Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When Size Does Matter

Technology seems to constantly strive toward shrinking everything. Smaller computers, smaller phones, smaller chips and everything much more portable.

While I do like and benefit from the increased portability of smaller devices, sometimes smaller isn’t necessarily best.

But this column is about screen sizes.

Some of the first desktop computers I had used 13-inch monitors, which seemed positively enormous. The advent of graphical interfaces, multi-tasking and more sophisticated applications required more screen “real estate,” or pixels.

Where a typical e-mail or word processing application fits nicely on a small screen, applications such as video editing have far more information being displayed that just don’t fit on a small screen.

Due to the relatively high cost of larger screens, the inevitable result of a larger need for screen pixels resulted in higher resolution screens. But as the screen resolution increased and the screen size didn’t keep up, millions of us have started to use their glasses in order to see what we’re working on.

While it’s always been possible to add extra monitors to computers, the setup has always been tricky and required pretty good technical skills.

A little-known feature of Windows XP and Vista allows every computer to support two monitors. While this typically requires a second video card, some computers, -­ even laptop computers -- now have more than one connector to support multiple monitors. For laptop computers, a docking station or port replicator can usually add a second video port.

So when I saw some 22-inch monitors for under $200 recently, I thought now was a good time to expand my desktop real estate.

Hooking one up to my computer convinced me that I would never go back.

It’s as though the rain has stopped, the clouds have parted and the sun has come out.

It’s now possible to have multiple applications open and see all of them at the same time. Now it’s possible to have simultaneous windows for e-mail, Web, word processing and spreadsheet. No overlapping, no switching between windows, everything visible at the same time.

I never quite understood what the stock traders and other multi-display people did with all of that screen space. But now that I have it on my desk, I understand why people have put up with all of the difficulties of multiple monitor setups for so many years.

I continue to see very affordable prices -- under $200 -- on large (22” and up) flat screen monitors for computers. With the increasing need for visual space on computer screens, the simplicity of setting it up and the affordability of these larger monitors, this is a wonderful opportunity to break out of the small screens to which many of us gaze for so many hours.

This column originally appeared in the Westport News on Wednesday 25 February 2009.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saving Money With Technology

As the economic climate continues to concern people, there are some ways that you can use to save money through the use of technology. Here are a few that you might want to consider:

Use a Prepaid Cell Phone Every time I see a cell phone plan costing $100 or more for “everything included,” I wonder whether it’s worth it for an individual. If what you need is a mobile phone to make just a few calls per month (or decide you can make just a few calls per month), a pre-paid phone service may be just for you. You pay for just your usage, and while the per-minute charges are higher than with a more robust plan, if you keep your usage down, you could spend a whole lot less for your mobile phone plan.

Check out the “triple play” with your cable provider Cablevision provides my Internet and television service and they had been hounding me about adding a phone line to my service (thus the “triple play”, http://www.optimum .com/order /triple_play.jsp). In looking at it, the triple play adds a new service (telephone), but ended up dropping my overall bill to Cablevision by about $20 per month — even after adding a phone line.

As I don’t need an extra phone line, the phone sites near my cable modem unused, but I’m still saving $20 per month. The special triple play promotion lasts for one year. At that time, I’ll see what offerings Cablevision has, and may or may not keep it depending upon what it’ll cost me.

Consider a VoIP phone service VoIP means making telephone calls over the Internet. I’ve long been a Vonage (www.vonage.com) fan, but as I mentioned above, Cablevision provides VoIP service, as do many other providers. Two things to be careful about VoIP services:

First, in a power outage, unless all of your network equipment is on a battery backup, your phone service will not work.

Second, you have to have good speed on your Internet service for it to work. Dial-up won’t cut it. Some DSL circuits won’t be fast enough. Virtually any cable Internet service here in Fairfield County will work just fine.

Note that most of the landline carriers, such as AT&T, now offer competitive pricing on traditional phone service that matches the pricing and calling areas of the VoIP services, although they tend to leave out some of the features.

Save money on software When it comes to buying software, here are a few options from free to very inexpensive. If you have a computer, you’ll probably need more than the basic software that comes with it.

For free, you have a few options:

• First, OpenOffice — OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) is free software that provides the bulk of the features of Microsoft Office.

• Second, Google Docs — Google Docs (docs.google.com) provides free word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. This pretty much requires you to have Internet access all the time, but if you’re using a desktop computer from home, this isn’t much of a problem. Google does support some offline use of Google Docs, but it’s not as robust as software that runs on your computer without full-time access to the Internet.

• Third, Microsoft Office for Students — Microsoft offers a specially-priced version of its office software for students. This is typically around $99 for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. What’s missing from the package is Outlook, which is used for e-mail. But, if your e-mail application is Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL, or another Web-based application, this is not important.

• Fourth, if you are a student at a college or university, Microsoft offers you what they call the “Ultimate Steal,” which includes most of Microsoft’s desktop applications for $59.99. This includes: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Groove, Publisher, Access, InfoPath and Accounting Express. See: http://tinyurl.com /6xogbt. Check the site for eligibility, but it’s the sweetest deal around for Microsoft software if you qualify.

There are some real bargains out there and ways that technology can save you money if you keep your eyes open for them.