October 31, 2010

Window Shopping

I played around a bit today with Amazon's new Windowshop app, and I must say I'm a bit disappointed. While the idea is pretty cool, there is no way to correct any of the recommendations within the app itself. I had to spend a half hour on their website marking things that I'd already purchased, or were gifts, or were items that I simply didn't want influencing the results.

The fact that I couldn't do this within the app seems like a pretty big oversight and makes the app itself mostly useless for browsing. If everything shown needs fixing, of what use is it?

Posted by pinkerton at 11:08 AM | TrackBack

October 28, 2010

A few reasons for a laptop

I was thinking today about all the reasons why I actually need a real laptop, given how I almost exclusively rely on my iPad for day to day activities. I wanted to enumerate everything I still needed it for and see just how long that list really was. Clearly this excludes responsibilities from my day job; I don't expect the iPad to be a developer machine.

Music composition and editing with Logic Pro. While there are a few solutions for getting audio into the iPad, it's not the best solution for editing and re-mixing. My portable recorder (Boss br-600), which my band uses to record our rehearsal sessions, has no software for the iPad. It also pales in comparison to Logic's collection of samples and plug-ins for composing a new song from scratch.

Japanese book exercises. While I have scanned my Japanese book and workbook so I have it available at all times in GoodReader, I can't easily go back and forth between the book and my answers to the written exercises since all apps are fullscreen and I need a separate app in which to write the answers. It's fine for the workbook, as i can write directly on the pages with Note Taker HD, but the actual book exercises leave me little choice. That said, the array of learning tools for Japanese on the iPad is quite impressive. It's a nice compliment to the book.

Audio importing and managing my music/video library. Sorry, I still buy cd's. I need a cd drive to rip them. The same is true of movies. For playback, however, the iPad rocks, and being able to take my media on the road for a really long trip (without the laptop) is heaven.

Photo management. The iPad is good for viewing photos, but geo-tagging, organizing, and editing is non-existent on the iPad.

Teaching and presenting. The iPad has Keynote, but it lacks support for presenter notes. Entirely. In fact, it will delete them if you give it a file with any. As a result, I still need to lug my laptop around for presentations. Suck. I would love to leave it at home.

Scanning and printing. iOS4 on the iPad may alleviate printing somewhat, but probably not given that I don't have one of those new printers with the right built-in support. It also doesn't solve the scanning issue.

PDF creation. From time to time, especially with my Japanese studies, I need to create PDFs. Preview is an excellent app for taking pages from a variety of sources and combining them into a single PDF. There's really nothing equivalent for the iPad.

That may seem like a lot, but in all honesty, it's only about 5% of what I do with a computer at home. For everything else, such as composing this blog on the couch, the iPad is usually the better choice. It's my go-to device, and after 6 months, I still love it.

I saw Amanda's 11.3" brand new MacBook Air today. Wow. I think Jo's next laptop will be one of those. She needs Flash a bit more than I do. Something to do with all that online shopping. Though I guess there are other ways to solve that "problem". :-)

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October 24, 2010

Task manager saga, part 3

It's been almost exactly 9 months since my original treatise (with updates) on how difficult it was for me to find day-planning software that fit into my day to day, and technological, life. I wanted to give another update to illustrate where these months have taken me and the products I've tried. I'm tapping this out on my iPad using PlainText because I'm still to cheap to purchase iA's Writer, even though I covet it dearly. (Well, actually now I'm back on my laptop because of PlainText's excellent DropBox integration, but I digress. Again).

When we left off, I was just starting to use a website called GetItDone (http://getitdoneapp.com, and associated iPhone app) because it provided a slick, DHTML, tag-based user interface that was very similar to Things, but on the web. I needed to be able to "live in the cloud" given the sheer number of devices, locations, and computers I switch between on a daily basis. I used GetItDone for a few months and was generally happy, but I began to grow dissatisfied. I filed a few bugs in the iPhone app, which the developer said he would fix, and then never did. I asked several times about adding functionality to the website, and again was promised features and updated that never materialized. The site was also fairly slow to load and interact with at times. Projects were mostly useless and the developer never fixed them, despite promising to.

Right about that time, my iPad arrived and I immediately wanted a solution that took advantage of that magical tablet. Things, of course, launched with an iPad app on day one, which again made me long for it as a viable solution. It was beautiful, as expected. The sync between devices, however, remained manual and I knew that just plain wouldn't work. I was on another hunt. I was hungry, but I didn't know what for, and spent countless hours hunting through the iPad app store looking for a native solution with cloud access.

I was finally rewarded with ToDo by Appigo, a beautifully done planner with the ability to sync to Toodledo (which I previously abandoned because the web UI, while powerful, was ass on a stick). ToDo on iPad was enough to make me dump GetItDone entirely, cancel my subscription, and jump back on the Toodledo bandwagon. I even paid for the "plus" subscription (which is an inexpensive $15/yr). On the road, I could use the binder-centric user interface of ToDo, while being able to keep Toodledo open in my browser while working at my desk. I worked this way for another few months, but again my wander-lust kicked in.

What was wrong this time? While ToDo was nice, I still was using Toodledo as the main interface given that I live in a web browser all day. Its UI needs an overhaul something fierce. It's clunky, and some things didn't sync correctly (eg, ordering of items in lists wouldn't sync between ToDo and Toodledo, rendering the feature useless). Toodledo is a swiss army knife of information slicing and dicing, but at times it's overwhelming and takes a lot of effort to see the information the way you want it. While it's very customizable, in some areas it's not customizable enough and that's frustrating. The final straw was the most recent update to ToDo fixed a couple of bugs, but really just added more themes, including the ability to buy more using in-app purchase. Really?

And so I returned to perusing the app store, longing for OTA sync in Things (which is still promised, mind you). I decided it was time, after all my kvetching, to re-examine OmniFocus. OmniGroup had recently released its new iPad app (at a whopping $40!) and had almost a unanimous 5-star rating. Was it simply a case of a self-selecting user population, already inclined to like the product and composed of users who were willing to commit to the $40 entrance fee? I scoured the reviews for a couple of weeks and ultimately I decided that OmniGroup made something their users really liked.

If you recall, another big issue I had with OmniFocus was that the forums were full of GTD bigots who refused to admit that anyone would want to use OF in a way other than the pure GTD way. When I revisited the forums this Summer, however, that dogma was missing. In its place were many helpful users who understood there were people out there who wanted tags, who were accustomed to Things, and tried to provide help and guidance. In addition, the folks at OmniGroup were regular participants in the forums. Unlike the Things forums, where requests from users prompted canned responses about not being able to discuss future plans (probably because they have none), the OmniGroup support team made the users feel like their input helped shape the end product and that feedback made it straight into developers' hands. Treat your users like your most valuable resource and they will become your most valuable resource. Color me impressed.

I tried out OmniFocus for a few weeks (you get a two week trial on the desktop, but all products come with a 30-day refund, even the iOS apps) and quickly overcame the confusion which plagued my last attempt 9 months prior. Yes, there are tons of options, but oddly this time they didn't overwhelm. Before, I was struggling to fit my notion of tags into the GTD notion of "contexts", of which there can be only one for a task. In my use of ToDo and Toodledo, tags became much less important because filtering based on tags was actually quite cumbersome (unlike Things where it's easy and natural). I used them to tag items for work (to make writing weekly status reports easier), but beyond that, I didn't seem to use the additional tags. This actually made transitioning to contexts much easier.

While the full suite is expensive ($80 for desktop, $40 for iPad, $20 for iPhone), it's actually worth it. The tech support is incredible. They welcome every comment, every request, every bug report, and respond within 48 hours. I've sent a good number of bug reports and even asked stupid user questions about how to do things. Let's say I'm getting my money's worth. They are also frequently releasing updates and improving the rough edges. I have full confidence they are hard at work on the next release. Have I mentioned Things still hasn't provided any details about their OTA sync functionality?

So here we are, and I'm actually satisfied with OmniFocus. It makes great use of my iPad, its native MacOS X interface is far from clunky, and it does OTA sync with all my computers. Combined with my ability to now effectively take notes on my iPad, my transition from my day planner is now complete. I still miss the more holistic FranklinCovey system with roles and goals, but we can't have everything, can we?

Posted by pinkerton at 12:20 PM | TrackBack

October 23, 2010

Notes, take two

After my last post all about Note Taker HD, I stumbled across a newly updated app called NotesPlus. It is another app for taking notes on the iPad, but the main difference is that the user interface of NotesPlus is wonderful and natural. It also supports typed text, recognizing shapes, and group selections. Oh, and audio recording. It, too, supports a large text area that allows you to fit more on a page while writing comfortably.

What it doesn't have is the ability to import a PDF background for arbitrary annotation, which as I said before is very valuable to my studying. I emailed the author, hopefully that's in his list of things to implement. He's mentioned on his blog that he wants to release every few weeks, which is great for users!

There is a YouTube video of it in action, check out http://notesplusapp.com. Right now, it's on sale at the app store for $0.99. It's a total bargain and well worth it to support this author.

Another successful blog with PlainText, which I'm enjoying. Mostly because it's free. I'm all about the free.

Posted by pinkerton at 1:01 PM | TrackBack

October 17, 2010

Note Taker HD

I wanted to try an experiment to see how well I could write a blog entry on my iPad. I've been looking for ways to blog more, since I rarely have my laptop, but using the built-in notepad just doesn't seem right. I've been looking over all the writing apps for iPad (well, salivating is more likely, or obsessing) and haven't been able to pull the trigger on anything really. For now, I'm playing with the free app PlainText. Why? Um, because it's free. If I can write a full post with this easily, maybe I'll blow some $$ on a real text editing app.

What did I want to blog about? I know I need to post an update to my planning software saga. Sam reminded me of that a while ago, and that will probably be my next post if this experiment goes well (spoiler alert, I've switched to OmniFocus). What I wanted to mention first, though, is that I seem to have found a really great solution for my OCD about writing (and making a mess) on clean sheets of paper.

To recap, I hate soiling clean paper with notes, scribbles, or basically anything it's supposed to be used for. Just writing on a clean sheet of paper (or postits, or a notebook) fills me with dread about making mistakes and having to make corrections. The solution is to find something on which I can infinitely erase. I've found that something on my iPad. It's an app called Note Taker HD.

There are a couple of really great features for this app, but the main one is that I can write in my own handwriting AND get more than 5 or 6 lines on a page (unlike something like Penultimate). How does it accomplish this feat? There's this ingenious mode (called Edit2) where you write in a separate box in a slightly larger size that's quite comfortable for a tablet and it scales it down to "normal" size automatically. It also auto-advances so you can write like normal and it "just works". You can also write in "real" size, directly on the screen, but I rarely do that.

Why is this so great for me? I can erase to my heart's content and the pages never get messed up. It's such a simple thing. I know, I'm crazy.

Another great feature of Note Taker HD is that you can import PDFs and use them as page backgrounds to write on instead of the built-in lined or graph paper backgrounds. I do this for my Japanese workbook pages, which I've scanned. I can write directly on the page and if I mess up horribly (as I tend to do writing Kanji), I can just erase it and do it again. It also allows me to keep the original workbook clean so I can redo assignments later without the answers being there forever. The background and my annotations can then be exported as a new PDF and saved off for my records.

Having multiple virtual workbooks also soothes my OCD of interleaving unrelated work notes within the same paper notebook. Pretty much any note taking app can do this, but this functionality alone is liberating.

For this to be so effective, it needs to be in my own handwriting. Yet this is an iPad. How does that work? Actually quite well. I purchased a "pen" by BoxWave which had a special capacitive nub at the end. I can write on the pad as if it's a sheet of paper and the magic happens. The BoxWave stylus is really nice. The tip of the Pogo stylus isn't quite as solid. I love the feel of the BoxWave. Yes, it's a bit annoying if I don't have my special pen near me and I need to write something down, but I can still use my finger in a pinch. Believe it or not, that ends up looking more than my real handwriting than I ever would have imagined.

If you are look for a note taking app for iPad, look no further than Note Taker HD. Its user interface isn't perfect (it's clearly designed by an engineer, the guy who wrote VisiCalc -- I'm not making this up) but the Edit2 mode is nothing short of revolutionary for writing. Finally, it appears my experiment us successful: I've "penned" a blog post without wanting to shoot myself. PlainText is a winner, even if free, and with DropBox integration, who needs much more?

Posted by pinkerton at 11:38 AM | TrackBack