Articles by Phil Nickinson

How your phone can help before and during a hurricane

Ed. Note: We're re-upping this since Hurricane Harvey decided to make life difficult on a lot of folks in Texas. Stay safe out there, everybody. And if you're told to evacuate, DO IT!

Hurricane season is here, a storm threatens, and your smartphone is now one of the most important tools in your preparedness kit.

You don't want to be caught unaware when a hurricane hits, and as we've learned recently, they can arrive unexpectedly, and in unexpected places. Hopefully anyone in the direct path of Hurricane Harvey in Texas has already gotten out of the way. For folks on the outskirts, though — and everyone else who lives where a hurricane or typhoon can happen, there's still plenty of storm season left. And there's no better time than now to bone up on some of the best ways to keep current on what's out there, and how to stay safe if a storm comes your way.

And just like with everything else, our smartphones now play an integral part with that.

I've lived on the Gulf Coast my entire life. I've been through storms. God willing, I'll never go through another. But either way, I'll be ready. Let's take a look at a few ways you can be, too.


VPN for dummies ... Or Dads ... Or why it's time to finally take the plunge

A good VPN isn't as complicated as it used to be, but it's still a pretty big step for a "regular" user to take. But it's time to get my family used to it. Their data may depend on it.

Over the past year I've been slowly moving my family to more secure options for their phones and computers. Password managers — to promote the usage of longer and stronger passwords — was the first step. Then we all moved to more secure messaging.

Now it's time for the big one. The one I'd been dreading. VPNs.

I've been using Virtual Private Networks for years. Almost exclusively for work, but I was plenty familiar with the principle. But while I'm certainly no expert in networking, I wasn't looking forward to trying to explain all this to my wife and kids. And, actually, it's still a work in progress.

The main issues:

  • What is a VPN?
  • Why would you need a VPN?
  • When do you need to use a VPN?
  • OK, fine. Now how do I use a VPN?
  • Which VPN should I use?

Not overly difficult questions, right? But when you're taking something that just works — our phones and our computers — and adding yet another layer of complexity atop what already has become more annoying with incomprehensible passwords and seventeen different messaging apps ... Well, I get it. Is a VPN something we really need to use?

Yeah, it is.

I'll keep this relatively short.

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A VPN is far from foolproof, but you'd be a fool to not use one.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is like a private tunnel created within the Internet stream to which you've connected. Whether you're at home, at work, in public — wherever.

When you're using a VPN, all of your data will flow — encrypted — through the VPN to the end destination, and look like it's coming from something other than your computer. So instead of looking like it's coming from computer aaa.bbb.c.c, it'll look like it's coming from xxx.yyy.z.z.

And if you choose a VPN provider with exit points outside of your home country, you can disguise your location — handy for when you're, say, traveling and are unable to get to your home content.

Why would you need a VPN?

Any time you want to have a strong layer of security around your internet traffic is when you'll want to use a VPN. That may be all the time. That may be only part of the time. That part's up to you.

Also sometimes content isn't available where you are, so you want to look like you're somewhere else. When I was on a work trip in China a couple years ago, things like Facebook and Twitter and loads of other services were unavailable behind the government firewall. For other folks it's about being able to see content (sports, for example) outside of the home area.

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Or maybe you just want to disguise your location on principle.

More recent and for many folks more concerning, has been the recent Net Neutrality rollback making its way through Washington. Internet Service Providers. Ignoring the politics of the matter, it really comes down to whether you trust your ISP (or mobile provider) to not do something with your data that you'd disapprove of.

It's your data. It should stay that way.

It's not just about trusting your ISP — it's about having to worry as much whether you can trust your ISP.

When should you use a VPN?

We've all done it a million times. Walked into a coffee shop, leeched off the free Wifi longer than we were supposed to, logging into all sorts of things while we were there. Free, unsecured Wifi.

At the gym. ... At the mall. ... On a plane. ... In the grocery store. ... Think of the number of places you've ever connected to an unsecured network without giving it a second thought. Is it likely someone was sniffing packets while you doing your thing? Who knows. But if someone wanted to, they could see any unencrypted traffic you were passing along. And I don't know about you, but that's not really the sort of thing I keep track of that that sort of level.

At a bare minimum that's when you're going to want to use a VPN. It's pretty much the only time I worry about it, other than when I have specific things I need to do for work that require a VPN.

As for the rest of the time? It's a matter of trust. Do you trust your ISP to not hand over your data — where you've gone online, and what you've potentially done while there — or, perhaps even more annoyingly, to not inject its own ads (or worse) whenever and however it wants? VPNs will help guard against this.

Using a VPN has gotten much easier — remembering to do so may be the hardest part.

How do you use a VPN

The good news: This has gotten easier over the years. Yes, there are plenty of lightweight clients that let you load configuration files manually. And if you're OK with that, great.

But most services out there also have standalone apps that take care of the details for you. You load up their app on your phone or computer, enter your username and password (which, by the way, probably shouldn't be something someone could recognize you by, since the idea here is to be a little more secretive than usual), and off you go.

Yes, it's an extra step and a few clicks. But not too much more than that.

Which VPN should you use?

Here's the thing: I don't know.

There are dozens and dozens of VPN providers out there. They all do things differently. Some are free. Some aren't. The basic rule of thumb, though, is that if you're not paying for a product, then you are the product. And when you're trying to protect your data it's not time to skimp.

You're going to want to do a little homework here. Read reviews. Read the blog posts from VPN companies. Check out the VPN subreddit. (I thought this piece from ProtonMail was really good.) Ask lots of questions. And don't be afraid to change providers if one does something you're not comfortable with. Commercial products are there to make money, first and foremost. That doesn't mean there aren't good commercial VPNs out there, but stay vigilant.

I'd recommend reading That One Privacy Site, which has an excellent comparison chart of VPN services. And for the more technically inclined, Ars Technica has a good tutorial on rolling your own VPN. (But even I haven't gone that far — yet.)

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The bottom line

If it seems like VPN providers are thirsty, that's because they are. Security and privacy are more important than ever, and they'll continue to be for a long, long time. That means there's a lot of money to be had.

Be wary of deals that sound too good to be true. Be skeptical. But also don't be afraid to pay for a service. Just remember that you're paying it to protect your data.

And above all, remember to use your VPN once you've got it.

Also: The pros and cons of using a VPN on your phone

Modern Dad

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Amazon is dangerously close to being the new king of messaging

With Alexa gaining the ability to make voice calls and Echo Show bolstering the living room, Amazon moves a step closer to messaging ubiquity.

It was about three or four years ago when my wife and I decided to finally get rid of our landline. We weren't really using it anymore — it was mostly an emergency backup, and a great way for solicitors to bug us. (That it occasionally made phantom 911 calls in the middle of the night was another impetus.)

This presented a problem, though. Our kids ride the bus home, and family members pick them up there. But what happens if for some reason nobody shows? The kids need a way to call their parents.

I had a brief flirtation with Google Hangouts for this. But it was clunky at best, and now is a nonstarter, since Hangouts is dying. And so this is how our eldest daughter got "her" first phone way earlier than I would have liked.

This is also why I'm ridiculously excited about Amazon's recent announcements. Let's start with the more important of the two.

Preorder Echo Show

But first ... a word on your contacts

When you first set up Alexa calling you have to give the app access to your contacts. Don't do that without some hesitation. You're giving Amazon the ability to see every person in your contact list. Same goes for anyone who has you in their contact list.

That in and of itself isn't evil, but it's poor implementation. I have at least one person in my Alexa contacts now who I had to look up. They'd emailed me for an Android Central thing back in 2012. And now I have their phone number and the ability to call their Amazon devices wherever they may be? That's ridiculous.

Amazon must (and I'm sure will) add granular controls as to who is allowed to contact you through Alexa calling. And it needs to do it ASAP.

Alexa calling changes everything

If you have young kids or aging parents, Alexa calling and an Echo Dot is a no-brainer.

What I really needed was a way for my kids to be able to call their parents without needing a phone. The new calling (and messaging) feature in the Alexa app makes this a reality.

Setup was super simple. You'll need the Alexa app, (available for Android and on iOS — and of course on Amazon's Fire tablets) and you'll need to give it access to your contacts. Once you do that it'll match the peeps in your phone with the peeps who own an Echo. (There's a pitfall here, but we'll get to that in a second.)

And that's it. Once that's done you can call anyone in your Alexa contacts. And when you do so it'll ring their mobile devices and any Echo devices. If you don't want to have a live call, you can just leave a voice message, or send a basic text message through the Alexa app.

Don't mistake these for regular phone calls and SMS messages — they're not. But that matters less and less these days. So long as the meaning gets through, who cares what the mechanism is?

And my kids aren't the only ones who are going to take advantage of this. My grandparents are 90 and still ridiculously awesome. (One's on an iPhone, and the other on Android. Along the same lines as my wife and I, now that I think about it.) But smartphones at 90 aren't necessarily as easy as smartphones at 40. Simpler is better, especially if an emergency happens. And is there really anything more simple than a $50 Echo Dot that can call me in mere seconds?

For young kids and aging relatives, this is a game-changer.

Echo Show — we'll see ... and it will, too

The other major announcement from Amazon was Echo Show — an Echo with a touchscreen and a camera. That's a big deal, too, for a few reasons.

All this connected stuff at home is great. But we've yet to see a proper visual hub that could finally tie it all together. Sure, there are DIY smart mirrors, and Apple TV and Android TV have the potential to serve as display hubs. But none of that has really happened yet.

A home hub display and cross-platform video calls will be a BIG deal for a lot of people.

And none of them has the Skills that Alexa has. That is, Alexa is the endpoint for thousands and thousands of APIs for so many services. A visual hub makes so much sense here.

It's also a big deal for video calls. While Apple's FaceTime has always been excellent for this, it's limited to someone having an Apple device nearby. Same for any other video chat service. Mobile devices are, by definition, mobile. But video calls on a home hub mean it's always there, and always available, for everyone.

I'm less bullish on the "Drop-in" calls — wherein someone — after you've granted them access — can literally drop in on you with a video call, basically saving them the trouble of accepting the call themselves. (They'll still have the option to reject it, though.) But I'll just have to wait and see how well that actually works.

And Echo Show will do more traditional things like watch videos and play music and order things from Amazon. And surely that's just the beginning.

While having a camera in the living room isn't a novelty anymore, I get that folks will still be hesitant to let Amazon (or any other company traditionally outside of the security space) have a look at what's going on so easily. But I also think the ease of communication will trump that fear.

An imperfect, huge head start

Messaging through Amazon Alexa is a big deal. But it's far from perfect and definitely has room to improve. A few thoughts off the top of my head:

  • Again, the contacts thing is ridiculous. That never should have happened.
  • So technically my kids are calling my through my own account, but whatever. It just works.
  • But having more than one person in the home is a little clunky, even with the Amazon Household stuff. You have to tell Alexa to change accounts. Google has that beat with voice recognition for multiple accounts on Google Home.
  • (That also means anyone who has access to an Echo device can listen to your messages. So keep things SFW, folks. Or not.)
  • Know what else I want? Some sort of web or (even better) native computer support for when I'm sitting here working.
  • The Alexa app is still not great, if you're looking to actually use it as a messaging app. In fact, it's bad for that.
  • And Amazon needs to give more assurances that your messages are secure.

The simple fact of the matter, though, is this: While Apple beat everyone to the mobile assistant game with Siri, and Google Assistant is very good and growing all the time, neither has reach ubiquitous status, leaving Amazon to fill in the large gaps left by anything that's not traditionally mobile.

Google Home has helped with that, but there's no denying Echo has a huge lead. Microsoft is even farther behind with its Cortana speaker, and anything similar from Apple is still in the rumor status. Will Echo Show extend Amazon's head start? There's almost no way it can't at this point.

For now, it's still Amazon's game to lose. And with Alexa calling and soon with Echo Show, it's making nothing but winning moves.

See the entire Echo family at Amazon

Modern Dad

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BlackBerry KEYone: Seeing the forest for the trees

The BlackBerry KEYone isn't trying to be the best phone ever — just the best BlackBerry ever. It's succeeded, and given the faithful something to use and abuse all over again.

It's easy to forget that on-screen keyboards weren't always as good as they are today. In fact, for years they kinda sucked. Those were the years in which BlackBerry ruled for pounding out message after message. It also was the only real source for secure(ish) messaging. And the cult following that became what we all know (and, yes, love) as CrackBerry was born.

A lot has changed since then, of course. The iPhone changed everything, actually. Android got good and spread everywhere. And the BlackBerry faithful — you fine folks — were left with a choice. Adapt, or languish.

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I was never a BlackBerry guy, but that doesn't mean I didn't appreciate a good physical keyboard back in the day. My first smartphone was a Treo 750. I had an HTC Touch Pro 2 — angled screen and all. I rocked a Motorola Q9h like it was nobody's business. The OG Moto DROID after that. But proper capacitive displays and multitouch — along with increasingly good text prediction — led me to give up the keyboard for the larger displays.

That leads us to the BlackBerry KEYone. It's as retro as it is forward-looking. It by nearly all accounts a very solid phone. We tend to overuse the word "workhorse," but not in this case. The internals give great battery life. The Android operating system gives flexibility.

This is the phone BlackBerry fans have deserved for years.

And the keyboard is a gift. It's not a necessity anymore. We've all gotten by just fine without them. And the world has mostly moved on from BBM to other forms of secure messaging, be it iMessage or Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger or Signal or something else.

But the rebirthed BlackBerry Mobile (with Alcatel parent company TCL on board as the manufacturer) has given us something special here. Maybe not a phone you have to have, but one that a good many people truly want to have. A phone with a keyboard. A phone with more special sauce tucked into those little plastic things than we'll probably ever see anywhere else. I really am in love with the fingerprint sensor in the space bar, to say nothing of swiping all over the thing to move the cursor around. (And a phone running Android — which really is the only way this was every going ton happen anyway.)

Nobody else has ever done that. No other company will ever do that, because they don't have to.

And I'd be remiss in not mentioning the fact that BlackBerry has consistently been the only other company to keep its phones current with security updates, second to only Google itself. (Yes, Apple, too, but you know what I mean.)

Add all that up. You have some seriously solid hardware. While not cutting edge, it's definitely built to last. You have software with customizations that folks will want, and updates that we should all require. And you have a keyboard experience that takes us back to the good old days when we actually needed keyboards.

This isn't a phone for everyone. It's not trying to be. It's not going to be.

It's a phone for people who love BlackBerry. It's a phone for people who still want to love BlackBerry. And for those folks, BlackBerry Mobile and TCL have nailed it.

Modern Dad

img { width: 100%; height: auto; } .devicebox ul { display: table; margin: 0 0 10px; width: 100%; } .devicebox ul li { background: #f7f7f7; margin: 2px 0; padding: 4px 15px; } .devicebox ul li:hover { background: #fff; } .devicebox ul li:before { display: none; } .devicebox p ~ p { line-height: 1.25; } .devicebox p:first-of-type + p { padding: 15px; } .devicebox a.buy-link { border-radius: 5px; display: inline-block; font: 14px/31px "Proxima Nova Extrabld",Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; text-align: center; } .devicebox a.buy-link, .devicebox a.buy-link:link, .devicebox a.buy-link:active, .devicebox a.buy-link:visited { background: #37B5D7; color: #FFF; } .devicebox a.buy-link:hover { background: #2694B2; text-decoration: none; } .devicebox a.buy-link:before { content: "\e61e"; font: 40px/0 "ac_iconset" !important; margin: 0 3px 0 -8px; vertical-align: middle; } @media all and (min-width: 1025px), all and (max-width: 800px) and (min-width: 660px) { /* div:not(.columns-3) excludes help menu content */ .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox { padding: 20px 0 25px; } .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox .video { float: left; margin: 0 30px 0 0; width: calc(100% - 375px); } .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox h3 + p { bottom: 37px; display: block; overflow: hidden; position: absolute; top: 60px; width: calc(100% - 375px); } .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox p img, .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox p > img { position: absolute; top: 50%; transform: translateY(-50%); } .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox p:nth-child(n+3), .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox ul { box-sizing: border-box; margin-left: calc(100% - 345px); width: 340px; } .article-body-wrap > div:not(.columns-3) > *:first-child:not(.sticky-wrapper) .devicebox p.list-head { margin-top: -5px; } } @media all and (max-width: 1024px) and (min-width: 801px), all and (max-width: 660px) { .devicebox h3 { text-align: center; } .devicebox ul, .devicebox p { display: block; } } @media all and (max-width: 800px) and (min-width: 660px) { .devicebox { padding: 20px 0 25px; } .devicebox .video { float: left; margin: 0 30px 0 0; width: calc(100% - 375px); } .devicebox h3 + p { bottom: 37px; display: block; overflow: hidden; position: absolute; top: 60px; width: calc(100% - 375px); } .devicebox p img, .devicebox p > img { position: absolute; top: 50%; transform: translateY(-50%); } .devicebox p:nth-child(n+3), .devicebox ul { box-sizing: border-box; margin-left: calc(100% - 345px); width: 340px; } .devicebox p.list-head { margin-top: -5px; } } @media all and (min-width: 1025px), all and (max-width: 800px) and (min-width: 661px), all and (max-width: 500px) { /* 2x buy buttons */ .devicebox a.buy-link { width: calc(50% - 2.5px); margin: 0 5px 5px 0; } .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-of-type(even) { margin: 0 0 5px 0; } .devicebox a.buy-link:last-of-type:nth-of-type(odd) { width: 100%; } } @media all and (max-width: 1024px) and (min-width: 801px), all and (max-width: 659px) and (min-width: 501px) { /* 3x buy buttons */ .devicebox a.buy-link { width: calc(100%/3 - 10px/3); margin: 0 5px 5px 0; } .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-of-type(3n):not(:nth-last-of-type(2)) { margin: 0 0 5px 0; } .devicebox a.buy-link:only-child { width: 100%; margin: 0 0 5px 0; } .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(2):nth-of-type(3n+1), .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(2):nth-of-type(3n+1) ~ a.buy-link, .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(4):nth-of-type(3n+1), .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(4):nth-of-type(3n+1) ~ a.buy-link { width: calc(50% - 2.5px); } .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(2):nth-of-type(3n+1) ~ a.buy-link, .devicebox a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(4):nth-of-type(3n+1) ~ a.buy-link:nth-last-of-type(odd) { margin: 0 0 5px 0; } } @media all and (max-width: 800px) { .devicebox { margin: 0 0 30px; max-width: none; width: auto; } } @media all and (max-width: 500px) { .devicebox { margin: 0 0 30px; max-width: none; width: auto; } .devicebox a.buy-link:before { display: none; } } .page-admin .devicebox {max-width: 350px;} .page-admin .devicebox .video_iframe {position: relative; height: 0; padding-bottom: 56.9%;} .page-admin .devicebox .video_iframe iframe {width: 100%; height: 100%; position: absolute;} /*-->*/ /*-->*/ /*-->*/

How to turn off Twitter's 'best Tweets first' algorithm

Once upon a time, Twitter worked in the following way: Someone posted a tweet. Then someone else would tweet. Then you would see these tweets in your timeline, in the order they were sent. And because chronological order isn't good enough for social services any more (too predictable and rigid and not as easily monetized, or something like that), Twitter is by default now showing you the "best tweets first."

Whatever the hell that means.


You can now search for all the things in the CrackBerry Android app!

Our Android apps just got a whole lot better — and we're not done yet!

We've reached a pretty major milestone in the life of the CrackBerry app — you can now search for stories. And for forum threads. And for individual posts. Basically you can search for all the things.


What Facebook is about to do to your News Feed will SHOCK you!

Facebook, in a decision that could change the course of humanity as we know it, today announced that it's going to "reduce click-baiting headlines." That is, it's going to give less relevance to post with headlines like the one we used on this post, and instead give preference to headlines that actually give facts and allow the reader to choose whether to read the story.

Imagine that.


Here are Verizon's initial XLTE cities

Verizon has fired up a new, beefier branding for its 4G LTE smartphone service. Dubbed XLTE, it takes advantage of the AWS spectrum to double the bandwidth in high-traffic locations. And here's the list of cities that get it first.


We've updated our CrackBerry Android app with some important fixes

A quick heads up for those of you rocking the official CrackBerry App on Android— we've pushed out an update today with a number of important fixes. You're going to want to make sure you download this one, particularly if you've seen increased data usage or are using the widget on your home screen. The fixes apply to all the editorial (ie not the Tapatalk-esque one) apps for all our Mobile Nations sites, including Connectedly, Android Central, iMore and WPCentral.

Here's the deal:


The Android Central app is now officially available in BlackBerry World!

Yes, folks, the unthinkable has happened. We have officially brought the official Android Central App to BlackBerry, available now in BlackBerry World.

Officially.