How to make the most of technology

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 1:03 PM

Many new gadgets are actually easier to use than the old stuff.

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Barb and Bruce Vasbinder visit with their granddaughter, Caitlin, 4, through Skype.

Photo: Phil Masturzo, Mct

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Your local video store just closed, and now you're wondering where the heck you're going to get movies. You've moved to a new area, and you want to find your way around without awkwardly folding and unfolding paper maps. You took some cute pictures of your grandchildren, and you'd like to be able to show them off.

Technology to the rescue! New electronic devices offer solutions to those problems and more.

Sure, for those who grew up watching three TV channels and crossing the room to change them, there's a learning curve. But "now would be a great time to catch up on what's out there," said Erin Stephens, a portable-electronics sales associate at the Best Buy store in Eden Prairie. For one thing, despite all their amazing functions, many new gadgets are actually easier to use than the older stuff. Plus, with no big paradigm-shifting development currently on the horizon, now's your chance to learn the latest tricks without worrying that they'll soon be obsolete (VHS or cassette tapes, anyone?).

What follows is a brief overview, courtesy of Stephens and some of her coworkers. For more details -- comparisons of specific devices, installation instructions, directions for use -- you can ask your tech-savvy neighbor, consult an electronics-store salesperson, read a manual, search on your computer. Or you can do what the kids do these days: just start playing around with it, learning as you go.

"Don't be afraid to just dive in and push buttons," Stephens said. "You can always google it if you have problems."

here's how to ...

WATCH A MOVIE OR TV PROGRAM

Though you can still (for now) get DVDs, another option is streaming digital videos directly from subscription or pay-per-view internet sites such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Amazon. Watch them on your computer screen, or use a cable to connect the computer to the TV set (to find the right cable for your set, take a photo of the back of the set with you to the store, Stephens suggests). If you have a WiFi setup, a device that plugs into the set (Roku and Sony are among the brands) grabs the signal and displays it onscreen. Some of the new TV sets come with built-in wireless capability.

FIND YOUR WAY AROUND

A global positioning system (GPS) displays your location on a palm-size map and directs you to your destination with visual and spoken directions. Need to make a stop? Type in a business name or even a category -- "gas station," "Chinese restaurant" -- to see what's nearby. Some systems offer free lifetime upgrades, or let you see public transportation routes and even schedules for major cities.

STORE AND SHARE PHOTOS

Newer cameras and gadgets such as secure digital (SD) cards and Eye-Fi cards make it easier than ever to transfer photos from your camera to your computer, select images for professional processing, or post them on Facebook or photo-sharing sites (Flickr, Snapfish, Photobucket, Picasa, Shutterfly) where your friends and family can view them on their own computers. (Many sites also let you order prints and photo-emblazoned products like mugs and calendars.)

A digital photo frame looks like an ordinary frame except that it stores lots and lots of photos and displays them slide-show style. Many have built-in e-mail for easy transmission, as do the newest printers if you want paper versions.

STAY INFORMED

With a tablet or e-reader, you can wirelessly download books (sometimes for free) or borrow them from the library, and subscribe to newspapers and magazines. All tablets and some e-readers also play videos and surf the internet. They're portable, lightweight and user friendly, most with intuitive touch-screen controls and adjustable type size.

GET FIT IN YOUR LIVING ROOM

Forget their reputation for breeding couch potatoes; the three major video-gaming systems -- the Microsoft XBox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii -- can actually get you up off the couch and moving. Cameras or motion detectors follow you as you perform interactive workouts your TV screen. XBox's Kinect will even monitor and correct your form, like an electronic personal trainer. (See page 11 for one man's Wii Fit story.)

KEEP IN TOUCH

You can see and talk to distant friends and family using a free internet-based service such as Skype or iChat. You (and your fellow conversationalist) will need webcams; they're built right into most newer computers and tablets but external webcams are inexpensive.

LISTEN TO MUSIC

A typical MP3 player can hold more songs than your grandparents heard in their lifetimes. The newest also store videos and photos, download music from the internet and check email -- practically everything a smart phone does except make calls, with no service plan required. Accessories sold separately include high-quality speakers and sound systems at a wide range of price points.

Katy Read• 612-673-4583

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