A case for ad blockers?

I don’t believe in internet ad blockers.  I mean, I believe they exist, but I’m believer in advertising as a legitimate means to support content that’s provided to audiences for free.  It’s the ultimate leveling-agent, allowing anyone — rich or poor — access to information and entertainment.

And then I notice stuff like this.  Photo 1:  The normal homepage of CNET.com, as it appears right now as I type this.

Cnet Normal

Photo 2:  The same page at the same time with an ad blocker in effect.

Cnet Ad blocked

See what’s missing?

(Hint:  It’s the horrendously alarmist, fear-mongering “paid content” that has no place on a mainstream news site — let alone disguised as an actual article on that site.)

CNET, you can do better than this.  You’re only giving ammunition to people who want to decimate your primary form of revenue.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Apple To Announce A New Product

IMG_1009Congratulations! You’re due for a new Apple product! Any day now, Tim Cook is expected to birth something revolutionary and magical. Or not. You never know with Apple. What pops out of the largest uterus in Cupertino — and when exactly it will pop — might be a mystery, but here are some things to definitely expect when you’re expecting Apple to announce a new product:

1. Anxiety. The responsibility of owning a new Apple product can seem overwhelming. How do I keep it clean? What if I drop it? How do make sure it gets fed enough data? OH MY GOD, I’M NOT READY FOR ALL THIS RESPONSIBILITY!?!?! Fret not, my friend, you are not alone. Every expectant consumer has those same questions and fears. Just take solace in knowing that people a heck of a lot dumber than you are handling the immense responsibility just fine. Oh, and use AppleCare. Despite GOP efforts to repeal AppleCare, it’s still around, and the piece of mind it offers is well-worth the cost.

2. Weird cravings. The closer you get to the due date, the weirder your desires will become. I want an iPhone 6 with a 7inch double-sided touch-screen! No, I want a 12inch MacBook Air with a retina display and a floppy drive! No, I want an iWatch big enough to mount on the wall and watch 4K 3D TV on!! Relax. The weird cravings will pass. In the end, you’ll be happy if it’s just a healthy device that isn’t delivered to the market prematurely.

3. Sudden weight gain. Knowing that Apple’s next iWhatever will almost certainly be slimmer and lighter than any personal device you currently own will suddenly make you feel much heavier in public. This is normal. My advice is to try something that’ll counter the effect, like starting a juice cleanse or adopting a trendy food allergy. (Warning: juice cleanses and trendy food allergies do not actually help people lose weight, but talking about them incessantly will help you lose friends… which is kinda like losing weight.)

4. Morning sickness. This is the sick feeling you will get the morning of the supposed product announcement, when it suddenly dawns on you that you have absolutely no idea what Tim Cook is about unveil. Sure, it could be a cool new phone. But it could also be a blender. In one fateful breath, you will realize that no one on the internet knows anything. You’ll suddenly notice that every “exclusive report” on every website purporting to know what Apple will release is based on the same “anonymous sources” with specious connections to “overseas suppliers.” Same for all the self-proclaimed Wall Street Analysts who cherry-pick from said reports to make whatever “bold prediction” will get them airtime on CNBC. And, of course, when the spurious predictions turn out to be bunk, they shirk responsibility and act like it’s Apple’s fault. (I’m looking at you, Gene Munster, senior analyst at Piper Jaffray, and the Apple-branded HDTV set you’ve been predicting as “imminent” every year since 2009.) Sorry, got off on a tangent there. Where was I? Oh yeah, morning sickness the day of the product announcement. Try to get plenty of rest the night before, avoid greasy foods when you wake up, and take it easy on the coffee. Also: Don’t believe anything you read about Apple in the days leading up to unveiling.

5. Messiness. Once the mucus plug of consumer innovation finally spills its contents, the internet will become a messy, messy place indeed. Best to stay off social media for at least 24 hours, until the backlash and the backlash to the backlash have subsided. All that really matters is the, um… lash? That doesn’t sound right. But let’s go with it for now.

6. Post-partum depression. This will kick in the moment you hold the new little miracle in your hands for the first time, after your credit card has been charged and you’ve parted with a considerable amount of money. Don’t worry, though. The first time someone in public compliments you on your new acquisition, you will feel much better. The sudden sense of technological superiority will jump-start the pleasure center of your brain. (FYI: For this reason, you never want to be the last person in your neighborhood and/or workplace to get a new Apple anything.)

7. A growing distance between you and your Apple-less friends. It’s a sad fact of life: Once you become an Apple household, you simply won’t be spending as much time with your non-Apple-having friends. You will get new friends, though, and they will be much more awesome than your old friends. They are called Apple Geniuses and they are available by appointment only.

8. Transcendence. This is what happens as soon as you realize your life has been irrevocably changed by the little bundle of joy. You will wonder how you lived for so long without it. You will admit you can never go back to life before it. You will get sucked into your new device. Literally. You will be like Johnny Depp in that movie where he died and was brought back to life as a computer program. That movie had a happy ending, right? I don’t know. Didn’t see it. Did you? No? Did anyone see it? Hmm. Well, let’s just pretend it had a happy ending and move on to…

9. Ennui. This is the inevitable sense of boredom that will overcome you. Life’s old pleasures will cease to have impact. New pleasures will emerge, but they will pass quickly. The rush you felt the first time you unlocked your phone with nothing more than your fingerprint will be long gone. All that will remain: A hole in the center of your being, filled with the dispiriting notion that your new Apple product will one day be obsolete. As will you.

10. Wonderment. You will wonder what happened to the whole iDevice-as-a-baby metaphor. You are probably already at this phase right now.

11. Temptation. The longer you possess your no-longer-new Apple product, the more tempting the Samsung commercials will get. You’ll see some new Amazon product getting a ton of press and you’ll picture yourself holding it in your hands. You’ll take a second look at that ad for… Windows? “Wow,” you’ll say, “Windows is actually looking pretty good these days.” But the temptation will give way to…

12. Mutual respect, deep-seated appreciation, and a Hollywood ending. Sure, the novelty of your new Apple product will wear off. Siri’s limitations will become readily apparent. The device’s heft and quirkiness will become more pronounced as it ages. Curiosity will lead you back to Windows or maybe over to Android or one its many variants, but the experience will be painful, oh-so-very-very-painful: Why does this Windows 8 computer have two separate interfaces that DON’T WORK TOGETHER AT ALL? Why can’t this brand new Android phone be updated to the latest Android OS? Why does this Amazon device seem to be designed solely to get me to spend even more money on other stuff? And you’ll find the only thing that will relieve the pain is your once-new-but-now-old Apple product. The one you came this close to selling. You will apologize to it. You will hold it close, caressing it with tenderness. You will promise never to abandon it again.

Well, at least not until the iPhone 7S comes out in 2017. According to the internet, it’s going to be so freakin’ awesome!!!

For the movie rights to this post, please contact @ericbuchman. All I ask for is casting approval, final say on the script, and payment in German bearer bonds.

Pocket Casts vs. Downcasts: Which is the superior podcast app?

I’ve been using Pocket Casts as my main podcast-listening app since the beginning of the year. (You can read my original review here.) The main advantage Pocket Casts has over Apple’s own podcast app?  Greater ability to organize podcasts.  For example, I like having a listview of only podcast episodes that have been both downloaded (i.e. not-to-be-streamed) and are unplayed.  Pocket Cast can do that.  Apple’s podcasting app can’t.

IMG_0684Pocket Casts does have one annoying quirk, though. The app’s filters are a great way to view your preferred podcasts, but they lack “continuous play” (i.e. when one podcast ends, the next one on the list automatically begins).  To get that, you have to manually add episodes to a separate playlist.  It would be better if filters and playlists were the same thing.

(Note: The app does offer a couple other ways to “build a queue,” but none of them are ideal solutions.)

This might not seem like a big deal, but I hate it when I’m driving and the podcast I’m listening to ends, only to be followed by dead silence.  The last thing I want to do while behind the wheel of a car is mess with my iPhone.  It might not happen often since the average podcast is about an hour long, but it happens enough that I figured it’s time to give another app a chance.

icons

That app:  Downcast.  Let’s take a look at how it compares to Pocket Casts.

Like Pocket Casts, Downcast has a little red icon with two curved lines.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast currently costs $2.99.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast is extremely customizable when it comes to automatically filtering out (or in) podcast episodes.
Unlike Pocket Casts?  Downcast does its filtering right in playlists.

Downcast must be my new default podcast player, right?  Not so fast.  Let’s look at them side-by-side.

Continue reading

App Review: SquareOne — The first third-party Gmail app I actually might keep using

IMG_0322

Everything you need to know about the new iOS email app SquareOne is in the above photo.  That’s the home screen, the first thing you see whenever you open the app. Notice the little numbers in the corners of the boxes? Those are the numbers of unread messages in each of those categories, and clicking on a square will only show you the messages related to that topic.  How does the app know where each message goes? The very first time you open the app, you’ll see all your messages in the “Unsorted” folder.  A simple swipe to the left allows you to select the folder where a particular message belongs. From that point on, whenever that sender emails you something, their message will go straight to that folder.  You don’t have to do anything else. As new people email you, you only have to sort them once. The app will take it from there.

SquareOne doesn’t mess with any of Gmail’s own file structure. When you sign into Gmail from a computer, you’ll still see all your messages as you normally would with no new folders or rules or anything added.  That’s handy because if you decide to stop using the app, you aren’t stuck having to undo all the damage it’s wrought.  The flip side, though, is that if you use Gmail’s own preferences to filter your messages at the server level, SquareOne will not recognize them.  In fact, the app only sorts messages in your Gmail in-box, so the contents of any other folders you’ve manually created (via the web interface) will be ignored.

Another minor drawback to SquareOne is if you have a sender that’s associated with more than one category. SquareOne doesn’t use subject lines or keywords to sort your messages, just the email addresses of senders.  This makes the sorting process really simple (i.e. no “learning process” like other apps that try to guess where messages should go), but if you work with your spouse — this is just an example — it won’t know whether a particular message is work-related or home-related. All messages from any sender will go to the same place. (FYI if you DO work with your spouse… just mark his/her message “VIP,” okay?)

The composing and reading windows look just like any other email app, nothing special there.  But that’s okay because for me, those actions don’t need improving.

Other things to note:

— You can create as many groupings as you need/want.

— It’s Gmail-only at the moment, but they say support for other email providers are on the way.

— It recognizes Gmail’s two-step authorization, if you use it (which you should, for additional security).

— When you first connect the service to your Gmail account, it’ll show you a neat “analytics” report for that account: how many messages you receive on average per month, your average response time, and how “overloaded” your in-box is compared to other gmail users.  If this is the kind of data that interests you, take note when it first presents itself, because there’s no way to get back to this screen once it’s gone (as far as I can tell).

— You can link the app to multiple Gmail accounts.

— You can “silence” individual groups so the app doesn’t push you any notifications when certain people email you.

— Yes, there’s a way to see all your messages in a single unified in-box for those times when you might need it.

I don’t rely too much on my Gmail account mostly because I find Gmail’s web interface to be a tad unwieldy. Even Google’s official mobile app can be annoying.  With a streamed-down app like SquareOne, though — which only does one trick but does that trick very well — I can see myself using Gmail more and more.

App Review: Pocket Casts for iPhone

Long-time readers of this blog (hi, mom!) know my affinity for podcasts.  I’ve offered advice to aspiring podcasters. I even returned my first Android phone largely because I didn’t like how that platform handled podcasts (in 2010).  So when Apple came out with their own dedicated Podcast app over a year ago, I was ecstatic.  Though version 1.0 was full of bugs, it offered one feature that made it worthwhile: A single playlist that automatically showed all my downloaded & unplayed podcasts, ordered from oldest to newest.  That’s all I really needed.

And then Apple updated their Podcast app.  The bugs largely went away… but so did the one function I actually used.

The new “unplayed” list now showed all the unplayed episodes of all the podcasts I subscribed to, whether they had been downloaded or not. Here’s the thing: If I haven’t downloaded a podcast episode, that means I don’t want to listen to it. (I have zero interest in streaming podcasts while I’m out and about.) I kept waiting for a revision that would restore the ability to automatically hide undownloaded episodes, but, alas, that day would never come.

After a year of manually managing my podcast library, I decided to finally break Tech Guy Rule #121: “Never pay for an app when a decent alternative is free.” I emptied my piggy bank and scrounged up enough coins to buy a new podcast app. But which one? Downcast, Instacast, Pocket Casts and iCatcher all had good write-ups on the web, as well as largely positive reviews on the app store.  They all cost less than five bucks.  They all bragged about their customizability.  But only one had this on its app store page:

PocketCastsiTunesCopy

And that app was Pocket Casts, which I immediately bought.  Here’s what the app looks like once you get it up and running:

PodcastsScreenshots 1

Above is the app’s home screen, where you’ll find a bevy of filters and lists you can customize to organize your library.

PodcastsScreenshots 2

This is what the app looks like after you’ve subscribed to some podcasts.

Subscribing to podcasts is very easy. As soon as you hit the “+” in the upper right hand corner (from almost any page), you’re greeted with a page of Featured Podcasts.

PodcastsScreenshots 3

You can also see podcasts grouped by popularity, categories, and network.

PodcastsScreenshots 4

The Network view is very useful, though it’s far from complete. Earwolf and MaximumFun.org, for example, were both missing. (But their podcasts were easily found using the search tool.)

PodcastsScreenshots 5

Once you’ve subscribed to a podcast, you can see all available episodes.  You can then download only the ones you want to listen to. You can also set it to auto-download new episodes in the future, if you wish. Thanks to iOS 7, downloading is done in the background, and only on wifi if you don’t have an unlimited data plan.

PodcastsScreenshots 6

Some of the icons were unfamiliar to me. For example, I had no idea what that little checkmark meant until I clicked it. (FYI: It’s to toggle between “played” and “unplayed” status.)

PodcastsScreenshots 8

From the episode page, you can choose to start playing the episode immediately or add it to a playlist. There’s also a “PLAY NEXT” option I’ll go into detail more later.

PodcastsScreenshots 7

Viola. A list of just the episodes that are both unplayed and downloaded.

The app is not without its quirks.  For example, you can create a “filter” — like the one seen above — that will automatically sort your podcast library by whatever criteria you want, but it’s not the same as a playlist.  Selecting an episode in the “filter” list will only play that individual episode. It will not automatically go onto the next one in the filter.  You need to create a “playlist” to do that.  Adding episodes to a playlist is easy, but, still, it’d make more sense to just have filters and playlists be the same thing.  The reason I left the Apple Podcast app is because I didn’t want to have to manually add anything to a playlist, yet here I am, having to do just that.

But just when I was ready to give another podcast app a try (for another $3), Pocket Cast won me over.  The saving grace?  The “play next” button.  One of the reasons I hate playlists is this: Let’s say you see an episode you’d like to listen to after the current podcast you’re listening to is over.  So you add it to a playlist, where it appears at the bottom of the list, and then you have to manually move the episode up, in order to hear it next.

With the “play next” button, it’ll cut through all that.  Just hit that button and the app will automatically cue the selected podcast to start playing as soon as the current one is finished.  It’s a feature I never knew I wanted… and now it’s the main way I listen to podcasts.

Another cool thing about the app is the way it handles “chapters.”

PocketCastsScreenshots 1

Only one podcast I listen to — Scriptnotes — uses chapter markers, but I imagine more and more podcasts will start to.

Another thing it handles quite well: Links to additional content.

PocketCastsScreenshots 2

The app might not be quite what I expected (seriously, filters and playlists shouldn’t be two different things), but I’m not regretting the purchase. If the idea of super-customizable filters, a “play next” option, and an extremely user-friendly interface for finding & subscribing to new podcasts intrigues you, then I can easily recommend Pocket Casts.

How to tell if your iCloud, Gmail, or Microsoft email server is down

It’s a common scenario.  You haven’t gotten an email in an hour, not even that really important email you were expecting from your spouse/co-worker/parent/pet.  Your email seems to be down, but what exactly does that mean? Unfortunately, there are a myriad of reasons why you may not be getting your email.  Could be a problem on your end. Could be a problem on the sender’s end. Or it could be the dreaded “server issue.” The good news: It usually is a server issue.  And there’s an easy way to tell, if you use one of the more popular email providers.

If your email ends in mac.com, me.com, or icloud.com, then Apple provides a very handy system status page at:

http://www.apple.com/support/systemstatus/

Apple

As you can see from the above screenshot, that’s an easy way to see the status of any Apple online service.

If you’re a user of Gmail or any of Google’s other Apps in the Cloud, steer your browser to:

https://www.google.com/appsstatus

Google

And if you’re a Microsoft user — Hotmail.com/Outlook.com/Skydrive/etc — then go here:

https://status.live.com

Microsoft

Yahoo, sadly, does not have such a status page.

If you use a different email service, check the support page on their website, you might see a similar screen that’ll keep you informed should they ever experience a problem on their end.

And what do you do if you’re not getting your email and you see that your provider is having server issues?  You wait. Don’t worry, your email will get to you. Eventually.

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.

FileSalvage

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.