Adidas Men’s Sport Low Cut Performance Sock and My Best Childhood Christmas

One of my fondest memories of my Uncle Jack occurred the Christmas when I was about 10 years old.  We had driven out to Arizona to visit family and that in and of itself was memorable enough.  I can remember going outside with my brother and my uncle to throw the Frisbee back and forth down the perfectly flat and straight street before everyone else was up and ready to open presents.  Not only was it not snowing, it wasn’t even cold.  Not only was it not even cold, it was hot.  We were wearing shorts.  But that isn’t best part.

At our house we always take turns opening gifts.  The youngest goes first and everyone sits impatiently waiting for them to finish so they can tear into their own gift watches them, delighted to take in the appreciation of the opener.  Eventually my Uncle Jack’s turn came.  It may have been his last present – let’s say it was.  He unwrapped a smallish floppy package.  I was thinking to myself “tie” when out came a pair of oversized socks.  My Uncle looked a little confused.  “Wow, a single pair of socks.”  He didn’t mind joking around because he knew they were from my grandmother and she was a good sport.  “No,” she said, “they are for when you travel.  You put your shoes in them so they don’t get your clothes all dirty in your suitcase.”  My uncle, the great comedian, noticed that my brother and I could barely sit up straight because we were straining not to laugh out loud and make my grandmother feel bad, muttered “G-g-r-r-e-e-a-a-t,” in the long drawn out way that was his signature move, “shoe warmers.”  My brother and I lost it.  We couldn’t seem to catch our breath.  “I think that’s enough,” said my mom.  But it wasn’t.  We kept laughing until my brother’s face was red and only stopped when corporal punishment was imminent.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned to appreciate good socks.  They really are a good gift (as long as your heart isn’t set on a go-kart or the Death Star Playset).  They are practical.  They feel good.  You can get enjoyment from them every single day.  If you are a runner or a hiker then there is the added appeal of not causing damage – no hot spots, no blisters, no funny marks where the back edge of the sock rubs against the top of the shoe.

So you can understand my excitement when a couple of months ago I tried yet another type of running sock that I had purchased from Costco and it was like a dream (You can also see them at Amazon here).  They were silky and cushy feeling in the store and, best of all, they sold them in an oversized model.  You see most athletic socks seem to be designed for shoe size small-12-if-you-really-stretch-them.  So if you have a size 13 foot this means every sock is pulling on the end of your toes.  No biggie if you are just wearing them to the gym or around the house but if you go out for a long run, it can actually get a little painful.

I’ve bought other running socks before that seemed good for the first few wears but then the luxury seems to get washed right out.  So far, after several times through the washer, these seem to be retaining their fluffiness.

They are not very expensive, so I’d recommend giving them a try the next time you are sock shopping.

PS  Even better than the shoe warmer incident, this was the Christmas that I got my BB rifle.  It had a scope and everything.  It was the single best Christmas present of my materialistic childhood.  We had a great time that holiday season.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Melanie and I are not fans of horror.  Why does someone want to be scared on purpose?  I don’t get it.  We are becoming bigger fans of Stephen King though.  Growing up I loved Stand by Me which was based on King’s The BodyRita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was excellent.  The most helpful book I’ve ever read about how to write is King’s (see my list of recommended books in the sidebar).

We just finished listening to 11/22/63 on audiobook and both of us really loved it.  The basic plot is so well known that I won’t spoil anything by saying that this is a book about time travel and trying to stop the assassination of JFK.  Those of you who just said, “Ooooh!  That sounds good!” are in for a treat.  Those who are about to click away from this article, just wait.

King really knows how to write compelling characters.  Within the first thirty minutes of listening, we were hooked and had to know what happened to these people next.  It is easy to identify with these folks and you care about what is happening to them.  There are no action heroes or brilliant detectives.  You experience the story of mostly normal people having normal lives with the monkey wrench that one of them is from the future.  Don’t be confused though there is action, danger, and romance – just not of the supernatural monster-y sort.

The biggest surprise to me was how compelling the background stories of a 2011 man just getting through life in the 50’s and 60’s were.  This book is very long and it takes its sweet time getting to the main story, but you will not care.  That part is almost secondary.  Maybe it is secondary.  The coolest thing King achieves with this book is putting present-day you in the 50’s with a little bit of cash, some knowledge, and a goal several years down the road.  Where would you live?  What would you eat?  How would you talk?  What would you do with your time?  Who would you seek out?  Who would you avoid?

It is clear that King either spent a lot of time researching the assassination or had an army of helpers.  All of this detail really helps flesh out the setting of this book.  I can’t overstate it.  My favorite character in this book is the time period.  The abundance of these inside, and sometimes personal, facts really anchors the main character in the true-life storyline of Lee Harvey Oswald.  King has so much good info in fact, that the afterward by the author detailing more of the history surrounding the assassination is one of the best parts of the book.  Be sure to read it.

If you are looking to settle down with a good fiction book for a while, I invite you to give this one try.

Oh, and I know at least one person is going to be thinking it so I’ll just answer now.  No, the ending does not suck.  :)

How to Make an Instant Cup of Cake

Have you ever wanted just a little cake right now?  Well, a friend of mine explained a super simple way to make cake that is actually healthier than regular cake, tastes pretty good, and goes from cup to mouth in about one minute.  I know it sounds impossible but it really works.  The secret is using angel food cake mix because it already has the egg whites in it.

It is so simple that rather than give you a recipe, I thought I’d just show you pictorially.

STEP ONE – Buy Angel Food Cake Mix

STEP TWO – Buy Any Other Cake Mix

STEP THREE – Blend Cake Mixes Together in a Large Sealable Container (Shaking Then Stirring with a Fork Works Well)

STEP FOUR – Measure out Three Tablespoons of the Mix

STEP FIVE – Measure out Two Tablespoons of Water

STEP SIX – Combine Mix and Water in Coffee Cup and Stir (Double Recipe Pictured)

STEP SEVEN – Microwave for One Minute

STEP EIGHT – Turn Cake out onto Plate (Double Recipe Pictured)

While cooking and cooling, the cake will have a moderately farty smell (I assume from the egg whites).  I expected the cake to be really tough or hard but it is actually more delicate than a normal cake.  It can be frosted though.  It isn’t nearly as good as “real” cake but overall is a nice substitute when a small cake emergency arises.

For you calorie counters here is nutritional info using the two cake mixes I selected:

If you end up giving this recipe a try, let me know what variations you tried and how well they worked in the comments below.

How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part Three – Testing – Three Months In

You can see the plan we made to legally watch time-shifted TV without cable in this post.

We are about three months in to the new TV experience at our house and I thought I’d give you an update.  I can’t call it a final solution because there are still some rough edges to this plan but it is working for the most part.

Is this system as effortless, pleasurable, and reliable as cable + Tivo?  Nope.  I always liked Tivo before but in dealing with this new system I really see some stark contrasts.  Is the savings worth the hassle?  For us, I think it is.  I don’t see us going back to cable ever again.

Using the chart I made for the previous article, I’ll comment on each service:
Comcast
We have stuck with Comcast for our internet service and we continue to rent the modem from them.

Hulu Plus Haven’t used it. Haven’t wanted to.  We get Hulu through PlayOn which provides more content than Hulu Plus for no additional cost.

Roku 2 XS Use it all the time to watch TV shows.  A good little device for the price.  The remote works well.  The player does a good job.  About the only times we don’t use this are when we are playing a DVD or watching something directly on our computer.

Plex  Never could get it working.

PlayOn/PlayLater  Use it for 95+% of all TV shows we watch.  Unfortunately, this is the biggest glitch in the system.  We have access to TONS of content through the Roku but the stuff we *want* to watch is almost always only found through PlayOn.  The glitch is that this is the worst user experience on the Roku.  Some of it may be PlayOn’s fault but it is obvious that most/all of it is on the media providers end.  How can I tell?  Because any content that you pay extra for to directly access (such as Amazon on Demand for movies) works flawlessly.  It proves to me that it isn’t the hardware or my internet connection.  Also, any commercials that play during a show viewed through PlayOn look great and play without problems.  It is only the content itself that will sometimes stutter, show artifacting, fail to play, etc.  There is a noticeable picture quality difference between networks with CBS being the worst offender.  I have read that the media companies don’t make it easy for software like PlayOn because they don’t like their media being streamed.  I don’t understand this.  They now have people like me watching their commercials where before I never watched any.  They also get “free” views of old content that would have just been collecting dust or stuck on some obscure channel late at night.  Case in point:  More than once I’ve found Melanie watching an old Brady Bunch episode.  Overall, the software works and it seems to be getting better all the time (slowly) and without it our TV-watching solution would fall apart.

Redbox  Surprisingly (to me) we still use this option.  It only happens when they have something we want to see and we are going to be driving near a RB anyway.

Amazon Instant Video  This has been the most pleasant surprise of the entire process.  Anytime we watched videos through the Tivo, we always downloaded them and then watched.  With the Roku player we just pick a movie we want to see, press start, and within a few seconds the movie begins.  The picture quality is as good (probably much better) as our old CRT TV can provide.  Pausing, rewinding and even fast forwarding work well.  You are able to see what is going on in the movie while you do all this with a little thumbnail image so accuracy isn’t lost.  We even had a brief power outage once and the movie resumed exactly where we left off once it came back on.

Netflix Streaming  Never tried it.  The biggest problem is that none of their content is new enough for us.  We also don’t watch enough movies to make it cost effective.  Amazon Instant Video and Redbox  meet all of our needs and do so closer to the movie’s release date.

How has our day to day viewing changed?
With Tivo
  You pop on the TV and look at the menu of all the stuff Tivo has recorded for you (both things you tell it to record and things it thinks you’ll like) and pick what you want to watch.  You can pause rewind, FF very accurately so all commercials can quickly and easily be skipped.  There are almost never any problems and you don’t have to remember to record anything.  You will only have issues if you want to record more than two things at once (at least with our Tivo).

With Roku and PlayOn You pop on the TV and select PlayOn.  Then you hop through a series of menus to get to the show you want to watch.  It is up to you to find out when new episodes are posted.  Press play and wait from a few seconds to a minute for the show to start.  Occasionally it will fail to play in which case you can either watch it from a computer or select something else to watch.  The choices of shows are pretty overwhelming so you probably won’t browse stuff.  Rather you’ll know what you want to see before you sit down.  Fast forwarding and rewinding is a pain because you are doing it blind so you just end up watching the commercials instead.  This can be maddening as anyone who has watch TV online will tell you because commercial blocks online must be sold differently.  It is not uncommon to see the exact same commercial for every commercial break of a show.  Also, because all of the different network formats have to be transcoded through PlayOn the download rate is slowed enough that it is very easy to outrun the download if you do choose to fast forward.  Pause works just fine.  You will find that when you pause a show that it tends to lock up at whatever point it was downloading when you pressed the button.  This is easily remedied by going up one menu and selecting the show again and resuming right where you left off.  It only takes a second so it really isn’t even an annoyance, just a weird quirk.

Directly Through Roku (not PlayOn)  You pop on the TV and scroll through a series of menus to find what you want.  There is a lot of stuff, but most of it is junk or you have to pay extra to watch it.  However, most stuff that you watch directly through Roku’s service loads very quickly, has very good picture and audio fidelity and has little thumbnails when you fast forward and rewind.  Fast forwarding works well with some items that allow you to fast forward past the point that you have downloaded (like Amazon Instant Video).  I’ve even noticed with some channels like Crackle and Amazon it will remember exactly where you stopped watching a video even a month or more after you last watched it.

Summary  The Roku hardware is ready for primetime but the content providers are dragging their feet making this an imperfect solution.  With native Roku channels like Crackle and streaming services like Amazon On Demand, it is easy to see the potential of this system.  It just doesn’t live up to that potential yet.  For us, it is close enough for now.  Our estimated spending on TV and movies has dropped from about $95/mo to $85/mo and that includes a lifetime subscription to both PlayOn and PlayLater amortized over this year.  After this year it will drop to $74/mo.

If someone was looking for a way to ease into a video on demand set up and didn’t care as much about money or they just watched a lot of movies, I think the Roku player is a nice solution.  They could keep cable for current shows and use the Roku player to access VOD or a large catalog of old programming.

We have more content with our new set up at a lower price.  Paradoxically, we watch much less TV now.  When the content isn’t being pushed to us we’ve found that we are not willing to go seek it out.  I made a list of the shows we watched before we switched and now we are at exactly half as many.  We also are finding that we read a lot more, which is a very good thing.

We Delve into Puzzles

In an effort to find more things to do together, Melanie suggested we try putting together a puzzle.  She remembered fun times working on various puzzles with her grandmother whenever she’d visit.  I haven’t put together too many myself but it sounded like something worth trying.  I poked around online looking for a good one when I happened upon the Ravensburger 1665 World Map puzzle.  I love maps.  I really love old maps.  It was 3000 pieces so I knew it would be a challenge.  Too much of a challenge?  I didn’t really know, but I’d rather have it be too hard than too easy.

Jump forward a little more than a month and the puzzle is now complete.  We had fun putting it together but there were times when I had to drag Melanie along to maintain any forward progress. When the last piece was placed, Melanie was really glad we had done it but she also said, “I don’t think we should do another puzzle.”

Overall I was really impressed with the quality of this puzzle.  It is easily the nicest one I’ve assembled.  Pieces are cut very precisely so there is a certain feel when the right two pieces are interlocked.  This is important because the dastardly folks as Ravensburger have made many many pieces that are extremely similar in shape.  The image itself is vibrant, clean, and sharp.  You can read the tiny text, see the “island” of California, observe blue elephants in Africa, and spy frolicking sea monsters.

A word of warning though.  This puzzle is huge!  At 48″ x 32″, it required us to put the extra leaf in our dining room table to have enough room for assembly and piece sorting.

Not a Small Puzzle
Animated Time-Lapse Image

If you like puzzles or maps of the world, why not run over to Amazon and grab a copy for yourself?

Stargate Universe

I can count the number of people I know that have watched Stargate Universe on one hand and I don’t even need to use my thumb.  Just last night I finished re-watching the series with my wife and it reminded me how good that show was (she liked it too and she isn’t a huge sci-fi fan).  It is easily one of the five best shows I’ve ever watched and even as I write this review I am thinking back on key moments in the series.

Most conversations about SGU are quick and go one of two ways:  1.  “I’ve never heard of it.  I don’t like sci-fi.  No thanks.”  2.  “It has Stargate in the title.  That means a corny concept at least and a silly show most likely.”  If this describes you, I urge you to give SGU a try.  The entire tone of the show is very different from the movies and other TV series.  If you have never seen the movie Stargate or need a refresher on its basic premise, watch this little video and you’ll enjoy SGU more.

I’m sure I’m going to get negative feedback for saying it but the original movie was more than a little goofy.  It was well made and entertaining but it was hard to take seriously.  That tone followed into the TV shows SG-1 and Atlantis from what I’ve observed.  Admittedly, I’ve only seen an episode or two of each.  I couldn’t stand them.  Because of this I came to SGU late in the game.  The series had almost finished up and I had to catch late night reruns on Tivo.  As a matter of fact, I think it was Tivo that suggested that I give the show a try in the first place.  Thanks Tivo.

Anyway, SGU seems more grounded in reality to me.  Decisions have consequences and looming danger is effectively conveyed.  It reminds me of Battlestar Galactica (the newer series) in these ways.  Its focus is much more on the people and their relationships to one another and the act of surviving in a very desperate situation.  If you like Robinson Crusoe, you owe it to yourself to give this show a try.  Few and far between are the giant battles and crazy aliens that this franchise seems to be best known for.

I loved the overall story (which is always the most important thing to me).  It is full of surprises and cleverness.  Who is good and who is bad?  What is the “good” or “bad” decision? Can this person be trusted?  The dialog and character interactions are superb.  I have a feeling as the episodes started filming, the writers saw this strength and began to use the characters to drive the story. The acting is wonderful and you really believe that these actors are the people they are portraying.  The production values are high (which I imagine had to play heavily into the decision to cut the series). Even the soundtrack is great with songs from folks like Alexi Murdoch, Flogging Molly, and Mumford & Sons.

It only ran for two seasons on the then-named Sci Fi Network so it wouldn’t take you long to get through the entire series.  Now that it is summer break for most TV shows, this is the perfect time to give it a try.  I think if you watch the first two or three episodes you’ll be hooked.

You can find the most recent episodes on SyFy’s website but don’t watch them first.  This is one continuous story that would be easy to ruin by watching the series out of order.

You can buy the DVD’s or download episodes from Amazon, check them out from your local library, and many other ways.  Just give them a watch and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Why You Need a Solid State Hard Drive

***  UPDATE 6/7/12 – See how I corrected a fairly major problem with my particular SSD in this article. ***

I recently upgraded my computer because it was beyond showing its age and was getting to the point that it couldn’t even complete certain tasks anymore.  The component I was looking forward to most was the new hard drive.  Isn’t a hard drive just a hard drive?  Don’t you always get so much more space than you’ll ever use?  Why care about that so much?

TL;DR:  I bought an SSD.  It sped up my computer a lot.  I think everyone would love one and should buy one.

For years I’ve dreamt of the day when really fast hard drives would be commonplace.  Sure, having a multi-core CPU and a killer video card are great, but think about what you wait on most of the time:  stuff loading, saving, and copying.  I imagine a time when the computer truly is just an appliance like TV.  You push a button and it is on and ready to go.  This requires some type of ultra-fast storage.  Enter the solid state drive.

You can think of a solid state drive (SSD) like a USB flash/thumb drive with much higher capacity and a much faster transfer rate.  There are no moving parts.  They are silent (obviously).  Theoretically, they will last longer and are more rugged than standard hard drives.  They use less power and, most importantly for me, they are much much faster.  Although this article at Tom’s Hardware is getting a little long in the tooth, I think it gives a pretty good idea of the typical hard drive vs solid state hard drive speed.  In particular the video on this page gives a good impression of the differences.

Why doesn’t every computer ship with an SSD?  The only reason I can come up with is cost.  When I purchased mine, it cost me about $280 for 256GB.  Ouch!  It was by far the most expensive component of my upgrade.  When I went back to check on the shipment of my order the next day, the price had dropped $50.  A few days after that when a friend asked what I ordered and I went to grab the URL, the price had dropped by $80.  At the time of this writing, the price is back up to $250 so I guess there was a temporary price war with someone.  You can check the current price by clicking here.

You can see that I decided to buy this component from Amazon.  I preferred their return policy on SSD’s over NewEgg’s.  Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t offer a price matching guarantee, but overall I’m happy purchasing the drive through them.

IDIOSYNCRASIES
SSD’s do have a few unusual things that should be taken in to account:
1.  You should never sleep or hibernate an SSD.  In certain cases with certain drives in certain configurations, this can mess them up.  I haven’t read anything about the percentages here, but I gather that it is a small number but large enough to pay attention to.  Besides, SSD’s use so little power when idle, there is much less need to sleep them so why take the risk.

2.  You must never defrag an SSD.  I noticed when I installed Win 7 on my SSD, it automatically turned off defragging on this drive.  Apparently, defragging an SSD can cause it to become non-functional and at the very least puts unnecessary wear on it.  It wouldn’t speed up the operation of it anyway.  Don’t worry, you can reclaim the unused space by…

3.  Do use TRIM.  This is a process that goes in and reclaims the unused space on your SSD once a file is deleted.  If you are running Windows 7, when you install your SSD, it should automatically detect what kind of drive it is and start running TRIM on it.  You can check to see if TRIM is running by doing the following:  1. Open Command Prompt with Administrative privileges (“Run as administrator” when you right-click the command prompt icon is one way)  2. Enter the following command “fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify”  3.  If the result is ‘0’ TRIM is enabled.  I didn’t have to do anything special.  Win 7 detected the SSD and, when I checked, it was running TRIM.  If you don’t run some sort of reclamation software like this, the performance of the drive will degrade the more you use it.  If you don’t run software like this I imagine you’d have to eventually reformat the drive to get it back to a useful speed.  Why not run TRIM though?  It only operates when your computer is idle and it maintains its performance.

4.  Do set your mode to AHCI (or RAID if you are setting up a RAID array) before you install Windows on it.  I ended up having to install Win 7 twice because the first time I didn’t do this properly.  Win 7 still worked but I wasn’t getting all the speed out of the drive that I could.  I honestly don’t know the details, but AHCI works with SSD’s better.  You can see how to set it up in this video (at the 12:00 minute mark) and by following the instructions that came with your motherboard.  NOTE:  I set the BIOS to AHCI for the SSD, but I missed the step to load the AHCI driver before installing Win 7.  Basically, when you insert the CD and start the installation process, you will get to a point where it asks you which drive to install Win 7 on.  Notice down in the lower left-hand corner the button labeled “load driver.”  Now is the time to load the ACHI driver – before Win 7 is installed.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
Yes, an SSD is a noticeable speed increase.  It isn’t the instant-on for everything that I was hoping for but it is so much faster than a standard hard drive.  Google Chrome loads about a nanosecond after you click on the icon.  Other programs take a little longer.  Windows 7 takes about one minute to be operational from the moment you press the start button (about half the time is the BIOS POST’ing and about half is Win 7 loading from the SSD).  It took about ten minutes to install Win 7 on this drive instead of the suggested 30 minutes for a normal hard drive.

Since SSD’s are silent, I notice the fans in my computer much more now.  What I always used to assume was the sound of the hard drive as a program loaded I now know is the CPU heatsink fan spinning up.

The SSD I have has not made me think of my computer as an appliance just yet, but it has reduced my wait times to almost nothing.  If I had it to do over, I would purchase the exact same SSD and be very happy that I did.  I cannot imagine a situation where a computer user would NOT appreciate the performance boost of an SSD.

Please note that most SSD’s are sized to fit in laptops (2.5” bay) instead of desktops (3.5” bay).  I thought I already had an adapter bracket or that I’d be able to buy one locally.  I was wrong.  Don’t fret.  Every SSD I looked at had a version with a bracket and one without.  Just remember to order the one you need or plan to order the bracket separately as I had to do.  Some of these stand-alone brackets even allow you the option of stacking two SSD’s in a single hard drive bay.  If only I had the money for two SSD’s so I could put them in a RAID array…  There is always something better and faster.

Best Android Apps 2012

As I mentioned before in my iPhone 4S apps article, we’ve upgraded to smartphones finally.  Here are the best apps I’ve found for Android.  Preference is given to free over paid apps.  What I’ve looked for are things that improve the experience of the phone and make it a more useful tool.  I’ve run these apps on a Galaxy Nexus so they work with Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).  I’ll be the first to admit that they have not been tested extensively by me, but this should be a great starting point for anyone that is new to Android smartphones.

TweetDeck for social media management.  I’ve always liked TweetDeck on the desktop so I’m giving it a whirl on the phone.  It makes me sad that it still doesn’t incorporate Google +.  I picked it over the native Twitter app because it also works with Facebook.  I think I prefer it over the desktop experience since scrolling is so fast and easy.

SeekDroid for tracking and securing a lost or stolen Android phone.  It costs $2.99 so I almost went with the completely free Prey but in the end I went with one that a few sites liked.  You can have your phone play an alarm if you lose it.  You can also track it if it is stolen and even lock and wipe it remotely.   Also, the app’s James Bond icon makes me happy.

Tiny Flashlight + LED is a free app that turns both your camera flash and your display into a flashlight.  The best part is the widget that turns the light on or off without having to go through a series of menus.  Just push the button just like a regular flashlight.  What puts this one over the top for me is that you can also change the color of the light, have it flash Morse Code, and strobe in various warning patterns and colors.

Red Laser scans a wide variety of barcodes and product codes to identify items.  The app will then do cost comparisons from other vendors both online and nearby.  If food is scanned it will provide the nutrition label.  From my few tests it has worked very quickly and accurately.

Astrid is a free top-rated to-do list.  I’m not sure I’m going to use it but it seems to be the best of the bunch.  It is easy to set up tasks.  I love that it has a little stopwatch to time tasks which is great for freelance work that is billed by the hour.  For $1.50 I decided to try Astrid Locale which is supposed to make your to-do lists location sensitive.  This would be great if it worked, but I’ve read complaints of spotty accuracy.  Time will tell.  Basically you can set an alert to say “buy milk” when you arrive at the grocery store.  I’ve got it set to go into vibrate mode whenever I’m at church.  The thing that bugs me is that I had to buy another app to make it work!  Maybe I just missed it in the lingo or didn’t read carefully enough but it wasn’t clear to me that I also needed to buy the app Locale to make it work.  What is worse is that Locale doesn’t have the greatest reviews and is $5.00!  I’ve noticed that Locale has changed my wallpaper once already.  I hope this isn’t more of a hassle than it is worth…

DropBox is the standard way to quickly and easily share large files with many people or just use it to back up documents to the cloud.  If you have a DropBox account (free), it makes sense to have an app to be able to access it on your phone.  The app is simple, straightforward, formatted just like the desktop program, and works well for everything I’ve tried.

My Tracks is a Google product that creates paths overlaid on Google Maps utilizing the GPS receiver in your phone.  You can save the tracks, edit, and annotate them.  It seems to work fine.  I’m hopeful that this will be nice software to have when I go hiking and want to share my route with others.  Google reminds you that your GPSr really drains the battery on your phone.  They mentioned that it will reduce most phones to a five-hour operating window.  If you don’t need to see the map as you record your path, they recommend switching over to airplane mode to extend the battery life.  You will still be able to record your path but it will be overlaid on a grey background instead of the map until you turn your other antennas back on.

Shazam is a song identification app.  Simply hold your phone near the music you are listening to and it will attempt to identify it as well as provide the lyrics.  I was only able to stump it with one relatively well-known chiptune song.  Sadly, it didn’t recognize any of my singing or humming.  I wanted to try SoundHound but any link I clicked on for it in the Google Apps store was dead.

iTriage helps you determine what you might need to do or which doctor you might need to see based on symptoms you tell it.  It then gives you a list of the nearest places to get that treatment.  It was really a toss up for me between this app and WebMD.  Both look good but the little info video for iTriage is funnier and it has many more reviews than WebMD.  I know they aren’t the best reasons to make a decision but it doesn’t look like you can go wrong with either one.

Google Chrome web browser is my favorite for desktop browsing.  It is a cool idea that the tabs you have open on your desktop will be open on your phone.  Basically it sounds like the syncing that occurs with Gmail but in browser form.  It is supposed to be faster than the built-in ICS browser on my phone.  Unfortunately, it is still in beta and according to the reviews is prone to crash.  I’ll keep my eyes on this one, but I’m not installing it for now.

While it isn’t the most practical app, Sky Map is probably the app that I was looking forward to the most.  With Sky Map you simply point your phone at the sky and it tells you what celestial bodies you are looking at.  You can also put in the name of an object and it will direct you to it.  I have found it to be roughly accurate.  In other words, things didn’t line up exactly where I hoped they would, but it was obvious what was supposed to be what.  Some of the reviews lead me to believe it is either a bug with the Nexus or the ICS implementation.  So maybe it will work even better on your phone.  Go get it.  It is free, simple to use, and I really love it.

Geocaching was a must have app for me.  Melanie and I love geocaching.  If you don’t know about this game check it out at www.geocaching.com.  It makes spur-of-the-moment caching a breeze.  Just turn on the app, see if something is hidden nearby, find it, and log it directly from the program.  I recommend going in to the settings and changing it to show only caches that you haven’t found because it doesn’t have icons to make those distinction on the map (On the website version smilies show caches you’ve found and boxes show caches you haven’t).

Movies by Flixter is the full name of what everyone refers to as Flixter.  It is a simple fast app to see movies, theatres, and show times but the real power is that it is tied in to the Rotten Tomatoes rating system making it a pretty complete movie selection app.  Very useful.

Pandora’s app for Android is probably not as practical as their desktop software.  This app can consume a huge amount of data unless you are on a wi-fi network so beware.  It runs smoothly and works well though.  Just in case you haven’t heard of Pandora, it is personalized radio over the internet.  You enter an artist or genre of music and a station is created around it.  You don’t have control of exact songs that are played but they are pretty good about sticking with the theme you set and you can certainly hear a much wider variety of music than you’d ever find on the radio.

WordPress is a decent little app if you have a blog on WordPress.com or use their software to host your own WordPress site.  You can see your stats or post stuff to your blog.

Yelp is a great tool not only for reading reviews of restaurants, but for finding local shops that are difficult to find online otherwise.  For example, my barber is listed in Yelp but a Google search will not turn it up.  The website is really fantastic for tracking down local independent places to eat.  I’m not completely convinced the Android app is quite as good as the website, but it is certainly easier to navigate when using a phone.

Dictionary.com may even work a little bit better than the website.  Fast and easy to use.  Plus, with text-to-speech you can make it say “fart.”

Google Translate is pretty neat and I think it will become a very good product in a short while.  Using the already excellent speech recognition software built in to ICS you can simply speak a word or phrase and translate it into one of about 50 languages which will be written and spoken.  It seems to do a very good job translating English to other languages, but not quite as good of a job going the other way.  I tried a little French, Spanish, and Chinese with limited success.  Of course, it could be operator error.  I did get an F in French one quarter.  On the bright side, I can confirm that it does an excellent job translating “fart” into Chinese and back to English.

Hanping Chinese Dictionary works very well from my limited ability to test it.  It got all the Chinese words I still remember.

Wikipedia Because many arguments can be quickly settled with a trip to the website, why not get there quicker and easier with the app?

ESPN ScoreCenter is one free convenient place to get all of the scores from all of the games and a little bit of news.  You can customize one page to follow the specific teams you like. Yahoo! Sportacular appears to be a worthy competitor.

GateGuru may takeoff as a one-stop app to get you through airports easily.  I like it because it provides a list of places to eat and shop and a map of the airport.  It is obviously set up to rely on crowdsourcing for ratings, wait times in security lines, etc.  This will work well if the user base grows.  As of now it seems that some of this info is woefully out of date, but I’ll keep it for the terminal maps if nothing else.

Google Goggles is not quite ready for primetime but is such a neat concept and it does work more than half of the time so it makes the list.  Basically it turns your camera into a Google search option.  Take a picture of a logo and it will take you to the company website.  Take a picture of a famous piece of art and it will identify it (I tried it on two movie posters and made sure to leave out the text and it got them both).  Translate foreign signs.  Scan barcodes.  They want to get it to the point where it can identify a plant by its leaves.  That would be really neat!  Similar to this is Layar where you hold up your camera and it overlays info about what you are looking at.  Seems like it would be great for sightseeing.  Supposedly too much unorganized info where it works and it only works well in the biggest cities so I didn’t try it.

Light Flow Lite – LED Light Control does just what it says.  If you have a phone with a notification light, this may be something you like.  It allows you to change the color of the notification light but it also allows you to organize how all of your notifications are handled.  I got it mostly to be able to play with the color of the notification light.

UltraChron Stopwatch Lite  is a voice-controlled stopwatch and countdown timer.  It has the option to countdown to zero by voice alert followed by an alarm.  It has editable laps.  It continues working and the alarm will still go off even if your phone goes to sleep.  Basic, simple to use, helpful.  The only issue is that it is rather ugly.

Let me know other great apps I should try.

How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part Two – The Plan

As  I detailed in this post, we had been thinking of ditching cable TV for a while and finally reached the tipping point about a week ago.

We have both had cable TV almost our entire lives and had the ability to time-shift programs for at least six years using Tivo.  Don’t get me wrong, we love Tivo and would still have the service if we intended to keep cable TV.  I can’t remember the last time we watched a show live or even looked at a TV guide and it has been wonderful.  We just told Tivo the shows we liked and watched whatever it had recorded the previous day.  We even chose to delay watching football games about 45 minutes just to be able to fast forward though the commercials.

When it came time to find a cable alternative we knew we wanted the time-shifting ability.  Now there are so many shows and movies available on demand for a flat monthly fee we thought that just maybe we didn’t need to worry about a DVR anymore.

Our Goals
1.  Watch TV within a day of broadcast
2.  Watch movies within a year of broadcast
3.  Have access to all of our favorite shows
4.  Be able to time shift anything we are watching

This would be incredibly simple if Hulu Plus had deals with all of the TV content providers.  You’d need a relatively high-speed internet connection. Then you’d just use hardware to stream media from your computer to your TV.  Content would come from Hulu Plus for current TV and movies would come from Netflix.  In fact, for many people this solution would be great right now.  They could cut their cable bill significantly and receive all the same TV plus a lot more movies.  For other folks with very basic cable, they would be able to receive many times more high quality content than they currently get for about the same cost.

The killer for us is that we apparently don’t like the same shows that most Americans do.  So to get the programs we look forward to the most we are going to have to do some extra work.

Below is a chart comparing our existing system to what we are in the process of assembling right now.  Once we’ve had some time to test it out, I’ll report back with what works and what doesn’t.

This system is going to have some drawbacks for us:
1.  We are going to be paying about the same amount.  Yes, we will get A LOT more stuff to watch but that isn’t a priority.  We already have more to watch than we ever do.
2.  We are going to have to put up with commercials on Hulu Plus.
3.  We may not have access to all the shows we want to watch.
4.  Live sports may be a real problem.

If you are interested in the options we looked into before deciding to try this plan, please read this post.  Check back later to see how this system worked out.  Better yet, subscribe to this blog through your favorite social media site so you’ll know exactly when we update.