Category Archives: Reviews

Review: My first week with the iPad Mini

Even though I’m an “IT guy,” I’ve never been a believer in “technology for the sake of technology.” Before I buy a device, I have to understand how it’s going to fit in with my life and be sure I’m going to use it. I’ve seen far too many clients become hooked on buying shiny gadgets that never get properly exploited.

As such, it’s taken a very long time to convince myself that I really need an iPad. There’s been one in the house before, as my wife had one as part of her job, so I’ve hardly been blind to their desirability, but with an iPhone and MacBook Pro already in my possession, I needed some strong justification.

It came in the form of my signing up to do a degree course via distance learning. The course requires me to read a lot of online content, which is ergonomically awkward on a laptop and impractical on a smartphone. So I finally had the excuse I needed, and went out and purchased a 32GB iPad Mini.

The White iPad Mini

First Impressions

Let’s face it, nobody’s ever disappointed when they take home a box containing new Apple hardware, and the iPad Mini is no different. However, I didn’t fawn over the sleek silver back for long, as I placed it straight into a protective rear cover and clipped on Apple’s own magnetic cover and stand combo.

How the device worked was obviously no surprise either; we’re essentially talking about a big iPhone that’s not a phone, but I was pleased that I didn’t feel myself badly missing a retina display. However, I did notice (and continue to notice) that the touch control isn’t quite as precise as that on my iPhone. It’s not bad at all, but I do sometimes find it hard to tap small “x” icons, especially when they’re near the top right corner of the screen.

Daily Use

As I said above, I was far more interested to find how the iPad slotted into my life than in investigating every feature available to me. After all, most of the functionality is already available on my iPhone.

The first point to make is that it’s given me a greater sense of separation between my working day and my evening. As I work from home, it’s easy to find myself still on my MacBook as darkness falls, in a strange kind of half work / half play limbo. Now I have the iPad, I’m more likely to close the laptop when the work is done, and switch to the iPad. This is a good thing, as it’s a far more sociable way to use technology.

As part of this, I took the decision not to sync my email accounts and calendars with the iPad, supporting its role as a leisure and study device and not a business device.

Despite the separation, the iPad is such a pleasure to use, it’s kept me up long into the night on a couple of occasions: once simply playing around with apps, including DJ software, games and music tools, and the other reading a recommended text for my university course that I found instantly available to me via iBooks.

I’ve also enjoyed being able to take the Traktor DJ app to a house party, resulting in a usable casual DJ setup, all in a package weighing 308 grams.

Conclusion

I’ll be honest: I really should have splashed out on an iPad sooner. There really is room for another gadget between laptop and smartphone, even if both of the other gadgets can technically fulfill every purpose.

The beauty of the iPad Mini is in its form factor. When we had a full size iPad in the house, I rarely used it for prolonged Web browsing as it simply wasn’t that comfortable. The iPad Mini is perfect in this respect and very pleasing to use, even with just one hand.

If you’re struggling to justify buying an iPad, it’s time to give in. I promise you won’t regret it.

The colorful iPhone 5C is not just for kids

5cOn September 10, Apple introduced the iPhone 5C. This new line of iPhones strays from the metal/glass design of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 and now 5S and brings a colored shell to the iPhone.

Many people keep writing about how this line is made for kids. While I do think these will be popular with the teenage crowd, I disagree that these phones are just for kids.

Price

When my contract is up next fall on my current iPhone 5, I plan on buying a “C” phone (presumable a 6C). Why? The price is right, for one thing. For $100 less, I can get a 32GB iPhone that is very powerful and has a fantastic camera. The original iPhone 5 works great for me. The camera is fantastic and the phone does everything I need it to. Yes, the camera in the 5S is better and the processor is faster. However, I would expect the next “C” model to be faster and have a better camera then the current one, giving it a boost over my current phone. After trading in my iPhone 5 a new “C” phone might even be free!

The price is not only attractive to me, it will be attractive to many. For those, like my wife, who bought a 16GB iPhone 5 because the iPhone 4 was too heavy and boxy, this phone is perfect. She is a very light user, but wants a new-model iPhone with a great camera. She doesn’t need to spend an extra $100 for features that she doesn’t use. For $99, she can get a great phone that is modern and suits her needs. It isn’t just last year’s model in a new case. (Kudos to Apple for making slight improvements so it isn’t just that.)

Fingerprint Scanning

As for the fingerprint sensor: I could care less. I don’t mind typing in my password to purchase content on the phone and I don’t use a passcode. Sure it makes the phone more secure, but my guess is I would turn it off after a few weeks. I suspect there are many people out there who would not use it either.

Colors

I have been saying for years that I am not a fan of the iPhone design. I thought the iPhone 4 was one of the ugliest phones available (not to mention the fact that it was uncomfortable in the hand). I kept hoping for the return of the curved back of the original iPhone and iPod Touch. When the 5 came out the design was improved, but it still had that boxy iPhone 4 look. I bought it because I wanted an iPhone, but I thought there were better looking phones out there.

While the 5C maintains the boxy iPhone look, it has the curved edges that, in my opinion, look nicer. The colors, while a little too much on the pastel side, aren’t bad. I’d probably cover it up with Gelaskin anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone 5S is a great phone. The camera sounds fantastic and the processor sounds very impressive for those that need it (now put that processor in the next iPad and we can talk). However, there is a group of people out there who don’t need those features and the iPhone 5C is going to be perfect for them. It will be a huge hit and is not “just for kids.”

Review: Traktor DJ, a professional music mixing app for iPhone and iPad

I would never claim to be a bona fide DJ. At best, I am a hobby DJ who’s been given the occasional opportunity to do his thing at some bars and parties. Even so, I am passionate about playing and mixing music, and over the years I’ve invested in various software packages and items of equipment.

I started, as every DJ should, with vinyl decks, and then progressed via CDs to Virtual DJ software. I then added a cheap mixing console which, it’s fair to say, served me well for a few bar gigs.

Then, a couple of years ago, I found myself with a bit of spare cash and invested in a Traktor Kontrol S4, Native Instruments’ flagship hardware controller. I had a lot of fun with it, but lately I’ve became painfully aware of the expensive piece of equipment’s confinement in the cupboard in our spare room, getting (at best) a quarterly airing at an impromptu house party. I made the vague decision to sell it, especially when Native Instruments dropped the price of the Kontrol S4, which resulted in a corresponding drop in the value of my “asset.”

Meanwhile, things have yet again moved on for the digital DJ, and there’s been no development more exciting than the release of Traktor DJ for the iPad and iPhone. Recently, I decided to finally give the iPhone version a go, and I’ll be up-front from the start: I was extremely impressed.

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Usage

Traktor DJ for iPhoneTraktor DJ’s interface is clear and slick and the beat-matching engine is spot-on. What’s more, all the key features are present and correct, and all reimagined for touch control – which, as it turns out, is actually a really tactile and natural-feeling way to mix.

In terms of the basics, there are EQs, filters, hot cue points, loops, and a basic range of effects including delay, reverb, beatmash and gater.

Then, there are a couple of things unique to the iOS version of Traktor. One is “freeze mode,” which allows you to freeze a section of the track (usually a four beat loop), and manually trigger the beats by tapping the screen, effectively allowing you to remix “on the fly.”

There’s also a track recommendation engine that suggests your next track based on its key as well as its BPM. This kind of harmonic mixing isn’t even available in the Traktor Pro software at the time of writing, so to see it in an app that costs $19.99 on the iPad or just $4.99 on the iPhone is truly impressive.

Conclusion

Features aside, however, could Traktor DJ really replace my existing digital setup? Well, on the iPhone alone, probably not. There’s simply too much functionality to cram onto such a tiny screen. Even though the way that Native Instruments has designed the UI is very clever, with the ability to “slide” between decks, I still keep managing to accidentally stop a track when I’m intending to come out of a loop.

The difference in price between the iPhone and iPad versions (which are essentially identical in terms of functionality) seems to indicate that Native Instruments is aware that the iPhone version will be used more as a “toy.” But this brings us to the most important point: On the iPad, Traktor DJ is more than I could ever need for my occasional DJing. In fact, I am already coming close to hitting the “buy now” button on a new iPad Mini specifically for this purpose.

With the addition of Native Instruments’ new Kontrol Z1 mixer and soundcard, I can also have physical faders, headphone cueing and professional sound output – all in a setup that would fit in the glove compartment of the car.

While I’ve no doubt that plenty of DJ purists will object to the ease-of-use of Traktor DJ, for people like me who just want to mix some tunes and play the occasional bar set, it is absolutely perfect. My bulky old equipment just got one step closer to the eBay pile.

GoDaddy remains popular, but offers less than competing services

GoDaddy logoWhen setting out to purchase a new domain, the majority of people head to GoDaddy, type in their hopeful site address, and see if someone has already snatched up the great idea. If not, it’s likely GoDaddy will offer a multitude of discounts, coupons, and .co, .net, etc. options to help bring down the price. (For whatever reason, .coms always set you back the most funds.) Anything to get you to sign up, GoDaddy will do. They have the name, the willing and able customer service, and the clout. But do they have the resources to overcome?

Despite being more popular – likely due to their ongoing commercials – GoDaddy has far less to offer website owners than you may think. Sure they wrap everything up in a nice tidy bow, but service-wise, alternative sites may have far better perks. Such as cheaper hosting fees, advanced spam blockers, and a server that doesn’t regularly get hacked.

Perhaps the biggest downside to GoDaddy is the large, albeit invisible, target on their label. The company has been hacked a few too many times, leaving website owners across the globe without a site. The latest debacle, which took place in September of 2012, left thousands of sites down for an entire day. While few reported actual damage, it’s likely this literal down time cost thousands in web traffic numbers, ad revenue, and sales. And that’s only on the company side; Google likely took a downgrade on daily PPC funds as well.

GoDaddy Backlash

While such a hack has yet to take place since, that’s not to say it can’t or won’t happen again. As an apology, GoDaddy sent out an email with a small discount for users to purchase a new domain – not a coupon for current services; additional funds would have to be spent to see any savings. And because switching hosts is such a significant pain in the rear, it’s likely they lost few sites over the whole incident.

But with multiple options, many of which are cheaper and offer better services, what’s holding consumers back from switching hosts? Especially since domains can be purchased through GoDaddy and hosted elsewhere. Is it the popularity, or the sheer hassle of moving a website? It won’t be long before others are finding the value outside of GoDaddy’s monopoly and taking advantage of these competing offers.

Despite their popularity, there’s much more to web hosting than GoDaddy offers. Consider an alternative before caving to their ways, no matter how user-friendly they may be.

How to add Bluetooth audio to your car for under $20

bluetooth-logoIf you are like me, you like listening to content from your phone or MP3 player in your car while traveling. If you don’t have built-in Bluetooth in your car, there are several options for adding it. You can use a cassette adapter (if your car has a cassette deck), an 8mm audio cable (basically a headphone jack, if your car supports it), you can listen through an FM transmitter, or you can listen straight through the device if your device has decent speakers.

In my car I have an audio jack. This method works great, but I hate have to use the cable to go from my phone to the jack. It just gets in the way of everything.

I am happy to report there is another solution for those of us with an audio jack in the car that can be purchased for under $20: the Zehui Wireless Car Bluetooth Music Receiver. It’s a small Bluetooth receiver that plugs into the audio jack (yes, your device has to have Bluetooth for this to work). These devices play the audio from your phone or music player through your car speakers without being hindered by a cable!

I am guessing this is a generic product because Amazon carries several items under different brand names with identical pictures, so I just settled on the cheapest one. There are other name brands that are more money and look different, but I figured I’d try the cheaper route first.

Image screenshot from Amazon.com product listing
Image screenshot from Amazon.com product listing

Surprisingly, this little device works great! It is a little tricky to figure out how it works, especially since the instructions were awful, but once I got it going it is a great addition to my car. Best of all it has a very small footprint. It is about 1″ x 2″ and just sticks right out of the jack in my car. I turn it on when I want to use it and it connects right to my iPhone. The sound quality is great and I can control the volume through the phone or the car. The battery life is at least eight hours.

My family recently took a vacation which involved three hours in the car each direction. My son sat in the back watching the iPad and listening through the car speakers. No more annoying cable from the iPad to the front of the car.

Like I said earlier, there are other brands for more money, but why spend it if you don’t have to? This little device is a great addition to any car with an audio jack. If you have an audio jack in your car and a bluetooth capable device I highly recommend checking out a Bluetooth audio receiver for your vehicle. You’ll be happy you did.

Review: Disk Drill Pro for Mac

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If you have a computer, you should also have a backup plan in place. Some people have a local backup, others have an offsite backup service, and others might have both or more.

If you are on a Mac you might be using Time Machine as part of your backup plan. However, most backup plans, including Time Machine, can only go back so far to recover a file. Some only backup the most recent versions of a file. Plus, these backup plans are for your hard drive only. What if you accidentally erase a file of a USB flash drive or wipe out an SD card full of pictures you haven’t downloaded yet? That is where Disk Drill Pro by CleverFiles comes in.

Disk Drill

Disk Drill is a data recovery application that can help with the situations described above. It’s fast and works great. When you run Disk Drill, you are presented with a window that shows all of the volumes connected to your computer, including hard drives, memory cards, and USB drives.  You pick the device you want to scan and scan it. Disk Drill then scans for deleted files. The results are then presented in a list format showing the original folder and even file name. The great part is you can use Quick Look to see the file in Disk Drill before you even recover it. Scanning small drives like SD cards is really fast. Even scanning my 500GB internal hard drive was fast.

diskdrill1

I was really impressed with the amount of files DiskDrill was able to recover. Even if you have erased a memory card for your camera and taken new pictures, Disk Drill will find your old pictures. Of course, the more that disk or drive has been used since the file was deleted the less likely the file will be recovered. Not only does it find the files fast, it recovers them just as fast.

Recovery Vault and Guaranteed Recovery

Another feature in the application is called Recovery Vault. Recovery Vault stores metadata of files on your computer to make locating and recovering them a lot easier and puts the odds of recovery a lot higher. The company website states that this vault takes up about 60mb of space, so it will not eat up your hard drive at all.

There is also something called Guaranteed Recovery protection through the Recovery Vault. This takes up some additional space as the program keeps an invisible copy of deleted files. You can choose which drives and folders to monitor for this feature and you can also set a space limit. I really don’t see the need for this if you have a backup plan in place, but you might want to use it for those crucial folders as an additional layer of backup.

Pricing and a Coupon

At $89.00, Disk Drill Pro might sound a bit pricey, however most great Mac utility programs are in that range and just recovering on set of files will make that money well spent. Plus, for a limited time CleverFiles is offering 20% off the price to Techerator readers with coupon code : TERETR-DD.

I highly recommend making Disk Drill Pro a part of your utility apps for your Mac. At the very least, download the free “Basic” edition. It will scan and protect your computer but not allow recovery. If you find yourself needing the recovery feature you can always upgrade.

The unfortunate downsides of streaming music services

playIf you haven’t heard, Google recently announced a streaming music service. For $9.99/month you can stream all the music you want to your compatible device.

This is not the first streaming music service, and it probably won’t be the last. In principle, an all you get stream music service sounds good, but in reality it has a few problems which keep me from signing up for one and sticking with purchasing music.

Problem 1: Mobile data limits

The biggest problem with streaming music services is data limits enforced by wireless carriers. Unless you are on a WiFi network all of the time, you are going to need to use a data plan, which for most people is limited to 2GB or less.

You might argue the 2GB is plenty of data, and it is if you are just surfing the Internet and checking emails and maybe downloading apps every now and then. However, that data goes faster than you think, and streaming only makes it go faster. Yes, audio uses a lot less data than video, but it is still using that data and I would venture to say you will use up that data before your month is up.

I can see many people who unknowingly sign up for a streaming service without even knowing they are eating up their data plan until they get a nice present tacked onto their next bill for data overage. Of course, the data providers would love it if you purchased an upgrade for your mobile data plan. Now you get to pay for more data and the monthly streaming fee.

Problem 2: WiFi isn’t perfect

Let’s say you are one of those people I mentioned above who have constant access to WiFi. You have WiFi at home, WiFi at work, and you frequent enough places that have WiFi access that you don’t really care about streaming in your car or other places.

Just because you have WiFi access doesn’t mean you can stream your music. Your employer might limit streaming or even block it. If you are on public WiFi at a cafe it could also be limited by the establishment or just extremely slow from a large amount of people using it. WiFi is great, but only if it is completely usable.

Problem 3: Owning the music and making an audio CD

Contrary to what some might think, the physical CD is not dead yet. I, for one, still make audio CDs of my music. If you have a streaming service you can’t import music into iTunes and burn a CD. You have to buy those tracks. Yes, you can do both but this can get costly if you are always doing it. Plus, call it old school, but many people prefer to own their music. I like being able to load my iPhone with what I want and be able to listen to it whenever and where ever I am without having to worry about using data or being on WiFi.

Conclusion

For many people a streaming music service is great. They have a limited data plan, have WiFi access, and or don’t care about owning music. For others, like myself, it is the wrong way to go.

New Super Luigi U is Nintendo’s first true DLC

Nintendo has always been slightly behind the pack in terms of online offerings. While downloadable content (DLC) for existing games is something very familiar to users of Xboxes, PS3s and even iPhones, Nintendo’s forays into DLC have been cautious and, at times, rather shambolic.

Yes, there were new “coin rush” packs for New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS last year, but these added very little to the game. Then came the Wii U implementation of Zen Pinball 2. This was endlessly delayed, and when it finally arrived the process for buying and downloading tables was unbelievably convoluted, resulting in justifiably critical review scores.

Now, in what Nintendo has coined “the year of Luigi,” arrives New Super Luigi U, Nintendo’s first substantial DLC offering. Essentially a “bolt on” for the New Super Mario Bros U launch title, the DLC consists of 80+ new levels, which are played as Luigi and “remixed” from the original game elements. The game, however, takes place on an identical world map.

New Super Luigi U
New Super Luigi U

Initial skepticism is justifiable here. If you’re playing on the same world map, then just how new is New Super Luigi U? Well, the good news is that all the levels are brand new. Yes, they reuse the music and graphical elements from the original game, but there’s no doubt you’re playing on completely new levels – but more of that later.

The Installation

Unfortunately, Nintendo still haven’t quite got the hang of making the installation of online content feel like anything other than a chore. Up until the Wii U, one of the benefits of choosing a Nintendo gaming platform was speed. Nintendo was always a case of cartridge / disk in – switch on – start playing.

Now, with HD graphics, correspondingly large data files and system updates, the Nintendo experience is all much more PS3-esque, and that’s not a good thing.

To get going with the New Super Luigi U DLC, the process was something like this:

Switched on, visited eShop, failed to find DLC, found a notification telling me to update New Super Mario Bros U, started the game, waited for the update to download, waited for download to install, restarted the game, tapped the icon to download the DLC, got sent back to the eStore, paid for the DLC, waited for the DLC to download, restarted game again, waited for DLC to install, finally found ourselves able to play.

Why, Nintendo, could I not have just visited the eStore, purchased the DLC, and been sent away to wait for half an hour while the console dealt with all the other stuff?

The Game

After a frustrating download experience, it was pleasing to find the game exceeded expectations. New Super Luigi U is a hardcore platforming experience; something akin to a long lost cousin of the fiendishly difficult “Lost Levels” from 1986.

Every level is short, and comes with a time limit. In addition, Luigi’s slower, floaty motion makes him harder to control. Note that this isn’t a criticism of the controls at all, it’s just that Luigi controls very differently to the Mario we are all so used to. As such, it’s essential to adapt one’s playing style to a character that can float and jump higher, but also seems badly in need of some brakes!

The end result is frantic and frustrating; you probably won’t expect to fall to your death within seconds of starting the first level, but you probably will! Yet, in that classic Nintendo way, you’ll never feel it’s unfair. This is exactly the kind of punishing platforming that veteran Nintendo fans have been looking for, but it’s fair to say that the level of challenge may be a little high for those relatively new to the 2D Mushroom Kingdom.

Conclusion

As Nintendo’s first foray into full-blown DLC, New Super Luigi U is a great effort. The level designs have clearly been crafted lovingly to create a serious challenge that frustrates but makes you smile at the same time. If you need something to tide you over until Nintendo catch up with their frustratingly slow Wii U release schedule, this is just what you need.

Just be aware of the need for patience while you download and install. While Nintendo still lead the way in level design and inimitable quirkiness, they still have serious catching up to do with their online ease-of-use. If you think it will annoy you too much, you may be best to wait until the green-packaged retail release of the game arrives later this year.

A look at Gmail’s new inbox with automatic email sorting

Gmail LogoI recently enabled the New Gmail inbox, and I have to say that this new update has me scratching my head.

(To experience the new Gmail Inbox, you have to simply click on the gear icon in your top right window just above the chat and choose “Configure Inbox.” From here, you can choose from the variety of tabs that Google has given to you.)

I understand that Google is known for frequently updating its products, regardless of whether or not an update is really necessary. It has become something of a corporate culture, and perhaps serves to show people that they really are putting the work in to improve their products.

However, was this recent update just a minor adjustment or a useful update to how you use Gmail?

Introducing the new Gmail Inbox with categories

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The way that the new Inbox is laid out is that instead of one Inbox that has the priority tags, there are multiple tabs on the top of your window. They are similar to tabs in a browser, and by clicking each one you access a different view of your inbox. The default ones that are selected are Primary, Social, and Promotions. If you would like, you also have the options to add Updates and Forums to your tabs as well.

Here are how Google defines each option:

  • Primary – Person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs.
  • Social – Messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services, and other social websites.
  • Promotions – Deals, offers, and other marketing emails.
  • Updates – Personal, auto-generated emails including confirmations, receipts, bills and statements.
  • Forums – Messages from online groups, discussion boards, and mailing lists.

After you have chosen your tabs, you will notice that your email becomes all jumbled. Gmail automatically goes through all of your emails and places things where they “belong.” For example, anything that is an email generated from a forum comment will go into Forums, any recent email about a great deal will go in Promotions, etc. The idea here is that when you want to look for social emails, you go to social. When you want your updates such as bills and receipts then you go to Updates. I like the idea, and automatic sorting really makes using it literally effortless.

So what’s wrong with the new layout?

For me, I was immediately confused and a bit shocked to see that the “primary” option is exactly as it states. It is for emails that haven’t shown up in other tabs. What this meant took me a moment to process because I was so surprised and assumed it couldn’t be true. What this means is that there is no longer a unified inbox where you can go and just see ALL your email in one date sorted list. So if you don’t see it in primary, go to social. If it isn’t in there, try promotions, etc. This was immediately a deal breaker for me because this completely makes you rely on the automation process which would have to be flawless.

Is Google good enough to sort it out?

The answer to this is yes and no. Fortunately, Google is great at recognizing content in your emails (yes, that is creepy), but the built-in safety is that it will actually learn from you as you move your emails around. So for example, if you get an update in your Updates tab that you would prefer to be in your Social tab, you can simply drag them email onto the Social tab and Gmail will ask you if you would always like to do that for this sender. If you choose yes, then that senders email will go into the tab you chose.

The biggest problem I see with this is that it is essentially creating “rules” much like you would in Outlook or Apple mail. Yes they can be powerful, but not when they are the only choice across your whole email system. The fact is that a machine, although they have made incredible leaps and bounds, is not yet ready to determine exactly where I want my emails. Granted, the existence of one unified inbox that just shows you everything would be a great safety net that would make this whole experience much easier in my opinion.

Limited categorization options

I think the confusion and the difficulty now is that you can’t create your own tabs, and stuffing your email into these pre-created tabs is… well, hard. I immediately ran into questions that I just didn’t want to answer! Isn’t this forum response from a local club a social event? Is this marketing email also the address that sends me blog updates that I actually like to read? Is my second or third communication with a doctor, job, etc. considered an update or just in primary? They are technically updates to a situation right? All in all, it was just too confusing with too many questions that to be honest, I didn’t care to answer.

I don’t get seven thousand emails a day, a nice list of my emails with the occasional folder sorting would be fine for me. I know that for many people, that may not be the case.

New mobile apps

iOS appAnother huge problem I have with this system is the mobile Gmail app. Although I don’t have access to the Android version, the iOS version basically works so that you see each tab and have to tap into the side menu to switch between your tabs. That is two taps to switch between tabs, and I can see it being a huge pain to look through when you aren’t sure exactly where an email went. If the default was to see all your messages, then look at them in the tabs when you wanted, I would be ok with that. You would have a safe ground in some way.

Will it get better?

I have complete faith that Google will improve this system, and even just the added ability to create your own tabs will do wonders. Whether they put in one inbox that shows you everything, I’m not sure, but without it I won’t be using the new inbox. Google also has a reputation for quickly axing a change they made, and it just all of a sudden disappearing from your options. Perhaps this new tab system will go that way!

I think what it comes down to is: how complicated does your inbox need to be? For some people, simpler and straight forward is the way to go, and I think this new update pushes into complicated territory. For power users that love to organize, it may be a nice change, but for others it is a head scratching nuisance.

Google Now for iOS: A real reason to use location services

Google Now HomeI am a tech geek. I love technology, I constantly download the latest apps, I do my very best to have hands on experiences with the newest devices, and I am generally constantly reading about new advancements.

That being said, Google Now has completely blown me away.

Google Now: The future is here.

Coming from Apple’s iOS as my primary platform, I have been salivating over Google Now via YouTube videos and tech articles for a long time now. I initially stumbled on it while looking at comparison videos between Siri and Samsung’s S Voice. In the rabbit hole that is YouTube, I eventually ended up watching plenty of videos comparing Google Now to S Voice and Siri, and Google Now handily beat them both every time.

Needless to say, this bit of software was something I was excited about, but honestly was not fully confident that it would make it to iOS. However, as is the trend with Google, they always feel releasing their incredible software on iOS is more beneficial for them than it is detrimental for their Android platform. Lucky for iOS users!

Google Now is basically nested within the Google Search App which can be downloaded from the App Store.

First Impressions

I downloaded the app on April 29th, the day that it was released, and I was blown away right off of the bat. Once I installed it, I went into the Google Search app, and dragged the Google Now interface from the bottom into full view. I was curious what type of “Cards” I would be seeing since it was my first time on the app.

Important note about setting up Google Now

To use Google Now,  it is highly recommended to turn on your Location Services. Without that, Google Now literally does not function. It will just sit there and tell you there are no location services, and show you nothing else. Also, if you have a Gmail account, logging into it will greatly enhance your experience. As far as I can tell, virtually everything is taken from your Google relationship, and generally a Gmail account is the anchor point for that relationship.

2013-05-01 11.14.01Once I had my location services enabled and logged in with my Gmail, I scrolled through my cards. The first thing I noticed were two cards that had the information of two packages that I had ordered from Amazon. I immediately tapped on one, and it showed me all the information about when the order was made, who was shipping it, and gave me a button to “Track Package.” This was the first feature that truly surprised me because it required Google to sort through my email, understand the email from Amazon, take the data and reorganize it for the card, and present it to me with a link that goes directly to the USPS tracking site. That is just plain intelligent, and it’s the type of tech I have been waiting for for a long time!

To be fair, the tracking on the package was rather basic, and didn’t go to the USPS site the first times that I used it. It was still able to tell me the latest status and the delivery day, but wasn’t showing me step by step statuses as the package made its way to my house. However, I noticed that today, when I track a few additional packages that I recently ordered, the “Track Package” button goes directly to the USPS website, and shows me the exact up-to-date status which is even better than using the Amazon app to track things.

Location Awareness and Navigating

I have to admit, this is the category that excited me the most when I looked at all the Google Now videos. Sure, it is incredibly fast at understanding a question and giving you data immediately, but what was being shown for built-in navigation seemed like true predictive and future technology. In these YouTube videos I watched, they showed how Google Now would alert you when to leave for work in the morning based on the traffic situation, basically predicting what time you needed to be at work and alerting you if traffic was jeopardizing that. Since Google Maps navigation has always been the most reliable app on my phone, I was excited by this type of tight integration. So how did it work?

Once I set my Home location in Google Maps, the Google Now integration was absolutely fantastic. However, it relies heavily on having a place to go. While that might sound obvious, what I mean is that this data needs to be in a form Google Now recognizes. For my appointments over the last few days, I had to add them to my Google Calendar (including location)and then it would sync to Google Now.

The result was quite impressive. For example, I put in a doctor’s appointment for the next morning, and when I woke up and went into Google Now, the top card was how long it would take me to get there and a small map highlighting the traffic situation, and of course a button that links to immediate navigating in Google Maps. Pretty cool. Even more, when I was finished with an appointment (or out anywhere for that matter), it would always have a card suggesting the traffic back home. A few times, this made it seem like it was reading my mind, as I was actually heading home.

Again, this is all understandable, and a natural progression of technology, but here is what really surprised and excited me: I was at a doctor’s appointment, and it was my only appointment in my calendar for the day. Naturally, Google Now was suggesting Home as the next destination and that was all. However, I needed to get some blood drawn for a test my doctor wanted, so I started using Google Search to find lab locations around the area, identify their operating hours and perhaps make an appointment. As I was walking out of the doctor’s office, I casually glanced at Google Now to see if there were any interesting new articles it thought was relevant to me, and the top card was the traffic and time estimate to the lab I looked at! Talk about predictive technology.

Location based results that I have experienced:

  • Restaurants nearby that have Zagat ratings attached
  • The weather and forecast wherever I am
  • Traffic to my next destination (if it’s in the calendar), or back home

Some cool location features I have yet to test:

  • When traveling, it will display a translator for you based on the country you are in
  • It will show you the current time zone you are in, and occasionally flash back to your home time zone so you see the time there
  • Depending on the country you are in, it will offer up the current currency exchange in that area
  • It will suggest local venues and shows going on, including movies

Sports and News CardExperience with Google Search Integration

As the magical addition of my Lab location points out, Google Now is heavily integrated into Google Search. Here are some things I have searched for that Google now later assisted with:

  • Locations I have searched for (like the lab), especially when I am near them
  • Sports teams I have searched for future schedules or past scores (they start appearing in cards with results)
  • News articles featuring the type of tech articles I have been searching for and reading (not many, but they were on target)
  • Restaurants nearby

Aside from these types of integration, the Siri-like feature of being able to search with your voice is just plain spot on. Not only does it show you what you said in text so you can visually confirm the search, it does so as you type. The second you say a word, it is on the screen, and you can see it correct itself by the context of your sentence if it got a word wrong. The result is a flawless voice translation that always has gotten it right for me, and leads to a fast and easy search. It generally can find an answer to just about anything, and is way better than Siri (and much faster).

Is this an invasion of privacy?

I am very sure there will be two camps regarding the privacy issue, one saying that of course it isn’t, and one saying Google is an evil corporation and is trying to sell your soul for money. I have always been a part of the former, but with this increased integration, I can really understand the latter. Much of the impressive things Google Now has done has honestly been absolutely creepy. It seems to know what is going on in my life, before I even know I am looking for it. However, I suppose that I am technologically minded enough to find these advances awesome and necessary, and the sharing your information part of it is just a necessary evil for large jumps in life quality.

iOS Drawbacks

One of the largest differences between iOS Google Now and Android Google Now is simply the level of phone integration that you can attain. For example, when you tap on “Get Directions” on the traffic part of iOS Google Now, it will open Google Maps (thank god it’s not locked to Apple Maps for some silly reason). However, in the Android version, you also have choices like notify the person you are meeting that you will be a few minutes late.

Additionally, and one of the absolute worst limitations for iOS is that push notifications are not allowed. This severely limits the usability of the app because you must have the app open to get the benefits. For Android, your phone will alert you that it is time to leave for work (or whatever appointment) based on the traffic and the time. For iOS, it knows you have to leave, but it can’t say anything to you. It’s up to you to notice the time, and check the app for the traffic update. That is a huge downside, but given all the wonderful other features of the app, I found that I am in it regularly enough to notice things before it alerts me.

Final Thoughts

Google Now is still young on iOS, but it is clearly a winning product. Of all the apps to have ever come out on iOS (not counting Google Maps return to iOS), this is hands down the one that I am most excited about. True predictive technology is something that tech companies have been working on for ages, but nobody has been able to really nail. Google seems extraordinarily close, and if they can develop this to know virtually everything I want to do before I do it, then all the other companies will be scrambling as their market share absolutely tanks.

The best part is that I don’t think any other company really can do it the way that Google can, because they don’t have all these integrated services like Gmail that are constantly pulling in information from every aspect of your life. Time will tell if this is truly the future, but I am very certain that this is a large step in the right direction.