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My Favorite Gadgets: The Top Five

3 Mar

With the iPad 2’s arrival next week, the temptation to buy another gadget rears its expensive head once more. This time I’ll pass. At least until the the device gets handwriting recognition, then I’ll exercise my American Express card.

Forgive me, environmentalists, but I am a gadget addict. Have been for years. I have forgotten boxes of gear stuffed with everything from original iPods and Sony Walkmen to handheld printers and portable scanners. My office is littered with defunct digital cameras and outmoded laptops. I own multiple boom boxes and bicycles as well as telephones and tape recorders. I’ve got…well, you get the idea. If you stripped and sold the copper from the cables, cords, and connectors that came with all my gadgets, you’d probably drive down that commodity’s price by a substantial margin.

At various points in my life, I felt it necessary to have each and every gadget in my home. So, I understand all-too-well the impulse to buy these damn things. But what if I had to pare them down to, say, a mere five items? What would make the cut?

I gave this notion some deep thought recently and whittled my list to these:

5. iMac: I enjoy working on my iMac. It’s fast. The 20-inch display is clear and crisp. It’s everything I want in a desktop computer.

4. Bianchi mountain bike: I can’t always ride in dry weather (This is Oregon, after all.), nor do I always want to pedal on pavement. Going offroad is fun and terrific exercise; something I can only experience cycling with a mountain bike.

3. iPhone: Everyone these days needs a cellphone. Although not a perfect device, Apple’s smartphone is good enough to make my list.

2. MacBook Air: The best computer I’ve ever used. No contest. Lightning fast. Feather light. Decent battery life. A perfect computer for our times.

1. Torelli road bike: I’ve owned this bike for nine years. I have ridden tens of thousands of miles on it. It’s great for 100 mile long, slow trips as well as ten-mile, all-out quick rides. Fact is, if I could only keep one gadget, it would be this machine.

If you had to choose among the gadgets you own, what would make your top five list?

AT&T: The Good, the Not-So Bad, and the Darn-Near Pretty

7 Feb

Go to Google. Type in “I Hate AT&T” (with the quotation marks) and you’ll get around 209,000 hits. That’s a lot of dissatisfied customers. And it’s the given reason why so many iPhone users will switch to Verizon later this month.

But now key in “I Hate Verizon” (inside the quotes) and, if you’re like me, the search engine will return 207,000 results. Within the context of the Internet, that’s an equal amount of expressed dissatisfaction. Maybe those angry iPhone users might want to reconsider their plans.

When Cathie and I arrived in the Willamette Valley we were Cingular Wireless customers with another year to run on our contract. Luckily my company set me up with two landlines because Cingular’s cell towers could not get a strong enough signal to our house. But within a year, the company improved its technology and we got decent, though not great reception. However, I was skeptical and called the company to express my doubts about continuing with its service once our commitment expired.

Instead of getting a bunch of excuses, I got an intelligent description of how Cingular planned to continuously update its technology in our area. Plus, I got an attractive offer for new phones and cheaper rates.

Over the years, even after Cingular became AT&T Wireless and then just AT&T, our service has improved. While riding my mountain bike in narrow ravines or my road bike on remote country roads in the region I seem to be able to get a good enough signal when I need it, whether I was using a Nokia candy bar cell phone, a Samsung flip phone, and, of course, my current iPhone. And I don’t think I’ve had a dropped call in five years. Maybe longer.

On the rare occasions when I visit an AT&T retail store I’ve found the staff competent and eager. Most recently I dropped by to reduce my monthly data usage fee and I was treated as if I was upgrading to a top-of-the-line contract. Also, the company’s website is  comprehensive, responsive, and easy to use.

So, why does AT&T’s service get such bad press and attract the ire of folks like comedian Jon Stewart? I know a couple new Verizon users who tell me they regret their change. Not, they say, because the service is worse than they got from AT&T but because it’s about the same.

Here’s my theory: some people expect a wireless cell phone to be as rock solid as the land line they grew up with. When it isn’t, they get angry. But their fanciful expectations taint their relationship with the service provider…forever. AT&T and Verizon, being among the biggest wireless companies in the U.S., receive the brunt of this customer dissatisfaction.

Think I’m wrong? Key “I Hate Nextel” into Google. Only 18,100 people have expressed their ire about its service in that manner. Do the same for T-Mobile and Google yields 65,000 hits. Will you change to either of its offerings because fewer people whine about their service? I won’t. One friend who uses T-Mobile couldn’t get any signal at my house. These carriers may have far fewer angry customers than AT&T or Verizon, but there’s a reason for it. They have fewer people to piss off.

And just to be clear: I have no business relationship with AT&T. I don’t own its stock. I’m just a long-time satisfied customer. Imagine that.

Cyclemeter: A Back to the Future App

20 Jan

Since the 1970s until a few years ago someone always gave me a weekly desk planner for Christmas. They had laid flat on my work area; on one side of the plastic spiral binding was a lovely photo paired opposite with a page for the days of the week, each day having ample room to note the social and work events of my life.

I recently unearthed my 2005 calendar, the last I had used, featuring Heidelberg and published by Braus im Vachter Verlag in the same town. It included some exceptional photographs of the German city by Andrew Cowin. It was a gift from a friend who lives there. My copy was festooned with entries in my scrawl about most of my bike rides for that year. At a glance I could see the weeks when I was active or which ones I was sitting on my butt.

Sometimes in my notations I’d jot down where I went and how many miles. Seeing those entries again made me wish I was more diligent today about keeping track of my rides. Since 2005, however, I have not had a weekly calendar to immortalize my comings and goings. I have migrated my business and personal appointments to software calendars all synchronized on my desktops, laptops, and smartphones. But I no longer make daily notations of my bike rides. As a numbers-obsessed guy, I miss having that information about my bicycle workouts, though I am too lazy to log my rides day-to-day.

Now, with an iPhone app, I’m able to go back to those good ol’ days as I pedal into the future.

Cyclemeter 4.0, an iPhone app from Abvio LLC of San Francisco, collects the data of my rides and automatically tucks it away in my iCal app and syncs it with my iPhone, MacBook Air, and iMac calendars as well as my online calendar at me.com. And it keeps tabs on my rides by the week and month, which is a nice little touch. This feature alone makes the $4.99 price of the app worth every penny.

Cyclemeter is, as with almost every iPhone app I own, effortless to use. There’s no need for a manual or instructions to get going. You tap on the app, it opens to the Stopwatch screen with blank fields and big red “Start” button. Once you click the obvious, you’re on your way and the app is gathering volumes of data for your entire ride.

In addition to the Stopwatch and Calendar soft buttons, Cyclemeter has a Google Maps view of your ride as well as one that lets you see a list of the rides you’ve taken and saved. The More… button gives you another handful of options such as Remote Control, which lets you stop and start the app if your earphone has a remote control feature. You also can send mail and update your Facebook and Twitter accounts with a simple tap of the screen.

While the app launches in Cycle mode, the versatile app also tracks eight other activities, everything from Drive in your car to Walk, Swim, Skate, and more. It is a good general-purpose GPS tool. Because you can organize and track these activities, you can measure how you’re improving in them over time.

Although you can use Cyclemeter while listening to your On the Go music selection with the iPod app, using both is not as straightforward as it is in my MotionX GPS app. And if your earphones do not have a remote control button, getting to and from the music or answering phone calls involves a lot of back and forth between apps.

But for versatility of the device and its unique Calendar feature, Cyclemeter is an exceptional app for people who want to keep records of their active lives. As with the best of tools, it doesn’t just keep tabs of what you do, it motivates you to do them.

Not Every Essential Police Call Is 9-1-1 Worthy

15 Nov

Last Friday night David, Cathie, and I were on Interstate 5 returning from an Apple Store near Portland. Just as we drove around a hill we could see the overpass on our exit lit up like a Christmas tree with emergency vehicle lights. While I drove David and Cathie counted the number of police, fire, and other official trucks and cars perched above the freeway.

“Nine!”

“Eleven!”

A lot, to be sure. Because the event was on the opposite side of the exit that we took, we did not drive by the scene and so could not see what caused such an emergency response. Our curiosity prompted me to buy the local paper the next morning and surf its website as well as visit the city and state police websites in search of a clue.

Nothing.

However, it turns out there’s an iPhone app that got me the information I needed.

Police Anywhere by Eaglevision Productions Inc. has non-emergency contact information for police departments in every city in the United States. It is a valuable tool that, if broadly available, will cut down on unnecessary, inappropriate, and wasteful 9-1-1 calls. It can also provide users with a quick way to get important police-related information. For example, if you’re visiting a town and your car gets towed, it’s hardly an emergency situation, but most police departments will be able to tell you how to get your vehicle back, if you only knew where to call. Police Anywhere gets you that phone number.

Police Anywhere is probably the simplest iPhone app I’ve ever used. Open it up and you get two options: Auto Find and Browse. The first choice uses your iPhone’s GPS function to locate which jurisdiction you’re in, then, lickity split, the number appears. A single tap on the screen gives you a splash screen asking if you want to cancel the task or dial the police. When you tap Call, it dials the number.

You can use the browse feature, which guides you to local police contact information by state, then county, then city or town. I would prefer to browse by city or to have a search  tool. But given Police Anywhere is in release 1.1, I expect enhancements along these lines in future versions.

For business travelers and vacationers, Police Anywhere is an exceptionally simple yet exceptionally valuable app to have on hand. And at $1.99, it’s cheap insurance.

Oh, by the way, I used Police Anywhere to call and learn what happened last Friday. It was a non-injury accident.

Apple’s iTunes 10: An Off-Key Upgrade

8 Sep

Unless you’re a big fan of Ping or have fancy AirPlay speakers, iTunes 10 is a flop. It’s not faster. It does not automatically include existing settings in different albums from previous 9.x versions. And it is much, much less attractive.

Also, at least for me, it introduced a glitch. Since I upgraded my Mac to iTunes 10, every time I connect my iPhone to my computer, for some inexplicable reason, the ImageCapture application launches and stops the syncing process until I close app. There does not appear to be a straightforward way to stop it from happening. (Any help here is appreciated. Image Capture 6.0.1 does not have a Preferences file to fix and the one in iTunes does not offer any help.)

My biggest complaint, though, is the new look and feel of iTunes. Is BORING the new cool at Apple? Have color highlights that help navigate through software been banned by aesthetics idiots at the company? Is making an application more difficult to use considered hip and cutting edge? By comparing version 9 on my wife’s machine and version 10 on mine I’d say Apple responded with a resounding “yes” to all those questions.

Sometimes app developers, particularly on the user-interface side, feel compelled to change things just to rationalize their existence on a payroll. They eschew the famous expression “If it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Instead, they just rush ahead and break things.

I wish I had never upgraded to iTunes 10. My advice to others is to skip it as well.

Mac Users: Stop Being Smug About Security

4 Aug

Apple’s software, especially Safari, QuickTime, and its OS X have all exposed major security flaws to hackers over the years; the most recent being a major problem with its browser that was revealed last month. Still, Macintosh users worry less about security than Windows users do.

But for those Mac fans who also use iPhones, they should start worrying. A lot.

Part of Mac users’ sanguine attitude about security stems from the dearth of malware directed against the platform. Many take comfort in the “security through obscurity” argument, which contends Macs are safer because of a low market share, making them a less popular target for criminal hackers. Why send out your malware to attack 5% of the market when you can release it for the other 95%?

That happy situation for Mac users could be changing because of the iPhone. As recently reported, iPhone (and Android) apps contain malware that steals information on your handheld device. With literally hundreds of millions of these devices shipping annually, they make for a potential windfall for criminals. That’s because instead of stealing your contact list, which may just add to spam problems, these new apps will be ripping off your bank accounts.

The current Consumers & Convergence study released last month by KPMG shows a huge jump by consumers in their use of mobile devices to conduct financial transactions. That means they store bank and brokerage account and, likely, password information on their handhelds, making them ideal playgrounds for illegal exploits.

Further, Apple’s smartphone is becoming more deeply integrated into the OS X core. The company even delivers a single development toolset for both OS X and the iPhone, meaning a security flaw is more likely to affect both your Mac and your Apple cellphone.

This new and more dangerous security landscape makes it imperative for Mac users to let the scales fall from their eyes and see that their online world is just as scary as those who use Windows machines. They need to vet apps more critically before downloading them. They need to keep their software up to date. They need to invest in anti-virus tools. And they need to stop being smug when it comes to computer security.

Crashing iPhone

8 Jul

Smartphones, like the one I own from Apple and the Android device I covet from HTC, are becoming more like computers. As such, they are unlike traditional cellphones in a critical way: they are less reliable.

I’ve had at least a half dozen standard cellphones since the early 1990s. Not once can I recall when one froze up or crashed on me. But since I’ve upgraded my iPhone 3G to the 4.0 version of the device’s software last week, it’s been frozen in its tracks twice: once while using a third-party app and once while using Apple’s integrated iPod app.

The duration of each event was about five or more minutes. The iPhone stopped in mid-haptic experience and would not react to any command. It would not even shut off when I pushed the power button. But after a while the device would shut itself down (probably because I had been frantically holding down the power button to reboot while cursing Steve Jobs’ genealogical roots), whereupon I could turn it on again.

I’m not alone in experiencing this problem using iPhone 4.0 on my 3G unit. Nor is it a problem specific to older handsets because iPhone 4 users also experience similar problems. Androids crash, too. (I think it’s fair to say that when Windows 7-based smartphones appear, occasionally they will experience a  mobile version of the Blue Screen of Death, too.) This is not progress.

Telephony is supposed to be reliable. People expect phones to work all the time. Ma Bell built out the nation’s phone network to the highest level of reliability possible, five-nines reliability. That is, phones should be able to work 99.999% of the time. My two iPhone outages already put well below five nines for 2010.

People understand that computers crash. They hate it, but they understand that’s the price we pay to use them. That’s not supposed to be the case for a telephone, but it seems to be the price we’ll pay because while smartphones may get more capable they will also get less reliable.

I had been thinking about dumping my old Qwest landline since I use my iPhone for my free-lance work. I figured I didn’t need wired technology any longer. Given my recent experiences with a crashing iPhone, I think I’ll keep the landline for a while. I need something I can count on because it’s certainly not my smartphone.