Tag Archives: technology

Essential iPhone Apps (‘Cause Everyone Else is Doing It)

It’s June. That means I’ve had my iPhone for about four months and it has already become extremely hard to live without. In fact, I have no intention of trying to live without it. Not only does it sit in my pocket for most of the day, it recharges right next to my bed every evening. In short, you can have my iPhone when you pry it out of my cold, internet deprived, hands.

On the other hand, one of the single best things about the iPhone is the Apple App Store. And what could be better than sharing out a list of my favorite apps?

So here’s my list of favorite apps, in no particular order. Rather, these are the ones that I use on a regular basis; these are the apps I go to as primary functions in my phone.

Bloom – Brian Eno’s ambient music maker is a fantastic bit of stress relief kit. The interface is simple, clean, and, if I may say so, pretty. When launched, the app gives the user a blank field of pastel color. Touching the screen will produce a chime or bell, whose pitch and tone vary with where on the screen the user has touched. Generally, the pitch is lower at the bottom of the screen and higher at the top, with tone density going from heavy to light when going from right to left on the screen. Once a sound is produced it repeats itself, along with any others produced in short loops creating ambient, atonal rhythms from the touches the user has made. And the loops can be quite beautiful, and totally relaxing in a very zen way. I find it works beautifully as stress relief during a hard day. If I can find just five minutes along to play with Bloom, things seem much more workable.

Tweetie – A very functional Twitter client, this is probably the one app I use more than any other. (Yes, I am a Twitter fiend.) What I like about this particular client as opposed to the dozens of others available is the interface. I found it very easy to become used to, almost to the point of preferring it to actually using my computer.

Google – How anyone can live without Google at this point is completely beyond me. In addition to gMail, I am a fervent devotee of both Google Reader and Google Docs and I can get all three of those services through the Google app.

Kanji – As anyone who has studied Japanese can tell you, Kanji are one of the hardest aspects of becoming proficient in the language. This app is quite simple, but brilliantly designed. The visual interface is based on Tuttle’s Kanji Cards, with each screen focusing on one kanji. Touching the screen brings up additional information, including the various readings and words that use that character. There is an option in the top right to mark wether or not the kanji has been memorized or not. (It is also uncheckable in case the user has forgotten a kanji or two.) The other great aspect of this app is the organization of the “cards” based on JLPT level or Japanese school grade level. This is just a must have app for anyone who’s studying the language.

Kotoba – Another app I use everyday for studying, Kotoba is, simply, a very good dictionary for Japanese to English and vice versa.

BBC NewsReader – The Beeb’s app is different from other news apps in that it keeps a running update of the stories already loaded into the phone. Everytime you start the app, it begins downloading both recent information and updates to previous downloads. This makes loading pictures and older stories much faster on slow networks. The app breaks the news into three broad categories – Magazine, UK, and Americas. Within that, the user can define what kind of news they’re most interested in. The one thing I’m not quite happy with, especially in comparison to the two other news apps on my list, is that tapping on a story takes you to a BBC page that has to be resized before it could be considered remotely readable. However, for quick access to news that has a perspective different from the U.S. one, this app is a must.

New York Times – The NY Times has received a lot of (deserved) praise for their iPhone app. It serves as a prime example of how newspapers can remake themselves for the web and, in this case, the mobile web. The home screen breaks the paper down into its familiar sections – World, U.S., Politics, etc. From there, users have the option to scroll through stories in a given section or to choose the Latest, Popular, or Saved stories. And it’s this last option that really sets the app apart. The ability to save stories for later reading (as well as being able to e-mai them) adds a necessary functionality that recognizes that being mobile does not mean always having all the time you’d like to read up on the news. Further, the stories are automatically formated for the iPhone screen so that resizing before reading is not necessary.

New York Times Crossword – This is easily the most expensive app on my list. At roughly 10 bucks you have to love crosswords to make this worth the money. What’s more, you have to love the NY Times Crossword as there are cheaper (lesser) apps available in the iTunes app store. However, on the plus side, this is the same puzzle that appears in the daily paper. Players can submit their answers to an online database and find out if they have gotten all the cells correct or not. The controls are intuitive and easy to use; the screen uses a keyboard to input characters, but allows finger gestures for resizing the puzzles and for moving around the puzzle area. The puzzles start at a relatively easy level on Monday and get progressively harder throughout the week. For myself, this is my favorite lunchtime application. I find that nothing wakes my brain up as taking thirty minutes to play through a puzzle before heading back into the classroom.

Doodle Jump – You know those games that take 10 seconds to learn but can eat up hours on end being played? Well, the iPhone has a lot of them and Doodle Jump is my favorite. The object is very simple. Maneuver your Doodle through a series of obstacles to see how high you can take him. The game functions by giving your character an automatic bounce off of platforms; the only control the player has is to move the Doodle from side to side by turning your wrist and taking advantage of the iPhone’s motion sensors. Great fun.

Brushes – This is the newest on my list of must have applications. I picked it up earlier this week after seeing the story where the cover of New Yorker magazine had been made with it. Not only was it a cool cover but the idea that this could be done on an iPhone was pretty spectacular.

CameraBag – While the iPhone camera is not the best cameraphone available, apps like CameraBag make it a lot of fun. I won’t say too much about it here as I have already written about it and posted photos I took using the app on this blog.

Text – I live in Japan. Japan is somewhat notorious for preferring phone based e-mail to text messaging. In fact, my last three phones did not have texting software on them at all. So having a phone that can finally text, combined with Softbank’s data plan which lets users text each other for free, is really, really, cool. Having texting available means I feel like I can finally keep up with services like Twitter and the now, sadly defunct, I Want Sandy, in the manner for which they were designed.

Stanza – People are still skeptical about the value of ebooks but this app should push at least a few people decidedly into the “for” column. Stanza works with several different online services to download books to the phone, where they can be read offline, one screen at a time. I’ve found that the small screen makes books feel longer than they are, but, on the other hand, that the rapid pace with which the screen changes makes them just fly by. In short, while this is not my favorite way to read, it is an acceptable and convenient way to read.

WordPress – Obviously, I’m a blogger. Not quite as heavy a blogger as I once was, but I do still enjoy keeping a blog up and running for those occasions when I want to say something that won’t fit into 140 characters. That’s where WordPress’ iPhone app comes in. It has a nice, clean design that makes it easy to log in and update any blogs you have hosted on WP. This is kind of a no brainer for anyone who has both an iPhone and a WP blog.

Wolfram Alpha – One of the best features of the iPhone / Safari combo, in my opinion, is the ability to put a bookmark on the home screen of the phone. What this means is that when I want to search for something on Wolfram Alpha, I do not need to open up Safari and scroll through my bookmarks. Rather I just touch one icon and there’s WA, ready for input. And while I’m not a heavy WA user (not yet anyway) I have been curious about the service and wanting to try it out. So, while the individual site may change, eventually, the capacity to keep it right on my homescreen won’t and that is something that I just love about the iPhone.

MLB.com’s At Bat – I’m not much of a sports fan. I enjoy watching the games but I don’t really keep up with the statistics or even the player rosters too much. But I love baseball. I love the romanticism and history associated with the game and I do try to keep up with at least the Padres every season. At Bat makes it much, much easier to do so. The app provides schedules, play by play, recaps, standings, stats, photos, live game coverage, and soon, live video streaming of games. The only downside is that those clever bastards at MLB.com have decided to charge by the season, rather than a one time fee. Still, as a way to follow baseball that doesn’t require you to be in front of your t.v. at a set time or wading through tons of newsfeeds, this is the app to get.

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I Need a Droid

Like a lot of the current crop of adult geeks, I grew up on Star Wars.  I remember standing in line for Jedi when I was eight years old and I remember watching the cartoons on Saturday mornings.  And, of course, I had a metric ton of toys.  Including R2-D2 and C-3PO.

I remember being disappointed by the fact that I could not get a real R2 unit; I was crushed when I found out there was an actor inside the little metal 'bot.

Fast forward 25 years and I still want a working, independent R2 unit.  (Preferably one without a bad motivator.)  And, now, it seems like things are finally heading that direction.

My wanderings across the great and dusty interwebtubes have brought two droids to my attention recently:  Chumby and the Tux Droid.  Chumby is a small screen-in-pillow device that gathers fodder from the 'tubes and displays it back to you whenever and however you want.  The Tux Droid is a small, stuffed Penguin that works via IR and will do mundane online chores for you.

Chumby may look like little more than a glorified alarm clock but it lists an impressive range of features, including:  acting as a digital photo frame, internet radio, YouTube video player, feed reader, and calendar.  And alarm clock.  Chumby is open source and designed to be hacked by just about anyone.  Users create "widgets" that are then placed on the Chumby network and then downloaded by anyone who wants one.  According to the website, the physical unit will work on any open, wireless network.

Tux, on the other hand, is designed to be a little more active than Chumby.  The Tux Droid has several inputs, like a microphone and touch sensors,  built into it.  They allow Tux to respond to commands and the 'bot will check to see if you have new email or if something has finished downloading.  Once it has done your bidding, it will report back by dancing or blinking its eyes.

The kid in me sees both of these products and gets an immediate -5 against my saving throw for Shiny.  And, truth to tell, I would like to have either or both, just to play with because I think this is one of the futures of consumers goods.  Why wouldn't kids like to have a doll that can talk back?  Why wouldn't adults want web-enabled devices that do what we want without the bother of a direct interface?

These ideas are not new.  I remember my sister's Teddy Ruxpin doll when we were kids.  It was basically a stuffed bear with a cassette deck built into its back that would simulate a conversation and tell stories to its owner.  And more recently, Ambient Technologies has been taking the idea of ubiquitous computing and running with it.  Products like the Ambient Orb, which lets you know, for example, how your stocks are doing by glowing a different color, are in this same idea of hardware that anyone can program doing the work we do not want to do ourselves.  And it's brilliant.

So.  If anyone's got a spare couple of hundred bucks laying around, well, you know what I want.

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Vox Hunt: I Want This

Show us a gadget that's on your wish list.

Yeah, I know.

Here's the deal:  I play Nintendo.  I have a Wii and a DS and I love them both.  For the kinds of games I like there are no better systems out there.

However, I love the idea of re-purposing old electronics.  The idea that we must constantly upgrade to new and better gadgets is deeply ingrained in our consumer culture and, to a certain extent, it's true.  My DS is certainly a more versatile machine than its predecessor, the Gameboy.  At the same time, we live in a world where we can not save everything.  Most of us just do not have the space.  Since the Wii can play GameCube games, out it goes.  Likewise for the PlayStation 1 and 2 and for the Xbox.

Recently, I came across this post, and this post on Lifehacker.com.  (An incredible productivity blog that you should be reading.)  The idea behind both posts is taking an old, original version, Xbox and using it, via a few hacks, as a fully functional media center that still plays the old games.

I love that idea.  That you can take an old piece of electronic hardware that is just gathering dust in the closet, or waiting for an eBay bidder to come along and take it off your hands, and turn it into something functional, useful, and by some accounts, better than a branded product from the store.

So now, years after the fact, long after it has been replaced by a newer, shinier version, I want a classic Xbox to fix up and soup up and tinker with.  And, personally, I do not really know what my inner defect is – whether this is a case of wanting to keep up the cool kids, or just wanting a new toy to play with, or just what I said above, the chance to re-purpose a piece of junk.  All I know is that this is the gadget I want most.

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QotD: Greatest Video Game Console

What's the greatest video game console on the market? Do you own it or is it on your wish list?

DS

It seems like every week I have a new reason to love my Nintendo DS.  No matter what you're into, be it strategy games, action, brain training, RPGs, or even yoga, there's some kind of game available for the DS.  The best games make solid use of the touchpad as a natural interface; it is much more responsive and natural than trying to remember long strings of button mashing sequences.  The battery life is good and it's highly portable.  Put a few DS units in a room together with the right software and you can compete directly with your friends or even connect to the internet.  In short, there is very little that this versatile, well designed machine can not be used for.

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Manufactionary

So, I came across this the other day:  Fabjectory – Virtual Objects in Real Life.

The idea is that these guys have gotten hold of a rapid proto-typing machine and will print (manufacture?) whatever the customer orders, including Second Life avatars, Mii characters, and Google Sketch-up files.  They also take custom orders via their website, which are then printed and shipped, the same as everything else.

At the moment, their prices are a bit high:  $50 USD for a three inch Mii figure, and $100 USD for a five inch, and I'm not sure of the quality.  The photos on the website make the finished products seem a little rough as they are printed out of colored plastics as opposed to painted plastics.  The same photos seem to indicate that the surfaces are somewhat textured, not smooth like modern toys usually are.

Still, I love the idea and I can't help wondering where this technology is going.

Let's start with the idea.  Personally, I like to draw and the idea that I could have any character I drew printed out and sent not just to me but to anyone, anywhere is very appealing.  Add to that the idea of one of a kind pieces by artists or limited editions of special figures and the collectible crowd will come running.  And how about producing blanks for the DIY crowd?  Easily done.

The immediate counter-point is that there are lots of vinyl or plastic art toys out there, blanks included, so how is this any different?  The answer is in the scale.  Most individual artists cannot afford to have their ideas turned into physical form without serious financial backing due to the numbers involved.  Typical production runs, even for limited editions often number in the thousands.  Even at the lowest cost available in East Asian factories, a large amount of money is required up front for a product that may or may not sell.

So this idea that an artist can post a design on a website and fans can choose which figures they'd like to purchase on a single unit scale is very appealing.  Especially if the software is in place to let designers limit the numbers on some designs, creating a quick-as-you-can market that may drive prices upwards and gain the individual some needed cash.

From there, let's look at the technology.  I have no idea how much these printers run but I know that computers used to fill entire rooms and the idea of a desktop computer was laughable.

If the manufacturing becomes as installed as a microwave, the design is the only part that would have value; if the design is on a computer, anybody will be able to get hold of it, one way or another, thus making it impossible to limit the number of copies printed, thus driving the cost back down.

Either way, the consumer gets what he or she wants without trouble and the artist is saved the cost of producing thousands of potentially unwanted pieces.

And, in any case, this is a technology and a company I'll be watching, just to see what they come up with.

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