Tag Archives: Consumer Reports

PTJ 225: Shazam!!

The hills are alive with the sound of buzzing drones, leaking data and the thwack of fake news getting smacked down. El Kaiser and J.D. discuss it all, as well as Shazam’s jump into augmented reality, smaller Windows 10 updates and Consumer Reports stepping it up to evaluate the security of new smart-home devices. Just press Play to get a fresh helping of the week’s news, a Tech Term and a (Hopefully) Helpful Hint — all in one episode!

Call Me Maybe Never

Between the 2016 political elections, tax season and the usual robocall/telemarketer harassment, being anywhere near a telephone these days can be a major pain. True, you can screen unfamiliar numbers and let them go through to voicemail or the answering machine, but there are other ways to deal with them. Signing up for the National Do Not Call Registry is one step, but a lot of sleazy robomarketers ignore it. You can also block numbers from unwanted callers, but those unwanted callers keep coming up with new numbers. What to do, what to do…

Let’s start with illegal robocalls, those automated spam calls that blast you with an annoying pre-recorded message. Most of the major phone companies aren’t much help, but the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission and  have been battling illegal robocalls for years. The FCC has a complaint form on its site for harassed consumers and the FTC has an information page and an informative graphic to explain its efforts against the practice.

The FTC has even held contests over the years to ask the public to contribute their own ideas and solutions consumers could use to help fight back. Last year’s winner of the Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back challenge was a mobile app called Robokiller.

Another winner from a previous year: A free service called Nomorobo, which works by using a feature known as “simultaneous ring.” When simultaneous ring is enabled, your phone will ring on more than one number at the same time.  When the Nomorobo number is set as a simultaneous-ring number, it grabas the call first. If it’s legitimate, the call goes through to your number. But if Nomorobo detects the telltale signs of a robocall, it hangs up for you.

The FTC’s robocall challenge also generated a collection of tips and tricks a few years ago that reportedly cut down on automated calls for some people. Some suggestions include investing in call-blocker hardware or services, or even putting the three-note “disconnect” tone at the beginning of your greeting to trick some systems to automatically hanging up.

Need more suggestions? Consumer Reports has done “Rage Against Robocalls” investigation into robocalls and reviewed several call-blocking options.

So what about telemarketers, those humans whose mission is to talk you into giving them money for something. As with the members of almost any civilization, some members are professional and well-behaved, and some are vile scum. A former telemarketer told the Lifehacker site that if you do happen to pick up an unwanted call, say “Please put me on your do not call list” and the well-behaved telemarketers will honor your request.

As for the autodialers and vile scum, you could always try a product like the TeleZapper, (which has been around for years and you can still find on Amazon), that simulates the disconnect tones when it senses the handoff from automatic dialer to telemarketer and dumps the call. Just look for a “call blocker” in your shopping searches.

But there’s also a newer approach emerging, one that takes a piece out of the person trying to waste your time by wasting their time by making them talk to a bot. These bots use a set of pre-recorded vocal responses to react to what the telemarketer is pitching and keeps them in an endless loop of pointless conversation — so telemarketers have less time to bother other people.

The Jolly Roger Telephone Company is one such service and it was created by a guy who had enough when a telemarketer got aggressive with his son. So he created a voicebot to keep the telemarketers chasing their tails. Then he wrote up instructions on his blog so other people could use it. Basically, when the telemarketer asks for you, say, “Just a minute” and then loop in the bot’s phone number on an Add Call or three-way call. The Jolly Roger Phone Company has a lively YouTube page full of real encounters with telemarketers. The site has US, UK and Australian numbers to use for the bot.

A similar Canadian bot called Lenny, which uses recordings that sound like a rambling old Australian man, has even busted political fundraisers. Lenny also has his own YouTube channel.

So here’s to all the creative types who fight telephone abuse! And since this is March already, don’t let your guard down against the annual surge of scammers pretending to be from the IRS either by phone or phish. And if you get a live fake IRS call — just give ’em a free cruise on the Jolly Roger.

PTJ 66: Bigger, Stronger, Faster

“Breaking Bad” rides off into the desert sun leaving El Kaiser wondering how it fared against other famous TV series swan songs and J.D. fills us in on the quickest ways to digitize business cards. In the news Amazon quietly releases two new Kindle models; Lenovo debuts an all-in-one desktop computer with a 29-inch display; Microsoft has a good week;  Facebook expands its Graph Search results; Apple deals with more security issues; researchers develop a  robotic prosthetic leg that is controlled by brain function; and Intelligent Glasses that can translate languages on the fly.

PTJ 66 News: We Have the Technology

The march of New Fall Products continues. Amazon quietly released two new Kindle models last week and Lenovo’s going widescreen with what it claims is an all-in-one desktop computer with the world’s first 29-inch display with a 21:9 aspect ratio.

It’s been a good week for Microsoft. Windows Phone is also clawing its way to the 10-percent mark in smartphone share, and according to analytics firm Net Applications, Windows 8 was running on almost 10 percent of devices using a Microsoft operating system last month. Windows 8 will soon give way to Windows 8.1 later this month, and Microsoft announced it’s rolling out its new optical character recognition feature for the SkyDrive online service that makes photos and PDF documents searchable in the cloud. The OCR feature will also be available through the Windows 8.1 Smart Search tool.

On the topic of search, Facebook is opening up Graph Search results to include user status updates and posts. So now publicly shared status updates, comments on anything, photo captions, Notes, and check-ins are all searchable. (Here’s a Graph Search settings checklist and some more information about adjusting your privacy settings if this sort of thing makes you at all nervous.)  In other Facebook news this week, the Social Network and its bird buddy Twitter, will start sending reports of your Likes and tweets about television shows to the major networks.

According the Engadget blog, Google has announced three dedicated Google Play vending machines in Japan that can dispense 18 different games. (As far as vending machines go, apps are not the most unusual things being dispensed.)

Apple is dealing with more security issues in iOS 7. The company just out its iOS 7.0.2 update to fix some reported lock screen holes and now another researcher has demonstrated how the Siri personal assistant technology can be used to start up a FaceTime call, which could allow hackers to invoke another security glitch in the iOS 7 software to access the phone app.

Speaking of holes, the US government shut down this week after weeks of squabbling among the houses of Congress and the executive branch. Here are some links to information about what’s still functioning in Washington. (Alas, the PandaCam has gone dark for the duration of the standoff, but some folks are trying to fill the PandaCam void.) Other parts of the Web were creaky and crashing as well, namely Affordable Healthcare Act servers for new customers trying to sign up. For those still trying to parse the new plans, the Health Law Helper site from Consumer Reports may be useful.

In other research:

legs

And finally, mobile giant NTT DoCoMo showed off the prototype of its so-called Intelligent Glasses that can translate text in an unfamiliar language into something the wearer of the glasses can read. The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades — and who knows, those shades just might be able to direct you to a restroom in Rio or decipher a menu in Milan. Someday.

PTJ 62: The Swaggiest Swag In All The Land

Despite all the big tech news this week J.D. takes a few minutes to help El Kaiser work up the courage to cut the cable, um, cable. In the news Microsoft buys Nokia’s phone handset division; CBS and Time Warner finally make up; Big announcements at the IFA Berlin show;  Google acquires a smartwatch maker; U.S. retailer Target gets into the streaming video game; another government agency trips through U.S. phone records; and Skype celebrates its 10th birthday.

Ready Your Rabbit Ears

Even though the month-long hissyfit between CBS and Time Warner Cable finally ended this week, the notion that you can still watch your favorite shows without spending a huge chunk of money lives on. If you’re one of the viewers out there thinking of downsizing your monthly bills, here are a few options to consider for cheaper television:

  • Antennas. A good old-fashioned antenna won’t help for premium cable channels, but could yank down digital broadcast signal from the regular TV networks if you live within range and do not have any major obstructions. (Time Warner Cable was even offering a limited amount of free antennas at one point, with $20 coupons to pick up one at your local Best Buy instead; Radio Shack does some bang-up antenna business in some parts of the country too.) Next time you’re at the newsstand, check out the October issue of Consumer Reports magazine, which tests some digital antenna options priced between $10 and $80. Antennas in big cities can be hit or miss, but the magazine reported that testers got anywhere from no channels to more than 40 over the air. Consumer Reports also pointed out that even without a cable company-network dispute, an antenna could come in handy in other situations like ditching a set-top box for that bedroom TV you only use to watch network shows anyway, or as a backup if the cable service goes out. (Just remember that all TV signals are digital now after the switchover from analog a few years back, so your television set needs to either be digital or have a converter box attached to get the broadcasts with the antenna.)
  • Network Web sites and mobile apps. You may be able to watch some shows on the TV network’s own Web site or through its mobile apps. CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and PBS all have some shows available.
  • Third-party streaming TV services. Although mired in legal battles of their own and not available everywhere, services like the Aereo and FilmOn can bring local broadcast channels right to your computer, tablet, smartphone or other compatible device. Aereo, which is available in New York, Boston, Atlanta and Salt Lake City so far, starts at $8 a month and also includes 20 hours of online DVR recording so you don’t miss your stories; your first month is free. FilmOn has a variety of subscription plans with $20 a month for HD streams as a starter course and you can pick up online DVR recording as well. You can also watch local broadcast stations in standard definition for free, with ads. And don’t forget Hulu or if you’re catching up on older seasons of some shows, Netflix.

rabbitears

  • Legal downloads. Many shows are available the next day from services like Amazon Instant Video and the iTunes Store. Sure, you may be paying a la carte (unless you’re an Amazon Prime member) and the show you want is available, but hey, a season pass for a couple of shows is cheaper than taking the family out to the movies in New York City. Plus, you don’t have to sit through commercials and you get to keep the show for rewatching whenever you want.
  • Slingbox. The Slingbox connects to a regular TV and lets you watch live and recorded shows from that TV over the Internet on your laptop or mobile device. The Slingbox isn’t cheap — $180 or $300 —depending on the model, but even if you keep the cable around, you can watch your shows in more places than just on the TV linked to the cable company’s set-top box.

If you do decide to totally slice the coax and lose the cable bill, you can put those savings toward a really nice television set or tablet. And the next time the local cable carrier starts dropping or blocking channels due to a corporate smackdown, you won’t have to care.

Episode 26 News: The One Where We Just Blogged It

And now, some news!

Microsoft, in the midst of taking a swipe at Google for what is says are suspect ranks for shopping searches, says Windows 8 is selling just fine, thankyouverymuch. Not everyone’s convinced, though. Some sites like InformationWeek would like, well, more information about the numbers.

The manager for Apple’s misbegotten Maps app is probably looking for new directions himself after getting fired earlier this month, and Tony Fadell, the man known as the Godfather of the iPod does not seem to be too broken up about Scott Forstall — another previously released Apple exec — getting the sack. Apple itself is said to be working with TomTom to make the iOS 6 maps app better, while map fans wait in hope for a standalone Google Maps app for iOS. At least iTunes 11 finally showed up this week.

Google has had about enough of anonymous trolling on app reviews in its Google Play Store. Reviews must now be accompanied by the user’s Google+ name and profile photo. The move should cut down on the number of astroturfed reviews for an app, and trolls will just have to drive up Google+ membership stats with fake accounts if they want to continue fragging apps in public forums.

Hoping to get its buzz back, Research in Motion is showing off a new BlackBerry in advance of its new BlackBerry OS 10 system due out early next year. And while not exactly fresh news, AT&T is still hanging out in the basement of the Consumer Reports customer satisfaction survey for US wireless carriers; the company’s 4G LTE network got better marks. Verizon Wireless was tops among the major national carriers.

But enough about tech, how about some pop? With the big summer movies now landing on Blu-ray and DVD for the holidays, director Christopher Nolan has some thoughts on the ending of the The Dark Knight Rises. Now, if they can just get Hugh Jackman jacked in to the X-Men: Days of Future Past with the rest of the gang