Category Archives: Guides

Is Chromecast the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread?

chromecastBack in July, Google announced the release of Chromecast — its latest pride and joy to come from the billion-dollar idea factory. The device, which is only about two inches long, works to stream video (or simply screens) from a computer, tablet, or phone, onto one’s TV. Basically, any television with an HDMI port can magically be turned into a smart TV of sorts. Easy, right? And unlike some of Google’s other releases, this one is surprisingly affordable. No subscription or ongoing fees — just a flat $35 to enjoy Chromecast for as many hours as the device will last.

The Setup

Chromcast can be purchased at any local electronics store or even Amazon. Then all that’s required is to plug in the device, and set up the streaming medium from a website Google automatically displays on the TV. Once in place, users click a box in the top right-hand corner of the screen (the “cast” button), and can start viewing. Remember that YouTube video you wanted to show to an entire room of people? Size is no longer a limitation. Or when ready to view Hulu Plus’s “computer only” content, you now have the upper hand.

Other Perks

  • Users can give their Chromecast a customized name.
  • Though Chromecast is optimized for specific websites (like YouTube), any content can still be shown through tab mirroring.
  • Content is streamed via the cloud, not from the device itself, so users are free to use the computer, tablet, or phone, for other tasks without interrupting their program.
  • Chromecast can be setup for multiple devices at once — use whichever one’s the closest.

This brings us to the next question: How did we ever live without it? Seriously, think of all the online TV, movies, and clips we could have been watching. If Google has anything to say about it, we’ll no longer need cable subscriptions, and rather just a strong Internet connection and a fully charged computer.

Of course, there are a few flaws with the device. For instance, software developments are still being updated, and Chromecast isn’t compatible with older iOS or Windows versions. Plus, videos stream as they appear on the computer. On HDTVs, that means less than crisp quality, but considering all the perks, a slightly grainy picture seems like a small price to pay.

Build it on a budget: A $500 workhorse PC

You may remember well over a year ago when we first introduced a budget build guide for DIY PC builders, and it’s long overdue for a refresh. Computer components have come a long way since then, and Intel recently launched their new 4th-generation Core Haswell chips.

As I mentioned in last year’s guide, not everyone needs an end-all tricked out custom PC with water cooling and all the bells and whistles. You most likely just want a computer that can get work done. This budget system will be great for most everyday tasks, as well as more slightly intensive activities like some gaming, streaming movies and music, and editing photos and home movies.

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This budget build assumes that you already have a mouse, keyboard, and a monitor lying around to use with your new system, and that you’ll only need the basic components to get up and running. I’ll also only be listing off my recommended parts, so if you don’t know how to build a computer but want to learn, Lifehacker has a great guide that’s perfect for the computer-building novice. With that said, let’s get to it.

Case and PSU

Thermaltake V3 Black Edition ATX Mid-Tower with 430W Power Supply – $60

We decided to go a bit more expensive with the case and power supply bundle this time around, and we think the upgrade is worth it. The Thermaltake case is way better looking than the Rosewell that we chose last time, and the 430W power supply should be more than enough to handle anything with this machine.

Motherboard

MSI B85M-P33 Motherboard – $65

It’s a low-cost motherboard, but it has all the bell and whistles that you’d need; SATA III, USB 3.0, six total USB ports, and both DVI and VGA connectors. Plus, MSI is a good brand that we trust.

Intel_i3_SB_2011Processor

Intel Core i3-4130 3.4GHz Dual-Core Processor – $130

This is Intel’s latest 4th-generation Haswell chip, and with 3.4GHz of dual-coreness, it’ll be speedy enough to breeze through most tasks you throw at it. The 4130 is one of Intel’s slowest Haswell chips, so it certainly won’t be as fast as other options, but for a budget build, this will be pretty solid.

Graphics

Intel HD Graphics 4400

We didn’t include a dedicated graphics card, mostly because we’re trying to keep this build around $500, but the 4400 integrated graphics that come with the Core i3 CPU are actually pretty solid. They won’t be able to play any of the more graphic-intensive AAA titles, but HD video playback will be flawless and casual gamers will still be able to enjoy their selection of games.

RAM

G.Skill Ripjaws Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1600 – $72

While we chose 4GB as the sweet spot with the last time we picked out a budget build, we feel that 8GB is now the new norm. Any more than that would be mostly unnecessary unless you plan on rendering a lot of HD video and such.

Hard Drive

Western Digital WD Blue 1TB SATA III Hard Drive – $75

WDC-Caviar-BlueHard drive prices have gone down tremendously since our last budget build, so we decided to go with a 1TB drive this time around. We feel that this is an ample amount of storage for those who have a lot of photos, music, movies, etc., but it’s also not too much storage that you wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, you can never really have too much storage, so feel free to bump it up to 2TB if need be. You can usually find some pretty good deals on high-capacity hard drives.

Optical Drive

Asus 24x DVD Burner – $20

This one’s pretty simple and easy; find a 24x DVD burner and buy it. They’re stupidly cheap and there’s no reason not to get one.

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium – $100

Yeah, we know that Windows 8 has been out for almost a year, but we’re still sticklers for Windows 7. However, if you really want Windows 8, it’s the same price as its predecessor. You can also get a copy of Linux for free, allowing to spend that saved $100 on upgrading other components.

Total Cost: $522

That final price doesn’t account for shipping, so you’ll want to make sure you set aside some cash for the guys at UPS or FedEx, but if you can find the parts at an online store with free shipping, then all the more power to you.

Obviously, don’t take my word for everything I suggested here. I know everyone has their own opinions on components. If you have any questions about your own budget build, you can leave a comment below or you can visit the many online resources available to you. Tom’s Hardware Forums is just one place that can provide you with a lot helpful feedback.

Image Credit: kodomut

Thinking about getting a standing desk? Here are some tips

You may have heard of a new trend called standing desks. They’re certainly not new by any means – Winston Churchhill used a standing desk, and so did Leonardo da Vinci and Ernest Hemmingway – but they’ve been gaining in popularity recently. It’s becoming more well known that sitting down all day is bad for your health. So bad, in fact, that exercise can’t even negate the effects of sitting all day.

standing-desk

With that said, I probably scared you enough that you’re wanting to give standing desks a try, but where do you start? First off, it’s critical to point out that a proper, professionally-built standing desk can cost well over $1,000, with the cheapest models costing at least $500, so if you’re wanting to get one without spending a lot of money, prepare for the DIY method. Plus, you don’t want to go out right away and spend $1,000 on a standing desk when you’re just wanting to give it a try.

Before you begin

The most important things to remember when trying out standing desks is to ease into it and don’t spend a lot of money. In fact, find a countertop or other standing desk-height surface that you can essentially “practice” on to get a feel for what standing while working feels like. You won’t be spending any money at all, but you’ll still get to see what it’s like — sort of like test-driving a car that you might want to buy.

Once you’ve officially decided that you’re all-in with a standing desk, it’s time to find one to build (that is, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money). Personally, I swear by the sawhorses and door desk, which essentially is just two sawhorses with a door laid across them to make a desk. From there, you can sand down the door, stain, and seal it to make it look nice.

However, there are literally tons of other ways to make a standing desk, and you’ll no doubt find a DIY project that fits your budget and your style. You can make a desk out of various Ikea parts, use metal piping with a piece of butcher block, or just put some paper reams under the legs of a regular desk to make it standing height.

Ergonomics are key

drafting-stoolBefore you measure and cut, though, it’s important to build your standing desk so that it’s ergonomic to your body. Most importantly, the height of your standing desk should be elbow height, so that when you type on your keyboard, your arms bend at a 90-degree angle. Your monitor should also be propped up on a second shelf so that it’s at eye level.

However, before you go standing all day long, it’s important to note that standing all day is just as bad as sitting all day (just with different effects). Standing all day can cause things like varicose veins, so it’s all about moderation; stand for a while and then sit for a little bit. I usually like to stand for a couple of hours and then sit for a half hour or so, and then repeat that until the work day is over. This is where something like a drafting stool can come in handy, but if you get one of those fancy electric standing desks, you can adjust the height easily whenever you want.

It’s all about movement

What if you work in an office that doesn’t allow standing desks? That sounds like a silly question, but many companies like their office buildings to be uniform and everything consistent, including the desks; a standing desk would pop out like a sore thumb in an office building. So, if you can’t get a standing desk, don’t sweat it. One of the main reasons for a standing desk is movement, so if you don’t have a standing desk, just make sure you get up out of your chair every half hour or so and walk around for a few minutes. Standing desks simply get you moving, and you’re a lot more likely to start walking around if you’re already standing up.

Buy and rent videos on Apple TV? Use this tip to save a little cash

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The Apple TV is great; I am a big fan and a happy owner, but until recently, I used to just buy a show or movie on my computer and then watch it on my Apple TV. However, when you buy or rent content on the second or third generation Apple TV, the device automatically assumes you want your video in HD. Not only does it assume you want HD, it doesn’t give you the option to purchase the SD version, which is considerably cheaper.

When you purchase content on your computer, you get the choice of buying/renting either the HD or SD option. Personally, I could care less about HD and would rather buy the SD version to save some money. It might only be a few dollars difference, but it all adds up in the end.

I always thought the only way to get the SD version of a TV show or movie was to go through iTunes on my computer, but I recently discovered a setting on the Apple TV that allows you to purchase SD versions, and it’s quite a simple trick.

First, go into “Settings” on your Apple TV, and then go down to the “iTunes Store”:

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Within that menu is a setting for “Video Resolution”, with three options. If you choose the “Standard Definition” option, every video you purchase through the Apple TV will now be in SD and at SD pricing. If ever want something in HD, though, you can always go back and change the setting to “High Definition”, or buy the HD version through iTunes on your computer first.

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This not only saves you some extra cash, but it also saves you inconvenient trips to your computer everytime you want to purchase a TV show or movie from iTunes. Happy watching!

Pre-ordering digital content: What’s the point?

preorder

If you are an iTunes Store customer, you have probably seen the sections in the store which allows you to pre-order music, books, or movies. I don’t have data to back this up, but I would assume pre-ordering in iTunes is very popular. If it wasn’t I would expect Apple to stop offering that option.

My question to those that pre-order from iTunes and other digital stores is: “Why?” It is not as if the store is going to run out of the file. The content will be available the day of release and five years after the release (unless it is pulled by the store or seller).

Incentives, freebies and deals

There used to be a time when I wouldn’t be writing this article. In the past, I remember iTunes offering special pricing for pre-orders or extra content for pre-orders. If that was still the case, I would understand why one would pre-order digital content – you pay the same, or maybe even less, and get a deal out of it.

However, these deals seem to have disappeared. I haven’t seen a pre-order deal in iTunes in a long time. In fact, I have found it to be cheaper to wait for the physical media release and buy that at a cheaper price than pre-ordering it. On occasion, a DVD movie with the digital version has been the same price as pre-ordering, or just buying, the digital version by itself.

Actual media pre-orders (ie. DVDs, video games, etc.) still have these special offers. Disney, for example, often offers some deal on pre-ordering an upcoming movie release. Game stores often offer some type of deal to pre-order a game for your console. Why can’t digital content do the same?

One acceptable reason to pre-order

The only reason I see for pre-ordering digital content is so that you don’t forget to buy something you really want. Maybe there is a movie coming out in four weeks and you want to buy it. By pre-ordering it in iTunes you can set your computer or device to automatically download pre-ordered content when available. The content gets released and you open the “Videos” app on your iPad and “Surprise!” your new movie is there that you forgot you even ordered it.

This reasoning could also backfire. You pre-order a digital item and then forget you ordered it. Let’s say a music album, for example. You see another digital music provider has a special release-day price to download the album. You buy it there and forget you already bought it from another provider. It automatically downloads for you and you have now bought it twice. Unfortunately, you can’t really return digital content.

Conclusion

Until I see a real reason to pre-order digital content, like the deals mentioned above, I will stick to waiting for release dates and finding release day deals. Speaking of release dates, that is one thing the pre-order list is good for – finding out the release date of that movie, book, or music you want!

Looking for an iTunes store replacement? Check out Amazon MP3

If you use a Mac, iPod, or iPad did you know that the iTunes Store is not the only place you can buy digital music for your device? In fact, Amazon.com has a great MP3 store which will work with those devices in a couple of ways. Basically, if you can get a DRM free music file compatible with iTunes, you can buy your music almost anywhere. This article, however, will be focusing on Amazon.com.

The old way: Download music to iTunes

Until recently, Amazon only had one way to get music onto your devices, which required you to download the music on your computer, then transfer it to your device. To use this method, you can download songs or albums from Amazon.com and using the Amazon MP3 Downloader, which you install on your computer. After the music has been downloaded, it will be instantly sent to iTunes with the names, artwork, etc.

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The new way: Use the Cloud Player App

As I said, this used to be the only way to get these tracks onto your devices. “Used to be” is the key there. Amazon recently released their Cloud Player and a Cloud Player app. The app allows you to have access to all of your purchases for streaming and/or downloading on your device when you log into your Amazon account. The only problem with this is that you can not mix and match tracks from iTunes. If you want to do that you will have to download the tracks to your computer and into iTunes using the downloader tool mentioned above.

Bottom Line: Price

You might be wondering what is the benefit of using Amazon if you have to go through all of this trouble? For me, the benefit is price. There are many time when Amazon will have a cheaper price on an MP3 album than iTunes. In some cases it is a lot cheaper. For me, it is worth the money to buy from Amazon and download the music to iTunes. Once it is in iTunes I don’t notice the difference, or care.

iTunes is great, and I buy most of my music in iTunes. However, it is nice to know there is another option out there for users.

Top five reasons why WordPress is the best “Press”

wordpress-logoWordPress is arguably known as one of the leading content management providers. It’s recognizable, compatible, and free to use – covering all of the online basics and plenty more. But for whatever reason, there are still website owners opting for a buggy competitor, or sticking to basic HTML for their web-viewing needs. As the Internet changes, however, it’s time to stick to a uniform, reliable source, and WordPress fits that bill.

Still on the fence? Check out the top five reasons WordPress is a better website content managing system than your current provider.

5. It’s User Friendly

Whether a beginner or a WordPress expert, the program comes in a simple, easy-to-use package. Updates notify users when they’re necessary, pages are labeled with large tags, and the navigation section provides a descriptive layout of all available actions. New features even come with descriptive tags so users can learn any adjustments with ease. The content management system (CMS) also has a sleek, simplified look so no tasks are bogged down or lost in the action.

4. Free, One-click Upload

When hosting outside of WordPress, the program is as easy to upload as a single click. Even for those without website building experience can do it. Just sign in with your host, upload, and start building pages. As for those who do host with WordPress, the CMS is already available, saving a whole two seconds of work.

3. Unlimited Options with Plugins

Want to upload an RSS feed? A signup box? Social media accounts? A page view counter? There’s a plugin for that … and for hundreds of other add-ins. Just upload and customize to create a completely unique website. Store your content in cloud storage, or stick to design-related features. Best of all, they’re free to use and have the ability to completely makeover a website.

2. Shows Site Data and Traffic

One of the best WordPress abilities is that it compiles and keeps track of all website hits. See where viewers came from (including referrers and keyword searches), how many clicks came in each day, as well as how that compares to the previous month. Over time, charts will show how traffic changes, and how posts affected those differences in numbers.

1. There are Hundreds of Free Resources

Can’t figure something out? Just perform a Google search to see what the experts have to say. Because WordPress is so widely used, there are entire websites dedicated to helping others fix their design, formatting, or other WordPress issues – free of charge. Just ask and search to receive access to thousands of free WordPress CMS tips.

A non-programmer’s first adventure in iOS app development

1024Ever since the App Store opened, I have had the desire to create an iOS app. I have a bunch of ideas, but I am not a programmer and don’t know an ounce of coding needed to make an app. I can make the artwork for an app, but I don’t know what to do with it.

I have tried a few apps that claim to help you make an app with no success. I have successfully completed the generic “Hello World” tutorial that every book seems to have. Speaking of books, I’ve bought a few to try and learn how to use Apple’s Xcode code development software. Never read them. I even tried the Stanford course in iTunes U for developing apps, but I couldn’t understand it.

So, when I recently came up with an idea for an app for my son and decided to attempt to make it myself I had no idea what I was doing. The app was a very simple concept and I was shocked that there is not one like it in the App Store. I figured it is such a simple app I would try to make it myself. How hard could it be?

Actually, it was not as hard as I expected.

Getting started

I wanted to create a simple typing app. It would have a keyboard and an erase button. A child could type and erase what he/she typed. That was it. No ads, no saving, and no printing. I called it “Junior Typer”.

I started by downloading Xcode from the Mac App Store. I installed it and I could figure out the basics of getting the app started. I set it up and then I was presented with the interface. I knew a little about the interface from completing the “Hello World” tutorial, but not as much as I thought. I searched the internet and found a ton of tutorials that gave me enough information to do what I wanted. I built the app and ran it in the iPad simulator. To my shock, it worked!

A few of the sites that helped me out were:

Of course, Apple’s developer forums were a huge help too.

Visual improvements

Now I needed to improve the appearance of my app. I designed artwork for the splash screen, the icons, and the app itself. As I said earlier, that is the easy part for me (I’m an art teacher and freelance illustrator).

I also wanted to do some customization of fonts in the app. After searching for the answer online, I decide to start exploring Xcode. After a while I finally found what I was looking for. I always tell people if you get stuck just start poking around. You usually find what you need and might surprise yourself.

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Submitting to the App Store

Now I had to decide if I want to spend the $100 to join Apple’s developer program and actually submit my app to the App Store. It would be a small – no, tiny – fish in an enormous pond. However, I figured I am not the only parent looking for this type of app. Plus, there is that old saying, “You have to spend money to make money.”

I decided to go for it. A word of warning here: if you are using an Apple ID to sell books through the iBookstore (which I do) you must use a different Apple ID to join the developer program. Since you need an email address for this, you might need to get a new email address too. I learned this the hard way, although Apple quickly helped straighten it out.

Dealing with rejection, and a second attempt

After a week of waiting, the app was rejected for being too simple. Too simple? That was the main feature. I appealed, but my appeal was denied. After a call from Apple and discussing the app with them I went back to the drawing board. I was already working on some new features in case the appeal was denied so I was ready for a new submission.

I was added features to change font color and size, and the ability to change the background color (again with the help of forums and tutorials, although at this point I was starting to learn the basics and gain some footing). I hoped that would be enough and I resubmitted. I am happy to say it was accepted this time and version 1.1 with some graphic modifications is now awaiting approval! It might be approved by the time you read this.

Conclusion

Developing this app was hard work and actually a lot of fun. Getting it accepted was a rush that I am still excited about. I am already planning on trying a second app with my brother. If it is successful you’ll read about it here. In the meantime please check out Junior Typer. It is just $.99 and something I think any child will love.

An introduction to mobile app testing

Testing Apps

By now, it should be evident that smartphones are the next big thing. The explosion of consumer apps can be seen in just about every industry. Location intelligent mobile commerce apps, magazine apps, real-time trading apps, and gaming and social networking apps are just a few of the industry verticals experiencing this shift.

Mobile adoption has been experiencing exponential growth in the last few years and the trend does not seem to be stopping. This means that mobile apps will continue to become ever more critical to the success of businesses and companies. As such, what steps are you taking to prepare yourself for this technological revolution that is already unfolding?

One way to do this is to make sure your mobile apps are optimized and ready to go when users need them.

Apps on Mobile

According to a recent study, 60 percent of mobile users will only give your website or app three seconds to load otherwise they will abandon you. If you thought this was tough, then consider that out of those users, 43 percent do not intend to ever return to your app or site – EVER.  How then can you ensure that your app works the way its supposed to on multiple OS platforms? Should you test in-house or outsource? Can testing increase app store ratings? What are the challenges of app testing?

Lets get some answers to these questions…

Functional Testing

This includes checking the screen real estate, finding device specific bugs, normal use test, and idle run test. Exploring the application in a number of devices will help in locating usability problems. Device specific bugs can be identified as such when they are not reproducible on a desktop browser.

It is also imperative that you test battery usage by running the application 6-12 hours using an automated testing tool.

Usability Testing

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This includes testing the functionality, layout & design, as well as the application interaction flow. This level of testing tries to make sure the user can complete tasks easily and without becoming frustrated.  Usability testing will also include ensure that apps are not crammed with so many features that they leave the users feeling overwhelmed. The goal should be to focus on immersive use that allows users to gain mastery of the content as opposed to quick hits that dilute app usability.

Load, Performance and Localization Testing

Performance issues such as crashes and hangs are common user complaints. These need to be addressed early before consumers divert to competitor apps and services. Your app should also support features unique to specific markets.

We can be sure that mobile apps are not going anywhere anytime soon, which means that when you spend time perfecting your app through testing, you are not losing anything but investing in the future of your company or business.

Echofon for Firefox dies after Twitter API changes – Here’s how to get it back

In case you’ve never heard of it, Echofon for Firefox was an add-on for Firefox that allowed users to interact with Twitter without going to the official Twitter website. Available as a small pop-up window in the browser’s status bar, Echofon was a convenient and minimalist way to compose tweets, replies, and browse Twitter.

The last version of Echofon for Firefox ever released, version 2.5.2.
The last version of Echofon for Firefox ever released, version 2.5.2.

As of October 2012, Echofon for Firefox was officially discontinued by its developers so they could focus on versions of Echofon for mobile platforms (iPad, Android, and iPhone) instead. This wasn’t the end of the world, though, because Echofon would continue working as long as Twitter API 1.0 was still active.

With this foreboding message, Echofon for Firefox stopped receiving updates.
With this foreboding message, Echofon for Firefox stopped receiving updates.

Since this article exists, I think you can guess what the problem is: As of June 12, 2013, Twitter API 1.0 has been officially shut down, which also killed Echofon for thousands of users.

Users were left with this simple message when they opened Firefox today:

Can’t login to Twitter. (410 Gone (account_verify_credentials))

I wouldn’t be writing this article if it was all bad news, so here’s how to keep Echofon for Firefox working after the Twitter API change.

Patched Echofon saves the day for Twitter API 1.1

When I opened Firefox today and noticed that Echofon wasn’t working anymore, I immediately assumed the worst. Doing a quick Twitter search for “echofon firefox” confirmed my suspicions that my beloved extension had officially died.

However, something useful popped up in my search: Apparently, someone had patched Echofon and updated it to use Twitter API 1.1, which replaced the dead API 1.0. Rather than blindly run this updated extension, I took some time to do a file-by-file comparison between the patched version and the official version to make sure nothing nefarious was happening behind-the-scenes.

What I found were fairly minor modifications, and none of them appear to be malicious. Based on my findings, I decided to try the patched version for myself.

(Please note that I am not a computer security expert, so do not take this as a “seal of approval” or anything. Using 3rd-party software of any type, especially patched software, comes with piles of inherent risk.)

The tragic part about Echofon’s demise is that it ultimately comes down to some very simple code modifications:

// const TWITTER_API_URL    = "api.twitter.com/1.0/"; // old and busted
const TWITTER_API_URL    = "api.twitter.com/1.1/"; // new hotness

Without further adieu, here’s how to switch over to the patched version of Echofon.

How to install the patch

  1. Download the patched version of Echofon. The latest version of the patch appears to be “6”.
  2. In Firefox, navigate to your Extensions page. You can find this by navigating to the big Firefox menu, then selecting Add-ons. In the Add-ons window, click Extensions in the sidebar. You can also use the convenient shortcut Ctrl+Shift+A to access this menu.2013-06-12_12h46_53
  3. After navigating to the Extensions tab in the Add-on window, locate a gear icon in the top right corner. Click it and select Install Add-on From File…2013-06-12_12h48_07
  4. Locate the file you downloaded in Step 1 and open it
  5. Restart Firefox

After following those steps, you should see that Echofon for Firefox is again alive and well.

Performing your own analysis

If you want to independently check out what’s been changed in the patched version of this extension, comparing them is actually quite easy. Firefox extensions are packed as a .xpi file, which is actually just a compressed .zip folder. Just rename the file to .zip and you can extract it to your local computer.

By extracting both the patched version and the official version, I was able to use a great tool called Beyond Compare to perform a full directory comparison and analyze the modifications that were made to the extension.

Comparing the contents of the patched extension to the official extension
Comparing the contents of the patched extension to the official extension

Is there any chance of an official updated version for API 1.1?

I’d say it is very unlikely.

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