Find Time for Creativity With Art Before Breakfast and Other Books

Image: Chronicle Books

Image: Chronicle Books

It pains me to draw, to sketch, to doodle. I’m not one of those people who ever passed the time doodling while in class or in a meeting. If I’m drawing anything, it takes all of my creative energy and attention, so I’m definitely not paying attention to anything else. I’ve always been envious of those who draw with ease, and those who actually enjoy it. Part of my non-enjoyment of drawing is a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. The more I draw, the better at it I am. And I’m reminded to keep at it, to not give up or continue to resign myself to be bad at drawing, by books such as Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to Be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are.

GeekMom Lissa recently included this book in her impromptu-and-useful-and-inspiring tweet series, which she turned into a Storify story and a blog post. She recently finished filling her first sketchbook. I’d like to emulate her efforts myself, and have been encouraged to begin.

But how?

1. Get a sketchbook. Check. I have one. I’ve drawn a few things in it. But there are only about eight pages full, mostly with things for other purposes. But, I have it.

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books.

2. Begin working my way through Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory. Full of exercises but not a step-by-step guide, it gives you examples of places to find opportunities to make art. The airport. While you’re eating walnuts. While looking at pencils. Using Post-Its. Of course, it helps to have your materials with you all the time, to take advantage of the little moments. But it’s also full of advice for how and why to include art in your life, which will add more beauty and richness to what you already have. Art helps you notice the small things. It helps you appreciate what you have and forces you to slow down your pace of life, even for just a few minutes. Consider it a form of meditation, if you will. Also full of humor, the book is a joy to read while you learn. And it’s dedicated to someone named Jenny. Not me, but I have yet to meet anyone named Jenny who I didn’t like.

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books.

3. Utilize my other art-inspiring books, such as How to Draw a Radish and How to Draw a Cup of Coffee. These books I obtained a couple of decades ago in the hopes that I’d start doodling. Yeah, it didn’t work. But never stop trying!

4. Keep finding sources of inspiration, such as my children’s drawings, books like 20 Ways to Draw a Tree and 44 Other Nifty Things from Nature: A Sketchbook for Artists, Designers, and Doodlers, and other books in the series. I’ve been wanting to try this book out for a while. I’m horrid at drawing people, for example, but I can do flowers, trees, and birds more passably. Begin with my strengths!

5. Finally, don’t expect perfection out of myself. If I can just improve the resemblance of what I draw to what I am trying to draw, I will have succeeded.

I am successfully creative in many other ways, but enjoying drawing, and doing well at it, have always eluded me. But I won’t give up. And neither should you.

Note: I received Art Before Breakfast for review purposes.

Humans of New York Talks With The President of the United States

Image: St. Martin's Press

Image: St. Martin’s Press

Who knew, when he took that first photo of Vidal, who spoke of his principal, Ms. Lopez, that the journey would lead Brandon Stanton to The White House, and interviewing President Obama? (Not to mention the over $1,000,000 that has been raised to help the students in the school.)

But when Stanton talked to The President, Barack Obama spoke of his mother.

“Who has influenced you the most in your life?” Obama was asked.

“My mother,” he responded. He then went on to explain further. Check out more from this interview on the Humans of New York website.

Perhaps this whole experience will be chronicled in the next HONY book. The first book, entitled Humans of New York of course, has been a New York Times Bestseller.

Toshiba Encore Mini Tablet Is Perfect to Share, Take Along

Image: Toshiba

Image: Toshiba

When we don’t have much money to spend, we tend to just buy the one device we need. Something that is in the right price range that handles all the tasks we intend to throw at it. But what if we have the opportunity to have an extra, secondary device? What do we choose then? Likely we would choose something less expensive, less fancy, and something we’d feel comfortable handing to our kids.

I’ve found such a mini tablet. Not a headliner, but definitely a good, functional backup and secondary device which you’ll feel comfortable giving heavy use to.

Image: Toshiba

Image: Toshiba

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet is an affordable and portable option for tablet use on the go. It has a nice heft, and it fits perfectly in my (average woman-sized) hand. This 7-inch tablet will fit in just about any purse or bag, and its dimensions are equally great for apps, watching videos, or doing light work. I like how all of the controls, other than power, are on the top, which makes it easier to avoid accidental activation. There are two cameras, and a speaker at the bottom. The back of the device is white, while the front borders are black. It runs Windows 8.1 and provides all the app and desktop features contained therein.

A few negatives include shipping without a regular plug (it charges over USB), lower-than-I’d-like screen resolution, and low res cameras. There is also no Windows button, but you can reach the Start menu using the Charms on the side of the screen.

Still, the battery life is decent, and that counts for a lot with me. Since it’s a great take-along tablet for entertaining your kids and basic utility use, you’ll want it to survive a short car ride, or a day out running errands. I did some fairly non-scientific tests just to get a ballpark figure about how long the battery would hold up. Fully charged to 100% battery to start, I tested its standby battery life. After 24 minutes it was at 98%. After over 3 1/2 hours it was at 95%. After 6 hours, 93%. Then 28 hours took it down to 64%. I lost track after that, but after 2-3 days, the battery was finally dead.

Next I tested the battery with a video playing via Netflix. Granted, I had turned the volume down, but starting with a 98% battery charge, after an hour it was down to about 80%, 1 1/2 hours to 69%, 3 hours to 37%, and 3 1/2 hours to about 30%. This is plenty of battery to keep your kids entertained for an outing, or to do some work while you commute. It will survive at least one movie, if not two (or several episodes of your kids’ favorite shows).

Image: Toshiba

Image: Toshiba

For full specs, visit the Toshiba site.

Though not a perfect “only” solution to most people’s computing needs, this tablet is my go-to device for entertainment on-the-go, and for handing to people of the young variety.

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet costs about $100 and is a perfect gift idea, for yourself or others.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been loaned hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

The Classic Style of Marimekko: In Patterns

Image: Chronicle Books

Image: Chronicle Books

Marimekko is a textile design company based in Helsinki, Finland. Some of their designs, such as Unikko, are quite well known, but there are plenty of more obscure patterns as well. Earlier this year, Unikko celebrated 50 years of being awesome, and the company keeps churning out other inspirational designs.

Marimekko: In Patterns takes us on a behind-the-scenes journey through the process of a Marimekko pattern, start to finish. From sketches to fabric to pattern to color to the final quality check, their style is playful, colorful, and, often, simple. You may look at their patterns and think, “I could design that.” But I challenge you to try. Putting together colors and shapes in a way that will guide style and appeal to the people isn’t an easy task. Not every one of their patterns appeals to me, but that’s part of the beauty of the company: There seems to be something for everyone. Dark, light, colorful, monochromatic, modern, classic, organic, and geometric.

Image: Marimekko

The Unikko pattern. Image: Marimekko

The book also digs deeply into some of their classic patterns and their designers, and it profiles several of Marimekko’s designers individually in more depth. While there is plenty of reading to do in this book, it is mostly filled with the patterns and the art that goes into them. It also shares examples of how the designs are used, in clothes and home decor, and on regular bolts of fabric.

Finally, it goes through its history as a company, from design and fashion in the 1950s until the 2000s, and briefly touches on what they have in store for us in the future.

Marimekko: In Patterns retails for $35 but can be found much cheaper. I recommend it to anyone who has a love of classic style, organic and geometric shapes, or Finnish design. This book will inspire you in your next project, be it painting, sewing, photography, or any other creative pursuit.

GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy

Image: Chronicle Books

Image: Chronicle Books.

When I first saw Star Wars and the other movies of the original trilogy, I was a young kid. We saw them in the theaters when they were first run. Considering what the actors were wearing in the movies was the least of my thoughts. I was too caught up in the stories, and, yes, fawning over the cute Ewoks. I took the characters as they were, completely lost in the movie, suspending all disbelief, in the way that only children really can. And even though I know quite a lot about clothing construction now, having sewn a great deal, my mind still doesn’t consider movie costumes the way you might think.

Enter Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy. This heavy, coffee table-style book is filled with every wonder from those three movies, at least in terms of what people were wearing. We begin with Leia’s drape-y, white, iconic outfit from A New Hope on the cover, and then forewords from three of the design team start the book off. The rest of the book consists of visiting each of the three movies, one by one. Concept art, behind the scenes photos, prototypes, and plenty of text and quotations explaining what you’re seeing fill this definitive book. We learn about the evolution of the major costumes through the series with plenty of explanation for costumes of all ranks of importance, from Vader’s dark robes and Obi-Wan’s worn rags to Catina costumes and what the AT-ST driver wore. Fold-out pages show more detail on several costumes (yes, including Slave Leia). And up close, a lot of the props look like someone made them in their basement. But we never seem to notice that in the movies themselves.

The Star Wars website shares more information and a trailer for the book:

This book is a cosplayer’s delight. If you or your kids have any interest at all in dressing up like a character from the original Star Wars trilogy, the photos, images, and information in this book will help guide your creations extremely well.

Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy retails for $60, but is currently $37.95 on Amazon. It is a perfect gift for Star Wars fans, cosplayers, and those interested in costume and design; this book is the ultimate resource.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition!

Image: Guinness World Records

Image: Guinness World Records

I still have my old edition of the Guinness Book of World Records that I got as a young adult, remembering so many years of flipping through the editions at the library. Very few photos, mostly text. Thick mass market paperback volume. So much data. So many superlatives. So much geek.

Times have changed, it appears. Now there is no one volume that covers it all. Enter the Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition! Packed full of facts, data, and obscure trivia, this version of the book series covers who the first person was to unlock all achievements in World of Warcraft, what the best-selling game was on Sega, and what the most popular game beta was.

Broken mostly down by game title of the top 50 games of all time, as rated by their readers, this tome is a video game-lover’s delight. Photos and images abound, but there is still plenty of text everywhere for those of us who like our content in a more verbal way. My beloved Guild Wars 2 is unfortunately not represented, but plenty of other favorites are. I won’t spoil it by revealing any of the rankings, but many types of video games are profiled, including intense first person shooters, platformers, kid games, MMOs, and more.

Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition retails for $14.99 and is a great holiday gift for the game lover of any age on your shopping list. You can check out this extremely colorful and content-filled book starting on November 11th.

Note: I received this book for review purposes.

Don’t Forget to Vote!

Map courtesy of Bing.

Map courtesy of Bing.

Some of us live in states where we can (or are even required to) vote early by mail. We’ve already cast our votes and stuck them in the mailbox. But if you usually vote on Election Day, or you vote early but haven’t yet sent in your ballot, don’t forget to do so.

Even more important than voting, however, is voting from a position of education. Read up on all of the candidates running for office in your district (yes, including the school superintendent). Read up on amendments, propositions, and new taxes. Read the analyses and the arguments for each side. Then make your own decision. Don’t be swayed by rhetoric or logical fallacies. Your personal opinion matters and counts.

In my area, we get plenty of mailers sent to us in the weeks leading up to the election. They are fantastic resources, especially for the very local elections. But if you’re looking for more state-wide or national information, some people head to the internet. Bing now has a wonderful resource at bing.com/elections that shows the latest poll data, what races are going on in your area, predictions, trivia, and more. You can also click on someone’s name and it gives actual relevant search results for the candidate. Depending on where you live, the interface seems to give different amounts of information, but it’s definitely a useful resource, regardless. Still not convinced? Bing details the intricacies of their election coverage, and has also made a short video.

While you can check on any of the races across the country, the most useful part of the site will likely be the My Ballot area. Type in your address and it shows you what candidates you will be choosing from when you vote. In my case, it didn’t list any of the propositions, so I’m not sure how universal that aspect is, but the rest is extremely helpful. You can also mark your choices and print your ballot ahead of time, in case you forget who you wanted to vote for when you’re in the voting booth.

We are only six years away from the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in national elections in the United States, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Let’s take advantage of this right and responsibility, and make it count, every year.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been loaned hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

The Art Game: Artists’ Trump Cards

Image: Laurence King Publishing

Image: Laurence King Publishing

You love artists and their artwork, but want to somehow make a game out of it? No worries. It’s already been done for you.

The Art Game: Artists’ Trump Cards is a bit like the old card game War. It has very simple instructions and you can play with any number of people. The cards are much thicker and higher quality than normal playing cards, and have a pleasing matte finish. Each of the 32 cards contains a painting of a famous or less-famous artist, such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Cindy Sherman, or Damien Hirst. In addition, there is a brief biography, and numbers corresponding to six categories that are integral to gameplay. The categories are Influence, “Shock of the new” effect, Versatility, Top auction price (USD), Critical reception, and The “beautiful” factor. Other than the auction price, I’m not sure how the values are computed, however.

Image: Laurence King Publishing

Image: Laurence King Publishing

To play, deal the cards out equally, face down. Figure out who goes first. Players then hold their entire pile of cards face up, so they can only see one card. The first player chooses a category from their top card and reads it and its number out loud. The other players then read the value of the same item on their top cards. The player with the highest value wins all of the top cards and places them on the bottom of their pile. The winning player then gets to go next. If the top value is shared by more than one person, all the cards are placed in the middle and the same player chooses again. Whoever wins that round also wins the cards in the middle. The winner is the person with all the cards in the end.

If you think that it does sound a bit like War, I would agree with you.

Image: Laurence King Publishing

Image: Laurence King Publishing

In theory, players can learn quite a bit about each artists’ work and stats as they play, but in practice, players will likely just utilize the numbers on the cards to try to win. The game itself doesn’t teach too much about an artist’s works, but the information contained therein is a great starting off point for further study. You may learn that a Picasso painting sold for a vast sum. Research what painting it was. Or that Marcel Duchamp has a “Shock of the new” value of 99. What kind of groundbreaking work did he do?

Playing it with my family of four, we felt it was a bit too unbalanced and hard to gain control, just like War. However, the deck is smaller than a regular card deck, so the game doesn’t go on forever. We played two rounds in about a half hour.

The Art Game retails for $9.95 and is great for people who love the card game War but want it to take much less time and to be exposed to art and artists as they play.

Note: I received a copy of this game for review purposes.

Microsoft YouthSpark Continues to Provide Technical Skills and Education

Microsoft-Logo1

Image: Microsoft

You might not have noticed, but Microsoft is busy doing more, these days, than just purchasing Mojang, home of Minecraft. They are also continuing their dedication to youth education and promotion of technical skills.

Microsoft YouthSpark, launched two years ago, provides opportunities to 300 million youth around the world. (Check out the YouthSpark Hub, where you can see the opportunities available.) Now they are boosting other initiatives as well.

* The TEALS program (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) is putting software engineers in 131 high schools across 18 states plus the District of Columbia as volunteer computer science teachers. This almost doubles the numbers of participating schools from last year, aiming to better meet the needs of students interested in learning computer science.

* YouthSpark summer camps held at Microsoft retail stores will continue throughout the school year for K-12 students. For examples of how this helps the youth of today, some of the students are sharing their stories.

* Imagine Cup, a student technology contest, is continuing next year with the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2015, open to students 16 and older. Imagine Cup is designed to encourage scientific youth to help solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. All participants channel the Imagine Cup theme of, “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” The contest began in 2003, and now has participants in almost 200 countries. John Booth wrote about the contest on GeekDad last year.

* For students around the world who aren’t fluent in technology, Microsoft is also expanding their Digital Literacy Curriculum to more languages, increasing access.

And, of course, Microsoft has acquired Mojang. I have high hopes for what they will do with Minecraft. If they can develop even more educational programs surrounding the oh-so-popular sandbox game, without affecting its base functionality and appeal, I will be one happy homeschooling mom.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been given the use of Windows 8.1 devices. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the company’s initiatives.

David “Oak” Stark, DM of the Year

David Oak Stark is the first ever recipient of the DM of the Year award! Photo: David Oak Stark

David Oak Stark is the first ever recipient of the DM of the Year award! Photo: David Oak Stark

I have heard that a whole lot of awesome happened at Gen Con this year. I wouldn’t know from personal experience, as I wasn’t there. But one of the awesomes was this: There is a new award given out by Wizards of the Coast and Baldman Games, called DM of the Year! And the first award goes to none other than my brother-in-law, David Stark.

To learn more about David, the award, and all things Gen Con D&D, head over to GeekDad and read Rory’s post on the matter. Since he’s David’s brother, he got the inside scoop on what the event was like. You can also visit David’s new website to get a feel for his ideas.

I have not yet had the privilege of role playing with David, but I’m sure that day will come.

Color and Explore With Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Coloring isn’t just for kids. Sometimes we grown-ups need our artsy time. Sometimes we doodle, sometimes we make crafts. But there’s something so meditative and simple about coloring in areas delineated by black lines. And when those black lines are a work of art in and of themselves, even better.

I recently discovered Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. The line drawings in this book are so beautiful, I was drawn to them right away. To start, the book cover is filled with ink drawings of plants, flowers, bees, butterflies, and more, all intricately woven together. Occasional flowers and more boast gold foil to set them off. You can take the cover off of the book and color the inside, if you like, because it is drawn in such a way as to invite coloring in.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

The book itself is a brown paperback with more black ink of plants and bugs, and is filled with a backyard of wonderment. Each new scene or shape has little critters hiding, so while you color in the leaves, flowers, and branches, you can also search for frogs, butterflies, bees, birds, keys, snails, and even a treasure chest. (The answer key is in the back.) Some of the pages guide your drawing and coloring, encouraging you to draw song birds or plants, while others are mostly already filled in, and ache for your choice of color. There are mazes in which to get lost. A treehouse. A peacock. Topiaries. A backyard. A flower garden. A wreath. A lantern. Plenty more.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

While Secret Garden is certainly appropriate for slightly older kids who know how to color in the lines when they need to, it is also perfect for grown-ups who love to color fine drawings and who long for nature. The book will encourage you to draw, color, and imagine.

 

 

Reminding me a bit of Zentangles, this book is gorgeous to look at, and is an oh so pleasant place to spend some time. The author’s bio is short and sums up her work very succinctly: “Johanna Basford is an illustrator and ink evangelist who creates intricate and hand-drawn illustrations rooted in the flora and fauna that surrounds her home in rural Scotland.”

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Following the Secret Garden theme, there are journals, postcards, and notecards also available. I was able to see the notecards, which come in a hinged box of 12, patterned after the book. The box is covered in black and white foliage patterns with occasional gold foil thrown in. Inside, there are four styles of card, with designs in circle (with a peacock), square (with a well), heart, and tree shapes. The notecards, while meant for sharing these beautiful images via postal mail, are also suitable (in my opinion) for framing, colored in or not.

Secret Garden and the notecards each retail for $14.95. They are beautiful and are just waiting for you, or someone you love, to add color or lines to the pages.

Note: I received these products for review purposes.

Romeo and Julet Are Back in Crash Games’ Council of Verona

Image: Crash Games

Image: Crash Games

Crash Games, home of many a Kickstarter-funded campaign, produces a variety of games, all with very high quality materials. They take pride in their wood tokens, thick cardboard boxes, and sturdy cards and tiles. I’ve played several of their games, and my favorite would have to be Council of Verona.

Set in the world of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, Council of Verona is a light strategy game where 2-5 players can scheme and backstab and push their agenda in Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance.

There is very little luck to this game, where each player tries to meet their agenda(s) while hiding said agendas from the other players. Each of the cards is a character from Verona. Some are on the side of the Capulets and others are on the side of the Montagues. Still others are neutral, with one neutral card also counting as a Capulet, and another also counting as a Montague.

Image: Crash Games

Image: Crash Games

Once cards are dealt and chosen (the procedure for which varies by number of players), players take turns playing character cards on the Council or in Exile and placing influence tokens face down on the cards that have token spots. Some cards are action cards instead, which allow players to switch tokens, look at tokens, or move cards from Council to Exile or vice versa.

The game is relatively quick to play, and once you’ve played it through once, everyone should have a good idea of how the game works, and start devising strategies. The box says that it takes 15-60 minutes to play, but our games took much closer to the 15 minute mark. Perfect for a pick up game, or as a filler game when you’re waiting for others to finish longer games during game night. While the game is intended for people age 13 and up, kids slightly younger could play, but some of the subtleties might be lost on them. Still, there’s nothing inappropriate for children.

Council of Verona retails for $14.99, making it friendly to most budgets. For that price, too, there is a lot of depth, sophistication, and design quality. This game gives a real value in addition to being quite fun for a variety of tastes. Plus it’s a small and sturdy enough box to toss in your bag and play anywhere.

GeekMom received this game for review purposes.

Youth Digital’s Minecraft Mod Design 1 Class: Final Assessment

Image: Youth Digital

Image: Youth Digital

If your kids have an interest in computers and you’re looking for a way for them to spend their time in front of the screen productively, I recommend some instruction in programming.

Whether or not your kids want to become coders for a living, learning about and understanding the structure that goes into computer code is extremely helpful in navigating our Information Age and in developing logical mental pathways. The company Youth Digital offers a variety of classes for kids aged 8 to 14 to teach different computer-related topics, such as mod design for Minecraft, app design, 3D printing, and 3D animation.

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old son finished the lessons in his Minecraft Mod Design 1 class from Youth Digital. (Read our first impressions of the class after the first few lessons here.) He turned in his work for evaluation and got a thorough response. Though he’s completed all of the lessons, he still has the rest of the original 12-month period to access all of the instructional videos, as well as be able to upload his own mods or download those created by others. There are also some advanced topics to learn about designing mods in more depth.

Now that he’s done with the meat of the class, what do we think? Are we still happy with the experience? The answer is a resounding “yes!”

Image: Youth Digital

Image: Youth Digital

Inevitably, whenever my son was watching the video lessons, I would hear unbridled cackling laughter coming from the other room. I watched a few of the videos myself, and I will admit to many a chuckle out loud as well. Justin, the Youth Digital employee in the videos (and founder and CEO), packed the lessons with clear information, but delivered it in a very entertaining way, perfect for the intended age range. He’s both knowledgeable and charismatic, and obviously knew what he was doing when he made the videos. It’s not easy to create hilarious videos that are chock full of information and instruction that will keep students entertained while they are learning real skills, such as programming in Java and using Gimp for graphics creation.

The course starts out with some introductions and an easy walkthrough of how to install the Java software, as well as Gimp, the freely available Photoshop-esque program, which is needed to make Minecraft skins. It’s a very good idea to be at least familiar with computers to take these classes, but if you are already into Minecraft, that shouldn’t be a problem.

My son was so excited to just keep going and going in the class. He kept wanting to do just one more lesson. Just one more, Mom. One more. Though it is billed as a year-long class, my son got through it in a few months, which is probably a good pace. I hope he takes the rest of the year to interact with the other students and share mods. Students can also upload their own tutorials to share ideas. There is a great supportive community in which to participate, for those who prefer a more social way of learning.

Inevitably though, kids who take the class will make mistakes or get stuck. But never fear, the built-in help option is fantastic. It does necessitate the student’s ability to convey their challenge in words, though. Because of this, for the younger students taking the class, a parent’s help is sometimes needed—and certainly helpful. Also, parents who having a programming background or are just really good at following directions and solving problems, can help their kids on their own before contacting Youth Digital for help. If that doesn’t work, it is very easy to write for help, and the knowledgeable people on the other end will guide you through solving the problem. My son made a variety of mistakes along the way, some very basic, but two or three of them involved some serious help by the support staff. The issues were all solved quickly and efficiently.

Even when he didn’t feel like doing parts of the class, my son would still enjoy himself, learn, and giggle at the videos. He would find them so funny that he’d call everyone over to watch parts with him. By the end of the course though, he got mentally tired and was ready to be done, but it was the end of the school year and he just wanted summer break to start. Still, he got his mod finished, packaged up, and submitted to Youth Digital for assessment.

Within a couple of weeks, we had the results, a final assessment of his submitted mod. He was given a score (26 out of 30, not bad!), which was based on a number of factors, each of which were given a score out of 5. Each factor was accompanied by a lengthy comment by the assessor, praising all the things he did right.

With no hesitation or qualification, I recommend this class to any kid or adult, who has patience, a sense of humor, and an interest in Minecraft, and wants to make their own mods. Youth Digital also offers many other classes that would be good for kids interested in other related fields. Check out their website for the latest offerings. These classes are wonderful to sneak some education into your kids’ summer break, are useful for homeschooling, or are a great supplement to conventional schooling.

Youth Digital classes cost $249.99. This may seem like a steep price, but there is plenty of value included, and access to the class material is good for one year. This is plenty of time to go the slow route, or you can enjoy the fast route and take advantage of other class features. Youth Digital also periodically has sales on their class tuition.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR Review and Giveaway!

Image: ASUS

Image: ASUS

Tablets are here to stay. Since they came on the scene, they’ve taken over a lot of portable computing needs. They are great for staying connected on-the-go, watching movies and television in bed, entertaining and educating your kids, and managing simpler tasks such as funds transfers, feed reading, and file access. But what if you really need to get some heavy duty work done? Tapping out a quick Facebook update isn’t a huge burden on a touchscreen. But what if you want to write a blog post, compose a sensitive email, or write a book? In those cases, a keyboard is a must.

Sure, there are some Bluetooth keyboards out there for use with tablets, but they don’t add additional functionality, such as more hard drive space or ports. ASUS, however, now makes a convertible tablet that meets all of those requirements. It’s a nice tablet with a long battery life and plenty of storage, but dock it with its keyboard and it has more hard drive storage than my laptop, along with a bonus USB port.

The ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR is a very compact device that can operate however you like. Use it as a tablet, or easily connect the screen to the keyboard dock with a satisfying *click* and use it as a diminutive laptop. It operates a bit like a netbook, but with all the bonus features, it is a much more functional machine.

Image: ASUS

Image: ASUS

What’s it like to use? The device is a bit heavier than I’d like, but it houses a beautiful display and the aforementioned storage. It probably won’t run your memory-heavy games or applications as well as a desktop or performance laptop, but that’s not what it’s designed for. It’s designed to be an auxiliary machine.

The ASUS turns on like a tablet, with a low-profile power button that you simply press and hold. The screen is crisp. The keyboard is nice and springy for typing, though it is more cramped than a conventional keyboard. Experience tells me that it is easy to get used to typing in small quarters, however. The trackpad isn’t quite as responsive as I’d like, and the trackpad button click sounds remind me of days gone by, but it does the job. And I’m usually tapping the screen anyway.

The tablet portion is extremely easy to undock from the keyboard. One simple button press and the tablet pulls right off. It can be re-docked just as easily, and the connectors hold the screen fast to the base. And since it’s a tablet, it’s also a touch screen.

Setup of the device is a breeze; just follow the usual Windows 8.1 setup instructions. In addition to the usual Start screen tiles, this ASUS device also includes an icon for ASUS WebStorage (cloud storage), Line (a free messaging app), ASUS PhotoDirector (a photo management app), and ASUS PowerDirector (a photo and video editor). Also, if you’ve got any additional questions about how to use the device, they’ve kindly pinned the digital version of the user manual to your task bar.

Device Protection

Though, as a computing society, we’ve been carrying around realistically portable computers for at least a decade or more, we still worry about things going wrong. We buy screen protectors, bags, sleeves, and cases to protect our investments. But sometimes accidents happen. With the purchase of an ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR, however, you get a year of the ADP protection program for free. This protection program covers much more than parts and labor for defective hardware. Drop your backpack just a bit too hard, damaging your device? Spill coffee on the keyboard, rendering it useless? This type of damage is typically covered under the ADP program. Visit the ADP website for more details. It is a fantastic bit of insurance that will help set your mind at ease about investing in such a device, for yourself, your kids, your college student, or your aging parents.

Specs

  • Detachable 10.1″ HD ISP Tablet plus Notebook
  • Comes with Windows 8.1 64-bit plus Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student
  • 11-hour battery, built into the tablet portion
  • 30-Day Zero Bright Dot Guarantee against bright dots or dead pixels
  • Unlimited free ASUS WebStorage for one year
  • Quad Core Intel Atom processor
  • 1.33 GHz (Turbo 1.86 GHz)
  • 2GB DDR3 system memory
  • Intel GMA HD video graphics
  • Hard drive space: 64 GB SSD (tablet) and 500 GB HDD (keyboard)
  • 1.2MP HD Camera
  • Wireless 802.11AGN
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • MicroSD slot
  • SonicMaster Audio
  • Ports: On Tablet: 1 Audio Combo Jack (headphone/mic-in), Micro HDMI, Micro USB 2.0, Micro SD. On Keyboard Dock: USB 3.0.
  • 2.5 pounds
  • 31WHrs, 8060mAh, 2-cell Li-ion polymer battery pack
  • Dimensions: Tablet: 10.4” x 6.7” x 0.41”, Dock: 10.4” x 6.7” x 0.51”

The ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR retails for $499 and is readily available on Amazon with free shipping. I recommend it to anyone looking for a device that bridges the gap between a conventional tablet and a laptop. It will fit in a small bag, and has the battery life to make it through the whole day.

Giveaway!

If the incredibly varied functionality of this device appeals to you, enter to win an ASUS Transformer Book TA100TA-H2-GR of your very own! We are giving away one device to one of our amazing readers. To enter our giveaway just login to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win). You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us it will still enter you in the giveaway. A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and their name will be posted right in the Rafflecopter widget so you can check back to see who won.

Entries for the giveaway will be accepted until July 15, 2014 at 5:00pm Pacific Time and is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. Once we have randomly chosen a winner, Microsoft will ship out the prize during the week of July 21. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have the use of Windows 8.1 devices for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these reviews are my honest opinions about the programs, hardware, and software involved.

Contest: What’s in Your Scottevest?

logo_horz_black_tec_back

I’ve reviewed several products from Scottevest, including their Travel Vest for Women, their Ultimate Microfleece Hoodie, and their Blackout Pockets. Most recently, I’ve been able to put their Q.U.E.S.T. Vest for Women through its paces. As part of the company’s new campaign, “What’s in your Scottevest?”, they asked me to make a video of what is in my Scottevest. After much personal freak-out time, I went ahead and made a video. It is tucked away with other blog-type folks on the YouTube channel that Scottevest put together for this campaign, so you can see me talk about what’s in my Scottevest pockets along side such people as Chris Pirillo, Johnny Jet, and even my dear Rory, who made a video in the name of GeekDad.

The QUEST Vest for Women. There's also a decent hood tucked away in back. Image: Scottevest

The QUEST Vest for Women. There’s also a decent hood tucked away in back. Image: Scottevest

What’s the purpose of this campaign, you ask? Is it merely for famous (and not so famous) sorts to show off their clothing? Nope. It is to set an example for the rest of you to submit your own video, showing off what you keep in your Scottevest. Submit a video to the Scottevest website and you can win a $1,111 Scottevest shopping spree. You will have no problem spending all of that money on their site, believe me. They have so many great clothing options, including accessories and underthings. There will also be second and third place winners, along with some runner-ups.

Since I can’t win, however, I want one (or more) of our readers to win. So if you love your Scottevest clothes, or were thinking about ordering some, make a video and show off your carrying capacity! The What’s In Your Scottevest contest ends July 3, 2014, so get filming!

Check out the Scottevest website for full contest rules and to see what products they currently offer. Every product of theirs that I’ve gotten my hands on I have adored. I am sure you will feel the same.

Note: I have received products for the purposes of reviews.

The Handy Ifrogz Tadpole Portable Speaker

Image: Ifrogz

Image: Ifrogz

There are a lot of Bluetooth speakers on the market. Most of them are pretty nice, but also have the price tag and size to match. What if you just want to listen to your music anywhere, without using headphones or having to use the phone’s built-in speakers?

The Tadpole portable speaker from Ifrogz is tiny, comes with its own carabiner so you can attach it to anything you like, and does the job. Just charge the device with the included short USB cable (it takes about an hour), pair via Bluetooth with your phone, and you’re ready to go for two or three hours of sound. The pairing is extremely easy, with no codes to enter and no struggle to discover the device. It’s also extremely small, at 2.67 inches tall, so it can be carried anywhere.

To use it, just turn it on and it takes over the volume from your phone. The Tadpole has no volume control of its own; you control it on your phone. You can control music tracks on the Tadpole device, though: play, pause, restart the current track, and jump to the next track. It’s a little hard to be precise with the button at first, and you might end up skipping a song when you meant to pause, but you quickly get the hang of it.

Image: Ifrogz

Image: Ifrogz

How is the sound? Well, for the size and the price of the Tadpole, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t think that something that small would make the room sound like a performance hall. I was right. It’s not meant to replace a powerful set of speakers. But it does work quite well as a personal speaker, for you and anyone close by. It’s also a very good option if you want to play some music, but you want to keep your phone safely tucked away in a pocket or under your desk. You’ll likely want to keep the volume in the lower half or 3/5ths of the range, as the quality suffers at high volume.

If you’re looking to fill a room with music, the Tadpole won’t do it very well. But if you’re looking for a personal speaker that fits in the smallest of pockets, it does the trick. Audiophiles likely won’t be satisfied, but for the rest of us, it fills a need. Price runs about $15-20 depending on source.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.

Review: Zagg InvisibleShield Glass Screen Protector

Image: Zagg

Image: Zagg

I was recently in the market for a new screen protector for my phone, but I’d never been fully satisfied with any protectors I’d used in the past. I’d only tried thin plastic-y ones that were very difficult to put on and always trapped lint underneath, no matter how many times I cleaned the screen.

Then I found the Zagg InvisibleShield Glass screen protector. It’s made of actual tempered glass, and is a solid surface. Installation was a breeze. You clean off your screen with the included wet wipe, remove any lint or hair with the included microfiber cloth, peel off the bottom protective layer of the InvisibleShield, and then lay down the glass. The top protective layer, still stuck to the glass, has two tabs, one on each short side, which made installation much less stressful and easier, since you can place it down accurately. It also helped that the glass was stiff. Once the glass touched the screen, it started adhering all on its own, but I pushed down in the middle, radiating pressure toward the outside. I ended up with zero bits of lint. Zero hairs. Zero smudges underneath. After my experiences with screen protectors in the past, on screens large and small, I felt like I had just leveled up. Won the proverbial screen protector lottery.

Image: Zagg

Image: Zagg

I love the feel of the original glass screen of my phone, and was hoping that the Zagg protector would feel similar to that, and not plastic-y like the other protectors I’ve tried. It does. It’s just regular glass and feels very smooth. Since it is case-friendly, however, the screen protector does not go all the way to the edge of the screen, leaving a gap between it and my case. Perhaps other cases would fill that gap—I’m not sure. But on my phone, it collects small amounts of lint. Not a big deal.

The screen protector is also pretty thick, compared to other protectors. This isn’t a problem, though, and makes the button on my iPhone even easier to find without looking.

How much does all of this awesomeness cost? It retails for about $35 but you can likely find it on sale for less, depending on phone model and source. Totally worth it. If you’re looking to protect your screen but keep the feeling of glass as you swipe, the Zagg InvisibleShield Glass screen protector can’t be beat.

Note: I received a review unit for the purposes of this review.

Kickstarter: Megalo Mini Phone Charger

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

There’s a new Kickstarter campaign in town. Of course that seems to happen every two seconds, but this one caught my eye.

It’s for the Megalo Mini phone charger.

Looking to charge your phone on the go? If you’re like me and the bulk of the battery pack-style phone cases doesn’t appeal to you, a separate charger is needed. A charger like the Megalo Mini.

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

I love how the Megalo Mini’s charging cables fit into the body of the charger, making the low-profile device even easier to carry around, not needing any extra cables or cords. Nothing to forget, nothing to keep track of. Also, the price point for the device is very reasonable (it varies depending on how many you buy). It is very fast charging, both to charge up itself, and to use it to charge a phone. Plus, if you plug in the Megalo Mini to a power source, and then your phone into the Megalo Mini, they both charge at the same time, and the four charging lights on the device tell you how much power it is holding. I don’t tend to gawk at every new device out there, but this one really got my attention. It’s attractive, small, functional, and effective.

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

Image: Michael Krikheli & Jeff Macks

Packing a capacity of 1400 mAh, you can charge an Android phone up to 100%, and an iPhone up to 75%. Certainly enough to get you out of a jam, but also enough to get you through the day.

The geniuses behind the Megalo Mini have about a month and a half to go on their Kickstarter campaign, so you have plenty of time to check it out. Watch the video. Read the blurbs. Set Kickstarter to remind you if you’re not sure.

I can’t wait until this product is available on the market, but first it needs your support at Kickstarter. Head over there for more information, and to support the campaign!

GeekMom Is Giving Away a Fitbit Aria Scale!

Image: Fitbit

Image: Fitbit

Yesterday, we ran my review of the Fitbit Flex and Aria. Today, we start a giveaway for the Aria scale. One lucky GeekMom reader will win one, so if you’re interested in keeping track of your weight and your body fat percentage, fully wi-fi integrated with the Fitbit app and website, with plenty of colorful graphs and data, enter below!

The giveaway is open to U.S. readers only.

To enter our giveaway just login to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win). You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us it will still enter you in the giveaway. A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and their name will be posted right in the Rafflecopter widget so you can check back to see who won.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Fitness-Oriented Data Lovers Will Adore Fitbit Flex and Aria

Image: FitBit

Image: Fitbit

I always wished that my body had a readout that kept track of how many calories I consumed and how many I burned—a clear indicator of whether I was gaining or losing weight. Such a thing still doesn’t exist, but the Fitbit products come pretty close.

FitBit logoFitbit makes a variety of devices that track your steps and your sleep. I was able to test out the Flex. It’s a wristband that tracks your movement, and the quality of your movement, so it knows if you’re walking, vigorously exercising, or holding still. If you let it know you’re sleeping, it can also track how restless you are when you sleep.

Fitbit also makes the Aria, which is a digital, wi-fi-enabled scale that also detects body fat composition.

Along with the Flex and the Aria, to get the most out of your experience, there is a smart-phone app and a fantastic web interface, and everything is integrated together. I highly recommend them. Want to lose yourself in weight and fitness data? Fitbit has you covered.

How comfortable is the Flex?

At first, it felt like I was wearing a watch again, after so many years of not wearing one (since college). But I quickly stopped feeling it, and it was really comfortable to wear. It even wasn’t too bad to dry off after a shower (yes, you can wear it in the shower!). It was comfortable, that is, until the weather turned and got warmer, and I started working out regularly at the Y. Water from a shower and sweat are two different animals, and the sweating made the Flex somewhat uncomfortable to wear, at least for me. But if you spend much of your time in air conditioned locations, it still should be comfortable to wear most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s the least comfortable to wear at the times when it’s most important to wear it—when you’re exercising.

The Flex is shipped with two different sized wristbands, so you can wear the one that fits you better. The small one is pretty small, though, and will work best for small-framed people.

Image: FitBit

Image: Fitbit

How accurate are the Flex and the Aria?

I found that the Flex was mostly accurate, but it didn’t accurately track my very active minutes. It might get the steps counted, but doesn’t realize I’ve been sweating myself silly for the past 30 minutes. It also doesn’t account well for exercising on machines such as recumbent bicycles. But if you rest your hand on your leg, it will be able to count those steps.

For sleeping, the Flex measures pretty well how restless you were. When you go to bed, tell the Flex you’re sleeping by tapping on it a few times, or use the app to say you’re going to sleep. The Flex monitors your movement and determines whether you’re asleep, restless, or awake. While it didn’t peg me exactly, on nights when I didn’t sleep as well, there were definitely more restless periods. Being awake and moving around aren’t the same things, though, so on my one night of trouble sleeping, it thought I was asleep for much of my awake time because I was playing on my phone with my dominant hand, and the Flex is on my non-dominant hand. But generally, it’s a good, basic sleep monitor.

Image: FitBit

Image: FitBit

The Aria, for us, has been really useful. It’s super easy to just weigh yourself and forget it. You can look at your results, or not, if you want to avoid checking in on your weight daily. It weighs considerably heavier than my usual scale, but it’s consistent to itself. The percentage body fat varies with levels of hydration and other things that contribute to weight (*cough* menstrual cycles *cough*), but if you look at the long term trends, it works well. I love how it recognizes who I am because of my previous weigh ins.

The scale setup was a bit tricky, since you have to set it up through the Fitbit app on your phone, and then connect it to your home network. But once it is set up, it’s a no-brainer. Up to eight people can be remembered by the scale, plus guests can weigh themselves as well. But hopefully none of those people have very similar weights and body fat percentages, or else the scale might get confused.

What else do the Fitbit products do?

My favorite thing about Fitbit is the web interface. You can look at all of your data in the most user-friendly way, set goals for yourself, and so much more. You can also earn badges such as weight loss goals and step goals. If you record your food and water intake, it keeps track of that as well, and you can record specific exercises that you’ve done. The iPhone Fitbit app can also show you much of this information, which is great when you’re away from your computer. Fitbit is entirely what you make it. You can add friends, for a little friendly rivalry, and it will tell you how many steps they’ve taken in the past week.

The Flex syncs via wi-fi with an included Bluetooth dongle that sits in one of your computer’s USB ports.

How did I do?

Since I sit for much of the day, homeschooling the kids and working on my computer, I don’t get nearly as many steps, usually, as when I’m out running errands. Most days I exercise, though, which results in a lot of steps, but I’ve noticed that I get even more steps shopping at Target than I do exercising. YMMV. So steps aren’t everything when it comes to keeping track of how much you exercise. But it is one indicator of how much you move around.

I get a much better picture of how active I am with the Flex, and it encourages me, from its mere presence, to exercise more and move around. The Aria keeps me from indulging in too much food over time, and keeps me honest.

Conclusion: Fitbit is awesome.

Would I recommend the Fitbit products? Definitely. It’s a “fix it and forget it” type exercise and fitness monitoring system. With it, you can obsess over data on a daily or hourly basis, or you can just wear the Flex, weigh yourself daily, and only check on your progress once per week or month. The numbers aren’t 100% reliable, since there are so many factors involved, but if you want to get a really good idea of how well you are doing in fat loss and being active, the Fitbit products can’t be beat. And if wearing a band on your wrist constantly isn’t something you can get used to, Fitbit makes a variety of other products that clip onto your clothes.

Fitbit also has excellent customer service. GeekMom Jackie lost her Fitbit Flex on a recent trip, and someone found it. They recognized what it was, returned it to Fitbit, and they sent it back to Jackie. I assume they were able to access the information in the memory of the Flex’s electronics which told them where to send it. But they do this often enough that Fitbit has special “lost and found” packaging. I was impressed.

The Fitbit Flex costs $99.95 and comes in a variety of colors. You can also get additional wristbands so you can change the color with your mood. The Aria is $129.95. It’s a bit pricey if you’re just looking for a scale, but the wi-fi integration and data tracking is really fun and useful for those of us who like to focus (a bit too much) on numbers.

Note: I received a Flex and Aria for the purposes of this review.

Using Microsoft OneNote for, Well, Everything

Image: Microsoft

Image: Microsoft

After Microsoft OneNote became free for everyone, everywhere, I decided to invest my time into using it for new and a few existing projects. I’m using it to organize my wedding, plan next year’s homeschooling, and my current book writing projects. I’m using it for random household lists. I’m using it to keep all of my ideas in one place. I’ve made myself at home there: writing, including images, tables, resource material, and different categories of information. What do I think?

I love it. Love. It. It is perfect for how I think, and how I prefer to organize things. Though I had started using Scrivener for writing books, it has a lot of features that, frankly, I just don’t use. Daily writing goals are useful for NaNoWriMo, but generally I don’t have a set amount of time each day to set aside for writing. So I’m happy with OneNote, except for one thing.

OneNote doesn’t have character or word counts. Microsoft, please add this feature! You have it in Word, so I doubt it’s impossible to add to OneNote. Okay, back to the good stuff.

Image: Microsoft

Image: Microsoft

The way OneNote organizes your notebooks, tabs, and pages, with plenty of color coding, feels so comfortable to me. You click on one notebook at a time, and ignore the rest. The colored tabs at the top help you clearly see which part of that notebook you’re working in. The page listing over at the right is a little hidden for how I scan the page, but I remember it’s there, and I like how it’s in its own spot. This arrangement gives an apparent physical separation in the hierarchy, unlike in Evernote, like I seem to need.

I haven’t yet had a reason to record audio or video within my OneNote files, but if I do get to use it while taking notes during a meeting, the feature which shows you where you were in the audio when you took specific notes is ingenious.

One of OneNote’s best features is this: If you save your notebook to OneDrive (formerly called SkyDrive), it synchronizes all of your work across all of your devices. So my computer, my phone, my laptop, and my tablets all have the same information. I count on this feature on a regular basis. You can also choose to save your work locally, or share notebooks with others. There are so many features within OneNote that I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of possibilities.

Sometimes, you just find a program that works for you. Perfectly. (Or it would fit perfectly if it did word and character counts.) So perfectly that you would pay for it. But it’s free! OneNote is one of those programs for me. As someone who loves to stay organized, it keeps as much information as I need in one place. I recommend it, without reservation, to everyone.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been loaned Windows 8.1 devices for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these reviews are my honest opinions about the hardware and software involved.

Microsoft: OneDrive, OneNote, Snazzy New Hardware, and More

Image: Microsoft

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft has made a couple of changes in recent months. One, they’ve changed the name of SkyDrive to OneDrive. Not a big deal, and the new name makes about as much sense as the last one. Two—and this one is very exciting to me—they’ve made OneNote free. Entirely free. Not just the app for your phone, but the stand-alone, desktop application. And it’s available for Mac, too.

OneNote

I’ve been an Evernote lover for many years, but I always ended up using it as a disorganized receptacle for information. Finding what I needed took longer than just re-searching Google. I always wanted to try OneNote, but often had such outdated Office applications that I was worried I would trap my information in an obsolete application.

I’m very pleased that this is no longer a concern, and I’ve started making myself at home in OneNote. I’m organizing homeschooling for next year (and beyond—my daughter starts high school grades in another year!), our wedding plans, household concerns, writing projects, and more. I find that the way OneNote is organized fits really well with the way I think. The layout and the colors make organizing a breeze. For the type of people who love to browse the aisles of their local office supply store, OneNote is a fun tool.

Image: Dell

Image: Dell

Dell XPS 15

On to some really great new-ish Windows 8.1 hardware. I’ve gotten to evaluate a Dell XPS 15, which is the first true laptop on which I’ve ever gotten a chance to make myself at home. I’ve had netbooks and a light duty notebook, but mostly I’m a desktop computer kind of gal. The XPS has a lovely rubbery matte texture to the typing surface, and there is just enough key travel for typing comfort. The typeface on the keys is a bit unusual and took some getting used to. It reminds me of vintage space age stuff—not quite OMNI Magazine, but close. The machine is a large size, but not too heavy. The Corning glass screen is crystal clear.

The Dell doesn’t have an optical drive, but it does everything else that one would need in a computer. I’ve put it through its paces, and it handles everything beautifully, except when I try to play Guild Wars 2 on it for more than a half hour. That kind of use taxes the processor a bit too much, and the cooling system can’t quite keep up. Otherwise I heartily recommend the Dell XPS 15 as a great Windows 8.1 machine. If you don’t need a built-in optical drive or a gaming-capable processor, it could even be your only machine. Here are a few basic specs of the machine I have:

  • Touch screen with Corning Gorilla Glass NBT
  • Machined aluminum and carbon fiber
  • 15.6″ full HD display (1920×1080)
  • Backlit keyboard
  • Starts at 4.44 lbs
  • Intel Core i5 processor

For the different specification options for the Dell XPS 15, I recommend you visit the Dell website.

Image: Microsoft

Image: Microsoft

Windows 8.1

From my personal experience with Windows operating systems over the last 24 years (since Windows 3.0), it’s had its ups (e.g., XP) and its downs (e.g., Vista, which I was fortunate enough to avoid). But I’ve been extremely happy overall with Windows 8 and 8.1. I still don’t like how it handles searching—it’s always extremely hard to find what I’m looking for—but everything else works like a dream.

Windows 8+ has also had one notable effect on me: I now treat every screen like a touch screen. My tablets (see my earlier GeekMom post about the Windows 8.1 tablet) and Windows 8.1 laptop have touch screens, so when I’m helping my daughter with something on her old Mac, I keep reaching for her screen to scroll. Obviously, that doesn’t work.

I’m sure society is going in the direction of mostly touch screens because they are so darn useful. Touch screens aren’t quite as useful with a desktop machine, but when multiple people are crowding around something, or if there is no keyboard (like on a tablet), it just makes sense.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been loaned Windows 8.1 devices for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these reviews are my honest opinions about the hardware and software involved.

Text and Make Phone Calls for Free With Scratch Wireless

Image: Scratch Wireless

Image: Scratch Wireless

My kids are 9 and 12 and don’t really need cell phones yet, especially since they aren’t doing anything like walking home from school alone (we homeschool). But my daughter ended up with one a couple of years ago when we were left with an extra phone number after we cut our landline. She mostly uses it to text. My son has felt a little left out recently, being the only person in the family without their own phone, but there isn’t any room in the budget for another monthly bill. Problem, meet solution.

Scratch Wireless offers an Android phone that has free texting anywhere, and free voice and data when you’re on WiFi. I got the chance to review one recently. Scratch sent me a Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE to try out on their Scratch Wireless system. It’s got a slide cover to access the very nice, backlit QWERTY keyboard, a touch screen, dual cameras, and plenty of other goodies. It has everything you would expect from an Android smartphone, but with no contracts, no ads, and no monthly fees at all. None.

Scratch Wireless new_logo

The Important Bits

You can try the phone risk-free for 30 days. You get free unlimited texting, over both WiFi and cell networks. You get unlimited free voice and data over WiFi networks, with the option to buy voice or data access passes.

And that’s it. Simple? Yes.

So What’s It Like?

It’s very easy to set up the phone, so you can start using it right away. No waiting for activation. They will give you a phone number or you can keep your old number, if you prefer. The number that came assigned to mine appears to be based in Cambridge, Massachusetts (617 area code), so it’s pretty location independent. (I live in Arizona.) The idea that your phone exchange, not to mention area code, no longer matters still dazzles me. Gone are the days of changing your phone number when you move to a new house across town. But I digress.

Using an Android phone is very unintuitive to me, being used to iOS, but it only took a few days to get used to. The company also offers plenty of help and once I signed up for an account, I got an email with links to more help including videos about how to send texts and such.

The quality of phone calls is okay. There is a distinct delay between when the person says something and when it comes across the phone, longer than for cell-to-cell calls. But it isn’t long enough to be a problem. It wasn’t anything like when I used to talk on a landline to my dad when he was working on the other side of the planet. Also, the person on the Scratch phone talking to a cell phone hears a pretty consistently clear sound, but the person on the cell phone talking to the Scratch phone on WiFi hears gaps in the sound sometimes, which knock off parts of words. I’ve never been pleased with cell reception anyway, so this is just another small inconvenience.

You do need to sign into your Google account to access a lot of the features, such as downloading apps through Google Play, etc., but that is standard with an Android. It just allows Google to permeate more of your life than Apple does on my iOS phone, which doesn’t please me.

When you hook the Scratch phone up to your computer, the phone installs a Motorola interface on your computer to move things like movies and music around, though you can also treat it like a digital camera to move photos from the DCIM folder.

Image: Scratch Wireless

Image: Scratch Wireless

What If You Need to Make Calls from Anywhere?

If you need to connect to a cell network to make calls or use data, you can buy a pass for as little as $1.99 for a 24-hour pass (choose data or voice). This is good for up to 25MB of data or up to 30 minutes of cellular calling. Alternately, you could spend $14.99 for a month-long pass. This covers 200MB for the data pass and 250 minutes for the voice pass. I wish Scratch had an all-in-one pass that included both voice and data, but maybe they will in the future. Regardless, there is no contract, no obligation, and you can buy the passes whenever you want.

Who Is It For?

Obviously, without a pass, phone calls don’t work when not in WiFi areas, so gauge your needs accordingly. But for many folks, a Scratch Wireless phone could be their only phone. And for others, it’s a great second phone or one to give your younger kids. You still end up with more connectivity than an old landline would give you. Also, you’re in WiFi areas more often than you may think. Scratch Wireless made a helpful infographic to show you just how often you could be making free calls with their phone.

Other than the unique access restrictions, a Scratch phone works just like any other Android smartphone. And it costs only $269. That’s a pretty good deal if you don’t need constant voice or data when on the go or if you prefer to have a one-time expense than a constant monthly charge.

If these particular restrictions are compatible with your phone needs, Scratch Wireless is a really good option for you. I am extremely happy with how it fills our family needs.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Youth Digital’s Minecraft Mod Design 1 Class: First Impressions

Image: Youth Digital

Image: Youth Digital

My son is nine years old. He’ll be ten soon. He became obsessed with Minecraft about halfway through last year. In his spare time, he watches YouTube videos about Minecraft mods and walkthroughs. When I learned that there was a class, specifically designed for kids in Grades 3-7 to teach how to write Minecraft mods in Java, I knew it would be a perfect fit.

Image: Youth Digital

Image: Youth Digital

Youth Digital provides this class, along with other such classes on making 3D games, apps, and video games, and they have two new classes coming out in May on animation and 3D modeling. Their whole company is set up to provide a valuable service to kids like my son who are really into various computer activities. The classes will get them well on their way to developing job skills in computer fields.

My son is only a few sections into the Mod Design 1 class, but it is proving to be quite entertaining and educational. The instruction is clear, step by step, and entertaining. There is enough help for the students, and they enjoy it because they get to change things in Minecraft that they’ve never gotten to change before. Obviously, a hearty interest in Minecraft is useful for this class, but it’s also a great way to begin learning Java.

Image: Youth Digital

Image: Youth Digital

Our initial impressions are that the class is most excellent. My son is truly enjoying himself, and learning a brand new skill. We will report back in a couple of months for a full review. But in the meantime, check out Youth Digital and their classes. The fact that they offer such computer science classes for kids so young is impressive, and they do a stellar job of not talking over kids’ heads, or down at them, at any time. It’s also taught at a very appropriate speed. I recommend these classes to any kids interested in the topics.

Youth Digital provided access to the Minecraft Mod Design 1 class for the purposes of these reviews.

Jeffrey Brown Proves That Kids Are Weird

Image: Chronicle Books

Image: Chronicle Books

All of our kids say inexplicable things sometimes. We, as adults, are used to certain patterns of speech, chunks of meaning strung together in predictable patterns. Kids, especially the small ones, haven’t learned these patterns yet, so they often use different words or phrases to express what they mean, make requests, or represent their environment. This often comes out in hilarious and unexpected ways. Most of us parents will write down some of these kid-isms or share them on Facebook, but Jeffrey Brown, author of Vader’s Little Princess and Darth Vader and Son, has put dozens into his new book, Kids Are Weird.

A series of scenes, conversations, and one-off spoutings of kid genius, Kids Are Weird is a thorough journey through the mind of Brown’s five-year-old son, Oscar. Oscar gives his opinion on matters such as having friends over, ice cream, girls, scary movies, his parents, Elton John’s fashion choices, and many more.

There isn’t one cohesive narrative in the book, but any parents of small kids will smile, nod, and occasionally giggle at Oscar’s loquacious ramblings. Many of us could write a similar book, but Brown’s attractive illustrations punctuate the words very effectively.

Oscar’s perspective can help you see the world in new ways, and will show you that you aren’t alone in being puzzled by the sometimes confusing words of your own little ones.

A perfect book for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, expectant parents, or even kids themselves, Kids Are Weird ($14.95) is a fun journey through the mind of a five-year-old boy. I wish I could regain some of my creative descriptions of the world. Oscar has inspired me.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Dalek A-line Dress From Her Universe

Image: Her Universe

Image: Her Universe

Daleks are so fashionable. The nice A-line style of their “bodies” can be very flattering on any woman. Now, Her Universe is making that sure we can all strut our Dalek look in style.

Available in gold and black, the company’s knit Dalek A-line Dress is perfect for any geeky gal’s wardrobe. There is also a more fitted variety in blue or red. The A-line style even comes in Darth Vader, Boba Fett, X-Wing, and TARDIS varieties.

Generally, knit dresses aren’t that flattering on me—and haven’t been since high school. But this dress was a pleasant surprise. The wide, elastic waist is high, but not quite as high as an Empire waist, which avoids the I-look-pregnant-but-I’m-not-pregnant look. It has a tank-top-style top and a very flowy, twirly skirt. Its cotton-Spandex material is extremely comfortable and resilient, and works equally well with or without a form-fitting shirt underneath. Paired with black leggings, you can even wear it in cooler weather or when you want to cover up more.

Since the fabric is fairly thin, I wasn’t sure how well it would wash up, but I needn’t have worried. I washed it inside-out in cold water and hung it up to dry. It looked as good as before, with ever-so-slightly more wrinkles (not that there were many!).

If you order any of these Her Universe dresses, pay special attention to the sizing charts. I found that while I might ordinarily order in a size Large, I had to order a XXL in this dress. I might have gotten away with an XL, but their sizing isn’t consistent with the norm for busty gals.

The Dalek A-line Dress retails for $45 and is perfect to wear to your next con, costume party, or even around town. One woman who saw me complimented me on my polka dots. If she only knew.

E-X-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-E!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Scottevest’s Ultimate Microfleece Hoodie Is Like a Warm Hug

Image: Scottevest

Image: Scottevest

I’m already a fan of Scottevest’s clothes, mostly due to their high quality materials, manufacturing, and crazy amount of pockets. I previously reviewed their Travel Vest, which is a great basic piece of clothing for traveling or even every day use, and their Blackout Pockets for protection against GPS and RFID hacking. I hadn’t ever gotten my hands on significant outerwear, however.

Until now.

Great for both men and women, the Scottevest Ultimate Microfleece Hoodie is a light piece of outerwear that also works well for loungewear. It’s soft and cozy and has a hood with actual drawstrings. It zips up to your chin and has warm pockets for your hands. That’s about where most hoodies end. This one, however, also includes channels for your ear buds, several different options for where to put your iPod/iPhone/mp3 player, and even an area with capacitive fabric where you can operate your touch screen through the coat. There are also small pockets for the earbuds themselves when they are not in use. It’s all quite impressive.

Great for men and women. Image: Scottevest

Great for men and women. Image: Scottevest

The total of 11 pockets in this hoodie also include a double side-seam pocket, small device pocket, change pocket, pen pockets, eyeglasses pocket, and upper arm pocket on one sleeve. The requisite pockets for your hands close with magnets, which is much more convenient than zippers, and definitely better than Velcro. The magnets pull themselves closed, to mostly protect what’s in the pockets when your hands aren’t in them. The hand pockets also contain an extending key hook and a water bottle loop. The hoodie is 100% polyester and machine washable, and you can hang it to dry.

Scottevest makes what they call Technology Enabled Clothing (TEC), which makes it easier to use technology with your clothing. What does this mean? It means that their clothing has enough pockets to choke a horse hold all of your gadgets. Got a phone, an iPod, and a Nintendo DS? No problem. There are pockets for them all. Need to carry your full-sized iPad? The microfleece hoodie won’t really do it, but Scottevest coats like the Revolution Plus can handle it, no problem.

One fun feature of some of Scottevest’s clothing pockets is that they have labels for what they are intended for (sunglasses, cell phone, etc.), but of course you can use the pockets any way you like.

The Scottevest Ultimate Microfleece Hoodie retails for $70. It’s so cozy, it really does feel like a warm hug, but at the same time it is not bulky. It is made with high quality materials, so it will last. I recommend this coat to anyone looking for a light jacket with a hood, or something to layer underneath heavier or waterproof jackets.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.

Technology Helps Find Your Bra Size With ThirdLove

This is the bra style that I reviewed. Image: Third Love

This is the bra style that I reviewed. Image: ThirdLove

We’ve covered underthings before (pun intended, plus see Ruth’s fantastic post about Dear Kate underwear), so I thought it was time we tackled a new way to shop for them. It’s often quite difficult to fit yourself for a bra. What size are you? Well, what size were you the last time you went shopping? Have things changed?

We all know that there are a couple of different numbers we have to be concerned with. But when you are pregnant, nursing, previously nursing, or losing or gaining weight, your torso and your breasts will change size and shape. And if you’re shy, like me, you definitely won’t be asking the sales lady to help you find a good fit. Up until now, trial and error was the way to go for finding your current bra size.

A screenshot from the Third Love app. Image: Third Love

A screenshot from the ThirdLove app. Image: ThirdLove

A new company called ThirdLove has come up with a better way to do it in the comfort of your own home. ThirdLove sells bras, underwear, and undershirts, but their bra sizing method is ingenious. You download their app, put on a form fitting tank top (or just your bra), and stand in front of the mirror. The app guides you through some picture taking steps where it measures you from the front and the side. I have no idea how the programming works for this, but, in my experience, it does a pretty decent job.

Once the app takes your measurements, it allows you to select items that are the size it determines will fit you. Products that aren’t available in your size aren’t shown, which would explain why my options were limited (apparently some items are only available in certain cup sizes). There are several options for colors (black, pink, and tan in the style I was able to choose), and you can mix and match base and trim colors. The other kinds of underthings are available in coordinating colors. Place your order through the app, and then wait. A few days later, a nice, overly large box comes in the mail with your items. I ordered just the one bra and it was delicately wrapped it in tissue paper. It’s a fantastic box I can also now use for many other things, but I digress.

The brand-new bra felt like it was made of high quality fabrics, and wasn’t scratchy. The lace looked nice and edged the bra in more places than I would have expected.

Here’s where we get personal. The app measures you pretty accurately, but the numbers may confuse you. In department store bras, generally these days I’m a 36D. In the ThirdLove sizes, I came out as a 33D. I asked my contact at the company about the difference and she said that my experience is typical.

So how does the bra actually fit, knowing that? The cup size fits perfectly. It supports all of the right places without feeling constricting at all. The underwire sits securely against my body. The straps of the variety I chose are attached on the very outside of the cups, not the middle, and so it all feels different from usual, but you get used to it very quickly. The shapes of the cups are more rectangular than triangular, so it works. The band size, though, still seems a bit tight. I think a 34D would have been a better fit for me. I can certainly get it on and fastened, and it is comfortable, but there is zero give in the band elastic. More reason to lose a few pounds!

Would I recommend ThirdLove? Yes, definitely. They make high quality bras in enough colors and styles for most people and the technology in the app does a decent job fitting you. I’m surprised it does so well, since it doesn’t ask for any known size for reference. But the bras fit and are quite comfortable. Rory says the bra makes my breasts look more perky. After two kids, lots of breastfeeding, and plenty of weight loss and gain, that’s a plus in my book. (Sorry, no photos. This is a family blog and photos of me in a bra just aren’t going to make it onto the internet. Sorry, adoring fans.)

The bras and other products at ThirdLove vary in cost, but the prices aren’t drastically different from those at the department store. Give them a look! Beauty + quality + easy peasy lemon squeezy sizing = win. And if you’re not sure, they have free returns and exchanges. Check out their website for their full inventory.

Note: I received a bra for review purposes.

Tablet Computing Has Come a Long Way (Now With Windows 8.1!)

The Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch. Image: Lenovo

The Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch. Image: Lenovo

Tablet computing has come a long way. I remember when the iPad first came out, and everyone was excited about how it would transform how we interact with our devices. For the most part, they were right. I have an iPad 2, and while it’s no longer modern in computing terms, it’s definitely serviceable. Still, it’s just a tablet. I use it as a stand-alone device. It’s definitely no laptop replacement, even on a temporary basis. It doesn’t interact well with my desktop machine. These days, I mostly use it for watching movies and television, and having the kids do educational apps.

I recently had the opportunity to review a new kind of tablet, one that pretty much operates like a desktop computer. But it fits (sort of) in the palm of my hand.

I knew that the Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch would be an interesting Windows 8.1 tablet. What I didn’t know was that its desktop mode ran just like my desktop computer’s. Minus the mouse, it was a little hard to navigate before I changed the settings to make the buttons bigger, but being a touch screen, it is able to make the most of the Windows 8.1 functionality, making it more intuitive and natural than the same OS on a desktop machine.

I have Windows 8.1 on my desktop machine as well, and like it very much. Even though Windows 8 felt a little odd at first, I quickly got used to it, and embraced the Start screen model. But as nice as it is on my desktop, it’s a dream on my new tablet. It feels completely natural, and integrated with all of the tasks.

I use the Start screen apps much more on my tablet than I do on my desktop, since they don’t feel quite as “extra” there. I am also able to use the tablet for the same tasks that I perform on my desktop, using all of the same programs and accessing them as I am used to. While it’s still not a laptop replacement, it has almost all of the functionality of one, and could definitely be all you need to take with you on a short trip.

Even though I’m a long-time iPad & iPhone user, this non-iOS tablet won me over extremely quickly. I was a tad bit skeptical at first, but I had no need to be. Using Windows on a tablet is very smooth, and it’s a seamless transition from the desktop to the tablet, especially with cloud computing. All of the terminology that is used on the tablet refers to it as a “computer,” just as if you were setting up a more powerful machine. And the OS doesn’t feel cut off at the knees, like mobile OSes can.

Windows can run on pretty much anything these days. Image: Microsoft

Windows can run on pretty much anything these days. Image: Microsoft

The built-in keyboard, which you can bring up or stow as needed, is very usable. The keypad portion took some getting used to, but I think I will like it more than the iPad keyboard in time. You can also change the size of the keyboard to accommodate your needs.

Unlike with iOS, you can install Flash on the tablet, and fully use every website that uses it. Installing Flash was easy; it worked just like it does on my computer.

Windows 8.1 feels right at home, like it was meant to be used on a tablet. I’ve used it on a desktop machine without a touch screen, and on a laptop a touch screen. Both are great, useful experiences, but it just feels more natural on a tablet. It is also easier to organize your start screen. The OS still isn’t as intuitive as I’d like; there is still a learning curve. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really responsive.

What’s my assessment?

Using Windows 8.1 on a tablet really is the best of both worlds. It takes advantage of the tablet’s ease of use, and the start screen with all of its apps. But it can also buckle down and work like a regular PC when you want it to. (A Bluetooth keyboard would complete the set.) I am extremely pleased with its functionality and performance. I get full use out of the OS, using the Start screen apps. And because this smaller-than-my-iPad tablet fits in more places, I’m much more likely to use it.

For someone who doesn’t have to have an iPad or iPad Mini (you just can’t talk people out of those—I know that as well as anyone), a Windows 8.1 tablet is a fantastic idea, and the Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch is a great option. At approximately half the price of a comparable iPad Mini, it’s easy to use this along with your regular computer. Rather than feeling like a different device, it feels like an extension of your tethered Windows 8.1 desktop machine, or even your laptop.

And while I have no personal experience with other specific Windows 8.1 tablets, there are many out there with good reviews and reputations. But Lenovo is a solid name in computing, so it’s a good buy.

Pros: If you’re already familiar with Windows 8 or 8.1, there’s no significant learning curve. Plus, you can change the settings so the buttons are easier to tap without having to have baby-sized fingers.

Cons: This Lenovo does take a while to charge, compared with my iDevices. And, even sleeping, its power drains quickly compared to my iDevices. I’ve found no cons to Windows 8.1 so far.

Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade from Windows 8. For me, there aren’t a lot of noticeable differences between the two, but it will give you a Start button back. If you’re buying from scratch, Windows 8.1 costs about $100 or so, depending on the version.

The Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch tablet comes in two models, the 32 GB and the 64 GB. They retail for $299 and $339, respectively, but can be found for less on Amazon.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been loaned a Windows 8 device for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these reviews are my honest opinions about the hardware and software involved.

Buying Used Educational Products Can Be a Great Thing

Image: eBay Listing by bksfoursail

Image: eBay Listing by bksfoursail

My eBay Collections were curated as part of my collaboration with eBay. #followitfindit

Homeschooling, or just teaching your kids things at home, can get really expensive when you’re trying to give them authentic experiences. Some of the best products are quite pricey, but sometimes inexpensive options aren’t available. What’s an autodidactic family to do?

Fortunately, people selling their often-gently used things abound on the internet. So if you can’t (or won’t) afford full price for math text books, science kits, or primary source history document sets, for example, your patience and perseverance while searching for what you need will eventually pay off.

Image: eBay listing from user costumehub.

Image: eBay Listing by costumehub.

My first (and usually last) stop for things like this is eBay. Since homeschooling can be expensive, most parents sell their materials when they are done with them, to raise money for the next set of purchases. Of course, they sell them cheaper than the products would be new, so you can benefit from these discounts. Sometimes the materials are in new or almost-new condition as well. Another advantage of buying previously used materials is that you get a much wider variety of materials from which to choose. Some things are out of print, and aren’t available brand new.

One of my favorite discoveries for homeschooling history is Jackdaw publications. The Jackdaw company takes a topic, such as the Great Depression, Westward Expansion, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or the War of 1812, and accumulates primary sources from that time. Letters, photos, court documents, maps, timelines, and advertisements are rounded up, printed on high quality paper, and put together in a portfolio. They are obviously aimed at educational settings, which is great for homeschooling, or if your family wants to delve deeply into a topic.

eBay is a great secondary market for items such as these, which I’ve highlighted in the History Education Kits collection, and I’ve done the same for science topics in the Science Kits! collection. Like the best garage sale in the world, you can find just about anything on eBay. Sometimes you have to wait, but eventually what you’re looking for will be sold by someone. It helps to plan ahead.

#followitfindit