All I Want for Christmas is These 12 Things

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

If my guide to gift guides wasn’t enough for you, and you’re still stuck trying to find the perfect gift for the tech-lover on your list, I figure I can help. After all, the only thing I ever really want, ever, all the time, is tech. I’ve already got an iPad, but catch me on any given day and my answer to “what do you want for Christmas?” is “an iPAD!”

Here are the 12 things I’d love to find in my stocking, and that the gadget-hound you’re last-second hunting for will love too. You won’t find a Kindle or an iPad here – those are both awesome gifts, that you should totally get for everyone on your list and especially for me, but they’re likely ideas you’ve already had. Hopefully this list expands your horizons a bit, with cool gifts you might not have thought of. And that don’t cost $500. Which is nice.

Bose IE2 Headphones

The Bose IE2 ($99) is a good set of earphones, but it’s really great thanks to its super-comfortable and super-secure StayHear tips. At $99 they’re a tad expensive, but they’re worth every penny.

Virgin Mobile MiFi

What the MiFi ($129) does is pretty cool: it takes a 3G cell phone connection, and turns it into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot that you can use to get computers, iThings, and any other device online. Virgin Mobile’s is awesome because it’s cheap: $40/month, or $10 for 100MB. Buy the MiFi and 100MB, and you’ll be the friend of the always-connected.

Continue reading

The Digitizd Guide to Gift Guides

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

All right, people. We’re down to the home stretch, where we’re buying the last-minute gifts (or, in my case, all the gifts) for our friends, families, loved ones, acquaintances we feel awkward about not giving gifts, obligatory colleagues, secret santas, and everyone else on your list. It’s the most, wonderful time, of the yeaaarrr.

I was going to put together a gift guide, full of some of the best gadgets and techie things for everyone on your list, but after a few weeks of poking around looking for my own gifts and ideas, I realized that there are a number of really good gift guides already out there. So, in the spirit of giving, I give you the nine best gift guides from 2010. There’s no way you won’t find something here for everyone on your list.

[list type="bignumlist"]

  1. Uncrate’s Gadget Guru Guide

    Uncrate’s guide is full of great gifts for the geek on your list, with everything from iPhone-controlled drones to a gorgeous mouse from Microsoft. Skews expensive, but also skews awesome.

  2. Engadget’s Holiday Gift Guide

    Engadget breaks stuff down by category, which is hugely helpful. You want to buy your kid/husband/mailman a laptop, but don’t know which one? Engadget’s there to help with all kinds of useful information and tons of recommendations.

  3. Gizmodo’s Gifts for Photographers

    Who wouldn’t like to take better pictures? Gizmodo’s got gifts for all levels of shooters, from lenses for the pros to the Gorillamobile tripod for your phone.

  4. Wired’s Wish List

    Got someone on your list who has everything? I’d wager they don’t have everything on this list. It’s a little ooh and ahh heavy and a little light on practical gifts, but there’s tons of good stuff to be found for anyone on your list. The geeks on the go list is the best—portable stuff that’s still awesome.

  5. GeekDad’s Gift Guide

    Immensely practical, but with a nod to the funky and cool, this is a great gift guide for wired families. Label printers? Awesome.

  6. CNET’s Gift Guide

    CNET’s most useful for its list of bargain gifts, an awesome roundup of things that won’t cost an arm and a leg. Good gifts, and you keep your limbs? Merry Christmas to all.

  7. PCMag’s Gift Guide

    Yeah, yeah,  I know. I work there and I’m biased. But PCMag really does have a great, super-complete gift guide, including an awesome list of the stuff you should buy the music lover on your list.

  8. Rolling Stone’s Picks

    Rolling Stone always has a cool slant on things, and gadget gifts are no exception. Lots of great gadgets for music lovers, movie lovers, and more. Buy from Rolling Stone, you’re guaranteed to look like you’ve got smashing taste.

  9. Gift Ideas from the New York Times

    If you only need one gift guide, it’s probably this one. Everything from the best books to the best gadgets, all hand-picked by the people who know things about things (like David Pogue, for tech, with video). High-class, high-utility, wide-ranging.

[/list]

Between these lists, you’ll be certain to find something for everyone on your holiday list. And you’ll do it without spending a boatload on Gary from accounting who might not “accidentally forget your paycheck” if you get him a gift this year.

Ge.tt: The Best Way to Share Big Files (Or Small Ones)

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

I constantly run into the same problem, and for some reason I can’t possibly figure out, it’s never a problem I seem to be able to solve: I need to send people large files. Whether I’m sending every song ever from Glee (yeah, I have ‘em all – wanna fight about it?) to my girlfriend, or sending a huge batch of photos to my parents, I often need to send files that are much too big for emails, and even for services like YouSendIt.

I’ve tried a million options – and there really are a million out there. FileDropper has a big file limit (5GB) and works well when it works, but I’ve found it to be annoyingly unreliable. Dropbox and Box.net both do the job quite well, but both are confusing to someone who doesn’t have an account with the services – like, for instance, my Mom. (Side note: if you have Dropbox, and so does the recipient, sharing a folder is the best way to share files. Period.) So I’ve searched around, looked for the best option, and been generally unsuccessful.

My new favorite is one I’m very excited about – it’s called Gett (ge.tt), and it’s got everything I need in a file-sharing tool.

First and most importantly, it’s stupid-simple. There’s no need for an account, or to even give the thing your email address. When you go to the website, here’s all you see:

You can sign up for an account if you want to (I did – it makes it easier to go back and see what you’ve uploaded and shared, in case you want to re-share things), and it’s free to do so, but you really don’t need to. Just pick the file you want to upload – there are no size limits that I could find, and I’ve uploaded up to 4GB files – and share the link that Gett gives you. The whole thing is a drag-and-drop operation in newer browsers, and it can even handle multiple files at the same time.

Once you choose the file to upload, most sites upload the file and then give you a link to share with anyone who wants to download the file. Not Gett – what it does is much cleverer. As soon as you start uploading the file, others can start downloading it – it’ll go down on their end as fast as it goes up on yours. For particularly large files, that’s hugely useful – having to upload, then download, multiple gigabytes is a long process, but doing both simultaneously speeds it up considerably.

That’s all plenty for me, but there’s more if you want it. You can share the Gett link (it’ll be ge.tt/something) with anyone you want, and you’ll get a live count of how many people have downloaded the files. You can even add more files to the share, which I’ve found useful – anytime you want to share a file with the same people, just upload it to the same link and tell them to check it again.

On the downloader’s end, it’s all incredibly simple – crucial when sharing with the less-than-technically-inclined. Here’s the download page:

You can preview any file in your browser without having to download it first, and any new files show up automatically without you having to even reload the page.

File sharing ought to be simple. I don’t need a million options, or tons of different ways to do things. Upload my file, give me a link to share, and make it easy for people to download the file. With Gett, it’s check, check, and check.

What do you use for sharing files? If it’s something awesome, share it below! If it’s email, shame on you. Just kidding – but really.

Growing Up in the Smartphone Generation

In yesterday’s New York Times, Matt Richtel wonders about the kids growing up constantly distracted. The ones who’ve never not known about computers and cell phones, he says, are the ones we should worry about:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

I’m not convinced. “A generation of kids…whose brains are going to be wired differently.” Differently isn’t bad, or good – it’s just different. Maybe, instead of a generation of single-taskers, we’re going to have a generation of multi-taskers, able to engage across a lot of different ideas and media. Maybe it’s bad that they’re not able to focus for a long time, but maybe it’s not.

As I sit here and write this, I have 10 tabs open in my Web browser, my email is open, Twitter is open, my iPod is playing music, and my phone just buzzed with a text message. Sure, these are distractions that people alive a hundred, fifty, or even ten years ago didn’t deal with, and they’re probably wiring my brain a particular way.

But our brains are remarkably flexible things, able to adapt to their situations and work within them. As I sit here, surrounded by technology, I don’t think I’m breaking my brain, it’s just learning to do things differently. The world is beyond the point where it’s practical to do one thing at a time, at all times, and my brain is just learning to cope with that.

The article is worth a read either way, if for no reason other than as an eye-opener to the incredible speed with which we have adopted Internet technology into our lives. Though it’ll probably take you three or four tries to get through it (you’ll get a lot of emails in the time it takes to read 4,000 words), it’s worth the effort.

But the thing I like the most is MG Siegler, at TechCrunch, realizing how true the article might really be:

This morning, I pulled out my iPad to read The New York Times feature entitled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. After reading a few hundred words, I tweeted about reading it. Then I realized it was something like 4,000 words, so I took a break to go check Twitter. Then Facebook. Then my email. Then Yammer. Then I came back to reading — for another 1,000 words or so, before an Instagram Push Notification popped up. I hopped over there. Then I came back and finished the article.

His point? None of that is bad. It’s different, but it’s not bad. And it’s how things are going to be, so we might as well get used to it.

Automating and Outsourcing Life

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

Did you know that there are entire companies built around giving ordinary people, like you and me, the chance to have an assistant? These people, usually thousands of miles away, will do things like cancel gym memberships, remember to buy your wife flowers, and basically anything else in your life. And they’ll do it all on the cheap.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, a couple of great writers have gone out and tried to find out exactly how cool it really is. First, AJ Jacobs, for an old issue of Esquire, tried to outsource his whole life:

I get an introductory e-mail from my personal-life outsourcer. Her name is Asha. Even though the firm’s called Your Man in India, I’ve been assigned another woman. Hmm. I suspect these outsourcers figure I’m a randy men’s-magazine editor who enjoys bossing around the ladies. I e-mail Asha a list of books I want from BarnesAndNoble.com and a birthday gift I’d like her to buy my wife, Julie–a silicone pot holder. (Romantic, no?) Both go smoothly.

In fact, in the next few days, I outsource a whole mess of online errands to Asha: paying my bills, getting stuff from drugstore.com, finding my son a Tickle Me Elmo. (Actually, the store was out of Tickle Me Elmos, so Asha bought a Chicken Dance Elmo–good decision.) I had her call Cingular to ask about my cell-phone plan. I’m just guessing, but I bet her call was routed from Bangalore to New Jersey and then back to a Cingular employee in Bangalore, which makes me happy for some reason.

Every day Asha attaches an Excel chart listing the status of my many tasks. The system is working–not counting the hitch in the drugstore order: Instead of wax paper, we get wax-strip mustache removers for ladies. My wife is insulted.

More recently, Farhad Manjoo realized that, once he had a kid, there was no time to do, well, anything else. So he sought the aid of a virtual assistant as well, and writes about it in Slate:

They were particularly good at tasks that involve long, tedious, possibly confrontational phone calls. Julia Turner,Slate’s deputy editor, used the service to track down a company that had put up curtains in her house. Julia had called the installers several times to ask them to come back and fix something, but she hadn’t heard back. Fancy Hands took to the job with gusto—an assistant made many calls during business hours, eventually wrangling someone on the phone and making an appointment. Julia was so impressed that she’s considering subscribing to the service herself. In the same vein, June Thomas, Slate‘s foreign editor, got Fancy Hands to call up her gym and cancel her membership, which June says she’d been planning to do for many months. For a couple of dollars, she saved hundreds.

Fancy Hands also performed well on the research questions that my editor Josh Levin suggested. “Can you come up with a list of contemporary star athletes who were born or currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina?” I asked Fancy Hands. In a few hours I got back just such a list; sure, it was nothing we couldn’t have found with some Googling, but if you hate combing through search results for a definitive answer—or if you’re just plain lazy—Fancy Hands seems like a good option.

I honestly think this idea is absolutely brilliant, and the reason why is simple: we’ve all got too many things to do, and most of those things don’t require any of our attention or skills – they only require time. Things like grocery shopping, or renewing my library card require nothing of me except more time than I want to give them. (That’s why I never go to the library, and eat every meal out, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

Sites like soap.com and alice.com have sprung up in response to that feeling, and are taking a big step in the right direction by automating things like buying socks, shampoo and laundry detergent. You tell alice.com how often you’ll need a new stick of deodorant, or new dish soap, and it automatically comes to your door at the proper interval.

Mint, or your bank, can do the same for paying your bills. Do it automatically, and you don’t ever have to worry about it – plus, they’ll keep records of your transactions, so you don’t have to waste time balancing your checkbook. To do the same with food, and eliminate grocery shopping, there’s PeaPod.

But why not go even further? Why not give someone else the responsibility, either on a recurring basis or as one-off tasks, for managing all the other annoying things in your life? Is it worth $3 to pay someone to sit on hold and wait for Verizon to talk to you, just so they can tell you how to reset your phone? What about when you need flowers for your significant other – why not say, “I need a dozen roses delivered January 24″ and know that it’s done? Or, if you’re researching something basic-but-hard-to-find, why not tell someone else what to look for? “Who was Abraham Lincoln’s first grade teacher?” doesn’t require much from you other than the time to look, and someone else could certainly take on the task and do it just as well.

I’ve had this discussion with a few people, and most people’s initial reaction is the same as people who’ve tried it: it just feels weird. On the one hand, it’s awkward to tell someone how often I go through a 12-pack of toilet paper. On the other hand, it somehow feels less sincere when I’m not going out and buying the flowers. On the other other hand, paying to have someone sit on hold for you seems like a bizarre use of money.

But I think we’re just looking at it wrong. I think my time, and your time, is too valuable to be spent sitting on hold. More than that, our sanity is too valuable. There are people who want to help and businesses trying to help, and I think that, for a cost that makes sense, finding a way to not have to deal with the mind-numbing yet necessary minutiae can be hugely liberating.

Other than the excellent articles above, though, the idea of automating and outsourcing more than just computer support doesn’t seem to be catching on. What do you think?

10 Reasons I Chose Android Over an iPhone

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

A couple of days ago, I bought a new cell phone. For most people, buying a new cell phone is a major event, one that happens every couple of years. For me, sadly, it’s something that happens staggeringly often. There are a number of reasons why, and the mixture is something like this:

David’s New Phone Cocktail: 1 part tech envy at all times, 1 part “I drop my phone constantly”, 1 part “Testing new things to stay aware of what’s out there,” 6 more parts tech envy at all times.

Anyway, the phone I got this time is a Samsung Fascinate, the Galaxy S phone for Verizon Wireless. I switched from a BlackBerry Curve 8530, also on Verizon, which I liked a lot until I tried to put the phone into my pocket and instead flung it on the ground. From then on, I got about 3 hours of standby battery life—not the best. So I bit the bullet, paid a large sum of money, and switched to the Fascinate.

If you’ve been reading Digitizd for a while, you’ll know that I’ve already owned an Android phone—the Droid Eris. I liked it, then it sucked. But there were enough things I liked about Android, and it’s matured enough in the last year or so, that I switched back.

I spent a long time debating whether to buy the Fascinate, or to wait for the Verizon iPhone, which we all know is coming, and it’s probably coming soon. I wound up choosing Android, realizing I’d actually rather own an Android phone. Most of my reasons are minor, but they add up to an experience I like a whole lot better than the one brought by the iPhone. Here are, in no particular order, the ten things that made me choose Android over the iPhone.

[list type="numlist"]

  1. Notifications

    Android’s notifications, for when you get a new text, miss a call, get an email, and anything else, all sit at the top of the screen. Pull down the little window shade, and all your notifications are in one place. Tap one, and you’re taken to the screen where you can deal with it. It’s perfect, and far better than the iPhone’s “HEY LOOK YOU HAVE SOMETHING NEW” system of pop-ups.

  2. Google Maps Navigation

    Google Maps for Android can actually provide turn-by-turn, spoken directions. It’s as good as any standalone GPS I’ve tried, and is a perfect car companion for perennially lost people like yours truly.

  3. Google Apps

    Google has, for fairly obvious reasons (you know, like, competition), saved its best apps for its own operating system. The Gmail, Google Voice, Google Maps, Google Places, and Google Talk apps are all excellent, and if you’re as latched onto Google’s services as I am, that’s a big deal.

  4. Widgets

    Instead of the icon-only style of home screen on the iPhone, Android lets you add widgets. You can get news feeds, Facebook and Twitter updates, and all sorts of other things, right on the home screen—it’s all much faster than constantly switching between apps just to check for updates.

  5. Rejected iPhone Apps

    There are a couple of apps that are not in the Apple App Store that are available on Android, and a couple of them are big for me. Granted, they may well be unique to what I use, but an official Google Voice app, and a Grooveshark app (both of which are excellent on Android) are two huge omissions from the App Store. Those might both be remedied soon, but they were things I couldn’t live without.

  6. Endless Customization

    There’s theoretically nothing you can’t do on Android—you can root the phone and mess with the whole file system, or just easily install new themes and application launchers. I’m a mild customizer, but I like the idea that I can tweak and mess around to my heart’s content.

  7. The Browser

    Android’s browser, in addition to having Flash and getting sites that Mobile Safari doesn’t, is just better. Again, that might be a personal preference, but the browser is very minimal, very fast, and makes more sense to me than Mobile Safari.

  8. Shortcuts

    On my home screen, I have shortcuts to call the people I call most – my girlfriend, my roommate, my parents, and a couple of other people. It makes it take one second to call them, which I appreciate every single time. It’s possible to do the same thing on an iPhone, but it’s much smarter and better on Android—plus you can customize them to, say, text them with one tap, or send them an email.

  9. Car and Desk Modes

    I use my phone as both a phone, and as a media player—and I use it as the latter frequently when I’m in the car. Android has a built-in Car Mode that shows the few icons you might need in the car, makes them big and easy to see, and turns itself into a driver-friendly device. The same goes for Desk Mode—it turns the phone into a big clock, with easy access to some of the information you might quickly need. Android adapts itself to your surroundings really well, and I use both of those modes a lot more often than I thought I would.

  10. Voice Control

    Anytime you type on an Android phone, you could not type and just use your voice. Voice control anywhere is imperfect, but it’s good enough on Android to be worth using, and it’s often a faster and much more convenient way to do a search, or even fire off a quick text.

[/list]
Those are my two cents, why I landed on the side of the phone debate that I did. What do you guys think?

Using the Web to Give Back

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

My Dad, all 55 years of him, is running the New York City Marathon this weekend. It’s something he’s been getting ready for over the last four years, with plenty of false starts, injuries, family crises and all manner of other things getting in the way. But this time, nothing’s going to – he’s going to run 26.2 miles, and he’s going to finish. He probably won’t win, but he’ll come in, like, third. That’s pretty good, I guess.

The coolest thing he’s up to, though, is what he’s doing with the race. He’s taking the opportunity to raise money to help end some of the unbelievable atrocities happening in the Congo. His goal? 26.2 miles, $26,000.

Point #1 here is to help out my Dad, and the Congo! Learn more about what he’s up to, what he’s running for, and how you can get involved, over at GiveBack.

But the broader point is that GiveBack, a site launched this week by some friends of mine and that I’ve had a chance to do some work with, is an amazingly cool idea. Basically, GiveBack is a platform for charitable giving – think Facebook, but instead of liking Justin Bieber you like the Red Cross. You create your “Foundation,” and you populate it with the charities and causes that you really care about. You can donate money through GiveBack’s platform, directly to the charities you choose. You can keep up with what the charities are doing, share your profile with others so they can see what you’re passionate about, and even earn money back when you shop, which you can give to charity.

Continue reading

Get More Done With Email: Do Less

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

The one and only thing I always have open, constantly check, and feel attached to no matter where I am or what I’m doing, is email. Email’s my primary means of communication, it’s the easiest and quickest way to get in touch with me, and it’s about the only thing on the Web that seems to be utterly universal and thus possible to use with my parents and grandparents.

I also, incidentally, hate email. I want to light it on fire, and fling it off a building (I know, sometimes I get carried away. But I didn’t this time. Email’s the worst.). I hate how complex it can be, I hate how much stress my inbox continues to cause me, and I hate how inefficient the whole thing is.

I think, after much too long spent furious at email in general, I’ve discovered the reason for why email sucks, while text messaging or instant messaging, or even writing letters, effectively all the same types of communication, don’t. The problem is that we try to do way too much with email.

For most people, email is some combination of task list, mailbox, reminder service, filing cabinet, file-sharing tool, calendar, and all sorts of other things I can’t think of without starting to get overwhelmed and sweaty-handed. What started as a simple, quick method for instantly sending letters to someone else has morphed into a much more fully-featured, much more frustrating tool.

Continue reading

The Full NYT iPad App (or: On Paying for News)

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

The New York Times is how I get most of my news. Crazy, right? I also read a lot of news on the iPad, where the Times has been woefully underperforming – the Editors’ Choice app only has a few stories, and doesn’t update enough.

Well, today they’ve launched the actual, full version of their iPad app (the one they’ll eventually charge for, beginning probably next year). The app is excellent, with a ton of content presented in a way that is appropriately newspaper-y while still taking advantage of the iPad’s size, and its many technological advantages over a piece of paper. There’s access to the whole paper (including most of the Times blogs, and my favorite part, the “Week In Review” section), with all the content that used to be website-only now available in the app.

Continue reading

Better, Cheaper Text Messaging

Post by David Pierce. Find me on Twitter.

Full disclosure before we get started. I’m making two fundamental assumptions in writing this post: one, that most of the people you know have a smart phone (if that’s not the case, I apologize, but I’m convinced it is increasingly so), and two, that you like texting (if not, well, what’s wrong with you?). If those things don’t apply, feel free to skip this post.

If they do apply, you may have encountered the dilemma I’ve been having recently. I use a BlackBerry, and as such use BlackBerry Messenger all the time—BBM is essentially a chat application only for BlackBerries that is faster than texting, works great for groups, and most importantly uses data rather than charging you extra for texts, so it’s a big money-saver. It’s a great way to communicate, and has become the de facto medium for getting together among my friends, many of whom also have Blackberries.

But lots of my friends have Android phones, or iPhones. Are they just going to be exiled from my group of friends? Well, probably. But if you decide that those people shouldn’t be outcasts just for their choice of phone, there are ways to achieve a similar effect to BBM—no paying for texting, getting all your friends on a phone-friendly group chat system—and do it all across platforms. Again, a niche need, but one I’ve found more people have than I thought.

Continue reading