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The Cloud

“The cloud refers to computers and data that reside in computers you don’t control, all accessible via the Internet. When you do a search on Google or Bing, all the data and the programs that process it are in the cloud. Your computer, tablet or phone is just being used as a “client” to request the search and to receive the results. All that you ever see on your device is the results.

There is a lot of good stuff available this way. For instance, the movies you watch streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or YouTube are all in the cloud. All you do with your computer is play them. The entire movie itself is never stored there. If you use email from Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, all the messages and mechanism are in the cloud. You see only the actual emails themselves. In some cases, they are never on your computer other than to see.

Another example is Google Docs, a service that lets you create, edit and store documents. it works just like the familiar Microsoft Office, but you don’t have to install anything on your computer and the documents are all saved in the cloud. There are backup services like Carbonite or Crashplan that save your data to the cloud in case your computer fails. SImilar services like Box, Dropbox, SkyDrive or Google Drive let you store documents, photos and music in the cloud.

The advantage of cloud services is that they extend the power of your devices without requiring you to buy more hardware or software. With your data in the cloud, you can get at them from any of your devices, not just the one you used for creation. And if your device dies or is lost, your data are safe.

Potential downsides of cloud services are the risk of loss of your data in case the host company goes out of business, as well as possible risks of privacy if your data are not adequately protected. And of course, you have to be connected to the Internet to use cloud services.

The cloud is an important part of today’s technology world, touching our computers, tablets and smart phones.

How to Buy a Computer

Buying a computer today is more complicated than it has ever been. The array of choices, not to mention the range of prices, is staggering. It’s little wonder that an impending computer purchase is often anxiety-ridden. In this short discussion, we will try to take some of the mystery and angst out of the computer-purchasing process by asking a few simple questions.

Who is it for?

There are lots of different ways to address this question, but for our purposes, let’s look at some major groups of potential users: students, adult home users, businesses and gamers. For starters, let’s eliminate gamers. They generally need the biggest, fastest and, not surprisingly, most expensive machines. Most gamers are also technically adept and so are beyond the scope of this article.

Students generally need a machine that is portable, reasonably powerful, sturdy and – ideally – covered by a good warranty or maintenance contract. Businesses have more complex issues to consider including standardization, security, software and support. These are also beyond the scope of this discussion and are best addressed with an IT expert. Home users — keep reading.

What do you want to do?

Most home users want to do email and web access, at a minimum. For many people, that’s most of what they will do on the computer. Other uses include organizing and editing pictures, watching movies, listening to music and working at home. Any of these applications can be done well with just about any computer on the market today. It’s only when you are doing compute-intensive work such as editing video or sophisticated photo editing that you need more power. Similarly for students, you don’t need a great deal of computer power unless you work in engineering or other scientific areas that require heavy-duty computing. An exception is people whose applications, such as editing and retouching photos, need a screen with lots of resolution.

Laptops vs. Desktops vs. Tablets

This is largely a lifestyle decision. First, “normal” computer or tablet? If most of what you do is watch videos or movies, play games and listen to music, and use the web, with a little email, a tablet might be right for you. They are highly portable and are great for these purposes. Where they are not as good as a mainstream computer is for creating content. If you do a lot of writing, create spreadsheets or presentations, or edit photos, a tablet isn’t much fun unless you get an external keyboard. At that point, you lose much of the convenience of a tablet and might as well consider a laptop computer.

Consider a desktop computer if you need a large screen and if you never work anywhere except your desk. Otherwise, a laptop is the way to go. Today’s laptops are as powerful as all but the most powerful desktops, don’t cost much more and they are more convenient. You can use your laptop in any room of your home or office and you can take it with you when you travel. For most people, a laptop computer provides the ideal mix of convenience, power and usefulness.

Windows (PC) vs. Mac (Apple)

While this choice is seen by some people as a theological one, in fact both choices are very similar. They do the same thing, just slightly differently. My best advice is to go with what you know. If you have been using Windows for years, it will be difficult to switch to Mac and vice-versa. If everyone in your office or school has a Mac, stick with that. It will be easier to get help than if you buy something different. For students, choose the system that the school uses and recommends, as that will make life a lot simpler. If you are a computer newcomer (are there any left?) many people think Apple is easier to pick up.

Another way to decide between Mac and Windows is price. Apple computers are more expensive than Windows computers. Actually in a comparison of machines with similar specifications, the premium for Apple is not enormous. On the other hand, there is a much wider choice of WIndows machines, and as noted below, there are many more choices at the low-cost end.

Price

For a lot of people, this may be the major determinant. Unless your needs are more particular, you will find that there is a wide choice of mainstream computers available for quite reasonable prices. As I write this, Best Buy lists 3 new laptops under $300 and 18 under $400. This is consistent with prices from other major retailers. These are for machines from major brands like HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, Gateway and Acer. For general use, especially at the lower cost end of the spectrum, there is not a lot of difference between the brands in terms of quality or value. If you are concerned about price, pick a price point you’re comfortable with and see what’s available at your favorite store.

So why are some computers so expensive, you might ask? You will pay a premium for things like faster processors (which most people don’t need and won’t notice anyway), larger or higher resolution screens, larger memory and larger disks. In laptops there is a premium for thin and light machines as well. You will always pay more for the absolutely latest models, kind of like buying a car. Many of the less expensive machines today are older models (e.g. 6-12 months!) and so are priced lower.

Accessories

Once you pick out a computer, what else do you need? The main accessory most people need is a printer, since there are still times you need paper. For laptops, you might want a case or protective sleeve. Desktop computers almost always come with a keyboard and mouse, though you might want to buy your own replacements if you have particular preferences. Also, most desktops do not include a monitor, so you will have to buy that separately. A surge protector is a good idea for desktop computers, but you don’t need one for laptops or tablets.

Software

Software is what makes the world go around, so you will need some to be able to do much. On tablets it’s call apps. There is plenty of really good free software, so you don’t have to spend a fortune. On the other hand, if you are doing any kind of business work, you will probably want to buy Microsoft Office, which is pretty much the standard used in most organizations. Beyond that, you can download just about anything you need. Plus, there is more and more software available in the “cloud” where you don’t have to actually install anything on your computer. Much of it is free.

One Last Thought

One last thought: computer technology continues to evolve quickly. Don’t expect a new computer to have the lifetime of a new dishwasher or refrigerator. Figure the you will want to replace your new purchase 3-5 years from now. While this may be frustrating, given the cost of computers, consider also that you will be able to improve on your choice in a few years!

Conclusion

Buying a computer doesn’t have to be a difficult task. You can find decent equipment for under $400-500. If you have particular needs, talk to an expert to help you find the system that is ideal for you.

 

What’s Up with E-Books?

A lot has been happening recently that will surely affect the future of electronic books and of books in general. Starting with Barnes & Noble, two events have rocked their world: First, B&N announced that they will no longer make the Nook line of e-book tablets. This concedes the market to Amazon, maker of Kindle. Second, the CEO of B&N resigned, essentially an admission of the failure of the company’s e-book strategy. On another front, the United States District Court in Manhattan ruled that Apple had conspired with five publishers to raise the prices of electronic books. The publishers had settled the charges earlier, but Apple held out to the bitter end, denying any wrongdoing.

So what does this all mean, especially to consumers? For Barnes & Noble, the future looks gloomy. The company had invested a lot in the e-book business, and their decision to halt manufacturing pretty much ends their ability to be a force in that market. They have said that they will continue to sell Nooks manufactured by others (outsourced), but it’s not clear how long that will continue. Once the Nook business dies out, can their e-book business be far behind? To further complicate the picture, remember that the various e-readers – Nook, Kindle, Sony – all have proprietary formats. This means that you can’t read a Nook book on a Kindle or Sony Reader and vice versa. Unlike Amazon, who offer software that runs on multiple platforms to read Kindle books, B&N didn’t do this. So it means that Nook owners eventually may not be able to buy readers that will read the books they have already bought.

As to the Apple antitrust verdict, this should lead to lower e-book prices over time. It’s pretty silly that the cost of a Kindle or Nook book should be even close to that of a hardcover or paperback, since there is no manufacturing and distribution cost involved. Some observers have noted that prices on Amazon are already beginning to come down, but they are still too high, in my opinion.

So Amazon has lost a major competitor to the Kindle. The only viable competition is Apple, selling books to read on iPads and other Apple platforms. Without competition, it is always possible that Amazon may raise Kindle prices over time. Ditto for books… In a market dominated by a single vendor, there is no competition to keep prices in check.

In the near term, this is good for consumers, as we can expect e-books to become less expensive. Longer term, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next. It is certainly arguable that the consumer won’t win in the long run. Meanwhile, anyone wanting to buy an e-reader is well-advised to buy Kindle, not Nook. Note however that the price of Nooks has decreased and will probably continue to do so. Thus if you are interested in an inexpensive tablet, this might be the way to go. Just don’t buy a lot of books for Nook!

Cut the Cord – Cancel Cable

Are you spending too much on cable and not getting enough out of it? I’m not talking about all the premium channels. If you really watch a lot of those, then you can skip the rest of this article. This is for people who watch occasional TV as well as enjoy movies and series. You CAN get rid of cable without missing much, while gaining even more. I can assure you that this approach works great because we have done it.

What’s the secret? The secret is the Internet. These days there is a tidal wave of material available online, much of it free, including many of the shows you watch on TV. On top of that, there is still good old broadcast television, available by adding an antenna to your TV set. The trick here is to know how to get the Internet-hosted programs to show on the big-screen TV in your living room.

Where the programs are There are literally hundreds of websites that provide programming over the Internet. One of the best known is Hulu, which has a huge selection of TV shows and movies. For movies there are Netflix, Amazon and Vudu, to name a few. Beyond these there are lots of special interest “channels” including MLB TV (baseball), Snag Films (indie movies), TED (TED talks), Wall Street Journal, AccuWeather and YouTube.

How to do it. To play Internet content on your television, you need a way to connect the two. There are multiple options: Newer TV sets can connect directly to the Internet, making this process really easy. For older sets, you can add a device that does this. Several of these are available and cost around $100 or so. Roku is one of the best known, as are Apple TV and Google TV. Some game consoles such as XBox 360 and Playstation 3 can also serve this purpose. Another solution is that newer DVD players have built-in Internet. If you have an old computer lying around, you can even connect it to your TV. In order to be able to watch broadcast TV, add an antenna. Today’s antennas are small and discreet, not like the rabbit ears of your youth. Nowadays with all-digital television, there is no such thing as a bad signal, snow or ghosting. Television shows look just like DVDs.

What’s the next step? If eliminating the cost and hassle of cable interests you, you should be able to make the switch easily if you are comfortable with electronics and can follow badly-written instructions. If not, call an expert for help in deciding how to go about doing it and then to install things in your house.