Chrome books it to the cloud and never looks back

Acer Chromebook 11.6I recently purchased an Acer 11.6-inch Chromebook computer as what I thought was going to be a part-time device to help me speed through a lot of the web-based work and social media activities I do. Little did I know a few weeks ago that I would be reaching for it more than anything else. I’m writing this post on it now, although honestly, I’ve written blog posts on a mobile phone before, so basically the best device you can use for writing is the one you have available when inspiration strikes. 🙂

I had thought about such a purchase recently as the job I have was ending and, with it, my access to an iPad. Also, my MacBook from 2009 has been showing its age. So I started thinking about what device to get next that wasn’t a laptop (because I wanted better portability, despite how 2014 that sounds), and I didn’t want to spend a small fortune like I would to get my own personal iPad.

To each his own, that’s what I generally say when people ask me about “the best device for doing x.” I’ve used Apple and Android phones, Kindles, Kindle Fires, iPads, PCs, Macs and, now, a Chromebook. I’ve also used the major devices available for streaming video and music content, but those should be in a separate blog post all their own (coming soon).

I also was recently contacted by SingleHop, a private cloud-hosting company, about sharing my experiences with cloud computing. Full disclosure: I was not compensated in any way to mention them, other than their providing the cloud computer graphic posted at the end of this post for reference. It was just a nicely worded email that asked me to write something and, sometimes, niceness and professionalism pay off.

So, anyway…cloud computing has become a big part of my life and it’s only getting bigger, as I suspect it will for many people. Chromebooks are nearly as powerful as many laptops now. Think about your computer use for a minute. Many things that you do are actually being done on the Internet, not on your local hard drive. Think about the social media activities, photo editing and storage, file storage and — if you’re a Google Drive user instead of a Microsoft slave — your writing, spreadsheets and presentations. All of that is done via your browser instead of your computer’s operating system. In my case, the browser of choice is Google Chrome.

The folks at SingleHop sent me a list of questions to prompt some ideas for this blog post, but I thought they were more useful for me to tweak and let others use as a checklist for determining how much you actually do online:

  • Do you stream music or videos?

  • Do you coordinate with coworkers or associates to collaborate on documents and presentations?

  • Do you use social media, email or instant messaging to stay in touch with friends and family?

  • Do you use apps on your mobile phone or tablet that are synced across devices?

If you answer yes to most or all of those, you’re spending a lot of time in the computing cloud whether you knew it or not.

When I looked at my computer use, I realized at least 90 percent of my activities were on the Chrome browser, so it made a lot of sense for me to make Chrome my operating system, which is what happens when you run a Chromebook. With a solid state drive and no true operating system, a Chromebook starts almost instantly.

I can open and close the lid all day to take it from wake to sleep and back again in a couple blinks of an eye. There is no fan, so there’s no noise, and it’s incredibly lightweight. I can rotate the screen vertically and hold it sideways to read a magazine article or book with no fatigue. (Essentially, it’s like holding a lightweight hardcover book, with the screen on one side and the keyboard on the other. It works a lot better than it probably sounds.)

My books are almost entirely in the cloud now, as are my documents, my photos, my music, my movies and most everything else I interact with. The advantage is that I have them all available on whatever device I’m using at the moment, from laptop to Chromebook, from Kindle Fire to mobile phone. The downside, of course, is that if wireless goes down or the Internet goes dark for any reason, I lose the ability to stream things. I can, however, work with items I have stored for offline use — books, movies, music, documents — pretty much anything I have room to store on my Chromebook or an SD memory card. Even Google Drive is now built so that you can work on things offline and then let them update to the cloud later when you have an Internet connection.

Cloud computing and the epitome of such — Chromebooks — may not be for everyone. But the ease of use and access, plus the ability for others to interact with what you have in the cloud when invited is incredibly appealing to and useful for me. I’m certain the gang over at Single Hop would agree since that’s how they’re making a living.

I’m thrilled with my Chromebook purchase and the way it took me to the cloud and never looked back.

There is a lot I could have written about cloud computing, Chromebooks or my new Acer in particular, but I didn’t want this post to become exceedingly long. So if you have any questions about anything mentioned here, just post them in the comments section and I’ll reply with an answer for you ASAP.

Life_in_the_Cloud

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Set your TV on Fire with Amazon’s new stick

Amazon FireTV Stick boxI pre-ordered the new Amazon fireTV stick when it first became available and it arrived about two weeks ahead of schedule. I took the opportunity to use my Google Glass to produce an unboxing, setup and operational overview video. It’s presented here in three parts so people can choose to watch only sections they are most interested in or all three if they so wish, as I shot them assuming you would move from one chapter to the next.

One of the key things to keep in mind is that this device is really going to shine only if you are an Amazon Prime member. What is the point of having a device that can stream hundreds of thousands of movies, TV shows and music tracks at your command unless you have that library available to you?

Amazon FireTV Stick box contents

As you’ll note in the first video, the contents of the box include the stick, a power cable, a power block and an HDMI extender dongle. Note that unlike Google’s Chromecast (which I also own), Amazon strongly recommends that you use the power block to power your fireTV stick instead of using the USB power port on the back of your TV.

In the first video, I unbox the fireTV stick and give an overview of the box contents and offer some commentary about the device compared to a Google Chromecast:

In the second video, I show part of the set up of the fireTV stick:

In the third video, I get into the final installation and set up, as well as sharing the Amazon cartoon that runs when you first install and then some of my initial operations of the fireTV stick:

Note that at the end of the third video, I mentioned I was going to check out the smartphone app. I did and it worked very well as a remote and for voice searches. I just didn’t think it was compelling enough to shoot a video about.

A few other things are worth mentioning here that did not come up while I was shooting the videos because I found them buried deeper in the personal settings area of the menus. I mention them here because I was excited to find them and I don’t think they are all that obvious when you first look into the fireTV stick’s capabilities.

Amazon Fire TV Stick screenshotThe first is that the stick lets you use a selection of built-in photos as a screen saver or — even better — you can select albums you have in your Amazon Cloud Drive and pull your own pictures up to act as the screen saver.

Amazon FireTV Stick screenshot

The second thing is that the fireTV stick will serve as a Miracast device so that if you have a smartphone capable of using this technology, you can mirror your phone’s screen to your TV to share it with an audience. That has some great potential for holiday gatherings when you want to share a collection of photos or videos with the family all at once instead of waiting while they pass your phone around.

Because I just started using the fireTV stick today, I can’t offer any long-term, objective reviews of how it works or how it will hold up after a period of constant use. But my initial impressions are positive. The price is $39, compared with $35 for the Google Chromecast — so the choice may very well come down to which of the two universes you are more deeply embedded in. For various reasons, I have one foot in both the Amazon and Google universes, and both feet are at levels deep enough to be in over my ankles. So, for the cost, having the flexibility of providing both operating systems in my house made it well worth the investment, and I’d probably say that even if I had not received the fireTV stick half off by pre-ordering.

No matter what you decide to do though, never lose sight of the fact that for less than $50, you have a technological device your great-grandparents could have never imagined becoming commonplace plugged into the back of a TV that our parents and grandparents probably never imagined would be in every home. “Mind-blowing” might not even cover it.

Technology rocks, just don’t let it roll over you

20140617_111045_754_xA recent family vacation helped prove once again that modern technology rocks, but if you’re not careful, it can roll over you.

Aside from my Google Glass developing the dreaded foil bubble design flaw  during the trip, things went nearly without a hitch. Unfortunately, the one hitch I had could have been a major problem. To be fair, modern technology helped it from becoming one. OK, now I’m starting to write in circles, so let’s just get to it using the old format of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Jessi, the kids and I headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a week with four mobile phones and Google Glass in hand, plus a Kindle Touch, a Kindle Fire and a GoPro camera. We took no laptops or iPads, opting for the smaller screens and less chance for potential distractions. I knew cellular service on the island we were headed to would be spotty at best, but we did have WiFi in the house we rented.

20140619_080739_725_xThe Good

Google Glass — until it broke — worked great as a camera, video camera and travel aid.

The mobile phones (an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S and Motorola Droid Maxx) all performed admirably. They served as phones, messaging and email units, travel aids (via a Delta Airlines app and Google Maps) and cooking timers, as well as cameras, gaming devices, news readers and social media conduits. The ability to take pictures, including panoramas and photospheres (Google Camera on the Maxx) is becoming increasingly easy and impressive. The fact that the list above is as long as it is while talking about a single device you can hold in the palm of your hand or put in your pocket is still astounding to me.

The Delta app has proven more useful over time and if you fly with Delta, you should use their app. You can learn about your current flight’s status, check seating locations, carry a digital version of your boarding pass and even track your checked bags to make sure they’re headed to the same vacation spot you are.

The Kindle Touch served as Jessi’s book reader for the trip, from the plane to the beach — always ready due to it stellar battery life and always readable thanks to its e-ink technology and anti-glare screen. Its small size made it portable and easy no matter where she went.

The Kindle Fire served as my book reader, as well as video player so I could catch up on a TV show I’ve started streaming through Amazon Prime, as well as a magazine reader and a gaming device. (On a side note, did you know Prime members can download TV episodes to store on your device to watch when WiFi isn’t available? I didn’t — but I’m glad I learned about it before my 5 hours of flight time one way!) One of the fondest memories I think all four of us will have is the laughs we shared while playing The Game of Life on my Kindle Fire around the kitchen table for several nights.

20140620_100914_201The GoPro camera was a loaner from my brother-in-law and I’m glad we had it to capture some underwater pictures and videos to add to our collection of memories. Because he also has the WiFi attachment for his 2nd version GoPro, it meant we could watch the videos each night by streaming them to an app on my phone. Besides again causing me to stare in wonder at how technology has changed and improved, it also meant we could critique our video shoots before we headed out snorkeling again so we knew how to adjust our shooting techniques.

The Bad

There are not a lot of items to list in the bad category. Certainly, traveling with devices means having to take care of them, and we made sure everyone had solid cases protecting their mobile phones. Battery drain is always a concern, except on the Droid Maxx, but since we turned off the cellular and data services during the day, the phones all performed well as cameras without giving us much worry about battery life.

When traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands, you must be careful not to suddenly trigger a cell tower on the British Virgin Islands. The signal is better, but also a lot more expensive!

Of course, having technology with you means having the world with you, which in some ways is an unfortunate interference when you’re on vacation. But that’s not really the fault of the technology, but rather of our inability as human beings to let go of the daily rat race and just enjoy wandering the maze slowly while seeking the cheese.

The Ugly

For some reason, when you return to the U.S. mainland from the U.S. Virgin Islands, you need to go through U.S. Customs. This happens at the airport in St. Thomas, which means it’s more laid back than say the Customs unit in Atlanta. But it also means you are in a building where your cellular signal is weak at best.

While still at our rental house, I used the Delta app to check in all four passengers and load boarding passes onto my phone via the WiFi connection — or so I thought. Technically, you’re just loading the passes into the app, not downloading them to your phone. What this means is that you need a WiFi or cellular connection while opening the app to use it if you want to see your boarding passes. Unfortunately, this was not going to happen for me in the U.S. Customs area of the airport in St. Thomas!

The customs officer was extremely friendly and forgiving of the technology snafu. He let Jessi and the kids wait to the side with all of our luggage while I went back outside to try to find a signal and open our boarding passes. He even gave me permission to bypass the long line and come right back to him once I had our boarding passes.

IMG_20140624_070017477_HDROutside, the signal was still weak and the app refused to sign me in and grant me access to our boarding passes. So, after a couple of attempts, I went to find paper boarding passes. Ironically, it was technology that again made things easy even though it was technology that made things more difficult to begin with. Delta has self-serve kiosks at the St. Thomas airport. I just had to log into one of them and since I had already checked us in, it simply asked if I wanted to reprint our boarding passes. I did and within minutes we were through Customs and headed to the security checkpoints, paper boarding passes flapping in our hands. (Just one more reason you never wait until the last minute to try to catch your flight!)

I’ve used the electronic boarding passes before without any issues, but it has always been in areas with strong cellular service. This was the first time I had tried going sans paper, and on the way down, the system worked flawlessly. I’m nearly certain it will again when I travel next week, so I’ll try going all-digital again, especially since I know the Delta kiosks have my back in case of failure. (Also note the update I posted below!)

Sharing the memories

As I wrote earlier, I think technology rocks. Sure, there are flaws and there are times when it can be maddening, but most of the time it’s beneficial and it still makes me shake my head in wonder at how far things have come.

Just last night I used technology again to help share our memories. Using Google Plus, I created an event and then invited Jessi and the kids. We now can each upload our photos from the trip to this event, granting access to all four of us to see the trip from different perspectives. It also eliminates the need for, “Hey, remember that picture you took of X? Can you email it to me?” I could, but that’s sooo 2012.

IMG_20140618_145738124_HDR

 

UPDATE: Here’s an idea to address the issue of having a boarding pass on your phone but no cell phone signal to open the app and view the pass. When you first load the boarding pass after checking in (which means you had a signal at that point), take a screen shot on your phone. That way, you’ll have a usable facsimile of your boarding pass available in your phone’s camera roll whether you have a network signal or not!

It’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters

I’m a big fan of technology and gadgets, so my house is filled with them. One of my favorites is my Roku streaming player.roku lt

A few months ago, Roku started offering movies directly through a product called M-Go. When M-GO first launched, they offered a couple of free movies via a credit on all new accounts. I took advantage of the promotion and found  the system to work well. That means I’ll consider streaming movies that way again, which I assume was the point of the promotion.

OK, so far, so good, right? Well, then last week, M-GO sent out an email saying, “Hey, go use your $5 credit!” I, and many others I’m sure, took that to mean that M-GO was offering another credit to Roku customers because they really want us to learn to like the service.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! Apparently, they screwed up and the email was supposed to go out as a reminder to customers who had not yet used up their initial $5 credit. That’s why they sent a follow-up email telling us all too bad, so sad, no free movies for you!

mgoWe’re Sorry! Earlier today, you received an email about a $5 promotional credit on M-GO. This message was sent to you in error. It was intended as a reminder for a small group of Roku users who still have a credit waiting on their accounts. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused. Thank you for your understanding. We value you as a customer and look forward to offering other great movie and TV promotions in the future.

Oh well, I figured, at least I’ll get a blog post out of a customer service screw up and the poor handling of it afterward.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! A day later, those of us whose hopes of a free movie were dashed suddenly were more important to M-GO than they first let on. It seems we are, indeed, valued customers whom they want to share a long, happy relationship with.

And, so, we received another email.

We made a mistake and frankly, we feel awful about it. Did you ever hit the send button too soon? You scramble to hit undo, but it’s too late. A courtesy email intended for a small group of customers reminding them of a credit in their account inadvertently went to you. We sent an apology email but feel it wasn’t enough. Creating a premium experience for you is our number one priority. So please accept our sincere apologies and our offer of one complimentary movie rental This credit has already been added to your account and expires in 7 days. If you have any questions, we’ve set up a special email for you to reach our customer care team. We look forward to continuing our journey together to bring you the world’s greatest movies and TV anytime, anyplace. Humbly, Traci Lamm Head of Customer Care

Granted, the movie credit is only valid for one week, which means I have to use it up by the end of this weekend. But it was refreshing to see a company say, “Hey, we screwed up. We’re sorry. And here’s something to try to make it right.”

M-GO might actually have a future, Mistakes happen; we’ve all made them and anyone who says they haven’t is making a mistake, because they’re lying to you about their past. More companies need to learn what M-GO just learned: it’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters.

UPDATED on 3/15/14:

I sent a link of my blog post to M-GO, letting them know how they’re handling of the situation resulted in a blog post that gave them a nod of my head instead of a smack to theirs. They responded within an hour:

M-GO really appreciates your kind words to this sensitive matter. We pride ourselves on customer satisfaction and we are very pleased to hear that you recognize are (sic) efforts. We look forward to providing you with all your entertainment needs and that long lasting relationship you mentioned in your blog. We appreciate your business and thank you for choosing M-GO!

How to get the most heat out of your Kindle Fire HD

I had the first generation Kindle Fire and have used the Kindle Fire HD 7 for a few months. Both served me well and the increase in speed and flexibility afforded by the HD version made the upgrade investment worthwhile. I’ve had a few friends and colleagues ask Kindle Fire HD 7me about the Fire and the “must-have” apps I would recommend, so I thought a blog post was in order.

I’m not going to discuss the Kindle vs. iPad vs. Nexus debate here; there are plenty of other places to find those rants online. It’s a debate that may never end because, like many tech issues, the answer often lies in your subjective view of the world. What works best for anyone given their wants and needs for a tablet and the budget they have available differs greatly. I will say that I leaned toward the Kindle initially because I’m deeply invested in the Amazon and Amazon Prime universe. The seamless integration of these services with a Kindle made it the right choice for me.

This post is about what to do with the Kindle Fire HD after you’ve moved past the decision and have the tablet in hand. Suggesting any apps are “must have” also is a sticky wicket, because that’s a very subjective list. Nevertheless, here are my favorites, so far, broken down by category. This is not the complete list of apps on my Fire. Also, note that a few require “sideloading,” which is an easy and safe undertaking. It is not the same thing as “rooting” your Fire. I’ve included a quick tutorial on sideloading at the end of this post. If I remember sideloading an app, I’ve noted that in the description. If it’s not noted, that means the app is available for download directly from the Amazon App Store, or I simply forgot that I sideloaded it! (Tech tip: Many of the apps listed here also work well on the first generation Kindle Fire.)

Internet

Amazon improved the built-in Silk browser with the HD version of the Fire, and its integration with Amazon’s online store makes it a good choice when you’re doing Amazon-centric web activities. But it still seems to lag a bit when compared to two other options you have and it won’t play Flash on websites that use it. I have Dolphin and Chrome installed on my KFHD. Both are available via sideloading. Dolphin has some neat features, including the ability to use gesture shortcuts to reach bookmarked sites. I’m a big fan of Google Chrome and use it on all of my devices. The biggest advantage is its speed and its ability to sync your bookmarks across all your devices. No matter what I’m using, I know I can open Chrome and find my bookmarks arranged the same way everywhere. (Tech tip: Some people find that turning off the “Accelerate page loading” option in Silk’s settings speeds up the browser. I found no noticeable difference and turned it back on.) (Tech tip: No matter what browser you use, sometimes links are hard to select on a small screen. Don’t forget about the pinch and zoom feature. Also, double-tapping on the screen zooms a page in. Just be careful not to hit a link while tapping. Double-tap again to zoom out.)

News

Because of my day job as a press secretary, I’m a bit of  a news junkie. My morning routine includes using apps from USA Today, AP, NPR and BBC News. To access my  Google Reader account, and more, I use Flipboard. I really like Flipboard’s ability to send news stories via email, post them to social media outlets, and share them to many other installed apps. (Tech tip: The screen layout and access to features sometimes changes on the news apps depending on whether your screen is in portrait or landscape mode. Be sure to turn the Fire and see which layout works best for you.)

I suppose weather falls under news, too. I use AccuWeather’s app. The Weather Channel app works well enough but I’ve gravitated toward AccuWeather more for its interface. The accuracy is comparable, so find the one you’re most comfortable with.

Productivity

Having access to files throughout the day regardless of where I am or what device I have handy has proven incredibly useful. So, I’ve started to use “the cloud” for a lot of my file storage. That means that Dropbox is front and center on my list of productivity apps. I believe it’s a sideloaded app. You also can download the Evernote app from Amazon. If you aren’t using Dropbox or Evernote yet, you’re missing out on two of the best online, cloud-based products out there today.

No matter how much I love being paperless these days, I still find the need to jot down the random thought or phone number on a sticky note. The ColorNote app is what I use to bring the concept of sticky notes to my Fire.

I also recommend downloading the free Calculator Plus app. It turns your Fire into a great calculator, taking advantage of all the screen real estate to offer up giant buttons and a list of current calculations.

While you probably don’t want to write a thesis on a tablet, there are times when being able to read, edit and even draft documents on your Fire is a handy thing. OfficeSuite is a great app for that. There is a free version but I grabbed the pay version when it was on sale and it is a valuable app to have around. (Tech tip: the Fire HD has Bluetooth capabilities. That means you can sync up a wireless keyboard if you tire of using the on-screen one. I’ve yet to find one I liked well enough or increased my typing speed enough that it was worth keeping though.)

The Fire HD has a front-facing camera that’s designed for use with Skype, but you can do still photos with it, too. The trouble is the built-in way to handle still photography is a bit clunky. That’s where an app like Photo Editor has proven useful from time to time.

If you’re a blogger in the WordPress ecosystem, the WordPress app is a useful addition to your Fire, as well.

As for email, which is the core of productivity for many of us, the Fire’s built-in mail program does a pretty job handling multiple accounts from multiple sources. I still have my office email on that app, but I found out I could sideload the Gmail app and I never looked back for that part of my email life.

Finally, think about downloading Skitch, a drawing app that is now brought to us by the good people at Evernote. The big advantage with using Skitch as your drawing and sketching app is its integration with Evernote.

Social Media

The Fire does a great job helping me keep up with the social media side of my life. You should have the Facebook and Twitter apps on your Fire; I have found both to be more useful than the computer versions. I also use Hootsuite as my social media aggregator and the Kindle Fire edition is well done. There is no app yet for Google+; I’m generally accessing it via my Dolphin browser. Make sure you connect your Google+ account to your Flipboard account — then you can compose posts through that app. (Tech tip: The Google+ .apk is available for download, but after I sideloaded it I couldn’t get it to work properly. Perhaps, in time…which seems to be the story of the life of Google+ anyway.)

Entertainment

If you like movies and books, you’re going to love Amazon’s integrated system, especially if you’re a Prime member. And why not? Sure, it’s $80 a year, but besides streaming movies and TV shows, you can borrow one book a month instead of buying it and you get 2-day free shipping on a lot of products.

For other sources of TV, movies and music, the Roku app does a good job controlling your streaming player. Pandora’s app for the Fire is fantastic, too. A couple of apps that, combined, can help you find most of the radio stations and shows you might like to stream, are iHeart Radio and Tunein Radio. Both have free editions that work well; the paid version of Tunein Radio includes the ability to record what you’re listening to.

No matter how you get your movies, make sure it’s something you want to see before you stream or rent it by checking it out on the IMDB app for the Fire. It works very well.

Games

angry-birds-star-wars-review-0I’m not sure if there is any area more subjective than games. After all, one man’s relaxing fun is another man’s annoying waste of time, right? Still, I thought I ‘d share a couple of games that have entertained me and my teenage kids for a while. These include a few of the Angry Birds versions, especially Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars and Bad Piggies. For something a little more impressive for your high IQ friends, download the Scrabble app. You also might consider the Game of Life app if you want to bring family night games to the tablet instead of the table. (Tech tip: You can pinch and zoom on the Angry Birds screens to get a better view for aiming your weapons of fowl destruction.)

Reading

Of course it’s odd to talk about reading apps on an e-reader, but I do have one more suggestion that isn’t so much about the books but how to read them at night. With the Fire being a backlit reader, there are times that the screen is simply too bright to read with the lights off. (Those married folks among you will appreciate the need to read with the lights off as your spouse tries to sleep while you insist on “just finishing this chapter.”) A great solution to this problem is the ScreenDim app. It allows you to drop the screen’s brightness lower than the standard brightness setting does. You can save presets for quick access to different settings throughout the day, but I find that somewhat unnecessary. Plus, if it ‘s off, it’s not using your Fire’s computing power or battery. That’s why I usually just turn it on at night for bedtime book snacking. (Tech tip: You can try Auto Brightness on the Fire but it doesn’t seem to really keep up. I’ve found the same thing on my iPhone. That technology seems to lack true functionality on most devices. If you know the secret to making Auto Brightness work better, please share it with everyone in the comments section!)

Apps, Apps, Everywhere

There are many more apps available in all the categories listed above; I mentioned earlier that I was only highlighting some of my favorites. The list of all the apps on my Fire is too long to list in one blog post. Look for what you need and give it a try. If you don’t like it you can always delete it from your Fire. It’s no loss if it was a free app. If you shelled out a few bucks for an app and don’t like it, well, next time do what I do and research things thoroughly through the user reviews and outside sources on the Internet.

If you find some apps you consider a favorite, please share that information in the comments section. By working together, we’ll soon build an awesome compilation from many favorite lists.

Sideloading

You can sideload by downloading a file to your computer and then moving it to your Kindle via a USB cable. But it’s much simpler to sideload directly to your Kindle. To do so, download a file explorer app from the Amazon App Store. I use and recommend ES File Explorer. Once that’s installed, you need to head to your settings under “More,” then “Device.” Once there, change Allow Installation of Applications from the default of “off” to “on.” I tend to leave mine in the off position for security when I’m done sideloading, but that’s a personal preference. If you want to sideload an app, you then need to find the .apk file for it, which often is available at many sites online. After downloading the .apk file to your Kindle, you can find it in the Downloads folder by using ES File Explorer. Tapping on the file usually opens the installer and, voilà, you’re sideloading! (Tech tip: once you’ve installed the app, you don’t need the .apk file anymore. I move them to my Dropbox account so they’re quickly available if I need them, but they aren’t taking up space on my Fire.)

Betting on social media

Here’s a story I wrote for Ragan.com about the use of social media by a casino in Battle Creek, Michigan —

How a Michigan casino bet big on social media—and won

Firekeepers wooed its early detractors in greater Battle Creek, and it has built an online following, especially on Facebook.
By Ari B. Adler | Posted: September 14, 2011

Before the first patron could ever try to hit a jackpot on a slot machine at the Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Mich., Jeff LaFrance and his team were betting on social media for the win.

“We saw a growing trend in social media, and in January 2009 we started a Facebook page. Before the doors were opened, we had 75,000 Red Hot Rewards club members registered,” says LaFrance, marketing manager for Firekeepers.

LaFrance says the casino built up its club membership before it opened in August 2009 through online registration, driven through its website and social media.

“That built integrity for us and a solid online presence,” LaFrance says. “They know what to expect from us, they know they can trust us online—which can be difficult.”

LaFrance, one of the first 10 people hired at Firekeepers, holds a computer science degree from the University of Michigan and started as a graphic designer at Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. He says getting pulled into the online interaction provided through corporate websites and social media is an ideal situation for him.

LaFrance says that although the website is the casino’s main online presence, it also uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“They’re all linked off our home page, and every other page on our website,” LaFrance says. “Overall, social media is a fantastic success story for us. It’s given us another opportunity to reach our guests and have a pulse on what is going on with our customers.”

When Firekeepers was proposed, there was a bit of an uproar in the city of 52,000 in southwest Michigan, with people worried about what its presence would mean for the community. In the two years since it opened, however, the mood seems to have changed, and the casino has become more widely accepted. Could online outreach have played a role?

Social media “can almost be used as an online focus group in some ways,” LaFrance says. “We can post questions to see what people like and what they don’t like.”

Firekeepers sometimes asks the community at large for input about an upcoming promotion or sale; other times people offer unsolicited feedback.

“People love expressing their opinions. Keeping your finger on the pulse of your audience allows you to react more quickly than ever before.”

With more than 57,500 fans on Facebook—and the total has grown every week—Firekeepers has plenty of feedback available.

“We had a big burst in the beginning once we opened, and then it trailed off for a bit. But then we invested more time, energy and content into the Facebook page, and our fan base has been steadily growing over the past six months at almost 4,000 to 5,000 per month,” LaFrance says.

Despite having a much smaller footprint in real life, Firekeepers has more Facebook fans than much larger casinos, including Hard Rock, Circus Circus and Excalibur in Las Vegas.

“For a casino in Battle Creek, Mich., to be ahead of casinos in Vegas is pretty amazing,” LaFrance says. “The key is to not use social media as a platform for you to sell everything about you. It’s meant to be social; it’s not meant to be just about you and your products.

“People will start to tune out, and you lose value in your posts. Find something interesting about your business, and engage with people.”

LaFrance says he often gets a lot more comments on the casino’s Facebook page when it posts questions completely unrelated to the casino or gaming. For example, last season it asked about the big football game between intrastate archrivals Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

“We had a few hundred comments on it. You have to give visitors a fresh way to look at you,” he says. “That gives you an identity and gives your business a stronger social presence.”

Having an open page where everyone can participate means Firekeepers hears from folks who didn’t walk away big winners. That’s to be expected, but it’s the customer service concerns that really get the team’s attention.

“Part of social media is that everybody has a voice,” LaFrance says. “We’re in the casino industry, and, unfortunately, people do lose money. With complaints about service, we reach out and address the situation and get those customers back.”

LaFrance says that positive or negative, most comments remain on the wall for all to see and for the casino to address. Vulgar language and any mentions of violence are deleted.

The communications and marketing team of six at Firekeepers also maintains Twitter and YouTube accounts, but neither has seen the success of the Facebook page. LaFrance says that’s more likely because the general casino customer demographic skews older, and older folks favor Facebook over the other social networks.

The biggest reason to be involved in social media, after all, is to connect to your customers. So, you need to be where they are.

“If you’re not spending time there, you’re missing opportunities to touch your audience,” LaFrance says. “Social media is one of biggest growth areas online and should be a tool in your toolbox. In terms of dollars spent, the monetary value isn’t there, but the importance is. We treat everything equally.”

So it’s not about spending money, but what about the time involved? LaFrance takes care of most of the social media interaction for the casino himself, and it doesn’t have to be a huge time drain, he says.

“There’s not an army of people here, but you don’t need that if you can plan things out efficiently,” LaFrance says. “Invest in creating content, and then reuse what you’re creating.”

For example, video ads for promotions and events that run on in-casino TVs will then get new life on the casino’s YouTube account and are linked on its Facebook page.

“It exposes more people to the work you’ve already done,” LaFrance says. “The reality is that social media doesn’t take that much time. You don’t have to spend 24 hours working. For me, I monitor social media all the time—after meetings at work or when I’m at home. Often, I can just check in on my phone. One of the great things is how mobile social media is. That helps you get an opportunity to address any situation and to react quickly.”

So far, Firekeepers has found a way to win with social media, and the casino doesn’t plan to stop betting on the technology anytime soon.

“We’re always researching things, keeping an eye on what’s developing in the market,” LaFrance says. “Facebook is consistently coming out with new features. The joy of social media is it never really ends. There’s always an opportunity for growth and to continue engaging.”

Hey, Charlie, you’re a Sheen, not a Harper

Charlie Sheen as Charlie Harper

It’s official, the CBS hit series Two and a Half Men has shut down production because of star Charlie Sheen’s bizarre downward spiral from reality. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who watches the show and has even a passing familiarity with the news reports about Sheen’s behavior lately. Apparently, a talented star hasn’t figured out how to separate reality from fiction. Unfortunately, Charlie’s going to find out the hard way that he’s a Sheen and not a Harper.

Charlie Harper, Sheen’s character on Two and a Half Men, is a boozing, womanizing, hard-charging entertainer who blows his way through a seemingly endless supply of hundred-dollar bills. And no matter how bad things get, they always turn themselves around within 20 minutes so that by the end of the show all his self-destructive behaviors are magically mitigated. The main difference between the two men, of course, is that Charlie Harper’s life isn’t real — it’s controlled by a team of writers who can change a script in the blink of an eye and make everything better. Charlie Sheen isn’t so lucky. Let’s face it, when Lindsay Lohan is worried because she thinks you’ve gone too far, that should be a pretty big red flag.

Maybe this is what uber-fame does to you. Maybe you lose touch with reality when you are surrounded by fantasy in so much of your life. And just maybe this case will help us all realize that we need to stop putting entertainers on a pedestal. They have their strengths and they can make a positive difference with their fame. But they have their faults and vulnerabilities. In other words, they are human. Their job is to help us all escape from reality from time to time. We can appreciate them and enjoy what they offer us, but they do not deserve to be worshipped, emulated or held to a different standard than the rest of us. Whether it’s what they are wearing, saying or politically supporting, they still put their pants on one leg at a time. Or, in Charlie’s case, take them off.

(Photo courtesy of CBS Television.)