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Is Your Tech Ready for School?

Friday, August 28th, 2015

As summer winds down, students everywhere are looking for school supplies and picking out the perfect backpack. But just having enough pens and notebooks isn’t enough anymore. Students of all ages are finding they need some tech in their backpacks too. Now is a good time to ensure all that technology is ready to go back to school as well.

 

Let’s review the basics of Tech 101 with these tips from our Agents:

Setup Your Security

The Internet is an important education tool. Protect your computer from malicious software with an up-to-date antivirus program. You also might want to take a minute and learn what you can do to avoid malicious software. We have a number of articles on our website with tips on staying safe online and this blog keeps a pretty close eye on Web security, so check back often.

Want to see how clean your system is? Run the free System Analyzer tool powered by Webroot SecureAnywhere.

Bring the Backup

The most valuable items on your computer are your personal files. Whether it’s the midterm thesis you’ve spent weeks working on or those pics from that party last summer, those files are not easily replaced if lost due to a hard drive failure or virus corruption. Take the time to setup a backup plan for your computer. And don’t forget to back up your smartphone and tablet.

If you need help with protecting your computer, or if it’s 3am and that book report is unfinished because a virus has taken over your system, our Agents are available 24 hours a day to get your studies back on track. They can’t help you with your homework, but they can help your tech keep you going throughout the school year.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highway.

Spam Down, Email Threats Still High

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Symantec’s Intelligence report for June shows a marked drop in spam received by business email users worldwide. Their metrics show businesses received a little less than half the spam they usually receive over a month. Perhaps the spammers are taking vacation days as well?

Of course, this doesn’t mean users can take time off from being careful with their email. While email-based malicious software and phishing scams are down, there were still over 57.6 million new malware variants created in June, a significant rise from April and May. So, although you may be getting fewer bad emails, those emails are more likely to have a new virus that will try to get around your computer’s security software. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of ransomware attacks last month. Ransomware is malicious software that will attack your system, encrypt your important data and documents, and then ask you to pay a ransom to get the decryption tool to get your data back. It’s nasty and it’s on the rise.

Here are six tips for keeping your data safe:

  • Use proactive software protection.
    Anti-malware software is a basic requirement for initial protection on all computers.
  • Make sure you are backing up your data on a regular basis.
    Viruses and spyware can creep into your computer and easily degrade performance and corrupt or even destroy data.
  • Use a firewall.
    A firewall places either software or hardware between your computer and the wider Internet. Your home wireless router will have firewall software in place to protect your computer from a random stranger connecting directly to it. Make sure your router’s security settings are setup correctly.
  • Be cautious of suspicious emails from unknown sources.
    Don’t open emails with attachments if you don’t know the sender. Even when you know the sender, be wary if you didn’t expect the attachment.
  • Steer clear of websites of ill repute.
    These are havens for malicious and annoying intruders like spyware. Remember, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.
  • Keep your operating system updated.
    Repair the security holes that hackers love to exploit with the newest critical updates from Microsoft or Apple. For Windows 7 and 8.1 users, keep in mind that Windows 10 will be launching towards the end of this month.

So remember, one of the reasons spam works to spread viruses and spyware is that it looks so innocent. To avoid the hassles that come with an infected machine, treat every email with care and always be suspicious of messages from senders you do not recognize.

Visit http://geeksquad.com/diy for more “Do It Yourself” tips on using your technology.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highway.

Reserving Windows 10 Upgrade

Friday, July 24th, 2015

Our friends at Microsoft have developed a new version of their Windows operating system, Windows 10, which will be available for download on July 29. The upgrade will be available free to users who have Windows 7 Service Pack 1 or Windows 8.1 installed on their machines. Microsoft is encouraging Windows users who are going to take advantage of this free update to “reserve” their copy of the system before the release date to ensure a smooth transition.

Although some copies of Windows 10 will be available for purchase, most of the work done to distribute the software will be done online. In order to prepare the way for this release, Microsoft sent out updates to both the Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 operating systems that will make it easier for you to successfully download the new software. Those updates contain something called the “Get Windows 10″ app, which is why you started seeing the Windows logo icon in your task bar a couple weeks ago. Your task bar with the Get Windows 10 app looks like this:
image of task bar with Windows icon circled

We recommend clients reserve a copy of Windows 10 ahead of time to make sure they get the update as soon as possible. It appears Microsoft is using the reservation model so they can trigger downloads from their side rather than withstanding the onslaught of traffic at their servers from users trying to download the software when it first becomes available. Traditionally, early-adopters tend to overwhelm servers when an important or popular product first becomes available. Late nights trying to download the latest version of Grand Theft Auto has shown me the advantage of letting the download be triggered when the source can actually complete the activity.

Windows 10 will have a new, expanded Start menu (similar to the one that was part of the pre-Windows 8 system), a more effective way of allowing users to work on more than one application at a time, a new browser, and will feature Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant. For more on what’s new in the new system, go to the Windows 10 page on the Microsoft website.

The people leading the rollout say that it could take a couple of weeks before the download becomes available to every person who reserved a copy. People with newer computers should be able to complete the download process in twenty minutes or so. If your machine is an older model, downloading and installing Windows 10 could take more than an hour. Be sure you leave yourself enough time so you can handle the blips in the download or restart the process if necessary.

And, as always, we strongly recommend you back up the data on your computer before you update your operating system. For advice on the best way to get this done, visit the “Tips for Backing Up Your Data” page on our website.

On the Windows 10 release date, July 29, we will be posting some additional information on installing and optimizing the new system on our website. Visit the home page for the latest and greatest.

We are having Windows 10 Open Houses at the Precincts in all Best Buy stores on August 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. Agents will be available to help clients understand how to update their computers with the new Windows 10, do demos and answer questions about to use the new system.

Good luck with the download and remember, Agents are standing by to help if you run into any problems.

Agent Gavin C. has been fighting the proverbial good fight and bringing technological enlightenment to clients since 2006. When not analyzing the series of tubes that is Geeksquad.com, he enjoys the simple things in life: rock music, football, and freedom. From his perch at the Magic Castle, he ensures that Geek Squad remains a shining light for truth and justice.

Online Virus Removal Scams

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Imagine this – you are sitting at home minding your own business when you receive a phone call from an official-sounding person who tells you your computer is seriously infected with viruses. They say they will help you out and eliminate the viruses if you will provide your credit card information.

An increasing number of computer users are receiving similar phone calls and some — afraid of potential data loss and device damage — are surrendering their bank account information in the hope this will protect their tech.

If you get such a call, we recommend only one response — hang up. It’s a scam!

Our clients continue to report phone scams targeting both PC and Mac owners. Cybercriminals pretending to work for Microsoft, Geek Squad, or another other nationally-recognized tech company call their intended victims, claim they’ve scanned the potential victim’s computers remotely and found viruses on them. Taking advantage of the average computer user’s fear of viruses, they trick people into giving them remote access to the computer.

Once the scammer has access to the victim’s system, they will often show the user scary-looking error messages on the machine as “proof” their machine is infected. They will then say the only solution is for the user to make an immediate payment to the “technician” so he can clean up the “dangerously infected” computer. Often, they will the offer to install more “protection” software onto the system to prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately, this is most often the scammer using access to the victim’s machine to install other bits of malware to capture the victim’s online shopping or banking information.

If your first instinct is not to trust cold calls about fixing your computer, you’re absolutely right. Scammers use publicly available information (like your name and telephone number) to make initial contact and can often make an educated guess about your PC’s operating system. They can sound very convincing (they are good at this), but don’t be taken in.

It’s important to understand that reputable tech companies (like Microsoft, Geek Squad and other tech leaders) will not scan computers remotely without permission from the owner. They will not call computer users unless they are already working with them on a support issue initiated by the user.

Should you get one of these telephone calls, here are a few tips to help protect yourself:

  • When in doubt, hang up and call the company back at their publicly listed telephone number. You can usually find contact information on their web site. (Geek Squad’s number is 1-800-433-5778)
  • Never provide a credit card or banking account information to someone on a cold call, even if they claim to be from a computer support company.
  • Never give remote access to your computer to any technician unless they can confirm they are a legitimate member of a computer support company with which you have an existing support agreement.

If you’ve been a victimized by a phone scammer:

  • Contact your credit card or bank and speak with the fraud prevention team to have the charges reversed and the account protected from future charges.
  • Change your computer password, along with the password of any online accounts that may have been provided to the cybercriminal. Before changing the password, you might want to read the article on our website about creating a secure password.
  • Update your security software and run a full scan on your computer, or use one of our tools to scan your machine. You may also want to contact one of our Geek Squad Online Support Agents to have the PC checked for malware.
  • Report the scam to the FTC to help alert other potential victims.

Phone scams are successful because cybercriminals rely on computer users trusting an unknown person with access to their computers. Together, we can defeat these scams by simply hanging up when you receive an unrequested support call, regardless of who they say they are.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highway.

Tracking the National Bike Challenge

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Is the warm weather of spring making you yearn to play outside? Yes, even Agents have to stand up from the keyboard and go to get some sun every so often. And, for me, one of the best ways to play outside is to ride my bike. I’m so inspired this spring that I will be participating in the National Bike Challenge, a program that encourages everyone to track their biking miles over the summer as a way to encourage the use of their two-wheelers.

The Challenge runs from May 1 through September 30. Participants register on the National Bike Challenge website, where they log in to record their bike rides and are awarded points for every day they ride and every mile they pedal. Everyone who registers and participates qualifies for the monthly prize drawing. Then, at the end of the challenge, participants who finished at the top of their category will qualify for additional prizes.

While you can manually track and enter your daily or weekly rides, I’m an Agent so I dug around looking for a tech approach that would make all this easier. The solutions I found not only make it easier to submit your miles, but also provide you with a wealth of other activity information you can use to pursue your health and wellness goals.

If you have a smartphone, you already have the basic hardware needed to track your ride. Several apps are available on the Android, iOS and Windows platforms to help track rides. Four apps in particular have the ability to directly sync your riding activity to the National Bike Challenge website once you setup your account: Strava, Endomondo, MapMyRide and Moves.

Most of these apps will have both free and paid versions. For new riders, the free service will use your phone’s GPS to track your ride and give you helpful information such as the total distance traveled, average speed, elapsed time and even calories consumed. Syncing with the National Bike Challenge site is included.

Paid subscriptions to those apps usually include more in-depth information for advanced riders looking to improve their rides, including segment information and the ability to record heart rate information from Bluetooth monitors like the Polar H7.

If you are looking for more information than what is available on your smartphone, there are bicycle-specific devices available. Cycling GPS units attach to a bicycle with sensors that can track speed, distance and cadence, making the data available through an easy-to-read display on your handlebars. Units like the Magellan Cyclo 315 or Garmin Edge Touring use GPS to not only track your ride, but also provide directions on pre-loaded routes. Some models include the ability to pair with a Bluetooth or ANT+ heart rate monitor.

GPS watches, like the TomTom MultiSport with Heart Rate Monitor or Garmin Vivoactive can be used across a number of sports. Their small form factor makes them a great choice for those who run as well as ride.

Another great feature of any of the services used to sync to the National Bike Challenge site is their ability to share your progress with others. Most have their own community aspects, allowing you to follow (and challenge) friends, as well as share your progress with your favorite social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. Even within the National Bike Challenge site, you can create both local and national teams for schools, organizations or work. (Even Best Buy has a team).

However you track your ride, the end goal is to get out and be more active. I’ll be out there with you and my fellow Geek Squad Agents adding our miles to the totals. Good luck and be safe out there. Don’t forget your helmet.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highway.

Our First Computer Programmers

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

The role of women in the world of technology has been all over the news lately. First there was Gamergate (women gamers and game designers being subjected to graphic insults by Internet trolls), then questions about how women are treated in the boardroom (the Ellen Pao lawsuit), and the steady stream of stories about the struggles of women trying to get recognition in the highly-competitive tech world.

Women have a tough time breaking into traditionally male strongholds. But, as just about any female police officer will tell you, the barriers have more to do with perception than ability. One of the things I learned participating in our Geek Squad Academy camps is girls can understand technology as well as boys and, when given the chance, will develop and deliver amazing tech products.

Which got me thinking about a story about the first computer programmers a professor of mine told me in college. Toward the end of World War II, the Army was looking for a more efficient way to calculate artillery-firing tables for different weapons fired under different conditions. At the time, these complicated calculations were done by hand – a time-consuming, laborious process. It appears that the leadership of the Ballistics Research Laboratory, the branch of the Army Ordinance Corps responsible for the calculations, heard about a couple University of Pennsylvania faculty members who were working on something that could speed up the process. The professors – John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert – had been creating more advanced mechanical calculating machines and were experimenting with using vacuum tubes to speed up the calculations. Mauchly and Eckert proposed a project in which they would design and build a machine that could perform calculations one thousand times faster than existing calculating machines.

The Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) took about a year to design and another eighteen months to build. Although the war was over before the ENIAC was ready, this first general-purpose electronic computer was used extensively in the design of the hydrogen bomb, weather prediction and wind-tunnel design.

The names of Mauchly and Eckert are well known in the computer field. What is less well known is none of this would have been possible without the dedication of group of young mathematicians who became the first computer programmers. And, while the machine’s designers and builders were recognized for their work, the contributions of these first programmers have been pretty much ignored. Considering the way gender roles were handled in the workplace in those days, overlooking the programmers is not that surprising, All the ENIAC designers and builders were men. All the programmers were women.

During the war, nearly two hundred women, both civilian and military, performed calculations for the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. Six of these “computers” were selected to program this new, gigantic machine. The ENIAC programmers – Jean Bartik, Betty Snyder, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman and Fran Bilas– began their work while the ENIAC was still being built. Since the engineers were too busy with the hardware to put together any programming manuals or hold classes, the programmers taught themselves. Figuring out how ENIAC worked by reviewing logic and electrical block diagrams, they put together an approach to programming it. Using flow charts and programming sheets they created, they wrote the program that ran the machine.

With this early electronic computer, writing the program was the easy part. Because the program was not stored on the machine, it had to be set up on ENIAC’s 40 plugboards and three “portable functional tables.” Each of the functional tables contained 1,200 ten-way switches. The programmers set up the machine by plugging wires into the plugboards and setting the functional switches in specific arrangements designed to let the calculations cascade through the computer. Setting the program usually took several days and many more days were spent in testing.

As we struggle to get women and girls more involved in technology and science, this story of the first computer programmers is important. Kathy Kleiman, a young programmer struggling with the lack of women in her computer science classes, stumbled across an old picture of the ENIAC in one of the stacks of her college library. When she asked about the women in the picture, Kleiman was told they were “models.”

Women working on ENIAC

As her interest in ENIAC grew, she discovered the women in the picture were the original programmers of the machine, not models. This inspired her to write her senior thesis at Harvard on the ENIAC Programmers and go on to found a non-profit dedicated to publicizing the contributions of these original programmers. Her efforts resulted in a documentary film called “The Computers” which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in May, 2014.

I look forward to seeing the movie about these incredible women when it comes to a theater in my area. For information about screenings, visit the ENIAC Programmers Project website.

Agent Tanya B. has been a woman of technology since 2009. When she steps away from her role maintaining the Geeksquad.com website, Tanya is either at the gym, walking her dog, or gaming with the other Agent B. Having moved to corporate from Florida last spring, she’s trying really hard to not complain about the cold too much.

Tax Filing Software: A New Security Issue

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Filing your tax return electronically is one of the great advantages of today’s connected world. In addition to saving you time by transmitting your information to the IRS using the Internet, these sites walk you through the process, asking questions that might help you find tax benefits you are missing. Which can result in a larger refund. They also perform all the calculations, eliminating those pesky addition and subtraction errors that can delay processing your return. So it’s a bit scary to hear news about criminals committing tax-related identity theft to steal your money by filing a return in your name and having your refund sent to them before you have a chance to file.

According to media reports, fraudsters are not targeting the technology backbone of these tax software companies. In most cases, the criminals use social engineering to get the victims’ social security number and other personal information, guess their tax-preparation site password, or convince them to give up information that will allow the fraudsters to file a return in the victim’s name.

To help protect yourself from this type of identity theft, it’s important to carefully guard your Social Security number. Avoid carrying your Social Security card (or other documents that might have your SSN on it) around when you don’t have to. Avoid giving your SSN to a business or organization just because they ask for it. Most non-governmental organizations don’t really need it. Many will ask for the last four digits of your Social Security number to confirm your identity. If you are talking with a person who is not a government representative, even if you called them, don’t give them your full SSN. In general, we advise clients to never give out their personal information to anyone over the phone, via email or on a website unless they can confirm the identity of the person who is asking for that information and the client initiated the contact.

To protect your tax-preparation software accounts, make sure you are using a secure account password. Keep in mind that easy-to-remember passwords are also easy to guess. We have an article on creating a secure password on our main website that has a lot of tips on creating a quality password. Or you might consider a password manager like LastPass or Dashlane to keep unique passwords safe, but accessible.

Next, make sure you’re not setting up any easy-to-guess forgotten password security questions. For example, a scammer could find the answer to “Where did you go to high school?” by visiting your Facebook page and other social media profiles or content streams. Make sure to choose those forgotten password questions that are not available in those kind of places.

And we can’t say this enough – always practice safe online browsing habits, like not clicking on email attachments or opening downloads from sources you cannot clearly identify and trust. Keep your operating system, software and antivirus suites up-to-date. Malicious software like viruses or spyware on your system are often spread to capture user ID and passwords.

If you think your system may be infected by malicious software, connect to our 24/7 online support team to have your system checked, or run a malware scan using the free System Analyzer tool available for download from our site.

For more information on keeping your tax information safe, visit the FTC and IRS page on tax-related identity theft.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highway.

An Update on Cryptowall

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Agent Alex has been following news about the Cryptowall, Cyptolocker and Crowti malware as part of his service as a member of our Technical Tools Team. He reached out to say that there have been some recent developments to which we should pay attention. Let’s let him tell it.

A week or so ago, our Agent Kate B wrote a blog post warning clients about a troublesome type of malware that is making its way around the Web these days. This malware, called Cryptolocker or Cryptowall, is particularly dangerous because it encrypts all the data on your computer, rewriting it and making it unreadable. As Kate pointed out, the most troubling aspect of this malware is the encryption is complex enough that there is no technical solution that can reverse it. Without the private encryption key controlled by the malware writer, your data is just a pile of zeroes and ones. And there is nothing anyone can do to change that.

Agent Kate provided a good summary of ways to avoid being infected by this malware in her blog post. Fortunately, some of my computer security colleagues got ahold of some of the private encryption keys used in conjunction with the malware and have made them available to the public. So at least some of the victims of these hacks have been able to recover their data. But, as is often the case in the computer security game, just when it looks like we have a problem under control, a new problem arises.

In this case, the new problem is Cryptowall 3.0, the latest version of these encryption-type malware. Like earlier versions of Cryptowall, this version encrypts the data on the infected device and sends a ransom note offering to provide the private key to decrypt your files for a fee. In addition, Cryptowall 3.0 disables the “Volume Shadow Copy” functionality of the device and destroys any existing Volume Shadow Copy data. Volume Shadow Copy data can sometimes be used to recover and restore previous versions of data on a machine running later versions of Windows (Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1). So this newer version of Cryptowall eliminates one of the only technical solutions victims have at their disposal.

To make things even worse, this variant will even encrypt data that resides on external storage devices and mapped network drives connected to the infected device. So if you back up directly to USB hard drive or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, they also might become encrypted.

The spread of this new malware makes it even more important for people with devices connected to the Internet (is anything not connected to the Internet anymore?!) to have a robust data backup strategy for their machines. To win against encryption based malware, it is critical that this solution supports versioning. We have seen clients whose machines have become infected with one of these malware variants and didn’t realize it before their backup solution copied the encrypted version of their data over their backup, leaving them with two copies of the encrypted files.

A backup solution that supports versioning will prevent this. A backup solution with versioning will always maintain a number of copies of the backed up files, so even if an infected machines encrypted files are copied over the most recent backup, earlier versions will be available. Those earlier versions of the files can then be used to restore the machine to full functionality. Most good backup solutions support versioning, but it is always a good idea to make sure that feature is enabled. As more encryption-based malware hits the Web, a backup with versioning will continue to be an important safeguard for your data.

Of course, the best way to prevent becoming infected by any malware is to always use safe Web-browsing techniques, keep your anti-malware software and OS up-to-date, and make regular backups of your data to something that supports versioning. And never, ever open attachments from suspicious, unusual or unknown sources.

If you need some good security software for your device or network, we have some available here . If you think you might have malware on your computer, chat with an agent to see what we can do to help.

Good luck, happy computing and be careful out there.

Agent Smith has been thwarting unruly technology for the Geek Squad since 2004. Currently he resides at the Magic Castle helping build and maintain the technical toolset for the Geek Squad. Outside of knowing more about Windows than Microsoft and understanding the beautiful dangers of malware, Agent Smith enjoys taking care of his family, gaming, and rocking out to loud music.

The Day the Sign Went Up

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Here’s another in our series of posts from some of our more senior Agents as Geek Squad wraps up it’s 20th year of service.

I was going to college when I started at Geek Squad. The requirements for my degree involved taking a marketing class. As I worked my way up to being a full-fledged Agent, I was blown away by the Geek Squad brand and was struck by how much of it seemed to run counter to what the professor and marketing text book advised.

We didn’t have a phone number or our website address on our cars. Our uniforms were nothing like those of our competitors. Our business cards featured the tagline “We’ll Save Your Ass” – clearly not the kind of statement that usually appears on company-printed material. Still, we were the best of the best.

One other aspect of our corporate identity that ran counter to branding best practices was that we had no sign on our office on Washington Avenue on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. We did a lot of business in the office, with more than a dozen computers dropped off on any given day, and yet the only indication that Geek Squad operated out of this location was a small sign, maybe 12″ across, that hung in the door.

A year or so after I started, Robert announced that we finally had enough money for a real sign – a lighted sign, no less! It seemed like our little group of computer technicians was finally growing up.

A few weeks later, an alert went out to our Nextels that anyone who was available should head back to the office because the sign was going up. Most of the agents employed by the Geek Squad at the time gathered to watch our giant logo be hoisted and attached to the side of the building. Besides making our place of business easier to find for our clients, it was great to see the big, lit-up orange and black logo in our little corner of downtown. There were a lot of smiles.

I was there many years later when the sign came down and we left that location. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little sad. Fortunately, that sign now hangs in the main lobby at Geek Squad – sorry, I mean ‘Best Buy’ – headquarters. It brings back fond memories every time I walk by it.

Agent Derek K. first donned a Geek Squad uniform and Special Agent badge in 1998. When not fanatically protecting the client experience for the Online Support and PC In-Home business, you’ll likely find Agent Derek running around outside enjoying the woods, water and open spaces or tending to his small farm.

Staying Connected on Valentine’s Day

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

With all the hurly-burly in today’s world, it is amazing that anyone has time for love any more. It seems like our work days have progressively gotten longer, business trips more frequent and our commitments more time-consuming. It can be very hard for two busy people with full schedules to stay connected. Sometimes just scheduling dinner together can seem like a lot of work.

 

Which makes recognizing that special someone on Valentine’s Day even more important.

Fortunately, the technology that makes it easy for your boss to track you down is also making it easier for you to stay connected to your partner. Here is a rundown of some handy apps and online tools for couples.

Avocado

Avocado is an app designed especially for couples. Available for iPhone, Android and Web browsers, this app allows you to privately chat with your partner, share photos, edit the same “to do” list, set up dates on one another’s calendar and even send each other doodles. One you down load the app, it will ask to provide your partner’s email address so the app can send him/her an invitation to join you. Once accepted, the app will offer its connection functionality to just you and your partner. The app compiles your interactions, forming a timeline that traces the history of your time together. It even allows you to send kisses to your partner. Of course, you have to kiss your phone to do it, but it’s the thought that counts.

Couple

Another entrant into the couples-app market is Couple, The App for Two. Much of its functionality is similar to Avocado, featuring a private chat space, a shared calendar and list-keeping capabilities. There is also a location sharing feature that could be handy when you cannot respond directly to your lover’s call. A nice feature of Couple is that it allows you to place a phone call to your partner from inside the app, allowing you to connect directly with the object of your desire without having to close out of Couple and fire up your phones calling functionality.

A cute feature of this app is the Thumb Kiss. While chatting with your partner, you can both put your thumbs on the screen at the same time, making your phone vibrate and your thumbprints show on the phone’s screen. Yeah, not as good as the real thing, but at least your don’t have to kiss your phone.

Between

Between is similar to Avocado and Couple, providing a private and secure chat space for couples, a shared calendar and space set up to share photos and notes. This app does not have a ‘kiss’ function like the previous two, but it user interface is the best of all three – clear, well-rendered and easy to use. It handles photographs quiet well and stacks your interactions in a nice, intuitive fashion. And its home page features your partner’s city and associated weather, helping you feel close even when you may be a continent apart.

Snapchat

For those of us who like to keep our relationships private, there is the industry-leader in photo swapping apps – Snapchat. What is more fun and endearing than getting a goofy picture from the one you love. The fact that all Snapchat pictures self-destruct after ten seconds allows for some special creativity with the app. Users can even put captions on their pictures. Although the service maintains that all images disappear ten seconds after they are sent, Snapchat has been involved in some situations lately where the app’s security has been compromised and some of the photos have been stolen. So no matter what the software manufacturer tells you, nothing on the web is totally secure. It is always a good idea to be careful what images your share online.

Skype and Google+ Hangout

Video chat is, after all, the next best thing to being there. While couples apps are designed to track your relationship on your mobile device, nothing beats being able to chat with your partner in real time. Skype’s simple, tried-and-true functionality has been connecting lovers and families for more than ten years. The simple combination of video chatting, instant messaging and file sharing remains the gold standard for online video chat. Not many companies are given the privilege of having their name turned into a verb – eg. “I’ll Skype you.” There is now a version of the app that works with mobile devices.

The Google Hangouts service provides many of the functions you would expect from the teleconferencing service you use during the day. Not only will it let you IM and video chat with your partner, but also has a feature that lets you two watch the same TV show, movie or video. The functionality even allows for group calls. Probably not a function you will use with your baby on Valentine’s Day, but it’s nice to know it’s there. Hangouts are also available for smartphones.

So, if you are going to be separated from your special someone on St. Valentine’s Day, we feel for you. Maybe one of these couple’s or video-chatting apps will take the sting away.

Agent Ryan S. (Badge #23) has been with the Geek Squad for 16 years, and was fixing Macs before they were cool. (Remember those old monochrome displays? Ryan does.) Oh, and the plot of the Matrix is based on a service call he went on in 1997.

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