Compu-Home Blog

These articles by Malcolm and John Harding address current issues in the world of personal computing. We hope you find them helpful! If you have any questions or comments, please let us know.

Understanding Updates and Upgrades

Posted Feb 24, 2019

November 2018 

We sense that lots of our clients regard software updates with great suspicion, based on the number of people who reject them outright or ask us which ones are safe and which are not.  Our usual answer is that the great majority of updates are not only safe but also necessary for the secure and efficient operation of your computer.

It is important to understand the difference between upgrades and updates Upgrades are entirely new versions of the program, with significant differences and sometimes improvements over your current edition.  You usually have to pay for an upgrade and this can lead to deliberate confusion in which the publisher tries to convince you to switch from a free version of the software to an upgrade that is so vastly better that you will be extremely grateful to have bought it!  Sadly, it is more likely that you will find that the advantages of the upgraded version are subtle or minimal, with added bells and whistles that don’t apply to you.  In the case of many software titles it is a smart strategy to skip a few upgrades and then go with the newest version when it truly has new features that will be helpful, or when you replace your computer.

Updates, on the other hand, are relatively simple downloads that provide fixes and patches to the current version of your software.  Often these changes are related to security, and you are almost always well advised to apply them to keep the bad guys at bay as well as to improve performance.

One group of programs being updated frequently are the little utilities that enhance the operation of your computer.  Java, Acrobat Reader, Flash, office suites, media players, browsers, printer drivers and your anti-virus are examples of software that work best when they are kept up to date.  You can and probably should check the box that allows such programs to update automatically, in the background while you are doing something else.

Operating System (OS) updates belong in a different category.  This is not because they are not necessary; on the contrary, they are considered so vital that both Windows and Macintosh no longer ask you if you wish to update, and often don’t allow opting out, although there is sometimes the option of delaying to a more convenient time.  A fairly recent development in these OS updates is that instead of minor fixes being pushed out incessantly, there are now major updates happening approximately quarterly, with only emergency essentials happening in between.  The result to the user is greater inconvenience, but less often.

Because OS updates are now such a big deal, there is a slightly greater chance of them causing their own problem(s).  Sometimes, for example, a printer stops working the day after an OS update.  Fortunately these glitches are quite rare and usually quickly and easily fixed.

With smartphones and tablets there is one extra dimension to the OS updates.  In non-technical terms, there seems to be a closer relationship between the Apps and the OS in mobile devices.  This means that when an OS update has happened, you would be wise to check a few days later for potential updates for your Apps as well, in order to ensure compatibility and smooth, efficient operation.

What Are You Missing If You Don’t Use Podcasts?

Posted Feb 19, 2019

October 2018

 Almost all radio broadcasts are now made available for download to your computer or mobile device, for later enjoyment or study. The program (podcast) is downloaded as a standard audio file which can then be played back using whichever is your default media player on that device.

The original purpose of podcasts was to make programs available for listening at a time that is more convenient for you.  If you were busy at the original airtime it is a simple matter to download it to your device and listen to it at your leisure.

Another emerging use of podcasts is that you can plan ahead and download them onto your tablet or smartphone at home or anywhere that Internet is free and then play them later when Internet would be expensive or unavailable.  Internet radio of your choice can then be available anywhere, without burning up your cellular data.

Of course podcasts are available from radio all over the world.  Last winter we did a column and blog entry on the subject of Internet streaming international radio:   https://compu-home.com/2018/02/streaming-radio-the-price-is-right/  and making use also of podcast technology just makes the whole concept more useful.

It’s pretty easy to download podcasts to your laptop or desktop computer; just go to the website of the broadcaster that interests you and you’ll find that almost all of them have a button for finding and streaming or recording podcasts.  (Disclosure:  CBC Radio at this moment seems to be in a state of transition, with some instructions out of date.  Persist.)  Achieving the same thing on mobile devices is quite a bit more challenging, because they all try very hard to divert you into their special-purpose podcast App, which involves its own learning curve.

Listen Notes comes to the rescue!  This is a search engine specifically for podcasts.  Go to http://www.listennotes.com in your browser (computer, phone or tablet) and the website will help you search for any episode from any source, (out of 30,000,000) and allow you to stream and listen immediately if you currently have cheap Internet access, or record it for later if you prefer.  Listen Notes has become a busy shortcut on our phones in recent months.

Here are a few websites with overviews on podcasts:

Digital Trends:   https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/how-to-download-podcasts/

C/NET:   https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-best-way-to-search-for-podcasts/

Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_podcasting_companies  (A list to get started)

Exploring the Cloud – Part 2

Posted Sep 25, 2018 | 1 Comment

To Recap:  In our last Entry we defined the cloud as “an arrangement allowing users to save data in an alternate location via their Internet connection, remote from their own computer disks or systems.”   We discussed just a few of the free and commercial cloud offerings, how they work, and the fact that most people are actually making at least some minor use of the cloud, whether or not they realize it.

 

Jurisdiction is a concern mentioned often in the context of the cloud.  Canadians, for example, expect to be regulated in their activities by Canadian governments, but if the cloud storage service you use has servers in other countries, then it might be possible that the foreign government might exercise its jurisdiction by demanding access to your data and applying different laws and interpretations.  Frankly, the implications are usually scarce, but people who are concerned with tax matters, politics or citizenship, to name a few, might wish to download a Canadian perspective on the subject from     https://info.cloud.ca/jurisdiction-matters

 

Security is a subject that worries a lot of people but we think that this nervousness usually points in the wrong direction.  The companies that offer cloud data storage these days have such huge investments in redundancy and safety measures that risk to your data is very low.  We think that the misunderstandings about the use of social media – another form of cloud usage – should be of much greater concern and that this is an alternate form of data that has much greater potential for harm if it is used in the wrong ways.

 

The convenience of the cloud must not be overlooked.  First is the security of knowing that your data is being saved automatically in an additional location, so that equipment failure or loss becomes less a disaster than it might have been.  Some cloud backup services allow you to designate a folder on your hard disk to serve double-duty and anything saved there is automatically copied to an identical remote folder.  If another computer, tablet or smartphone is appropriately configured that same folder appears there also and so documents, photos, music, messages, calendars and addresses are always available.

 

Sharing of data among family members, friends or in a business context is another significant convenience.  The old days of clogging up someone’s inbox with a bunch of email attachment photos can be a thing of the past, if you post them to a cloud folder and then allow your friends access to that folder.  They can simply view them or download them and, if you allow it, they can add their own photos to that folder.  In another example, people all over the world can make edits and additions to a joint document, with the various versions saved for reference, if you have given them access.  Some cloud services, Google Docs being just one, even allow you to post your data and assign a URL (web address) to it so that anyone who has that  link can click on it and see it instantly.  Anyone with Gmail has automatic access to this service and a pretty decent amount of storage space is free!

 

Do your own research about using the cloud – but be careful.  When we were doing our background reading to prepare for these columns, we found a great number, perhaps the majority, of articles online that were VERY out of date.  Cloud computing, especially for business, has been around for more than a decade but there have been so many updates recently that we are suspicious of information older than a year or so.

Exploring “The Cloud” – Part 1

Posted Sep 25, 2018

What the heck is this Cloud I’m hearing about constantly?  Simply put, the cloud (or more accurately clouds, plural) is an arrangement allowing users to save data in an alternate location via their Internet connection, remote from their own computer disks or systems.  Many large corporations such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and lots more offer cloud storage service.  The typical model is that a certain amount of storage space is free, and users pay incremental amounts if they need more.  After initial setup they are automatic or extremely easy to use.

 

Is data safe on the cloud?  It’s probably much safer than it is on your own computer.  Companies use massive banks of servers, in “farms” scattered throughout the world, to create redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy, thus ensuring data is safe from terrorist attacks, earthquakes, floods, fires and equipment failures.  Let’s put it this way:  The American CIA, which is thought to be pretty hyper about security, has just hired the Amazon cloud for data backup.

 

I don’t think I need such a thing.  Chances are, you are already using cloud storage for parts of your data.  Most people have their email account set up such that messages, contacts and calendars are saved on the servers of their email providers to make them available at second computers, tablets or phones.  If you have signed up for online banking, or an account with any web-based merchant, or do any social networking, then at least small bits of data are already “up there.”   Microsoft Office, and Apple’s Pages are now being sold on a subscription basis rather than the program being installed on your hard disk, and the default setup is for the data you create to be stored on the cloud.  The Chromebook, a budget-priced laptop that we have extolled often in these columns, has such a tiny hard disk that most apps and data are stored externally.

 

There is an unfortunate sinister dimension to some of this.  You may remember scandals of a few years ago, in which compromising photos of many popular personalities, mostly young Hollywood actresses, were published on sleazy websites.  This happened in many cases because these people did not realize that their phones and tablets were automatically set up when they were new, to save photos on iCloud, which is Apple’s cloud storage system.  Photos that were assumed to be private were hacked from iCloud, back in the days when security was not being taken as seriously as it is today. . . a sad lesson on how important it is to understand the workings of a new device.

 

You could avoid the cloud completely if you were prepared to take the time to go very carefully through all of the settings on your computer, tablet and phone to make sure that everything was being saved on that device only.  The trade off would no doubt be a certain inconvenience but if you had decided that only local storage was important, it would be possible to achieve that.

 

Next Entry in Cloud – 2, we will look at the implications of cross-border storage of data, additional concerns, and ways in which a few of those concerns may have been overblown.  In the meantime, you can start your own research on the subject of the cloud by consulting:

An Inside Look at the Microsoft Cloud

 

Ways that You Are Already Using the Cloud (Although You May Not Realize It)

 

More Ways You Are Probably Using the Cloud

Equipment Worth Exploring for Summer

Posted Jun 3, 2018

 

 

This is the season when many people do some travelling or spend a bit of time at a cottage.  Ideally, it would be very nice if that could be a time for getting away from it all but lots of details can conspire to compromise that goal.  Here are a few devices that may be helpful, if you can only get away from some of it.

 

OVER THE AIR TV ANTENNA:  Be honest now; it’s not just the grandchildren who might enjoy a TV fix now and then on a rainy day at the cottage.  If we’re not utter snobs, we might admit to the occasional Blue Jays game, or maybe some pre-season Redblacks.  In a location where cable or satellite service is not available or too expensive, an antenna might do the trick.  Local television stations tend to have their transmission towers clustered in prime locations and it is quite possible that you might find yourself in range and able to bring in as many as twenty channels with surprising quality.  Those of us of a certain age remember “rabbit ears” sitting on top of the TV set and the simplest of the modern equivalents do just that, for less than $50.00.  Even challenging locations (longer distances, or dare we say it – tents, trailers or boats) can be served with external antennas, some with an electric rotor, for less than $100.00.  In fact, lots of urban homes are now making do very well with a combination of an OTA antenna and some Internet TV, instead of cable or satellite.  

 

CELLULAR PHONE SIGNAL BOOSTER:  It might seem ironic that your fancy new smartphone doesn’t have the signal range of the 2-pound “brick” monster of 25 years ago.  When it is necessary to cram a miniscule antenna into the tiny space that is now available and you add to this the fact that the vast majority of cell phones are being used in urban areas with lots of towers, maybe it is not surprising that modern cellular coverage and reliability drop off very quickly on a trip to the country.  Cellular signal boosters don’t perform miracles but under certain conditions they can make a remote location safer or just more convenient.  Our successful experience was with a Yagi (directional) antenna costing less than $100.00 and permanently installed by amateurs at a cottage where cellular coverage was otherwise hopeless.  While this certainly does not qualify as a universal success story it does indicate that this technology has graduated from the gimmick stage where it was only a few years ago.

 

PORTABLE POWER BANK:  We have always been skeptical of the ads that show a tiny battery the size of a paperback jump-starting a pickup truck but the new generation of these rechargeable power packs would certainly be up to the task of keeping a cell phone, GPS or flashlights recharged during a lengthy backpack or canoe back country adventure, especially considering the fact that nowadays many people include such devices under the heading of safety equipment.  Anker is probably the best-known manufacturer of modern rechargers.  The primary consideration in these devices is usually the size-to-power ratio and the commonest compromise is the 20,000mah size which, simply put, is about the size of a big chocolate bar and half the power of a car battery.

 

Read LOTS of reviews before buying, both to avoid worthless junk (of which there is plenty out there) and also to ensure that you have found a device precisely suited to your needs. 

 

On the other hand, maybe you will be one of the lucky ones who won’t need this equipment.  In any case, we hope that you have a terrific holiday season.