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January 20, 2018

My favorite tech purchases of 2017

A few years back the Accidental Tech Podcast did a "tech Thanksgiving" episode in which each of the hosts talked about the tech that they were most grateful for.

For the past two years, I've kept an OmniOutliner document with a list of my favorite tech things of the year. Here's my list of the favorite things for 2017, starting with my favorite for the year.

10.5" iPad Pro with LTE

I bought a 12.9" iPad Pro in December 2015 shortly after it came out. At the time, I had an 2013 9.7" iPad Air which was starting to feel slow. The 12.9" iPad Pro was great, and it immediately replaced the Air, even at times when the smaller one would have made more sense. (Bringing a laptop-sized screen to bed only seems ridiculous at first.)

As time went on, I found myself picking up 9.7" Air more and more. The Air was a good size to take to lunch. The 12.9--well, one day I was out for lunch and I had the 12.9" on the table. A waitress rushed by and sent my iPad crashing to the floor. (Surprisingly, it still worked.)

But even though the smaller size of the Air made more sense, it was still slower than I wanted. By the beginning of 2017, the Air was over three years old. When the 10.5" iPad Pro was announced, I ordered it immediately.

I've loved it since the moment I got it. It's fast, the screen is great, and the four speakers in the corners make it so much better for watching video.

This is my 5th iPad, and every one I've bought has had a cell connection. Getting the cell over the WiFi model adds $130, but it makes using the iPad much more convenient. I love being able to grab it and use it with no delay no matter where I am. When I got the 12.9 I tried tethering it to my iPhone, but within a few weeks I added it to my cell plan.

Bose Soundlink Mini

We've had the largerBose Bluetooth SoundLink speaker about 5 years, and we love it. It's got great sound for a portable speaker. It usually lives in the kitchen, but in the morning I like to listen to podcasts while I'm in the shower., and it's a bit of a pain to go get the speaker from the kitchen. I've had my eye on the Bose Soundlink Mini ever since we got one for one of my kids a few years back. So when Bose gear went on sale for Amazon Prime Day last summer, so I grabbed one.

The larger Soundlink is still better for music, but the Mini is great for podcasts, and it's much more portable. We threw it in the suitcase when we went to Asheville in November and loved having with us. The battery also lasts for a couple of weeks at a time, which is much better than the larger Soundlink.

Apple Watch Series 3

I bought the original Apple Watch in 2015 a few months after it was released. Although I liked the Watch and wore it every day, by the of that year I was underwhelmed with what it did given the over $400 price tag.

But WatchOS updates kept coming, and by WatchOS 3 in September of 2016 my Watch was reasonably usable. Apple updated the hardware with the the Series 1 and 2 at the same time, but I was reluctant to spend another $400 on the watch only a year after it came out, so I decided to hold out another year for the next version. So when the Series 3 was announced in September 2017, I was chomping at the bit to get one.

The Series 3 is much faster than my Series 0. There were a number of apps that I'd given up on for being buggy, but what I discovered was that they were actually just too slow on that original hardware. On the old watch, activating Siri took a few seconds, but on the new one, Siri is right there.

Though I bought the LTE model, I haven't activated the cell service, and at this point I don't think I will. I could have saved myself some money by getting the non-cell version, but I wanted to keep my options open.

iPhone X

I'm in the Apple Upgrade program, which basically forces you to buy a new phone every year. (If you don't, you get a very friendly phone call from an Apple employee around November asking if you're feeling ok.)

I moved from the iPhone 7 Plus to the X. It's nice to be back to a phone that's a somewhat more reasonable size. (But if there's an iPhone X style larger phone this year, I will be tempted.)

Everyone talks about the OLED screen and Face ID, and I like those features, but it's the little things I like about the X. It's essentially waterproof, and the speaker is loud enough that I can use it instead of an external speaker. I've taken it into the shower with me in a pinch when I didn't have an external speaker available and not worried that I would drown the poor thing.

Amazon Echo Dot

The Dot was an impulse purchase back at the beginning of 2017. I bought a couple of Wemo Smart Plugs with it. By the end of the year we were happily saying "Alexa, turn on the Christmas tree" and "Alexa, turn out the lights" at bedtime. Having a human hanging around all day and all night to switch your lights on and off would be unseemly, but robot servants are cool. And way cheaper. Relatively. (This Smart Home stuff can start to add up. Fortunately, there are limits to our spending because we live in an apartment. No splurging on a smart thermostat or smart switches.)

Philips Hue Lights

The Wemo switches went into hiding once we got the Philips Hue bulbs.

The good: changing colors on your lightbulbs is cool. Another an unexpected benefit: we had dimmer cords that we'd bought back when we used incandescent bulb. Annoyingly, the dimmers didn't work well with LED bulbs: they had a nasty flicker when you turned them down. But the Hue bulbs dim smoothly with no flicker at all.

The bad: the Hue bulbs are only the equivalent of a 60w incandescent. Hue Bulbs are aimed at 20-somethings, not 50-somethings. Oh, well. I guess we just need to buy more of them.

Bose QC-35 Bluetooth noise-canceling (Series II) headphones

I bought a pair of wired Bose QC-15 headphones a few years back. I used them all the time at the office to cope with the noise of our open plan office. (Can't I just have a cube again? Please?)

Towards the end of the year we had to move desks around, and the result was even more noise. A co-worker had a pair of the newer QC-35 Series I headphones. I did an A-B test with my pair to see I could tell any difference, and .. yes, darn it, his were noticeably quieter. At lunchtime I went straight out to the local Best Buy and bought the QC-35 Series II headphones. And yes, Bluetooth is better: no cables to snag on everything.

BeatsX Bluetooth earbuds

I bought a pair of Apple AirPods for my sweetie for her birthday last year. She loved them, so I was excited to buy a pair for myself and see what everyone was raving about.

I was disappointed. In a noisy location, the AirPods are next to useless--they don't block out any sound. More critically, after about 3 hours of use they hurt my ears, so I returned them. (I bought them on-line from AT&T. Returning them to an AT&T retail store was surprisingly painful.)

I did like the AirPod's W1 chip that made it easier to switch between Apple devices. So instead I bought the BeatsX in-ear headphones that also included the W1 chip. The Beats X didn't hurt my ears, and I much preferred their noise-blocking in-ear style.

They're pretty tough. Right before vacation I accidentally put them through the washer. I figured they were ruined, but I went ahead and packed them in rice, and then immediately went to the Apple Store and bought another pair. I took both pair on vacation, and four days later I took my drowned pair out of the rice, and to my great surprise they still worked. Moreover, I could not tell the difference between the pair I'd washed and the new pair, so I got a refund on the new ones. Against all odds they're still working fine 8 months later. I still recommend against washing them.

Apple Smart Keyboard for 10.5" iPad

I've had an reluctant relationship with the Smart Keyboard. When I got my 12.9" iPad, I held off buying one. It was expensive, and I had a Bluetooth keyboard I could use with the iPad. I broke down and decided to give the Smart Keyboard a try, and I liked it. It made the 12.9" iPad much closer to a laptop replacement. That proved useful for about 6 months when my sweetie started grad school and needed to borrow my laptop. I was able to get by pretty well for about 6 months until she got a new laptop of her own.

Nonetheless, when I got the 10.5" iPad, I was reluctant to buy another expensive keyboard cover. One iPad with a always-attached keyboard is enough, right? But if there's one thing I'm good at, it's justifying spending money on gadgets, so ..

I'm using it right now to write this post. The 12.9" keyboard is better, but the 10.5" keyboard is damn good, and lets me use my smaller iPad when I would otherwise just leave my laptop-sized 12.9" iPad behind. An iPad with a keyboard that's always available is more useful.

Apple Pencil

I bought an Apple Pencil with my 12.9" iPad Pro back in 2015, but ended up not using it very much. I bought my sweetie a 9.7" iPad Pro for her birthday in 2016. Not long thereafter she started on a Master's Program, and discovered she loved using the Pencil for taking notes, so I ended up ceding it to her.

When I bought the 10.5" iPad, I now had two iPads that could use the Pencil, so I decided to buy one again. I actually did find a use for it: though I can't draw and my handwriting is atrocious, I found that when I'm trying to work something out I prefer handwriting to typing. I use the Notability app, and I love the ability to select a word or paragraph and move it around. I've been using it to keep notes for our daily 9am standup meeting.

Looking ahead to 2018

Unlike 2017 when I was already looking for a new iPad and a new Watch, there isn't a lot I'm looking forward to in 2018. My iPads are great and my Watch is good for another couple of years. I bought a new MacBook Pro in 2015, and that's still good for a number of years. (Apple needs to fix the faulty keyboard design introduced with the 2016 Macbook Pro before I'll be ready to buy another laptop.) 

I am interested in the Apple HomePod. I'm skeptical going in, but given my track record with buying Apple products, there's a good chance I'll decide I need that.

My 2011 iMac is getting long of tooth, but I had an SSD put in it a couple of years ago, so it's still going strong. I'll probably keep it until Apple stops supporting that model with new OS updates, and at that point I'll probably buy a 27" 5k iMac.

I've been staring to think about 4k TVs, but I don't think this is the year yet. That would be a major upgrade; I'd not only need to replace my TV, but my receiver, Blu-Ray player, and Apple TV as well. I also wonder how long it will before my cable service offers 4K. Plus, I think I'd want an OLED TV, and those are still pretty expensive for the larger sizes. So I think 2018 is not the year for that.

Since I'm paying for my iPhone monthly on the Apple Upgrade program, I'll almost certainly get a new iPhone later this year.

January 17, 2008

A great laptop bag: The North Face Surge

I carried around an Intel-branded laptop backpack for perhaps 8 or 9 years.  I got it when I worked at CNN, and at the time computer backpacks were not common. 

Various parts were finally giving way, so I decided to buy a new bag as a Christmas present with money my folks gave me. 

I started trying to do some research, but ended up going down to REI to see what I could find.

I picked up a North Face Surge, and I've been very happy with it.   Features I like:

  • Unlike the Intel bag, this is a true backpack, and it feels very good on the back.  I've learned why hip and chest straps are good.
  • It has a little pocket for power cords.  It actually took me a while to find it - it's on the front of the bag at the bottom. 
  • No separate sleeve - the pocket closet to the straps is padded.
  • Small pocket just for electronics - iPod, etc.
  • Very well organized outer most pocket for pens and all the random stuff I carry.  
It's not a cheap bag - around $100 - but if it lasts as long as my last bag, it could serve me for 10 years.  Highly recommended.

I'm happy with my MacBook - no Air for me

My experience with the the Mac Mini I bought in October has made me a convert.  Even though I built a new AMD-based Windows system at the same time that's faster than my Mini, I like the Mac environment.  And for those Windows applications that I can't live without, VMWare Fusion works just fine.   So since October, the Mac has been my primary environment. 

I've never spent my own money for a laptop.  I work in IT, and since 1996, every company I've worked for has provided me a Windows laptop.  But it seemed unlikely that a company would buy me a Mac laptop.  So in December the bug bit me, and I bought a black MacBook. 

I was never really in the market for a sub-notebook, and the specs on the air don't attract me.  1.6 Ghz processor vs my 2.2.  2 gig of ram vs the 4 gig I put in mine.  (From Fry's - only $90 with rebates!)  No DVD.  80 gig 4200 RM drive vs my 160gb 5400.  Higher res screen on the Air - that's nice - but not worth the extra money.

The lower weight and sleekness isn't necessary for me.  The Macbook is already thinner and lighter than the other Windows laptops I've had.   I like it a lot.

November 28, 2007

Changing my Kindle order to next-day delivery moves me up the list

I was paying close attention November 19th when Amazon announced their Kindle reading device.  In the morning, you could order the Kindle for next day delivery, but as the day went on, the delivery date starting stretching out.  That evening I wasn't sure if I wanted one, but I decided to put my order in to hold a place in line.  With 2 day delivery, Amazon said I would get my Kindle Tuesday December 4th.

I'm an Amazon Prime member, so changing the order to overnight delivery is only an extra $3.99, so I decided to change the Kindle order to see if it would change my delivery date.  I expected Amazon to immediately come back and say I'd get it one day early - next Monday - but instead, Amazon said to check back later for a delivery date.

I check this morning, and it says my delivery date is November 29th - tomorrow!  Changing to overnight clearly moved me up in the queue.

Techdirt reported last week that Amazon has a patent on juggling delivery dates based on the value of orders they expect you to place. Interesting ....