December is a month of simple pleasures: evergreens in the living room, gingerbread in the oven, and carols on the stereo. What could be better?
But the holidays are also hectic, and technology affects every aspect of our winter existence. We shop online. We book e-tickets. We download recipes and exchange digital cards. Gadgets and apps can help streamline our holiday experience, but they can also complicate matters, or even give us a false sense of security.
To make your family plans as cheerful as possible, here are five digital tricks for the tech-savvy person.
1. Keep spies out of your holiday rental
December is one of the busiest times of the year for travel, and millions of Americans will find themselves in hotels, family homes, and rentals. This might be a ski lodge in the Adirondacks. It might be a cheap motel in the middle of a long road trip.
As cameras shrink and lodging gets more informal, you’d be forgiven for worrying about spies. There are plenty of weirdos out there, and they now have the technology to covertly watch you in your room. So how do you protect yourself from secret surveillance?
Use your senses: Many devices emit a low-level hum, and sometimes you can hear it, as long as the room is completely quiet. You can also make the room dark, as many cameras have tiny lights that will give away their position.
Use a signal detector: These devices are about the size of a small walkie-talkie and are designed to pick up the signal from a hidden camera. They are often equipped with infrared lights that you can sweep across the room and catch pinhole cameras. Click here for more about signal detectors.
Use your cellphone: When you make a call near a recorder, the device’s frequency may interfere with your signal. If all else fails, you can call someone and walk around the room, listening for a significant crackle or delay.
Not sure what you’re looking for? Click here for 10 types of spy cameras that could be watching you right now.
2. Stock up on movies for the road
Thanks to tablets and smartphones, we are no longer at the mercy of an airline’s cinematic selection. Once you hit cruising altitude, you can pull out your device and start watching. Better yet, you can download films for cheap, thanks to an ever-growing library of downloadable content.
Netflix: The original streaming service once vowed never to make films available for download, but they’ve recently changed their tune. Just install the free Netflix app, and you’ll find thousands of movies and TV series available. With a decent Wi-Fi signal, the download is shockingly fast.
Amazon: Anyone can install the Amazon Video app and start watching films they’ve purchased, but the real gold mine comes with Amazon Prime, which allows you to save content with the same ease and selection as Netflix.
Vimeo on demand: If you’re weary of the same big-budget features, you’ll find numerous obscure flicks and docs on Vimeo, the premier platform for independent filmmakers. Just like mainstream services, you’ll need the Vimeo app to save your selections, but you’ll be amazed by how much diversity is out there.
3. Destroy old hard drives before upgrading
Christmas is the perfect time to give and receive a new computer. Most new models have been released, and holiday discounts are everywhere. You’ll find doorbuster sales on laptops, desktops, and tablets, which is timely if you’re looking to upgrade.
But in the middle of the Christmas Day frenzy, you may forget to properly dispose of your old hard drive. Take my advice: Don’t get sloppy and toss your computer in the dumpster. It may be password protected. The machine may languish in the city dump. But you never know who might dig your device out of the rubbish and hack into it, accessing all your private information.
The most cathartic method is to physically rip the computer open and smash the circuits and drive to bits with a hammer. This works, and it’s appropriate for computers too old to reuse. But there are slightly more civilized techniques you can use.
There’s the wrong way and the right way to delete files for good. Click here for the step-by-step instructions.
4. Get the details on HDR
If you’re in the market for a new television, you’ve probably heard a lot of chatter about HDR. But what is it? Is that like HD? 4K? Is it worth investing in?
HDR stands for “high dynamic range.” When it comes to visuals, HDR is basically about the range of light and dark. It promises brighter whites, darker blacks, and a wider gamut of colors. So theoretically, an HDR video played on an HDR-compatible television would look sharper, more detailed, and more life-like than a non-HDR version.
HDR for television: At this particular moment, HDR is new and there isn’t a lot of content available. But media companies are clamoring to catch up, so you won’t have to wait too long for your HDR TV to pay off.
HDR for phones: The iPhone X is HDR compatible, which is exciting. But unless you have other motivations for buying an iPhone X (and there are many mind-blowing properties), it’s probably too early to buy a phone just for its HDR capabilities.
5. Let Google Maps guide your sleigh
GPS is a miraculous thing, especially when we’re driving complicated routes through unfamiliar cities. Google Maps has transformed the way people get around, and there are other mapping services (like Waze) that offer their own spin on navigation technology.
But Google maps has tons of features that semi-regular users never think to access. You may think to enter your home address into the app for easy reference, but did you know you can pre-select pit-stops on longer trips? Did you know you can instantly retrace where you’ve been, whether you were using GPS or not? Did you know you can use Google Maps offline?
There are too many tips and tricks to list in this post, so click here for 12 Google Maps tricks you’ll use time and time again.
Bonus: Score cheap flights on Google Flight
Suddenly it’s mid-December, and you realize you still haven’t booked a trans-national flight. How will you ever get from one coast to the other without spending your entire New Year’s bonus?
If you still have time, Google Flights will let you set alerts so you can monitor fluctuating prices for a couple of days before pressing the button. Maybe you’re taking the whole week off, enabling you to choose “flexible dates,” which may land you a better price. No matter how you book on Google Flights, the software will point out both the cheapest flight and the best-quality flight, so you may be able to skip those headache-inducing red-eyes.
How else can you prep for a bright holiday season? Call my national radio show and click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.