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My Favorite Things of 2012: Retina iPad, Airbnb, Touch Laptops

By Norman Chan

Norm loves both the iPad and Nexus 7 for different reasons, and recommends two web services.

Apple iPad with Retina Display + SD card reader

I skipped the iPad 2 last year because the drop in weight and thickness didn’t warrant spending another $500+ on a tablet for the way I use it. I seldom use the iPad held up with two hands or while walking around at home or at the office. The iPad is primarily a tabletop device for me, placed flat on a surface for browsing the web and checking email. And with the screen upgrade in the third-gen iPad, my primary use for it is viewing and processing photos.

Apple’s high-pixel-density displays are my ideal way for reviewing photos taken with my mirrorless camera, imported directly from the SD card using Apple’s camera connection kit accessory. Since we’ve been travelling a lot more this year, I use time on flights to import all photos taken from a work trip onto my iPad using iPhoto, which supports Jpeg and RAW images up to 19 megapixels. The screen on my iPad is good enough to spot minor differences between photos so I can filter out the blurry and undesirable ones, and the remaining photos are uploaded via PhotoStream (on free airport Wi-Fi while waiting for luggage!) to my desktop PC at home to use in stories. This way, photos live in several places: on iCloud PhotoStream, on my desktop, in backup SD cards, and on my iPad. It’s why I opted for the 64GB model.

The 3rd-gen iPad and camera connection kit has also replaced the desktop I built my parents as their primary computer. For them, it does everything they need: upload photos from their point-and-shoot and then attach those photos to emails or Facebook posts. It’s also saved me an estimated 40 hours of family tech support this year.

Even when I eventually get an iPad Mini (once Apple gives it a 2048x1536 display), I expect that I’ll still go back to the full-size iPad for photo processing. Screen resolution being equal, a physically larger screen really makes a difference when manipulating large photos.

SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC Memory Card

SD cards are dirt cheap these days. Amazon’s own fastest SD cards sell for well under a dollar per gigabyte--you can get a 16GB card for $12.50. Before this year, these were the cards I relied on for shooting photos; I didn’t think I needed anything faster because I wasn’t recording video onto them. But then I got a SanDisk Pro SD card, which is also rated the same Class 10 as the AmazonBasics card. The difference in speed was immediately noticeable. The time it took to go from clicking the shutter to being able to review the photo in playback mode was cut in half with the SanDisk card. My snap-and-review style of shooting greatly benefited from this speed boost, which allowed me to shoot more efficiently and miss fewer photo opportunities.

At $68 for 32GB, SanDisk’s Extreme Pro cards are more expensive per gigabyte than even desktop SSDs. Transcend’s Class 10 SD cards are also well regarded and recommended by the Amazon community, and are priced more in line with the generic AmazonBasics cards.

Airbnb

This is one of those services that I’m almost hesitant to let people know about, since its relative obscurity is part of what makes it so awesome. But it’s also a service that I’m confident is on the verge of becoming very mainstream. Airbnb lets you rent rooms, apartments, and houses direct from homeowners, which is often much cheaper than renting from a nearby hotel. We used Airbnb to find a two-bedroom condo for Comic-Con that was cheaper than the inflated price of one hotel room for that week in San Diego. For a personal trip to Philadelphia, I used it to find a small studio that was closer to great restaurants and nightlife than the big downtown hotels. And for our trip to New York, Airbnb helped us find an apartment that housed us for a week that also worked as a base of operations for shooting video away from our office!

The people I’ve dealt with on Airbnb have been professional and courteous--a user review system keeps renters honest and does a fair job weeding out the scams. These rooms and apartments don’t offer the exact same amenities as hotels (you won’t get maid service, room service, or sometimes even toiletries), but it’s a homier experience than a room at the local Holiday Inn if you want to feel less like an out-of-towner on your next vacation.

Uber

Despite a name that reeks of deluded elitism, the Uber car service has turned out to be a practical alternative to traditional taxis for many of my transportation needs. Its advantages are numerous: the ability to hail an Uber car with a location-aware smartphone app, instant fare and tip payment with saved credit card information, emailed receipts, and exceptional service. The fact that an Uber ride around San Francisco doesn’t cost much more than a taxi ride also helps--I have no problem paying $5 more for the convenience Uber offers for getting to meetings around town.

The best thing about Uber is that its innovations may influence a dated (and sometimes hated) taxi system in America. It’s not difficult to imagine the invisible hand forcing taxis to adopt convenient technologies like app-based hailing and payments to compete. On the flip side, Uber is realizing that not everyone who wants to use its service needs a town car to drive them around--the company is testing a cheaper tier of service using hybrid cars. Cheaper Uber rides and more convenient taxi service are a future I can get behind.

4G LTE

Yup, I’m late to the game on this one. The iPhone finally got LTE this year and AT&T expanded its LTE service to the greater San Francisco Bay Area. It’s hella fast.

There’s little point in flashing SpeedTest numbers here, but with both my Verizon LTE-connected iPad and AT&T LTE-connected iPhone, browsing the web on a cellular connection feels at least as fast as on a Wi-Fi network. The biggest difference is in downloading podcasts and streaming high-definition YouTube video--just have to keep an eye on that bandwidth cap!

Touchscreen Laptops

I’ll wager a musty hardboiled egg on this: touchscreen laptops are more than just a fad--they’ll one day be just as common to laptops as keyboards, mice, and trackpads are today. That’s not to say they’ll replace any of those other interface types--touchscreens on laptops work best as a complement to typing with a keyboard and precision pointing with a mouse. Smartphones and tablets have bootstrapped the language of touch to computing, and it makes great sense for traditional computers to adopt touch’s benefits where they’re appropriate. Microsoft’s Windows 8 is partway there--touch on the desktop is greatly improved over its implementation in Windows 7. I use it in conjunction with the keyboard for browsing the web--the fingers on my left hand tied to the Ctrl + numeral keys to quickly cycle between browser tabs while the fingers on my right hand pans, pinches, and zooms around pages. It’s multi-tasked browsing at its most efficient.

There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course. Application UI and chrome on the desktop aren’t optimized for touch--despite what Microsoft says--and touch targets could be smarter. I’d also love Windows to incorporate programmable multi-finger gestures on the desktop--four-finger swipe to switch between virtual desktops would be awesome.

Google Chrome Sync

One hallmark of an essential feature is when I can’t recall what life was like without it. So it’s somewhat surprising to remember that Chrome’s Tab Sync feature wasn’t actually available until May of this year. Chrome Sync fits perfectly into my internet-addicted lifestyle. One of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is throw open a new Chrome window to dig for interesting stories, which I line up in a row of open tabs. I can then pull those stories back up at the office without having to email them to myself. I suppose this also works if you’re the kind of person who takes a tablet to the bathroom and wants to continue reading something open on your desktop.

Chrome Sync is also occasionally a life saver when the browser crashes and refuses to recover dozens of lost tabs--I can just call up my essential tabs list I have opened on other Chrome instances. It’s one of the reasons I use Chrome on iOS, despite Apple not allowing it to be the default browser for links.

Google Voice Search

IT’S SO FAST.

Google Nexus 7

Hands-down the best piece of technology you can buy for $200.

Some people may consider Google’s Nexus 7 tablet a race for the bottom, but the honest truth is that it’s a great tablet at any price. Pricing it at $200 is an aggressive move, and time will tell if it’s the right one for Google to take away from Apple’s tablet market share dominance. Apple certainly doesn’t feel the same, the way its priced the iPad Mini. But I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not a tablet that just idles in a drawer--I use it every day to check email and my calendar schedule at a glance, as well as access and edit shared Google docs. I don’t, however, find myself browsing around the Google Play store and buying apps much, which is what Google wants Nexus 7 owners to do. Still, it’s the tablet that’s best integrated with Google’s essential services and that goes a long way.

Standing Desk

Joey has been using a standing desk since our days at the old Whiskey office, and our move to a new office this year was the perfect opportunity to move us all to standing desks. Measuring the perfect height for a standing desk is critical, which is why an adjustable one (or adjustable keyboard tray) may be the best way to go about it. A comfortable standing mat to stand on is also important--Will bought ours from the kitchen supply store down the street from our office.

Standing all day too about a month to get used to, but now I feel weird sitting down, even when not at the office. The trick is not locking your knees or putting all of your weight on one foot for too long--I take my shoes off for maximum nimbleness. Now I just can’t work without it. Every time I sit down at the office, I swear I can feel the blight of sheepishness creeping into my body. And if I need a break from standing all day? That’s what push-ups are for.