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Get a $220 software bundle for $19, help charity

These are just a few of the great items in the Windows Holiday Bundle for Charity.

These are just a few of the great items in the Windows Holiday Bundle for Charity.

(Credit: AppSumo)

I’ve got something special today. A few months back, I approached AppSumo (known for putting together great software and service bundles) about creating a package that would benefit charity.

They agreed, so I got to work rounding up some of my favorite programs, games, Web services, and so on. And I’m happy to share the result: The Windows Holiday Bundle for Charity. It has a combined value of $220, but a sale price of just $19.

For every bundle sold, AppSumo will give a full 40 percent of the proceeds to Charity:Water, which provides clean drinking water to people in need around the world.

So, what does your $19 buy you (apart from the knowledge that you’ve helped a very worthy cause)? Here’s a rundown:

PlayOn (6-month subscription) This seriously awesome service streams Hulu, CBS, TBS, Comedy Central, Nick, and loads of other sources to your game console, iPhone, iPad, Google TV box, and other devices. When your freebie subscription ends, you can extend it for another year for just $19.99 (not the usual $39.99 for new subscribers).

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(Credit:
PopCap Games)

Plants Vs. Zombies Perhaps the most popular “casual” game of all time, PvZ challenges you to stop the zombie onslaught through…horticulture? It may sound weird, but trust me: the game delivers fiendishly addictive fun. This full version normally sells for $19.99–a buck more than the price of the entire bundle.

Dial2Do This incredibly handy (and potentially life-saving) service lets you send text messages, update your Facebook or Twitter status, add appointments to your calendar, and more–all just by speaking into your phone. In other words, you can get things done while driving, while still keeping your hands at 10 and 2 o’clock.

BatteryBar Pro The battery gauge Windows should have had, BatteryBar offers a ton of useful information about and control over your laptop’s power settings. Trust me: you’ll love this little utility.

WinX DVD Ripper Platinum This is my go-to tool when I want to turn a DVD into something I can watch on my iPhone, media center, or just about any other device.

“The Complete Android Guide” (E-book) Authored by Lifehacker’s Kevin Purdy, this 282-page “missing manual” teaches you everything you need to know your Android-powered smartphone. It’s a great resource for anyone who snatched up, say, that no-contract Samsung Intercept.

Other bundle goodies include the awesome tower-defense game Defense Grid: The Awakening, the inbox-organizing Outlook plug-in Boomerang, the award-winning Panda Cloud Antivirus Pro, and the Fort Knox-caliber firewall Emsisoft Online Armor.

Needless to say, there’s nothing but great stuff here, all for a price that’s just impossible to beat. The bundle will be available through the end of the month, but after that, it’s gone! And it might actually sell out, as we have a limited number of licenses available.

It was really fun putting this together with my Cheapskate peeps in mind, and I really hope you’ll consider supporting the very worthy charity we chose to go with it.

Bonus deal: Speaking of charity-helping goodies, check this out: You can download SoftMaker Office 2008 absolutely free between now and Dec. 31, and the developer will make a small donation to “charitable projects.” Love it!

Originally posted at The Cheapskate

It’s time to embrace software’s auto-update era

Driven by Google and like-minded software makers, a new era is dawning in which your software is constantly refreshed–often without any intervention on your part at all.

Depending on how you see things, that could be either a scary loss of control over your own computer or a boon to convenience and security. Either way, the practice is increasingly common.

I, for one, welcome it.

How many times a week do you see a software update dialog box like this? width="270" height="206"/>

How many times a week do you see a software update dialog box like this?

(Credit:
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET)

In the last week or so, I’ve manually updated Google’s Chrome, Chrome Canary, and Picasa; Adobe Systems’ Flash Player, Photoshop, Premiere, and AIR; Microsoft Windows 7 and Office 2008 for the Mac; Apple Aperture; Mozilla’s Firefox and Thunderbird; Opera; and Evernote. Should this really be my job? Automatic updates can cause compatibility problems and yield control to corporations whose agendas may differ from your own, but used judiciously, I think it’s an improvement.

In days of yore, software came on disks manufactured and shipped at some expense to customers. But the Internet Age has enabled not just digital distribution, but frequent distribution, and programmers are following suit with a more continual stream of smaller updates.

In short, a lot of software is becoming a constant work in progress rather than a finished product. With that change, along with the spread of computing technology to so many corners of our lives, the burden of maintaining it shifts to the software maker.

“[With] commodities like browsers or operating systems, non-technical consumers may well be best served by automatic updates,” said Sebastian Holst, chief marketing officer of PreEmptive Solutions, a company that helps customers monitor and manage their software. “Many of the updates address emerging security threats rather than simply adding ‘nice-to-have’ feature extensions. Wouldn’t it be great if we could automatically update the batteries in smoke detectors? If we have to work to motivate homeowners to take that simple step to protect themselves, how realistic is it to expect consumers to conscientiously update their software?”

Browsers lead the charge
Browsers are a prime example of the auto-update ethos. When Google released Chrome more than two years ago, the company quietly began a program in which the browser silently updates itself automatically. The software periodically checks a server to see if an update is available, downloads it when it finds one, and installs it for use when the browser or computer is restarted.

At the time, Google said, “For major version updates, when feature changes are involved, we’ll explore options for providing users with more details about the changes,” but so far it’s maintained its silence, so to speak. Here’s Google’s rationale for silent, automatic updates today:

The primary reason is to ensure that as many users as possible are on the most current version of the software–and therefore as secure as possible–with minimal user effort…We’ve found that [waiting for user permission] only is desired in certain administration cases and in enterprise scenarios. For those cases we provide auto-update control via standard administration mechanisms.

Opera has followed suit. “We actually do it as a silent update now. You can change that to have more control, though. But the default is silent,” spokesman Thomas Ford said.

And with the new version of Firefox due in 2011, Mozilla plans to make automatic updates easier. “With Firefox 4 we’ll be adding the capability to apply updates in the background to reduce the delay on start-up, and (thankfully) changing things so that not every update will result in a new tab being opened,” said Mike Beltzner, vice president of engineering for Firefox. “However we’ll always provide a clear message about how the user’s software has been updated, as well as a way to see what was changed.”

Firefox programmers want the browser to improve faster, though, and to accommodate that is considering a more aggressive auto-update embrace.

“I think we also need to consider whether doing releases as frequently as once a quarter requires we default to mandatory (silent) updates across major versions,” said Mozilla programmer Robert O’Callahan in a mailing list message this week.

“Yes, we need to consider it,” Beltzner replied. However, he added, “I wouldn’t equate mandatory with silent–there are ways of doing automatic updates that are not silent, and I find that silent ends up putting people on tilt a bit.”

In the browser world, I’m inclined toward automatic updates. It raises compatibility issues with plug-ins, but given how central a role browsers play in today’s Net attacks, I want holes plugged as soon as possible.

And in the long run, an auto-update ethos could help avoid today’s bane of the Web, Internet Explorer 6, released in 2001 and now holding back efforts to build a more secure and powerful Web.

Cultural adjustment
Windows Update embodies the shift in software distribution and was a significant moment in my growing appreciation for automatic updates.

Microsoft has shifted to an incremental monthly “Patch Tuesday” update cycle that has partly replaced the earlier service pack approach of infrequent, massive overhauls. The motivation is simple: security. No longer do software makers get much of a grace period between discovery of a vulnerability and attackers exploiting it. Indeed, Microsoft sometimes releases “out-of-band” patches for urgent problems.

Major feature updates–such as the shift from Windows XP to Windows Vista to Windows 7–are still unusual. But plenty of real improvements such as better video drivers arrive regularly, too.

You're doing it wrong: This Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 update dialog box, hidden behind other windows, perversely says I have to quit the Microsoft AutoUpdate program before updating Office. width="554" height="330"/>

You’re doing it wrong: This Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 update dialog box, hidden behind other windows, perversely says I have to quit the Microsoft AutoUpdate program before updating Office.

(Credit:
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET)

A few years ago I had an “Aha!” moment with Windows Update, which I’d set to automatically download updates but wait for my permission to install. I realized that I installed every security patch Microsoft sent. There have been some problems sometimes with those patches, but despite being fairly technical I’m not the kind of person who’ll be able to detect them in some sort of testing.

I concluded that I’d probably be better off overall with Windows installing those updates and my checking later to see what was patched. I made the change, and I’m happy with it so far.

Sure, maybe some creepy government programmer is slipping a back door into my computer, but my guess is the updates are more likely to protect than compromise me and my data.

I’ve also become a part-time sysadmin for a mother-in-law who lives several time zones away (thank you, LogMeIn). She’s not technically inclined at all, so it was a no-brainer for me to enable automatic Windows updates on her machine.

Her situation made me think more carefully about silent updates. I want to be notified of updates with easy-to-find release notes detailing what changed on my computers (hint hint, Adobe AIR team). But many people lack the expertise to understand that information. In my mother-in-law’s case, pop-ups and dialog boxes and tabs alerting her to changes are confusing and worrying rather than helpful.

“It shouldn’t be, but alas, it is the user’s responsibility [to update software]. We’re willing to tolerate this horrible user experience simply because PCs are so useful,” said Paul Kocher, president of Cryptography Research. “As microprocessors become more pervasive such as in smart appliances at home, the update experience becomes even less tolerable, so finding a solution to this problem is a top priority for the PC industry. Intel understands this, as evidenced by their purchase of McAfee, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see some improvements eventually.”

Caveats
Auto update must be effective if it’s to work. In three major updates to Office 2008 for the Mac in the last year, I’ve had to endure dialog boxes hidden inaccessibly behind other windows, mammoth downloads, and intrusive requirements to shut down all sorts of third-party software. The most perverse moment, each of the three times: the alert that I had to quit the Microsoft AutoUpdate program before I could proceed with the update.

It turns out I only had to quit an invisible dialog box asking me how often I wanted to check for updates. My gut reaction, given how awful the experience is: never! But a poorly implemented automatic update shouldn’t hold back the automatic update idea overall.

We should each get to choose silent or verbose updates, but I’ve concluded that there’s a role for silent updates, too.

Your opinion may differ, of course, and especially in a corporate environment caution is appropriate to avoid breaking existing computer systems. And think twice before you let any old software maker issue automatic updates.

“Users should decide their level of trust on a supplier-by-supplier basis, not app-by-app, and grant auto-update privileges only to those with a well-earned (established) reputation for software quality and customer support,” Holst said.

Enabling auto update isn’t such an easy choice for those with responsibility for managing dozens, hundreds, or thousands of computers, though.

“Corporate IT admins make every possible attempt to block auto-updating software because it often breaks other software the users need,” said Jennifer Bayuk of the Stevens Institute of Technology. “Corporate admins do a lot of what is called ’sociability testing’ to ensure that
diverse software can operate in harmony on a single machine, and auto-updating software defeats the integrity of their desktop deployment strategy.”

Web, Chrome OS, and phones
Perhaps the most ambitious embodiment of the auto-update era is Google’s Chrome OS. It’s a browser-based affair, running Web applications rather than anything on the Linux operating system hidden under the covers. Like Chrome, it’s got two common plug-ins built in–a PDF reader and Adobe’s Flash Player–so Chrome OS can take over responsibility for updating them, too.

With Chrome OS, Google will send updates automatically. It shouldn’t be the user’s responsibility to keep the software up to date, Google argues.

With Chrome OS and Web applications, the lines blur between Web applications and native applications. The auto-update era is already well-established at Web sites. Sometimes companies such as Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and Google give users a chance to opt in to new versions of their sites, but many more changes happen behind the scenes without the user’s say-so, and the old versions eventually are phased out.

Web applications on Chrome OS can take a variety of forms ranging from glorified bookmarks to apps that work without a Net connection to browser extensions that give the browser new abilities. All these mechanisms, though, can be updated automatically.

Google also is headed this direction with Android. Newer versions of its mobile operating system let people grant applications permission to automatically update themselves. It didn’t take me long to enable it for most applications.

Chrome OS, smartphones, Net-connected TVs, satellite navigation systems, and automobile firmware illustrate how software is moving beyond the relatively narrow domain of personal computers. Multiply today’s update woes by these new electronics, then factor in the limited user interfaces many of these new devices, and the idea that users bear responsibility for keeping software up to date becomes increasingly untenable.

I see plenty of possible concerns with the auto-update era–incompatibilities, mistrust of corporations, new malware conduits, and intrusive user monitoring. But in my mind, the overall benefits outweigh the risks. I look forward to a world in which software is fluidly and constantly improved.

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Chrome for a Cause lets users donate by browsing
Google's Chrome for a Cause browser extension translates Web browsing into charitable donations. width="270" height="235"/>

Google’s Chrome for a Cause browser extension translates Web browsing into charitable donations.

(Credit:
Google)

Google Chrome users can donate to charity through Sunday simply by downloading the Chrome for a Cause browser extension and surfing the Web.

The system counts the tabs while the user browses the Web. Google plans to donate money based on how many tabs are clicked on each day, up to a maximum of 250 tabs per day per user. It did not specify how much money it would donate per tabs clicked on, though it did say it will donate up to $1 million as part of this effort. The campaign ends on Sunday.

People can choose from five organizations to contribute to. The groups are: The Nature Conservancy; Charity: Water, a nonprofit organization working to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations; Doctors Without Borders; Un Techo para mi Pa�s, which builds transitional housing for impoverished families; and Room to Read, a nonprofit focused on child literacy and gender equality in education.

After a short bit of use, a small window popped up for me, telling me how many tabs I had clicked and what that can result in for the charities. Clicking on 10 tabs, according to Google, will result in one book donated or one tree planted.

Users must sign into their Google accounts to participate so that the system can keep track of the number of tabs clicked and allow users to select a charity. Google also plans to collect usage statistics and information on how often other product features are used, and then delete the data after eight weeks.

More information is available on the Google Chrome Blog.

Originally posted at InSecurity Complex

Find delicious dishes with Spork
Spork for iPhone width="270" height="405"/>

Use Spork to find tasty treats like mango mousse.

(Credit:
Spork)

If you like Yelp, but you’re after much more granular information on food and drink, then Spork is just what you need to fulfill your craving. This iPhone app (and its companion Web site) lets you simply enter any food or drink item and then populates a list of options nearby, most of them with ratings and comments by other Spork users. In this way, you can determine the best spot for al pastor tacos, cupcakes, dirty martinis, and just about any other tasty treat you’re after. In addition, you can rate and recommend dishes yourself as well as add them to a “to do” list, which you tick off as you ingest. You also have the option to connect to fellow users to get more-personalized recommendations, and suggest particular items to friends.

As of this writing, the app is in beta, so it still needs a bit of polishing. Still, Spork is extremely user-friendly with a nice interface that’s heavy on images of yummy-looking food. The developers have also done a nice job with the graphics that call out ratings. Even in beta, this is a must-have app for any foodie.

Originally posted at iPhone Atlas

EA app sale: Most iOS games just 99 cents

EA's Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which just launched today, is one of 70+ games on sale for 99 cents. width="270" height="180"/>

EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which just launched today, is one of 70+ games on sale for 99 cents.

(Credit:
EA)

I’ve often felt that 99 cents is the magic number for iOS games. At that price, it’s an impulse buy; I’ll grab it without a second thought. Even if I wind up not liking the game, hey, it was only a buck.

If you feel the same way, you’ll appreciate this: EA Mobile has cut nearly every game in its iOS catalog to just 99 cents. And that includes a couple noteworthy new titles that just launched today.

I’ve played quite a few of the 70-plus games on sale, so allow me to make a few recommendations (with links to my previous coverage, where applicable): Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Lemonade Tycoon, Madden NFL 11, Mirror’s Edge, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Reckless Racing, The Simpsons Arcade, and The Sims 3.

As for the new stuff, check out Battlefield: Bad Company 2, a multiplayer-ready port of the smash-hit console title. Normally, high-profile games like this one sell for at least $6.99 at launch, but, surprisingly, it’s on the sale list.

Also launching today: Cause of Death, which looks to be a “CSI”-style mystery/adventure game. Sale price: yep, 99 cents.

According to EA, the sale will run for “a limited time.” I asked a company rep to be more specific, but she couldn’t provide an end date. Thus, these prices might expire today, tomorrow, Sunday night, or who knows when? My advice: grab the games you want right now, while they’re cheap.

Originally posted at iPhone Atlas

Five great apps for your new Android phone

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According to at least one study of mobile operating systems, Android is well on its way to world domination. With that in mind, we expect that at least a few of you have gotten–or will be getting–your lucky little mitts on a new Android phone this season. And what are you to do with that spanking-new device? Why, load it up with some great apps, naturally.

To that end, I set out to round up five essential apps for Android newbies. I’m not going to lie to you: narrowing down the list to a mere handful was quite a challenge. Of course, there are way more than just five apps that are worth a spot on your device, but the options laid out in the gallery below offer a good (and varied) selection to get you started. Better yet, they’re all free.

If you’re eager for additional options, check out our Android Starter Kit (with an update coming soon). And if–like me–you find the Android Market unhelpful for discovering even more apps, be sure to give AppBrain a whirl. The site and its companion app provide more detail and organization than Google’s native store.

Is there an Android app that you just can’t live without that didn’t make the cut? Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comment section below.

Originally posted at Android Atlas

The skinny on Bing’s new panorama maker (video)
Bing logo width="270" height="144"/>

Microsoft unloaded a dump truck’s worth of changes on its Bing service earlier today, and some of the real gems to come out of the lot are the updates to Bing mobile.

New to the company’s iPhone app–and soon other mobile iterations of Bing–are two very visually impressive, and downright useful additions: a Streetside viewer for local maps, and something called Bing Vision, which adds a way for users to pick out specific words from photos to create a customized Web search.

Missing from the update but headed to the app in a future release is the real bit of eye candy: panoramas. If you’ve ever used Occipital’s 360 Panorama app, the idea Microsoft has put into place is pretty similar. You move your phone around and it captures multiple images together into one panorama you can come back and view later.

Though unlike Occipital’s app, Bing users will have to manually snap shots to have them get stitched together by the software. This necessity ends up giving users a little bit more control when waiting for someone to walk in or out of the frame. Another big difference from competitors is what Microsoft intends to do with the imagery once users have captured it.

In Microsoft’s own words, it’s crowd-sourcing that data, and is in the process of giving anyone with a smartphone a way to get involved. Users can either save a panorama and store it away, or they can upload it for others to see. The options for sharing will include social networks and Bing Maps at large. This, along with a partnership with Everyscape will give businesses and individuals the means to add interior or exterior imagery to the service.

CNET got a few minutes following today’s announcements to chat with Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Microsoft’s architect of Bing Maps and Bing Mobile, who gave us a demo of the new features. In the video below we get a brief look at the new panorama maker, as well as Streetside view and Bing Vision–both of which came as part of today’s version 2.0 software update. The panorama maker itself was not a part of that update.

Originally posted at News – Microsoft

Apple fixes bugs with iTunes 10.1.1 release
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Apple has released a small update to iTunes 10.1, which, in addition to addressing a couple of bugs that could affect performance and sometimes result in the program crashing, also includes a couple of enhancements for syncing to iOS devices and using AirPlay to stream videos to Apple TV. The update should be available in Software Update, or you can visit the iTunes 10.1.1 Web page and download a standalone installer for the software.

The update specifically fixes the following features:

  • Addresses an issue where some music videos may not play on Macs equipped with Nvidia GeForce 9400 or 9600 graphics.

  • Resolves an issue where iTunes may unexpectedly quit when deleting a playlist that has the iTunes Sidebar showing.

  • Fixes a problem where iTunes may unexpectedly quit when connecting an iPod to a Mac equipped with a PowerPC processor.

  • Addresses an issue where some music videos may not sync to an iPod, iPhone, or iPad.

In addition to the bug fixes, Apple has included new AirPlay and synchronization features:

  • Use AirPlay to instantly and wirelessly stream videos from iTunes to the new Apple TV.

  • Sync with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch with iOS 4.2.

  • Provides a number of important stability and performance improvements.

As always, be sure to back up your system before installing the update. The update requires OS X 10.5 or later, and is a 90.5MB download for OS X. More information about the update can be found at the iTunes 10.1.1 release Web page.



Questions? Comments? Have a fix? Post them below or e-mail us!
Be sure to check us out on Twitter and the CNET Mac forums.

Originally posted at MacFixIt

Google proclaims Chrome business-ready
Google Chrome logo width="270" height="193"/>
(Credit:
Google)

Chrome is ready for corporate use, Google argued today in blog posts.

“Today, we’re announcing that Chrome offers controls that enable IT administrators to easily configure and deploy the browser on Windows, Mac, and Linux according to their business requirements,” product manager Glenn Wilson and programmer Daniel Clifford said.

Of course, it’ll be up to those administrators to decide whether it really is ready. But Google has added several features, most notably Windows policy template support that lets administrators control Chrome settings across an organization.

And for those not satisfied with poking around help files and exercising search engines to get support, there’s phone and e-mail support through Google Apps for Business, Google said.

Google also announced some organizations that have installed Chrome: Vanguard, Boise State University, and Procter & Gamble. That’s not much compared to the broader adoption of Firefox and of course Internet Explorer, but it’s notable.

Chrome has spread to account for nearly 10 percent of browser usage worldwide, but Google would like more; Chrome fuels its ambitions to make the Web a faster, more powerful foundation for applications, and it also helps the company propagate its technology ideas.

Corporate administrators are notoriously conservative. One modern-day trend, exhibited by technologies such as the iPhones and Google search, is the “consumerization of IT.” And Google evidently would like some help from consumers spreading Chrome: “let your administrator know to give it a try and let us know what they think,” Wilson and Clifford said.

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Myst sequel Riven now available for iOS

Riven is back, and beautiful as ever. width="270" height="179"/>

Riven is back, and beautiful as ever.

(Credit:
Cyan Worlds)

If you’re under the age of 30, the name “Riven” might mean nothing to you. But for us old fogies of PC gaming, it’s instantly recognizable: Riven is the sequel to Myst.

Myst, of course, was the groundbreaking, best-selling puzzle/adventure game–of 1993 (and for the next decade, until The Sims came along). That title made its iOS debut back in May 2009.

Now comes Riven, which features all the sights, sounds, and gameplay of the original. It’s available in the App Store now for $5.99 (quite a bit less than the PC version).

Set right after the events of Myst, Riven takes place almost entirely on the Age of Riven Island. Your goal: to help Atrus rescue his captured wife from power-mad Gehn.

The game relies on the same basic island-exploration and puzzle-solving mechanics as Myst. I can’t say I’m a fan of looking at a series of still images and trying to figure out where to click (or in this case tap), but legions of Myst/Riven fans can’t be wrong.

One important note about installing Riven: you need a whopping 2GB of free space, though the game itself occupies “only” 1GB after installation is complete. Make sure you have room available (or are willing to make room) before buying.

Originally posted at iPhone Atlas