Google Home Device

“Google Home” at home in Greymouth

Google Home Device
It’s small but sounds surprisingly good

Google Home devices don’t seem to have arrived in many homes in Greymouth and its surrounds yet.

Well – Perhaps you are curious about them?

I purchased mine a couple of months back from the New Zealand Dick Smith Electronics site.  They currently sell for $179. Mine took about two weeks to be delivered from Australia. Since it arrived, I have used it every day. The Google Home device is basically a wireless microphone and speaker that is hooked up to your home network and Google.  You ask Google questions, or make requests, and Google responds helpfully – well… most of the time.

Russell:

“Hey Google – Good morning!”

Google Home:

“Good morning Russell – It is 7.13am. Right now it is 10 degrees and cloudy. The forecast today for Greymouth is a high of 15 degrees and sunny. Your commute to work is approximately 8 minutes with traffic slower than normal.”

Google then announces a list of my personal appointments for the day, and any reminders that have been set. After this, Google Home goes on to play the news from the sources that I have set. (NPR Technology news, Followed by the BBC World News.) And finally concludes with “That’s all for now – Have a nice day!”

I like that! This is an effortless way to start the day as I make my coffee and toast my four slices of Vogels Bread. After Google Home has finished wishing me a nice day, I often follow-up with, “Hey Google – Play Radio New Zealand” The device will then play Radio New Zealand National without static or interference and with a greater level of bass than can be achieved on our little transistor radio.

Later in the evening when preparing tea, it might be: “Hey Google – Play songs by the Andrew London Trio” (Google responds by playing these songs from Google Play, YouTube, or Spotify etc… depending on the services that you have access to.

For me, these are the most used features, but there are countless others….

“Hey Google – Whats the time now in Mexico City?”

“Hey Google – Play the latest BBC Comedy of the week podcast”

or “Hey Google – Play the latest BBC Comedy of the week podcast on the lounge speakers”  and google will kindly redirect the podcast to our better speakers in the lounge. Google can even send different things to diffeent speakes around the house.

“Hey Google – Cast the This Week in Tech podcast by Leo LaPorte to the TV” (This results in the TV switching on and showing me the video podcast that I have requested – This requires a chromecast device.)

Jason Hiner, Leo Laporte, Florence Ion, and Alex Wilhelm

“Hey Google – Tell me a joke!” (The response will be a great ‘dad’ joke)

“Hey Google – How do I say ‘excuse me’ in Spanish?

“Hey Google – What is the tallest building in the world”

Ok – I hope you get the idea. The Google Home is known as a Smart Assistant. It is currently officially supported in Australia, but not in New Zealand.  In addition top the features above, it can also be used to interact with smart devices in your home. For example, if you buy wifi LED light bulbs you can then turn your lights on or off with your voice.. or adjust their hue or brightness … or whatever smart features they may have.

There are definite limitations on the device in New Zealand… You can’t make free calls to your mates with Google Home devices, the news services on offer don’t include New Zealand ones, and many New Zealand smart devices may not be supported – even if the same device would work in the US.

There are many more possibilities that I haven’t really had the time to take a look at yet, and new features are being added all the time. I hope that it won’t be long until Google provides official customisation for New Zealand.

In spite of the limitations, my Google Home device is here to stay. It is much more than a gimmick. It is a truly useful hands-free device. I’m sure that is will be especially be well-loved by busy parents who are hands-on with babies, or anyone who still has to prepare their meals, or wash their dishes by hand.

“Hey Google… whats 450 degrees Fahrenheit in degrees Celsius?”

“Hey Google… Play me some “Happy kitchen music”

“Hey Google… Play a lullaby”

“Hey Google… Have I finished this blog post yet?”      Google: “I’m sorry I don’t understand.”

My Star Rating? 5/5 Sell some old books and use the proceeds to buy one!

Comments: You will need a broadband service and home wifi to use it. A smartphone app is used to configure it (ios or android). A Google Chromecast device is needed to link it to your TV.

IT Helper - Old PC Picture

New Computer buying tips!

Think you need a new computer? Don’t ever ‘impulse buy’ a new computer. Read my ‘6 tips’ guide before you decide on the computer that you want to buy.

Tip 1 – Is your ‘old’ computer really too old? Perhaps it just needs a refresh!

IT Helper - New Computer or Old Computer?
Too old?

Two of my clients have recently bought a new computer to replace their ‘old’ model, but it turns out that the old PCs were better than the new! The real problem was just that their old computers needed refreshing. I’m really saddened when I see someone waste money on a new computer that isn’t even as good as their old one.  (They lose out, the technician loses out, and the environment loses out!)

There are lots of shiny new computers in retailers stores that are actually very old (or cheap) technology that will not provide a good experience for the buyer. So these two clients paid around $1,000 for computers that were significantly worse than their existing ones and weren’t needed!

Do you remember how fast your computer was when it was shiny and new?  It can usually be that fast again if someone takes the time to refresh the operating system and software. If you don’t know how to refresh and tweak your older computer, then consider having a friend or a technician take a look at it for you. (Pay your friend with some kindness however… if you want to keep them as a friend!)

A small upgrade may even make your computer much faster than it ever was. Try this test, when the computer is running slowly… Press the Ctrl, Alt and Del keys together to bring up the task manager. Take a look at the percentages of capacity that your Hard Disk, RAM, and CPU are running at. If the Hard Disk percentage is running at 100% then a relatively inexpensive upgrade to a SSD (Solid state drive) could transform the speed of your computer. Likewise if the RAM is around 100% then you could consider an inexpensive RAM upgrade. If the CPU is at 100% then it may well be time to change your computer, but still try refreshing it first.)

Tip 2 -Don’t skip the first tip!

That’s all I need to say.

Tip 3 – Know what you want to do with your computer and write it down.

It is hard for anyone to advise you on a good computer purchase unless you know what you will be wanting to do with it. Computers are used for a huge range of tasks, and different tasks make different demands of the computer.  There are several key considerations at this point…

CPU (Processor) speed: A slow processor will cause you grief if you want to perform tasks such as video editing and conversion, or if you want to explore computer aided design and 3-d modelling etc. A good site to compare CPU capabilities is PassMark.  Compare the processors of computers that you are considering buying and your existing PC. You may be surprised. (The two clients I referred to earlier found that the processor in their new PC was about half as good as the one in their old PC)

Graphics card: Most computers have a graphics card that will suit everyday tasks. But if you want to explore the latest computer games, or the world of 3D, then your choice of graphics card will be very important, and you should choose very carefully.

Disk Drive capacity: If you plan to store vast music or video libraries then you will need to have a high capacity hard drive available on your computer, or on your home network. (Take a look at your current hard drive usage, and then forecast how much more capacity you may need in the near future.)

Disk Drive speed: The disk drive is often the bottle-neck that slows down the performance of your computer. If you are buying a new computer, try to get one with a Solid State Drive that is big enough for your requirements. (In a desktop model, you might use a SSD for the Operating system and a traditional hard drive for storing data.)  SSDs are many times faster than traditional hard drives.

RAM: Too little RAM will slow down your computer. As it is relatively inexpensive these days, you should be able to afford to have plenty. If you are buying a new computer, don’t consider anything less than 8GB. If you plan to do some more heavy duty work with your computer then don’t get less than 16GB.

Screen: Consider how important such factors as size, resoluton, colour, viewing angle, and refresh rate are to you. Refresh rate and resolution are particularly important for gaming. Colour is important for photo and video editing.

Ports: Do you need high speed USB 3 ports? Does the unit have the right type of port to connect your existing screen to? Does it have two video ports to allow you to run a second monitor? Do you have any particular requirements for your existing peripherals?

Tip 4 – Consider the Operating System and Software

You will probably find it easiest to stick with the operating system that you know. While the version of the operating system may change, the overall way it works should be similar. In general, the windows operating system offers the greatest choice of software options. Apple take pride in being the ecosystem that ‘just works’.

Android suits many hand-held devices, and Linux is worth considering if you are a geek, or you if you want to re-purpose your old PC to a particular task such as becoming a media centre. Here in Greymouth, we seem to be lacking Apple technicians, so if you buy an Apple product it will probably need to be sent away for repair.

Don’t rush your software purchases either. There are some amazing options out there, and don’t turn up your nose to free options before checking some of them out. A favourite site of mine for discovering free software options is www.techsupportalert.com.

Tip 5 – Shop around to get value for money

PriceSpy for choosing a new computerI use PriceSpy to help me find the best deal on a new computer.

Second-hand refurbished PCs shouldn’t be overlooked either. (I’m actually a great fan of buying ex-lease business PCs – as they can offer great value for money, and are often of premium quality!)

If you are buying a refurbished PC, then make sure that you buy from a reputable dealer who offers a 3-month (or more) warranty on the device (To allow time to discover any faults), and make sure that the model that you are buying meets all of your requirements, and has good reviews.

Once you have a shortlist of computers to consider, then be sure to compare the reviews of the different models to see if there are any catches relating to any of them.

Tip 6 – Plan for the changeover

Collect together all of your software installers, licence keys, and e-mail account details etc before you make the move to the new computer. It will make the transition much easier.

You can copy all of your data and accounts etc to your new PC from your old PC, but is often much quicker and easier to engage a technician to do this for you. They should be able to locate missing software keys etc, which can save you repurchasing software that you have already purchased but have lost the keys for.

Microsoft Office Alternatives

Microsoft Office alternatives for home users

Microsoft Office Alternatives

 

 

 

 

There are some Microsoft Office alternatives that home users should definitely consider before subscribing to Office 365, or purchasing Microsoft Office outright.

My favourite free Microsoft Office alternatives.

As someone who is always looking to save money, I’ve chosen LibreOffice as the best of the Microsoft Office alternatives for my home use. Putting it simply, LibreOffice does pretty much everything that you are likely to use Microsoft Office for and best of all, it is absolutely FREE; regularly updated; and has no advertisements!

Whether you need to create or read word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, or databases; you can do it in LibreOffice. A particularly nice feature is that you can even set your defaults so that LibreOffice saves spreadsheets, presentations, and word processing documents as their Microsoft Office equivalent, so that when you share these documents with friends or businesses that only have Microsoft Office, they will still be able to open and work with them. Watch the introduction to LibreOffice below:

For some detailed comparisons with Microsoft Office 2016, you can visit this page.

Another free Microsoft Office alternative worth considering is SoftMaker’s FreeOffice 2016: I have not yet reviewed this software, but it is beginning to appear on lists of good free office suites, and you might like to check it out.

WPS Office is mentioned as my best paid alternative (below). There is an adware version of this software that allows you to use it for nothing, but you need to be prepared to endure the advertising.

Free on-line collaborative Microsoft Office alternatives

A proven performer

For a free on-line Microsoft Office alternative, for working collaboratively with others (eg for a club, family, or small organisation) then I would recommend the use of Google Docs. (Offering on-line storage and collaborative editing of documents.. word processing – Docs, spreadsheets – Sheets, presentations – Slides, forms – Forms)  You can read about it and sign up here. Most of our local schools are now using Google Docs with their students – particularly because of the ability to access documents and collaboratively edit them from any web browser. (The free price tag also helps!)

Google Docs won’t be much use to you if you have a slow internet connection though.

An exciting newcomer

An exciting development in the online, collaborative office suite area is Open 365. This is still in Beta development, but you can sign up and try it now. Here is what it’s makes say… “Open365 is the first open source productivity suite in the cloud. Powered by open source tools like LibreOffice, Kontact, Seafile or Jitsi, it delivers the full cloud experience 100% open source. Create and edit files. Share files with your team mates. Communicate with them, and using Open365 android app, sync your files with the cloud.” The suite currently includes the key applications of Libre Office (above) as well as cloud storage, a capable photo editor, and an e-mail client.  Because it is still in beta development, you can expect some issues with this suite at this time.. but keep an eye on it!

 

Best paid Microsoft Office alternatives for the home user

The only office suite that I would personally consider buying as a home user is WPS Office 2016.

WPS Office is actually free for home and school users if you are willing to put up with the occasional advert whenever you want to use an ‘advanced’ feature… but I would soon tire of that. (But this is a great opportunity to try before you buy!) If you like what you see, then US$50 will buy you a lifetime licence. (or you can subscribe by the month or year if you prefer)

You can download the free edition here. (And upgrade it to the advert-free version later if you like it.)

 

Want to read more?

Wikipedia has lots of information if you can handle it!

Any feedback on this post? Please add your comment!

 

Secure Passwords

The IT Helper Guide to Better Passwords

An average computer user in 2016, reportedly requires around 25 unique passwords to access online sites they are registered with.

That surprises me, because I seem to have amassed over 150!

Passwords are a necessary evil, that for the time being at least, we have to put up with. So what is the best way of managing them all?

An appealing way to manage passwords is to use the same password for all sites and make it easy to remember. Something like “My Password”, or your pet’s name, or your partner’s middle name.

You do know that this is NOT OK don’t you?

This is a bad approach for a couple of key reasons:

  1. The password is very easy to crack. If a criminal can’t just guess it in a couple of minutes, then their computer will easily be able to it in that much time!
  2. If a website is hacked, and the password details are discovered, then a criminal will find it easy to access to any site that you use.
Remember your secure password.
Is your password easy to remember?

So what makes a “safe” password?

A safe (or strong) password is one that combines a combination of letters (Upper and lower case), numbers, and special characters and is a minimum of 12 characters in length. (For high security sites you really should use at least 14 characters.) A good password might look something like:

8RThE*(lPe)i_

A password like this is very unlikely to be guessed as it looks pretty random and complex. It would also take a computer a long time to crack as it doesn’t rely on dictionary words, or simple variations on them, and is 12 characters long.

But, how do you remember such a password? Do you save it in a “Passwords” file on your computer? Do you write it in a little book? Or do you use a memory aid? Take a closer look at the above password. Here is how I chose it…

  1. I looked at my domain name: “ithelper”
  2. I swapped every second letter to an upper case
  3. I swapped the first and last letters
  4. I countered the total number of letters and entered the digit in front of my rearranged letters – 8 in all.
  5. Finally, I inserted special characters after every vowel – starting with the special character corresponding to the ‘8’ key and working along the row (putting two characters after any upper case vowel.)

It is a reasonably safe password to use (except that I have just shared it, and the method that I have used to create it!) Creating passwords using a consistent complex algorithm can be a good way of ensuring that you can always remember (rediscover) your password if you ever lose it or forget it, but who wants to be performing mental gymnastics like that every time you need to use your password!

If you write a password down, you expose yourself to the risk of someone finding it, or yourself losing it.

So what is a safe and easy way to manage passwords?

Safe & Easy Password Handling

To manage passwords safely..

  1. Every password should be unique
  2. Every password should be complex (At least 12 characters long, and using letters of both cases, symbols, and digits.) Note: Some sites don’t allow this many characters in their password, or may not allow all symbols.
  3. No password should be written down or saved in a computer file that someone else might access, or you might lose

To manage passwords easily..

There is really only one safe and easy way to manage your passwords, and that is to use password management software. A good password manager uses high grade encryption to keep your passwords safe. The passwords in a password manager can only be unlocked by a single encryption key that is not stored on the computer, or in a notebook, but is committed to your memory. You need just one password to access all of the unique passwords that you have created.

What are the main capabilities of a password manager?

A GOOD password manager will do the following for you:
1. It will create random, unique, and strong passwords for every site you visit that needs a password.
2. It saves your user name and password in an encrypted (encoded) form, that is useless to anyone who discovers it, without knowing your personal password key.
3. It can present those passwords for you either automatically, or on request, when you revisit a site that needs you to log in.

If you only have one type of device that you need to use a password manager on, then I would recommend the use of LastPass Free. Download it here: LastPass Free

A REALLY GOOD password manager will do all of the above, and on top of that, it will store the encrypted data in the cloud, so that you can access it using a password manager on any device that you own or use. (eg Home PC, Work PC, tablet, ipad, and android phone (So you don’t have to enter data into the software on each device separately.) So if you are after a REALLY GOOD password manager that will work across all of your devices, then I recommend the one that I have been using for the past four years. It just keeps getting better, and will cost you just US$12.00 per year to use it across all of your devices) My Password Manager of choice is LastPass Premium. Download a trial version here: LastPass Premium (There is no need to start paying anything while you are testing the software.)

And if you have a business where you want to provide passwords to various staff in the organisation then you really should look at LastPass Enterprise. Download a trial version here: LastPass Enterprise

I’m sure that you will be pleased to discover the joy of just needing one secure password to access them all! That’s why LastPass claim that it is the Last Password that you will ever need.. (Do remember to make your master password a good secure one that you can easily remember though…. You have been warned!)

But wait… There is more! (Just like in the TV adverts!)

LastPass can also store all of your address and credit card details etc securely. You can then use LastPass to help you automatically fill in your customer details on online shopping sites.

So go ahead, download in the next 30 minutes and you will get a free set of steak knives!

(Just Kidding!)

But there is one more thing….Don’t forget to use LastPass to securely store your other important details like passport numbers, bank account details, software keys etc. It is more than just a really good password manager. It is a secure vault for all of your important details. For all of this convenience, I think it is well worth spending just US$12.00 per year.

Take a little time to download and trial a really good password manager and make your online life a whole lot easier. No more need to feel guilty about insecure passwords!  That download link again: LastPass

Share your thoughts on your LastPass trial below. And if you have any trouble getting acquainted with LastPass, be sure to post your questions for me to answer for you.  After all, IT Helper wants to make your on-line life easier!

  • The cartoon on this page is used by permission. You can find it here. The Flickr User is: Husin.Sani The Creative Commons licence can be found here. I wish to express my thanks to the creator of this cartoon.

Back-up options: What price for peace of mind?

Greymouth: Answer this question honestly!

[socialpoll id=”2377345″]

Hmm.. How did you fare?  Back-up not up to scratch? I’m guessing that most of us are ashamed to admit that we really aren’t prepared for a data disaster.

This week I address some of your options to improve on your existing back-up system.  I welcome feedback too on anything I say. You may have some suggestions to make too.

Set and forget! (For full peace of mind)

If you or your business depend on your data, or if you simply cannot afford to lose your files then you must have completely reliable back-up in place. So long as you have a broad-band plan in place, then my current recommendation would be to go with Backblaze Online Back-up.  This currently costs US$5.00/month or US$50.00 per year (About NZ$70.00/year) Backblaze can give you complete peace of mind that all of your files are backed-up in the cloud immediately and securely. You can even back-up any attached external drive. (Which in my case holds 3TB of data) These days, we really need to think of on-line back-up as an essential (and now affordable) insurance policy for many of us.  Interested in trying it out free? You can sign up for a 15 day free trial here.  You can see how it stacks up against other cloud back-up services here.

Local back-up (If you really cannot afford $70/year, or your internet plan has very limited data etc)

Local back-up is a second-best option in my view. The main reason for this, is that we aren’t data specialists and don’t devote ourselves to daily checking that everything is working!  It is also true that the disaster that results in us losing the data in the first place may also take the local back-up. (Eg A house fire, flood, or theft) For local back-up I would recommend either using the built-in Windows back-up or even better, a free back-up software AOMEI Backupper. You can visit the AOMEI site and download backup software. (Just remember that this is a secon-best option to online back-up in my view.)

AOMEI Backupper allows you to back-up your whole operating system and data files to a second internal hard disks, external hard disks, solid-state drives (SSD), USB flash drives, Thumb Drives, Network-attached storage (NAS), Hardware RAID, Dynamic Disk and Virtual machine systems, etc. It has an amazing range of back-up options for you to choose from, and can even be used to transfer all of your computer’s contents to a different PC.

Local back-up still has its costs. If you want the back-up to be live, then you will need to have another drive running all the time that your computer is running. That will cost money for the drive, and money for the electricity to keep it running. (You can of course just schedule a weekly back-up if you really can afford to lose up to a week’s worth of files…. but then you have to remember to make sure that it doesn’t get forgotten, or unplugged etc.)

Hybrid Back-up (Local and “Free” on-line)

Until recently, I have adopted this ‘patchy’ approach.  I back-up all of my photos to a Flickr Account (I have 18,035 photos stored there today) Flickr is completely free to use, and is a great way to share your photos with your friends, or publicly. (You can even edit your photos there) My music is all backed up to Google Play Music (Free if you have an Android device.)

Now, having gotten all of those files out of the way, you might choose to make a disk image back-up of you computer using AOMEI Backupper (Above). (So you can easily restore your computer if you need to) You document files can be added to this image periodically, or you could elect to store all of your documents in the cloud using the free Google Drive or Microsoft One Drive cloud services.

Whatever you decide to do…..!

  • Don’t delay! – Do it now, while it is fresh in your mind.. before it is too late!
  • Stick to a simple system! (If it isn’t simple, it is unlikely to happen.)

I welcome your feedback on this post!

Disclosure Statement: Regarding Backblaze online back-up. I have selected this service because I genuinely think it provides the best value for money of the mainline back-up companies. As a Backblaze affiliate,  I stand to profit $5.00 for any reader who follows the link on this page and signs up for a paid account within 30 days. (Assuming that at least 20 readers actually do so!)

 hard disk drive crashes require you to have a back-up plan.

Don't Tell IT Helper, Greymouth

IT Helper has begun. (Shhh its a secret!)

IT Helper is the new ‘kid’ on the block for friendly, mobile computer servicing in Greymouth. I’m just getting started at present and am in the process of sorting out my equipment and stock and website etc, and am quietly picking up the odd customer here and there through word of mouth. This suits me, as I don’t want to be rushed off my feet before all systems are go!

Through this part-time business, I’m aiming to provide a convenient, friendly, mobile service for Greymouth people who need a bit of a hand with their computer, or perhaps more general IT advice or tuition. Services offered include such things as:

  • a tune-up for your pc
  • transferring your software and settings to your new pc or tablet
  • help with setting up google or microsoft acccounts and apps etc
  • diagnosing and solving software or hardware problems
  • basic skills training to help you find your way around your computer, or particular software
  • advice on computer purhasing decisions etc
  • even re-tuning your TV receiver for the latest freeview channels etc

It can be hard to decide what to buy these days. A brand new laptop might not be any more powerful than a three year old one etc! I’m happy to assist you with independent advice on a good device to buy, and good software to download or purchase too.  Spending a little on some independent advice up-front, might potentially save you a lot of heart-ache, and potentially, a lot of money.

In coming weeks, I’ll be establishing a regular blog post and a subscription e-mail newsletter that will provide regular free and helpful computer and IT tips. (Watch out for a “Newsletter” tab appearing on my website. You will be able to subscribe to it there.)

So… If you have just discovered this post, please don’t rush off and tell all your friends…. or I’ll get busy too quickly!  Oh… OK.. You can tell ONE friend if you like!

Russell Nimmo (IT Helper)