2013 has been a fun year technology-wise. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve either fallen in love with or rediscovered. Although this isn’t really a gift-buying guide, I thought with Christmas coming up and New Year’s right after that, I’d run a down a list of some of the gadgets and doohickeys I’m excited about at the moment. So in no particular order…
When Windows 8.1 came out in October, I was planning on doing a more comprehensive review of it but never got around to it. But suffice it to say, having used it now for a couple of months, I really like it. There aren’t that many changes from Windows 8, but what changes there are make a big difference. For me, the biggest improvement is the different tile size options on the Start screen, with options for small, medium, wide, and large. While very few third-party apps support the large tile size, it’s nice to have the option when it’s available. Not that 8.1 is perfect. There are still a lot of improvements that need to be made. For example, giving users the option to control the speed of the live tiles and further consolidating the desktop-based Control Panel with the Metro PC Settings. And there’s still the fundamental problem of having two different navigational UIs, with a taskbar and icons on the desktop and hot corners and tiles on the Metro side; pick one or the other, but having both is poor design. Nevertheless, after using it for a while, you tend to get used to it and such shortcomings become negligible. And while I still spend the vast majority of my time on the desktop, I actually want to use more Metro apps. I have to admit, I was extremely skeptical when Windows 8 first came out, but I think now this may be far and away the best operating system Microsoft has ever released.
In June I traded in my iPhone 4S for a Galaxy S4. It’s been an interesting transition, sometimes exciting and often quite frustrating. Android, like any other operating system, isn’t without its flaws, and Samsung’s heavy-handed and grossly bloated Touchwiz UI doesn’t help at all. Further, AT&T users were supposed to get the Android 4.3 update in October and then November but the carrier botched the rollout big time. A month later in mid December, it was finally pushed out. I don’t know yet if the update has corrected all the issues I’ve had with the camera, but hopefully so. While it’s easy to point fingers and say this sort of thing would never happen with an iPhone (don’t bet on it), the benefits of Android to me far outweigh the drawbacks. Not only do I have a much bigger screen and a lot more storage, I have a lot more customization options, including the ability to change launchers, keyboards, icons, layouts, widgets, fonts, default apps, and more without having to root or jailbreak the phone first. But maybe the biggest treats are the sharing options across all apps and having a swipeable keyboard. Seriously, you don’t realize how big of a deal these are until you go back to an iDevice and try to send a photo or PDF to Dropbox or share something directly to Evernote. And once you get used to swiping across the keyboard, going back to traditional typing feels so clunky and inefficient. I’m not sure what phone I’ll get in a couple of years when my S4 contract is up, but I can’t imagine returning to iOS.
Along with Android, I’ve really gotten into several Google apps either built into Android or downloaded separately. Google Now is really handy and much more useful on an Android than on iOS. It’s also nice while driving to hit the microphone icon and say, “OK Google, call Christy” and have it dial my wife without having to fumble around looking at the dialer instead of the road. Several other apps have also caught my attention. Google Keep has largely replaced Evernote for me, Google Hangouts has become my default texting app, Google Play Music has become my default music app, and Google Play Newsstand has become my go-to app for news.
I listen to a lot of music at work, at home, in the car, and at the gym. I’ve been wanting to get on Spotify or Rdio for a long time but didn’t really have the money or know if I’d use it enough to make it worth the ten bucks a month. I finally decided to try out each one and was instantly hooked. Although both services are pretty similar, I liked Rdio a lot more and decided to keep it permanently. Since I’m not on wi-fi very much, I don’t like to stream music unless I’m at home, so I usually sync what I want to listen to to my phone so I can listen to it offline later. I still like to buy music, but now I don’t have to. I can listen to it on Rdio first to make sure it’s really worth buying and then wait for it to go on sale on Amazon. It’s the perfect balance of having my cake and eating it, too.
We used to have Netflix streaming along with the DVD option but dropped it when the company changed up its pricing plans. We didn’t want to have to pay for both and weren’t really using it much anyway. But with the recent ice storm that locked us inside for a few days and with Christmas vacation coming up, it seemed like a good time to bring back the streaming. So far we’ve enjoyed watching several movies, but it’s actually the TV shows that have been the best part. I’ve gotten into House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and am working my way through old seasons of Bones, The Walking Dead, and Portlandia. It’s awful, really, how much TV I’m watching, but it’s so much fun.
When we signed back up for Netflix, we needed a good way of watching it on TV. We could stream it through our Xbox 360, but that requires paying for an Xbox Gold subscription, which is ridiculous. So I used my Best Buy Rewards credit and bought a Chromecast thingy, and it’s actually pretty cool. We mainly use it for Netflix, but it can also stream YouTube, Pandora, Songza, and Google Play Music, among other things. And the cool part is controlling it straight from your phone. I did have to make a change with our wireless router for it to work, but other than that, it’s super simple to set up and use. It may not be as robust as a Roku or Apple TV, but it’s a lot cheaper and does exactly what we need it to do.
OK, so Kindle books aren’t anything new, but I’ve been in a reading frenzy lately. I’m almost done with the Divergent trilogy (don’t judge me), and I have two or three other novels lined up that I’m eager to read. I’m also about halfway through Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (I really need to get back to that; it’s fantastic!), and have downloaded but not started Bob Goff’s Love Does.
Other honorable mentions for tech favorites include Flipboard on Windows 8, Instagram, and Pixlr Express and Snapseed on Android. I’m sure there’s a few others that I’m missing, too, but you get the idea.
2013 has been a challenging year around our house, but I’ve had a lot of fun learning and playing with all these different technologies. Hopefully next year will be just as exciting. Maybe we’ll even finally get those flying cars we were promised.