Archives for March 2012

Make the most of search engines

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Sandra Vogel Sandra Vogel | 16:41 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2012

Most of us rely on search engines as our route into the web. Search engines use very sophisticated indexing systems to help them search and sort millions upon millions of bits of information at ultra-fast speeds, in order to answer our never-ending mountain of questions.

Without search engines the web would be a much less useful place.

But are you making the most of what search engines have to offer? They tend to have quite sophisticated tools you can use to narrow down searches and make sure the results they produce really are close to what you need. It's not difficult to use these tools - but you do need to know that they exist and how to get to them.

Pictures

For starters, did you know that many major search engines can be used to look for images just by clicking a link on the screen?

Go to a search engine like Bing, Ask or Google, type in something you'd like to see pictures of, and click the 'images' link on screen. Try the same search in all three engines and it is likely you'll get a huge range of different images.

It goes further, though. You can refine an image search, narrowing the selections down by criteria like colour, type of image (face, photo, clip art etc), image size and so on. In a similar way you can search for videos rather than images.

News

How about if you are a news junkie, or you want to look at one particular news story in depth?

There are special areas of search engines which stick to news stories. Bing can refine news into categories (political, sport, World, and UK), while Google can range stories by date - even including a custom date range.

If you go to Google News you can get rolling headlines from a huge range of sources, and can personalise how much of different categories such as sports, science and health hit the feed, as well as choosing your preferred sources - including the BBC and a range of national newspapers.

Digging deeper

When it comes to general searching, many of us rely on typing words into the main page of a search engine and then looking through the results. While this often works, it doesn't make the most of what the engine has to offer.

Look for the advanced search option on the Ask home page or go to the advanced area in Google and you will see that there's a lot more on offer.

Suppose, for example, you are interested in gardens open to the public that are not owned by the National Trust. You can specifically exclude the National Trust from your search results by using this page.

You don't need to use the advanced search page to get sophisticated with search, though. You can also use special terms in the main search engine box.

Search terms

Try putting a phrase into quotation marks - that will ensure the search engine looks for exact matches of what's inside the quotation marks. This can be helpful when you are searching for something specific using a multi-word phrase. As is the case with a single word search, this collection of words in called a search term.

Use a minus sign to exclude particular terms, for example a search on 'red, green -blue' will return results that mention red and green but not blue.

Not all search engines offer the same advanced tools, so it is worth looking at the advanced search tips to see what tools are on offer and how best to make use of them.

While many of us can get along quite well simply by typing words into a search engine and looking through the results, this technique doesn't always deliver what we want. It can take some trawling through search results before the gems are found, so there are times when these more advanced search techniques come into their own - the trick is knowing when to deploy the tools, and which ones to use.

Learn more from WebWise about how you can improve your internet searches.

Hajar Javaheri explores the history of search engines.

Try the advanced features on these search engines:
Bing
Ask
Google

In the news - The high-tech Budget

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:53 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2012

If you've used the BBC's Budget calculator, you'll have a pretty good idea of how George Osborne's budget might affect you. But tax rises and cuts aside, if you happen to live in one of the country's ten major cities, you could also see an increase in broadband speed. As well as revealing plans to offer corporation tax relief to the gaming industries from April 2013, it was announced last week that 'super-connected cities' would share a £100m pot to help them deliver 'ultrafast' broadband.

The investment was initially announced in the chancellor's Autumn Statement and by 2015, speeds of up to 100mpbs will be delivered to 1.7 million households and 200,000 business across the cities of Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Manchester and Newcastle.

A further £50m was also pledged to help smaller cities improve their broadband speeds.

Superfast (around 40-50mpbs) and ultrafast broadband are currently only available to certain parts of the country through fibre optic cables, but with the government's help, it's expected that more people could benefit from it.

But with a recent study finding that half UK households have broadband speeds under 6.7mpbs there's concern that too much is being done to connect the already well-connected, while others still struggle to get a basic service.

Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman has said that rather than bring the UK up to speed, the ten super-connected cities will actually help create a 'digital underclass' where rural areas, the unemployed and elderly will be left behind. In the House of Commons this week she reiterated Labour's initiative to guarantee the whole country speeds of 2mbps.

Hoping to make the UK "Europe's technology centre", the government will also provide tax relief to video games, animation and high-end television industries. Supporters say that these measures will create jobs and boost the UK economy, addressing recent fears that we're falling behind in the global gaming market. Others however, believe it will do little to fully address the country's tech industry needs.

For the full report, see the BBC News article, and to find out how to get yourself hooked up to broadband in the first place, try the WebWise guide.

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.

Surfing the net to help you holiday

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Charlie Swinbourne Charlie Swinbourne | 10:14 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

The internet has made it easier than ever to plan your travels. Whether you prefer to fly thousands of miles to exotic climes, or holiday nearer to home, here are some websites that will give you tips and advice for travelling to new destinations.

Newspaper websites often have online travel sections featuring first-hand accounts of their writers’ travels. An example is the Telegraph’s travel section, which includes this guide to saving money while on a city break. The Guardian’s travel section is also full of informative and entertaining travel articles, and helpfully allows you to explore travel options by place or by the type of trip you want to go on.

Once you have an idea of where you’d like to go, why not check out the area via online maps? Typing the name of a potential destination to Google Maps could help you see how far your potential hotel might be from the city centre, for example. For an alternative overview of countries around the world, you could also visit Worldmapper, which shows you “the world as you’ve never seen it before,” with maps that are adjusted to show you factors such as population, land mass and internet usage.

If you really want to take a look at a place before you visit, the internet makes it very easy to look at live webcams around major cities and towns. EarthCam is a live network of webcams, featuring live streams of streets and landmarks around the world, including Niagara Falls and  the Eiffel Tower. It even has a live video of the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing in London, made famous by The Beatles.

One important factor to consider before you travel is safety. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a page on their website which enables you to check on travel advice by country. It gives you an idea of when hazardous weather conditions could occur, how safe the country is and even the threat of terrorism. There’s also a site from Directgov about protecting yourself from medical bills when you’re away, through travel insurance and when you’re holidaying in Europe, through the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

If you have a disability, Disabled Travel Advice has lots of useful advice articles divided into categories such as Activity Holidays and Air Travel. Meanwhile, Tourism For All is a charity site that features advice for disabled travellers, a forum and regular news items.

These are just a few of the sites I found that will help you plan that well-earned break. Happy exploring, and above all, enjoy your travels!

Charlie is a journalist and scriptwriter specialising in articles and films featuring deaf culture and sign language. He has written for the Guardian online and has contributed to programmes for Radio 4, while his films have won international awards. He also works in the arts, helping to make theatre accessible for deaf people.

In the news - Britain's online economy

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:02 UK time, Wednesday, 21 March 2012

According to a recent study, the UK is the 'most internet-based economy'.

A report by researchers Boston Consulting Group found that out of the G20 nations, the internet accounted for 8.3% of the UK economy – almost double the average of the other countries surveyed. The UK's 'internet economy' was £121bn in 2010, said BCG and is predicted to rise to £216bn in 2016. 

Online retail was a big contributing factor to the figures, with web transactions accounting for 13.5% of all UK purchases in 2010.

Could the findings reflect a surge in British web-buying confidence? Consumers are covered by a range of guarantees thanks to rules on distance-selling and increasing regulation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Barely a week goes by without one website or other making the news following warnings and recommendations from the body to ensure buyers aren’t being mis-sold.

Such measures – and the publicity they generate – may help foster a sense of trust in online retail, so that we Brits are happy to click 'Confirm Order', knowing that if something goes wrong, there are rules to protect us.

But is this increasing reliance on web-shopping a sign that we’re becoming more lazy and antisocial or is it just a matter of convenience and penny-pinching, that’s not only good for the UK economy but our own wallets?

Many online sellers offer free delivery and free returns if customers aren’t happy with a product, saving money on fuel as well as avoiding the hassle of a trip out on a busy Saturday and queuing at a till. For working parents wanting to spend quality time with their children, it might make sense to order your groceries online – often paying little more than the cost of petrol for delivery – rather than spending a sunny afternoon in a supermarket being tempted by treats that might push the weekly food bill over budget.

Traditionalists might argue that the web is drawing us away from people and social interaction, but shopping smart online has never been easier, and as nice as many sales assistants are, isn't spending time with friends and family more important?

Even though there are lots of laws to protect us, take the WebWise course on shopping online to help you buy with confidence.

Read the full BBC News story on Britain's internet economy.

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.

High definition history

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Maggie Philbin | 15:15 UK time, Monday, 19 March 2012

On my last visit to Kingswood Warren, just before the BBC Research and Development team packed their bags and moved to Manchester and London, I spotted an enormous, bulky old television set tucked away in a corner of the neo-gothic house.

Forlorn and covered in dust, this was part of television history. It was the set used for early experiments in HDTV, which Kingswood began nearly thirty years ago. Graham Thomas, who showed me around, explained it took six men with two poles to lift. Which presumably explains why it's still sat there, silently watching its flat screen progeny.

High definition, as the name implies, allows you to see images in greater detail than standard definition sets. Thanks to those experiments we can now watch Barcelona play Madrid off the pitch, sink into the sofa to watch the latest Blu-Ray release or play immersive video games, all in up to five times more detail.

The first HD sets which came to market and which are often labelled 'HD Ready' or 'HD Ready720' have twice as many pixels (720 lines of 1080 pixels) as standard definition sets. Most larger screens sold today are branded 'Full HD' or 'HD Ready1080' and have five times the number (1080 lines of 1920 pixels).

You're likely to pick up a HD Ready720 set for less money and they’re worth considering if you only want a smaller screen size, where the advantage of having more pixels may be lost.

If you're buying a larger set and want to enjoy movies at their most impressive, then investing in Full HD means more pixels - and smaller pixels, at that - delivering better image quality.

Where you see 1080p or 1080i, the letters refers to the way the image is built on the screen, whether it's an 'interlaced' or 'progressive' system.

When images change on screen, the whole picture doesn't change instantaneously. In interlaced systems, odd numbered lines change first, then even numbers, so it takes two scans to change the picture. It happens in a millisecond, faster than can normally be detected by the human eye. With 'progressive' systems the picture change is achieved in one scan which sweeps from top to bottom.

Interlaced scan is usally better for watching sport, as it can display quick movements more easily. But for something slightly more sedate, such as a drama, progressive scan will deliver a clearer picture.

But don't just rely on the numbers. A 720 line set with excellent picture processing could out-perform a 1080 line TV with poor picture processing. So when buying a set check the screen quality. One tip is to ask retailers to play a movie by carrying the same player to different sets. You might not be the most popular person on a busy Saturday morning but it will give you a chance compare like with like.

To see those pictures you'll need more than a HD television, you'll also need some kind of HD video source. Unless the set has a built in HD tuner, you'll need to buy additional equipment or subscribe to a service provider.

The basic choice is between a subscription or non-subscription route. You can buy Freesat or FreeView HD kit outright or take out a subscription package with Sky or Virgin Media. Obviously, there are different costs and it all depends on what you want to watch.

Although not all TV programmes are available in HD, there's plenty of content to enjoy, like a wide choice of Blu-ray movies and video games.

The BBC have two HD channels: The BBC HD channel, which showcases the best HD programmes from across all BBC channels, from Wimbledon to Wonders of the Universe and the more recent BBC One HD channel which simulcasts a network version of the BBC One schedule, showing the majority of peak time programmes in HD.

Broadcasters are still learning how exploit the full creative potential of HD. Danielle Nagler, Head of BBC HD, says one of the biggest challenges has been encouraging producers not simply to make the same programme in HD, but to use it to make even better programmes.

In drama, this means being more filmic, with more close-ups. In natural history, perhaps including spectacular detailed helicopter shots. But there's a downside - Danielle says, 'HD can break the illusion, so it's vital to remember scratches or screws on sets become visible and artificial flowers or even some wigs that work in SD may not be convincing in HD'.

Danielle adds that HD is more precise and less forgiving. and imperfect technique can impinge on the whole work. 'In many ways HD has reminded people of the craft of filming'.

It might not surprise you to learn that the advent of HD transmission meant the installation of two and a half kilometres of cable and a hundred and eighty five separate pieces of equipment in the BBC apparatus room. It's worth watching this video Danielle made when BBC One HD launched explaining just how the channel gets to air. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbchd/faqs.shtml

Meanwhile one former Tomorrow's World producer feels vindicated. Saul Nasse remembers filming a piece about widescreen television with Kate Bellingham at the French Open in 1991, where both HD-MAC (the high definition standard) and D-MAC (the widescreen standard) were being used.

'We'd been talking about high def on TW for years,' he says, 'and even though the pictures were brilliant, we made the point in my story that viewers were all likely to see widescreen standard definition sets in their homes long before high definition, which would probably have to wait for fully digital television. We weren't always right with our predictions on Tomorrow's World, but this time we were spot on!'

Backing up your mobile

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 11:00 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2012

According to security experts, there are two types of computer users: people who have lost their data and people who are going to lose their data. The solution, of course, is backups. But here's something almost everyone forgets: your phone is a computer, too. And of all the computer devices you own, your phone is the one most vulnerable to damage because you use it so often and carry it everywhere.

Today's phones store phone numbers, pictures, messages, video clips, downloaded apps, paid-for music, and, soon, digital money and payment receipts. What if your phone were lost, stolen, or dropped in the toilet? How would you get it all back?

Fortunately, backing up your phone isn't as difficult as you might think. Most phones – certainly all smartphones – come with software that allows you to take a copy of your phone's data. Many of the more thoughtfully designed smart phones come with a built-in backup routine that kicks in automatically and reminds you frequently.

Sometimes these can be too automated, so you're not sure what's being backed up or where the data is stored. But they come close to the ideal, which is that if something happens you can buy a new phone, connect it to your PC, and find everything present from the old phone. Many phones come with backup software; for those that don't a web search should find something that will work.

Backup for smart phones is often called "synchronisation". A backup just means taking a copy of your data, but syncing lets you use the data seamlessly on your main computer. Sync software typically has two components: software you install on your computer and an app or equivalent that runs on your phone. The phone app works in several stages. First it collects the data you want to back up. Then it connects to either your own computer or a remote one owned by a service provider in the cloud. Finally, it uploads the data to the location where the backup copy will be stored.

Where you'll store the data depends on the choices you make and the software you're using. Storing the data on your own computer is free, and also means you have complete control over what happens to it. Storing it in the cloud, on the other hand, means that you can restore the data onto your phone – or a replacement – from anywhere you happen to be.

There are two complications. One is that the backup routines that come with your phone may not include third-party apps you've downloaded and the data they create. If so, you'll need to search for something more comprehensive. The second is that phones may store data in more than one location: in the memory built into the phone itself, on the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that communicates with the mobile network operator, and on any other memory cards you have installed.

Of those three, the memory cards are easiest: just plug them into a card reader, either built into your computer or an external one, and copy the files. For the SIM cards and memory, if backup software wasn't supplied and you can't find anything online, you will need instructions from the phone's manufacturer.

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.

In the news - the new iPad launched

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:00 UK time, Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Last week Apple unveiled the new iPad in its first product launch since the death of founder and former CEO Steve Jobs.

The main surprise was that the tablet would just be called the iPad, apparently removing the need for a number or letter after every new improvement.

New features include a sharper display, hi def video recording and a faster processing speed. The device will also be able to connect to faster 4G networks, but these won't be a reality in the UK until at least 2013.

It all sounds pretty cool, but rather than a revolutionary device we should all be rushing to buy this Friday, is it actually just a simple reminder that tweaks and improvements are constantly being made to products?

With a 62% market share, Apple doesn't need to play catch up with other brands by haphazardly throwing big and clever ideas at consumers. Instead it delivers changes people have come to expect. Products should be slicker, easier to use, faster and showcase new technologies rather than make big promises they can't necessarily keep.

Since the launch of the original iPad in 2010, competitor tablets like the Samsung Galaxy, Asus Eee Pad and BlackBerry PlayBook have hit the stores, in a bid to claim a share of the market.

Although we shouldn't be enticed by every new item we see, it's important to keep an eye on what's going on and see what companies are coming out with. This way, when we do need a new device, we can fully consider what's out there rather than just going for the least or most expensive item.

Such developments in screens, product weight and functionality are worth keeping abreast of as they help challenge our ideas of what we need certain items for. Figures indicate that the rise in tablet sales is linked to a decline in netbooks - i.e. small, cheap laptops - which suggests people are really thinking about how and why they use technology, and not just what cynics might imagine, to always have the latest gadget.

Two years ago I was convinced that I needed a netbook simply because I had the notion of a small laptop stuck in my head. I didn't consider just how lightweight a tablet would be, or any of its other uses because I hadn't fully considered how I would use a new device or what other features I could get for my money. In technology, it's tempting to stick to what you know but with everything that's out there it's well worth taking the time to learn about what you don't.

Read how tablets help Tara Palmer-Tomkinson get the most out of the web in her interview with BBC WebWise.

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 - what is the Raspberry Pi?

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 12:50 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

When I heard 'raspberry pie computers' mentioned in the news recently, I rather hoped we had finally found the Willy Wonka of the computer world – something that could churn out desserts at a moment's notice. But this fruity sounding device is the Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer that is set to help children learn the basics of programming, at a cost they could save up for themselves.

The stripped down computer features basic components like a processor and memory, with ports to connect to peripherals like a keyboard, monitor and router.

It's hoped that the device, priced at just £22 will be rolled out to schools and encourage children to learn the basics of computer programming.

Several months ago, a government-backed report found that children's ICT learning was focused on how to use software rather than on learning programming skills. The recommendation of the report was to put computer science on the curriculum alongside maths and science, with the expectation that it would broaden a child's career prospects and place the UK in a better position in the video gaming and visual effects industries.

As the government considers the best way to teach computing in schools, Raspberry Pi and other similar products, like Beagleboard and Omnima Mini EMBWiFi, look like they could go a long way in addressing the issue.

It certainly seems like the public are intrigued by the Pi - when the device finally went on sale at six in the morning on 29 February the websites selling them were already overwhelmed by 6:01. The Raspberry Pi Foundation who are behind the Pi have been criticised by some for manufacturing too few devices, meaning that the only people with access to the Pi are adult hobbyists, rather than its intended younger audience.

Even once the supply problems are solved, If you're hoping to grab a bargain to meet your software needs, this isn't likely to be the computer for you. The Foundation aims to 'build the cheapest possible computer that provides a certain basic level of functionality' so if you're after a cheap computer to run music software on, you should still stick to the high spec varieties!

Computers have come so far in the last twenty years and advanced in capability and functionality that it’s sometimes easy to forget that they’re a human invention. As complex as they may seem, by stripping away the fancy software and flashy features, we can make learning about them far less intimidating for children and adults alike.

For more information on Raspberry Pi go to its website, or check out the full BBC report.

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.

The Olympic events you've never heard of

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Charlie Swinbourne Charlie Swinbourne | 09:30 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

The 2012 Olympics arrive in London this summer, with not only our capital but also the rest of the UK gearing up for what promises to be an amazing sporting extravaganza. In prospect is the opportunity to see the world’s greatest athletes reaching the very limits of human skill, speed and endurance, and I for one can't wait!

There's no doubting the huge level of excitement surrounding the men's 100 metres final, with over 1 million people applying for tickets for the race. Other events that I'll personally be looking out for include diving, the marathon, and of course the football.

But as the official 2012 site shows, the Olympics are about far more than the headline races and events. There's a total of 26 sports and 39 disciplines to choose from. So here are the pick of the niche events you may not have heard of - and where on the web you can find out all about them.

One event that's always intrigued me personally is fencing, where competitors engage in competitive (but safe!) swordfighting. And the official 2012 site has loads of interesting info – for instance, the names for the swords include the epée, foil and sabre. As well as demystifying jargon, the site tells us the basics of the sport, its history, and even features a neat video showing just how dramatic a bout can be. Other useful fencing sites include BBC Sport's own fencing site, which has all the lastest swashbuckling news.

When you think of wrestling, what's imagined (in my mind at least) are muscle-bound, perma-tanned men in garish costumes throwing each other around a ring in front of a baying crowd. But that version of wrestling is very different to what you'll see at the Olympics, even if the competitors still wear a lot of lycra. Olympic wrestling is otherwise known as 'freestyle wrestling' and involves a lot of more technical grappling on a mat. You can find out all the latest news at the FILA Wrestling website and even more on BBC Sport's own wrestling section.

A sport that's massively popular abroad but is barely known on these shores is handball - which at first glance looks like a cross between football and basketball. To get started, go to the European Handball Federation site which includes a section on the basics of Handball, and as before, the main 2012 site features a great video showing just how entertaining the sport is. If you'd like to see how the British teams are shaping, up head to the British Handball Association site, or check out BBC Sport's handball coverage.

An event I'll be keenly checking the schedules for is the BMX cycling, and in particular, the fortunes of cyclist Shanaze Reade, who came incredibly close to winning the gold for the UK in Beijing, before crashing out in the final. The London Olympics will be only the second time the event has featured at the games. You can find out more about BMX cycling at the British Cycling site, including a series of features called 'The Road to Beijing', or get a taster for the sport with this video of the final of last year's BMX final at the Youth Games.

That's just four of the lesser known events that will be gracing this country next summer. There were so many others I could have included, from the Canoe Slalom to the Modern Pentathlon, not to mention the Trampoline! For the latest news on those or any of the other niche sports, check out the main BBC Sport - London 2012 page for all the newest info. Happy browsing!

Charlie is a journalist and scriptwriter specialising in articles and films featuring deaf culture and sign language. He has written for the Guardian online and has contributed to programmes for Radio 4, while his films have won international awards. He also works in the arts, helping to make theatre accessible for deaf people.

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