I don’t consider myself a gadget freak any more. I stil get excited when a new version of a product I love is coming out, and I have been known to stand in lines on the first day something is available, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realized the only thing that excites me about technology these days are things that save me lots of frustration and time, and improve my life in some measurable way.
With that in mind, here are the most memorable bits of technology I enjoyed using in 2012 (they may have been released years earlier but they became good tools for me this year).
I’ve been into cycling for the last ten years or so and I’m an occasional runner, but I’ve always been fascinated with pedometers and the whole world of the quantified self. The problem is that actually quantifying yourself can be a time-consuming, tedious process. I found I would get really into tracking my own statistics for a few weeks but then grow tired of the time it took to maintain the data. I’ve tried other pedometers like the fitbit, but the Nike Fuelband is the first one I loved and still use every single day 9 months after buying one.
The Nike Fuelband’s greatest feature is that it allows for casual monitoring of your physical fitness. After the initial rush of trying to attain my daily exercise goals with the device (it has fun visualizations) I’m now at the point where I only have to charge/sync it once every two weeks and I simply take a glance at all the data it has collected in that time. It doubles as a wrist watch; I never forget to put it on each morning because it’s next to my bed and I treat it like a watch, and it just quietly does its thing for me without me worrying about it.
You have probably already read more than one review saying this is what the iPad should have always been, and I’m here to say they are 100% right. Cutting less than 2 inches of screen space at half the weight makes this device nearly perfect and completely different than the larger iPads. It’s easier to hold, to handle, and to set on your stomach and watch a movie. I played with a Nexus 7 for a week when those were released and the only thing I liked about that device was the landscape aspect ratio and the light weight. The iPad Mini is my default “around the house” computer now and the only thing that would make it perfect would be if they released a retina display version with LTE (at the same size/weight). Once that happens, they might as well stop selling the bigger iPads.
Most every cyclist and many runners I know already know about Strava, but in case you haven’t used it, Strava is a great web app for tracking your runs and rides that are recorded with GPS-capable watches, bike computers, and their own iPhone app. Any segment you ride or run that has been ridden/run by others will show your rank, creating a sort of virtual race results for your own neighborhood runs. People get pretty competitive about these segments (the fastest gets a crown) but the thing I find killer for me is each night I get an email showing all the rides and runs my friends did. This reminds me of the subtle social pressure I had back when I ran marathons, when I would only show up at 6am runs because I knew four friends would be waiting for me and I didn’t want to let them down. Strava is the only thing I’ve found that replicates that social pressure to keep exercising because you know your friends are also out there suffering each day (plus you get to race them on your own time schedules).
Much like the improved iPad Mini convinced me it was better than all previous iPads, the Paperwhite beats every other Kindle product I’ve used. It’s small, ultra light, and the backlit screen looks great. Aside from the patchy white at the bottom of my screen this is a perfect ebook reader and I’ve already enjoyed several books on it during the short time I’ve had it.
This app isn’t brand new and it’s a little pricey at $59, but PDFpen became a killer app for me this year as it meant I could forever get rid of my eFax number. I also saved a ton on printing and scanning as well as prevented having to snail mail things with my signature on them. It’s a PDF app that lets you fill in forms and most importantly, sign documents either using your mouse or by pasting a scanned signature. This year I got to sign dozens of agreements, contracts, and documents all in a matter of seconds and everyone I interacted with was happy to get nice clean PDFs via email moments after requesting them. If you have any sorts of business dealings with banks, lawyers, or governments, you’ll likely find a ton of uses for PDFpen like I did.
I won’t call it a comeback, because I never left, but it was great to see Flickr return to greatness recently as their iPhone app launched and the sad tab on my browser marked “photos from your friends” suddenly lit up again. I hope this is just the start of good things to come from them.
My favorite apps this year include all of the following.
Piano Dust Buster (iPad)
I started learning how to play the piano this year after we bought a cheap used console piano and my daughter and I started weekly lessons. After a few weeks, I began to learn to read music and I eventually got bored of the songs in my beginner’s playbook. I downloaded half a dozen piano apps and this is the one I keep coming back to.
Piano Dust Buster has a goofy name and a slightly silly premise — you’re an old woman trying to sweep away dust bunnies — but underneath, the technology is something else. There’s an advanced mode that shows you a musical staff and you put this above a real piano. You practice songs and the app won’t let you move through the music until you hit the right note (your piano has to be fairly in tune for this to work), then you play at full speed once you’ve practiced. It’s great for beginners and doesn’t even get into chords, but does a great job of turning your old piano into something close to Guitar Hero, at the same time teaching you familiar songs (I also found this piano notes app useful when I was first learning).
Ticket To Ride (iPad)
After reading a round-up of popular board games, I bought “Ticket To Ride” to play with my family but heard there was an iPad version as well. The iPad game is fantastic and allows for full games to be played in about ten minutes (the board game was taking us 30-60min to play a full game). It’s a simple concept with easy enough strategy and should be playable by anyone over the age of 6 or so.
A fun casual game played online against friends, it’s Boggle meets Risk. Free for download, with a quick in-app purchase to extend it beyond one simultaneous game.
OLO is the best 2-player “tabletop” style game I’ve found (you set your phone down, each person plays one side of the game). Whenever I’m at a restaurant doing something like waiting for a pizza with my daughter, we often play a couple games of this. It’s a basic shuffleboard type game with air hockey type mechanics and simple rules. Fun to play and features a beautifully clean UI.
I love the xbox game Trials HD, and Bike Baron is sort of an iOS version of that kind of game. You feather the throttle, carefully tip your bike forward and back in order to get through puzzle levels and complete all the goals. Plays best on an iPad due to the increased detail/size.
Extreme Road Trip 2
Extreme Road Trip 2 is a fun little time wasting side-scroller car racing app for the iPad (controls are a bit small on my iPhone) where you flip your vehicle, collect coins, and try to achieve the goals set out in the game.
If you have a significant digital presence, Timehop is fun for reminding you of previous tweets, photos, and check-ins years after you’ve made them. I try not to get mired in nostalgia (ahem) but I’ve always loved the “time capsule” emails that Photojojo sends, showing me my old Flickr photos. This app does that every single day and I check it about once a week and marvel at how much my daughter has grown over the years. If you have years of photos at Flickr and have been tweeting since the service first launched, this is a great app. It also features the cutest pull-to-refresh graphics ever made.