Tag Archives: Amazon

Give the Gift of Streaming

By Tracey Dowdy

Though there has been much progress on getting a vaccine approved to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the CDC warns we’ll still be wearing masks and social distancing for the next few months. Once approved, the goal is to have all those who choose to be vaccinated receive the vaccine by the end of 2021.

That means that for the foreseeable future, we’ll continue to spend time at home, and with the colder months upon us, we’ll be indoors. That means finding ways to entertain ourselves and stave off cabin fever. And, with the holidays just around the corner, this year’s most popular gift may be the gift of a streaming service. 

Not only can it help keep your quarantine team entertained, but you can also share with extended family and friends, near or far, through features and extensions like Teleparty (formerly called Netflix Party), Disney Plus GroupWatch, and Amazon Prime Video Watch Party.

Here are a few options:

Disney Plus allows you to gift a one-year subscription for $70 (it usually costs $7 a month, saving you $14 over a year). When the subscription is up, the recipient will have the option to add their payment details and continue subscribing. Go to Disney Plus to purchase a subscription, enter the recipient’s email address (must be a U.S. resident, new subscriber, or willing to create a new account), choose a delivery date, and write a personal message. On the date you’ve chosen, they’ll get an email with instructions on how to redeem their gift subscription. All Disney Plus subscriptions include Disney Plus GroupWatch, which syncs your streams so you can watch any title on Disney+ with your personal friends and family virtually through the app. 

Though You do not need to have an Amazon Prime membership to use Prime Video, it can’t be gifted as a stand-alone service. It is bundled with an Amazon Prime membership ($119 a year or $13 a month), bringing plenty of perks besides streaming. To gift someone a Prime subscription, go to Amazon.com/giftprime. Login to your account and choose either the one-year or three-month option. At checkout, you’ll enter the recipient’s email, the date you want it delivered, and be able to write a personal note.

To gift a Netflix subscription, you’ll need to purchase a gift card online through AmazonWalmartBest BuyTargetNewEgg, or Kroger. You can buy in-store at Walmart, Target, Best Buy, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, 7-Eleven, Dollar General, and Safeway. Gift card values range from $25 to $200, and Netflix subscriptions range from $9 to $18 a month, depending on the number of screens you choose to stream at the same time and if you want HD. The recipient can use the gift card for new or current subscriptions with the card’s value applied as a gift balance. Netflix notifies account holders when the balance is running out. The subscription includes Teleparty, which synchronizes video playback and adds a group chat feature to Netflix, Disney, Hulu, and HBO (subscriptions to each required for all participants).

Hulu also offers gift cards ranging from $25 to $100 that you can purchase online or in-person (TargetWalmartBest BuyKroger, and Paypal. A subscription to Hulu costs $6 a month with ads, $12 a month to go ad-free, or $55 a month for Hulu Plus Live TV. The recipient can redeem their gift card through their Account page on the app or website. If they are a new subscriber, they’ll need to update their payment details after the gift card balance is up, or Hulu will cancel the account.

 Video streaming isn’t the only game in town. Spotify is a great option for the music or podcast fan in your life with a Spotify Premium individual plan costing $10 a month. You can buy eGift cards online at TargetNewEggKroger, and PayPal or purchase physical cards online at Amazon or Best Buy, or in-store at Walmart, Target, Staples, CVS, 7 Eleven, Kroger, and Simon Malls. Choose from $10, $30, $60 or $99. Note, gift cards can be used only for Premium Individual plans — you can’t use them for Premium Student, Premium Family, Premium Duo, or trial offers. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Alexa Tricks for a Halloween Treat 

By Tracey Dowdy

‘Tis the season – for ghosts, goblins, and sugar highs. And while we love our smart-home devices year-round, Alexa can really shine at Halloween. From spooky sounds to trivia night, these Alexa skills can make your Halloween boo-tiful. 

  • Set the mood by saying, “Alexa, play Halloween music,” or link your Spotify and choose from one of the zillion music or sound effect playlists
  • Use one of Alexa’s many scream skills to scare the daylights out of trick or treaters. Bonus, it’s also great for repelling door to door solicitation and political campaign volunteers. 
  • Ghost Detector uses “highly advanced technology” to detect spirits and specters and allows you to catch one ghost per day. As you earn in-game currency, Ghost Bux, you’ll soon be able to unlock gadgets, missions, and adventures. 
  • If your little one has yet to master the meaning of a calendar, let Alexa handle the question, “How many more sleeps until Halloween?” Just say “Alexa, open Halloween Countdown,” and thank the robot gods for one less question to answer. 
  • Check out the ultimate Halloween trivia quiz. Alexa will test your knowledge of both familiar and obscure facts. 
  • Still haven’t settled on a costume? Use Alexa’s Halloween Costume Ideas skill to narrow down those options. 
  • Alexa’s Haunted House is a choose-your-own-adventure for kids or adults that takes you through a haunted house on – what else? – a dark and stormy Halloween night. Because you control the story based on your choices, you can have multiple adventures. 
  • If you’re up for a challenge, try an Escape Room. Just tell Alexa to “Open the escape room,” and you’ll have your choice of escaping from jail, an office, or a car. Using voice commands, you can search the room, solve puzzles, inspect or pick up items, and see what your options are. The clock is ticking – can you escape in time? 
  • Halloween Feel the Pressure is a family game that asks a spooky question based on a specific letter of the alphabet. Questions get more challenging as you progress through the game, and you’ll need ten correct answers to win. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Gear Up for Prime Day 

By Tracey Dowdy

Amazon Prime Day 2020 is just around the corner – mark your calendars for October 13 and 14. Amazon has already posted a host of early bird deals you can take advantage of now, and you can get notified about personalized discounts on the mobile app. The app includes features like voice-powered search and shipment tracking and is available for Amazon Fire, Android, and iOS. 

Here’s your need to know for Prime Day 2020:

College students get a free six-month trial. Amazon has partnered with Sprint to offer college students a free six-month Amazon Prime trial. Students get free delivery on over 50 million items, exclusive deals, unlimited streaming of Prime movies and TV shows, unlimited photo storage with Prime Photos. 

You can shop Prime Day even if you’re not a Prime subscriber.If you’re not an Amazon Prime member, you may still see sale prices on many items, but they may not come with the free one or two-day shipping for Prime members. Some products will be for members only – think Amazon-branded items like Kindles and Echos – there’ll still be plenty of discounts and available for non-members. 

Look for Wait Lists. Many of the best Prime Day Deals are available in limited quantities, so they sell out fast. Sometimes, customers put an item in their cart but then change their mind, and others take too long and Check-Out times out. The good news is many of these items feature a “Join Waitlist” button that’ll put you in a queue to grab it if it becomes available. 

Check Your Cash-back Options. Sites like Rakuten and TopCashback offer cashback on your purchases not just from Amazon but other retailers like Macy’s, Overstock, Winc, Rothy’s, Glossier, and Old Navy. If you’re good at paying off your credit cards every month or shop on Amazon often, consider their no-annual-fee Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card that comes with a $100 Amazon gift card at sign-up. The card pays you 5% back on just about everything you buy from Amazon and Whole Foods. 

Do your homework. Be careful you don’t get caught up in the urgency or excitement of Prime Day. Items go on sale every day, and many of the deals offered on Prime Day will be on sale again within a few months. I recommend installing CamelCamelCamel, a site that tracks Amazon price histories or browser plug-in Honey, which instantly notifies you if any third-party sellers have the same product at a lower price. 

Remember, Amazon isn’t the only game in town. Other big-name retailers like Walmart and Target have announced big sales of their own, so check out what they have to offer before hitting that “complete purchase” button. 

Of course, if you’re unsure if you want to sign up for Prime, you can always try Prime free for thirty days – just remember to cancel your membership after 29 days to avoid being billed if you decide it’s not worth it.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Your Smart TV is Watching You

A recent study of smart TV privacy and security by Consumer Reports asked, “How much does your Smart TV know about you?” They looked at several major TV brands: LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL—which use the Roku TV smart TV platform—and Vizio.

Smart TVs connect to the internet, allowing users to stream videos from services such as Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. Consumer Reports found that all smart TVs can collect and share considerable amounts of personal information about their viewers. Not only that, so can the countless third-party apps that work within the platforms. 

The Oregon office of the FBI released a warning back in December cautioning consumers that some smart TVs are vulnerable to hacking and a number of them have built-in video cameras. The good news is that newer models have eliminated the cameras – Consumer Reports’ labs haven’t seen one in any of the hundreds of new TVs tested in the past two years.

However, privacy concerns are still an issue. Researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London discovered that many smart TVs and other internet-connected devices send data to Amazon, Facebook, and Doubleclick, Google’s advertising business. Nearly all of them sent data to Netflix –  even if the app wasn’t installed – or the owner hadn’t activated it. 

A third study, this one conducted by researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago, looked at Roku and Amazon Fire TV, two of the more popular set-top streaming devices. Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.” There were trackers on 69% of Roku’s channels and 89% of Fire TV’s channels – the numbers are likely to be the same for smart TVs that have Roku’s and Amazon’s native platforms. 

Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.”

On the surface, we love the technology behind ACR because it’s what makes our systems intuitive and recommend other shows we might enjoy watching. The downside is that the same information can be used for targeted advertising or be bundled with other aspects of our personal information to sold to other marketers. 

Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says “For years, consumers have had their behavior tracked when they’re online or using their smartphones. But I don’t think a lot of people expect their television to be watching what they do.”

If you have privacy concerns about your Smart TV, check the manual on how to revert the device TV to factory settings and set them up again. Be sure to decline to have your viewing data collected.

For a more detailed analysis and instruction on protecting your privacy, check out Consumer Reports story How to Turn Off Smart TV Snooping Features.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Beware “Amazon’s Choice” Products

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, you’ve no doubt seen some products marketed as “Amazon’s Choice” a designation intended to convince customers to buy what Amazon is saying is “highly-rated, well-priced products.” It’s an effective strategy – according to a 2018 study. these items see a threefold increase in sales.

But are they really the “highly-rated, well-priced products” they’re promoted to be? Good question – and the answer is “No.” Some of the listings have inflated ratings and those glowing reviews have been written by customers who were promised compensation in the form of gift cards or free products by sellers in exchange for those five-star ratings.

Amazon’s official position on fake reviews or “incentified reviews” – those reviews posted for compensation without being identified as such – is against the site’s policy. Sellers who are caught violating Amazon’s rules have their accounts suspended or banned. “When a product we identify as Amazon’s Choice does not continue to meet our high bar, we immediately remove the badge.” 

Unfortunately, the policy doesn’t seem to stop third-party sellers because many know exactly how to evade the website’s moderators. Some listings with reviews explicitly mentioning free products frequently slip past filters despite the fact it’s a clear violation of Amazon’s policies regarding customer reviews. 

To be clear, incentivized reviews are nothing new.  Buzzfeed News exposed Amazon’s Fake Review Economy in a story they broke last year. The problem that there’s a difference between incentivized and fake. When customers buy an item or service listed as Amazon’s Choice, there’s an assumption that the service is peer-reviewed and has earned its positive reviews via customer satisfaction. The truth is, the selection is determined bu an algorithm. Buzzfeed’s story led to Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Richard Blumenthal raising concerns over Amazon’s Choice products through a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

In response to their letter, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, admitted that Amazon employees “do not manually review” Amazon’s Choice products, but instead, they’re chosen by an algorithm that takes into account multiple factors, such as inventory, pricing, and return rates, in addition to reviews. 

He further states that products have to have a four-star or above-average rating to qualify for the label. According to Huseman, that translates to more than 2 million products automatically earning the designation every month. Huseman added that in their defense, abuse of customer reviews is “an industry-wide problem” but Amazon is the exception to the rule claiming in September that “over 99%” of reviews on the site were authentic.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Gift

Holiday Shipping Guide

By Tracey Dowdy

There’s nothing like making a list and checking it twice only to discover you should have checked it sooner. Making things even trickier, Thanksgiving was late this year – almost a week later than last year – so the holiday shopping season got even tighter. Despite the crunch, according to Adobe Analytics data, “U.S. online sales will increase 14.1 percent, totaling $143.7 billion, while total retail spending – both online and offline – is expected to increase 4.0 percent.” 

Whether it’s because you see last minute shopping as a personal challenge, a competitive sport, or because you suddenly have to ship a gift to an out of town in law, a snowbound sibling, or someone you won’t see til January, you have more options than simply emailing a gift card. Although, if your imagination can’t think of anything more creative than socks, Amazon has a ton of gift cards that include a digital code the recipient can print out and there’s no worry about will it/won’t it make it in time. 

The good news is that because the holiday shopping season is abbreviated, many retailers have extended their Black Friday and Cyber Monday prices and deals. 

These are the three major carriers’ recommended send-by dates for expected delivery by December 25:

U.S. Postal Service

Dec. 14: USPS Retail Ground shipments

Dec. 18: Alaska to mainland First-Class Mail

Dec. 19: Hawaii to mainland Priority Mail and First-Class Mail

Dec. 20: First Class

Dec. 21: Priority Mail; Also deadline for Alaska and Hawaii to the mainland through Priority Mail Express

Dec. 23: Priority Mail Express

International shipping and military mail deadlines are earlier. Learn more at www.usps.com.

 

FedEx

Dec. 9: SmartPost

Dec. 16: Ground and home delivery

Dec. 19: Express Saver

Dec. 20: Two-day options

Dec. 23: Overnight options

Dec. 25: FedEx SameDay, FedEx SameDay City Direct and City Priority

Find rates and transit times at www.fedex.com.

 

United Parcel Service/UPS

Dec. 13: Last day to ship some UPS Ground packages

Dec. 19: UPS 3 Day Select

Dec. 20: 2nd Day Air

Dec. 23: Next Day Air 

Learn more at www.ups.com

Retailers like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s all have similar though in some cases longer, shipping windows, depending on the items you’ve ordered. 

This year, Best Buy has promised overnight delivery for 99% of customers, however be aware that if the item you want or the ZIP code you’re shipping to doesn’t allow for it, overnight delivery isn’t guaranteed. 

Amazon has announced the dates for Prime members and all customers to place orders for delivery by Dec. 25. However, buyer beware as dates can vary by item and delivery speed. Not all items are sold by Amazon, some are through third-party sellers and not eligible for Prime delivery. 

Dec. 14: Last day to order and get free delivery on orders over $25, free for all customers

Dec. 18: Last day to order items eligible for standard shipping, free for Prime members

Dec. 22: Last day for free delivery on tens of millions of items for Prime members

Dec. 23: Last day for free one-day delivery on more than 10 million items for Prime members

Dec. 24: Last day to order millions of items eligible for Same-Day Delivery (free for Prime members in eligible areas on orders over $35, order by 9:30 a.m. local time). Also free two-hour grocery delivery, reserved exclusively for Prime members in select cities.

Learn more at www.amazon.com/holidaydelivery.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Best Free Movie Streaming Services of 2019

By Tracey Dowdy

Once upon a time, if you wanted to stream a movie or TV show, you turned to Netflix. Over time, their model spawned more and more similar platforms, leaving viewers with a virtual smorgasbord of streaming services. 

Many of these services are fee-based, so if you’re tired of spending more and more of your budget to access content, these platforms may be an option. You won’t be able to choose from the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but their libraries are extensive, and best of all – they’re free. 

Crackle is an ad-supported streaming service offering both movies and TV shows as well as original content. It’s available across a number of devices without a subscription plan or the need to set up an account. However, if you want to create a list of your favorite movies and TV shows, get recommendations, or resume playback if you switch between devices, you’ll need to create one. 

IMDb  – yes, that IMDb – has its own streaming service – IMDb TV.  The streaming site formerly known as FreeDrive was purchased by Amazon back in 1998, the site offers free, ad-supported streaming for movies and TV shows (U.S. only). It has a standalone channel on Fire devices like Fire Stick, Fire TV Cube, and Fire tablets, stream from your laptop directly from the IMDb site. 

I’ve mentioned Hoopla in “Best of” lists before and here we are again. Hoopla is a digital media service offered through local public libraries. It allows users to borrow movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics, and TV shows to enjoy on your computer, tablet, or phone or smart TV – all you need is a library card. Content can be watched immediately or downloaded and watched within the next 72 hours. It’s up to your local library how many titles you can borrow each month. 

Tubi TV has a monster-sized library but you need to remember some monsters are like Godzilla while some are more like this guy. In other words, some of the content on Tubi is great like both Kill Bill movies, Meatballs, Monster, and Dial M for Murder, while some of it is, well, less blockbuster and more feel-good cult-classics like Teen Wolf, Kentucky Fried Movie, and Good Burger. 

Pluto TV is owned by CBS giving it access to a vast library of content. It offers both live-streaming and on-demand movies — including old James Bond titles, comedy classics like So I Married an Axe Murderer and Meatballs, and a variety of titles from the Discovery Channel.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Delete and Stop Sharing Voice Recordings with Amazon, Google, and Apple.

How concerned are you about your smart device randomly recording your conversations? Not to be an alarmist, but after revelations that “The ‘Big five’ tech companies – that’s Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft – have all been recording and listening to private conversations, all in the name of “improving services,”  you should be concerned. 

Of course, since they were exposed, Google, Apple, and Amazon have either suspended having humans review voice recordings or have begun allowing people to opt-in or out. 

If you have lingering concerns about your privacy, there are ways to prohibit strangers from listening to your voice commands and erase your interaction history from your Google Home, Amazon Echo, and HomePod. Here’s how:

Amazon

Earlier this year, CNET exposed Amazon for keeping transcripts of users Alexa recordings, even after the audio portion of the interaction had been deleted by the user. 

In the Alexa app, go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. Then tap the toggle switch that says “Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services to Develop New Features.”

Google  

In September, Google agreed that it would no longer store recordings of users’ voices by default. Now users who engage with their Google Assistant will have to opt-in when setup their Google Assistant if they want to have their voice recorded or reviewed by human monitors through the Voice & Audio Activity (VAA) program.

Go to myaccount.google.com > Web & App Activity. Then, uncheck the box that says “Include voice and audio recordings.”

Apple 

Back in August, Apple announced it would no longer listen to Siri recordings without your consent, and they can only receive your audio data should you choose to opt-in. 

If you opt-in but later change your mind, go to your Settings > Privacy > Analytics and Improvements > Turn off Improve Siri & Dictation.

Delete your voice recordings

Amazon

Amazon offers two Alexa commands that allow users to delete voice transcripts by asking Alexa.  Say, “Alexa, delete what I just said,” or “Alexa, delete all my commands from today.”  

If you prefer to delete your entire history, open the Alexa app and go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History > Delete All Recordings for All History.

Google

To delete your voice command history, go to myaccount.google.com > Data and Personalization > Web & App Activity > Manage Activity > tap the three stacked dots at the top of the screen > Select Delete activity by and choose from the options listed – all-time, last hour, last day, etc. Then tap Delete to confirm.

You can also tell Google to delete your entire voice command history by saying “Hey Google, delete everything I just said.” 

Apple

Apple’s iOS 13.2 update finally allows users to delete all of their recordings. Open your Settings > Siri & Search > Siri & Dictation History > and select Delete Siri & Dictation History.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.