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Upcoming EventsWednesday FEBRUARY 18, 2015 Meeting
9:15 AM Set up your computer
9:30 AM Lesson
10:30 AM One on One help
It Takes a Village (of Devices to Meet My Computing Needs)
By Greg Skalka, President, Under the Computer Hood User Group, CA
October 2014 issue, Drive Light www.uchug.org president (at) uchug.org
I’m not sure I agree with all popular applications of the phrase “It takes a village,” but it does seem to me that it now requires the contributions of a number of computing devices to allow me to function successfully in society. Unlike my adult children, I can still remember what life was like in The Time Before Computers. How did we ever survive without the Internet, spreadsheets, email, Facebook, GPS, smart phones and iEverything? Our lives have become filled with the alphabet soup of mp3, pdf, DVD, url, USB, HDMI, PDA and Wi-Fi. The digital electronics revolution we have enjoyed these past 30 years has brought us all this capability, convenience and electronic stuff. It wasn’t always this way.
My first computer was a Timex Sinclair 1000 (ZX81), which cost $99 in the early 1980’s. It was more of a toy than a useful tool. By around 1985 I had bought a real computer, a Zenith Z-157, which was an IBM PC-XT clone, for around $1500. I entered the world of documents and spreadsheets, and later got to use a dial-up modem to connect to bulletin boards. My wife couldn’t really understand the computer, so for a time I was the only user.
As we moved from DOS to more user-friendly operating systems like Windows (3.1, 98 and XP) and the functionality of computers increased (graphics, photos, the Internet), more of the family wanted to join in. Soon my wife had her own computer, then so did the kids, then we had to have laptops, followed by a netbook, then eReaders, tablets and smart phones.
Today my computer “village” consists of 7.1 devices - two desktop computers, three laptops, a PDA, an iPad and part of an iPhone (I count my wife’s iPhone as 0.1 of a device for myself as I only have a dumb phone, but get to take advantage of her phone’s Internet access when we are out together). These are all devices necessary for me to fulfill my computing goals. Some obviously provide unique capabilities that others do not (tablet for portability, desktop for performance), but others are still in use do to legacy issues.
There are some big advantages to having my computer usage spread over a number of devices. There is some redundancy in having multiple devices on which to surf the web or get email. With the increased use of computers in our financial affairs, it is essential to have back-up devices in case your primary bill-paying computer suffers a failure. With multiple devices there is a much better chance of being able to do what you want and successfully run the applications you want. I occasionally will have difficulty getting a particular new program to install and run correctly, or work with a particular peripheral device; sometimes trying it on a different computer makes the difference. Applications can also be distributed among the devices, so you don’t wind up with one computer jam packed with programs (that you can never find the icon for). It can also help solve the problem of some programs seemingly not wanting to be installed with others. Having several platforms to work with can also increase overall usage security, as confidential computing can be segregated to some devices and risky web browsing to others. There is also the obvious advantage of having different devices that are better suited to different tasks (such as smart phones and tablets for mobile use and desktops for writing this column and photo editing). Different operating systems and environments can also provide advantages and optimization of the user experience.
There are also some big drawbacks to spreading your user experience over 7.1 devices. Now I have eight devices to maintain, keep track of, learn and, of course, pay for. It is also more costly in terms of software, as now you likely need to multiple copies of security and office programs. It multiplies the chore of making sure all devices have all their updates, are free of malware and are backed up. It also requires a lot more time to learn new operating systems, and there can be problems moving files between devices when you have spent most of your computing life in only one operating environment.
My oldest villager is my desktop computer, a 2005 Pentium 4 machine I built myself, running Windows XP. It should not be running any more, as I bought a new Windows 7 desktop computer a while ago; I just have not had time to set up the new computer. When I do, I’ll have new office and photo editing software. Until then, this old P4 computer is the only one I have with some of that specialized software. In addition, it has software to support my flatbed scanner, my PDA, my handheld GPS and other old peripheral devices; these likely won’t work with my new computer. I’ll probably spend a lot of time trying to get these old accessory devices to work with my new desktop, and in the end have to either give up on their use or continue to keep this old XP machine running off in a corner somewhere.
It is a similar situation with my old Dell Celeron laptop; it has been replaced by a newer laptop but must be run occasionally to interface with old accessories. In this case, it is one item, an automotive OBDII diagnostic monitor that keep me from retiring the Dell. I’m more hopeful that I can get the OBDII monitor interface software to run under Win7, but until I get around to trying it, I must keep this old XP laptop in the mix. Both of my remaining XP computers require special care to keep them safe and secure. Right now I keep them off my home network, transferring files between them and my networked computers with a USB Flash drive.
I’ve had my Pharos GPS PDA / Pocket PC for over six years. It keeps my personal calendar of activities, something my brain stopped being able to fully handle some time ago. Before I got my PDA, I used those DayTimer organizer notebooks. I love that I can sync my PDA to Outlook and write Word documents (it runs a Pocket PC version of Windows). Unfortunately, my old P4 desktop is the only PC I have running now with Outlook. I have a pro version of Office (containing Outlook) ready for my new desktop computer, but I fear the Microsoft ActiveSync program for the PDA may not run under Win7. I don’t know what I will do when my PDA dies or I lose it, as I use it almost every day without fail. PDAs are now extinct in the wild, so I’ll probably have to put my calendar on a smart phone. Until that day, I’m happy that my personal activities are safely not in a cloud or in view of Apple or Google or some cell phone service provider.
When it came time to start replacing our old XP computers with Windows 7 machines, I let my wife get the first upgrade. I say I did that because I’m a nice husband; for a time her new Acer desktop PC was the most powerful computer in the house. A cynic might suggest that I let my wife be the Win7 guinea pig, so I could learn the new OS off-line from my normal computing activities. In any case, she did then have the best computer in the house, so I sped up a presentation project by installing slide show software on her PC. It is still the go-to computer for slide shows. We also bought a household receipt scanner and software for my wife and me to share, so naturally it got installed on her desktop PC.
After my wife had a bad time with our pathetic netbook on her first business trip, I bought her a Fujitsu 17” Win7 laptop. She now had the two most powerful computers in the house. She didn’t use it much at home so it was available to me. I used it to file our taxes with TurboTax and connect to video capture hardware. When my wife gave me a Panasonic HD video camera, I installed the video download and editing software on her laptop. It is still the primary computer for those functions.
I prefer a smaller, more portable laptop, so after seeing how much they had come down in price, I bought myself a Fujitsu 14” Win7 notebook PC. When my proprietary email client became corrupted on my P4 desktop, I switched to Thunderbird on my new laptop. It is now my primary computer, but I have held back from installing a lot on it, knowing that I will be replacing my desktop PC.
I bought myself a cheap ($70) Android tablet to see what all the fuss was about, but found it was very short on power and capabilities. While it could kick my old Z-157’s sorry old silicon behind at about 1/20th the price, it really didn’t render web pages very well. I got lucky and won an iPad Mini in a contest, and found it far superior at web access. I always take it traveling as it is a great little portable device for getting on the Internet, but I’ve not done much else with it. Now that my wife has an iPhone, along with an expensive data plan, I’m looking forward to getting instant web information when we are traveling. Unfortunately, I don’t have the coin for one of my own.
With my village of devices, I’m able to do almost anything I need to do in the world of computers, at least in theory. It is a lot of work keeping everything running and communicating, so I’m working on consolidating my village and eliminating the older villagers. Still, with the advantages that different devices bring to the user experience, I’m sure I’ll continue to rely on a small hamlet of devices for my computing needs.
Amazon Prime Streaming Media Takes on Netflix
by Ira Wilsker
As I type this, the extremely popular streaming media company Netflix is operating in over 40 countries, and has in excess of 50 million paid subscribers. Originally known for its mail based DVD rental service, Netflix is currently the world leader in streaming media subscriptions. Once thought of in monopoly terms, Netflix is now facing serious competition from a multitude of sources including the online retailer Overstock.com, retailing megalith WalMart, and the marketing powerhouse of Amazon. While the lesser streaming media competitors (if anyone could ever consider Walmart a "lesser competitor") have barely dented Netflix' dominance in the streaming media market, Amazon's growth as a direct competitor has been explosive.
According to Rich Tullo, the Director of Research for the old line Wall Street firm of Albert Fried & Company, "It looks to me like they are very close to or preparing to approach 45 million U.S. [and UK] subs by the end of 2015. They could be pretty close to it now." ... I think they're probably really close to Netflix in terms of U.S. subs." According to Tullo, " (Amazon) Prime subscribers are attracted to both the instant video content and the free two-day shipping, not one or the other. Once they see the platform, I think they like it," Tullo said of those who accepted a trial offer. "I like it, it's easy to use, and it's got a full content offering. It's very synergistic with their (Amazon's) business."
While most readers of this column are at least somewhat familiar with Amazon's Prime services, many are not probably aware of the breadth and depth of the Prime offerings currently available for a $99 annual membership. Subscription discounts are available to students with an "edu" email address, new mothers (Amazon is the largest seller of diapers in the US), Prime subscriptions given as a gift, new Prime subscribers may qualify for a discount, and Prime may be available as a free affinity benefit from some of the premium credit card companies. One-time free trials of Prime are also available from Amazon. While Netflix at about $8 per month predominately provides the benefits of "SVOD" (Streaming Video on Demand), Amazon provides somewhat competitive streaming media, as well as many additional benefits not available to Netflix subscribers. The list of Amazon Prime benefits are extensive and includes free two-day shipping on most items sold by Amazon; Prime Instant Video, which includes over 40,000 titles of unlimited streaming of movies and TV; Prime Music, which includes unlimited, ad-free access to hundreds of Prime Playlists and more than a million songs for members; Prime Photos, secure unlimited photo storage on the Amazon Cloud Drive; Prime Pantry where members can purchase low priced grocery, household, and pet care items for a flat delivery fee of $5.99 for each Prime Pantry box; Prime Early Access, where bargain hunters can get 30 minute early access to select Lightning Deals on Amazon; Kindle Owners' Lending Library where Prime members can borrow for free many of the otherwise paid Kindle e-books; Kindle First, where members can download a new book for free every month from the Kindle First picks; Membership Sharing, where Prime members may invite up to four eligible household members living at the same address to enjoy the shipping benefits of a Prime membership at no extra cost.
While the majority of Amazon Prime members apparently join to get the free two day shipping benefits, the other major reason why (according to Tullo) Amazon Prime has tripled its membership in the last couple of years is its rapidly expanding library of streaming media. According to Amazon, "Prime members can watch thousands of movies and TV shows at no additional cost. ... You can instantly stream Prime Instant Video titles from your computer's web browser, Fire phone, Fire TV, Fire Tablets, iOS devices, Android phones, and hundreds of other Internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, set-top-boxes, and gaming consoles." In addition to its paid Prime subscribers, Amazon also makes the streaming media available for free to those with a 30 day trial of Amazon Prime or Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Amazon's current collection of movies and TV shows is smaller than that of Netflix, but Amazon is constantly increasing its selection of available media, with the clear intent of going head to head with Netflix. Amazon also offers one of the largest collections of streaming music in the industry, with millions of titles available for free to subscribers. In addition to licensing content from the Hollywood movie houses and national and international TV networks, Amazon also had a massive collection of movies, shows, and series created by the pay-per-view and subscription media companies, such as HBO. Amazon, like Netflix, has started to finance the production of quality media and movies exclusively for its subscribers. According to a January 14 article published by MSN, "In Amazon, Netflix battle, consumer is the winner", by Therese Poletti of Market Watch, "The video-streaming battle between Netflix and Amazon.com Inc. is intensifying, as both companies seek to become more like Hollywood producers, with Amazon upping the stakes this week in a big content deal. Amazon, fresh off two awards at the Golden Globes for its new show “Transparent,” announced a deal on Tuesday with filmmaker Woody Allen to write and direct his first television series." In an article by the Motley Fool, dated January 31, "Amazon announced plans to launch a dozen original movies starting this year."
In addition to original movies, Amazon is also actively producing a large collection of new series, ten of which the pilots have been completed and are currently available to Amazon Prime and Prime Instant Video subscribers to view and evaluate. The ten recently released pilots, joining the stable of already released series, include several animated series for children (Buddy, Tech Detective; Sarah Solves It, and the Stinky and Dirty Show), a fully acted children's series (Just Old Magic), and several comedy, action and drama series including The New Yorker Presents, Point of Honor, Man in the High Castle, Cocked, and Mad Dogs. Amazon Studios Vice President Roy Price is quoted on Amazon.com as saying, "Our first pilot season of 2015 brings some of the greatest storytellers in the business to Amazon customers with works of novelty and passion. We're very excited by the shows and look forward to getting customers' reactions." I recently viewed "Cocked", and found it totally entertaining and well done from an artistic view. Many other viewers of "Cocked" have had the same impression, as 1535 reviews of "Cocked" have been posted on Amazon, with 922 reviewers giving it 5 stars, and 352 giving it 4 stars, with the remaining 231 giving it lower scores, with an overall average of 4.3 out of 5 stars. I agree with the consensus of many of the reviewers who stated that "Cocked" included a good blend of both humor and drama.
In terms of accessibility, the Amazon Prime streaming media, including the videos and the million-plus streaming music titles, are available on almost all internet connected devices, including computers, tablets, Amazon's Fire devices Apple and Android powered devices, set top streaming media boxes and sticks, and gaming consoles. Personally, I have watched a reasonable selection of Amazon's "SVOD" (Streaming Video on Demand) directly on my desktop computer browser (mostly Firefox), my Android smart phone, and on my primary flat screen TV. On my smart phone I use the basic Amazon app to access my prime account, and then click on the menu icon on the top left corner of the screen to select the desired media types, and then choose the specific music or videos that I want. Any movies or TV shows with the "Prime" logo across their top left corner are available to Prime subscribers for free, while some of the new releases under the "Shop" categories, without displaying the Prime logo, are available for sale or rental. On my primary flat screen TV, I use an inexpensive but powerful Amazon Fire TV Stick, which plugs directly into an available HDMI port, to access the extensive Prime libraries, as well as content from several other streaming services. In my experience, the extensive collection of over 40,000 free movies and TV shows, as well as over a million free music titles was totally adequate for my needs.
While the streaming media and delivery services such as Netflix helped lead to the demise of much of the DVD rental industry, such as disappearance of Blockbuster, the current technology of widely available broadband internet along with the reasonably priced "SVOD" (Streaming Media on Demand) services, consumers have several good choices for digital entertainment. I have to agree with Therese Poletti, in her January 14 MSN story, "In Amazon, Netflix battle, consumer is the winner". We all benefit from competition between strong competitors. Watch for even more upcoming enhancements from Amazon and Netflix, as they battle with each other for market share. Just as Netflix appeared from nowhere and defeated Blockbuster, and Amazon is now taking on Netflix, do not count out the upstart competitive services from Walmart, Overstock.com, Hulu Plus, and other services. We really do live in interesting times.
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