Category Archives: utilities

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.

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.

Without Siri, the iPhone reminder app stinks

One of the cool new features of the iPhone 4S — and the most hyped in Apple’s advertisements — is using the digital assistant Siri to set reminders. When you use Siri, you can usually speak as if  you were talking to another person and Siri will figure out what you mean. Tell Siri “Make an appointment with my dad for next Tuesday at 3 p.m.” and Siri is capable of assessing who your dad is and the date of  ”next Tuesday.”

But there’s a big glitch by Apple with this system and that’s when Siri is offline as “she” frequently is. Then you are left to set the reminder by hand. And the problem is that the new Reminders app absolutely stinks. Here are the steps and clicks to set one reminder without Siri:

1. Click on Reminders app

2. Click plus sign – almost never registers first click, so click again with verve.

3. Blank reminder comes in – type in content of your reminder.

4. Be puzzled about how to set the date and time. The virtual keyboard is still up. There is no indication of how to set the date and time.

How to add date & time??

5. Tap uselessly on the reminder text you just typed. iOS helpfully offers to select a word or paste.

6. Get frustrated and click “Done” even though you’re not done.

7. Back to the list of all your reminders. Click again on the reminder you just wrote. Now iOS shows a screen to get to the part where you can set the date and time or other details of the reminder.

8. Click on “Remind Me”

9. Slide the “On A Day” switch to “ON”

10. Click on the day and time. Use the slider control to reset the day and time (be prepared to slide forever if the reminder is not close to the current date).

11. Click “Done” to get out of the time setting slider

12. Click “Done” to get out of the reminder setting screen.

Phew! That’s a minimum of 10 clicks and slides to set one reminder. And the biggest problems with making the app so unintuitive and hard to use is that, usually, you’re using the excellent Siri interface to set reminders. So you only have to wade into this morass occasionally and, when you do, you never quite remember all the different steps and tricks. Yuck.

Android reinstall not as easy as can be

Samsung Nexus S phoneIn the midst of a very fun evening in New York City the other day, I dropped my Nexus S in a cab and lost it forever. After a bit of research and due consideration, I decided to replace it with an identical model. The upcoming Android phones don’t have anything on the Nexus S that really matters to me and most appear to be bulkier. The iPhone 5 is too far off and the Nexus S is vastly preferable for my needs than the iPhone 4.

So I went to a local Best Buy and got a new Nexus S, booted up and logged into my Google account, expecting almost everything from my old phone had been backed up to the “cloud.” That turned out to be just the case for all my personal data — contacts, email, notes, passwords, stock portfolios, RSS feeds and the like.

But it was decidedly not the case for apps, contrary to what I had expected. Yes, you can re-install any app you’ve previously bought from the Android app market for free onto a new phone. And you can order up the downloads from either the market app on your phone or the Market web site. However, the re-downloads have to be done one at a time and you have to click through the permissions and disclosures screen for each one individually. That’s not nearly as handy as the restore from backup option available for iPhones and iPads in iTunes.

Even worse, the list of installed apps in my account on the market was missing dozens of apps I had previously downloaded on my first phone. Some, like the FiOS home voice mail manager, seem kind of obscure and may be limited in their distribution. But lots of mainstream apps like the super-excellent WordPress (which beats the pants off the iOS version) or Angry Birds or Twitter were also missing. When I searched for them, the amrket did have them listed as “installed” so it clearly had kept an accurate record of my previous downloads.

Definitely an aspect of Android that needs improvement as the platform ages and more and more people face the need to transfer their apps from an old phone to a new one.

I’ve also just finished the exercise of changing dozens of passwords for all the web services and apps I use that were signed in on the old phone. Phew.

For Nexus S the Sequel, I’m investigating some better backup apps and remote find and wipe programs. I’ve already installed the useful “contact owner” app which shows my name and contact info (and the phrase “Reward for safe return”) on my login screen.

Chrome browser, Pinboard site lead the list of recent changes

Spent some time housekeeping on the blog tonight, including updating the software and services in use page.

Google’s Chrome browser, version 10, has replaced an increasingly buggy Firefox. I am really digging the way extensions have their own little button row.

I’ve also noted that I had to dump Mozy for Crashplan last month after Mozy’s mega-price hike. Public bookmark keeper Delicious got dumped for not-free replacement Pinboard. Also 1Password is on my Android phone, iPad and Macs instead of old reliable Wallet, which seemed to be pretending Android didn’t exist. And 1Password needs Dropbox to sync so I’ve added a free account there.

Finally, I cut the section on instant messaging clients, which I never use much anymore. Good bye, Adium.

Leaving Mozy’s online backup and switching to CrashPlan

What do you think you’ll do then
I bet that’ll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again
Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground

-Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

I just ended a four-year relationship and I’m feeling wistful in an Elton John sort of way. You may have seen the announcement yesterday from EMC’s online backup service Mozy that it was ending unlimited storage plans. We paid about $150 a year to back up three computers and some 300 gigabytes of data to the cloud with Mozy. Under Mozy’s new pricing structure, which starts at $6/month for one computer and 50 GB of storage, we’d have to pay almost $400 a year. Ouch.

Coincidentally, Ars Technica’s John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin of the awesome 5by5.tv podcast network were just discussing the options for cloud-based backups on their past two shows. They and others seem to favor CrashPlan as the best cloud-based backup offering for Mac users (it also has clients for Windows and Linux users).

CrashPlan still offers unlimited plans. For 1 computer for one year, it’s $50 with discounts for ordering more years at once. For two to 10 computers, the family plan starts at $120 for a year. And as often happens in situations like this, CrashPlan saw an opening and they’re offering a 15% discount to former Mozy users.

Not so simple way to grab screenshots on the Nexus S

As I’ve noted a few times, unlike the iPhone, there is no simple way to grab and save a screenshot on the Nexus S phone, or on any Android phone that hasn’t been rooted. There is a complex work-around, however, that delivers beautiful screenshots. Credit to this post from Androidcentral for getting me started.

To start, you have to download and install the appropriate Android software developers kit, or SDK, from Google here. A current version of Sun’s Java Runtime Environment is also required.

Next, start up the program in the resulting tools folder called “Android” to add a few needed pieces. On the Mac, I just added the Android 2.3 platform extra, but I believe Windows users need to also install some USB drivers.

Now, on your phone navigate to Settings > Applications > Development and check the box called “USB debugging.” Then plug the phone into your computer via a USB cord.

Go back to your Android SDK and run the program called ddms (short for Dalvik Debug Monitor Server). Your phone should be listed in the left-hand window. Click on it and then click on the menu called Tools and select “Screen capture…”

Now you should have a window come up showing exactly what’s on your phone’s screen. Hit “save” and you get a PNG-formatted screenshot saved on your computer. If you want to navigate to something else on the phone, do so and then hit the “refresh” button on the ddms screen. And, as Jerry Pournelle likes to say, Bob’s your uncle. Enjoy.

Cool and useful Android apps that aren’t on the iPhone

I’ve only been an Android phone convert for a few days, but I’m coming to appreciate the Google portable OS more and more on my new Nexus S. The notification system, the widgets and the far greater opportunity for customization are all welcome changes from my iPhone. Integration with Google Voice and my Google contacts is awesome, as expected. Freedom from AT&T’s overpriced and unreliable mobile network is a bonus.

It’s not all better. One of the biggest negatives I expected from leaving the comfy iPhone ecosystem was the loss of favorite apps including Instapaper, Evernote, Angry Birds, Kindle and so on. I quickly discovered that many, but not all, of my favorites had Android equivalents. Some, like Angry Birds and Evernote, are direct from the original developers. Others, like Goodreads and Instapaper, are native clients written by outsiders.

But I wasn’t expecting to find many Android-only apps of merit. John Gruber has blogged and tweeted extensively about his failure to discover for worthy Android-only apps excluding those made by Google.

I’m happy to report that I’ve done a bit better (and p.s. the Google apps are awesome!). Here is a first round of Android-only apps I’ve already come to use frequently. Please don’t get too excited about the why’s and wherefore’s, as this is simply a listing exercise.

1. Verizon FiOS apps, including visual home voicemail and on-demand mobile video. A game-changer for we the FiOS minions. Perhaps coming to Apple when the Verizon iPhone hits?

2. Podcast catcher Listen. I may be an iPhone idiot but it seems like I can’t easily download new podcasts I subscribe to through iTunes directly to my phone (Update: there is a 3rd-party iOS app called Podcaster). With Listen, I can subscribe to any podcast and get all the new episodes while on the go.

3. PinBoard. I’ve replaced Yahoo’s on-again/off-again bookmarking site with the Gruber-endorsed site Pinboard. There’s a great app for Android called PinDroid but I couldn’t find one for the iPhone.

4. Amazon’s MP3 store. Here’s one you are guaranteed never to see in the iTunes app store. Buy cheap MP3s on your Android phone with no fuss and no muss.

5. Baseball Prospectus. Not sure why my favorite Sabermetrically-inclined baseball site has an Android app and not one for iPhones, but there it is. Read all the articles, listen to podcasts, etc.

6. Silent VIP. This is a cool and crazily useful little app that does one thing well. Set your phone to silent mode but still have it ring when a particular caller (or set of callers) is on the line.

What’s still missing? I’d love a native Android app for my preferred photosharing site, Zenfolio. It’s just okay in the browser and the phone’s native gallery app only seems to connect with PicassaWeb. And where is LinkedIn (UPDATE: Coming soon, it seems)? As many have previously complained, there’s no easy way to take a screenshot, for some odd reason (the two apps in the market require a rooted phone!).

And my most annoying switch was caused by the lack of an Android version of Acrylic Software’s Wallet program. I had to move all my passwords over to 1Password for its multi-platform goodness and a simple export/import didn’t work. And, of course, I’ve lost the ability to buy an app once and use it across all our phones, tablets and iPods.

Living in the future, Apple style, some day

Tech journalist Harry McCracken has an excellent post up about the implications of the latest Macbook Air line. He noticed a bit in Apple’s press release that I had overlooked:

Apple® today unveiled an all new MacBook Air®, the first of a next generation of notebooks which will replace mechanical hard disks and optical drives with Internet services and solid state flash storage.

As McCracken notes, Apple is aiming to get rid of spinning platters and use all solid state memory storage sooner rather than later. That means a future with faster access to data and applications plus the “instant start-up” and sleep we already get on out iPads.

But I’m also intrigued by the reference to “Internet services” which could make the amount of storage you carry around with you much less relevant. We’ve been waiting and waiting for Apple to do something cloud-based with iTunes. Kent Anderson over at the Scholarly Kitchen blog has a good post about this today, noting some other companies like Netflix and Pandora that are moving more quickly to put the consumer at the center of their content rather than the other way around.

Amazon is leading the way with its digital video and Kindle ebook services. Both keep your content stored on Amazon’s servers so you can zap it into your local devices over and over (and for video, even watch it online anywhere with a browser). Even Amazon doesn’t let you do that with your music files, so there may be some rights issues with the record labels — that wouldn’t be a shocker.

And there is still so much more Apple could and should be doing with its MobileMe service. At $99 a year for just 20 GB of online storage (split between for email and iDisk storage), it’s no bargain. For another $49 you can bump storage up to 40 GB and up to a total of 60 GB for $99 extra, or almost $200 a year.

DropBox offers 50 GB of storage for $120. SugarSync offer 60 GB a year for $100 and 100 Gb for $150. And Google offers really, really cheap storage through GoogleDocs ($5 for 20 Gb, $100 for 400 GB and a whopping 1 TB for $256) though you can only use it through Docs, Picassa Web albums and Gmail. Amazon’s S3 is also pretty cheap ($1.80 per GB per year equal to $90 for 50 GB) and can be used in conjunction with a program like JungleDisk to mimic the auto-syncing of some of these other offerings.

So Apple is slowly moving towards a more cloud-based approach and the new MacBook Airs are a tiny step along the way. Rights holders like the record labels might be holding things back but eventually, it shouldn’t matter whether you download or stream your files, be it your latest resume, a new Batman comic or last year’s best picture winner.

p.s. if this post sounds familar, I’ve been making the same requests of Apple’s horrible MobileMe pricing for ages and last blogged about the state of online storage pricing back in January.

Assembling a network storage server from spare bits

Netgear storage serverI have a pile of old hard drives sitting in an attic closet gathering dust — but out of the hands of identity thieves, not polluting the water supply and generally staying out of trouble. So when I saw a diskless version of the Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ super-cheap, I decided to buy it and conduct a network-attached storage experiment.

The ReadyNAS is a cool little box, much smaller than a shoebox, but heavy! Feels like it’s filled with lead and that’s before you add any had drives. Set-up is simple. Pop out one to four of the hard drive sleds, use the included screws to add in a coyple o’ drives and pop the sleds back in. There’s a multi-OS setup program that you add to your computer called RAIDar. I turned on the ReadyNAS, hooked it to the network with an ethernet cable and waited. And waited and waited.

Seems the ReadyNAS had to format the two drives I added and do some additional mucket-mucking before the box was ready to use.

I left the box alone in my office for a few hours and when I came back I was able to go through all the setup tasks, including deciding whether to use the box as a Time Machine backup destination, an iTunes server and a Tivo server. You can also use it as a standard file server, a printer server and so on. By default, the box is saving everything in a redundant fashion, so the 3 TB of installed storage is only 1.5 TB of available space. I’m not sure how to alter that setting — there’s no obvious RAID settings menu — but I’m pretty sure there is a way because the product specs claim support for RAID 0, 1 and 5.

There is one down side and it’s pretty significant for some uses. The ReadyNAS is loud, really noticeably load, whenever it’s on, even if you’re not accessing the data on its disks. There’s a power saving setting that’s supposed to shut down the disks after a set amount of time but even after that’s triggered, there is still a substantial noise from teh fan. That kind of stinks unless you have a server closet and definitely rules the ReadyNAS out for home theater uses if it is to sit in the same room with you.