Friday, August 22, 2008

Back-to-School Technology Guide

Smaller, faster and less expensive are the trends in portable computers this year. Apple announced this past year the super-slim Macbook Air, and computer makers on the other side of the aisle were quick to match. Look for ultra-portable options from all the key players, including the HP 2133 Mini-Note...

HP 2133 Mini-Note PC -- "Honey?? I shrunk the laptop!" Once you get this (large) paperback-book sized notebook in your hand, you likely won't be able to set it down. Sporting an impressive 8.9" screen, I was especially drawn to the durability of this sub-notebook -- the thing just feels like it can be tossed in a backpack among the school books and gadgets. I will say, use caution when buying -- there are a few different models, the basic configuration comes with an Open Source Linux installation, if you're hoping for a Windows Vista-based machine, it's $100 more. Take a look for yourself here.

On the Apple side, there are two products worth mentioning. The first, my favoritate, is the super-slim Macbook Air. You've probably seen the launch commercials where it slides, no kidding, out of an envelope. It's eco-friendly and made from recycled parts. The keyboard is perfect for long hours of note-taking, and the brilliant display perfect for unwinding with a movie.

Both of these options are best as a second machine. While both are completely capable and run full versions of their respective Microsoft Office software (check with your school for academic pricing), you may consider taking a full-sized computer with large music-storing hard drive and standard keyboard for those all-nighter typing sessions.

Other must-haves?
Top-of-the-list: An external USB hard drive. Western Digital makes my favorites for around a hundred bucks. Cheap insurance against lost, stolen, or malfunctioning computers. Plug it into the campus computer lab and you're back up and running.

Finally, textbooks are an expensive part of any back-to-school budget. There's a great website that lets you rent the essentials, and it works a lot like Netflix. For more information on check 'em out online. They'll even let you keep the books if you decide you can't give it up at the end of the quarter!

Listen to this report, originally broadcast on KXL-AM Friday Aug 22: kxl_techexpert-backtoschool_20080822.mp3 (MP3)

Got questions? Feel free to drop me a line (techexpert (AT) brianwestbrook (DOT) com) and I'll do my best to steer you in the right direction! Happy studying! :-p

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gmail Outage: How to cope WHEN technology fails?

Outages happen.

Earlier this afternoon, the Twitter community was abuzz of cries that Google's popular email service, Gmail, was down. While this outage appeared system-wide and affected millions of users, some downtime can affect certain elements of a system with as few as a single user.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to pass along some basic troubleshooting tips. These, while certainly not exhaustive, may help you deal with future outages:
  • Plan -- The best thing you can do to prepare for any outage (power, email, computer malfunction) is to plan ahead. While this might seem incredibly obvious, think of the number of times you've fumbled around a dark, powerless, house looking for flashlight batteries? You probably promised yourself you'd put fresh batteries in an easy-to-find spot "just as soon as the lights come back on". (Did you?) In the case of technology we rely upon daily, planning ahead is just as critical. While some outages (this latest Gmail as an example) lasted just a few minutes, other outages may be days, weeks, longer. Think about each system you use daily and how you would live without it for minutes, hours, or days.
  • Backup -- While most free email systems are robust and unlikely to break (and if they do, will likely be back quickly), remember you "get what you pay for". Just like your hard drive, it's crucial to have some degree of redundancy. Now might be a great time to set up a backup email account (with a completely separate provider) in case your primary account goes down. Depending on how much you rely on your mobile provider, internet connection, or other online services -- a backup might be a good idea for these as well.
  • Diversify -- With many users switching to less-expensive telephone lines from Voice-over-IP providers like Vonage or services from internet providers like Comcast or Verizon, you may be putting all your eggs in one basket: If your connection to the Internet goes down, so too does your home phone service. Following the logic of backup, you'll probably be able to use your mobile phone should you lose internet connectivity at home. Some businesses may find having a few backup circuits from the telephone company worth the cost -- or even a backup internet connection for those accidental "fiber cuts" we dread. (Don't forget: telephone lines that run on internet connections will go out during a power outage if your cable/DSL modem and home networking gear do not have backup power from a UPS or standby generator!)
  • Diagnose -- I like to advise users to take a step back, thinking about a current problem or outage from an objective standpoint. Ask questions like: Does this work on another computer? Are my neighbours (or coworkers) having similar trouble? Did something change (new software installed, different internet connection, etc.) on my end? Did it work before? Think outside the box, you may be able to fix your own problem!
  • Report -- Tell someone about your experience. Report the facts, objectively as much as possible, and provide details. Helpful information: time, symptoms, duration, specific observations, troubleshooting you've tried. Less helpful information: frustration, anxiety, vague recollections, exaggerations, generalizations (Are you sure the ENTIRE Internet is down.... or perhaps just YOUR connection TO the Internet? ;-)).
  • Patience -- Now I understand there are mission-critical systems that absolutely cannot fail. I've supported these systems and understand that getting them back up and running is rarely an exercise in patience for management, users, and the pager-carrying IT guys tasked with fixing them... but for the rest of the world: email, blogs, web browsing, and certainly social networking sites -- can likely wait a few minutes. Take a break, catch up on your filing or offline projects, have an impromptu brainstorming session or just bang your head against the desk repeatedly. In many cases the system or service you "can't live without" will be back before you know it.
(I'm also a fan of bringing the IT Guys that get you back up and running home-baked treats... but that's entirely optional (and perhaps somewhat biased?) advice.)

Do you have any more outage-related advice? Horror stories? Feel free to post in the comments.

And hey, look at that... Gmail's back up and running (for me, anyway)! Yay!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Tech for Tots - Kid-Friendly Gadgets

Today on the show I shared about a number of devices made specifically for the young set...

Smart Kid’s Party Fun Pack / UFO Interactive Games for Nintendo DS

Tired of chasing Mario aimlessly around the racetrack? Bored of the never-ending quest to save humanity from evil-doers everywhere? Looking for a game suitable for boys, girls and their siblings? UFO Interactive Games offers a simple, kid-friendly and rewarding game pack featuring 36 casual and skill-based mini-games for Nintendo’s portable game system. Pre-order now on

flyPhone and glowPhone / Firefly
“Pay-as-you-go wireless for kids”
With fun and easy-to-use phones perfect for the youngster, the pair of options from Firefly starts with the basic glowPhone (pink or black) for $50 that makes and receives phone calls (go figure, right?) using a pre-programmed (and PIN-protected) address book – and sports built-in games and wallpapers. For twice the price parents can equip their grade-schoolers with text messaging and MP3 playback in the flyPhone.

Firefly Mobile flyPhone | Firefly Mobile glowPhone

Friday, August 1, 2008

Learn-Anything Site Adds Portland!

Ever wish you could learn something new?

(I'm a difficult person to teach -- I blame the ADD.)

With a simple premise, a new website hits Portland this weekend. After a successful launch in Seattle earlier this year, startup looks forward to revolutionizing how you learn about, connect with, and ultimately review area teachers.

Future students visiting the site are presented two search boxes. One for the subject matter you’d like to learn and another the city where you’d like to find instruction.

CEO Dave Schapell tells me they’ve combed the Internet, course offerings catalogs, and directories to catalog every available class they could find – putting it all online for the Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA communities – some 30,000 classes in all.

And teachers can get in on the action too. If you’ve got something to teach, or are good at – well, anything – you can list your services, prices, and class offerings online. (The site welcomes anything from 1:1 instruction services to more traditional classroom offerings.) Right now it’s free for teachers to list and students to search.

Now while I doubt anyone will have time to attend all 30,000 classes – it’s good to know the next time I need a Rumba refresher or a splash of Spanish – there are folks in my area ready to teach... even me.

Listen to this report, originally broadcast on KXL-AM Friday Aug 1: kxl_techexpert-teachstreetcom_20080801.mp3 (MP3)

Remember, the site launches this weekend, so if doesn’t find a class you’re looking for try searching in Seattle to get an idea of how the site works and check back... Dave promises it will be up-and-running by Monday.