Ditching Cable – A Family Experiment

In just a couple of days, I will move with my family to St, Louis, over 800 miles from our current home in Baltimore.  While the move means new jobs for my wife and myself and a new school for the kids, it is also the opportunity to re-evaluate how we live and what we use.

I am an early adopter: I am always looking for the new device, the new way of doing something, the new app.  Fortunately, I am married to a late adopter: my wife balances my impulsivity with common sense and makes me consider whether the new gadget/ workflow really makes sense.

So, a couple of years ago, when I first read on Lifehacker that it was possible to ditch cable and still continue to watch TV, I was ready to save $140 a month on our cable bill.  We already subscribed to Netflix, though at this point, Netflix wasn’t yet producing its own content.  But my wife had concerns: how were we going to get the TV shows that our kids love?  How were we going to watch football?  And what about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?

Over the past year, however, we have found more and more fun TV and movies on Netflix (we hit a particularly fun streak of French comedies, for example).  We have continued to purchase movies for the kids on iTunes, and they have really enjoyed the discounted Ice Age animation movie series.

Last month, I bought a Mohu Leaf , a HD digital antenna that costs just $35 and plugs into the back of your TV like good old fashioned “rabbit ears.”  However, the Leaf allows you took pick up all broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS etc.) in high definition for free! Using it, then, we can watch some of favorite mind-numbing shows (remember, we have two small children) such as So You Think You Can Dance, The Amazing Race, and The Biggest Loser.

On Hulu Plus we can also get The Daily Show  plus hundreds of other TV shows.

So for this move, we are going to try a family experiment for three months, or until the complaints from the other three members of my family wear me down.  No cable TV!  We will use a couple of Apple TVs to access Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus, and the Mohu Leaf to watch network TV, in particular, live football.

It’s going to be a major change, but could also save us a lot of money as well as make us more intentional about what we watch.  Wish us luck!


Is Apple’s Golden Era Over?

The news for Apple hasn't been great of late: accusations of off-shore tax dodging, the stock price tumbling, and continued concerns about working conditions (and SNL comedy sketches) at Foxconn. More worryingly, Apple's annual developer's conference (WWDC) is only three weeks away, and the rumor mill is not what it has been over the last couple of years. What is there to get excited about? The iWatch seems like it is not close to launching, and maybe the iPad mini is going retina, but that's just it playing catch up with the full sized iPad. Has Steve Job's legacy finally run out; has the extent of his influence over Apple finally ended?

Yahoo Weather App

Against this backdrop, Google and, surprisingly, even Yahoo, are the companies that are generating excitement in the tech world. Google Glass continues to instill the most excitement/ mockery – both of which raise the profile of this wearable technology. But setting aside the geek factor of Glass, Google's updated Hangouts is not only beautiful, but is a factor in making Google+ relevant and perhaps even useable. The updates to photo editing in Google+ is also attractive, and combined with Picasa and the 25 gigs of storage make it worth considering. There's also Google Apps for Education which many are heralding (perhaps prematurely) as the end of iPads in schools.

And then there is Yahoo, a company many people thought was irrelevant and on its last legs. However, under the leadership of former Googler Marissa Mayer, Yahoo is producing some great mobile apps (Yahoo Weather), has revamped the once glorious photo site Flickr with a cool new UI and 1TB of free storage (wow!), and has now has acquired the cool and unique blogging service Tumblr.

Apple used to capture our imaginations with game-changing gadgets and beautiful user experiences. If you had told me one year ago that the New York Times would be describing Apple's woes while promoting exciting news about Yahoo, I would not have believed you. But it's Google and Yahoo who are making the headlines and creating giddy Twitter traffic. I hope that WWDC will prove me wrong, but the future for Apple does not look good when even a fanboy like myself has begun window shopping Chromebooks and Samsung tablets.


Google is Taking Over My iPhone

As Google+ continues to add features and there is also continued development of all other Google Apps, I have found that these products are beginning to dominate my iPhone. Two features in particular that have grabbed my attention are:

  1. Google+ photos: the photo editing features similar to those of the great app Snapseed are now integrated in Google+, so when you either take a photo in Google+ or publish it to the web through Google+, there is no need to open the standalone Snapseed app to enhance photos;
  2. Google Hangouts: the chat feature in Gmail is now available on iOS so you can carry on these chats on mobile devices.

As I looked at the home screen of my iPhone last night,Image it was apparent that Google is beginning to take over: two of the four apps in my bottom tray are Google apps: the Google Search app which I use for …web searching and accessing Google Now cards; and Google+ which I use here as my camera app as it has Snapseed built in.

Google Maps is a no brainer, and I have particularly enjoyed the turn-by-turn voice directions when driving around my soon-to-be-home-but-still-unfamiliar St. Louis.

Looking forward, it is apparent that I am going to add more Google Apps to my home screen:  I signed up for Google Play Music this morning –  when the iOS app for this comes, it will replace the Groove music player.  I am also waiting for a Google Tasks app (the to-do list built into Gmail).  Currently, I use GoTasks to access my Gmail Task lists.

(I am keeping the beautiful new Yahoo weather app for the moment).

As the realization that Google is taking over my iPhone occurred to me, another (mildly horrifying) thought entered my mind: if I am spending so much time using Google products, why am I not using their hardware?  That is, why don’t I ditch my iPhone 5 and get a Google Nexus?

Google’s Easy-to-use and Dramatic Photo Editor: Snapseed


Clew Bay, Ireland, enhanced with the Snapseed Drama effect

While there are a lot of great options for editing photographs, there are few that are as intuitive, as aesthetically-pleasing, and produce more dramatic effects than Google’s Snapseed for iPhone and iPad.  You can take pictures right from the app, or edit pictures from your photo library.  Once you have made all desired enhancements, there are a multitude of options for sharing and saving your images.

The app offers straightforward tweaks such as brightness, contrast, and cropping, and effects such as desaturation (black and white), Tilt-Shift (a blurring effect), and the ability to add frames to your photos.

Snapseed Grunge

Snapseed Grunge Filter

Snapseed Vintage

Snapseed Vintage Filter

However, the most dramatic features are the filters that Snapseed provides: these features provide several enhancements to the picture at one time.  Filters in include the Instagram-like Grunge (top image of the bird on feeder) and Vintage (second bird image) options.

Snapseed Drama

Snapseed Drama filter with added frame

However, my favorite is the slightly subtler, though perhaps less hip filter, Drama (third bird image, with added frame).  This filter appears to enhance the image with ambiance effects as well as adjustments to the contrast.  It quickly transforms pictures into visually arresting images, and is particularly effective with clouds (see mountains image at the top of this page).

Snapseed home

Effects and filters options

Snapseed choices

Scroll up and down to choose between effects.

Snapseed is easy to use: choose from the list of options on the left side of the screen, then once in a particular option, scroll up and down with your finger to toggle between between different effects, and swipe left or right to reduce/ increase the amount of the effect applied.  At any time, you can tap the compare button to gauge the change you have made (it instantly shows the previous version of the image.)  Once you have saved the effect, you can compare all the changes you have made to the original image once again by pressing the compare button.  You can also revert to the original image at any time.

Snapseed Open With

“Open with” options (page 1 of 2)

Once you are happy with the enhancements you have made to an image, you can share your image on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or by email from within the app itself.  You can also print the image, save it to your Camera roll, or open it with a multitude of other apps on your iPad/ iPhone (see bottom image).

Clearly, you can take the raw pictures from your iPad/ iPhone to begin with some decent quality photographs (particularly if you are shooting outdoors).  However, using the iPad camera connection kit (a card reader that plugs into the iPad’s charging port), you can take pictures on your DSLR, edit them in Snapseed, then save them to Dropbox, Google Drive, or send them to a external hard drive.