Buying Tips Archive

Gift Idea – Laptop desk for use in bed

Product Listing – Officeworks Australia

J Burrows lap desk product image courtesy of Officeworks Australia

This J Burrows lap desk which can be used with your laptop computer is available through Officeworks Australia. Similar desks may be available through other office-supply or similar stores.

Reading Portable Laptop Table – Oak and Black (AUD$29)

My Comments

You may find that your local office-supply superstore chain offers a “bed desk” that allows you to use your laptop computer while you are in bed or on the couch. This is something worth having for someone who is ill or convalescing and has to stay in bed, or it could allow one to use that laptop on the couch while you are working or playing games. Some of these can even become a surface to rest a keyboard on or move a mouse around if you have your computer resting on the coffee table.

These accessories are very important when it comes to using a laptop or similar regular computer running a desktop operating system while you are in bed or on a couch. A situation I have witnessed for myself with a child using a laptop for playing games and lying on a bed was an increased risk of overheating while the computer is on a bed. This is because the blankets, doona (comforter or duvet) and quilt can easily stifle any ventilation that is designed in to the laptop.

J Burrows lap desk used with a laptop computer on a couch - product image courtesy of Officeworks Australia

These kind of desks can be used with your laptop and on a sofa

In the living room, these bed desks will earn their keep when you use them on the couch or armchair for eating, taking notes or using a portable computer. This is more important when you have no table space near the couch to place your laptop on while you aren’t using the computer. As well, you aren’t tempted to place your laptop computer on the couch where it is at risk of being sat on and damaged or overheating due to being nestled in or rested on scatter cushions.

This one which Officeworks Australia offers under their J Burrows private label, that I am highlighting has swing-out metal legs so it straddles over you or a typical seat space on a sofa and has a swing-up panel for if you wanted a desireable working angle. That is something that may come in handy for reading or if you use a tablet or a 2-in-1 in tablet mode.

Of course having it lie flat is important not just for use as a food-service tray but if you are using it with a laptop or or use a 2-in-1 convertible in the “viewer”, “tent” or “laptop” modes. This brings forth the flexibility that this particular bed table offers. The Officeworks design identified here has no flanges at the back that rise above the top of the desk thus allowing for the laptop computer to cool itself effectively.

It is also worth paying attention to other “bed desks” or tray tables which can sit on a bed or couch if you are wanting something that suits your needs better. Here, they could be found at homewares stores, office-supply stores or the second-hand market especially at op-shops (thrift stores) or jumble sales.

If you buy any of these on the second-hand market, make sure that the tables are still intact can collapse and expand properly and smoothly when they want to. Here, it may be a good idea to try them out at the store or sale before you part with them, including expanding them and placing something as heavy as a loaded food tray or a laptop on the tray to make sure they don’t collapse under weight.

The tray-table that straddles across a bed or couch can be considered viable as we use computer technology in an increasingly-portable manner.

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Desktop or laptop computing in the COVID-19 era

Gaming rig

Whether to buy a desktop computer like these gaming rigs…

Thanks to the COVID-19 plague, we are being encouraged if not required by law to stay at home to limit the spread of this disease.

This has led to us using regular desktop and laptop computers that run Windows, MacOS or desktop Linux at home more frequently for work, education, communications and pleasure. Think of those many Zoom or Skype videoconferences you have been making very lately. This may even cause some of us to purchase a new desktop or laptop computer or upgrade an existing one that is long in the tooth.

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

or a low-profile NUC computer like this Intel Skull Canyon…

The question that will come about more frequently in this era is whether we should buy desktop computers or laptop computers. The desktop computers are appearing in newer and different form factors like “all-in-one” computers where the computing power is part of the display; or three-piece systems that now use a low-profile system unit like the Intel “NUC” boxes. This is while the highly-portable laptop computers appear in the traditional “clamshell” form or a 2-in-1 convertible that folds over to become a tablet.

Lenovo IdeaCentre 510 all-in-one press picture courtesy of Lenovo

or something like the Lenovo IdeaCentre 510 all-in-one or Apple iMac …

There is also the fact that high-performance computers like gaming rigs or workstations are appearing in low-profile or “all-in-one” desktop form, or in laptop form. This is so you can think of having higher performance computing in an aesthetically-pleasing or portable form factor.

As far as a regular computer’s durability and longevity is concerned, it is becoming more plausible for these systems to last for many years compared to a smartphone or mobile-platform tablet. This is furthered by some people gaining more mileage from these computers by doing things like “upsizing” their computer’s RAM memory or storage to suit newer expectations. Or they end up using external or portable USB hard disks and SSDs or network-attached storage systems as a data-offload solution.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

or a laptop like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming high-performance laptop …

But the question that can come about is whether a desktop or a laptop is a more relevant computer purchase at this time.

It is more so as we see schools of thought develop concerning the purchase of portable computing technology like laptop computers, smartphones and tablets. Here, some of these schools of thought may downplay the need to invest heavily in such technology because it is perceived as “something to impress others with” when out and about in a similar vein to cars, bikes or fashion. This is with us spending more time cocooned within our homes thanks to this virus therefore driving a preference for us to lead a simple contemplative homespun life.

Desktop Computers

A desktop computer may be seen as being more relevant in the short term due to us not moving around. It may be more real where there is the expectation to use only one particular workspace for your computing activities and may be augmented by the fact that you use other complementary devices like mobile-platform tablets or gaming consoles for different activities away from the workspace.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

.. or a 2-in-1 like this Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible

Some users who chase high performance at all costs may simply state that a desktop computer, preferably the traditional “tower-style” unit, is the way to go. It is due to a desktop form-factor offering increased performance at a cheaper cost or being easily upgradeable or customisable. This would be preferred by the core gamers who value their custom-built gaming rigs. As well, those of us who are willing to throw down money on the latest CPU and graphics-infrastructure silicon as soon as Intel, AMD or NVIDIA release it would go for the traditional easy-to-upgrade desktop computer.

Laptop and Notebook Computers

Or a laptop or notebook computer, including a 2-in-1 convertible, can be about a long-term view of us coming out of the crisis and being able to get out and about. Here it may be about travelling again or working away from home whether that be your workplace’s office or a “secondary office” that is your favourite cafe.

In the short term, it can also be about the idea of using a highly-portable computer that can be taken around the house or stored away quickly when not in use. This can be driven by seasonal wishes like wanting to use your computer by the fire during winter or outside on the balcony or in the garden during summer.

Let’s not forget that a small home may be about not having a dedicated desk for your workspace and you have to use a dining table or coffee table for that purpose. Similarly you may use a desk types that can be closed up when not in use like a roll-top or slant-top desk or has significant storage space and you could store your laptop computer there.

Or you could take that laptop in to a lounge area to have that casual videoconference between family and friends using something like Zoom or Skype, perhaps hooking it up to the large TV for that purpose.

The transportability issue weighs more in the laptop’s favour because you carrywith the screen, keyboard and pointing device. one piece of equipment that is essentially your useable computer system

A recent trend that has affected laptop-computer use is to create a primary workspace that is equipped with a large display, a full-size keyboard and mouse along with other peripherals. These would be connected to your laptop whether directly or through a USB-connected dock (expansion module). You may follow this path when you want to work in a particular primary location but be flexible to move around for your regular-computing needs.

Conclusion

When it comes to choosing that next regular computer during this time, it is important to think of what form-factor really suits your needs both in the short term and the long term. This includes whether you see the possibility of frequently evolving your computer system to suit newer needs or whether you value portability or affordable performance.

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Keeping online video going with an older TV

Cable TV in the man-cave

Older TVs may end up in a secondary lounge area or bedroom

There is a very strong reality as far as the modern television set is concerned. It is that they last for more than 10 years thanks to electronic design that is about long-term reliability. This is bolstered by technical standards relating to broadcast TV or device interconnectivity that stay the same for the long haul.

Increasingly, as we buy a better or larger TV for the main lounge area where we watch most of our content, the older set that this new set will replace ends up in a secondary lounge area, a bedroom or even a secondary residence. In some cases, the older set will end up in the hands of a family member or friend who doesn’t have a TV or has one that is on the way out.

It is the same practice that happens with the refrigerator where an older fridge serves as an overflow-storage fridge whenever one buys a newer better fridge for their kitchen.

Online video via your home network

But it is underscored by a problem that will get worse with the rise of online video. Increasingly, manufacturers who don’t understand this reality are abandoning their older sets as they evolve their smart-TV platforms. This leads to smart TVs based on the older software not being supported by content providers when they launch front-end software for their new online video services. Or the set works with a limited, buggy operating system and applications which can impact your enjoyment of online video.

Let’s not forget that there are the TVs that don’t have any smart-TV functionality. Typically they will have, at best, network connectivity to work with a DLNA-based media player so you can see images or video you have on a NAS on these sets.

Here, you may have to rely on set-top devices to keep your older TV working in an optimum manner with the latest online video services. In this situation, it is easier to replace the set-top device if its manufacturer abandons the device’s software or the content providers abandon the set-top device’s platform.

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

The Apple TV set-top box – an example of a popular online-media platform

At the moment, there are a few set-top platforms that are worth using for this purpose. The tvOS-based Apple TV; Android-based boxes running the Android TV operating system; Chromecast and Roku platforms still maintain support for older devices. The XBox One and PlayStation 4 games consoles also benefit from continual software upgrades as well as having apps for popular online-video services. Let’s not forget that you may find that some of the “décodeurs” offered as part of the multiple-play “n-box” setups by the French telcos like the Freebox Révolution may qualify in this regard.

Telstra TV media player (provisional design) press picture courtesy of Telstra

A Roku set-top box that is continually updated can also serve this need

You will also find that Apple TV and Chromecast are still alive with the AirPlay and Chromecast mobile-to-set-top streaming protocols. This will mean that most content services can be streamed from your iOS or Android mobile device to the set-top device. You may also find that Android TV will also support Chromecast streaming.

Other considerations

HDMI connection on video peripheral

HDMI connections – a preferred output on video peripherals

Your TV will have to, at least, support HDMI connectivity in order to work with these set-top devices. This is because most of these devices will have HDMI as their only AV connectivity option.

But you may find that the TV in question may provide only one HDMI input. This is more so with cheaper sets like house-brand specials offered by discount stores. In this case, you may end up having to use an HDMI switcher if you need to run multiple set-top boxes or other devices with these sets. Some audio devices like home-theatre-in-box units or AV receivers may answer this functionality need through the provision of extra HDMI inputs.

If your TV supports HDMI-CEC under its many names like Anynet+, Simplink, Bravia Sync or Viera Link, some of the set-top boxes like the tvOS-based Apple TV or the Chromecast will take advantage of this functionality. This will be in the form of the TV coming on and selecting the input the set-top device is connected to when you use its remote or, in the case of the Chromecast or Apple TV, you start streaming to that device from your smartphone. You may also find that you can control the set-top device with your TV’s remote so you don’t always have to rely on the set-top device’s remote.

HDMI-ARC is also relevant in relation to your older TV especially if you intend to use a soundbar, home-theatre-in-box system or AV receiver with it to improve its sound. This allows you to hear the sound from the set’s own broadcast tuner, network functionality or video devices connected directed to the set’s HDMI inputs via that audio device. If the older TV doesn’t have this connection but you want to use an external audio device, you may have to connect that device to the set’s digital audio output.

As far as traditional broadcast TV is concerned, you may find that your old TV will support the current digital-TV standard that is in place in your country. This is true if the digital-TV standard hadn’t changed since your country switched over to digital TV. But if your country is yet to switch to digital TV, you can plug in a set-top box when that day comes. Similarly, if your country has started to implement a newer digital-TV standard like DVB-T2 or ATSC 3.0, you would need to use a set-top box to gain access to broadcasts based on these standards. This extends to implementing interactive-TV platforms like HBBTV or the interactive provisions that ATSC 3.0 offers.

What manufacturers need to do

TV manufacturers need to understand the reality that the sets they make will be serving us for a very long time even if they try to force planned obsolescence on their products.

Here, if they offer a smart-TV product, they have to provide continual software support for at least 5 years, if not more. This may also have to be about at least providing software updates that answer data-security, software-quality and newer industry-standards needs.

As well, the manufacturers would need to maintain their products to commonly-accepted standards for broadcast reception and device / network interconnection. This is more so as a TV set ends up relying on external devices in order to stay up-to-date.

Conclusion

In order to keep your older TV set that you have pushed down to that secondary lounge area or bedroom, or have inherited from someone else going, you will need to consider the use of extra devices. This is more so if you want to keep it using the online services reliably.

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USB-C displays are coming in droves–what should you look for?

Article

Dell S2718D 27" slimline monitor press image courtesy of Dell

Dell’s slimline 27″ monitor with its electronics in its base is an example of a USB-C monitor

Best USB-C Monitors for PC in 2019 | Windows Central

My Comments

An increasing number of standalone display monitors are becoming equipped with the USB-C connection as a path for connecting your computer to them.

This connection works uses the DisplayPort alt path offered by the connection standard for video transfer from the host computer as a minimum feature. This is part of the USB-C standard that allows different host-peripheral connection paths like DisplayPort to be run via the same physical cable along with the USB-based host-peripheral data transfer. But most of these monitors will support being a power source compliant to the USB Power Delivery device class so they can provide power to and charge a laptop that is connected to them as a host. Better implementations of this standard will even support being their own powered USB 3.x hub and have two or three traditional USB 3.0 ports.

These USB-C plugs are now another connection path for linking your computer to a display monitor

There will be at least some HDMI or standard DisplayPort input connections for legacy setups such as desktop or laptop computers that don’t come with USB Type-C connections. But you can exploit the hub functionality in those monitors that implement it if you use a USB cable that has a Type C connector on one end and a traditional Type A connector on the other end.

If the monitor has any sort of audio functionality, this will be facilitated through the DisplayPort or HDMI connections. In the case of the USB-C setup, the sound will be transferred using the DisplayPort alt ability that this connection provides. Most of the monitors with this function will have a 3.5mm stereo audio-output jack that can work to headphone or line-out specifications and may have integral speakers.

You will need to have your computer use the “display audio” driver rather than its audio chipset to use the monitor’s audio abilities via the USB-C, DisplayPort or HDMI connections. As well, don’t expect much in sound quality from the integral speakers and it may be a better idea to use a set of good active speakers or your favourite stereo setup for the sound.

Like with monitors that don’t come with the USB-C connection, buying a USB-C monitor will be more of a “horses for courses” approach. Here you will come across 4K UHDTV screens with wide colour gamut and HDR support which will come in handy if you engage in photo or video editing. This is while there will be monitors optimised to work with the latest high-performance discrete display subsystems for those of us who like playing the latest high-end games.

Another question that will come up if your computer has a Thunderbolt 3 output is how these screens will fit in with external graphics modules that you may use. Most of these modules will require you to connect their video output to the monitor’s HDMI or DisplayPort connections as if you are connecting a legacy host computer but some may use a secondary Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connection to allow you to connect your USB-C monitor with its video coming from the module’s graphics infrastructure.

Use Cases

One main use case would be for those of us who have a laptop-based working environment. Here, you would use a USB-C monitor with integrated hub functionality and connect your wired peripherals to the monitor while your laptop is connected to your monitor using one cable. You then end up dealing with just one cable when you bring your computer to or remove it from that workspace.

Another main use case is if you are dealing with a “next unit of computing” midget computer or other small-form-factor computer that implements this connection type. Where manufacturers see the USB-C connection type as a way to reduce the computer’s size, these monitors can earn their keep as a preferred display type for these systems.

Do I need to replace my existing monitor for one with a USB-C connection

At the moment, you don’t need to replace your existing monitor with one that has a USB-C connection if your existing monitor serves your needs well. This is more important for those of us who have existing computer equipment that isn’t equipped with this connection or aren’t buying equipment that will have this connection.

But if you are replacing an existing monitor with something that better suits your needs or adding one to a multiple-display setup, this connection type can be a valid feature to be aware of when comparing the feature lists of each candidate unit. Here, it will be about having one that is future-proof especially when you use computer equipment that has this connection type.

What to look for

Make sure the monitor you are after has the display size, aspect ration and other abilities that suit your key usage scenario. For example, gamers should look for monitors that work tightly with their preferred high-performance graphics cards.

Look for a USB-C monitor that has a USB hub with plenty of USB 3.0 downstream connections. Another USB-C downstream connection can be an asset worth considering. But at least one of the USB sockets must be easily discoverable and accessible from your operating position.

The USB-C monitor should have be able to work as a power source compliant to the USB Power Delivery specification with an output of 45 watts or more. This will mean that you don’t need to use your laptop computer’s battery charger to run your laptop at home or work.

Audio-equipped USB-C monitors must have an external line-level or headphone audio output so you can use them with your favourite audio devices.

If the monitor has an integrated Webcam, it may be an asset for your privacy to have a user-operated shutter across the camera lens or the Webcam to be of a “pop-up” design that is concealed when not in use.

Conclusion

Over this year, the appearance of display monitors with a USB-C connection will become more common as the number of laptop and small-profile computers kitted out with this or the Thunderbolt 3 connection increases.

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Should I buy a laptop with integral mobile-broadband modem?

Article

Snapdragon smartphone electronics in 2-in-1 laptop press picture courtesy of Qualcomn

Is it worth it to consider integrated mobile-broadband modems in your next laptop purchase

Why you might (and might not) want a PC with LTE | Windows Central

My Comments

A trend that will be affecting portable computers will be the rise of laptops and notebooks that are equipped with an integrated mobile-broadband modem.

Previously this was a feature associated with premium business-grade laptops as an extra-cost option, but this is being encouraged as a product differentiator for a larger range of portable computers targeted at consumers and small businesses. The key feature callout will be that the computer is equipped with LTE connectivity and this feature has been brought along thanks to Windows 10 and the “Always Connected PC” vision.

Initially such computers will authenticate to the mobile network with a standard SIM card installed in a reader somewhere on the computer’s chassis. But newer designs will move towards an eSIM module integrated in the computer which provides for “over-the-air” provisioning by the telco or their agent.

Why this trend?

"Mi-Fi" portable wireless router

No need to use a Mi-Fi to obtain Internet on the road with your laptop if you have an integrated mobile-broadband modem but some situations may be better served with these devices

There is the feasibility of a secure connection anywhere within reach of mobile networks. It is something you may not benefit from when using a lot of legacy-configured public-access Wi-Fi networks.

As well, you avoid the need to set up Wi-Fi or USB tethering on your smartphone or tablet, or to use a “Mi-Fi” mobile-broadband router. Similarly, you shouldn’t need to worry about draining your battery in your “Mi-Fi” router or smartphone to keep the connection alive.

You also benefit from a faster link between the modem and the computer which is important for setups implementing LTE, because a lot of USB mobile-broadband modems don’t implement the newer variants of the USB standard. There is also the fact that an integral mobile-broadband modem design allows for a larger mobile-broadband antenna to be integrated in the laptop computer, rather than having to design a small mobile-broadband antenna to keep a relatively-compact product design for that “Mi-Fi”, USB modem stick or smartphone.

The laptop’s battery shouldn’t be affected in this case thanks to Windows 10 implementing “data-saver” and battery-management logic. There is also the fact that Windows 10 will implement a class driver and authentication software within the operating system’s code so you don’t need to run any extra software to get on board with mobile broadband.

There are some disadvantages with this approach

One of these is that the host computer may be fixed with the “current” technology and may not be able to take advantages of newer technologies or wavebands that the telco you subscribe to offers.

This can be an issue with the pending 5G mobile-broadband standards or Australian telcos like Telstra exploiting lower wavebands in the mobile spectrum with the goal to assure greater coverage in Australia’s larger rural areas but yield high data throughput. But if the mobile-broadband modem operates on a “software-defined” approach where it can work with extra subsequently-available firmware that can adapt to these situations, it may not be an issue.

Old caravan outside a house

They may not work optimumly in one of these metal-clad caravans

Another factor is the integrated-modem approach may not work properly in some usage scenarios where you have a strong signal in certain areas but a weak signal in other areas. This can be of concern for those of us who want to use our computing equipment in a post-1950s caravan or a campervan / motorhome with the vehicle’s housing being predominantly metal which can reduce radio throughput.

In these situations, you may have to use a USB modem on a long USB cable run or use a “Mi-Fi” router with some situations calling for the “two-piece” approach put forward by Solwise.

Another situation you may need to think of is whether you are intending to use multiple mobile devices on the road with the one mobile-hroadband service. Here, you may find that a “Mi-Fi” router set up as the hub of a mobile local-area network may be a better answer to your needs. This is more so if you are running many devices like mobile NAS units, Wi-Fi-capable mobile printers or Wi-Fi-capable digital cameras along with tablets that may not be equipped with mobile broadband.

Of course you will need to use a pre-paid or post-paid mobile broadband service that is provisioned in a manner compatible with your computer. In these cases, such services would be offered as a “SIM-only” or “existing-device” package where you aren’t buying a device under any form of subsidy.

Telcos can easily answer this through the provision of starter prepaid plans offered as part of the package when you buy your computer or by allowing the Windows Store that is part of Windows 10 to work as their agent. Of course you can front up to their bricks-and-mortar outlet to buy a “SIM-only” or “existing-device” prepaid plan for your computer.

On the other hand, most of the telcos will allow you to annex your new integrated modem to your post-paid mobile plan. This will be an important approach for those telcos who are offering a “shared-data” or “family” plan or underscore value for money with these plans.

What to look for

SIM card

Make sure that the SIM card fits your mobile-broadband-equipped laptop or that your service provider supports an eSIM for suitably-equipped laptops

You may have to be sure that your mobile-broadband-equipped laptop is able to connect with the mobile-broadband service that you want to use. Firstly you will have to pay attention to whatever SIM type your computer uses for authentication to the service that you choose.  That will be the kind of information you will have to supply to your mobile-broadband carrier when you are buying mobile-broadband service, or wish to buy other mobile-broadband devices which are “SIM-compatible” with your laptop with a view to moving our service amongst these devices.

As well, you would need to make sure your laptop does work “across the board” with all of the mobile-broadband services that you intend to yous. For example, if you wish to use a service like Telstra that prides itself on extensive coverage in rural areas, you may need to be sure that the mobile broadband modem can cover the lower ends of the spectrum used by this carrier. Another example would be to use it in a range of countries which work on different mobile-broadband frequencies.

People who run a post-paid mobile account should look towards being able to annex the data service used by the laptop’s integrated modem with their account. This can assure them of “many eggs in one basket” with the advantages such as paying through one bill and benefiting from deals that exploit this fact. As well, some providers may operate a deal with multiple SIMs for one number and underscore this for eSIM setups.

Conclusion

Here, it depends on your needs whether paying the extra expense for a laptop configuration with an integral mobile-broadband modem is worth it for you.

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Buying that piece of computer hardware or software? Shop around

Most of us can easily prefer to buy a piece of computer hardware or software but may not be aware of bargains that may be of interest.

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro convertible notebook at Rydges Hotel Melbourne

Spend a bit of time researching the equipment or software to obtain the best deal you can

In some cases, you may think that buying online is the only path to a bargain. But the bricks-and-mortar path may yield some possible bargains. For example, a friend told me how they were able to purchase a desktop-security package from an electrical retailer and were able to score a USB hard disk as part of the package. This may be because the “bricks-and-mortar” shops along with the distributors are wanting to keep people interested in purchasing packaged goods rather than a download-only deal for computer software.

Here, you may find that a game may offer multiple extras that may cost more if you buy it and the extras separately. Similarly, a piece of software may be sold as a multiple-user package and these packages may yield better value for money when you end up adding two or more computers in to the equation.

What if it breaks down?

New desktop comptuer at church

Research and bargaining has paid off in obtaining a good deal on this computer

When you are buying computer hardware, consumer electronics or similar goods, you will need to think of what kind of support do you get if the item breaks down. Here, you would need to pay attention to the warranty offered and where you can drop the goods off for repair. A multiple-year warranty is considered essential for most computer goods and consumer electronics. Similarly, you may have to be sure about being able to know where there is a service agent within reasonable transport distance from where you live or whether you can simply drop the system off at the retailer that you bought it from to seek any repairs.

You may have to present competitive offers for equipment or software of the same standard in order to have the retailers respond with better offers. This is a practice that has worked when I helped a church with getting the right deal for a computer. I had determined a minimum standard for a future-proof computer and specified a few different systems matching that standard and two other men shopped around and received better offers for a system of that standard including a system that was specified with a solid-state drive.

Another advantage of buying within your own country is that you are protected by your country’s consumer-protection laws a.k.a. “lemon laws”. Here, you have the weight of these laws behind you if you find that the goods are not up to standard. For example, there were a few times where I had suggested to people who had hard disks, DVD burners and other parts fail in their relatively-new computers to have these parts replaced at no cost to them.

The trick here is to be able to shop around through both the online and “bricks-and-mortar” channels, including independent dealers, so you can track down the best value hardware or software deals.

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Christmas Gift idea for pennies’ worth–A book stand

Christmas wreathThis is part of a series of gift ideas that you can either make if you have good woodworking and joinery skills or buy for pennies’ worth from  a wide range of locations.

A gift that transcends time and needs is the book stand.

Initially they were used to support heavy books that used delicate bindings but they have ended up as a way to angle books so they can be referred to quickly and easily. Similarly, there was the music stand which allows musicians or conductors to easily play from handwritten music manuscript or printed music.

Some of the book stands use a retaining device so one doesn’t have to contend with pages flipping up when you don’t want them to. These range from a recess which the book sinks into to a swing-up piece that you angle up to rest against the page.

Cookbook stand - image credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/37179882@N07/3746035708">Prop Cookbook Stand With Packaging</a> via <a href="http://www.imageslike.com">free images</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Cookbook stand – handy for tablet computers

The bench-top book stand is still sold in many homewares shops and similar locations as a cookbook stand so that a recipe book can be kept open as something to refer to when you are cooking from it. Even our Swedish friends at IKEA sell them with theirs being referred to as a “tablet stand”. This is while the freestanding varieties are sold as lecterns or music stands in music stores for musicians.

But these book stands still earn their keep with tablets and “2-in-1” computers, especially 11” devices. For example, you could use a cookbook stand for your iPad. Here, you could have it at that convenient angle for following a recipe that you are working from in the kitchen, viewing an online video, or keeping an eye on statistics like sports scores. If you are composing or arranging music using notation software on that 2-in-1, this can work well with the computer on that music stand.

Those bookstands that are very sturdy and have stronger hinges can earn their keep as a laptop stand, especially for ultraportable laptops when you use them with a full-sized monitor and keyboard while working at home or the office.

What you have to look for is something that is sturdy and can handle most tablets or 2-in-1s without it breaking. If you are buying that book stand from a thrift store (op shop), jumble sale, yard sale or similar location, you may have to look over it carefully for anything that is about to break easily or has broken like the hinges, the frame or backing.

This may not be of worry to you for those of you who know your way around the workshop and can fix anything. Here, you could reinforce a weakly-built cookbook stand like the one you picked up from the car-boot sale, or replace hinges and other hardware that has broken or renew some of the woodwork in that old wooden book stand.

Those cookbook stands or music stands still earn their keep with today’s portable computing equipment.

Cookbook stand – image credit: Prop Cookbook Stand With Packaging via free images (license)

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Should I buy a secondary printer for my home network?

Brother MFC-J4710DW sideways-print multifunction inkjet printer

Brother MFC-J4710DW – an example of a printer you would use as your main printer

Your existing printer or multifunction unit may be working satisfactorily for you at the moment but you may find that you or your household may benefit from a secondary printer that is connected to your home network.

Typically this may be brought about by you buying a printer with more functionality than the one you already own and you “pushing” down the existing printer to serve as a secondary machine like you would with the existing refrigerator or colour television set. In some cases, it is more attractive to do this with mid-tier consumer units or any of the business units where you spend more on the equipment rather than those units that cost as much as you paid for the machine to replace their ink or toner cartridges.

Of course, the idea of networking a printer would be to avoid the need to buy a printer for each computer at home but a different trend has risen. Increasingly, most printer manufacturers are implementing a “mobile-printing” strategy to allow you to print from a smartphone or tablet. This can be done through Apple AirPrint for iOS devices, Google CloudPrint for some Android devices or a manufacturer-provided app.

Similarly, most printer manufacturers are selling equipment on a “horses-for-courses” approach where different printers in their consumer and small-business product ranges suit different tasks.

What applications may cause you to think of a secondary printer?

There are two main applications where a secondary printer on your home network may be handy

A machine more locally placed

HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one printer

HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one inkjet printer – suitable for use as a secondary printer

Most likely, you will have the printer kept in your home office or study where you do a lot of the computing. But, as you use AirPrint or similar features that enable printing from your tablet or smartphone, you may be wanting to order print jobs from other rooms in the house like the kitchen. Similarly, most of the recent crop of printers have a “print-from-Web” function to obtain hard copy from Web services like Dropbox or Facebook.

The idea behind this setup is that when your computer device asks you which printer to send the job to, you determine the machine that is local to you for that job. Here, you have the advantage of being ready to collect the job immediately rather than it piling up on the desk. You also have the assurance of hearing whether the machine has started to turn out your job or not so you are not worried about sending it to the wrong unit or mis-specifying that job.

This situation may be more real for those of you who live in a larger house or a multi-storey / split-level house and have the home office up the front or downstairs but have a significant activity area on the other side of the house or upstairs like the kitchen and family room that is located down the back of the house. Similarly, those of you who have a multi-building home network covering the garage,barn or bungalow alongside the main house may also find this situation applying to you. Here, you could keep a lesser-capable printer or multifunction in the bungalow while having another unit like a better model kept in the main house.

Brother DCP-J552DW multifunction printer

Another printer that can serve as a secondary unit

Here, you could keep a light-duty network-capable multifunction printer like the Brother DCP-J552DW, the Brother DCP-J562DW or HP Envy 120 in the kitchen or family room. This could allow you to do on-the-spot printing and copying in that area. A mid-tier consumer inkjet, low-tier business inkjet or a low-tier business laser / LED machine may work well for a study.

Some families may use this as a way to work towards providing their adolescent or adult child with a printer for when they “grow their wings and leave the family nest”. Here, the adolescent or adult child could be responsible for buying the consumables for that machine and then take it with them when they move onwards.

The ability to have complementary functionality

You could have the best of both printing types for your home office if you have both a laser and an inkjet printer. Here, you could benefit from the flexibility that this offers when it comes to choosing and using stationery for your printing requirements. An example of this could be to not worry about purchasing laser labels or inkjet labels for your envelopes because you can use the appropriate machine for the labels you have on hand.

Some users may benefit from a monochrome laser or LED unit for their routine document-printing needs while a colour inkjet can come in handy when occasional colour printing is required. Similarly, a photo-grade inkjet machine like a high-end HP Photosmart or OfficeJet or high-end Epson could serve your photographic or brochure-printing needs while a machine not so good with “presentation printing” or “photo-grade printing” can do the normal office printing work. This is more so as presentation-grade glossy or silk-look paper is more readily available at local office-supply stores for inkjet printers than it is for laser printers.

Brother HL-6180DW monochrome network laser printer

One of those mono laser printers you would see as a document-printing workhorse

Another example would be is having machines that handle different paper sizes such as A4 and A3. You could use an A3-capable printer or MFC for your large-sheet printing requirements while you maintain an A4-capable machine like most business lasers for most printing needs.

What must you consider?

A common issue associated with very-low-end printers when it comes to keeping them going is that the cost of purchasing replacement consumables is equivalent to that of purchasing a similar-standard printer. As well, a lot of these machines may not last for a long time nor would they be able to yield a significant number of pages.

I would also be careful of the two-cartridge colour inkjet printers because if one colour runs out, you would have to replace the colour cartridge. These can only work well for occasional work but I wouldn’t expect to run them hard for constant work.

On the other hand, I would pay attention to brands that use the same type of consumables across a large part of their product range. This is represented with Hewlett-Packard implementing the 564 series of ink cartridges across most of their Photosmart product range since 2009 and Brother using the LC-133 cartridges across all of their current-issue inkjet machines.

The latter example was underscored with the Brother DCP-J552DW multifunction printer which is a light-duty home machine and the Brother MFC-J6720DW A3 multifunction printer which is a heavy-duty SOHO unit using these cartridges – you don’t have to think of buying two different cartridge types for the different printers..

Conclusion

You can run one or more additional printers on your home network still as communal printers. But these can earn their keep either as a machine that is local to a point of activity and/or to provide functionality that is complementary to other printers that you own.

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Why it is important to think of value when buying equipment

A small church that runs on a hairline budget

A small church that runs on a hairline budget

A situation that comes across any small organisation, including non-profit organisations, is the need to purchase capital equipment such as computer equipment. This happens typically at the start of the organisation’s life, when the organisation is embarking on a newer effort or as the time comes to replace older tired equipment.

There is a great risk of buying the cheapest equipment around and finding that the equipment may not do the job adequately through its service life. In a lot of situations, you may find that the equipment won’t satisfy newer requirements like newer connectivity types or newer versions of the same software. The worst case is when you deal with equipment that fails too early thus requiring you to consider replacing it with newer equipment too soon.

Economy data projector with VGA input sockets

A typical low-end data projector used by a small church – only has VGA for advanced video connections and uses 4:3 as native aspect ratio

Just lately, I had moved to a newer church congregation and the pastor asked me for assistance regarding specifying a newer computer to replace the existing unit that was being used to show song lyrics and other video material during services. This happened quite a few months after another church pastor whom I know very well approached me for assistance to confirm he was on the right track when purchasing a colour LED printer. He also approached me again regarding the purchase of a newer projector for the church because the existing projector was at the end of its useful life.

I have previously covered this issue in a few articles about the availability of hardware and software that answers these organisations’ needs at a price they can afford as well as being easy to operate. One of these was about low-end data projectors that didn’t come with HDMI connectivity even though most current-issue video peripherals implement this connectivity while another was about the availability of AV playout software that answers the needs of these organisations at a price they can afford.

It is so tempting for organisations that run on hairline budgets like both these congregations to buy just on the cheapest price without factoring in the right specifications for the equipment or the equipment’s durability. This leads you to buying equipment that falls short of your current or future usage requirements or, at worst, purchasing equipment that won’t last for the long haul.

Determining the specification

Sony VAIO Fit 15e on dining table

Choosing the right equipment at the right price can yield benefits over the long haul

Firstly, you have to determine what kind of equipment should be used for your task. Here, you identify the task you are putting the equipment to and skew the specifications accordingly. For example, a computer doing video-based tasks like video playout or video editing should work with a discrete display subsystem so it performs properly at these tasks.

As well, you place weight on specifications and standards that promote flexibility and avoid rapid obsolescence. These include use of hardware and software interfaces that are accepted for the product’s type. For example, I place weight on HDMI connectivity for display projectors so that they can be used not just with computers but with any video peripheral that is on the market nowadays,

This is also the time you approach others in your community who are knowledgeable about the kind of equipment you are after and ask them for their advice. It is preferable to approach those who aren’t in the position of selling the equipment themselves but who may be involved in a support, media or advisory role such as company IT staff. This is because they aren’t under pressure to sell particular equipment.

In both cases, I looked for and specified up-to-date equipment that is to serve their needs properly for a long time so that the equipment is cheaper to run over the long haul. The factors that I thought of as being important was the ability to work not just with existing equipment but with newer equipment and to newer specifications. For example, in my congregation, I pushed for the computer to have HDMI connectivity and a graphics subsystem that can work at 1080p resolution. This is due to the fact that newer projectors offered at price ranges affordable to small businesses and community organisations will support these standards by the time the existing projector is due to be replaced.

A bit of homework now can save you money and sustain you for the future

Obtaining multiple quotes

Working from the same minimum specification that you have determined for your equipment, you then also identify a budget that you can afford but allows you to obtain reasonable-standard equipment. Then you go about obtaining price quotes from different vendors.

I obtained two quotes for the equipment with the same specification and passed the cheapest one of these on to my pastor who also obtained another quote for similarly-specified equipment. The idea behind having the many quotes allows for him to “haggle over” the right deal which is focused on value when it comes to purchasing the right equipment. You may also find that the just-superseded model that is being offered for clearance may become the option to go for as a way of saving money. This will typically happen as newer models are just being launched and the shopkeepers have to get rid of the older-model inventory to make way for the new models.

Sony MDS-JE520 MiniDisc deck working as an audio playout deck for a church

Sony MDS-JE520 MiniDisc deck working as an audio playout deck for a church

In some cases, you may find that particular vendors are consistently offering the right level of functionality and reliability for the right price. This may apply all across their product range or to a particular model in their product range and its successor models. Two examples that come to mind for me are the Sony MDS-JE520 MiniDisc deck and the Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc player. Both of these units had the right functionality for their tasks with the MiniDisc deck being a reliable affordably-priced well-built unit having a comprehensive display and “auto-pause” which increased its appeal as an audio playout deck for churches, drama groups, community radio and the like; and the Blu-Ray player having full DLNA and Internet video functionality along with reliable Blu-Ray playback at an affordable price.

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc Player

Sony BDP-S390 Network Blu-Ray Player – a Blu-Ray player that adds DLNA to an existing TV

It is infact a better practice to spend more time going about the process of purchasing the equipment than responding immediately to the first cheap offer you come across. Firstly, you are able to determine the specification that suits your needs, including the ability to call a minimum specification that you won’t go below. Here, once you have determined the specification, then you obtain different and competitive quotes for equipment of that specification.

As well, this kind of specification and purchasing encourages suppliers to answer the call by these organisations to supply equipment and software that fits these needs at a price they can afford. For that matter, if you have questions about purchasing the right equipment for your needs, please don’t hesitate to contact me by using the Contact Form on this site.

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Gift List–Mother’s Day

Sometimes you may be stuck for technological gifts to give Mum on her special day. Here, I have assembled a list of ideas to get you going, especially when it comes to high-value gifts where you can pool resources together to fund these gifts rather than buying many low-value gifts.

Tablets

Small size for the purse

Toshiba Thrive AT1S0 7" tablet

Toshiba AT1S0 7″ Android tablet

The small 7” tablet computers come in to their own if the main goal is to have it on hand in your coat pocket. They can also fit comfortably even it to mid-sized handbags to use as an electronic notebook or electronic reference book.

To keep in the handbag, at home or the office

Toshiba AT300 10" Android tabletA 10” tablet may come in to its own if the main goal is to read or view online content while relaxing in that armchair or in bed. Similarly, they could come in to their own with a larger handbag or shoulder bag.

No tablet computer is complete without a matching accessory cover or wrap that suits Mum’s taste. If she owns a tablet computer, you may offer her a newer cover or wrap, perhaps to replace that tired old one that she has on that tablet.

Computers

Small ultraportables

HP Envy X2 detachable-screen hybrid tablet-notebook computer

HP Envy X2 detachable-screen hybrid tablet-notebook computer

Small ultraportable computers that range from 11” to 14” can earn their keep for “on-the-go” computing tasks. This is more so if Mum wants to create a lot of content like typing up many email letters, writing memoirs or simply working a blog.

Larger laptops

Toshiba Satellite P870 desktop-replacement laptopOn the other hand, a standard-size laptop or “desktop tablet” computer may come in handy if the goal is a computer that is mainly used at home and the desire is to store it away neatly when not in use.

All-in-one

The “all-in-one” desktop computer, with the computing power, screen and storage in one slender box, can become an alternative computer option if you want an elegant desktop computer. They are also becoming increasingly capable rather than glorified “kitchen kiosks”.

Printers

HP Photosmart 7510 multifunction inkjet printer

HP Photosmart 7510 multifunction inkjet printer – predecessor to the Photosmart 7520

As for printers, it may be worth looking towards a durable network printer that is cost-effective to run. Be careful of the printers that are cheap to buy because these units will be expensive to run due to short-capacity inks and toners, with situations where the cost of replacing ink or toner is as much as buying a printer of the same standard.

HP Photosmart 6520 or Photosmart 7520 desktop printers

HP Envy 120 – a neat aesthetically-pleasing printer for low-demand applications such as being a secondary printer

Brother MFC-J825DW or DCP-J725DW / DCP-J925DW

Small music system

1-piece including speaker docks and wireless speakers

Marantz Audio Consolette speaker dock (Photo courtesy of Marantz / Gap Marketing)

Marantz Audio Consolette speaker dock

These single-piece systems, including speaker docks and wireless speaker systems, typically have a small footprint and can fit well on the kitchen bench or on the sideboard. Some of these may offer a “full” sound that encompasses te bass notes and the treble notes properly.

3-piece

Sony CMT-MX750Ni Internet-enabled micro music system

Sony CMT-MX750Ni – an example of a DLNA-compliant music system for a hotel room or serviced apartment

A three-piece system with separate speakers has increased flexibility. Here, you can keep the main unit on the sideboard and position the speakers further away, including mounting them on the wall or having them flank a fireplace or feature window.

Earphones and headphones

Creative Labs MA930 in-ear mobile-phone headset

Creative Labs MA930 in-ear headset

I would suggest that you look towards a few sets of headphones that suit different activities. For example, a pair of lightweight supra-aural headphones can work well for jogging or walking with good examples being provided by B&O (Form 2review), Bose, Denon, Sennheiser and Sony.

Earphones can also work well for public transport and other noisy environments especially where discreet use is required. Similarly a pair of good circum-aural headphones can go a long way for detailed music listening at home or in noisy environments.

It is worth having a look at this buying guide to be sure that the headphones fit yours and Mum’s desires.

Gaining the most out of the Internet experience

Internet setup

If there isn’t a broadband Internet service at Mum’s home, it could be a good gift idea to set up one there and install a good-quality router for the network as in the article that I had done about the “family house”.

To the same extent, optimising the home network with at least 802.11n dual stream coverage everywhere, preferably simultaneous dual-band 802.11n dual-stream Wi-Fi. As well, I would make sure that there is a HomePlug AV powerline segment in that network even if there is Ethernet in the house. This is to cater for ad-hoc wired-network setups.

The reason I would think of this is that you may be dealing with increased use of multimedia from online sources at the TV, laptop or mobile devices and you want reliable operation from these services.

Education

Similarly, you may pool resources together to give Mum access to IT education and support programs/ This is more so if she hasn’t got much in the way of computer skills.

Online content

As well, pooling resources to an online content service such as Spotify, Netflix, Hulu or QuickFlix may be a way to give her access to the music and movies that these services provide. In the case of Spotify, this may be about using it as an online music library or as a “music tryout” service that can be part of her complete music experience.

These services are not about replacing the existing content library but about hunting for new content that may be of interest.

Conclusion

I wish you all a very happy and prosperous Mother’s Day with lots of fun, with you using this as a way to choose the right gift that will be value for money.

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