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 Linked In 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:

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:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9

I have been using Xara for almost two decades. Not only is it a great drawing tool, but I have also found it useful for general design work, photo editing and compositing. Xara has been able to replace several other tools in my arsenal.

The latest incarnation, Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9, does not disappoint.  It provides even more powerful photo editing, vector drawing and compositing tools at a rock-bottom price.

New features include:

- A “photo healing”  tool that allows you to remove blemishes and other defects quickly and easily.

- A “background erase” tool that makes it easy to perform tasks that generally require expensive photo editing software.

- New masking tools for complex photo and vector editing tasks.

- A “shape painter” tool that allows to to draw shapes using vector art.

- Google Font support as well as support for multi-weight fonts, graphical bullets and numbers.

- Faster recoloring of grouped items.

- New photo FX plug ins for adding a creative touch.

In using version 9, I found that there are a number of new flyouts in the toolbar interface making it easy to find just the tool you need without any fuss.  There are also a number of new and updated templates that make it easy to get your project started.  I had a lot of fun playing with the new filters and the shape painter and I know that these features will be useful in future projects.

All in all, Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9 is a strong offering that builds on the solid foundation of the Xara engine.  There is nothing like it for the price!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Xara Web Designer 9 Premium

Xara Web Designer 9 Premium is the newest version of the powerful and popular web design application that uses the blazingly-fast Xara graphic engine. I have been a Xara user since 1996, and it has largely replaced my former favorite design tool, CorelDRAW. The latest version of Designer Premium offers a number of great new features. Here are some of them: 64-bit Windows support: if you use a 64-bit version of Windows, you can now take advantage of any memory that you have installed above the former 4GB limitation. What that gives you is the ability to create much larger websites with richer content and high-resolution images. Google Fonts support: One of the biggest recent developments on the web design front is Google's new font collection. Now, from within Xara Designer Premium 9, you can choose any one of the more than 600 fonts that Google offers for free! Drag and Drop Navbar Replacement: Do you need to replace a NavBar in one of your designs? All you need to do is drag and drop the new NavBar on the current one and all of the existing menus and links are copied automatically. New Backgrounds: Designer 9 Premium adds a new collection of color-editable backgrounds including repeating bar designs, tiling textures and graduated fills. To use them, simply drag-and-drop. New Widgets: The program also includes a new collection of widgets that include support for things like basic tables, Google+ buttons and Google's Ad Sense ads. There are also six new photo slideshow and gallery widgets. New Web Theme Designs: Twenty new web themes are included with 15 page layouts each— a $200 value. In addition, there is a new category of themes for businesses like travel agents, hairdressers, pubs, etc. These are completely customized with linked pages and professional photography suited to each business type. High-Resolution Screen Support: Many new devices support high-resolution screens and designer is now up to the task of creating the high resolution photos and web graphics to support them. Not only that, the program automatically creates smart web pages that load the best resolution graphics for system and browser used.
Improved HTML Compatibility: Designer now follows HTML5 standards transparently and without user intervention whenever possible. Shapes and graphics are now displayed using native HTML instead of graphics files. That makes for a faster, more memory-efficient website that is still compatible with older browsers. Quick Re-coloring: This new feature makes it easy to change the individual colors of grouped objects adding both flexibility and speed to the design process. Free Web Hosting: Owners of Web designer premium receive one year of Magix World M hosting with 2 GB of free space, one free domain name and free, web-based e-mail worth nearly $25 a year. For those on a budget, there is also a non-premium version of Web Designer 9 with a slimmed-down feature set at half the price. (Not that Web Designer Premium is that expensive. It is only $99!) While checking out the program, I found that all of the new features are seamlessly integrated into the program’s attractive and clean interface. Designer Premium 9 is as fast and powerful as ever and is an absolute joy to use. These new enhancements make Web Designer Premium 9 a must have program for professional web designers. Its amazing feature set, ease of use and speed make it a tremendous design tool!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Google Nexus 7 - The Future of Tablets?

First impressions

I finally got a chance to hold and play with a Google Nexus 7 tablet at my local Staples store.  Manufactured by Asus, the Nexus 7 is the first Google experience tablet available.  Equipped with a quad-core nVidia Tegra processor, Jellybean OS, front-facing camera and quality touchscreen display, this tablet offers a lot of computing power at a very attractive price ($199 for 8GB and $249 for 16GB).   Interestingly, despite robust sales, is very difficult to find these tablets locally.  In fact, at Staples, the N7 wasn't located anywhere near all of the other popular tablets.  I found it tucked in its own little corner near the notebook computers.

In terms of form and fit, the N7 seems to resemble other 7 inch tablets.  It does have a very nice textured back which makes it easy to hold and its form factor feels really good in the hand. The display is nice and bright and similar to other Asus displays that I've seen.    In terms of weight, it is quite light and a welcome relief for those of us who have been dealing with larger tablets in the past.

Digging Deeper

Two things that are readily apparent by examining the N7 are its lack of a rear-facing camera and SD card slot.  With only 8 or 16 GB of memory, depending on which model you buy, this tablet is clearly aimed at those who plan to be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi most of the time (a la the Kindle Fire).  

I believe that these limitations are fatal flaws that may impede sales once the initial popularity of the device starts to fade.  My main 7 inch tablet these days is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, and I find both the rear camera feature and the micro-SD card slot to be invaluable features that increase its functionality and productivity potential.  Recent news that Google plans to add 3G to the N7 in the near future may increase its longevity as a pure media consumption device.

However, even with those significant limitations, the N7 is an impressive device at its price point.  Its Jellybean OS seems to be an incremental upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, with a smoother UI experience  ("butter", as Google calls it) and some nice new features.

Final Thoughts

With the introduction of the Nexus 7, it appears that the 7" tablet segment is finally starting to heat up again.  Amazon will be releasing refreshes of its popular Kindle Fire tablets soon and Apple is reportedly its releasing its iPad Mini tablet in October.  I predict that the 7-inch form factor pioneered by Samsung's original Galaxy Tab, the B&N Nook and Amazon's Kindle Fire will eventually become the most popular form factor for tablets.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Apple v. Samsung - Verdict Fallout

I watched the Apple versus Samsung trial with considerable interest. As a consumer of electronics products, I knew its outcome would impact the entire marketplace. Samsung's suspicious internal memos were what ultimately caused Apple to win the case. It was clear from reading them that Samsung flew a little too close to the flame in trying to mimic Apple designs. However, I still don't believe that it should be possible for a company to patent a geometric shape under the category of "trade dress".

$1 billion? Seriously? Are the little bounce animation, pinch-to-zoom functionality and modified rectangular shape really worth 50 bucks a phone?  Is Apple going to become a patent farm trolling for dollars? Are you willing to pay hundreds of dollars per device to underwrite all of the patent claims? These are important questions and it remains to be seen how they are going to be answered by the average consumer. The bottom line is that the consumer is still king. Patents don't mean anything unless people are willing to pay for them.