Late to the Game: ‘Elder Sign’

Elder Sign © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Elder Sign © Fantasy Flight Games

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice-rolling game based on the Cthulhu Mythos in which you and your fellow players work together as a team of researchers investigating a museum, attempting to prevent the rise of an Ancient One. Players must collect a number of Elder Signs before the Ancient One fills its Doom Track, kills the players, or drives them all mad. Sound good? Then find out more in our in-depth look at both the physical game and its digital alter-ego, Elder Sign: Omens.

Elder Sign set up for a new game © Sophie Brown
Elder Sign set up for a new game © Sophie Brown

How Do You Play?
The museum that forms the playable region of Elder Sign is composed of a number of large cards, each representing a room, while in the digital version you are faced with a map of the museum with a number of locations highlighted on it.

Players choose a room to enter (embarking upon an Adventure) and attempt to roll dice and match the symbols on the card—sometimes in a specific order. If the player successfully completes their Adventure by matching all the symbols, they can gain spells and weapons to help them win more Adventures; they can also gain the all-important Elder Signs needed to defeat the Ancient One. Failing the Adventure can result in a loss of the player’s health and sanity, the arrival of a monster who will increase the difficulty of future Adventures, or Doom being added to the Ancient One’s Doom Track. After each player’s turn, a clock is advanced and at midnight, the Ancient One reveals a card that can benefit them, so players are encouraged to win as fast as possible. Some rooms also have their own, usually negative, Midnight Effects.

Elder Sign: Omens © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Elder Sign: Omens © Fantasy Flight Games

How Do You Win and Lose?
To win at Elder Sign, players must collect a set number of Elder Sign tokens. The number is determined by the Ancient One they are fighting.

The tougher the Ancient One, the more Elder Signs will need to be collected to defeat it. Completing some Adventures will win you multiple Elder Signs, but the better the rewards, the harder the Adventure will be to complete. The team of players lose if they all are killed or driven insane by the Ancient One, or if the Ancient One fills its Doom Track.

Are There Any Expansions Available?
Yes. For the physical game two expansions, Unseen Forces and Gates of Arkham, are available. If you are playing digitally, there are currently three expansions: The Call of Cthulhu, The Trail of Ithaqua, and The Dark Pharaoh. All three unlock additional player characters and Ancient Ones to battle.

A successfully completed adventure, with three dice to spare © Sophie Brown
A successfully completed adventure, with three dice to spare © Sophie Brown

What Formats Is the Digital Game Available On?
Elder Sign: Omens is available on iOS (for both iPad and iPhone), Android, Kindle, and Steam.

How Do the Costs Compare?
The base game currently retails for around $30 with the expansions costing $15 to $20 each, making this one of the cheaper games currently on the market. The digital base game retails for $6.99 (iPad), $3.99 (iPhone), $14.99 (Steam), or around $4.50 on Android. Expansions are $2.99 each.

What Age Is It Suitable For?
The game is recommended for age 12+, and having played it many times, that feels like the correct choice from the developer. While the game play is simple enough that a younger child could understand what’s going on, the artwork is obviously very intense (this is a game set in the realm of the Ancient Ones, after all) and some of the mechanics would likely go over their heads.

The digital version also contains occasional cut scenes that could scare young children. If your child is already acquainted with classic horror, they may enjoy the game, but for the majority, the recommended age will be accurate.

Has It Been Featured on TableTop?
Yes! Elder Sign was featured on series one of TableTop and was played by Felicia Day, Mike Morhaime, and Bill Prady.

Attempting to complete the Mystery Tome Adventure © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Attempting to complete the Mystery Tome Adventure © Fantasy Flight Games

Is It Actually Any Good?
Whether or not you will enjoy Elder Sign, either digitally or physically, is more than likely going to boil down to how much you enjoy randomness as a factor in your gaming. Completing Adventures is entirely based on dice-rolling (occasional cards and characters can change die rolls, but these are frustratingly few and far between), which means that even the best-equipped Investigator can fail spectacularly over and over again if the dice just aren’t in the mood to behave.

This can be incredibly aggravating, and I would know. Despite countless attempts and intentionally hoarding as many helpful cards as possible, I am still yet to beat the final card of The Call of Cthulhu expansion, by nothing more than sheer bad luck.

The randomness effect does, however, level the playing field, meaning that any group of players can work well together from experienced Investigators to total newbies.

The cooperative element really shines during physical play, as players debate which rooms/Adventures they should attempt and which to avoid. We played as a group late on New Year’s Eve and, despite losing spectacularly, had a great time playing—and isn’t that the whole point?

Digital Vs. Physical
Green = Pro, Red = Con, Black = Neutral


  • Game set up is as good as instantaneous.
  • The game keeps track of which cards can be used at any time, instantly deals out the correct rewards (or penalties) at the conclusion of an Adventure, and advances the clock as required.
  • The player has to play as multiple characters, remembering each individual’s special abilities and current inventory once their turn rolls around.
  • Designed for single player, so you don’t need to get a group together.
  • The single-player format means the game loses out on the cooperative nature of the physical version, arguably one of its best parts.
  • Both the base game and the expansions are cheap. The complete game with all expansions can be bought for as little as $13.
  • The base game is somewhat limited and quickly becomes repetitive, so the temptation to buy expansions is high.
  • Rooms with a Midnight Effect (a usually negative outcome every time the clock strikes midnight) are easily spotted on the map, as are those with Terror Effects.
  • Only one room can be seen at a time, so the player must either remember the requirements for each one or spend time looking at each one every time they choose a new room/Adventure.


  • Lots and lots of parts means the game takes a very long time to set up.
  • The game can be played by up to eight people, making it a great party game and a good choice at a games night with lots of guests, where other games might leave people out.
  • Midnight and Terror effects are written in small print on the cards, making them easy to overlook.
  • Although more expensive than the digital game, the physical edition is one of the cheaper games on the market (keep an eye out for frequent price reductions too).
  • Despite being cheaper than many games, the build quality is fantastic and the pieces are all well made and lovely to handle.
  • There are only two expansions. However, for those of us trying to limit our rapidly growing game collections, this may be a good thing!
  • The cards representing the rooms are laid out on the table and the requirements for each one can be seen all at once, making choosing your next room/Adventure easier.
  • Best played with a group, so not ideal if you don’t have a gaming group or local gamer friends nearby.

GeekMom received the base game of Elder Signs: Omens for review purposes.

Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Spelling Apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun (Fair Use)
Spelling apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun.

In the last few months, my 5-year-old son is now being taught spelling at school. As a result, I have been on the lookout for anything that will help him. One of the solutions I settled on quickly was using iPad apps.

Since we began using the iPad for spelling practice, his spelling has improved greatly, but much more importantly, his eagerness and enthusiasm about practicing spelling has improved too. Rather than battling to get a single practice in each night, not to mention the constant battle to find a scrap of paper and a single working pen despite the fact I had 50 of the darned things overflowing from a drawer last week, now I find him practicing spelling without even being asked—or choosing to go back over a few previous tests after completing his current one.

I wanted to share two great spelling apps with other parents who are in the same boat.

Continue reading Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Kids Won’t Shy Away From Geometry in ‘Land of Venn’ App

Image: Land of Venn Geometric Defense, used with permission.

I fall short in the math area of STEM. I hated geometry in school. I can’t repeat on this site the words that come to mind when the term trigonometry is used. When my daughter comes home with requests to work on her math facts, I go to the computer and look for an app that will help her. At this point, it isn’t because I’m afraid of the math, it is because I am afraid that my dislike of the 4-letter word will rub off on her, or worse, I will teach her something incorrectly and ingrain a bad example that will serve as the seed for so many math lessons to come.

This said, the newest app in my anti-math mom arsenal is called Land of Venn Geometric Defense. The characters have such interesting and unique names, I would not do it justice in explaining the purpose of the game, but their video pretty much tells you everything:

There is a lot visually happening in this app. Some of the platform bits move, but are not interactive which makes it challenging to tap and drag the correct thing at times. Sometimes there are so many things to tap and drag that a tablet is a preferred surface to make geometric shapes on. Especially if you are an adult playing this game, it’ a good idea to drag out the tablet unless you want the added challenge of a small screen and adult fingers. On a phone, another obstacle is potions (when you get them) that take up room in the bottom of the screen and cover up bad guys, taking precious time away from making your geometric shapes of villain destruction. In later levels, quadrilaterals are requested for ultimate destructive power against the juice-stealing varmints. Again, adult fingers on a phone screen aren’t the best combination for achieving a 3-star rating on a level.

straight line
They call it a straight line, I call it a line segment. What do you call it? Image: Land of Venn, used with permission.

My only observation about the geometric facts the game presents is a technicality, the shortest distance between two points is a line segment—but for kids, this is not a necessary point (pun intended).

The video above features most of the intro video to the app. It took me several times through the video on a tablet and phone to understand the thick accent in the opening scene. Once I heard it on the computer, I understood. Thankfully, I didn’t need to understand the video to play the game. It is mainly for flavor.

Minor complaints aside, this app is much easier for kids to handle with their tiny fingers, and they hear things better on average than us deaf old fogies. My kids couldn’t wait for me to finish my testing of the app so that they could give it a try.

The Adventure Time-like art is amazing. The game features crisp lines which aids in making the game playable. The areas shown in the game are beautiful. It, like other cartoons of the same style, is a little gory. Some of the attacks used on the invaders send knives out of the ground into the offending parties. It is a little graphic, but I don’t have a problem with my 5- and 9-year-old kids playing the app.

1st world levels
After the ten areas are completed, the arch at the top becomes a mini game to test the players retention of the shapes they made in the game. Image: Land of Venn, used with permission

The game has three areas to complete with ten levels in each. Each area ends with a gate that unlocks after each type of geometric shape is correctly identified. I really like this part of the game. It adds a different way of learning and adds repetition into the game without the player really noticing. The test was a nice break from the mad tapping. After unlocking all three gates, I was looking for more.

Originally, the game was only available in the App store for $4.99. It has expanded to the Amazon store and is available for $0.99. An Android version will be available after a few bugs are worked out in Beta testing (I ran through beta testing on my Samsung. After an initial download issue, the game played beautifully on the device, so I am hopeful the game will be available to the public soon). The development team is very involved with fixing any issues and has listened to feedback to produce a superior app for kids learning.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

A Thermal Camera for Your Mobile Devices

See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.
See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.

Thermal cameras are, by and large, prohibitively expensive for the average Joe. However, there is a new product which caters to the mostly untapped consumer market. Here’s the Seek thermal camera, an add-on for your smartphone.

Seek thermal camera. Image credit:
Seek thermal camera. Image credit:

The uses for a thermal camera attachment on your smartphone are amazingly varied:

  • Finding your pet in the yard after sunset: I have a neighbor who stands outside tapping on a can of food with a fork for 20 minutes every evening, trying to call his cat inside for the night. I bet he could use a thermal camera. I bet I could use him using a thermal camera.
  • Scanning a dark, empty parking lot or park for perps: If you find yourself walking through an empty public space in the dark on a regular basis, as I often did walking through campus at 3 am during grad school, a thermal camera—and a can of Mace—could bring you some peace of mind.
  • Scanning your yard for animals before taking out the trash: For those of you who keep posting bear videos on Facebook. Don’t let them surprise you!
  • Find drafts and leaks in your home: Comes in handy for slew of home improvement projects.
  • Scanning your kids while they sleep: I always wondered if my little ones are too hot or too cold at night. Am I underdressing them? Overdressing them? Are their feet too cold? Will they wake up if I try to feel them? (The answer to the latter is always yes.) While surface temperature is not true body temperature and a thermal camera will never replace a thermometer, having a thermal camera is a little bit like gaining a mom superpower.
  • Find boats or people overboard at night: If you’re a boat person.
  • Night tag: Okay, so perhaps this application alone doesn’t validate the price tag, but let’s call it a perk!

The Seek thermal camera uses a 12 micron sensor and produces a 32,136 pixel image that is 206 pixels by 156 pixels. Each pixel represents a temperature measurement—anything from -40 to 330 degrees Celsius can be accurately measured to a fraction of a degree, according to their specs—and the color scheme of the image is customizable in the app.

The app offers a gamut of settings and tools, but there is also a development kit available for programmers so you can hope for more apps using Seek in the future. Those apps could offer specialized tools for certain uses, or I can imagine really cool games that could make use of this 6th sense.

The hardest part about using this gadget is actually having it with you when you need it. It’s not likely you’d keep it on your phone all the time, so how do you keep it on your person in case you find yourself in a dark parking lot? The camera comes with a hardy plastic case that’s perfect for throwing into a purse or bag. The case also has a metal ring, presumably to add to a keychain like I tried, but the whole thing ended up making my key set way too bulky for my need. If you know you’ll only use it for a single purpose, like checking the yard for wild animals before letting your dog out at night, you could also give the camera a permanent home near the door. You’ll definitely want to decide where you’ll be storing it, though, or else suffer the consequences: Where is that darn camera? Yes, I have already lost it multiple times.

Another inconvenience that I experienced was that the camera didn’t fit with my phone case. So every time I wanted to use the camera, I had to take my case off and put it back on again after. My husband didn’t have this problem; the Seek fit on his iPhone 6 Plus with the Apple silicon case. Mine was an iPhone 5 with a Speck wallet case.

Minor inconveniences aside, the Seek can be a great toy for the gadget lovers or a very practical tool if you have a need for it. You can always find additional uses for it once you have it, but it’s much easier to validate the purchase if it solves a frequent problem in your life too.

Seek is available for Android and iPhone and retails at $199.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Time for Kids Family Edition App for Android and iPad

Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

I was invited to check out an issue of Time for Kids Family Edition on the iPad in March with my 9- and 11-year-old sons. With a free sample download on iTunes, anyone has a chance to see a free sample issue and see for themselves the timely articles, vivid photography, and interactive special features for themselves. We reviewed the iPad version, but you can also download individual issues and subscribe on Android devices through the Google Play store. I did not see an opportunity to download a sample issue via Google Play.

My oldest son reads a sample issue of Time for Kids on our iPad. He enjoyed the photography and we discussed the situation in the Ukraine. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My oldest son reads an article about, Sky, the winner of the Westminster Dog Show on the Time for Kids app on our iPad. He enjoyed the photography and we discussed the situation in the Ukraine. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Time magazine doesn’t need an introduction. The classic weekly news magazine has been around for over 90 years, and their digital version has been evolving with plenty of interactive features. In 1998 Time for Kids was launched in print version to help elementary-school-aged kids keep in tune with current events. These magazines are made readily available to teachers, and the articles are written in concert with Common Core education standards.

The digital issue cover parallels the print edition. I was hoping I could tap on one of the teaser titles on this cover and get to the story, but that wasn't possible. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
The digital issue cover parallels the print edition. I was hoping I could tap on one of the teaser titles on this cover and get to the story, but that wasn’t possible. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

As a child of the print magazine era, I’m still trying to wrap my head around using our iPad or Android tablets as our primary source for magazines. I still like to enjoy my print versions, even though every magazine I subscribe to offers iPad versions for our convenience.

However, for my sons, they wouldn’t have it any other way. My oldest son particularly enjoyed the sample issue; he read the entire thing cover-to-cover and it even prompted some discussions about the conflict in the Ukraine, which was the topic of one of the articles.

The “Family Edition” is separate from the other Time for Kids editions, which are available in formats for Grades K-1, 2, 3-4, and 5-6. The articles are tailored to each grade level and accommodate Common Core standards of reading and comprehension for each of those grade ranges. The Family Edition is a compilation of articles from each of the month’s four kids’ issues. If you have a younger, newer reader, some of the articles might be more advanced, but that’s a perfect opportunity for parents to sit with the kids and go over it together.

Conversely, a 5th grader might roll his/her eyes at the photos of baby monkeys in the Congo.

Like other digital magazines, browsing through the pages of Time for Kids was pretty straightforward. You swipe left and right to turn pages, swipe up and down to scroll through articles, and you will have plenty of opportunities to tap for bonus content, such as videos, sidebars, and “editor’s picks.” My sons had no problems doing any of this.

I wish the interface was available in landscape orientation. Also, in the sample issue we downloaded, the cover always starts out covered in snow and a hand brushes the snow away, revealing the cover. Each and every time we go back to the cover page, such as if we leave the app momentarily and then return, the hand brushing the snow returns, which takes about 10 seconds before you can do anything past the cover page.

If you are looking for a way to keep your kids informed on current events, a Time for Kids Family Edition subscription would make a great gift for your favorite elementary-school-aged child and his/her family. Download the free app through which you add on individual issues or annual subscriptions via the iTunes App Store for iOS devices or the Google Play store for Android/Kindle devices. Subscriptions are $1.99 per issue for a month-to-month subscription, $19.99 for a 12-month annual subscription, or $3.99 for a single issue with no subscription. New issues come out the first week of each month.

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.

App Review: Adventure Time: Card Wars for iOS and Android

Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

My youngest son is our Adventure Time fan. Based on our multiple product reviews and the birthday party he had in January, our blog regulars probably know that already.

GeekMom received an invitation to check out the new Adventure Time: Card Wars app for iOS and Android, and I was happy to check it out and let my sons play. The review here discusses our download of the iOS version for my iPad 2. We did not test it on our Android tablet.

The game is based on the Season 4 Adventure Time episode, “Card Wars“, in which Jake the Dog unearths a card deck and challenges Finn the Human to a game. The winner of the game is to be deemed “Cool Guy,” while the loser is the “Dweeb” and has to drink a grog-style drink of assorted ingredients as penance. The card game in the episode pays homage to popular TTGs such as Magic: The Gathering and PokémonIn the episode, you see a wide variety of capabilities and non-capabilities that can be used to battle your opponent.

You begin play as a Jake the Dog (shown here playing against Finn the Human), but will collect other Adventure Time characters as the game progresses. You can play those additional characters in parallel. My sons are playing as Jake, Finn, and Lady Rainicorn simultaneously right now. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
You begin play as Jake the Dog (shown here playing against Finn the Human with the “Dweeb” and “Cool Guy” cups of soda), but will collect other Adventure Time characters as the game progresses. You can play those additional characters in parallel. My sons are playing as Jake, Finn, and Lady Rainicorn simultaneously right now. © Cartoon Network

The app is based on this game accurately enough, even though I saw some reviewer on iTunes complain that not all capabilities from the television episode were available in the app. Players will start with a tutorial that covers the basics of game play. Then, you’re all set to venture on your own.

First, you’ll lay down your “land” cards, which provide the setting. These cards frame what warriors and spells you’re able to set up on the tabletop. After your opponent sets up his/her land cards, warriors, and spells, you will then “battle.”

The battle part of the game takes a little bit of tablet savvy. As seen in the image below, there’s a spinning pointer on-screen. Tap the tablet to time the pointer with where you want it to land. Where it ends up corresponds with the level of attack or defense you will have. You win/lose the game according to the types of cards you have in combination with your ability to tap the tablet properly. It’s an interesting mix.

Tap to attack. This will test your hand-eye coordination. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Tap to attack. This will test your hand-eye coordination. The green signifies a successful attack, while the red is a loss. © Cartoon Network

My sons are really enjoying this game and continue to play it often after nearly three weeks. However, there are in-app purchases available that they claim would help them enjoy it more. We ordinarily don’t do in-app purchases, but gems are available for purchase at approximately $0.99 each.

Image: Turner Entertainment.
The more you purchase, the cheaper they are. You can cash in the gems for additional health, special cards, and extra shuffles of your deck of cards.

Like other games, the in-app purchases will help you achieve tasks more quickly. However, the game can be played perfectly well without the investment.

Adventure Time: Card Wars retails for $3.99 and is now available at both the iTunes App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android devices. In-app purchases start at $0.99. The game is rated for ages 9+ for infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Your Android Phone Has Geeky Answers To These 22 Requests

Android screenshot by Ruth Suehle

If you haven’t played with the voice commands on your Android phone yet, you’re missing out on a) looking like a total nerd (so what?) and b) some really fun answers.

Drag up your Google Now interface. You can start voice control with, “OK, Google…” per the phone’s instructions, but a “Listen, Google,” or a, “Hey, Google,” will do as well. If you haven’t gone full Google fangirl, you can go with, “OK, computer.” But to turn the nerdtasticness up to 11, say, “OK, JARVIS,” and pretend you’re a lady Tony Stark in control of the digital world. (To be fair, you can say just about anything that even vaguely resembles “OK, Google,” and it will pick it up.)

Of course, now you have to issue a command or two to JARVIS/computer/Google Now. Here are a few you can try that will get it to talk back to you. Note that not all of these always work depending on your handset, Android version, and particular accent. They also may result in different answers if you try them a second time. Try them all, and enjoy the geeky fun!

  • Beam me up, Scotty!
  • Make me a sandwich!
  • sudo make me a sandwich (This one is particularly difficult to pronounce such that Google hears “sudo.” Try saying it like “pseudo.”)
  • up up down down left right left right
  • Who are you?
  • When am I?
  • When does the narwhal bacon?
  • What is your favorite color?
  • Bacon number [insert actor name]
  • What’s the best smartphone?
  • What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?
  • What is the nature of the universe?
  • How can entropy be reversed?
  • What is recursion?
  • What is the loneliest number?
  • Who’s on first?
  • What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
  • Do a barrel roll.
  • Tilt.
  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

And if you change your phone’s language in Android settings to “English (United Kingdom),” you can try, “Tea. Earl Grey, hot.” Unfortunately it won’t actually make a cup for you.

Finally, you can sing “Magic Dance” from Labyrinth with your phone. You start, then continue to tap voice control and say each line back:

You: You remind me of the babe.
Google: What babe?
You: The babe with the power.
Google: What power?
You: The power of voodoo.
Google: Who do?
You: You do!
Google: Do what?
You: You remind me of the babe!

And now you’re stuck in a loop talking to your phone. Congratulations!

ComiXology: The Changing Face of Comic Book Readers

Screenshot of the ComiXology app. Take note of the “New to Comics?” section.

comixology-300x277Yesterday I peeked behind the digital curtain at ComiXology, the cloud-based multiplatform digital comics reader, as co-founder and CEO David Steinberger talked through what’s new for ComiXology, what’s been working well according to a recent survey of over 16,000 readers.

ComiXology just passed the milestone of 200,000,000 downloaded comics. A good handful of those have been downloads in our household. As someone relatively new to comics, ComiXology is my favorite way to read them. I like the shopping experience of having comic book discovery at my fingertips, and the guided view technology used make comics so beautifully cinematic. I’ve been pleased as well with their nice selection of independent and kids’ comics.

It turns out, I’m part of the changing face of comic book readership. In their survey of readers, they found that the core customer of ComiXology is who you might expect:

  • Male
  • Age 27-36
  • Has been reading print comics for a long time

But a new customer is emerging:

  • Female
  • Age 17-26
  • Newer to comics, with many reading comics for the first time digitally

Of buyers new to ComiXology in the last three months, 20% are women. That’s up from less than 5% when they started the app, and it’s a number that Steinberger says is changing rapidly. Comic book publishers, take note. The survey also found that of the readers who were reading their first comic digitally, many went on to buy comics in print. Again, comic book publishers, take note.

I suspect that the ComiXology Submit program is helping, and will continue to help, cultivate new comics readers. In fact, since its launch, Submit has become a top 20 publisher by revenue. Content creators can deliver their independent comics to ComiXology, and if it’s professionally-created, it will likely get approved. (Unless you use Comic Sans. Be prepared to face certain rejection.) Browsing through the independent comics, you’ll see a huge range of voices and styles represented, including many underrepresented voices in mainstream comics. It’s great for creators. Steinberger said he sees much more risk-taking here than in mainstream comics. And these creators can go from having their comics in a few shops to having an international marketplace to find their readers.

Selections from the Guided View Native content, and new offerings from DC.

Here’s a handful of things I learned about ComiXology:

*  The average ComiXology customer spends about $100/year. A quarter of readers spend over $400/year. A single reader has spent $63,000 and counting. Is it you?

*  There’s a line of comics that are Guided View Native (GVN). These comics take deeper advantage of the deeper platform with cool effects on lighting, focus, etc. Motorcycle Samurai is a good example worth checking out.

*  Your local comic book shop can have a digital storefront that allows you to still give your business to the small guy while buying digitally. Stores can even run deals and keep pull lists for their customers.

Infographic from ComiXology’s reader survey

Naturally, ComiXology also has some launches and deals to align with New York Comic Con, too:

*  There’s a new Android Holo release with a refreshed design. HD content will now be offered for the first time on Android.
*  Apps have a new Fit to Width function that helps the reading of portrait pages in landscape view.
*  DC graphic novels and collections are now available.
*  If you’ve ever thought about reading The Walking Dead, now’s the time. Issues #1-114 are on sale for $99.99, or $0.99 each.
*  Ape Entertainment is coming to ComiXology, with titles like Sesame Street, Kung Fu Panda, and game-based comics like Cut the Rope. Hurrah for more kids’ comics!

If you’re at New York Comic Con this weekend, definitely check out all that’s new with ComiXology. And have a look around and all of the different types of comic book readers you see.

Hip-Hip-Hooray for Peppa Pig’s Sports Day

We’re big fans of Peppa Pig in this house. My son has been into the Nick Jr. cartoon for years and now at the ripe old age of 7, that love is stronger than ever. The only thing he loves more than that snorty little pink pig is sports—any sports. Imagine the frothing that ensued when I let him know there’s a Peppa Pig’s Sports Day app!

Designed for iOS and Android devices, Peppa Pig’s Sports Day packs all of the cute little characters from the show into one app. Even better, that app includes seven different activities.

To start, you’re going to need to create a player profile. This basically involves entering a name and choosing an avatar. There are several avatar options in Peppa Pig‘s world. My son currently uses the dinosaur (which is a favorite of Peppa’s brother, George). I’m a frog.

Once you choose a player, you can pick from six different games. Peppa and her pals are very unique, so the “sports” are pretty unique as well. There’s an “Obstacle Race,” “Tug of War,” the “Long Jump,” a “Bicycle Race,” an “Ice-Cream Maker,” and “Rosette Making.” Each of the games does require a little hand-to-eye coordination, which is nice. It’s also worth noting that as you play, you get “stickers.” Aha! Yes, there’s the seventh activity, which involves placing your stickers on different backgrounds.

According to app developer P2 Games, Peppa Pig’s Sports Day is designed for kids aged 2 to 6. That didn’t seem to deter my 7-year-old from having a blast. And yes, I played plenty of sports as well. Using the iPhone 4, I was really impressed at how nice the graphics are in this app. It looks pretty identical to the cartoon.

This is the type of app that’s perfect for little hands. As previously mentioned, we’re Peppa Pig fans and we’re also sports fans. However, you don’t really need to know either one to get your money’s worth with this download. My little app athlete just loved all of the different games, as well as the interaction with the characters. He said that his favorite by far is the “Long Jump” activity, “because it has muddy puddles.” Fair enough. After all, if you’re at all familiar with Peppa Pig, you know how important this is. If not, this app should still provide plenty of fun.

Peppa Pig’s Sports Day is currently available via iTunes and Amazon for $4.99.

Designed for iOS and Android devices, “Peppa Pig’s Sports Day” has seven different activities. Image: P2 Games.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

GeekMom’s List of Educational Apps to Survive the Summer Slide

Do you need educational apps for the summer? GeekMom is here with a list!
Do you need educational apps for the summer? GeekMom is here with a list!

The countdown to summer vacation has started for my daughter and almost every kid I know. The parents and educators of many of these kids have been asking for Kindle and iPad app recommendations to help their kids get through the educational lull of summer.

The writers at GeekMom have compiled a list of educational apps for you to try this summer on your phone or tablet. Since it seems like preschool apps are a dime-a-dozen, we have come up with a list that will be more appropriate for first through fourth grade. I have not included prices in the descriptions below because some apps have a free and paid version. Also, depending on what tablet you own, the price of the app can vary. It is a safe bet that most of the apps will be in the range of free to $3.

Continue reading GeekMom’s List of Educational Apps to Survive the Summer Slide

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: Confessions of an Android Newbie


When it comes to personal devices, I’ve been an Apple girl since the very first iPhone came out in 2007 (wow, has it been almost 6 years already?). To me, the Apple iOSs are revolutionary, especially at the beginning when it was incredibly novel to integrate address books with maps, email services, and web browsers. We are a household of iPhones and I recently had received my first iPad — an iPad 2 — for my birthday last year.

When I received an invitation to try out the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, I was excited to get a chance to really crack into Apple’s nemesis: the Android operating system. I had a brief exposure to the Android OS — with Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 — when I reviewed the Ematic FunTab Pro last holiday season. But that system had a kid-friendly GUI that shielded users from the meat and potatoes of the OS. This time around, I dove right in.

Between the iPad and two Kindle Fires in our house, I felt we had a pretty decent sample set of tablets with which I can compare my experiences. Please note that this review is not to compare the Galaxy Note 8 with other Samsung tablets, but rather a discussion of my first impressions of Android and how much more useful a “small” tablet can be. In addition, I found many features that are unique to Android and Samsung products that I’m excited to share.

I discovered over the course of my use that the Note 8.0 does not have many of the features that their other full-sized tablets have. In fact, between the processor set and operating system, the Note 8.0 is more like Samsung’s Galaxy Note II than other Samsung tablets. It might interest you to know that this tablet comes with a cellular phone capability in many foreign markets! This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth owning; read on as I provide a unique exploration into my first Android device. I have had this tablet for one month exactly. Be sure to page through the entire review, the page buttons are below the “More on GeekMom” links.

The Look and Feel

Unlike Samsung’s other tablets, Kindle, Nook, or Kobo eReaders, this is an 8″ screen that seems to give the iPad Mini a competitor. At less than 1cm thick and less than 3/4 lb (340g), it’s much lighter than my full-sized iPad and much easier to hold with one hand for easy reading. However, since the iPad Mini is a mere 308g, things will be a bit heaver with the Samsung.

I love the overall dimensions of this tablet!  It’s big enough to read easily, yet small enough to fit into my purse.

I’ve noticed that the margins are pretty slim. I understand it’s an attempt to maximize the screen size, and perhaps my hands are just big and fat or something, but when I’m using my Kindle app, my right hand easily would drift onto the active screen and BOOM, turn the page for me….before I’m ready.

I also have to get used to the two additional flat buttons at the bottom edge of the tablet. One is a “go back” button, the other is a menu button. These are standard on most Android devices, but all these years I’ve been accustomed to Apple mobile devices’ single multi-function button. The Galaxy Note has a multi-function button too, and one of the first things I had done was hold down the button and double-click the button to see what it does. It’s completely the opposite of the Apple device’s functions.

This tablet comes in white. If you have an issue with how dirty a white smart device can get, you’ll have to get over it if you want this product. The plastic casing cleans very easily; so far it looks very good.

Like with Apple mobile devices, Samsung expects you to set up an account — a Samsung account — to use many of the indigenous Samsung apps pre-loaded on the tablet, from the gaming to the TV remote control. On the other hand, this tablet is optimized for Google’s many apps, so with your one Google account, you will have ready access into your Google contacts, Maps, GMail, You Tube and Chrome settings. Your photo gallery will even bring in your Picasa albums!

Android Jelly Bean

The Galaxy Note 8.0 comes with Android 4.1.2, Jelly Bean. This isn’t the latest version, so you won’t see such features as easy access to Google Now. Nonetheless, things seem to run efficiently enough for my purposes. I may have to revisit the review after a few months to address processor speed management.


Because Android recently stopped supporting Flash in support of HTML5 applications, you have to do a little hack work to get Flash working on your tablet. But hey, at least this is an option for an Android device, right? It was glorious being able to see my Flash-enabled weather station readouts on my tablet (with the Samsung indigenous browser, not with Chrome)


I was encouraged to try out the NFC (Near Field Communication), which is a line-of-sight data transfer feature. It took a while before I could find another user with an NFC-enabled Samsung device (he has a Galaxy Note II) and when he tried to transfer me a picture by chest-bumping our two devices together (back to back)…nothing.

Well, it turns out that the Note 8.0 does not have the NFC capability. Further discussion with the fellow Samsung user revealed that he really doesn’t use the feature much. So many other folks don’t have compatible devices, he’s accustomed to emailing or texting the photos… even to his wife who has the same phone.

Camera and Gallery

The Galaxy Note 8.0 is outfitted with a 5MP camera on the back of the unit, and a 1.3MP camera on the front. By comparison my iPhone 4S from 1 1/2 years ago has the same quality camera. The iPhone 5 now has an 8MP camera. The Note 8.0’s front camera is not only good for those ubiquitous self portraits with your friends, but it also serves as your camera for Skype sessions, and it also works with the Smart Stay and Face Unlock features that I will mention below.

The photos I have taken with my Note 8.0 haven’t been very good. So far most of the pictures I’ve tried have been either of action outdoors, or of my sons posing in low light conditions. I’m not happy with any of them.

Enjoy this video I took of my youngest son singing “America, the Beautiful” to test out the video features. See for yourself the quality of the camera.

The camera lens on the backside of the tablet is ever-so-slightly raised. I don’t know why. It doesn’t seem to impact the tablet’s ability to lie flat, but it doesn’t make sense…other tablets/smartphones can have a flat camera lens.


The indigenous music player feature. You can download others through the Google Play store. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
The indigenous music player feature. You can download others through the Google Play store. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

There’s an indigenous music player preinstalled on the Galaxy Note 8.0. For my purposes, I’m pretty happy with it. I installed the Amazon MP3 player and used it to import all my Amazon music to the tablet. I like the simple controls, and if you’re happy with iTunes’s capabilities, you’ll see similar features with the Samsung Music Player: playlist manipulation, easy sorting, album covers, and shuffle/repeat controls.

Since this is an Android device, the sky’s the limit with other music players that you can download/use.


My choice of HD video to test out the Galaxy Note 8.0's video quality. It's stunning in true HD, but I simply didn't see it here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
My choice of HD video to test out the Galaxy Note 8.0’s video quality. It’s stunning in true HD, but I simply didn’t see it here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

The 1200 x 800 pixel resolution screen certainly isn’t the best quality on the market, but for my purposes — I’m not an artist nor am I a government imagery analyst that requires the fidelity that an HD display provides — I like the image quality.

You can view full 1080p HD videos with this screen also, but it isn’t the best quality. I ran the same video side-by-side with my iPad 2 and the iPad’s resolution was superior.

That being said, I had some difficulty taking advantage of my favorite video player, the Amazon Prime Instant Video. With the Flash Player installed, I figured I could play the streaming videos on the Samsung Internet app, but it didn’t go well at all. So no Captain America, Hunger Games, or Adventures of Tintin for my boys and me. I’m sure this was Amazon’s way to drive business to their Kindle devices, since on those we can watch the instant videos with no problems.

If you have Netflix, you’re all set. There’s a Netflix app for the Android that allegedly works like a charm.

I want to assume that you can upload a video file directly to the device and watch it with the tablet’s indigenous video player.


I found this the coolest thing. Because I have a Samsung TV, it worked very easily. It's supposed to work with other brands of TVs also. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
I found this the coolest thing. I imported my Direct TV channel lineup by logging in to my Direct TV account and then programmed the tablet to interact with our TV as a remote. Because I have a Samsung TV, it worked very easily. It’s supposed to work with other brands of TVs also. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

There are two TV remote control apps that were preloaded onto my Note 8: The Samsung Smart Remote and the Peel Remote. The right-hand edge of the tablet has an “IR Blaster”, which allows the tablet to communicate with most major brands of TVs.

Both TV remote control apps have easy-to-use set up instructions to “train” the tablet to send signals to the TV.  In my case, I was able to input my zip code and login to my cable/satellite provider (in my case, Direct TV) to bring up my customized channel lineup. I was able to set up both applications quickly, and for a couple days I could use the apps without incident.

Then the Samsung Smart Remote app stopped working for us. That’s the one pictured above… and was my favorite of the two apps. It had a guide-system that looked similar to the guide on the TV itself.

The Peel Remote app doesn’t have a clear cut channel listing, and that disappoints me. Instead you can only browse by genre and until you use the app a lot, you are pushed “trending” and “most popular” shows first.

Because the IR Blaster is on the side of the device, you have to point the tablet sideways at the TV.

Polaris Office

I love love love that I'm able to edit Microsoft Powerpoint files from my Galaxy Note. While I wouldn't want to make a document from scratch, this is great for those little tweaks and last minute edits just before a presentation. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
I love love love that I’m able to edit Microsoft Powerpoint files from my Galaxy Note. This can’t be done easily on an Apple mobile device. While I wouldn’t want to make a document from scratch, this is great for those little tweaks and last minute edits just before a presentation. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

I was tickled that this device came to me with Polaris Office already loaded. This is another way Android devices have a leg up on iOS: in order to get editing privileges on an iOS mobile device, you have to download a separate editor, and it will have very limited capabilities. There are several iOS options for Word and Excel, but very little available for Powerpoint and what little is available is very primitive.

But with an Android, I was golden. Polaris Office gave me everything I needed to edit Office easily from my Galaxy. I wouldn’t want to start a new document from scratch necessarily, but if I had to make last minute edits to a file, this works very well.


There’s plenty of opportunity for gaming on this tablet. Anything you can play on an Android is fair game here. I didn’t do too much gaming but here are a couple things that we did explore.

  • Game Hub: Through your Samsung account you can access and download many games. We enjoyed playing Sonic Hedgehog II Lite.
  • Candy Crush: Yes, I’m addicted to this game too. The mobile version of this game works exactly like what you see on Apple mobile devices.

Playing games drains the battery VERY quickly. Be sure to use your task manager (by holding down the center button until the list of available apps appears) to close any unnecessary apps before playing for long periods of time.

Face Unlock and Smart Stay

As mentioned above, the front side camera can be set up to serve as a “Face Unlock” capability. This is considered a “medium security” feature because someone could merely hold up a picture of your face to unlock the tablet. There’s a “Presence Check” function that you can turn on that requires the face blink before unlocking. You can start by using one face capture but over time you can add additional captures over time to refine the capability. You will find the options for this feature in the Security section of the Settings.

The Galaxy Note 8 has the “Smart Stay” feature: it uses the tablet’s camera to detect if eyes are on the tablet. If so, it will refrain from going into screen savers or dimmed mode. I really liked this when I was reading my Air War College articles, but there are several limitations which are fully disclosed in the settings for the feature:

  • If the device is on a table, it may not work as well
  • If you aren’t in the camera’s field of view
  • If your head is backlit and the camera won’t see your eyes, even if your face is in the field of view
  • If the front camera is being used as a camera

Typing and Autocorrect

I have a very hard time with the Note 8’s small keyboard. I invested in a bluetooth keyboard to help with this. Part of my issue is my comfort with the iOS on-screen keyboards, which are laid out slightly differently. The best example of one of the differences between the two systems’ exclamation points. On the Apple keyboard it’s a stand-alone key, while you will use the shifted comma key on the Android. Neither of these options match a standard QWERTY keyboard (where the exclamation point is found via “Shift-1”).

Android’s autocorrect system is also profoundly different. I like Apple’s setup, where it will autocorrect the most blatant (and sometimes not-so-blatant) misspelled words. On the Galaxy Note, it pops up the options for auto-finishing and auto-correcting the words while you’re typing. These words appear just above the keyboard.  You can stop typing and select one of those words or you can ignore those words altogether.

I had become quite accustomed to Apple’s system, to the point that I can type pretty quickly with my iPhone and iPad, all the while relying on the autocorrect feature to take care of me. With the Galaxy Note, my errors are coming through loud and clear and I’ve discovered my typing is pretty awful!

The S Pen

My icky attempt at writing with an S Pen. It isn't pretty at all, but useable. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
My icky attempt at writing with an S Pen. It isn’t pretty at all, but useable. Note the arrow sticking out of the left edge of the screen. That’s a pop-out easy-access menu that you can customize with your most-used apps. My left-handedness made the menu keep popping out. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

So you don’t care for the on-screen keyboard. That’s okay, with many of the apps on the Galaxy Note 8.0, you have the option to use Samsung’s trademark feature: the S Pen.

I’m not going to go into too much detail defining the S Pen. It’s been out already, having been introduced on the original Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone about 1 1/2 years ago. Feel free to learn more about what an S Pen can do here.

For me, this was a whole new world! About a week after receiving the tablet, I had to go to a debriefing meeting for a charity auction for which I was one of the committee members. I decided to take my tablet and try out the S Pen on the tablet’s S Note app.

It did NOT go well. I have big handwriting and my left-handedness kept making the quick menu pop out from the left (I have since moved the menu to the right, where it’s now being a pain in the rear on my Kindle app).

I also tried the feature where you write the letter with the S Pen and it forms a “fonted” letter for you. This takes a lot of practice and I got easily frustrated when I tried this feature.

The other Samsung user I talked to really loves his S Pen, he’s a graphic designer and he uses his pen for sketches all the time. I’m sure with practice I will come to appreciate my S Pen too.

My oldest son likes it — I am reminded of accounts of going to school at the turn of the 19th Century where the kids had slates. Last week, my oldest son and I worked with long division with decimal numbers.

I am reminded of the slates that students used over 100 years ago at school. My oldest son really likes the S Pen. Screencapture: Patricia Vollmer.
I am reminded of the slates that students used over 100 years ago at school. My oldest son really likes the S Pen. Screencapture: Patricia Vollmer.

File Management

Unlike on the Apple iOS, with Android you have full access to the file system. This is the #1 thing I dislike about iOS. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
Unlike on the Apple iOS, with Android you have full access to the file system. This is the #1 thing I dislike about iOS. I’m also enjoying a split screen here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

I’m very happy with the access you get on an Android OS’s file management system. If you are comfortable with Windows-style File Manager, you can manipulate the files similarly here. You can add and subtract files, folders, and organize with ease.

I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary with the file system so far, and I don’t see a need to do so.


My Galaxy Note 8.0 has 16GB of internal storage, and includes a microSD card slot with which you can augment the tablet with up to 64GB of additional space. For a small investment ($20?) you can get a microSD card and a USB reader for it for an easy way to transfer large files to your PC or MacBook. The ability for external data management is something that Android systems make available to users but Apple does not.

Note that as it stands, you can only store documents such as MP4s, pictures and Office files on the external storage. Hacks exist to overcome this, such that you can run applications from your microSD card. It’s easy to learn more about that through our friend Google.

I have a 16GB iPad2. It didn’t take me long to fill up that internal storage, I predict the same thing with the Samsung.

Kindle/eReader Differences

My main motivation for getting any kind of tablet was for the eReader capabilities. My husband had bought me my iPad when I signed up for Air War College (a USAF continuing military education course) and all of my course materials were to be downloaded in ePub or PDF format. With the Kindle App, it was easy to download and manage the individual course files all within the Kindle.

As I’d said above, the iPad has many many benefits, but being an easy-to-hold eReader is not one of them. My wrist would get pretty fatigued. But with the Galaxy Note 8, I’m able to hold the tablet with one hand and read it as easily as if I was holding a small paperback.


The Note 8.0 can hold a charge in idle/standby very well. I left the tablet alone for three days on a camping trip and it had only used about 20% of the battery.

I was shocked that the Kindle app used as much battery as it did. On the iOS devices, the Kindle App uses very little battery. I am able to read all I want on my 4-hour flights to and from Nebraska for my AF Reserve duty. On two recent flights since I’ve received the Note 8.0, I drained all of the battery before I was ready. In both cases, all I did with the tablet was read Air War College articles through the Kindle App.


Like most other Android-based devices, the Galaxy Note 8.0 uses the universally-accepted Micro USB cable. The box includes a five-foot USB cable that works with any computer and an AC adapter for wall-charging. Between my sons’ Kindles, my husband’s work Blackberry and this Samsung tablet, we only need a couple of Micro USB cables on hand to support everything.

I tried to get a case for this tablet right away. When I searched in mid-April, there were very few to choose from . A Google search for “Galaxy Note 8 case” would return mostly Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note phones, and Galaxy Tabs. A month later, I was able to find a nice substantial leather case with a built-in bluetooth keyboard on Amazon. I certainly wish I had that keyboard last month at my spouses’ club planning meetings (see the S-Note section above).

In addition, you should have no problems finding protective screen covers for the Note 8.

Final Thoughts

I found the Galaxy Note 8.0 a lot of fun to use. The Android operating system didn’t freak me out that much. On the contrary, I enjoy the liberties I can take with the file system. Whether I take advantage of the file system or not isn’t the question, but I like that I have the option to do so if I choose. It’s something that doesn’t come easily to Apple iOS users.

I am very pleased with the size of the tablet as well. It fits in my purse with ease, and is lightweight. The S Pen, although a paradigm shift, has capabilities that you can’t get with my fat fingers. The two people I know who are big Samsung fans both happen to love the S Pen and use it routinely for their notes and graphic design business. I’m not there yet, but with time I’m sure I can be convinced.

You can buy your own Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 through most major electronics retailers, from Staples to Best Buy to Amazon. It retails for $399.99., although I’ve seen it for as low as $379.99. (By comparison, the 16GB iPad Mini’s MSRP is $329.99 — but can be found for as low as $299.99 right now).

Expect to invest another $30-50 in accessories.

A complimentary sample was provided for review purposes.

How To Teleport From Your Android Phone

I mentioned the Teleport Transporter-Beta app in yesterday’s April Fool’s roundup, and I couldn’t resist downloading it and giving it a shot. For all you iOS users (or party poopers who won’t bother to download it), here’s what you missed.

The app’s description tells us:

The Teleport Transporter, as seen on Star Trek™, finally, beaming available on mobile!
Based on lost original blue prints from the Series. After 4 years of extensive research and development, finally, free and instant transportation in the palm of your hands. Android only (due to Apple limitations on iOS 6).

How handy would that be? How can you not want to try it? Just… in… case.

At first use, it warns you–this is still in beta. Things might go wrong. But hey. All that you’re doing is letting your phone dematerialize you. No big. I do wonder what’s going to happen to the phone. I hope it comes with me so that I can get back.

Screencaps by Ruth Suehle

Now it’s time to go! OK. Middle of the room. Got it. Stand still. I can handle that.


On the next screen, all you have to do is choose where you’d like to go from a predetermined list of destinations and click “Teleport.” Easy peasy science squeezy!




I totally took a shower this morning. Look, people, I’m a busy mom. So I might have missed the ears. But it’s spring break, and the kids are home, and… fine. I’m going to take another shower and try again.


Beta. It’s in beta. Must keep reminding myself.


Aw, thanks! I love me some Shat, too.




Yes, yes, I did! I told you, busy mom, but seriously. This thing is a mess. I’m going to try One. More Time.

And eventually, you’re taken to your destination… in Google Street View. But at least you didn’t end up with transporter psychosis or crossing with an evil alternate universe. Enjoy!


Magisto Might Really Be the Instagram of Video

Magisto screen capture
Screenshot from Magisto website.

Yeah, I know a lot of apps are trying to be the Instagram of video, including Twitter’s weird Vine attempt, but Magisto captures the feel in a way I haven’t seen with other apps. Instagram is Instagram because it’s simple, slightly cheesy, and easy to share. Magisto is pretty much that — only with video.

You don’t have to do any editing to make a cool video. In fact, you can’t do any editing at this point. You just shoot some video or choose one or more movies that you’ve already shot,  pick a theme, pick licensed background music, and let Magisto’s algorithms handle the rest. Once your video is created, you’ll get an email. Share your video on Twitter, Facebook, or by link. You can also export your videos to YouTube.

Here’s a simple video I shot the other day from my phone:

This came from a few minutes of video shot from my phone while my family went sledding. Note: I removed the background music because YouTube flagged it as licensed content. The original with music can be seen here, where Magisto allows comments or a heart-shaped favoriting button–just like Instagram.

Simple is good.

The problem with most home movies is that they’re at least twice as long as they need to be, and they look like they were shot by people making home movies. Video editing software has a heck of a learning curve, and it’s exhausting to make all those choices about edits. Magisto acts as the “easy button.”  Magisto, so far, seems to make very reasonable guesses about what parts of the video are important, and the resulting video is short enough to be interesting and easy to share.

However, if you don’t like the results, you’re out of luck. You just have to try again, because there’s no editing. There’s also no way to upload your own background music or specify that you don’t want a soundtrack. (Update: There is now an option to create a movie without a soundtrack. I referred to information on the Magisto FAQ that was outdated and has now been corrected.) The soundtrack does respond to human voices, though, so it doesn’t drown out your dialog. However, if you have dialog in a movie and want to transfer it to YouTube, you can’t just drop the audio after you get it there, like I did with the sledding video. You need a soundtrack-free option to avoid this. The company claims they’re working on more flexibility with the soundtrack.

Right now the free version of Magisto is limited to 16 hosting videos, and you’re charged  $.99 to $2.99 to download a video you made. You can use the Magisto website directly or download free apps for iOS or Android.  If you hit the max, you just have to download your files or export them to YouTube before deleting them from Magisto.

Make no mistake, this is not a high end editing suite. This is how you share baby photos. Or a video of your kids sledding. Or movies about your cats. It’s not going to win you an Oscar, but it is fun, easy, and maybe a little hokey.


Review: Griffin Beacon Universal Remote for iOS or Android

Image source: Griffin

There are a few ways to turn your phone into a remote control — an instantly appealing idea since most of us lose our phones far less often than we lose the remote. The Griffin Beacon makes it both relatively cheap and quite easy to do so for your entire home theater setup with either an Android or iOS phone or tablet.

To use the Beacon with iOS, you just download the Dijit remote app from the iTunes store (free) and connect your device through Bluetooth. The Beacon itself looks like some kind of modern art sculpture from a Japanese garden. The base looks like your average black entertainment device, less than 4″ square, but atop it sits a shiny, red-black, rounded rock. You press the rock down until its blue light flashes, which indicates its connection to your device.

Image source: Dijit

The setup is similar for Android devices (any running version 2.3.3 or later). You download Digit from the Google Play store instead, of course. Ratings are better for the iOS version–some Android reviewers have had trouble with the Bluetooth connection and setup. Like many apps, it either worked perfectly or not well at all, earning mostly reviews on each end of the spectrum.

My Beacon had no trouble finding most of my devices in its list of hundreds of thousands, and the one that it didn’t find was easy to set up through prompts for selecting make and device type.

The Beacon connects over Bluetooth, which on some phones can be more of a battery drain than on others. Know your phone and know whether you should keep the plug (or spare battery) nearby. As for the Beacon itself, Griffin says that you should get eight weeks of battery life. I got significantly less than that, and other users have reported similar problems. When you’re used to a couple of AA batteries lasting in your TV remote forever, that can be annoying, and the Beacon doesn’t have an AC adapter. (Of course, some enterprising users have figured out how to make one.) Just remember to keep rechargeables handy. You almost certainly have enough other devices that need them as well!

The actual remote portion of the Dijit app is not a thing of great beauty, but it is functional, and in the end, that’s what matters. There are simple choices for your remote, and you can adapt them to your personal choices by adding or deleting buttons.

Once you’ve got it all set up, you’re ready to use your one-stop remote control. You can add a television guide that will help manage your channels and DVRs by entering your ZIP code and selecting the correct broadcast provider.

Overall, I have had a positive experience with the Beacon and the Dijit app. Setup was easy, and it works well at what it is meant to do. That said, others have reported significantly more trouble. Amazon reviews are occasionally ecstatic (presumably people who had the success I did) with a lot of one-star reviews, most of which have to do with the battery-eating and some who had trouble with Dijit. If you’re willing to deal with regular battery changes and are looking for an attractive universal remote solution, I recommend giving it a try.

The Griffin Beacon lists for $79.99 but as of this writing is available on Amazon for $38.35 for iOS devices or $41.96 for Android:

I received a Griffin Beacon for review.

Hi, My Name Is Dakster and I Have Nomophobia

I told you rebels...NO!! / Image: Savanna Kiefer
Nooooooo!! / Image: Savanna Kiefer

As with most technology, when smart phones first came out they were supposed to make our lives easier and less stressful. After having three different types of phones, I think that it’s actually the opposite. With every phone upgrade I’ve had, my life seems to get more stressful and I become more afraid of losing or being without it (aka…nomophobia).

I’m not sure when I developed my fear of losing my phone or being without it started. All I know is that now, I freak out if I walk away without it. Don’t get me started on how I feel when my husband forgets his at home and I can’t reach him all day (can you say…dog house?).

My first cell phone was a Nokia 5190 / Image: Wikipedia
My first cell phone was a Nokia 5190 / Image: Wikipedia

I received my first cell phone when I was in high school. It was a basic phone and its only feature was the ability to make and receive phone calls. I never worried about a missed e-mail, texting, or checking Facebook because those features were either not available or popular. If I forgot my phone, the only stress I was under was from my mother for nothing being able to reach me.

A few years later, I got a job where a company Blackberry was provided. I loved it. I could finally check my work e-mail anywhere and surf the internet when away from my computer. I enjoyed being able to take pictures and forward them to anyone with a few clicks. One problem…my stress levels jumped! All of a sudden I was no longer off the clock because I was constantly checking my e-mail out of fear I would miss something that was important.

Continue reading Hi, My Name Is Dakster and I Have Nomophobia

Braven 625s Bluetooth Speaker Review

Avengers Assemble! This is one mean speaker.  Image: Dakster Sullivan
Avengers Assemble! This is one mean speaker. Image: Dakster Sullivan

I might be an Apple junkie, but I’ve never been fond of wireless speakers. To be honest, I never saw the point in them. They all seemed like one more thing to keep track of and, inevitably, keep charged. But that was before I was given the chance to try out the Braven 625s Bluetooth 3.0 speaker. Now I can’t imagine listening to my music any other way. Between the ease of setting it up on my devices and the clarity of the sound coming from it, I am sold.

When I first got the speaker, I wasn’t that excited. Since I have an Apple TV, I don’t usually use my iPod or iPhone for music while at home. Instead, I stream it from my computer directly to my TV. The day the speaker arrived, I sett up on my iPhone just to experiment. Once assembled, I turned off my TV and started up my “Strength in Myself” playlist. Right off the bat, I knew something was different. When the music started playing, I was immediately surprised at the sound quality. Later, I received a phone call, and instead of talking on my iPhone, I let the call come over the speakers. I was able to hear the caller and have them hear me without any issues.

Side View  Image:
Side View Image:

Even though it will never see the outdoors, this speaker was built for the adventurer. The outside is padded with a shock absorbing material and it has its own little USB flashlight that you can attach.

By holding down the up and down volume buttons you can go forward or backwards in your playlist. If a call comes in and you want the speaker to answer it, just press the phone button and the speaker takes care of it. Pretty simple.

One of my favorite features is the battery light. When it blinks white the device is telling you that it’s at 100%; blue  means it’s at 50% and Red means 10%.  This is handy because some of my other wireless devices wait until they are almost dead to tell me they need charging. The different colored lights on the speaker will keep me from going without it when I really want to use it.

Continue reading Braven 625s Bluetooth Speaker Review

Four Fun Math Apps

Marble Math app by Artgig Studios
Marble Math by Artgig Studios

“Mom, can I play that math game?” These words are a frequent refrain around my house these days, and they’re music to my ears. Here’s a look at four great math apps my kids are not just enjoying, they’re begging to play.

Numbers 1 and 2: Artgig Studio‘s Marble Math apps for iOS are so good they score two spots on my list: one for Marble Math and one for Marble Math Junior. Kids drag a marble around the screen (there’s a tilt-the-screen option too) to hit the right answers and fun bonus items. Both versions of this app have been an enormous hit with my kids ages three through 11. The three-year-old needs help from me or an older sibling to identify odd and even numbers, count by fives and tens, or work the simple addition problems in Marble Math Junior; the six- and eight-year-olds can play it independently, picking up some excellent math-fact drill quite unawares. The older kids’ app presents more challenging problems but delivers the same absorbing, addictive game action. These apps get my highest recommendation.

And speaking of addictive…

Continue reading Four Fun Math Apps

Kytephone App Makes Android Phones Kid-Safe

Image: Kytephone

Keeping kids safe is a priority for parents, especially when it comes to sharing information online. Everyone is worried about some creepy stalker setting up a meeting, or getting their information and whisking them away from a playground or a schoolyard. Many parents opt to keep them away from things like smartphones for fear of their making dangerous connections. The problem is that there are times most of us would like our kids to have a ready means of contacting us in a pinch. Kytephone aims to provide a way for parents to give their children phones and keep them safe.

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Fathers Day Gift Guide – For the Kid at Heart

Stormtrooper and Son
Image: Copyright Kristina Alexanderson

I’m lucky to have a husband who is a kid at heart because it makes shopping for him easy and fun. Most of the time, I can get his presents at my local toy store or comic book shop. It was this unique trait that inspired me to put together the ultimate Father’s Day gift guide for the kid at heart.  So, without further ado, I give you the gift guide for the dad who prefers Transformers over ties and Lego bricks over soap on a rope.

Optimus Prime Image: Hasbro
Optimus Prime Image: Hasbro

Hasbro Transformers Prime Line
If there’s one thing that is always on the top of my husbands list, it’s Transformers. The latest addition to the Transformers toy line is based off the latest animated series, Transformers Prime. If your children like them as well, I would suggest you get them the new Bot Shots so that dad can have his transformer all to himself on Father’s Day.

Hasbro Battleship / Hasbro Game of Life zAPPED
Give dad the gift of family time with Hasbro Battleship and Game of Life zAPPED Edition. These games are sure to get the family together again and again.

LEGO Deathstar
For the Star Wars dad, check out the Lego Deathstar. A fellow 501st Legionnaire and Father requested that I put this on the guide as a hint to his own children.

The Infinity Gauntlet Image Copyright Marvel Comics
The Infinity Gauntlet Image Copyright Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics Infinity Gauntlet Graphic Novel
Considered to be one of the Marvel’s best sagas, The Infinity Gauntlet holds its place in Marvel history. Most recently the main villain, Thanos, was seen during the end credits of The Avengers. If you paid attention in Thor, you might have also caught a glimpse of his famous gauntlet. For the Dad that’s fan of the Avengers, make sure you pick this up for him. He wont be disappointed.

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Review: Hand Stylus Shows Promise

Hand Stylus
Image courtesy Hand Stylus

I’ve been going through a bunch of styluses lately. It turns out they mostly suck. Picture trying to write something with a hot dog encased in metal. Not exactly an artists dream, and usually I just give up and used my finger. You know, one of the ten styluses Steve Jobs said we carried with us all the time?

The Hand Stylus ended up not sucking. Hooray! They sent me a couple of prototypes, and I’m glad I checked them out. The Hand Stylus is being funded as a Kickstarter project. Funding closes June 17, and the styluses should hit stores sometime in mid to late July for a retail price around $35-40. (Hand Stylus designer Steven King emailed me to tell me the retail price would actually be $25-$29) You can save $5 on a stylus and tip bundle if you buy it through the Kickstarter.
Continue reading Review: Hand Stylus Shows Promise

Go Go Kiddo! Entertains and Educates


Go Go Kiddo!

There are a lot of apps on the market geared toward kids right now. Some of them just kill time, and some aim to educate, but not many of them manage to pull off both for more than a short time before kids get bored. That’s not the case with Go Go Kiddo! which manages to mix education, fun, and creative play in a way that will engage kids for hours.

This new app geared toward kids ages 3-5 is really like getting a bunch of smaller games all in one app.  The main menu is an island with seven different lands that are each their own self-contained game united through the use of adorable characters that young kids will love.

Meet the Characters

Kids learn all about letters by tracing them and then using a slingshot to knock them over, pop bubbles, and score points in Letter Launch.  Then they can head on over to Trace and Race where they can explore the world of numbers.  Each of these has thirty-six levels, so they’re not over and done with in seconds.  Your kids will love trying to beat their last score and will be increasing their letter and number recognition in the process.


The Stickerbook

The Stickerbook section of the game is likely the one that you’ll break out when you’ve got a lot of time to kill–say, a car ride to visit family this holiday season. Here, kids can choose from scenes like the beach, or a picnic, or even a pizza shop, and then drag the stickers from the bottom of the the screen up to create their own picture.  All of the characters are there in a variety of poses, along with plenty of clothes, accessories, and even props like fish and helicopters. If you’re using an iPhone or iPad, then you can even take a picture and use that as the background for your new work of art.

Go Go Kiddo ($1.99)  is available for iPad and iPhone as well as Android devices. There are also free updates with additional content planned in future.

10 Billion Downloads Means 10 Apps For 10 Cents

The cupcake version of Android was a few years ago, but I think we can bust him out for a celebration.

Android hit a big milestone this week: 10 billion downloads, with a growth rate of one billion app downloads per month. To celebrate, users get the gifts. Each day for ten days, they’ll have ten apps for only ten cents each.  Right now you can still grab the first batch, but I’d expect the new ones to go up soon. The first set is Asphalt 6 HD, Color & Draw for Kids, Endomondo Sports Tracker Pro, Fieldrunners HD, Great Little War Game, Minecraft, Paper Camera, Sketchbook Mobile, Soundhound Infinity and Swiftkey X. Can’t wait to see the next 90 choices!

A Digital Charlie Brown Christmas

Screenshot from A Charlie Brown Christmas

Is it possible for an app to make you feel nostalgic? With the new A Charlie Brown Christmas app, it turns out the answer is yes, from the moment you enter and see the 45 spinning on the record player.

“Mommy, what’s that thing?”

“That’s a record player.”

“A what?”

“Why don’t you curl up and I’ll tell you a story.”

“Here we go again…”

“Back in my day that’s how we listened to music. And if we wanted to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas we had to find out the time and channel it was going to be on, and we had to be in front of the TV or we missed it.”

“Did you also walk to school uphill both ways?”

“Be quiet and play your app.”

Screenshot from A Charlie Brown Christmas

It’s hard not to be taken in by the A Charlie Brown Christmas app from the moment when you hear first few notes of that familiar Christmas tune. Loud Crow has done a lovely job capturing the spirit of this annual special. The whole story is told in a sort of pop-up book format. I wish a screen shot would do the page turns justice, but as you go from one page to another characters seem to fold into slots while new ones pop up on the next page, animating the whole time. (It should be noted that this is coming from someone who typically hate fakey digital page turns.)

Screenshot from A Charlie Brown Christmas

A narrator tells the story, and it’s punctuated from the character recordings from the show. I wish the sound quality matched a little better, but the nostalgia of those old recordings makes me not mind that much.

The interactivity is a mixed bag. As with some of the other Loud Crow apps, a lot of things just wiggle when you touch them. It’s cute in Sandra Boyton ebooks, but here it just feels odd. I’d like for more of the interactivity to have a purpose. But then there’s some interactivity that’s truly great, ranging from fun stuff like turning snow into snowflakes to decorating the little Christmas tree to playing Shroeder’s piano.

Screenshot from A Charlie Brown Christmas

Overall this app is a winner, a lovely high-tech take on a classic. The app is available for iPad, iPhone, and Android ($6.99).

Note: I was provided a review copy of this app.

Where To Get A $99 TouchPad (And Why)

CC-BY-SA by Flickr user Tom Raftery

Last week I was at LinuxCon in Vancouver where, practically as soon as Phil Robb, director of the open source program office at HP, finished giving an optimistic keynote about the future of the TouchPad and WebOS, HP announced they were abandoning it. Next, two things happened almost simultaneously. TouchPad prices dropped to $99 (16 GB) and $149 (32 GB), and people started working on porting Android to it.

It’s now pretty hard to find those $99 tablets, but don’t lose hope. SlickDeals is keeping up with your chances of finding one online. I’m also still hearing reports of people finding them in those old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores today. Can’t hurt to look if you’ve got a few minutes, although most were likely cleared out early. Some stores were seeing Black-Fridayesque lines when they opened.

I think the real lesson in all of this is that the $100-150 range is the too-affordable-not-to price point for tablets. Many people still don’t know what they’d use it for when it’s the price of a full laptop. Especially if you’ve got a household full of computers, it’s hard to spend another $300-500 for one that does less and seems like an overgrown phone that doesn’t make phone calls. But at $100, you can find a reason–and probably end up wondering how you ever lived without it.