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.

449A6229

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.

449A6228

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. 

449A6237

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). 

449A6239

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.)

449A6231

How to transfer all your podcast subscriptions from one app to another (the easy way)

Speaking of podcasts, let’s say you’ve gotten a brand new podcast-playing app for your iOS or Android device.  If only there were an easy way to get the new app to know what podcasts you were already subscribed to…  Wait, there is!  If you’ve been using a third-party podcast app like Pocket Casts, Instacast, Downcast, etc., there’s a good chance it’ll allow you export all your current subscriptions into a single file you can then import into your new app.  (Note: Apple’s default Podcasts app, sadly, does not allow this.)

Look in the settings of your current/old app for the option to “export to OPML.”  (If you must know, OPML is a file format that works well with RSS feeds, which are the heart of podcast subscriptions… but don’t worry about the specifics, you won’t be tested on this.)

In Pocket Casts, for example, the option can be found in SETTINGS > SYNC & BACKUP > EXPORT.  The Export window looks like this:

IMG_0736

Just enter an email address you can check on your iPhone or iPad, and it’ll send the OPML file as an attachment to that address.  Open the message on your device, click on the attachment, and then use the “send to” feature (the little box with an arrow pointing up) to send the list to your new podcasting app.  On an android device, you might need to first save the file to your phone’s internal storage, then open it in the new app.

Downcast for iOS makes things a little easier.  Click on the “More” button at the bottom of the home screen, then click on “Tools.”  Select “Export Feeds to OPML” and you’ll see the option to send the file directly to a different application, no email required (unless you really want to use email).

IMG_0737

 

Overcast makes things even simpler.  In Settings, click on “Export OPML” and a list of compatible apps will automatically come up.

IMG_0739

Pretty cool how Overcast will even recommend other apps you might like if Overcast isn’t your deal. (And I’m guessing all those apps use OPML.)

If you’ve been using iTunes to subscribe to Podcasts, you’re in luck.  Control-click on the “Podcasts” item in your sidebar (if the sidebar isn’t visible, you can unhide it from the View menu), and an “Export” button will appear.  Select OPML as your file format and email it to your device.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 11.01.03 PM

A cursory internet search reveals that a lot of popular podcast apps support OPML, so if you’re switching apps and you’ve got A LOT of subscriptions to re-subscribe to, do take advantage of this convenience.  Note:  This method will inform the new program what podcasts you’ve been subscribed to, but it won’t transfer other metadata, like which episodes you’ve already listened to/downloaded.

And if you’re really, really curious what exactly an OPML file looks like when you open it, here it is:

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.21.58 PMSee, I told you it wasn’t that interesting.

 

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

Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.11.52 AM

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

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.

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.

449A4782

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.

449A4737

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.)

449A4746

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.

IMG_0232

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.

449A4733

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:

IMG_0237

Swiping up reveals badges corresponding to daily milestones:

IMG_0233

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

IMG_0236I found the sleep tracking to be pretty accurate:

IMG_0235

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.

449A4729

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

449A4646

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.

IMG_0197

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.

IMG_0196

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.

449A4650

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.)

IMG_0195

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.

449A4652

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.

IMG_0198

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.