Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Kido'z - Best of a horrible, horrible bunch

You may have heard about damning with faint praise, well I suppose this is an example of this. Except for how much worse the alternatives are.

As I've discussed on this blog several times before, I am always on the lookout for tech aids for my middle daughter who is mentally and physically handicapped. We got a Nabi 2 not long after they came out, and while it was a pain to keep up, it was constructed in a way that it could tolerate being manhandled by my daughter and her aides, as well as generally keep a sane interface while minimizing the tablet being used by folks who were bored for other purposes.

Sadly, Nabi has not seen fit to update the model's specs, and their latest offerings are rehashed versions of the same. Worse, it uses a proprietary charger that is easy to break, and expensive to replace. Even worse than that, it also has a mini-USB port that looks to the untrained eye like it could be used to charge the device. Not surprisingly this has led to the tablet getting fried after one too many helpers tried to charge the tablet for her with their phone chargers.

Buying another Nabi was out, and the reviews of the Kindle Fire for Kids tablet left me with visions of horrible maintenance times and huge unexpected bills.

I had gotten a Win 8.1 tablet that I rarely use anymore, and there is a seller on Amazon that makes cases for the Samsung 8 inch tablet that fits most of these if you are ok with the camera not always being available. In addition to being available in a number of colors, it has a handle and a decent amount of padding.

The question then became how to make Windows 10 Kid Friendly? Microsoft has some options for setting up a Child account, but the interface is designed mainly to let you lock out certain programs or sites, not to make a truly touch-friendly, kid-intuitive menu. You might be able to do something fancy with Tablet mode, but I couldn't find anything that made that look sensible.

So then it was time to see what programs are out there. There are a couple Linux distributions out there that are supposed to be for kids, but in addition to trying to make them tablet friendly (which they aren't out of the box), they are not well maintained and frequently have issues with packages that are no longer in the mainstream. Edubuntu is probably the best known, and best supported of these, but it's main menus are text based and not particularly geared to a pre-reading audience.

Which meant a special browser for Windows geared toward kids. Several of these were created and released in the 2010 - 2011 timeframe, however all but two of them are no longer supported. That narrowed the choice to Zac Browser or Kido'z. One huge caveat on both of them is that they are dependent on their project site being up. This allows you to do some configuration remotely as a parent, but means that if the site is down, the browser shows just an empty shell.

Zac is still available, but only lightly maintained. Prominent messages on the website discuss a planned port to iPad and Android in 2012 as an example... The person behind the effort seems to mean well, but like many one man operations, that means it works, or it doesn't. And on Windows 10 it was wonky as all heck. As a one man operation it also seems to have more issues with keeping the main site up.

Ultimately, this led me to the least bad choice, Kido'z. The Kido'z browser works fine under Win 10, and can be configured (using usual Windows tricks) to start when the tablet is logged into. It is, however, a rather horrific piece of work to manage. You can setup any site you like through the parent portal online, where it claims to create a new snapshot to show on the menu. But while the link then shows on the child's display, the snapshot never does. So you have a number of links with text and only the same default image. You also can't configure the order that items display in. You are reduced to visiting pages and marking them as favorites so you can at least minimize the number of icons displayed by default. You can remove sites, but then they are completely removed. Oh, and the Windows version has issues with rendering that make all of the Nick Jr sites appear horrible.

I still ponied up the $60 for the lifetime subscription (which I suspect is the lifetime of the company not of your use) since it at least DOES let me setup and configure sites to be shown on the menu, and by asking for payment I have some reason to believe the site will be around long enough to get a couple years use out of it. Their support is active, if slow. However I had to tell them several times I was using the Windows version to get any decent answers from them (which should give you an idea of where their market is - Android).

I get that it appears to be hard to market a truly kid-oriented tablet given the many notable failures in this space. And for a lot of kids, mom and dad's tablet or phone are "good enough". But there is a decent need out there for more. I only hope something comes along in the next year that I can replace this "least bad" option with.

Adding and managing programs that start automatically in Windows 10

Process discussed here shows how:

Just in case you (like me) need to know :-)

Monday, August 10, 2015

WIndows 10 Weather Apps Reviewed - One Clear Winner

My laptop also serves as my alarm clock, and in Windows 8 and 8.1 it was simple enough to setup a split screen with my clock and alarm program on the left and the MSN Weather program on the right.

While I am sure there is some way to coax Windows 10 to run in full screen mode like that (I'm thinking I could force it into tablet mode, but I HATE tablet mode), I have had to go with two windows sized to fit side-by-side on the desktop. This isn't all that bad, but it did lead to me having to do more work with Windows 10 weather programs than I would have liked.

Initial idea was to go with the MSN Weather for Windows 10. They changed the look of this in a manner that gives you more data, although that detracts from enjoying the backgrounds. It appears that the initial release also would pick a default location, and then you were stuck with it. As the default location was often not YOUR location, there was a bit of a complaint section on the Store about this. FWIW, the default Alarms and Clocks had the same issue with it's World Clock option. So quickly loaded the update, and was able to get my home weather. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any option to set a refresh interval, and testing on a couple different machines indicated that it no longer seems to refresh itself unless you keep it in "Live Tile" mode, which is rather unusable for my situation.

I then quickly tried the AccuWeather offering. It has some great animated backgrounds, and some HORRIBLE ads that are rather in your face. It also does not appear to have any option to upgrade the ads away for any price, so that was a quick delete as well.

Finally I loaded the Weather Channel app. This one has nice backgrounds (though not animated), proper settings for locations, and updates at least hourly. It is not the ideal app (I'd like to be able to set more frequent updates, and have a little more control over the default screen), but it is far and away the best of the current bunch. Recommended if you like to keep an eye on the weather in Windows 10.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Gear VR - $200 of MEH

The moment of clarity hit me yesterday evening when I realized I was having more fun solving the puzzle of trying to get my content to compile so I could put it on the Gear VR than I had gotten from anything ON the Gear VR.

Having spent some time with Google Cardboard, I expected that something made of higher quality materials and tuned to my particular phone would be just that much more awesome. Silly me.

The TLD;DR version is that there is no there, there. IOW, there isn't much content and there is actually less every day.

Slightly longer version is that neither Samsung nor Oculus is really targeting the Gear VR any longer. Many of the items that were advertised in the store have not been updated since the version that was released for the Note 4 many months ago. That means that a lot of content won't run at all, or is glitchy as all heck.

There are actually three Oculus storefronts as well as the Samsung storefront you have to look through to find content. And by find I mean scroll since there is no concept of a keyboard nor does there appear to be an option to hook up a Bluetooth keyboard as you can a Bluetooth speaker or gamepad. Of course given the relative lack of content it's not like you can't scroll through everything in a little less than an hour...

One of the Oculus storefronts is Oculus Theater - which is just short 2D films "projected" in a virtual theater. This would be much more useful if you could at least choose to watch YouTube or Netflix in there, but at the current time you can only watch a small number of selected films - several of which are just trailers anyway.

As far as games, the number one game is a VR Kart racing game for $5 that requires one of the aforementioned gamepads (around $20), and that has issues around actually filling the track with enough racers to play. No AI cars, so if you're the only one there at a time... hope you like looking at the lobby.

The number two game is a game of Solitaire where the cards are 2D, but suspended in front of you for play. There's $2 well spent, right?

You're probably getting the picture. I am sorely tempted to just send this back for a refund, but part of me refuses to believe that Samsung and Oculus have really given up. Conversations I've been having with other developers, however, suggests that most of them are waiting for a commercial option (there already is a hack out there) to let you play Google Cardboard content on the Gear VR. Which rather sadly reminds me of owning a Commodore Amiga when the PC was taking off...

If you're thinking of getting anything prior to the main Oculus release, I suggest thinking otherwise unless you just HAVE to spend $200 right now for some reason.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Windows 10 - The Patient Way

Finally got Windows 10 on my tablet and my laptop overnight. Turns out they both may have been ready for some time - Microsoft doesn't send you an email to say it is ready, and even on the devices you have to click the little icon that normally tells you it has been reserved to see that it actually is finally ready to be installed. Perhaps they could have made it pulse, or colored it, or something to let you know?

Upgrade on the laptop was uneventful. A little disappointed in the redesign of the weather app as I liked the big, changing images that reflected the weather. But I'll live.

On the tablet, however, things were uneventful for the upgrade itself, but the Tablet mode of Windows 10 ends up being the worst of Windows 8 merged with the worst of Windows 7. Essentially the full screen of metro apps is replaced by the start menu being open at all times showing just some of the metro apps, and then whatever app you choose goes full screen. And, of course, the option to turn off Tablet mode is rather hidden. Makes me wish I had put the Technical Preview on that as well so I could have given them early feedback that they were about to make a mess of things. Oh well...

Long story short, you need to keep checking to see if the software is ready, but once you do the process is relatively painless. Since it doesn't tell you you're ready until it has already downloaded it, the time isn't too long. Except for the part where it reconfigures apps and tells you "This won't take long". Someone at Microsoft either has a cruel streak or a warped sense of humor.

On to the next task on my list!