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While most of my musings concern iOS, I use OSX an equal amount of time. While each OS is better suited for certain tasks both sport some must-have apps. 

Unlike my previous Windows PCs, chock full of default software I never used (did anyone ever use Windows Media Center?) OSX has a default suite of apps I use daily. On Windows the first task I performed after prepping a new PC for use (uninstall any crapware the manufacturer snuck in and installing antivirus protection) was using Internet Explorer to find and install a better browser. I actually use and enjoy Safari (the cloud tabs and reading list are particularly beneficial) but do use other browsers for certain tasks. Firefox is used for work-related remote connection tasks; it seems to be a bit more Windows-freindly than other browsers, and having a dedicated browser for work allows me to turn off popup blocking necessary for certain work tasks that would make personal web browsing unenjoyable. Mail in OSX has worked well, but as with browsers I’ve found it beneficial to keep the OSX software for personal use and use a third party offering for work. iTunes is a must for media on OSX as well as the go-to portal of interaction with iOS devices. While no longer required there are still times that iTunes is beneficial to iOS device users (restoring your device is the first task that comes to mind). iPhoto, iWork, Messages, and several other default apps get used on a regular basis. Since these come standard with all Macs now I can’t consider them a must-have.

The first non-preinstalled app that came to mind is the aforementioned Firefox. The venerable third party browser isn’t the market leader it once was thanks to Chrome’s ascension, but its still a powerful and configurable tool. While I enjoy using Safari it isn’t the best browser for everyone; those that prefer to use Android handsets would get more benefit from sticking to Google’s browser (and it makes a fine alternative for those that don’t have a reason other than they’d like to try something other than Safari). Chrome is an integral part of interacting with Google’s Chromecast media streaming device as well. 

I’m currently using a free Apple App Store solution for my Exchange email. While the Mail app can handle Exchange, as I’ve said previously keeping work and personal email physically separate has been helpful (although I do link my Calendar app to Exchange). So far Airmail has worked very well; the app is quick and provides all the functionality I need (albeit my requirements aren’t very strict).

The most-used non-Apple app I have is the Pandora One desktop client. I have a large iTunes library, but at work I’d rather not have to worry about what ambient music is playing in the background (and I can’t be bothered to make playlists) so Pandora One has worked magnificently. I prefer the desktop client over using the web portal; one click access is a nice touch to a service that works so well. iTunes Radio has been decent (and is a less expensive choice) but the algorithm to select similar music to your stated choice doesn’t seem to work quite as well, and I hear repeated tracks more often. I’d wager that iTunes Radio will improve over time, but for now my first choice for streaming music is still Pandora

While I use my MacBook for work, my iMac is strictly a personal-use device. Since it’s the system with the hardware graphics card, by rights it is my gaming portal- and that means Steam. Having the Steam app ported over to OSX eliminated my last reason to stick to Windows. Even though not all of their library is available for Macs, there are plenty of titles (including Valve heavyweights like Half Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead) to keep you entertained. While I do pick up titles from GOG.com (aka Good Old Games) I still like the iTunes-for-games feel of the Steam portal, and use it to manage and launch my non-Steam collection.

The iMac also serves as my home’s media hub; its iTunes library powers my Apple TV and local streaming to the iPad when I’d like to watch something in the kitchen or bedroom. I do have purchases from iTunes downloaded, but there are far more selections obtained from other various sources. For non-iTunes video Handbrake has been my go-to app of choice. The venerable translator can rip video from most DVDs to your format of choice (including formatting for a variety of devices). If you’ve picked up a video file from somewhere else that you’d like to load into iTunes Handbrake has you covered there too- it has handled any downloaded format I’ve thrown at it. 

Once those movies or TV shows have been ripped/translated, you could just manually sort them to your folder of choice and manually add them to your library, but its hardly an elegant solution. My choice for keeping my video library looking as good as the files it holds is iDentify. This handy little app can tag almost any MP4 file using The TVDB, The Movie DB, and TagChimp with the correct metadata (including artwork) and automatically load the corrected files into iTunes for you. While not a must-have for some, for the compulsive sticklers out there the benefit of having a cohesive library using proper artwork and file metadata makes it invaluable. 

For those files you can’t quite identify or don’t care to add to your iTunes library there’s VLC. This longstanding free favorite is a diminutive powerhouse; the tiny app can handle virtually any video or audio file you could find. I have it set up as the default app for all non-iTunes media so that the aforementioned doesn’t automatically import files I just want to test or only plan on watching once. It’s a fine DVD player if you have an optical drive, as well. It’s capable of doing far more than I currently ask of it; it’s been an integral part of my home computers long before I was an Apple convert. 

Like most things in life, what I consider a must-have app is entirely a personal reflection. Your Mac is a powerful and versatile tool, whether you are spending time on personal or professional tasks. As a security default new Macs are set up to only accept software from the OSX app store, but don’t overlook some of the top notch offerings that third party non-App Store vendors have to offer. No matter what your typical use is, there are apps out there that will make your life easier. 

 

 

I had used an iPad coupled with a bluetooth keyboard as my sole productivity hardware at work for a few years. Even prior to recent updates to iWork my purchased Numbers and Pages apps met my needs well, and the added ability to contact just about everyone in my work sphere via Messages meant that I didn’t have to change devices to communicate. After a time my employer changed payroll and HR software platforms to one that wasn’t iPad-friendly, so I made the jump to a MacBook Pro (and have been very happy with the transition). While it wasn’t inexpensive, my Retina MacBook Pro has been far more stable and responsive than the Dells my employer uses (and much more versatile and useful than the older Thinkpads given to those that need laptops). 

There were a few hurdles to overcome, however. Even the most dedicated employee will use the tool at hand for personal matters on occasion, and I had no reservations doing so because I had purchased my MacBook. My simple solution to keeping my web usage separate was to use separate browsers. Safari is my personal internet portal, thanks to the inclusion of syncing bookmarks, reading list, passwords, and Cloud tabs via iCloud. Having a uniform web experience across all my devices has been a nice feature, and I didn’t want to muddle my other non-work devices with links and open tabs that could contain sensitive information. Firefox was my choice for work-related internet; it seems to be more Windows-friendly (a huge plus because none of the software we use has Mac support via our IT department) and healthcare institutions frown on Chrome due to Google’s (mostly anonymous but still unacceptable) data mining of use and emphasis on other Google products. 

I managed to find workarounds for any other roadblocks that appeared. To perform my administrative duties over our medical imaging and reporting system I needed to be able to remotely connect to the hospital’s server, and found a way thanks to a little known Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection app for OSX and accompanying software from Cisco. An unpublished plugin from Cerner allows me access to our patient charting and scheduling system (another platform that was claimed to be Windows-only). The OSX versions of iWork have allowed me to continue my previous word processing and spreadsheet activities without missing a beat, including sharing those documents with my superior and coworkers via iWork’s easy exporting to PDF and Microsoft Office formats. 

I did have one issue that required a trip to the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store- email. Like all large organizations mine uses Outlook for internal email and calendars. Originally the OSX Mail app worked well enough, but after having to change my password (as security demands we do at regular intervals) I lost my connectivity. Deleting and reinstalling the account didn’t correct the problem, and relying on web access just wasn’t going to cut it. Thankfully the Genius found a hidden file that kept overwriting my account changes in my MacBook and deleted it, restoring my Outlook account access. 

While using the Mail and Calendar app has been acceptable (and far more preferable to using the Outlook Web client) it wasn’t a glitch-free experience. I share a lot of my daily internet findings with friends and social media thanks to the sharing feature in Safari, but often I wouldn’t notice that the email account I was sending from was my work one instead of my personal one. While not a deal breaker having some emails fail because that account wasn’t part of the mailing list I sent to or having personal contacts replying to my work email didn’t sit well. 

The solution was an obvious (and previously used) one- simply use different clients. There are multiple Outlook-compatible apps for both iOS and OSX, and much like my browser experience having some sort of physical separation of the two made for a much better experience. To test the change I opted for free apps; Airmail on OSX and Cloudmagic on my iPhone. Both have worked without a problem during testing, and while I’m not adverse to paying for quality apps so far I don’t have any reason to do so- the free apps have met every need. 

So even if you’re told that something is Windows-only don’t give up on using the tools that you prefer. With a bit of research you just might find that you can not only use the platform you want, it just might be better

The real origin of Samsung's logo!

Who knew?

The smartphone in general and the iPhone in particular matured very quickly. The overall device quickly became what it is now, and those changes have been incremental, not redefining. From it’s creation the device has been essentially the same- a rectangular touch screen device that communicated on various radio frequencies with internal sensors allowing for easier input from the user. While there have been marked improvements from the first model, the iPhone is at heart the same device; even a first generation iPhone user would be able to navigate an iPhone 5s with little to no previous instruction. This is the core of the claim that a platform has ‘matured’- small changes to improve the user experience may still be added, but it has reached its final form and function. Much like the laptop, there’s just not much room to alter the form of the smartphone. Laptops have tried to encroach the realm of tablets lately with flipping or rotating touch screens, but they haven’t been embraced by the consumer. The iPhone may increase its screen size or add a sensor, but its still essentiality the same kind of device. 

What hasn’t matched the iPhone has been the wide ranging market of iOS accessories. There are so many different devices made to protect, input to, be controlled by, or interface with an iOS device it’s almost impossible to catalog them all. Unlike the smartphone accessories are still in a bit of a wild west phase; there are numerous new and innovative ideas being brought to market every day. 

One that caught my attention (and Kickstarter donation) immediately was Dash. The devices aren’t new, but if they live up to the creator’s claims they will be the penultimate personal audio output for any device. The bluetooth earbuds differ from others already available in their form: two independent and untethered earbuds with a clever use of LED lighting, and their function: not only are they bluetooth earbuds, they claim to provide a range of body sensors and an external sound pass thru function allowing the wearer to be aware of ambient sounds. They also are fully functional on their own, sporting 4 gigabytes of internal storage for whatever audio you’d like to enjoy. I’m not the only one to be fascinated by the promise of the Dash, as the project has eclipsed their highest stretch goal of $3.3 million just before the end of the campaign. 

Not to be outdone others have come up with innovative ways of interacting with your device, like Ring by Longbar Inc. While Dash promises to provide unparalleled output, Ring uses bluetooth to allow for gesture-based input to your device. As the name suggests, Ring is worn on the index finger and acts as a motion tracker allowing your finger gestures to control and interact with your device. Open apps, send messages, even get alerts on incoming messages via a vibratory alert. Ring has a companion app that purports to offer the ability to do financial transactions as well. While the industry is awash in buzz about smart watches, devices like Ring interest me far more. I don’t want a second screen, I want a better/easier/more powerful way of interacting with the device I already have. 

These are just two examples of how clever creators are exploring the boundaries of what an accessory can do for or with your device. iOS devices already play an integral role in many areas (like in place of traditional cash registers and credit card readers) that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible. With the right vision and drive the next great device might end up being an accessory rather than an entirely new market. 

It finally happened- Microsoft has blessed the unwashed masses and has shared the crown jewels of Microsoft Office with iOS. The tablet that was only for media consumption has lost the last reason why it can’t be used as a ‘legitimate productivity tool’. So should the crowds begin to rejoice in their newfound productivity? Well, maybe; but more than likely no. 

Pundits have reported via various outlets that the core Microsoft Office apps- Word, Excel, and Powerpoint- all look great and offer the same level of power that longstanding users have grown to expect from Microsoft’s flagship software, all the way to the iconic ribbon interface. But look a bit closer and the caveats become apparent. 

First, there’s the matter of who profits from the apps. Apple has made it common knowledge that they collect a 30% fee from every app store transaction. Apple would take a good portion of the revenue Microsoft would garnish from the expanded user base, seriously eroding if not eliminating the profit margin. 

Second, consider how Office has been sold in the past. Even the limited Home and Student version provided a bundle of various apps; the components have never been available a la carte as Apple has done with iWork when it was brought to the App Store. There’s no way to bundle apps in the iTunes App store, so Microsoft needed a different approach. 

The solution was to change the focus from software to service. Losing revenue was avoided by making the apps free- 30% of nothing is easy to pay. The catch is that the apps require an Office 365 subscription to be fully functional; without it they simply work as viewing apps capable of displaying their various formats but not creating or editing them. That subscription isn’t chickenfeed; the $7 monthly fee would buy a traditional copy of the Home and Student version in a year’s time. The new apps don’t provide the same flexibility as their competitors, either- the new Office apps only provide cloud access to Microsoft’s Skydrive service. 

So if your organization already uses Skydrive and Office 365, you’re in luck- the new Office apps might be just the thing you’ve been waiting on. If the early reviews are accurate they will offer a very similar experience to the one you have come to rely on via the device that many prefer. If you’re just looking for a good productivity app you might want to go elsewhere- the various iWork apps are very good (and very free) and can produce documents in Microsoft formats. If you don’t care for iWork there are several other productivity apps to be had in the App Store, and there are always web solutions like Google Documents to try. 

Office for iOS is a good thing, but for just a select few users. Most of us will keep on being productive like we have been using iOS, with or without Microsoft’s help. 

iOS Everywhere!

I’ve just returned from an overdue short vacation to Savannah and wanted to drop a quick note on the surprising proliferation of iOS I’ve noticed when traveling. While I intentionally went light on the technology (my iPhone stayed on ‘do not disturb’ for most of my time there) the short time I spent on my iPad was enhanced by the bed and breakfast having usable wifi. Often hosts will have woefully inadequate wifi (my own employer’s wifi is practically dialup speed) but the Ballastone Inn offered bandwidth that rivaled what I have at home. 

The local college (Savannah College of Arts and Design) was very Apple-centered; possibly because of Apple’s historical focus on providing a better experience for the creative-minded or possibly because their charming school store was an official Apple reseller. The students I saw around the historical district overwhelmingly had Apple devices- only one had a non-Apple laptop, and I didn’t see an Android handset in the hands of anyone for the length of my stay. 

Most surprising was the breadth of iOS use by the local businesses of Savannah. Every small retailer had some sort of device in use; most were using iPads as cash register/point of sale devices. Oliver Bentley, the manufacturer of my pup’s favorite biscuits, had what looked like an iPod Touch running Pandora for store audio because their venerable iMac had finally reached the point that its browser wasn’t connecting (and yet the 10+ year old desktop still looked like it was running perfectly well). 

As for me, having an iPhone on hand is always a boon. Regardless of what mapping service you prefer (and I’ve been using Apple’s much maligned maps app for a while with no problems on my travels in FL and GA) there’s a turn by turn mapping app for you. While XM/Sirius has been an unexpected pleasure in my vehicle, having access to my favorite podcasts and audiobooks makes long distance drives much more enjoyable too. Once there being able to do quick research on the local attractions saves both time and money, and allows you to bypass tour guides that may not offer what you’re looking for. 

So if you’re heading out of town, keep your iOS devices handy. They’ve already proven themselves to countless merchants, and in my travels they’ve become a must-have. 

Hey Big Spender

The introduction of the iTunes App Store made the iPhone made what was already a must-have device a virtual Swiss Army Knife; capable of almost anything a developer could dream up. The development of iOS and the evolutionary improvements to the handset over time has made this even more evident. 

The prevailing price of apps has kept user interest and involvement high. According to 148Apps.biz the average price for the over one million apps is just over $1, and a paltry 77 cents when only games are considered. When you consider how inexpensive apps are (especially the vast number of free apps available) a recent story from Mashable about former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal seems almost implausible. 

The story quotes the retired player as being an admitted “techie” who spends a staggering $1,000 PER WEEK on apps. While I’m a sucker for new tech, even if I had the free pocket change to afford such activities I’d have a hard time actually using that many apps in a week (and my iPad and iPhone are integral parts of my daily activities). 

So here’s to you Mr. O’Neal; in a down economy I’d wager you alone could keep a whole cadre of app developers merrily coding to satisfy your app needs. 

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