As it happens, you can use Amazon’s Android app-getting application on the Curtis LT7033 with a little finagling, and most reports say the hardware is good; the only problem is with the software, and since you’re going to replace that immediately it doesn’t matter.
But this is kind of offensive to me, the same way it would be to buy a brand-new $15,000 car and be forced to buy a $5000 aftermarket engine for it right away because the factory one is a total dog.
So… hmmm… what other super-cheap tablets are out there? I wrote about this a few weeks ago, with a strong look at tablets available from an international retailer called LightInThe Box.com. I also checked Amazon, but was not impressed with the tablets they offered.
The store I forgot to check was Wal-Mart. They may be the dregs of American retail, but since all tablet computers are made in China anyway, Wal-Mart is no worse a place to buy one than anywhere else.
At WalMart.com I found this $69 tablet, accompanied by copy that explicitly says it has Google Play pre-installed.
Since not all Android apps work with all Android hardware, there’s still a little risk. But Wal-Mart’s shipping is free, and if I don’t like it a return won’t be a lot of trouble because their nearest store is less than five miles away.
So I have ordered a “Nextbook 7 Tablet with 8GB Memory” from Wal-Mart. I don’t expect a whole lot from it for $69. I just want to read books and watch 480p videos on it, maybe read and respond to a little email while lounging on my patio. That sort of thing.
My cheap tablet will be here in a week or so. When it gets here, I’ll let you know if it’s worth what I paid for it.]]>
What do you do with a graphics editor? What I mostly do is crop and resize photos, and sometimes take screenshots. Once in a while I overlay some text. That’s about it. I don’t do much with print, and haven’t for many years, so Photoshop’s ability to get ink colors just right means nothing to me. So what if I found a free program that would do all the graphics work I need to do? I’d jump on it, right? And what if it ran in Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X? Wow! I’d double-jump on it — and I did, long ago. It’s called the GIMP, for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and I use it almost every day. In fact, I used it to prepare the thumbnail for this blog post.
To show the process, I made a short, silent (but with music) video using another free software tool, Screencast-O-Matic, that I also use all the time, and that deserves its own blog post in the near future.
Here’s the video:
See how easy that was?
And I went slow in this demo so my actions would be more obvious to you.
My normal time from screenshot to thumbnail is less than a minute.
I’m not going to give you detailed instructions on how to use the GIMP, since it comes with built-in help, plus amazing online documentation in a number of popular languages.
There are other free (in both senses of the word) graphics programs out there, but the GIMP has always helped me do what I needed to do with a minimum of fuss, so I keep on using it even though I regularly test competing software.
Am I a GIMP fuddy-duddy? Maybe. If so, that just shows how mature (proven) and stable a program it is.]]>
Maybe you don’t need to know How To Install Multiple OS Using VirtualBox In Ubuntu today, but one day you might. (As it happens, I *do* need to know that this week!)
And so on. There’s even a weekly comic to keep things lively.
Thanks go to Glen David Barres for this tip!]]>
The Starlight Blue Android 4.0 Tablet with 7 Inch Capacitive Screen (4GB,WiFi, 1.5GHz, 3G, Camera) for $69.99 (plus about $11 shipping) is almost their least expensive tablet, but it has strong enough specs that it ought to be able to show a YouTube or Netflix movie without stuttering. And if a 10-year-old granddaughter breaks it, replacing it won’t be overly painful. Add a bright red keyboard/carrying case combo for $12.99 and you have a machine that can do homework, too.
Just about any Android 4.0 tablet ought to be good for our girls — and your teens and pre-teens, too. Or even for you and me. These are not telco tablets. They access the rest of the world through WiFi, not a wireless carrier, so there is no monthly charge to use them. Just drop in at a restaurant or other business that offers free WiFi and you’re good to go even if you don’t have WiFi at home (or you’re on a camping trip or you’re homeless).
If you want to turn up your nose at these cheap tablets, you might want to check out this techradar.com article about the 15 best Android tablets in the world. They run $199 and (way) up. Not exactly what we want if we are worried about breakage, but there are times when we deserve rewards in the form of high-end toys, right?
Amazon.com also has a whole herd of low-cost Android tablets. Just about the top offering they have is the Coby Kyros 7-Inch Android 4.0 4 GB Internet Tablet 16:9 Capacitive Multi-Touch Widescreen with Built-In Camera for $97.83 plus free shipping (at the time I wrote this; Amazon prices often change radically without notice). This is a pretty decent deal. It may not be the world’s greatest tablet, but what do you expect for less than $100?
The big question is, “How good does a tablet need to be?”
To me, it’s a working tool. I don’t need super-high screen resolution. Even if I’m watching a movie, it’s a 7 inch screen. 880X480 pixels is more than enough for me on something that small. If I want a big screen, I have one. It’s called a 42″ Vizio high definition TV. It has great resolution, but it won’t fit in my pocket or even in a backpack.
In my life, in 2013, $100 is plenty to spend on a tablet, and 7 inches is plenty big. If I want something larger, I have a sub-notebook with an 11.6″ screen and a built-in keyboard. And Bluetooth and all kinds of cool stuff I hardly ever use. And if my notebook isn’t big enough, I have a desktop computer with two monitors, one of them 24″ wide, that I use for video editing — but not for writing stories (like this one) out on my patio, which is where I happen to be right now, using my notebook computer.
It’s easy to accumulate screens, isn’t it?
Maybe too easy.
I am sorely tempted, at this very moment, to buy that $98.99 Scorpius tablet from Lightinthebox.com for myself or perhaps as a Mother’s Day gift for my wife.
Hmmmm…. I’ll think about it for a day or two. One thing I’ve learned in the last 60 decades is not to rush into a purchase. If it’s worth buying today, it will be worth buying tomorrow.
And if it’s *not* worth buying tomorrow, I will be glad I *didn’t* get it.]]>
The total came to over $2900. Amazing. Might as well trade the old Hyundai in on a new one, eh?
Except that I fixed cars for a living in my younger days, my father owned a machine shop and did most of our family repairs, including car stuff, and even though I am now too sick and decrepit to crawl under cars a whole lot, I know guys like Jesse who don’t charge anything near what a dealer does for labor.
And parts prices. Let’s start there. A cabin air filter for $44.95? I can get one for $10 or less. Engine air filter for $24.95? Again, less than $10.
Now let’s go to the top of the dealer’s sales list and look at the “CEI related” items. $654.06 plus tax.
I have access to something magic called “the Internet.” Did you know there are discussion websites for Hyundai owners, where they swap repair advice? There are similar sites for Jeep Cherokees, too, which is a good thing because I own one of those as well as the Hyundai. And whatever make of car you have, there’s probably a discussion board for it where you can learn what other people have done to remedy the “Check Engine Light” on with a “Fuel System Problem” code, and the “gas tank almost impossible to fill” problem that often seems to accompany it in Hyundais.
Ah ha! We are not the first ones to run into these symptoms. Many others say they can be fixed by replacing the fuel evaporation canister and blowing out the lines to it with compressed air, and that replacing the associated valves is almost never necessary but is no big deal if they’re clogged so badly that cleaning them with a little solvent doesn’t clear them right up.
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which is what the dealer charges, for a Hyundai original equipment evaporative canister, is 160.98.
You’ve heard of eBay, right? Me too. And did you know that many car parts dealers and junkyards use eBay as a sales channel? I found a parts guy who had that exact same canister for (hold your breath) $17.96, brand-new. With free shipping. Chances are slim that we really need either of the two valves the dealer recommends, but even if we get them they’re more like $20 each at local parts stores than $100+, which is what the dealer charges for each of them. And labor on that job? Sure, the canister is under the car and takes some jacking and crawling to get to, but once you’ve jacked the car and put jackstands under it (for safety; you NEVER get under a car held up only by a jack) it’s a two-bolt job. And two little hose clamps. The valves are just as easy to replace. Call it 15 to 30 minutes of labor.
So basically, I shopped the dealer’s $654 job down to well under $100, even if I pay Jesse to do it instead of doing it myself.
The rest of the items on the dealer repair list are also way out of line on price. Tuneup? They want $255.87 — on a 4-cylinder car. In real life the parts are $30 – $40, and it’s a top-of-the-car job I can easily do in 15 minutes. And that dealer likes to sell services like brake fluid, power steering and transmission fluid flushes way more often than they are needed, as this article from AOL points out: Fluid Flush Fallacy: Just a ‘Nightline’ Away From Scandal.
Amazing, isn’t it? And even more amazing, some people actually pay those prices, just as some people pay the blue-shirted Weak Squad people for heavily overpriced PC repairs.
There is an entire automotive underground in this country that fixes cars for a lot less money than a dealership or a fancy, heavily-advertised repair shop charges. The most visible members of this underground are chain parts stores such as AutoZone and Advance Auto Parts. I mention these two because they’re close to my home. There are many others, and a lot of them will recommend a local mechanic for you if you don’t know one. If nothing else, they’ll sell you parts for half or a quarter of their cost at the car dealer. Quality? Just as good, for the most part, and sometimes better.
Finding a Decent Mechanic
Plenty of low-overhead and mobile mechanics (who come to you with a service truck) advertise on Craiglist. Many more rely purely on referrals and repeat customers to keep their schedules full. How do you find this last bunch? Look for people who have good-looking older cars and ask them who they use. There is no way anyone is going to maintain a 1996 Jeep Cherokee (my car) as a daily driver at dealership repair prices. Rather, that car is maintained by me, Jesse, and sometimes Rebel, a morose biker and near-genius mechanic with a long beard who splits shop space with an appliance repair person I know in a low-rent backstreet industrial park.
I’m paying these guys something like 1/3 of what a dealership charges for labor, and they’re happy to get it, because it’s more than they’d get working at the dealership. And by working for themselves they get a level of freedom the local Hyundai dealership would never give them.
Referrals are also the best way to find a technician or network engineer to take care of your home or business computers. Do you belong to a Chamber of Commerce or other business group? Ask fellow members for advice. Failing that, ask businesses you patronize who they use. There are lots of competent IT techs who don’t want to work for someone else and keep their prices low to stay busy, and a little energy spent finding them will reward you ten-fold — if not more.
It all comes down to the Cheap Computing mindset, which is identical to the Cheap Car Repair mindset. Both will save you tons of money, and give you better-running cars and computers than spending top dollar for the most expensive service companies around, especially if you learn to do a little of the lighter maintenance and repair work yourself.]]>
Which Tax Software Should I Use?
If you only have a W2 or two, maybe collected some unemployment, and all your deductions and credits are simple and personal, such as children (but not pets, which are not deductible), you might as well use the free, online tax software from any of the “big three” prep mills. I’ve tested them all on relatives’ simple returns and they came up with the same answers, and one was not enough harder or simpler than another to notice. It has, however, been two years since I did this, so it’s possible — although unlikely — that things have changed.
Filing state income tax costs extra, but it’s usually pretty easy if you have a filled-out 1040 or 1040EZ to work from, and a calculator (your computer has one built in) to help with the arithmetic. If you *do* want some help, though, and your return is simple, Tax Act is the cheapest, and their arithmetic is just fine. If you have a simple (free) federal return, Tax Act charges a mere $17.95 to file state income tax along with it. Or you can get their federal tax and state tax bundle for $21.95, which is an excellent deal compared to the other two for wage-earner returns, and might find you a few bucks in federal tax deductions you might not find on your own with the free version.
Self-employment returns get trickier. Suddenly the Q&A style TurboTax uses is a breath of fresh air. Yes, I could read through the various IRS publications, but for $80 I’d just as soon rely on TurboTax. (And since I live in Florida, which has no state income tax, state income tax is not a factor for me.)
Why I Buy TurboTax
I’m cheap. Really. But tax prep software is not someplace I try to save. I find I am most comfortable with TurboTax, so that’s what I use. If I was more comfortable using H&R Block tax software, I’d use theirs. I tried TaxAct because — you knew this — I love a bargain. But I didn’t like the way it it did its figuring; it seemed opaque, not transparent, and since it’s my money I like to watch every action and every step, just as a I like to walk along the “tunnel” at the automatic car wash and watch all the rollers and sprays and brushes do their jobs on my car.
The biggest thing, though, is that I’m used to TurboTax. I went to it from doing my taxes on paper, which is how I did them for many years. I’m no super math whiz, but I’m a trained electronics technician and that means I know more than enough math and can run a calculator (or do arithmetic with a pen and paper) well enough that I consider financial calculations trivial.
For many years I relied on my CPA oldest brother to answer, “Is it better to figure it this way or that way?” questions. After he died, I often paid an accountant friend to check my returns and make suggestions. Since I didn’t need help with the math, I didn’t pay him to do it for me.
“What I should buy or sell?”
“Is this a personal or a business expense?”
Those are the sorts of things where a real accountant can help — and is worth his or her fee.
But the question this article tries to answer is, “Should I spend $80 for TurboTax instead of $75 for Block or $18 for TaxAct?”
I answer, “Yes,” because of my personal tax situation, which is moderately complex but doesn’t take much judgment.
If I had more judgment questions (about an estate or trust, for example) I might choose H&R Block and their endless experts, since I don’t find it particularly easy to get one-on-one human help from TurbTax.
Without the self-employment? I’d save my money and use TaxAct.
And the one year I really had serious questions about my taxes, I paid a CPA to do them for me. Sure, that’s the most expensive way of all to go, but if you lay out $400 or $800 or $1200 and save $5000 or $10,000, the money you spend to hire a professional is totally worth it, even if it goes against your natural bargain-hunting grain.
But first, file that free extension — even if you’re reading this after April 15!
Please note that Bluefish is not a “does everything for you” editor like Dreamweaver and others purport to be. But if you’re writing plain text, HTML, CSS or a whole lot of others (check the list on the left side of the page), and you know what you’re doing, Bluefish is a great tool.
Note that I said “great tool” and specifically noted that Bluefish doesn’t do your work for you. Think of yourself as a skilled carpenter. Obviously, you know how to cut wood. But you can cut wood faster with a power saw than with a hand saw, right?
Bluefish is that power saw — if you’re writing or programming for the World Wide Web.There is a feature in Bluefish that was added specifically because I asked for it. You see, text editors (including Bluefish) are programmed by programmers, not by writers.
Programmers don’t care about the number of words in an article. Writers do, because we are often paid by the word. And, naturally, when a programmer proudly presents his shiny new editor to a reviewer (who is almost by definition a writer), the first question the reviewer asks is almost always, “Where’s the word count?”
Ah. A sudden silence.
When I asked that question on the original Bluefish email list, the answer was, “Hmmm… let us get back to you on that one.” And get back the developers did, with three different word count methods. A bunch of us looked at them, poked them, and tried them in our normal work. We chose the one we liked best, and by Thursday Bluefish had a pretty good word count tool built into it.
I used to use this anecdote — about Bluefish getting a word count tool between Monday and Thursday — as a way to show how open source software was better than proprietary software. Think: if you needed a new feature in Microsoft Word, and asked Microsoft to add it, would they? In this decade? Probably not. But the Bluefish developers took on the challenge. Wow.
So I like Bluefish. Its rate of development has slowed in the last couple of years, but that’s because Bluefish is mature, stable, and as full of features as a program should be.
I like my word processor.
But think: A word processor is built to put words on pages. Even when you look at it on your computer screen, you see (virtual) pages. What if you are writing material that’s going to appear on the WWW, not on paper? Do you need or even want virtual paper on your screen? No way. You want something that looks like Bluefish. And works like Bluefish. And works on all the operating systems you are likely to use — again, like Bluefish.
So I use Bluefish. And maybe you should, too.
Since Apple and Apple buyers live in a different reality from the rest of us, an Apple product on sale for a little less than list is a wondrous thing, and we should not sneeze at the idea of saving money however and wherever we can.
Yes, I know. For every Apple product on sale, if you think a little different you can find something that will do the job just as well for half the price. You can also point out that my old (but new to me) Jeep Cherokee is more practical off-road transportation than an Audi Quattro for less than 1/5 the price, but there are plenty of people who prefer the Audi — and no doubt own iPhones instead of Android phones, too.
But even Audi and Apple buyers like to save a buck now and then, which is why they need to know about Apple’s Certified Refurbished Products outlet on eBay.
This is where you get a 64 GB iPod Touch for $229, reduced from $399. If an iPod Touch is a “gotta have it” item for you or a family member, this is worth a look. At least.
Some of us don’t even consider Apple products, either because they’re expensive, because we aren’t in love with the way they work, or both. But again: Some wouldn’t have anything else, and they have a right to be as cheap as the rest of us even though they like to stay in Apple’s proprietary universe. Which is a fine place to be for a lot of people; don’t get us wrong on that.
Here’s the dealnews story from which we grabbed the infographic: Price Trends: When to Buy a Mac
Here’s the readwrite take on the same infographic: How Long Should You Wait For Deals On Apple Products?
From the readwrite story comes the best advice in this whole schmear, condensed from the dealnews piece:
Dealnews offers another tip from its research. If you want the best price for Apple products, don’t buy them from Apple! Instead, wait until a new model comes out, then haunt the MacMalls and Best Buys of the world and buy the previous version days or weeks after the new release. You can thank us — and Dealnews — later.
So you can. These are the best Apple money-saving tips I’ve ever seen. Please use them for good, not evil.
The dealnews Infographic:
Please note that in this tongue-in-cheek review, I was evaluating free apps based purely on their entertainment value. (There are pay-for “virtual assistant” apps that are probably far better than these free ones for *practical* use.) The original Alicebot, upon which they are based, was also a great toy. As you could see from the examples in this video review, speech recognition on my Evo V 4G phone is far from perfect. That’s fun when you’re using it as a toy, but for direction-finding or emergency use? No way. Better to pull over, type, and get everything right.]]>
We start our download with an ad for some sort of “scan your PC” thing. I have the built-in Windows Defender and CCleaner, and I don’t like to crud up my computer and slow it down with all kinds of nonsense software. And these “cleaners” lay in wait for you behind all kinds of innocent downloads.
Whoa! Now it’s some sort of media converter. No. Uncheck the box. Finally downloading….
…only to find this offer as the download finishes. Don’t click it or even let your cursor near it. This is getting tiresome.
Oops! Spoke too soon. First there’s one of those onerous proprietary software license agreements that nobody ever reads.
And then there’s a chance to install one of those toolbars that suck up your browser window space and try to steer you to shopping sites that sell things you don’t need. Yech!
It’s Windows, so we go to Control Panel -> Programs and Features, and the most likely candidate here for badness (we’ve seen it before) is the one with “Conduit” in its name.
While I’m sure the lawyers would like me to say Conduit is a great company, I personally hate them and the sneaky way they put junk software on people’s computers. This is just my opinion, mind you. Take it for what it’s worth: Nothing, right?
Anyway, I uninstalled Conduit, then went to Chrome and Firefox and removed the “Conduit” extension from those browsers. Explorer? I never use Explorer, so as far as I’m concerned its entire window can fill up with toolbars.
What a pain, eh?
So why didn’t I just download good old GPL *true* free software Audacity and use that?
Only one reason: Because I write this blog and get paid to test not only good things for you, but also to warn you about BAD things. Like the work I put into getting “free” Free Sound Recorder onto my computer and getting rid of all the crap that came with it, like barnacles on a boat hull.
And now I will go fire up Audacity and start doing my voiceovers. It’s free, the license is right, there is no junk attached to it, and it has enough features to fill a book — and is worth its own post, which I will give it before log.
Until then, take my word: There’s a little sound recorder utility built into Windows. It works, but it’s not very good. If you need more recording capability and excellent sound editing ability, your next step up is Audacity, a program I have used for years in both Linux and Windows and recommend wholeheartedly.