Turn any headphones into bluetooth wireless headphones for $20

There are few things as unpleasant in life as getting a headphone cable snagged on a doorknob. Or the corner of a table. Or the watch of a total stranger passing me on the sidewalk.  Because the cable runs the length of my body, from the earbuds on my head to the phone in my pants pocket, it’s way too easy for it to get caught on just about anything, and it’s a truly jarring experience every time it happens.

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While You’re Deleting that Uber App…

Uber’s been under fire lately for their shady practices, and rightly so.  (Well, they’ve actually been under fire for a while, but this week was the tipping point for many people.)  There’s a new movement afoot by Uber users — like John Hodgman — to delete the app from their phones.  I say, while you’re doing that, here’s some other apps to get rid of:

Every two weeks? Really? That's a "better" experience?!

Every two weeks? Really? That’s a “better” experience?!

Facebook.  Forget the fact that they’re selling out user privacy like it’s their business (actually, that IS their business), they just offer a crappy app.  It uses way more data and battery power than it should, making you wonder what else is going on under the hood.  They also intend to update the app, in full, every two weeks.  Sorry, but mobile operating systems don’t change that quickly, necessitating such constant adjustments.  Something’s fishy here.  Get rid of it.  If you must use Facebook, check it from the web.

LinkedIn.  Is the app as buggy and battery draining as Facebook?  No.  In fact, it seems pretty well designed.  I just say delete because it’s LinkedIn and I’m still mad about that time they spammed everyone in my address book.  Stupid, Linkedin.

Crazy Eye.  Yes, this was one of the very first apps you bought in 2008, to impress your nephew so that he’d think you’re the cool uncle.  But it hasn’t been updated since, looks terrible on new phones, and your nephew is now in college. Also, it didn’t work.  Steve is still the cool uncle. Sorry!

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Crazy Eye needs to be deleted ASAP. (Crazy Mouth, though, is still good to keep using. Especially on JDates. Jewish girls love it!)

Kill A Random Person.  Not sure how this even got approved by Apple.  You push a button and a random person someone across the globe dies.  I’d delete it.

The Phone Dialpad.  I’ve had an iPhone since they came out in 2007 and I still have no idea what this app should be used for.

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If anyone knows what this is for, let me know.

The curious case of a curious case: A review of the X-Doria Engage Folio for the iPhone 6

“You have a Costanza.”

That’s what a producer on Grey’s Anatomy said to me several years ago, when the show was in its infancy and I was an assistant in the writers room. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I have a what?” He pointed to the wallet I was holding, a leather trifold filled beyond capacity. I still didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Seinfeld,” he said, “you know the episode with Costanza’s wallet?” And then it hit me. That was the episode where Costanza’s wallet, overstuffed with receipts, coupons, scraps of paper, and, well, just about everything besides actual money, started affecting his health. Carrying it around — and specifically sitting on it — was giving Costanza tremendous back pain. I looked down at my own overstuffed wallet. Yep. I had a Costanza.

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The Costanza wallet in all its glory.

I became immediately self-conscious about the size of my wallet. I traded my triple fold for a double fold. But that wasn’t enough. Some time later, I traded the double fold wallet for a super-slim one that basically held an ID and a few credit cards, and that’s it. That worked well for a while.

Until I lost the wallet.

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Quick Review: Platinum Power Case for iPhone 5 and 5s

This has been a crazy summer, and I’ve been pretty negligent about posting to this site.  Sorry about that.  To play catch up, I’ll be unloading a bunch of a “mini reviews” over the next few days.  First up — The Platinum Power Case for iPhone 5 and 5s.

449A6223My wife’s iPhone 5 has a habit of dying on her at the worst possible time (like when her car has been towed).  So I went to Best Buy to find a “power case” for her — i.e. a case with a built-in reserve battery.  I was going to get a Mophie juice pack, which seems to have cornered the market on such things, but then I saw a Platinum-branded power case — a “Best Buy Exclusive” — that cost considerably less than the equivalent Mophie.  The Platinum Power Case offers a 2100 mAh battery for $70.  To get a Mophie with that sized battery, you’d have to spend well over $100 (closer to $120, actually, at the moment).  That’s a pretty big price difference, so I figured we’d give the Platinum power case a shot.

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The case has a simple one-piece design, allowing your iPhone to be easily slid in-and-out (when you need it to — otherwise, the phone stays in solidly).  There’s an indicator on the rear of the case that tells you how much power is left in the reserve battery. And there’s a switch. What does the switch do? Basically, the power case works like this:  1) Slide your phone in.  2) Use your phone like normal.  3) When your phone’s internal battery gets in the red, you slip the switch, turning the case on, which will start recharging your phone’s internal battery.  Like the gas engine in a Chevy Volt, the power generated the case doesn’t actually run your phone, it just recharges the battery that still does all the work.  

Note: According to the Platinum documentation, they recommend re-charging your phone back up to 80% and then stopping, as recharging your phone past 80% takes more power than it’s worth.  Not sure if that’s a limitation shared by its more expensive competition.

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Anyways, the case works exactly as advertised.  The company says that a 2100 mAh battery should give your iPhone an additional 8 hours of talk-time, but we never tested the case to its limits.  I just let my wife use it as needed, and she found it to be a convenient — if bulky — addition to her phone. 

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Other than its size, there is one more potential limitation to the case.  The shell engulfs your phone’s built-in headphone jack. If you want to use your headphones, you probably need to use the mini-extension cable that comes with the case (see photo below). 

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That’s not a deal breaker, so we kept it, right?  Saved the money over the Mophie?  Nope.  Because its size, my wife always kept the phone in her purse.  Twice in one week, she pulled her phone out of her purse only to find that the case had gotten switched on by accident — powering her phone when it didn’t need any juice, and leaving her without reserve power when she actually needed it.  That was a deal breaker.  Back to Best Buy it went.

We wound up getting a Mophie Juice Pack Helium for ten dollars more.  The battery isn’t as big — only 1500 mAh — but that’s still a enough reserve power for my wife (and probably most people).  The Helium is also much slimmer.  The slender profile alone is worth the slightly higher price over the Platinum (if you don’t really need the extra-extra power).  If I needed a power case for myself, the Helium is the one I would get. (But I don’t.)

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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.

The Apps I use: 2014 Edition

After my last post — a review of the app I use for podcasts — I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the other third party apps I use.  Here are some of the ones I’ve been using almost daily for a while now:

For reading/marking up PDFs: Goodreader

I bought the iPad 1 the day it came out on April 3, 2010. It was “pilot season” (my day job is a TV writer) which meant I’d be reading a lot of scripts, and the iPad — despite its initial limitations — looked like a great PDF reader. And it was. What it wasn’t: A great PDF editor.  It took several months before anyone came out with a user-friendly way to annotate a PDF on the iPad (i.e. make notes directly on the document, highlight sections, etc.).  When Goodreader first came out, I tried it and found that it offered excellent PDF management features, but it’s annotation features were a second-thought.  A competing app, iAnnotate, excelled where Goodreader didn’t, and it was my go-to PDF program for a while.  As of this writing, Goodreader and iAnnotate now offer nearly identical annotating experiences, with Goodreader still having the edge with it comes to file management, hence it’s become my current default.

For Twitter:  Tweetbot

Tweetbot won me over with a single feature that I couldn’t find anywhere else: the ability to “mute” specific tweeters and hashtags without having to actually unfollow anyone.  I really don’t like to unfollow people, but I also hate to see my Twitter timeline dominated too much by one person or topic.  If someone feels the need to do a marathon live tweeting session of the entire 3rd season of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t seen), I can either “mute” that one person for a set period of time or I can mute “#GameOfThronesMarathon” until it’s over.  I also like to use the mute button to punish people abusing the medium in other ways — like allowing bots to tweet from their account (I’m looking at you, people who let Foursquare auto-tweet for you). First offense gets you muted for 24 hours. Second offense for a week. Third offense for a month.

Note: Although Tweetbot 3 is out, I still use Tweetbot 2. Why? Because Tweetbot 3 was a paid upgrade and Tweetbot 2 still works great for my needs.

For news aggregation – Pulse and Zite

On my iPhone I mostly use Pulse and on my iPad I mostly use Zite.  Pulse went through some growing pains after LinkedIn bought the platform and did a major overhaul, but they’ve recently gotten a lot of the bugs out. I like how Pulse allows me to easily see the most recent headlines from the publications I read most. Zite, on the other hand, is designed to “guess” what you might want to read, regardless of source. You could, technically, use it to only check the publications regularly read, but that would be a waste of its algorithms.  How good is it at guessing what I want to read? At first, not great. But it gets better over time. Since I’ve been using it, I’ve been exposed to many cool sites & news outlets I never knew existed.

For a lot of things – Evernote

I currently work on a legal TV show, so I spend a lot of time surfing the web, looking for real-like legal stories that could be adapted to our show.  Whenever I’m on my Mac and see an article of interest, I use the Evernote webclipper (a browser plug-in) to send the content of said article to the Evernote app on my iPhone and iPad.  Easy-peasy.  I also use Evernote to organize all my notes and other content (photos, PDFs, etc.) for specific episodes I’m working on.  It’s a very powerful productivity program and I’m barely touching the surface of its usefulness.  If you work in a “project-based” environment, definitely give Evernote a try.

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:

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

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

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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.

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

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.