Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

How I Went Paperless–And Why You Should Too

While I have always been an advocate of technology, I never thought of eliminating paper from my school life. Everything was on paper: my notes, my assignments, my schedule, etc. But when I threw out my back last February, I realized that my 22-pound backpack had to go. As I recovered, I rethought my various organizational techniques and slimmed down my load by digitizing my whole life. Ultimately, my new system became a magnificent success–so much so that I have decided to share my experience with you. Read onwards for details about how and why I achieved a life without paper.

The Benefits:

  • Lighten and compress my load–I removed a small car tire’s weight (16 lbs) from my bag!
  • Store my files, notes, doodles, forms, etc. digitally so they can be accessed anywhere and anytime
  • Organize my personal information better and faster than any physical system
  • Collaborate and share my personal items with ease

My System:

Evernote:
Effectively my digital brain, Evernote is where I house all of my notes, files, scanned documents, etc. Its fast and intuitive organization system allows me to file everything away in its proper place. For example, I keep a notebook for every class and store each assignment, homework, class note, or hand-out in separate notes that are easily searchable. In addition, the plethora of platforms supported by the company allows me to access my notes from my phone, my computer, my tablet, and the Web. The magnitude of items I store in my account forces me to pay for their premium plan ($44 dollars per year), but its utility more than makes up for the cost.

iPad:
In almost all cases, the iPad has replaced the need for paper in my everyday life. Its smaller form factor makes it more portable than my 4.46 lb laptop, and the combination of amazing software and ingenius hardware addons have made it indispensable. For one, I use it for taking notes on Evernote with my keyboard addon, and and handwriting notes and assignments with my stylus. Of course, it will not replace my computer for power-intensive tasks, but for taking notes and doing homework it suffices.

Stylus:
Abandoning paper and its functions would have been impossible, but luckily I have assembled a capable system of emulating it. One of the most crucial aspects of this model is definitely my stylus. My two favorites are compared and contrasted below:

  1. Adonit Jot:
    My stylus of choice, the Adonit Jot brings a unique pen tip and form factor to the stylus world. The Jot’s fine point and clear disk are perfect for handwriting and diamgramming–allowing me to write much more accurately than its rubber-tipped cousins. However for the artistically minded, this stylus falls short due to its inability to produce a variety of angles. Unfortunately, writing with the Jot takes getting used to; for example, I have to press a bit harder on the iPad screen for the tip to register, and the tapping noise that the stylus makes can get on my nerves. I also found that over time it lost responsiveness unless I kept my iPad screen spotless.
  2. Wacom Bamboo:
    The Wacom Bamboo wins best-in-show from the classic rubber-tipped styli. The stylus’ small tip makes it quite accurate, but I found the tip-visibility issue leaves something to be desired. The Bamboo’s tip makes it ideal for artists, as pen and brush strokes can be emulated in a much more natural way. For people who do more drawing, I would recommend the Bamboo, but otherwise, go for the Jot.

Digital Paper Software:
While the hardware involved in echoing the paper experience is important, software also deserves a mention. In regards to software on the iPad, there are two applications I would recommend:

  1. Noteshelf:
    Noteshelf offers a sleek interface and loads of features in order to jot down anything. The app allows you to create different notebooks to house your scribbles, and contains the ability to zoom on each page–a feature that makes your writing much more precise. Its export features are also quite robust: Email, Evernote, and Dropbox are only a few of the options offered. The only thing that is lacking from Noteshelf is the ability to import PDFs to anotate–something I sorely miss but am willing to live without. Overall, Noteshelf has become my note-taking app of choice because of its looks, features, and easy exports.
  2. Notability:
    An alternative to Noteshelf, Notability sacrifices beauty for increased utility, such as the ability to import PDFs and automatic sync to Dropbox. While I appreciate the increased feature set, I am not inclined to give up Noteshelf’s ease of use and export directly to Evernote.

Keyboard/Laptop:
In order to avoid carrying around my 4.46 lb laptop around, I decided to purchase a keyboard addon for my iPad–somewhat of an oxymoron mind you. Despite my original misgivings, the keyboard has proven to be extremely utilitarian when lightweight tasks need to be done, or when I am traveling. Read about my top choices below:

  1. Adonit Writer:
    For the past eight months I have been using the Adonit Writer for iPad, and, having tested other iPad keyboard cases by big-name manufacturers, I can say that the Writer tops them all. The case allows for a wide range of viewing angles for your iPad, and the keyboard stays locked in place with a powerful magnet. The case features a full QWERTY keyboard including iPad-exclusive function keys such as Home, Copy, Paste, and more. Additionally, the case covers the whole iPad, front and back, when closed, meaning that the tablet is fully protected from dents, scratches, and gunk. Of course, the keyboard needs to be charged once a month with a micro-USB port. Its only drawbacks come from cheap build quality, a slightly cramped keyboard layout, and the annoying instance where my fingers catch the edges of the key wells.
  2. The Brydge:
    The other major candidate for an iPad keyboard attachment is the Brydge, a Kickstarter project that has begun shipping its amazing keyboard. Unlike many cases on the market, the Brydge tries to emulate the MacBook Air experience with a clamshell case actually made of aerospace-grade aluminum. In addition, its patent-pending clamp/hinge keeps a firm grip on the iPad, allowing the keyboard/tablet combination to stay connected even when shaken vigorously (see Brydge video). Otherwise, it works the same way as the Writer, with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard crammed into an iPad form factor and charging available through micro-USB once per month or so. So far, I actually prefer it over the Writer because of its ease of setup, better and sturdier build quality, and more ergonomic keyboard.
  3. Other Options:
    Other options, such as the Logitech Ultra Thin Keyboard Cover present themselves, but their awkwardness and lack of utilitarian features such as sleep-wake magnets and intelligent on-and-off to conserve battery make them less than ideal. If you already own a Macbook Air, there is less need for an iPad keyboard, but many (including MG Siegler) have decided to replace their computer completely. Regardless, the ability to type is still extremely important even in an age where traditional PCs are on the decline.

Scanner:
Unfortunately, as hard as I may try, I always end up with real paper documents in my possession. Luckily, there are many scanners on the market that easily help me digitize the papers I receive so I can send them to Evernote and throw them in with my digital notes. My favorite happens to be the Doxie:

  • Doxie:
    The Doxie family of scanners by Apparent are by far the cheapest, simplest, and most portable scanners on the market. Designed for small size, these scanners are svelte enough to fit in a backpack (not that I need to), and using them is as simple as turning it on and threading pages through. Once I am done scanning a day’s worth of assignments and handouts, I can plug the scanner into my computer and import my scans using Apparent’s excellent free proprietary software. With features such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), PDF stapling, image adjustments, and export ability to programs and file formats such as Evernote, Photoshop, PDF, and more, The Doxie software is more than adequate to fit my needs. From scan to import, Doxie scanners deliver the best experience anyone can get for a relatively cheap price, and I highly recommend that you choose it as your scanner of choice.

The Big Picture:

Although unconventional, going paperless has been one of my better decisions. All of a sudden I can carry less, worry less, and travel light. Everything I need is in one place, and I only have a few items to keep track of, rather than many notebooks and folders. My information is also more accessible, and I can get at it at home, on the go, and anywhere else there is Internet. While it may seem like a significantly difficult change, the benefits more than outweigh the drawbacks. Really, take the plunge, and you will never regret it.

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Byword: Text-Editor for the Masses

For centuries, writing involved the use of paper and ink–pretty simple tools. Then came personal computers, and shortly afterwards, the advent of the text editor. In the four decades since, consumers have become enthralled by Microsoft Word-type bloatware–software bursting with features we may only use once every few months. Happily, over the past two years, a new breed of writing program has emerged. This generation is a minimalist one, meant to stay out of our way and allow easy connection to the text in front of us. These applications offer unobtrusive interfaces, markdown support, companion iOS apps, and automated synchronization with iCloud and/or Dropbox. There are numerous products in this class such as Clean Writer, WriteRoom, Marked, and iA Writer, but my personal favorite is Byword. While all these apps provide largely similar functionality, Byword includes a few features that give it an edge over its competitors, such as font variety, markdown preview, and the most elegant interface. The real allure of Byword is its magical user experience.

Byword opens as a blank canvas–no buttons, no menus, and no rulers–just white. While typing is the same in any program, Byword allows me to focus on the words with its intuitive, text-centric interface. Although Markdown and MultiMarkdown take some time to learn, mastery of the text-based formatting systems for Byword allows me to transcend GUIs and keep my fingers glued to the keyboard, increasing my efficiency dramatically. With its clean interface and keyboard use, Byword is the text-editor equivalent of command line. You really have to experience it in order to understand how unencumbered it feels. By integrating with Autosave and Versions in OSX Lion, Byword also eliminates all of the hassle of saving work and lost drafts. Byword also provides a “Focus” feature, which dims any text outside of either the current paragraph or line you are working on, reducing distraction. There are many other advantages, such as spelling and grammar checks that are disabled by default. In addition to the writing experience, Byword also allows seamless integration with its mobile apps through iCloud or Dropbox. Although my use of this feature is minimal, it does come in handy when I am on the go. For saving work, Byword contains powerful options to export in plain text, rich text, markdown, HTML, Word, LaTeX, and PDF formats.

While Byword will not replace Microsoft Word and its ilk for heavily formatted documents, Byword shines as a text editor that will sharpen your focus, release inhibition, improve productivity, and make writing almost effortless.

Note: this post was written solely in Byword 

News Aggregator Compare-And-Contrast Review

Note: This article was originally published in the Gryphon Perspective. You can find the link to it in my About page.

Lately I have been extremely obsessive about finding the best news aggregator, as I really enjoy keeping up to date in the most beautiful way possible. I will be comparing and contrasting various news aggregators. All of them will be available on the iOS platform, although some are also available for Android. For those of you who want me to include Pulse on this list, I must protest. I can’t stand Pulse, with a crappy user interface, and there are much better options anyway. Here we go!

Google Currents

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Google has recently released its news aggregator entitled Google Currents. It is supposed to be a collection of magazine-like issues that you can read online or offline. News is organized by source, with each source being its own magazine. Google offers news groups the ability to customize their magazine’s interface, but many of them have not signed on yet. Luckily, Currents supports RSS feeds, so you can still get many of your favorite news feeds through Currents. One perk of Currents is that your whole collection and organization of sources is automatically synced across your devices through your Google account. While I enjoy Google Currents’ handy offline reading, I don’t like that news is organized by source. I prefer to organize my news by custom topics and sections, which Google Currents does not support. Google also doesn’t support sharing to Facebook or Twitter, which is a pretty important feature. The absence of this feature is understood, as Google operates their own social network, which articles are shareable to. As a result of these pitfalls, I would prefer not to use Google Currents, but there are a few things they could do to improve their aggregator. One such improvement would be integrating Google Reader’s folders, so you could organize your sources how you liked. Google Currents has a lot of potential, and I give Google credit for a great first try.

Get Currents here

Feedly

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Feedly is a news aggregator based off of Google Reader. This allows you to sync automatically across many devices, as all the data is stored in Google Reader. It supports RSS, as well as multiple folders, which means you can organize your sources however you would like. In addition, it has a web application unlike all of the other services in this review. It also has a nice reader function that condenses text into a magazine style format on its mobile applications. Unfortunately I don’t enjoy much else about it. The interface is pretty horrible, as it is not very elegant and plain. There aren’t many touch gestures, something that makes using the reader much less natural and smooth to use. Like Google Currents, Feedly doesn’t support social feeds, such as Facebook and Twitter, which would be very useful to have. One of my largest complaints is that it is hard to navigate the various layers of the aggregator. From the sources menu, you have to tap the article, open the web view, and tap the reader button once the webpage loads just to reformat the text. To close the article, you have to close each one of those layers again. While Feedly is great in concept, and has a web application, I still can’t stand using it because of its clunky interface.

Get Feedly here

Flipboard

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Flipboard is an application for iOS devices that acts as a personalized magazine, similar to Google Currents. As with Currents, Flipboard has a collection of sources that you can choose from. It is one of the few aggregators that also supports Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, and 500px almost as well as their respective clients, with the ability to access, different folders, lists, groups and such. Flipboard also has magnificent design and great touch gestures built in, so it is extremely easy to navigate your magazine without too much hassle. In addition, Flipboard allows you to create your own account, which syncs your sources and preferences across devices. As with Feedly, it takes a lot of taps to get to the web view of an article, open in Safari, and get back to the home page, but its elegant design and interface makes this manageable. In my opinion, Flipboard is the best of the aggregators, but some features could be implemented in order to make it even better.

Get Flipboard here

Flud

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Flud is a recently released news reader with a more social flavor. You can set up a profile, where information is displayed about what sources and articles you read. One of the main features of Flud is the ability to Flud articles, the equivalent of liking them. you can also “follow” other users, which means all the articles they Flud will show up in your activity feed. Flud has the best article reading interface of them all, with everything easily accessible with one or two taps. All of the other aggregators mentioned in this article have something to learn about Flud’s reading interface. Sadly, the way they organize sources can be very constraining. As someone who enjoys curating their own content and creating custom organization of feeds, I feel very constrained by Flud, which automatically organizes content sources into very generic categories such as Technology, Business, Politics, World News, Design, etc. One of the best things Flud could do is allow users to create their own custom sections, instead of being limited to a few different ones.

Get Flud here

Zite

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Zite is a very unique reader, in that you do not specify specific sources you would like to see. Instead, Zite uses an algorithm that automatically populates your screen with articles related to content you would like to see. When you read an article, you can either rate it up or down. In addition, you can ask to see more from the article’s source, or more articles with similar topics to the article you are reading. Zite is very quick to learn your preferences if you give it the information above. It also has great interface, with a reader similar to Feedly’s, which formats text on webpages in a magazine-like format. Despite these great features, there are two key pitfalls that make Zite unusable for me. First, although there are Zite accounts, they do not sync your preferences across devices. This an especially critical feature, as a user does not want to have to redo all of their hard work liking articles in order to get their personalized content. The second major pitfall is how articles are organized. As with Flud, Zite organizes articles into extremely generic groups, which are not specific enough for my tastes. Zite already incorporates specific topics and tags in its article rating system, so why not ask the user to name their own sections, and as for keywords for specific topics they would like to see. As a result of the two problems above, I can’t say I would use Zite. If they fixed those two problems, then I might use it.

Get Zite here

Comparison Table

News Reader Compatible Platforms Custom Source Organization Types of Sources Interface Design Cross Platform Syncing
Currents iOS, Android 1/5 Currents, RSS 3/5 3/5
Feedly iOS, Android, Web 3/5 RSS 2/5 1/5
Flipboard iOS 4/5 Flipboard, Google Reader (RSS), Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, 500px, 4/5 5/5
Flud iOS 2/5 Flud, RSS, Twitter, Facebook 4/5 4/5
Zite iOS 1/5 Zite 4/5 4/5

Conclusion

Overall, I would say that Flipboard is the best aggregator to use for now, but it does have some flaws. Flud comes in a close second, with its organizational issues being its downfall. All of these services have their own unique features, so it is up to you to decide. There are a few things I would like all of these applications to have, such as a stock ticker widget and Youtube feeds. In the mean time, we will have to wait and see how these competing apps up their antes. Thanks for reading!

Spool, Consuming Cool Stuff When You Want To

Note: This article was originally published on the Gryphon Perspective website. Visit my About page to go to their website.

So what is Spool?

Spool is a free web service that allows you to save web content such as webpages, articles, photos, and videos offline to read later on your mobile device. In addition, the service intelligently clips only the relevant content on the webpage –essentially, the usual clutter of webpages, like ads and menus, won’t appear in your clippings. The activity behind the “spooling” process is conducted by Spoolbots, codes that read the webpages you want to save and format them into a more readable, user-friendly form. Once the Spoolbot is done “trawling”, it will send the clipped article to your online account, as well as to the Spool app on your mobile devices. Content on the mobile app can be read without any Internet connection – you can also access your saved articles online by logging into your account on the Spool website. “Spooling” an article is a one click process – once you have accessed the content you want to spool, just click the “spool” button made by the service’s browser extension. Spool’s servers will do the rest. Below is a diagram accurately displaying the process:

Source: Spool

The Spool team has set ambitious goals for its future – eventually, the team hopes that the service will be intelligent enough to know what you want to clip before you know you want to clip it. Spool would clip the content in the background, and when you wanted to see it, you would go to your phone and it would appear in your queue. This would eliminate the loading time common to slow Internet connections, and would allow you to browse your favorite websites without Internet connection. Although I can’t imagine how Spool can achieve this goal, it would nevertheless be a remarkable change in the way humans access information.

Why is Spool useful – what can I use it for?

There are many uses for Spool. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Saving articles to read on the train or on a flight
  • Filing away research for work or school
  • Making articles easier and less distracting to read (by removing advertisements)
  • Converting videos to a format compatible with iPhones and iPads

What is your opinion on Spool?

I believe that Spool is off to a great start – it has the potential to be a useful, everyday service. As a student, I use Spool mostly for research, but I also read many articles – and reading them on the go is a major plus. However, there are three major suggestions that would make Spool an even better service.

1. Add folder functionality to Spool. I like to keep everything as organized as possible – I love using Spool, but my queue has become unmanageable. Having folders would enable me to be more organized and keep my content in places where I can find them easily. Other similar services such as Instapaper, Evernote, and Read it Later have organizational functionality, and Spool could add this feature as one more thing that it does better than those other services.

2. Add a “reader” to the browser extension. Another feature that would make the service even better to use would be an in-browser reader. Essentially, the Spoolbot would run, but it wouldn’t automatically save content to the queue. Instead it would simply display the content on the browser in its “spooled” form. This would make consuming content much more simple, and it would cut distractions that normally plague web browsing.

3. Incorporate bookmarks into the service. Spool is aiming to revolutionize the conventional web browsing experience, and incorporating bookmarks would move the service one step further towards its goal. The first benefit would be that bookmarks would allow the service to acquire information about users’ browsing preferences, meaning that they would have enough information to automatically clip selections that the user would most likely be interested in – this could be done by having the browser extension extract the bookmarks stored on the browser. The second benefit would be making the Spool mobile app more like a fully-fledged browser.

Overall, I would rate Spool an eight out of ten. Although it does have its flaws, Spool is off to a great start – if the suggestions above were incorporated, the service would be an even better user experience. They have a great concept, great functionality, and a simple process. The best part of it is that it is completely free of charge. I would definitely recommend signing up for the service, which is currently in private beta. Kudos to Spool for making such a great product!

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