Printers, programming and DIY computing
Bob's Tech Talk
Q. I have used the same HP1200 laser printer in my home office for a very long time. Last week it stopped working, and now I need to replace it. What would you suggest?
A. The printer world has changed considerably in recent years. I started using HP printers in the 1990s, back when they had a sterling reputation. However, after testing a couple of current HP printers I have begun to look elsewhere. Today I use a Brother HL-L2360DW, and so do several of my friends. The printer, which generally sells for about $100, is a reliable performer for light-duty use.
It has a lot more features than your previous HP. It can print on both sides of the paper reliably, cutting paper use almost in half. It has Wi-Fi built-in, so it can accept print jobs from multiple devices on the same network, including phones and tablets. Wired networking is also supported, which is easier to configure than wireless. The paper tray is much larger, and the print speed is more than twice as fast.
The size and weight of the Brother toner cartridge suggest it will not last as long as any of the robust HP cartridges from decades past. However, besides being easier to find than the older cartridges, the Brother toner is less expensive.
Q. My granddaughter loves video games and I would like to show her the basics of how games are made. What is the best way to do that?
A. The best way to show children (or anyone for that matter) programming is a free Apple iPad app called Swift Playgrounds.
The app showcases a series of downloadable chapters that begin with an introduction to fundamental concepts and end with building simple games. Every chapter contains three sections: a topic, a series of exercises, and finally a challenge exercise.
Typical exercises are puzzles, where the user has to compose short snippets of code to direct characters across a virtual landscape, picking up gems, toggling switches, and avoiding hazards. The experience combines real code with sound and animation in a modern game-like presentation. If you are familiar with the old Logo programming language, or Karel the Robot, Swift Playgrounds is familiar territory. But familiarity is not a requirement. Playgrounds are gentle enough for anyone to play with.
I think Swift Playgrounds are a uniquely innovative learning experience. They excel at emphasizing basic concepts while omitting distracting details. Key concepts unfold in a natural order, and are reinforced with practice and repetition in each successive lesson. Not everyone is attracted to programming, but for those who are, Swift Playgrounds are an accessible and entertaining first step.
Q. I used to tinker with electronics when I was a kid. Crystal radios, that sort of thing. Now I have some free time and would like to explore my childhood hobby once again. How difficult is it to build your own PC?
A. Probably the most challenging part of building a PC is selecting a set of parts that will work well together. Fortunately for new builders there are websites that publish how-to instructions and parts lists for a broad range of price points, from basic to advanced. One of the best sites to find “build” plans is also one of the original parts stores, Tom’s Hardware. (See the link below in the “Wander the Web” section.)
The original reason for building your own computer was usually to save money. However, competition among manufacturers has driven prices down to the point where doing it yourself will probably cost about the same. Now the allure is mostly about customization, with the goal of optimizing a PC to perform a specific task exceptionally well. The most common focus is on high-end games or virtual reality machines that require every last bit of horsepower.
The do-it-yourself route has several other rewards for hobbyists, including a thorough understanding of how each component works and the skills needed to make repairs in the future. And perhaps best of all, a PC is more useful than building a ship in a bottle.
Bob DeLaurentis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wander the Web
Amazon Robot Shopper
Prices can change frequently on Amazon. Imagine if you could set up a robot to watch items on Amazon, and notify you when the price dips. Imagine no more, because someone has created just such a website. But wait, there is more! Camelcamelcamel (its real name) also provides historic price charts plus a few more features for savvy shoppers. http://www.camelcamelcamel.com
The Antidote for Expensive Cables
Cables can be one of the most expensive components in any tech drawer. Those little bits of copper and plastic that used to come free with a new gadget are often surprisingly expensive to replace. For over a decade, my primary cable supplier has been monoprice.com. Their quality is top notch, and their prices reflect the value of the cable without the typical high-markup nonsense. http://www.monoprice.com
Technically Speaking for Computer Hardware
When the PC era was at its peak, building your own computer from parts was popular among computer enthusiasts. Those days are mostly gone, but the need for solid technical information is not. Tom’s Hardware is one of the most reliable tech sites on the Web for price comparisons, specifications, and recommendations. http://www.tomshardware.com