Category Archives: review

Looking for the best Google Reader replacement, don’t forget the plumbing

the feedly rss reader app on androidGoogle is shutting down Google Reader, its RSS feed collector, in July. Google’s bare bones reader web site was never the greatest way to actually read your RSS feeds, automatically updated collections of all your blog post subscriptions. There were plenty of alternatives for that function — I was using Reeder on my iPad and Press on Android, for example. But Google did provide a couple of essential behind-the-scenes functions and it provided them extremely well.

While I’m not going to miss the bland web site, I will miss Google’s ability to quickly and reliably update blog feeds and, maybe most of all, synchronize my reading history across all my devices. Even though I might read a few blog posts in Press on my Galaxy Nexus or with Reeder on my iPad, it was Google that kept track of which articles I had read and where I left off. Quite a few RSS reader apop makers have promised to build their own replacement back-end but there’s still a problem for omnivorous gadghet users like me — most of the app makers stick to one platform. So if Reeder and Press each start offering their own back-end to sync RSS feedss, that won’t help me because Reeder is mac and iOS only and Press in Android only.

That has me searching for a multi-platform reader replacement, much as I switched to Postbox for my email and 1Password for, well, passwords. So far, the only one I’ve found that I like is called Feedly. It works on the web, iOS, Android and Kindle. It’s also beautifully laid out and designed. I have my RSS feeds split into topical folders. As you can see in the picture above, Feedly lets me know there are fresh posts in a folder by showing it with a bright color. Folders with no new posts are grey. I also looked at Newsblur, which covers the web, iOS and Android. But it costs $24 a year if you follow more than 64 feeds and I didn’t think the apps were as good looking. It also has some social sharing features that seem a bit too intrusive to me.

Right now, Feedly is still running using Google’s back end, so I just had to sign in to my Google account and Feedly grabbed all my feeds and kept my whole folder structure intact. Phew. I also changed one setting. By default, Feedly shows you a sort of spread out, magazine-style view of the latest posts in your feeds, much like Flipboard, but I prefer a simpler list view. So I went to the app’s settings, tapped ‘advanced settings’ and changed the default view from Magazine to List.

It remains to be seen if Feedly, Newsblur — or anyone else — will be able to replace Google Reader’s plumbing with as reliable and speedy a service. I have my fingers crossed but I’ll report back as soon as the new services start coming online.

For additional coverage and suggestions, TheVerge had a good rundown of possible replacements, as did Lifehacker.

It’s not about the specs – dumping my fancy pants camera

relectFor the past year or so, I’ve been taking pictures with one of the most well-reviewed and highly spec-ed out digital cameras on the market, the Sony NEX-7. It didn’t come cheap and a couple of additional lens added to the bill but this was supposedly one of the great cameras out there. Considerably smaller and lighter than a D-SLR, the mirrorless NEX-7 had a largest-in-class sensor to pick up tons of detail, a real view finder, extensive video capabilities, a built-in flash and a highly customizable array of dials, buttons and other controls.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to get it to take the pictures I wanted. Despite the accolades and endless list of killer specifications, the Sony was a beast to actually use — more like a complicated, poorly thought out computing device than a camera. Too many of the dials and buttons were poorly placed leading to frequent accidental changes in settings. Otherwise, the whole process slowed down as you hit a button to lock our changes, then unlocked the lock out to make changes, then locked out again. The video button was a particular villain in this regard. There were other significant issues too, especially the lack of great, affordable lens. That amazingly detailed sensor cries out for great glass, but Sony was deaf to the need.

So the other day, I put the NEX-7 up for sale on eBay. And, after a ton of research, I bought a much simpler camera that hardly compares on paper with the Sony, a Fujifilm X-E1. The Sony has a bigger sensor with way more pixels, higher ISO range, more autofocus points, more video settings, a larger and higher resolution LED screen on the back, weighs less and on and on. But the Fujifilm is one well-designed mother fucker, no two ways around it.

Instead of covering the camera body with a bevy of blank-faced, multi-function, programmable doo-dads like Sony, Fuji chose to have just a few dedicated controls on the X-E1. On top, set the shutter speed and exposure compensation. On the lens, set the F stop. Done. Both dials also have an automatic setting, which means no more messing around with “aperture priority mode” and “exposure priority mode.” And because the dials are labeled, you can see with your own eyes instantaneously how the camera is set for the next picture. I feel like I am taking pictures again, not trying to remember how to work some crazy-complex gizmo. It doesn’t hurt that the camera came with a great prime lens and a fast zoom lens, neither of which were available for the NEX-7 (at least in my price range).

And, as you can see above, now I can take the cool pictures I always wanted to get with no muss and no fuss — and I’m having fun doing it.

Simplification disaster: The Case of Shafer v Civilization

How does it happen that a shining success fades into failure, that a popular series falls out of favor, that a great product line drops off into obscurity? Those are the questions I’ve pondered for the past few years after my favorite video game series, Sid Meier’s Civilization, went completely off the rails at version five. Ultimately, I think it comes down to losing touch with customers.

Although I’ve never been a big video game player, I’ve somehow been a fan of the Civilization series since it first appeared back in about 1991. Game designer Sid Meier knew how to appeal to my pattern-seeking tendencies and lure me in with his strategically-oriented creations. “Just one more turn, just one more turn,” became a mantra which kept you up deep into the night. Civ begat Civ II which led to Civ III and, by 2005, the pinnacle of the form in Civ IV.

Then came Civ V,  a radical departure from all that. Many, many beloved features were watered down, simplified beyond recognition and even tossed aside. Entirely new concepts and metaphors were added, some of which didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Much of the refresh was said to get rid of the boring, micro-managing bits of the game. But in the end, it left a game with too few choices, too few options and too weak a connection to all that came before. My overall opinion of Civ V? YUCK!

The other day, the lead designer of Civ V, Jon Shafer, posted a long retrospective on the game’s development process. One of Shafer’s worst sins appears to have been that he designed the game for the style he liked to play, or perhaps thought was the best way to play, when in fact Civ’s great strength had always been the multiplicity of strategy and tactics that could lead to a fun gaming session.

Take Shafer’s decision to eliminate players’ ability to allocate resources between scientific research, cultural expansion and commercial development. He thought it was “boring busywork” but, of course, it was also one of the most important ways to change tactics, to prepare your empire for war or try to leap ahead in science.

I’ve always found fiddling with sliders in strategy games to be boring busywork, and in that sense I don’t miss them. But the sliders also had a hidden value that I didn’t realize until later – they gave players the ability to shift directions at any time. I’ve written at length about the importance of adaptation in strategy games. Unfortunately, once the sliders were gone players were basically permanently locked into their past economic choices. There was no way to sacrifice research in order to upgrade your army, for example. Rewarding long-term planning is certainly a worthy endeavor, but you still need to provide tools to allow players to change course when necessary.

Following another of his personal preferences, a lot of Shafer’s changes made it all but impossible to build a vast, overarching empire – surely one of the most popular ways to play. Now, he seems to realize that was a mistake, too:

It was virtually impossible to build the large, sprawling empires which had always been a feature in the series and served as the entire point playing for many people. I still believe that there are ways to make smaller empires viable, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of those who enjoy expanding. Penalties should be challenges to overcome, not an insurmountable wall to be frustrated by.

In the post-Steve Jobs era, it’s quite popular to affirm the brilliant visionary view of the world – Shafer caught the attention of Civ’s makers initially with his brilliant game mods for earlier editions. Jobs famously claimed that Apple did no customer research and made products he and his team wanted to use. But I think that ethos takes you only so far. Sometimes it’s better to listen.

Post PC Vacationing: kids, cameras, iPads but no laptops

Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Just back from a short family vacation to San Francisco where much fun was had. We traveled light, or at least light-ish, for this wired day and age. We took smart phones, digital cameras and iPads but we didn’t bring a laptop. For the most part, everything went well. The iPad makes a great travel companion, whether it’s providing maps for driving around the city, instant web searching for cool spots to eat or an ebook or movie for entertainment during down time at the hotel.

Apple has thankfully worked to make the process of using an iOS device the iPad without a computer easier and easier. We downloaded apps and music right to our iPads and never needed to sync anything to anything. Email is all “in the cloud,” so we could access important messages with our travel confirmations from any of our devices. It was all very smooth.

On our first day tooling around the Bay Area in our throwback, sky blue Crown Victoria, we wanted to find Bette’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley. An iPad 3 with built-in LTE and GPS proved a trusty navigational aid taking us over the Bay Bridge and right onto 4th Street, Berkeley’s more swich shopping district away from the UCal campus. My wife, Whitney Connaughton, is an expert at parking honking large vehicles so we nimble-y parallel parked despite crowded conditions. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the wait at Bette’s (which really does have the world’s best pancakes) was over an hour. So we had to make due with the excellent Mexican style Cafe M around the corner. I was snapping photos mainly with my Samsung NX200, a relatively pocketable mirrorless digital camera that takes very fine shots. Later, we checked out the college campus, grabbed some amazing doughnuts in Oakland and headed back to San Fran for a burger and shake dinner.

When I wanted to review my pictures for the day, I grabbed the iPad and attached the SD card adapter from Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. You may be familiar with this trick — you can import photos directly into the iOS photo gallery off your camera’s memory card. Once I had the pictures aboard, however, things were not quite so great. You can only do a few, limited things with pictures like upload to Facebook or post to Twitter. Upload to Flickr or post to App.net? See you later. With my laptop and Adobe’s fabulous Lightroom program, I have plug-ins to send my pictures to all the services I choose. I tried using some of my other services’ iOS apps, like Zenfolio, but it choked and crashed without uploading my pictures.

treesThe next day, we traveled down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an amazing place-out-of-time wilderness area with huge stands of Redwood trees, many more than a thousand years old. On the way, we discovered a limitation of navigation by iPad. Driving up into the mountains where cell phone signals are sketchy at best, the iPad’s maps app lost track of where we were, couldn’t download maps and generally left us blind. We thought we’d be okay since we’d asked the app to get the directions list while we still had a good signal. But we stopped for lunch and let the iPad screen go blank. Logging back in, we discovered that the directions hadn’t been saved, even though no other app had run. Luckily, we were near the park at that point and a few helpful road signs were all it took. Inside the park, iPads stayed in the trunk of the car and we enjoying the gorgeous and lush Redwood forest unwired. If we’d gotten our directions the old-fashioned way (from Google maps on a laptop web browser), we’d probably have printed them out back at the hotel, avoiding the out of service issue.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family, the iPads and phones were plenty suitable for reading and writing emails, Facebook posts and future blog entries. I kept up with the sports news back home via BostonGloble.com, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of Chowhound.com and almost finished the latest ebook in Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series.

At night, back at our hotel, everybody wound down with a little technology. Watching video on the go can be an a problem with our 3G and LTE-enabled iPads, however, and we had to be very careful. Sitting in your hotel watching a couple of episodes of the “House of Cards” series on Netflix, for example, can burn through more than half of your entire month’s  broadband usage allowance. And downloading a movie for rent from the iTunes store will actually use up the whole pie and send you into the land of overage charges. Hotel wifi was expensive, slow and limited us to one connected device per room per 24 hours. Ugh. I keep a gazillion movies on my laptop and an accompanying external drive but we didn’t have access to that bounty on this trip.

Golden Gate BridgeNo one among us took any pictures with their iPads, thankfully. Casual snapshots were all iPhone and Galaxy Nexus and I used my Samsung camera for the important stuff. As I mentioned, it’s quite light and — with its pancake 30mm lens — even pocketable in my jacket. It does suffer from a lack of truly great lens, a problem for almost all sub-DSLR size camera systems. That meant some of my low light shots didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped and I didn’t get the kind of mind-blowing semi-focused photos a great DSLR can take when paired with a great (yet still affordable)  lens. I used to rely on a combination of a relatively tiny Canon S-100 and a bulky, full size Canon DSLR. Sometimes the tiny camera let you down, but as long as you didn’t mind carrying around the bigger camera, amazing photos were easy. After this trip, I’m rethinking my switch the middle ground and its lack of upper-end greatness.

The iPads also served ably on the airplane trips out and back. No need to worry about power. Unlike a laptop, an iPad easily lasts for a full cross-continental flight, even showing videos the whole time. That’s a big relief when JetBlue’s multi-channel video system is showing reruns of Seinfeld and movies you don’t want to see.

In the end, I’d call our Post-PC vacation a success with just a few minor hassles. No need to lug that laptop around the world with you anymore. An iPad can set you free.

I know Apple, Apple is a friend of mine. Lenovo, you’re no Apple

Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing made an interest declaration the other day. He’s going to split their PC business into two units, one that does basic stuff aimed at consumers and businesses and another one that will get the Thinkpad brand and shoot for the higher end. The “Think” brand is needed to better compete with Apple, he said. As someone who recently switched to a Thinkpad after more than a decade on Apple laptops, all I can say is that Lenovo has a lot of work if it wants to even approach Apple’s customer service. Don’t get me wrong — I love the Thinkpad hardware. But almost everything dealing with Lenovo has been suboptimal.

The whole thing reminded me of that classic put down Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered to Dan Quayle back in the 1988 campaign: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

It starts at the start. Go to Lenovo’s web site and try to order a customized Thinkpad.

For the X1 Carbon, there’s a laundry list of features on the customizing list – CPU, display, graphics system, memory and so on., Slowly click your way through the list — there’s a delay between every click. Click, sigh, click, sigh. But it’s all a trick. Almost nothing can be customized on the X1. Not the CPU, not the display or graphics system. But they’re still all on the list. On most models, you can’t even upgrade the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB. Why? What the…

Oh well. So you finally order and your new laptop arrives. Time to boot it up. It’s not quite as speedy as you expected and when it’s done you can see why. Crapware is everywhere. There’s a ton of Lenovo nonsense — taking over simple functions like the wifi settings, the battery, it’s own software update app. Why do I need all this? Then there’s the actual crapware. Nitro Pro PDF, Norton VIP Access, SugarSync. There’s a cost to users from all this crapware. After the first week or two, my machine couldn’t load any Windows updates, not even critical security patches. The Lenovo support boards were filled with angry customers and no answers. Eventually, the answer turned out to be that the Nitro crapware program was interfering with Windows Update. A patch would be available soon. Hello, I have a quicker fix, Lenovo – don’t install crapware on my new computer.

I paid extra for the extended three-year warranty. I got an email with a spreadsheet attached, which I had to fill out with my serial number, model number and other gibberish and email back to Lenovo to activate my policy. Why? They have all this information — they just took my order and sent me the machine. Maybe they have outsourced the warranty to some third party but why is that my problem?

I ordered right before the Windows 8 roll out. I did it on purpose so I’d get a machine with Windows 7 in case there were big problems with the newer version. After a couple of weeks, I was ready to upgrade. Buried on Lenovo’s site was a 3-page list of instructions, including a list of programs I should uninstall before updating. I followed all the steps and held my breath. Almost everything worked fine but later, looking at the device manager in the control panel, I could see a few hardware driver problems. Resolving all the problems took multiple visits to the support web site, running the Lenovo update program over and over and some additional fishing around on Google for advice. Not smooth.

Apple, obviously, makes none of these mistakes. The ordering and customization process on the web is simple, quick and easy. First boot is clean and quick. There is no crapware to remove because there is no crapware. Small system updates arrive as needed and install. Information about your AppleCare warranty arrives in the mail. And when it’s time for a major OS update, it too arrives via the system updates and simply installs.

Lenovo has great hardware chops but if they want to take on Apple in the high-end computer market, they’ve got to make some serious improvements.

iPad, Nexus, Kindle Fire – which tablet should I buy?

Compare the ipad, nexus and kindle fire tablets

What a crazy time to be shopping for a tablet computer. There are so many, many choices. Which tablet should you buy? I have some advice — and please give me your intelligent feedback in the comments section below — on the biggest sellers, all of which I have personally used: Apple’s iPad line, Google’s Nexus family and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD offerings.

Unlike past years, the competition at the beginning of 2013 is hotter than ever, making a decision more complicated than ever. To to simplify, let’s review three basic factors and then I’ll have some advice at the end.

budget | content | uses

budget

How much do you have spend for a new tablet? If you want to hit that magic $199 price point or less, it’s between Amazon’s 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Google’s 7″ Nexus. If you can go up to the $300 to $400 range, you can reach the 10″ Nexus, the 9″ Kindle Fire and the 8″ iPad mini. Heading to $500 and over, you reach the full 10″ iPad.

Adding a mobile broadband radio, which you may want if you plan to travel a lot with your tablet, costs more:

+$100 to the minimum Nexus 7 (also doubles your memory) = $299

+$200 to the entry level 9″ Kindle Fire HD (and more memory) = $499

+$130 to iPad mini = $459

+$130 to the big iPad = $629

(The Nexus 10 and 7″ Kindle Fire HD aren’t sold with built in mobile broadband)

content

A lot of people will tell you that the easy way to decide on a tablet is to review your so-called ecosystem, or the existing collection of digital music, books, movies and TV shows along with any premium apps you have bought. Just stick with your ecosystem, they say. But I think it’s not nearly so simple anymore. Ecosystems matter less than ever.

First, for music, the vendor is all but irrelevant. Music files now a days are no longer locked to any company’s devices with digital rights management, or DRM, software and can be easily (and legally) trafficked among the brands. The new cloud services, Apple’s iTunes Match, Amazon’s Cloud Music Player and Google Music, all keep track of your songs and let you download them onto multiple computers and devices. And how important is owning all your music? At least in my house, the kids today are far more interested in using subscription music services like Spotify and Rdio, which work great on all the devices, too.

Next come ebooks, which sadly do still carry DRM locks. But even here, for most users, ebooks can travel onto many kinds of devices. That’s because the two leading sellers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, provide software to read their ebooks for all the different platforms. I’m a Kindle fan and I’ve read my ebooks on devices not just from Amazon but also from Apple, Google and BlackBerry. Google offers ebook software for Android and the iPad but Apple sticks just to iOS (for what it’s worth, I think that’s reason enough to avoid them completely).

Apps are an in-between case. Many are free or cost just 99 cents, so the lost investment of switching platforms is pretty small. Remember just a few years ago when switching, say, from Windows to the Mac meant spending hundreds of dollars just to restore a few key apps like Microsoft Office. In tablet world, this so-called “applications barrier to entry” is almost non-existent.

And many of the most popular apps are available on all three platforms. Amazon has the most limited supply and Apple tends to have the best new apps. But if you’re wondering, it’s pretty easy to see which apps you may be able to keep if you switch platforms by checking the web stores of Google and Amazon.

There is still one area where you might have serious investments locked to one ecosystem: movies and television shows. Apple’s iTunes store has been around for a decade and I know we’re not atypical with our vast holdings of hard-to-transfer iTunes videos. Likewise, movies and shows bought from Google won’t play on the iPad or Kindle. Amazon has built an app to let you watch its videos on the iPad, though not yet on Google’s Android devices (you can watch via the web site on the Nexus if you are willing to install Adobe Flash software).

Like music, however, video is an also an area where the ownership model is slipping away. Do you watch most of your shows on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go or some other subscription service app? Those apps are offered on all three platforms.

A final consideration is Amazon’s amazing deals for anyone subscribing to its $79/year free shipping service known as Prime. If you pay for Prime you get access to a ton of movies and TV shows for free. That can save a lot of money in the future in addition to any savings by buying a Kindle Fire now.

So take a survey. Ignoring music, do you have tons of video and possibly ebooks that you bought from Apple for your iPhone or iPod touch? And is it the kind of stuff you want to come back to and watch or read over and over again? That could be a lot of lost value if you switch tablets just to save a little on the upfront cost. On the other hand, Amazon’s ebooks and video can play on the iPad (and sort of on the Nexus) and you get all the free stuff if you subscribe to Prime. Google’s ebooks but not video play on the iPad.

There’s also the rest of our digital life’s ecosystem to consider. For file storage and syncing, calendars, contacts and email, some people are deeply embedded in Apple’s iCloud. Others are all Google, all the time. What do they say about Harry Potter and Voldemort? Neither can live while the other survives? Apple-istas will do best sticking with the iPad. iCloud doesn’t do Android. Google-ites? In the past, I have found syncing Google data to iOS devices to be a huge pain and subject to major limitations, but I should point out for more experienced users, Google has made the process easier recently, as explained by TheVerge. Nexus devices, obviously were made for it. You can also sync your Google account with the Amazon Kindle Fire’s calendar, email and contacts apps but, again, nothing for iCloud.

usage

What are you actually doing with your tablet? When I reviewed the very first Kindle Fire, I said it was a good deal because it could do most of what you wanted to do on an iPad for less than half the price. And that’s still true today. If you want a tablet for mostly web surfing, reading ebooks, watching video, playing the occasional game and doing light email, the Kindle Fire HD line is hard to beat. Amazon has a smaller but more cultivated app store than Google and lags far behind Apple. But the actual hardware devices are pretty nifty, with really good screens, and at a bargain price. They also have the most innovative child control software by far.

Are you going to be doing “real” work or using your tablet as a laptop replacement? In this case, the Kindle Fires are a lot less appealing. They don’t play as well with other platforms. The iPad has plenty of software for writing, making presentations, editing photos and all that plus it benefits from the widest choices of keyboards. The Nexus works really well if your work is often via Google Docs and other Google services.

What about sharing a device or and handing one of these tablets off to your kids? The iPad stinks for sharing, absolutely stinks. Signing in and out of email accounts, iCloud accounts and the like is inconvenient and apps and movies and what not can’t be shared between iTunes store accounts. Given how annoying it already is to move and arrange apps just the way you want them on iOS, having other people move your cheese is no fun either. The Nexus is much better in this area — a recent software update added true multiple user accounts. And the Nexus is smart, storing only one copy of an app or other content that appears in more than one user’s account.

Amazon’s child control feature, called Freetime, brings sort of, kind of the notion of multiple user accounts to the Kindle Fire. It does offer by far the best and smartest child controls of any tablet if a kid is the primary user. The iPad child control screen is a nightmare.

And how much traveling will you be doing? While it’s possible to use the wifi hot spot feature on your phone to connect your tablet, it’s so quick and convenient to have built-in mobile broadband. It’s not free, typically adding about $20 a month to your cell phone bill, or $10 if you have a family plan on AT&T or Verizon. There’s nothing like the feeling of flicking on your tablet and getting right to work without having to mess with wifi sign ons or other devices to get connected.

bottom line

If you’ve considered all the the issues above, you may have already come to a realization about which tablet to buy. People deeply invested in either the entertainment or business-y ecosystems of Apple or Google probably have the most obvious answers. If not, I would suggest that for the most budget-minded, for those planning to use their tablet mostly at home and for more for entertainment purposes, the Kindle Fire HDs are a great bargain. The savings come not just in the lower price but also with all the free content you can access from Amazon.

If you are looking to get some business done, it’s time to spend a bit more for the iPad, which not only has a far more robust and diverse selection of apps but also a better selection of accessories like keyboards, cases and other add-ons (blood pressure monitor anyone?). The Nexus line is second best here by a fair margin but totally workable and far better in the realm of Gmail, Google calendar and voice and all that.

As far as whether to go for 7″ to 8″ screens or the larger screens, think again about your budget and your usage. Small screens are cheaper and work best on-the-go. They’re also good for reading. Try holding a full size iPad in one hand for more than a few minutes – forget it. I don’t love the screen resolution of the iPad mini — both the 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are much sharper. But after a short time using a lower resolution screen, it seems not many people can even tell the difference, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on that one spec.

By the way, if you can’t even decide whether to get a tablet versus a laptop or e-ink electronic book reader, I have looked at that question as well.

Best apps for Amazon Kindle Fire tablets

Looking for the best apps for your new Kindle Fire HD tablet? Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t give you easy access to the Google Android app store with its hundreds of thousands of offerings. Instead, you get just what is in Amazon’s much more limited store, missing plenty of good stuff especially Google’s own apps. But there are still many solid choices. I’ve had the 8.9″ Fire HD for about a month now and I have some recommendations for great apps. I’ve provided links to Amazon’s online web app store when I could find them but some apps can only be downloaded from on board the Kindle Fire itself.

Kindle Fire HD tablet

You may have purchased a Kindle tablet just to get easy access to Amazon’s pretty good collection of free and rentable video selections but there are also apps to access video from other services you may subscribe to, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. If you have any movies on the Hollywood studios Ultraviolet system, you can watch them using Flixster. For music, I had no problem matching my entire iTunes library to Amazon’s excellent Cloud Player — Apple, for the love of god PLEASE copy Amazon’s simple “cloud/device” interface — but there are other options including Spotify, Rdio and Pandora.

Among games, our family is currently obsessed with the brain teaser Flow Free, which requires that you draw lines or “pipes” to connect dots on various size grids. Sure, it starts easy but it gets harder and harder. Race against the clock and then hand off to someone else in your family to get the adrenaline pumping. On a different note, the latest version of Need for Speed lets you race around the world in exotic cars while pushing the Kindle Fire’s graphics capabilities to the max. On a more relaxing note, I am zoning out with the “Zen like” puzzle game Quell lately, on sale for 99 cents. Finally, I really don’t need to go through the motions and give you links to Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Words with Friends and all those other super popular titles you can easily find yourself, right? Well, I do love Sudoko.

There are gazillions of weather apps, not surprisingly. I prefer Weather Bug Elite (it’s $2) for the full featured interface and ease of switching locations. Weather Geek Pro ($3) is also cool, offering the real weather symbols and some simplified models used by meteorologists so you can track storm systems and make your own predictions.

On the finance front, I’ve noticed that more and more of the big banks have converted their apps to work on the Kindle Fire including Bank America, Wells Fargo and Chase. It took me a long time to find a good stock tracking app, though. A lot of the apps are junked up with distracting backgrounds to misdirect you from noticing the limited functionality. One clean and simple app is Wikivest HD. It can import your current holdings from dozens of firms or you can enter stocks yourself and it has simple charting and news functions.

I’m a new junkie so I have plenty of apps loaded up to keep me informed. I use the Pocket read-it-later service and their free app is excellent. There is an official Twitter app but it’s not particularly great in any way. I have switched around a couple of times, starting with Tweetcaster, which is a little busy for my taste, before switching to Tweetcomb, which is only available from inside the Kindle Fire’s own app store. For my Google Reader RSS needs I have gReader and for Reddit, I use the popular Reddit is Fun reader app, $2 without ads. I am also trying out the more tablet-y BaconReader Premium, also $2, which seems to do better in landscape mode. There are also apps from the big players in news and I especially like NPR and the Huffington Post. ESPN Sports Center is here, of course, but I am also using ScoreMobile for its sports blogging links. My employer, Reuters, has no apps here yet which is a real shame.

Speaking of work, I rely on Evernote for work writing, blogging and generally keeping track of any scrap of important information in my life. I am also a big Google calendar user so I bucked up and spent $6 for the versatile Calengoo app. You can also just sync Google Calendar to the built-in Kindle Fire calendar app for free. Astrid is an excellent and free to-do list manager syncing with Google Tasks. I also sucked it up and paid $15 for the full version of Documents to Go, which I have been using on different portable devices for what seems like a decade to read and edit Microsoft Office documents. You can also use it to read PDFs and for your Google Docs. The official WordPress app works great as a blogging tool.

Some popular apps available on iOS and Google Android have yet to reach Amazon’s app store but there are unofficial substitutes. Instafire lets you access your Instagram photo flow. It’s $3. The Chrome Browser is not here but Chrome Sync will bring your Chrome bookmarks over to Silk for 99 cents.

I’ll update this post as new apps arrive and impress me. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments. Thanks.

Online storage prices come down slowly — Apple still the max

Drastic price cutting has hit the online storage space, or so you may read. But, unfortunately, most of the price cutting is for big time corporate users not us little guys. Well, that’s not completely true. There have been some serious price cuts on online storage for us ordinary users since I last wrote about this back in May.

That was when Google switched from super cheap prices to only sort of cheap prices — and you had to sign up to pay monthly instead of paying once a year. Big drag. Google’s prices remain unchanged, starting at $1.20 per GB per year (excluding the free space you get).

But, the competition is heating up some. In July, Dropbox effectively halved its prices by giving you 100 GB, not just 50, for $99 a year. Excluding the 2 GB they give you free, that’s 99 cents per GB per year. And ahead of the updated Kindle Fire tablets, Amazon made a similar move, halving the price of its Cloud storage to around 56 cents per GB (excluding the 5 GB you get free).

Sugarsync has not reduced its prices since May and still sits at $2 per GB per year for starters, falling to $1.02 if you buy the maximum 250 GB plan $1.58 if you buy the maximum 100 GB plan. Apple, too, remains stuck at the high end, charging $2 per GB for additional space on iCloud (excluding the 5 GB free) — and up to a maximum of only 50 GB.

So, slight improvements — I’m not complaining — but not the all-out-war that’s taking place in the enterprise online storage market.

Finally, I’ll add that I have sampled services from Dropbox, Google Drive and Amazon Cloud on Mac and Windows computers as well as on iOS and Android devices. And I’ve used iCloud on Macs and iOS. I like Dropbox best because it just works so reliably and in the manner you expect. But there are benefits from the more integrated services. Dumping photos into my Amazon Cloud drive as a back up and seeing them sync automagically into my Kindle Fire’s photo gallery app is pretty cool. And you retain more control, or a finer level of control, over the process than with iCloud’s photostream and other Apple syncing practices.

UPDATE: Here’s a table comparing the major services

Service Free (GB) Added data (GB) Prices per year Price/Gb/year
Apple 5 10/20/50 20/40/100 $2/$2/$2
Amazon 5 15/45/95/195 10/25/50/100 $0.67/$0.56/$0.53/$0.51
Dropbox 2 98/198/498 99/199/499 $1/$1/$1
Google 5 20/95/195 30/60/120 $1.49/$0.63/$0.61
Microsoft 7 20/50/100 10/20/50 $0.50/$0.50/$0.50
SugarSync 5 25/55/95/245 50/100/150/250 $2/$1.82/$1.58/$1.02

Notes: “Added data” and “Price/GB/year” exclude free space. Prices have been rounded in some cases. Amazon and Google offer even higher data plans up into the terabytes.

Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny

Are you a big user of Google Voice like I am? Here’s my best advice about apps and some cool tips to use Google Voice with an Android phone. You can also use these apps to make calls from an Android tablet.

One of the most important reasons I switched from an iPhone to Android was to get better (vastly better) integration with all the many Google services I use, especially Google Voice, or GV. For example, there’s no direct way to access all your Google contacts in iOS apps like the phone dialer or email, syncing to Apple’s contacts is a poor substitute that doesn’t work very well and even Google’s own iOS app for GV can’t access your Google data. But on Android, it all goes directly to the source.

Just as a mini-refresher, Google Voice is an amazing, free service, originally called GrandCentral before being acquired by Google in 2007, which lets you take total control of who calls you where while virtually eliminating the “pain in the ass” quotient of voice mail. Give out your Google number and then decide where it should ring — you can switch things up based on who is calling, the time and date and other criteria. Voice mail is transcribed for free and sent to your email. And you get free calling to numbers in the United States and Canada along with discounted rates to other countries.

Not nearly enougsceenshot of the google voice widgeth praise has been lavished on the Google Voice widget for Android. The widget screen not only provides a one click shortcut to your various GV mail boxes but also shows a live, scrollable list of the most recent voice mails and texts, including who called and a bit of the insanely useful transcribed text of the messages (see screenshot at left). Click on any message to hear the audio.There’s also one click access to send a text via GV. And at the bottom of the widget is a running total of your account balance (for covering international calls). It really shows off the power of widgets with Android to both display new information, with no clicks required, and make app features instantly available with a single click.

But the regular GV app lacks a simple settings screen to adjust your call forwarding. There are plenty of third party apps to access those settings with a minimum of clicks to adjust which phones you want to ring. I use Groove Forwarder, a very simple app with one handy extra feature. In manual mode, the app just offers a checklist of your Google voice registered numbers. Click to check or uncheck a number. But it also has an automatic mode that can switch the settings based on whether your phone is getting Internet access via WiFi or cellular.

Which reminds me, one of the most useful ways to use to Google Voice is to make and receive calls over WiFi. This is especially handy if you’re out of your cell phone carrier’s coverage but have Internet access, say when traveling abroad or vacationing in a remote locale (or maybe you just live somewhere with crummy cell service). This requires an app like Spare Phone or Groove IP. And the apps work on Android tablets, giving you the power to make and receive calls without a phone at all.

I like Groove IP so far, because it can integrate with my phone’s basic phone dialer if I want, providing a seamless WiFi calling experience. To use it, you sign into your GV account and then set GV itself to forward calls to the Google Talk option (not to the number of your cell phone — that’s very important). Instead of using minutes from your cell phone plan, the app is using data at a rate of about 1 MB per minute. That’s no problem if you’re on WiFi but obviously would eat into your data allowance if you started using it while on 3G or 4G mobile broadband.

Traveling in Europe this summer, I was reminded again about how inferior and overpriced our cell phone service is here in the states. But WiFi calling with Google Voice can free you from needing to sign up for expensive calling plans. Get a data-only plan and use GV for calling. Or buy a mobile hotspot and no phone plan and use GV for calling. The trick is easier than ever now that Google is selling the Nexus 4 phone relatively cheap and unlocked without a carrier plan.

Even if you don’t want to go WiFi only, Google Voice offers the possibility of taking more control and relying on prepaid plans to save a lot of money. For example, both Simple Wireless and Wal-Mart run on T-Mobile ‘s network but frequently have cheaper rates. It’s a competitive market and the best plan and carrier can change from month to month. If you have people calling your Google Voice number, it’s no problem to swap out SIM cards whenever you feel like it and pay for the cheapest available service. Your phone number may change but no one has to know or care.

A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon

The Thinkpad X1 carbon

Well, as I’d been threatening for a while, I ended my decade plus using a Mac as my main computer this month and jumped to the Windows side, lured by the all-black, super-lightweight Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. I’ve had the laptop for about three weeks and here are some of my first impressions. Feel free to chime in with questions and comments in the comments, but please keep it polite and informative.

Fantastic hardware – I love the feel of the X1′s carbon fiber body, nicely grippable and an attractive matte black. It reminds me of my all-time favorite Mac laptop, the Powerbook G3 I had in the late 1990s, though it probably weighs less than half as much as that old battleship. The X1′s matte screen is also gorgeous, clear and bright at 14″ diagonally with 1600 by 900 pixels. The keyboard works great and the touchpad is also among the best — love the dedicated page up and down keys. There are other small, brilliant touches like a true security slot for your Kensington lock, a finger print reader and an SD card reader that inhales the whole card, so you don’t have anything sticking out if you want to leave a card in when you pack up (I can’t tell you how many times I closed my Macbook Pro, putting it to sleep, with an SD card sticking out so it would’t fit in my case and I had to wake it up and eject the card just to put it away).

In addition to my trusty 13″ MacBook Pro, I also used a Macbook Air as my main machine when I traveled in Europe this summer and, for comparison, I’d say the Thinkpad has a better screen and keyboard as well as superior battery life. I also much prefer the Thinkpad’s carbon body to the Air’s slippery, sharp aluminum shell. The Air’s trackpad was better and it had fewer of the Thinkpad’s software hiccups, some of which are detailed below.

Windows 8 is intriguing but with annoyances – I spend most of my time on the traditional desktop side running the same kinds of applications I used on my Mac. It’s not that different than prior versions of Windows. The desktop itself is still there as a much needed home base for short cuts and files. I definitely needed some small but critical tweaks. For example, the three click drop which unadulterated Windows 8 forces you into just to choose from among all your installed programs is annoying but easily remedied. I opted for the free Pokki Menu, which creates one button access to a highly customizable start menu with quick access also to shut down options and notifications. And I actually had to spend $15 on a file add-in just so Windows 8 could comprehend the RAW format files from my Sony camera.

Cross-platform software saves the day – I am so glad I went out of my way over the years to find software solutions that worked on multiple operating systems. By resisting Apple lock-in, I can safely say that all of my most important programs were cross-platform. Of course, cloud-based apps like Evernote, WordPress, Spotify and Dropbox work great on Windows. And Microsoft Office is at least as good in its native environs, though I wasn’t excited to buy it all over again. But most programs let me re-use my Mac license for the Windows version, like Adobe Lightroom and Postbox for email. To fill in some small gaps, I’ve been trying out new Windows stuff, like lean, mean text editor Markdown Pad. I also like Azotix Software’s Active Organizer program, a dedicated, stand alone Google contacts and calendar program that works even when you’re offline.

Lenovo! Newman! – I must admit that every time I have to deal with Lenovo, I long for Apple. The online purchasing experience was awful — clunky, buggy and with too few options available. You want an Intel i7 processor and more than 4 GB of RAM? No luck, i5 for you. SSD bigger than 256 GB? Not available. The support site is even worse. Could it at least remember which model I have so I don’t have go through the eight-step selection process all over again every time I visit? And then there’s the god awful pile of crapware, sort-of-helpware and failware that comes pre-installed. So far, every fourth upgrade attempt utterly fails. Blech. I’ll blog later about the process of upgrading the brand new machine from Windows 7 to 8, but suffice it to say that it required following a 4-page, single space typed set of instructions from Lenovo that asked me to manually uninstall a half dozen programs and failed to explain that some needed driver software had to be downloaded separately.

Still keeping up with Mac world – I’m still using Macs and iPads around the house to remain bilingual and retain my ability to complain about the many flaws creeping into Mac OS X. Mountain Lion is just awful for me, from the insane iCloud file scheme to the anorexically thin scroll bars to the finder which needs an complete overhaul that’s about 8 years overdue. But OS X has other strengths and there’s lots of interesting Mac software, so I’ll try to keep up.

(Edited to add a few more examples for clarity. Also see my responses in the comments.)