Category Archives: software

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.

The iPhone has lost its lead and needs a rethink, not a retread

“iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,” Steve Jobs, Jan 9, 2007

Introducing the iPhone

From the first version of the iPhone through at least a couple of revisions of its hardware and software, the thing stood so far ahead of any other phone in existence that anyone without one just cried and moaned and if you had the chance to get one you jumped. If your mom or your cousin or the guy three cubicles down asked which phone to buy, you replied without hesitation: get the iPhone.

Starting a few years ago, other phone makers started to catch up and the choice got harder — or at least more interesting. You paused for a few seconds, thought about Android or maybe web OS, but gave the usual advice: get the iPhone.

But finally, in the past year or two, the choice of smart phone got a lot more complicated, especially if you weren’t already deeply invested in Apple’s vast iTunes ecosystem. Among other recent and obvious evidence, check longtime Mac columnist Andy Ihnatko’s column about switching to Android, uber Apple booster Matt Siegler’s positive review of the Google Nexus 4 and Macworld writer Lex Friedman’s general praise of the Nokia Lumia 920 phone running Windows Phone 8. What’s next? Long time Apple blogger John Gruber admits he’s head over heels for Samsung’s Bada-Tizen hybrid phone love child?

Sixth anniversary celebration, anyone?

Personally, I finally got rid of work-mandated Blackberries and got an iPhone 3GS in 2009. But curiosity and a predilection for Google services got the better of me and I switched to a Nexus S running Android in December, 2010. I tried to switch back via the iPhone 4S for a few months in late 2011, but ended up not liking it, mainly for software-related reasons. Lately, I’m quite happy with a Galaxy Nexus and looking forward to trying the Nexus 4 soon.

None of this is to say that the iPhone is about to collapse or immediately decline in popularity. But what’s happened is others have closed the gap and have been able to grab more share in the still fast-expanding global market for smart phones. Eventually, those gains can’t help but eat into Apple’s future sales.

Given how Apple let its early lead in personal computing slip away, but did not let an early lead in iPods evaporate, the company knows what it needs to do, I suspect. Apple slipped in PCs when it ignored where the market was headed and what customers wanted (more recently, its fortunes revived with cheaper models and a broader range of choices). In the case of the iPod, Apple broadened its line by adding offerings at various sizes, colors and price points while still innovating at the cutting edge with the iPod Touch. Competitors were left no empty spaces to get a toe hold.

For a while, the iPhone was so far ahead of the competition that Apple’s simple product line was more than enough to capture huge market share. But as Android phone makers have caught up, the iPhone’s worldwide share peaked and started to slip. Apple so far has left several “open spaces” in the market, allowing competitors like Samsung to thrive by offering phones with larger screen sizes and at lower prices (even the “free” iPhone 4S in the United States costs $450 without a subsidy from a wireless carrier).

At this juncture, I expect the next iPhone will be a 5S-ish upgrade and will do quite well in isolation. But Apple should do what it did with the iPod and hit more price points and physical outlines. The software could use a lot more than that, updating a look that’s grown stale. Otherwise, it could be back to the PC future for Apple.

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.

Yikes, Microsoft’s Time Machine clone leaves out tons of important stuff

(Updated to include a way to unhide files and add them to a “library” for backup)

Basically, this post is a warning to anyone using the new File History backup program in Windows 8. The program is severely limited because it will only back up files in a few preset locations that can’t be expanded. If you have almost any third-party program that saves its own data, File History is leaving you exposed. There is a fix, but it takes a little mucking around.

In my case, for example, I have gazillions of email messages stored by the program Postbox. The mail is kept in a huge folder in my personal Windows user folder under PostBox’s own folder in the application data area. None of the stuff that your applications have saved here is backed up by File History — none. And you can’t add it, either.

Update: As several commenters have noted, there is a way to get this data added to the backup set. In the Windows File Explorer, navigate to your personal directory and under the View section of the ribbon bar, click for a check in the box called “hidden files.” Then a folder in your directory called AppData should be exposed. Right click on the folder and choose “Include in library…” and add the folder to one of the libraries which is backed up by File History. Phew!

All that File History will save by default are “files that are in your libraries, contacts, favorites, Microsoft SkyDrive and on your desktop,” according to Microsoft. That is a huge hole, especially if you don’t rely on the My Documents, My Pictures and other “library” folders set up in Windows. Even if you do, third-party programs that store their data exactly where they are supposed to will not benefit from File History unless you use the trick above to add them.

That’s a shame because File History is supposed to be Microsoft’s version of the drop-dead easy to use Apple backup program Time Machine. Both work behind the scenes to back stuff up on an automatic schedule without the user having to remember. And both give quick access to old versions of files within the File Explorer/Finder program. But you can set Time Machine to backup anything from just a few files to your entire disk.

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.

Fail Fail Fail iPad

Checking out the 20 inch luggable tablet from sony“If the heap of new products that Microsoft showed here Sunday is any indication of the future of computing, the desktop PC is old news,” or so read the lead story from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yeah, desktop sales are tanking. Tablet sales are exploding. Yeah, desktops are old news, right on. Oh wait, that’s the lead story from PC World’s report on CES in November 2000, more than 12 years ago.

I offer this little historical gem as a bit of perspective and, perhaps, counter-prediction to much of the snarky and dismissive commentary emanating from this year’s CES. Sure, there are some great targets for comedy, like bragging about a phone you can take in the shower (“The Xperia Z can even survive being dropped in the toilet” – great, does it dispense hand sanitizer after that?). But with the entire computer industry in the midst of a transition from boring old form factors to exciting new varieties, that ugly dog you laugh at today may become best in show in a few years.

Looking back at earlier efforts to build tablet computers, you can see the ideas and the technologies evolve. Slowly, the expanding computing abilities of tablets enabled more and better uses and at more affordable prices. The iPad only came along after many, many duds and failures, including even from Apple (although the ill-fated Newton did produce one of the funniest bits ever in Doonesbury).

It wasn’t obvious from the start which features would be most compelling. Bill Gates’ original vision focused on a hybrid of the features of computer applications and a pad of paper. In the first couple of years, the big manufacturers all got on board and built tablets but in a dizzying array of different forms — folding tablets, hybrid tablets with keyboards, many of the same form factors that have shown up again this year at CES, oddly enough. None had mobile broadband and most weighed as much or more than laptops.

I’m not trying to argue that we will all one day be playing virtual air hockey on our computers. But there is some merit to the larger tablets and luggable touch screen computers that will only increase as they get lighter and more powerful.

The other day, my eight-year-old daughter and I were in a local Best Buy perusing one of these weird new form factors — Sony’s Tab computer. That’s it pictured at the top of the post.  It’s your basic all-in-one desktop computer with a 20″ screen. But by adding a small battery and touch sensors, Sony’s also created a giant, luggable tablet. It weighs about 12 pounds and the battery lasts for only an hour or two, but you can see where it’s going. My daughter enjoyed the drawing program, sorting photos and editing photos was a whole new experience and it’s a fine way to watch a movie.

So maybe it’s time to reconsider that most infamous 2001 prediction Gates made about tablets — “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” After being claim chowdered to death on that one, now it seems he was just a bit optimistic on the timing.

 

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.

Amazon is discounting ebooks, whenever it’s allowed to, unlike Apple

Some really silly journalism covering the ebook marketplace today. It starts with this really bad, no good article in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. The headline gets off to a completely wrong start — “Little Sign of predicted E-Book Price War” — and it goes down hill from there, as Streitfeld asserts there was going to be a “ferocious price war over ebooks.” Who was ever saying that? Of course, it was the made-up nightmare scenario that publishers were screaming about after they got sued for illegally conspiring to raise ebook prices. Streitfeld never explains that and actively seeks to mislead the reader, writing those expectations were “fueled by Amazon.” It’s a bad set-up that only gets worse.

Next, he asserts that prices have “selectively fallen but not as broadly or as drastically as anticipated.” No data, not a shred, is offered to back up this bold assertion, not even the usual misleading average price of all best-sellers publishers have sometimes cited in the past (an average which included all the sales of 99 cent independently published ebooks). Even a brief look at Amazon’s prices compared with the high price leader, Apple, makes it pretty obvious that a ton of discounting is occurring. It is limited because two of the big six publishers are still banning discounts and another, Penguin, just settled and is not yet allowing discounts, either. But on ebooks where Amazon can discount, it is doing so to the tune of 15% or more.

Compare, for example, ebook prices of the New York Times fiction best-seller list on Amazon and Apple. On four of the top 10, both carry the ebooks at $12.99. And, no surprise, in all four cases the publishers are still banning all discounting. Another older book is priced at $9.99 on both and, again, discounting is banned. On the other five, Amazon is discounting every single one, with the average price $10.93 versus $12.19 for Apple. It’s the same if you go deeper down the list or look at non-fiction.

The biggest laugh-out-loud line comes next:

“The $10 floor that publishers fought so hard to maintain for popular new novels is largely intact.”

See the old switcheroo there? Publishers hated the $10 price — the whole point of their illegal, price fixing scheme was to kill the $10 price. They weren’t trying to maintain a $10 floor — they were trying to push the “floor” up to at least $13 to $15. And that effort has failed. Amazon itself wasn’t trying to get below $10 for best sellers. In fact, even before the illegal price fixing, Amazon often priced best sellers between $11 and $12, just like it’s doing now. Jeff Bezos was going around back in 2009 and saying he intended to make a profit on ebooks as a stand alone business. And that’s right back where Amazon is pricing. Not to mention that we still don’t have a true free market for ebooks as even publishers forced to allow some price cutting retain the ability to limit the amount of overall discounting. Also left out of this narrative is the massive growth of independently published ebooks at prices well below $10. The price fixing conspiracy certainly fed the growth of this part of the market and gave Bezos plenty of cheap offerings for Amazon customers looking for bargains. That wasn’t true back when the Kindle first started.

Streitfeld then picks the one book on the best seller list that’s discounted the least by Amazon as his example. Prices of the other discountable titles are all cut by more. Lame. My favorite example, if we’re going to cherry pick, is JK Rowling’s new novel, A Casual Vacancy, which the publisher was selling for $18 as an ebook, now cut to $12.74 by Amazon.

Then come a couple of wacky theories to explain the lack of discounting, which obviously have to be pretty wacky since they are meant to explain a non-existent phenomenon. It’s the slow down in ebook buying growth rates. It’s the demise of Borders (a true WTF). It’s Amazon holding back. Blah, blah, blah.

I love the next bit where Streitfeld cites an ebook market forecast from two years ago as “typically ebullient.” It’s James McQuivey calling for $2.8 billion of ebook sales in 2015. Crazy? Insane? Hmm, maybe right on. Ebook sales last year hit $2.1 billion and up some 34 percent this year, according to Streitfeld, thus reaching — wait for it — $2.8 billion.

The finish is, of course, the most wrong: “this might be as cheap as ebooks will ever be.” That’s pretty unlikely given that Penguin is about to allow discounting again and Macmillan is being prosecuted in court for its recalcitrance.

A second, slightly better piece from Laura Hazard Owen needs a few corrections, too. She buys into the data-free assertion that prices haven’t fallen and the headline is off-base. But she’s correct to point out that not all ebooks were sold at $9.99 before the wave of price fixing in 2010 — though I’m pretty sure she has previously gone along with publishers assertions that Amazon cut everything to $9.99 in the bad, old days (I’ll have to double-check). And she explains that Amazon’s ability to discount now is still limited, as I explained above.

Ironically, it’s the element of competition that she seems to get wrong. Apple isn’t discounting to match Amazon. It’s sticking with high prices. So whereas when Amazon was the only major player, it used $9.99 as a kind of promotional advertising, a psychological sweet spot, now it has a simpler task of undercutting the actual prices of the competition. No need for psychology, there’s a whole ebook marketplace consumers can see. And in the new market where Apple likes to sell for at least $13 when it can, a discount to $11 looks pretty enticing.

But Owen doesn’t get it as she writes: ” These retailers have all shown themselves willing to match Amazon’s price drops on ebooks. The prices aren’t always exactly the same across stores, but they are at least close enough that there is little incentive to switch retailers if you’re already using a platform you like.”

That’s the chuckler in her piece. Prices are not that close. And there’s less platform lock in than ever — it’s easy to switch around. Amazon offers free ereading software for almost any platform including the iPad, iPhone and Mac. Ironically, it seems to be the higher-priced competition that’s having the biggest impact on Amazon’s pricing, creating a price umbrella that has eased the pressure to price at $9.99.

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.