Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review of LiveScribe Pens

This is a short and personal review of the LiveScribe pens, originally written to help a friend interested in buying one. There are three versions of the pens available: "Pulse" - which is version 1, and "Echo" - an upgrade "wired" version, and the Wifi pen (the pen is also called a "Livescribe Sky" , but this name can't be used in the UK  for trademark reasons)
The Livescribe website gives you a lot of information about the pens.
(the support pages are useful to look at too, especially if you want to dig deeper than just the promotional stuff)
The Echo pen, and the stationery, is available from Amazon (and other suppliers) and also (until recently at least) from PC World. You can't buy direct from LiveScribe in the UK, so far as I can see. If you look around on the net there are some savings to be made (mainly on the stationery etc), though not massive ones.
I can be helpful, I think, by making one or two remarks.
First, forget the "Pulse" pen. I don't think is manufactured anymore, though it is still supported. In most respects it is exactly like the Echo.
On the face of it the Echo and the Wifi differ only in that Echo is wired (you have to plug it into your computer to download your pages). However, it is a bit more subtle than that.
First, let me tell you how they work.
Basically the pen - which is a standard biro with built in technology, including a tiny camera - must be used with the special paper which has tiny "micro-dots" printed onto it, for your notes to be saved. There are A4, A5 and notepads available, also sticky notes and some other stuff. Each set of notepads has 4 versions (1,2,3,4) and you have to use a set at a time - by this I mean you can use a no1 A5 and a no1 A4 at the same time, but if you use two A5 No1s at the same time the pen will think that you are using just one notebook and you'll have a lot of problems with pages overwritten. When you have filled one no1 book of a particular size, you have to archive it (i.e copy it to the computer and delete it from the pen) before you can use another no1 book of the same size. You can also print your own paper - though you need a colour laser printer to do so.
The magic is that the pages are saved on the pen, and you can record audio as well as writing, and they sync with one another, creating a "pencast" - you can see this in the little videos on the LiveScribe website. You can therefore play these back, and share them with other people - a bit like recording a simple video/powerpoint - very good for explaining maths problems (!) If you have recorded audio you can tap the page with the pen and the audio will play from the point when you wrote the particular word or number or whatever.
The pen can also does some clever things like act as a calculator, by using a calculator printed on the special paper, or even by just writing "calc" and then your calculation. There is also a piano application. (Draw a keyboard and play your tune).  Other applications can be purchased and downloaded (but there aren't many). There is one, for example, which will transcribe handwriting - it works with the Echo pen but not the Wifi (yet - this is promised).
The Echo pen has to be synced by cable with a particular computer which has the LiveScribe Desktop software installed. There is also a very clever piece of software called LiveScribe Connect - this enables you to set up commands on the pen, which - when synced - can send your page to someone by email, or send the page to another service like Evernote, a folder on your computer, or Dropbox.
The Wifi version more or less abandons the Desktop and Connect software (there is just a simple programme you can use to setup your pen) and syncs with Evernote, which is an excellent service for saving every kind of note or document which you can imagine. Evernote is not owned by LiveScribe, and reading the reviews there have been some teething problems in connecting the two services. The Wifi pen has a smaller set of commands and applications than the Echo pen, which can be a little disappointing for a previous Echo user, but which I think is unlikely to trouble the new user. Livescribe are promising to increase the feature set - but these developments don't come quickly.
What does work brilliantly with the Wifi pen is the syncing of the notes with Evernote. Every note you take on the special paper is uploaded and appears on your PC, phone and tablet so long as you have Evernote installed. The audio is uploaded too.
I've had an Echo pen for a couple of years and it works brilliantly, but the Desktop/Cable approach has always been a bit frustrating as it takes a few extra steps to get the pages in the book out of the pen and onto the computer. (There's always the risk of losing the pen before it is synced). I'm sure I would have used it more if I'd not had to plug it in to sync, and then copy or transfer notes to somewhere else (in my case, mostly Evernote). I've only had the Wifi for a few weeks. When it first came out last year there were some negative user reviews, but the worst issues seem to have been dealt with, so I went for it. It has worked more than fine, and the wifi syncing is great, though I have had one page where the sound but not the text was uploaded. Livescribe helped me sort this out through their user forums, and there's been no repetition of the problem.
The pens are available in different memory sizes, starting at 2 GB. I have never done much audio recording, and the 2 GB has always provided more than enough. The paper products are not cheap, and you have to buy them in packs of 4, but they do create a good discipline in note taking. Refills for the pen are easy enough to get. Again they are not cheap, but the refills seem to last well.

The charge on the pen seems to last for ages, though I guess the Wifi battery life is shorter than the Echo. And Oh yes, if you get one, don't forget to switch on the pen before you take notes.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

How to connect to wifi

This tip is to show you how to connect to a wifi source, such as when you are away from home.

Skip to Step by Step if you want to miss out on the explanation.

First things first

1. Most wifi connections are closed - that means you need to login with a name - which is the name of the wifi network (connection), and a password.

The name is often the brand name of the router (the box that connects everything up) or it could be the name of the company or the place where you are using the connection. The password is the same for every device that connects to the network.

2. Some wifi connections are "open" - that means you don't need a password to connect to the network.

3. Some wifi appears to be open, and you can connect to the network without a password - but there will be a gateway - usually a webpage for which you will need a user name and a password. This username and password is yours - and is usually used in places where you have to pay for connection or where connection is time limited (such as hotels, caravan sites - examples may be btopenworld, the Cloud, Caraweb, and Tesco free wifi, for which you still need to create a user id and password. )

What you need to do.

Firstly, you have to make sure you can "see" the network. Your device will probably have wifi switched on, so your device will be looking for wifi, but sometimes, for extra security, the wifi network may hide its name. In any case, you need to know (or be able to guess) the name of the wifi network in order to connect with it.

[The technical term for the name of the network is its SSID, but you probably don't need to know this].

Next, when you can see the network, you need to select it and connect to it, and then, if required, enter its password. Usually you do this the first time you connect only, and in future the device will connect to the network automatically.

Thirdly, you might find when you open a web page you are presented with an requirement to enter your own name and password.

Step by Step

Here are step by step directions for a Mac. On other devices (iPads, iPhones, windows computers) the procedure is the same, but may look very different.

1. Make sure wifi is switched on your mac.

When it is on, you will have a list of wifi networks.

The padlock means the network is "closed" - in other words it needs a password.

The radio wave symbols show how strong the signal is.

2. Select (click on) the network you want to connect to.

[In this case, I've chosen a network called "Creme-Fraiche" which must belong to one of the neighbours of mine.]

Type in your password.


Make sure you type it EXACTLY.

The tip below is useful if the password is complicated, long or hard to remember.

You should now be able to click "Join" and connect to the network.


But, just in case …

I can't see the network on the list of wifi networks!

There are two main possibilities.

1. The network signal is not reaching your computer. - Check that wifi is ON and if necessary try another part of the building. (avoid walls, and electrical equipment).

2. The network is hidden.

If this is the case you will need to enter the name of the network as well as the password.

Go back to the "wifi" symbol and click on "Join Another Network".


Enter the network name.


There may be no additional security, but if there is, you will need to know not only what kind it is (or guess!) …

And also its password.


Thursday, 15 August 2013

What are the advantages or disadvantages, strengths or challenges of having a Mac as your home computer, especially if you use PCs at work, and considering you already a user of apple hardware, namely the iPhone and the iPad? 

Here are some observations of mine which I hope will be helpful. I've written it as a sort of blogpost, which this may become in due course. 
Firstly, it is important not to exaggerate the differences. In broad terms the operating system of the Mac (OS X (ten)) and of the PC (Windows) look very similar, and organise files in much the same way with a directory (folder) structure. The general user may not notice many differences at all - except perhaps that the desktop looks different. Files can be read and edited by both systems, and peripherals (memory sticks, printers, cameras) work with both. It is important to be aware that there are exceptions to this general principle (as there are with different editions of Windows) but in broad terms it is true to say that what you can do on a PC you do on a Mac. 
Secondly, and this is a connected point, the major programmes which are available on Windows are also available on the MAC. MS Office and Photoshop indeed started life on the MAC but are now available on both. In other cases there are strong equivalents on the Mac for familiar PC programmes - and some programmes come as part of the Mac system such as iPhoto, iMovie, PhotoBooth and iDVD which you may have to buy separately for a PC. 
Thirdly, as a balancing point, the user needs to be aware that there are differences, which may, in particular circumstances be considered disadvantages. The systems have their particular strengths. The Mac has long been the preferred computer of creative professionals, especially those working in graphic computer arts, such as photography and publishing. Many writers and journalists too, opt for the Mac. However, the Mac has not traditionally been the home computer of choice for serious gamers.The PC has been a workhorse, solidly established in offices. Accounting software, in particular, is more strongly represented on the PC. MS Office on the Mac has never included Access, the database programme. It is however, possible to run almost any PC programme on the Mac, using additional software which creates a "virtual" windows environment. 
Fourth, moving to a Mac does involve climbing a bit of a learning curve. The buttons appear in the left not the right top corner of the window, and they work in a slightly different way; the menu bar at the top of the screen changes with the application you are using (there is no menu bar on the app itself); the keys CTRL CMD and ALT work in a slightly different way and are positioned differently too; in most programmes you centre text not with CTRL-E, but with CMD-| (though MS Office (un)helpfully sticks to the windows usage). There are a few little things like this … You soon get used to them. 
Fifthly, Apple do not provide you with anything they don't think you need, which sometimes can be a bit of a surprise. Their devices have fewer slots and buttons than others. No place for a memory card in an iPad, no possibility of replacing a battery in an iPhone, no CD/DVD drive in most of the latest computers. If you really think you need these then you may be affronted that Apple haven 't give you more slots, connections, buttons, drives - but they calculate that you probably won't need them, and your device will work much better without something else to go wrong. 
However, even having made these points, there are three BIG advantages of using a Mac. 
For some this is the big objection, but Apple stuff works together so well. Many aspects of OS X have been drawn from iOS (iPhone/iPad) and are very familiar. Reminders on the Mac syncs with Reminders on the iPad and the iPhone, as does Notes, and the Calendar if you so set it up. If you use Pages, Keynote or Numbers, these sync through iCloud too. Photos you take on your phone will, through photo stream appear on your computer within seconds (all of these services can be disabled of course). You can even use Messages on the Mac to send iMessages (texts) to your iPhone and iPad - and send files and photos - via your wifi networks (no text charges). 
And none of this stops you using Google Mail or Maps or other services like Dropbox and Evernote. 
Don't get me wrong - everything Apple makes is not perfect - but in general terms the quality of both the Hardware and the Operating System leads the market, rather than follows it. After years now of using a Mac, I have almost forgotten how often PCs crash, or how spongey keyboards can be, and how unresponsive mice, or trackpads are. Apple computers are generally more expensive if you only compare the specs, but they work much better. They look good and they work well. Most Apple devices, including computers, are almost entirely sealed units which you can't add cards to, or memory or drives - at least not inside the box. The software and the hardware are built together, so you rarely get problems with drivers, and the software makes use of the capabilities of the hardware. 
Security too, is much better. Mac's don't have virus blocking software, and while the user should always beware bogus emails and "phishing" scams, viruses are almost non-existent on the mac. 
And finally, and this cannot be under estimated, the whole mac experience is very good. 
And the icing on the cake is the service which comes with the MAC. You can buy an extended warranty, called AppleCare, but the aftercare in general is excellent. You can go to an Apple Store and get advice and guidance, including courses and tuition. For some of this you have to pay, but a visit to the Genius Bar with a problem is free and the staff are very helpful. This kind of service just does not exist elsewhere. 
The hardware may be more expensive, after all, the cost includes this kind of service, but the software generally isn't. The equivalent of MS Office on the Mac - Pages, Numbers and Keynote - costs about £30, while non-discounted MS Office is about 10 tines that. The design standards of both the operating system and the hardware are high, so that ergonomically using a mac is a pleasurable experience. It is, I guess, like the difference between driving a BMW and a lesser car. Both may do the job, but its a lot nicer with a mac. 
And finally … 
To answer this question you need to decide what your needs are. 
Do you need a large screen? Are you likely to want to keep the Mac in one location? If so, consider the iMac - the desktop version. If you already have a large monitor, you might consider a MacMini which is unusual in that it has lots of slots and drives and is just a box to connect to your own peripherals. 
Do you want to be able to use the mac in different locations, perhaps away from home? Then consider the MacBooks. The MacBooks with the "retina" display are extremely good - but expensive. The other MacBooks still have a CD/DVD drive. 
Do you want something super light and portable and are not too concerned with how much storage space it has? Then have a look at the MacBook Airs. 
My recommendation - if you can afford it, the best all round machine is the 13" Retina MacBook pro. Stunning display, powerful machine. (A close second is there MacBook Air, but this is a bit underpowered as a main computer).  
Aha! You are getting the idea. (Apple seem to make their money out of cables). Depending on which choice you make, you may need an external CD/DVD - only the Apple one works, and that's about £60. You may also need suitable cables if you want to connect the MacBook to an external monitor. They generally run at about £20. If you go for a MacBook Air you might want an external drive for photos and music, though that's something you may already have, and you may need to buy some software. I strongly recommend Pages, Keynote and Numbers. You may also want to get MS Office, which is expensive, though there are educational deals, such as from Software4Students (ab0ut £40). AppleCare is probably a good idea, too, as most Macs now are not serviceable. 
Oh and by the way, there are lots of websites, including Apple's own site, which include guidance on transitioning from a PC to a Mac. 
I hope this helps!