So you want to get an iPad. Which one is best for you?

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Note:  This post is just for my Mom.  Seriously, she asked for my iPad buying advice, and at this point I’ve gotten better at giving tech advice in blog form than I do over the phone.  Hope this helps, Ma!

At first glance, Apple’s iPad line seems very un-Apple-like.  Apple currently sells four different models, each with its own storage and connectivity options.  Oh, and multiply all those options by two, since Apple sells everything in white or black.  Put simply:  Apple’s usual “good,” “better,” “best” buying options don’t really apply anymore.

But it’s really not that complicated, as there’s only three things you need to consider:

1.  What size screen do you want?

At this point, I think the iPad Mini with Retina display should be the “default” choice.  It’s the perfect size for most people.  Only consider the full-sized iPad Air if you know you really need the extra screen real estate.  If you’re not sure that’s you, stick with the retina Mini.

2.  Do you need a big hard drive?

Apple offers four hard drive sizes — 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB.  Do not consider the 16GB unless you’re really strapped for cash.  It’s just not big enough these days for the vast majority of people.  Even if you get most of your media via cloud-based and streaming services, a typical allotment of apps plus a modest amount of the music, photos, and video you’ll want on-the-go will eat up that 16GB much too fast.

The 128GB option is likewise only for a select few, and probably not you.  Though 128GB is skimpy for a laptop or desktop computer, for a tablet it’s still ridiculously generous (at this time).  The amount of apps, music, and photos it’d take to fill up up a 128GB tablet is more than anyone really needs access to on a regular basis.  If you got the money, go crazy, but you’re either never going to use most of the space OR you’ll fill up, only to never touch more than half the stuff on there.

That leaves just the 32GB and 64GB options.  In my experience, 32GB is enough for most people’s needs.  But if you’re at all worried about not having enough space, then 64GB is a reasonable step-up.

3.  Are you okay with only accessing the internet when you’re on wifi?

To get one with a cellular chip or not, that’s the question.  I used to think a cell chip was worth having, because you never know when you’ll be out and about and really need internet access (and wifi isn’t an option).  I no longer think that.  The vast majority of people can function just fine relying only on free wifi (which is more abundant than ever).  Also:  Unless you want to pay extra for a monthly data plan, you’re not going to get much use from the cell chip anyway.

So there you go.  If you want the most reasonable option, a 32GB iPad Mini with retina (wifi-only) is a great choice for most people.  Consider only a larger screen, hard drive, or cell chip only if you really think you’ll need it.

PS -You’ll notice I only talked about two of Apple’s four iPad models — the iPad Mini with retina and the iPad Air.  Apple sells two others, a Mini without a retina display and an older generation full-sized iPad.  I left them out because those “2nd tier” models are only sold with 16GB of storage space, which simply isn’t enough for one’s primary tablet these days.  As a 2nd tablet that’ll never leave home, you might be able to get away with it, especially if it’s just for checking email, surfing the web, and streaming Netflix, but that’s about it.  (Note:  Non-retina iPad Mini’s with 32GB and 64GB hard drives can still be found on Amazon, but their numbers are dwindling.)

PPS – As for white or black, if you really can’t choose, just flip a coin.

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

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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.

Review: The Misfit Shine Activity Tracker

In my last post, I talked about how I returned a Pebble Smartwatch because of its deficiencies as an “always-on” fitness tracking device (otherwise, it performed as promised).  I had my eye on the Fitbit Force — and was just about to purchase one — when I saw a friend tweet this:

That was enough to give me pause.  I considered switching to the UP 24 by Jawbone, which retails for around $150, but then I saw the Misfit Shine was on sale for only $80.  The price was right, so I figured I’d try it out.

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The first thing you notice once you open the package is how striking it is — like a flying saucer from Planet Gucci.  The Shine is available in a variety of colors – Jet Black, Grey, Topaz, and Champagne.  It comes with a magnetic clasp that allows you to clip it to your clothing, but there are also optional watchbands and even a necklace accessory.  Misfit seems to think you won’t mind wearing it visibly to dressy workplaces and/or fancy social gatherings and you know what? They may be right.

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This is the Shine in “clasping” mode.

The second thing that stood out to me about the Shine: It’s not rechargeable.  It comes with a conventional watch battery (i.e. the thin, round kind) that is supposed to power the device for at least 4 months before you have to replacement it. This is all part of the Shine’s “never take it off” ethos. Because it’s both waterproof and doesn’t need recharging, you’re supposed to sleep with it on, shower with it on, and according to the packaging “make sweet love” with it on. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you could.)

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There are twelve lights around the diameter of the Shine, each representing a step towards your daily activity goal (which is customizable, of course).  The lights can also be used to tell time, with a solid light indicating the hour and a flashing light indicating the nearest minute.  It’s not minute accurate, but that’s on par with most hyper-stylized watches (i.e. those without any numbers). Activating the lights to see either the time or your daily progress (or both) is as simple as tapping it twice.

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Initial set-up is ridiculously easy. It works via bluetooth, but you don’t even have to open the bluetooth settings on your phone.  The first time you open the app, a circle appears. You just place the Shine in the circle and tap. That’s it.  All bluetooth synchronizations should be this simple.

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Whenever you open the app, the first thing it’ll do is look for the Shine to sync up its data. The app can even sync up with the Shine on its own periodically throughout the day.

 The data itself is minimal, but still useful. The home screen shows you your daily progress:

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Swiping up reveals badges corresponding to daily milestones:

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And tapping on the badges reveals more detailed info about the activity in question:

IMG_0236I found the sleep tracking to be pretty accurate:

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There is no altimeter to measure elevation nor does it tie into the GPS info on your phone to track distance. But for $80 (+$20 for the watch band), I’m not complaining.  The idea behind the misfit is to measure your overall activity for the day. If you’re a hard core runner or biker and want something with more bells & whistles, this isn’t for you. This is for those of us who just need a little extra encouragement to be more active throughout the day.

Other things worth mentioning:

– It does have social networking features allowing you to compare your activity to others.

– It’s completely waterproof, even when swimming, something the FitBit Force lacks.

– It’s smaller than it appears on the box.  Just something to keep in mind if you think you might want to wear it as a watch. The guy on the package has pretty small wrists.

– It doesn’t claim to track steps, which I think is a good thing, since that’s nearly impossible to do accurately. It instead awards you points for movement. The more intense the movement, the more points awarded.

– If there’s a specific activity you do a lot — run, swim, play soccer, etc. — you can set it so that a “triple tap” lets it know that’s what your doing, and it’ll take that specific activity into consideration when gauging your movement.

– It’s so small, you can just stick it in your pocket and leave it there all day.  No need to use the included clasp (or buy a watchband) at all.

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If you like the idea of a fitness tracker you never have to take off, not even to recharge it, consider the Misfit Shine.  If you like funky time pieces, consider the Misfit Shine. If you like to swim, strongly consider the Misfit Shine.  And if those things describe you and you can find it on sale like I did… you should get it.

Products mentioned in this post:





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.

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.