Three Ways To Tame Chrome’s Start Page

speed_dial

For those wanting to customize that start page, the ways to do it through Chrome’s internals are bizarre and, in some cases, complex. The way the start page works has changed over the last couple years and searching for help frequently lead to outdated solutions that no longer work.

It was a problem looking for an app to fix and clever developers responded with some tools that make Chrome’s start page a customizable wonder and tear down the limitations on how the start page is setup.

Speed Dial

Speed Dial, pictured above, lets you configure the number of shortcut panels and includes many site logo panels. It’s simple, attractive and very useful. You can customize the number and size of the panels and set your own background. Speed Dial adds a speed link to your address bar which you can later disable when your panel page is set to your liking.

My only dings on Speed Dial are there could be more site logos and every so often some site panels will go blank for no apparent reason. Aside from those two minor dings it’s a big improvement over the stock start page. Note that Speed Dial 2 is a similar application by a different author, not the second generation of Speed Dial. Really, I like them both so you can’t really go wrong if you select the other one.

Incredible Startpage

incredible_Start

A Google featured extension Incredible Startpage rearranges the start page to include both side shortcuts and other types of bookmarks and task panels. The big bonus to Incredible Startpage is being able to put your apps on the same page as your shortcuts. Something that seems odd Google couldn’t figure out for themselves.

Start!

start

Start! is a highly rated bookmarks and app aggregator for your Chrome start page. Has a convenient Ctrl + R refresh shortcut for the days you’re burning up the net. This is another app that puts bookmarks and apps on the same page. Still a mystery that Google didn’t come up with that on their own, but that’s what keeps developers in business, right?

These three apps will make your Chrome start page a joy to use and take a good idea and make it even better.

Read it Later Gets a Facelift

I bought a new phone yesterday (long story about why, and which, coming soon), and part of my self-agreement was that I would use it more. I currently use an iPod touch altogether too much, and I want to get rid of it, and just use my phone for everything.

Getting rid of my iPod touch involves finding two things that work on Android as well as they did on iOS: music, and Instapaper. Music’s going to be tough, but it’s coming along. My Instapaper problem, on the other hand, was solved this morning by a competitor called Read it Later.

I’ve used Read it Later a little bit in the past, but always turned away from the app because it just wasn’t as smooth as Instapaper, particularly the Web version. But this morning, Read it Later got a total facelift on the Web, to the point where it’s not only as good as Instapaper but is actually far better.

The new Web app, in addition to being incredibly good-looking, packs a lot of features I’ve always wanted from Instapaper: search, tagging and sorting, and a more visual look. Your articles are, by default, individual tiles with photos and headlines, instead of the list-of-headlines look Instapaper uses. You can also skim through and prune your queue more easily (critical for me, man of a million unread articles), and more.

Most importantly, it’s really good looking. Here’s the list view:

ril

The article view:

rilart

A really good Web version, plus Read it Later’s already-excellent stable of mobile apps, makes switching from Instapaper finally possible (RiL even has a handy import tool). Half-goodbye, my iPod touch!

ShopAdvisor and Evernote are a Killer Shopping Team

I’m currently in the market for, among other things, a coffee table. I’ve been looking at places that sell coffee tables, at places like Craigslist and eBay, and all manner of other sources to try to find a half-decent coffee table at a half-decent price.

Fortunately, there’s a neat service called ShopAdvisor that makes that process a whole lot easier. ShopAdvisor lets you enter a product name (or even take a picture of it), and it then does things like find it online and at stores, or show you advice and reviews on the particular product. It’ll even alert you if and when the price drops, which is awesome, because the coffee table I really want is currently too expensive but there’s bound to be a sale sometime.

The app’s integration with Evernote is one of its coolest features, too. You can capture a product into Evernote, and then ShopAdvisor digs into your notes and does its thing. Once the two services are set up, you just add a “watch” tag to the Evernote note, and then ShopAdvisor automatically shows you deals, previews, places to buy, and much more.

It’s an awesome system for gift-buying in particular: Make a list of things you might want to give certain people as gifts, and then you’ll be notified when they’re on sale, or if you need a last-minute gift you can figure out what’s available nearby.

I don’t have a coffee table yet, but I will soon. And I’ll owe all the savings to ShopAdvisor.

Gimme Bar: Save and Share The Whole Internet

Gimme Bar is, according to itself, the fifth greatest invention of all time. After using it for even a few minutes, I’m inclined to think Gimme Bar might be a little conservative there.

What Gimme Bar is is simple: It’s a way to save and share things you think are awesome. Instead of storing bookmarks, it lets you store images, videos,  and text, all in one beautiful and easily accessible place. You can back it up, access it from anywhere, and share it with others. It’s Tumblr, essentially, but done much simpler and with more focus on you having your own personal library. Plus it’s not down very often.

The site’s video does a perfect job of summarizing why Gimme Bar is great:

As you trawl the Internet looking for and finding awesome things, this is an indispensable tool to have at your disposal.

My New Project: The Frontcourt

For the last few weeks, you may have noticed that posting has slowed down here considerably. First of all, for that I’m truly sorry. Second of all, I’ve got a good excuse: It’s because I’ve been working on something new.

It’s called The Frontcourt, and it’s an online magazine all about sports. But it’s about sports in the way that Digitizd is about tech – we care for its own sake, and like following the nitty-gritty stuff because we love it, but we’re more interested in the broader implications; how the world affects sports, and how sports affects the world.

We’re going to be publishing “issues” every week, with a daily blog to keep us busy at other times. I’ll be writing there a ton, and serving as the site’s editor as well. It’s myself and a group of very smart people I’m lucky to call my friends, and we’ll be adding more folks to the team as we really get going. (Want to join us? Please do!) It won’t be for all of the readers of Digitizd, but I’m betting it’ll be for a few of you.

It would mean the world to me if you would go check out the site, tell me what you think, and maybe even share it if you find something you like.

Now if you’ll excuse me, supposedly there’s a hurricane coming my way. Stay safe!

You Win, Evernote

My whole life (almost literally) is stored in a note-taking system, and for a while it was Evernote. But then, I wrote a few months ago about how I was done with Evernote. Done I say, done! I was switching to Simplenote, for a whole variety of reasons.

Well, I lied. I’d love to say I’m sticking with Simplenote, but I’m not. I’m back into Evernote – I have been for a while now, actually, I’ve just been too ashamed to tell you all.

When I switched, my impetus really boiled down to three things: Simplenote was simpler and faster, had better list support, and let me pin notes to the top of the list for easy access. That’s all still true, at least the latter two, but it turns out those features weren’t as important as some others.

The reason I’m back using Evernote isn’t that Simplenote isn’t great. It is. It’s just not nearly powerful enough for what I need, as it turns out. I could go on at length, but I’ll spare you – it’s really just three things that I couldn’t live without:

  • Web Clipping – I really, really need to be able to clip web pages, whether it’s entire pages or just snippets, and Simplenote offers no functional way to do that. Evernote, on the other hand, does it wonderfully.
  • Email Notes – Whenever I’m away from my own computer (especially when I’m on my iPad), I’m constantly emailing stuff to Evernote. Articles to read, things I need to remember, photos – Simplenote allows this, but it’s not nearly as robust as Evernote.
  • Rich text – I do a lot of writing in my note-taking app, whatever it is. It’s where a lot of drafts live, as well as a lot of finished products that don’t have a place to go yet. As I write, I like to have bold or italicized words, or make lists, or change the text justification and color for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t like not being able to do that with Simplenote, and I really didn’t like how many times I forgot and email a rich document to Simplenote, and proceeded to lose all formatting.

I’m also writing this post because, to Evernote’s credit, they’ve actually fixed a lot of things I didn’t like before. (I’m taking full credit for them all being solved, so you’re welcome.) Now, if you don’t give a note a title in the mobile app, it takes the first line as the title. There’s a Favorites bar in the Mac app (the one I use most) that mimics the pinning functionality of Simplenote. All of the Evernote apps are faster, better looking, and simpler to use than ever, and more and more apps are integrating Evernote in clever ways.

My New Setup

Part of the problem I had previously with Evernote was that it was just too complex. As it turns out, that was mostly my fault. I had tons of notebooks, tons of tags, more saved searches than you could shake a stick at, and generally no idea where anything was.

This time, I’m doing it better, and it’s working. I only have two notebooks now: “Inbox,” and “Everything.” Everything starts in the Inbox, and after getting looked at once either gets deleted or goes into Everything. All my real organization is done by tags, and I don’t even have very many of those (four right now). I’m diligent about deleting notes I don’t have need for anymore, which helps an enormous amount. Mostly, I just dump everything into the Everything bucket and rely on search to find everything, and that’s working nicely.

I’m a renewed Evernote fan, and I promise not to break up with it again. For like a month, at the very least.

The Soothing Power of the Power Button

As of today, I’m the proud owner of a big, silver box that takes up space I don’t have, an extra remote I can’t figure out, a $50/month extra charge that I can’t afford, and for some inexplicable reason, a landline phone line. You guessed it: I’m New York City’s newest Time Warner Cable subscriber.

I moved into my apartment in October, and lasted almost ten months before breaking down and getting cable. Now that I’ve had it for a few minutes, I can’t believe I was ever without it.

As I write this, I’m watching Bones. Now I’m watching NBC Nightly News. Now I’m watching TMZ (TMZ has a show?). You know why? Because I CAN, that’s why. In less than the time it took me to write the phrase “NBC Nightly News,” I could watch any of like 600 different things.

Now I’m watching Spongebob. This show’s not nearly as funny sober. But it’s totally as creepy.

For the last ten months, anything I wanted to watch I watched on purpose. I could watch almost anything, but it took real effort. Is it on Netflix? No. What about Sidereel? Yeah, but it’s on some weird Japanese site and Megavideo, both of which are going to take six hours to load and only let me watch for 20 minutes at a time. Okay, open three or four of those and pause them, let them buffer. Are there torrents? Yeah, but only all eleven seasons, and Starbucks might not like me downloading 17.3GB. Or camping out for three weeks while it downloads.

Now King of Queens is on. Kevin James is a funny man, and this show makes it clear that fat + funny = hot wife. Who says you can’t learn from TV?

Even when something was on Netflix, I had to use my computer to add it to my queue because the search on my WD TV Live Hub sucks, stop whatever I was torrenting because it was killing my Internet connection, and scroll one by one through all of South Park’s 207 episodes to find the one I wanted to watch. I always got to watch what I wanted, but it was just so much effort.

The longest step involved in me watching TV tonight was finding the bottle opener and popping the cap off my Yuengling. Then it’s lean back, hand-on-belly time, and one button later I’m watching TV.

Right now, it’s Seinfield. Is this show ever not on? Though Kramer did just suggest wearing silk underwear, so that’s lesson #2 for the evening.

The biggest advantage of TV, the unexpected wonder of my first night of cable, is that I don’t have to decide what I want to watch. I turn on the TV, and I have a few hundred options in front of me. I haven’t heard of most of them, and I’ve seen a few others already, so I make a quick mental list of what’s on that I might like. I don’t have to wade through my giant list of shows to watch, and upon choosing what fits my tastes for this evening go through all the steps required to watch it. I choose among available options, and when it’s over I choose another thing. There’s something soothing in not having the whole world and history of television available.

There’s an awful lot of crap on TV. There’s also a lot of good stuff, stuff that I watched one episode of and forgot; stuff that someone recommended to me but I never wrote down and thus never had a chance of remembering; stuff that I watched years ago and want to watch again, but only for a half-hour before the Yankee game starts. If I was wrong in my decision, if I want a comedy instead of an hour-long drama, I don’t have steps to repeat. I just switch. Just tonight, I’ve remembered that I need to start watching Archer again, that The Simpsons has seriously degraded over the last few seasons, and that The Goonies TOTALLY holds up.

SportsCenter’s on! And the NFL lockout is either over, or it isn’t, and everyone’s very optimistic but they’re all very pessimistic. Oh, pontification.

Speaking of sports, when you get down to it, the biggest reason I broke down and got cable was sports. I love sports, and I’ve developed a new appreciation for a) good sportswriting and b) highlights over the last few months, but nothing replaces watching the game; the game, after all, is mostly the moments outside of the big moments. Luckily, living in Brooklyn means there are always bars around showing games, but that’s bad for my wallet–and my beer belly. Cable’s at worst tied, and it scores big points for the beer being cheaper and not requiring shoes or shirts.

Swamp People’s on! Some guy with a camo hat and an accent that makes him say everything at a third of the speed I’d like just shot a gator from 50 yards away. Like I said, sports.

Much is made of the lean-back versus the lean-forward experience. You’re either actively involved, choosing and interacting, or you’re sitting back, letting something wash over you. TV, at its best and most mind-numbing, is a lean-back experience, designed to help you wind down after a day of work or zone out when you’re stressed. I missed that, and I’ll stoked to have it back.

Except commercials. Commercials suck.

Why the Netflix Price Hike?

Tim Stevens ponders the fact that the DVD+Streaming Netflix package now costs $17, and wonders what he’ll do:

For me, as a subscriber myself, it’s decision time. Will I keep my Netflix account? Yes — at least partially. I like Netflix’s streaming options more than what’s on offer from the identically priced Hulu Plus service and, while I think Amazon Prime Instant Video will be a contender in the future, right now the lack of console support makes it a non-starter for me.

I’m going to think long and hard about canceling my disc services, or at least dropping back to the twice-monthly DVD plan. But, I’d really like for Netflix to take a cue from Redbox (and, indeed, from its original pricing scheme) and let me pay per-disc. More and more often I’m happy to wait for the random selection of decidedly non-new releases to pop up on the company’s Instant service before I watch them. It’s only the hot, high-impact, exciting new releases that I really want on disc. You know, the kind of movie you thought about going to see in the theater and totally planned to, but then one of your friends flaked or you got lazy or you called ahead for ticket prices and you decided “Yeah, I’ll just wait for Netflix and put that money toward my college loans.” Those are the movies that I want on disc.

I like the idea of paying per disc (and I’ve actually been arguing with people forever that if Netflix bought Redbox, it would immediately become the best thing in video), but I think that’s the opposite of the direction Netflix is trying to go. It seems to me that what they’re trying to do is price you out of the DVD market, to the point where all you’re paying for is streaming.

No discs to ship means less cost to Netflix, which means more of your money can go to purchasing streaming rights for movies and TV shows, the price of which is rising rapidly. So they create two distinct plans, and make you pay individually for them. I’m guessed they’re betting that if people have to choose one plan to keep, they’re going to keep the streaming plan.

The major outcry against the price hike seems to be, essentially, “Your streaming library sucks! Discs are a pain, but everything is available in disc form. Get better streaming content, and then I’ll go streaming-only, but don’t charge me $17 to get all your content.” It’s a fair argument, and I think it’s the (not-very) long-term consequence of this price hike. The price of Netflix is still going to be $7.99, they’re just phasing you out of wanting DVDs.

Update: AllThingsD agrees with me, which means I must be right.

Shortmail: Not Replacing Email, Just Pruning it

MG Siegler, a writer for TechCrunch, quit email last week. He just couldn’t handle the volume of email he was getting, or the guilt and stress that comes with it, so he quit. This week, he’s made a slight concession, coming back using a service calling Shortmail:

At its most basic, Shortmail is a new front-end service for email with one very key feature: a 500-character limit for each message. Yes, it’s like Twitter for email. But it’s not just Twitter for email. There are other interesting elements of the service too. For example, you can set any Shortmail conversation to be private or public.

Austin Carr describes more for Fast Company:

In more ways than one, 410 Labs is framing the service as the Twitter of email. But it also seems that it’s trying to be the email of Twitter. If you already have a Twitter account, then you already own a Shortmail address. For example, my handle, @AustinCarr, already reserved AustinCarr@shortmail.com–the account is just waiting to be claimed. The messages themselves are designed as extensions of a Twitter message–for whatever you can’t fit in your 140 character tweet, clearly. What’s more, messages can be delivered privately or publicly, playing along with how tweets are visible to all.

I love the idea of Shortmail, for a few reasons. Primarily, I love the idea that my Twitter username (@piercedavid) reserved piercedavid@shortmail.com (which, by the way, I’ve started using, so feel free to hit me up). The interface is fantastic as well, a good-looking way to handle short conversations. But mostly I love the enforced be-brief limit, which means that not only can I send short emails but I can do it without feeling bad, because I have to.

At first glance, this isn’t going to replace everything about email – I don’t imagine it handles things like Groupon emails particularly well. So, for the time being at least, it appears that unless you’re willing to take as big a step as MG did, you’re going to need two different email systems, and that’s not exactly an efficient system either. But the stressful part about email isn’t the Groupon emails, it’s the correspondence, the communication, business and endless questions and Reply Alls that pile up. And Shortmail is, if not a complete solution, a gigantic step in the right direction.

8 Reasons I Hope Google+ Succeeds

I’ve been using Google’s new social networking service, Google+ (or Google Plus, or something) for the last two days, and it’s not a stretch to say I’d be thrilled if Facebook died entirely and Google+ takes over the Internet like Facebook has. There’s virtually no chance that’s going to happen–what worries me more is that people are going to say “why do I need another social network?” and not use Google+ at all. That might happen, but I very much hope it doesn’t.

There are a number of things I like about Google+, many of them features that Facebook has either not implemented or has implemented poorly. Though this list is likely to change over time as more people start to use the service, and more features get rolled out, there are eight reasons that I’m rooting hard for Google+. Here they are, in no particular order:

(Also, no I don’t have invites. I’d love to invite all of you, but I can’t. Sorry!)

[list type="bignumlist"]

  1. Circles

    Google+ lets you move people into what it calls “Circles,” which is essentially just a super-smart system for grouping people. Your friends, your family, and your co-workers can all be separated, and anything you share can with two clicks be shared with one person, one group, everyone, or any combination you can think of. It’s like Facebook Groups, only, you know, useful. Now you can friend your Mom on Facebook without worrying about posting debaucherous pictures, and that’s a darn good thing.

  2. Huddles

    This is related to Circles, but different enough to merit mentioning. Google+ is, if nothing else, one of the best group messaging apps I’ve ever used. Using Huddles, a feature in the Google+ mobile app (an honorable mention for best things about Google+), you can quickly message an entire Circle, or a Circle and some email addresses, or what have you. It’s fast, has read receipts and support for photos and more. It’s like BBM, only for the entire Internet and every platform.

  3. Comments

    This isn’t an advantage over Facebook as much as it’s an advantage over Twitter (which Google+ wants to be as well). Google+ supports comments on posts, so everything you share can immediately be discussed, and you can follow the whole thing.

  4. The Design

    I can’t overstate how much more I like the look of Google+ than Facebook. It’s so much cleaner, things are bigger and easier to read, and nothing about the design feels cramped. Everything about Facebook seems cramped. The navigation is clear and obvious, and every activity is easy to get to and achieve.

  5. Photos

    Facebook has become the default place to upload photos, despite not having the best photo system. It involves a lot of clicking around, tiny thumbnails you can’t really discern and that don’t show the whole photo, and digging through albums to find one particular photo. Google+’s “Photos from your circles” system is much more clever, giving you a wall of pictures (that scales with your browser size), and an easy way to navigate Picasa photos, which is the best online/desktop photo manager on the planet already.

  6. It’s Part of Google

    I already spend the whole day with Gmail open, and I love that my notifications show up in the Google bar no matter when in Google’s ecosystem I am. Google’s already the home of my contact list, calendar, email and more, and it makes perfect sense to see social information in the same place.

  7. Hangouts

    My Mom hated on this for a while the other day, but I think the idea behind Hangouts is awesome. It’s like serendipitous chat with whoever’s nearby, and having it be video makes it much more like actually running into people you know out in the real world. It’s certainly no substitute for seeing people in the real world, but it’s a fun “hang out with whoever else is here” tool.

  8. Sparks

    Sparks is still rough around the edges, and not always but it’s a neat idea: track whatever you’re interested in. Choose a website (which makes Sparks something like an RSS reader, as commenter boon tobias pointed out) or something you’re interested in (like “Books” or “Basketball” or “So You Think you Can Dance”), and you’ll get a constant stream of automatically curated stuff to check out. It’s a great time-killer, like a StumbleUpon by topic.

[/list]

Ultimately, the only thing that matters about Google+ is whether or not people start using it. I think they will, at least for a little while, and I think the service is so immediately useful and interesting that it might have a real shot. I’m rooting hard for it, anyway.

Are you using Google+? Do you think you’ll use it when the novelty wears off?