Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Name That Tune

We’ve all been there at some point – you hear a song on the radio that you fall in love with instantly, but have no idea what it is. Or you hear the track in the background of a TV show, love it, and have no idea what it is. Or you hear a tune over the supermarket P.A. system and it makes you forget all about trawling for decent strawberries, even though you have no idea what it is. Maybe you could find it by doing a lyric search if you could remember enough of the words by the time you got home. Or maybe not.

These situations are why music recognition apps became so popular so quickly when the smartphones came to live with us. When a song jolts you to attention, just grab your phone and fire up your sound app so it can listen. If the track is recognized in the app’s database, you instantly get the title, artist — and often a link to buy and download the song right then and there. It’s a beautiful bit of instant gratification.

For those who haven’t used a music recognition app before, there are two major players in the space: Shazam and SoundHound.

Shazam, shown below, is available in a few ad-supported editions or in a paid version that runs about $6 or $7, depending on your platform.  And you can get versions of it for a number of mobile devices and platforms.

shazam

As shown below, there’s also the SoundHound app, which is available as well on the four major mobile operating systems. SoundHound claims to be faster at the recognition says it can even pinpoint tunes you sing or hum. It, too, is available in a free ad-supported edition or for $6 or $7 depending on your platform. Like Shazam, it also grabs lyrics to the songs it identifies.

soundhound

The paid versions of the programs usually throw in a few more features, but losing the splat of ads all over the screen is worth the cost for many people. Shazam and SoundHound aren’t the only music-lookup and discovery apps put there, and if you don’t like them, search your app store.

If you use Google Now, though, you can ask it to listen in and give you the name of the current song playing on your computer or radio. If Google Now can nail the tune, it cheerfully announced the title and offers to sell you the track from the Google Play store, as shown below.

google_now

And Apple’s usually helpful Siri assistant? Siri doesn’t do music-recognition. And frankly, she seems a little defensive about it.

siri

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Photo Offloads

Have you ever looked at your phone’s usage settings and realized you don’t have that much room left on it? Unless you’ve got expansion-card options, you’re probably going to want to dump unused apps and other old files to free up space. So what takes up a lot of space on many smartphones today? Photos and videos — especially on newer models with better cameras that take higher-resolution photos and HD video.

Now, some people like to keep a lot of pictures on their phones – it’s the digital equivalent of the plastic wallet sleeve full of kid, family and vacation photos. Still, there are others who don’t need to have a ton of pictures on hand at all times and some people are just too lazy to clear things off, especially if they don’t want to go through deleting images one-by-one to keep the really good stuff.

Need a quick way to deal with gigabytes of photos? Just copy them all to your computer and then whack them from the phone. Once they’re imported to the desktop or laptop, you can lean back and look at a bigger screen as you weed through the images you want to keep and delete the duds. You can keep an archive of the saved photos on the computer, as well as that computer’s backup disc or drive.

imagecaptureJust plug the phone into the computer with the cable it came with and let the computer offer to import them all at once. Most operating systems recognize a smartphone as a camera and then treat it like any other camera with a variation of the same question — “Hey, do you want me to import all these photos and them delete them for you?” Windows does this (even Windows 8), as do photo programs that run on Windows like Picasa and Adobe Photoshop Elements. Mac versions of those programs, as well as iPhoto, Image Capture or Aperture do the same thing.

Once you copy all the photos off the phone, you can delete them from the handset and have gigabytes more space to fill up with new photos. From the computer, it’s also pretty easy to upload all your favorites to Flickr or another photo-sharing site — where you can still get to them from your phone, without having to give up local storage space.

If you simply want to keep the photos on the phone but do want keep them backed up, you’ve got plenty of online backup options. For example, Google+ has an auto-backup feature for photos and Apple has iCloud Photo Stream for people with iOS devices. Dropbox has a Camera Upload feature and you can also fine photographer-friendly backup apps like MyShoebox out there.

So remember, if you want to free up space on your phone, check to see how many pictures you’re got squirreled away on there. If your mobile photos number in the hundreds, consider moving them off the phone and to the safety of the computer or online archive. And even if you have plenty of room on your phone, back up your photos anyway. A picture is worth a thousand words, but if you lose your phone and the only copies of your favorite mobile snaps, your own vocabulary may suddenly be reduced to a couple of really bad words.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hints: Fly the Less-Crabby Skies

Yes, it’s Holiday Travel Season time once again, and that means it’s time for our annual list of tips that can make the experience slightly easier:

  1. Get the app for your airline. You can check in for your flight, get updated gate information, get alerts about delays and even download your electronic boarding pass. United Airlines, Delta Airlines and American Airlines are among the major air carriers packing their own apps for the popular mobile platforms. If you’re packing an iPhone, you can usually download your boarding pass to Apple’s Passbook app so it pops up on your lock screen, ready to scan, on the day of your flight.
  2. Check the weather. Winter travel has already proved a little insane due to the Thanksgiving and early December snowstorms this year, so hit up your phone’s app store and download one of the forecast apps that tell you what may be messing up your travel plans — so you can get to work on contingency options.
  3. Track the flight. If you’re on the go or picking up family at the airport, a flight tracker app or mobile site can also come in handy for alerts about delays, cancellations and other news you need on the go. FlightView, FlightAware, FlightTrack and Flight Update are just some of the options and paid versions of some apps also include bonus features like alternate flights and airport maps; check out a few apps here. The free Kayak app can also track flights and maybe even help you find a cheap hotel room near the airport of the weather screws up your plans.
  4. ipadcafeStay charged. When you get to the airport, scope it out thoroughly to find the charging stations for your phone or tablet. And keep in mind, some airlines like Delta are even sprucing up their waiting areas with free loaner iPads to help you pass the time before you fly. As shown here at Terminal D at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, some terminals are even getting high-tech refurb jobs with plenty of charging stations and free loaner iPads that can help you pass the time — and even order a pricey diner breakfast while you wait to board your early-morning flight.

And if you’re looking for easier, the Transportation Security Administration is expanding its TSA Pre✓™ program that lets you keep your shoes, belt and laptop where they were when you left the house. Every little bit helps.

Safe travels to 2014, Pop Tech Jammers.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Choosing Ultrabook or Laptop

ultronTablets may have taken a huge bite out of the laptop market, but some people still need a good old-fashioned portable computer with a decent-sized screen, a full keyboard, the ability to run a standard operating system and plenty of storage room. Fortunately, you still have plenty of models to choose from.

Traditional laptops, once tipping the scales at seven or eight pounds of shoulder-separating weight, are now much sleeker than before. The tiny, cramped netbooks (circa 2009) have given way to bigger netbooks/ultrabooks, with screens and keyboards at a more usable size. Heavy has gotten lighter and smaller has gotten bigger. So what’s the difference now between an ultrabook and a regular laptop — and which one do you need?

A few bullet points:

Ultrabook

  • These slimmed-down computers are usually lighter in weight than regular laptops.
  • They’re meant to be online with plenty of access to cloud storage, so ultrabooks often use solid-state hard drives. These are fast and sturdy — but have less capacity than a standard hard drive for the same price.
  • Ultrabooks typically have longer battery life between charges, thanks to fewer moving parts and energy-efficient mobile processors.
  • Depending on the model you get, ultrabooks can be somewhat cheaper than a full laptop.

Notebook

  • A standard laptop typically offers more storage space than an ultrabook, thanks to a wider use of mechanical hard drives and more configuration options.
  • Many laptops still offer a built-in optical drive for CDs and DVDs.
  • Notebooks are usually more upgradeable for memory, replacement batteries, and so on.
  • If you’re into serious gaming, you can find plenty of notebooks with high-end graphics cards and processors.

As with any device purchase, if you’re shopping around, make a list of all the stuff you need to do, want to do and where you want to do it. Then compare the available models out there until you find a machine that meets your needs.

Some things to consider as you peruse product pages or wander the aisles at Best Buy:

  • If you want to do hardcore gaming or a lot of video editing, perhaps something more robust than an ultrabook is in order here.
  • Sure, solid-state hard drives start up super fast, pop open your applications in a flash and often survive drops better than mechanical hard drives, but they can be expensive and not exactly swimming in space.
  • If you travel a lot, need maximum battery life and already have a sturdy desktop or laptop at home, maybe the lightweight ultrabook is what you need.
  • Sometimes, you can compromise with add-ons. If you really want an ultrabook but still want to rip CDs for your music library, you can buy an external optical drive for less than $80. Got a small solid-state drive? An inexpensive USB external can add a few terabytes.
  • Batteries: Does the computer have a sealed battery or can you easily swap it out yourself with a replacement?
  • Does the computer only do WiFi, or do you have Ethernet, 3G or 4G connectivity options?

Now, all you need is a great pre- or post-holiday sale. A gift card would be totally great, too.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Speak Your Mind

siriVoice-activated “personal assistants” have been getting more useful and skilled over the years, offering a hands-free way to call up information on the Web, make appointments in your calendar, get the temperature and all kinds of similar chores. But if you haven’t used either of the two big players lately, Apple’s Siri and the voice-command function in Google Now, you may be surprised at what they can do.

The Siri assistant got a lot of press when it first arrived on the iPhone 4S back in 2011. Unlike the simplistic voice-driven search of the day, Siri could handle questions on a variety of topics and even add a touch of personalization when presenting answers. She even turned up as a love interest for a character on The Big Bang Theory. (The name, incidentally, means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norwegian.) Apple’s latest update to iOS 7 has improved the program and has even added a male voice option in the settings.

And then there’s Google Now. It’s also a virtual assistant that helps keep track of your daily life and interests  and can take spoken commands. Google Now with voice actions is available in the Google Search app for Android and iOS devices; the company recently released an extension for its Chrome browser that brings voice search to to the desktop when you utter the magic hotwords, “OK, Google.”

Although Google has had manually activated voice search for years, the Google Now software arrived in the summer of 2012 with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and has been growing ever since. The latest version of Android — 4.4, also known as KitKat — has more than 60 voice commands you can use with Google Now.

Want to give Siri or Google Now a shout? If you have Siri open on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch screen, tap the question mark in the corner for a list of sample questions or just ask away.Otherwise, just hold down the Home button on your iOS device until you hear the Siri beeps and see “What can I help you with?” appear on the screen. The Tech Blog has its own list of Siri commands and MacTrast’s infographic on the topic is also helpful.

If you’ve got the Google app open, tap the microphone icon at the top of the screen or say “OK, Google” and then ask your question. If you like visuals, check out Trendblog’s handy chart for what you can ask the latest version of Google Now. Google has its own list of Voice Action commands as well.

And even though it’s winter holiday time, don’t forget the Easter eggs!

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: The Personal Picture Show

2103 is in the home stretch and Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s are all looming. With the holidays come lots of family events and seasonal parties where photographs will be taken — but not necessarily pictures you want to have posted outside your circle of family, friends or co-workers. You’d also like to see all the pictures everybody else took without having to dig through your mailbox or wander all over the Web.

So how do you keep your party and family photos visible only to the people you want to see them, all without having to email buckets of pixels? Sure, there are always shared photo albums on Facebook or Google+, but some people aren’t so comfortable with the privacy on social-networking sites these days, no matter what controls you have over who sees your stuff.

But you have other options, specifically sites and services designed for group photo sharing. Although features and steps vary from site to site, you can basically set up a private, members-only Web page or photo feed and only the people you have approved can see or post pictures to it.

For example, you have online file services like Dropbox or Microsoft SkyDrive. Here, you post photos online and dole out links for people to click and see the pictures in your own little personal area of the site.

You’ve also got the mega-photo site, Flickr, as another option if you have an account there or want to set up a free one for the occasion. Say you’ve got a big corporate holiday party and you want everyone there to be able to share their photos with each other, but not necessarily the outside world. One way to do it: use Flickr’s groups feature. You can make a new group page on Flicker for the party or event (call it Holiday Party 2013 for argument’s sake) and invite friends to join the group by email. Once they accept your invite, they can all upload their own photos to the private group page. Flickr also lets you post photos by e-mail, so if you’ve created a Flickr account for the event, you can give the email address out to friends and let them post pictures to the page from their smartphones — even while the event is taking place.

streamshareIs your family is all hooked into Apple and iCloud? If so, you’ve got the option of shared photo streams. You can create shared streams on iOS 6 and iOS 7 devices, Macs and Windows computers, but you need an iCloud account on the participating computers and gadgets. You start by selecting some photos to share, creating a photo stream and sending e-mail invitations to friends and family. You can allow these “subscribers” to post their own photos and videos; they can also comment and “like” your pictures in the stream while uploading their own to the mix. When people share photos in the stream, others can download and keep them.

Sure, hoisting images up to SkyDrive, setting up a Flickr group page or creating an iCloud shared stream may take a little extra work up front. But if you want to keep those photos in one place and all in the family, it’s worth the effort.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Super-Size It!

Tablets have made it easier to stay online wherever you are and those bigger screens are a lot easier to read than squinting at a smartphone — or even a phablet. But even with the more expansive screen real estate, you may find the tablet type a little small for comfortable reading. And the thinner font in Apple’s new iOS 7 has irritated a lot of people, who find it too spindly to read comfortably.

If you find yourself wrestling with iOS 7 on your iPad — or even iPhone or iPod Touch — hit the Settings icon on the home screen and go right to the General line. Tap General, and then Accessibility. In the second section of settings on the screen, you have options for:

  • Larger Type. iOS 7 uses Dynamic Type technology that can resize on-screen text to your preferred default. Turn on Larger Dynamic Text here and move the slider to the size you want. Apps that uses Dynamic Type should pick up your chosen size automatically.
  • Bold Text. Back on the main Accessibility menu, you find an option called Bold Text. Flip it on, let your iPad restart itself and lo-and-behold, your system font is bold. You can reverse the setting by coming back here and turning off the Bold Text switch.
  • Lots of other stuff. The Accessibility menu has more options for general legibility, including an Increase Contrast option, a Reduce Motion control (in case those floating backgrounds make you queasy) and On/Off Labels that add little notches to the virtual switches in case you can’t see the green color that means the setting is turned on.

iOS 7 has many other accessibility tools, including a  screen-zoom magnifier, a spoken-word function called VoiceOver, the ability to invest the screen colors, closed captioning for videos, mono audio and many more assistive functions.

iOS7

As for Android, this may vary from version to version, but in Jelly Bean 4.3 on the Nexus 7, tap into your Settings and hit Accessibility. Here, you can turn on features like:

  • Large text
  • Magnification gestures
  • Spoken passwords
  • The TalkBack screen reader
  • Text-to-speech output
  • And more!

Android

Of course, if you’re reading ebooks on your tablet, you have controls within your book app’s settings to bump your font up to a happy size independently. So now you can sit back, give your eyes a little bit of a boost, and save all that peering-at-the-fine-print stuff for cellular-data contracts, social-media privacy policies and tax forms.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Keep Informed With Twitter Alerts

Twitter, in addition to serving as a personalized news service for people who like to follow the feeds of their favorite Web sites, newspapers and TV stations, recently introduced its own emergency alert system. Although it’s not to be confused with the government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts, more than 100 Federal, state and local agencies are participating in Twitter Alerts as well.

To sign up for an alert from an agency like NOAA or FEMA, visit the page of participating organizations on Twitter’s site. Click the ones you want and fill in your information. You’ll get alerts by text message, push notification and as entries in your news feed.

twitteralerts

In addition to Twitter, you probably some news and weather apps on your phone as well. Most newsy apps let you set up notifications on your phone when they have important information to push out — things like wildfires, winter storms, traffic problems or breaking news events. Apple has information about using Notifications in iOS here and Google has similar information for Android here.

Red Sox or Cardinals fan? Yeah, you’ve probably got your alerts set up already, even if you’re watching the games.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Government Tools

Along with fashion, tech gear and exciting entertainment options popping back into the news after a relatively quiet summer, Congress is back in session. Love them or hate them, the legislative branch of the government make the laws around here, but the process can sometimes be a little confusing and unwieldy. If you want to know what’s going out there in Washington, here are a few resources that may help:

  • Congress for Android and iOS is a free app that lets you find your Congressional representative, checkout new and active legislation, see who’s sponsoring current bills, keep tabs on the social media coming out of his or her office and see how people voted on bills and laws.
  • cspanIf you’d rather listen than read about what’s going on. The free C-SPAN Radio app for Android, BlackBerry and iOS delivers audio streams of Congressional speeches and hearings, as well as public affairs programming. You can also hear author interviews from the Book TV folks over there on C-SPAN 2.
  • On the Web, you can look up past and present bills, resolutions and other legislative information in the Thomas database on the Web. Named after Thomas Jefferson, you can search the text of bills, download copies of said bills, check out roll call votes and contact members of Congress if you have something to say. The database has a number of other extras, including the original text of The Federalist Papers.

The inefficiency of Congress is nothing new, but at least with apps and other sources of information, it’s much easier to get information — and even participate in the democratic process itself. We the People, indeed.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Write On

Let’s face it — English was not everyone’s favorite subject in school. Some people loved it, but others found daily classes about grammar rules, spelling, punctuation and all that little type-y stuff as about exciting as watching Windows 95 defrag itself. Sure, voice calls and video chat are modern forms of communication here in the Internet broadband era, but even then, a lot of interaction between people still takes place in written form.

If you feel insecure about your writing and grammar skills — maybe English wasn’t your thing in school or maybe English wasn’t even your first language — there’s help online. Take, for example, new Tech Writing Handbook, courtesy of the gang at iFixit.com.

techwritinghandbook

The Tech Writing Handbook is divided up into 11 chapters and one appendix. The manual guides the reader through the process of writing documentation — starting with research and building from there. The book also discusses adding photographs and other visuals to accompany and enhance your writing. Even if you don’t actually do any writing yourself, the manual is worth a look just for the logical steps it presents on how to explain a topic or task. In exchange for your contact information, you can also download a printable PDF that you can also keep on your tablet for those offline moments.

 

Need more help in wrestling the English language to the ground? Consider:

  • Purdue Online Writing Lab
    Brought to you by the English Department at Purdue University, the main Online Writing Lab page rounds up 200 free resources that cover writing (and teaching writing). You can also find information on research, grammar and mechanics, using style guides and more. You do not have to be a Purdue student to use the site.
  • GrammarBook.com
    Although it’s linked to a $15 offline grammar book, this site is a useful for its explanations of grammatical rules, including punctuation. It also has links to a blog and online videos explaining grammar usage.
  • Grammar Girl
    Need short, friendly tips to help your writing and find answers to questions like, “can I start a sentence with a preposition?” or the whole “who and whom” quandary? Call on Grammar Girl and she’ll help you out.
  • Grammarly Instant Online Grammar Check
    Have something you’ve already written and want it proofread? Grammarly is an online scanner that claims it can find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes. It’s a paid service with fees currently starting at $30 a month, but you can try it free for seven days. If you don’t have a proofreader or copy editor reading behind you, Grammarly could come in handy.

These are just a few of the resources out there. You can find many other sites to help you out, like other grammar guides and online dictionaries — and mobile app versions as well.

Need a break from your studies? Chill out with a little classic Schoolhouse Rock.