productivity technology

The iPad and Favorite Apps

I’ve had an iPad now for three months. In that time, I’ve barely touched my laptop.

Some observations:

1. For content consumption, the form factor is compelling. The book analogy is apt – I hold it like a book, it’s closer to my face and eyes, and it encourages and facilitates sharing with others. I use it in a much larger range of situations than I would a laptop, and more often – in bed, on the street, at a cafe. It’s tactile – using my fingers to touch and interact and engage with media / content can seem more direct when compared to keyboard and mouse.

However, while it facilitates increased consumption, it isn’t always the best tool for efficient consumption – if I have a backlog of Google Reader articles I want to go through, I’ll use the keyboard and mouse on my desktop, which are vastly more efficient still for most tasks. Ironically, it’s given me a greater appreciation of how important the development of the mouse, keyboard and windows-based UIs have been to the overall advance of the computer age. The iPad encourages shallow consumption – if I need to analyze and synthesize information, this usually means flicking between several web pages and applications at the same time, which means my desktop.

Pages in Mobile Safari also load more slowly than on my desktop and laptop. The difference is that I can be lying in bed or at a cafe with my iPad, in a relaxed state, and on my terms – that alone is compelling.

Native mouse and keyboard support in the OS is really needed if the iPad is to become an efficient content creation tool. I’m creating this post in the WordPress app, but using the Bluetooth keyboard without a mouse is cumbersome and much slower compared to a laptop.

2. Portability – 1.5 pounds, which is just light enough to not have to think about slipping in a bag when going out. It’s still much better than most netbooks or laptops, will only get lighter (and include more features – front and back cameras), and is reasonably robust (a one-piece slab, with flash memory).

3. Instant on, casting the computer as personal information appliance. I took it on a holiday to NYC, and got into the habit of taking it out of my bag, using GPS to quickly figure out which street I was on, and getting directions to my next destination. It removes the time tax on using a computer to get information.

4. Battery life, something less to worry about because the iPad seems to go for days on a single charge. Not true for laptops and cell phones, where I have to remember to plug in every night.

5. Fit-for-use OS. The UI is finger-centric, and you won’t see many carryovers from the mouse and keyboard world, one of my frustrations with Windows Tablet PCs.

6. Unlocked with no contract, for me, the tipping point. I’m able to reactivate my monthly data plan with ATT whenever I want and as I need (if I’m holiday elsewhere in the US, for example), and when I was in Australia, simply slipped in a Micro SIM from Optus to get 3G coverage there.

7. GPS, and location-based apps, which are going to be huge as smartphones continue to become a bigger part of our lives (although I’m still a holdout). Take for example, Zillow, which allows me to see every house for sale overlaid on a map of my current location, along with photos, description, agent contact details, price history, and a price estimate.

8. Many native apps appear to exist to address the fact that a browser web app is not the most effective way to access information on the iPad. However, more websites are being created specifically for iPad use – Yahoo mail and Gmail have particularly good implementations – and this should be a growing trend, as it allows companies to bypass the App Store’s restrictions.

Which apps have gotten the most use? Here are my top fifteen, in rough order of use, with category classification and listings of other apps of note:


1. Instapaper ($4.99) – One could argue that reading is the iPad’s raison d’être, and Instapaper is the reading app I use the most. It allows for deep reading by presenting downloaded web pages and with all advertising and other site context removed. Every article, no matter where it comes from, is presented the same way – simple text on a page. With many other apps providing Instapaper support, and article recommendation websites (eg. built around Instapaper, an ecosystem is developing, which augurs well for folks who appreciate the written word.

2. Feeddler RSS Reader Pro ($4.99) – My second-most used app. I’ve purchased and tried Reeder as well, but in the end, Feeddler best suits the way I browse my feeds – by folder, then by feed.

3. Amazon Kindle (free) – Seems to have a larger range of eBooks than iBooks, and more free books to boot. I’m currently reading The Rational Optimist, which was available free for a limited time – the hardback list price is $26.99.


4. Atomic Web Browser ($0.99) – Addresses a number of Mobile Safari deficiencies: full-screen browsing (which Mobile Safari does not have), multi-tab support with tabs shown onscreen for quick switching, and concurrent loading of multiple pages.


5. Twitter (free) – The UI is different, clean and effective. Along with InstaPaper’s Editor’s Picks,, and Google Reader, I use it to discover new articles of interest.

6. Friendly ($0.99) – A more iPad-friendly UI on top of Facebook.

7. Skype – For overseas calls – unfortunately, an iPad-native version doesn’t exist yet, and I use the iPhone app.


8. Netflix (free) – If you live in the US, a NetFlix subscription is a no brainer, especially with a an imminent streaming-only option. When I was at home sick earlier this week, I watched The Thin Red Line in HD streaming, propped up in bed, coughing my lungs out. The NetFlix app also supports HDMI-out to your HDTV.

Others – ABC Player (current season episodes, in HD), VLC.


9. App Shopper (free) – How I discover the majority of my apps, and my free apps.

Others – Wikipanion, Open Table, Zillow, Cool Hunting, Houzz, Kayak, TED, Flixster.


10. GoodReader ($0.99) – A PDF reader which is in the music section because I use it to access my musical scores. The iPad screen is only 10 inches diagonally, and GoodReader distinguishes itself from other PDF readers by allowing you to create custom crops / viewport dimensions for each PDF. This lets you optimize the use of screen real estate and aspect ratio so that all notes on a page are displayed, but zoomed in to their largest possible size. I can see the iPad being a boon to musicians – instead of lugging around a number of books, all your scores are available to you and other collaborators in a drastically lighter package.

Others – AccuPlayer, Pandora. The streaming music apps will really come to the fore when Apple releases iOS 4 for the iPad, allowing this apps to play music in the background.


11. NYTimes (free) – A native UI on top of my favorite newspaper, with all current articles available (some opinion pieces are not).

12. ScoreCenter XL (free) – A native UI on top of ESPN; video highlights are available on the same page as the game recap.

13. WunderMap (free) – A map of your current location overlaid with temperature readings from weather stations in the area, and forecast information. Lightweight and ad-free, compared to some of the other weather apps, which are ad-heavy.

14. World Clock (free) – Includes a world map with areas of daylight and night.

Others – Flipboard, NPR.

Content Creation

15. Office2 HD ($7.99) – A number of document editing apps exist, but this one appears to have the most seamless integration with Google Docs. When you edit a doc and save it, it uploads it directly back to Google Docs – some other apps I’ve seen force you to download the file locally, and then manually re-upload it (where it then gets saved as a new Google Doc).

GamesTap Tap Revolution, Stick Golf, Angry Birds Halloween ($1.99).

photography technology

RAW Software

Shooting RAW offers many advantages over using your camera’s JPEG processing, including the ability to increase the dynamic range of the original photo. It also means finding the right software to process the files into a format suitable for prints, and uploading to the web. I’ve been using Capture One 4 for over a year now, and been very happy with it.

I made the following notes when I was evaluating RAW converters, looking specifically at:

  • the level of detail extracted
  • ability to assign comparative ratings
  • customizable sharpening
  • noise removal
  • batch processing
  • color rendition for my Canon 400D files (.CR2)

Adobe Camera Raw


  • great workflow with Bridge
  • excellent viewing and editing performance
  • sidecar files (ie. the ability to save your edits in a file external to the RAW file)
  • DNG format support (a standard for RAW files that is gaining wider support)


  • doesn’t display red correctly for CR2 files, even worse when it’s converted to DNG
  • conversion is slow

Adobe LightRoom


  • extremely slick, impressive interface
  • sidecar files


  • has the same color problems with my Canon files as ACR
  • slow

Bibble Pro


  • a one-stop shop with lots of control, meaning you may not need to go to Photoshop for most shots
  • sidecar files


  • more resource hungry than ACR, meaning I can’t use it on my Dell X1 laptop (with its measly 512MB RAM)
  • not as detailed image as C1 or ACR/Lightroom

Capture One


  • excellent colors and detail from my 400D files
  • best sharpening algorithms to my eye
  • lowest resource usage, making it possible to run on my Dell X1


  • have to manually export (archive) its own side car files



  • best colors of the lot, even better than C1
  • sidecar files automatically saved


  • sharpening not as good as C1, but on par with others
  • more resource hungry than C1, but less so than the others

Raw Developer


  • more detail than C1, good colors too (see outback photo’s article)
  • sidecar files


  • only for the Mac



  • unique zone mapping feature (a la Ansel Adams), Photoshop not needed for most applications
  • sidecar files


  • still an early edition
  • runs on Java, which means slow and occasional crashes on my laptop

Breeze Browser


  • writes sidecar files


  • not as full-featured as the others, will need to go to photoshop
blog technology


I don’t own a TV.

However, two months ago I bought a Dell XPS 420 desktop and a 30-inch monitor (3007WFP-HC). The machine is spec’d with 4GB RAM and the least inexpensive quad processor in Intel’s lineup, with a basic dedicated graphics card. All up, slightly less than $2.5K. This is a box for processing photos, surfing the web, playing the occasional game, and occasional work (IntelliJ at 2560 x 1600 = productivity).

What I didn’t expect to be doing was watching movies on demand. I joined Netflix last week, and discovered their all-you-can-eat movies-on-demand, which comes with all but their most basic plans. I signed up for the $8.99 1-disc at-a-time plan.

I remember what a buzz there was when Netflix first came out with its DVD rentals via mail plan. I can see what the fuss is about, having just got my first DVD in the mail, but online streaming movies are amazing. Sure, the online selection doesn’t approach that of the mail-out collection (it’s growing everyday), but that would be to miss the selling point, which is huge – if I find something I like, I wait all of 20 seconds before I start watching. Quality is on par with DVD, perhaps a little less, but eminently watchable on a 30-inch screen from my couch. I’ve been watching mostly foreign movies, and if my tastes ever ran into 80’s television sitcoms and series, or B-grade movies (they don’t, but if they did), I’d be all set too. $9 a month is simply a no-brainer.

Looking online, the major free-to-air stations like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are making available full episodes (some in HD) of most of their series (together with ads) as well. For music, I use Pandora or Slacker, and more and more radio stations are streaming their broadcasts online (which I listen to through this sidebar gadget). I’m typing this post listening to KQED and glancing at the Windows sidebar where I have the weekend weather, latest exchange rates, and time in Australia and Asia where friends and family are.

What I do miss TV for is broadcasts of live events (basically NBA games). Then again, that’s what friends with cable, sports bars, and HDTV, another amazing technology, are for.


Firefox and Adobe Reader replacements

I’ve been using Firefox for web browsing for the last year or so, but it has become a bit of a memory and resource hog for my slightly underpowered laptop (a Dell X1/Samsung Q30 ultraportable), which has only 512 MB of RAM – it doesn’t take that much to ratchet up its memory usage to 100 MB and beyond. Googling “lightweight browser”, two which came highly recommended were Opera and Kmeleon. Opera has a lot of the functionality of Firefox without having the need to download a bunch of plugins at the start, but I found it only slightly less memory-intensive than Firefox. Kmeleon on the other hand is small, and very, very fast (it’s built on the native Windows API) – it shares the same rendering engine (and same standards compliance) as Firefox, has fewer frills and conveniences, but just about everything I need when I’m surfing at home. For my laptop, it’s perfect – it’s free, offers incredibly speedy browsing, and gives me enough space to run other apps such as Word or iTunes.

In a similar vein, I looked for an Adobe Reader replacement, and found the free and open source Sumatra PDF – it runs as a standalone EXE without the need for installation, and is tiny – 800K is all the disk space it takes. Again, blazingly fast relative to its predecessor, simple and minimalist, while still meeting my rather modest needs.

mobile technology

Mobile bookmarks

My new cell phone has a 320 by 240 landscape 1.9″ screen, sharp and bright, that actually makes for a decent experience viewing web and WAP pages (or at least as decent as it can get on a sub-2″ screen). The landscape orientation is a real boon when it comes to writing messages and viewing photos as well. Since my mobile plan currently offers me unlimited web access, I’ve been looking at various websites that offer mobile versions of their content over the last couple of weeks – whenever I’ve had time to kill on the train, walking from place to place, and even in the office. This new-found ubiquity of access has actually changed the way I view and use the web – I can’t imagine having a phone without this feature in the future.

Some compromises are, of course, necessary to make reading a full news article for example, possible on a cell phone.

  • The New York Times has an option to either load the entire page at once (useful for when your train is about to go underground and you know you’d like to read the whole article) or sequenced over a number of smaller pages (good if you’re not sure whether you want to read the whole thing yet).
  • When you have a small screen, it’s all about the text-reading experience – not all sites have fonts and sizes setup right, either being too small or too large (though to an extent that can be ameliorated by the browser text size setting). Well-placed graphics are always a welcome inclusion though – such as the resized photos seen at the top of many news articles.
  • I was impressed by the breadth of content you can access, including popular webmail and portals, news, online shopping (yes, Amazon is there), airlines, even American Express has a site, so it’s entirely possible to pay your bills on your cell phone.
  • Typical conventions for a mobile website address – a mobile, mobi, or m subdomain (eg.; or a /wap, /pda, /wireless etc. section of your site (eg.
  • Some useful features of the NetFront browser on my phone – a rendering option to never load images; the ability to save a page including its graphics for offline viewing; Javascript (which you can turn off), WAP/WML and SSL support.
  • It would be great if there was an RSS-feed mobile website.

I had been been adding bookmarks directly to my phone, but managing and accessing them there was a little unwieldy. In the end, I created a web page that contains my mobile bookmarks so only a single bookmark is needed on the phone itself:

photography technology

DAM software

Digital Asset Management is becoming a big deal for many photographers, professionals and occasional shooters alike. I hadn’t really thought much about it before, but my recent acquisition and subsequent digitizing of historical family photographs brought home to me the need for a tool that would allow me to treat the collection as a library – complete with cataloging, search and organization functionality. A comprehensive survey of the DAM software market can be found here.

My basic requirements were:

  • Flexible labeling of photos – multiple labels, and ability to specify a label hierarchy
  • XML export of the catalog – including labels and their hierarchy
  • Support of open standards (IPTC, XMP) to avoid vendor lock-in
  • Ability to write these tags to the image files (or sidecar files), for the same reason

I quickly settled on a trial of the v4 beta of idImager (Pro version) – this is a public beta program. One of its key features for me was full XMP support (I can verify that all tags are written out to my JPEGs), but on top of this, the beta version introduces two killer features that take my ability to catalog and make sense of my family photo library to a whole new level.

The first is label relationships – instead of imposing a single inheritance hierarchy on my labels, I can arbitrarily link any two labels together, and specify their relationship to each other. For example, Peter and James are linked by the father-son relationship. This means I can build complex family trees from the various person name labels in my catalog, very easily (find me all photos which contain Peter and his sons) – resulting in very expressive and powerful image searches.

The second is area tagging (which you see in Flickr‘s annotations feature), the ability to mark an area of a photo, and associate a label with it. Absolutely indispensable for large group photos to figure out who’s who.

The program has a fairly intuitive interface – I rarely had to refer to the user manual, which is saying a bit, because this is an application with a feature set geared towards pro users. The user community is active, and I have to mention that support from the developer, Hert, is second to none. I’ve logged two bugs and a feature request so far over the week, and responses have been forthcoming each time within 24 hours – pretty amazing when you consider that he’s the sole developer of the product.

photography technology

Digicam deal

I popped into Bic Camera on the weekend, and got what I think is a bargain on a digital camera. Bic is selling the Fujifilm F31fd compact digicam, if you take into account their loyalty points and current campaign, for roughly USD170 – that’s about $50 cheaper than I can find on pricegrabber, and it’s probably worth noting that it’s initial release MSRP was USD399. Widely considered the best camera by far for low-light/no-flash pictures (and best-in-class battery life, at a rated 580 shots per charge), at the price it was hard to resist. With the current emphasis on megapixels by camera makers (it offers a “paltry” 6 megapixels worth of resolution), it’s hard to imagine another camera like this being introduced in the market again, at least for the time being. I really missed having a compact camera around on a recent trip to Malaysia – this one fits the bill nicely.

photography technology

Scanning prints

I have about 4-500 old family photographs from about 50 years ago that I thought would be great to digitize and distribute among relatives that are spread around the world – considering my paternal grandmother came from a family of thirteen, that’s a lot of interrelated history there.

So I got a Canoscan Lide 600F scanner from BIC Camera last night (178,000Â¥ – including 10% back in points, about USD135) – the salesman told me that the warranty and software were only good for Japan, but that I could download the drivers online. Sure enough, they were there on the Canon website, and I didn’t even bother opening the packaged CD. The device itself is relatively slim, and wonder of wonders, doesn’t need its own power supply, running off USB bus power (you need to use the provided USB cable though). The software was rather painless to install and get going – a machine restart was necessary for me, but not mentioned in the install guide.

I used Canon’s CanoScan Toolbox downloaded online, and for batch scanning of prints, it’s a breeze. Simply layout up to ten photos on the platen, and the software automatically straightens and crops correctly, provided you follow its guidelines of 1 cm between the platen edge and other photos – in this it does a great job. You need to set the correct orientation in a preview screen after scanning, and before saving – some way to automate this would’ve been nice. Perhaps the interface could have been a little cleaner, there’s a memory leak problem if you attempt to scan a number of times in the same session, so you need to restart sessions each time – not a big deal as I mapped one of the scanner buttons to bring up the Multi-Scan mode. Anyway, testament to how efficient the workflow was – I started last night and was done this evening getting through 478 photos, 4 x 6 and smaller.

Quality-wise, nothing to quibble over – scanning at 600 dpi, a 100% crop is shown below (without any sharpening). I’m very impressed with the technology and the whole experience.

Sample Crop

Now to start mailing those CDs out…

blogging technology

Making a start

Well, I spent a little time over the last couple of days evaluating blogging options for the website, and eventually settled on WordPress (what a great name for a blogging platform!).

Some of its pluses:

  • It runs off PHP, which means it runs on my current web host (which also provides MySql instances on the same plan). The learning opportunity was a big part of going with WordPress, as opposed to being hosted on or
  • XML-export of posts.
  • Wide user base, established community, theme and plugin availability.
  • Open source.

MovableType (another great moniker) was another option, but dependency on Perl, a much larger installation, a seemingly more powerful but less user-friendly dashboard put it behind WordPress (it’s also not open source, but for me that’s not a big deal). I did like its ability to publish multiple blogs from a single installation.

I was able to FTP-publish to my site from, and liked its simplicity, but in the end wanted something that I could tweak under the covers a bit more.

After that, it was a matter of hacking away at the default theme to get it looking the way I wanted (a lot of inspiration coming from this great WordPress site), which took actually much longer than I expected. It’s been a good experience though, as it’s given me exposure to working with stylesheets, server-side includes, PHP, and inter-browser differences (the theme looks much better in Firefox than it does in IE). And it’s been just the impetus I needed to bring better organization to the site.

The site does seem slower with SSI, as do the blog pages in general, and in particular the admin pages. Looking around, this wp-cache plugin might be an option for better performance.