a forest in Japan

A forest in Japan

A reader told us he had a photo he wanted to use as his Windows desktop “wallpaper,” which is the picture that acts as background on your computer screen, but it was way too big.

Here’s how to re-size any picture, using the free program “Google Picasa:” Click the “File” menu and then “Export Picture to Folder.” Experiment with various size changes until you get one that looks right. Choose a folder that you’ll be able to find later, perhaps a sub-folder in “Pictures.” To make that picture your wallpaper, use your right mouse button to click on your main screen, the “desktop.” Then choose “personalize.” Put in the picture you want and that’s it.

If the picture doesn’t look right, click “Personalization” or “Personalize” and then “desktop background.” You’ll see options like “fit” or “stretch” or “fill” under the words “Picture Position.” (For our own desktop wallpaper, we get a new photo every day from It comes in automatically if you get the free download from



smokingSmokefree TXT”  is a free app to help you quit smoking. You get texts with helpful advice from other quitters, progress updates and other tips.

A George Washington University study involving 503 participants over six months found that 11 percent using a text to quit app did quit smoking, compared to five percent of the control group.

Bob quit smoking more than 30 years ago when he caught the flu in Philadelphia. Actually, it turned out to be a variant of the so-called “Legionnaire’s Disease,” named that because it cropped up for the first time during an  American Legion convention in that city. Breathing was so difficult that he couldn’t smoke. After the disease passed, he said to heck with it and just didn’t start up again. The lesson in all this: If you get a serious cold, use it to give up smoking. (As a footnote, there is considerable variation in susceptibility to damage. The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell chain-smoked five packs a day of unfiltered. Pall Malls and died at age 98.)



Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

“VSDC Free Video Editor” just came out in a new version. It’s very similar to professional video editors. It’s free, for Windows XP on up to Windows 8.

Critics have admitted they are in awe of its tools but point out it is difficult to use for novices. We’re novices, so we tried it out. Some parts of the program are actually easy to use. For instance, you can easily make a slideshow with a video of someone in one corner talking about the slideshow. Just click “add object” to add a photo or video to an existing video clip, or to add music or speech. This is pretty useful; could be all you need for an instructional video, for example.

During the download, be sure you click “decline” to decline the other offers, unless they sound good to you. Undoubtedly the company gets paid by companies that want to piggyback on the download process. This is common with free programs, as it’s one of the few ways for the programmers way to make some money; sometimes they ask for donations instead.

The program is free at, and they offer tech support for $10 a year.



phone privacyMore than 80,000 used phones are for sale on eBay on any given day. The owners think they’ve wiped their personal data first. It turns out, they haven’t.

Avast, a maker of anti-virus software, bought 20 phones to check this out. They found over 40,000 photos. More than 1500 were of children, 750 were scantily-dressed women and 250 were nude selfies of men, and there were several hundred personal emails and text messages. There was also one completed loan application and personal information about four previous owners. The cell phone owners thought they were erasing the data before they put them up for sale, but much of it was recoverable.

Naturally, Avast has a fix for that problem, and since it’s free, we pass it along: it’s an Android app called Avast Anti-Theft. Once you set it up, you can securely delete everything on your phone by logging into your Avast account on your computer.

If you don’t already have an Avast account, you can open one for free. We’ve used Avast for years and have recommended it to our readers, so we’re confident about their work. We signed in to our Avast account at, and once there, we had many commands at our disposal, including the ability to wipe our phone’s contents, if we wished, or locate it by its GPS coordinates. There was also a “siren” feature — and of course we couldn’t resist trying it out. On came a very loud siren, with a man’s voice yelling “This phone has been lost or stolen” over and over again.

One problem: After installation, Avast Anti-Theft told us it had a few issues to fix before we could use it. It took us awhile to figure out that we could fix them by just tapping each one and then tapping “fix.”  Their explanations were very techie and may be a turn-off for some. For instance, we weren’t sure what to do about the request to “uninstall T-Mobile’s text messaging app,” so we just ignored it. In fact, we ignored most of the explanations and everything still worked.



figuring the tipIn any group of women, Joy’s always the one who figures out the tip. Sigh. A new app, “Gratuity,” does it for her for free.

It figures out how much each person owes, depending on whether you’re at a restaurant bar, or getting a delivery. It also factors in whether you’re happy, sad or neutral about the service, though you can enter any tip percentage you want.

Bob says this is simple arithmetic, but Joy says she likes the automatic figuring. Bob says it would be better if you could make people who order expensive items pay their full share.

In any event, this is one of those apps that didn’t come up in a search on the App Store. If it doesn’t come up for you, open your browser on your iPad or iPhone and search on “Gratuity app.”  There’s a similar app for Android users.



printerA reader wrote to tell us she can’t get her printer to print. The computer shows it to be “offline,” though it clearly isn’t. When this happens to us, simply rebooting the computer usually fixes the problem.

If that doesn’t do it, go to the “printers and faxes” or “printers and devices” menu. You’ll find it in the “control panel.” See if you your printer is checked as the “default” printer. If it isn’t click your model to make it the default. If your model doesn’t show as one of the choices, you need to download the software for that printer.

Try printing a test-page. That will point to whether it’s a hardware or software problem. To print a test page in Windows 7, click “start” then “Devices and Printers.”  Right-click your printer and click “printer properties.” Then click “Print a Test Page.” If that works, you know the printer is fine.

If you can’t print a test page, it’s a hardware problem. Call the printer manufacturer, they’re happy to help. After all, if they can keep you printing, you’ll keep buying their ink.


THE SIMPLE DOLLAR has tips for saving money. Example: A handwritten note on a blank card may mean more to someone than an expensive greeting card. Also check out: “50 Free Activities My Family Enjoys.”



neonflamesNeon flames”  lets you design your own nebulae. Choose a color from the palette on the left and start moving your mouse cursor across a black sky. The color deepens if you move over and over the same section. The effect looks remarkably like a real star cluster. This is also available as an Android app.



Cotton molecule

Cotton molecule

Nova Elements” came out last year as a free iPad app, and now it’s free for Windows – but only for users of Windows 8.1. That is a free upgrade for users of plain old Windows 8. Find it by tapping the Windows key, (looks like a flag), and typing “store.” The upgrade should be right there.

Nova Elements delves into basic chemistry to teach us how elements combine to make everyday things, like cotton. It includes an interactive periodic table, a game, and the two-hour NOVA program: “Hunting the Elements.”  It’s educational, it’s fun, and there are no ads. This is the first time Joy’s ever played a chemistry game for more than five minutes.

One of the neatest features is that you can click on any element in the periodic table and get a related video clip from the NOVA program. Combine several elements to build your own caffeine, water, and plastic molecules. It’s almost a cup of coffee.



The start button returns in Windows 9.

The start button returns.

A preview of the new Windows 9 operating system will be shown all over the known universe this Fall. The scuttlebutt is it will correct the mess known as Windows 8; computer users will no longer be forced to look at a screen meant for tablet users. (Yep, that’s what it was designed for.)

The final product won’t be out until Spring of 2015. (And we have found that all “new release” dates change frequently.) So if you want to buy a new computer now, should you go with Windows or Mac? Most people choose Windows. It’s what they use at work, it’s cheaper and it works with a ton of programs.

But with the new iMac, it’s time to re-think that. The latest version of the 21.5-inch iMac is a nice all-in-one desktop machine. At $1099, it’s $200 less than the average Mac all-in-one. Sure, it has only half the storage space: 500 gigabytes instead of a terabyte. And it’s not quite as fast. But it’s still faster and roomier than the average person needs.

Macs have several selling points but the chief one is stability. Few readers have ever written to us about Mac problems. They’re often quite gushy, almost religiously fervent about Apple. In fact, nearly every reader problem we’ve ever received, and there have been thousands over the years, is about Windows.

We recommend Macs for students going off to college, despite the initial expense. They can keep their Mac for a decade before it feels out of date, so the initial investment pays off in the long run. Besides, that’s what all the other kids will have.

We have an 11-inch MacBook Air. It’s light, fast, has a long battery life and never gives us problems. We take it with us on trips. But Bob grumbles that the screen is hard to read and the keyboard is small and cramped. Worst of all, we can’t use our Windows keyboard shortcuts and don’t have Mac versions of familiar programs like Microsoft Word. Our “Parallels” software lets us run Windows programs on the Mac, but they always run clunky.

Bottom line on which way to go: We have both kinds of computer, but the curious thing is, when we need to get some work done we still use Windows. Why? Don’t really know for sure, but it seems right for work and the other system for play. Visiting kids always like it.

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