Archive for the ‘Tech Toys’ Category

My Favorite iPad Apps – An Update

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Two weeks ago I published a list of my favorite iPad apps and several folks commented on my list and provided some of their own favorites.

Since then my opinion has changed a bit on what I wrote up based on new discoveries, and I also wanted to add a couple more to my favorites list.

First, the changes.

Documents To Go Premium was an application I highly recommended over Apple’s Pages because it was more connected to the world (and to Windows users). What I didn’t realize was that if you use Docs To Go with an external keyboard, you can’t use the arrow keys on the keyboard (and modifiers of those keys to skip words or even go to the start or end of a line) to move your cursor. Pffft! That’s a major drawback to using Docs To Go. The support web site for the product is full of complaints about this problem, and there are promises to fix it soon, but as of yesterday, no update had been issued (and they have been promised for several weeks).

While I still recommend Docs To Go as a good Microsoft Office document reader and generator, if you use a keyboard, then Pages may be the better option for now. The solution of exporting a file by e-mailing it to yourself is clunky, but it does work well in my experience.

The other issue I have encountered in the last two weeks is that the WordPress blogging app is seriously flawed in that it does not allow you to publish or even file draft blog entries to any privately hosted WordPress blog which resides in the root directory of the server. That means that while I can post with the app to this blog ( – it is in the “wp” subdirectory), I cannot post to my A Foodie Moment blog (at – in the root directory). I filed a detailed bug report in the iOS WordPress forum, but so far no fix has been forthcoming. So this app is now off my list until this serious issue is resolved.

Added to my list are three apps that my readers recommended:

  • Dropbox (free). Dropbox is an on-line service which provides up to 2GB of free storage that you can upload file to for retrieval by a number of devices. For Windows machines, Dropbox offers a client program which creates a Dropbox folder that you can easily copy files into or from. On the iPad it provides a free app to upload/download files. I had already been using Dropbox when I wrote my initial review, but didn’t single out the Dropbox app because several of the programs I did recommend (like Docs To Go and PrintBureau) natively support Dropbox access. But for the sake of completeness, I’m including the iPad Dropbox app (which I also use, but more rarely).
  • Zinio (free app, content costs something). After Osman Kent recommended Zinio in a comment on my previous post I decided to check it out. I am now totally addicted. Zinio is a service which provides magazines – full color, page perfect, to computer users. The service works on PCs and Macs, but it shines on the iPad. I have now subscribed to about a half dozen magazines including Art.News, Saveur, Wine Enthusiast, National Geographic, Food Network Magazine, and American Photo. The quality is stunning, and the text on the virtual magazine pages very readable on the iPad (particularly in portrait mode). Some of the magazines also let you switch to a pure text mode from which you can copy and paste if you want to quote or cite something in the magazine. The only mildly negative things I can say about the Zinio app are that it takes a long time to download new magazines – which you have to do one at a time, and I wish I knew how many pages were in a magazine when I was reading it so I could see how far I had gotten. The price for subscriptions seems pretty reasonable, and typically a much better deal than buying single issues.
  • Instapaper (free). Instapaper provides a way to share web pages and web links between the iPad and any web-browser equipped computer. I’m still a little on the fence about Instapaper, but I like that I can clip page addresses directly from the Safari browser on the iPad for later retrieval on the PC. Seeing as the Safari browser doesn’t generally like to talk with other applications, the cool way Instapaper found to integrate clipping into the browser is pretty slick. Although, I will add that on my PCs, I prefer to use Evernote to clip web pages (which I can then see on the iPad).

Those of you who commented, thanks for the recommendations!

Will Plug-n-Play Solar Power Be Possible?

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

I live in a very sunny part of the world, where utility costs are outrageously high. While it would be possible to switch over to a blend of solar and wind power entirely, that’s a huge investment – I figure about US$40,000, a decent chunk of which is just setting up all the electrical hardware necessary to feed power generated by panels and turbines into my household electrical system.

Part of such hardware involves getting backup batteries to store the collected power (provided via a DC 12v, 24V, or even 48V system), and then using inverters to convert the DC into regular AC as used by regular household appliances and electrical devices. Based on ones electrical consumption, this may requires some rather huge batteries, chargers, and multiple inverters.

So, when I read CNN Tech’s featured interview with Chad Maglaque of Clarian Power I was very intrigued. What Clarian is promoting is a modular solar panel system with the ability to plug a power cord into a power outlet in your home in order to feed power into your electrical system and thus reduce the use of power purchased from your local utility company.

Their packaged solar panel system includes a micro-inverter and lots of electronics to allow the system to safely feed power into your system. Clarian promotes this as Plug-N-Play Power.

Clarian expects to bring their solar system to the market via home improvement stores sometime in 2011 at extremely reasonable prices (in contrast to what’s available now), for as little as US$600 for around 200 watts of generated power (peak, presumably).

I hope it works out, and that something like that also works on the bizarre power system we have here on Bonaire (127V/50Hz is the norm, although in our house we have 110V/50Hz power).

When QWERTY is Really QOneWTwoEThree Etc.

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

I have really enjoyed my T-Mobile G1 phone, the first phone on the market featuring Google’s Android operating environment. And I was a big fan of the Sidekick series before T-Mobile and Microsoft screwed those up.

What the Sidekick family and the G1 had in common was a real QWERTY keyboard. The term “QWERTY” stems from the letter sequence which appears on the first line of letters of a typical English language keyboard (other countries have different sequences, like QWERTZ in Germany).

But I have a real issue nowadays with people calling the shrunken key abominations with multiple function key combinations QWERTY keyboards. Case in point is the keyboard on the forthcoming T-Mobile G2 phone (allegedly also known as the HTC Vision). That keyboard combines numbers onto the top row of letters meaning that if you want to type numbers you have to hold down a special shift key to get those numbers to appear – so Alt-Q is a “1”, Alt-W is a “2”, and so on. That’s just plain stupid. And unproductive.

I have a Blackberry phone that I have been using for years on Bonaire because a phone with a real 5-line QWERTY keyboard was simply not available here (and because I rarely ever use my phone on Bonaire, I have never bothered to upgrade). And I hate using that Blackberry because I cannot type numbers directly. I have to use a special alt function key to get to numbers on the Blackberry. Augh!

But when I travel to the U.S. and elsewhere, I use my T-Mobile G1 at present.

However, I am at the point where the things I want to do on my G1 phone are not really viable because its memory capacity for applications is limited, and many new applications need the latest version of Android, and the whole thing has gotten a bit slow.

What complicates the purchase of a replacement phone is that there are sadly few new phones coming out with 5-line QWERTY keyboards such as what I have gotten used to over the last five years or so with Sidekicks and the G1. Instead, the new phones, if they have separate keyboards at all (instead of the even more annoying touch-screen keyboard – don’t get me started on those), they are four line QWERTY keyboards such as that on the new T-Mobile G2 with letters and numbers sharing keys. I hereby dub those fake QWERTY keyboards as “QOneWTwo” keyboards, or simply for better readability “QOneTwo” (pronounced “Quan-too”).

To the phone manufacturers out there – I’d be happy to pay several hundreds of dollars for a new Android phone with a decent processor if it has a true, five-line QWERTY keyboard and can run the latest iteration of Android. I would even switch my service from T-Mobile to another GSM/HSPA carrier in order to gain access to such a phone if I needed to. That may seem like an shallow promise, but I will note that I’ve been a T-Mobile customer (via their U.S. predecessor VoiceStream) since January 2001. With all the carrier hopping most people do these days, I doubt any of the current mobile carriers have many clients who have stuck with them for nine and a half years. But I’m willing to jump ship for a good phone with a real 5-line QWERTY keyboard.

T-Mobile and others can keep those annoying QOneTwo keyboards. Just stop suggesting they are QWERTY keyboards. They aren’t, really.

Hulu Plus Is a Minus

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I have grown weary of broadcast television. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but I think the realization that a one-hour TV program contained about 18 minutes of advertising might have been a contributing factor. Wasting almost a third of my TV watching life by way of commercials is crazy.

My favorite medium for watching television programming these days continues to be the Apple TV. The Apple TV gets me crisp, commercial free television shows for around $1.99 per episode ($2.99 for HD, but I’ve not found that to be worthwhile for TV shows – some movies yes, but not TV series).

$1.99 isn’t really that expensive, but I’ve kept my eyes out for lower cost Internet-based video programming options. I’ve tried Netflix, but found the streaming to be too temperamental, resulting in lots of chunky low-resolution video. I had also tried, which had full episodes of a number of TV shows, albeit with short commercial interruptions strung out during the show, which I found annoying.

Hulu Plus - "More" of a lot of things, some not so good

Hulu Plus - "More" of a lot of things, some not so good

So, when I got notice that I could participate in the new Hulu Plus service, which promised a much greater selection of programming, as well as iPad support, I figured I’d give it a try.

I used a special link, had to enter credit card information so I could have the privilege of paying $9.99 for my first month of use, and got my Hulu account upgrade to Hulu Plus.

The very first thing I discovered is that, contrary to my expectations, Hulu Plus does nothing to remove the annoying commercials in the shows they offer. I tried several different programs, and all included “Limited Commercial Programming” (according to the voice over and notice when you first open a show in Hulu Plus). Strike One.

I decided to try and bull through past this annoyance, and chose to watch “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”, a six-part series about British Chef Jamie Oliver and his effort to get the most obese town in the U.S. to eat healthier.

I managed to get through the first two episodes using the free iPad Hulu Plus app, and found the quality of the video and audio pretty decent for streaming video. However, when I started watching the third episode – about four minutes into it, my iPad screen suddenly went blank and featured an ominous start-up Apple logo. I tried for several minutes to get the iPad to respond in some fashion, frantically perusing support sites, but after about 10 minutes the iPad came back to life on its own. Figuring it was just a random, rare quirk, I restarted the show I was watching in the Hulu Plus app only to have the iPad crash, again, at exactly the same point.

This time, however, the iPad did not come back to life after 10 minutes. I was about to attempt a full restore on the iPad (that would have sucked) when it regained its senses – half an hour after it crashed.

The best I can guess is that the Hulu Plus app went into some sort of crash loop and finally worked its way out of the loop before crashing back to the iPad home screen.

Properly written software should not effectively disable a computing device as thoroughly as Hulu Plus tanked my iPad. Strike Two.

I went and reported the iPad crash to Hulu as well as complained about the incessant advertising. I must say they were prompt to respond, although I really didn’t groove with the answers.

Here’s what I heard back about the advertising:

Thanks for writing, and I certainly understand where you’re coming from. I’d like to take a minute to explain why we have ads in a subscription service.

The ads on Hulu Plus allow us to keep the monthly price of the service as low as possible while offering a broader, deeper selection of content. While we understand users may want to pay for an ad-free experience, we aim to bring you a higher quality of content with a minimal amount of ads. If you’re watching Hulu Plus on a TV or mobile device, the ad experience for each device should be optimized for quality and effectiveness. We hope you find that the ad experience on Hulu Plus is similar to our classic Hulu service: much lower than what you’d experience while watching normal television.

I don’t want normal television anymore, so I don’t compare Hulu Plus to normal television. And I’m really not interested in an optimized and effective “ad experience”, thank you very much. I want a “no advertising experience”, and I’d even be willing to pay a bit more for that if the content available was broad enough.

And regarding the crash:

Thank you for your email. I’m sorry to hear you’re having problems with Hulu Plus on the iPad. I fired up the iPad here in the office and forwarded to the spot in the episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I tried it a few times and I wasn’t able to replicate the error you are seeing. I’m streaming over wifi – were you streaming over wifi as well or 3G? Also, have you tried watching the show again since the two times you got the error?

Let me know what you find. I look forward to your response.

Very responsive, but I’m a bit gun shy about using Hulu Plus on the iPad, and I really don’t care to watch Hulu Plus on my PC, even the one in the living room attached to the TV, because of those darned commercials. (And, for the record, I was using WiFi and didn’t fast forward to the point of the crash, but instead let the show rerun from the beginning.)

I didn’t want to wait for Strike Three, whatever it might turn out to be, so I cancelled my Hulu Plus subscription a few minutes ago. Maybe when Hulu Extra Plus with no advertising comes out for $14.99 or even $19.99/month, I might reconsider.

For now, I’ll let Hulu Plus share the “advertising experience” with someone else.

My Favorite iPad Apps

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

As promised, here’s a list of my favorite iPad applications so far. I’m up to eleven since I wrote my initial iPad post, though, so I guess this is a Top Eleven list.

1. Kindle (free). Allows me to read all the same books on the iPad that I have access to on my Kindle, plus, since the iPad has a backlit screen it’s great for reading books at night. The free Apple iBooks application is fine too, but I have hundreds of books on my Kindle account, and we have several Kindle’s in the family as well as a number of Kindle-enabled PCs and handheld devices. No brainer then to use the Kindle app on the iPad instead of iBooks.

2. Documents to Go Premium ($14.99). Provides a great way to create and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, as well as move them to and from the iPad. Remote storage tools include a PC client for Documents to Go as well as Dropbox, a free on-line file repository. As a paid app, this is probably the single best productivity application I have found for the iPad (and I went through several).

3. Evernote (free). I use Evernote extensively on my PCs to keep track of the plethora of data I need to keep my hands on, including to-do lists, material for my writing, and copies of interesting web pages and other data. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Evernote was one of the main reasons I bought the iPad. The Evernote app has a few problems with things like adding extra lines to my text-based notes, but the folks at Evernote have assured me they are working on fixing things.

4. WordPress Client (free). Allows me to more easily blog to my many WordPress-based blogs (like this one). The iPad version of the WordPress app also makes it easy to work on multiple blogs (I have about a half-dozen). The only thing lacking at present is any sort of formatting ability. You have to hand code HTML to apply formats to your posts. What’s also nice is you can maintain local drafts, or move a draft up to your blog for later editing on a PC.

5. PrintBureau ($12.99). Gives me the ability to print from the iPad. Works best with a free print server program from Eurosmartz, the same company which makes PrintBureau. As I happen to use a netbook as a 24/7 utility computer to run backups, weather station updates, and other scheduled tasks in my home office, setting it up to be a print server for my iPad was a natural. However, you can still print entirely without a print server as long as you have network-enabled printers. Getting things into the application for printing can be a bit cumbersome at times as a result of current iPad limitations (see yesterday’s post on iPad Annoyances), so PrintBureau also includes a simple e-mail client as well as its own web browser, both of which can be used as the source of material to be printed.

6. FlightTrack Pro ($9.99 plus $3.99 for airport info add-on). If only I were traveling as much as I did last year, because this application is just so cool. You enter your flight itinerary (or that of someone you want to track), and this application will give you a near-real-time update on each flight’s status – at gate, taxiing, in flight (with altitude and flight speed, even), landing, delayed, etc. And as a bonus, the flight is shown on a global map. I used it to track my daughter’s movement from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Newark to Manchester, New Hampshire. Way cool. But for now, I’ll have to use FlightTrack Pro vicariously, because I have no travel plans off of my island home of Bonaire for the foreseeable future.

7. iSSH ($9.99). I need to manage several Linux servers for my businesses which provide web-hosting services, and in order to do that securely, I need encrypted access, which the SSH protocol provides. iSSH is a simple to use SSH terminal client that meets all my SSH needs. It also include VCP support, handy if you use VCP on your server for access and control.

8. (free). Some of the books I’ve been reading lately deal with molecular biology and gastronomy, and this dictionary has been very helpful in learning the meaning of words like adsorb (not a typo of absorb as I first thought), lipids, casein, and ester.

9. FileBrowser ($2.99). FileBrowser gives me the ability to access files on my office file servers via my iPad, as well as store files there. Incredibly handy and simple to use.

10. Photogene ($3.99). Before trying Photogene I used PhotoPad (free), but ultimately I found Photogene a bit more intuitive and useful. Combine this with the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29.00), and you can do some pretty reasonable photo work on the iPad. The problem after that, of course, is getting your images off the iPad onto a photo web site. Flickr, Photobucket, and Shutterfly all offer apps for that purpose though.

11. WeatherBug Elite for iPad (free). Really nice weather application with animated weather data maps and weather forecasts. But most of the animations seem to only work in the U.S., not internationally, which is kind of a bummer here on Bonaire.

I downloaded several dozen other applications before gravitating to the ones above. Some of the apps I previously downloaded were free, some cost real money, but none of those were as useful as the ones I have outlined above. And a number of the above applications superseded the ones I previously bought (like GoodReader, which Docs To Go trumps rather nicely).

However, I will add that unless you are a Mac user using iWork, or plug your iPad into your iTunes PC regularly, stay away from Apple’s Pages application (or any of the other applications in the iPad iWork suite). Pages is not capable of sharing documents with other iPad applications, and if you don’t have an account for storing and sharing files or use an iTunes-equipped PC much, then your only option is to e-mail your documents to yourself, which is more than a bit lame. Docs To Go Premium is so much more versatile, and only a few dollars more.

I’m sure there will be other cool and useful applications on the iPad that I will stumble over at some point, but for now, the above eleven apps are tops in my book.

iPad Annoyances

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

In my previous post, I described my appreciation for the Apple iPad. In this post I’ll address the top ten things that annoy me about the iPad. And there are a large number of things that annoy me about this darned device (on which I am writing this blog entry).

1. Safari is Horribly Stunted. For those not familiar with Apple, Safari is the name of Apple’s own web browser. While Safari on a Macintosh computer or Windows-based PC is a fully loaded web browser, the version on the iPad is a pale image of itself for at least four reasons.

First, it does not support Flash. Flash allows web site developers to implement greater interactivity in their web sites, and without Flash support, the iPad’s web browser is unable to present these web sites properly, thus rendering them inaccessible.

Second, you cannot upload files from the iPad from Safari. That makes it really tough to use web sites like Flickr, discussion boards where you want to upload images and attachments, and countless other sites that require uploads for interactivity. Some sites offer their own iPad or iPod Touch apps to perform uploads, but they are typically limited in functionality, and only a tiny fraction of web sites offer such apps.

Third, downloads are mostly non-functional. You can download files via Safari for which you have applications capable of using such files, but it’s awkward. And once you have files downloaded, you can’t edit them and upload them again.

And finally, you cannot easily transmit a web page in Safari to any other application (such as a printing app) – you either have to select the whole page, copy it to the clipboard, and then paste it into an e-mail which you then mail to yourself so you can print it from an e-mail enabled printing app like PrintBureau, or you use such an app with its own built-in web browser to browse to the same page and print it that way.

2. Lack of Real Multi-Tasking. Multi-tasking in computing refers to the ability of a computer to run multiple tasks (e.g. programs or apps) at the same time (or at least appear to do so). While most modern operating systems offer multi-tasking (even Android does), the iPad’s operating systm does now. More specifically, the iPad does not allow you to switch between applications and have the applications maintain their state and continue operating in the background. There are some exceptions to this (mostly with Apple’s own apps), but they are negligible. Rumors suggest that the next major release of iOS, the operating system on the iPad, will implement real multi-tasking. We’ll see.

3. No Real File System. If you only use the iPad to watch video, play music, and surf the web, you might not care about this. But if, like me, you’re trying to use the iPad as a real business tool, you want to be able to easily move files between applications as well as perform standard actions on files you are working on. For example, I want to be able to print from any app, or be able to use a file transfer app to transfer any files I’ve been working on in whatever application to a particular destination – web site, PC, or server. However that’s not possible on the iPad.

Some enlightened applications allow you to open a current file in a different program, but Apple’s own productivity (hah!) suite, iWork, and its individual applications, such as the word processing program Pages, are decidedly unenlightened. However, even when the passing of files from one application to another works, you end up with multiple copies of the file – one for each application, and that can be a nuisance too. If Apple wants to see the iPad become a business tool, this needs to be fixed.

4. No Try-Before-You-Buy. In the quest for applications that do what I need to get done, I’ve spent over a hundred dollars on applications I will likely never use because they did not fulfill my expectations and needs. Apple’s Pages program is right at the top of that list, incidentally. There’s $9.99 out the window. There should be some sort of way to be able to check out an application for a couple of hours or even a day and be able to “return” it without being charged if it doesn’t meet one’s requirements. I guess I’ve at least enriched the pockets of a few developers out there without the benefit of really using their programs.

5. No VPN Support. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it’s a way that business people as well as security minded folks set up encrypted tunnels from their computers to remote servers. For people dealing with sensitive data on their company’s system while they travel or are just outside the office, VPN support is vital. This is another thing that Apple has to enable in order to make the iPad a viable business computer device, but my guess is that this would require multi-tasking support before it’s possible to implement, since it requires the ability to run any of a number of VPN client programs on the iPad.

6. 3G Support is Crippled. This only applies to iPads that come with 3G connectivity, of course. While I laud Apple and AT&T for coming up with a monthly, no-long-term commitment plan, I am thoroughly annoyed by the fact that I cannot download any application larger than 20MB, even if I am fully cognizant of the number of bytes my 3G plan includes and willing to pay for more. You have to use WiFi on the iPad or connect to a PC with iTunes running for downloads of that size. The download limitation also applies to other content, not just apps. For example, I couldn’t download the maps for the National Geographic World Atlas HD app over the 3G connection.

7. E-mail Software Limitations. For folks with a single e-mail account, the e-mail client built into the iPad is pretty decent. However, again, for people running a small business, where they might have a single mailbox but need to use different sender addresses (e.g. info@, jake@, sales@, support@some, it’s not easy to set that up with iPad e-mail.

E-mail clients like Thunderbird, Eudora, SquirrelMail, Outlook, etc. all let you set up multiple identities for a single mailbox, but with iPad’s e-mail software you need to have separate mailboxes for each identity. Not easy unless you manage your own server and can set up dummy mailboxes just so you can define the extra accounts in iPad e-mail. I had to set up about a dozen such mailboxes, and now the iPad e-mail client needs to check each of the mailboxes for new mail (of which there will never be any, since they are dummy mailboxes) every time mail is checked – a total waste of bandwidth. At least once you do set this up, you can then select any of the defined mail accounts as the sender for your e-mail messages.

8. Plug-in Keyboard Doesn’t Work with iPad Case. So, the sales guy at the Apple Store sold me this great iPad case which folds over to present the iPad at a good working angle and it protects the iPad from some wear and tear too. I really like the case.

I find the on-screen touch keyboard on the iPad functional enough for short messages, but not for serious typing (like these blog entries), so I decide I want a keyboard too.

The Apple guy sells me a wireless Bluetooth keyboard (which works great – I’m using that now). For use on airplanes (where they frown on wireless peripherals during flight), he offers a plug-in keyboard.

However, I soon discover that the plug-in keyboard is bulky (it has a stand for the iPad built in) and worse yet, it will not work while the iPad is in its snug case I just bought. So you have to remove the snug case (not easy) in order to plug it into the keyboard. Lame. And lamer yet is that you can only use the plug-in keyboard with the iPad in portrait mode. If they got rid of the stand and just provided a short cable it would be so much better.

I understand you might be able to use a USB keyboard via the optional iPad Camera Connection Kit, but the small USB keyboard I found at apparently drained too much power for that to work, and I don’t want to lug a full size keyboard with me.

9. Lack of Interaction Between Applications. Okay, so I already ranted about the lack of a file system above, which I see as a major contributor to the issue of painfully difficult (if not impossible) application interaction, but I really find the whole isolated application model of the iPad highly irksome and frustrating to deal with.

10. The iPad is Just a Giant iPod Touch. I’ve heard a number of people describe the iPad as a giant iPod Touch. And yes, in many ways it is. But it is much more, and it could be even more than that, if only Apple opened it up for better business use and greater compatibility with the world.

Regardless of the above annoyances, or perhaps in spite of them, I have found ways to get the iPad to do most of what I need. It’s not been easy or cheap to do so, but now that I’ve reached equilibrium, life is good and I’m content with my iPad.

Next up will be a list of my most useful and favorite iPad applications.