24 Hours with the Pebble smartwatch

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Let’s cut to the chase. I didn’t intend to only spend a day with the Pebble. I wanted it to be my new everyday watch. I read glowing reviews of it at Verge and Engadget. I even read a not-so-glowing review at CNET, but it wasn’t enough to scare me off. I needed a new watch and with the brand new Pebble appstore going live last Monday, I figured now was as good a time as any to get one.

Also, I was eyeing a Fitbit Force as a fitness tracking device. They cost as much as a Pebble, and the Pebble is a full-fledged micro-computer, not just a sensor strapped to your wrist. The Pebble has a range of fitness apps it can run (which I’ll get to in a bit), so it seemed like a no-brainer purchase.

Note: the Pebble now comes in a fancier “steel” version that has a slimmer profile and a slicker overall appearance, but it costs $250 and the functionality is the same.

449A4648For those unfamiliar with the Pebble, it’s a watch with an e-ink display (the same as you’ll find on a Kindle, which means it uses very little power), a small processor, and various sensors. It’s designed to work as a companion to a smart phone (via an always-on Bluetooth connection which, yes, will drain your phone’s power a bit faster than usual). The Pebble should be able to go 5-7 days between charges, which is accomplished via a magnetic connector similar to those on Mac laptops.

The Pebble’s strength lies in its ability to relay any notification you can get on your phone — new text, email, incoming call, Twitter mention, upcoming appointment, sports score update, etc. — to your wrist.  The Pebble works with any app that can “push” a notification to your phone’s home screen. Some apps have even been optimized to work specifically with the Pebble, offering even greater flexibility and options. Whenever you get a new text, for example, your wrist will vibrate and the entire text will appear on your watch. Unless you want to respond immediately, no need to go digging around for your cell. Darren Murph over at BGR wrote extensively in his review about how the Pebble fundamentally changed the way he interacts with his phone and, to a lesser degree, other people.

During my time with the Pebble, I found the notifications worked as promised. The only problem?  I don’t get that many messages throughout the day, and I don’t particular like giving individual apps the power to notify me at will.  This isn’t a feature I’d been yearning for.  What I really wanted to try out was the appstore.

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The Pebble appstore is built into the official (and free) iOS app that’s needed to set-up the Pebble.  (The Android appstore is still in beta.) At launch on Monday, there was no shortage of apps to choose from.  Big names like Yelp and Fourquare were represented, in addition to hundreds of more independent offerings. Some Pebble apps require additional software on your iPhone, but those are clearly marked so there are no surprises.

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Do you like the idea of changing your watch face every five minutes? Great! There are literally hundreds available, completely for free, and I’m sure soon there will be thousands. My favorite was a rather basic watch face that showed the time, date, and current weather.

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In case you haven’t noticed, the screen isn’t in color. It’ll be some time before color e-ink displays are readily available for the masses.

They had an app that’ll control your Nest thermostat from your wrist, and it actually worked. They had another that claimed to control your Sonos sound system, but I couldn’t get it to work at all. (FYI: Neither were official offerings from Nest and Sonos, but, rather, from fans of those products.)

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Above you can see what the Pebble app manager looks like.  The Pebble only allows 8 apps/watch faces on your Pebble at one time, but you can download many, many more to your smart phone and keep them in a “locker” ’til you need them on your watch.

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I tried out two different kinds of fitness tracking apps.  One app was wholly contained on the watch, utilizing your Pebble’s accelerometer to track your movement (i.e. steps). The other syncs up with an app that runs on your iPhone, using the phone’s far more sensitive sensors.

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Moveable is a free iPhone app that sends fitness-related data to your Pebble.

I found neither method was all that reliable. The entirely self-contained Pebble app only works when that app is running on your watch (which makes sense, as the Pebble doesn’t seem to support background processes). Want a different watch face while you track your steps? Too bad. The other kind of Pebble fitness app — the kind that’s tethered to an iPhone app — doesn’t have that limitation. It’ll keep a constant tab of your movement regardless of what else is running on your watch because all the heavy lifting is done by the phone. The downside of this method: Since it relies on the sensors in your phone, you have to always have your phone on your body.  No phone in your pocket, no movement data will be collected.

I’m sure better fitness apps are yet to come, but I’m not convinced the Pebble will ever be able to replace a dedicated fitness band like the Fitbit or Jawbone Up.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I returned it. So what did I get?  That’ll be the subject of my next blog post.

Don’t get me wrong: The Pebble is an inventive, practical, reasonably priced device that offers a heap of functionality and versatility.  If the large, plastic-y, design of the 1st gen Pebble doesn’t launch your rocket, maybe the sleeker new Steel Pebble will.  If my needs were slightly different, I probably would’ve kept it.

Nothing’s Lost Forever: Data Recovery For When You Need It Most

A little over two months ago, my newborn daughter took her first breaths, and I was there with my new camera.  I documented her first day like Errol Morris on crack.  First bath? Check. First snuggle with mom? Check. First poop? Check. For two days, while we were all stored up at the hospital, I snapped away.  Then came time to take a look at what I got…

Nothing. The computer told me that the memory card was empty.

Back in the camera, though, the SD card showed all my photos and video were present.  So everything was there… it’s just that none of it was readable to the computer.  Curious, I put the memory card back into my Macbook Air’s SD slot.  I loaded up Disk Utility, Apple’s handy diagnostic/repair tool for storage devices.  Sure enough, Disk Utility found an error on the SD card.  I hit the “repair” button and, boom, the SD card was “fixed.”  No more errors.

But no more pictures either.

Whatever Disk Utility did to “fix” the memory card wound up making it appear empty to both the laptop and the camera now, too.  Oops.

“That’s okay, it’s just all the video and photo I took from the first two days of my daughter’s life, I’m sure I’ll have another chance to capture those same exact memories” is not what I said.  I was pissed.  Of all the pictures I’d ever take with this camera, those were the most unreproducible.

So I scoured the internet for an application that could retrieve deleted files.  This is where you have to be careful.  In all truthfulness, if you have good online habits, you can avoid viruses and spyware with 99% certainty without the need for any anti-virus software.  Downloading programs off the internet, though, is not a good online habit.  Malware, like vampires, typically can’t enter your computer unless it’s invited.  The most harmless (and seemingly useful) application could really be a nasty trojan horse.  You have to be careful to whom you open your door.

Even though I’m a tech guy, I’ve don’t have much data recovery experience. I’m such a devout believer in backing up, I’ve never really lost a file before. A Google search turned up a lot of programs, but I didn’t know which companies were trustworthy.  Before you download any software you intend to run on your computer, always look into the company.  Look for reviews from as many reputable sources that you can.

One of the programs I came across is called FileSalvage.  It claimed to be able to recover image and video file formats specific to my Canon camera, so it immediately rose to the top of the list of programs I wanted to try.  I then set out to find some reviews.  Various user forums had people both praising and complaining about the product — but the complaints were limited to people who didn’t think it worked for their needs or hated the speed/interface.  No one complained of malware.  And I even found a couple positive legit reviews of it.  It didn’t matter if the reviews were from several years ago — it’s actually a good sign if a program has been around for a while and is continually updated.

So I downloaded FileSalvage from their main website (always get it from the source) and installed it, fingers crossed.  The free demo mode is limited to just telling you it found a lot of files and not much more than that. You definitely can’t recover anything for free. But that’s par for the course with a lot of programs.  Just enough free functionality to peak your interest, and that’s it.

When you run data recovery programs on a storage device, the software will scan for anything it can find, even files you intentionally deleted a long time ago.  The free preview found A LOT of files on the SD card… but I had no way of knowing for sure whether it found my most recent pics and video.  At this point, though, I had nothing to lose besides $80, so I bought a user license and unlocked the “recovery features” of the program.

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FileSalvage can’t tell you anything about the files you’re recovering other than “file type” and “size.”  That’s all the info you get before you start recovering.  No metadata of any kind, not even original file names.  At this point, there’s a bit of wishing and hoping that that the files I wanted were among the thousand it found.  I went ahead and recovered all of them.

Note:  The way digital storage works, files are never truly deleted.  When you delete a file or do a routine format of a hard drive, the file structure is merely changed to allow new files to be rewritten over old ones.  The less you use a memory card (or hard drive, flash drive, etc), the more likely you can recover deleted missing files. (Because of this fact, it’s unwise to restore recovered files to the same drive you’re restoring from.)  If you’re ever giving away a computer and want all your old data as hard to recover as possible, do a specialized format that overwrites old data as it formats.

So what was the verdict on FileSalvage?  After going through all the recovered files, I got all the videos and pictures back that went missing.  Yay.  Well worth the $80 even if I never use this program again.

Review: Google Chromecast — Google’s most Apple-like product yet?

72 hours ago, “Chromecast” was just a good name for a podcast on hood ornaments. Now it’s the “it” item in the tech world, selling out online within a day (though I had no problems walking into Best Buy today and walking out with one — they had plenty in stock).

In my “premature thoughts” column three days ago, I had tempered enthusiasm for the product. I knew it wasn’t going to outright replace the Apple TV in my media room nor the PS3 in my family room (my current online streaming devices) simply because the Chromecast didn’t offer any groundbreaking new features not found in either of those devices. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not having a whole lot of new features is okay if the things it does do, it does really, really well.

In this way, Chromecast might just be Google’s most Apple-like product yet. Apple is the king of streamlining devices, taking away features that offer more clutter and confusion than practicality. Particularly in the Steve Jobs era, if Apple felt like there was a better way of doing something, they just did it, and without giving people the option of continuing to do things the old way (for better and for worse). In this regard, Chromecast feels like a play right out of the Jobs playbook. Google’s bread and butter is in the cloud. Chromecast is built to access that cloud faster and easier than any other streaming device. Locally stored media is an afterthought (and in the case of accessing media stored on your phone, it’s not a thought at all — there’s no way to do it). Does Google care? Nope. Like Apple, they’re betting on what you’ll want to do tomorrow, not what you want to do today.

All that said, it’s still a piece of brand new technology. Results will vary. So how did it actually work for me?

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I didn’t buy the product just to review it. I bought it wanting to keep it. Specifically, I wanted it for my bedroom, which currently has no way to access Netflix (or any other online streaming service, for that matter).

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The bedroom TV is ANCIENT for a plasma HDTV. It’s also “off brand” (unless you consider Sceptre a brand, which I don’t). The set is nearly a decade old and is the only piece of technology my wife brought with her to the marriage. It’s not a smart TV. It’s not even a dumb TV. It’s barely a TV at all. It has more analog connections than digital ones, and just one HDMI port. USB? Nope. If Google Chromecast can work on this TV, then it’ll work on any TV.

The good news: The HDTV’s sole HDMI port was free since our DirecTV box has to use component video cables (for reasons I won’t go into here). The Chromecast requires a separate power source, though. You can either plug it into a USB port or into a wall socket. But the nearest wall socket was too far away and the TV didn’t have USB. So what did I do? I used the USB port on the DirecTV box. The Chromecast ONLY needs USB for power, so just about any USB port on any device will do. So I powered Chromecast up, opened my laptop, and downloaded the Chromecast software needed to set it up.

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The laptop found the Chromecast and the set-up wizard began doing its thing. Before the Chromecast goes onto your wifi network, it first sets up it’s own mini wifi network. The set-up software will temporarily take your computer off your home wifi network and put it onto the Chromecast’s mini-network, so they can talk. Pretty smart. The set-up wizard is very good at explaining what’s going on. At no point are you left to wonder what’s happened and if you should be doing something.

So far, everything was working just like it should.

Until it didn’t.

When it came time for the Chromecast to finally put itself onto my home’s wifi network, the Chromecast couldn’t find it. The signal was strong on all other wifi devices in the room — laptop, iPhone, and Blackberry — but the Chromecast couldn’t pick up a wifi signal at all. Thinking the Chromecast might simply be broken, I hooked it up in the family room, to see if it would work there.

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The Vizio in the family room had a nice empty HDMI port right next to a USB port. Very convenient. Not-so-convenient? The fact that the dongle wasn’t completely hidden by the TV’s bezel.

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As you can see above, the USB cable couldn’t help but protrude a bit. The good news? In this room, the Chromecast had no problem finding a strong enough wifi signal. Everything was good to go. And it worked as advertised. Apps with the ability to “cast” built-in, worked great, even on my iPhone. (Note: There are only a handful of supported Apps at the moment.) From a computer, web pages with video and audio can add a “casting option” which will send content directly to the Chromecast, just like the mobile apps do. Netflix.com and Youtube.com already have this ability. Others, like the Washington Post website, have already announced plans to incorporate this ability soon.

But you don’t NEED the web page to be optimized for Chromecast for it to work. It’s only a “beta” function at moment, but the Chromecast is able to “mirror” a Chrome browser window on your computer. This will allow you to send almost any web-based content to your TV. I was expecting the feature to be rather buggy, but it actually worked well despite its limitations.

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Every time I’d “mirror” a web page to the Chromecast, I’d get a white screen that wouldn’t go away until I hit the “cast” button a second time. I imagine this bug will be fixed in short time.

You can only mirror a single browser tab at a time, but that’s understandable. To mirror an entire desktop would require some sort of integration into the OS itself. Maybe one day Android devices will offer that level of integration, but that day isn’t today. Or tomorrow. This is one area where the Apple TV has a clear advantage.

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“The Colbert Report,” streaming off Hulu onto a TV via the Chromecast and a laptop.

Watching Hulu on the Chromecast was as easy as going to the website in the Chrome browser, hitting the Cast button, and mirroring the browser tab on the TV. Once you’ve started watching a program, Clicking the “fill screen” button on your computer will also fill the screen on your TV (though I can see there being some aspect ratio problems arising here and there in the future). Unlike Apps or webpages optimized for Chromecast, in order to watch content “mirrored” from the Chrome browser, you have to keep the browser up and running. Anything you do to the browser tab will be reflected on screen.

Now, the Chromecast isn’t made for streaming local content (i.e. music, videos, and photos stored on your hard drive). Google is more than happy to point that out. Yet if you point that out in a comment section on any tech site that covers the Chromecast you WILL get reamed by Google fans more than happy to tell you you’re wrong. They’ll say that local streaming IS possible. And they are sorta right. There is a trick to get local content to stream from a PC or Mac, but media content on your smartphone/tablet is completely off-limits.

The trick for streaming content from your computer hard drive involves manually dragging the movie/music/whatever file to the Chrome web browser and then mirroring the entire browser window over to the Chromecast. I tried it with a very high quality video clip of my nephew playing basketball. Things weren’t perfect though.

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Compared to the Stephen Colbert clip, you’ll note that the basketball footage — despite being a 1080P file — doesn’t fill the entire screen. And nothing I did would rectify that. I also couldn’t get sound with this specific clip. Different file types will yield different results.

Side note: This is another way that the Chromecast is like an Apple product. Frequently, it is possible to make Apple products do things that Apple doesn’t officially support (like jailbreaking an iPhone), but it’s always at your own risk. Local streaming is definitely an “at your own risk” feature. And it definitely feels like a “workaround” more than a feature. Results will vary. Greatly. Don’t buy a Chromecast expecting this to be something you can count on. And don’t believe anyone in any comment sections who tells you otherwise. Most of them don’t even own a Chromecast yet.

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Now, I said I bought the Chromecast specifically for watching Netflix, so let’s take a deeper look at that experience. Unlike local streaming, Netflix streaming is something that Google is more than happy to promise will work without any limitations. Whether from your browser or your mobile App, they want the Netflix experience to be seamless. I’m happy to report it is. Google clearly made sure there was nothing “beta” about Netflix performance.

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This is what it looks like when you cast a Netflix movie from your iPhone to a TV with Chromecast. Note: The Netflix app says it’s playing in the “Bedroom” beause that’s what I named this Chromecast when I first set it up.

As soon as I casted the Netflix stream from the iPhone to the TV, the Netflix App turned into a remote. You can turn your phone off and the Netflix movie will still play (though you won’t be able to control it). Again, everything worked great, but I did notice something interesting when I opened the Netflix App and hit the cast button for the first time…

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I was expecting to see two options: Watch it on my iPhone or watch it on the Chromecast. But I actually had THREE options of where to send the Netflix stream. I could watch it on the iPhone. I could watch it from the Chromecast (still labeled “Bedroom”), or I could watch it from the Vizio TV without the need for any intermediary devices whatsoever. I knew Netflix was built-in into the TV, but I didn’t know that it would communicate with a mobile App. This is a Netflix/Vizio feature I never knew existed. Thank you Chromecast for pointing me towards a useful special feature I already had. The irony, of course, is that the discovery of this feature is yet another reason why I don’t need Chromecast in this room.

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You’ll now note that the App says it’s playing on the Vizio DTV. And it is. With the push of a button, the Vizio’s built-in Netlix App opened automatically and started playing the video where it left off on the iPhone. No Chromecast needed.

Chromecast totally does everything that Google says it will. It even does a couple things Google won’t really talk about. But, overall, I’m sorry to say I still gotta return it. I bought it for a room where the Chromecast can’t get a wifi signal (yet every other wifi device in that room can). I would keep it for another room, except, well, I don’t need it for those rooms. The PS3 is a full-fledged gaming device that Chromecast can never be (nor should it). And the Apple TV, well… the Apple TV can do this:

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The Apple TV’s ability to use any HDTV as an external monitor for your computer is a feature you won’t find on any $35 dongle.

Above you can see my wife trying on maternity clothes for her sister 3000 miles away. The Macbook and the HDTV are linked wirelessly via an Apple TV. This is “true” mirroring and it’s super easy and responsive. Anything you do on a Macbook will show up on your TV. Will Chromecast ever be able to mirror an entire desktop experience like the Apple TV can? When it does, I’ll be back in the market for one. Heck, I’ll still buy one if it can up its wifi performance. ‘Til then… it looks like I might be the first person in America to actually return one of these things. (Which sucks, because I REALLY wanted to use this to watch Netflix in the bedroom…. Stupid wifi.)

As for you? If you have a room with a “dumb TV” and have been looking for an easy way to get loads of online content to it, the Chromecast is definitely worth a try.

Why I ditched Skydrive

Dropbox. Google Drive. Microsoft Skydrive. Each allows you to keep a folder on all your computers that will “magically” stay completely in sync with each other (not to mention with your mobile devices), all for free.* It’s a remarkable ability.  No more emailing files to your self or having to keep a small USB drive handy.  If you want to get file from one computer to another, just drag it into the folder.  That’s it.

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They all offer gigabytes of free storage.  Google offers 5GB.  Skydrive offers 7 GB.  Dropbox might seem like the skimpiest with just 2 GB for new sign-ups, but they offer many ways to expand that up to 18 GB, all still free.

‘Til yesterday, I kept a folder for all three services on the desktops of my MacBook and my iMac, and used them all pretty regularly. But something weird started happening.  Items started mysteriously disappearing from my Skydrive folder.

Could I have spent an hour or so trouble-shooting the problem, uninstalling and reinstalling the software on all my devices to see where the problem lies?  Sure.  But why?  It’s free software. And cloud storage is so abundant these days, I don’t NEED the space it provides.  It was just easier for me to delete the Skydrive folders (and the app) and move on.

And that’s my recommendation for any free App on your computer or your smartphone that’s not working right:  Before you waste time trying to contact tech support or figuring out a fix on your own, look to see if there’s a free competitor. Chances are, there is. Just delete the one that’s not working right and move on.

That’s the new paradigm.  Embrace it!

UPDATE: I see Box.net now offers a free desktop folder syncing solution, so it looks like I found a replacement for Skydrive with no problem. I’m already downloading it.

iPhoto Tip: Copying location data from one photo to another

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One of the pleasures of using a smartphone to take a photo is that it’s (most likely) embedded with GPS data.  This is especially handy for applications — like iPhoto — that allow you to search for photos by location.  But if you use a stand-alone camera for better quality pictures, you probably aren’t getting any location data.  iPhoto will allow you to manually add an address, but that’s time consuming if you have a lot of photos (which you probably do), not to mention not very helpful if the photo was taken out in the woods or on the beach or something.

So here’s what I do…

Wherever I take pictures with my camera, I also take one photo with my iPhone.  It doesn’t have to be a good photo.  You just need the GPS data.  For example, here’s a photo of my shoe taken in my home office.

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And here’s a photo of me in home office, taken on a much better camera that lacks built-in GPS.

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To grab the location data, I just “right click” on the shoe photo (or “control click” if you don’t have a right click spot on your mouse/trackpad) and select “copy.”

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Note: You can also select the photo and use the COPY option in the EDIT menu.

Then I select the photo(s) I want to give a location, go up to the EDIT menu,and select “PASTE LOCATION.” (Note: You can select more than one photo by pressing the COMMAND key as you click on them.)

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And that’s it. Now your “good” photo (or photos) will have the GPS data.

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I did this on our honeymoon to Italy, easily giving hundreds and hundreds of photos location data that didn’t otherwise have them.

Are the updated apps on your iphone/ipad not syncing back to your Mac?

You are not alone.  In fact, it seems to be a deliberate move on Apple’s behalf.  Why?  I don’t know.  It used to be that no matter how you updated your apps — whether it was via iTunes on your computer or the App store on your iDevice — the apps would then automatically update on all your machines the next time you initiated a sync.

It’s not that way anymore.

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Now, if you update an app on your iDevice, it will NOT move over to your computer.  iTunes will still show this icon, telling you that you need to update your apps, even if you’ve already done so on your iDevice and synced everything.

If you update your apps on your computer first, then sync with your iDevice, everything will work like it should.  But I’m guessing that you — like everyone else on the planet — are manually syncing up your devices less and less frequently, if at all. (Though I highly recommend that all iPhone/iPad owners sync up their devices occasionally at least for safety/back-up purposes.)

So how do you get your updated apps over to iTunes without redownloading them all again?  Simple.  First, if you’re using the latest version of iTunes and no longer see the handy “sidebar” that looks like this…

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…you can bring it back just by going to the VIEW menu at the top of the screen and selecting “SHOW SIDEBAR.”

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Then, with the sidebar back — and really, why wouldn’t you want it back? it’s great! — all you have to do is right click on your iDevice and select “TRANSFER PURCHASES.”  (If your mouse/trackpad can’t “right click” then hitting the control button when you click will bring up the same little menu.)

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This will make sure that everything acquired from the App store on your iDevice — including updated versions of Apps — is moved over to your computer.  That’s it.

If you’ve downloaded a lot of app updates on your device and don’t want to download them all over again on your computer, that’s all you have to do.  This is handy if you’re on a data cap and only want to download apps once for all your devices (using the computer to sync them all up). It’s also a handy way to just make that darned “you’ve got 28 apps to update” reminder go away.

Here’s hoping that a future version of iTunes restores the ability to do this automatically with every sync.

 

UPDATE:  The newest iTunes 11.0.5 now syncs updated apps both ways!  The above steps are still handy for getting music and other content off the phone, though.

Note About My Reviews

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When I review a product it’s based on personal experience after buying the product either for a client or myself.  I don’t do “reference reviews” where the reviewer places the product next to a bunch of similar ones and runs a series of calibration tests to see which offers the best pure performance.  There are a lot of sites that specialize in such things, like CNET, Home Theater Review, Sound & Vision, and Digital Trends.   And as important as reference tests are, they should only be the starting point when deciding what to buy.  They can tell you if a certain product is worth its price under ideal conditions, but unfortunately most home environments are far from ideal.  The difference between “great” and “excellent” is often unnoticeable in many real world situations.  They can also be information overload.  The most important question isn’t: “What’s the best product out there?”  It’s: “What’s the best product for me?”  There’s a difference and no single review can answer that.  Ideally, you want to find a review from someone whose set-up is as close to your own as possible.

Also: The best advice I can give to someone about to make a major A/V purchase — buy from a place with a good return policy (no restocking fee) and don’t be afraid to return it if it’s not everything you expected it would be.