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Friday’s the day I’d usually be running a Tech Frustration Friday meme here, but I am all about giving my readers what they want and frankly, response to the TFF memes has been pretty lukewarm. So I’m going to kick off a new weekly feature here in its place: Free App Friday, where I’ll share the top ten most downloaded FREE apps from Amazon’s App Store that are also the highest rated (4/5 stars or higher) as of the day I post the list. But I also noticed that readers responded very positively to the quickie tech tip I included with the final TFF meme last week, so I’ll be continuing with that feature on the Free App Friday posts as well.

 

Quickie Tech Tip: Were You Affected By The Michael’s Craft Store Data Breach?

I shop at Michael’s a lot, so I was just as freaked out to hear about this data breach as anyone else. I read article after article that quoted Michael’s spokesperson as saying the breach was limited to 7 – 17% of their customers during the breach period, but all I wanted to know was how to tell if *I* was one of those customers. Finally, after digging around online, I found a pdf document Michael’s has released that lists ALL affected stores, as well as the time window when each store was affected by the breach.

Click here to view Michael’s List of Stores Affected By The 2013 – 2014 Data Breach

Look at the list to find your local store and the breach window, but bear in mind: many financial institutions issued their customers new credit and debit cards following the Target breach, so if the time window shown for your local Michael’s occurred BEFORE you got new cards on account of the Target breach, you’re in good shape and don’t need to ask to have them re-issued again. However, you still may want to review your financial records for the months following the window of exposure for your local store, just to verify no suspicious charges were made to your accounts.

 

Free App Friday!

Here are the top ten most downloaded AND highest-rated apps from Amazon’s Android App Store as of this writing. Remember that free apps may include in-app purchase (IAP) options or be ad-supported, but given that these apps have been given very high ratings by MANY consumers, where IAP links or ads are present they must be pretty unobtrusive. Descriptions below are from the apps’ product pages.

Slots – Age of the Pharoahs (5/5 stars) •12+ unique slot machines with various features •Tens of unique mini games you can’t find in any other slots machine

My Dolphin Show (5/5 stars) It’s time to become a real dolphin and make a splash! Let the show begin! The hoops are in place, the audience is waiting: jump in—the water is warm. Become a Sea World star…without even getting wet! Follow the trainer’s directions to flip and frolic your way into the people’s hearts. Start training to learn jumps and tricks, then impress the crowd in the big show.

Word Chums (5/5 stars) If you like Words with Friends or Scrabble you will LOVE Word Chums. Find out why people are saying “Once you play it, you can’t go back to your old word game.” “This game takes it to another level with fun graphics and sounds, a built in dictionary, team mode, 3-4 player mode…”

Calculator Plus Free (4.5/5 stars) I’m Calculator Plus – the perfect calculator for Kindle Fire. I’m easy to use and beautifully designed to do things better than your handheld calculator ever did. I love saving you time and effort. I remember everything you calculate, and let you review it anytime, making me perfect for adding up receipts, balancing checkbooks, or even calculating taxes. And if you quit the calculator and go do something else, it’s all still here when you come back. You’ll never need to type the same calculation twice again.

What Food? (5/5 stars) What is the [name of the] food you need to find? Look at the picture, find out what they are and write them. If you need help, reveal letters or remove letters. Find them all and win!

Laudate (5/5 stars) •Get Catholic prayers on your Android device anytime. •Listen to the Rosary and Stations podcast •Read the Bible offline •Bookmark prayers, or create your own

LDS Tools (5/5 stars) LDS Tools is an official app of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that allows you to download directory information and the events calendar for your ward, branch, stake, or district. Bishoprics, branch presidencies, and stake and district presidencies, as well as clerks and executive secretaries, can also download additional membership data and reports for their units.

JW Library (5/5 stars) JW LIBRARY is an official app produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a specialized reference and study tool optimized for research on mobile devices. It has navigational features that are specially designed to look up Bible verses quickly and to compare verses from multiple versions of the Bible.

Houzz Interior Design (4.5/5 stars) Called the “Wikipedia of interior and exterior design” by CNN, Houzz has the largest database of home design ideas on the net, with over 1,500,000 high resolution photos. Browse photos by style, room and location and save them to your virtual ideabook — it’s the equivalent of clipping design magazines to a scrapbook — making ideas easier to search, save, and share.

Ultimate Jewel (4.5/5 stars) Simple rules to play – match 3 or more same colour jewels vertically or horizontally to clear all the tiles to get the golden key and bring it to the bottom.

Wattpad – Free Books and Stories (4.5/5 stars) Pick from over 10 million FREE books & stories: the best of sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, fan fiction, thrillers, and so much more!

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Yesterday I shared the news that Windows XP users have reached the end of the line in my post, Why You HAVE To Upgrade Windows XP Now. It wasn’t long before a regular reader contacted me to say the upgrade just wasn’t financially possible for him at this time, and to ask if there were any stopgap measures that could keep him safe for the time being.

Yes there are, but I cannot stress the importance of upgrading as soon as possible too strongly. Any stopgap measures you take may severely limit the use of your computer and won’t fully protect you from hacker or malware threats. With that said, if the upgrade is simply not possible for yourself or someone you know, here’s what can be done to minimize risk while saving up for a new computer.

 

Stay Offline As Much As Possible

Really, keeping your XP machine COMPLETELY offline is one of the best things you can do to minimize your risk. A computer that’s not capable of “talking” to any other computer or the internet is also not capable of receiving any malware or hacker contact through those avenues.

If you’re only using Wi-Fi for your internet connection, turn it off completely. Many laptop computers have a physical slider switch to turn Wi-Fi connectivity off or on quickly and easily; if you’re working with a laptop, look for that switch. If there’s no switch, or if you use W-Fi for things other than internet connectivity (e.g., printer connection) and ONLY want to turn off the internet connection, you’ll need to go to your Control Panel:

1) In Control Panel, select “Network and Internet” or “Network Connections” Note that you may need to open “Network and Internet” first, then select “Network Connections” from that screen.

2) All available internet and other network connections (including Wi-Fi) will be listed in the Network Connections window. Find your Wi-Fi or internet connection in the window and right-click to open a pop-up options menu.

3) If the connection is active, the first option in the pop-up menu will be “Disable”. Click to select it.

 

Update Your Antivirus

Keeping your antivirus software up to date will help, but it’s not a permanent fix. Only the most recent versions of antivirus software are sophisticated enough to detect and deal with the “smart” types of malware and viruses that are out there ‘in the wild’ today, and the most recent versions will not run on Windows XP. They need more memory, more processing power, and a more recent browser version than what XP can support.

So while it may be true that using a state of the art antivirus could all but eliminate the XP vulnerability, it’s simply not possible to run state of the art antivirus on an XP machine.

 

Use Your Antivirus Program To Scan EVERYTHING

Malware that goes after the operating system often comes from sources that bypass your antivirus program completely. Unless you’re in the habit of manually scanning every USB flash drive, DVD, floppy disc, and every other piece of technology that you ever connect to your XP machine, any one of them can load malware onto your machine without raising any kind of red flag with your antivirus program.

This is because antivirus programs are designed to be very alert to browser activity and to thoroughly vet any downloads, but when it comes to physically attaching something to the machine they generally leave it up to the user to decide whether or not to scan.

 

Back Up Often – DAILY, If Necessary

Operating system hacks are hacks that have the power to completely destroy your data and / or prevent Windows from loading at all. Even if the risk of such a hack is small, in a system that’s known to be vulnerable, that’s an unacceptable level of risk.

Until you’re able to move on from XP, back up to an external drive regularly—daily, if you’re creating new files or changing existing ones very frequently. Using a backup drive is faster than backing up to discs, and the drive will come with software that allows you to automatically schedule your backups to run unattended, as well as to limit the backup process to only files that are new or changed. The drives are very affordable, too. The Western Digital model pictured above is currently priced at $70 and holds a terabyte of data: that’s 1,024 gigabytes.

When those first attacks inevitably come—tech experts agree that it’s only a matter of time and we may start seeing them in as little as a matter of weeks—your computer may become useless, but at least you’ll know that your photos, files, and other important data have been spared from the attack and can be loaded to a new computer when you get one.

 

Stopgap measures are just that: stopgaps. None of these tips can offer a 100% guarantee your Windows XP machine will remain safe from attack, this is really just about reducing risk.

 

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Why You HAVE To Upgrade Windows XP Now

Posted April 16, 2014 By Mom
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If you’re still using Windows XP on any of your home or small business computers, I’m sorry to tell you that you MUST upgrade to a newer version of Windows, as soon as you possibly can.

 

Microsoft No Longer Supports Windows XP

This means Microsoft is no longer offering any kind of technical support for XP, and they are no longer releasing any Windows updates for XP—not even critical security updates.

You might think this is no big deal, but don’t kid yourself: hackers are finding new security holes in old computer programs every day, and even though XP is a very old operating system some experts estimate as many as 30% of all Windows users are still using XP. That statistic, taken together with the fact that Microsoft will no longer be patching any security holes in XP, makes Windows XP a very attractive hacker target.

At this point, you’re going to want to be running Windows 7 or higher—but don’t rush right out to buy new Windows software, because you’ve probably got a hardware problem, too.

 

Upgrading Won’t Be Fun, Cheap Or Easy, But It’s Necessary

The latest versions of the most popular productivity and gaming programs demand a much more efficient operating system than Windows XP, and in most cases the latest version of a given program is simply incompatible with Windows XP. You were going to have to upgrade at some point, but now, your hand has been forced.

Unfortunately this is NOT one of those situations where you can simply install a software upgrade on your existing computer, either. If you’re still running Windows XP chances are good you’re running it on an old computer that’s been limping along for years. An old computer will not have the necessary power or memory to run currently-supported versions of Windows, so for most people, this “upgrade” will actually consist of buying a new computer that already has a currently-supported version of Windows installed.

Fortunately, tech just keeps getting cheaper. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that buying a brand new computer may actually cost you LESS than you paid for that old XP clunker all those years ago. Also, if it’s been a while since you’ve been computer shopping, you’ll find that today’s laptops can be every bit as powerful and feature-packed as the ‘tower’ desktops of yesteryear—and they’re designed to work as wireless, portable devices to boot! You shouldn’t have to spend any more than $450 on a new laptop to suit a typical user’s workaday needs, and you may even be able to find a quality laptop priced lower than that.

The laptop pictured above, the Toshiba Satellite C55-A5245, is currently priced at $415 on Amazon, it comes with Windows 7 pre-installed, it’s eligible for free Prime shipping, and it’s got an average review rating of 4/5 stars across over 200 customer reviews.

Tip: Click here to see my DMM post about how to get great deals on new laptops.

When I’m in the market for a new computer, my go-to brand for affordable reliability is Toshiba. I’ve owned DELL, HP, Sony, Acer, MacBook and Toshiba computers in the past, and Toshiba’s the only one that has never let me down. They age like any computer will, and like any computer will have to be replaced every five years or so, but my Toshibas have always been reliable workhorses that deliver a lot of bang for the buck, are easy to upgrade if necessary, and never have a problem “talking” to the rest of my network and tech devices.

 

Get A Windows 7 Machine If You Can

Windows 8.1 is the most recent version of Windows, and it’s the only one available for purchase by consumers as a standalone product. The only way for a typical consumer to get Windows 7 is to buy a new computer that already has Windows 7 installed, and that’s exactly what I recommend you do. Windows 8 was Microsoft’s first foray into a touchscreen-based operating system. It was designed to work on either touchscreen computers or via the usual keyboard and mouse combo, but consumer reviews pretty clearly indicated it wasn’t very good on either type of machine. Windows 8.1 is a more recent release that aims to resolve the bugs and “usability” issues of Windows 8, but Windows 7 is still the safer bet in my opinion, for two reasons:

1) Windows 7 has been around longer. It’s a “mature” operating system: the major kinks and bugs have been worked out, and it’s been running smoothly on home and office computers for years. Windows 7 is what’s currently running on all the computers in my home, and I’ve been very happy with it.

2) If you’ve been living in a Windows XP computer world up until now, making the switch to Windows 8.1 will be a bit of a shock. While the Windows 7 desktop looks a little different than the XP desktop you’re used to, the Windows 8 desktop was completely redesigned to make it look and act more like the operating system on touchscreen devices like iPads.

While it’s possible to make a Windows 8 or 8.1 machine show you a “classic” desktop view that more closely resembles Windows 7, if you have no idea how to “work” the Windows 8.1 operating system it won’t be easy for you to figure out how to do this. Initially you’ll just be staring at a desktop that doesn’t have the familiar “start” button or menu ribbon, and if you’re not the type of person who likes puttering around and experimenting with computer stuff you’re in for a lot of frustration.

 

Would This Be A Good Time To Ditch Microsoft Altogether By Getting A Chromebook?

Probably not. While Chromebooks are generally a lot less expensive than regular laptops (the Toshiba Chromebook pictured above is currently priced at $275, for example), they’re not truly comparable to full-fledged laptops.

Chromebooks are designed to work primarily with web-based programs and services, where most of your file storage is in a Cloud somewhere online and most of your computer use is limited to web-based activities. This means Chromebooks will have much less on-board memory for file storage or installing programs, and that their functionality is significantly impaired anytime they don’t have a web connection. While cloud computing is the wave of the future, we’re not quite there yet and you’re probably not quite ready to give up all the offline functionality you’ve enjoyed up to now.

Also, Chromebooks are tied to the Google tech “ecosystem”: they’re designed to work best with Google’s own software, sites and services. There’s no support for installation or use of traditional PC software (e.g., MS Office, Adobe Photoshop, etc.) on a Chromebook. Click here to learn more about the important differences between Chromebooks and traditional laptop computers.

 

Is It Possible To Transfer All The Programs & Content From The Old Machine To The New One?

Yes and no. While copying your content files from the old machine to the new one is as easy as, well, copying your content files from the old machine to the new one, you will likely find that many of your old software programs aren’t compatible with current versions of Windows. In some cases you may even find that there’s no longer a compatible version of a given program available at all.

Yes, unfortunately this means you’re going to have to buy new software for all the most critical things you do on your computer, but if you’re in a financial pinch you can at least avoid buying MS Office for the time being. There are alternative, FREE (totally legal) programs that work and look very similar to MS Office, can open MS Office files, and can even save your files in MS Office file formats. OpenOffice is the one I recommend; click here to read my DMM post about it.

And don’t forget your antivirus software. The one I use and recommend is ESET Smart Security. Even if you choose to go with a different brand, DO NOT just stick with the Norton or MacAfee antivirus that will probably come pre-installed as a trial version on your new computer. To learn why, see my DMM post MacAfee Is For Muggles & Norton Is For Naifs.

 

Help With The Transition

Microsoft realizes this transition away from Windows XP is going to be difficult for most consumers, so they’ve prepared a special page with more information and how-to articles on their site.

Click here to view Windows’ help and how-tos page for consumers migrating away from Windows XP.

Obviously, content files are pretty useless if they’re in a format that can’t be “read” by any program on your computer, but you may be able to import various file formats into a newer program so don’t delete anything from the old machine until the new machine is fully set up and you’re absolutely sure you won’t need the old files anymore.

 

If you absolutely cannot manage the upgrade at this time, see my follow-up post: Stopgaps For Those Who Can’t Afford To Update Windows XP

 

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Today’s post is brought to you by Fireproof Games’ gorgeous, steampunky puzzle box game apps The Room and The Room 2. These apps are two of my all-time favorites – be sure to check out the details at the bottom of this post. Advertisers make it possible for Digital Media Mom to bring you great content each day for free, so thanks for your support.

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Last week I shared the universal keyboard shortcut for Undo: Ctrl + z. Since that tip was such a hit, I’ve decided to start a new weekly feature to share tech tips that are quick and easy to learn, but can save so much time and frustration once you know them. Welcome to Tech Tip Tuesday!

If you’d like to save this post for future reference, click on the Print Friendly button at the bottom of the post to print out a copy and post it near your desk. Note: if you’re viewing this post on the front page of the site, click on the post title to open the individual article; that’s where you’ll find the Print Friendly button.

Please share this post with your friends and co-workers: in my experience, once these keyboard shortcuts are known, they’re used every day.

 

The Most Common and Useful Universal Keyboard Shortcuts

WINDOWS

The following keyboard shortcuts will work in virtually any program or browser running on a Windows machine. To use them, press the Control (‘Ctrl’) key and the specified letter key simultaneously. You don’t actually press the plus sign, it’s just there to indicate you press both of the other keys simultaneously.

Ctrl+z – undo

Ctrl+y – redo

Ctrl+f – open the Find dialog to search

Ctrl+a – select all text / items in current window

Ctrl+c – copy selected item or text

Ctrl+v – paste selected item or text

Ctrl+x – cut selected item or text

Ctrl+s – open the Save dialog

Ctrl+p – open the Print dialog

 

MAC OS X

The following keyboard shortcuts will work in virtually any program or browser running on a Mac OS X machine. To use them, press the Command (⌘) key and the specified letter key simultaneously. You don’t actually press the plus sign, it’s just there to indicate you press both of the other keys simultaneously.

Cmd+z – undo

Cmd+f – open the Find dialog to search

Cmd+a – select all text / items in current window

Cmd+c – copy selected item or text

Cmd+v – paste selected item or text

Cmd+x – cut selected item or text

Cmd+s – open the Save dialog

Cmd+p – open the Print dialog

 

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I absolutely LOVE puzzle games, and The Room and The Room 2 are two of my favorites. These apps are very reminiscent of the lovely and intricate Myst series of PC games. There’s very little in the way of instruction, the player is simply immersed in the world of the game and uses exploration, logic and intuition to figure out what to do next. But don’t worry about getting frustrated: hints are available if you get stuck, and there are lots of walkthroughs for both apps available on YouTube.

In The Room you’re presented with a beautifully detailed, clockwork puzzle box in a mysterious room, and you must completely unlock the box by solving various mechanical and visual puzzles at each ‘layer’ of the box. The Room 2 expands on the concept with a backstory, more puzzles, and period-detail video, as this trailer for the app demonstrates:


  

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As regular site visitors know, I pride myself on shopping at the Jedi level: I rarely pay full retail price for ANYTHING, and that includes tech. Over the years I’ve bought many laptops, and I’ve gotten them at a discount of 35% or more off the retail price every time. And I’m not talking factory refurbished, or last year’s model laptops here.

Ready to stop paying full retail like a sucker? Read on.

STEP ONE: Visit Amazon to get up to speed on what’s out there.

With notepad and pen in hand, check out the Laptops & Tablet Computers department on Amazon. You’re doing this for three reasons.

First, you want to know what specifications are currently considered state of the art. You may not be in the market for a state of the art machine—it’s not always a good idea to get “bleeding edge” technology—, but you don’t want to get something that falls VERY short of today’s typical machine, either.

The front page of Amazon’s Laptop & Tablet department will always show the most recent-release models. Click through on a major category or brand name link, then browse the listings sorted by ‘Most Popular’ to learn which models are selling best. Take some notes on what’s currently top-of-the-line and what’s currently typical in terms of memory (RAM and hard disk space), display size and resolution, processor speed and type, number and type of ports (e.g., USB, HDMI, Ethernet, etc.), and built-in accessory items like webcam, disc drive (DVD multi-drive that both plays and burns DVDs is pretty standard as of this writing), et cetera.

You need to do this step first so you can be an informed shopper. It’s all well and good to find a sharp-looking laptop discounted to $250, but if it doesn’t come anywhere near today’s tech standards it’s still not a good buy.

Second, you want to know which brands of laptop are consistently rated the highest by consumers. Go back to your main listings page and change the sort to “Avg. Customer Review”. Make a list of the top-rated brands, in order, with the best brand at the top of your list. Remember, the ones that are selling the most units aren’t necessarily the ones getting the best reviews.

Third, you want to get a ballpark idea of typical retail prices for the best-quality machines. Once you’ve narrowed the field to the top few brands and you’ve got a list of minimum acceptable specifications, you can start looking at (and writing down) the typical prices for a laptop to fit your needs.

Now you’re ready to actually shop! Grab your notes and…

 

STEP TWO: Head Out To The Office Supply Store

Yes, you read that right. I discovered this amazing bargain-shopper strategy totally by accident one day, many years ago.

Office supply stores always carry current-model laptop computers, and they like to turn that inventory over quickly because they don’t tend to keep a lot of stock on hand in these big ticket items the way a specialty electronics store does. As soon as a bigger, faster, better model comes along, whatever’s already out on the sales floor is quickly priced to move. Lucky for smart shoppers like us, bigger, faster, better models come out every 3 – 6 months and that means there’s nearly always at least a few amazing clearance deals to be had on laptops at the office supply store. If you don’t see anything marked down in the main laptop / computer aisle, ask a salesperson if there’s a clearance table or if there are any laptops currently available at a discount. There may be deals you just haven’t seen yet.

Where before you might’ve felt uneasy about buying a computer from anywhere other than a tech specialty store like Best Buy, now that you’ve done your research you know exactly what to look for, and what a great price looks like. I take this strategy a step further by looking for pristine floor models, which will be discounted even further than the clearance sale machines that are still sealed in their boxes. The floor model laptops in an office supply don’t tend to get a lot of use or handling, because they’re usually strapped down to a relatively high shelf and typically don’t do much other than play a promotional video in an endless loop.

When you can find a flawless floor model with a tag marked “Last One”, you’re going to get a fantastic deal on a great laptop that’s new and still under factory warranty. If it turns out the floor model IS the last one but it’s not marked as such, it can’t hurt to ask if the store will discount the price even further below what the asking price is for a sealed-in-box item; every time I’ve asked, they’ve given me another 10-15% off the clearance price. Over the past six years I’ve owned three floor model laptops, including the one I’m currently using, and I’ve been happy with all of them—happier still at the hundreds of dollars I saved on them.

There’s just one important detail when it comes to buying floor models: be sure to ask the on-site tech staff to remove any changes they’ve made to the operating system BEFORE you take it home. Typically, floor model laptops will have had a generic user account set up and will have had some steps taken to prevent lookie-loo customers from making any significant changes to the machine (e.g., downloading and installing software from the internet). Ask the store staff to change everything back to exactly how it was before they put the laptop out on the sales floor, and ask them to turn it on and show you that the changes have been made.

The worst case scenario is that you’ll find some changes still need to be undone after you get the machine home, but so long as the office store is close to home it’s still not such a horrible inconvenience if it means spending $450 for a laptop that’s currently retailing at $800. But again, the best thing is to get all those changes made right there in the office supply store while you wait, and to verify the changes with your own eyes before you leave.

Ready, Steady…SHOP!

 

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