Monday, December 31, 2012

My Goals of 2013

Here we are at the end of 2012. Obviously, we survived the Mayan apocalypse.  As I take a moment to reflect on the year that has passed, I start to look forward to the goals I want to accomplish in the coming year. Looking back at my 2012 goals, I pretty much lived up to them except building a computer (determined all the parts but never bought them) and attending more meetings of organizations that I have a membership with (definitely gotta work on that one). Again, I don't believe in making resolutions because they end up being lip-service to ourselves. Talk is cheap and change is hard. Goals are more tangible and attainable.

Now without any further ado, my goals for 2013 (in no particular order):

1) Continue to get certifications. I'm always looking to add certifications to my name that will provided some professional value to me. This year I think I'm going to focus on CompTIA's  CTT+, which is beneficial in my role as a part-time instructor, and either CompTIA's Project+ or PMI's CAPM since much of my daily work can be project-oriented.

2) Focus more management/leadership growth and less on being solely technical at work. I love technology and will always love technology, but I think it's time start focusing on the next level at work. Just like technology changes, I need to be able to change with it and just as fast.

3) Write a book. A year or so ago, I had a conversation with a retiring IT director who was familiar with my background and one of her suggestions for me professionally was to write a book. Writing a book provides me with an opportunity to share my expertise, differentiate myself among my peers and provides me  the opportunity to expand my professional brand.

4) Streamline my technology workflow. Over the past year, I have found myself using a "full" computer less and less (outside of work) but using "consumption" devices more and more. I spend more time on my iPad, Nexus 7 and Chromebook than I do on my Windows or OS X computers. I already have started examining what I use in order to evaluate need.

5) Fully embrace the cloud. My goal is to reduce my reliance on maintaining local storage in our house. I already decommissioned my Windows Home Server and moved all of our documents to the cloud (SkyDrive). Now I'm looking for solutions for our photos and home movies. Keep my need for local storage to a bare minimum.

6) Continue to expand and grow my Computer Support Technician Certificate Program. I took a risk doing this and it has paid off. Now I just need to keep the momentum going. 

7) Contribute more articles. Over the past year, I became a contributing author for the BIT Tech Digest. Need to make sure that I contribute articles regularly. I also want to look into becoming a contributing writer for other sites as well if possible.

8) Consider going to graduate school. This is one that I have been juggling in my head for awhile now. As it relates to goal #2 of focusing more on management/leadership growth, it is almost a no brainer, but it takes a commitment. There are a lot of factors I have to consider if I decide to go back to school. This may end up one of my 2014 goals.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Skylanders Giants...The Saga Continues

One great thing about having time off for the holidays (other than spending time with family) is that I have time to really do some gaming. It's not all Halo 4 or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for me. As you know I love Skylanders. Skylanders Giants was released a few months ago and now I have some time to really get into it during my time off from work.

For me, playing Skylanders is really fun, especially with my daughter. Much like the Lego games, Skylanders Giants is perfect for a parent to play with their kids. It’s not too challenging and it's easy to jump into without having to learn complicated controls or try to figure out what’s going on. Let's be real, unless you are a kid under the age of 10, there is no real challenge in playing any of the Skylanders games, but the games are fun especially if you play them with your children.

The game can be finished fairly quickly (unless you are playing with your child) by older, seasoned gamers, but there are plenty of things to extend the gameplay a bit. Reaching level 15 for all your Skylanders, collecting all the hidden hats, treasure chests and gems hidden on each level, completing all the heroic challenges, and taking on all the arena battles can keep in going for a bit longer (but not much longer). Again, this is essentially a kid's game so don't expect the same level of depth as you would playing Skyrim or Mass Effect.

Depending on how you look at it, the real gimmick to the Skylanders series is the toys, which of course, are sold separately. This time around, there are about 40 new characters to collect that include, Giants, LightCore, and Series 2 figurines. For my daughter and I, we are just buying the new characters and Giants.

As with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventures, you can finish Skylanders Giants with just the characters that came with the Starter Pack or even with the characters that you collected from the first game. You really don't need to by any of the new character unless you want to (and your kids will want you too). Another thing to note is that while you can use the new figurines in the original game, but the Giants will not work. Also, while the new figurines will function in the original game, they will do so without any of the new "powers".

In order to extend the investment on all of the Skylanders that we have purchased, my daughter got the Nintendo 3DS versions of Skylanders Spyro's Adventure and Skylanders Giants for Christmas. Unlike the console version of the games, the 3DS versions have a completely different storyline and because it is a platformer, there's an actual jump button. I'm also considering purchasing the Skylanders Battleground Mobile Starter Pack to extend gameplay to iOS devices. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Buying a Laptop from Walmart: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

From time to time, I am called upon to help people buy new computers especially laptops. I always start by asking three questions: what do you want to use it for, how much can you spend, and how much are you willing to spend.  The answers that I receive usually give me a good idea of not only what type of laptop to recommend but also the best place to buy it. Surprisingly, Walmart is actually a decent place to buy a new laptop for most people. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit different Walmart stores in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee during my travels. Being the geek I am, I decided to compare my experiences and observations.

The Good
Laptops on clearance
The most obvious good thing about buying a laptop from Walmart is that you know that the price will be low. Nowadays, you can get a decent laptop from Walmart for under $500. I have seen laptops that were priced as high as $898, but after a few weeks/months many were marked down as much as $200 or more. Most recently, some Walmart stores have started carrying several popular laptop models from Acer, Samsung, and ASUS. It's more than the bulky HP, Dell, and Gateway models that their stores have been known to carry in the past. What's even better is that when newer models are released, older models are marked down. Let's not forget that as the Christmas holidays approach, laptops are one of the many items that can be placed on layaway. Where else can you put a laptop on layaway?

The Bad
Laptops in locked cases

This is where the shopping experience differs between Walmart and more technology-focused retailers such as Best Buy or Office Depot. Unlike Best Buy, where you can walk in, pick up a laptop, sample the keyboard quality, get an idea of how much it weighs, and perform other hands-on tests to help in making your purchasing decision, the experience at Walmart will vary from store to store. Some stores (a very small number) actually provide an experience that is very similar to Best Buy. However, the majority of Walmart stores I went into provided a far from helpful experience when looking for a laptop to buy. Many of the laptops were physically locked down, unable to be picked up by a customer. In some stores, the laptops are kept behind a dirty, scratched plastic case like a jewelry store. Look but don't touch. I had to find an Walmart associate to unlock the case so that I could get my hands on the laptop. In other stores, many of the laptops had broken screens, would not turn on, or had keyboards with half the keys missing. I even went into one Walmart store that had all the laptops covered in clear contact paper that looked a hot mess (yeah, I said "hot mess"). 

Covered with contact paper
Missing keys

Broken Screen
The Ugly
If you do decided to purchase a laptop from Walmart, don't expect much help in making your decision. Unlike Best Buy, there is not a Walmart equivalent to the Geek Squad. You are on your own if you have questions about the CPU, RAM, hard drive, etc. I have yet to go to a Walmart electronics department in which the associate could provide helpful advice to me or any consumer looking to buy a laptop other than typical "I like this brand" response. At times I was given the wrong information or overheard misinformation given to a customer. On more than one occasion, at different stores, I have been told by employees that they don't work in that department when asked a question about a laptop and I would have to wait until someone who could answer my questions comes into work. I can at least give them points for being honest.

Bottom-line is that with some research beforehand, anyone can get a decent laptop at a good price from Walmart. However, if you need guidance, a more technology-focused store like Best Buy would be the better choice. Furthermore, while Walmart usually has cheaper prices, it does not have a large selection like Best Buy. Buying a laptop from Walmart really depends on if you just want a simple, everyday laptop or if you want something with the latest technical bells and whistles. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What I Use: iPad Mini

I purchased an iPad 2 back in March when the price dropped after the release of the iPad 3...ooops, I mean NEW iPad. I enjoyed it. A few weeks later, I was given a new iPad to replaced the original iPad I had been using a work. So now I had two iPads.

A few months later, Google releases the Nexus 7 and I found myself using it more than either of the iPads. Not because it was a better device, but because of the smaller, 7-inch form factor. It was comfortable to hold and easy to carry around compared to the iPad. Plus, pretty much all the apps that I use on a daily basis on my iPad were available for Android as well. My iPads started collecting dust.  

iPad Mini
Enter PeachMac. PeachMac is the largest Apple reseller in the South with multiple locations in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Virginia. I can honestly say that it is a MUCH better experience going into a PeachMac store than an actual Apple Store. PeachMac allows you to trade-in your current iPad (or Mac, iPhone or iPod) for store credit to upgrade to a newer device. After performing an extensive analysis of your device to determine its condition, they give you the value of your trade-in. I was able to trade-in my 32GB iPad 2 for a 16GB iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular (Verizon) and paid only a small difference. Simple enough.

iPad Mini next to Google Nexus 7
Overall, it's an iPad and if you have used an iPad, there is nothing special about using the iPad Mini. The appeal for me is that it is much smaller and easier to handle than the regular iPad models. The specs are similar to those of the iPad 2. The only downside is that the iPad Mini comes with the new Lightning connector and I have the older, 30-pin adapters. Luckily, there is a Lightning to 30-pin Adapter. The one thing that many tech journalists focus on is the fact that it does not have a Retina-display like other current iPad models. While that might be a deal breaker for some, that's not a biggie for me.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Finals Days With The Surface

So after about a month of using the Microsoft Surface, I had to play nice and allow other technicians to use it within our team. I can say that my overall experience with the Surface has been great. Of course there are pros and cons to the device but no real deal-breakers that would prevent me from recommending it to anyone (I still think it is over-priced and would suggest the Type cover over the Touch cover).

However, there was one thing that stuck in the back of my mind each time I use the Surface. I found myself using it more as a laptop alternative and less as a tablet. Whether it was during a meeting or eating pancakes at IHOP, I used it as if I was using a small form-factor laptop. It was rare that I pulled it out to use strictly as a tablet (except to play Angry Birds Star Wars).  I always went to my Google Nexus 7 or iPad when I wanted to use an actual tablet.

To me, the Surface falls in a space that it's not quite a tablet and not quite a laptop, but more of a new species of device.  Deciding on whether or not to purchase the Surface really boils down to what functionality do you need the most. Do you you need a laptop that functions as a tablet or do you need a tablet with laptop functionality? The Surface is a tablet with laptop functionality in my opinion. So the question becomes why someone buy a Surface over buying an similar-priced Ultrabook? That is the question that really has to addressed.

Again, my overall experience with the Surface has been positive. There is a lot to love about it and a lot to be nit-picky about. I can easily recommend the Surface if it fits your needs.  So far, the Asus VivoTab RT is the only Windows RT device that I have gotten my hands-on that really provides a genuine tablet experience similar to what you would expect from iPads and the many Android tablets that are on the market. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

App Recommendations for College Students (or Anyone Else)

Recently, a colleague and close friend on campus asked for my opinion on apps that their department could recommend to their students. Before I started naming all the apps that immediately came to mind, my first suggestion was to consider apps that were available on multiple platforms. In other words, don't just consider apps for iOS devices (e.g. iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch). Believe it or not, some students use Android devices. An app that also has the capability to be synced with a typical computer, Windows or OS X, is also a big plus.

My second suggestion was not to focus solely on finding free apps. We all love free. Free is good, but the goal should be recommending apps that help the students be more productive. Not just throwing out a bunch of free apps. My finally and probably most important suggestion to my friend was to think about what they would be willing to support. Last thing you want to do is to recommend a list of apps for students to download but not be able to help them if they encountered any problems.

Once we established a process for determining how to compile the list, I made my recommendations:
  1. Evernote is the best note-taking product on the market. Hand's down. No comparison. If you are not using it, what are you waiting for?
  2. Skitch is part of the Evernote family of apps designed to help you remember everything. Basically it allows you to annotate images that you have on your device. Did I mention, that it works with Evernote?
  3. iAnnotate PDF is a tool for reading, marking up, and sharing PDF documents.  This is the best app to use if you do a lot of reading and notations. You can also view and share Microsoft Word and PowerPoint files and even convert them into PDFs.
  4. Pocket allows you view an article, video or anything else you find on the Internet later. It automatically syncs across devices so you can view it at any given time, even without an internet connection. Pocket is also integrated into a large number of applications. This means that you can save directly from applications such as Twitter or Pulse.
  5. SimpleMind is a mind mapping tool used for brainstorming and collecting ideas. There are both free and paid versions available for both iOS and Android. Taking it one step further, SimpleMind also has a paid desktop edition for both Windows and OS X ($34.32) that allows you to view and edit mind maps created on iOS or Android devices.
  6. WordBook English Dictionary is a quick and intuitive English language dictionary and thesaurus.
  7. Quickoffice Pro HD is an office editing suite that allows you to create and edit Microsoft Office document, spreadsheet, and presentation formats. You can also view PDFs (minus the advance features you get with iAnnotate PDF). Yes, you have to pay for it ($19.99) but if you plan to use an iPad or Android tablet for editing Microsoft Office documents, it is worth the least until Microsoft Office becomes available for both platforms.
  8. Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, Google Drive, SugarSync - Take your pick. Each cloud storage option has their particular pros and cons. It's all about choosing the service that meets your individual needs.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What I Use: Belkin WeMo Switch

WeMo Switch
Every once and awhile you find a new gadget or gizmo that catches your eye forcing you to make an impulse purchase. Sometimes it is a worthwhile purchase. The Belkin WeMo Switch was one such purchase.

The WeMo Switch is a simple little device. It basically allows you to control your home electronics from anywhere. Turn things off or on from your iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad). You can even schedule devices to turn on and off at a certain time. It's essentially affordable home automation. There is also a version of the WeMo Switch that has a motion sensor.

WeMo app
Installation is simple. Plug the device into a wall outlet, plug in a device such as a lamp, download and install the WeMo app to your iOS device, connect your device to the WeMo Network and then launch the app. That's it. Note that it will require a firmware upgrade once it has been set up. I set up WeMo Switches in both my home office and my daughter's room.

Even though I have not played around with this feature, the WeMo can interact with web-based social media and apps through a great service called IFTTT (if this then that). It allows you to create custom tasks with Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Google Calendar, and Evernote to name a few. I'll have to play around with it.

The one downside is that it is specifically for iOS devices. No Android or Windows Phone apps. Hopefully Belkin with expand the availability of the WeMo app in the near future.