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My Favorite Things of 2013: Android, Lightroom, Crafting

By Norman Chan

Norm's favorite gear and things from this past year!

Phone, camera, computer, tablet. When I think about the gear that I really use, those are the categories that it all boils down to. And as it turned out, outside of devices tested and reviewed for the site, I didn't really buy a lot of new tech for myself this year. No new TV, headphones, graphics card, or even any of those next-gen game consoles. Whether that's an indication of maturity and self-control on my part or a stabilization of product innovation, I don't know. But looking at my night stand, work desk, and daily carry shows an undeniable paring down to the essentials. Phone, camera, computer, tablet.

That's not to say I didn't love any new tech this year--far from it. In fact, in every one of those essential categories, I made significant changes (upgrades) in products, ecosystems, and the way I use those devices.

We'll start with the big one: the switch from iPhone and iOS to an Android smartphone.

Android (HTC One/Nexus 5)

A confession: my switch to Android was originally half-hearted. I was perfectly happy with the iPhone 5 bought last year, but didn't want to pay for an off-contract upgrade to the iPhone 5S this year. And while I had stints using Android phones like the HTC Incredible and Nexus 4, my month testing each of those phones wasn't a long-term commitment. So when Google released the HTC One Play Edition with Jelly Bean, it seemed like a great opportunity to make a more permanent switch to Android. But there was always a voice in the back of my head that I could switch back to iOS in 2014 when I was due for another subsidized upgrade. The ghost of Jobs, beckoning my return. Today, that voice is barely a whisper.

The things I love about using the HTC One (and now Nexus 5) aren't just features that Apple and iOS eschews--larger screens, home screen widgets, heavy user customization--but things that Android phones flat out do better than iPhones. The capabilities of the notification center top that list; being able to manage email and music playback from one on-screen menu is essential to me. Google mail, calendar and browser integration is all better on Android, and Google Now has become a fixture in how I use a smartphone. None of the cameras (or camera software) I've used on Android can still top iPhone, but it's a compromise I willingly concede for the net benefits.

I knew I was a true convert this past month, temporarily switching back to the iPhone 5 to test an iOS app and accessory. Apps and information streams--data--just feel too isolated and compartmentalized now on iOS. It slows down my efficiency. Even with my SIM card inside the iPhone, the Nexus 5 still stays regularly charged and powered on as my go-to smartphone at my desk.

Canon 6D

If one piece of gear defined how I used technology this year, it was the Canon 6D. My first personal DSLR, a full-frame beast. I've written about it at length in my Living with Photography columns, and just the process of learning this camera, new lenses, and accessories has provided more fulfillment than any other category of gear I own. Photography really is a massive and in-depth world onto its own, with so many accessible paths to entry and endless complexities to explore. And the great thing of knowing that I've only begun to scratch the surface is that there are so many of you out there who have either gone through the same learning experiences or are going through them along with me. Your own comments, photos, and forum threads make this a real conversation, one that we're going to keep on having going into next year.

In terms of the actual photography gear that has become by favorites, it's unquestionably the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 prime lens and Fotodiox 13mm Macro Extender adapter. I simply can't get enough of those macro shots, especially for taking photos of smartphones and tablets.

RAW Photo Editing in Lightroom + Dropbox

Along with the new camera was a new-found love for photo editing, specifically processing RAW photos in Adobe Lightroom 5. Experimenting with workflows and settings tweaks is like cooking, only without the messy cleanup. You're trying different recipes and figuring out your personal tastes; it's much more an art than a science. Putting my Lightroom catalog and smart preview library in Dropbox has also been the best software tip I've used all year. It gives me synchronized access to my library of photos across all my computers, and let me make Develop edits to them that apply to the full-res versions on my desktop PC at home. For the frequent flyer, photo-editing is the best in-flight entertainment.

MacBook Air 11-inch 2013 with Haswell

Speaking of plane rides, my trips this year have dramatically increased in productivity since getting this year's MacBook Air with Haswell processor. I had a Sandy Bridge MacBook Air, and the upgrade to Haswell has redefined my expectations of how long you should be able to use portable computers. Battery life is undeniably the killer app for all mobile hardware these days, whether you're talking about phone, tablet, laptop, or smartwatch. And Haswell laptops that you can't be productive on for over six hours are doing something wrong.

The Sandy Bridge MacBook Air showed that you didn't have to compromise on productivity performance for size and weight; it was and still is as capable as a desktop computer for most tasks (gaming excluded, of course). This year's Haswell laptops show that you don't have to resort to an ARM tablet or hybrid if you need a device that you can work on all day without plugging it in.

iPad Mini with Retina

This category I flip-flopped on a couple of times this year. I loved using my full-size iPad 3 with Retina display last year, but that was when I was importing all the JPEGs from my Sony NEX-C3 into the tablet as part of my workflow. I've since stopped doing that after switching to RAW shooting and Lightroom processing (the iPad SD card adapter doesn't handle RAW and JPEG imports well, and they take up too much space). This year's Nexus 7 became my primary tablet when testing it, and it's still the tablet I would recommend for anyone who wants to spend less than $250. But I eventually realized that the versatility of Android that makes it a better fit as a phone for me were a bit redundant on a tablet. The tablet is my pure content consumption device; I pick it up to browse the web, read books, watch movies, and look at photos. Those are single-purpose tasks that actually suit iOS very well, keeping me focused in isolated activities. That's why I have defaulted to the iPad Mini with Retina as my go-to tablet, the one that sits on my night stand.

Google Calendar

It's something I've used for a long time, but this year brought me new appreciation for Google Calendar. The switch to Android and full calendar integration didn't hurt. But I live by this calendar--playing my own secretary and putting every planned event into a schedule has focused productivity allowed me to visualize work and life on a week-by-week basis. Plus, the events put in the calendar serve as a de facto journal--I regularly go back to remind myself what I did in past weeks and months.

House of Cards

Have to give a shout out to my favorite television show this year. Every year there's a show that I can't wait to recommend to people and discuss with friends. In years past, it was Sherlock and Girls. I was late on the Breaking Bad train, and binge-watching that show after the finale aired put me out of sync with the water coolers of the internet. But binge watching a show the week it premiered--something only made possible by Netflix's decision to release all the episodes of the first season at once--was a strange and wonderful experience. We're still processing what it means for the idea of a cultural zeitgeist, but there's no question that the rules of television have changed. Doesn't hurt that House of Cards was so fucking amazingly written and shot as well. Reoccurring monthly payment to Netflix well spent.

Bluetooth Speakers + Spotify

A last-minute addition to my favorite things of the year is a pair of portable Bluetooth speakers. I keep a unit both at my desk and in my bag now, tethered to my phone and Spotify streaming. They've replaced my use of headphones while working at a computer or in the garage at my workbench, and I've taken them on short trips to Los Angeles to use for phone calls and music listening in hotel rooms. They don't sound as good as dedicated speaker docks like the Bower and Wilkins Zeppelin, but the Logitech Ultimate Ears Boom Minis are loud and clear enough to fill my bedroom and garage. Plus, the battery life on them meets the criteria for all-day use.

Favorite Albums

Two favorite albums of the year, but from artists that I only started listening to recently. The first is Julia with Blue Jeans On, by Moonface. Moonface is the latest solo project of my current favorite artist, Spencer Krug, who was previously a member of the bands Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and Swan Lake. His voice is surreal.

The second is the 2012 album A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart, by the bluegrass band Black Prairie. Black Prairie is a side project of four members of the band The Decemberists, minus lead singer Colin Meloy. I first heard the band on the podcast 99% Invisible, in an episode about Jon Mooallem's great book about wildlife conservation, Wild Ones. Mooallem worked with Black Prairie to release an album to accompany his book, composed of "background" music for the text. His live book reading with live musical accompaniment is something to behold.

Live Performances

2013 was a year of discovery with regards to live performances. Technology makes media immediately accessible for consumption in the home, but that convenience often comes at the cost of our appreciation for the live performance. That's something that a video or audio recording simply cannot recreate. This year, I made an effort to see live comedy shows, lectures, book readings, and musicals, immensely enjoying every one of them. Some were the live recordings of podcasts or radio shows that I already enjoyed (The Moth Radio Hour, City Arts and Lectures), others were stage shows like Jamie and Adams' Behind the Myths tour and musicals on Broadway. Even the Spider-Man musical (spectacle?) was worth the experience. Watching someone stand in front of hundreds or thousands of people and tell a story or bear their soul in music gives you a tremendous appreciation for the ability to perform and connect with an audience. That's all too easy to forget when we sit behind microphones and a video camera to record podcasts.

If you live in an area where where you have the opportunity to see a live performance, get off your computer and give it a try. Big performance or small, there's bound to be something in your community calendar worth checking out.

Travelling for Work and Fun

In the spirit of getting out of the house, I also really loved travelling this year. This job has given me the incredible opportunity to visit places I never thought I would have, including the CERN facilities in Switzerland, NASA at Houston, and even Atlanta for Dragon*Con. There, we've been lucky enough to meet amateur and professional makers alike, working on amazing projects and giving us a glimpse into their obsessions. Going to new and awesome places is a pleasure but foremost a privilege, so I hope we did those trips and you guys justice with our coverage.

Me, Joey, and Wes on a boat in Georgia.

Kit Crafting

It started with LEGO, but putting model kits together has become its own little obsession. Kits that take about one day to build are my favorite, and a great way to spend a Saturday not thinking about the internet. They could be custom LEGO kits from people like Chris McVeigh, Gakken kits from Japan, projects from Make's Maker Shed store, or a run of a kit from The RPF junkyard. I try to keep an eye out for these kits on Kickstarter, too.

The Atlantic's Technology Section

In my opinion, the most insightful and enjoyable technology writing being done today is on The Atlantic's website. They don't do straight product coverage, but tackle topical issues with a thoughtful approach and well-researched pieces. The Atlantic's Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal is my favorite technology writer right now, and astonishes on a daily basis with awesome features like this report on cyborg telemarketing. His series on becoming a new father in the modern age (as well as being a technology writer) is as astute as it is earnest. There's a reason we sometimes source news and analysis from The Atlantic's reports: they're a constant source of inspiration and are doing work that we aspire to live up to.

Honorable Mention: Oculus Rift

Still too unrefined in its relatively early stage to qualify as one of my favorite things of the year (especially after Octoberkast), the Oculus Rift has done the near-impossible: reinvigorated our interest and belief in virtual reality. Not since capacitive touchscreens has a technology so immediately resonated with us after trying it out; it literally takes only five seconds of use to "get it." It's an experience we immediately want to share with our friends and family members, raising fists in the air and proclaiming that the future we were all promised has arrived. And while that future is not quite here yet, I'm bookmarking the next version of the Oculus Rift in advance as a favorite thing of 2014.