Category Archives: Software

Multiple Desktops in Windows 10

The concept of using multiple desktops isn’t new. Apple incorporated this feature back in 2007 starting with OS X 10.5 Leopard in the form of Spaces, allowing users to have up to 16 desktops at once. Since then, PC users have wondered if/when Microsoft would follow suit. Now, almost a decade later, they finally have.

Having more than one desktop allows you to separate your open windows into different groups and only focus on one group at a time. This makes it much easier to juggle working on multiple projects at once, giving each one a dedicated desktop. It’s also useful for keeping any distractions out of sight as you try to get your work done, while letting you easily shift into break mode at any time.

If you own a Windows computer and didn’t know about multiple desktops, you’re not alone! Microsoft didn’t include the feature natively until Windows 10, and even then they did it quietly with virtually no advertising for it at all. Here’s a quick guide on how to get started.

To access the desktops interface, simply hold the Windows Key and then press Tab. This will bring you to a page which lists the windows you currently have open. It will look something like this:

Here, you can see that I’ve got a few different tasks open. I’m trying to work on my art in MS Paint, but I keep getting distracted by YouTube videos and Moodle assignments. To make things a little easier, I can create a second desktop and divide these tasks up to focus on one at a time.

To create a new desktop, click the New desktop button in the bottom right corner of this screen. You will see the list of open desktops shown at the bottom:

Now you can see I have a clean slate on Desktop 2 to do whatever I want. You can select which desktop to enter by clicking on it. Once you are in a desktop, you can open up new pages there and it will only be open in that desktop. You can also move pages that are already open from one desktop to another. Let’s move my MS Paint window over to Desktop 2.

On the desktops interface, hovering over a desktop will bring up the list of open windows on that desktop. So, since I want to move a page from Desktop 1 to Desktop 2, I hover over Desktop 1 so I can see the MS Paint window. To move pages around, simply click and drag them to the desired desktop.

I dragged my MS Paint window over from Desktop 1 to Desktop 2. Now, when I open up Desktop 2, the only page I see is my beautiful artwork.

Finally, I can work on my art in peace without distractions! And if I decide I need a break and want to watch some YouTube videos, all I have to do is press Windows+Tab and select Desktop 1 where YouTube is already open.

If you’re still looking for a reason to upgrade to Windows 10, this could be the one. The feature really is super useful once you get the hang of it and figure out how to best use it for your needs. My only complaint is that we don’t have the ability to rename desktops, but this is minor and I’m sure it will be added in a future update.

 

Automation with IFTTT

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“If This, Then That”, or IFTTT, is a powerful and easy to use automation tool that can make your life easier. IFTTT is an easy way to automate tasks that could be repetitive or inconvenient. It operates on the fundamental idea of if statements from programming. Users can create “applets”, which are simply just scripts, that trigger when an event occurs. These applets can be as simple as “If I take a picture on my phone, upload it to Facebook”, or range to be much more complex. IFTTT is integrated with over 300 different channels,  including major services such as Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and many others, which makes automating your digital life incredibly easy.

Getting Started with IFTTT and Your First Applet

Getting started with IFTTT is very easy. Simply head over to the IFTTT website and sign up. After signing up, you’ll be read to start automating by creating your first applet. In this article, we will build a simple example applet to send a text message of today’s weather report every morning.

In order to create an applet, click on “My Applets” at the top of the page, and select “New Applet”.

Now you need to select a service, by selecting the “this” keyword. In our example, we want to send a text message of the weather every morning. This means that the service will be under a “weather” service like Weather Underground. Hundreds of services are connected through IFTTT, so the possibilities are almost limitless. You can create applets that are based off something happening on Facebook, or even your Android/iOS device.

Next, you need to select a trigger. Again, our sample applet is just to send a text message of the weather report to your text in the morning. This trigger is simply “Today’s weather report”. Triggers often have additional fields that need to be filled out. In this particular one, the time of the report needs to be filled out.

Next, an action service must be selected. This is the “that” part of IFTTT. Our example applet is going to send a text message, so the action service is going to fall under the SMS category.

Like triggers, there are hundreds of action services that can be be used in your applets. In this particular action, you can customize the text message using variables called “ingredients”.

Ingredients are simply variables provided by the trigger service. In this example, since we chose Weather Underground as the trigger service, then we are able to customize our text message using weather related variables provided by Weather Underground such as temperature or condition.

After creating an action, you simply need to review your applet. In this case, we’ve just created an applet that will send a text message about the weather every day. If you’re satisfied with what it does, you can hit finish and IFTTT will trigger your applet whenever the trigger event occurs. Even from this simple applet, it is easy to see that the possibilities of automation are limitless!

Tips for Gaming Better on a Budget Laptop

Whether you came to college with an old laptop, or want to buy a new one without breaking the bank, making our basic computers faster is something we’ve all thought about at some point. This article will show you some software tips and tricks to improve your gaming experience without losing your shirt, and at the end I’ll mention some budget hardware changes you can make to your laptop. First off, we’re going to talk about in-game settings.

 

In-Game Settings:

All games have built in settings to alter the individual user experience from controls to graphics to audio. We’ll be talking about graphics settings in this section, primarily the hardware intensive ones that don’t compromise the look of the game as much as others. This can also depend on the game and your individual GPU, so it can be helpful to research specific settings from other users in similar positions.

V-Sync:

V-Sync, or Vertical Synchronization, allows a game to synchronize the framerate with that of your monitor. Enabling this setting will increase the smoothness of the game. However, for lower end computers, you may be happy to just run the game at a stable FPS that is less than your monitor’s refresh rate. (Note – most monitors have a 60Hz or 60 FPS refresh rate). For that reason, you may want to disable it to allow for more stable low FPS performance.

Anti-Aliasing:

Anti-Aliasing, or AA for short, is a rendering option which reduces the jaggedness of lines in-game. Unfortunately the additional smoothness heavily impacts hardware usage, and disabling this while keeping other things like texture quality or draw distance higher can make big performance improvements without hurting a game’s appearance too much. Additionally, there are many different kinds of AA options that games might have settings for. MSAA (Multisampling AA), and the even more intensive, TXAA (Temporal AA), are both better smoothing processes that have an even bigger impact on performance. Therefore turning these off on lower-end machines is almost always a must. FXAA (Fast Approximate AA) uses the least processing power, and can therefore be a nice setting to leave on if your computer can handle it.

Anisotropic Filtering (AF):

This setting adds depth of field to a game, by making things further away from your character blurrier. Making things blurrier might seem like it would make things faster, however it actually puts a greater strain on your system as it needs to make additional calculations to initiate the affect. Shutting this off can yield improvements in performance, and some players even prefer it, as it allows them to see distant objects more clearly.

Other Settings:

While the aforementioned are the heaviest hitters in terms of performance, changing some other settings can help increase stability and performance too (beyond just simple texture quality and draw distance tweaks). Shadows and reflections are often unnoticed compared to other effects, so while you may not need to turn them off, turning them down can definitely make an impact. Motion blur should be turned off completely, as it can make quick movements result in heavy lag spikes.

Individual Tweaks:

The guide above is a good starting point for graphics settings; because there are so many different models, there are any equally large number of combinations of settings. From this point, you can start to increase settings slowly to find the sweet spot between performance and quality.

Software:

Before we talk about some more advanced tips, it’s good practice to close applications that you are not using to increase free CPU, Memory, and Disk space. This alone will help immensely in allowing games to run better on your system.

Task Manager Basics:

Assuming you’ve tried to game on a slower computer, you’ll know how annoying it is when the game is running fine and suddenly everything slows down to slideshow speed and you fall off a cliff. Chances are that this kind of lag spike is caused by other “tasks” running in the background, and preventing the game you are running from using the power it needs to keep going. Or perhaps your computer has been on for awhile, so when you start the game, it runs slower than its maximum speed. Even though you hit the “X” button on a window, what’s called the “process tree” may not have been completely terminated. (Think of this like cutting down a weed but leaving the roots.) This can result in more resources being taken up by idle programs that you aren’t using right now. It’s at this point that Task Manager becomes your best friend. To open Task Manager, simply press CTRL + SHIFT + ESC at the same time or press CTRL + ALT + DEL at the same time and select Task Manager from the menu. When it first appears, you’ll notice that only the programs you have open will appear; click the “More Details” Button at the bottom of the window to expand Task Manager. Now you’ll see a series of tabs, the first one being “Processes” – which gives you an excellent overview of everything your CPU, Memory, Disk, and Network are crunching on. Clicking on any of these will bring the process using the highest amount of each resource to the top of the column. Now you can see what’s really using your computer’s processing power. It is important to realize that many of these processes are part of your operating system, and therefore cannot be terminated without causing system instability. However things like Google Chrome and other applications can be closed by right-clicking and hitting “End Task”. If you’re ever unsure of whether you can end a process or not safely, a quick google of the process in question will most likely point you in the right direction.

Startup Processes:

Here is where you can really make a difference to your computer’s overall performance, not just for gaming. From Task Manager, if you select the “Startup” tab, you will see a list of all programs and services that can start when your computer is turned on. Task Manager will give an impact rating of how much each task slows down your computers boot time. The gaming app Steam, for example, can noticeably slow down a computer on startup. A good rule of thumb is to allow virus protection to start with Windows, however everything else is up to individual preference. Shutting down these processes on startup can prevent unnecessary tasks from ever being opened, and allow for more hardware resource availability for gaming.

Power Usage:

You probably know that unlike desktops, laptops contain a battery. What you may not know is that you can alter your battery’s behavior to increase performance, as long as you don’t mind it draining a little faster. On the taskbar, which is by default located at the bottom of your screen, you will notice a collection of small icons next to the date and time on the right, one of which looks like a battery. Left-clicking will bring up the menu shown below, however right-clicking will bring up a menu with an option “Power Options” on it.

 

 

 

 

Clicking this will bring up a settings window which allows you to change and customize your power plan for your needs. By default it is set to “Balanced”, but changing to “High Performance” can increase your computer’s gaming potential significantly. Be warned that battery duration will decrease on the High Performance setting, although it is possible to change the battery’s behavior separately for when your computer is using the battery or plugged in.

Hardware:

Unlike desktops, for laptops there are not many upgrade paths. However one option exists for almost every computer that can have a massive effect on performance if you’re willing to spend a little extra.

Hard Disk (HDD) to Solid State (SSD) Drive Upgrade:

Chances are that if you have a budget computer, it probably came with a traditional spinning hard drive. For manufacturers, this makes sense as they are cheaper than solid states, and work perfectly well for light use. Games can be very demanding on laptop HDDs to recall and store data very quickly, sometimes causing them to fall behind. Additionally, laptops have motion sensors built into them which restrict read/write capabilities when the computer is in motion to prevent damage to the spinning disk inside the HDD. An upgrade to a SSD not only eliminates this restriction, but also has a much faster read/write time due to the lack of any moving parts. Although SSDs can get quite expensive depending on the size you want, companies such as Crucial or Kingston offer a comparatively cheap solution to Samsung or Intel while still giving you the core benefits of a SSD. Although there are a plethora of tutorials online demonstrating how to install a new drive into your laptop, make sure you’re comfortable with all the dangers before attempting, or simply take your laptop into a repair store to have them do it for you. It’s worth mentioning that when you install a new drive, you will need to reinstall Windows, and all your applications from your old drive.

Memory Upgrade (RAM):

Some laptops have an extra memory slot, or just ship with a lower capacity than what they are capable of holding. Most budget laptops will ship with 4GB of memory, which is often not enough to support both the system, and a game.

Upgrading or increasing memory can give your computer more headroom to process and store data without lagging up your entire system. Unlike with SSD upgrades, memory is very specific and it is very easy to buy a new stick that fits in your computer, but does not function with its other components. It is therefore critical to do your research before buying any more memory for your computer; that includes finding out your model’s maximum capacity, speed, and generation. The online technology store, Newegg, has a service here that can help you find compatible memory types for your machine.

Disclaimer: 

While these tips and tricks can help your computer to run games faster, there is a limit to what hardware is capable of. Budget laptops are great for the price point, and these user tricks will help squeeze out all their potential, but some games will simply not run on your machine. Make sure to check a game’s minimum and recommended specs before purchasing/downloading. If your computer falls short of minimum requirements, it might be time to find a different game or upgrade your setup.

App Review: Glitché

Fun fact: You can type the “é” character on Mac OS by holding down the “e” key until the following menu pops up:

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From there, simply select the second option with your mouse and you’ll be right as rain. I’m only telling you this because the application I’ll be discussing today is called Glitché, not “Glitche”.

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Glitché is an app that provides users with “a full range of tools and options to turn images into masterpieces of digital art.” That description is from the app’s official website; a website which also proudly displays the following quote:

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Either this quote is outdated or Mr. Knight is putting more emphasis on the word “compared” than I’m giving him credit for. While yes, one could argue that contextually a 0.99¢ application would comparatively seem like a free download to someone purchasing a nearly $400 post-production suite, I might be more inclined to ask how you define the word “free”.

You see, Glitché is actually 0.99¢…unless you want the other features. Do you want Hi-Res Exports? That’ll be $2.99. Do you want to be able to edit videos? Another $2.99, please. Do you want camera filters? $2.99 it is!

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So Glitché is actually more like $9.96, but that doesn’t sound as good as 0.99¢, does it? You might argue that I’m making a big deal out of this, but I’m just trying to put this all in perspective for you. From here on out I want you to understand that the program I’m critiquing charges $10 for the full experience, which is fairly expensive for a phone application.

Another issue I have with this quote and the description given by the website is that Glitché isn’t trying to compete with Adobe Photoshop. Glitché isn’t a replacement for your post-production suite nor is it your one-stop-shop for turning images into masterpieces of digital art; rather, Glitché strives to give you a wide selection of tools to achieve a very specific look. This aesthetic can best be described as a mixture of To Adrian Rodriguez, With Love and a modern take on cyberpunk. Essentially the app warps and distorts a given image to make it look visually corrupted, glitched, or of VHS quality. It’s a bit hard to describe, so here’s a few examples of some of the more interesting filters.

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Unedited photo for reference

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The “GLITCH” filter. Holding down your finger on the screen causes the flickering and tearing to increase. Tapping once stops the flickering.

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The “CHNNLS” filter. Dragging your finger across the screen sends a wave of rainbow colors across it. The color of the distortion can be changed.

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The “SCREEN” filter works like the “CHNNLS” filter, only it distorts the entire image.

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The “GRID” filter turns your image into a 3D abstract object akin to something one might see in an EDM music video.

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The “LCD” filter lets you move the colors with your thumb while the outline of your image remains fixed.

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The “VHS” filter applies VHS scan lines and warps more aggressively if you press your thumb down on the image.

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The “DATAMOSH” filter. The direction of the distortion depends on the green dot you press in the center reticle. The reticle disappears once the image is saved.

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The “EDGES” filter can be adjusted using both the slider below your image and with your thumb.

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The “FISHEYE” filter creates a 3D fisheye overlay you can move around on your image with your thumb.

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The “TAPE” filter works in a similar fashion to the “VHS” filter, only moving your thumb across it creates a more subtle distortion.

Listing off some of the individual filters admittedly isn’t doing the app justice. While you are able to use a singular filter, the app also allows you to combine and overlay multiple filters to achieve different effects. Here’s something I made using a combination of five filters:

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You can also edit video in a similar fashion (after paying the required $2.99).

The interface itself is simplistic and easy to navigate, though the application lacks certain features one might expect. You can’t save and load projects, you can’t favorite filters, and you can’t perform any complex video editing outside of applying a filter. The app has crashed on me a few times in the past, though this is a rare occurrence. The app is regularly updated with new features and filters.

So, 0.99¢ gets you 33 filters and limits you to Lo-Res exports and GIF exports. $9.96 gets you 33 filters, the ability to export in Hi-Res, the ability to export to GIF, the ability to edit videos, and the ability to record video in the actual application while using said filters.

I keep bringing this back to the cost of the app because that’s really the only place where opinions may vary. The app does what it sets out to do, but the price for the full package leaves a lot to be desired. There are definitely people out there who would gladly pay $10 for this aesthetic, and there are plenty more who would shake their head at it. If any of the filters or images I’ve shown you seem worth $10, then I think you’ll enjoy Glitché. However, if you think this app is a bit too simplistic and overpriced for what it is, I recommend you spend your money elsewhere. It really all boils down to the cost, as the app itself works fine for what it is. In my opinion, the app would be a great deal at $3 or even $5; however, $10 is a bit much to ask for in return for a few nifty filters.

 

A Basic Guide to Digital Audio Recording

The Digital Domain

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Since the dawn of time, humans have been attempting to record music.  For the vast majority of human history, this has been really really difficult.  Early cracks at getting music out of the hands of the musician involved mechanically triggered pianos whose instructions for what to play were imprinted onto long scrolls of paper.  These player pianos were difficult to manufacture (this was prior to the industrial revolution) and not really viable for casual music listening.  There was also the all-important phonograph, which recorded sound itself mechanically onto the surface of a wax cylinder.

If it sounds like the aforementioned techniques were difficult to use and manipulate, it was!  Hardly anyone owned a phonograph since they were expensive, recordings were hard to come by, and they really didn’t sound all that great.  Without microphones or any kind of amplification, bits of dust and debris which ended up on these phonograph records could completely obscure the original recording behind a wall of noise.

Humanity had a short stint with recording sound as electromagnetic impulses on magnetic tape.  This proved to be one of the best ways to reproduce sound (and do some other cool and important things too).  Tape was easy to manufacture, came in all different shapes and sizes, and offered a whole universe of flexibility for how sound could be recorded onto it.  Since tape recorded an electrical signal, carefully crafted microphones could be used to capture sounds with impeccable detail and loudspeakers could be used to play back the recorded sound at considerable volumes.  Also at play were some techniques engineers developed to reduce the amount of noise recorded onto tape, allowing the music to be front and center atop a thin floor of noise humming away in the background.  Finally, tape offered the ability to record multiple different sounds side-by-side and play them back at the same time.  These side-by-side sounds came to be known as ‘tracks’ and allowed for stereophonic sound reproduction.

Tape was not without its problems though.  Cheap tape would distort and sound poor.  Additionally, tape would deteriorate over time and fall apart, leaving many original recordings completely unlistenable.  Shining bright on the horizon in the late 1970s was digital recording.  This new format allowed for low-noise, low cost, and long-lasting recordings.  The first pop music record to be recorded digitally was Ry Cooder’s, Bop till you Drop in 1979.  Digital had a crisp and clean sound that was rivaled only by the best of tape recording.  Digital also allowed for near-zero degradation of sound quality once something was recorded.

Fast-forward to today.  After 38 years of Moore’s law, digital recording has become cheap and simple.  Small audio recorders are available at low cost with hours and hours of storage for recording.  Also available are more hefty audio interfaces which offer studio-quality sound recording and reproduction to any home recording enthusiast.

 

Basic Components: What you Need

Depending on what you are trying to record, your needs may vary from the standard recording setup.  For most users interested in laying down some tracks, you will need the following.

Audio Interface (and Preamplifier): this component is arguably the most important as it connects everything together.  The audio interface contains both analog-to-digital converters and a digital-to-analog convert; these allow it to both turn sound into the language of your computer for recording, and turn the language of your computer back into sound for playback.  These magical little boxes come in many shapes and sizes; I will discus these in a later section, just be patient.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Software: this software will allow your computer to communicate with the audio interface.  Depending on what operating system you have running on your computer, there may be hundreds of DAW software packages available.  DAWs vary greatly in complexity, usability, and special features; all will allow you the basic feature of recording digital audio from an audio interface.

Microphone: perhaps the most obvious element of a recording setup, the microphone is one of the most exciting choices you can make when setting up a recording rig.  Microphones, like interfaces and DAWs, come in all shapes a sizes.  Depending on what sound you are looking for, some microphones may be more useful than others.  We will delve into this momentarily.

Monitors (and Amplifier): once you have set everything up, you will need a way to hear what you are recording.  Monitors allow you to do this.  In theory, you can use any speaker or headphone as a monitor.  However, some speakers and headphones offer more faithful reproduction of sound without excessive bass and can be better for hearing the detail in your sound.

 

Audio Interface: the Art of Conversion

Two channel USB audio interface.

Two channel USB audio interface.

The audio interface can be one of the most intimidating elements of recording.  The interface contains the circuitry to amplify the signal from a microphone or instrument, convert that signal into digital information, and then convert that information back to an analog sound signal for listening on headphones or monitors.

Interfaces come in many shapes and sizes but all do similar work.  These days, most interfaces offer multiple channels of recording at one time and can record in uncompressed CD-audio quality or better.

Once you step into the realm of digital audio recording, you may be surprised to find a lack of mp3 files.  Turns out, mp3 is a very special kind of digital audio format and cannot be recorded to directly; mp3 can only be created from existing audio files in non-compressed formats.

You may be asking yourself, what does it mean for audio to be compressed?  As an electrical engineer, it may be hard for me to explain this in a way that humans can understand, but I will try my best.  Audio takes up a lot of space.  Your average iPhone or Android device maybe has 32 GB of space but most people can keep thousands of songs on their device.  This is done using compression.  Compression is the computer’s way of listening to a piece of music, and removing all the bits and pieces that most people wont notice.  Soft and infrequent noises, like the sound of a guitarist’s fingers scraping a string, are removed while louder sounds, like the sound of the guitar, are left in.  This is done using the Fourier Transform and a bunch of complicated mathematical algorithms that I don’t expect anyone reading this to care about.

When audio is uncompressed, a few things are true: it takes up a lot of space, it is easy to manipulate with digital effects, and it often sounds very, very good.  Examples of uncompressed audio formats are: .wav on Windows, .aif and .aiff on Macintosh, and .flac for all the free people of the Internet.  Uncompressed audio comes in many different forms but all have two numbers which describe their sound quality: ‘word length’ or ‘bit depth’ and ‘sample rate.’

The information for digital audio is contained in a bunch of numbers which indicate the loudness or volume of the sound at a specific time.  The sample rate tells you how many times per second the loudness value is captured.  This number needs to be at least two times higher than the highest audible frequency, otherwise the computer will perceive high frequencies as being lower than they actually are.  This is because of the Shannon Nyquist Theorem which I, again, don’t expect most of you to want to read about.  Most audio is captured at 44.1 kHz, making the highest frequency it can capture 22.05 kHz, which is comfortably above the limits of human hearing.

The word length tells you how many numbers can be used to represent different volumes of loudness.  The number of different values for loudness can be up to 2^word length.  CDs represent audio with a word length of 16 bits, allowing for 65536 different values for loudness.  Most audio interfaces are capable of recording audio with a 24-bit word length, allowing for exquisite detail.  There are some newer systems which allow for recording with a 32-bit word length but these are, for the majority part, not available at low-cost to consumers.

I would like to add a quick word about USB.  There is a stigma, in the business, against USB audio interfaces.  Many interfaces employ connectors with higher bandwidth, like FireWire and Thunderbolt, and charge a premium for it.  It may seem logical, faster connection, better quality audio.  Hear this now: no audio interface will ever be sold which has a connector that is too slow for the quality audio it can record.  This is to say, USB can handle 24-bit audio with a 96 kHz sample rate, no problem.  If you notice latency in your system, it is from the digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters as well as the speed of your computer; latency in your recording setup has nothing to do with what connector your interface uses.  It may seem like I am beating a dead horse here, but many people think this and it’s completely false.

One last thing before we move on to the DAW, I mentioned earlier that frequencies above half the recording sample rate will be perceived, by your computer, as lower frequencies.  These lower frequencies can show up in your recording and can cause distortion.  This phenomena has a name and it’s called aliasing.  Aliasing doesn’t just happen with audible frequencies, it can happen with super-sonic sound too.  For this reason, it is often advantageous to record at higher sample rates to avoid having these higher frequencies perceived within the audible range.  Most audio interfaces allow for recording 24-bit audio with a 96 kHz sample rate.  Unless you’re worried about taking up too much space, this format sounds excellent and offers the most flexibility and sonic detail.

 

Digital Audio Workstation: all Out on the Table

Apple's pro DAW software: Logic Pro X

Apple’s pro DAW software: Logic Pro X

The digital audio workstation, or DAW for short, is perhaps the most flexible element of your home-studio.  There are many many many DAW software packages out there, ranging in price and features.  For those of you looking to just get into audio recording, Audacity is a great DAW to start with.  This software is free and simple.  It offers many built-in effects and can handle the full recording capability of any audio interface which is to say, if you record something well on this simple and free software, it will sound mighty good.

Here’s the catch with many free or lower-level DAWs like Audacity or Apple’s Garage Band: they do not allow for non-destructive editing of your audio.  This is a fancy way of saying that once you make a change to your recorded audio, you might not be able to un-make it.  Higher-end DAWs like Logic Pro and Pro Tools will allow you to make all the changes you want without permanently altering your audio.  This allows you to play around a lot more with your sound after its recorded.  More expensive DAWs also tend to come with a better-sounding set of built-in effects.  This is most noticeable with more subtle effects like reverb.

There are so many DAWs out there that it is hard to pick out a best one.  Personally, I like Logic Pro, but that’s just preference; many of the effects I use are compatible with different DAWs so I suppose I’m mostly just used to the user-interface.  My recommendation is to shop around until something catches your eye.

 

The Microphone: the Perfect Listener

Studio condenser and ribbon microphones.

Studio condenser and ribbon microphones.

The microphone, for many people, is the most fun part of recording!  They come in many shapes and sizes and color your sound more than any other component in your setup.  Two different microphones can occupy polar opposites in the sonic spectrum.

There are two common types of microphones out there: condenser and dynamic microphones.  I can get carried away with physics sometimes so I will try not to write too much about this particular topic.

Condenser microphones are a more recent invention and offer the best sound quality of any microphone.  They employ a charged parallel plate capacitor to measure vibrations in the air.  This a fancy way of saying that the element in the microphone which ‘hears’ the sound is extremely light and can move freely even when motivated by extremely quiet sounds.

Because of the nature of their design, condenser microphones require a small amplifier circuit built-into the microphone.  Most new condenser microphones use a transistor-based circuit in their internal amplifier but older condenser mics employed internal vacuum-tube amplifiers; these tube microphones are among some of the clearest and most detailed sounding microphones ever made.

Dynamic microphones, like condenser microphones, also come in two varieties, both emerging from different eras.  The ribbon microphone is the earlier of the two and observes sound with a thin metal ribbon suspended in a magnetic field.  These ribbon microphones are fragile but offer a warm yet detailed quality-of-sound.

The more common vibrating-coil dynamic microphone is the most durable and is used most often for live performance.  The prevalence of the vibrating-coil microphone means that the vibrating-coil is often dropped from the name (sometimes the dynamic is also dropped from the name too); when you use the term dynamic mic, most people will assume you are referring to the vibrating-coil microphone.

With the wonders of globalization, all microphones can be purchase at similar costs.  Though there is usually a small premium to purchase condenser microphones over dynamic mics, costs can remain comfortably around $100-150 for studio-quality recording mics.  This means you can use many brushes to paint your sonic picture.  Often times, dynamic microphones are used for louder instruments like snare and bass drums, guitar amplifiers, and louder vocalists.  Condenser microphones are more often used for detailed sounds like stringed instruments, cymbals, and breathier vocals.

Monitors: can You Hear It?

Studio monitors at Electrical Audio Studios, Chicago

Studio monitors at Electrical Audio Studios, Chicago

When recording, it is important to be able to hear the sound that your system is hearing.  Most people don’t think about it, but there are many kinds of monitors out there: the screen on our phones and computers which allow us to see what the computer is doing, to the viewfinder on a camera which allows us to see what the camera sees.  Sound monitors are just as important.

Good monitors will reproduce sound as neutrally as possible and will only distort at very very high volumes.  These two characteristics are important for monitoring as you record, and hearing things carefully as you mix.  Mix?

Once you have recorded your sound, you may want to change it in your DAW.  Unfortunately, the computer can’t always guess what you want your effects to sound like, so you’ll need to make changes to settings and listen.  This could be as simple as changing the volume of one recorded track or it could be as complicated as correcting an offset in phase of two recorded tracks.  The art of changing the sound of your recorded tracks is called mixing.

If you are using speakers as monitors, make sure they don’t have ridiculously loud bass, like most speakers do.  Mixing should be done without the extra bass; otherwise, someone playing back your track on ‘normal’ speakers will be underwhelmed by a thinner sound.  Sonically neutral speakers make it very easy to hear what you finished product will sound like on any system.

It’s a bit harder to do this with headphones as their proximity to your ears makes the bass more intense.  I personally like mixing on headphones because the closeness to my ear allows me to hear detail better.  If you are to mix with headphones, your headphones must have open-back speakers in them.  This means that there is no plastic shell around the back of the headphone.  With no set volume of air behind the speaker, open-back headphones can effortlessly reproduce detail, even at lower volumes.

closed-vs-open-back-headphones  1

Monitors aren’t just necessary for mixing, they also help to hear what you’re recording as you record it.  Remember when I was talking about the number of different loudnesses you can have for 16-bit and 24-bit audio?  Well, when you make a sound louder than the loudest volume you can record, you get digital distortion.  Digital distortion does not sound like Jimi Hendrix, it does not sound like Metallica, it sounds abrasive and harsh.  Digital distortion, unless you are creating some post-modern masterpiece, should be avoided at all costs.  Monitors, as well as the volume meters in your DAW, allow you to avoid this.  A good rule of thumb is: if it sounds like it’s distorting, it’s distorting.  Sometimes you won’t hear the distortion in your monitors, this is where the little loudness bars on your DAW software come in; those bad boys should never hit the top.

 

A Quick Word about Formats before we Finish

These days, most music ends up as an mp3.  Convenience is important so mp3 does have its place.  Most higher-end DAWs will allow you to make mp3 files upon export.  My advise to any of your learning sound-engineers out there is to just play around with formatting. However, a basic outline of some common formats may be useful…

24-bit, 96 kHz: This is best format most systems can record to.  Because of large files sizes, audio in this format rarely leaves the DAW.  Audio of this quality is best for editing, mixing, and converting to analog formats like tape or vinyl.

16-bit, 44.1 kHz: This is the format used for CDs.  This format maintains about half of the information that you can record on most systems, but it is optimized for playback by CD players and other similar devices.  Its file-size also allows for about 80 minutes of audio to fit on a typical CD.  Herein lies the balance between excellent sound quality, and file-size.

mp3, 256 kb/s: Looks a bit different, right?  The quality of mp3 is measured in kb/s.  The higher this number, the less compressed the file is and the more space it will occupy.  iTunes uses mp3 at 256 kb/s, Spotify probably uses something closer to 128 kb/s to better support streaming.  You can go as high as 320 kb/s with mp3.  Either way, mp3 compression is always lossy so you will never get an mp3 to sound quite as good as an uncompressed audio file.

 

In Conclusion

Recording audio is one of the most fun hobbies one can adopt.  Like all new things, recording can be difficult when you first start out but will become more and more fulfilling over time.  One can create their own orchestras at home now; a feat which would have been near impossible 20 years ago.  The world has many amazing sounds and it is up to people messing around with microphone in bedrooms and closets to create more.

Getting Started with Android Studio

Android is a great platform for a beginner developer to make his or her first smartphone app on. Android apps are written in Java, and the graphics are generally written in XML. Android apps are developed in many well-known IDEs (integrated development environments – programs that typically package together a code editor, compiler, debugger, interpreter, build system, version control system, and deployment system, as well as other tools) such as Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA, and Android Studio. In this article we will cover the basics of Android Studio.

Android Studio logo

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Wearable Technology

2016 has given us a lot of exciting new technologies to experiment with and be excited for. As time goes by technology is becoming more and more integrated into our every day lives and it does not seem like we will be stopping anytime soon. Here are some highlights from the past year and some amazing things we can expect to get our hands on in the years to come.

Contact Lenses

That’s right, we’re adding electronic capabilities to the little circles in your eyes. We’ve seen Google Glass, but this goes to a whole other level. Developers are already working on making lenses that can measure your blood sugar, improve your vision and even display images directly on your eye! Imagine watching a movie that only you can see, because it’s inside your face!

Kokoon

Kokoon started out as a Kickstarter that raised over 2 million dollars to fund its sleep sensing headphones. It is the first of its kind, able to help you sleep and monitor when you have fallen asleep to adjust your audio in real time. It’s the insomnia’s dream! You can find more information on the Kokoon here: http://kokoon.io/

Nuzzle

Nuzzle is a pet collar with built in GPS tracking to keep your pet safe in case it gets lost. But it does more than that. Using the collar’s companion app, you can monitor your dogs activity and view wellness statistics. Check it out: http://hellonuzzle.com/

Hearables

Your ears are the perfect place to measure all sorts of important stuff about your body such as your temperature and heart rate. Many companies are working on earbuds that can sit in your ear and keep statistics on these things in real time. This type of technology could save lives, as it could possibly alert you about a heart attack before your heart even knows it.

Tattoos

Thought it couldn’t get crazier than electronic contacts? Think again. Companies like Chaotic Moon and New Deal Design are working on temporary tattoos than can use the electric currents on the surface of your skin to power them up and do all kinds of weird things including open doors. Whether or not these will be as painful as normal tattoos is still a mystery, but we hope not!

VR

Virtual Reality headsets have been around for a while now, but they represent the ultimate form or wearable technology. These headsets are not mainstream yet and are definitely not perfected, but we can expect to be getting access to them within the next couple of years.

Other impressive types of wearable tech have been greatly improved on this year such as smart watches and athletic clothing. We’re even seeing research done on Smart Houses, which can be controlled completely with your Smart Phone, and holographic image displays that don’t require a screen. The future of wearable technology is more exciting than ever, so get your hands on whatever you can and dress to impress!

Can you work off a 32GB storage laptop? The beginner’s guide to switching to the cloud.

Screenshot 2016-11-28 at 11.11.59 PM

Over the past 5 years the term ‘cloud’ has been moving around left and right. If you are asking what the cloud is then I’ll assure you it is not an actual cloud in the sky, but a term used to say that your data is kept for you in a far-off place. This was to make it easy for consumers to conceptualize where their data is, without too much of a misunderstanding.

Understanding the cloud conceptually:

What cloud really is is remote computing and storage, usually provided by corporate servers. A way to understand this best is by simple example: Let’s say you have a photo gallery on your computer and you want to place it in “the cloud”. I tell you I have a cloud service so that you can always have your files available without having them on your computer. You agree, and send the files to me via the internet. I tell you “you are now backed up in the cloud!” since your files are on my computer at this point. You then delete all the files on your device, but it’s okay since there is a copy on my computer. But now you want to view that old photo of yourself at that last weeks Thanksgiving get-together, but it is no longer on your computer. You simply ask me (the cloud) for that file back, and I send you the photo back for you to view.. and when you are done with it you can delete it again, or make changes to it and send me back the changes. Simple as that. I being the cloud, am essentially a remote flash drive or external hard drive to send you data when you need it.

Now obviously this is not exactly how the cloud works, but it is close. Let’s instead change it so my computer is now facebook or Google’s computers in a datacenter far-off from you, and that data is encrypted for security and provided with highspeed enterprise internet to send you your files as quickly as possible. Now we are using the cloud in the way it really works in the real world! Cloud services make it easy to view your files when “they are not there” in your computer. Such as Google Drive; when you install Google Drive you can view what files are available as if they are on your computer. This is Google’s servers telling you what file’s are on them. If you were to open a file, Google’s data center will send your computer that file to be stored as RAM rather than storage; when you click ‘Save’ you simply re-upload that file back to Google’s servers.

WEB APPS! More than just storage:

Most people think of only being able to store their files in the cloud, but there is much more available to them. As we already discussed cloud storage is a way to send data back and forth between computers. This means we can do more than just store your files, but we can also do tasks to those files and send you back the results in web-based applications!

Google Docs is a great example of this. When you open your Google Drive file in Docs, a website displays your file that is stored on Google’s servers. You can make changes to it on your browser and in real-time Google is making changes to that file on their end.

 

How to adapt to the future:

Cloud computing is starting to become the next big thing. We’re starting to see that we no longer need our computers to have high-end processors and large storage drives as long as we have a good internet connection. This means our computer’s can now be minimal in that they can be thinner, sleeker, and most importantly much cheaper.

Google has expressed this ideology of having a minimalist-type computer with their line of Chromebooks. Anyone trying to get into the web-app lifestyle would love the idea of the device. They’re cheap at ~$250, have fast storage for quick boot times, and have great network cards to maintain a solid internet connection. They only have 32gb of storage, but that’s okay since the entire operating system is based off the chrome browser. How can you manage just using the chrome browser? Again, web apps!

Here is a list of common programs and tasks you can replace with web-apps:

Storage: Box (recommended if you are a UMass affiliate), Google Drive, iCloud, or Mega

Gaming: Gaming Streaming Services! Such as OnLive, PS Now, or you can stream remotely if you have a high-end system.

Photoshop: Pixlr! A great website where you can have most of the features of Photoshop available to you for free all online!

Video-Editing: Use WeVideo, a website to upload videos and edit them all online.

Programming: There are several cloud based programming IDEs available, such as Cloud9 or CodeAnywhere!

Office: Google Docs has everything you need! From word, to powerpoint, to even excel. You and other collaborators can update your documents all in the Google Cloud, and even download them to your computer as a word document, pdf, or image file.

Music: You can use Spotify as a web-app, Google Play Music, or Amazon Prime Music as online subscription-based streaming services!

Movies/Shows: Most of us don’t even save movies anymore. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video let you stream thousands of movies and shows instantly.

Other: If you are in desperate need of say a Windows PC or Mac and you have a desktop at home, then you can stream your computer’s session to your device. Services like TeamViewer, RDP, and Chrome Remote Desktop make this incredibly easy.

Recommended:

As you can see most services can be provided by Google, and is my recommendation to use for being in the Cloud. A simple subscription to Google Play services can get you all the apps you would need to perform most to all computer-related tasks today. Chrome extensions and apps are also limitless as you can download thousands of them online.

Conclusion:

My advice is to try to future-proof yourself and use the cloud for all purposes. It’s a great way to keep your data safe and backed up. It’s also a way to spend less on potentially unnecessary computing power. With the world turning to web-based applications, a simple chromebook for $200 could last you years and could save you thousands compared to buying the latest Apple or PC hardware.

Step-by-step walkthrough of downloading Office 365 Education

Microsoft Office is a useful suite of productivity applications that includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, Access, and OneNote. Microsoft provides a no-cost subscription to college students, faculty, and staff to install these programs on up to 5 devices. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get your free access to Microsoft Office 365:

  1. Navigate to the UMass IT website.
  2. Click on Software.
    UMass IT Website
  3. Scroll down, and in the Microsoft table, click on Microsoft Office 365 Education
    UMass IT Website - Microsoft Table
  4. A. If you are a student, click on the Microsoft Office 365 web site under the student section.
    UMass IT Website - Student 365 Link
    1.  If you are a faculty or staff member, click on the Microsoft Office 365 web site under the faculty and staff section.
      UMass IT Website - Faculty 365 Link
  5. Once on the landing page for Office 365, fill in your UMass email address and click Get started.
    Office 365 Education Landing Page
  6. A. If you are a student, click on I’m a Student
    B. Click on I’m a Teacher if you are either a faculty or staff member. The I’m a Teacher option will work if you are either a faculty or staff member.
    Microsoft Office 365 Education - Student or Teacher
  7. Check your UMass email for the confirmation email and click the Yes, that’s me link.
    Microsoft Office 365 Email Confirmation
  8. Create your account using your personal information.Microsoft Office 365 Education - Create Account
  9. Click Skip on the invitation page.
    Microsoft Office 365 Education - Invite Page
  10. Download your software by clicking the Install now button! If you don’t want anything in your web browser changed, make sure to uncheck the two boxes above the Install now button.
    Microsoft Office 365 Education - Download Software
    A. If you’re on Windows, this will download the installer for Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, Access, Publisher, Skype for Business, and OneDrive for Business.
    B. If you’re on OS X, it will download the installer for Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and OneNote.
    With the Office 365 subscription, you will also have access to the Office Online suite of productivity software, all of which is listed below the install button.
  11. Once the installer is downloaded, run the installer.
    office365installer
  12. When the software is installed, you will be able to open any Office Suite program and use it as normal.
    Note: it may prompt you to sign in. If it does, be sure to use the same email address and password that you used when you signed up for Office 365 at the beginning of this walkthrough.
  13. You’re done! Enjoy Office 365 for the duration of your time at UMass Amherst!

You Should Learn How To Program

Whether you are a power user or only use a computer to check your email, you should learn the basics of programming a computer. This skill will not only help you understand what goes into making an application, but you may also find that you enjoy the technical problem solving that is required in programming. Computers and programming are becoming more and more pervasive in every day life, and have changed the workflow of many careers. Instead of giving you a lesson I want to provide you with multiple resources that both me, and students whom I taught how to program, have found useful.

Learning Resources

The Hour of Code

The Hour of Code was created by Code.org, a charity designed to expand computer science outreach. The Hour of Code was created to encourage everyone to learn and experience the thought process that goes into programming. As a simple introduction, this program will teach you the basics of a block based programming language that was inspired by MIT’s Scratch.

Codeacademy

Codeacademy specializes in teaching its students with actual programming languages such as JavaScript and Ruby. Unlike reading a guide or a book, Codeacademy steps it users through each assignment with automatic feedback to help guide learning.

Classes

There are also online classes on Coursera and EdX which will teach you various aspects of programming. Here at UMass Amherst you could alternatively take either CMPSCI 119 or 121 as an introductory course for programming.

Games

Code Combat

Intended for pre-college audiences, Code Combat is a puzzle game where you control a character around a game world. The game gives you the option of programming in Python or Javascript programming languages gradually teaching the user the basics of programming as new obstacles face your character.

Light Bot

Less childish then Code Combat,  Light Bot is a simple game where you control a robot to light up squares around. Light bot is more about solving a logic puzzle then teaching you how to program however these puzzles are designed around Core Concepts needed to program such as recursion (which Light Bot explains elegantly) and Debugging.

Steam Games

Along with those two free games their are also a couple paid steam games that involve or aim to teach programming listed below:

  • Hack N’ Slash – A Zelda inspired game created by Double Fine Productions where you can change attributes of certain objects in the game world to solve puzzles.
  • Else Heart.Break() – An Adventure game where you are tasked to program a solution to solve the games puzzles.
  • Human Resource Machine – A puzzle game that uses code blocks to build code that starts with simple programs  and gradually gets harder as new concepts are introduced.

Game Engines

Others find the best way to start programming is through gaming whether you mod an existing game or create your own. There are many game engines that allow new-comers to learn, while still being powerful enough to be used to create a commercial product.

  • Unity – A 3D Game engine created by Microsoft. Click here for a more in depth article from another blog on this site.
  • Gamemaker – Gamemaker is a mix between program either using scripts or a drag and drop interface, making it intuitive to newcomers.  Indie games such as Risk of Rain, and Hyper Light Drifter were made using Gamemaker.

Conclusion

I will conclude this article with two tips when programming. First, as with most problems in life, use google (or any other search engine) if you are having trouble with a concept. Secondly, programming doesn’t have to be a singular experience. Joining a team and working together can be often times be the most enjoyable moments you can experience while programming. There are also programming competitions, referred to as Hackathons, that encourage programmers to work with and meet new people to create a product. We have an article for about our schools hackathon, HackUMass here.

 

Windows 10: 1 Year Later

Windows 10 was released to the public as a consumer ready operating system on July 29th, 2015. We nearly approached the end of its first year, and it has marked some changes for long-time Windows users. Reviews are still out on how it will compare to previous versions, especially how it will measure up and fill the shoes of the immensely popular Windows 7, and the seemingly universal hatred for Window 8 and just slightest love for 8.1 (Full Disclosure: I like Windows 8.1, I will however concede that Windows 8 at launch was indeed a mistake).

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What is Secure Online Storage at UMass Amherst?

Many students are not aware that they have access to UDrive, an online file storage service hosted by the university. Undergraduate students from 2013 onward have a (Google) Apps account which provides email, drive storage, and online office tools. In many ways, your Apps account doubles as an account to a superior online storage solution. This spring, UMass Amherst Information Technology has added Box to the online repertoire of students–a new service that is superior to Apps in a few ways.

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Formatting in Word – Not Frequently Asked Questions

You have a mysterious railing sentence. I bolded it for you.

I write a lot of papers. I am an undergraduate, I take gen-eds that require essays, and I typically have to follow MLA format. No matter how long I write in MLA I still have some questions regarding how to format it in Microsoft Word. Those annoying formatting issues that just pop up. I hope to solve a few of those not-frequently asked questions that come up when writing a paper.

Q: You know when you are writing a paragraph and one line falls over to the next page and Microsoft Word helpfully adds a line of text? How do I stop that?

A: These are called widows and orphans. When you are writing a paragraph and you get a one line spillover this is called a widow. An orphan is when you are writing a paragraph and one word makes up your last line of text. Both of these can be really annoying.

Quick and Dirty Fix: If you are not writing in MLA format and you don’t care about margin space then you can just change the margin size [page layout –> margins –> and change margins to your will]. Or, a quicker and dirtier fix is just changing your paragraph to eliminate a sentence or add some more. The issue with this fix is that when you go back and edit your entire paper and you may end up

Actual Fix: If you hope to actually fix this issue Word has a real fix for it too. It’s actually really easy too. The simple fix is [file –> paragraph –> line and page breaks tab –> uncheck the widow/orphan control box]

Q: Talk to me about strikethrough

A: I use strikethrough when making lists and I want to show that I have marked something off the list. This is what strikethrough looks like. There is no direct keyboard shortcut for strikethrough. Instead, you have to go through font every time. The steps are [highlight desired text to be stricken –> right click –> scroll down to font –> under the font tab –> check the strikethrough box]

Q: I do a lot of chemistry homework and I use a lot of super and subscripts. Please tell me there is a keyboard shortcut

A: I’m going to copy and paste Microsoft’s answer to this problem:

  • For superscript, select the text or number that you want, and then press Ctrl, Shift, and the Plus sign (+) at the same time.
  • For subscript, select the text or number that you want, and then press Ctrl and the Equal sign (=) at the same time.

Q: I accidentally wrote a paragraph in CapsLock and I don’t want to rewrite it. Is there a fix?

A: There is! And while researching this I audibly gasped because I thought it was impossible. The steps are to highlight the text you want to change the case of, and then press [shift+F3].

Hopefully these tips will help save you some time when you’re next writing a paper this semester. Additionally, check out the IT website for how UMass students, faculty, and staff can sign up for Office 365.

Office 2016: What it looks like so far.

office

The second half of 2015 is going to be a busy time in the tech world with the releases of OSX 10.11, iOS 9, Windows 10, and the newest iteration of the Microsoft Office Suite. With so much going on it can be hard to stay on top of the most recent developments, new features, and release date rumors, but for Office 2016 here’s what we know for sure is going to be included in this latest version.

Who is Office 2016 for?

Great question! The short answer is everyone. Office 2016 will be released for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and web-based platforms. Microsoft hopes that beginning with this release, Office will not require the user to actually be in the office to do their work. The Office apps will be available for installation on mobile devices like phones and tablets as well as computers so that users can get their work done wherever they happen to be.

What’s new in Office 2016?

There are a whole host of new features in the new office released. I’ll talk about a few of the most exciting changes here, but if you are interested in the full list of changes check out this article on office.com.

One of the most exciting features being implemented in the new iteration of office is real-time co-authoring. This is a feature that has been available for a while on web-based office suites like google docs and even office online. Real-time co-authoring allows users to work on the same document simultaneously with each user’s changes made visible immediately to all of the other users. Currently co-authoring is only available in word documents that are stored on either OneDrive (microsoft’s cloud) or Office 365 sharepoint sites; however, Microsoft has indicated that they hope to make this feature available in all office apps.

Another new feature in Office 2016 is the Tell Me feature. Reminiscent of the old office assistant Clippy (except less annoying and more useful), the Tell Me feature allows users to search for commands from within the office apps. The great thing about Tell Me is that it works with plain english meaning you don’t have to know the exact name of the feature you are looking for. Typing something like “draw arrows” will bring up the smart shape toolbar, or typing “change bullet points” brings up the list formatting menu to change bullet styles. The Tell Me feature will save a lot of time as users will no longer have to scour the internet for help finding the feature they need, and just tell office what they want to do.

Microsoft has also expressed that starting with Office 2016 they intend for Office to be a platform rather than just a suite of applications. At first this won’t have much of an effect on users, but Microsoft hopes that more third-party developers will build plugins to be used with office. For example, you might have an uber plugin installed that will allow you to schedule rides as you add events to your calendar in outlook.

With this exciting new range of features, Office 2016 is shaping up to be more than just a new version of the same software, but rather the next step in productive computing.

When is Office 2016 being released?

Mac users with an Office 365 subscription can already download an official release of Office 2016. For other operating systems, users with an Office 365 subscription can download a preview release of Office 2016 that will automatically update to the official release of Office 2016 on release date. For users not in these two groups the latest word is that Office 2016 will be available in late 2015, perhaps sometime around september.

How do I get my copy of Office 2016?

Fortunately, Office is available to most members of the university either for free or at extremely reduced cost. To check if you qualify go to this page. If you already have office, and you’re interested in the preview copy of 2016 take a look at this page.

PortableApps: Your workspace to go!

Description:
PortableApps is a platform software that allows you to practically bring your workspace almost anywhere. You can install it on any USB storage device, computer, or even a cloud service such as Dropbox. You then install portable versions of the some of the everyday applications you would normally see installed a computer such as LibreOffice and Firefox. What makes these applications portable is the fact that they don’t modify or leave any data and settings on the host computer but instead saves them only in the location where PortableApps is installed.

Usage:
PortableApps has over 300 portable applications to choose from ranging from office suites to games to antivirus softwares. Though not every application that we commonly use is available (for example, Microsoft Office).  However there are alternatives you could use in their place (such as LibreOffice). When you run PortableApps, you are greeted with a display much like the Windows start menu to the bottom right of the screen.
The Start Menu
From here, you can launch, install, and update your portable applications. You can even see how much space you have left if you install it on your USB storage device and explore the content of your USB storage device with a click of a button.

On a USB?:
With PortableApps installed on a USB drive, You can bring your personalized data to any computer. For example, you can browse the internet on a public computer, or on your friend’s computer without leaving your bookmark or history on the computer. All of it will be saved on your USB drive so you can take your bookmarks, extensions, and addons anywhere you go. If your browser saves your tabs before it closes then those are saved as well. For a computer tech, you can also load a bundle of tools to diagnose and fix a wide variety of computer problems, including virus infections, all organized and just a click away using PortableApps. Using PortableApps also mean being able to use programs you need that typically would not be installed on other computers since the program is installed on your USB drive. An example for computer science major is PuTTY. Most public computers typically don’t come with PuTTY installed but with PortableApps, you can load PuTTY along with its saved connections.

On the cloud?:
PortableApps can be useful even in cloud services that sync your data between your devices. Whenever a computer changes the settings for a program, the cloud will sync the settings to your other devices. For example with Firefox or Chrome, your bookmark, history, and extensions are saved and synced between all your devices. Or even when starting fresh after wiping your computer or buying a new computer, all you have to do is grab your files from the cloud service and you’ll have applications ready to use and already configured to your liking. PortableApps can easily update all your programs ensuring that your programs are up to date across all your devices and reduces the redundant task of updating each program for each of your devices.

More information can be found in their official website: http://portableapps.com/

How to Make an Animated Gif in Photoshop

Animated gifs have been used since basically the dawning of the internet. GIF(Graphical Interchange Format) are image files that move. The gif format is so widely used because it can be easily loaded on just about any device. They can be used for a wide variety of things from showing you how the gears in a clock function, to a funny clip from a television show.  Here I will be showing you how to make a simple animated gif with the use of Photoshop.

For the gif I am making today you will need 3 things; an image file, a video file and Photoshop. If you have access to Adobe Premiere Pro you may find this program to also be useful for cutting up your video clip into the exact segments you want. However it is not a necessary step so I won’t go into that any further.

My Goal is to animate the iris of an eye. To do this, import the original image of an eye.original image

Next use the background eraser tool and erase the iris so that it is transparent.

background eraser

Now you will need to import your video file, go to File > Import > Video frames to layers
This will allow you to edit every single frame of your video clip.

Video frames to layers

After you import your video frames to layers, change your workspace for animation. Go to Window > Workspace > Motion

Motion Workspace 1

Motion Workspace 2

Now go back to the eye we edited earlier, right click on the layer and “Duplicate Layer”, for the destination choose the name you have chosen for your video layers. For this demonstration my video layers are titled “Untitled-1”

Duplicate Layer 1

Duplicate Layer 2

Next take the image of the eye and stretch it to fit the size of the video layer. After you do this make sure you have every single frame/layer highlighted in your horizontal motion layer workspace. Then on your right take the layer for the eye and bring it to the very top so it is on top of every single frame and layer.

Eye Layer to the TOP

After you have done this it is time to save this as a gif. Go to file > Save for Web. If you have a large file this may take some time to load. My gif was quite large so I dropped my image size percentage down to 25%

Save for Web

Once you have done this you can click preview, to see how your gif will look in a browser. If you are pleased with the end result click save and now you have created your first animated gif!

CLICK ME

CLICK ME!

 

Quickly add a shaded border to an image in Adobe Photoshop

In this tutorial, we’ll see how to quickly add a shaded border to a photo in Adobe Photoshop like so:

slide 5

Begin by opening your photo of choice.

slide 1

Next, create a new layer, by going to “Layer > New Layer” (or, by using the keyboard shortcut “Ctrl + Shift + N” on Windows or “Cmd + Shift + N” on a Mac). Click on the new layer in the layers panel on the right to make sure it is selected, and then select the Paint Bucket tool in the tools panel on the left. Pick the foreground color you would like to use for your shaded border (in this example we use black, but you can use any color) and then fill the new layer with your color of choice.

slide 2

After filling the new layer, we will use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to create our border. Select the tool, and make sure its Feather attribute (located in the upper left) is greater than 0. Depending on the size of your image, and how much of a border you want visible, this will vary. My image is quite large so I have a feather of 80 pixels, however a small image may work best with only 12 pixels. After choosing a feather radius, drag and select the entire size of your canvas. You can begin outside the upper left corner and drag over the whole image to make sure you have it selected completely over each edge. When you release holding your mouse-click, the rectangle will now show a dotted line with curved edges. If the curve is too large or small for what you want to do, simply change the feather radius and try again.

slide 3

Now that we have our feathered selection, press the delete key or go to “Edit > Cut” to clear the middle of the full color layer. Your original photo will now show through underneath with the added border on top.

slide 4

Experiment with different colors and feather radii to see what you can create!

slide 6

 

Blue Glow of Information – Electronic Textbooks

The Spring semester is right around the corner, and yet again, it’s time to get textbooks for your classes. Before purchasing your textbooks, consider purchasing electronic textbooks instead due to their advantages over their physical counterparts. Since these ebooks hold the same content as physical textbooks along with a few extra features, there are advantages, but similarly, there are disadvantages.

textbooks

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Thankful For Google

I created my first Gmail account right before I started high school. I figured that my aim.com email, with my cheesy instant messaging screen name attached, would be unsuitable to send emails from in the future. It never crossed my mind that this one account would later link all facets of my life together in a neat, user-friendly package. With this one account, I am able to sync my email, calendar, documents, photos, notes, alarms, mobile apps, and music across my phone, tablet, and PC. Continue reading

Affective Computing and Nevermind

To borrow a definition from MIT, affective computing is computing that relates to, arises from, or deliberately influences emotion or other affective phenomena. Anything that recognizes, analyzes, simulates, or interacts with human emotion generally falls under this term. Does it sound a little far-fetched for your computer to understand your emotions? Well, it may not be. There is already software that can understand emotion based on facial expression or voice intonation. In fact, a quick search should give you many, many different programs that do this. Continue reading