Gadgets make life easier, and often more fun. And living in the information age as we do, they are practically necessary for survival. We like products to be faster, more connected, and with more bells and whistles. Which gadgets have we GeekMoms deemed to be awesome enough to include in the gift guide? Keep reading! Continue reading GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #2: Gadgets and Accessories
Microsoft recently announced the newest in their line of Microsoft-branded computers. They’ve updated the Surface Pro to model number 4, and they’ve come out with the Surface Book, which is a larger, beefier, more powerful machine that looks more like a laptop than the other Surface models.
It seems that most laptops these days have touch screens, and tablets are everywhere. But convertible machines where the screen detaches and can be used as its own thing with a sophisticated, pressure-sensitive stylus are not the norm. I’m very glad to be seeing Microsoft think outside the box. And for people solidly in the PC world, these new offerings expand their purchasing options.
A while back, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 would be available on July 29. Many have have reserved their copies, since it’s a free upgrade for people with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. This is pretty cool. I remember actually having to purchase Windows 3.1 as an upgrade from Windows 3.0. It was about $80 at the time, which was a lot of money to this then-starving student.
Whether you currently have Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or even something earlier, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading. Windows 10 will have some interesting features.
You’ll love the familiar, fun, and productive Windows 10 features, such as:
1. The personal digital assistant goes beyond your phone: Cortana, the world’s most personal digital assistant, is now available on the PC (and all of your Windows devices). Now on the PC, you can ask her to find files for you, send an email on your behalf, turn on your music, pull up photos, find apps, and more.
2. Microsoft Edge: The new browser for Windows 10 lets you write on the web with built-in note-taking, sharing, and integration with Cortana. Plus, there’s a reading pane for no distractions.
3. Play more: Your games, friends, achievements, and more will follow you across Xbox One and Windows 10 devices. Xbox Live is built into Windows 10, giving you access to the greatest gaming community in the world no matter where you are. Windows 10 extends the Xbox experience with game streaming. Play your Xbox One games on a desktop, laptop, or tablet in your home on your local WiFi.
4. The Start menu is back! Everything you came to know and love about the Start menu is back and integrated with the live tile-touch experience.
I’m excited to spend more time with Cortana. We use Siri quite a bit on our iPhones, and Cortana could simplify looking up information on our desktop machines. And I’m definitely willing to give Microsoft Edge a chance. Taking notes on the web… can’t wait to see how this works, especially for non-touchscreen devices (like my desktop).
Additionally, everything runs in a window. No more being lost when you’re running a Windows app. And you can snap four windows in place, in quadrants. And you can have multiple desktops for different purposes, and switch between them. I can’t wait to see how that one fits into my life.
I’ve also read that there’s a possibility that Windows updates will be automatic and mandatory. This doesn’t bother me, since I always do the updates, but I know of some people who prefer to curate their updates themselves. So, do your research.
I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Windows 10 to try it out, but I’m genuinely excited to do so. Your operating system affects how you can interact with your computer in very important ways. A major change like Windows 10 has the possibility of introducing some new frustrations, but it looks like Microsoft has done their best to address complaints about Windows 7 and 8, and to add plenty of new and useful functionality. I’m looking forward to it.
For those who aren’t getting a free Windows 10 upgrade, it can be purchased online. Prices vary.
Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.
Since I was in high school (<cough> back in the ’80s <cough>), I have used Microsoft Word and Excel (and Microsoft Works; get off my lawn). The programs have come a long way since then, being virtually unrecognizable, side by side. But they’ve been my go-to programs for word processing and spreadsheet needs for decades.
Today, Microsoft Office includes many more programs, including Outlook, Power Point, Access, Publisher, and more. You can get all or some of them, depending on what version of Office you purchase. Microsoft still offers one-time purchases of Office versions, which you then own forever, but there are some distinct advantages to the annual (or monthly) subscription to Office 365.
Benefits of Microsoft Office 365
- Your programs are always up to date, getting the latest version during your subscription period. Future upgrades are included.
- By subscribing, you get fast help from Microsoft-trained experts by phone or online chat.
- You can even use Office programs online at Office.com. If you sign in, it will save your settings, so your experience will be the same wherever you use it from. Also, if you save your files to OneDrive, you can access them from anywhere. OneDrive also lets you share documents with others.
- One of the coolest (I think) features of Office 365 is the ability to share your annual subscription with others. This is especially handy when you have other family members who use Office programs, too. You can share it with up to four other members of your household, and the generous number of installs that you get with your subscription is shared among the users. (The Office 365 Home subscription comes with installs for 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets, and 5 phones.) Also, each person gets a whole terabyte of OneDrive storage. You read that right. You can use OneDrive to save your Office documents, but you can also use it for storing other kinds of files.
- With your Office 365 subscription, you get 60 minutes per month of Skype calling to people all over the world.
- And for those who like to be on the cutting edge of things, check out the Office 2016 preview.
There’s nothing quite like the promise of a blank page or an empty spreadsheet. Starting a new project always brings me glee, and whether you’re like me in that way, or you just use Office programs as tools, Microsoft Office 365 gets you what you need. These also apply to the stand-alone versions.
- The Office website has handy visual Quick Start Guides for all of their programs, including Access Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Project, Publisher, Visio, and Word, all for the 2013 versions.
- All the help you’ll need is available on the Office support page and on the FAQ.
- If you’re new to Microsoft Office products, or just the particular product that you’re using, check out their training and tutorials. Microsoft offers a mountain of free help to get you up and running in your program of choice.
Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.
Kids have the opportunity to learn how to code at an extremely early age these days. I thought I was doing pretty well by starting in the 9th grade back in the ’80s. But now, if you are old enough to use a tablet or computer, you’re old enough to learn to code.
This makes me happy. Not just because it gives kids a skill that is useful if they choose to go into a computer field, but mostly because it teaches kids to think about problems in certain ways early on. To take the problem apart, breaking it into component parts, and affecting the result, step by step. This kind of thinking is important in any field, even if your day job never has you touching a computing device.
Microsoft, with all of their resources, has done plenty to make programming opportunities available for kids of all ages. Here are several of their endeavors.
Kodu Game Lab
Programming games visually is a lot of fun. We’ve played with Kodu Game Lab quite a bit, and I think it’s the bee’s knees. For visually-oriented kids, it’s perfect for learning programming concepts. Kids (and adults) have almost endless possibilities to design and implement their own computer game. There are also books out there to help you through it, such as GeekDad James Floyd Kelly’s Kodu for Kids. There are websites to download the software, and to learn more about the project.
A program for high school girls in technology, DigiGirlz opens up doors for girls to learn about the possibilities in new and emerging fields.
Microsoft Small Basic
Learn to program in Small Basic. For free. There is even a free curriculum you can follow.
YouthSpark Summer Camps for Kids
These free summer camps at your local Microsoft store can keep kids engaged with learning. Sign up before they are all full!
Learn to Code
This Learn to Code page has links to a variety of programming classes and activities, depending on how much time you have to spend. There’s something here for everyone!
Microsoft Imagine Access
Get free programming software here.
Hour of Code
Microsoft is one of the supporters of Hour of Code, which you can participate in at any time. No need to do it on the same day as everyone else!
Microsoft Virtual Academy
This Academy offers classes taught by professionals on a variety of topics for a variety of levels. Look at their Courses to see complete list.
Many of these programs are part of Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, helping youth succeed.
Check these programs out now, or at any time. If you’ve had any experience getting your kids involved with these programs, let us know how it went!
I was recently fortunate enough to attend an event that was part concert, part motivational rally. You can’t buy a ticket to this event. You have to earn it (or be a member of the press).
That event is We Day.
What is We Day? Their website says it best.
Youth coming together to make the world a better place is the global movement of our time—We Day is this movement.
An annual series of stadium-sized events, We Day brings together world-renowned speakers and performers—from Malala Yousafzai and Martin Sheen to Demi Lovato—with tens of thousands of youth to kick-start a year of action through We Act. You can’t buy a ticket to We Day—you earn it by taking on one local and one global action.
More than a one-day event, We Day is connected to the year-long We Act program, which offers educational resources and campaigns to help young people turn the day’s inspiration into sustained action. We Day and We Act are cause inclusive, empowering young people to find their passion and create the change they want to see. By taking action on one local and one global cause, students are equipped with the tools to succeed academically, in the workplace and as active citizens.
Together, We Day and We Act are a blueprint for helping the next generation of global citizens.
With Microsoft as a major sponsor and founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, We Day has evolved over time, starting with a program called Free the Children and turning into a movement with many thousands of participants who work hard to bring good to others. The website is filled with case studies, school group profiles, and plenty of data about participation and how much difference the kids have made.
Seattle’s 2015 We Day event was magnificent. Filled with alternating music groups and motivational speakers, and sprinkled with other people who are popular with today’s youth, the 16,000 students at the event were entertained for hours. Coming from all over the state of Washington, these kids were pumped and happy and engaged with the show. But you didn’t have to be a middle or high school student to get into it. I was quite moved by the whole thing as well.
The day’s event was broken up into four segments, each a “period” in school: Economic Empowerment, Technological Empowerment, Social Empowerment, and Educational Empowerment. Each section focused on a different aspect of involvement, and the underlying message was to get involved in your community, have faith in yourself and your abilities, and make a difference. A summary of the day was conveniently put into a recap on the We Day website.
I do admit to not knowing who many of the speakers and performers were, but there were a few whom I was excited to hear from, and then some that were pleasant surprises as well.
The person I was most looking forward to seeing was Dr. Mae Jemison, who they describe as “the first woman of color in space, physician, scientist, engineer, explorer, and futurist.” She did not disappoint. “We need collective ambition,” she said. We need to work on something together. She imparted much wisdom to the youth present, including messages such as: Keep your confidence. Don’t let others limit you. Our personal stories and perspectives are important. She also said that it is important to have a sense of humor and that daring makes a difference. She encouraged students to do what they knew was right that would move the world forward. Also, she mentioned her close involvement in the 100 Year Starship program, which is working on the future of interstellar travel.
A group of four young Ugandan women spoke about an app that they created to test for sickle cell anemia using just a smart phone. This will make a huge difference in healthcare in their country, and around the world. The four women did all the coding and development for the app themselves, and they did very well in last year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup programming competition as Team AfriGals.
Allstate insurance was another one of the sponsors, and Tom Wilson, their Chairman and CEO, spoke briefly. What he said struck me particularly. “Having diminished expectations is a disease,” he said. I agree with him. My feeling is, if you expect little from yourself, you won’t accomplish very much. If you expect little from your children, your coworkers, and people around you, they won’t be motivated to accomplish their goals, or perhaps even set goals in the first place. Have high expectations. But keep things positive. Make available the tools, skills, and materials needed for those around you to work toward their goals.
Laila Ali spoke. Four-time boxing world champion, TV host, author, fitness and wellness expert, and daughter of Muhammad Ali, she gave an awesome speech. As a kid, she fought for those who were being bullied. Literally. She spoke at length about how her father’s own imperfections inspired her to follow the path she did. She said that if you know who you are and what you stand for, you can do anything.
There were plenty of musicians there as well, including Nashville‘s Lennon & Maisy, indie folk band The Head and the Heart, and British R&B and rapping duo, Bars and Melody.
Near the end of the event, the crowd started going wild. Not on the program but showing up on stage nonetheless was Macklemore, who is apparently a great favorite of the kids present, plus he is a local to Seattle. He didn’t say many words, but the desired effect was achieved. The crowd was thrilled. His only other purpose was to introduce Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Mr. Carroll spoke for a while, and more than just about his team. He was actually pivotal in bringing We Day to Seattle, working closely with the Kielburger brothers to bring their good work from Canada to the United States. Mr. Carroll encouraged the kids present to recognize and celebrate the differences of those around us.
See the (mostly) complete We Day Seattle 2015 lineup here.
Learn more about We Day and the We Act program on their websites. Kids participate in We Act to earn a ticket to the We Day event. If you don’t live in an area with a program, check out the We365 app, which challenges people to get involved with helping others every day. Also, the Me to We program gets people involved in social change projects all over the world.
Note: Microsoft paid for my expenses to attend this event.
For those who prefer a high-tech classroom, Panasonic, along with Intel and Microsoft, has created a purpose-built computer for the K-12 education market. It won’t keep kids stuck in the classroom, however. It’s extremely portable, even having a carrying handle, and is intended to be brought out into the field to look at things in nature and study the world.
“Anywhere, anytime learning for the student-centered classroom.”
The Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 is a useful tool for students. (The 3E stands for “Engage, Empower, Enable,” which mirrors my educational philosophy completely.) It is a fully functional Windows 8.1 machine. The keyboard is small enough for students’ hands, but large enough to accommodate them as they grow. The detachable 10″ tablet works well on its own, and can also be turned around and reattached to the keyboard, allowing for tablet use while keeping all the pieces together. The tethered stylus is easy to use, nestles securely, and charges in just 20 seconds while in its nook. Use it to tap, draw, take notes, etc. The computer comes with educational accessories, such as a temperature probe and a magnifying glass, the latter of which snaps into the rear-facing 5MP camera to allow students to see things up close.
This thing is certainly built for education. Between the accessories and the machine capabilities (such as the gyroscope, magnetometer/accelerometer sensor, cameras, and microphone) and the installed software, kids are encouraged to explore. On their own or under a teacher’s guidance, students can use these devices for almost any school subject. Lessons in science, art, multimedia, research, and more are easy to expand using the 3E.
From the press release:
Designed from the ground up for the K-12 market, every aspect of the 3E was conceived to encourage inquiry-based learning, to boost engagement and nurture analytical skills that will help students succeed in STEM subjects. The device is also able to alleviate teacher anxiety by empowering them to deliver personalized learning for students while maintaining whole group instruction.
This isn’t just a case of putting technology on top of learning. These machines are designed with learning completely integrated, and they encourage students to use their imaginations, using computers as a tool for learning. The machines will expand students’ learning environments and opportunities, not restrict them.
The tablet’s touch screen is especially useful for kids, who need to explore and dive into their content. Whole classrooms can use these devices, and they are also able to integrate into a larger classroom system.
The machines are spill- and dust-resistant, and are extremely durable. They can withstand a 70 cm drop. You know your kids will drop this thing, and bang it around. Panasonic made sure it would withstand that kind of use.
The devices have a variety of I/O ports on the side, protected by a door, and the tablet can keep a charge for eight hours. The keyboard can extend that time three additional hours.
The software included on the machine is useful for many educational purposes:
- ArtRage Studio – Plenty of options for art creation.
- Foxit Reader – A multi-format ebook reader in which students can also make and name their own bookshelves within the program.
- Kno Textbooks – This comes with a few samples, but is designed to be used with textbooks that you purchase, or have access to through school.
- Lab Camera – With this program, students can use the magnifying glass, do time lapses, do kinematics, use the motion cam, or treat it as a microscope, universal logger, pathfinder, or graph challenge. With the magnifying glass, students can put something directly up to the glass. They can then save or print photos, plain or with measurements on them.
- Media Camera – This program allows students to make media, either in Presenter or Recorder format.
- SPARKvue – Software to run something akin to Power Point school lessons, from what I can piece together. The computer also comes with a “Folder for Experiments” which includes several example experiments, including ones that demonstrate how to use the accessories. Students interact with the pages to complete assignments.
What did I think of the Panasonic 3E?
I liked it very much. My 13-year-old daughter took to it right away, making herself at home and experimenting with all of the functionality. We tried things mundane and unusual, and determined that it’s a pretty solid product. It’s the kind of thing that I would choose for my kids to use in our homeschooling: fully functional computers that aren’t at all restricted by location or purpose.
Some observations of note:
- If you don’t get the tablet portion clicked into the keyboard portion well enough, the tablet can fall out. Make sure it clicks in well.
- Since you have to open the I/O port cover to plug in headphones as well as anything other than the AC adapter, we worry that the hinge will wear out quickly.
- Some of the keys are a bit small, but that’s a good fit for students.
- The keys are a bit slippery.
- There are two vertical line/slash keys. This extra key makes the left shift key a bit small for my taste.
- The tether for the stylus seems to get in the way a lot, whether the computer is opened or closed.
- The slot in the tablet that holds the stylus is pretty secure, so confident users could consider removing the tether.
- It’s a good idea to have a pouch for the magnifying glass and the temperature probe accessories to protect them and keep them from getting lost. Use a big enough one, and the AC adapter will fit as well.
In summary, the Panasonic 3E 2-in-1 convertible computer is a well-matched choice for students, at least through middle school. Whether your school system invests in the whole Panasonic Education shebang, or just several units for students, these are solid machines that will take what kids throw at them. Since they are Windows machines, they are completely compatible with systems that are already in place.
Note: GeekMom received a unit for review purposes.
I never used an earlier version of Microsoft’s Surface, though I have seen it in action once or twice. I’ve only used desktop machines, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, and tablets. Never a pseudo-hybrid.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally got my hands on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. Would I like it? How would I use it? What place in my life would it have? What uses would it be best for, over my other devices?
Just like when I got my iPad 2, lo, those many years ago now, I was excited to use a new device but wasn’t sure how it would fit with my habits. I knew the iPad 2 (now so far behind the current models that it runs glacially) was cool when I got it, but I wasn’t sure what to use it for. It quickly became a great way to consume media, and single-handedly helped me move away from watching television on an actual television.
I had a different but related experience with the Surface Pro 3. I already had a tablet. I already had a laptop. Would this be a case of a hybrid doing everything, but doing nothing well? Or would it seamlessly bridge the gap and transition between the two experiences? At first I wasn’t sure. It felt a bit foreign, because you can’t just pry the thing open and balance it on your lap. (At least not my lap—my legs aren’t long enough to prop up the screen and have the keyboard flat.) And even if I managed it, the keyboard was a little thin and flimsy to type vigorously, balanced on one’s legs. It bounces around a bit.
Placing the Surface Pro 3 on a table or other large, flat surface takes care of all of those issues, however. The keyboard feels more substantial with a table for support, and you can lean the screen/tablet portion at any angle you choose. Any severe angle seems to require a bit of oomph to get it there, though. The keyboard comes in several colors, which allows you to personalize your experience, and when closed, the keyboard also serves to protect the screen. I’m generally happy with the keyboard. The trackpad, clicking, and the keys all work well. There are also separate arrow keys, which is nice.
Using the Surface Pro 3 in the laptop orientation is only one of many ways to interact with this tool. If you pry off the keyboard portion, which is easy to do, the screen is now a tablet. Tap, scroll, and pinch to your heart’s content. It works just like other Windows 8 tablets out there.
When you’re ready for something new and incredibly useful, try out the Surface Pen. It’s not your usual stylus. It’s Bluetooth-enabled, so it can interact with the device in ways that your finger or a conventional capacitive stylus can’t. Rest your hand on the screen and write or draw with the stylus, and with the magic of science (or, Palm Block technology), only your pen marks show up. No marks from your hand. You can also use the stylus in some ways while using your finger swipes in others. Scroll with your finger, and draw with your pen. It also seems to be pretty pressure sensitive, which is great for when you’re drawing. The tip is quite pointy, so, unlike the snub-nosed styli out there, you can place this one on the screen with more precision.
The Surface Pen also includes two buttons on the body of the pen, which are for erasing and right-clicking. One tap of the button on the end (where an eraser would be) opens OneNote, and your’re ready to write a new note. (OneNote will also convert handwriting to text, which is handy here.) Double tap it and you’ve just captured a screenshot. The pen also works in any app that allows for this kind of “ink.” In short, it works just like I’ve always wanted a stylus to work. The first words about it that escaped my mouth were, “Amazing sauce!” Silly, I know. But hey.
The Surface Pro 3 Pen comes with a sticky attachment loop, and you can choose, yourself, where to position it. I put mine on the left side of the keyboard, since I didn’t want it in the way of my tableting when I had the keyboard unhooked.
The Surface Pro 3 has a bigger tablet portion than my iPad 2, but is smaller than my other laptops. So it’s great to take with me for a very portable laptop and stellar tablet experience. Other than doing activities such as playing Guild Wars 2, I can replicate just about anything on the Surface Pro 3 that I can do on my more powerful desktop machine.
I haven’t measured battery life, but, unlike my other Windows 8 tablets, the Surface Pro 3 holds a charge for more than 24 hours (considerably more, I believe). Not having to charge it each time I want to use it is an important feature for me.
To sum up, the Surface Pro 3 works really well as a tablet. It also is quite versatile as a laptop, minus the lap. If you tend to have a laptop as your only computer, and you’re a heavy computer user, the Surface Pro 3 likely won’t replace it. But it’s the perfect secondary device. The stylus is the best I’ve ever used. It just works, it’s very pointy, and because it’s Bluetooth, it resists the touch of your hand while you’re using the pen. Also, even more than any of my other Windows 8 devices, the Surface Pro 3 boots up and shuts down really fast.
The longer I use the Surface Pro 3, the more I like it. I don’t use it like I use a tablet. I don’t use it like I use a laptop. It’s definitely a hybrid of the two, erring on the side of being an excellent tablet that can handle desktop applications with ease. Easy, breezy, beautiful comes to mind. Versatile. Adaptable. Great for school, on the go, work, etc.
For complete specs, visit the Surface Pro 3 page on the Microsoft website. The device comes in a variety of performance and price levels. For more information on the pen (you’ll want more information on the pen, for a variety of reasons), I found this page pretty helpful.
How do you like to use your Surface?
Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I spent the weekend in New York City, as a guest of Microsoft, to help them launch their second generation of Surface tablets: the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. Aside from watching the launch event on September 23, with press and fellow special guests, I also talked to the press about why I love the Surface Pro, especially from the point of view of a gamer and tech enthusiast.
There are many things which excite me about the next generation of tablets, due for release on October 22, 2013, in 22 markets around the world. Additional markets will be announced in the coming months.
There will be two models of the Surface 2 (formally known as Surface RT), and four models of the Surface Pro 2. The Surface RT will also remain available at the new discounted price.
As for the things which excite me, some of these things are the new accessories. Some of these things have to do with hardware upgrades. While others have to do with software and other add-ons. Over the next few weeks, I’ll tell you about some of my first impressions and take a little bit of a closer look at what you can look forward to with the second generation Surface tablets.
But first, let me tell you about a couple freebies that will come with the next generation of tablets. These freebies will be very beneficial to users.
One of the freebies comes exclusively with the Surface 2. Unlike its predecessor that only came with Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT, the Surface 2 will come preloaded with Microsoft Office 2013 RT, including Outlook 2013. This upgraded preloaded software will be beneficial to both students and professionals.
The next freebie that has me pretty excited has to do with Skype. This freebie will be available when you purchase either the Surface 2 or the Surface Pro 2. I use Skype a lot. I spent a fair amount of money to be able to make international calls to landlines when interviewing people who live overseas for my radio show. The first part of the Skype freebie is unlimited international calling to landlines for one year. The second part of the Skype freebie is one year of free unlimited Skype WiFi.
The last freebie will also be available when you purchase either the Surface 2 or the Surface Pro 2. With your purchase, you’ll receive a whopping 200 GB of SkyDrive cloud storage, free, for two years! That is a lot of storage, and will be a huge benefit for people who live in the cloud. Even for someone like me who has to make use of a lot of external storage, I can see the benefit of 200 GB in the cloud, outside of the built-in benefit of automatic backup and syncing of system settings, across all devices.
These three benefits are pretty simple, but will have a sizeable impact on many users. But they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I’ll talk more about what to expect as we get closer to the release date.
The price for the Surface 2 will start at $449.00. The price of the Surface Pro 2 will start at $899.00.
Starting September 24, 2013, at 8 am ET, you can pre-order the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 online at the Microsoft Store in the U.S. and Canada, and at select retailers in North American and around the world. Quantities are limited and no deposit is required, so you may want to hurry.
After years of typing, it came out of nowhere: an aching, stabbing, tingling pain in my arms and hands. My primary complaint was a throbbing ache followed by pinpricks of fiery pain on my fingers, like someone putting out cigarettes on my skin. I couldn’t work with my hands in any capacity, and I couldn’t sleep. Nothing seemed to work to alleviate the pain. Not ibuprofen, not acetaminophen, not painkillers. I had carpal tunnel.
My first doctor gave me “the look” when I told him I was a writer by trade, as if that was the root of all my troubles; since giving up writing wasn’t really an option, I underwent surgery, therapy, and ergonomic mindfulness. Once I started typing again at full force, though, it all started coming back. As it stands, I’ve got the odds stacked against me: I’m a woman, a writer, a guitarist, and I have a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel, tendonitis, and arthritis. A perfect storm for pain.
It was a second doctor who suggested vitamin B6, which, I’m happy to report, makes daily life tolerable. They’re not exactly sure why B6 works in some carpal tunnel patients, but it’s made a huge difference for me. I’m extremely grateful on that count.
However, there are still some things I can no longer do (playing guitar, folding laundry, using a regular keyboard, reading heavy books, picking up my son, prolonged vegetable chopping). I get by, though not without some major readjusting. I’ve had to restructure my writing process, the way I play music, and even how I interact with my kids. I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to walk into a guitar store these days. After playing for eighteen years, I’ve had to give it up entirely or else spend three days in pain after jamming. It’s just not worth it.
I’m not alone in this, either. I’ve got quite a few family members and friends dealing with similar issues. In fact, as much as 5-10% of the world population suffers from RSI (repetitive strain injuries) or carpal tunnel and related musculoskeletal injuries, and that number is far higher for computer users (with various studies showing up to 30%). So it’s no surprise that companies are now turning a very serious eye toward prevention considering all the work-related injuries it’s caused (RSI-related injuries make up as much as 60% of occupational injuries). If you don’t suffer now, don’t hold your breath. Your risk factors go way up as you age.
Clearly it’s a growing problem, especially among computer-centric geeks. But I can’t help but wonder: Did it have to be this way? Are we such slaves to our tech that we have to stand by and injure ourselves?
This week, Microsoft announced that most Windows users will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for only $39.99. For anyone that doesn’t usually buy upgrades, that is a significant cost break compared to what it usually costs (around $50 to $100). Now, before you jump on that deal, consider the following:
Something that is known throughout the geek world is to never upgrade your operating system immediately after a new one is released (two words, Windows Vista). The new and shiny aspect of a fresh operating system are tempting for many, but is the benefit of being the first kid on the block with it, worth the hassle of the initial bugs that come with it?
Those who saw the new interface of Windows Vista and thought “ohh, that looks cool” soon learned after they installed it that they were in for a nasty surprise. To this day, Vista is still considered to be one of the worst operating system to ever be released by Microsoft. I remember the strangest things happening to my laptop and even my manufacturer couldn’t help me. Eventually, some patch came out and fixed it, but the initial “coolness” factor was lost after the first few dozen bugs made themselves known.
I will admit that Windows 8 has me curious. I wonder how much of a change users coming from Windows 7 will see as well as the changes an XP user will encounter. The biggest change, at first glance, is the Metro interface. The new interface makes me think of a touch screen computer or a windows phone. If this change feels a little scary, take comfort in the fact that you can switch it back to a traditional desktop style.
As a woman in technology, I hear a lot about the lack of women in the field.
While I was in college, I noticed that I was usually the only female in the class. My teachers treated me the same as the guys and my male classmates never seemed to care that I was a woman. After I graduated and started attending events like Microsoft’s annual Tech Ed, I realized just how much of a minority women are.
The thing that keeps catching my attention, though, is how much of an issue people want to make out of it.
Believe it or not, the technology field wasn’t always a “man’s” arena. It wasn’t until recent years that women became a downward statistic. A few of the reasons blamed for the decline are the fear of sexual harassment, women not being smart enough, and the tech world not being friendly enough to women.
Since these days there are more men than women in the technology-focused careers, I can understand the fear of sexual harassment and discrimination. I also understand that those same things happen in almost all careers and to both men and women. (Nursing comes to mind.)
I’ve had just as many negative experiences with women as I have men in IT. While at Tech Ed in 2009, I was approached with smiles from most of the men and with icy tones from many of the women. In one video taken at CES, a marketing booth babe made the comment that “I don’t know any women that would choose the tech world over say shopping, or cooking, or something like that.” Just goes to show the women can be just as sexist toward other women as men.
Some seem to believe that the lack of women in IT is because women are just not that good at computers and technology.
I once read that one reason you don’t see a lot of women programmers is because women are not good at it. Let me set the record straight; back when computers first started out, there were more women than men doing the programming. I’ve taken programming classes and passed with a high grades. The reason I don’t program is not because I’m not any good, it’s because I don’t enjoy it. The same could be said for other women and men that prefer other areas of IT over programming.
Once upon a time I dreamed of owning a watch that would not only tell time, but have multiple alarms and a calculator that had more functions than I could hope to understand. I remember when calculator watches first appeared and I remember the first kid in school that showed up with one after Christmas. His name was Billy and he rolled his sleeves up just so everyone could see the wonder of his watch. We all crowded around his desk while he showed us how he could easily do complex math. Okay, it was grade school so the math wasn’t that complex, but it was cool.
The buttons on this watch were impractically small for his fingers, even as a kid, so I can’t imagine how a grown man used one of those things. Pushing tiny buttons is tricky business and the buttons on these watches were even smaller than what you have to deal with on phones. Billy eventually resorted to pushing them with the eraser end of his pencil.
As impractical as this watch was, it was ridiculously popular and I wanted one more than anything. No, I didn’t need help with math and I can’t recall a single moment as a kid when I truly needed a calculator at the ready. It didn’t matter. The thing was the latest and greatest and I wanted one. Badly.
I never did get one. I did have a very cool Star Wars watch with Threepio and R2 which made me very happy, but it didn’t do anything but tell time. Meh. You’d think, given the fact that calculator watches were so large they were sort of like two panels that bent in the middle to accommodate the curve of your wrist, that they would have been abandoned within minutes of launch, but their popularity lasted from the late seventies all through the eighties. Even Marty McFly sported one in Back to the Future so you know they were a big thing.
Now, these watches are incredibly nerdy. So much so that they may actually make pocket protectors look cool. We all have phones that do more than our watch, phone, TV, typewriter, and calculators combined did twenty years ago so we don’t really need calculator wristwatches. Even Bill Gates, he of Nerd Royalty, couldn’t bring them back despite a valiant effort.
Microsoft’s SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) included an over sized watch that was supposed to keep you connected with news, weather and sports. It came out in 2004 and would have made the eighties version of me absolutely giddy. It would have secured the top spot on my Christmas list and it would have made Billy’s stupid calculator watch look totally lame.
Alas, the attempt to revive the glory days of the overcomplicated watch have failed. Production of the watch ended a few years ago and those who own one found it useless as of January 1, 2012 when all support for the service ended.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if there’s another cool gadget watch in the future. I know, we all have phones that do it all anyway But you have to put your phone in your pocket and then take it out and hold it to do anything I still want a gadget on my wrist. One that will add and subtract and possibly activate my jet-pack. Is that really too much to ask?
Technology is always seeming to want to make things smaller and smaller. Just look at computers, once they were the size of a room and now you can carry one in your pocket thanks to smart phones. But now there is a product that is going the opposite way and supersizing something that usually can be hand held.
Microsoft’s table sized tablet, the Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface or just Surface for short, is now ready for pre-orders. Thanks to a hefty price tag that is being estimated at over $8,000, this huge tablet is being marketed more to businesses and large organizations.
Even though I’d never be able to afford one, I think it would make an interesting addition to my home. I’m sure my toddler would love to play Angry Birds on it. And it would also be nice to have a coffee table that is functional so I can also use it to surf the internet with.
You can read more about the Surface, which is due to be released at some point in 2012.
My daughter and I recently attended an event called Kinect for Kids, where we scarfed down mini-burgers and tried out the latest batch of XBox Kinect games for kids. For the longest time XBox ignored the little kid market, but now they’re poised to take a bite out of Nintendo’s market share. We only played the games for a few minutes at a time, but here is a list of the ones we’re most excited about.
Kinectimals: Now with Bears wins the warm and fuzzy award. The bears are absolutely adorable, responding happily when you train them, catch fish for them, and play games with them. In a brilliant stroke of cross-promotion, you can make special Kinectimal bears at Build-a-Bear Workshop and have them appear in the game. (Microsoft, $49.99, available now)
Now, I’m not a Disney fan in the way that some of my fellow GeekMoms are, so I’m surprised at just how much I enjoy Disneyland Adventures. You can explore the beloved theme park, meeting and interacting with your favorite characters. You can also visit the attractions which provide fun, contextual minigames like flying with Peter Pan. From what we’ve played, the game is fun enough to transcend the fact that it’s a gigantic ad for Disneyland. (Microsoft, $49.99, releases 11/15/01)
My daughter was so transfixed by Disneyland Adventures that I had to watch kids play Kinect Star Wars from afar, waving thier arms wildly while engaged in epic lightsaber battles on screen. The action and the art look great enough to please the Star Wars fan in your family. (LucasArts, price and availability pending)
Puss in Boots looks similarly entertaining, with luscious art that looks like it was plucked straight from the movies. Oh, and swordfighting. Lots and lots of swordfighting, using special attacks like “Claw Frenzy”. (THQ, releases 11/1/11)
Finally, it’s exciting to see Sesame Street enter the Kinect space which is far and away the loveliest-looking Sesame game of all time, Once Upon A Monster. Cookie Monster and Elmo explore a storybook filled with monsters, helping the monsters in each chapter. I love that this isn’t a letters and number learn-y Sesame title, rather an exploration through a fantasy adventure. What’s surprising to me is that my 6-year-old daughter, who has long since outgrown Sesame Street, wanted to return to this game again and again. (Warner Bros., $49.99, available now)
I’ll be keeping my eye out, too, for other partnerships between Sesame Workshop and Microsoft on two different projects: Kinect Sesame Street TV, where kids can interact with classic clips from the Sesame Archive (in a bit of sample gameplay, we threw coconuts to Grover who counted them) and code-named “Project Columbia” which is described as “a one-of-a-kind way to bring storybooks to life, allowing controller-free interaction with picturesque worlds right in the living room.”
Check back for more in-depth reviews on some of these titles. We’re eager to take a deeper dive into the gameplay!