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Letters from the Mailbag

The three PlayStation consoles side by side.
The three PlayStation consoles side by side. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 20, 2013 Deadline
July 2013 Issue

Letters from the Mailbag

Questions and suggestions from readers arrive every month. It’s always nice to help people with a technical question, and many of the questions inspire columns. This month, I’m sharing some questions with short responses. When I don’t have a good answer, I’m sharing that, too.

Q: Do you have a favorite gaming console?

A: When buying a console, consider the games first. Many games are platform exclusives, especially for the Nintendo consoles. Other games ship first for one or two consoles months or years before the games are available for other devices. The gamers I know tend to own Sony and Microsoft consoles, while parents of young children seem to prefer Nintendo devices.

I own a dust-collecting Sony PlayStation 2. Consoles have largely replaced personal computers for gaming, but I dislike the types of games that dominate the market. There’s nothing appealing to me about killing humans, demons, zombies or aliens. When I do play games, I prefer word puzzles on my iPhone or Nintendo DS.

Q: You own Apple computers and devices, but have you considered other brands?

Always buy a computer or other device based on what applications and services you intend to use. This is like my advice on gaming consoles: buy the device required by the software you own or plan to buy. Some of the research and educational software I use is available only for Apple systems. However, some business applications are only available for Windows. Like many Mac users, I also have Windows installed on my MacBook Pro.

If I needed a new computer for Linux or Windows, I’d buy a Toshiba X505 laptop. The X5050 has an 18.5-inch screen, solid-state drive (SSD), and the fastest Intel i7 processor available. Not everyone needs or wants a portable workstation-class computer, but if you need power and quality the Toshiba is outstanding. The X505 is neither light, nor convenient for travel. If you need small, light and convenient, consider a tablet. Sadly, Apple no longer offers a 17-inch MacBook Pro.

There are some great Android-based devices on the market. Samsung tablets and phones impress me. I’m not impressed by Windows 8, though.

Buy a phone based on the quality of the service provider and the phone’s wireless speed. My current phone is useless in the foothills where I ride my bike. “Searching…” and “No Service” messages annoy me. I wish I could test several carriers and phones to determine the ideal device.

Q: My printer manual cautions against third-party toner, but the brand-name cartridges are $30 to $70 more expensive. Can I really harm the printer?

A: This is one of the most common questions I receive. Ink and toner are overpriced. The printer manufacturers make money selling supplies, like the shaving razor companies selling $8 razors and $40 packs of blades. I have received “free” printers with computer purchases. What a deal, until you see the cost of inks.

The bad news: the quality of third-party color inks and toners, even from the same company, are inconsistent. I would never use third-party inks or toners for photo printing. The only time I recommend using refilled cartridges is when the printer model and its inks have been discontinued. By that time, the printer is out of warranty, too.

Remanufactured toner cartridges or refilled ink tanks rarely cause lasting damage to a printer. If the printer uses a one-piece print head and ink tank, as HP and Lexmark do, then replacing a bad cartridge solves most issues. However, some inkjet printers separate the tanks from the nozzles. Canon and Epson take this approach. Although most Canon inkjet print heads are easily replaced, Epson mechanisms are difficult to replace or repair. When a third-party ink clogs an Epson or Canon printer, solving the problem can be expensive. Also, because the ink and nozzles are separate, bad inks “linger” in the nozzles for a few print cycles. I’ve seen “speckled” output after switching a printer back to the better inks, but this problem slowly disappears.

There are cleaning kits for Epson and Canon print heads, and some of the ads for these kits mention “cheap inks” as the source of clogs. Is it really saving money on ink if you end up having to spend the money on a cleaning kit?

Q: Does Internet blocking software work? I don’t want my teenager to wander into inappropriate content.

A: Among filtering solutions, NetNanny (http://www.netnanny.com/) seems to work best, but I’m not a fan of filtering software. These solutions occasionally block valid content, especially news and science content. Inappropriate sites slip through the filters, too. I understand why NetNanny might be helpful in a classroom or similar situation, but nothing is superior to having a parent or teacher nearby.

Apple and Microsoft include basic “parental controls” in their operating systems. Try the parental controls included with Windows and OS X before investing in NetNanny or a similar filter application.

Q: You’ve written several times about the value of programming skills. Is there an easy way to learn about programming?

Several dozen free educational programming environments are available online. I wouldn’t describe any of these as “easy” but they are less intimidating and more fun than starting with C or Java. Some examples include Alice (http://www.alice.org/) developed by Carnegie Mellon University, StarLogo TNG (http://education.mit.edu/projects/starlogo-tng) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Microsoft Small Basic (http://smallbasic.com) and LiveCode Community Edition from Runtime Revolution (http://www.runrev.com).

I’ve used StarLogo to teach programming concepts to young students. Some of my colleagues have used LiveCode in their classrooms with great success. Since Microsoft includes Visual Basic for Applications within Word and Excel, I use VBA to teach basic programming concepts. Learning to automate Word tasks happens to be a great workplace skill, too.

I love conducting seminars for teachers on these topics. Learning to program nurtures problem solving skills. We should teach all students a little about programming. If we taught coding at a young age, we might also introduce computer science to more girls and minority students.

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