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Meet Family Circle reader Angela Crickman, mother of three and a nurse in California. "I desperately need a way to sync my family's schedule," said the mom of Max, 13, Sophie, 11, and Jake, 5, when she petitioned us for tech help. "I'm guessing it should involve the computer, but I have no clue how to set something up. I'd also like to create a system to manage our digital pictures so I can actually retrieve what I want. And while we're at it, is there a way we can allow my son to use the Internet to do homework but block the downloading of games that crash the computer? What about a digital music library I can access without having to ask the kids for help? Oh, and my husband, Michael, wants the television and the computer networked -- is that possible?"
In other words, this talkative yet tech-challenged mom wanted to harness today's innovations to make life easier for herself and her whole clan. What she learned can help you too.
"Between our work commitments and all the kids' stuff -- music lessons, baseball games, orthodontist appointments -- the paper calendar on the fridge just isn't cutting it anymore. Ideally, my husband and I would have the ability to check a master schedule from anywhere and receive a reminder if we're on the verge of missing something."The Solution: Google Calendar
This ingenious invention allows for easy management of dozens of different schedules; you can access them from any computer or even your cell phone. Within minutes Angela had set up individual calendars for every member of the family and plugged in school functions, sports events, and appointments. "Where has this been all my life?" she asked when she had everyone's lives mapped out in front of her.
One of Angela's favorite features allows her to update her schedule via cell phone. She can shoot a quick text message to her calendar with the phrase "swim meet 3 p.m. Monday" and it gets noted in seconds. She can also receive texts to remind her when an event is imminent or something needs to be taken care of.
Getting her kids to interact with the calendar was a tough sell, so she came up with an incentive plan: "I added fun events to their calendars that rewarded them for checking, like 'ice cream at 2 p.m.' Imagine my son's disappointment as he watched his sister down a cone simply because she checked her calendar and he didn't!"
Angela and her tweens, like many other families, were sharing a single desktop computer. That was fine when Sophie and Max were younger, but now it causes arguments. The machine was agonizingly slow and kept crashing because the games Max downloaded were rife with viruses and spyware.The Solution: A new Wi-Fi-enabled laptop and a do-it-yourself PC tune-up
Angela needed her own machine, so she tried an HP laptop with a 15-inch wide-screen display and built-in wireless networking. "I had no idea how much I would love being able to head to a coffee shop and just hang out with a computer," she says.
But the family PC was still a problem. The hard drive was packed with electronic junk, and dust bunnies had accumulated inside the case, causing the system to wheeze and run slowly. Dust can make a computer overheat and shorten its life span. After unplugging the machine Angela carefully took off the outer case and removed the dust with a handheld vacuum. "It made a big difference," she says.
The machine's 150 GB hard drive was equally clogged, with barely 1 GB available for storage. (You should always leave at least 20 percent of your hard drive free, so Windows can use it to store temporary files and do other necessary housekeeping chores.) To clear it out, Angela turned to the PC Tuneup tools in Symantec's Norton 360 software suite, which deletes unnecessary files and reorganizes the drive's data. She also had Max trash 30 GB of old Pokemon videos.
To create even more room, she moved the family's iTunes library onto an inexpensive external hard drive. Some models (such as the LaCie Ethernet Disk mini-Home Edition Personal Media Server) allow numerous networked computers (like the family's PC and Angela's new laptop) to access its stored data.
Besides safeguarding the computer from Max's downloads, Angela wanted to protect her kids on the Net. "They should be able to do school research without having pornography flash in their faces," she says.The Solution: Security and Web monitoring software
Security software is a must for every computer used for Internet access, especially those with broadband. In addition to PC tune-ups, Norton 360 also provides tools to keep hackers at bay while protecting against viruses and spyware. There's an add-on pack you can download from Symantec's Web site that filters out nasty sites and stops creepy spam from landing in kids' in-boxes. While other tools on the market (such as Net Nanny) offer more parental control, Angela decided to start with Norton's basic filtering options. "I have to be in the room anyway to make sure they're not playing games instead of studying," she says. "There's no substitute for being present when a child is online."
Angela switched to a digital camera a few years ago, but now the family photos are less organized than when she got envelopes full of prints. "I know my photos are on my computer -- somewhere," she says. "I used to make albums so we could look at pictures whenever we wanted. Now you need a degree in computer science to find a snapshot in our house."The Solution: Picasa and digital photo frames
Picasa is another convenient -- and free! -- tool from Google. It scans your computer's entire hard drive, extracts images and neatly displays them as thumbnails. You can cherry-pick the best and delete the duds, then upload to popular sites like kodakgallery.com, shutterfly.com, or snapfish.com, or share via Picasa's Web album feature.
The next step was putting a few favorite photos on display where everyone could enjoy them. Angela plugged two Pandigital frames into her computer and dragged the photos onto the frames' icons on her desktop, then set the frames to display a continuous slide show of images. She liked them so much she decided to buy a frame for her parents.
Angela was intrigued by the whole digital music thing but had yet to give it a shot. "I once borrowed my son's MP3 player, and it made my workout much more enjoyable," she says. "But the Beastie Boys? No thanks. And I want something I can operate without help." Meanwhile, her husband craved a seamless entertainment system that combined the TV and computer.The Solution: Sansa Clip MP3 player and TiVo home network
Sandisk's Sansa Clip is a tiny music player with a bright LCD screen you can wear clipped to a shirt or jacket like jewelry. The 2 GB model is available in four colors; Angela's is hot pink. Getting it up and running was a snap, and she soon discovered the beauty of portable tunes. "I can throw it in my purse whenever I'm off somewhere," she said. "I can also listen to the Black Crowes while writing up my shopping list."
Michael, on the other hand, had grand visions of a tricked-out home entertainment system that operated wirelessly via their Wi-Fi network. "It seems like there are a lot of cool things we could be doing with our home network but aren't," he said. For example, he wanted to listen to MP3 music files in different rooms of the house, and record TV shows on the TiVo box downstairs to watch on the 56-inch flat-screen TV in the master bedroom.
Michael ditched his old cable box and added a second TiVo -- the Series3 HD DVR, which records shows in high definition. By plugging Wi-Fi adapters into the back of both TiVos and downloading the TiVo Desktop software to the family PC, Michael would be able to select movies and music stored on the computer and play them back on his home entertainment system using the TiVo remote. He could also use his PC -- or any machine connected to the Net -- to set his TiVo to record.
The tech makeover worked for Angela's family. Here's a list of the products that made it happen:
For: Managing the family schedule
Try: Google Calendar
For: Aging communal PC
Try: New HP notebook computer and PC tune-up
Cost: HP notebook, $600
For: Internet safety
Try: Norton 360
For: Disorganized digital photographs
Try: Google Picasa; Pandigital photo frames
Cost: Picasa, free
For: Sharing music and videos
Try: Sansa Clip MP3 player; adding TiVo to wireless network
Cost: Sandisk Sansa Clip, 1 GB ($40), 2 GB ($60)
Want the laptop and software that Angela has?
We're giving away four sets (worth almost $1,000 each!) on our Web site. The HP notebook is a sleek, versatile, portable computer with a 15.4-inch wide-screen display. Norton 360 version 2.0 All-in-One Security provides comprehensive protection and new antiphishing tools. Plus, it automatically backs up digital files so you won't lose photos, music, or other keepers.
Originally published in the October 1, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.