Tech Tip: Adding technology to your winter driving kit

Tech Tip: In addition to a snow brush, keep a backup battery or car charger in your car as part of your winter driving kit.

As we start adjusting to winters arrival, we have to male a few changes both to how we drive and what we carry with us in our car.  Snow brushes and a blanket are great additions to any car during the winter, but there are a few technology solutions we can also include as we winterize the car.

If you don’t already have one, make sure you include a car charger for your phone.  The last thing you want is to be spun out in a ditch on a snowy evening and have your phone die on you.  Most smart phones have moved over to the Micro USB adapter, meaning 1 charger packed away is probably all you need as it will charge most phones now and in the future.  Apple does remain stubborn and have it’s own proprietary charger so make sure you have one that will work if you use an iPhone.

Another great item to include is an emergency battery backup for your phone.  In essence, it is a portable battery pack that you can fit in a glove box or bag to provide emergency power.  Most battery packs can charge a phone 1 or 2 times before it needs to be charged itself.  While a car charger is handy, its useless if your car battery is dead.  It is important to remember that cold can affect battery performance so if you decide to get a portable battery pack, make sure its checked or charged up regularly.  Even better would be to keep it in a bag or pocket where it will stay warm enough not to lose its charge.

Another option to carrying a battery pack is to store a portable power generator for charging your phone.  Some hand crank flashlights have built in chargers for a phone.  A solar charger is also a great idea, but just remember it’s darker in winter so a solar charger will be at its least efficient during the winter.  Another great tool is the PowerPot by Power Practical.  It generates enough electricity to charge a phone by heating water in it over a stove.  I originally bought one for camping, but found it extremely useful during my recent kitchen renovations.  I now keep it I’m my car in the event I get stranded at the side of the road.  Fortunately melting snow is a great way for it to produce electricity.  You can buy a small camp stove and fuel tank that fits right inside and stashes away in your trunk easily.

Winter presents its own set of challenges for driving, and preparing for those challenges is critical.  By preparing in advance you will be ready for any issue that arises, and still be connected at the time you need it most.

Could the Instant Messaging problem in Government be BlackBerrys Salvation?

This is the first of what I hope will be a number of cross-over blogs focusing on both the politics and the technology behind some of the stories hitting the news.  This blog will look at the issue from a technology perspective, and our sister blog “The Centre” will look at the same issue from a political standpoint.
Yesterday the Federal Information Commissioner for Canada issued a report detailing a problem in the Federal government with Instant messaging.  Ministers and staff members are using Instant messaging and BlackBerry PIN to PIN messaging to communicate with each other, often about government business.  The problem with this method of communication at the government level is that there is do easy, or direct method to backup and record these transactions.  Under the Federal Access to Information Act, all business regarding government needs to be recorded and archived.  PIN to PIN messaging and Instant Messaging (Such as BBM) can easily be deleted with little to no trace of any conversation taking place.
Naturally it is not a far stretch to see in many instances why conversations would like to be kept off the record, in personal, business and government roles.  The main difference though is that personal conversations being kept under wraps are simply that: a personal matter.  Even in business, there is lots of legitimate times conversations would want to be kept off the record.  When it comes to government however, while communications needs to be secured, being kept off the record is a major issue.  You need to look no further than the current Canadian Senate scandal to see why records need to be kept to verify transactions and conversations.
The commissioner put forward the recommendation that all Instant messaging and PIN messaging be halted in government departments.  This is a recommendation the current government does not seem keen on and has announced it will not accept the recommendations.
From a technology perspective, instant communications through text, BBM, PIN or other instant messaging platforms has become not just the norm for government operations, it has become essential to provide information quickly and accurately to personnel.  In all areas, Instant messaging is able to bring short, quick messages to people when they need it.  It has been adopted at many major companies as a viable communications tool, even over email or voice.
So the dilemma exists: How do you get government staff and ministers to stop using a technology that they rely on every day and that has obvious benefits?
A New Market?
Instant messaging platforms have been seeing some serious attention from investors recently.  WhatsApp and Kik are 2 platforms that have seen significant interest from venture capitalists.  BlackBerry, for all its troubles, has seen a resurgence in popularity over its BBM instant messaging platform being ported over to both the iPhone and Android devices.  BlackBerry could very well leverage interest in BBM in determining its future company value.  Yet for all the interest, most instant messaging platforms bring in little to no revenue.  The big question many messaging companies are looking at is how to turn those valuable users into revenue generators?
There is a potential market here for those instant messaging businesses to be able to create and sell a solution to governments.  A solution that would provide all the benefits of direct instant messaging currently being enjoyed, while providing a backend that can automatically backup and archive all messages.  And BlackBerry seems like the perfect business to tackle it.
Already, BlackBerry is heavily integrated into Governments, and BlackBerry Enterprise Server does have the ability to log and audit BBM and PIN messaging.  As Blackberry undergoes the inevitable changes that it will need to take, focusing on service solutions will be how it can save itself; And government management of mobile devices, for security and message archiving is where it can leverage its strengths to create a solution that is profitable and accountable.
Its surprising that the government currently does not archive its PIN and BBM messages, (at least in my understanding of the report) but this provides an excellent opportunity to see if the former darling of the Canadian tech landscape can prove once again it is still relevant by solving an issue it essentially created.

Tech Tip: Using technology in the Kitchen

CookingwithTech

Tech Tip: Your Tablet and laptop can be great companions in the kitchen. Google recipes and clip the good ones in your notes application.

It seems rather fitting that we look at the use of technology in the kitchen today, being the American Thanksgiving and only a few short weeks away from family dinners around the holidays.  Laptops, tablets and smartphones all can provide a great deal of assistance during the dinner hours.

Deciding what to make can be daunting as it is. I have spent many evenings looking at the freezer and seeing what meats we have, only to get stuck on finding what would be the best way to prepare them.  This is where Google has been a great help to me.  A simple request asking for recipes for *Insert main food ingredient here* and I have a plethora of ideas from the simple to the gourmet available to me.  I find Chicken and Pork are the two meats that are staples in our house, but need to be changed up so as not to create the same boring meal every time.  Chicken recipes are plentiful on the Internet.  I’ve found many of my favourite recipes at allrecipes.combut it is by far not the only place to look.  That’s where Google comes in.  By entering what you want to cook, you will get a list of different sites and recipes.

What to do when you found your perfect recipe?

Recipe books and boxes to stash clipped recipes were great in the past, but instead of printing out that recipe, I back it up online.  As most regular readers know, I am a big fan of Evernote.  I have a notebook set aside just for recipes so I can merge the family traditional recipes passed on from my family as well as mix it with new recipes I find online.  You can tag each recipe with the main ingredient (such as Pork or Chicken) to make it easy to find later.  As a guy who really didn’t have many cooking skills until recently, I find it great to be able to easily access these on any device.  I can look up my meal choice, download it to Evernote from my computer at home, and then access it again easily from my Smartphone when shopping for ingredients. (Usually when I’m part way through cooking and realize I don’t have a main ingredient in the house!)

Timing the Turkey

Once you have your dinner prepped, depending what your cooking, you may need to time how long it takes to cook something.  Most clocks on smartphones now will have both a countdown and a count up timer.  Set your alarm for however long you need and walk away. (Don’t forget to check in now and then on your food though!)  Enjoy your company and not worry about missing the alarm on the oven, since you will probably have your phone with you.

Setting the ambiance

Now that dinner is cooked, use your smartphone to run some nice music through a pair of speakers.  You can find a pair of cheap, wired speakers almost anywhere for a few dollars, or splurge and go for a set of Bluetooth speakers.  iPhones are obvious choices for listening to music, but I actually use a music server called Subsonic.  It allows me to store all my music in one place and access it from any phone, computer or tablet I want through either an App or a web interface. So relax to some smooth jazz music, or blast out some Holiday cheer, whatever strikes your fancy when the family all shows up.

Hopefully these tips will help make your meal preparations go smoothly, and help change up the variety of foods and meals.  I can help you with the technology, but cooking skills…..you’re on your own!

Tech Tip: Remote Desktop access on the Go

Tech Tip: control your desktop computer from anywhere using remote desktop software. Even from your Smartphone or Tablet

Desktop computers may be seeing a decrease in sales and adoption, but they’re not completely dead yet.  In fact, Desktop computers still can do things that Tablets or even Laptops can’t really do.  The beauty of desktop computers is their ability to be upgraded, run power applications (Such as heavy graphics processing programs) or as servers that require a constant connection to the network and always powered on.

Despite how important these tools can be, the lack of mobility of a desktop computer is a major obstacle in an era of constant mobility.  The solution to this is a Remote Desktop application.

What is a Remote Desktop?

Quite simply, a Remote desktop application allows you to control your desktop computer using another computer or mobile device.  Your view would be the same as if you were sitting in front of your desktop computer, but accessible on your laptop, tablet or smartphone.  The trick is the video connection, as well as all the inputs for keyboard and pointing device are transferred over a network connection instead of through the cables that plug into your computer directly.  By giving you full control of your computer you are able to work on it as if you were sitting in front of it.

How do you connect?

There are a number of applications that you can use to connect.  One of the most popular is a program called TeamViewer.  While running in the background on your desktop, it awaits a remote connection to activate.  By entering the unique ID and password provided, you can use another computer to log on and take control.  TeamViewer works on PCs, Macs, Linux, and many mobile devices through apps.

LogMeIn is another solution I have used in the past and have been quite happy with.  LogMeIn clients log on to their website and have access to all the computers they have registered to their account.  Through LogMeIn, you can see if a computer is online before attempting to connect, which is helpful if you are doing remote support for someone.

While these are not the only remote desktop solutions available, these are the two I have used the most and I find work well for individuals and small business owners.

Both programs offer many other features than just remote desktop, such as VPN service and online meetings, so I encourage you to check them out to see what other solutions there are.  I will write about other features in future Tech Tip posts.

Tech Tip: Setting reminders with your personal Tech

Tech Tip: Smartphones and Apps are great for setting reminders (Like to Tweet out your Tech Tip of the day!) and To Do lists

The list of things you can do with your smartphone is impressive.  Email, messaging, alarm clock, and yes, even making a phone call!  One thing that can sometimes be overlooked is its ability to set simple reminders and To Do lists for you.

To Do lists have been popular tech tools for quite a while.  The best To Do list are those that bridge the space between computer based and mobile accessible.  Usually these are web based programs that sync between clients on your desktop/laptop and your mobile device.  There is a great run down on what to do lists are available and how they sync up here at Lifehacker.

When it comes to reminders, those are best kept on your mobile device as it is often the item always with you and on.  A To Do list is something you go to when you want to find out what you need to do next, but reminders are supposed to alert you when something needs to be done, presumably because you have forgotten.

Google Now has a great reminder feature baked right into newer Android phones.  Simply tell it to “Remind me to …..” and it will set up a reminder alert for you at the time you request.  If you tell it to “Remind me to take out the garbage tomorrow morning” it will automatically set an alarm for the next morning to alert you.

Likewise, Apple’s iPhones and iPad’s with Siri have an easy way to set up reminders.  Simply telling Siri what you want to do will let it input the reminder into your default app.  That would be either be Reminders if you are just using iCloud, or it will move over to Tasks if you are set up to use Exchange.  There is a great write up on how to set reminders with Siri here.

Evernote, one of my favourite note taking programs, also has a reminder feature built right into it.  When you start a new note on your mobile, there is an alarm clock icon that will allow you to set a date and time to have it remind you about the note you have just created.  This is then synced with all your applications of Evernote and alerts you when its time.  The benefit of Evernote over Google Now is that Evernote will work on multiple platforms with one account, while Google Now or Siri is only baked into its own mobile client.

While it seems like something so simple, setting reminders on your mobile devices is not something we normally think of.  We often still have scraps of paper in our pockets or just hope we remember to do something.  Taking 20 seconds to set up an alert on our devices will save time later, embarrassment when we forget something, and possibly even a sore finger from having that string tied to it for too long.

Tech Tip: Owning your own Domain Name

Tech Tip: Your own domain name gives you a personalized email address & website. It doesn’t cost much and can forward to your existing email

What is a domain name and why should you have one? 

First, a domain name is what you type into your web browser almost every day to find a web page.  Most people don’t realize this, but everywhere you need to go on the internet is actually based on a numerical address, similar to a phone number, known as an IP address.  Most people know an address like 192.168.1.1 (which is reserved for local home networks), but every webpage, server and place on the internet has a numeric address.  Since remembering more numbers is hard for some, we have something called Domain Names.  These are the easy to remember names for websites and locations, like Google.com or Facebook.com

A domain name can be purchased by anyone and isn’t that hard to set up.  Even if you don’t have a website to connect it to, or a company to run, a domain name for a person or a family has a lot of benefits.

Do you have a hotmail email address?  How about another provider like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or perhaps you have your email through an internet provider.  While a web based email address can live on for a long time, and wherever you go, if you get tired of the interface, or if another provider comes out, its hard to tell everyone your new email address and switch everyone over.  Likewise, and even worse, if you have an email address with your internet provider, what happens if you decide to cancel their service and move to someone else?  You would have to give up your email address and then tell everyone your new address.

If you have your own domain name, you can then also have your own personal email address.  If you purchase http://www.yourowndomain.com, then you can also have yourname@yourowndomain.com.  As long as you keep your domain active, your email address will work.  You can either use the email solution provided by the domain registrar (The company that will register the domain on your behalf) or you can forward the email address to the email platform of your choice.  For example, my email address uses my own domain name, but all my email forwards to my Gmail account.  I also have it set up so that all mail sent from Gmail goes through my domain name, so the outbound emails always come from my allsop.ca domain name instead of the Gmail address.  This allows me to have all the benefits of Gmail while maintaining the single email address everyone knows for me.

Having your own domain streamlines your communications and provides a level of professionalism.  Whether you are a small business owner, or a family looking to keep everyone connected, a domain name is a small cost with a large benefit.

Tech Tip: Mobile Tethering

Tech Tip: Many Smartphones can tether mobile data connection allowing for WiFi access anywhere. Great for Laptops and Tablets while on to go

WiFi hotspots are all over the place, but there are times when your laptop or tablet need to connect and there is not a reliable WiFi connection around.  What to do?  Data plans with your smartphone can often be shared through wireless tethering.

What is Tethering?

Tethering allows you to connect a wireless device, such as a laptop or tablet, to your smartphone to allow the data connection on it to be shared.  There are 3 ways you can tether a Smartphone.  Cable, Bluetooth and WiFi.  If you are using a laptop with a free USB port, you may be able to plug your smartphone into it and have it act as a modem for your computer.  This will give you direct access to your data connection, while providing power for your smartphone.

If your computer or tablet has Bluetooth, you may be able to connect it up to your device wirelessly.  This would be similar to the USB cable method but without the physical connection.  Your device will share the data connection and allow you to access the internet just like it was connected via the cable.

WiFi is probably the most common option for connecting up a device to your smartphone.  Turning your phone into a WiFi Hotspot will allow you to share the data connection with multiple devices.  In this case, your smartphone will act as a WiFi router for other devices that connect up to it.

A few caveats to remember though.  Tethering and mobile hotspots are great for quick connections when on the go, or when your Internet connection is down, but unless you have a really good data plan, you shouldn’t use it as your primary connection, especially when computers are connected.  Many software updates can download in the background on your computer, eating up your data plan without your knowledge.  Since many mobile data plans here in Canada range anywhere from 1GB to 6GB of transfer, it wouldn’t take much to go over without realizing if simply through software updates.

Some wireless providers also sell specialized WiFi Hotspots with the data plan all connected.  These are great if you plan is to have a mobile office or only needed in a location for a short period of time where a traditional internet connection would not be feasible to hook up.  For the average user however, a Mobile hotspot on your Smartphone should be fine to stay connected.

Tech Tip: Data plans when you travel with your Smartphone

Tech Tip: If you’re traveling out of Canada with your smartphone, either turn off data roaming or add a data roaming package to save money

Smartphones are fantastic tools to have when traveling.  Not only do you have maps with you to get you around, you can find restaurants, local attractions and information on the area you are visiting.  The problem is with travel outside of Canada, you have to roam on different networks to get access your phone and data packages.  Unfortunately Roaming rates for data are not exactly the cheapest around.  Even a short visit across the border can lead to some hefty charges on your bill.  There are a few ways you can mitigate the costs associated with roaming.

Turn off your Data

Most smartphones have the ability to turn off the data features while roaming outside your home area.  Although it may be inconvenient, turning off data is the safest way to prevent surprises on your phone bill.  Each phone is different, but generally you will want to look under the settings area, and look for mobile networks.  Sometimes there will be an option to turn data off while roaming, other times you just might need to turn all data services off.  You won’t be able to get your email or facebook status updates, but its a small sacrifice for a reasonable bill.

Roaming Data Package

Most wireless carriers will offer data roaming packages now.  They can range from a 24 hour package to a week at a time.  They are still on the pricier side, but a lot cheaper than roaming without adding one of these packages.  To set one of these up, a call to your providers customer service line will get you in touch with someone who can help add one.  If you already know what you need, there are sometimes options to add the package either online or via text message.  Check with your provider before heading out to see what deal is right.

WiFi only

If you don’t want to spend the money on an extra roaming package, turn the mobile data roaming feature off, and use WiFi in local hotspots.  Most restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and attractions will offer free WiFi. (although sometimes you will have to open up a web page on your smartphone to agree to the terms of service before you can access it)  If you are staying at a resort or hotel that offers WiFi, check to see if it is free or if there is a cost.  Some places will charge you access costs per device.  This can be a problem if you have a Tablet, Smartphone and laptop on your trip.  If that is the case, choose which device is most important.  If it is based on an access code like a room number, then you may be able to get away with multiple devices connected for one cost.

Specialty Roaming Packages

A few companies have popped up that specialize in offering better roaming rates than your normal provider.  Roam Mobility for example is one company that specializes in offering mobile voice and data packages through their network agreements.  The upside is you probably will get better roaming rates than your existing provider.  The downside is that you need to replace the SIM card in your device with one of theirs.  Make sure you either forward your calls to the new number or tell people to call you on that other number.  Some newer Smartphones have dual SIM card slots, designed for such instances, but they have not caught on yet in North America and are hard to find.

While this blog post is geared towards smartphones, you can be extended to include Tablets and even laptops when traveling.  Do you have any horror stories of high charges when traveling or any tips for wireless access overseas?  I’d love to hear them.  Tweet me @Stealth2377 or leave them in the comments section below.

Tech Tip: Control your Phone with your Voice

Tech Tip: Voice recognition in smart phones has improved greatly over the years. Use it to access your phones features

Voice recognition has made some great improvements over the past few years.  When I first started using it on my old BlackBerry, I was able to just simply dial a few contacts in my phone book.  Although I was able to type out messages, I never found it worked all that well.  Fast forward to a few years later (That being now) and Voice Recognition not only does a great job picking up what you are saying accurately, it can do much more.

Recently I have been playing around with Google Now, which is the Smartphone assistant on Android phones.  I have been impressed with how well it works.  Not only will it do dictation for me in messages, it responds to questions I ask it using Google’s impressive search tools.  If I say “Set an alarm for 5 minutes” it will automatically open up the app, set the alarm and start it without any further intervention on my part.

Asking it questions also brings up some decent answers.  Sometimes it is just a search in Google it brings up, other times it scours the internet for my answer and tells me.  The Android blog Android Authority has a great infographic with the voice commands you can use for Google Now here.  Apple’s Siri assistant has a lengthy list of features it can also perform for you.  Here is a link to some of the commands you can provide to Siri.

Recently I wrote a blog about using voice commands whenever possible while driving instead of typing.  While talking to your phone may still get a few funny looks from others around you, it is the way we will interact with technology in the near future.

Tech Tip: Don’t get your phone wet

Tech Tip: Winter can be wet and slippery. Water damage is a real concern for your smartphone. Keep it safe! don’t get it wet.

Every summer I remind people to be careful not to get their phones wet. When its raining or if by the pool, water damage is a real concern. People sometimes forget though that snow is just as damaging to your phone. Dropping your phone in a snowbank (When the snow starts falling) only gives you a few extra seconds to wipe down your phone before the snow sneaks into the electronics. Once wet, the odds of rescuing it start going down.

If your phone does get wet, turn it off right away. Remove the battery if you can. (Many phones have batteries you can’t remove unfortunately) Put your phone in a bag of rice for at least 24 hours to get the moisture out. This will give you the best chance of recovering it.

A few things to remember: Winter gloves make it hard to use your touchscreen phone, and also make your hands a little clumsier. Cold hands also make it hard to hold your phone and increase the risk of dropping it.

What can you do in the Winter to keep your phone intact?
There are gloves you can buy which will work with touch screen phones. These gloves tend not to be as bulky while still providing some protection for your hands from the elements. I would also recommend using voice dialing, voice dication and other voice commands where possible. Its easier to press 1 button to access the voice options than it is to type with cold hands.

Make sure your coat as a pocket that is easily accessible for your phone, that also provides some protection from the cold and moisture. If its a particularly wet day (or you decide to shovel the snow while listening to music on your phone) consider putting your phone in a zip lock bag in your pocket. That will also help keep the moisture out.

Stay warm and dry this winter and keep your phone safe.