Archives for December 2011

New Year's wish list

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Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 30 December 2011

This time last year I posted a note on computing resolutions for the New Year. I also said I was going to lose weight. The lovely WebWise team has asked me to comment on how that went.

OK. This year I am going to lose weight.

A load of the stuff I said you could do with your computer is still salient, though. Here’s a link to last year’s resolutions and here are some further ideas, which are easier to do now than they were last year. Some useful technology resolutions might include:

1.    Stop wittering on Twitter

Social networking is really useful. You can contact people, find stuff out, help other people find stuff out, pick up business, all sorts. It’s a great, great idea but as it’s become even more popular over the last 12 months people have been filling it with even more waffle than before. Honestly, we don’t need to know:

  • What you had for breakfast – we hope you’re not hungry and wish you well, but that’s where everyone else’s interest stops
  • That you’re annoyed with your phone, unless there’s seriously something someone can do to help
  • That you’ve just walked into somewhere which is miles away from any place in which we might be interested

Constructive conversation is still more than welcome!

2.    Find someone who needs help on social media and offer it

Kind of the flipside of that – people are always looking for a hand, asking for information on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Look for somewhere you can help and do it – the whole community improves when people do this.

3.    Get the hang of a smartphone

In November 2011 it was confirmed that over half the phones being bought in the UK were smartphones. These can be really useful for keeping diaries, documents, music, pictures, video, playing games – and of course you’ll pay for it. Nevertheless if you need that stuff on the move, do give a smartphone some thought.

4.    Secure your home WiFi network properly

If you haven’t already done so, this can be a very wise measure to take. Otherwise you’ve done the IT equivalent of setting up a network and leaving the gates wide open so anyone can walk in. Any modern router will allow you to set up a secure network in only a few mouse clicks. Start by naming your network as something other than the default name it has when the router is taken out of the box – criminals find routers with default settings unchanged very easy to get into.

5.    Don’t download any apps you’re not going to use

Yes, phones can download lots of software whether it’s games, business apps, a full-blown Global Positioning System (GPS) – and yes they’re often brilliant. Laptops and desktops can do the same, depending on the operating system. But you can get rid of an awful lot of packages of two or three quid on a whim – and they do add up. Now, do you really need that latest upgrade to that second word processor you were going to use, or that mouse cursor that looks like an actual mouse..?

6.    Get your accounts in order

Yes I know I said that last year, but once again the tax deadline of 31 January is closer than it seems for anyone who has to fill in a tax return and hasn’t glanced at their books just yet.

There’s free software like online spreadsheets and also online accounting systems that cost only a few quid a month – there’s really no reason to miss the deadline this year (that said, if you’re not already registered to submit your accounts online you’d better get a move on because they take a couple of weeks to process your application).

If you're new to social media why not watch our short videos on everything from profiles to privacy?

Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.

Give an Hour at Christmas

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Zoe E Breen Zoe E Breen | 10:52 UK time, Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Christmas and New Year's Eve holidays are a time when families traditionally get together to celebrate. With several generations gathered together it's the ideal time to Give an Hour to someone who is yet to discover what the internet can do for them.

Find out who these young people would Give an Hour to over the Christmas break.

 

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

 

No matter what someone's interest is, be it cookery, sport or gardening visit the Give an Hour website for inspirational videos and guides from some famous faces.

You'll also find a range of guides which you can print off and share on the Give an Hour website.

Zoe Breen is a Producer on WebWise - a beginner's guide to using the internet.

In the news - top Google searches 2011

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 15:13 UK time, Tuesday, 20 December 2011

As Google accounts for the vast majority of all online searches, can its annual report be seen as a window into the modern human mind. So, what are we thinking? Surely when we’re not searching for spellings we’re trying to get to grips with quantum physics or 18th century philosophers, or… we’re simply wondering what on earth scampi is.

Yes, scampi was the second most searched article in the ‘What is’ category of the Google Zeitgeist report for the UK, pipped to the top spot by ‘What is AV?’

Perhaps in the case of AV (Alternative Vote), our news channels and papers are becoming less likely to explain things, or maybe we’re just paying less attention, safe in the knowledge that we can look up anything we don’t understand online.

In the ‘How to’ bracket, it seems students might be making most of the queries, with the top three spots dedicated, respectively, to revising, referencing and snogging. Although the precise demographics aren’t given I think we can take some solace as a nation that at least the priorities of our students are in a sensible order.

Along with the movers and shakers in the celebrity world, the report shows the most-searched travel destinations, sports terms and events, and is also a great way to see how we compare with other countries. South Africans, for example, seemed to want answers to bigger question including ‘What is love?’ and ‘What is life?’.

A slight cause for concern, however, was that we Brits are still googling the word Google. In fact, Google was the fifth most searched site!  On the upside UK's most searched for in the News category (on news.google.co.uk) was... BBC News, which topped a list brimming with popstars and football teams.

For all you need to get started with search engines, go to the WebWise guide.

For a brief history of how search engines came out, take a look at my previous news piece, We love search engines.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

 

Have a craftacular Christmas (with online tips)

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 16 December 2011

We all want Christmas to be a personal thing. The best presents, the slaved-over turkey, Christmas pudding even better than Grandmother used to make.

We want beautiful and-picked gifts, ideally from a specialist shop in a small Austrian village, that glisten with our own sweat and tears. To create your Perfect Christmas I recommend starting preparations some time in February the year before.

If you have better things to do however, be prepared for the December rush when all notions of the inner romantic fade and what we end up with are hardbacks from the bestsellers list, board games we'll play once a year and the X Factor Christmas single for a petulant eleven year old. If this sounds like your gift list, then I sincerely hope you have ordered all said items online.


My homemade Christmas delights

Gifts don't miraculously become thoughtful by staring at them in a queue for an hour. Yes, sometimes it's nice to feel the softness of a certain scarf or jumper, but that is what product descriptions are for. Cashmere: soft. Hessian: not soft. Simple. Right, so we’ve got that sorted.

There is absolutely no excuse for adding to the misery of the shopping experience by whacking others with a bag full of heavy books when you could happily wait at home for your purchases with a mug of cocoa and the Christmas re-runs.

Sandra Vogel's latest blog goes into festive online shopping in more detail, so once you've worked out whether it's worth the postage and packing (though lots of places offer free p&p) have a web session and just get all those simple items ordered and out of your mind. If there's a (preferably free) gift-wrapping service, order that too. Nothing says "I love you but I have absolutely no clue how to show it through packaging" quite like a box held together with parcel tape and old wallpaper scraps from the spare room.

Once the big, simple things are out the way, then you can do the whole 'personal' thing.

I find homemade gifts are perfect for the 'just in case' present; the ones for people outside your immediate family  who you're not entirely sure you'll get to see and for whom the budget is something around the £1.24 mark. This is where crafty delights come in.

Food is by far the easiest thing. Unless you're absolutely hopeless in the kitchen, there's not much that can go wrong with cookie ingredients and a timer. Mix dough, eat half of dough, cook rest in oven for ten minutes. Cool. Lick bowl.

A simple fudge – see Nigella's chocolate pistachio fudge – is also a quick treat that can be stored in the freezer and either brought out for guests or given as gifts. But rather than hand them out from an old plastic takeaway container, try to get creative with packaging.

I've found Christmas becomes much more manageable when there's a decent stock of arts and crafts supplies in the house. Cellophane bags, ribbon, shiny card and glitter pens make a simple treat look a little more festive – or in my case like a six year old did them for a school project. Either way, it all screams that all-important buzzword – 'THOUGHT!'

Homemade chutneys, mulled wine, infused oils, even beauty products can be made with minimal effort and made to look pretty through recycled bottles, jam jars and lots of ribbon. If you've little time to collect containers there are some fantastic packaging websites.

When searching for these, you might find it useful to type in 'glass bottles', 'cupcake boxes' or 'cellophane bags' rather than 'packaging', as it refines your search and means you’re less likely to end up on a wholesale site with a minimum order of 3000 units.

My personal favourite site on everything that requires an apron is BBC Food, always brimming with tasty ideas. Just in time for Christmas, Emily Angle has blogged about treats that can be stashed in the freezer to make for an easier life.

Channel 4 has brilliant crafty ideas on its Christmas crafts page. I particularly like the teacup candles and would give try them myself if I wasn't petrified by this line: "All wax has a flash point, so a double-boiler is essential to prevent it bursting into flames." Eek!

Of course, not only are there plenty of ideas available online, but you can also find guides and videos on the basics like, for example,  how to wrap a present properly. If you're getting crafty to save money, bear in mind that some ambitious items require investing in special equipment, so choose your ventures wisely and be sure to leave enough time to allow for the Christmas delivery of supplies.

Most importantly, enjoy the process. If you find yourself cursing at the oven, step away from the kitchen and head to the bakery.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing. 

In the news - UK tops Europe for time spent online

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 15:58 UK time, Wednesday, 14 December 2011

British web users are spending more time online than their European counterparts, according to Ofcom - the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries.

Ofcom’s market report, offers insights into the global communications market as well as the habits of web users across 17 countries, including the UK, France, Italy and Germany. The findings suggest that the UK is the most web-engaged country in Europe.

Smartphone ownership -  as was previously indicated in research carried out this year – increased to 46%, 9% more than France, whilst online shopping is where the UK really leads the way, with 79% of web users ordering goods online in 2010. In Italy the figure was just 27%. 

We can however be comforted by the fact that all that extra web usage isn’t costing us a fortune (other than what we purchase online, of course) as, on the whole, communications services are cheaper here than on the continent.

UK consumers were found to be more likely to play games on their phone, watch TV online through sites like BBC iPlayer and also saw the largest growth in digital recording. But with all this time spent in front of a screen is increased web engagement necessarily something to be proud of?

In short. Yes. As a country we’ve come a long way in the last five years in getting the nation connected. With beginners' courses on offer up and down the country, more people are discovering their potential through the internet. The figures reflect this improvement and are testament to how far we’ve come.

There’s still a balance to be met of course and being web-aware doesn’t mean we all have to be constantly web-engaged, but the internet is an enabler. It allows us to connect with people, catch up with programmes, order presents at midnight on a Sunday, and answer questions within seconds.

There are still Brits yet to benefit from learning web skills and getting access but if Ofcom’s report is anything to go by, we can be proud of what we’ve done so far and confident that more people will reap the rewards.

Visit the Give an Hour website to find out how you can introduce someone to life online.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

Treat your computer this Christmas

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Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton | 09:24 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

It's the festive season and many people will be getting a new laptop or desktop computer for Christmas. Others will be looking at their existing system and wondering whether it isn't time to replace it. But there are things you can do to improve a system before jacking it in – try thinking about one or more of the following.

1. Increase the memory

Many computers allow you to increase the memory yourself. You may need the manual and you’ll need to check what sort of memory the computer takes, but taking the old memory chips out and adding something more powerful is one of the easiest ways of making a system run more smoothly.

Why would you want more memory? Simply because whereas storage is a matter of how much stuff a computer can hold, memory governs how much the computer can do at a time. So if you want to do something complex like video editing you might well need extra memory – or if you like to leave loads of application windows open all at once, for example.

2. Increase the storage

If you have a desktop PC you might be able to unscrew the front and add a new hard drive. If not, you’ll almost certainly be able to add storage by attaching a USB hard drive. If you were thinking of replacing a computer because it’s filling up, try this first.

3. Put in a new graphics card

Again this involves unscrewing a desktop computer if you have one and installing a better graphics card. If your computer is slowing down whilst playing games or video it may not be the processor or memory at fault, the graphics chip might be the problem. Ask around about your model – don’t spend out on a graphics card before you’re sure! – and then try installing something faster.

4. Buy a new webcam

A number of people use their computers for video conferencing. This is a great money saving idea as well as a means of keeping in touch with overseas contacts. Then they get frustrated with the state of the image they’re told the other person can see so they assume the computer is at fault – actually it may not be. Consider a higher-definition webcam, which will be of a higher spec than the one that came built into your system.

5. Update your speakers

Fed up with the sound your computer makes when you pop a CD in to listen to? Or download something from one of the many online stores, or watch something on BBC iPlayer? (Other catch-up services are available but we don’t want you to watch them). Around £40 will get you some considerably better speakers with a bit of oomph, and as you move further upmarket you’ll find the clarity and bass gets better. Of course you get what you pay for.

6. Get a USB hub

So you've got your camera, your phone, your speakers, your backup disk, your printer, your e-reader, your media player…and only two USB slots. The good news is that you can get USB hubs, a connector with more than one socket on it, and your computer should recognize every device as if it’s connecting directly.

You can daisy chain these hubs – connect another hub to one of the sockets and so on, giving you an almost limitless amount of devices which you can connect. In theory you should be able to connect 128 devices to one computer.

This assumes it can service the devices with enough power – it also assumes you’re daft enough to want 128 devices on a single computer! We’re betting the system would crash because of watching too many devices at a time, and never mind how much memory you’ve got.

7. Use a carrying case

Not strictly an enhancement but if you're going to have a laptop computer with you and want to carry it around, make sure it’s in something well padded!

Follow the WebWise guide to buying a computer.

Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.

 

WebWise news report - Cyber Monday

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:51 UK time, Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Cyber Monday – the biggest online shopping day of the year – saw UK shoppers spend an incredible £19 million an hour, with an increasing number of shoppers purchasing goods using mobile phones.

There's some confusion as to when Cyber Monday is exactly. Some say it's the first Monday after Thanksgiving, following Black Friday (the other busiest shopping day of the year), but others are pointing to the first Monday in December.

Some retailers labelled one Cyber Monday and the other Mega Monday, but quite frankly they might as well just come out with it and call them both 'We want your money Monday'.

There's no denying shopping online is a great way to get a bargain, but at this time of year, consumers are particularly susceptible to the online big banner spending frenzy. It's a busy and stressful time for most and often being instructed on what to buy can be a relief – especially when it's labelled a special offer.

Websites say "spend" and all we can muster the energy for is to say "how much?"

But the sales, if you haven't noticed, are constant. Even though we're told we 'must buy now' or risk missing a bargain, in many cases we actually have a good month's worth of offers. One week there's a Black Friday week, the next a Cyber Monday week, then an Advent calendar discount offer.

Selling with a sense of urgency is the oldest trick in the book and for busy consumers, sometimes just the retailer's assurance of a bargain is enough to make us dig deeper into our pockets.

But resisting the pressure of the 'must buy now' culture and taking time to think about what to purchase can mean you not only get a bargain but also avoid those awkward conversations in January about receipts.

Jenny Keefe of MoneySavingExpert.com advises consumers not to get swept up into buying something they don't want.

"It's easy to assume that because these retailers are listing heavy discounts that the products will automatically be a bargain. That's wrong. It simply means the company is selling it cheaper than it had done. The item may've been cheaper before – or could currently be cheaper elsewhere."

Regarding big advertised discounts for Black Friday, Keefe is somewhat sceptical, citing one example of a TV selling for £400 less than the next best price disappearing within 2 minutes of the sale.

"Even if there is a fantastic bargain, it will disappear in minutes, so you effectively would need to sit at your screen refreshing your browser."

If you make the delivery deadline (usually a week before Christmas), online shopping can be a real stress saver, but if you're feeling the pinch, it's worth taking your time and using web resources to make it a money saver too.
 
This Megashopbot, or shopping robot, helps compare online prices for you by scanning major retailers. Other similar sites include Price Runner and Google's product search or Shopping area.

Don't forget to shop safely with the BBC WebWise guide to shopping with credit cards.

Also, Sandra Vogel's blog offers some helpful Christmas shopping tips.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

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