Archives for Technology
A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.
In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.
Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.
We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.
Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.
The need for quick capture of ideas and news
Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)
As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.
Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.
User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:
- Get manuals into your computer.
- Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
- Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
- Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.
The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.
Go To The Source
You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.
Check Third-Party Websites
User-manuals.com offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is theusermanualsite.com. It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that theusermanualsite.com is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. Theusermanualsite.com requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.
Scan It Yourself
If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.
Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.
A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).
Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.
Evernote can be your digital database
We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.
Create a Notebook
First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.
Create a Note
The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.
- Navigate to Evernote.com and log in.
- Tap “+ New Note”.
- The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
- Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
- Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
- Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
- Click “Done”.
That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.
Find manuals when you need them
I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.
In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.
Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.
OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.
Access manuals from the appliances themselves
While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.
QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.
You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.
Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.
There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.
This past fall, I was contacted by the amazing people at Behance and 99U about contributing to a book series they’re editing and curating. I’m a big fan of 99U and have been in the LifeRemix network with Scott Belsky (the publisher behind Behance and 99U) for years. It took me exactly one second to agree to the project before I even really understood what it entailed.
The book, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, released today is the first in a three-part series exploring creative productivity, time management, individually tailored processes, and great design. 99U’s traditional focus is the creative community (artists, designers, writers, etc.), but the information in this book is applicable to most everyone — especially those of us tied to desks all day.
Jocelyn K. Glei, the editor-in-chief of 99U and this book series, explains:
In Manage Your Day-to-Day, we address the specific challenges that this 21st-century influx of information presents for creative professionals, and offer solutions for how to build a daily routine, maintain focus amidst a constant stream of distractions, and keep your creative mind (and work) fresh … Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, Manage Your Day-to-Day provides a playbook of tried-and-true best practices for producing great work. To accomplish this, we recruited 20 of the smartest creatives and researchers we knew—from Stefan Sagmeister to Seth Godin to Gretchen Rubin to Tony Schwartz to Dan Ariely—and asked them to share their road-tested insights on what helps them do great creative work.
The chapter I wrote for the book is “Learning To Create Amidst Chaos” and admits that “like it or not, we are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions” while working and to “truly set ourselves apart, we must learn to be creative amidst chaos.” I provide advice for ways you can train yourself to find focus in disruptive circumstances, much like a basketball player has to learn control so he or she can be successful throwing free throws on a rival team’s court.
The official book trailer:
The book is published by Amazon’s new publishing house and is available in paperback, audio, and digital format for the Kindle. Learn even more about the project and the contributors at 99U.
My colleague at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Chris Rawson, recently explained why most people should think long and hard before installing a beta version of the iPad and iPhone operating system. These betas are typically distributed to developers so that they can test their apps against future updates, but any interested party with $100 can sign up as a developer and get it themselvers. It was a great piece and contained this blurb from a frustrated iPad owner:
I recently bought an iPad right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I [installed iOS 5 beta 2]. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black … It’s just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I’m home.
Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.
Forget the iOS install and focus on the huge problem illustrated by this user: He’s on vacation in AFRICA — a foreign continent — and can’t find anything to do without his iPad.
There isn’t one single compelling thing to do in all of Africa?
I don’t condemn this reader individually, because he has succumbed to an insidious epidemic. Specifically, we’ve cured boredom. And that’s a real problem. In The Wall Street Journal, Scott Adams wrote back in 2011:
But wait — we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.
I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.
I’ve expressed this idea in less articulate terms myself. The insistent nature of Twitter, Facebook, and a thousand games in your pocket has produced a generation that never experiences a dull moment. That means we also never experience a contemplative moment, a reflective moment, a creative moment. Scott Belsky agrees:
Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.
I know this makes me sound like a cranky old misanthrope, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to generate a truly creative thought while the incessant barrage pelts us. It’s like complaining that we’re not dry while standing in a rain storm. You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.
Turn off, be quiet, and be comfortable with your thoughts. It’s OK, I promise.
The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.
As a parent of a toddler with an intrinsic desire to push every button he encounters, we’ve been living the past few years with our shredder unplugged from the wall. Each day when the mail arrived, I had to take the safety plug out of the outlet, plug in the shredder, turn on the shredder, shred any mail with sensitive data on it, turn off the shredder, unplug it, and put the safety plug back into the outlet. I gladly did this because I care more about my son’s safety than the inconvenience of plugging in and then unplugging a shredder, but I kept thinking there has to be an easier way.
I also knew I couldn’t be the only person in this situation and someone had to have found a better solution.
Turns out, shredder manufacturers had thought about folks like me with toddlers and about people with pets as curious as three year olds. For safety-conscious people, they have created shredders that require keys to unlock the shredder’s functionality. In this specific case, I’ve been using the Staples’ 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a Lockout Key. I can keep it plugged in all the time, but it can’t be operated until the Lockout Key is inserted into a lock on the top of the unit. (Removing the Lockout Key actually disconnects the power to the unit.) It’s simple to use and a significant improvement over the unplugging method.
And, if you’re someone (like a grandparent) who doesn’t regularly have young children or pets in your home, there is a discrete switch on the inside of the unit that can override the key functionality for as long as you desire.
Specifically addressing the 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder, it has some additional nice features:
- It automatically turns off if it overheats (something I’ve never had occur, but the manual says it is possible after four minutes of continuous run time)
- If it turns off because of overheating it has a specific indicator light to let you know that is the reason it shut down (so you don’t think the shredder is broken), and that light goes out when the unit cools down and is ready to go again
- It cross-cut shreds, which makes the shred more secure than just a strip shredder
- It eats credit cards and other thin plastics
- It eats staples, so you don’t have to remove them before depositing papers into the shredder
- Another safety feature is it doesn’t operate if the top of the unit isn’t seated securely on the base
- It will eat 10 pieces of paper at a time, which means you often don’t have to open envelopes if you know they’re junk and don’t contain any metal
- The bin that catches the paper shreds pulls out from the front (like a drawer) and you don’t have to take the shredding unit off the top to empty your shreds (this is a nice improvement over our old shredder, too)
- There is a little clear panel on the front of the bin so you can see if you need to empty out the paper shreds from the bin
- As for loudness, it’s not the quietest shredder I’ve ever heard but it is far from the loudest — the manual claims it has about a 70 decibel noise level
Interested in knowing which papers you have that you should shred before purging? I suggest shredding anything with any personal information on it. If an identity thief could use the information to verify himself or herself as you, shred the paper. In my area, paper shreds can be recycled, so I shred unabashedly. If your recycling program doesn’t take shredded paper, you can compost the shreds (just make sure you don’t have any plastic or staples in your bin).
If you have specific questions about what papers to shred and purge, you might find this infographic I developed to be helpful, “Shred, Scan, or Store?“
As Internet access becomes ubiquitous and bandwidth drops in price, so-called “cloud” services (which store your information on a server that’s accessed via the Internet) are growing in popularity. Many are very useful and help you perform tasks like sharing photos and video, storing files, and keeping up with family and friends. Most cloud services are inexpensive, some are free, and many offer great convenience.
The trouble starts when you subscribe to more than a few. I found myself checking Instagram for photos, Facebook for updates from friends, Dropbox for shared files, Path for updates from family, and Pocket and Instapaper for articles to read. Fortunately, I found Jolidrive, which lets me keep all of those services (and many more) in one, tidy, organized layout.
Jolidrive is free to use. You can create an account by signing in with your Facebook credentials or email address. Once you’ve done that and clicked the link in your confirmation email, you’re all set.
There are several “services” you can have Jolidrive connect to, including:
- Google Plus
- Ubuntu One
- Google Drive (formerly Google Documents)
As you add each service, you’ll be asked for your login credentials. Once the connection is made, it appears in the sidebar of Jolidrive’s beautifully designed web interface. Tap any one to explore.
For example, I can click the Instagram icon to get a beautiful grid of the latest photos in my feed. I can also browse my own photos and those I’ve liked, as well as the most popular photos across all of Instagram. Finally, I can see who I’m following, as well as who’s following me. All from the one web page. In fact, jolidrive has become my favorite way to browse Instagram.
It works much the same with Facebook. I can see my news feed and my own timeline, my list of friends, photo albums, and videos. Again, there’s no need to visit another site. It’s very convenient and tidy.
I’ve also got Pocket in my account, it lets me browse and read saved articles in a layout that is just as pretty as the Pocket iPad app.
But Jolidrive is not just pictures and articles. I can browse and interact with almost any file I’ve got stored on Dropbox, Box, or SkyDrive. The fact that I don’t have to navigate away to all those different sites or apps is a real time-saver. On top of that, it looks great.
If you’re like me and you subscribe to a large number of cloud services, consider jolidrive. It keeps everything organized into a single, great-looking website. I have and I’m glad I did.
As an independent worker, I’m learning to be the manager, technician, and boss of “Dave, Inc.” I’m also a devotee of productivity tools (read: junkie) and I’ve tried most of the major systems, techniques, and software. By far, the most effective strategy I’ve adopted is also the simplest, and possibly the oldest: write things down. Not only does it reduce the stress of possibly forgetting something important, it also helps answer the question, “What should I work on now?”
I write things down all day, from capturing ideas to outlining articles and ideas. However, the most important list is the one I make right before bed.
Every night, I review what I’ve accomplished and what’s outstanding. Next, I write down the three most important tasks that I must complete the next day. This practice has two main benefits. First, it shuts off my brain. Tell me if this sounds familiar: your body is ready to go to sleep but your brain decides it’s party time! So it starts to review everything that needs to be done. Good times! When I’ve got those things out of my brain and committed to a list that I’ll see in the morning, the plug gets pulled on that party.
Second, it lets me avoid the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin. Many of us have 10, 20, or more outstanding projects. It can be hard to know where to start when you have so many. Deciding before I sit down helps alleviate that feeling and provide direction.
Conversely, approaching the workday without a list of observable, clearly-defined actions creates one of two scenarios. Either you’ll attend to every distraction that pops into your mind and make insignificant progress on many projects, or you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time on a project that’s less critical than others.
Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., I review my project lists and pick the three mission-critical tasks that MUST be completed the following day. Then, I gather 5–6 other tasks that can wait a day but would be the icing on the cake if completed within the next 24 hours.
I then take a pen and a notebook and write them down. This simple practice reduces my anxiety tremendously, lets me sleep, and gives me direction in the morning. When it’s noon and I’ve completed all three critical tasks, I feel fantastic.
There are a huge number of tools available for creating such a list of actions. I use David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. It lets me create a list, track how much time I actually spend on each (instead of my estimate), and gather incoming “stuff” as it shows up. It’s super useful.
Of course, most computers come with a quick note-type app. If you’re happy with just a bullet list, give it a try.
I’ve also started exploring these other programs:
The Pomodoro Technique. I use a modified implementation of this method. At its heart, it’s a way to alternate timed work sessions with break sessions. I work for 25 minutes straight and then take a 5-minute break. When the break’s over, I start again with another 25-minute work session. After three rotations, the break extends to 15 minutes, the I go back to 25 on, 5 off.
Mac users who want to try it out will love BreakTime. This unobtrusive utility lives in my Menu Bar and times your work/break sessions all on its own. Others should consider Focus Booster, a free, browser-based timer that looks great and works well.
Boomerang for Gmail. I usually check email at 9:00 a.m., noon and then 2:00 p.m. I, like so many others, had become a slave to the inbox and I don’t want to do that anymore. I use Gmail for a lot of work-related email, and Boomerang lets me schedule when I interact with it. I can determine when messages will be sent, but even better, select when I want to see certain messages. During my morning sweep, I can use Boomerang to remind me of certain messages while I’m processing email again at noon.
Like many of you, I’m still struggling with the best way to manage all of this. These practices and apps have helped quite a bit. If you’re doing something similar (or completely different), let me know.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been completing my three mandatory tasks by 3:00. It feels great.
The way we watch TV and movies is changing. So-called “time-shifted” television and on-demand movies make it possible to see just the programs we’re interested in when we have the time to watch. I love this practice because it lets me get work and family activities completed first, and save TV watching for when my schedule allows it.
There are many ways to access on-demand movies and television shows. Each has its own pros and cons. In this article, I’ll look at some of the most popular options, describing the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Netflix started out as a way to rent DVDs through the mail, and today it provides streaming television and movies to millions of users. I’ve been a customer for about two years and I enjoy the service quite a bit.
- Compatibility. Netflix is available on the iPad, Android devices, the Nook, Kindle Fire, the web, iPhone, Nintendo Wii and more. If you’ve got a connected smart device, it just might run Netflix.
- Original programming. Netflix has produced at least two high-quality original TV shows. Lilyhammer starting Steve Van Zant of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band was a delightful fish-out-of-water story that put a New York City mob boss in Lilyhammer, Norway, via a witness protection program. Meanwhile, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey takes a look at the hard-scrabble world of D.C. politics. Netflix is also working to revive Arrested Development, which Fox shut down in 2006.
- Navigation. Using Netflix is easy. The company has released several updates to its web app and device-specific applications. It’s clear the team is determined to produce a high-quality product.
- The queue. You can identify shows or movies you’d like to see and store them in a queue. When you’re ready to watch, simply open your queue and make a choice from among those you’ve saved.
- Mediocre selection. Overall, Netflix’s selection is mediocre. The TV selection is better than the movies. Once you’ve seen the ones you’ve heard of, you’re left with obscure documentaries and other films that didn’t make a splash at the box office. Now, many of them are quite good, but be aware that you might not find the latest summer smash in Netflix for quite some time.
- Cost. It’s not expensive, but at $7.99 for access to streaming content (DVD rentals are more), it adds up over time.
- Search isn’t great. It can take a while to find a title you’d like to see from among the many thousands on offer.
- Not very kid-friendly. Netflix features a “kid mode” that only presents child-appropriate content, but anyone can defeat it with two taps, no password required.
Hulu Plus is the paid version of Hulu, the online streaming service that works in a web browser, iPad, iPhone and more.
- Kid mode done right. Unlike Netflix, Hulu Plus requires a password to exit its kid-safe mode.
- Fantastic TV selection. Hulu often gets episodes of popular television shows the day after they run, so you don’t wait. TV really is Hulu’s main strong point.
- Wide device support. Hulu Plus is available on many devices, from the Xbox to the iPad to Android tablets and phones.
- Nice image quality. I’ve watched several programs on my 27″ display and my HD television (via Apple TV) and they always look great.
- Picking up where you left off. You can start a program on, say, your iPad and pick up where you left off on your computer (to be fair, other services do this, too).
- Abysmal movie selection. This is a sticking point for most streaming services but it seems to be a real issue for Hulu. I can often find something to watch on Netflix. On Hulu, I stick with TV. The movie selection is not to my liking at all.
- Cost. Just like Netflix, Hulu Plus will run you $7.99 per month. Not a lot on its own, but it adds up when purchased along side other streaming services.
The PBS app for iPhone and iPad is very nice. Here are a few things I like about it.
- The scheduling feature is quite helpful. Tell the app your home location to browse a full programming calendar. You can even create reminders to catch upcoming shows.
- Favorites. After creating a free account, you can monitor your favorite shows and receive notifications of relevant information.
- Great navigation. This app is beautifully laid out and easy to use.
- It’s free!
- Restricted to PBS programming. That’s not a bad thing, especially for PBS fans, but the drawback is obvious: you can’t watch anything other than PBS shows.
- Some series are incomplete. For example, I was able to find Julia Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs, but not The French Chef (which I prefer).
Apple’s media behemoth iTunes is a great choice for people who want access to current TV and movies in HD.
- TV shows are current and movies often hit iTunes when they’re released on DVD.
- 720p and 1080p HD programs are available.
- The iTunes software is available for Macs and Windows PCs.
- Renting is less expensive than buying.
- The iTunes Store is updated weekly, so content is always fresh.
- Apple’s iCloud lets you store iTunes purchases on Apple’s servers for playback on any approved, compatible device.
- Unless you’re using iTunes on a Windows machine, you must have an Apple device to view rentals and/or purchases. There’s no Android support here.
- A la carte pricing. This sounds good, but it’s a lot less economical than the all-you-can-eat flat fee of services like Netflix and Hulu. Every time you want to watch anything, you must pay for it (unless you’ve bought it outright, of course).
Amazon Prime Streaming
Prime is Amazon’s service that includes two-day shipping on qualifying items plus access to its library of streaming video. It’s a good deal for those who shop with Amazon and love streaming video.
- Cost. At $79 per year, Amazon is much cheaper than the other services listed here (save PBS). That works out to about $6.58 per month, and includes the shipping benefit.
- Prime members with an Amazon Kindle can “borrow” books as well, essentially turning Amazon into a lending library.
- Selection. It’s not good. The movie section is especially lacking. You’ll find some hits that are around 20 years old, but other than that you have to dig.
There’s also a newcomer to the group. As of yesterday, audio streaming service Rdio has added streaming video to is business: Vdio. It’s only available to Rdio Unlimited subscribers in the US and UK for now. In the few hours I spent looking at it, I found the selection to be small in number but big in names. Recent hits like Lincoln, Les Mis, The Hobbit and Life of Pi are available right now. Vdio is young but definitely a service to watch. (Sorry for that pun).
So there’s a look at the more popular video streaming services. There are more, of course, but this post is already long enough. It’s really nice when you can schedule TV viewing on your own terms. The whole process becomes more efficient with less time wasted. Have fun watching TV in “the cloud!”
Google surprised many Google Reader users when it announced the service would cease to function on July 1, 2013. Google Reader is the company’s free, browser-based RSS reader that thousands, if not millions, of people use. May users are now searching for alternatives, especially those for whom RSS is an integral part of their workflow (including yours truly).
With that in mind, I found some great, web-based RSS readers that will work on your Mac or PC, as that’s the niche Google Reader filled. Onward!
Feedly is a very popular option. So much so, that the company saw 50,000 new members join within 48 hours of Google’s announcement. It’s more stylized than Google Reader and has a newspaper-like feel in the way feeds are displayed. Some folks will like that, but others who were accustom to Google’s more stark appearance might find it off-putting.
There are Feedly apps available for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices, and they all stay in sync nicely. So, if you add or remove a feed on one device, the change is reflected on the other devices instantly.
Feedly is free and lets you import your Google Reader feeds easily.
The Old Reader
Another popular choice is The Old Reader. It’s appealing because it was molded on Google Reader, and offers many of the same features. Note, however, that The Old Reader is still in the early (beta) stage of development and that means it isn’t feature-complete and may have some bugs.
The Old Reader will let you import your Google Reader information (though less elegantly than Feedly), and organize feeds into categories and folders via drag-and-drop. It’s got good support for keyboard shortcuts (so you spend less time reaching for your mouse) and a fun social feature that lets you share interesting articles with friends on Facebook or among your Google contacts.
Newsblur is another browser-based option with free apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices. It offers a few niceties that go beyond what Google has been offering. For example, there are a couple ways to view an article: as it appears on the originating site, as they’re set up to appear in RSS or stripped of images and ads for a nice, clean and distraction-free reading experience. Of course, you can organize your feeds into folders and keep everything in sync with your mobile device.
Another standout feature is that Newsblur offers tiered pricing options. The free version limits you to 64 news sources, and each can display 10 at a time. Premium users who pay $24/year are free of those restrictions.
The company is seeing very high demand and has temporarily stopped accepting new free accounts. But, we still have four months before Google shuts Reader down, so keep checking back on Newsblur if it’s one you’d like to try. I’m sure demand will reach a manageable level soon.
Bloglines is a veteran news reader, having been around since 2003. There are no mobile apps, so this is an entirely web-based solution. Of course, you can organize and sort your feeds as you like. There’s good news for Bloglines’ future, too, as it was recently announced that MerchantCircle is going to keep it up and running.
There are other web-based RSS alternatives, but these are the ones I like. Others are still in development and not yet available, like Feed Wrangler and Feedspot that have been announced since Google’s news. Again, these services aren’t up and running yet, but you can sign up to receive information as it becomes available.
Finally, you’ll need to export your Google Reader data before you can move it to a new solution. Fortunately, I’ve written a brief tutorial on how to do just that.
Do you have an alternative that I’m not aware of? Share it in the comments.
I had an amazing college gig. My job was to deliver papers and envelopes to medical offices around town. I’d show up at work and pick up a van full of deliveries, and, when the van was empty, my work was done. Afterward, I would return the van and go back to my apartment. Guess how many times I thought about delivering papers between drop-off and the next morning?
That was what David Allen would call a “widget-cranking job.” You show up to find a bunch of un-cranked widgets. Once they’re all cranked, you go home. The job description is cut and dry.
Today, my job is quite different. I write and edit articles. I produce one podcast and participate in another. I’m working on a book. I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father, brother, and son. In comparison, my job requires more attention than driving a van around town while listening to music and drinking a soda.
A good number of jobs can be overwhelming. The good news is that any job can be a widget-cranking job. The trick is identifying the widgets and getting them in front of yourself in a timely manner and on a friendly, non-intimidating list.
How do you get almost any job into a widget-cranking job? Try these steps:
Identify the widgets
This is the most crucial and the most difficult step. It often takes more time and attention than you initially assume. I think a case study will be the best way to illustrate the process.
Next week, I’ll produce another episode of my podcast, Home Work. There’s a lot to be done each week, like think of a topic, communicate that idea to my co-host, conduct research once a topic has been agreed upon, share notes, confirm sponsorship details, ensure that my software and hardware works, and so on. It’s easy to look at that and think, “Where do I begin?”
To find the answer, I ask myself this question: “If I had nothing else to do in the world but work on the podcast, absolutely nothing at all, what could I do right now to make progress on it?” And by do I mean a concrete, observable action. Let’s say my answer comes back, “brainstorm topic ideas.” OK, great. What do I need to do that? Well, a piece of paper and a pencil.
OK, but bah! My beloved brainstorming notebook is out of scratch paper. I guess I need to get more. So, the next step on the project Produce the Podcast is “drive to Staples and buy my favorite notebook paper.”
That’s a widget. “Think of a good topic” is hard. “Buy paper” is easy.
From there, I continue to my next step, which is “brainstorm ideas.” Then, I identify two or three good ones for the podcast. Next, I need to “share list of good ideas with my co-host.” All of these actions are easily-cranked widgets. Put them on a list and you’re good to go.
To-do management apps
All you need to crank these widgets is a simple list. High-powered project management software is overkill here. Below are several examples of simple and effective task management applications that might work for you.
- Remember the Milk. This handy little app is available for the iPhone and Android phones. It works with Gmail, Google Calendar, Twitter, and has a nice web interface. It’s been around for a few years and works quite well.
- Todo List. Todo List can be used entirely browser-based so it will work with just about any smartphone and any computer. You’ll also find apps for Android, the iPhone, Windows Phone, and the Mac OS. It features handy color coding and nearly infinite list sizes, so go nuts.
- TeuxDeux. This app lets you sort tasks by day and can be used in a browser. An iPhone app is also available. This one is very nice-looking in addition to being useful.
- To.DO. This a solution I’ve only recently started playing with. It’s available for Android, the iPhone, and Chrome. The Chrome browser plug-in is very nice. It syncs automatically with the smartphone apps and reminds you of what needs to be done.
- Astrid. Astrid takes your to-do list a step further and makes it easy to share task lists with co-workers, family, and friends. It’s available for the iPhone and Android.
Once you are clear as to what steps to take, work through your list of simple to-do items. As long as you stay current with your concrete actions, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. You can free your mind to think about non-work things during non-work time.
Services like Instapaper, Pocket and Readability are great for saving articles for later reading. But sometimes I want to read something right when I find it and, better yet, with a clutter-free layout like those services provide. This is when an in-browser reader like Apple’s Safari Reader, Instapaper’s Text Bookmarklet and Evernote’s Clearly come in handy.
Each has its own pros and cons, but which is the best? Everyone has their preferences, but I took a look at three options and picked my favorite. Here’s what I found while comparing Safari Reader, Instapaper Text, and Clearly:
Apple introduced Safari Reader with Safari 5. Like the others, it offers a distraction-free reading experience by presenting an article without ads, sidebar images, headers or footers. Instead, you get a center-aligned, black-on-white version of the article with any inline images intact. Plus, multi-page articles are displayed in one flow. That’s it.
It works by first detecting an article or post on a web page. Once it has, a grey “Reader” button appears in the URL field in place of the RSS button. Click it to view your article in the Reader interface (Command-Shift-R works, too).
The article appears on a white background in the center of Safari’s window. Also, the Reader button turns purple while the Reader view is active. Finally, a scrollbar on the right allows you to navigate the article.
There are several tools available while Reader is active. Move your cursor toward the bottom of Safari’s window and the toolbar appears. From left to right, you’ll find “-” and “+” re-sizing buttons, as well as options to email or print the article. Lastly, a big “X” closes the Reader UI and restores the original website (clicking outside of Reader does the same).
The best thing about Reader is that it works as advertised. The black text looks great and is highly legible. It loads quickly and lets you adjust the text size, print and share via email. Plus, it’s only available after a web page has fully loaded, so advertisers aren’t cheated out of impressions.
While Safari’s Reader for the Mac isn’t my favorite (more on that in a minute), it absolutely shines on mobile Safari. Especially on the iPhone. Typically I dislike long periods of reading on the iPhone because the screen and text is so small, but Reader fixes that. It commandeers the screen completely (unlike on the iPad, which still shows the toolbar and any open tabs), with big, legible text on a lightly textured background that just feels nice. An unobtrusive share button offers several options, like tweet, print, add to reading list and more.
My main gripe is that Reader doesn’t fill the browser window. Instead, the original web page is seen behind the Reader presentation. Even though it’s grayed out, I’m still aware of it, which defeats the “distraction-free” aspect. In fact, it’s a deal-breaker. Sorry, Apple.
Customization is also limited, though you can alter its look with a little work. It’s nice to re-size the type, but compared to others, it doesn’t do much. Finally, it’s restricted to Safari.
Reader is nice on the Mac, super on the iPad, and, hands-down, fan-flipping-tastic on the iPhone.
Instapaper Text Bookmarklet
Instapaper offers a bookmarkelt that lets you read an article in the service’s text view without saving it to your collection of stories. It offers black text on white like with Apple’s Safari Reader, but with more options for customization.
By default, the Instapaper Text Bookmarklet centers your text on a field of white. The customization tools are hidden until you click the font icon at the top left. Options include re-sizing the type, and I clicked the button 22 times and was obliged each time.
You can also single- or double-space the text and adjust the column width. Again, it seems happy to stretch the text as wide as I like, easily filling my 24″ display. Finally, there are four fonts to choose from: Geneva, Times, Helvetica and Veranda. There’s no button to send to Instapaper, however. For that you’ll need a different bookmarkelt.
Right off the bat I’m happy because it fills the browser window. Instapaper Text also offers more customization options than Apple. It also loads quickly, and is quite legible. Since it’s a bookmarklet, it’ll work in any browser and, like Safari’s reader, it displays multi-page articles on a single page.
Can’t think of a one.
I found this one recently and have been test driving it. Like the others, Clearly (formerly Readable) presents your target article without ads, a sidebar, header or footer. It’s an extension, not a bookmarkelt, and is available for Firefox and Google Chrome. Once it’s up and running, a click sends the article to your Evernote account. But, the single click action isn’t what I love most about it.
If looks are everything, Clearly is a bombshell. The whole point of these things is to display an article so that it looks great and is pleasant to read. Clearly succeeds better than the rest.
A click on the themes button on the right sidebar reveals multiple thematic options. By default there are three themes to choose from: Newsprint, Notable and Night Owl (pictured above). A fourth option lets you create a custom theme, with control over almost every aspect of how Clearly presents your pages. Finally, there’s a button to print the article and another to send it to Instapaper.
It’s not available on Apple’s Safari browser.
Evernote’s Clearly is my new favorite way to read articles without distraction in my browser. Yes, Instapaper is backed by a tremendous service that I love, but so is Clearly. Like I said, this is a beauty contest more than anything else and the team at Evernote has done a stellar job with Clearly. I’ll still send articles I wish to save to Instapaper, but will enjoy stories I want to read as I find them with Clearly.
When I think of avoiding clutter, I often think of my physical surroundings: the car, the office, my kitchen and my kids’ playroom. However, my computer’s screen — or desktop — also gets pretty messy on a regular basis. What’s more, that clutter can be just as distracting as a physical mess, and hinder my willingness to sit down and work. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. Here’s how I manage digital clutter on my virtual desktop.
Make a Mess As You Work
Much like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy while I work. The time you spend meeting obligations, making ends meet, and fulfilling the 9-to–5 is not the time to get fastidious about the location of every file and folder. Do your job, fling clay, and get stuff done.
At the end of my work day, I’ve typically got screenshots and other images, snippets of text, installers and more all over the desktop. This is perfectly acceptable. Leaving them there for all eternity — or worse, treating the desktop as a filing cabinet — is not.
Process As An Inbox
Most of us have several inboxes in our lives. There’s the physical in tray on your desk, but also email, voice mail, notes from school, and so on. When I sit down to go through those things, I follow the same process each time. Specifically, I ask myself what is this item, what needs to be done about it (if anything) and am I the person to do it? Sorting through the files and folders on my computer desktop requires the same process. Some stuff can be thrown away, others spawn ideas or join existing projects, while others go into long-term storage as reference material. Here’s how I separate the three types:
- Screenshots. At work I write, edit and take a lot of screenshots. All of these can go into the trash.
- Text snippets. I also paste bits of text into Apple’s Text Edit as a temporary placeholder. These also get trashed.
- Installers. Occasionally, I install new software, often for testing purposes. Those installers are unnecessary after a piece of software has been properly installed, and they love to pile up. Off to the trash they go.
Occasionally I’ll come across a website that I want to return to, an article I’d like to read during down time, an idea that could spawn or improve a new project or something I’d like to share.
There are many great ways to capture web site addresses for future reference. Pinterest is a popular service, but my favorite is Pinboard. It’s definitely no-frills, and that’s what I like about it. Pinboard costs about $10 to sign up for the service, and offers a place to store your bookmarks that is aways accessible. Multiple computers, smartphones and tablets can all log into your Pinboard account and have access to your saved sites. You can organize your collection with tags, and optionally share select finds with others. Again, I use Pinboard for sites I’ll refer to often.
That collection is different than articles I’d like to read in my free time. There are several great services that offer a super “read-it-later” experience, and my favorites are Instapaper and Pocket. Both store your saved articles for later viewing on a computer, smartphone or tablet. They also strip out the images, ads and so on so that all you get is the article you’re after. Honestly, I like them both and believe you’d be happy with either.
The next category is new ideas and/or information that pertains to a project in progress. This is also where the article takes a geeky turn, though I’ll ease into it slowly.
I like to store ideas, thoughts worth follow-up, etc. in a file format called plain text. Why? My Internet buddy David Sparks explains it beautifully at his site, Mac Sparky:
Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.
Moreover, text is internet friendly. The files are small and can jump among connected devices with poor connections like hopped up Disney faeries. It is really easy to work with your text files on any device from anywhere.
Your computer can read and create plain text files right out of the box. There’s nothing to fiddle with or buy. It just works. Plain text files also act as a nice half-way point before going into your formal project manager. So a folder full of plain text files does it for me.
That’s the non-geek version.
Ideas that require developement go into a piece of Mac software that I love called nvALT. I love nvALT because it’s insanely fast, supports keyboard shortcuts so I don’t have to move my hand to the mouse very often, saving time, and has powerful search capabilities. It syncs to my iPhone and iPad almost instantly, thanks to Dropbox and another app called Simplenote.
Finally, when it comes to long-term storage of reference material, I’m a loyalist to one product. This is information that does not require an action but might be useful in the future (a local theatre’s summer schedule, for example). This goes into Evernote.
First, don’t get distracted by trying to stay neat while you work. That’s counterproductive and will leave you frustrated. At the end of the day, process the stuff that has accumulated on your computer’s screen as you would any other inbox. Decided what a file is, what must be done with it (incubate, throw away, delegate or save for later), and then act accordingly by moving that item to the proper location. You’ll be glad you did.