Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I Use: Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium

Picked up a copy of Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium from Office Depot this morning (surprisingly Walmart and Target only had the more expensive, single-use license, non-subscription versions). My first thoughts when I removed the shrink-wrap and opened the box: how much could they have saved if they did not package the product key card in a box. Really? How much did the packaging design add to the cost of the product? Imagine if Xbox Live cards were packaged the same way.  Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I have to say that purchasing Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium is a no-brainer for anyone with multiple devices in their household.

All that is in the box
When you purchase your copy of Office 365 Home Premium, the first thing you'll notice is that there is no physical media to install the software. That's right kids, no installation DVD for this version. It's all in the cloud. The next thing you will notice is that you are now committed to a year subscription in order to use the software. Some people might be a bit hesitant about paying $99 a year (or $9.99 a month), but considering what you get, it's a value.

Office 365 Home Premium provides a single license that can be shared across five devices, Windows or OS X, that can be activated and deactivated as needed. Also included is 20 GB of storage in SkyDrive (in addition to the 7GB for basic, free SkyDrive account), 60 Skype world minutes per month, and free version upgrades as long as you are a paid subscriber. There is also a new feature called Office on Demand. This nifty feature temporarily installs the Office application (Word, PowerPoint or Excel) that you need at that moment onto any Windows computer you're using. Once you exit the application, it will automatically uninstall it from that computer. Suddenly, Office 365 Home Premium a great deal.

For some, the new subscription model makes more financial sense than buying single license. It's less expensive for households with multiple computers. This is especially so if you are a college or university student, faculty or staff member because Office 365 University can be purchased for $79.99 which includes a four-year subscription covering 2 devices. No excuse for a student not to have a copy of Office anymore.

I only have two complaints from my initial experience using it. First, you cannot customize the Office installation on your computer so you get everything. I don't need/want Outlook, Access or Publisher but it was installed anyway. Second, the 20 GB of storage on SkyDrive is tied to one account and cannot be divided up among other people in the house. Neither is a deal-breaker in any case.

One thing that you have to remember that Office, not Windows, is what makes Microsoft money. Moving Office into a consumer cloud service is just another step to help Microsoft further transform into a devices and services business. Office 365 Home Premium is a great first start.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Future is Streaming

A year ago, I canceled my Netflix subscription. I have not had any regrets moving to the Blockbuster @Home (formerly Blockbuster Movie Pass) option provided by Dish Network, which I am a subscriber.  We get one DVD a week in the mail that we watch on the weekend (Saturday Movie Night). A great service that we have been pretty happy with.

Now for a dose of reality. Physical DVDs and Blu-ray discs are a dying media. Blockbuster's (as well as Netflix's) DVD-by-mail service will eventually go away. Maybe not anytime soon but it will eventually happen. Don't believe me? Remember video rental stores?  The current generation no longer sees the need to put a physical disc into a device connected to your TV when you can buy newer devices (e.g. Roku and Apple TV) that can stream movies to your current TV. You can even buy newer TVs with built-in Internet streaming services. It's a natural evolution of home media entertainment: VHS player to DVD/Blu-ray player to Internet streaming.

It has become widely acceptable that streaming a movie will not give you the same picture and sound quality as watching it on Blu-ray disc. However, the advantage is that you can watch what you want, when you want, how you want without having to deal with any physical media. In our house, there are very few movies that we will watch more than once or twice that warrants buying it on a physical disc. If it is a movie that we really, really like then we may buy it on Blu-ray for subsequent viewing. Pretty much the only time that I buy a DVD or Blu-ray is if it's a rare, old-school kung-fu movie to add to my collection. Our daughter has all the classic Disney movies on DVD. She watched them all the time when she was much younger. They are gathering dust now.

The confusing aspect of streaming versus watching a movie on a physical disc is that it requires you to pick a method of distribution and pretty much stick with it. To further add to the confusing (or frustration), each method of distribution relies on a proprietary form of encryption in order to prevent illegal distribution of the content on the Internet. You pretty much have to choose a method of distribution that you like and stick with it or it can get as cumbersome as keeping up with physical discs. Thank you very much Hollywood (I'm being sarcastic of course).

Then there is UltraViolet. UltraViolet is intended to allow people to stream and download purchased content to multiple platforms and devices. Basically it is a digital proof of purchase that you get when you buy a movie on DVD or  Blu-ray. While the platform-agnostic, "buy once, play anywhere" approach grants you greater flexibility with how and where you watch your content, it can be a bit confusing when you first try to redeem those digital copy codes because you want to make sure that it will link to the distribution service that you use (and they can differ from DVD to DVD based on the studio...again, thank you Hollywood).

At this moment, we currently use CinemaNow for movie purchases and rentals (cost between $2.99-$3.99 a movie) in our household. Fortunately, CinemaNow is a service that  does link with your UltraViolet account.  In addition, we subscribe to Hulu Plus and Crunchyroll for TV shows and anime. Crackle and EPIX are also used for other miscellaneous programs. We are able to use these services through our Xbox consoles, Roku 2 XS, WD TV Live Hub, iPad Mini, Nexus 7 and Sony Blu-ray player. The big plus for CinemaNow and Hulu Plus is that they allow you to purchase gift cards to use instead of having a credit card tied to the service (something that Walmart is missing with their VUDU service).

From what I've seen comparing services, the one that Amazon provides is probably as close to cross-platform as digital streaming will get. Even though you have to purchase/rent and manage your digital media through Amazon, their service is pretty much available on every popular platform out there, from Windows to OS X to iOS to Android not to mention game consoles, streaming boxes and smart TVs. Even though we don't use Amazon's service at the moment, I have been exploring it as a possible future option especially since getting my wife an Amazon Kindle Fire HD for Christmas.

Like it or not, the future is in streaming. Buying physical copies of movies seems to make little sense these days (except for those who buy a DVD and use a tool like Handbrake to avoid being locked into a proprietary format by creating a DRM-free digital file). It all boils down to selecting a method of media distribution that fits your digital lifestyle (and wallet).

Monday, January 21, 2013

What I Use: Epson Expression Home XP-400 Small-in-One Printer

Generally when I purchase a printer, it last for years. We use it until it either dies or it becomes a task finding ink or toner for it. Our current home printers are a Dell 1720dn Laser Printer and a HP OfficeJet 7000 Wide Format Printer. Both printers are still working fine. However, with the introduction of tablet devices, neither printer really supported the ability to print from my iPad. The initial solution I discovered was a product called Printopia, which is a great solution. I highly recommend it if you are heavy in the Apple ecosystem. The downside to Printopia is that it is a Mac/iPad-only solution that requires you to have the Mac computer it is installed on powered up 24/7.  Additionally, since I've started using a Chromebook and Nexus 7 more frequently these days as my go-to devices, I needed a printing solution that would work across multiple platforms. Enter the Epson Expression Home XP-400 Small-in-One Printer.

I've never been a huge fan of Epson printers, but the XP-400 caught my eye. What made it more appealing was that Best Buy had it on sale $30 off from it's normal $100 price tag plus I had a bunch of Reward Zone coupons so I bought it cheap right before the holidays. The XP-400 is a 3-in-1 (print, scan and copy) multifunction inkjet printer. It has a flip-up control panel with 2.5-inch LCD screen. The menus are easy to navigate. It is also capable of wireless printing AND scanning. More importantly, it prints surprisingly fast for an inkjet. The output quality is not the best but it is acceptable for most people. It really depends on what you are trying to print.

While most inkjet printers are relatively cheap, the inks can be a bit on the expensive side. The XP-400 is no exception. It requires four individual ink cartridges (Black, Cyan, Yellow and Magenta) that are sold as either standard or high-capacity. While the standard cartridges could be easily found at retail stores such as Walmart, Best Buy and Target (but not Costco or Sam's Club), I had to search for the high-capacity cartridges and eventually found them at Office Depot.

The XP-400, like many other Epson printers, comes with Epson Connect. This allows you to print wirelessly from your iOS or Android device by supporting Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print. There is even an Epson iPrint Mobile App available free from the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. This allows me to print directly to the XP-400 from my iPad Mini, Nexus 7 and Chromebook. You can also email your files to the XP-400 printer’s unique email address for automatic printing. The Scan to Cloud option even allows you to save your files directly to your Evernote account or other online Cloud storage services such as Dropbox, Box and Google Drive (bummer that SkyDrive is not included).

I will say that while the Epson Expression Home XP-400 Small-in-One Printer is not the best inkjet printer on the market but you do get a lot of bang for your buck. It's a complimentary printer for your complimentary devices. This is definitely not a printer for someone who does a lot of printing, but it's worth considering if you need to occasionally print from a mobile device or just need a simple print, scan or copy solution to go along side an existing home printer.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Installed SSD in MacBook Pro for Work

The warranty on the 17-inch, Mid-2009 MacBook Pro that I use at work ends in a few weeks. Instead of going through the process of trying to request a new laptop, I choose to replace the standard 500GB hard drive with a 256GB Crucial v4 SSD (wanted a Samsung SSD, but there were complications getting it from our preferred vendor). Since I originally ordered the MacBook Pro with pretty high specs at that time (3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M 256MB), adding an SSD will definitely extend it's use for me a bit longer.