, like the $4 ICE for Android or the free iMedAlert app (which can even issue a GPS-based distress call). Android apps have a woolier reputation for security and privacy, however, so check the specifications to make sure any app you’re looking at doesn’t get grabby with permissions or store your data on their servers.

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If you don’t want to fiddle around with a separate app, there’s a basic hack you can do with just about any modern smartphone. Simply call up the Notes app that came with your phone (or any other word-processing app) and type out any emergency information you would want any first responder to know. Next, take a screenshot of that completed text and set the image as your phone’s lock screen image. Anybody who finds you (and your phone) can see the information — and as a bonus, the person would not have to know how to get to the iPhone’s Medical ID screen.

Again, if you have privacy reservations wth any of this, don’t use an app and get a medical-alert bracelet if you do have any conditions you need to identify. But if you just want to add the information to your phone where you already have so much of your life recorded anyway, it could just save your life.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Brief Cases

Don’t have time during the day to go deep with all the news flying around the Internet? Thanks to a number of news orgs, you can get a quick crib sheet of current events so you’re at least in the loop with what everyone else is talking about.

APFor example, the Associated Press’s AP Mobile app for Android and iOS routinely offers a daily list called “10 Things to Know for Today.” You get the quick headlines — and you can go back to the app and follow up the full stories later when you have more time.

Ten items too much of a commitment? Try the “5 Things You Need to Know” list from the website for a magazine called The Week. The print version of the publication, by the way, serves as sort of a weekly reader for adults to collect capsule summaries of the top national and international stories of the past seven days.

NYTThe New York Times has a witty New York Today daily briefing you can get by email or read on the web, and it includes stories of local interest, traffic and transit updates — even the weather forecast. In its wide selection of email newsletters for which you can sign up, The Times has morning and evening briefings with top stories around the country and world. There’s also an afternoon update, and early headlines from Europe and Asia. The NYT Now app for iOS grabs the top stories out there for a quick look.

Want spoken words instead of written ones so you can multitask? National Public Radio’s NPR Hourly News Summary gives you a quick five-minute recap of the current state of the world and it’s updated about every 60 minutes. You can listen to it on the NPR website or stream it through NPR News apps for Android or iOS.NPR

If you don’t have five minutes, the BBC World News website has a One Minute World News video update, though the short commercial at the beginning is an extra 15 seconds.

And if you need a little more on the video, check out Reuters TV, which you can watch in a web browser, as shown below. Go to the site and it gives you an instant newscast with whatever if going on in the world at the moment. If you have an Apple TV or iOS device, you can also use the Reuters TV app, which asks how much news you want to watch — 10, 15 or 30 minutes — and then instantly whips together a newscast of the day’s top stories based on that amount of time.

Now, if only we could get the news to be actually good…

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