2008 Gadgets Review – #4 – Twitter

Strictly speaking I signed on to Twitter in 2007 but never used it very much. I didn’t find a way to read it that I liked, and there wasn’t that much I found interesting to read.

This changed this year though. On the application front I started using twitterific on the iPhone. It’s a great thing to check a few times a day when I have a spare couple of minutes away from my computer and not talking to anyone else, waiting for something to happen. I’ll leave the exact details of when such scenarios occur as an exercise to the reader…

Secondly, I started getting a critical mass of people to follow who wrote enough that I always had something to read, but not too much as to be spamming 40 tweets a day. OK, not usually (*ahem* Josh Graham 😉 )

One interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s very much a uni-directional broadcast. People can subscribe or unsubscribe to my feed as they want and really it doesn’t make any difference to me, and I don’t really know about it. Compare this with Facebook, for instance, which is far more of a joint relationship – if someone removes me as a friend from their contacts, they are also removed from my contacts. If they want to add me back, there has to be a confirmation on my part, so I would see them attaching and detaching to my status feed, as it were.

Because Twitter has a looser coupling, I feel more able to put more status updates out when I want, tweet when I’m drunk (although that’s seldom a good idea), etc.

Facebook was my social networking app of 2007, Twitter of 2008. It’s likely by the end of 2009 I’ll have something else going on.

You can find my twitter feed at http://twitter.com/mikebroberts

2008 Gadgets Review – #3 – Dots gloves

This one wasn’t going to get a mention originally, but after how cold it is here in NYC this morning I changed my mind.

I love my iPhone. 18 months in and I still think it’s a device from the future. The problem comes this time of year when it’s cold outside, I’m wearing my gloves, and I get a call – the touchscreen doesn’t work and the call ends up going to voicemail.

Enter Dots gloves – gloves with little, well, dots, on the tips of the thumbs and index fingers that play nice with the iPhone screen. Simple and effective. And only $20 for the thicker wool gloves.

2008 Gadgets Review – #2 – Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote Control

For part 2 of my 2008 gadget round-up I’m going to talk about Logitech’s Harmony 880 universal remote control.

Being a geek, my lounge is full of stuff with remote controls, all hooked to each other. At last count, my media setup included:

  • A TV
  • Mini system (used for sound and playing CDs)
  • 2 game / media consoles (XBox 360 & Playstation 3)
  • DVD player
  • Squeezebox Music player
  • Cable TV DVR
  • HDMI switch
  • Mac Mini

This equals a lot of remote controls, confusing the heck out of my girlfriend (and me early on a Saturday morning) and it’s a big mess on my coffee table. A couple of my friends had been bugging me about getting a universal remote control, a remote which could control all of my devices, but I was sceptical about them after bad experiences in the past.

Eventually though I decided to do some research and looked into the options. Logitech seemed to have the best reviewed range for non-ludicrous prices, and of their selection the Harmony 880 model seemed a good middle-ground option for a reasonable price and it had many decent reviews. I decided to go for it and a few days later found myself unpacking my remote.

The first step to setting up the remote was to install software on my Mac, and plug the remote in to a USB socket. Setting up the remote is done solely through the computer, which is useful since there are a whole range of options available. The next step was to tell the software what devices I had, and how they connected to each other (e.g. through which inputs to the TV.) Much to my surprise the software knew about both my UK Pioneer mini system system and my fairly obscure HDMI switch.

After the device and connections setup, I needed to decide which ‘activities’ I wanted the remote to know about. Most of the time when using the remote your usage is activity-based (‘watch DVD’) rather than device-based (‘turn on DVD player’). This is a wonderful scheme, it brings the concept of remote control macros (controlling multiple devices in one user action) to a level anyone can use and setup.

After programming the remote, it was time to try it out. Tentatively I pointed at my Stack Of Stuff and chose to ‘Watch TV’. The cable box turned on, the TV turned on and switched to the correct HDMI input, my HDMI switch moved to the correct input, and my mini system turned on switching to the right input also. I was shocked – it worked!

I wanted to watch a recent episode of the Daily Show, for which I needed the DVR controls of my cable box. As if by magic, a ‘list’ option had appeared on the screen of my remote, which I could select by using the general purpose button next to it. The menu buttons on the remote controlled the selection, and play, pause etc. all did the right. Even better, the volume control on the remote automatically changed the volume on my mini system, since during the setup process the software has asked me what device I used for controlling volume when watching TV.

Anyone who has used universal remotes knows that sometimes things don’t quite work. Many devices have power toggles (‘change the power setting’) rather than absolute commands (‘turn power off’) and so workflow-based remotes are sometimes out-of-sync with the current state of your devices. The Harmony remote’s approach to problems like this is a ‘help’ button at the top of the remote, which launches a very simple step-by-step process guided through the remote’s screen to get everything going properly.

The other concern I had was what happened for the occasional use of something that wasn’t in an activity (e.g. changing the surround setup of my mini system.) For this the remote allows you to switch to a ‘device’ mode rather than ‘activity’ mode, giving you full control of your devices. For buttons which aren’t represented directly on the remote, the screen on the remote, and associated general purpose buttons, can have multiple pages offering pretty much everything available on my actual remotes.

Of course, the real test was would my not-quite-as-nerdy-as-me girlfriend be able to use this remote. The answer was an emphatic yes, even being able to navigate the ‘help’ workflow.

I have almost nothing bad to say about the Harmony 880. Higher end models allow for more devices, and allow for ‘out-of-sight’ control, but that’s beyond what I need. My Playstation 3 can’t be controlled with the remote, but that’s Sony’s fault for not providing an infra red sensor. There are 3rd party IR-to-bluetooth adapters available for this purpose but I’ve been having trouble getting hold of one.

In summary, the 880 has been an absolutely superb purchase, and I thoroughly recommend it.

2008 Gadgets Review – #1 – Mobile Me

2008 was a good year for gadgets for me. It was probably something to do with making up for not coding for most of it. I’m including in gadgets software and services nothing to do with computer programming.

First up on my list is Apple’s Mobile Me. Mobile Me is nominally a replacement and upgrade of Apple’s .Mac internet application service, offering web-based and IMAP email, a calendar and address book syncing service for Mac’s running OS X, internet based file storage, etc.

The biggest update I was interested in of Mobile Me over .Mac however was it’s iPhone integration, and more specifically the over-the-cellphone-network syncing of address book, calendar and ‘push’ IMAP email. Before Mobile Me I used to hook up my iPhone to my home iMac every day to make sure any contact or calendar changes were backed from my iPhone, and any changes I’d made elsewhere were synced to my iPhone. I also used Plaxo to sync address books between various computers and Spanning Sync with Google calendar to sync calendars across computers.

This setup worked, but has now been completely replaced by a totally automatic process in Mobile Me. Without using any other services, calendars and address books are now kept in sync across all my work and personal Macs, and my iPhone, without any work on my part apart from the initial setup. These days I plug my iPhone into the computer every few weeks rather than every day.

This setup does everything important that I wanted 6 years ago.

Mobile Me has not all been smooth sailing, however.  The launch in July for some very strange reason was consecutive with the launch of the major iPhone version 2 software update, and the cutover from .Mac to Mobile Me was a hard-change, rather than gradual crossover. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go so well, with services being inaccessible to some extent for a few weeks. Luckily I wasn’t already dependent on .Mac, but if I had been and thus not had email access for several days I would have been most definitely cheesed off.

Also, the Mobile Me web applications (allowing you to access your mail, contacts, calendar from a browser) aren’t all that great. They look lovely and shiny, trying their best to look like their desktop counterparts, however they just end up being slower than Google-style equivalents, and don’t work on some browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer 6 on my dad’s home computer when I visited in September.) This isn’t a particularly big deal since I only need to use this feature when abroad, but even so I think Apple have something to learn about running web application services.

Griping aside, Mobile Me is a real time and brain saver for me. Well worth the subscription cost.