I haven't blogged about tech in a while: maybe that's overdue for a correction. As you probably know I used to be a tech/IT freelance journalist, and the occasional residual spasm prompts me to go back to it. This blog isn't Ars Technica but on the other hand there's no editor yelling at me to file copy regularly or stick to a fixed format or optimize for clickbait, so here's my logorrhoeic take on fourteen gizmos I played with in 2015 and what I made of them—Without continual click-throughs, ads, or slow-to-load images because I'm a textual kind of guy. Ahem: continued below the cut.
(Note that I could write an even longer clickbait list of software and cloud services. But in this one, I'm sticking to hardware, because it's a little easier to figure out what makes the cut.)
1. Livescribe+ Smart Pen
I hate writing by hand (I'm a lefty and do the crooked hold-pen-from-above-and-drag thing) and my previous experience of smartpens wasn't, shall we say, promising, but much to my surprise this one works for me so much that I've actually got a use for it.
If you haven't met Livescribe pens before, they're basically a pen. Writes on paper, that sort of thing. However, if you use it with Livescribe's own special paper, which carries a special dot pattern, the tiny camera under the ballpoint tip tracks where the pen is writing or drawing. (Yes, they want to sell you pads and notebooks. But you can also print your own Livescribe paper from free PDFs.) Paired via bluetooth to a suitable host computer (really, an iOS or Android device) it uploads your scribbles to an app which can do handwriting recognition and either save them as PDFs or PNG images or stream them to other apps (I have mine hooked up to forward everything to my Evernote account). The earlier Livescribe pen I tried back around 2011 was really rather annoying (it had a display, a set of headphones, an app store, and a proprietary charge cable—lots of kipple to carry around or lose), but the Livescribe+ gets it about right. It has one control (an on/off/pair switch in a ring), one LED, charges over micro-USB, and it's fairly simple to use. It's designed to do just one thing, and that thing is to digitize your scribbles.
Actually, I lied: it has a second capability. These pens also include microphones, and you can configure it to record your mumbling as you scrawl, so that you can replay them as a "pencast"—showing an evolving page of text and graphics with a commentary track. If I was attending lectures on a regular basis, or giving them in front of a class, this would be a killer tool for lecture notes; but as it is, I have another use for it.
Thing is, I write fiction. And a perennial problem I have is how to do mind-mapping—to draw diagrams and doodles that join up complex ideas on screen in a form I can refer back to. Outlining software like Omnioutliner is great up to a point, for linear/hierarchical texts, but for complex stuff (cyclic graphs with labels and nodes, whether directed or otherwise) you really need a mind mapping tool. However, my experience of them is generally that they're either inflexible or have a steep learning curve, or both. Sometimes there's must no substitute for a notebook and a pen, but I hate not being able to keep all my resources for a current writing project bundled up in a Scrivener project. The Livescribe+ gives me a simple paper notebook that dumps diagrams into Evernote (or exports into Dropbox) and can even do reasonable handwriting recognition on my crappy scrawl. I'm not about to write my next novel longhand, but being able to include handdrawn freeform graphics with searchable text and audio notes in my workflow is a definite plus point.
2. Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 Scanner
Actually, the ScanSnap ix500 isn't new; I've been using one of its predecessors, the portable ScanSnap 300, for several years—however, the ix500 is now available at a reasonable price (around £260 if you look around) rather than the £500+ it cost when it was introduced.
What it is: it's a colour duplex scanner with a 50-page automatic document feeder, USB 3, and wifi. In other words, it's as boring a piece of kit as one might hope for—an office appliance.
What makes it different is a bunch of little things. Drivers for Windows and OSX are expected, but there are also support apps available for iOS and Android. You can pair the scanner with a phone or tablet via wifi and scan directly to them (the exact inverse of the process you would use with a smartphone-friendly wireless printer). The scanner can create searchable PDFs as it scans, or scan to a (slightly typo-prone) MS Word document. If you use a desktop machine with it you get a cornucopia of options: send a scan straight to email or printer, archive it somewhere, scan to Evernote, and so on. Oh, and it's fast. My first office scanner, an HP device in the early noughties, could scan maybe one side of A4 per minute. This beast gulps down double-sided pages and scans up to 50 sides per minute to PDF.
Some of you might wonder why I bother with a Livescribe+ if I've got the ix500: wouldn't it be easier to carry a regular pen and paper around and feed the paper to the scanner? Well, yes—except the scanner is about the same size as an inkjet printer and doesn't travel well. Conversely: if I have the Livescribe+, why bother with a scanner?
Here's one use case: before my publishers went entirely digital with their workflow (circa 2012), part of the job of prepping a book for publication involved the author checking the copy editor's draft manuscript by hand then mailing it home: about a ream of printed paper covered in red ink. As you can imagine, if an MS got eaten by the postal service hilarity ensued (because there went about two weeks' work). So I took to scanning my CEMs fairly early, and avoided tears before bedtime twice in 5 years ... but using the earlier ScanSnap (which had a ten sheet feeder) meant the process took about two hours per book. (And it needed to be repeated a month or two later, when the page proofs came back from the typesetter.) This scanner? It came along just after that step in my workflow went away, hopefully for good, which is deeply annoying because I reckon it would reduce the chore from 2 hours to 5 minutes.
Here's another use case: keeping scans of (signed) book publishing contracts, keeping financial records, scanning bills and invoices, all the boring office stuff that's part of running a business that still requires a paper trail. Paper isn't obsolete yet, and this gadget just makes handling it so much easier.
What this scanner isn't good for is of course digitizing your old photo collection or scanning books. No, seriously: it's a specialist, designed to gulp down a stack of office documents. If you want to scan books or digitize photos, you really need a different type of scanner—unless you're ready to take a guillotine to the book in question, or laboriously use the supplied transparency sleeve with each photo. (It can do the job, in both cases: it's just not designed for it.)
3. Anker PowerPort 6 USB charger
When I travel I typically do so with a phone, a tablet, and (if I plan on working) a laptop. There may be other gadgets travelling with me that need recharging: the Livescribe+ pen, a bluetooth speaker for listening to music, a portalbe bluetooth keyboard for the tablet, and maybe other things. It's common to find a hotel room with only one or two mains electrical outlets available for the guests, and irritating to carry half a dozen chargers, so what should I do?
Well, as of 2015 my travel laptop is a Macbook—the 12" model with a retina screen that charges over a USB-C type cable. And all the other items I just mentioned can also charge off a USB power supply, albeit one that supports current level negotiation: if I'm using an iPhone or iPad they require a lightning-to-USB adapter, but those are both cheap and tiny.
So I've finally hit charger nirvana, which is a single power brick that I can plug everything into simultaneously and which runs off any input voltage from 100v (Japan) through 110v (the USA) to 230v (UK/Europe). It's reasonably well made and (per teardowns) supplies fairly clean power over six USB sockets. It can deliver 60 watts, and 2.5 amps per socket (enough for an iPad) or up to 12 amps overall (enough to recharge the Macbook). It has a detachable standard two-pin power cord so my travel charger bag contains three short mains cables: a euro head, a US head, and a ThinPlug folding-head power lead (British mains plugs being, shall we say, robust but not compact: this one is certified BS 1363 compliant, because 230 volts are not your friend). I keep one for travel in a bag with six 30cm USB A-to-micro-USB cables, a type-A-to-USB-C cable, and a few Lightning adapters, and it saves roughly a kilogram of weight from my luggage (by replacing a laptop charger, multiple device chargers with interchangeable international plugs, and/or multi-way mains adapters). And if you wonder why saving a kilogram might be important to me, it's because my front door is 64 steps up from ground level without an elevator ...
4. 12" Macbook (2015 model)
Back in 2008 when Apple introduced the Macbook Air, it was roundly derided for being underpowered, woefully short on expansion options and plug-in ports, and overpriced on top. Steve Jobs apparently expected people to pay more money for less weight, rather than cramming more and more functionality into the heaviest casing that customers would willingly carry. Now, seven years and one major design facelift later, the Macbook Air isn't just the backbone of Apple's laptop range—it has come down in price, up in battery life, performance, and connectivity options (two USB ports rather than one, and a Thunderbolt port!) ... and spawned an entire category of Windows-based imitators called Ultrabooks. Because it turns out that for a tool that you carry around on your back or shoulder, shaving a kilogram off its total weight is important.
But the Airbook is clearly an ageing design, and as with cars (where each successive refresh adds weight, feature creep, and size) it has arguably gone to seed. The 11" model remains laudably compact but doesn't have a brilliant backlight, and the letterbox-aspect screen is uncomfortably small for web browsing or word processing. The 13" model has a very good battery life (up to 14 hours of light tasks), but weighs more and has the same desktop footprint as the entry-model Macbook Pro. So it's no surprise that in 2015 Apple released a new flagship sub-notebook computer that received exactly the same criticisms as the 2008 Macbook Air for exactly the same reasons—which means it's a no-compromises attempt at redefining the ultra-portable laptop.
The 12" Macbook with Retina Display weighs as much as the original iPad, and is only about six centimeters wider, to accomodate the full-sized (but short travel) keyboard. I'm not going to recap all the design changes that went into making a 900 gram laptop; Ars Tehnica covered it well. The main weaknesses are a keyboard that some people will hate (I get along fine with it), a battery life that's a little lacklustre, and the same shortage of ports that made people kvetch about the original Macbook Air. In particular, having decided that the new USB-C connector was the way forward both for charging and for peripherals, Apple supplied it with a single port, thus ensuring that if you want to plug it into an external hard drive for backup you have to do so on battery power. (Solution: an external USB 3 SSD. It does the job well, albeit at a steep price.) On the other hand, the Macbook has a screen to die for after the 11" Macbook Air. I can actually write on it, on the road: the screen is taller rather than wider, which is just what the author ordered. And the choice of USB-C for charging means that if I'm going to be away from a power socket for a long time I can recharge it off the same Anker E7 2.7 Watt-hour USB battery that I also use for my phone or tablet on long trips. The E7 is a bit of a brick, and with the Macbook it weighs 1.3Kg—but for the same weight as the 13" Macbook Air I get a significantly longer run time (around 15-20 hours) and a much nicer screen.
I could be here all day describing how the Macbook works for me (in fact, I already wrote about it). It could be better (I'd love to see the USB-C socket augmented to carry Thunderbolt-3, and a second socket would be ideal) but right now it's my ultimate travel laptop. It's not the world's fastest machine, but it's a brilliant compromise between portability and functionality.
5. Qwerkeywriter Keyboard
I'd hoped to be able to talk about the Waytools TextBlade portable keyboard here, but although it was announced and available for preorder in January it still hasn't shipped as of December 30th. (It's stuck in device driver hell, although it looks as if it's slouching very close to release in January 2016: not so surprising given the totally revolutionary nature of it's subsystems—a constellation of widgets glued together by bluetooth LE and powerful magnets that resembles a plastic pack of chewing gum sticks that turn into a keyboard.) However, the Qwerkeywriter, announced in 2014, has shipped, and there's one in my wife's office right now. It's there because her old keyboard was dying and she took one look at it as soon as she saw it and kidnapped the thing. (As she was working on a book about 19th century steampunk inventions that actually existed, it provided added atmosphere to the project.)
You might think that a novelty bluetooth keyboard that weighs more than a laptop and resembles something from the 1890s would be basically cheap junk. You'd be wrong. The Qwerkeywriter uses high quality mechanical keyswitches, and the designers paid a lot of attention to layout—while it looks vintage, it's actually one of the best "clicky" keyboards I've tried out in years. While I mostly agree with Engadget's review criticisms (notably the tablet stand is inflexible and the keyoard badly needs a firmware update or configuration utility to rebind the keys) it feels gorgeous, much as a vintage IBM Model M keyboard does.
I can't swear that this thing is indispensible to my workflow or travel kit in the same way I can for all the other items here. It's strictly an office luxury. But if you work in an office every day you owe your fingers something better than a cheap piece of junk, and if you get a chance to grab a Qwerkeywriter for a price that seems affordable to you I think you should totally do so.
6. pi-top open source build-it-yourself laptop
You've probably heard of the Raspberry Pi, a British-designed educational computer that comes as a single board and which is designed to teach kids the basics of computing (both hardware and software) in the same mode as the BBC Model B and family machines of the 1980s. The pi has been a runaway success with millions sold, because it's both open and cheap—the top of the range Pi 2 model costs £25, and the entry-level Pi Zero sells for just £4.
What most folks don't notice at first is that the Pi family are startlingly powerful. The Pi 2 has 1Gb of RAM, a quad-core 900MHz Cortex A7 CPU, a GPU, ethernet, and a quad-port USB 2 hub. Storage is up to the user but it can take 128Gb on a micro-SDHC card; it can also work with wifi and bluetooth USB peripherals, and additional expansion or i/o is provided via the GPIO and HAT expansion bus. When you stack it all up, a Pi 2 running Linux runs the Byte UNIX benchmark suite between 7 and 40 times as fast as a SPARCStation 20 workstation from 1996—a scientific/engineering computer retailing for upwards of US $25,000 in today's money.
This is nothing to sneeze at, but the pi itself doesn't look much like a computer until you turn it into a Frankenstein's Rat's Nest of cables and casing. So item 6 on my 2015 list of amusements and gizmos is the penultimate Pi 2 case (the ultimate would be the Astro Pi space-qualified unit now flying on the ISS, or maybe a cubesat) is the pi-top; nothing less than a build-it-yourself-from-kit laptop featuring a Raspberry Pi B as its mainboard.
As laptops go, the pi-top is a bit eccentric. (Not many laptops come with an allen key, a baggie of components, and an assembly manual: at least not these days!) I should also caution that the included manual is as ambiguous as the assembly instructions for an IKEA flat-pack church organ and you should not tackle building the kit yourself unless you are steady of hand, clear of vision, and copacetic with anti-static precautions. (Disclaimer: mine is in a perpetual half-built state because I'm distinctly not steady enough of hand/clear enough of vision, and I share my office with an Asshole Cat who loves nothing better than knocking small and fiddly widgets on the carpet. I'll get to finishing it one of these days ...) On the other hand, for about £200 (don't forget to also buy a Pi 2 and any extra USB dongles you might need, e.g. bluetooth!) you have the privilege of building your own weird Linuxy laptop-shaped object. It weighs about as much as a 2003 laptop, is about as powerful as same, but has a decent enough battery life (10-12 hours claimed), a 1366 x 768 resolution display, and the basics. It'll run LibreOffice and Firefox (if you're careful not to overdo the tabs and plugins).
The pi-top allegedly much works out of the box with RISC OS Open as well as various Linux distributions (albeit the supplied wifi dongle isn't happy with RISC OS—you're limited to the ones supported—the screen needs tweaking to run in the correct resolution/aspect ratio, and there's no battery level monitor widget); but it means the world's most powerful Acorn Archimedes laptop comes in electric lime green. Cool!
7. Sandisk dual-USB drives
I mentioned the Macbook earlier. One problem with the Macbook is a lack of USB-C connected peripherals (and also a lack of third-party cables that follow the correct bits of the standard for high speed charging, although that's another matter. If you're in a wifi-free zone and want to get files off a Macbook and onto another Mac or PC, how do you do this? Well, Sandisk make a really handy double-headed USB memory stick: it has a regular A-type USB at one end, and a USB-C plug at the other. You can plug it into the Macbook using the C-type connector, shovel files on or off it, eject, then plug it into a different machine using the regulart connector.
On its own this would be less than sensational, but it's typical of a bunch of devices they're selling now. If you have an Android device you probably want their dual USB drive with a micro-USB on-the-go connector as well as a regular plug, because with the right file management app it's an extra 16-64Gb of storage on your phone or tablet that can be easily accessed from other devices. There's a similar device for iOS that provides a Lightning connector rather than micro-USB (using a free sync app from Sandisk to manage file transfer). And Sandisk have gotten into the game with a second-generation wireless-attached file store similar to the Seagate Wireless Plus hard drive or the AirStash—USB storage devices that provide a wireless network file server. I can't recommend the AirStash or the Seagate drive (in both cases the software is distinctly ropey and hard to get working; the AirStash is physically fragile, and the Wireless Plus resembles a brick). Per reviews, the Sandisk version seems to have done things better by trying to do less; the same design change that made the Livescribe+ work for me while the previous Livescribe was basically a dead loss. As for the key reason you might want to go with this option rather than a double-headed stick: if you want mobile backup of work in progress on a tablet/phone while you're unable to access the internet (e.g. sitting on a train or traveling in a country where data roaming is prohibitively expensive), this will do the job temporarily—it's your own personal portable storage cloud.
(NOTE: I'm sticking to Sandisk here because they're a well known high quality brand. The drawback of this is that they're a target for counterfeiters. You can probably find other, cheaper manufacturers making the same sort of products; I make no judgements on their quality but will note that some low-margin factories seem content to churn out any old crap they can sell without regard for electrical safety.)
8. Random other stuff
A round-up of seven other items I'm using, with a brief gloss on why:
a) iPhone 6+. No, I haven't upgraded to the 6S+ yet. My policy is to skip a generation with each iPhone release because I don't shit gold bricks. The 6+ was, for an Apple-world user with large hands, the best phone on the market until the 6S+ showed up. It rides in a Mophie Juicepack battery sleeve and goes everywhere with me.
b) Westone W40 earphones because while I don't shit gold bricks I like to be able to hear the music I'm listening to clearly. Worn with Comply T-100 isolation tips rather than the stock synthetic rubber ones. Admittedly these quad-driver audiophile earbuds cost roughly their weight in gold, but luckily I don't need to buy new earphones every year or two ...
c) iPad Mini 4. Yeah, I'm a Mac-world person. The iPad Mini 4 is the third generation of the iPad Mini with retina display, and the first change to the form factor since they introduced it—annoyingly, the old covers and cases don't quite fit. Less annoyingly, the display panel now has the same colour gamut as that of the iPad Air 2 (previous versions were muddy-looking and visibly less pleasant to use), and it has a dual-core variant on the same processor, making it way faster than previous models. It's my go-everywhere computer for use outside the home, on any trip where I want more than a phone.
d) Logitech Focus keyboard case. Protects the iPad Mini 4 and turns it into something about as functional for on-the-move typing/editing as an old Asus Eee 701 PC, the original netbook. Because on-screen keyboards simply don't cut it for long typing sessions.
e) Burgerplex Burgerdoodles sleeve for iPad Mini to keep the keyboard case from getting beaten up and just in case I forgot where I parked the damn thing. Silly? Sure. Why? Because I'm silly too.
f) Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. Mostly I read ebooks on the iPad Mini (or, at a pinch, on my phone), but if I get stuck on a very long trip without easy access to power, or trying to read in bright sunlight, there's no substitute for a dedicated e-reader with a reflective e-ink display and a battery life of something like 20-40 hours (without backlight). Did I mention that I read a lot?
g) Jawbone Mini-Jambox bluetooth speakers because I spend over a month a year living out of suitcases, often in hotel rooms, and I can't wear earphones all the time. Doesn't add a lot of weight to the suitcase; also doubles as a speakerphone.
So: we're done. And my question for you is, what single indispensible gizmo not on the above list did you discover in 2015, and why do you use it? (Explain, preferably at length.)