Tech Thoughts Net News – Monday – December 12, 2016

The cheapskate’s guide to buying a new PC or Mac;  The Best Chromebooks of 2016;  20 Tips & Tricks to Make Windows 10 Easier;  Google is replacing Flash in Chrome once and for all;  Does Google listen in on your life? Should it?  Yahoo Answers makes its official mobile debut;  15 common Android problems and how to fix them;  The complete list of Alexa commands so far;  Windows Server 2016: The smart person’s guide;  Keyless-entry cars can be stolen with this new ‘mystery hack’ – and much more news you need to know.

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The cheapskate’s guide to buying a new PC or Mac – Only suckers pay sticker price for a new Windows PC or Mac. If you’re patient and willing to do some research, you can save hundreds of dollars and get a more powerful configuration than you ever dreamed possible. Here’s how.

The Best Chromebooks of 2016 – If a quick and easy way to get on the Web is all you need out of a laptop, a chromebook is the way to go. Here’s what to look for when shopping, and our top recommendations.

Jim Hillier: 20 Tips & Tricks to Make Windows 10 Easier – Whether just getting started with Windows 10 or looking to improve your experience, here are links to 20 tips and guides to help you get to know the new operating system better, all in one place for your convenience:

The best free tech gifts you can give – Even Santa won’t organize someone’s photo library or set up a password-management system. If you have the skills, prepare to become a holiday hero.

Does Google listen in on your life? Should it? – A widely held myth says Google eavesdrops on your life to improve search results. It doesn’t, but should it?

Google is replacing Flash in Chrome once and for all – Google told us in May that it would eventually block Adobe Flash Player content on Chrome. And today, the company is making good on its promise. Google is slowly rolling HTML5 out to users over the next couple of months, starting with one percent of users on the current version of Chrome. Everyone should have an updated Chrome by February, when the most recent beta version goes stable. This means that unless a website has an HTML5 content player, the Flash content won’t display. Users will have to enable it manually on a site-by-site basis. At first, the Flash permissions will only apply to sites that users are visiting for the first time, but by October, every site will require user permission to run Flash.

32 tips and tricks for Google Photos – Google Photos is a great way to store your personal photos and make them available across different devices — and with the holiday season upon us, the potential for generating lots of photos is at an especially high level. But the service is far more than just a virtual cloud locker. Photos has oodles of options, features and possibilities for viewing, manipulating and managing your digital memories. And many of them aren’t immediately obvious. Take a few minutes to scan through these tips and make sure you’re making the most of your Google Photos experience.

How to Use Google Maps Offline – To get the most out of Google Maps, you’ll need to make sure you have a reliable Internet connection. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use the navigation app in dead zones. Google Maps allows you to download maps of certain areas and neighborhoods to your phone so that they can be accessed offline. It’s important to note that you will need to be connected to the Internet in order to save these maps to your device. But once they’ve been downloaded, you’ll be able to access them anytime, whether your phone is online or offline.

The complete list of Alexa commands so far – Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, is infiltrating your home, your beach trips and even your ride to work. Now that there are four ways to interact with Alexa — with the Tap, Echo and Dot devices, and with the Amazon Fire TV — you might find yourself talking to her more often. The list of commands is expanding rapidly, as is the number of third-party services and devices that Alexa officially (and unofficially) supports. Here is the (almost) complete list of Amazon Alexa commands.

Contextual App Folder: The coolest Android app you’re not using – Android users looking for a contextual folder that will automatically alter its contents based on configured triggers should check out Contextual App Folder.

2016’s five best virtual reality headsets – This year made consumer virtual reality headsets, well, a reality. Major hardware players now have affordable offerings on the market, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Yahoo Answers makes its official mobile debut – Yahoo Answers has officially launched on mobile. As TechCrunch reported last month, Yahoo’s experimental app code-named Yahoo Hive had been rebranded as Yahoo Answers Now — a move that indicated Yahoo’s plans to bring its desktop Q&A site to the App Store. However, at the time, the app still required an invite in order to test it out — that restriction was lifted Thursday, and the app is open to all.

Windows Server 2016: The smart person’s guide – This guide covers details about Windows Server 2016, such as new features, minimum requirements, install options, and how Microsoft’s virtualized services seamlessly integrate with the cloud.

T-Mobile’s Digits looks to expand your phone number to all of your devices – The carrier launches a new program that lets you use a single number across all of your devices, and multiple numbers on one device.

15 common Android problems and how to fix them – Let’s face it, our phones aren’t perfect. When they aren’t running out of juice, they are slow, won’t power on, or have problems connecting to the Internet. These are some quick fixes for some of the most common problems Android owners face.

11 Secret Tricks, Hidden Gestures in Your Favorite iOS Apps – Your fingers have so much magic, you don’t even know!

WTF is daily fantasy sports? – If you’ve watched or been to a professional sports game in the past year you’ve no doubt seen advertisements for daily fantasy sports companies like DraftKings and FanDuel. In just a few years the industry has become the hottest thing in the sports world probably since cable TV.

Security:

Netgear users advised to stop using affected routers after severe flaw found – An advisory posted on Friday in Carnegie Mellon University’s public vulnerability database (CERT) said that Netgear’s R7000 and R6400 routers, running current and recent firmware respectively, are vulnerable to an arbitrary command injection flaw. If exploited, the vulnerability could let an unauthenticated attacker run commands with root privileges.

Attackers use hacked home routers to hit Russia’s 5 largest banks – Botnets made up of hacked home routers were used to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks against the five largest financial organizations in Russia.

Three serious Linux kernel security holes patched – The good news is developers are looking very closely at Linux’s core code for possible security holes. The bad news is they’re finding them. The latest three kernel vulnerabilities are designated CVE-2016-8655, CVE-2016-6480, and CVE-2016-6828. Of these, CVE-2016-8655 is the worst of the bunch. It enables local users, which can include remote users with virtual and cloud-based Linux instances, to crash the system or run arbitrary code as root. In short, it’s nasty.

AirDroid updated to fix major security holes – Last week it was reported that AirDroid, the popular app that allows Android users to read/send messages and remotely access files on their device from a PC/Mac, has been plagued with several security holes over the last several months. Security research firm Zimperium detailed how hackers could easily gain access to users’ information and Android device. Fortunately that news spurred AirDroid’s developers to take action, as fixes are now available for both the mobile app and PC/Mac clients.

Keyless-entry cars can be stolen with this new ‘mystery hack’ – As cars become more and more reliant on computers and operating systems, not just in their engines but in the ways drivers interact with them, they continue to be susceptible to hacks and other software-based attacks. The latest example comes from the US’s National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), which has identified a new tool that can allow thieves to unlock cars equipped with keyless-entry, start the engine, and simply drive off.

Ransomware scum offer free decryption if you infect two mates – The ransomware variant “Popcorn Time”, unrelated to the popular Bittorrent client by the same name, first tells users they have a week in which to pay one one bitcoin (US$770) in order to have their files decrypted. The menace, spotted by the MalwareHunter group, also offers victims the chance to infect two other users to avoid payment. Friends are confirmed as having been infected using a referral link and must both pay the ransom for the first victim to receive their decryption key for free. Users who insert the wrong decryption key may see their data deleted on the fourth incorrect attempt. Ransomware authors claim the ransom will be used to pay for food and shelter in Syria.

Ransomware attacks against businesses increased threefold in 2016 – The number of ransomware attacks targeting companies increased threefold from January to September, affecting one in every five businesses worldwide.

Obama orders review of Russian election hacking – Cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta led to a series of damaging leaks that dogged the Clinton campaign throughout the election season. Her opponent, Donald Trump, was dismissive of the hacks and the attribution of them to Russia. Although U.S. intelligence agencies assert that the attacks were conducted by Russian operatives, Trump told TIME magazine recently, “I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, ‘Oh, Russia interfered.’ Why not get along with Russia?”

Company News:

AT&T begins refunding 2.7 million customers over bill cramming – If you’re an AT&T mobile customer (or you used to be one), you may see a bill credit in the next couple months or find a check in the mail soon. According to the FTC, AT&T has mailed the first round of checks to former customers refunding some of the money they spent due to the carrier’s alleged bill cramming issue. Current AT&T customers — of which about 2.7 million are affected — will see their refund in the form of a bill credit within the next 75 days.

Verizon won’t push Samsung’s Note 7 bricking update, but the other carriers will – Early this morning Samsung announced plans to finally extinguish the on-going fire that is the Note 7 once and for all here in the States by way of a software update that won’t allow the troubled phone to charge at all. Apparently not everyone involved is onboard with the move. Verizon (the parent company to TechCrunch’s parent company) quickly issued a follow up statement, citing the potential risks involved in killing the phone altogether. By Samsung’s count, around only 7 percent of Note 7 owners in the U.S. have clung to their devices, but the carrier is concerned with the safety of those last few.

Starbucks charts its digital future as CEO Schultz sets to depart – Starbucks’ technology chief plans to build on previous digital successes and add new technologies that boost personal engagements digitally and anticipate customer behaviors.

Workplace by Facebook begins to take shape – Workplace by Facebook has been in general release for just two months now, but it’s clear that Facebook has big plans for its enterprise social product. Just this week, at TechCrunch Disrupt in London, the company announced a new platform to integrate enterprise applications with Workplace, putting it in direct competition with Slack, the enterprise social darling of the moment.

Games and Entertainment:

Super Mario Run needs a constant internet connection to run – It a bit of news that will surely shift the value proposition of Mario’s long-awaited iPhone debut for legions of underground commuters, Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed this week that Super Mario Run will only work on a device with a constant internet connection. The legendary game creator chalked up the decision to security concerns, fears that an offline mode would make the game unstable and open it up to piracy. Those worries are likely due in no small part to the fact that Nintendo simply isn’t accustomed to developing games for platforms it doesn’t have on lock-down.

Ghost Recon: Wildlands’ huge open-world map revealed by Ubisoft – Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is the latest entry in Ubisoft‘s tactical shooter series, and when it’s released on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on March 7th next year, it will feature the largest open-world environment the developer has ever created. Wildlands takes place Bolivia, and the developers have managed to recreate the entire South American country in-game, offering a huge area for players to explore and carry out missions. For the first time, Ubisoft has revealed the map, along with details on just how expansive the game world really is.

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Resident Evil 7 demo arrives on Xbox One today, PC December 19 – PlayStation 4 owners have already had access to Capcom’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard demo for quite some time, but now it’s Xbox One’s turn. The demo is arriving on Xbox One today, giving players an early look at the next installment in the long running Resident Evil series. Beyond this Xbox One release, the demo will also be coming to PC later this month, with Capcom announcing a December 19 release date.

Off Topic (Sort of):

2016: The year flagship phones became skippable – For the cost of a brand new Google Pixel XL or iPhone 7 Plus, you can buy a pair of Huawei Mate 8s and still treat yourself to a decent dinner.

Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and 18 others commit $1 billion to new cleantech fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, John Doerr and 15 other high-profile investors have formed a new venture firm, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, that will pour at least $1 billion into cleantech companies over the next 20 years. The firm’s goal, according to its own website will be: “to provide everyone in the world with access to reliable, affordable power, food, goods, transportation, and services without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.” BEV will invest in tech ventures at any stage, from seed through commercialization. The deals will focus on electricity, manufacturing, agriculture, buildings and transportation.

What Trump said about Apple, Alphabet and Facebook — the tech companies he’s meeting next week – In case you missed it: President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is convening a tech summit at Trump Tower next week, and top execs from Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and more are attending. As one person familiar with the summit plans told my boss, Recode’s Kara Swisher, “Look, this is obviously a circus.” So, let’s do some social media-searching acrobatics and see what Trump has said about these companies.

Something to think about:

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

–       H. L. Mencken    (1880 – 1956)

In Pursuit of Freedom – The Pushback Continues:

European Surveillance Companies Were Eager to Sell Syria Tools of Oppression – In 2007, Syrians could only access the internet through state-run servers, and services like Microsoft Hotmail and Facebook were sometimes blocked. But Bashar al-Assad, who had been head of the Syrian Computer Society before becoming president, knew the internet would inevitably spread more, and he knew he had to tighten his grip over it.

On October 2, 2007, the head of the government-owned Syria Telecommunications Establishment, or STE, put out a call for companies to develop a surveillance system that would monitor all data flowing on the Syrian internet.

The tender listed a series of “services that must be monitored,” including web browsing, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, internet VOIP calls, encrypted HTTPS web connections, and the use of VPNs.

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