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Friday, August 29, 2014

Free Google Chrome Apps- How to Select the Best from Thousands of Choices for Games, Business and Home

Surfing the web (do we still say that?) is fun and easy.

But, there's more to the internet than traveling from website to website. Chances are, you got to this blog by using the Google Chrome browser. Other browsers like Safari (Apple) and Explorer (Microsoft) work just fine, but for sheer popularity around the world, Google Chrome comes out on top.

However, it's time to stop thinking of Chrome as just a way to get from here to there on the interwebs. For some time now, Chrome has offered apps for their browser, just like a smartphone has apps to improve your phone experience.

You can find the Chrome Web Store here. Once you arrive, you'll discover thousands of applications optimized to work within the Chrome browser. Just like a smartphone, you'll find apps for games, education, productivity and the like. Because most people use the Chrome browser on a larger device like a laptop or desktop computer, the apps tend to be specialized for use on a larger screen. You'll see apps for video editing, business presentations, product design, TV watching and much more.
Keep this app away from my wife

This can be especially helpful if you're seeking some assistance with home remodeling, for example. There are several apps that allow you to create a 3D view of your home. This way, you'll be better able to envision your changes by removing a wall, replacing carpet with hardwood, painting the dining room green, etc. and do it all within the app before you ever pick up a hammer. Roomstyler 3D is one typical app for this kind of project in the Chrome Web Store.

Like I said before though, you can also find popular games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and others. They play just like the phone or tablet versions, but are modified to use your keyboard for control.

The good news is most of the apps are free. However, "free" can be a vague and loose term, with different definitions from developer to developer. Some may give you the whole program for no money at all. Others may provide part of the program, but want you to pay for the rest (for example, an app may allow you to design a business card, but charge you to print it). And still others allow you to download the app for free only, but to use any of it at all, you must pay up first.

So how do you find a great app for you when there are many to choose from? Read and pay attention to the reviews that come with every app. Chrome ranks apps on a five-star system and if you find an app with 173 reviews and an average four-star ranking, that usually means the app is a good one. However, is you see an app with 173 reviews and 1 1/2 stars, you'll probably want to move on to the next selection. Also, be sure to read the reviews, both good and bad, to get an overall feel for the product and it's suitability for you and your needs.

Lastly, in the name of fairness, both Explorer and Safari do have quality app stores that provide the same services as Chrome, so check them out too. If you do, I think you'll enrich your internet experience, discover some new ideas and maybe even play a game or two.

After all, isn't that why we all use the internet super highway (do we still use that term?)?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Four Easy Steps to Look Your Best in a Video Conference

My job often requires me to speak to clients, vendors and others via the internet, using online video services like Skype, Go To Meeting and others that make use of a camera and microphone plugged into the computer so the people on the other side of the meeting can see and hear me clearly. That part is easy. I can just use the built-in camera and mic provided by Apple for my iMac and be done with it.

But my 22+ years in video production simply won't allow it. Oh, it hurts me when I hear a voice echoing like they're standing in an empty bathroom or see the face of a client silhouetted like a mob boss in the witness protection program. Why is this a problem? For some, it isn't. But we use our visual senses to form our perceptions of each other and a a dark, shadowy figure who's hard to hear won't build trust as easily as a sharply focused, well-lit person with the voice clarity of a network announcer.

The good news is, the fix is an easy one, and it doesn't cost a lot of money to fix although you certainly can invest (and I chose that verb on purpose) in equipment to change your first impression from murky to marvelous. Here are a few ideas covering the basics of video conferencing so you can look and sound better every time. Let's cover the low end choices and conclude with higher end selections. Mix and match them to achieve the best effect for you.


The whole point of videoconferencing is to see each other, after all. The camera that came with your laptop or camera works, but just barely. If you're going to invest in anything, a better camera would be the best choice. Third party cameras have better resolution, sensitivity to light, placement options and can be taken from computer to computer for a consistent picture. 

Almost anything is better than the
factory camera for better video.

Choices are almost endless and not too bad on the wallet. So, this is a category where quality trumps price when selecting your camera. The Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 is my webcam of choice. For about $68, everything will suddenly be brighter, colors bolder, focus crisper and the overall quality stunning. 

If you buy one thing to improve your video image, make it an external camera. 


Good lighting choices can often make the difference between being seen and not seen. Often, all it takes is turning off a switch in one place and turning on a different switch somewhere else.
Who would YOU rather see?

The quickest and easiest thing you can do is place a light source somewhere in front of your face. A desk lamp, open window, under-shelf fluorescent or other light source turned on can flood your face with the light required to permit the camera to have as much light as it requires for the best possible image.

Help out the lights in front of you by turning off some or all of the lights above and behind you. The idea is to make the image of you brighter than the background. Experiment with different combinations until you see a look you like. Make a note of what was on and off so you can replicate it when needed.

To better control the light, invest in light specially designed and constructed just for video conferencing:

On the definite high-end, the Videssence Viewme  is especially designed to mount on a computer monitor (or on either side of it with two stands) and provide two-point lighting for the best result possible. At nearly $200, it might be difficult to justify on your expense account, but the excellent results are undeniable.
When appearance matters
more than price.

Priced in the mid-range, the Webstar II is a circle of LED lights surrounding your external webcam that you mount within the ring. The light also comes with a dimmer to adjust the amount of light required. It uses a USB plug to provide power so it's portable too. It retails for $50.
Simple, easy and not too pricey. Nice.
(Stellar Lighting)

On the lower end, it becomes time to adapt lights that may have been created for a somewhat different purpose, but achieve a good result nonetheless. Here are two choices to consider:

- The Goal Zero Luna LED light mounts into a USB port and illuminates 10 lights across a long, thin bar. It's position is adjustable via an extended snake-like arm that can wrap around objects to keep it secure. You don't have to plug it directly into the computer. You can use a USB extension cord or a battery with a USB port (like the kind that charge cell phones). Not bad for less than $10. 

Look how well lit his face is and it's not
even angled toward his face.
(Goal Zero)
- The Mitaki-Japan 30 LED light doesn't need a USB port at all. It uses 3 D-cell batteries, but will last a very long time as LED lights use battery juice at a miserly level. It's advantage is that each side of the lamp "splits" into two wing-like halves, simulating the two-point lighting of the pricey Videssence. Downsides? It's somewhat tall at 9 1/2 inches and needs a level surface like a shelf or stack of books. It's around $14 at Amazon.

Just level out the "wings" and you're
ready to light 'em up!

Nothing is worse to me than hearing that dreaded echo of a poor microphone that came with the camera. Barely audible, it seems the mic was purchased more for its low price than it's quality. Not to worry, because this is an issue that can be solved in seconds. Here are two types of microphone for better sound: 

Fee standing- 

Lots to pick from in this category. One great choice that occupies the higher spectrum is the Blue Yeti. It appears like a classic, old-timey mic you might have seen on Johnny's desk, but the insides are all new-tech. It plugs directly into a USB port and is specially designed to pick up the spoken voice. No more echoes and it's adjustable so you get a "say" into how your voice sounds. For $106, you'll have to spend thousands more to beat the results. 
1950's look, 2015 technology in the Blue Yeti
(Yeti not included)
(Blue Audio)

You can do nearly as well for $36 with the Sampson Go Mic. The quality is unquestioned and it's portable too. With a few less adjustments and smaller size, it is still a huge improvement over the factory supplied mic. 
Sampson Go Mic

Headphone Mic

This type looks like a receptionist headphone set. Basically, it's a set of headphones with a long plastic arm attached to one side and the mic rests in front of the speaker's mouth. The good news is that the sound is great and you can hear everything just fine. 
A classic never goes out of style.
The bad news is that you may appear awkward and unnatural. But, if it solves your poor sound quality issue, then it might be the solution you need. The classic product solution is the Logitech ClearChat Comfort. For less than $20, it boasts an in-line mute button and a good reputation for solid performance. 

Tips for a better video/audio result

- Is your LED light too bright and not adjustable? Just get to the grocery store and buy a roll of Glad Cling Wrap. Pull down a few inches worth and press it (stick side down) against the lights. The "foggy" finish of the plastic will reduce and diffuse the light for a softer effect. Don't worry, it won't melt. LED lights produce no heat. If possible, you can also move the light away from you (make sure you still get a good result!).

- Experiment and preview your look. "Skype" yourself with a separate computer. Looking at your image, adjust lighting, camera angles, background clutter, etc. until you see a result you like. 

- Once you've determined light settings, background clutter, audio placement and so on, make a detailed diagram with all the extra notes you need to replicate this look when needed. This will eliminate guesswork and save precious time. 

- Place the camera at eye level or slightly higher (no more than two inches either way). This is normally the most flattering angle and keeps the camera from looking up your nostrils. 

- If possible, keep the microphone out of sight. Although it shouldn't matter, we are all children of television and a visible mic can be a distraction. 

- If practical, rehearse your presentation. Tape meeting notes on either side of of the camera, out of sight of your audience. Keeps notes just that- notes. A word-for-word script might cause you to read it like one and could sound odd or disingenuous.

It seems like a lot to do for a powerful, positive effect, but it really isn't. If you take some simple steps to improve three areas: camera, lighting and audio, you'll be far ahead of 99% of your competition.

And that's not a bad way to look at it.