Google SMS – Handy text pages to your phone on the go

Instead of dialing 411 or even having to print out directions, check out the Google SMS service. I was recently looking for a restaurant in the area and my friend said, “just text Google for the name of the restaurant followed by a nearby zipcode and it’ll give you the phone number and address back”.

So I tried it. I texted Google at GOOGL (there’s no ‘E’). This corresponds to the number 46645. I entered:

Cafe India 98101

Though I had the zipcode wrong (it was in the same city though, so we just picked my friend’s home zip code) – this listing came up. He was right. Address, phone number – it was all there. Bingo.

Very cool.

Understanding VOIP and lowering your phone bill with Vonage and Skype

I’ve written earlier about configuring Skype on your computer and how to get the best sound quality. To save money, there’s actually a multi-pronged approach I recommend.

First, in both of these cases you’ll need a high speed Internet connection. I’m not talking about DSL though. That’s generally not fast enough. You need a good cable modem connection in the home to typically get the performance (speed) that Voice Over Internal Protocol (VOIP) requires.

Already have a high speed Internet connection? Great. Here are your options (generally, both make sense).

1. Make computer-to-computer calls anywhere in the world with Skype

In this setup, Skype is like an IM client. Think Yahoo! Messenger or MSN Messenger, except Skype does and specializes in high quality audio and an interface that just works.

Both parties in the “call” must have Skype setup and with a high speed Internet connection. This gives you calls that are completely free, though you’re generally tethered to your computer.

2. Use a commercial VOIP provider for your telephone service

In this scenario, you get to use your familiar telephone equipment and call people in the traditional manner – by dialing their phone number. Services like Vonage (my favourite) give you a little device that plugs into your home network. Into this little device, you plug in your regular phone (there’s traditional phone jack on the back of these devices). Now calls to your phone number get routed over the Internet, into your home, onto your home network, into your little telephone adapter box and then they cause your phone to ring. You pick up the phone and it’s a normal telephone call to you.

In this space, there are quite a few companies. The front runner is Vonage and they do this service well. You get voicemail, name and number caller ID, call waiting and all the other typical features you normally pay extra for, all for a fraction of the regular cost. My phone bill went from $70/US a month to $35/US a month.

The only downside, is that if your cable modem connection goes out, you have no phone service at home during the outage. However, calls still go to voicemail and everyone has cell phones – so you’ve really not lost anything.

In my Vonage plan for example, I get to call anywhere in North America (yes, that includes Canada) for free – any time. And, places like the UK, Pakistan and India are really, really cheap to call. I also got a “virtual” Toronto number. It’s a local call for folks in Toronto and it routes to my phone in the US. The conveniences are great.

If you want to save money, have cell phones in the household and already have a broadband connection, you should take a look at Vonage. They’re available in the US, Canada, the UK and I believe a couple of other places as well.

Enjoy the savings!

Splash ID is a hit! Secure sensitive data on your desktop and handheld / smartphone

I posted earlier about Splash ID – a product I was going to test out to secure my sensitive data on the desktop and sync it with my smartphone so it was available to me on the go, also in an encrypted, password protected manner.

Well, I’ve tried Splash ID and I loved it so much I bought the $30 US utility. I get a desktop application that lets me enter in sensitive data, using categories (e.g. “Personal”, “Business”) into types (e.g. “Credit Card”, “Bank Account”, “Web Login”, etc.). In both cases, you can define your own types and categories. Each type is a template of the kind of information you store in that type. For example, “Credit Card” types have a field call “card number”, “expiry date” and so on. You get to customize these too.

Additionally, you can set fields to be “masked”. This means that even though you type in a password on your handheld to access this information, the sensitive info shows up as little circles until and unless you toggle the “mask/unmask” button. This protects you from eyes peering over your shoulder.

The amount of usability and thought that went into this tool is impressive. By entering everything in on your desktop, you get to easily sync it with your handheld or smartphone. It’s great to use on the desktop too, especially if you do a lot of Internet commerce.

Even if you just need to store passwords for work, home, the bank and more traditional items like these, Splash ID is a great place to put it all.

I highly, highly recommend it.

Norton Ghost Disappoints – Dantz Retrospect takes the lead

I’ve posted earlier of how using a tool like Norton Ghost 2003 and a Maxtor external hard drive creates a great backup solution for a drive-image style backup that retains all your settings.

Well, Norton Ghost 2003 used to work well. I got it as part of a bundle in Norton SystemWorks 2004 Professional. I also use Norton Internet Security 2004. Norton has a Live Update facility that is always patching your software. It sounds great in theory. Many tools in their offerings share common facilities / code components. They don’t seem to do this well however.

Recently, my Norton Ghost 2003 gleefully made system image backups that when I later went to check on, could not be opened (even though it did an “integrity” check on the original backup). Symantec support on this problem has been very slow and not very helpful. They recommended obvious things like “run live update until there are no more updates” which I had already done and stated to them in my original tech support request.

Ultimately, Symantec told me that if my hard drive was too fragmented, that this could be the cause. So I went out and purchased the best hard drive defragmenter (Diskeeper 9.0) and completely defragmented my hard drive, only to have the same problem.

What to do?

I had used a free version of Dantz Retrospect (Retrospect Express) that came bundled with my Maxtor hard drive and was impressed with it. So I downloaded their professional version (trial) which included a facility to do drive image backups like Ghost did. The backup part went really smooth and their process is far superior (uses incremental backups, you don’t have to leave Windows, etc.). I will test out the ability for it to read the backup data reliably and update this blog.

So far, my problems with Norton Ghost suggest that the winning horse is Dantz Retrospect Professional.

Desktop Search: And the winner is….Copernic

I’ve tried the major desktop search tools (Google, Yahoo! and Copernic) and I must say, Copernic is far superior to the rest.

For those of you not familiar with it, desktop search tools are a new breed of tools trying to do for your own hard drive what search engines have done for the Internet for years: help you find stuff quickly. These days, everyone has large hard drives with their data all over the place. You need a search engine to find your own stuff! Spending time to organize your computer contents mitigates this need, but even then, it’s nice to have a snappy tool to assist you in the search process. These tools search not only files on your hard drive, but also search all of your email, often inside attachments too.

Google gives you results in a web browser, similar to their Web Search that everyone is familiar with. However, Yahoo! and Copernic give you a more powerful rich client interface (application) that helps you segment and preview items much more easily.

The Yahoo! Desktop tool is currently in Beta and it felt like it. The indexing must have been messed up on my version – simple things in emails that it could find when I installed it – it could no longer find on subsequent attempts.

So I resorted to Copernic (I’ve used their general Internet Search Agent before) and I was very impressed. It worked. Flawlessly. I could preview items in one pane and get date sorted results in another – similar to Outlook 2003’s segmentation of folder contents. Copernic has been a joy to use and it is quick.

Copernic is highly recommended (and not just cause it’s from a Canadian company!).

Skype Upgrades and Contacts

For those of you on Skype, I’ve noticed that when you install on different computers, one’s list of registered contacts doesn’t move to the new computer the way mainstream IM clients like MSN, Yahoo! and AOL do. This is a minor inconvenience and I imagine at some point in the future, Skype will remedy this.

On a related note, Skype tends to have a minor upgrade available every couple of months. I tend to install these as soon as they come out, if for no other reason, so that it’ll stop nagging me!

I’ve just upgraded to the latest and am happy with it; everything still works great. And of course, you won’t lose your contacts when upgrading on the same computer as you currently have it installed at.

Configuring your audio setup for Skype

Skype is great for calls over the Internet if you have a broadband connection.

If your audio hardware is decent and your configuration of such is optimal, you should be able to enjoy excellent sound reception and transmission for all your Skype calls. Of course, both parties in a call need to have a decent setup in order for the conversation to be as effortless and as smooth as regular phone service.

I’m often asked and help out with getting an audio setup configured right for Skype. The two main sources of audio problems are:

  1. Low end audio hardware (i.e. cheap sound card)
  2. Feedback in non-headset mode

Audio Hardware

If you’ve got a Mac, you have less to worry about here. Your audio hardware is very good.

If you have a PC, you may have an issue here. Low-end sound cards that sound decent for basic sounds and some music often have much worse audio in (mic input) sub-systems. Furthermore, if the sound card is really cheap, the driver software and utilities that come with it usually are too. Not being able to properly configure mic input volume levels and basic things of this sort can make it frustrating.

In my Dad’s computer, we had a basic sound card that used to do the job well before we pushed it with two-way voice over IP telephony. Frustrated with the confusing driver software and performance, I picked up an external, brand name sound “card”. The beauty with these, is that they can move with you to the next computer, much like your keyboard, mouse and monitor.

For about $70 CDN, you can get an entry-level SoundBlaster external sound device from Creative Labs. These guys are a mainstream brand name. Therefore, decent software and driver support (as well as above average sound hardware) is something you no longer have to worry about.

As for mics, I’m a big fan of the Logitech USB microphone and for headsets, I like anything Plantronics makes. In both cases, there’s an above average quality you can trust in that makes the configuration/troubleshooting phase that much simpler.

Audio Feedback

This is where the bulk of the problems come. We often have our speakers so close to our computers for every day applications, that we don’t realize this is just way too close for using Skype, in most cases.

If you are using a computer headset (more common with PCs), you pretty much eliminate the feedback issue. If you are using a microphone and your speakers, then you have to be careful that the sound from your speakers doesn’t feed back into your microphone. If you’re not sure this is the problem, replace your speakers with regular audio headphones, but continue to use your microphone. With no other sound except that going to your ears, you eliminate the possibility of feedback. Does this sound better? If so, then as far as you think your speakers are, they are still too loud and/or too close. Only experimentation will tell you what works.

If all else fails, use a headset or headphones to kill feedback.

I have found that placing the speakers on the ground created more feedback and rumblings, but that placing speakers behind me and pointing sideways (instead of having the sound come directly at me from behind) worked very well.

In my own setup, I keep a couple of speaker sets around the room. If I’m doing a Skype call, I’ll kill the power on the nearby speakers to eliminate the feedback. Now I can walk around the room and have a Skype call, hands free.

Affordable dial-up plan as backup for broadband and travel

Do you find yourself using broadband everywhere and thus, not really needing a dial-up account? Wherever you go, there’s wi-fi or an ethernet jack you can plug into, right?

But what about the times that’s not available, and you could use a 56K dial-up service? You don’t want to pay $30, $20 or $10 a month for something you’re not going to use more than a few hours the entire year, right?

So what do you do?

I signed up with Crosspaths Internet. They have a dial-up plan with nationwide numbers (across the US only) like all the big boys, but they only charge you $1 / month. That’s no typo. With that $1 a month, you get 60 minutes of connection time. Need more? It’s only a $1 each hour more. So if you use dial-up for 3 hours one month, you get billed $3. If you don’t use it for a month, you just get billed $1 for that month. It’s a great pay-for-usage type plan.

They no longer advertise it on their website home page, but if you want it, you can sign up via the telephone number for their sales department. I’ve found this service invaluable – but only if you’re in the US (apologies to my Canadian readers!).

Securing Sensitive Data on a handheld / Smartphone and Desktop

This has always been a pain with so many passwords, logins and other sensitive information to manage that you just can’t keep in your head anymore. What to do?

It used to be that folks stored sensitive login information in a Word document, and put a password on that (which MS Word lets you do). The problem today is that you can buy $50 software quite easily that will break this weak encryption, which was never meant to be bulletproof. Furthermore, even if you had a heavy duty PocketPC PDA or SmartPhone, you have the same breakable encryption problem or your mobile device.

I am experimenting with a program called FineCrypt that is freeware at the basic levels and acts like a secure zip archive. It’s not as intuitive or seamless as I’d like it to be, but it may just do the job on the desktop.

I want to eventually keep login info on a smart phone (likely a Treo 600/650 soon) and friends of mine already want to do this now. So I looked into it. I’ve not tried anything as yet, but I am intrigued by Splash ID. It’s available for PocketPC and PalmOS and has both a mobile and desktop client (both Windows and Mac!). You can define custom fields to protect and record data in, and it is all protected with 256-bit blowfish encryption (the algorithm Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security devised – and he’s quite the guru on the subject).

Backup Solutions – Maxtor One Touch and Norton Ghost 2003

I really like my Maxtor “One Touch” backup drive. I got the 300 MB version (has both Firewire and USB 1.1/2.0 interfaces). I use the Firewire interface and connect it to my server. It was about $330 at CompUSA.

Note that the “one touch” button just launches any program you’d like, including backup software. Since I schedule a nightly incremental backup of data, it really isn’t necessary for me. If you had one of these one-touch drives attached to each of your computers, then I can see value in configuring it to do an incremental capture of the local system and data on demand.

There’s a flash demo available as well.

I use this for data file backups from shared (and secure) data folders across the home network. The Dantz Retrospect Express Software is very good. It takes a little getting used to, but then it works reliably.

For image backups, I recommend a copy of Norton Ghost 2003 for each machine to be backed up. Configure it so the image gets dropped to a file share on your server (the Maxtor drive, in fact), and everything is centralized for backups.