Our contribution to the economic recovery took the form of feverish technology purchasing throughout April, May and early June. Now that the dust and Visa bills have settled, it’s time to stop and rate the roses.
The ratings I’ve assinged to our past 6 months of tech investments aren’t based on assessments of comparative products — though every product on the list was purchased after reading other people’s reviews and comparative perspectives. No, these ratings are based on pure, subjective wow factor: how much each product has filled our hearts with joy, made our lives easier, and inspired evangelical “you gotta buy this cool thing I got” pitches.
To spare you an in-person pitch on why you’ve got to get the fave items on this list, I’ve written up an orderly list complete with US pricing and recommendations on who must purchase each item. If you’re really swept away, click the item title or photo to go straight to its listing on Amazon.
Undoubtedly the best purchase of 2009 is the Cintiq, a hybrid LCD panel/tablet that lets you draw directly on the screen with the fidelity of real-life pen-on-paper. Rob’s been drooling over the Cintiq ever since he started cartooning regularly for ReadWriteWeb. Thanks to the hefty price tag ($1299 in Canada, for the smallest version), it took a while for us to bite the bullet, but this is one of those rare tech purchases where our only regret is that we didn’t buy it sooner. The Cintiq has yielded the biggest productivity gain a tech purchase has brought us in years: where Rob’s cartooning used to involve a laborious and time-consuming cycle of sketching, redrawing, inking, scanning and correcting, he now does it all in one go on the Cintiq. Even better, the Cintiq has enhanced his cartooning style by making fills a lot easier. No wonder he’s cartooning more!
Must-buy for: People creating images for the web on a weekly or daily basis.
Alex’s new MacBook Pro is an upgrade from a two-year-old model. It’s a qualitative improvement but not a major leap forward; the chief benefits are the improved screen, bigger hard drive and sexier profile. The most significant benefit is that unlike her previous MacBook Pro — purchased the day after the model’s release, in violation of our commitment to the “never buy anything Steve Jobs held in his hands on the MacWorld stage within the past 2 weeks” principle — this one doesn’t need regular logic board replacements. (Knock on wood for me, please!!)
Must-buy for: Professionals switching to the Mac, or current Mac users experiencing performing issues on older Macs.
I got my netbook for three reasons: to tide me over while I waited for the new Macbook, to give us a Windows machine for site testing purposes, and to have a lightweight, portable machine I don’t mind schlepping on days when I’m going to do a lot of walking and writing. It works quite well as a satellite machine — I even left my MacBook behind during a recent business trip, and worked off the netbook for 3 days. I’m convinced Mike Kelly steered me right when he suggested the HP’s almost full-sized keyboard was worth the extra $100 over the alternatives I considered; when you’re doing a lot of typing, there’s a world of difference between an 85%-sized keyboard and a 92%-sized keyboard, the biggest on the netbook market. But after years as a Mac user, I found Windows completely intolerable; I was much happier once I switched to Ubuntu, though I found the HP quite tempermental during the install process (I had to do some manual repartioning of the hard drive before it worked).
The HP works great for writing; it’s pretty annoying if I want to do much of anything else, thanks to the small screen and slow performance, but I look at that as a benefit: it keeps me focused on my writing and limits the time I spend messing around on the web. The back pocket of my new Lug Hatchback Backpack is the PERFECT size for the mini (encased in a Tucano sleeve for protection) and the main section of the backpack is just big enough for a power supply, wallet and mouse. That mouse is a MUST, btw; the mini’s one real weakness is the extremely un-ergonomic positioning of the trackpad buttons.
Must-buy for: Writers with bad backs.
My first instinct in buying a mouse for the netbook was to go small: a tiny mouse with a retractable cord. NOt only was the small size annoying, but the retracting cord stopped retracting in its very first day of use. The Arc has been a spectacularly successful alternative: it’s probably the best mouse I’ve ever used. Microsoft’s new BlueTrack technology is a very real improvement over other laser mice: I’ve yet to find a surface it doesn’t work on. The arced shape is extremely comfortable to use, and because it folds up, it takes very little room in my tiny backpack. Best of all, the folding section contains a little magnetic well for storing the USB receiver, so it would be very hard to lose the receiver (something I’d otherwise be very likely to do). My only gripe is that seeing the price on Amazon makes me feel like a total sucker for spending $74.99 on this at Future Shop.
Must-buy for: Netbook owners.
Last year, Rob got the Kindle 1 for his birthday; this year, it was my turn. I wasn’t sure I’d like the Kindle, since unlike Rob, I don’t like reading on screen, and don’t read a lot of non-fiction (the Kindle is particularly awesome for non-fiction, since its full-text search means you can quickly look through a book to find the example or section that interests you). I borrowed Rob’s to see whether I’d like it; that let me discover that yes, even a paper-loving reader like me can enjoy reading on the Kindle. An even more crucial discovery: sharing a Kindle sucks. It’s even more annoying than trying to read a book that someone else is reading, too; if even if you and your sweetie don’t want to read at the same time (which Rob and I usually do), the odds are good that when you pick it up, it’s open to his book rather than yours. Now that I have my own Kindle, I keep it stocked with a few books at a time, so that I’m never in the position of finishing a novel mid-flight and having nothing to read, or alternately, having to travel with a suitcase full of books. And Rob is just a bit envious of my newer model: the “next page” button works much faster, so the reading experience is much more natural and fluid.
It’s not quite as awesome to use in Canada, since you don’t get the WhisperSync network that lets you buy books from the Kindle itself, and newspaper subscriptions don’t make sense when you have to plug into the computer to download each edition. But it’s actually very straightforward to buy books on the Amazon store and download to the Kindle via USB; the trick is to order your Kindle when you’re going to be in the US (so you can have it delivered there), and to associate your Kindle with a second Amazon account using a (real or fake) US address and a separate e-mail address. Use your real Amazon account (the one hooked up to your Canadian or other non-US credit card) to buy gift cards that you send to your US account, and use those funds to buy titles for your Kindle.
Must-buy for: Avid reader-travelers.
The PowerStick is a cable-cum-battery that lets you connect just about any phone or gadget to your USB port. Instead of carrying a briefcase full of cables when you travel, just bring the PowerStick and the appropriate connectors. It comes with connectors that work on a variety of cell phones, cameras and of course, the iPod/iPhone. The REALLY cool thing is that while the PowerStick is charging your camera, phone or Kindle off the USB port on your computer, it’s also storing a second charge. When I’m on the road, my iPhone inevitably runs out of juice before the end of the day; with the PowerStick, I can connect and recharge when it starts to run out. Unfortunately, I lost mine the very first trip I took it on; but I’m running right back to Future Shop for a new one.
Must-buy for: Traveling gadgeteers.
This is another purchase that falls into the “why didn’t we do this sooner?” pile — despite feeling we might have been happier with another product in this category. We’ve been frustrated with our in-car listening options for as long we’ve been using iPods (and since I bought an iPod the very first week the very first one came out, that’s a long time). We’ve tried several versions of the radio transmitter/charger approach, all of which were prone to crackling — especially with iPhones. We finally bit the bullet and got a car stereo that has an actual physical iPod connector, and the difference in sound quality is extraordinary: listening to our iPhone in the car now offers better acoustics than either our Mac mini-turned-stereo, or our fancy iPod speakers. The connector consists of a cable that runs through the glove compartment (so you can hide it, along with the detachable faceplate,when you’re not in the car).
As much as we love having a stereo with an iPod connector, we’re not sure this was the best pick. The choice of model came down to the choice between bluetooth support (which promised the stereo would act as an iPhone speakerphone) vs a model that included an LCD and controller so you could choose your playlist and track directly from the dash. We chose the latter, and in theory it’s super cool: the dial lets us choose a playlist and see which track we’re listening to at any time. But with fifty playlists and a few thousand songs, it can take a while to scroll to the track we’re looking for; and once the iPhone/iPod is connected, you’re forced to use the stereo interface. In fact, it would have been much easier to work with the iPhone’s native interface. Plus, as soon as you turn on the stereo, it starts playing the alphabetically first song on your iPod; we listened to the first 10 seconds of the Jackson 5’s “ABC” three times a day for six months. And one final gripe: this model won’t actually charge an iPhone, just an iPod.
The detachable faceplate makes us a little lazy about using the stereo; we’re so rarely in the car for more than 15 minutes that it often seems like more trouble than it’s worth to snap the faceplate on and plug in an iPhone, even though it takes all of 10 seconds to snap the faceplate on or off. Probably the main reason we don’t use it is that our son refuses to listen to anything other than “Hurt So Good”, and after listening to it five times every morning and five times every evening for three months, it hurts so bad. If anyone has a hardware fix for the iPod glitch known as Having a Three-Year-Old In The Car, please share it.
Must-buy for: iPod owners who spend more than 15 minutes a day in their cars.
Note: The model depicted in this review is a more recent version than the one we purchased, so it could be less annoying.
The EyeFi card has been on my wishlist for months: it’s a wifi-enabled SD card that lets your camera upload to your favorite photo sites — like Flickr and Facebook — without connecting to your computer. This particular model — the Explorer — includes geo-tagging; it recognizes where you are when you snap your picture, so you can do cool things like mapping your pictures in iPhoto. We had our eye on the EyeFi thanks to its integration with our beloved Evernote: the plan was to use the card in our office camera so that we could snap and upload our many whiteboard sessions, and get them all into Evernote so they’d be fully searchable. (Evernote’s text recognition works on handwriting, so once you snap a whiteboard, you can retrieve your notes by searching for any word you wrote on the whiteboard.) Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we were well into the “why the heck doesn’t this thing work?” process that we discovered our particular Canon PowerShot is an unsupported model. We’re still hoping to use it in another camera, but meanwhile, EyeFi loses big points for failing to note compatibility exceptions in its list of supported brands. than the rear)
Must-buy for: Whiteboard obessives and social photo-sharers — as long as they’ve not only checked Eye-Fi’s compatability list, but searched for their camera model on Eye-Fi’s forums to spot any issues.
Our living room TV is hooked up to a Mac Mini, which we use as a home entertainment centre. Ever since we got a US VPN that lets us access Hulu and Amazon video on demand, and since we got a US iTunes account that lets us download the kabillion TV shows not yet availabe on Canadian iTunes, most of our media consumption has happened on the Mini. While Apple’s wireless keyboard has continued to work well for us, our wireless mouse became increasingly annoying, since it won’t track reliably on either our glass coffee table or our leather sofa. Enter the Logitech Air: a wireless gyroscopic mouse that you hold in the air and point at the screen; it also works as a regular mouse when placed on a flat surface. Reviews forewarned us that the Air takes some getting used to; maybe it’s because we only use it for a few minutes a day, but a month in, I still find it less-than-intuitive. Part of the challenge seems to be lack of responsiveness; that improved once we stuck a USB extension cord on the Mini (so the mouse’s receiver is now on the front of the computer, rather than the rear) and even more dramatically when we used the Logitech preferences panel to fine-tune the mouse’s settings. It’s still not that easy to use; even though our sofa is only about 8 feet from the computer, it seems like the Air works a lot better when we get closer to the machine.
Must-buy for: Home theater owners who like to sit very close to their TV.
I needed a portable drive to handle the transition to my new MacBook Pro, since it arrived on the day I headed out of town to NetSquared. The FreeAgent was my pick thanks to its small form factor, large capacity, Firewire II support, and ability to serve as a fully bootable backup drive. It also includes a docking station that (in theory) should make me more likely to use it consistently as a backup. Um…I’ll get right on that back up thing.
Must-buy for: Business travelers who need a bootable backup in case of emergency.
Unless scientists find an antidote to the Tech Fetish gene, the hardware industry will likely benefit from additional Social Signal spending in the coming months. Here are my predictions for the months ahead:
iPhone upgrades. The $199 upgrade to 3rd-gen iPhone is near-irrrestible, especially for Rob, who has been subsisting on my unlocked first-gen iPhone ever since he lost his 3G at the drive-in three days after buying it (oh, yes he did). At least one of those iPhone upgrades will be used to retire an existing iPhone into the hands of our kids; after checking out the price of a Gameboy and associated games, I’ve concluded a de-phoned iPhone is a much better and more economical kid gaming device. Plus if I give one to the kids, I can get all these damn kid games off my own iPhone.
LCD projector or screen. We’ve yet to make a presentation in a room that didn’t have an LCD projector, but I always feel like that day is just around the corner. Meanwhile, we can’t help feeling our own office would be better-served with a big, wall-mounted LCD. We spend so much of our timing working together on Google Docs, web pages or wireframes that it would be awfully handy to look at them together on one screen rather than separately on our laptops.
MacBook Pro #2. The balance of power in our relationship requires rough parity in our tech infrastructure. Ever since I got my new MacBook Pro, Rob’s been leaving the toilet seat up and hogging the remote. An upgraded Rob MacBook is probably key to our domestic tranquility, and if we don’t buy it soon, they’ll come out with a new model and his will be newer and nicer than mine. Then it will be my turn to superglue the toilet seat down and hide the remote in the sofa cushions.