Finally making my way back to the Surface

It’s been a crazy month. I won’t go into the details, but it started with a trip to Redmond (where I was immersed in All Things Microsoft, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to buy (a) an umbrella to shield me from the omnipresent rain and (b) a Band 2 in size Small, which should have been easy to find in the heart of Softie Land but proved impossible).  Two days before I left home, though, I took just-in-time delivery of the new toy I’d been anticipating since its unveiling in early October: the Surface Pro 4.

With a million things going on all at once for the last few weeks (one of which was a series of interviews for an FTE position with Microsoft – but don’t panic; like Jean Luc Picard, once temporarily known as Locutus of Borg, I have escaped assimilation – at least for the moment), there was little time at first to explore its features.


Add to that a week-long conference, a killer workload, preliminary work on a major remodeling project, the diagnosis of a chronic condition in one of my canine babies and the resultant vet visits, family “stuff,” volunteer work and more. Then when I did finally get my Band 2 (Amazon came through, as usual), I was so enamored of it and had so many people clamoring to know how I liked it that I ended up writing that review first. But after weeks of drowning in the murky waters of Too Much To Do, I finally fought my way back up to the Surface.

The delay is probably a good thing, as it gave me time to work with it more and discover more reasons to like it (as well as solidify my opinions as to what still needs to be improved as the Surface 5 goes under construction).  The following is my opinion after spending almost four weeks with this dignified little laptop/tablet and falling in love with its quiet competence, while most of my friends were lusting after its flashy-dressing big brother, the Surface Book.


image Taking a look: Pro vs. Book

There was no question, after seeing the broadcast of Microsoft’s “Windows 10 Devices Event” introducing its new Surface line on October 6th that I was going to be getting a new portable computer. The first question was: Which one? By the time the presentations were all over, I knew I wanted a Band 2 (which I have already reviewed elsewhere in this Technology Insights blog) and I knew I wanted a Lumia 950XL (but that’s another tale for another time).  The only decision was whether to upgrade my Surface 3 to a 4, or jump to Microsoft’s sleek new more-laptop-than-tablet that they managed to keep secret. I had already made my plans to get a new Surface but I hadn’t expected them to “throw the Book at me.”

I did mull it over, but in the end, for me the choice was obvious. Oh, the Book is sexy as all get-out. The screen is a little bigger, and  the specs are impressive at the high end, with an NVIDIA GeForce GPU and up to a terabyte of SSD storage. There are two USB 3 ports, a full size SD card reader, and an incredible 12 hours of battery life. Not to mention that hinge that has so many tech toy fans coming unhinged. But the configuration I would want, with an i5 processor and 16 GB of RAM, is priced at a (not so) cool $2699 – and that’s with just the 512 GB SSD.

Instead, I could spend $1499 (around $1650 with the new and improved keyboard – which is worth it; more on that later) for a Pro 4 with a Core i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage and save a thousand bucks for other things. Given my particular use case, it was a no-brainer.  Now, I will say that if I were going to use my portable as a desktop replacement, my decision most likely would have been different. But I have a monster machine, a desktop tower with a 4.0 GHz processor and 32 GB of RAM that runs six monitors so all I need the Surface for is a good on-the-road machine. And the Pro 4 in the configuration mentioned above fills that bill just fine.


The obligatory unboxing

  I ordered the week after the unveiling, but ship date on both the Microsoft site and Amazon was shown as October 26. I was flying out on the 29th and thought that probably, giving my usual luck when it comes to timing, it would get here an hour after I left. This time I got lucky, and it showed up on the 28th, so I got to take it Redmond with me (which turned out not to be such as good thing after all, given what happened to my brand new pen – but more on that later).

    image image


I’ve had every Surface Pro since the original. I never had an RT (Tom did) but the Pro had me – someone who has lusted after every light, thin, tiny laptop computer since my first Sony VAIO in the early 2000s that cost me almost $3000 and that was followed by three more VAIOs, the last of which was the wafer thin disappointingly low-powered (for the price) X series machine that put form way ahead of function – at hello.

Quick aside for a bit of Sony trivia: how many of you knew that VAIO stands for Visual Audio Intelligent Organizer?

The new iteration of the Surface had me at Hello, too – Windows Hello, that is. It’s just one of many “little things” that makes my latest Surface such a delight to use. So much so that if I could find a way to hook it up to six monitors (or maybe even just four), I would seriously consider getting a docking station and using it as my primary computer.  I’ll talk more about this feature in Part 2.

Taking it out of the box for the first time, I could see that the size of the Pro 4 was almost the same as the 3. It’s a little thinner and a little lighter, but the other dimensions are the same. You do, however, get more screen real estate because the bezel is a little thinner. Probably the most noticeable difference is that there is no Windows button on the right side of the screen as there is on the Pro 3. That’s okay, since I don’t think I ever used it even once.


The body finish is the same (which is good, since I think the magnesium alloy material is pretty classy looking). If you’re super observant, you might notice that the word “Surface” on the back has been replaced by just the Windows logo.  The kickstand is the same “any position” type as on the Pro 3, which is orders of magnitude better than the “two position” stand on the Pro 2, which itself was a big improvement over the one-position-fits-all stance of the original.

Here’s the key(board)

I had already received my new keyboard (Type cover) a few days before, and had been using it with my Pro 3 (yes, it’s backward-compatible). I had already grown extremely fond of it, and if I were told I could have only a Pro 4 with the old keyboard or I could have a Pro 3 with the new keyboard, it wouldn’t be an easy decision. The improvements to the keyboard are significant. There is a slight spacing between the keys now so that they have a “chiclet” design and this makes it far easier to type accurately for someone like me who touch types at high speeds for long periods.

The other dramatic improvement is to the touchpad. I hate touchpads. One of many reasons that I’ve stuck with desktop PCs when many people were abandoning them completely for laptops is my distain for the keyboards (I prefer a curved but compact ergonomic keyboard like the Microsoft Comfort Curve (with wrist rest removed), which is my “everyday” workhorse keyboard.  But more than the keyboards, I have always despised laptop pointing devices. Touchpads, J-mice (the little “stick” between the middle keys), tiny trackballs (yes, some laptops long ago had those) – none ever worked well. Yes, of course I know that I can plug my external ergo keyboard and my Logitech gaming mouse with all the customized programmable buttons into a laptop, but that makes it a lot less portable. And especially with a very small and light computer like the Surfaces, portability is sort of the whole point.

That’s why I was pretty thrilled to find that the touchpad on the Pro 4 actually works pretty beautifully. It’s much bigger than the one on the 3, and it’s smooth as glass. I still plug a mouse in most of the time, but when I’m in a truly mobile situation such as at a meeting, I don’t find myself wanting to pull my hair out when I try to do things on it. Big kudos to Microsoft for the huge bump in usability that these hardware changes have made.

Here is my whole collection of Surface keyboards, from the horrible “Touch” keyboard that we got with the original to the first Type cover for the Pro 2 to the backlit cover for the Pro 3 to this great keyboard/cover, complete with fingerprint reader, that was released at the same time as the Pro 4.



Power to the people – and the Surface

There are a couple more pieces of hardware to talk about before we boot the thing up and look through the Windows.  The power brick is identical to the one for the Surface Pro 3, which is to say it’s amazingly small and light compared to those that came with laptops of yore (or even a couple of years ago). It has a built-in USB port, although I rarely use it since I generally carry a USB hub with me if I’m taking any extra USB peripherals. When I’m going to be doing “real work” while traveling, I bring along an external keyboard, a mouse, a small USB hard drive that all of my data lives on, and sometimes one or even two portable USB monitors so I can have a three-screen setup.  Below is my working setup with the Surface in my cabin on board a cruise ship.



USB aside, the power bar is small enough that I can wind up the cord and tuck both it and the Surface itself into a medium-sized purse along with my phone, important cards and cash (yes, I’m an old fogey who still actually carries some) and go, and not feel burdened or weighed down at all.  That’s pretty cool.


The Pen is mightier …

Then there’s the pen. I had a love/hate relationship with the Surface Pro 3 pen. I loved the precision of it; had to admit that the N-Trig technology is quite good. However, I hated that unlike with the Pro 1 and 2, both of which used Wacom technology, I couldn’t use my Note’s pen on it. Now that wouldn’t have mattered except for the other thing that I hated about it: despite my pleas, Microsoft didn’t provide an internal storage slot for it. What they did give me, with the 3, was a laughable little stick-on loop that a) looked very tacky and b) promptly fell off the first time I pulled the pen out of it. Seriously?

Well, they didn’t fix the problem(s) above with the new pen for Surface 4.  They create a magnetic system for holding it to the side of the Surface, which looks pretty classy but has one huge failing: it doesn’t hold it tight and the pen falls off any time you bump it against something while carrying it or putting it into or out of your bag.

image  image

The pen will stick to either side of the tablet and this keeps it very handy, but this is a setup for losing it – which is exactly what happened to me, less than a week after I got my new Surface. Ironically, I lost it somewhere on the Microsoft campus while rushing from place to place during the aforementioned job interview process.  I ended up trekking to the Microsoft Store in Bellevue to shell out another $60 for a replacement. That was a great big “ouch.”  As many times as I’ve heard others like me plead with the company to build in a slot inside the chassis for storing the pen (which, after all, is something that Samsung has done with its Notes and Asus has done with its VivoTab, among others), you have to wonder if someone up there in the accounting department is counting on lost pens as a revenue stream.

Here’s the solution that I finally settled on. It’s not elegant, but so far I haven’t lost the pen again. I use the clip and attach it to the “channel” on the bottom of the keyboard when I’m carrying it. Then I snap it to the side of the screen when I’m using it.


As for the pen itself, once you’ve figured out how to keep up with it: It’s pretty great.  There have been some big changes since the Pen 3, and they’re for the better. There’s one long button instead of two side buttons, and now there is an “eraser” on top that works like a pencil eraser – you turn it upside down and erase with it.  But that’s not all. Press down on that “eraser” button to click it and it automatically opens OneNote. Since my motto is “With OneNote, I can organize the world,” I love this feature.  Double-clicking takes a screenshot. How cool is that? And a long press-and-hold pops up my new best friend, Cortana (I’ll be giving her a blog post of her own in the near future, as she so richly deserves after winning over my skeptical heart).

Pressure sensitivity has been improved greatly. The new pen has 1024 different levels (the old one had only 256). It also has interchangeable tips that come with it.  Bottom line is that the pen works well. I’m not an artist but I draw a little, and while the Surface pen isn’t quite the same as a real pen and paper, it’s remarkably close for electronic media and it does things I can’t easily or conveniently do with an ink pen, such as changing colors or stroke thickness almost instantly.  The pen on the Pro 3 was good – the one made for the Pro 4 is better.

Have I forgiven Microsoft for switching from Wacom to N-Trig? Oh, yeah. Have I forgiven them for not including an internal slot for it? Almost.


And so much more

There’s a lot more to the new Surface than just the hardware. In fact, in this review I’ve barely even touched the Surface, so to speak. That’s why I’ll be continuing this with a Part 2 that I hope to have up here in a few days. Thanksgiving is coming, which means I get to take the whole day off from “real” (i.e. paid) work, and in between cooking enough lobster mac & cheese and various and sundry other dishes to feed a small army (or more appropriately for my family, a small navy), I’m hoping to be able to grab a few hours of free “me” time to finish this up. Meanwhile, if you’re the type who doesn’t like to skip ahead to find out the ending, spoiler alert:





I really, really like my Surface Pro 4.

Stay tuned for more details.

Never enter a battle of wits unarmed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Strike up the Band (2): First Impressions

band 2

I love the concept of the smart watch – I have since Dick Tracy wore his phone on his wrist waaaay back in my childhood comic book days. When Microsoft came out with the SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watches about ten years ago, I gazed upon them with longing … thinking the same thing I’ve thought about pretty much every smart watch that has hit the market since then: If only they would make it a little smaller.  Most of the watches have been obviously designed with men in mind – and it makes sense; most techies are male, after all. Advanced electronics are traditionally boys’ toys. Guys and their gadgets go together like … women and shoe shopping? (I hate shoe shopping).

So I’ve been waiting, sometimes patiently, for somebody to make one that works for me. My watch, all my life, has been a constant companion. It’s not a fashion accessory – although I’ve had some very fashionable ones – it’s a functional piece of equipment that I depend on to tell me the time. I wear it 24/7 except when I’m swimming or in the shower (and if my current model is waterproof, I wear it then, too).  I also spend most of my day at a keyboard, touch typing 90 wpm. So I don’t want something that’s huge and heavy and clunky and in the way when I’m working. It doesn’t need to emulate a Rolex but it also has to look good enough for me to not be embarrassed wearing it to a business meeting or out to dinner at a nice restaurant.

I’ve been watching the smart watch space closely for years. Samsung came out with some interesting things. I loved the form factor of the Gear Fit and the functionality of the Gear 2, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t have the latter in the package of the former. Sony’s piqued my interest momentarily but like the Gear 2, it was too big and square and obtrusive.  I came close to buying a Pebble but again, the form factor stopped me.

When Apple announced that they were going to make a watch, I dreaded seeing it. I figured they would come out with something that looked amazing – and those who know me know that I do not want to give my money to Apple. Well, I didn’t have to worry about it; theirs was just the same old same old: big square face that looks and feels like a man’s watch no matter how nice of a band you put on it. I was envisioning something like this:

  or maybe this: 

Instead, we got this:

which looks pretty much like the Sony, the Gear, etc.


Microsoft, on the other hand, seemed to at least recognize that the “big square screen” design doesn’t work for everybody.  The first Band got me excited, because it was shaped more like the Samsung Fit, but with more smart watch functions.  In fact, I was ready to buy that first Band – and happily trekked across Dallas to the Microsoft Store a few days after it was released.  And that’s where things went downhill.

I was thrilled to see that it came in three sizes: small, medium and large, unlike some of the others that only came in two (with the S/M always being waaaay too big for me).  When I tried on the display model, though, I had second thoughts. It just plain wasn’t comfortable. The shape was … weird.  It didn’t conform to my wrist shape at all, and I couldn’t imagine having it on all day, every day – which, as mentioned above, is what I require from a watch, smart or otherwise.

It turned out to be sort of a moot point, though, because when we asked about it (Tom was still interested in getting one, and the fit wasn’t quite as awkward on him since his wrists are a lot bigger), they had none in stock. And they didn’t have any idea when they were going to get any in. We went back home and checked the Microsoft Store online, and they also showed it to be sold out in all sizes. We checked back a week or two later and there were still none available. So we bought Fitbits.

The Fitbit Charge worked really well for me. It functioned as a watch (although I didn’t love having to press the button or tap the face to see the time). It counted my steps and stairs and tracked my sleep and buzzed to let me know when I had an incoming phone call. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too heavy. It wasn’t the prettiest watch in the world – all black plastic – but it didn’t look awful, either, and I found a source for bracelets that fit over it to dress it up for formal occasions. All in all, it was pretty cool.  I collected a number of Fitbit friends, and it definitely motivated me to move more.

Fitbit stairs on ship  

But I still longed for a real smart watch. Getting phone call notifications was neat but I get maybe two phone calls per week. I kept missing it would notify me of email messages, Facebook private messages and Twitter direct messages. I wished the screen was in color because … well, just because. You could set alarms but you had to do it through the web site or app, not on the watch itself. I wished it had a countdown timer and a stopwatch built in, too.  I also thought it would be great if I could see my calendar appointments on the watch. On the up side, it got incredible battery life – more than a week between charges – and I could wear it in the shower, although I rarely did.

I kept thinking about that Band, though, and looking forward to the second generation. In my experience, Microsoft always starts out slowly but tends to get things perfected around v3.  I was willing to settle for less than perfect if they made it more comfortable to wear, to get the features mentioned above that were missing from my Fitbit.

Then an omen: my Fitbit broke. It didn’t stop working, exactly. But the button on it came off, and now there was no way for me to page through my numbers on the device. It continued to track and I could see on the app or web site what I’d done, but that information was no longer available to me on my wrist.  It was obviously time to buy a new fitness band.  So last month I camped out in front of my monitor to watch Microsoft’s “event” introducing their new products, interested in seeing the Surface Pro 4 and the new Lumias, but especially eager to see what they had done to improve the Band.


I wasn’t disappointed. They showed off a redesigned form factor that curves around your wrist now, and has all of my longed-for features and more – including some that it never occurred to me to want, such as the ability to measure UV intensity to warn me of impending sunburn (a handy feature for a redhead). There’s a built in GPS to map your runs, so you don’t have to carry your phone with you. That’s nice. There’s a heart rate sensor, which you can get with the Fitbit Charge HR but wasn’t included in my model of the Charge (which I bought before the HR was released).  In addition to the Run/walk tile, there’s a Bike tile that works with stationary bikes as well as “real” ones and even a Golf tile (which I’ll never use).

But the really enticing features, to me, were the ones that go beyond fitness band and venture into smart watch territory.  The Mail tile lets you check your email messages and see the first few lines of each. The Messaging tile lets you see your SMS messages (if you do texting) and has pre-set canned quick responses you can send just by tapping. The Facebook tile shows your FB feed (I turned that one off – way too busy) and the Facebook Messenger tile lets you get your private messages on the watch (this one I love).  There’s a weather tile to show you the forecast, a Twitter tile to display incoming tweets, and of course a Calls tile for your phone calls.


After the demo on October 6, I was extremely interested – but the Band is a non-essential (some might say a “toy”) and my first concern was to upgrade my major productivity tool, the Surface Pro. So first I ordered a Surface Pro 4 – which I will also get around to reviewing here in the next week, I promise).  It arrived just in the nick of time for me to take it with me to Redmond for some meetings week before last and then the MVP Summit this past week.

While we were there, I saw several people on campus wearing the new Band and that got me Jonesing for one again. So one night when we found a small hole in the busy schedule, we went over to Bellevue Mall to the Microsoft Store to check it out (and to buy me a new pen for the Surface, since I had promptly lost the three-day-old one that came with it, somewhere on Microsoft campus). I grabbed a new pen and went over to look at and try on the new Band. Lo and behold, the small size fit my wrist and wasn’t really that much bigger than the Fitbit Charge. I was ready to buy.

Then: déjà vu. They didn’t have any size S in stock. They didn’t even have any size M in stock. All they had was L, and there was no way in the world that would work.  Once again, I left a Microsoft Store frustrated at not being able to get what I had come for.

I put it out of mind as the week went on. MVP Summit is always a jam-packed week and this was no exception. I had sessions all day, beginning early in the morning, with lunches and dinners and parties to fill up my time. I was collapsing in my hotel bed each night with no time to think about acquiring new gadgets. Then on the last day of Summit, one of our presenters was wearing a Band, and I told her about how I had been trying to find one in S, and she related her own ordeal of having to order and wait two weeks. But seeing hers and how much she liked it got me interested all over again, so I went back and had an inspiration: Where do I buy everything anyway? Amazon. I checked and sure enough, they had size S available and ready to ship and I could get it the next day. That click was an easy decision.

So I flew back home and yesterday I waited around for it to be delivered. Every time my dogs barked at the front door, I got my hopes up – only to have them dashed when it turned out to be a passing bicyclist or someone delivering flyers that I would immediately put in the trash. I had to leave at 8:30 pm to go to the airport and pick up Tom, who had to stay a day longer than I did. Finally, at 8:02, the UPS truck pulled up with my much-anticipated box.


So I had less than half an hour to charge it and configure it so I could wear it to the airport. To my surprise, I got it done with time to spare.  I installed the Band app on my phone (Galaxy Note 4 – it’s available for iOS and of course, Windows Phone, too).  It came partially charged and only took a few minutes to get it up to 82% battery.  There was an update available so I applied it. Basic setup was amazingly quick and the interface very intuitive.




I discovered there were a lot of configuration options so I went through it quickly.  Picked my colors and wallpaper design, set the brightness to low (which is plenty bright) to save battery, set the haptic alerts (vibration) to low intensity, You can specify what notifications you want to get: Phone calls – on, Facebook – off, Facebook Messenger – on, calendar appointments – on, and so forth. Something called “Notification center.” I wasn’t sure what that was but okay, sounded good, so I set it to “on.”  Got everything all synced between phone and Band, and then I was off to the airport.

After driving for a few minutes, I realized I had made a big mistake. My Band was lighting up and buzzing every 10 seconds or so, with another notification from the “center.” I was getting notices about how much battery I had left and other information that I didn’t need to know right now.  Eek. I envisioned my battery running down in a couple of hours if it kept this up – not to mention that the constant vibration on my wrist was driving me nuts even if it was at low intensity. I pulled off the freeway and parked so I could turn the notification center off.

With that corrected, I started to fall in love with my new device. I had set “watch mode” to “rotate on.” There are three settings: On (which keeps the watch face turned on all the time and uses a lot of battery power), Off (which keep it turned off until you press the button) and Rotate On (which turns it on briefly when you rotate your wrist to look at the face).  It works great – I hold my watch in “viewing” position and it comes on so I can see the time, then goes back off after a couple of seconds. How cool is that?

On the face, it shows the time (you can select a.m./p.m. or military time), your steps, and an alarm if one is set.


You can swipe to the right to see the battery status, whether the heart rate monitor is on and whether Bluetooth is on.  Swipe left to see the tiles that you have selected to appear.  You can arrange the order of the tiles and turn them on or off in the Band app on your phone, as shown below.

 Screenshot_2015-11-07-19-00-45    Screenshot_2015-11-07-19-01-13_resized

I have mine set up to display email, phone calls, calendar appointments, runs/walks, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, alarm clock, workouts, sleep tracking, weather and stock market info. 

The email app shows you how many new messages I have and lets me scroll through to see previews.

The Facebook Messenger app buzzes when I get an incoming message and displays the message so I can read it on my wrist without looking at my phone.


The weather app shows high/low temperature and sunny/cloudy/rainy etc. status icons for today and 5 days in the future.


The stock market app shows you the current price and loss or gain for the stock symbols that you enter in the app.


One thing I really like about this is that they have really made the interface user-friendly. There are basically no instructions that came with it – but none are necessary.  Everything is pretty self-explanatory. Just tap and swipe and you’ll quickly learn to navigate it.

The thing that I like less is that the battery life is much less than with the Fitbit – but that’s to be expected, given how much more it does. I’ve not had it long enough to really measure but starting at 82% full last night at 8:00 p.m., and keeping in mind that I had everything turned on for a while at first and hadn’t done any power optimization, it’s showing just under 50% at 7:22 p.m. tonight. So it appears the 48 hour battery life that Microsoft claims is going to be pretty accurate for my usage case.

And I can live with that.  I spend hours each day sitting at my desk, typing. I can easily keep the charger there, take it off and plug it in when I start to work, and put it back on when I stop for the morning dog walk at 10:30 a.m.  I might miss recording a few of my steps and stairs when I go down to get coffee, but that’s no big deal. 

I’m still exploring the features and learning more about what it will do. Your info gets transferred to the Microsoft Health web site (this is different from Health Vault) and you can get a lot of valuable metrics there, although I haven’t been using it long enough to compile any real stats yet. Here’s what the site looks like.



Of course, my numbers from yesterday, when I had it on for only a few hours before bedtime, skew my percentages and averages, so I’ll need to wear it for a week to get any good stats, but as you can see, it gives you quite a bit of data to work with.

Time will tell how the device will hold up, both physically and software-wise. So far, I’m impressed. I’ll update this blog post after a couple of weeks of living with it. Stay tuned.

 UPDATE – 11/10/15

Yesterday I wore both the Band 2 and the Fitbit all day to see how their measurements compared. The results of that face-off: In the end, surprisingly, the Band calculated more steps than the Fitbit, but only a few more. Final talley was Band 8802 and Fitbit 8754. Band 22 flights of stairs, Fitbit 18. I started counting stairs at mid-day and manually counted 12. Band said 13, Fitbit said 10.

Conclusion: Steps are close enough to not matter. Stairs aren’t accurate for either. I love, love, love all the extra info that the Band gives me.

Fitbit, of course, is the clear winner on battery life. I always get more than a week between charges with it. Band so far has been better than I expected. I charged it on Saturday and it’s showing about 15% full now so almost three days instead of the 48 hours they estimate. Note that I do have brightness level set to low and haptic intensity set to low. It’s plenty bright for indoor and it’s readable outdoors (more so than my phone when set to the low brightness that I prefer indoors) but really needs to be at least medium to see it well in the sunlight.

I vastly prefer the clasp on the Band. One reason I was happy that the Fitbit’s battery lasted so long was that it was such a pain to put back on, to get the holes to line up right and get it to pop in. The Band has little buttons on each side that you push in, slide it into the groove and release and it’s on securely.

Not sure how I feel about the rubber of the “band” part. I wish they had made it textured like the Fitbit’s; I think this will get scratched more easily.

I was afraid it might not be comfortable to wear when sleeping but I haven’t noticed it. I like that it records my resting heart rate when in sleep mode, even if I have the HR monitor turned off generally.

I like the “do not disturb” mode that lets you turn off the haptic notifications for a period of time, and turn them back on, quickly and easily. I like that I can set alarms on the device itself, instead of having to set them in the web interface or app like with the Fitbit.

Just as some people prefer the simplicity of the iPhone to the flexibity and configurability of an Android phone, some will prefer the simplicity of the Fitbit to the awesome capabilities of the Band. It costs over $100 more, so if you’re not going to use those extra features, why pay for them? But if you want a tiny computer on your wrist that does a lot of what your smart phone does, without having to dig that device out of your bag or pocket and unlock it and find the right app, this is the coolest thing to come along in a form factor and design that looks okay on a female wrist with both business and casual dress (still thinking about how to dress it up a little for formal wear). :)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Microsoft Windows 10 Devices Event: I’m Impressed

For the last several years, one of the things that I’ve most looked forward to each fall was Samsung’s event introducing their new products. New thin and amazing tablets, each Note phablet better than the one before it – Sammy always left me excited and impressed and hankering to give them my money … until this year.

Microsoft Band, Part 2
When Microsoft released the Band last year, my husband and I were both ready to buy one. We trekked over to the Microsoft Store on the other side of Dallas, prepared to lay down our dollars for the fitness band that we saw as an upgrade to our FitBits. Unfortunately, there were none in stock.  There were also none available online. For weeks.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm of the moment passed and we had a chance to see them on other people and read reviews. While it still seemed like a great concept, I was wary of the size and bulkiness, as well as the miserable battery life in comparison to my Charge. So we never got one. Nonetheless, we harbored hopes that v.2 might be “the one,” after Microsoft got some feedback and made some tweaks to the design. Today’s presentation leaves me still hopeful but not sure until I see it in person and feel it on my wrist.

I like that the demo was done by a woman. This was the only part of today’s device event that was hosted by a female and I’m thinking that was done purposefully, to show that this thing is actually sleek and slim enough to be worn by a small-boned lady without looking and feeling ridiculous.  The presentation itself was a bit of a letdown, though. There was a lot of concept video and general talk about pushing limits and some details about a few features such as Cortana integration (“she” will nag – oops, I mean remind you if you miss a workout … hmm), a barometer to measure elevation, and VO2 max metrics. I was happy to see that it also integrates with Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal, which are my two favorite fitness apps.

I would have liked to see more about the “semi-smart watch” features, such as Facebook and email notifications, but mostly I need to just put the thing on to know whether or not I want to take the plunge this time. Let’s hope they learned from their mistakes (and lost sales) and will have plenty in stock upon release this time.

Price: $249

Phone Home: Lumia puts iPhone to shame
I have been loving my Notes since the first one, but the Note 5 left me curiously uninspired. This time, instead of getting hyped up about all the new goodies they were giving me, I came away annoyed and depressed about the things they were taking away. While Apple fans had been conditioned to live without productivity essentials such as microSD storage expansion and removable batteries, we Samsung users had silently (or not so silently) gloated about those very important advantages that our phones and tablets had over iDevices.

When Samsung announced that the Galaxy S6 would follow in the footsteps of the iPhone and eliminate those features, we Note users clung to the hope that the company recognized that we were different from the typical S-series user, that we were serious power users and wanted at least the ability to increase internal storage, that we didn’t want to be dependent on the cloud or force to spend huge bucks on a more expensive phone to get marginally more space. Sadly, they didn’t get it. And I and other Note loyalists hung onto our Note 4s and didn’t upgrade to the 5, and started wondering what our next phones would be.

Today, at their Windows 10 Devices event, Microsoft and Panos Panay gave me the answer to that question – with a couple of caveats.

The Lumia 950XL might be, based on this morning’s demo, everything I ever wanted in a phone. The screen is as big as the Note’s (5.7 inch) and looks lovely. It has powerful specs – an octacore processor and 3 GB of RAM (1 GB less than Note 5, but as much as many low-end PCs).  Its real show-stopper, though, is Continuum: the ability to connect to a tiny docking station that lets you connect two 4K Displayport monitors and USB drives to turn it into a real, functional computer.  Windows 10 in your pocket. This is what I’ve been waiting for. 

The 20 MP Pureview camera is another big selling point for me. An excellent phone cam is something I have come to depend on; I still break out the Nikon prosumer models for serious photography but I’m amazed at how often I can get really great shots with my phone, which has the distinct advantage of being with me when I wasn’t expecting a photo opp to present itself. I also like Windows Hello; if it works as advertised, it’s going to make getting into your secured phone interface a lot less annoying.

Those caveats? First, it will have to be available for Verizon customers. If this is another AT&T exclusive, that’s a deal-breaker right out of the gate. Please, Microsoft, stop relegating the millions of people who choose Verizon as their carrier to second-tier status when it comes to your phones. Otherwise I guess I’ll just be keeping my Note 4.  Secondly, I’m not seeing something that all the pre-release rumors said would be part of the new Lumias: pen support. It seemed to be a given that they were going to work with the Surface N-Trig pens. There was no mention or demo of that this morning. Pen functionality is one of the reasons I love my Note and I don’t think I can give that up, even for Continuum.

The Lumia outshines the iPhone by far, but I’m still not sure whether this iteration will lure me away from the Note.  Ball’s in your court, Microsoft. Put it on Verizon and tell me the Surface Pen works on it, and I’m sold.  You can see photos and video of the Lumia 950XL here:

Price: $649 (XL)

Update: Looks like that decision has been made. Just read that Lumia 950s will be AT&T exclusives, so Microsoft lost me as a phone customer – again. It’s sad when you want so badly to buy a product but they make it untenable for you to do so. SMH. Makes no sense to me to cut out over half of your market by tying your best phone to one carrier. Samsung makes the Notes and S-series available on all major carriers. Apple makes the iPhone available on all major carriers. Why? Because you sell more phones that way.  I just don’t get it.

Surface Pro 4: Just “Yes”

Whatever reservations I might have about the Lumia, there are no such ambivalent feelings about the Surface Pro 4. My reaction there is simply “Do want.” I like my Surface Pro 3 a lot. And the 4 is lighter, thinner, faster, quieter, with a better display, and specs up to 16 GB of RAM and a terabyte of storage? What’s not to love?

Well, okay, there is one thing. The new pen looks cool and has an eraser on the top end (finally!) and more important, has 1024 degrees of pressure sensitivity, but it still doesn’t store inside the device. Why? I still can’t help thinking it’s because they want you to lose it and have to buy another one. Panos hailed the new “pen storage” feature as Microsoft’s response to customer complaints about that, and showed the pen sticking to the edge of the Surface. I’ll reserve judgment; maybe it really works. Maybe it holds so hard that it won’t get knocked off when you put the device in a bag or carry it around. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see. Regardless, that minor irritant isn’t enough to keep me from lusting after the Surface Pro 4.

It has a redesigned Type cover that looks like it will be more comfortable and accurate and that works on the Surface Pro 3, too. It also supports an optional docking station for connecting to external monitors, keyboard, mouse and hard drive that likewise works with the Surface Pro 3.  You can see photos and video of the Surface Pro 4 here: 

Price: $1499 for my configuration (Core i5 with 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD). Starts at $899 (Core m3, 4GB, 128GB) and goes to $2699 (Core i7, 16GB, 1 TB)

I’m impressed. Or at least I was, until I saw:

Surface Book: OMG

The rumors were swirling that Microsoft would be coming out with a larger Surface but nobody seemed to see this coming: Yes, it is a bigger tablet since the screen detaches from the “perfect” (according to Panay) keyboard, but it’s more than that; it’s a full-fledged, super powerful desktop-replacement-grade laptop PC. Microsoft is obviously going after the MacBook Pro here. Just in case the name didn’t give it away, the specs certainly will. Surface Book is, according to today’s demo, two times as fast as Apple’s premier laptop – and it has the detachable keyboard, touch and pen technology that blow the MacBooks out of the water. 

I love the brushed silver metal look of the Surface Book – I think it looks way classier than a MacBook – and that hinge is way cool. How’s that for magical and revolutionary?  But it’s what’s inside that really counts. Surface Book comes with Skylake i5 or i7 processors and a GPU that boasts GDDR5 memory.

You can see photos and video of the Surface Book here: 

The Bottom Line

Today’s event made me proud to be a Microsoft fan. The company showed off some truly innovative technologies and designs.  My scorecard:

  • Band 2 is a big “maybe.” I like the new look but need to see how it feels. Price is a little higher than expected; I think it would sell better if they had kept it under $200 since it’s positioned as a fitness band rather than a smart watch.
  • Lumia 950XL: I hope, I hope, I hope the answers to my two critical questions come up positive: Verizon version and pen support. If so, I’ll be turning in my Note loyalty card after all these years.
  • Surface Pro 4: It’s pretty much a sure bet that I’ll be packing one of these in the very near future. Crummy pen storage system or not, I’m in love.
  • Surface Book really imparts the “wow” factor. If I were looking for a true desktop replacement, if I needed to do high-powered CAD or video editing or sophisticated gaming or run multiple VMs on the road, this is what I’d go for. It’s simply beautiful. But I have a more powerful desktop tower with a 6 monitor array for that sort of work. When I travel, I’m more interested in thin and light, and Surface Pro 4 gives me more of that, while still offering some incredible specs.  Might I buy one of these when my desktop crumps? It’s possible – if there’s a way for it to support all these monitors. Or who knows? Maybe two 40 inch 4K monitors would be enough. :)
  • Docking station for Surface/Lumia: Just point me in the right direction and take my money.
  • New Type keyboard: Well, yeah. I definitely need one of those for my new Surface Pro 4.

Stay tuned in for hands-on reviews as soon as I can get some or all of these products into my hot little hands, whether temporarily or permanently.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The OS wars are raging again

all in with win10 a

With the update to Windows 10 rolling out all over the place, leaving some folks delighted and others feeling as if they got hit by a steamroller, a common theme on the forums and Facebook pages is the revival of the operating system wars.  The Appleholics (thanks, Kathy, for that term) are out in force, gleefully chanting “Get a Mac!” every time a friend or stranger reports a problem with a Windows 10 upgrade.

I’ve spent way too much time over the last couple of days, responding to the nay-sayers, so I’m going to summarize my position and advice as a recognized “expert” in the tech field (do a web search on my name if you want to see my creds) and just point people here.

If you like the Mac interface better, don’t mind being stuck in the walled garden and want to pay the high price, sure, buy a Mac. I’m not being facitious; many people do fit that category and Mac is their best choice.

But if you think it’s inherently more reliable or more stable or more secure, you’ve been sold a false line.  I know Windows and Android inside out and I work with people who have just as much in-depth knowledge and experience with Apple products, which I also have to test and work with for various projects. Here’s the real story from a pretty objective standpoint: all three of today’s major operating systems are great when they work and frustrating and infuriating when they don’t, and all of them are likely to have problems when updated from a previous version.

In terms of security, OS X and iOS have been the top easiest to crack at the recent Pwn2Own hacking contests. Apple regularly discovers and patches multiple vulnerabilities, just like Microsoft.  Microsoft has invested millions into security, including a “security by default” software development model, Security Response Center, Digital Crimes Unit, bug bounty program, participation in BlackHat and other large security communities/conferences and hosts its own BlueHat Security conference, and provides highly detailed security bulletins detailing the workarounds and fixes and under-the-hood information about discovered vulnerabilities. Apple is notoriously closed-mouth about their security efforts and takes a “just trust us” approach.

On the stability and reliability front, upgrades of OS X bring similar issues to what we’re seeing with Windows 10. The recent upgrade to Yosemite had many users complaining of issues with wi-fi, startup problems and more. Here’s one article of many about the “rampant” wi-fi woes:  

The upgrade to Mountain Lion also brought many problems, as did Lion. This isn’t Apple-bashing. This is NORMAL when you upgrade over an old operating system. Some computers will have problems.

Why do you hear a lot less about that than you hear about Windows problems? Because only about 7% of users are using OS X, whereas around 90% are using Windows. So sure, there are WAY more Windows people having problems (those are current figures according to, which tracks this).


Some have misinterpreted recent news stories and think that Macs are now outselling Windows PCs. This is a fallacy. U.S. PC shipments for Q2 of 2015 were about 13 million. Apple’s U.S. shipments were under 2 million. So no, Mac is not “outselling” the PC. Mac sales have been growing faster – that’s not the same thing. When you’re selling far fewer, an increase of X units makes for a larger percentage of growth than when you’re selling more. But Apple also saw a 2.5 percent decline in sales for Q2. Here it is from a Mac site, so can’t be considered Windows-biased:…/apple-us-mac-sales-drop-2q15/

And there’s another reason you hear of more Windows woes. Apple controls all Mac hardware. You can’t buy a computer from another vendor and install OS X on it (well, you could, but it’s a license violation and they make it difficult). That means they can test almost every possible scenario before they release an OS and catch potential problems. Windows runs on thousands of different models of machines from hundreds of vendors, including home built systems. People with ancient computers (in computer years) upgrade their systems, whereas Apple just plain won’t let you upgrade if your system is too old.

The Apple hardware is also premium hardware. That’s why the cheapest Macs cost way more than the cheapest PCs. Premium hardware has fewer problems. When you install Windows on expensive, high end components, you have fewer problems, too. I had zero problems upgrading my Surface Pro 3, which is made by Microsoft and, like Apple machines, is a good bit more expensive than the average PC laptop sold by third party vendors.

Additionally, backward compatibility is tricky and can cause software conflicts. Apple doesn’t even try to offer backward compatibility. And they don’t offer support for their previous operating systems. While Microsoft was still supporting XP for twelve years, Apple dropped support for five-year-old Snow Leopard. They support the current version and the one just before it and that’s all, so the time and energy that goes into patching and supporting ancient operating systems can be focused on the current one.

All that said, I firmly believe that people who aren’t techies really shouldn’t upgrade in the first cycle. In fact, the best thing for “regular people” to do is wait until they buy a new computer that has the OS already installed. That way they can be assured that all of the hardware is compatible with the new OS.

I think Microsoft made a mistake to push the upgrade on everybody (it’s not mandatory, of course, but they did a huge marketing push and the offering of a free upgrade if you do it within the first year caused many consumers to go for it when they never would have before). I understand the reason for this; they knew that a lot of people, especially non-techies, really dislike Windows 8.1 because of a couple of stupid design decisions (e.g., the removal of the Start menu), and wanted to get this to them as the solution, thinking when they got to use the cool features of Windows 10 (and these new features are great), everyone would love them again. That’s a form of corporate naivety.

They should have anticipated these problems but in many ways, in big tech companies the devs and even the decision-makers live in a bubble, where everybody is very technology savvy and they can’t relate to those who aren’t, or who don’t always have the latest and greatest hardware.

For those who are having real problems with Win 10 (not just the usual learning curve for getting used to a new interface) there is a rollback option within the first thirty days after you upgrade. They’ve made it easy to do. Here’s an article that tells you how:  

Bottom line takeaway: Whether you’re running Windows, Mac or Linux, whenever you upgrade over an old OS, where you have installed and uninstalled programs and have messed with settings, especially on hardware that the OS vendor doesn’t control, some people will have problems. It’s inevitable. Those who claim otherwise are either living in their own bubbles and not looking outside their own personal experiences, or they’re like the teenager in the throes of infatuation and can’t see the flaws in their beloved.

For many today, operating system loyalty seems to have been elevated almost to the level of a religion. We all have our preferences and there’s nothing wrong with voicing them, and the reasons behind them. There’s no problem with different people having differing viewpoints. That’s what makes the world go ’round. It’s great that we live in a world where we have choices because what works best for me isn’t necessarily what works best for you.

Choose your OS based on whether you like the interface, whether it will do what you want to do (OS X is way behind Windows in many features, and Windows is in some ways playing catchup with Linux; the pattern you might notice is that the more technical you need to be to run an OS, the more powerful and capable that OS will be). Make your choice based on whether the applications that you need will run on it the OS. Some musicians and artists choose Mac because it’s the only one that runs their particular programs and many others choose Windows for compatiblity and interactivity with software that runs only on Windows.

Just don’t choose any OS thinking it will be more secure or more trouble-free under the same circumstances than any other.  And don’t compare oranges (a PC that costs $399) to Apples (that cost three times as much).


MCSE, MVP (Enterprise Security)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting my Surface Pro 3 to play nice with my domain

This won’t apply to most home users but ours isn’t the typical home network. It’s a fairly complex Windows Active Directory domain – actually multiple domains. Our computers log into the domain controllers so access to resources can be controlled via Active Directory. What I wanted to do was simple (well, one would think): I wanted to join my new Surface Pro 3 to the domain.

As usual, I had gotten in a hurry to start playing with it and just signed in and set it up originally with my Microsoft account. Using the Microsoft account is nice because it remembers all my settings and preferences and transfers them to the new computer.  But then when I joined the computer to the domain, it created a new domain account – which didn’t have my Microsoft account settings.

Now, Windows 8.1 is supposed to give you the ability to connect your Microsoft account to your domain account – which was exactly what I wanted to do.  I found instructions for doing that right there on the Microsoft web site, at

There was just one not-so-small problem. Those instructions don’t work, at least with my Surface, even though they purport to be for Windows 8.1.  Step 1 is easy enough: Charms bar | Settings | Change PC Settings.  Step 2 is where they lost me: “Tap or click Users.” Umm.  Well, no. There is no such selection on that page. Here, check it out for yourself:


Ah, you might say, they probably meant “Accounts.”  Okay, let’s try that. Step 3 says “Tap or click Connect your Microsoft account.” Do you see anything resembling that in the Accounts page below?


No, neither do I. Now I’m not going to post a screen shot of every possible tap and click but I can tell you that I went through all of them and nowhere did I find that option. image

You might now be thinking that perhaps my domain had a group policy prohibiting joining Microsoft accounts to domain accounts. You can do that. But I couldn’t find one, and besides, my research showed that if this was the case, the Connect your Microsoft account option should be grayed out – not missing altogether.

Oh, well. I resigned myself to just setting up my desktop, Start screen and other preferences from scratch in my new domain account. I started with the tiles on the Start screen but after a moment I noticed something odd. None of the modern UI apps were working. They wouldn’t even open. Not any of them. I tapped or clicked them and they acted as if they were going to open, then threw me back into the Start screen instead of the app. What the fluctuation?


I had all these tiles and the only one that would do anything at all was the Desktop tile. It did take me to the desktop.  Now it’s not as if I’m really going to use those modern apps much. I spend 95 percent of my time in Windows 8 working in desktop mode. However, since this is a Surface – a.k.a. a tablet, with a touch screen – I just might want to actually open one of those apps now and then.

Of course I tried rebooting. When I logged back into my domain account again and still had the same problem, I restarted again and logged into my original account that I had set up with my Microsoft account. And guess what – now the modern apps no longer worked in that account, either. They had been working, before I joined the domain and created the domain account.

Well, a little research turned up the fact that this is actually a “not uncommon” problem. Join a domain, lose the ability to open Windows Store apps in Windows 8.1.  And in a blog called OUC1TOO on I found instructions on how to fix it. Believe me, it’s not something many of us would ever figure out on our own.

It turns out the problem is that the domain has a Group Policy that changes the permissions for the “All Applications Packages” group. And that group must have Read permissions in each of seven registry paths, or the modern apps won’t work. So the solution is actually relatively simple: fire up regedit.exe and change those permissions back.

There was just one thing. When I opened the permissions/security tab for six of the listed registry keys, “All Applications Package” was there in the list of users or groups that had permissions. When I opened HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, though, it wasn’t there. Only Everyone and System showed up. No problem – I’ll just add it, right. But when I attempted to do that, I got a dialog box that said no object by that name was found. Now what?


Well, after messing with it for a while, it occurred to me that by default when I tried to add an object, it was searching in my domain for it. So I tried telling it to search on the local computer and sure enough, that took and I was able to add the object and set the permissions for it to Read.


There’s another step outlined in the blog post that involves making sure the permissions for the Program Files folder on the Windows drive is set to give All Application Packages Read and Execute permissions for all subfolders, but mine was already set that way when I checked it. I closed the registry editor, crossed my fingers and – full of hope – rebooted again.

Lo and behold: I went to the Start screen, tapped a modern app and it opened. Problem solved. Well, maybe. When the Group Policy refreshes, is it going to break my modern apps again? I guess I’ll find out. And if it does, then I’m going to have to hunt down that particular Group Policy on the domain controller. But at least now I know what I’m looking for.

So why hadn’t I noticed this problem before, with the myriad of other Windows 8.1 computers in the house? Well, only about half of them are joined to the domain. The kitchen computer, the media room computer, the wine room computer, the laundry room computer – they’re all part of a workgroup.  As for my desktop workstations, I never try to use the modern apps; the whole Start screen interface isn’t made for non-touch screen computers.

I actually had encountered the problem before, on my Surface Pro 2. However, I didn’t realize then that it was related to creating the domain account. When I first got that one, I was using a Microsoft account for quite some time – during the period that I was setting up and playing with the modern apps. Then after joining the domain, I was using it almost exclusively to run desktop applications so the non-working modern app issue was a minor annoyance. This time I pursued it because I had decided to give the modern apps another chance.

If, tomorrow, I’m back to square one and have to go digging in the domain’s group policies, I’ll post an update here. If I don’t, you can consider the problem resolved. I’m just glad a solution was out there and fairly easy to find. It’s not the kind of solution that your grandma would likely be comfortable applying, but then grandma probably isn’t ever going to have this problem anyway.

Oh, and by the way, when I rebooted and opened up the first modern app (Facebook) and started to log in, I got a dialog box asking if I wanted to connect my Microsoft account to my domain account. Hallelujah. I ended up accomplishing everything I had set out to, after all.

Full of enthusiasm at having discovered the “cure,” I just fixed this problem on another of my domain-joined computers and discovered that you don’t have to reboot after making the change to the registry; apparently the settings take place immediately.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Walking the Walk with my Fitbit

We all know that when it comes to fitness, just talking the talk won’t cut it. You have to actually walk the walk – or run the run, or pedal the bike, or … you get the idea.

Experts recommend a dedicated workout of at least 20 minutes, at least three times per week, although most of us who are serious about getting fit consider that pretty minimal. You don’t have to turn into one of those people who lives in the gym, but I’ve found that taking an intense walk or exercising on the elliptical  6-7 days a week for 30-45 minutes is pretty easy to fit into even my busy schedule, makes a world of difference in how I feel and makes it much easier to keep my weight under control.

Exercise plans, like eating plans, aren’t “one size fits all” things; it’s up to you (and perhaps your doctor, nutritionist, coach or other professional) to figure out what works best for you, depending on your weight, age, health problems, lifestyle and other factors. But one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that being more active makes almost everyone healthier. And even though you don’t get the same cardio benefits that you get from a sustained workout that raises your heart rate, just being more active in small ways throughout the day burns calories, increases your metabolism and gets you started on a journey toward a more fit body.

Simply making a conscious effort to take the stairs instead of elevators or to park at the back of the parking lot and walk further to the building is a positive action, but most of us become more motivated when we can actually track our progress. And that’s where the fitness band craze comes in. I’ve been doing the daily workout thing for years and manually recording each workout in the MyFitnessPal app, but as I wrote a week or so ago, I never got into the idea of an automatic tracking device until this Christmas, when my daughter gifted me with a Fitbit Charge.

In that post, I gave my first impressions of the tracking wristband and how it works, as well the reason I decided to ask for this particular brand and model instead of one of its competitors. Now that I’ve been living with my Charge for a while, I can give a somewhat more in-depth review. Executive summary: I like it. I haven’t taken it off except to shower. And after seeing what it can do, a few days ago my husband bought one for himself.

Now we ask each other every night, “How many steps did you have today?” We have a little friendly competition going, which acts as an incentive for each of us to do more. If you don’t have someone else in the family to be your Fitbit partner, you can add “Friends” through the app and keep up with one another’s total steps. This shows up in a tile on your Fitbit dashboard.


I do wish this feature was a little more robust. It would be nice if you could selectively share information other than total steps with your friends, such as daily steps, sleep data, etc. (in the same way you can choose how much of your data to share with your MyFitnessPal friends).  Remember, though, that the point isn’t to compete with other people; it’s to compete with yourself. To get healthier, you need to do more than you were doing before, so keep an eye on your weekly and monthly stats and make sure that graph is headed in an upward direction. It’s okay to start slowly and to make progress gradually as long as you’re steadily increasing your activity.


Don’t “cheat,” though. You can do that inadvertently, if you wear the Fitbit on your dominant hand without setting it up to let it know that. It might log activity even when you’re just sitting at your desk reaching for your coffee cup (or worse, the bag of pretzels). There’s a “wrist placement” option in the settings where you can choose on which hand you’ll be wearing the device.

Something I’ve learned in a week of using the Fitbit is that it’s not completely accurate in tracking sleep hours. That’s because it uses actigraphy – that is, it tracks movements and then extrapolates from that information whether or not you’re asleep. It can be fooled if you lie still but awake for minutes or hours – even if you’re reading. Apparently the page-turning motion isn’t enough to alert the tracker that  you’re really awake. Mine keeps telling me that I went to sleep immediately after going to bed, which never happens; I always spend anywhere from half an hour to two hours reading an ebook before I fall asleep. In the example below, I know that I actually went to sleep at that 3:03 a.m. mark, and woke up at 7:46 – although laid in bed, petting the dog, until 7:53.


That doesn’t mean the sleep tracking component is useless, though. I can still look at the sleep data and tell what time I went to sleep and woke up, because I always get up and go to the bathroom one last time before I shut down the book and go to sleep, and I do the same as soon as I wake up in the morning.

I’m not sure how the “sleep efficiency” is calculated or what a good or bad score is, but back when I was in school, anything in the 90% and above range was an A and when I’m shooting a qualification course, a 96 is a pretty good score. So I’m going to take this to mean that I don’t do as lousy at sleeping as I thought – once I finally get there.

If you really want accurate sleep measurements, it needs to be done in a sleep lab using a different technology, polysomnography (PSG), which monitors your brain waves via electrodes attached to your scalp. No, thanks. I’ll tolerate a little inaccuracy. This article called How does your Fitness Tracker Know when you’re Asleep explains the sleep tracking methodology in much more detail if you’re interested.

As I mentioned in my “first impressions” post, the Fitbit integrates with MyFitnessPal. Not only does it bring the calories eaten that I entered in the MFP app over to the dashboard, but it also goes the other way; MFP integrates my steps into its calories “earned” through exercise calculations. This appears as a “calorie adjustment” in your “Full Report” on the MyFitnessPal web site.


The way this works is a little complicated so if you’re confused by the numbers you see, be sure to read Why am I not getting a Fitbit calorie adjustment on the MyFitnessPal web site.

You can also link your Fitbit account to other services such as Microsoft’s HealthVault, SparkPeople, EveryMove and quite a few others so if you use other fitness, health or sleep related apps and services, be sure to check out the page of add-on apps.

Something I like about the Fitbit is how well its Bluetooth synchronization works. I’ve had problems with some BT devices in the past so I was skeptical but it really does work as advertised. It syncs whenever it gets within proximity of the chiclet in the kitchen computer. I’m also super impressed by the battery life. I’ve been wearing it for a week now and haven’t had to charge it yet.  The estimated battery life for the Charge is typically about 10 days. Note that if you have it set up to get call notifications from your phone and you receive a lot of phone calls, that will reduce your battery life.

For keeping up with the battery life, there is an add-on app you can download that will read your battery information and send you email or SMS notifications when your battery gets low. You can find it here: Low Battery Notifier. Alternatively, you can set a weekly alarm to remind you to charge your Charge.  I set an alarm for Mondays at 10:00 a.m. because I’ll almost always be at my desk then and not exercising anyway so I won’t “lose” any steps (after using this a while, you get very obsessed with making sure every step gets counted – LOL). Another idea is to charge it while you’re in the shower.


By the way, the silent alarm wakes me up easily, but it doesn’t even disturb Tom’s sleep. Of course, a freight train going through the middle of the bedroom doesn’t wake him, either. If you’re a sound sleeper (and he makes plenty of sounds when he’s sleeping), you might want to only use the Fitbit alarm function for reminders during the day, and not as an alarm clock.

If I have any complaint about the Fitbit, it’s not about the tracking device hardware; it’s the user interface on the web site and app. I’d like a little more info than they give. However, I guess one reason they’re stingy about that is because they offer a “Premium” paid service that provides more in-depth analytics. Looking at the comparison chart, I’m not really seeing the value for $50/year, at least for me, but some folks might want to check into it.


There is a web site called where you can log in with your Fitbit account and see the data graphed a little differently so you might want to check that out.

The Fitbit completely “disappears” on my wrist. That is, I don’t even notice that I have it on. It’s more comfortable than my watches. I do wish there was a way to dress it up a little for more elegant occasions. There are some pretty gold bracelet covers you can get for the Flex, but I haven’t seen any for the Charge. Seems as if there’s a market there, waiting for someone to exploit it. Wish I were a jewelry maker.

Even though you can “set it and forget it,” the subconscious knowledge that your steps are being tracked is still there, at least for me. That makes me look for opportunities to get in a few extra. So now if, for instance, I’m downstairs waiting for a pot of coffee to brew so I can take a cup up to my office, instead of just standing there in the kitchen, I walk around and around the island. And instead of loading up on things to carry up, I make several trips up and down the stairs instead, so I’ll get more “floors” that day. I get up and walk around when I’m talking on the phone, and I’ll go to the bathroom downstairs instead of the one that’s right next to my office, to get in both floors and steps.

You might be wondering why you don’t get credited for “floors” when you use a StairMaster. That’s because Fitbit uses the elevation plus your steps to calculate that you’re climbing stairs and it’s not detecting enough of an elevation gain on the machine. A floor equals a 10 ft. gain in elevation plus matching footsteps (so no, you don’t get “floors” credit for taking the elevator or escalator – unless you’re climbing the escalator or maybe if you’re marching in place while inside the elevator).  You also don’t get “floors” credit for walking down the stairs (just credit for regular steps).

If you’re wondering whether to buy the simpler Fitbit Flex or lay out the extra $30 for the Charge, of course it depends on what matters to you but for me, the answer is obvious. I don’t think I would have liked the Flex nearly as well and it’s not just because I feel lost without something on my wrist that can tell me the time. It’s just so much more convenient to be able to push a button on the band and see my info – today’s steps taken, distance walked, flights of stairs climbed and calories burned – right there, without having to pull out my phone and go to the app or bring up the web page on the computer. I can even check it easily while I’m exercising, without missing a step. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

All in all, I’m happy with my little “watch plus” even though I have some “wish list” items for a future version. It does what it claims to do and does it well, and I’ve had no problems with it. That’s more than you can say about many (maybe most) of the products you buy these days.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Taking Charge of my Fitness Program the High Tech Way

The holidays are past and all the visiting, celebrating, feasting and gift-giving that go with this season are over for another year. My main gift this time was a wonderful cruise to the eastern Caribbean with my husband and daughter, which I talked about a little in my previous blog post titled Internet at Sea: Usable (Again) at Last. Of course, being who I am, I also got a couple of techie toys for Christmas.

One is my shiny new Galaxy Note 4, for which I’ll do a full review in the next week or so after I’ve had time to completely acquaint myself with all of its new features. The second is something that I wasn’t even sure I wanted, but which has turned out to be more fun and more useful than I expected: a FitBit Charge.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dedicated to a daily exercise and healthy eating program since 2009 (through which I lost over 50 pounds), I never really had a desire to check out any of the myriad fitness bands that started hitting the market a few years ago.  Most didn’t seem to do much more than function as glorified (and pricey) pedometers, and they weren’t very attractive, either. The only one that caught my eye a few years ago was the Nike FuelBand. At least it looked like something I could actually wear without looking like a dork.

So of course it worked only with iOS (and if you know me at all, you know there is no way I was going to get sucked into the Apple ecosystem).  Even if I’d been willing to switch platforms, though, it wouldn’t have done me much good.  The product disappeared from the shelves last spring altogether and Nike abandoned the “wearables” market.

Other fitness devices remained and new ones appeared. FitBit seemed to be one of the most popular. Jawbone’s UP also got a lot of good press. Garmin got into the game (I imagine they badly needed a new direction, with the waning appeal of standalone GPS devices now that we all have turn-by-turn navigation on our smart phones).  Each new device that I heard about momentarily sparked my interest, but upon closer examination, they all failed to tickle my fancy.

Oddly enough, it was the release of the Microsoft Band that led to me asking Santa for a FitBit.

Microsoft’s entry into this space was heralded with a lot of fanfare. Their Band was hailed as something more than just a fitness band – more like an almost-smart watch. And therein, for me, lay the attraction.

I’ve wanted a smart watch for a long time, but I want it on my terms. That means it not only has to provide some useful functionality, but it also has to look good enough and be comfortable enough for me to wear it the way I have always worn a watch: virtually all the time. I take my watch off to go swimming or take a shower, and that’s about it.

Unfortunately, all of the smart watches up to this point in time have suffered from the same problem as other wearable technology (Google Glass, I’m looking at you). They’re ugly and/or huge. There’s no way I’m going to walk around with one of these enormous, clunky things on my wrist all day, and I certainly can’t sleep in them.  Part of the problem is that they’re designed for men, not women. Now I’m hardly what you’d call a feminine dresser – I much prefer jeans to dresses and you won’t catch me near a ruffle – but still, an overly masculine watch doesn’t go with the image I want to project.

I have to admit smart watches have improved somewhat over the years. The first ones were awful: cheap looking plastic (even when the watches themselves cost hundreds of dollars), weird colors (pink and aqua? together? seriously?) or just emulated the typical $15 digital watch. Speaking of which, never mind smart watches. I’ve been searching in vain for years for a nice looking, metal cased, small and slim digital watch that merely displays the time, something of equivalent style to a $150-200 Elgin or Citizen analog watch, but with a digital readout. It’s apparently nowhere to be found.

But I’ve wandered far afield of my original topic, so let’s get back on track (Track … fitness tracker … get it? Never mind).  So Microsoft came out with the Band and it sounded, on paper (or rather, on the computer screen, since paper is quickly going the way of the … umm, Nike FuelBand) like just what I’d been dreaming of.  One reason I had shunned earlier fitness bands was because they weren’t watches. They wanted to take up the space on my wrist without telling me the time. That just wasn’t acceptable.

The Microsoft Band is a watch.  And in the pictures, it looked like a somewhat attractive one. When I read that it also came in different sizes, my hopes soared. Maybe, just maybe, a Small would actually be small enough to work for me.


Soon after the release, my husband and I trekked all the way across Dallas to the new Microsoft Store at Northpark Center, with the expectation that we might be bringing two Bands home with us. It didn’t quite work out that way.

First of all, we couldn’t have bought a Band even if we’d wanted to. They were all sold out. When we asked when more would be in, they weren’t sure. Maybe in a couple of weeks. They did, however, have a few demo models in the store. Including a size Small. Which, sadly, wasn’t very. I realize my wrist is smaller than most, but still. The thing engulfed it. The flat, rigid rectangular face was way too wide. It sat awkwardly across my wrist rather than wrapping around it. Like the latest Samsung Gear, which was so impressive when the South Korean company debuted it at its Unpacked event in September, this was a great solution for big guys but it wasn’t going to work for me.

But the road trip to hunt down a Band whetted my appetite for a watch-plus, something that could do more than the pretty gold timepiece I wore daily. Then came a sign from on high: my four-year-old watch died. Unlike the last time, it wasn’t just an exhausted battery. It no longer worked. Someone Up There was telling me to buy a fitness band. There could be no other explanation. And that was when I noticed the FitBit on the wrist of a new friend I’d met on the above-mentioned cruise. It was all coming together, like a perfectly orchestrated plan.

I started researching fitness bands again, and discovered that FitBit had a newer model out. Unlike the Flex, for which I had never managed to work up any enthusiasm, the Charge has a digital display (the Flex has only a row of lights that function as indicators of your progress toward your fitness goal). That display could provide readouts of your steps, distance, stairs climbed, sleep  hours and … (wait for it) … the time. It was a watch – plus! Even better, the Charge has some very limited “smart watch” functionality in that it can pair up with your phone via Bluetooth and notify you of phone calls, even displaying the names of callers if they’re in your contacts list.

What I really liked about the Charge was that it wasn’t gargantuan. The size Small fit me nicely and in the basic black color it looks okay (albeit not super stylish) with a dressy outfit as well as a casual one. Like all the watches I’ve worn all my life, it doesn’t get in my way; I barely notice that I’m wearing it (in fact, it’s much lighter than most of my watches).  At $129, it’s $70 less than the Microsoft Band, too.  Now to be fair, it doesn’t do as much as the Band, which notifies you not only of phone calls but also of email messages, text messages, social networking activity, calendar appointments and weather and finance info.  Those are things I’d like to have – but not at the price of wearing something that’s uncomfortable and looks odd on me.


This time, the decision was easy. The Charge won out because it’s less expensive, it’s a lot more wearable (for me) and also because it was actually available when I wanted it. I would still love to see Microsoft (or Samsung, for that matter) make a small, compact, fully functional smart watch/band that’s designed to fit my wrist and my lifestyle.

Meanwhile, I’ve now officially joined the fitness band craze. I check my steps throughout the day and am inspired to get up and pace a bit, or take the dog for a walk, or go up and down the stairs a couple of extra times in order to get my numbers up. I was already aware, from long-time use of the Runkeeper app, of the motivational effect of having something keeping track of your exercise for you. Each day becomes a challenge to do better than the day before.

I wear my band to bed at night, and am fascinated by the information it gives me the next morning about my nighttime “activity.” It’s not entirely accurate in recording my “asleep” hours since I read in bed and it thinks I’ve gone to sleep long before I really did, but I love being able to see exactly what time I woke up each morning (it is pretty accurate in that regard) and how many times I woke up – or at least moved around significantly – during the night.

When I first fired it up, I admit I was a little disappointed to find that the clock display isn’t “always on.” You have to tap the band just under the display or push the side button to show the time, like those old-time digital watches with the red LEDs. The crisp blue text on the Charge’s display is very nice looking, but I would prefer having it display continuously since there are times when my right hand is full of grocery bags or on the steering wheel or something that makes it inconvenient to push the button to bring up the display.

On the other hand, because it only lights up the display when you actually need it, the battery lasts a whole week. That’s impressive, since I’m used to having to charge my phone, for example, every night or at best, two. The band is easy to charge, but I don’t like that it uses a cable with a proprietary connector on one end (it’s USB on the other and you can charge it through your computer or a USB wall charger). If you happen to lose or damage that proprietary cable, a new one will run you twenty bucks. Ouch.

The Charge syncs with my desktop computer via a Bluetooth chiclet that goes in an empty USB port, and syncs with my Android phone and tablet over the device’s built-in Bluetooth. Synchronization is fast and automatic when the band gets within range of the device.

The mobile app and web site leave a little to be desired, but then I’m probably overly critical when it comes to web interfaces.


The Dashboard view is handy, but I’d like a bit more information when I drill down into the sections.  I’d also like to be able to set my daily calorie goal instead of having the app set it for me, for example. Maybe there’s a way to do that and I just haven’t found it, but if so, that speaks to the design; it should be intuitive. Instead, the interface can be confusing at times despite its simplicity.

Something that I do like – a lot – is that the FitBit application integrates with MyFitnessPal, which I’ve been using for five years to track my food, and Runkeeper, which I use to track my walks via GPS. FitBit brings that data over and inserts it into the Dashboard so that I have all my fitness information together in one place without having to re-enter it. That’s pretty cool.

Something else that’s cool: You can get a scale (Aria) that wirelessly sends your weight to the FitBit app. That way, you can’t cheat (or “fudge just a little”) on your weight loss progress (or lack thereof). I’m very tempted to get one (especially since my digital scale, like my watch, just recently gave up the ghost) but the cost ($149) has me on the fence about it right now.  Assuming the Charge keeps functioning like it is now, I’ll probably invest in the scale sooner or later.

In the meantime, I’m pleased with this little device that ended up being one of my favorite gifts this year. I look forward to using it in the coming year and to added functionality in future versions. There is another model, the Charge HD, coming out soon; it’s identical to the one I have except that it also measures your heart rate. FitBit is also bringing out more of a full fledged smart watch with built-in GPS, called the Surge, in the near future. It’s available for pre-order from some sources but the FitBit web site doesn’t specify a release date, just “coming soon.” The watch will cost $250 and I like its features but I’m almost certain it’s going to be too big for me, like all of its counterparts.

I’ll keep the faith, though. Someday someone will make the watch I’ve been waiting for. And while I’m waiting, I can take Charge with my FitBit.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Internet at Sea: Usable (Again) at Last

This article is cross-posted from my “Going Places” travel blog
Cruise lines have offered Internet connections to passengers for quite some time, but in many/most cases, those connections were barely usable. Those of us who remember 14.4k modems might have the patience to muddle through if we really needed to get that email out, but those who grew up with DSL and cable modems aren’t likely to sit there waiting minutes for a web page to load.  Actual speeds I measured on board were often in the 40 to 200 Kbps range.

I should note that this has been a big disappointment to me in part because my very first cruise spoiled me for the later experiences. I happened to take that first cruise on the Carnival Magic in 2013, when they were testing new, unlimited connections. It was fairly reliable and reasonably fast, and it formed my first impression of Internet at sea. Then the testing ended, and every other cruise (including on the Magic) offered only super slow, ultra-expensive Internet service that regularly dropped the connection altogether. It was frustrating, and all the more so because I knew it could be different; I had experienced that difference.

The cruise lines didn’t do this to deliberately infuriate their customers. There are very real technical limitations and obstacles to sending signals to a ship in the middle of the ocean. There were problems that had to be ironed out before they could roll out new tech to their ships. It required new hardware and new software as well as cost analyses. I understand all that. Some cynics have opined that they kept the Internet slow because they wanted passengers out in the casinos and bars, spending money. While that makes (business) sense on the face of it, it doesn’t make sense if you look at the bigger picture: traditional cruisers are aging and will eventually be gone. New generations of digital natives expect and demand connectivity wherever they go. If cruise line companies want to attract that younger customer, they need to provide a connected cruising experience.

The second problem with on board Internet until recently was the pricing structure. In addition to its snail-like speed, you paid by the minute. That combination meant getting any real work done online could cost hundreds of dollars. On several occasions, I bought Carnival’s top package of 480 minutes for $159 and because of the poor performance, ended up having to buy additional minutes to get me through a 7-day cruise.

In comparison to my land-based FiOS connection that costs $179 per month for unlimited data that comes down and goes up at 80+ Mbps, that’s excruciatingly expensive, although to me, it was a better value than the $500 that many people pay for the 15-drinks-per-day Cheers package. And that brings us to another aspect of on board Internet that I initially found surprising.

The Great Debate 

In the cruise-related venues such as Facebook’s Carnival Cruisers Past, Present and Future group and the Cruise Critic discussion forums, mention cruise line Internet packages and a heated argument is certain to follow. Even such a seemingly innocent post as “How much does it cost to use the wi-fi on X ship?” will soon fill with replies telling the original poster that he/she shouldn’t be using the Internet while on vacation, and responses to those replies from those of us who prefer to do what we want on our vacations rather than have it dictated by strangers.

For some of us, connectivity isn’t just for sharing vacation photos in real time on Facebook (not that there’s anything wrong with that); it’s essential to our being able to cruise in the first place. I’m self-employed, a sole proprietor. I cannot be disconnected for a week if I care about keeping my clients and maintaining my business and the income that makes it possible to cruise frequently in the first place. Most of the work emergencies take only a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to address, but they have to be addressed immediately and I am the only one who can do it. Therefore, availability of reliable Internet is critical for me.

Aside from that, I also want/need to keep in touch with whomever is house- and dog-sitting for us to ensure that everything is okay back home. The “thou must unplug” advocates are always telling the rest of us that cruises are for relaxing. If I were cut off from what’s going on at home, I would not be able to relax and enjoy the cruise. Therefore for me, staying connected allows me to have more fun, not less. Others’ have different priorities, needs and situations and that’s fine.

Finally, from a purely “fun” point of view, I enjoy being able to share my photos and videos tales of what I’m doing with my friends and family back home as it’s happening, and they enjoy living it vicariously as it happens. This isn’t necessary, but it makes me (and them) happy, so better Internet connectivity enhances the experience on both sides.

That’s why I’ve been a vocal advocate for better on board Internet technologies ever since I got involved in cruising. As a semi-well known “expert” in the tech industry, I’ve shared my opinions and suggestions with cruise line representatives in decision-making capacities as often as possible. I was thrilled when first Royal Caribbean and then Carnival rolled out new technologies to enhance connectivity on board their ships.

There is no down side to this, after all. Those who don’t want to connect don’t have to. It’s paid for by those who do want it. To say that a cruise line shouldn’t do this because you personally don’t care about it would be like saying the cruise ship shouldn’t have a steak house because you don’t care about having a high-end dining experience.  I don’t gamble, but it would never occur to me to be bothered by the fact that there’s a casino on board. The gamblers bring in extra revenue for the cruise line that helps keep my fares lower. The Internet packages do the same.

Yet in one Facebook thread, multiple people actually commented that they hoped Carnival wouldn’t ever offer high speed unlimited Internet. That type of thinking is incomprehensible to me. I’m not much of a drinker, but why would I care that Carnival offers drink packages for those who do enjoy imbibing? Why do people try to convince others that they should do and enjoy exactly the same things? The whole point of the large ship experience is that there are so many different things to appeal to different interests. When they put in the “Seuss at Sea” program, I had and have zero interest but I’m happy for those parents and kids for whom it will make for a more fun cruise.  It seems to me we should all just enjoy the activities and features that we like to engage in and let everyone else do the same.

The New Technology

I wrote about how the old technology works in a post on this blog a few months back called High Tech on the High Seas.  The great thing about tech is that it’s always advancing. New ways of doing things are constantly being discovered, and transmission of network signals is an area in which intensive research is always going on.

The new tech that Carnival has rolled out on a few of its ship (as of this writing, the Freedom, Breeze, Sunshine and possibly Liberty – still checking on that last one) is based on hybrid networking that combines satellite and long-range wi-fi to provide greater bandwidth and data transfer speeds that are ten times faster than the old tech. They’ve trademarked the name WiFi@Sea to label their implementation of this new network that relies on both advanced satellites and land-based antennas that are installed along the cruise routes.  The ship’s local area network switches transparently between the satellites and wi-fi access points as the ship sails.

It works surprisingly well. I was able to try it out on the Carnival Breeze for an 8 day cruise to Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Maarten and St. Thomas the week of December 6-14. A caveat to keep in mind is that because this hybrid system depends on combining shore-based wireless access points with the satellites, there is potential for the quality of service to be better on some itineraries than others.  This might or might not happen, but because of the nature of the network, it’s something of which you should be aware.

The pricing for the new tech is considerably better.  Some will still think it’s too expensive because they’ll compare it to $40 per month cable Internet packages, but that’s really comparing apples and oranges. Getting connectivity at sea will always be more difficult and thus more expensive than on land. The biggest difference in the new pricing is that it’s unlimited; that is, you don’t have to count the time spent online or resort to “tricks” such as typing up your long Facebook post offline, then connecting and pasting it in and posting it, then logging off again to read new downloaded posts offline to save those precious, costly minutes.

The new Internet packages that are rolling out across the Carnival fleet

Another big plus is that it’s not a “one size fits all” price. Carnival is offering three different tiers of service, and each is available on either a per-day or per-cruise basis. This is very cost effective for those folks who only want a way to keep in touch with friends via Facebook.  The “social” package is a great value at $5 per day or $25 for the whole cruise.  It provides restricted access to a few select Internet sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and several popular Messenger apps. You can’t surf the web or check your email with this plan, but many cruisers don’t need any more than this plan offers.

The “value” plan, at $16 per day or $60 per cruise, gives you access to the rest of the web and email protocols. It’s good for those who might need to stay in touch with the office and do some minor work that involves answering company email or logging onto work sites, and for those who like to be able to check the web for info about the ports they’re sailing to or read their favorite news sites every morning. You can’t use high bandwidth applications and sites such as Skype and other video conferencing, or streaming music or movies/TV.

The “premium” plan is, of course, the one that I used. It provides more bandwidth and faster speeds, so you can do virtually anything you can do with a home Internet connection (albeit somewhat more slowly). That includes video calls to your dog-sitter so the puppies who are missing you can see and hear you, as well as streaming media if the ship’s entertainment isn’t enough for you. This plan can be purchased by the day for $25 and was $99 for the duration of the cruise.

Note that at this point, the per-cruise prices are apparently the same whether you’re on a 6 day, 7 day or 8 day cruise. I don’t know whether those prices will be discounted for shorter cruises or increased for longer ones (although I should find out in early February, when I’ll be embarking on a 12 day repositioning cruise on the Freedom, which was the first ship to get the new packages).

My Experience

Both my husband and I purchased the premium plan, so we paid a total of $198 for Internet connectivity on the cruise. You aren’t limited to a single device, so we could have shared the plan – but you can only use one device at a time. That means I would have to log off in order for him to log on and use the connection. It was just easier for each of us to buy our own, and given how much less expensive it is than under the old plans, for much better service, we had no qualms about doing that. Hey, being Internet addicts beats being a drinker; the Cheers beverage person would have cost $800 for the two of us. :)

The logon process is the same as before. Go to your wi-fi settings on your device, connect to the Carnival wireless network, then open a web browser and you’ll be redirected to the sign-up page. You’ll be asked to choose a plan and enter your folio number (it’s on your Sail & Sign card) and your date of birth, which serves as your password. You should get a message that you’re successfully connected and then, depending on which plan you’ve purchased, you can go to web sites or use mobile apps as you normally do.  To log off, just type or in the browser address bar.

I used the connection to work a couple of days on board as I had hard article deadlines. My setup onboard with my Surface Pro wasn’t quite as comfortable and efficient as my office at home (see photos below) but it got the job done – in one of the most relaxing work environments imaginable.

This is my workspace in my home office – a little too complex to replicate on board a ship.

Here’s my view at home. Not too shabby, but not the middle of the ocean, either.

 image image
This work setup on the ship might not be quite as efficient (you can see the edge of my Surface Pro at the right of the first photo), but the view really can’t be beat (second photo).

It wasn’t all work and no play. I also used the Internet connection to keep in touch with my son, who was taking care of the house and dogs. And I used it to document the cruise for several hundred Facebook friends who were living vicariously through my posts. It was my husband’s and my 20th anniversary cruise and we renewed our marriage vows on board in a ceremony officiated by Captain Massimo Marino.  All of our friends and relatives weren’t able to physically be there with us for the “wedding,” but they were there in spirit and were able to see our photos of the ceremony the next day, thanks to the Internet.

 wedding 3 wedding 6wedding 13
Hundreds of friends and relatives were able to share in our vows renewal, via the Internet

That one-device-at-a-time limit is perfectly understandable, but it’s annoying even when you’re not sharing the connection with someone else. I needed to log on with my Surface laptop/table when I was doing real work, or posting photos to Facebook that I’d uploaded from my Nikon DSLR.  When I was going out and about on the ship, though, I wanted to be logged on with my phone, so I could take a quick picture with its camera and post it on Facebook, so I had to keep logging off one device and on to the other. Not a big deal, but something you don’t have to do on your wi-fi network at home so it’s a noticeable inconvenience. 

More than once, I found myself out in the public areas of the ship wanting to check my Facebook messages and unable to do so because I had forgotten to log off the computer back in the cabin so I got the dread “You already have a current connection” message. It would be nice if they could add a remote disconnect feature by which you could log off other connected devices, but that’s probably asking too much at this early stage of the game.

The connection was far, far more reliable than the old tech, but it’s not perfect. There were a couple of times when service slowed down to a crawl or when I couldn’t log on for several minutes. However, this incidents were few and far between and didn’t last long. All in all, I was very happy with the new service.  I don’t judge it by the same standards as FiOS or Google gigabit Internet or other super high speed connections that are available to land lubbers. That wouldn’t be fair. But I do now feel confident that I can take a cruise and plan to work for a few hours a day when we’re at sea, including web research, and not have to spend my time in port looking for a wi-fi connection and working instead of exploring or enjoying excursions. For me, that makes a big difference.

I should also mention that, along with the new Internet packages, Carnival had available on this cruise an app for communicating through the local network only. That is, you could message others on board who had also downloaded the app. It was free while in testing, and when we tried it out, it seemed to work okay. However, because we both had Internet connections, we used Facebook Messenger most of the time to stay in touch with one another so I can’t really offer a detailed review. There were just too many things going on during this particular cruise for me to do as much techie stuff as I would have otherwise, but there will be much more free time when I sail in February so look for more then.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Samsung just threw me a curve–literally

I guess I should have known those wild and crazy South Koreans were up to something, but they managed to slip this one in under the radar. Today’s Unpacked event at IFA started out not exactly ho-hum, but pretty much as expected: Here is the Galaxy Note 4 and it has many of the same features as the Galaxy S5, but with a bigger screen and a pen. And yes, there have been some improvements made to that pen (double the pressure sensitivity, for one thing) but the display came as a mixture of awe and disappointment: the Quad HD Super AMOLED screen at 2560 x 1440 resolution is beautiful but those (like me) who were hoping even more screen real estate – at least a bump to 5.9 inches if we couldn’t have 6 – were disappointed to learn that it’s the same 5.7 inch size as the Note 3.

We already knew the Gear S watch was coming. It’s impressive, as smart watches go; unlike most, it’s not completely dependent on having your phone in your pocket. It has its own 3G (and wi-fi and Bluetooth) connection. It’s still way too big for a small woman like me, but thanks to the curved screen and style, it doesn’t look nearly as ridiculous on a girl as most of them do. It’s the first smart watch I’ve seen that I might actually consider wearing. Still, photos of the Gear S were out on the web already, so there were no surprises there.

What did take some of us by surprise – and create a brand new and unexpected dilemma – was the fact that Samsung unveiled not one but two Notes today. And now many of us who had already decided the Note 4 was imagegoing to be our next phone aren’t as sure of that. When my contract with Verizon becomes eligible for a new subsidized phone in late October, do I want to replace my Note 3 with its logical successor, the Note 4? Or do I want to go a little further and live on the cutting Edge?

The Note Edge is one “magical and revolutionary” looking phone – an appellation Steve Jobs liked to assign to Apple devices. The Edge has similar specs to the Note 4, including the super high res Super AMOLED screen (albeit a fraction of an inch smaller at 5.6 inches) but that screen is like none other; it curves around the edge of the phone, sort of like an infinity pool, and provides a strip of display space that can be utilized by app developers and is already used by Samsung for things like notifications, favorite app shortcuts, stock tickers, news tickers and more.

Of course, I might not even get the choice. Samsung’s announcement said the Edge will be available “in select markets,” whatever that means. On the other hand, I was happy to see that both the Note 4 and the Edge are prominently featured on Verizon Wireless’s web site today with the banner “Coming soon.” Keeping my fingers crossed that I’m in one of those “select markets.” (AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have reportedly also confirmed that they will carry the Edge, so I’m thinking the U.S. probably constitutes a “select market”).

Whichever of these devices I end up with, I have a feeling I’m going to be pretty happy with it. Some of the features that Samsung showed off today have me salivating. Some are small things, like the ability to select multiple images or text by clicking and dragging with the pen, similarly to using a mouse on the computer. Anybody who’s ever fought with Android’s text selection tool can appreciate that. Something else to note (!) is that Samsung announced they’re partnering with Mont Blanc, which is going to offer a high end pen that can switch from digital to regular ink. Think that might appeal to the Apple elitist crowd, just a little?

To me, the camera is a big consideration and can be a deal maker or deal breaker in selecting a phone. I was attracted to the HTC One M8 until I read that its camera is pretty bad. My phone cam will never replace my Nikon prosumer models but I don’t carry a big DSLR with me everywhere, and I use my phone cam a lot for everything from capturing a gorgeous sunset to recording the information on a product sales tag or documenting the location of my car.

The new Note’s rear camera is 16 MP and that’s great, but megapixels isn’t as important as lens quality, low light capabilities, and just overall photo quality. I was happy to hear that Sammy has put a lot of research and engineering work into making these great cameras. And unlike most phones, the front cam is more than just an afterthought this time. It’s 3.7 MP and includes a “wide selfie mode” that will make it easier to take “wefies” (selfies of groups of people).  Another pretty cool feature is the multiple microphones that allow you to get good, clear recordings of everybody in a meeting; the Voice Recorder software gives you eight different directional voices and you can isolate and playback only select ones.

Like the S5, the new Note has a fingerprint scanner (something I’ve come to really like on my Tab S) and the multi-window feature that’s been around for a while is enhanced and easier to use.  And the metal frame on the Note 4 gives it a much higher-end look than the all-plastic design of previous Notes. You get the same textured back cover as the S5, which is a nice improvement. I usually keep a case on mine, but Samsung did say the new Note has much stronger glass so maybe it doesn’t need that protection quite as badly.

The phones are supposed to become available in October, and by happy coincidence that’s when my contract is up. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on one or both of these new Notes in the very near future. When I do, you can rest assured I’ll be posting a nice, long review here.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yes, your phone really is tracking every move you make (and some that you don’t)

Location, location, location. No, I haven’t decided to go into the real estate business (although I’ve been tempted at times). What I’m talking about here are the location services built into today’s smart phones and what they can do both for you and to you, if you aren’t aware. Modern smart phones are constantly asking and answering the question “Where am I?”


First, a brief overview of location services.  Although the global positioning satellite system is the most obvious – and most accurate – means by which your phone knows where it is at any given time, it’s not the only one. GPS works by communicating with satellites in orbit above the earth. The phone’s GPS transmitter needs to lock onto the positions of three or more of these satellites to accurately pinpoint the location. This is called satellite triangulation. There are also technologies called assisted GPS and synthetic GPS that can help when there are problems connecting to the satellites.

Some folks naively think if they turn off GPS, they’ve disabled location services, but they’re wrong about that. Wireless phone carriers were able to track phones’ locations before phones had GPS transmitters built in. Because mobile phones work by communicating with cell towers, knowing the tower that the phone is using gives you a general idea of that phone’s location. Measuring the phone’s distance from three different towers can give you a much more precise location; this is called cell tower triangulation.

Cell triangulation isn’t very precise at all, but wi-fi signals can also be used to determine location. Google and other sources have compiled databases of wi-fi access points and their locations. A technology called RSSI (received signal strength indication) can be used to measure the signal strength in relation to WAPs in the vicinity and extrapolate the phone’s location from that information. Once again, triangulation is used to estimate the location based on the signals from three or more WAPs.

Your phone has all these built-in radios that are transmitting all the time (unless you turn them off individually or put the phone in Airplane Mode). The only location service that you may not be able to turn off is the E911 service used by emergency operators to locate you.

Okay, we’ve all watched CSI and NCIS and all the other cop shows so you probably already knew that your phone could be tracked by the government. But did you know that if you have a Google account, you can even log in and look at it the location map yourself?  As you can see below, here I sit today in north Texas. 

imageYou can zoom in and see exactly where in north Texas I am, right down to the street, but I don’t care to broadcast that to the whole world. 

This is pretty cool or pretty scary, depending on your point of view. Actually, I think it’s a little of both. I’m not real comfortable with the idea that someone can hack into my Google account to find me – but then there are a whole lot of other databases that have my address in them already so realistically, that ship already sailed a while back.

Now it’s not really all that useful to me to be able to find out where I am today. Maybe someday when I’m senile, it will be. It could be useful if spouses and family members know one another’s logon credentials, though. If one of them is “out of pocket,” but the situation isn’t at the point where you would call the police, this service could be used to locate them – or at least to locate their phones.

There’s an obvious down side to that for people who don’t want their family members to know where they are, but I guess if that’s the case you probably won’t be sharing your passwords with them, either.

This real-time location tracking is interesting and has some good and bad uses and social implications, but here’s where it really gets interesting: See that little map in the top left corner of the web page? You might not have realized that Google is keeping a record of the history of your phone’s movements. You can click on any day in the past and find out where you were on that day, too.

I can actually see how this could be useful to me on a daily basis. More than once, I’ve had to go back through my calendar and email messages and Facebook posts to figure out the exact date that I was in a particular place. It’s much easier to just click that day on the calendar here and see my location(s) on the map.  You can even click on a whole range of days and see the path of your travels.

Be prepared for some surprises, though. I’ve found this record is not exactly accurate. As in sometimes it’s way off base. For instance, July 1 I from DFW to Seattle and got on a cruise ship and went to Alaska. On the 8th I disembarked in Seattle and flew back home to Dallas. Both flights were 4 hour direct flights. What I did not do was go to Seattle by way of Boston, nor did I fly from Seattle to Baja California and back before coming home to Dallas. But look at Google’s rendition of my travels during that time period:


I’m guessing there’s a very logical explanation for these huge deviations from my real routes, but whatever it is, this isn’t an isolated anomaly. Several other people I’ve talked to have reported that the services shows them as having been in places they most definitely weren’t.

Unfortunately, this really limits the usefulness of the service for individuals, and it also could enable some pretty disturbing scenarios. Just imagine what would happen if your spouse looked at your location history and it said you stopped off in Las Vegas on your way to a business trip in Seattle, when you told him/her that you flew directly to Washington (because you, in fact, did). That could be bad. It could be even worse if your old boyfriend/girlfriend happened to live in Vegas, or if you happened to be a recovering compulsive gambler.

Worse yet, what if the police accessed your Google location history and thought you were lying to them about your whereabouts on the night of the murder (or other crime)? Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to prove in court that this service regularly goes wacky and makes things up, but I can see some not-tech-savvy police officers not knowing this and arresting someone based on the seeming “evidence.”

Periodically, there’s a bit of an uproar over location services and how they invade our privacy, and the concerns are valid. Many are worried about more mundane things than potential marital difficulties and false arrests; they’re just afraid this information will end up being sold to advertisers to use to deluge them with even more spam than they already get. And that’s a legitimate concern, too.

The techies who are building this hardware and these applications are more focused on the coolness factor and/or the many positive use cases. With your phone always keeping track, you’ll never have to worry about getting lost in the woods again.

Like any other technology, location services are morally neutral. They can be used either for good or for evil (or merely annoying) purposes. And like it or not, this is almost certainly the future. It’s not going to go away, and it’s going to get better. Whether you see that as good news or bad news depends on your point of view.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

High Tech on the High Seas

In reading the Facebook group pages and the web forums that are dedicated to cruising, I’ve come to realize that many people are confused about phone, Internet and wi-fi communications on board a ship because they don’t understand the basics of how networking technology works. That’s no surprise, since most people aren’t in the tech industry.

So I felt almost obligated – as a technology writer and an avid cruiser – to write an article explaining (with as little jargon and geekspeak as possible) what you can and can’t do out on the sea, and why, and how, and how much it’s likely to cost you.

What makes smart phones “smart”
Since this is primarily for people who aren’t technical at all, I’ll start with a brief primer on how smart phones work. We’re all familiar with the cellular voice networks, which have been around for a long time. But many don’t understand how data is sent over cell phones, and when they’re using the cellular company’s network and when they’re not.


Basically, you have three types of communications that operate over your carrier’s network: voice calls, text messages (SMS) and data services (Internet connection). Whenever you use the carrier’s network for any of these, they charge you.

However, there are two very different ways you can connect to the Internet with a smart phone. You can use the carrier’s data network (usually 3G or 4G), or you can use the phone’s wi-fi radio to connect to some other network that has an Internet connection (more on how that works later). When you use wi-fi, you don’t have to pay your cellular company for the Internet usage.

A smart phone has several different “radios” (transceivers) built in.

  • It has the one that connects to the cellular networks. This works long range and connects to cell towers that can be miles away.
  • It has a wi-fi radio that works over a more limited range (a few hundred feet) and connects to wireless access points (WAPs).
  • It probably has a Bluetooth radio that only reaches about 30 feet and can be used to connect to another device (such as another phone or laptop) that’s nearby or to a peripheral device such as a keyboard or headset.
  • It might also have an NFC (near field communications) radio that has a very short range (a few inches) and can be used to communicate with readers (for example, to make electronic payments at stores) or transfer data to and from other NFC-enabled phones by holding them very close together.

Airplane mode can keep you grounded

Almost all mobile devices have a setting called “Airplane mode.” This works just as well at sea level as it does at 30,000 feet. When you put your phone in “Airplane mode,” it turns off all the radios.

However, you can turn wi-fi back on without turning on the cellular data radio. As long as the latter is turned off, you don’t have to worry about getting charged by your cell phone company.

This is important because cell phone carriers often charge exorbitant rates for roaming voice and data services. That is, when you get outside of their coverage networks (such as when you go outside the U.S. on a cruise), those extra charges kick in. With voice calls, this doesn’t matter so much because you can just not make or  answer any calls if the phone indicates it’s roaming (which it generally does by a special icon in the notification bar, and some carriers also pop up a message to let you know).

With data, though, some apps will automatically use data without you doing anything. For example, if you have your email app set to “push” mail, it will download every message that comes in. Or if you have Facebook open, it will refresh itself periodically and download the new updates (which can include photos and videos with large file sizes that shoot your roaming data charges through the roof).

Roaming data charges can easily extend into the hundreds of dollars. The first time my husband went to Israel after getting a smart phone, he thought nothing of using it to check his email. Our next Verizon bill was $600 more than usual due to the roaming data charges.

That’s why you should always turn off mobile data when you’re leaving the country. You can do this simply with the “Airplane mode” setting, or if you want to keep voice and wi-fi on, you can turn it off selectively in your phone’s settings. However, this is often buried deep in the Settings. On Galaxy phones, it’s under “Wireless and Networks –> More Settings –> Mobile Networks.

Screenshot_2014-08-13-11-47-50  Screenshot_2014-08-13-11-50-33

Here you can select “Mobile Data” and turn it off, or you can select “Global Data Roaming Access” and select to “Deny data roaming access.”

The wonders of wi-fi

Since it costs nothing to use your wi-fi radio, that’s your best (or at least, your cheapest) bet for communicating with your phone when you’re at sea – or any time you’re traveling internationally, for that matter. You can even use wi-fi to make voice calls (video, too, if your Internet connection is good enough) if you have an app designed for that purpose, instead of calling over your cellular carrier’s voice network.

Important: Be aware that some cellular providers will charge you for using these apps, which are called Voice over IP or VoIP apps, as if you were using cellular minutes – if you have the cellular radios turned on. You also have to pay Skype to make phone calls to regular phone lines or to receive Skype calls on a Skype phone number. Skype-to-Skype calls (calling someone else who also has Skype) are free but if you’re using the cell phone carrier’s Internet connection (3G/4G), you will of course have to pay for that.

Again, turn mobile data off and/or disable data roaming.

Much of the confusion associated with wi-fi stems from the language used by providers to market their products and services. People think they are “buying wi-fi service” when in fact what they’re buying is an Internet service, which they happen to be connecting to over a wi-fi signal.

Wi-fi (at least in the context of shipboard communications – there is also something called WiMax but we won’t talk about that here) is a local networking technology. That means it has a relatively short range – a few hundred feet. You can set up a wi-fi network anywhere. All it takes is two devices that have wi-fi transceivers (transmitters and receivers) and antennae built in.


Two computers with wi-fi network adapters can send and receive wi-fi signals to/from each other as long as they’re within the distance range. That’s called an ad hoc wireless network. You don’t have to pay a service provider to be able to do this. You just need software that supports ad hoc networking. It costs nothing.

On board a ship, you can set up one of these ad hoc networks between two wi-fi devices and they can communicate with each other, although the metal walls of the ship may interfere with the signal somewhat (depending on the strength of your wi-fi antennae). You’ll need an operating system with the capability of creating an ad hoc network, such as Windows 7/8, or an app for your smartphone or tablet that can do this, such as Ripple.

You can also set up your phone as a wi-fi hotspot using an App like PDAnet or FoxFi, and another wi-fi device can connect to it and either use its Internet connection (for example, if you purchased an onboard Internet package) or just communicate directly with it, without Internet.

If you want many different computers to communicate with each other over wi-fi, you usually set up a wireless access point (WAP). All the communications go through it and all the wi-fi enabled computers, tablets and smart phones can send and receive data amongst themselves. It’s pretty simple.


Now here’s where it gets a little more complicated. The wireless access point creates the local network. But the WAP can also be connected to another network, such as the Internet. When you connect the WAP to the Internet, the devices that connect to the WAP can all share that Internet connection.


Most “public” wi-fi networks are connected to the Internet. That includes airport hotspots, in-flight airline wi-fi, hotel networks and the local wi-fi network on a cruise ship.

Many/most of the companies that set up these wi-fi networks that are connected to the Internet configure them to block the Internet connectivity to anyone who doesn’t have a password. Then they charge you an access fee to get a password. image

Fees can range from $5-15 for the duration of a flight to $10-30/day in hotels to the per-minute charges that most cruise lines are currently using.


You won’t be able to view web sites, get email or use any other applications that depend on the Internet without paying. However, you can log onto the local network without paying. You have to be able to, in order to get to the local web server (which is on the premises, not somewhere out there on the Internet). The local web server is what displays the page that you use to buy an Internet package.

While you’re logged onto just that local network, there’s still a lot you can do (at no cost). On a Carnival ship, you can visit the web sites. You can book another cruise (although I’d recommend doing it at the Future Cruise Desk instead, to get the on-board credit), you can read the Funville forums, and you can even communicate with people back home by posting messages in those forums. Since they aren’t on the ship’s local network, they have to have an Internet connection to access the forums.

If you want to be able to “get out” to the Internet, you have to log onto the local web server to get to that web page where you enter your credit card info to pay for the Internet access.

That’s why accessing the ship’s Internet connection is a two-step process. First you have to go into your device’s wi-fi settings and tell it to connect to (for example) the Carnival-Wi-Fi network.  This is an open network, which means you don’t have to have a password to connect to it (unlike a secured network).


When you get the message there that it’s connected, then and only then can you open your web browser and access the web page that is configured to come up automatically. This is the “hub” page where you can choose to either “view free sites” or “buy an Internet package.”

At this point, you are only connected to the local network, which is also called the intranet. The only web pages you can view are those on’s servers. When you buy an Internet package, then the system assigns you a username and password (which will be your folio number that’s on your Sail & Sign card and your date of birth) and entering that information allows you to access the ship’s Internet connection.

But that Internet connection is probably a little different from the one you have back at home (unless you live in a rural area). Practically speaking, the big difference is the speed.

People wonder why the ship’s Internet can’t be as fast as their broadband connection at home, given that it costs a lot more to use. Here’s why:

If you have a wireless network at home, it’s probably connected to a DSL, cable or fiber optic “modem” that brings the signal to your home over wires of some sort. Obviously you can’t hook up a wired connection to a ship at sea, so it has to use a satellite transceiver to send and receive the signal.


To connect to something out there on the Internet via satellite, first your computer, tablet or phone has to send the data to the ship’s wi-fi network, then that network passes it to a satellite transceiver on the ship, which beams it up to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, which beams it back down to the satellite transceiver of an Internet provider back on land, which then sends it to the server on the Internet where that web page, email account or other resource is actually stored.

That means your data (such as the request for a web page when you type an address into your browser) has to travel a little over 22,000 miles from the ship up to the satellite and then the same distance down from the satellite to the earth. Then when the web server returns that page to your browser for you view, it has to make that same trip again in reverse.

What this means is that the ship’s Internet will likely never be as fast as land-based broadband. But the good news is that satellite technology is getting better (and less expensive) over time. There are new satellite technologies available now, and cruise lines are investing in more modern, better equipment. And there’s a way to speed up that process – through the simple economies of scale that come with increased demand.

We’ve seen that play out before. Back in the late 1980s, I paid $25 an hour to get online at home, with a 2400 baud per second modem. That means its speed was 2400 bits per second. By comparison, a 10 Mbps connection like many cable companies now offer is equal to 10 million bits per second.

Fast forward two decades and a fast, unlimited Internet connection can be had for $50 per month or less – the cost of just two hours online back then. Why is it so much cheaper now? In part because back in the ‘80s, there were very few people using the Internet (or who even knew what it was). As more and more got online, connectivity became a commodity and prices dropped.

Cruises have traditionally been and to some degree still are (especially on lines other than Carnival) comprised of a somewhat older demographic. Once upon a time, only those at or near retirement age had the time and money to cruise. Carnival played a big role in changing that. They made cruises more affordable and set out to attract a younger set with their “fun ship” marketing approach.


In the meantime, computing devices and the Internet have become an integral part of many people’s lives. Connectivity is almost ubiquitous. We have a generation that has grown up using computers, that takes for granted being able to get online no matter where and when.

While their older counterparts often cite “getting away from it all” and “unplugging from phones and Internet” as part of the attraction of cruising, today’s young people (and some of us old folks who are on the geekier side) want to have all the fun of being at sea without being cut off from friends back home and across the world.

As more and more of these “digital natives” take up cruising, reasonably fast, reasonably priced (though never as fast and cheap as land-based) Internet service will be something cruise lines will have to offer in order to stay competitive.

We’ve all heard the old saw “use it or lose it.” If too few people buy Internet packages on cruises, the cruise line won’t make enough revenue to make it worth it. If lots and lots of people buy Internet packages, the cruise line will see it as a new important revenue stream and look for ways to make it better so they can attract more business.

One last note for those of you who don’t want to be bothered by the Internet while you’re on a cruise: there’s a simple solution. Don’t buy the package. But please don’t tell the cruise lines they shouldn’t offer it, and please don’t lecture those of us who want to (or must, for work or personal reasons) stay connected about what we “should” do on our vacations. The whole point of a vacation is to do what makes you happy, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. And my spending time taking care of work email or sharing the good time I’m having with my Facebook friends doesn’t.

If you’re interested in reading more about technology, be sure to check out my Deb Shinder’s Technology InSights blog.

Copyright 2014 Debra Littlejohn Shinder


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OneNote is even more fantastic with Onetastic

Have I mentioned lately that I love OneNote? Well, I love OneNote. Anytime I want to organize something (and having the obsessive-compulsive personality that I do, I want to organize everything, always), it goes into OneNote. I have notebooks for personal stuff, tech writing, non-fiction writing, fiction writing, and so forth. Within the “Personal” notebook I have my To Do lists – general and daily – home remodeling plans, food and drink recipes, all the info about my pets, things to buy in the future, my travel plans, how to articles, party planning, general medical info, clothes stuff, contact and other info for services we use (utilities, hair stylist, lawn guy, pool company, etc.), product warranty info, things pertaining to the cars, the HOA, diet and workout, and much more. These notebooks are synced to the cloud; I also have a couple of offline notebooks that hold financial and investment information, personal health data and other confidential information and are stored only on my local network.


From OneNote (supplemented by Outlook and Word, which integrate with it), I can rule the world. My world, at least. When I was a kid – and to be honest, long after I reached adulthood – I loved those big, fat spiral notebooks with a bunch of sections. OneNote is the electronic equivalent of that, with a never-ending number of pages and the ability to move those pages around and store so much more than just words and drawings on them (audio files, video files, hyperlinks, etc.). 

I love that I can actually record a meeting from OneNote, using my laptop’s microphone, take notes at the same time, and then when I click on a location in my notes it takes me to exactly the place in the audio file that was being recorded at the time I made that note. That’s priceless.  I’ve always thought OneNote has the potential to become wildly popular, if only Microsoft would a) get the word out about it and b) fix just a handful of little annoyances that keep it from being as useful as it wants to be. Mostly these were sins of omission, and now someone has come along to address some of them for me.

This isn’t meant to be an article about everything that OneNote can do. If you’ve never used it, you really should check it out. Yes, it’s better than EverNote – at least, I think so. And now, it’s even better. This article is about how I recently discovered a OneNote add-on called Onetastic that adds the functionalities that I’ve always wished I had in OneNote. With this installed, it really does become the killer app.

I don’t know how many times in the past I’ve wished OneNote had the simple “Search and Replace” function that Word has. Well, now it does. And it makes quite a difference. Here’s the way Microsoft recommends you perform a search and replace in OneNote without this add-on:


Ugh. Who wants to go through all that? Onetastic makes it a quick and simple process by adding it to the Ribbon in the Find function:


That’s cool, but here’s something even better. I always hated that when I had an image in OneNote, I couldn’t crop it – to do that, I had to copy it and put it in a graphics editing program such as Photoshop, Paint or something in between, crop it there, then copy it back to One Note. Or I could use the snipping tool to copy the part of it I wanted, delete the uncropped one and paste in the new one. Either way, it was kludgey. Onetastic adds a right click menu to images and one of the choices is  “Crop.” How handy is that?


In fact, the additional capabilities in dealing with images would be my number one reason for loving this add-on. Being able to crop within the application is great, but the next feature is downright amazing.  I often use the snipping tool to capture information from web sites, Facebook pages, etc. and paste into OneNote. But a big limitation of that is that if you use Snippy to capture text, it isn’t really text; it’s an image. That means you can’t highlight, copy and paste it to some other document if you want. Except that with Onetastic, you can.

Another of the choices in that right-click menu is “Select text from image” and it does exactly what it says it will.


It finds the text in the graphics file and highlights it, and you can copy it and paste it as text into another document.  As with any OCR software, it doesn’t always get everything right, but as you can see in the pasted text below, it does a pretty good job of it.


There are quite a few useful macros that come with Onetastic, including the following:

– You can clean author information from a particular page, from all pages in a section, a group of sections, a notebook or all notebooks.

– You can remove all the hyperlinks.

– You can select from a large number of custom styles, just like in Word.

– You can increase and decrease font sizes.

– You can pin a page or section to the desktop or add it to a Favorites list.

– You can launch a calendar that shows which OneNote pages you created or edited on which dates.



These default macros alone are well worth the cost – if there was a cost; this is “donationware” so it’s free unless you decide you want to compensate the creator of this great tool voluntarily – but there are a bunch of additional macros you down download in “Macroland” and if you don’t find what you want there and you’re feeling creative, you can even make your own custom macros.


There are macros for creating a table of contents,  dimming and undimming tags, setting column widths, converting text into a table, sorting pages and sections in various ways, inserting subpages from selected text, get the word and page count for a selected region, section, group, notebook(s), show all recent edits, remove paragraph breaks, remove timestamps, insert a monthly calendar, change page color to teal, purple, black and other colors in addition to the pastels that are included in OneNote, and more.

I’m finding Onetastic to be a real productivity booster for an application that had already made me much more productive. If you’re a OneNote fan, be sure and take it for a test drive. Read the download instructions first, though; there are a few “tricks” – such as the fact that you need to install the version that matches the “bitness” (32 or 64) of your OneNote application, not your operating system. Click HERE to find out more about it and try it out for yourself.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Making Friends (or Not)

Social networking is wonderful. Thanks to Facebook and other such sites, I’ve renewed relationships with people with whom I lost touch decades ago. I’ve met new folks with whom I have so much in common it’s scary. I’ve gotten to know some of my extended family members and former passing acquaintances much better than I ever did or could have in the “real world.” But social networks have also brought new dilemmas. Sometimes when a friend requests pops up on your page, you’re delighted. Other times, not so much.

When you get a friend request from someone, how do you decide whether to accept and then how to classify that friend? I know some folks who will be FB friends only with people they know in “real life.” I know others who accept every request they get. I’m not as picky as the former but I’m a lot pickier than the latter. I have my own protocol for evaluating new friend requests, and I’m sure you do, too. I’m not holding mine out as the way to go about it, but here’s what works (most of the time) for me:

Assuming it’s not a “real life” friend whom I already know well and trust, I first look to see whether we have any mutual friends, how many, and who they are. If there’s one mutual friend and it’s one of my “friend collector” type friends (who accept all requests), that doesn’t mean much, but if it’s someone who has nine mutual friends with me and they’re all people I know to be somewhat discriminating, that does. 

I also look to see whether it’s someone whose posts I’ve seen in threads on other people’s statuses, or in FB groups to which I belong. Sometimes you can get to know a lot about people just by observing what they say over time. If I don’t recall any interactions of that kind, I may go into research mode. Be warned that if you send me a friend request out of the blue, you’re implicitly agreeing to undergo my version of a background check. Depending on how much free time I have and my mood at the time, I might do a web search on you, look you up on LinkedIn, etc., to try to determine whether you’re someone I’ve known in one of my many past lives or someone I really want to know in a future one.

I get many requests that seem to come out of nowhere. Never heard of this person, no mutual friends, no private message telling me “I want to be friends because I’m a long-time reader of your articles and books” or “I’m the sister of XX, with whom you’re good friends” or some other clue as to why this person wants to be my friend. C’mon, folks. If I don’t know you, tell me who you are and how you know me. If you just ran across my profile picture and think I’m “lovely,” well … those generally aren’t the kinds of friends I’m looking for. If you PM me to tell me you want to get to know me better because I’m “hot” – not only are you going to get rejected, you’re going to get blocked.

Of course I look at the requesting person’s own page on the social network. If his/her personal info is public, I look at that. Sometimes it does give me a clue as to what our connection is. If the person’s info is shared only with friends and there are no other clues, I usually ignore the request. Sorry. You might be a wonderful person whose virtual company I would thoroughly enjoy, but you might not. I totally respect your right to privacy and understand why you don’t want to put your life out there for public consumption, but I’m not clairvoyant, so I have no way to know and prefer to err on the side of caution.

If we do have mutual friends or you sent me a message or my web search turns up positive information or for some other reason I decide to accept your request, I’m not finished. Now I have to decide which of my many friend groups you belong in. So next I look at your personal info and “Likes.” You can tell a lot about a person by what he/she takes the time to declare a liking for. Those likes might tell me that this is someone who adores dogs and cats like I do, who shares my tastes in music or hobbies or politics, who’s a fellow former cop or a fellow MVP or is a fellow writer or had a crush on the same movie stars as a teenager. Or it might tell me that we subscribe to very different beliefs and philosophies and are quite likely to clash violently if you ever see some of my opinionated posts. In that case, you’ll probably go into the “Acquaintances” category, which means you’ll see only a small fraction of the things I post. 

If that happens, trust me; it’s for the best. It’s not that I don’t like “diversity” or don’t ever want to hear any opinion that’s different from mine. I have many “full fledged friends” with whom I regularly disagree on all sorts of things. It’s that there are certain topics I’m really tired of rehashing. There are certain mindsets indicated by some posts and “likes” that are so foreign to me that I can be reasonably sure that communication on certain topics would be impossible. I’ve lived on this planet a long time now; I know how to recognize those. So in both of our interests, I don’t engage in those conversations. 

That also means that, if you’re my friend and we’re at opposite ends of the earth on some topics, but you see the status updates I post about those topics anyway, that means I consider you to be someone who’s capable of reasonable and intelligent disagreement. It’s a compliment. Be happy. If you’ve been relegated to the “Acquaintance” list, though, don’t be sad. Sometimes it’s just because I don’t yet know you well enough to bring you into the inner circle. It’s just as possible to move up to “Friend” from “Acquaintance” as it is to move in the other direction. 

I made this post public on my Facebook page so those who are considering sending me a friend request can see it. I’m sure I probably over-think the whole friend request thing, just as I over-think most things. Because thinking is what I do. If you’re the same way, we’re likely to get along great. If not, deal with it. That’s who I am, and that’s who you asked to befriend.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Best Phone in the Galaxy Gets Even Better

I recently heard someone say that the smart phone market is no longer a competition between iOS and Android – now it’s between Apple and Samsung. Indeed, Samsung has shipped almost twice as many phones this year as Apple (85 million vs. 43.7 million in the first quarter of 2014), and there’s a good reason for that. The iPhone may have been “magical and revolutionary” (in Steve Jobs’ words) when it was introduced in 2007, but that was seven years ago and the iPhone hasn’t changed much. Android, on the other hand, has progressed by leaps and bounds and Samsung’s Galaxy line of smart phones and tablets have been at the forefront of that progress.

My primary phone for the last few years has been a Galaxy Note. I’m currently using the Note 3 and am eagerly awaiting the Note 4. Meanwhile, I recently had the opportunity to test drive a Galaxy S5 (which, if past experience holds, will hand down many of its new features to the next Note). It was difficult to resist the temptation to rush out and buy one, especially since the S5’s screen is almost as big as my Note’s – and absolutely beautiful at 432 pixels per inch; only my love of and dependence on the S Pen prevented me from doing so. (And yes, I do know that the S5 supports input with a pencil – if you tweak the touch sensitivity setting – but I like having my stylus stored inside the phone).


Speaking of the screen, I find it amazing that this phone has the same resolution as many of today’s large monitors (1080×1920) and as much RAM as many low end desktop computers (2 GB). With a 128 GB microSD card and 16 GB of internal storage, it’s no slouch in that department, either. One thing I love about both the S5 and my Note 3 is the microUSB 3 port and resultant fast charging.

I’ve already posted a three part review of the Note 3 (starting here with Love Note) and of course there are many similarities so I won’t repeat myself by discussing those. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s different. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 reminds me a lot of Windows 8.1 Update 1. In both cases, it’s difficult to point to any one big feature that makes the upgrade worthwhile, but the totality of numerous little improvements dramatically changes the user experience for the better.

One of the most hyped features of the S5 is its “tough guy” persona: the water and dust resistance. Note that this doesn’t mean water proof, so I wouldn’t advise that you take it diving with you – but it can withstand immersion in water up to 1 meter (about 3 feet) for half an hour, which means dropping it in the pool (or in the toilet, which a surprising number of people seem to do, although I haven’t yet figured out why) shouldn’t kill it.

Water resistance is measured by an “IP rating” (stands for “ingress protection”), which is based on standards published by the International Electrotechnical Commission. The S5 is rated as IP 67. You can find out more about the IP dimageust protection and water protection levels by consulting this IP Rating Chart.

I like this feature a lot because it means I don’t have to worry so much about taking pictures with the phone when it’s raining. One component of this water resistance is the cover over the charger port to prevent water/dust from getting in. Even if I weren’t going to take the phone into wet or dusty environments, I would like this cover because I think it makes the device look a little classier and more “finished” than a bare, open port.

As I started to work with the phone, right away I noticed a few differences in operation. For example, holding down the physical home button no longer takes you to the task manager. Now it takes you to search. This was confusing at first, until I realized that a tap on the left soft key no longer brings up settings; it takes you to the task manager. So how do you get to application settings, you might wonder? By pressing and holding that left soft key. This will take some getting used to, but at least the back button (right soft key) still takes you back.

The phone seems more voice-integrated out of the box, which I liked. Maybe the reason is as simple as the widget that says Say “Ok Google” on the home screen, but I found myselimagef using voice much more and it seemed to work better. 

Another new feature that will be welcomed by folks who want to be able to hide files on the phone is “private mode.” I don’t see myself using it a lot, but I can think of some scenarios where it might be useful. There’s a setting at the top of the notification tray that to enable it. Then you can use it to hide photos, videos, music, voice recordings or other files.


You have to enter your password, PIN, pattern or fingerprint (more on this last one in a moment) to protect the files, then you just select them and choose “Move to private.”  Now those files can’t be viewed without again proving your identity. This is a separate and different feature from private web browsing, by the way, which are available in the default browser as well as in Chrome for Android.

The biometric logon feature is something I really like a lot and I almost would buy this phone just for this feature. I hate using logon security with my phones because it is such a pain to have to enter a password or PIN every time you want to use the phone. Pattern recognition makes it a little less annoying, but it’s very easy to swipe your finger slightly wrong and the pattern ends up wrong. I was skeptical as to whether the S5’s fingerprint recognition would work well because I’ve had problems with fingerprint scanners in the past due to some small scars I have on my fingertips.

I was surprised to find that 9 times out of 10, the fingerprint scanner worked on the first try and it’s a lot easier to swipe my fingimageer than to draw a complicated pattern (and if you make it a simple one, what’s the point?). There is a “gotcha” to be aware of when you decide to use fingerprint logon, though. When you first set up fingerprint recognition, you enter an alternative password that you can use in case the biometric technology fails (or in case you leave your phone at home and need to tell your significant other how to get into it when you aren’t there). Neither of those things ever happened to me, and I didn’t write down the alternative password that I had used, so I promptly forgot it.

That wasn’t a problem until it was time for me to send the demo phone back to the Verizon PR firm that loaned it to me. It turns out that, if you want to do a factory reset on the phone, it asks you for that alternative password. I tried all my usual password variations, to no avail. Of course I hadn’t wanted to use one of my “real” passwords on a loaner phone. For a short while, I was stumped: how was I going to remove my data such as email account and Facebook account from the phone?

Luckily, a quick web search turned up the answer. It turns out to be simple: all you have to do is do is deregister your fingerprint that is stored on the phone, and the device is unlocked; then it no longer asks you for a password to do the reset. Not only was that a big relief, but I had learned a “secret” that I could share in this review, which I knew others in the same situation would appreciate knowing.

An important phone feature for me is the camera. Even though I have multiple Nikon DSLRs that cost thousands of dollars, I often take photos with my phone because it’s the one camera that is always with me. I don’t expect it to give me the same quality I get from my high priced photo equipment, but I want a phone cam that will at least capture decent pictures. I have that with my Galaxy Note, and I was happy to see that photo quality was at least as good with the S5.

The S5 camera includes some nifty features such as selective focus, which means I can get the same effect I get by opening up the lens wide on my Nikon – an out-of-focus background to make my subject stand out.  I especially like it in macro mode. It’s something you can do after the fact in photo editing software, but it’s handy to be able to do it in the camera.  The camera offers a more-than-adequate 16 megapixels and autofocus is fast, which is important for getting those quick shots for which you only get one opportunity.  One thing that I don’t care for with the camera is the wait with the “processing” message after taking a photo. It seems to take longer than with my Note 3, which means I miss some second shots.  The S5 works better in low light, though, so it’s something of a trade-off. There are a lot of different modes, although the camera’s settings selection menu is very different and takes some getting used to.

Remembering that the S5 is, after all, a phone (although I use my smart phones far more as pocket-sized computers than to make calls), I should mention that there are some nice phone features introduced here. I like the “check caller information” feature that will show you info about the person you’re currently talking to. This could save you embarrassment when you get a call from someone whose details you can’t quite recall. There’s also a “call notification” pop-up that makes it easy to talk on the phone while using another app.

The S Health app and the heart rate monitor have a lot of “wow” factor but I’m not sure how accurate the monitor is, and I prefer to use my old tried-and-true apps such as Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal to track my exercise and calories. S Health has a pretty interface, though, and if I wasn’t already heavily invested in those other apps, I would certainly be willing to give it a try.

No matter how many cool things a phone can do, none of it matters if it’s dead half-way through the day. I’m happy to report that the battery life I got on the S5 was very good, and it has an ultra power saving mode that you can invoke if necessary to save those last drops of juice if you do find yourself running out of power, although it throws your display into monochromatic mode that looks like those ancient monitors you might remember from MS-DOS days (if you’re that old). It also limits which apps you can use. But it could be a lifesaver in certain situations.

Finally, I’ll note that the S5 is compatible with the Galaxy Gear watch, but I haven’t had the chance to try one of those out. I love the idea of a smart watch, but none of those that have hit the market so far are something that I would actually wear in public. They’re all just too big and bulky and frankly, ugly (in my opinion). But for a man with a large wrist, I think it’s a fantastic idea and hope the future brings some more fashionable alternatives.

There’s more to the Galaxy S5 than I’ve covered in this brief review; there are more comprehensive ones out there that go into great detail about how to use all the new features, so there’s no sense in me reinventing that wheel. Quite a few of my readers have asked my opinion of the S5 and whether I would recommend it as it comes time for them to upgrade their phones. My answer is that if you don’t have a great need for the stylus of the Note and you don’t want quite as much size, the S5 is the best choice available at this point in time (although you should be aware that its 5.1 inch screen still arguably qualifies it for “phablet” status). Many people will never discover or use all of its amazing features, but it’s certainly nice to have them and be able to pick and choose which ones are “musts” for you.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wearable computers need to get a little more fashion savvy

I just finished doing an article on the phenomenon of wearable computing, which will be published shortly on GFI’s Talk Tech to Me blog. It’s a big topic with a lot of angles – usability and usage scenarios, cost, privacy issues, etc. – and my focus in that article was on the use cases and benefits of wearables. Something I didn’t address was what I see right now as a primary obstacle to adoption: today’s wearable computing devices are, for the most part, ugly and/or designed exclusively for men.

Take the smart watch. Please. And replace it with something that I would actually wear in public. I am a life-long watch-wearer. The only time I take it off is to shower or go through airport security. I absolutely love the concept of a watch that would tell me more than just the time.  I have a Galaxy Note 3 and I could get excited about the Galaxy Gear, if only it was better looking.  I’d like to be able to glance at my wrist to see whether I have new email and voicemail messages, preview my next appointment, track my exercise, monitor my heart rate, check the weather forecast, snap a photo and so forth.

But I would never wear it in its current iterations. I’ll grant you, the Gear is more attractive than some of Samsung’s (and others’) attempts at a smart watch. The SPH-WP10 smart phone/watch combo that was introduced by Samsung in 1999, for instance, was an unwieldy odd duck with its speaker and antenna protruding on one side.

Today’s Gear has actually been refined into a pretty nice design – for a 250 lb. male wearer.  Few women would be caught dead wearing the thing. On the wrist of a 120 lb. female, it looks ridiculous. Sure, I know you need a certain amount of screen real estate for the display and enough internal space for the battery and circuitry, but surely there’s a way to reduce the size at least a little.  I’ll deal with the smaller screen. I’ll squint if I have to. Just give me something I can wear. It’s not just that it’s clunky-looking, either. On a female wrist, it’s downright uncomfortable.

Google is reportedly planning to come out with a smart watch version of Android that (the hope is) will persuade more OEMs to make such devices. Motorola is said to be working on a smart watch, too. None of the leaked prototypes I’ve seen are making me jump up and down with joy. Most are still big and bulky, sport rubberized or plastic-looking bands and are masculine in style.

I realize the “geek” audience is predominantly male, but hey, who would have thought ten years ago that women outside the tech industry would embrace smart phones the way they have? One reason is functionality but another reason is that Apple (much as I hate to admit it) made the smart phone look good. Prior to the iPhone, the devices were thick, clunky utilitarian black or silver gadgets. Women were attracted to the sleek lines and white color of the iPhone, and soon HTC, Samsung and other phone vendors were following suit with thin, stylish, colorful case designs that allowed women to enjoy all the phones’ features and make a fashion statement at the same time. If those vendors want to double the market for these new wearable computing devices, they need to make them look like something that the typical woman wouldn’t be ashamed to have in her wardrobe.

Then there’s Google Glass.  The first generation looks like a futuristic Borg implant of some sort. Not that looking like Seven of Nine is the worst fate that could befall a woman, but it’s just a little too “in your face” (literally and figuratively) for my taste. Not to mention the emotions it seems to stir up. Sure, we dress to get attention, but inspiring people to attack you is a little too much attention.

The newer iteration of Glass is at least slightly more low-key, with prescription frames that resemble regular eyeglasses, although the device is still very evident. I don’t believe you’ll see widespread adoption until Google is able to embed the technology into the glasses so that it’s not readily apparent that it’s a computing device. And I’m fairly sure that day will come eventually.

Wearable computing is undoubtedly the future of technology, but that future isn’t going to get here as quickly as it could unless vendors take a look at how their devices look, and hire some traditional fashion designers to work alongside the hardware designers to make their products both functional and fashionable.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment