By SAM GROBART
Published: December 29, 2010
Your gadgets and computers, your software and sites — they are not working as well as they should. You need to make some tweaks.
But the tech industry has given you the impression that making adjustments is difficult and time-consuming. It is not.
And so below are 10 things to do to improve your technological life. They are easy and (mostly) free. Altogether, they should take about two hours; one involves calling your cable or phone company, so that figure is elastic. If you do them, those two hours will pay off handsomely in both increased free time and diminished anxiety and frustration. You can do it.
GET A SMARTPHONE Why: Because having immediate access to your e-mail, photos, calendars and address books, not to mention vast swaths of the Internet, makes life a little easier.
How: This does not have to be complicated. Upgrade your phone with your existing carrier; later, when you are an advanced beginner, you can start weighing the pluses and minuses of your carrier versus another. Using AT&T? Get a refurbished iPhone 3GS for $29. Verizon? Depending on what’s announced next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, get its version of the iPhone, or a refurbished Droid Incredible for $100. Sprint? Either the LG Optimus S or the Samsung Transform are decent Android phones that cost $50. T-Mobile users can get the free LG Optimus T.
STOP USING INTERNET EXPLORER Why: Because, while the latest version has some real improvements, Internet Explorer is large, bloated with features and an example of old-style Microsoft excess.
How: Switch to either Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. Both are first-rate, speedy browsers, and both are free. It remains a tight race between the two, but Chrome has had the lead lately in features and performance. Both browsers include useful things like bookmark syncing. That means that your bookmarks folder will be the same on every computer using Chrome or Firefox, and will update if you change anything.
UPLOAD YOUR PHOTOS TO THE CLOUD Why: Because you’ll be really sorry if an errant cup of coffee makes its way onto your PC, wiping away years of photographic memories. Creating copies of your digital photos on an online service is a painless way to ensure they’ll be around no matter what happens to your PC. It is also an easy way to share the photos with friends and family.
How: There are many good, free choices. To keep things simple, use Picasa, Google’s service. After your initial upload — which may take a while, so set it up before you go to sleep — you will have a full backup of your photo library. And by inviting people to view it, privately, with passwords, you will not have to e-mail photos anymore. Anytime you have new pictures, upload them to Picasa, send a message to your subscribers, and they can view your gallery at their leisure.
GET MUSIC OFF YOUR COMPUTER Why: Because music bought digitally wants to be freed, not imprisoned in your portable player or laptop. It wants to be sent around the home, filling rooms like good old-fashioned hi-fi.
How: Using iTunes for your digital music? Buy Apple’s Airport Express for $99 and connect it to your stereo. When you play music on your computer, you can stream it to the Express and, therefore, your stereo’s speakers. Have an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad? Download Apple’s free Remote app and you will be able to control your music from anywhere in the house.
BACK UP YOUR DATA Why: Because photos are not the only important things on your computer. With online backup services, you do not have to buy any equipment; you just install software, which sits on secure servers and runs in the background, regularly updating a mirror image of all your files while you spend time on more important things, like confirming that Ben Gazzara really was the bad guy in “Road House” (he was).
How: Go to sosonlinebackup.com. Pay $80 a year. Install the software. Sleep easy.
SET UP A FREE FILE-SHARING SERVICE Why: Because while e-mailing yourself files is a perfectly decent workaround, there are easier, more elegant ways to move files around — and they do not cost anything, either.
How: Go to dropbox.com and set up a free account. You will then get an icon that sits on your desktop. Drag and drop files onto that icon, and they are immediately copied to the cloud. The free account gives you up to two gigabytes of disk space; 50- and 100-gigabyte are also available, but they cost $10 or $20 a month.
Set up your account on all your other computers, and they all have the access to the same files. You can set up shared, private and public folders, and apps for iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android mean you can gain access to shared files from anywhere.
GET FREE ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE Why: Because attacks on unwitting users are more widespread and tactics are growing more advanced.
How: Windows users should download Avast Free Antivirus. Mac users can downloadiAntiVirus Free Edition. Both applications will provide a basic level of security against a variety of so-called malware. And they cost zero.
GET A BETTER DEAL FROM YOUR CABLE, PHONE AND INTERNET PROVIDER Why: Because it does not take much to get them to give you free (or cheaper) services. These companies are generally indifferent to customer needs, but they are quick to cough up discounts — if you ask.
How: Just call and ask — they will probably give you something. Other tactics: Measure your Internet speed, using dslreports.com/speedtest; if it is less than what you are paying for, ask for a free upgrade. Or ask to speak to the cancellation department. That usually scares them.
BUY A LOT OF CHARGING CABLES Why: Because you should never have a gadget’s battery die on you, and they are cheap. Smartphone user? Have a charging cable at the office, one in the car, and a couple at home. Laptops? Have enough chargers in the house, so you are not tethered to the den when the power runs low.
How: eBay. Search for what you need with terms like “original” or “oem” (original equipment manufacturer). You will often see accessories for as little as one-tenth their normal retail price. Buy them by the gross.
CALIBRATE YOUR HDTV Why: Because that awesome 1080p plasma or LCD TV you bought has factory settings for color, brightness, contrast and so forth that are likely to be out of whack. They need to be adjusted.
How: Order Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark: Blu-ray Edition, a DVD, for $25. Its regimen of tests and patterns will help you adjust your TV’s settings to more natural levels. After you use it, you may want to fine-tune the TV some more, but you can do so knowing you are getting the most out of your display.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 31, 2010
An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect URL for sosonlinebackup.com.