Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top Apps

One of the things that the iOS device class has brought to the user is convenience.  Take the iPhone for instance. You now have constant access to the internet, friends using any of the social media services, games, be they stand alone or multiplayer or interactive. This just did not exist in the way it does now before the iPhone.

On the down side for each application type there are a multitude of apps, a multitude ranging from expensive to free, from excellent to a waste of precious iOS memory. How do you decide between them. I often use reviews but that can be deceptive. You could trawl through forums but that can be tedious. You can ask your friends but often they choose an app on a rather arbitrary basis. There are many tech sites dedicated to bringing you comparative reviews of particular app types and this is probably the best way to find good apps.

This is my attempt to help guide you to what I consider to be my favourite apps and why I favour them. This does not mean that they are the best, only that they are the apps that I happen to like in each category.

I have not counted but I now have many hundreds of apps and no longer use many of them but some I use regularly and some several times a day. I have often collected multiple apps in the same category and I sometimes drift between them from time to time due to feature updates of annoying bugs or sometimes because I can. I am as fickle as the next person so you really need to judge for yourself whether an app will suite you. This is my personal opinion based on whatever random felling or questionable logic I had at the time.

Google Earth Free (universal)
One is one the stable of Google mobile apps. Get a 3D view and lay of the land. To see the other Google apps search for Google in the app store.

There are three decent weather apps which obtain their weather from the BOM they are Pocket Weather,  Oz Weather and Weatherzone. I was using Oz Weather until recently and then shifty Jelly updated Pocket Weather to version 3 with a brand new app and now this is my favourite. It looks gorgeous and the new design is easy to use and full of information. There are still some features I like in Oz Weather and indeed both provide excellent up to date coverage but now Pocket weather has slipped ahead.

Google Maps Free (universal)
Maps Internal
The origonal maps app for the iPhone was provided by Google but it was replaced a couple of years ago by the current version based on Tom Tom maps. I have used both Google Maps and Maps for navigation and both are excellent and pretty close to each other in features.I probably use both equally and have few issues.

In my humble opinion the best free dictionary in the app store and amongst the best of the lower end paid for dictionaries. It has an excellent range and word origins which many of the dictionary apps do not.

Ice TV Free
Not in App shopper since it is not in the US store.
This free app provides a free 7 day rolling TV guide to all Australian TV programs. It can also be used to program your compatible PVR such as BeyonWiz, Topfield, Strong or Dvico, but that requires a subscription which is $99 for 12 months (although I wait for the half price specials). The guide by itself is free. Simply download the app and sign up inside the app and you get your personalised TV guide.
iTV Shows 3 Universal $3.79
 iTV Shows allows you to track which episodes of which series you watch. If like us you have wide ranging tastes it is sometimes difficult keeping track of what you have watched. You get 5 minutes into a show and you realise you have seen it. This app allows you to mark episodes as watched. It also synchronises to the cloud so that you can use it from all of your devices and it updates automatically.

Informant $13.99
This app provides a calendar, todo list, and contacts. It synchronises with whatever service you use including your internal lists. This is on the expensive side but I bought it on discount. I have been using this for many years, ever since I owned a Pocket PC, maybe 2004 at a guess. It is a big improvement on the internal calendar.

eBudy XMS Free iPhone only
This like SMS but free and many more facilities. All of your friends need to use it as well. There are also clients for Android, Windows Mobile, Nokia, blackberry and as a web client on your PC. So whatever smart phone platform your friends use you can communicate using XMS.

Life360 Free iPhone only
This app tracks your friends and family and tells you where they are. Some people are spooked by this but I think it is fantastic. Liesa and I use it to track each other (how else would I know where she is :). Our children also use it to keep track of their children. It gives them great peace of mind. In the free version you can set two way points where you can alert when people arrive or leave. You can also set groups of people so that each group can be private.You can also set avatars, chat check-in and send an alert in the case of an emergency. A circle (group) can pay an additional US$5 for unlimited waypoints expanded history plus a few other features.

DVD Profiler $9.49 (requires paid app for PC or web synchronisation) (universal)
DVD Profiler is one of the best DVD BluRay cataloging programs (PC only). I bought it to catalogue my hundreds of DVDs and now Bly Rays. The iOS app allows me to synchronise with my PC app and also have my entire catalogue on the run. When I buy a ne Blu Ray I scan the bar code on my iPhone, enter the purchase date (today by default) location and cost. I can then synchronise with the PC app and it also allows online synchronisation so that I never loose my catalogue. 

Olive Tree Bible Reader Free (universal)
This is my favourite bible reader for the following reasons
  • Most versions available for purchase
  • Many additional resources available
  • Free app for the Mac and PC
  • Can synchronise books between any platforms meaning that you only have to purchase a book once.
Dropbox Free (universal)
Dropbox is an online free backup facility that gives you 2G free online storage. It has a PC or Mac app that automatically synchronises your Access your important files. The iOS app can access these files so that you can view or edit them whenever you have your iOS device with you and you have internet access. You can also share files and folders with other dropbox users or make them public if you wish. There are a host of applications that utilise Dropbox such as KyPass (see below).

Evernote Free Universal
This is a great note taking app and has been around in various guises for a long time. It was one of the first of its type and it is still amongst the best. You can categorise notes, add pictures, format notes. I use it constantly for keeping random things such as grinding wheel sizes, shirt size, random lists of stuff I need to buy at Bunnings, the list is endless. Notes synchronise between devices so you have you notes wherever you have a device. It is available for PC, Mac, and most hand held devices.

KyPass 3 $7.49 (universal)
I use KeePass to store my passwords. It uses high level single password encryption with an optional secure key. There are several iOS apps that can access a KeePass password database but KyPass seems to be the best of them. Using Dropbox I can access the same password database from any Mac, PC or iOS device. Thus I can have my passwords with me wherever I am and all with a single master password. The PC application also has some nice facilities such as auto type to automatically enter your credentials into a web page for instance.

eBuddy XMS Free
It is like SMS but more powerful. It allows you to chat and send photos with text stickers all for no cost. 

IMDB Free (universal)
On line movie database - need I say more :)

iSip Basic $0.99, Full $6.49
Use this to connect to your favourite VOIP service from your iPhone to save a ton of money on interstate and overseas calls. Two such services are Pennytel and MyNetFone.

As I said above, do your own research and look up comparative reviews on the various tech sites do see which apps provides the features you want.

Password Management - One solution

The Problem
I was reminded recently how important it is to manage passwords properly. One of my friends has a lot of trouble remembering their vast number of passwords and sets insecure passwords which they then immediately forget. They also re-use other people's passwords, and use those same passwords across multiple accounts none of which is particularly secure.
Below is a short instructional on how to manage passwords and your various options. I am providing one solution but as with lengths of string, password management solutions are many and varied. However I think that this is a good option and one that can give you a sense of security and is fairly easy to implement. The expert will most likely already have a solution in place but even so this may give you some additional ideas to improve password management.
The Requirements
These are the requirements for a good password manager.
  • Available on all platforms including portable devices, PC and MAC
  • Able to store multiple pieces of information including URLs notes and secret questions
  • Able to integrate so that you can automatically enter passwords (this option is not available on iOS due to the OS restrictions)
  • Able to access from anywhere in the universe (assuming a network connection of course)
  • Free
As I said above there are many solutions but not all are free and not all are particularly secure. The solution I suggest meets all of these requirements, although the Mac and iOS versions do cost.

The Solution

What I use is KeePass. It is in effect a tiny database manager The feature list is quite extensive but the more important features are,
  • Strong security. It has a master password with an optional key file. The key file is simply a very long bunch of random characters that unlocks the database along with an optional pass code (not the master password). This key file supplements, but does not replace your master password. You can store the key file independently on a memory stick, and/or Dropbox for instance and the database is inaccessible without that key file.So if any one cracks your master password they still need that key file to open the password database. (If you use Keepass on iOS the key file needs to be in dropbox along with your password database which sort of defeats the purpose of the key file.)
  • Multiple databases. For example you can store work and private passwords independently.
  • Password history. It can retain old passwords for you just in case.
  • You can run form your PC or even run it from a portable USB key. There are also iOS, and Android apps to access the database.
  • You can transport the database using USB or dropbox or any other mechanism so that you can have your passwords wherever you are.
  • Windows and Mac versions can auto type your username/password combo to make easy password entry to most web sites or applications.
  • It can auto generate strong passwords for you so that you do not have to remember your passwords. Just copy and past or auto type.
  • Flexible management. It can have folders and sub folders, You can store URL, notes, auto type options, custom fields, and  auto expiry notification for your passwords.
To set up Keypass you need to ...
  1. To be able to access the same password database on all devices you will need a cloud storage option and the one I like is Dropbox. If you do not already have an account go to Dropbox and set up a Dropbox account. They give you 2G free which is more than enough for your password database plus lots of other stuff. Because your database will be stored inside dropbox this should be extremely secure so choose a secure but easy to remember password for Dropbox. Make sure that this password is unique and especially not the same as your Keypass master password.
  2. Download Dropbox for your PC/Mac and set it up. This produces a shared folder on your PC or Mac. This will synchronise anything in your Dropbox with that folder. You can place things in that folder and its sub-folders and they will be synchronised across all of your devices that are using Dropbox.
  3. Download the iOS Dropbox app on your portable devices. This is not absolutely necessary but it does make managing Dropbox easier. 
  4. Download Keepass for youer PC/Mac and install it. The PC version is free but the Mac version I prefer is KyPass Companion which costs. You may download the stand alone version for PC that you can run off your USB device if you so wish. I also use an add-in called KPEnhancedEntryView. It is free and comes with install instructions. Once installed it adds an additional window that shows all of the selected entry's fields in a separate window that allows the user to easily add, delete and edit fields.
  5. Start up Keepass and create a database in the Dropbox shared folder under a sub-folder called crypted. You can give this database whatever name you wish but if you intend to create multiple databases give it a meaningful name such as Private.kdbx or Business.kdbx. If you so desire generate a key file and save it in crypted as well since you will require this file to open your Keypass database. Make the master password secure and easy to remember but different from your Dropbox password. If you use the optional key file it is a good idea to have good backups of your key file but make sure they are secure. A good idea is to give a copy of a USB stick with your key file to someone that you trust.
  6. Download the iOS version of Keepass (there are several options here (scroll down) but I use KyPass 3 since it is updated regularly and supports all of the Keepass functions. It is not free but all of the iOS Keepass apps I have researched are paid but it is a one off cost. Before purchasing an iOS app look at the regularity of the updates (check it in and the feature list. Also make sure it supports V2 of the database and Dropbox folders.
  7. Link the app to Dropbox and them open the Keepass database. Not all of the Keepass database fields may be supported in the iOS version but the critical fields of username and password should be there.
  8. Finally store all of your passwords in your Keepass database. Make sure to keep your Keepass folders nicely structured with subfolders. Some folder names you may use are Banking, Web Sites, Forums, Social Networking, Computers, &etc.
I suggest that you tell someone you trust your Dropbox and Keepass passwords in case of emergency. If you have given someone power of attorney then they should be given your key file and master passwords with instructions of how to respond in the case of your disability or death. Our digital presence is now becoming much more important so what happens to your accounts after you die is becoming more important but is by and large not a consideration. This whole discussion is for another time however.

Password Management Suggestions
With so many sites being hacked and user's passwords being stolen password management is more important than ever. Below are my top hints for password management.
  • Use secure passwords. Do NOT use Pa55word, John, Fido, M4r1 or similar. Make them look like nothing. People think character such as ^%$ make it more secure. They do not. $ for s is about as secure as no password. You can use your password app to generate random passwords for you which is as secure as you can get.
  • Do not use other peoples passwords. If Mary uses Af1a1fa do not use it yourself. Get your own stinkin passwords! Also do not re-use your passwords. If that Russian mafia group hacks your Apple password they will then try it out on Facebook, Google and even your banking site. Each login must use a separate password.
  • If 2 factor authentication exists - use it. Many sites now allow you to use such things as an pin sent to you via your SMS, fingerprint reader or an independent code generated in a separate app in addition to your password. If the options are there, use them since it will make it that much easier to crack your accounts.
  • Make your secret questions random. If it asks for your mother's maiden name make it Superman, or your favourite pet, QuincyJones then store these in your Keepass database. If you use real answers then people can usually find them out.
  • Do not click links in your email that direct you to your bank or online service. These are called Phishing emails and are scams that will steal your information then drain your bank account. Open a new window and then manually type in the site address. You can usually tell by hovering over the link with your mouns, not clicking on it - and observe the link in the footer of your browser window. If it looks like this -> then dead cert, it is a scam. If it looks genuine then it is probably dodgy.
  • Set a pass code on your phone. If you have fingerprint recognition - use it. 

Finally be wise. Think about what you are doing. We are all pretty smart so use your smarts when it comes to online security. Think of the worst case scenario  and imagine that it could happen to you, since it very well could.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What is the "Cloud"?
The term cloud is bandied about with gay abandon without much definition. Specifically it can mean many things but in general terms it means putting thins to other than your local PC or device. This means that someone somewhere has computers that can perform tasks remotely for you which you can access via the internet. This may be as simple as storing things for you, take Dropbox for instance. In other cases it may be a suite of applications, such as Google Drive which includes apps such as editing and spreadsheets. Google is an excellent example since it encompasses a suite of useful functions such as mail, calendar, Apps and storage.
The "cloud" is now so ubiquitous that every major IT company now offers some form of cloud to their customers/users, some more accessible to your regular Joe such as us and others aimed higher at the small to medium business and others more suited to large companies.
So the advantages of cloud are that your data is accessible everywhere, no need to back up your data, you don't need to buy a new HDD when you run out of space, all of the processing power for the application is in "the cloud" which can be easily reconfigured to cater for changing loads.

The disadvantages are that someone else has your data, good solutions can be expensive, you are relying in the viability of the company hosting your data and applications, you are relying on theis stability and security to no have your data compromised or lost. There have been a lot of instances of data lost, services failing and passwords compromised so this is a serious consideration.
Sorry, this has been rather long winded but I really wanted to get a good definition of cloud since it is the subject of a lot of confusion.
Apple has a cloud solution and has had for some time. I the usual Apple way they have obfuscated their cloud to supposedly make it easy for Apple customers to use but in fact it just makes it more confusion IMHO. You can use the Apple cloud to store the settings of your apps and store device backups. If you wish to pay extra then you get the ability to store your music to the Apple cloud.  Lets look at each of these.
Whenever you use an app which has stored settings, take my TV episode watching app, ITV Shows. When I have watched an episode I mark it as watched in the app. Now whatever device I go to this episode is marked as watched. The details are stored in the Apple cloud. And so with many apps which store data across devices. Of course many apps such as Dropbox, have their own cloud.
Device backups can either be stored on your local computer or to the Apple cloud. On iOS 8 go to Settings->iCloud->Backup to store backups to the cloud. It will back up your device to the Apple cloud. The first time it will take a while but thereafter it will automatically sync to the cloud on WiFi whenever your device has a long idle period. The advantages are that it not be lost if your computer dies or you use the data on your local HDD and you can restore immediately when you purchase a new device. The disadvantage is that a restore will take a lot longer depending on your internet speed, you are dependent on the Apple cloud service being available and it is one more thing to loose if your account is hacked. You may recall that there was one occasion where I was locked out of my account by Apple (trust me, it was not me it was them) for about three months and I could not buy apps, login to my cloud from my devices or access my Apple cloud storage in any way and it was all on Apples side. My only option was to go to an Apple store and the closest store at that time was Melbourne. It was a complete debacle on Apple's part and their only compensation was 5 free movie rentals (which I am yet to use).
The last significant service is what Apple calls iTunes match. This is where your non-Apple purchased music can be stored in the Apple cloud. For this you need to pay Apple AU39.99 per year. We bought it for a year and it was useful but not really worth it for us. One of the nicer features was that Apple replaced any lower quality songs with Apple lossless quality which was nice but even so, it was not really worth it for us.
In the future you will find that more and more services will migrate to the cloud as universal internet access becomes the norm and cloud services will drop in price and ease of use. Even Microsoft Office has a standard cloud service now. Get used to hearing the term "cloud service" and I hope that this missive has cleared the fog surrounding the cloud a little.