Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Software Defined Radio

by Tony Thomas

I am a licensed Amateur Radio Operator. As a result, I have an inherent love for all things radio.

If you like to listen to radio, you may want to check out the latest trend: SDR or Software Designed Radio. For less than $25, you can buy a USB dongle that turns your computer into a powerful radio. Not only can you tune in commercial FM stations, you can also access the VHF Ham radio bands, aircraft bands and more.

It all begins with a DVB-T TV dongle based upon the RTL2832U chipset that was originally designed to pick up TV broadcasts in Europe. Some enthusiasts discovered that, with the right drivers and software, they were able to use this dongle to produce a powerful software defined radio.

I have a few of these dongles, and while the quality can vary, they are a lot of fun to experiment with. The software that I currently use is called SDR# (SDR Sharp) and, while it is very powerful, it has a steep learning curve. That said, Software Driven Radio is a lot of fun!

For more information:

http://www.rtl-sdr.com/about-rtl-sdr/

http://rtlsdr.org/

https://www.reddit.com/r/RTLSDR/


Buy an SDR on Amazon:

http://amzn.to/2abfVHH

http://amzn.to/29VVOME


A great book on SDR:

http://amzn.to/29VVuO9


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 365














by Tony Thomas

Every year about this time I get a chance to take a look at the new version of Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. It's like opening up a present and seeing what's inside. I think that's been 20 years since I started using the program and each version gets better and better.

One thing that I should share with you immediately is that, when you buy the latest version (now called 365), you will receive any new features and content that is developed for 365 days after you purchase and register the program. You no longer have to wait a full year to access new features. That, in itself, is awesome for a program that you can actually buy and not just rent!

Even though, when I open up the program, I see the same interface that I have come to know and love for quite a while, I know that there is some brand-new goodness baked inside. Some of the new features include:

Easy Move, Rotate and Scale: New handles are available when in photo mode so that you can quickly and easily manipulate your photo.

Cross Process Photo Effect: This one allows you to dramatically color-shift your photo by manipulating the RGB channels in real time.

Smart Shapes: Allows for quick creation and editing of some of the most common shapes. Examples include bar charts, pie charts and percentage rings.

Online Content Catalog: This is free for one year and allows you to access over 500,000 royalty free photos. Keyword searching is available for rapid access.

Symbols and Icons: Over 1500 fully-editable vector symbols are now available. 

Photo Filter Presets: These presets can be quickly applied to your photos and can be very useful when experimenting during editing.

New Blend Modes: Dodge and burn effects are now available for darkroom-style control of your images.

Photo Grids: These make it easy to display a collection of photos in a single, compact grid.

Although Xara started out as a vector drawing program, it has really morphed into a full-function graphic design tool with a strong set of photo editing capabilities. It continues to be an amazing value for the price!


Full Disclosure: In compliance with FTC 16 CFR Part 255, I hereby disclose that the manufacturer or retailer mentioned in this article provided the product for review purposes with the knowledge that I would provide a full, unbiased and impartial review.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Caught in the Google Algorithm Web

by Tony Thomas

Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to get found on Google.

For many years, my web site, tonythomas.net, was firmly anchored to page one when I searched on my name. Then, the Google algorithms kicked in. What are the Google algorithms, you might ask? They are the computer programs that Google uses to analyze every web site and to determine its page rank.

Back in the old days, web site owners would try to game Google and other web search engines by loading their web pages with (often invisible) keywords so that their pages would be ranked higher. Other diabolical devices like link farms, shoddy keyword laden content and scraper sites were also employed by the black hats to try to fool the search engines. Enter algorithms.

It began with Panda in 2011, the first frontal assault by Google against the scammers. It was followed by Penguin in 2012. And according to moz.com, Google changes its algorithms 500-600 times per year! Moz keeps a log of all of the changes in case you are interested:

https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change

And Hubspot has a useful visual history infographic:

http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-algorithm-visual-history-infographic

Google’s algorithms are reportedly supplemented by an army of humans that view and grade websites. Since the advent of algorithms and human analysis, Google search has never been the same. My website, tonythomas.net has fallen from page 1 to page 15 in my latest search attempt. Page 15? Really?

I have spent the past few weeks trying to figure out why my page rank has dropped so precipitously. What I discovered was eye opening. First of all, according to Google’s Webmaster Tools, my site is not “mobile-friendly”. That automatically decreases my page rank considerably. To rectify it, I changed my Wordpress template to a newer one that is mobile-friendly. I also added a site map file and did some housekeeping on my server to make my site more searchable.
It remains to be seen how much that will help, but my score has already improved according to Hubspot’s Website Grader tool: https://website.grader.com/.

During all this, I checked my page rank on Bing.com. Even before I made the changes, my site could be found on page 2 when doing a Bing search on my name! Does Microsoft know something that Google doesn’t? Is Bing actually a better search engine?
I’m not sure of the answer to those questions, but one thing is sure. I will be using Bing to supplement my Google searches from now on!

Google Search for Tony Thomas











Passing the Mobile-Friendly Test

Good Ranking on Hubspot Website Grader

















Page 2 on Bing.com

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Android on My Asus Flip!













by Tony Thomas

The Google Play Store is now available for the Asus Flip Chromebook!  It is the very first Chromebook to get this feature.  (Sorry, Pixel!)  And as you may know, I purchased a Flip a few weeks ago in anticipation of this event.


When I heard the news yesterday, I came home, did a power wash, and switched from the stable to the dev channel (Version 53.0.2768.0 dev) and was immediately rewarded by the familiar Google Play Store icon on the right hand of the shelf. 


I installed some of my favorite apps and most seemed to work perfectly, but for some reason, the audio does not work on apps like Google Music. I immediately opened a ticket with Google and am hoping they fix it soon. Also, "flipping" from horizontal to vertical in tablet mode seems to be problematic for some apps.

As this is an alpha build, there is obviously still a lot of work to do by both the Google developers and app coders. On the positive side, Android apps look and behave just like standalone Chrome apps.  They appear and can be launched in the "All Apps" menu and can be pinned to the shelf. Very nice integration!

In any case, I am having fun with Android apps and it looks like the future of ChromeOS is suddenly much brighter!


The Google Play Megathread on Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/chromeos/comments/4ohqyt/chrome_os_m53_google_play_mega_thread/


Update 6/24: After loading alpha again (after about 5 days on the stable channel), I found that sound and video does work on the apps that I tested as long as you reboot the machine after installation. This is a good practice for any app that isn't behaving right.


Update 6/25: The latest alpha update broke Android and wiped everything out. I am heading back to the stable channel until they get it sorted out.


Update 6/26: After doing some reading on the megathread, back to alpha: Version 53.0.2773.3 dev. There is now a symbol on icons that are websites and not apps.


Update 7/7: I noticed on my 2GB Flip that memory usage is low when I first turn it on and then all the ARC (Android) system stuff loads up. It takes up 151.5 MB of memory before running any Android apps according to Task Manager. I then went to Crosh and entered a "free" command and it appeared that all of the memory was being used by the system. I then opened up 17 tabs in three windows and the memory figures did not change that much. None of the tabs forced closed either. That demonstrates to me that ChromeOS is very good with memory management and that you can do more on a 2GB system than you might think.


Update 7/9: V53 alpha just updated to 53.0.2785.4. Android apps I pinned to the bar disappeared but they were still installed.




Another view of the Play Store




The About page of the new build




The Weather Channel Android app running on the Flip

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The High Price of Cell Phones

by Tony Thomas

It is obvious that the price of cell phones is out of control.

You can buy a very nice tablet, or even a 32-inch television set, for much less than an average cell phone these days. In fact, a major retailer even gave away a big screen TV with every cell phone!

While there are some affordable cell phones, they are definitely in the minority. What makes them so expensive? Certainly, some of it blamed on miniaturization and aesthetics, but the profit margins are certainly high on cell phones. To get more than a paltry amount of memory, you have to pony up. That is ridiculous considering the fact that memory is actually pretty cheap these days.


Just as with eyeglasses, cell phones have become fashion statements and status symbols. As a result, people are willing to pay much more because of the “bling factor”. Where there is demand, the supply of high-end cell phones will follow.

Another thing that inflates their price is the fact that many cellular providers allow you to pay for cell phones monthly, thus lessening the sticker shock. It is nothing more than a mind trick. A parallel is that when you buy a $25,000 car, you look at the $350 a month payment rather than the total price of the car.

Personally, I carry, an older, low-end, Samsung cell phone and tether it to a Chromebook or tablet. The combined price of those items is much less than that of a brand new, feature-rich, cell phone.

It works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Xara Web Designer Premium 365

by Tony Thomas

Web design today usually requires you to learn how to code. That means mastering languages like HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, Ruby on Rails, among others.  By contrast, Xara Web Designer enables you to create compelling, graphical, websites in minutes without having to write a single line of code.

The code produced by Web designer is W3C standards compliant and uses technology like XHTML, CSS and Javascript.  I tested and analyzed some of the code produced and was impressed with its cleanliness and error-free operation.  The program uses the powerful Xara vector graphics engine to produce high-quality, responsive,  WYSIWYG output that is tailored for the web.

The latest version of Web Designer Premium provides a number of new features in the same interface that we have come to know and love over the years.   They include:

Enhanced "on reveal" animations.
Enhanced “sticky objects”.
The Font Awesome collection  now includes Material Design icons.
Xara Online Designer (beta)
All business themes now included at no additional cost.
New online contact catalog.
Photo grids.
Access new features 365 days a year.
New smart shapes, templates and other content.

Like many other software companies, Xara is moving to an instant update policy (called “The 365 Day Update Guarantee) so that users can receive new features as they are created rather than having to wait a full year for the next upgrade cycle--hence the new name, Xara Web Designer 365.  They also have a new “Online Designer” option that is currently in beta that allows you to produce simple websites without using any programs.

As usual, using the program was a dream.   Although I am very familiar with its operation, a new user can get up and running without much trouble and begin to create beautiful web pages in just minutes using the supplied templates.  Compared to many other options, often with high recurring costs, Xara Web Designer is a professional quality design tool that will enhance any web designer’s ability to easily produce wonderful web sites without much effort.

www.xara.com


Xara Web Designer produced webpage in Chrome


Full Disclosure: In compliance with FTC 16 CFR Part 255, I hereby disclose that the manufacturer or retailer mentioned in this article provided the product for review purposes with the knowledge that I would provide a full, unbiased and impartial review.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Asus Chromebook Flip

 by Tony Thomas

Since it has been announced that Android apps are coming to the Chromebook this fall, I thought I would celebrate by picking up a Chromebook Flip 2GB.  Although this machine is very similar to my Rockchip-based Asus Chromebook C201, the Flip offers a a lot of additional functionality.  

First of all, the Flip will be one of the first devices to support Android during the alpha and beta test phases which should be launching soon.  So, that will give me the ability to test Android on ChromeOS as soon as it is launched.

Secondly, it is a very light and compact device with a 10.1" touchscreen is capable of double-duty as a small notebook and a capable tablet.  Additionally, you can flip the keyboard under and use it to watch You Tube, videos, movies or even use it for tabletop presentations.  The addition of the touchscreen with pinch-to-zoom and the 360 degree hinge is really a game-changer.

It has a great (although smallish) keyboard, two USB 2 ports, a micro-SD card slot, a micro-HDMI jack and a combo mic/heaphone jack.  Power is supplied by an Asus power brick with the same custom connector used on the C201.  Battery life is excellent at around 9 hours.

Using the Flip

The Flip has a very similar feel to my C201 and it uses the same chip and memory. The Rockchip Quad-Core ARM Cortex A17 (RK3288C) processor with Mali graphics core is up to the task and the Flip runs very fast despite only having 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD.   (There is also a 4GB version for those who need more memory for multitasking.)  The keyboard has a decent amount of travel, making it a joy to type on.  The trackpad is smooth and responsive.  The Octane score at circa 7000 is slow compared to most Intel-equipped Chromebooks but is adequate for this kind of hybrid.  A faster CPU usually requires more cooling and battery power (adding weight) and reduces the operating time. 

The touchscreen is very useful on this device as it allows for pinch-and-zoom and when it is flipped to tablet mode, an onscreen keyboard is automatically enabled.  Very slick!  When using it in tablet mode, you need to hold it do that your fingers are not in contact with the keyboard.  Even though the keyboard is inactive in tablet mode, it makes for a strange experience if you press the keys while in that mode.   The fit and feel of the all-aluminum body is superb making it look and feel like a much more expensive device.   The MacBook Air comes to mind.

The audio quality of the speakers is decent and the screen is very sharp when used at the recommended 1280 x 800 resolution.  The front HD camera is adequate for web chats but not much else.  There is no rear camera.

Triple Threat

I installed Ubuntu on the Flip using Crouton and can easily switch between ChromeOS and Ubuntu in real time using a key command.  Having a Linux distro available provides enhanced offline functionality and the ability to run powerful programs like Libre Office,  Gimp, Inkscape, Filezilla, etc.  As soon as this machine has the ability to run all of the Android apps on the Google Play store, it will be a real triple threat!

I believe that devices like the Asus Flip will become much more common as the Chrome/Android marriage comes to fruition.  I expect to see devices with more memory, more storage and even longer battery life.   If you want to get into the game early, the Asus Flip may be a good option.





The Flip has a great keyboard and trackpad


Flip in video viewing/presentation mode


Flip in tablet mode (vertical)


Flip running Ubuntu via Crouton

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Neverware CloudReady

by Tony Thomas

I have an old Thinkpad T43 around and decided to try Neverware's CloudReady OS on it.  If you have never heard of it, CloudReady is a free solution that essentially turns an old computer into a ChromeOS machine (it actually runs ChromiumOS, the open source version of ChromeOS).  

While the product is primarily aimed at the business and education markets with annual licenses of $25-49 with Google Management Console and technical support, the free version is great for the casual user even though no technical support is provided.

Installation is pretty straightforward. You download a 600MB zip file to a computer and then use the Chromebook Recovery Tool from the Chrome Web store to write it to a 8 GB or larger USB thumb-drive.  There are 32 and 64-bit versions of the file, so you just select the one that will support your machine.  

Then, you just boot the computer with the USB thumb-drive you created.  You can test drive CloudReady OS without installing it on the machine.  If you like it, you can install it.  Just be warned that it will overwrite everything on your hard disk.

You even have the option to dual-boot it with Windows on selected newer computers.  The list of CloudReady certified computers is available here.  Most of them are business-class notebooks that can be picked up very inexpensively (from under $100 to $200) on eBay.  Some Apple MacBooks and old netbooks are also on the list. 

It worked wonderfully on my T61 with CoreDuo processor and 320GB hard drive with 2GB of memory.   Even though it books up a bit more slowly than a typical Chromebook, it is speedy and offers a much more disk storage.

If you want to make your own cheap and very fast Chromebook, this is the solution you need!

Neverware Web Site





Friday, May 20, 2016

I Don't Get It, Google!

by Tony Thomas

I don't get it, Google!

ChromeOS and Chromebooks have been pretty much ignored at two Google I/O developers conferences in a row!

Coincidentally, it has just been reported that Chromebook sales have topped MacBook sales for the first time ever: 
http://www.businessinsider.com/google-chromebooks-outsell-apple-macs-2016-5

Millions of units are still being sold, but Google doesn't seem to be interested.  News that Google Chrome will soon be able to run millions of Android apps was buried in a day 2 breakout session and not included in the keynote!

Chromebook advertising has all but disappeared.  Rumors that Chromebooks are a dead platform have not been squashed.  The Android/Chrome merger rumors have not been clarified.  Yet, manufacturers are still coming out with new machines.  What is going on?  Where is the ChromeOS love?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kindle Fire 7 Review (Fifth Generation - 2015)

by Tony Thomas

The Kindle Fire 7 is a new tablet from Amazon at a very low price. I only paid $49 for mine. 

What kind of tablet do you get for such a paltry sum, you may be asking?  Well, it's not going to set any speed records and it isn't the sharpest screen that I have ever seen. But it only lists for $49!

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of the new Kindle Fire 7 tablet.


First, the advantages:


1. Very Low Cost. $49 is a hard price to beat.  And when you buy a six-pack, you get one free!

2. Good Performance for the Price: It is solid, works well and I didn't find any major bugs.

3. Great Content Consumption Device:  That is where the Fire 7 shines. Reading books, watching movies, listening to music (use headphones), light gaming, checking e-mail, shopping and web browsing are its strengths.

4. Perfect for Amazon Prime User:  If you paid for an Amazon Prime subscription, this tablet will let you binge on the full-range of Amazon content.

5. Decent Battery Life:  About 7 hours. Not great, but not too shabby.

6. Very Durable and Well-Built:  I have seen impressive drop tests on You Tube. It seems like it will take abuse better than most tablets.

7. Well Designed UI:  Very simple to use and better than the old Fire carousel.

8. SD Card Slot:  Since it only has 8GB of storage, you will need it if you want to watch movies. A nice touch at this price point.

9. Pocketable:  Bigger than a smartphone. Smaller than most tablets.

Now, the disadvantages:

1. Limited Onboard Storage:  Only 8GB, but only 5 GB is usable.  This is meant to be a web device so it is an acceptable limitation.  I still would have preferred 16GB.

2. Medium Screen Resolution:   No retina display here (1024 x 600 @ 171 dpi). More like a typical notebook computer display. I had no problem reading on it, however.

3. No Google Apps:  If you are an avid Googler, you may feel deprived. The good news is that you can still get your G-Mail and use Google search in the browser. But the only way to access You Tube is through the browser.

4. Limited Apps on the Amazon App Store: No access to Google Play. Thankfully, most of the "big hitters" are available on their app store and the included apps are functional and well-designed.

5. Mono Speaker: And the sound isn't that great. Pack some earbuds.

6. Limited Productivity Potential: You can cobble together enough apps to get some things done. I installed Evernote and Wunderlist, for example. DropBox isn't on the Amazon app store but I was able to download it from their web site and side-load it. (Yes, you can side-load most Android apps.)

7. Thicker and Heavier than Most Tablets:  Not super slim like the latest iPad. Not annoyingly thick and heavy, though. More like a tablet from 5 years ago.

8. Proprietary OS:  Fire OS5 "Bellini".  Basically Android Lollipop with the Google removed.

9. Poor Quality Cameras: Low-resolution front and rear.  Better than nothing and they will do in a pinch if you have a lot of light.

10. Screen is a Fingerprint Magnet:  Be prepared to clean it often.

11. Slippery Back:  Plan on getting a case.

12. Limited Screen Real Estate:  After all, it is only 7".

13. No Voice Commands:  I use Siri and "OK Google" a lot and I really miss them when using the Kindle 7.

What else can I say? It is a $50 tablet and a real bargain for the price. It is cheap enough to be easy to replace if you lose it or break it.  You really can't go wrong!