The internet is overpriced

the internetThe internet is something we all need. It’s our communication, our source of purchasing, browsing, or even our livelihood. No matter what it costs, we’ll continue to pay the fees so we can access all that is the World Wide Web in a convenient manner. Whether through computer, tablet, or smartphone, we are hooked.

But how much money is too much? Are online companies cashing in on our virtual weakness? Knowing that we need this access, they’re jacking up the speeds along with the monthly prices. But how long will we continue to pay?

In an ideal world, Google will have provided free internet to the world. While this may seem far-fetched, it’s a process that’s already begun to take place. (Google Fiber is currently only available in Kansas City, though expansions are in the plan.)

Second best-case scenario, we share internet with our neighbors, splitting the bills. (But in this case, there would be no “peak hours” to slow service down, and routers can reach all corners of the house.)

Finally, we’re left with the status quo: either paying an outrageous monthly fee, or buying a $4 coffee for a day’s worth of service. And while service is expensive either way, there’s much to be said for the convenience of having internet in your own home.

This, however, is where the companies get us good.

“Because they can”

Take a look at your most recent internet bill and its break down of fees. If you have service for a cell phone provider, chances are you’re paying a monthly “service charge” just for owning a hot spot. Averaging $20+ per month, this fee accounts for no actual internet, just the ability to access it. Other companies may charge a rental price for routers, or a maintenance charge – even if you already own the router. Additional fees can occur from overage charges, sign-up fees, cancellations fees, set-up expenses, or even when accessing at the “wrong” time of day.

Rural living generally offers up the most added fees, whether or not the area is hard to access. Because cable access or broadband isn’t readily available, these residents are subject to strict pricing options and fees. For instance, satellite internet allots a certain amount of usage, half of which can only be used during the middle of the night. Unless a night owl, that means you’re paying for twice of what you can reasonably use.

However, until we find a reasonably priced option (come on, Google, dig faster), internet providers will continue to overcharge for their services. And we will continue to pay.

Leo’s Pad: An educational gem for children on iPad

Leo's Pad icon

While there are many educational apps available for the iPad based on kids television shows and movies, there are even more apps that have nothing to do with popular characters. These are the apps that get the most play in my house. However, every now and then an app comes along that has nothing to do with any television or movie characters and my son loves it. Leo’s Pad Appisode 1 by Kidaptive, is one of these games. Not only did my son love it, I loved it too.

While the app is not based on any popular characters, it is like watching an episode of a TV show made exclusively for the iPad. The story follows a young boy named Leo (Leonardo DaVinci) who is making a birthday present for his friend Gally (Galileo Galilei) and taking it to him. Leo also has a little pet dragon who tags along as his sidekick. As the story unfolds there are a variety of activities your child has to complete. These include building the telescope (which is the present), launching and flying Leo on his glider, and more. The activities are fun and educational at the same time. I’d say the entire game took us about ten minutes to complete.

What really sets this apart from other apps I have seen is the graphics, animation, and music. The graphics in the apps are fantastic. The artwork is beautifully rendered and the animation that goes with it is smooth and well done. The music in the app is a nice support to the story and the voice work was great. It truly felt like watching an interactive television show.

Screen shot from the Appisode 1
Screen shot from the Appisode 1

As of right now there are three appisodes in the Leo’s Pad series. Appisode 1 is free at the time of this writing and well worth downloading. Appisode 2 cost $1.99 and is definitely worth it. After finishing Appisode 1 my son was so engrossed in the story that I immediately downloaded Appisode 2, which is equally well done and fun. Appisode 2 continues the story of Leo and Gally with a third friend Marie (Marie Curie). The story leaves off where the first stopped and your child helps the friends build a rocket and go into space. Just like the first appisode, this one is a combination of story and activities that move the story along.

The only disappointing part of the second app is that the third part of the series is not available yet. I would have bought it right away and will be buying it as soon as it hits the app store. If you are a parent of a preschooler this is one app series you don’t want to miss.

Skype is getting worse

“Can you hear me now?

“Is that any better?”

“How about now?”

In recent times, the above three phrases are heard frequently emanating from various rooms in our apartment, where my wife and I both work as full-time freelancers.

Skype is an essential part of both of our respective businesses. We do work for clients in various countries, and being able to interact with them by phone at a low, predictable cost is essential if we are to live and work where we do – in a sunny apartment just minutes from the coast of Portugal’s Algarve.

Skype is, on the face of it, perfect for us. It provides us with London telephone numbers, which shield our physical location and make it inexpensive for UK clients to contact us. Skype also offers a range of all-inclusive call packages allowing us to call clients abroad without bankrupting ourselves.

Skype - Not what is once was?
Skype – Not what is once was?

Or at least that’s the idea.

For reasons unknown to us, the incidence of poor quality Skype calls seems to be on the increase. Now, as a techie, I know that we have a good, fast broadband connection with low latency. I also know that nothing has changed at our end since the days when we could use Skype with only very rare quality problems.

Yet, for some reason, it now seems that (more often than not), people are having trouble hearing us. Usually, this only happens for 10 seconds or so, before a high quality connection returns, but in the meantime we have to go through the whole “can you hear me now?” routine.

When I’m chatting with my mother in the UK, this is acceptable (while still infuriating). After all, I’m able, thanks to Skype, to spend hours talking to her at a very low price. It’s not, however, good enough when working with clients, especially prospective new clients. Sometimes it takes new clients some convincing that our geographical location is irrelevant. If our first few phone conversations keep cutting out, it doesn’t really create a good initial impression.

So, despite a long and happy relationship with Skype, I’ve felt forced to start investigating alternative Voice over IP services, and it’s a shame because when Skype works, it works incredibly well.

Sadly though, until I find a suitable replacement, I’ve had to switch back to a very old-fashioned strategy: If I’m calling an important client, I walk into the study and pick up the landline phone. The bills are unwelcome, but so too would be the loss of a paying customer.

How to stay secure on public Wi-Fi


Credit card numbers? Check. Website logins? Check. “Private” chats between cheating spouses? Double check.

Spend ten minutes in a coffee shop snooping on the “Free Public Wi-Fi!” and you’ll see all these things and more. Airports, libraries, parks? Same situation. Hotels are a little different, though. All the bandwidth is being taken up by people streaming porn, so there’s not much else going on.

Granted, this is the same type of traffic you’d see on a private, secure network, but in that setting you’re probably going to have a little better idea of who you’re sharing the network with and there are controls to keep potential criminals out.

Public Wi-Fi is exactly that, public. You are sharing it with everyone else in the local area, just like Jenny, that nice girl you went to highschool with who just wanted to feel pretty. For someone who’s interested in stealing financial information or identities, it’s an appealing target, mostly because it’s so easy to exploit. I wouldn’t even call it hacking, it’s more “collecting” – monitoring the network for unencrypted information and capturing the info that looks interesting.

Protect your neck

That being said, public Wi-Fi can be relatively safe to use if you take the appropriate steps to secure yourself and use a little common sense.

    • Starbucks is not a good place to balance your checkbook. Context is everything and there are certain places for doing certain things. Doing your online banking on public Wi-Fi is just a bad idea. Even if you’re taking steps to protect your laptop, there are too many factors that are out of your control to justify the risk. Restrict financial and other “sensitive” activities to networks you trust (like the one at your house).
    • Use a VPN service. A VPN (virtual private network) service will protect your internet traffic inside a secure tunnel out to the internet so that someone snooping locally won’t be able to see anything other than you connecting to the VPN service. Good VPNs aren’t free, but if you’re a heavy public Wi-Fi user, the cost is definitely worth the security you gain. I personally use a service called Cloak that works on Mac and iOS devices. If you’re not a super-awesome-Apple-user like me, I’ve also heard good things about StrongVPN.
    • Know what you’re connecting to. Although they can easily be spoofed to match the name of a real Wi-Fi network, it’s important to pay attention to the names of the wireless networks you use. Much in the same way that an e-mail titled “Free Money Waiting For YOU!” is probably spam, a wireless network named “Free Public Wi-Fi” is likely a scam.
    • Look at the physical signage wherever you are visiting. Starbucks uses AT&T to provide their Wi-Fi (It says so on the front door.), so the network there is called “attwifi”, not “starbuks” (The laziness that’s paired to Wi-Fi snooping is often paired with stupid.). Just being on the right public Wi-Fi for the location will keep you more secure. If you’re reading this thinking “Well, Mr. Smartypants, what if someone has exactly mimicked the name and setup of a real network and is performing a man-in-the-middle attack?” – see points 1 & 2.

When in doubt, bail out

Ultimately, if you doubt the safety or validity of a Wi-Fi network, don’t use it. It may come as a surprise to some people, but there are other things to do in public than surf the internet. If you’re presented with obviously unsafe options for wireless, maybe it’s a good time to strike up a conversation with one of the people around you. Read a book. Or maybe you should just sit quietly and contemplate your existence and how to become a better person.

Image Credit: Ed Yourdon

Your iPhone or iPad warranty: check the fine print!

iPhones - Check the warranty small printAt Christmas, I bought my wife an iPhone as a gift.

I live in Portugal, but purchased the device (unlocked and SIM-free) in a London Apple store during a work trip to the UK. There is an Apple store in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, but it is three hours drive from our home, so buying the phone in London made sense. Or so I thought at the time.

Six weeks later, my wife’s iPhone developed a fault. The backlight decided to periodically die, for anything from two minutes to several hours. Despite trying all manner of resets and other things the problem persisted.

We therefore began to look at our options to get the phone fixed or replaced. Had we been in the UK, I would have simply taken it to the store, where I am confident it would have been replaced with no argument. But with no plans to visit the UK in the immediate future, I looked online for details of the warranty, and was quickly dismayed to find out the following “important restriction”:

Apple may restrict warranty service for iPhone and iPad to the country where Apple or its Authorized Distributors originally sold the Apple Product.

Now, this was an unpleasant surprise. If I lived anywhere Lisbon, I would have been happy to visit the Apple store there and argue my case, but as I previously mentioned, we live three hours away. The return cost of petrol, tolls and parking runs to about €150. Add in a day’s loss of earnings, and we reach a sum in excess of the cost of Apple’s flagship phone.

Of course, we could try to phone Apple and resolve this via a “send in” repair, but sadly we’ve been here before when needing to replace the faulty power adaptor for my MacBook Pro (which I, in fact, purchased in Portugal).

A combination of language barrier problems and Apple being incapable of realising that people may sometimes buy their devices in one country and use them in another ended up with us giving in after hours on the phone, and arranging for our replacement to be sent to the UK to be shipped onwards by a friend.

In the case of the iPhone, life just seemed too short to waste more of it on the phone arguing – especially when Apple’s fine print says that they’re basically not interested if your iPhone decides to go wrong in a different country from whence you purchased it.

So, while I know I could waste hours arguing about this and eventually reach a resolution, I’ve instead decided to give in to the fine print and take the phone in when I’m next in the UK. Meanwhile, my wife will tolerate an expensive device that becomes unusable at random intervals.

As ever, I continue to love using Apple products, but I’ll be asking a lot more questions before I hand over any cash for the next one.

Three steps for taking better smartphone pictures

If there’s anything that photo sharing apps like Instagram have taught us, it’s that there are a lot of people who are really bad at taking pictures. Never before have so many poorly-lit, out-of-focus, over-filtered images been shared to so many people. In all likelihood (and backed by a statistical sampling of Instagram), you’re part of the problem.

I’m sorry that I have to be “that guy”, but you’re pictures suck. This is tough love. I care about you and I know you mean well, but no matter how tasty that burrito is or how cute your cat seems to be, the photos you’re taking just aren’t doing them justice.

Don’t worry though. Together, we can make them better. There are three simple things you can do that will make your smartphone pictures, if not artful, at least a lot less awful.

Get closer

A sure-fire way to take a horrible picture is to try to “fit everything in”. Sure, you want to capture an image of your friends, but you’re also trying to get the mountains in the background, the sign they’re standing next to, and the blueness of the sky. To get all these things in the frame, you’ve walked backwards thirty feet from your friends.

The resulting picture is a chaotic mess that’s not very interesting. Nothing stands out. The photo is just a random assortment of things and is probably out of focus.

Fill the frame with the subject.
Fill the frame with the subject.

Try this instead: pick one of those things (probably your friends) and use it to fill the frame. This means you’re probably going to be standing five feet away from your friends instead of thirty. The context of the moment you’re trying to capture will still be there, even if you feel like you’re compromising. Picking a subject to take a picture of instead of trying to capture everything will give you a photo that’s a lot more interesting and intimate.

Put the light behind you

Unless you’ve got some artsy plan to document the shadows of the world, you need to develop an awareness for light – you need to know where it’s coming from. A lot of potentially awesome photos are ruined by a complete lack of light-awareness by the photographer. They arrange their friends in front of a lamp and then everyone is sad when the resulting photo is a bunch of shadowy figures standing in front of what looks like the sun.

I only have two hands, so this isn't the best comparison, but you get the idea.
I only have two hands, so this isn’t the best comparison, but you get the idea.

Whether the light source is the actual sun or the bulbs in a ceiling fan, you want it to be behind you, ideally casting a soft light on whatever you’re trying to take a picture of. Lighting is a complex subject and there are a lot of different things to consider, but just getting the light source out of the frame will significantly improve your photos.

Less is more

Can you put a lo-fi-sepia-vignette filter on every picture you take? Yes. Should you? No.

While filters can add interest to some photos, they often just make a bad photo worse. If the picture doesn’t have a clear subject, or is out of focus, or is poorly lit to begin with, most filters are just going to suck out any of the remaining detail.

Number 2 is actually my favorite.
Number 2 is actually my favorite.

Instead of using filters as a crutch. Try adding more interest to your photos during the act of taking them. Experiment. Get up close to your subjects. Frame them from odd angles. Get above them, or below them. Most importantly, figure out what your smartphone’s camera can’t do and work within those constraints. Figure out how much light it needs, where it focuses best, and how it handles motion.

Do these things and you’ll be making the world a better place, with better, more interesting photos that are worth caring about. Please, I beg you, do these things.

Netflix is finally getting it right

netflix logoIt’s been several months since Netflix has been under the scrutiny of the press. Despite their former fall from grace, the company has managed to make a solid comeback, gaining customers and fan loyalty in the process. It’s even gotten interest of internet emperor Google, looking at a price of $17.9 billion. This is especially impressive considering it was just under two years ago that Netflix put customers and shareholders on edge, announcing an entire company adjustment.

Splitting into two separate entities, jacking up prices, and a reroute of current services, it was to be the business equivalent of 52-card pick up. Luckily the company listened to critics and its fans, and, against the odds, has finally started doing things right.

The Good

To date, the company is up to 27.1 U.S. streaming customers and netting nearly a billion per year. They’ve also expanded their streaming base considerably (though I fail to be satisfied until every movie/show ever can be streamed). The site will also be the only source for new episodes of Arrested Development, which will air along a feature-length film later this year. Having grown into a cult classic, the show was revived after its cancelation nearly seven years ago. An unusual viewing for an even unusualer Hollywood situation.

What’s more is that the company shuns commercials and ads, instead it looks to its membership fees as a source of funds. Buffering speeds have greatly increased, and recommendations pan its past views for an accurate bank of preferred shows. Users can even search for movies by the stars who play in them, or search through bios, ratings, release dates, and average viewer ratings.

Still Moving Forward

Does Netflix sometimes have some quirky categories that we must decipher through? Like “witty workplace sitcoms” or “raunchy dysfunctional-family TV comedies”? Yes. And sure their blog sits at a weird URL and is only sometimes updated (with self-promotional content). Nor do they have writer profiles or pictures. There’s a glaring lack of request form, where users can ask for various shows to come through – or give much feedback of any kind. But if that’s the list of complaints, we’ll take it. When movies and TV shows can be streamed in unlimited quantities, a few blogging faux pas are nothing.

As any mechanic would say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; Netflix we’re happy it’s a mantra you finally decided to follow.

Getting stuff done with Remember the Milk

I have many titles. Chiefly, I am the King of Procrastination. As I get older, I’m also becoming the Duke of “Sorry, I Forgot All About That”. It’s not necessarily because my memory is getting worse, although that’s likely. It seems more to do with just having a lot more to keep track of than when I was in college and thought I was busy.

To deal with both problems, I became Lord of Lists. Everything I need to do gets documented in some way. For a long time, these were mainly pen and paper lists. Some still are. There are times when pen and paper are just faster.

I went through a lot of to-do list apps trying to find one that I liked, and the truth is, I hated most of them. Many feel bloated and in some cases it took longer to enter a task than it did to actually complete a task (Omnifocus). Others were close to what I wanted but were just a feature or two off (Wunderlist).

Ultimately, I settled on Remember the Milk as the best compromise of features and low friction.

No Corinthian leather

Remember the Milk (RTM)’s appeal is largely in its simplicity. The interface is clean, if a bit dated at this point. According to RTM’s about page, the interface was inspired by early versions of GMail.

Remember the Milk
Some dummy tasks. Sometimes I do forget to eat though.

Inputing a task is very similar to what you would do if you were writing on paper. Instead of typing in a description and clicking a bunch of checkboxes or drop-downs to set details (Although you have the option to do this.), RTM supports natural language input. So, you can you in something like:

Take out trash every Monday @Home #chores

Taking that input, RTM creates a task called “Take out the trash” that recurs every Monday with your home as the location and “chores” as a tag. You can add as much or as little info to a task as you want. There are no required fields other than the description, which as basic as it sounds, is a big feature. Most task apps require input in several fields and that really slow things down when you’re trying to quickly jot something down.

Overall, that’s the theme of RTM – Lot’s of features and functionality like shared tasks, tagging, advanced filter searches, and prioritization, but they’re only there when you want them.

Any client you want, for a cost

I do most of my input using RTM’s web interface and mainly use the iPhone client for it’s geo-fencing feature (Which is very similar to iOS’s Reminders functionality.). If I’m near Walgreens and I have a task that’s tagged with Walgreens as a location, the mobile app pings me with a reminder. Other than that, I don’t really use the iPhone app and prefer either the web interface or the iPad app (which is basically the iPhone app, but less “squashed”).

If you think that you would be a heavy mobile user, you should probably spring for RTM’s $25-a-year Pro plan which allows you to sync your lists between devices and the web app. In addition to the official apps, having the Pro plan also opens up syncing to the dearth of third-party clients that have been written for RTM, including plugins for Outlook and GMail. There are even several CLI-based clients for people who might be looking for something similar to Gina Trapani’s Todo.txt app.

Google releases the Chromebook Pixel, designed for high-performance cloud computing

pixel chromebook

When manufacturing cheap personal computers, designers have to make trade-offs between processing power, memory and other computer components in order to strike an economical but workable balance. The balance, clearly, is a delicate one and any solution that eliminates the need for one of these components is highly welcome.

Google Chromebooks are such solutions that do away with the need for huge hard disk spaces by storing whatever you do on the cloud. The latest Chromebook, the Chromebook Pixel, is an amalgamation of the best hardware, software and design to come up with the next generation gadget suited for power users who have already fully adopted the cloud.

The Visual Display unit has the highest pixel density than any other laptop screen on the market. Packing 4.3 million pixels (239 ppi), the display delivers sharp text and vivid colors over an extra wide view angle. In addition to this, the screen comes with touch support to sate the need to touch the close-to-real HD images it displays. Organizing tabs and photos and other edits happens swiftly and easily with the swipe of a finger.

To support the grueling demand from long hours of use, the Pixel comes in an anodized aluminum alloy cover giving it a sleek and durable surface. To keep the outward appearance of the design, vents and screws remain hidden while the full-range stereo speakers fit snugly under the backlit keyboard.

To increase precision, a glass etched touchpad, finished using laser technology, is all you need to move the cursor about on the Chromebook in case you do not want to use the touch screen. With its 720p webcam and three strategically placed microphones designed to eliminate noise, you can now comfortably do your video conferencing in noisy environments.

Powered by Intel Core-i5 processor, anything you decide to do, from loading Web pages to changing apps is almost instant which is exactly what users with no time to spare expect from their devices. With its top-notch Wi-Fi range and dual-band support with optional Long-term Evolution (LTE), you can be sure that accessing your cloud-stored data just got easier and more fun.


The Chromebook Pixel comes with one terabyte of Google Drive Cloud storage and 12 free GoGo Inflight Internet passes allowing you to store as much as you can and access it while on the go without having to pay more, at least for a start.

With all the favorite Google products just a click away, the Chromebook is definitely a workable solution for those who are already in the cloud computing bandwagon. Thanks to Chrome OS, you will no longer need to wait for the computer to boot up. In addition, you will need no maintenance. To sum up the whole package is a built-in virus protection that self-updates once every few weeks.

The Chromebook Pixel is available for purchase on Google Play in the US and UK. The Wi-Fi version retails at $1,299 with the LTE version retailing at $1,449 which will be available in the US come this April. High-end users who need a device that incorporates tablet functionality and cloud computing services now have something to smile about with the Chromebook Pixel.

The long wait for the PlayStation 4 is almost over

On Stage

Since the release of PlayStation 3 on November 11, 2006 in Japan, Sony game console lovers have had nothing to look forward to apart from the release of new games and hardware/design upgrades, which I must admit, though functional, were never enough to quench the thirst for something totally new and different. After the long wait, Sony has finally announced the successor, the PlayStation 4.

Impressive new hardware and features

The PlayStation 4 uses a single chip custom AMD processor with eight x86-64 AMD Jaguar CPU cores and an AMD Radeon-based graphics engine. The Graphic Processing Unit comes with 18 processing clusters with each having 64 cores, which will do all the heavy work in the PS4 due to its immense parallel processing power. This, coupled with its 8GB of GDDR5 memory, assures us of fast game loads and smooth playing experiences.

In bid to match Microsoft’s Kinect controller, Sony presents the PlayStation 4 Eye, an innovative set of two highly sensitive cameras with wide angled lenses and an 85-degree diagonal angle of view. Sony claims that these cameras, whose resolution total up to 1280 x 800 pixels can pick out the player image from the background and differentiate between players in the foreground and background hence improving on game play.

The PS4 controller, the Dual Shock 4 pad, comes in a classy design with better vibrations and enhanced motion sensors. PS4 PadApart from these improvements, there is a touchpad on the front, a change in the button layout, the addition of a “Share” button, integration of the “SELECT” and “START” button into a single “OPTIONS” button  and the addition of some PlayStation Move technology in a bid to improve on gamer experiences and fully exploit the console’s improved processing power.

Though the PS4 will be capable of 4K/Ultra HD video playback, Sony revealed that it would not support 4K game-play resolutions. Other incompatibility issues coming with the PS4 include the lack of support for Dual Shock 3 and its inability to give native support for PS3 games , a problem that Sony at some point plans to bridge by offering server side emulation for virtually all PS generation games through the Sony Entertainment Network.

Other impressive things the PS4 can do, with the majority being fruits of Sony’s purchase of Gaikai, include playing online games as they download, uploading and sharing game-play video (the share button on the Dual Shock 4 comes in handy for this) among many other cloud-based functionalities.

If Sony stands true to its promises, the days of waiting for almost a minute before your console boots up will be nothing but history. The console will have an instant on/off feature that lets you shut down during a game and pick up from where you left in future after an extremely fast boot up.

Though we did not see the actual hardware during the PlayStation 4 presentation, I am confident that come the holiday season, Sony will once again sweep us off our feet with a console that competes favorably with other brands of gaming consoles and PCs.