Zara, Duncan, Chris and I spent last weekend up at the Birmingham NEC for the Gadget Show Live meeting hundreds of Tech Digest readers and making plenty of new friends while we were there too.
We had a fantastic response from our series of 30-45 minute “How To Theatre” guides to everything from HDTVs to free music and software but for those that couldn’t make it up there for the day, or those who couldn’t scribble everything down fast enough, we’ve compiled them into written form for you to digest, consider and cogitate at you leisure:
How To Theatre Talks
I can’t work out whether this is just the craziest idea I’ve ever come across. Or the work of an inspired genius. I think probably the former. Featured on Dragons Den last year (they understandably didn’t back it), Fake TV is, well, a Fake TV. It’s intended to deter burglars though I think it might just encourage them if they think you’ve got a big telly worth nicking
In this post, I’m going to tell you how to fill your computer with quality software that doesn’t cost anything. We’ll cover everything from the ground up – starting with the operating system, and then looking at web browsers, antivirus, email, office applications, and music, video, photo and instant messaging apps.
So let’s start with the question: “Why use free software?”. It’s a bit like that bit in an interview where you get asked ‘Why do you want this job?’. ‘Because I have rent to pay’ doesn’t normally cut it as an answer, but in this case it’s okay to be a cheapskate. Free software’s biggest benefit is simply that it doesn’t cost anything.
The benefits don’t stop there, though. Free software also means that you can try things out, tinker with different programs, without wasting cash. If you don’t like a bit of software, you don’t have to try to get a refund from whoever sold it to you – just uninstall.
Let’s start, then, at a very basic level – the operating system. You might be happy with Windows, or get Windows bundled with your PC, in which case you can sleep through the next minute or so. Right, those of you still awake – if you’re not happy with Microsoft’s world domination, though, then you might want to give Linux a try.
Linux has been around for a long time. It was originally based on Unix, which was released in 1970, but the GNU project – which Linux derives from – only kicked off in 1984. You might have heard that it’s difficult to use, or tricky, but there’s a version that exists that’s extremely user-friendly. It’s called Ubuntu.
Ubuntu, unlike Windows, releases new versions every six months or so. It’s built to be simple and fast, and is pre-loaded with free and open-source software. It won’t run everything that Windows might – it’s still a minority operating system – but it does have a component called WINE that can emulate Windows, so you can run programs that aren’t compatible (if a little slower) through that.
So, that’s the operating system sorted. What’s next? A web browser is almost always first on my list. The best bit of advice I could give to anyone with a computer is to ditch Internet Explorer and download either Firefox or Chrome to use instead. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, so let’s look at both.
I’ll start with Firefox, because it’s more widely used and known. Firefox is made by the Mozilla foundation, and will change the way you access the web thanks to its add-ons. These are little programs that complement your browser – doing everything from blocking adverts, to displaying a weather forecast or letting you take screenshots of websites. If you can imagine it, they’ll do it. It’s also faster and more secure than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Chrome, on the other hand, is made by Google and sacrifices some of Firefox’s features for blazing speed. Chrome is wonderful because it just gets out of the way. The tabs are in the title bar, and the navigation icons are small, leaving maximum real estate for the actual page. It feels roomy, intuitive and just plan fast.
If you like features, add-ons and themes, then give Firefox a try. If you don’t care about any of that – you just want websites, and fast – then download Chrome. Both are considerably more secure than Internet Explorer, updated frequently, and – most importantly – absolutely free.
Even though you’re now more secure, there’s always the risk of viruses, so you better get a viruschecker. That aging copy of Norton that came installed on your PC but which ran out of its free trial a long time ago is like a leaky condom. It isn’t going to protect you one bit. But don’t worry – it’s easy to get free antivirus too.
Both Avast and AVG offer constantly updated virus protection absolutely free to the home user. Personally I use Avast, because I think Pirates are awesome, but there’s not a whole world of difference so just pick one and try it out. If you don’t like it, then uninstall and try the other. The companies offer the free version to home users as a marketing strategy – the idea being that they get their name out and businesses pay for the enterprise versions of the software.
Next up is email. Now, I know you’ve probably got Outlook set up with the email address supplied by your internet provider, but I want you to do me a favour – I want you to try out Google’s mail service – GMail. It’s absolutely excellent.
First of all, it will interface with just about any pre-existing email system, so there’s no need to change your email address – just set it up in GMail. Then you’ll notice the radically different interface, with messages grouped into conversations – not just discrete lumps of data – and tags replacing folders. It’s wonderful, and makes so much sense.
Then you’ll notice that you’re no longer getting any spam. Gmail’s spam filters are some of the best I’ve seen. I’ve had a GMail account for probably about five years now, and I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had spam creep into my inbox, or lose a real message to the spam folder. They’ve really got this one cracked.
Lastly, there’s the convenience of accessing it from anywhere. On any machine, you can just go to gmail dot com and view your emails. No hassle. Even if you’re away from your computer, there are gmail applications for every mobile device you can think of. No more excuses for not replying to that email. Sorry.
If you still really hate GMail then there’s an alternative. Thunderbird, which is the email-y cousin of Mozilla’s Firefox. It has the same extensions infrastructure as Firefox does, and it’s still light, fast and packed with features. Those who aren’t quite comfortable with web-based email should be quite happy with Thunderbird as an Outlook replacement.
That’s the essentials – an operating systems, a browser, antivirus and email checked off. We’ll have some fun with music and video in a minute, but first let’s look at free office suites, because we all have to work occasionally.
OpenOffice and Google Docs are the two choices that I’ll tell you about today. The former – OpenOffice – is downloadable software, but Google Docs is web-based.
OpenOffice pretty much does most of the stuff that Microsoft’s Office suite does – so if you’re used to that, then you’ll feel right at home. There’s an equivalent bit of software for Word, Excel, Access and Powerpoint, as well as a powerful drawing tool, too.
Each one isn’t quite as polished as the Microsoft eqivalent, but they’re all perfectly functional. They can read and save in Microsoft formats and will do pretty much anything that a normal user would need it to do. The package is completely free, and you can download it from openoffice dot org
Then there’s Google Docs. This, like GMail, is another ‘cloud’ service where you just use your web browser to do everything. It’s nowhere near as fully featured as OpenOffice – in fact it’s fairly simplistic, but it has the benefit of being accessible from anywhere. If you need to create something simple, or perhaps tweak a more complex document, then you should have no problems at all.
Right – onto the entertainment section. We don’t just use our PCs for work, right? We use them for music, video, photos, and chatting with family and friends. I like music, so let’s start with that.
Last.fm is a good place to start. The site carries that name because they want to be the last radio station you’ll ever need. It records what you listen to via plugins on your media player and then intelligently recommends you stuff that it thinks you might like based on that. You can then click ‘love’ or ‘ban’ on the recommendations and it’ll adjust accordingly.
Spotify is wonderful. I can’t say enough nice things about it. It looks a bit like iTunes, except that it’s got almost every song ever on it, and they stream in microseconds. Lastly, what about all those hundreds of MP3s that you acquired completely legally? You need something to play them too. I recommend Songbird.
Songbird is a bit like Firefox mashed up with iTunes. As well as managing your library and letting you make playlists and such, it also integrates a web browser. When you’re visiting any page with an MP3 – a music blog, for example – every linked MP3 shows up in a list at the bottom of the page for easy downloading. They then get automatically put into your library. Very useful, very well done. Completely open-source, and uses the same extensions infrastructure as Firefox.
So that’s music, how about video? There are two applications that I’ll recommend. The first is called VLC. It’s a media player that’ll play just about anything you throw at it. DivX, Xvid, MPG, support for pretty much everything is included – no mucking about with dodgy websites to get the codec you need. It’s not the most attractive application in the world, though, so those of you that aren’t keen, try might want to try out…
Media Player Classic – similar to VLC, but with a slightly nicer interface. Again, it’ll play most everything that you chuck at it, but I found VLC edges out in the reliability stakes. If you don’t like one, try the other.
As for content, it’s a little tougher to get good quality free video legally than it is for music, but the best out there, to be honest, is iPlayer. If you’ve not tried the BBC’s flash-based internet delivery system, then give it a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. And in the UK it’s completely free.
Photos is next. I’m sure that following Dan’s talk about photography you’ve all got digital cameras spewing millions of pictures. You need to do two things – organize them and edit them. For organizational purposes, I’d suggest you check out Google’s Picasa. It lets you sort, tag, and organize all your millions of photos.
You can do basic editing tasks, like cropping and red-eye reduction, and you can make simple slideshows and collages from photos. Picasa makes it all very very easy. If you’re a bit more of a pro, and you need something a bit more hardcore, then take a look at GIMP.
GIMP is a fully open-sourced replacement for Photoshop. Note that I said replacement, not clone. Like Photoshop it’s ridiculously complex, but parts of the application work very differently, which will mean re-learning old habits if you’re a practiced Photoshop wizard.
If you’d like something in between – not as simplistic as just cropping and red-eye, but not as full-on as the GIMP, then I’d recommend Paint.net, which is a much much superior and easy-to-use version of Microsft Paint.
So, in terms of entertainment, music, video, and photos are covered. All that’s left is a way to talk to people – an instant messaging client.
The IM system that I’d recommend above all others is probably Skype. It lets you text-chat, voice-chat and video-chat to people across the world, and it’s got the best quality I’ve seen on such a service. I use it all the time, and when I was studying in America for a year with a girlfriend still in the UK, it probably saved our relationship.
But Skype is closed-source, and there are a lot of other communications networks out there too, so what you might want is something that ties in to everything else. Pidgin‘s for you. It supports MySpaceIM, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, Facebook Chat, Xfire and AIM, among others. Pretty much everything, basically.
That’s pretty much it. We’ve covered operating systems, web browsers, antivirus, email clients, office suites, music players and discovery services, video players, photos, and instant messaging. I think that’s most stuff that most people will need on a computer. And all of it is free.
Phones aren’t just for making calls, they’re also for having fun. Modern phones have a wealth of options available for keeping yourself entertained on the go. Buses, waiting rooms, and bored weekends at the in-laws’ house can all be enlivened with the help of a few handy applications.
Lets start with stuff you’ll know from your computer. YouTube has a great little mobile app for most Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones, the iPhone and the G1 that’ll have you Rickrolling your friends in no time. I can safely report that ‘Chocolate Rain’ is just as awesome in mobile form too.
There’s also iPlayer for certain Nokia smartphones, the iPhone, the Samsung Omnia, a couple of Sony Ericsson handsets and the HTC Touch HD. Most only allow streaming and unfortunately that’ll only work in Wi-Fi areas but owners of the Nokia N85 or N96 are able to download content to the handset via their PC for playback later on, even when they’re out of range of Wi-Fi.
If you use Sky+ you’ll be pleased to hear that there are applications available that’ll let you schedule your watching habits or set something to record via a mobile application for the iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone, then you can still set stuff to record via text message.
The music fans among you might be aware of a website called Last.fm. It’s a personalized radio service which intelligently recommends you music based on what you listen to. Guess what – it has a mobile client. iPhone owners and G1 owners can listen to their radio stations via a 3G connection on the go by using the free Last.fm application.
Lastly, don’t forget the world of podcasts. Almost every handset that’s capable of MP3 playback has a podcast application available, and the world of podcasts has never been better. I’d recommend you start with the Tech Digest podcast, but most BBC radio shows are available in podcast form too.
Whilst a phone is never going to replace a computer in terms of functionality you want it to be able to cope with the majority of your favourite everyday applications, and the most obvious feature is communications. Apart from voice calls and messages there’s so much more you can do with a mobile.
If you amp the functionality up all the way you get the Inq phone from 3 – an astonishing concept, as it’s so integrated into all your networking that its actually scary. It automatically updates Facebook, twitter, MySpace and your address book depending on what people have done to their pages – and you get all of that for free.
Let start with a popular application and the buzzword of today- Twitter. You want to be able to access your account on the go, update and reply to people’a messages, but with so many clients it’s difficult to know where to start.
A great one for the Android platform is TwitDroid. It’s free to download and allow you to read messages, and reply to them as well as update your status, which not all clients allow. Twibble is a popular tool on the Nokia handsets and then you have Twitberry for BlackBerry and Twitterfon for the iPhone.
Windows Mobile users also get a look-in, as you can choose from a variety of apps, my personal favourite being Twoible for Windows Mobile. You get the picture, huh? All these operators want to make it as easy as possible for you to use their service, meaning you’ll stick with them!
Next we come to a more thorny issue, that of free calls on your phone – clearly something that the operators aren’t going to be enamoured with. There are some VOIP clients which work with mobiles but it can be hit or miss whether they’ll work or not. The three main competitors would be Skype, Fring and Truphone. These are all services that allow you to make calls via your phone’s internet connection, with varying levels of ease.
First we’ll look at the big daddy, Skype. Some handsets, such as 3 phones, come with integrated Skype functions whilst others have apps or let you install them. You can make free Skype to Skype calls, and will have to pay a small fee to make calls to landlines and mobiles- but you’ll save a lot when calling abroad. Not all phones support Skype, however, as the operators fear they’ll lose out on call fees. I see Skype as supporter to the phone rather than replacing it.
You can use Skype easily on all Windows Mobile phones or the iPhone, and Android handsets have a beta version available. We can hope that more phones will open up to it, though they do have an impressive line-up of compatible handsets with everything from Sony Ericsson to LG in the mix. They only run Skype lite though as non-smartphones can’t cope with the full Skype functionality.
Next into the fray we have Truphone which works on a very similar basis to Skype- but on a more comprehensive level. In fact it can be compared to Fring, which I’ll also address below. Truphone allows you to make calls via VoIP or GSM, as well as IM people and has integrated Skype so you can call your contacts using this service. It works on the G1, iPhone and BlackBerry as well as the iPod Touch (via wi-fi) and lets you make cheap calls. The company makes money by pushing adverts at you while you’re using the service.
Fring is another social media aggregator that lets you make calls and chat within all your favourite IM clients, and it also integrates low cost calling from your mobile. Which you choose really depends on how you like their interface and what platform you’re using them on, but there’s something for everyone, whether you’re Android or BlackBerry.
Getting where you want to go – or even just finding out where you are – can be tricky in an unfamiliar city. You could ask someone, but there’s every chance they’ll laugh in your face, spit in your shoes and mock you for being a scummy tourist. Fear not – you never need for that to happen to you again. Instead, you can let your mobile phone sort it all out.
There are a couple of homegrown options that might well be available on your handset already, especially if you’ve got a GPS-equipped BlackBerry or a fairly modern Nokia phone. Both of those companies have developed their own map software. But I don’t like them that much. Far better is Google’s offering – Google Maps. Google Maps works on most mobile phones – BlackBerry, Nokia, Windows Mobile, and PalmOS, and it comes pre-installed on the T-Mobile G1 and on iPhones.
First-up, location. Within a couple of seconds of starting the program up, a blue dot appears marking your location. It’s surrounded by a light blue circle which represents uncertainty. If your phone can get a GPS lock, that circle will be very small, but if it’s working out your location from nearby cell towers then it might not get your location exactly right.
Then you might want to find out what’s nearby. Go to ‘search’, and type something in. I’m hungry, so let’s find a sandwich shop. Type in ‘sandwich’, and you’ll get a list of all the sandwich shops in the area complete with phone numbers, addresses, website links and even user reviews.
There’s the option to get your phone to navigate you to the shop, but most of the time you’ll want to get somewhere further afield. Hit ‘get directions’, and you can choose from car, public transport or walking. At each point on the way, we can see Street View for the route, so you know exactly where you’re going. If you’re driving you can also add traffic information, or get a satellite view.
Lastly, what if one of your friends was eating at a different sandwich shop? You’d want to know, surely, so that you could meet up. Google’s got you covered here too, with a relatively new service called ‘Latitude’. Latitude keeps track of you, and then lets people – only people you specify – see where you are at any given time. You can choose how specific it is – and you can even lie if you like – but it can be quite handy for people who want to increase the odds that they’ll bump into friends.
Fitness and wellbeing
We all want to be fit and in shape but as we’re lazy we’re prone to procrastination and excuses, from “I can’t get to the gym” to “I thought that chocolate cake was low fat!” Well, now there are a wide variety of fitness applications that work on most handsets that’ll prevent you from getting away with that kind of denial.
Let’s start with Samsung’s fitness “Micoach” phone which gives you music tracks for different workouts, as well as letting you hook up your results to their website to monitor progress. It will even give you motivational phrases like “Speed up!” whilst you’re working out, though I think promising you chocolate might work better.
If that’s too much hassle, there are a variety of other phone apps you can try. As long as you have a compatible phone there a fitness tool for you – it’s not all limited to iPhone applications.
Let’s take a look at the Android phone – the T-Mobile G1. This platform has many, many options, and my favourites so far are “Calorie Counter” and “Buddy Trainer”. The former lets you record what you eat every day, update your weight and fitness goals, and even includes a barcode scanner so it can work out the calories of what you’ve eaten. The Buddy Trainer gives you support when you’re working out and has a variety of GPS maps to let you choose outdoor running trails.
BlackBerry handsets have some similar options, such as Sendo Calories which lets you calculate your daily calorie consumption with ease and Nokia’s phones feature the Sports Tracker app which gives you the time and distance of your workout and lets you upload your route and connect to other exercisers online. The iPhone has a zillion applications to choose from, from iFitness and Fitphone which both provide you with detailed exercises to target different muscles in the body.
Lastly, let’s talk about games. Which mobile OS has the best games? Well, ‘best’ is mostly in the eye of the beholder, but I can tell you straight off the bat which platform has the best choice – it’s the iPhone. The user-friendliness of the device, combined with its specs and the success of the app store, has meant that developers have flooded to the platform.
As a result, everything from SimCity to Quake and the wonderful and insane Katamari Damacy is available on the platform. It’s got great quality standards, too, unlike the vast majority of mobile phone games which are crappy clones of old titles that just feature the characters of the latest awful Dreamworks summer blockbuster.
But the iPhone doesn’t have the monopoly on good games. Android’s proving fertile, with some interesting strategy titles like Archipelago cropping up, alongside old favourites like Doom and Breakout. Windows Mobile isn’t bad either, though because it lacks a central app store, it can be hard to track down the games you want.
Symbian is represented by N-Gage which, although ahead of its time when it was released, is now aging poorly. There’s very few big titles, and those that exist are just uninspired continuations of existing games franchises like Need for Speed or FIFA. There’s little innovation.
Which leaves us with BlackBerry. RIM’s devices are built for email, not gaming, and they’re not very appealing to hackers. As a result, the BlackBerry games ecosystem is limited to basic puzzle games and arcade classics, but with the introduction of App world, a bunch of brain-training games have recently started appearing.
So, that’s a run-down of all the applications available on each device. All of them can be found by searching either the application store for the device – in the case of BlackBerry, the iPhone and the G1, or by searching Google in the case of Windows Mobile, Nokia and Sony Ericsson handsets.
The idea of wearing goggles to view TV, video games etc. isn’t new. But at the Gadget Show Live 2009 Vuzix showed a full range of affordable glasses, starting at just £149. The concept is simple. By transmitting a stereo image that appears right in front of your eyeballs, it’s possible to recreate the experience of watching a big screen from several feet away. But what are these space age glasses actually like? We tried three of the four latest models mainly on video content – for a review of the top of the range pair you can watch Duncan’s review here. Read on for the verdict.
Tech Digest and Shiny Shiny at Gadget Show Live