Year in Review: Geek and Tech

(Old workspace: tech used to be simpler!)

Without further ado, here are the geeky widgets and apps I've developed a deep fondness for this year.

If you are fine using stock apps and like using your mouse just fine, this post probably isn't for you. If you would rather your fingers never left the keyboard and, at that, used the fewest possible keystrokes for the most bang, this post may be for you. Mixed in are a few gems you may not have heard of and may suddenly itch to spend money on. Enjoy!

Macs

I've been juggling laptops for a year now. MacBook Airs kind of fell into my life, and I used one pretty happily until the middle of the year and then decided I was really tired of having to use an external hard drive so often. I sold it and bought a MacBook Pro (a spinning-platter one). There's a definite downside in speed, but it's a good solid laptop for what I need and am likely to need for a while.

Mavericks has largely tended to be slow and buggy for me, but I like the new tagging and other features enough to keep it and just whine. Saving my sanity has been the free Mac app Memory Clean, which can be set to free up RAM after it gets choked to a certain level.

Mac apps

As for other Mac apps, I listen to podcasts and end up spending money. Mac Power Users is responsible for significant depletion of my checking account. TextExpander, Hazel, Alfred, and PopClip are my main weapons in my desire to automate my life, in addition to my stand-bys Evernote and Dropbox.

TextExpander and Hazel are worth every penny. At first I thought I couldn't find a real use for them, but holy cow was that wrong. Hazel keeps an eye on all the scraps, photos, screenshots, and other various digital junk that floats into my laptop, waves her wand like Samantha the witch, and it's all tidy and ready for me to find where I think it should be. TextExpander I use a lot for all the writing I do in Markdown, but I also use it for file naming so that everything is consistently done. TE has iOS counterparts, which sync via Dropbox; they don't all work across OS X and iOS, but there are iOS snippet collections to simplify your life (like this one from Brett Terpstra).

Alfred is free with a paid PowerPack option (which I suggest). It is mind-bogglingly customizable. I use it, for example, to

  • Tweet without opening Tweetbot
  • Make a DayOne entry without opening DayOne
  • Hit "control" twice to bring up my clipboard history
  • Search PubMed by typing "pm The Thing I'm Searching For"
  • Add the current Web page to my Reminders
  • Search Evernote

It has "workflows," which I can't seem to create myself, but a bunch of really smart and generous people have made a ton of them and made them available.

PopClip is late to my game. You highlight something on your Mac with your mouse (I specify because doing so with the keyboard doesn't cause the magic), and magically a menu pops up. You can customize what goes there, so go crazy.

Absent from my list is Keyboard Maestro, which I own but could find no real use for. I could see a lot of use cases for it, and it's a polished, sweet app, but I just don't need it.

Finally, I also recently discovered Mou, a Markdown editor with built-in preview. I used to use Byword with a Marked window open to the side, but for my purposes Mou does it all with one app. Vital to my writing life is Tree.app, an outliner that intuitively works for me and allows fairly direct dumping to a Markdown document.

iDevices

I still have my iPhone 5. It's working just fine, I'm not due for an upgrade, and I didn't feel like I needed to plunk down the cash for the 5S. I did, however, feel like I needed to plunk down the cash for a new iPad. I have been juggling tablets and had a third-gen retina iPad that I never used because it felt huge plus a Kindle Fire HD which I did use because of its size. Obvious consolidation: iPad Mini Retina. I got a white one in a brown Smart Case (the one that wraps all the way around), and it goes everywhere with me. This thing rocks.

The killer accessory for it is a folding plastic-but-heavy-duty Arkon stand, which I found when I was looking at the more pricey Twelve South Compass stand. It folds up to the size of a Snickers bar, and I use it constantly because the Smart Case, although it IS fabulous, falls down (so to speak) at propping the Mini up if I want to read or type.

The runner-up killer accessory is the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard, which I got on sale, but it's probably still worth a buy. It charges through solar panels even with a lightbulb, it has BlueTooth quick links for three devices, and I just like typing on it. The keys make me happy the way the snap. (And that statement? Wins me the "geek of the year" award.)

Finally, I have been using handwriting apps a lot more this year on my iPad, and I do not like the typical stubby fat styluses. I got a package of The Friendly Swede styluses and love them. They feel like pencils, and the included attachment lets you attach the stylus to your iPad via the headphone jack if you want. Very handy.

iOS apps

I have done my typical thing of burning through the "next hottest thing" apps, particularly those involving to-do lists and calendars, because I'm so busy and important, right? Keepers include

Remarks: Shoots & Leaves is a newcomer and I've been waiting for it all my life because I am constantly taking pictures of stuff to remember and then forgetting to look at my camera roll. I like Outliner because I can sync it with Tree.app on my Mac for mind-mapping (or outlining; they morph, for me). See my previous post on using Tree.app to turn out Markdown documents. Editorial surpassed Byword for my iPad text editor because of its fabulous workflows and Markdown preview. DayOne has shaken out as my journaling app of choice because of its integration with all my toys and its good export abilities. I won't say much more here because these apps have been widely discussed elsewhere.

Toys

I have some geek toys that are not made by Apple. The holidays have been good to me. First up: the WeMo Switch. The WeMo widgets are part of the home-automation craze, and I use this one to control a lamp in my house. I don't like to come home to a dark house. The WeMo widgets integrate with IFTTT and the WeMo iOS app, so you can get fancy with your scheduling if you want to.

Next up: Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker. I'm not too picky about my audio, but this little sound bar has spoiled me rotten. It sits on a base to charge and just lifts off. I carry it around the house with me and stream to it from my iPhone, iPad, or laptop via Bluetooth. It sounds like a huge sound system somehow. If you join me in thinking that the iPad Mini, for all its fabulousness, has speakers filled with suck, check this speaker out. Or if you just ever need a portable speaker, check it out. I have no need for something like Sonos because I just carry the Bose around, but that's kind of a luddite solution!

Finally, much to my amazement, I like the Pebble watch. It isn't for everyone, and I probably wouldn't like it were it not for the job I have. It requires me to (a) be available via my iPhone and (b) have my hands full almost all the time, and wrestling my phone out of its Otterbox holster to see if I've missed anything in a fray or if something I hear is important gets old FAST. With the Pebble I can just look at my wrist to see if I need to do something about it right then. When I'm not at work I can leave my phone in my bag most of the time. It's kind of a 5-trick pony, but if those are the tricks you want, it's a raging success.

Conclusion

This post has the most interesting tech highlights for my year. I'm not saying they're the best for everyone, but for my life they are. I sometimes wonder if I would get more done with a notebook, paper, and iPod with earbuds. Maybe so. But that boat has sailed, and given that I'm planted in a tech world, that's where I bloom. I hope this post inspires and helps fill some wants: leave a comment if you like any of this stuff (it makes me happy!).