Monday, October 10, 2016

Phones On Fire

by Tony Thomas

Cell phones are catching fire.  Literally.  The recent problems with the Galaxy Note involving their lithium ion batteries has generated quite a bit of fear and concern.   And for good reason.   Spontaneous combustion is not a feature that phone buyers look for in a cell phone.
Should we be concerned that this problem will spread to other phones?  We certainly should. 

Lithium Ion batteries are powerful.   They are what give us devices that last for many hours. That is also a big part of the problem. These batteries produce power via a chemical reaction involving highly volatile lithium.  If damaged or improperly charged,  these batteries can pose a safety risk.  And with skinnier cell phone designs with increased battery life,  the design tolerances are much tighter,  thus increasing the risk.

As a result, cell phone manufacturers are going to have to decide whether it is really worth producing skinny phones that may catch on fire. 

In the interim, let the buyer beware.

The Galaxy Note 7 is Dead (from The Verge):
http://www.theverge.com/2016/10/11/13202608/samsung-galaxy-note-7-discontinued

Why the Galaxy Note 7 Catches Fire (from CNet): 
https://www.cnet.com/news/why-is-samsung-galaxy-note-7-exploding-overheating/


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Xara Designer Pro X365

By Tony Thomas

Xara Designer Pro X365 is a fully professional-grade design solution. It has the advantage of being extremely fast and capable of handling tasks such as layout, page design, text handling, web design, vector drawing and photo image editing.


It combines the feature sets of all of the Xara graphics programs, some of which I have reviewed previously: Web Designer Premium, Page & Layout Designer and Photo & Graphic designer. Unlike one of its major competitors, you don’t have to pay a recurring monthly fee to use it. You buy it and receive 365 days of free upgrades. Its price is also quite reasonable considering its formidable feature set.

Some of the new features include:
  • Enhanced “On Reveal” Animations
  • New Scrolling Animations
  • Easy Move, Rotate and Scale for Photos
  • Cross Process Photo Effect
  • New Blend Modes for Dodge and Burn Effects
  • Photo Filter Presets
  • Magnetic Lasso
  • Symbols and Icons
  • Other Text Enhancements
  • New Online Content Catalog
  • Photo Grids
  • New Smartshapes
  • Improved Import and Export

Designer Pro is a Windows-based application that is light on resources. It only requires a Celeron/Sempron-class CPU, 500MB of RAM and 300MB of hard disk space. That means it will not only run on minimally configured netbooks, but older hardware as well.

In use, the program is equally fast and powerful. If you have had previous experience with sophisticated graphics apps, you should feel right at home. Xara continues to offer tremendous value and processing power for the professional graphic designer.

For more information:

http://www.xara.com/us/designer-pro/

Previous Reviews:






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, August 20, 2016

Are Chrome Apps Going Away?

by Tony Thomas

The potential market for Google Chrome apps just got a lot smaller. 

According to the Chromium Blog, Google will be phasing out Chrome apps (but not extensions) for the Chrome browser on all platforms except Chrome OS. This phase out will begin in late 2016 and will continue until early 2018. As only 1% of users reportedly use Chrome apps on Windows, MacOS and Linux, this move will allow Google to simplify the Chrome browser. 

They are encouraging developers of Chrome packaged apps to migrate them the web. What this means is that there will less developers willing to develop for a platform with diminishing potential. 

I really question the future viability of Chrome apps, even on Chrome OS, especially now that Android capability is beginning to roll out to Chrome OS devices. I think that it is just a matter of time before they are just a distant memory.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Canva

by Tony Thomas

I have been checking out a new online graphics tool called Canva. It is quick and easy to use and allows the casual user to produce killer designs in minutes. Professional layouts are available that can be easily edited and re-purposed. And it is free!

What’s the catch? While there is an impressive variety of free images and elements, if you want to unleash the true potential of Canva, you have to buy paid layouts and elements. At only $1 each, they are quite reasonably priced and you can do a lot with very little $$$.

Try it out:

https://www.canva.com/

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.