Sunday, May 3, 2015

Calmly Writer for ChromeOS Review

by Tony Thomas

Calmly Writer is an immersive writing environment for Chrome with a strange name. It even works off line on the Chromebook since it is a standalone Chrome app. (Yea!) It is the only Chrome app that I paid money for ($2.99) and it is well worth the price, in my opinion.

Features include the ability to save files Plain Text, HMTL, Markdown, or a proprietary Calmly file. You can also open all of those file formats plus Microsoft Word DOCX. It also includes minimal formatting features like three levels of headers, bold, italic, links, curly quotes and numbered and bulleted lists. It also has the ability to print documents plus you can insert pictures.

Missing is the ability to precisely set margins, indents or center text. That is fair because it is not meant to replace a word processor or DTP program. It is an app that focuses on creating text, not formatting it.

Its full screen mode makes everything go away but your text (true immersion), focus mode blurs everything but the paragraph you are working on, and dark mode reverses the text. Other preferences include the ability to set narrow, wide or medium text width, select between two fonts (I would love to have more), change font size (three options), add space between paragraphs, and enable smart punctuation.

As a writer, I also like the fact that it shows word count, character count and reading time in the options side bar. I look forward to continued development of this app and hope it signals a trend towards more powerful and capable Chrome apps in the future.

For more information:

Free online version:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why I Love Chromebooks!

I am writing this article in Evernote on my Chromebook.  I love Chromebooks!  Why?

1. They Are Fast: I can open up my Chromebook and begin working in seconds.  Since it is essentially a web browser-based operating system, there is very little overhead and the system runs extremely fast.  Also, I can take any Chromebook, wipe it and reload it with all of my apps and bookmarks in about 5 minutes.

2. They Are Comparatively Cheap:  I paid around $250 for my original Samsung 11.6" ARM Chromebook and a bit over $200 for the Asus 13.3" Intel Chromebook I am using now.  That is a fraction of the price of a decent notebook with comparable specs.

3. Google Docs is Great:  It comes with a great free suite of applications that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing program and more.  It also supports a robust scripting language (Apps Script) for customization.

4. They Come with 100 GB of Free Storage for 2 Years:  You get 15 GB of free Google Drive storage with a Google account.  If you buy a Chromebook, they currently add 100 GB of free storage for 2 years.  That is a $1.99/mo. value.

5. A Growing Selection of Mostly Free Apps:  The Chrome Web store has tons of great apps and they are there for the taking.  

6. You Don't Have to Worry About Viruses and Malware:  I have spent many hours cleaning my Windows computers of malware and PUPs.  No worries on the Chromebook.  

7. Automatic Free Updates:  Major updates are released every 6 weeks and my Chromebook updates automatically in the background.  All I have to do is turn it off and back on and: voila!

8. I Can Also Run Linux: I also run Ubuntu on my Chromebook simultaneously with Chrome OS using Crouton. That also allows me to use my Chromebook sans the Internet and to run applications not available on Chrome OS.  Check out:

9. A Lot of Apps Can Be Used Offline: While you generally need to be connected to the Internet to use a Chromebook, a growing number Chrome apps can be run offline.  Some Android apps are also being ported to Chrome.

10. Your Work is in the Cloud:  Your work is stored in the cloud automatically.  No more worrying about crashing your hard drive and losing all of your work.  You also have the ability to download your work from Google Drive and store it locally.  

If you are looking for a inexpensive and easy-to-use notebook, I recommend a Chromebook!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive

by Tony Thomas

I picked up a SanDisk Wireless Flash Drive recently.

Mine has 32GB of memory and transmits via wi-fi.  It allows you to access its contents on any wi-fi enabled device such as a cell phone, tablet or computer.

Its range is about 150 feet and you can use it to stream movies, listen to music or access photos and documents.  Up to 8 devices can be connected simultaneously and up to 3 devices can stream media.  Battery life is about 4 hours if you use it to stream videos.

Inside the case, you will find a micro SD card, so its memory can be easily changed or upgraded.  It comes in sizes up to 64GB.  Apps are available for both iOS and Android.  If you use a computer, it is accessible via a web page (see picture below.)  Charging and data loading is via the USB connector.

It is a cool little device and is great if your phone or tablet has limited storage.  Highly recommended!

In use on my Chromebook.

For more information:

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wordpress on Raspberry Pi!

by Tony Thomas

I successfully installed Wordpress on my Raspberry Pi headless micro-server.  It is great way to learn Wordpress and develop your own intranet. 

It only takes about 30 minutes or so to install.  You may find that it isn't all that speedy (on the original Pi Model B) but it works perfectly.

All you need is Apache, MySQL,  PHP (LAMP) and the standard Wordpress install.  Want to try it out?  

I found a great tutorial on here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Online Learning with

by Tony Thomas

If you have priced online education lately, you have been probably been a victim of sticker shock.  According to information I found on the Internet, prices can vary between about $5K to $23K a year.  Ouch!!!

Enter  Although it doesn't offer degrees or credits, is a viable choice for those who are looking for a place to learn in order to increase their marketable skills.  They have a variety of business and technology courses in subjects that include business, marketing, IT, computer programming, video, web, photography audio/music and 3D/animation.

How much does it cost?  Only $25 per month for unlimited access to all of their courses or $250 a year if you buy an annual plan.  If you want to watch offline and have access to project files, you'll pay a bit more.  Still, it is only a fraction of the cost of many other online learning options.

So, how is  I signed up for a free trial and discovered that the courses are very high quality and well produced.   They are generally broken down into small segments so that it is very easy to watch portions of courses when you have free time.  

The content is first rate and up-to date.  The Raspberry Pi course I took provided a lot of information which will be helpful for me in my job.  I completed a course on "Big Data"  which was excellent and very thorough.  I have other courses in the queue that I will probably complete before I even pay a dime.  Most courses have certificates of completion that you can easily post to LinkedIn or your web site if you desire. 

If you are interested in improving your skills with high quality training, is a no brainer!

For more information, visit:

Update: announced on 4/9/15 that they entered into an agreement to be acquired by LinkedIn. From the communication I received: "LinkedIn's ability to connect professionals to the people, knowledge and opportunities and lynda​.com's incredible library of high-quality skills content is a very powerful combination. Our missions are perfectly aligned: we both want to help people be great at what they do." For more information, see the FAQ and the announcement.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Raspberry Pi Micro Server

by Tony Thomas

The Raspberry Pi 2 Model B was introduced the other day.  It is reportedly 6 times faster than its predecessor thanks to a quad-core processor.  I plan on getting one soon.

However, for the past two years, I have been running a Raspberry Pi model B micro server.  It is a headless Pi connected directly to my router and accessible via VNC, SSH and SFTP.  That means I can control it easily and get to it from my computers and my iPod Touch and Android devices.  And, since it doesn't use very much juice, I keep it running 24/7/365.

I also run a light web server on it (lighttpd) so that I can host a little intranet for testing purposes.  In addition, I can add a USB drive for extra storage.  It is a really cool way to store work files and to keep my Linux chops fresh.

More information on Raspberry Pi:

Newark Electronics Raspberry Pi Page

Desktop via VNC

SSH Display

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kindle 7th Generation Basic Review (2014)

by Tony Thomas

After enjoying my Kindle 5th generation for a few years, I decided to upgrade to the new 7th generation basic Kindle. I needed a device with more memory and at only $79 with Special Offers and $99 without, it seemed to be a decent reader at an affordable price. 

I went on quest to search for one locally. Staples was a no-go. They only had the previous gen models and a well-worn display.  Fortunately, Best Buy was right next door. Best Buy also had a beat-up display, but alas there was a lonely 7th gen basic with no tagging or price. If I hadn't recognized it from pictures I had seen, I would have probably missed it.

Note to Amazon: You really need to improve your merchandising. Best Buy now has a Apple store, Samsung store, Windows store and Sony store.  How about a Kindle store?

Anyway, I finally got it home and opened up the typically minimalist Kindle box. Inside, there was only the Kindle, a basic instruction card and a USB cable.  No power adapter. That will cost you an extra $15-20 for the Amazon version.  

Fortunately, I still have the charger from my old 3rd gen Kindle "keyboard" model.  Reportedly, you can also charge the device in about 4 hours from your computer's USB jack.

Compared to my 5th gen, the new basic Kindle seems to be less sleek and more boxy.  The beveled back breaks up the otherwise bland and utilitarian design and makes the device easy to hold.  It is slightly thicker than the old version and a tad wider and longer as well. It offers a wider bezel and a bigger "chin". The design is reminiscent of the first generation Kindle Fire which leads me to believe that Quanta may be behind this build. There are no buttons other than the power button at its usual location next to the USB port at the bottom. 

That's right. No buttons. This is the first basic Kindle to offer touch control. It uses an infrared (rather than capacitive) 6" touch screen featuring Pearl e-paper technology with 167 ppi resolution. It is capable of 16 levels of gray and is not back-lit. The contrast seems to be similar to that of my 5th gen and text is dark and easy to read.  Photos can look a bit washed out, however.

5th gen vs. 7th gen Kindle Basic

New features include:

  • Goodreads and social media integration.
  • Enhanced "X-Ray" feature that allows you to see the structure of fictional works. 
  • Integrated vocabulary builder with flash cards. 
  • Kindle "FreeTime" to encourage young people to increase their reading. 

Features coming soon include:

  • "Family Library" to allow you to link to your spouse's account.
  • "Word Wise" to allow you to read selected challenging books more easily.
  • Enhanced search capabilities incorporating info from Goodreads and the Amazon site.
  • "About the Book" for more detailed author and book info.

The new 7th generation Kindle basic comes with 4GB of memory--twice as much as my 5th gen--and enough to store thousands of average-sized books.  In addition, as with all other Kindle devices and software, you also receive free cloud storage for your books and documents.

Using the new 7th gen is pretty easy.  The only snag is that, when you hit the power button, nothing seems to happen.  However, if you look closely, you will see a message at the bottom of the screen to swipe to unlock your Kindle.

Also, the infrared touch screen works much better than I expected. It is very responsive and flawless in operation.  You just tap on the right to advance a page, on the left  to go back a page, and on the top of the screen to view the menu and other information.  I found it almost as enjoyable to use as a capacitive screen, despite its lack of multi-touch capabilities.

In addition, the device allows you to view the covers of the books or just the text of the titles.  As with previous Kindles, there is an experimental web browser that is poky and awkward to use, but it may come in handy in a pinch. I guess that is why it is still experimental.

All in all, the 7th gen basic Kindle is a solid performer with long battery life (weeks, not days, in many cases), great readability and ease of use, small footprint and light weight.  If you are looking for a non-backlit e-reader that can hold a library full of books, it is a great choice.

For more info: 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Xara Designer Pro X10 and Photo & Graphic Designer 10

by Tony Thomas

I recently took a look at Xara's most recent drawing and graphics applications: their flagship Designer Pro X10 ($299) and its less full-featured cousin, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 10 ($89.99).  These applications have been designed from the ground up to be cutting-edge tools for drawing, compositing and basic photo editing.  They have a rich heritage, as the first iteration of Xara appeared circa 1995.  I have been an ardent user from the very beginning and have watched the platform become more powerful, year after year.

Formerly, Xara released a single application that was primarily a drawing and compositing tool.  In recent years, they have expanded Xara into a number of specialized tools including Web Designer, Web Designer Premium, Photo & Graphic Designer, Page and Layout Designer and Designer Pro. This approach allows you to select the best tool for the task and also saves you money if you are on a tight budget.

If you are a graphics professional who is looking for a versatile tool to handle all of these tasks, then Designer Pro X10 is the tool for you.  If you are are just doing drawing, compositing and photo editing and are watching your pennies, then take a look at Photo & Graphic Designer.

New features that are common to both programs include:

  • New Shadow and Highlight Controls
  • Select and Enhance Colors
  • Photo Looks Plug-in
  • Panorama Tool Improvements
  • Font Awesome Symbols
  • Content Catalog
  • Smartshapes
  • Insert Menu
  • Auto Rotate of Photos on Import
  • Improved Import and Export

Additional new features available only in Designer Pro X10:

  • Responsive Web Design
  • Single Page Supersites
  • Page Transitions
  • Scale to Fit
  • New Templates
  • New Widgets

When comparing Designer Pro X10 and Photo & Graphic Designer 10, the programs look identical at first glance.  However, if you dig a bit deeper, you will discover that Pro also has all of the features of Xara Web Designer 10 Premium, a program I reviewed previously here.  In addition Designer Pro includes more professional design features, more complete photo editing capabilities and 64-bit and multi-core processor support.  A useful comparison chart is available here:

These programs both really shine when it comes to speed and ease of execution.  They allow you to spend your time designing rather than fumbling with a program that is dense and difficult to use.  You can do in seconds what usually requires several minutes in similar applications.

If you have used any of the previous versions of the program, you will feel right at home with the latest versions.  Xara's programs are very easy to navigate with plenty of pull-down menus and galleries on the right side of the UI.  And if you find yourself getting stuck, there is a great help menu system with movies, a forum and plenty of online resources.

Bottom line: If you are a graphic designer, photographer or web designer and are looking for a powerful and easy-to-use tool, look no further than Xara!

System Requirements: Microsoft® Windows® XP (with SP3) | Vista® | 7 | 8 | 8.1, Intel® Celeron® or newer, or AMD® Sempron® or newer, 500MB of RAM, 300MB of available hard-disk space.

More info at:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Xara Web Designer 10 Premium Review

by Tony Thomas

If you have the need to create web sites quickly and easily, you should check out Xara Web Designer 10 Premium.  

have been watching this program develop for several years and it just keeps getting better and better. 

For those who are not familiar with the program, Xara Web Designer Premium is a WYSISYG web design application that enables you to create a beautiful looking web site in a fraction of the time of coding by hand.  

The latest iteration of Designer supports RWD or “Responsive Web Design”. This feature allows the web page you create to automatically adapt to the the screen size of any device used.  This is great since most web sites are not only viewed on computers, but tablets and phones as well.

Some of the new features of Xara Web Premium 10 include:

  • Improved page transition effects.
  • Single-page “supersite” support.
  • Smartshapes.
  • Insert menu.
  • New widgets.
  • Content catalog.
  • New templates.
  • Auto rotate of photos on import.
  • Online presentation support.
  • Improved Word and PDF import.
  • Magix Online World ‘M’ Hosting included free.

Using Xara Web Designer 10 Premium couldn't be any easier.  If you are a novice to web design, you can simply use any of the excellent templates from the designs gallery or the online content catalog.  If you are an experienced designer, you can start with a new file in a variety of different page sizes.  

If you need help learning its features, there is a robust help system plus a library of videos accessible from within the program.  This is great and will allow you to get “up to speed” with minimum effort.

In summary, Xara Web Designer Premium 10 is a great WYSIWYG web design solution and an amazing value.  The program allows you to produce professional results with a robust feature set and a nice selection of appealing templates.  Highly recommended!

More info at:

Platform: Windows XP/Vista/7/8
Version Tested: Premium
OS Tested On: Windows 8.1 Update 64-bit Version

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Xara Page & Layout Designer

by Tony Thomas

When I first got started doing page layout on computers back in the early 90s, I relied on a handful of desktop publishing programs, most notably Pagemakertm.  Today, most page layout is either done using very expensive professional publishing suites or (much less effectively), on word processing applications like Microsoft Wordtm or Libre Officetm.  Now, Xara has resurrected the DTP genre by providing a solution that delivers a lot of page layout and design power at a very reasonable price: Xara Page & Layout Designer.

Designed as a “document processor”, Xara Page & Layout Designer offers a workflow that will be very familiar to present Xara users and very attractive to those with limited design skills.  As the program offers a rich library of free templates and clipart, you can begin building complex and attractive layouts in seconds by simply dragging and dropping.  Key features include powerful advanced text-handling options (including text flow around objects), a page and layer gallery, web document support, text styles, spell check, and Google font support.

Features totally unexpected for a program in its class include: 3D object creation, integrated drawing and photo editing tools, Pantonetm color support, CMYK separation support plus professional PDF and PDF/X workflow.  In addition, Xara Page & Layout Designer supports a wide range of standard file formats including: RTF, Microsoft Word, JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG, TIFF, PSD, PDF, EMF, WMF and SVG.

My tests of the program confirmed its ease of use and incredible speed.  I was able to create complex designs quickly and easily, unlike what is possible using traditional word processing apps. At its current price (around $90 US),  Xara Page & Layout Designer is an unrivalled value!

For more information: