Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Cloud Insures Against Past PC Disasters

In the old days (including right up until now) it could be a nightmare when a PC failed. Not so much in the future, with cloud computing.

In the past, when a computer slowed up and finally quit, documents, often EMail contacts, drivers, and applications were lost or needed to be reclaimed IF they had been backed up, and after a lengthy reinstallation of of Windows applications and documents. You needed an external drive if you did back up files and it took a long time to transfer them back.

No more with the cloud. My documents are saved on the web in Dropbox. My music is newly stored on Amazon. Pictures on Picasa Web. Contacts and appointment calendar in GMail. When I start up anywhere most of my apps (word processor, presentation apps, etc.) are available on the web.

My bookmarks are synchronized so that wherever I log in to GMail, I have my bookmarks. Much is also synchronized with the Apple + iPad and iPod Touch (an iPhone without the contract).

So, when my old computer gives trouble, I just go to another computer and everything is there for me. Nothing is lost.

With my prototype laptop from Google, if it fails, I don’t even need to reload the OS, just restart it. The basic software is always up to date, since it runs on a distant server. A very cheap computer thus does the job, since everything runs remotely anyway.

Using the computer is also getting simpler. Wherever I have a microphone (really almost anywhere) I do voice searches now with Google Chrome or Dragon Search. My voice goes up to the cloud and comes back rendered into text. There is less of a need for a CD or DVD Drive or extra memory any more.

New laptops with solid state drives are now about to make laptops really portable without risk to the drive, and with the cloud, most of the data is not on the drive anyway.

TV or not TV - HD Recording

There are three main ways of recording TV or watching recorded TV now that HD reigns. VCRs and DVD recorders are a thing of the past and cannot handle HDTV, which is now the norm.

. renting a DVR digital video recorder from a cable provider like Comcast

. buying and renting a recorder from TIVO

. recording on PC with Windows Media Center (the Mac also records HDTV and the iPad plays some TV, though not HD)

You could also more and more just rely on online recorded TV, such as HULU and PBS.

The benefits of recording are that you can watch when you want. You may not want to watch commercials. (In the case of prescribed medicine commercials, I choose to let my doctor make my prescription choices and not watch them.) Or you may want to stop and start live TV to answer a phone call, etc.

The Comcast option is simple. Your simply pay about $15 a month for their very capable HD capable DVR box. Comcast also has on demand TV. You need Comcast service, of course, which can be expensive for full HDTV and a full assortment of HD basic channels.

The TIVO box costs $100+ up front, plus $20 a month for TIVO service. TIVO also now offers access to online TV, and more and more “TV” is moving online, much already pre-recorded. You do not need a computer, though. With TIVO just an internet connection is needed. If that connection is not close to your TV, a $60 wireless box may be needed.

For cheap online TV only, the inexpensive Roku and AppleTV boxes also offer much, online only, most already recorded but usually not in HD yet. The boxes cost $60-100 and there is no blanket monthly fee for the box. There are instead fees for Netflix and other such services, and for some programming, but much is free. You do not need a PC for thse either, but you do need an internet connection at about $25 a month or more. If you have a computer, you probably have that already.

Viewing online on a newer PC also requires internet. To view regular TV channels on a PC you need a box to connect the PC to cable or such a service as cable or SeniorTV or satellite TV. I have found the HDHomerun device at $70+ to be reliable. This device can stream to multiple PCs and even stream multiple channels. (Tech readers: the box even works with Ubuntu 11.4.) Most digital and HDTVs can accept input from a PC.

A fast newer PC can also record HDTV. The recording time is likely to be 10-20 hours as opposed to 35-up for the DVR boxes.

I will be evaluating the new TIVO Premiere box. Meanwhile, I will be using a PC with Windows Media Center for recording without either the upfront or monthly costs. My newer PC also sends to my HDTV.

Choices, again:

Your PC and SeniortTV service, plus internet ($$)

PC or Roku or AppleTV for online only, plus internet ($)

Senior TV and TIVO, with or without internet online TV ($$)

Comcast or Cable ($$$)

Monday, June 20, 2011

When to Upgrade Your Computer

When my old 2002 Dell 4550 PC Tower started hiccuping with repeated problems. I knew it was time to replace it. I had tried the usual “fixes” and was facing reinstallation of the operating system, a sort of heart transplant. I decided to try the latter anyway, for “fun”, and I learned something surprising which changes my approach to old computers, I think, but wait and see...

And, if this is all gobbledegook to you, read on anyway. It does not matter. You will get general idea on when to upgrade.

I needed a tower which could record HDTV, and hold my iTunes music library and otherwise support my iPod Touch hand-held music player, really a handy tiny computer because it does so much wherever I need it. I also needed a MUCH faster computer to keep up to date with the new.

Basically the tower is therefore a “server”, (that’s a holding tank), though wherever possible more and more of my storage is going to the cloud, in which case my tower is also a backup for the cloud. I wanted Windows 7 and its easy search, document preview, and document management capabilities. I do like Windows 7---it is just Microsoft I hate (not really). though I like Apple a bit better--a lot less to go wrong.

I had found a new powerhouse Dell Inspiron 560 for $279 upgraded to a 3.2 processor for $40 more. Consumer Reports recommended a similar computer from Dell, the 580.

Click for Dell details.

But how much could I have done with the old computer? I decided to find out.

When all else fails with an old computer, you are up against about a day’s work with uncertain outcome. You first need to find the old installation cds or get them from the provider. Now where were they, plus all the other “app” CDs? In the case of the Dell, I found them and downloaded updated new utilities from Dell’s site. Dell has guides and manuals, too. Dell is a big help, with clear instructions for the do-it-yourselfer. (Just “Google” Dell manuals.)

I actually had an early-adopter $50 Windows 7 upgrade CD to replace the old XP. It loaded quite easily to my surprise. However, it did not recognize the graphics card, and so on. Worse, I could not find drivers for Windows 7 on Internet. The new Windows 7 just does not support all old peripherals. I could not even get to internet to proceed. The old internet card was shot, and an old wireless adapter was not recognized.

The next step would be to load all the upgrades which were needed since Windows 7 was originally issued. After that I would need to install all applications. I might avoid other apps by using cloud apps like Google Docs as opposed to Word Perfect. Still, a lot more work.

I gave up. The old computer had a bad network card, an incompatible graphics board, no more XP support and upgrades, and no ability to provide what I needed above. It also had a loud whirring and irritating wining noise, but that did not bother me that much due to my loss of hearing. It now took three or four tries to get started after being shut down, but I had just been leaving it on.

But was there a way to use it somehow?

I tried something I had tried for years without success. As a server, or just to use internet, I could maybe use Linux, a free alternative to Windows. Now Linux always had failed me in one way or another, but in recent years a philanthropist, and Google, too, have both been supporting it and Google has adopted it for its nifty Chrome computer. What if I tried the Google Chrome OS installer? An alternative would be something called Ubuntu. I downloaded both to CD with my laptop. Then I booted the old tower with the CD.

Click here to get Ubuntu...

WOW!! In ten minutes both worked, including basic apps!! TEN MINUTES. Free, too! I might have needed only a network connection for internet.

Well, the old computer is going to be laid to rest anyway, because it does not support my iPod Touch* nor record HDTV, but I do have a new way to help others stave off buying new. Just try Ubuntu at least until completely exasperated with the old computer's shortcomings. Might be OK if you wanted nothing but browsing internet.

Footnote: the old computer may not be laid to rest right away---it runs internet browsing faster than the others, probably becuase it is not bogged down with Windows or Mac.

Monday, June 13, 2011

TV or not TV

I watch more and of my TV and video online, either at the computer or on TV or with Roku (or AppleTV). Most is not live but recorded. The day may come when I do not need cable or satellite, nor its cost, though there is now a charge for some online offerings. The $60 Roku box Click here for Roku delivers much recorded TV and even some overseas live TV, plus recorded broadcasts and my CDs. I recommend it for anybody.

The offerings online are increasing daily, with much PBS Click here for PBS, and with university lectures available via Apple iTunes via computer (free).

For example, a consultant to this retirement community (Willow Valley) has turned my attention to the stimulating offerings of TED online Click here for TED .

Recently Willow Valley Click here for WV, my retirement community, has offered us a choice: Comcast TV or low-cost in-house SeniorTV, a satellite-based provider like DirectTV or DishTV, but using the pre-existing cables.

Which to choose?

In the past, those with a choice have often asked for help in their decision. The answer will depend on their needs and wants and pocketbook.

To cut to the chase, the choice has often been made simply on channels offered or cost. There were those who wanted the Phillies if offered only on Comcast and those who alternatively wanted a lower price. The sports channels may now become more generally available now.

SeniorTV offers 40 HD channels in its basic price and HD to all TVs without added cost to the basic service, a bargain at $25 a month.

There is then the issue of whether you want to record or watch recorded TV.

Comcast offers a very good set top box for recording at a monthly cost. Other services may rely on such a box or you may buy one yourself, such as from TIVO Click here for TIVO at an initial one-time cost of $100-300 plus $20 a month.

Or you may may simply watch on your newer computer, or stream pre-recorded TV from your internet service, directly or through the Roku or AppleTV box ($60-80 and $100) Click here for AppleTV. You might not want or need TV service at all, yet have plenty of programming to watch online.

How confusing!

Basically I plan to have almost all the options and at low cost. Here is how.

I don’t need the sports channels and I will take the low-cost community coverage and use a $100 TIVO Premiere set top box.

I will be using an old computer to play recorded PBS, not HD but thru our large-screen HDTV---the local PBS offerings are otherwise very limited with a single channel as compared with eight in Philadelphia! Separately a $320 newer Dell 560s computer Click here for Dell will have the capability of recording about ten hours of HDTV, using a $130 HDHomerun HDTV tuner box Click here for HDHomerun (search my older posts).

I will save $180 annually by giving up the Comcast recorder and another $336 annually by not continuing Comcast service.

Also, consider the internet service itself and its bandwidth or speed. Comcast offers high-speed internet and others DSL or mobile hotspot service (Clear Communications). Clear covers the whole campus plus much of Lancaster, for example, with no wires or cables.

I would recommend Clear, Click here for Clear which I do have, and which delivers access to me in most places BUT I am not sure if it can handle the use by many in a small area for popular TV, or will be forced to "Cap" service I have it anyway.

So I have Clear but also Windstream DSL Click here for Windstream

Write down your needs and consider your pocketbook. All options are worth considering. All have some downsides.

Let me know if you find some better alternatives, especially for recording TV.