Tech & Stuff (2016 Edition)

Some of the coolest and most useful items that I came across in 2016. Enjoy!
(in no particular order)

ELECTRONICS HARDWARE

MacBook Pro Touch Bar 💻
Why: There is no reason to have a touchscreen on a MacBook. Touch makes sense for an OS designed for touch (iOS). Adding touch to a ‘point and click” OS (macOS) is a mistake. Enter Touch Bar, the proper way to advance a traditionally static input mechanism. I find new ways every day that Touch Bar delights me. It is just really damn useful!
Link: Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro

Snap Spectacles 😎
Why: Every so often a product is launched that seems silly, but upon closer inspection is actually quite amazing. Snap Spectacles came out of nowhere, and took much of the tech world by storm. Every piece of the puzzle was new and unique. This is definitely a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. The way in which they have implemented the circular video within Snapchat is very cool! Find a Bot near you!
Link: Spectacles by Snap Inc.

iPhone 7 Plus Camera 📱
Why: Every year we get a new iPhone, and every year there is one little extra bit that pushes it over the top. This year it was the camera on the 7 Plus for sure. The dual lens system gave you so much bang for your buck. You got a wider angle lens and a more telephoto lens, allowing you to have 2 distinct focal lengths optically, rather than having to resort to the lesser digital zoom. This system also gave you Portrait Mode, which yields beautifully blurred backgrounds that no standalone app on your single lens phone can touch. It kills me that the larger phone causes me pain in my hand.
Link: iPhone 7 Plus

Apple Watch 2 Edition ⌚️
Why: Since Apple Watch launched, I have not taken it off. This time we got updated software and hardware that really gave us a killer digital watch. Top that with the new ceramic material on the Edition and it’s bliss. I absolutely love my Apple Watch and truly enjoy wearing this series 2 every single day.
Link: Apple Watch Edition

AirPods 🎧
Why: Simply the best overall set of headphones I have used. Not just this year, but ever. You cannot really understand AirPods until you have used them. SO GOOD!
Link: AirPods

Apple TV 4 📺
Why: The Apple TV is the hub of our living room. We are an Apple household so this of course makes sense. I am finding more reasons to love the Apple TV, and the newly launched TV app is yet another. Such a great and versatile living room device.
Link: Apple TV

Osmo Mobile 🎥
Why: I have been taking photos in one form or another for many years, but video has always been in my peripheral. No one likes watching shaky cam footage, so hopefully the Osmo will help with that. It turns any mobile phone into a super stable video rig. It’s going to take some practice, but so far the results are very impressive.
Link: Osmo Mobile

UE Boom 2 🔊
Why: It sounds great and it’s waterproof! I keep this speaker in the shower for music and podcasts. It is really portable as well, so I can throw it in a suitcase when traveling for quality sound in a hotel room. It comes in a wide variety of fun color schemes too.
Link: UEBOOM2

Anker 60W 10-Port USB Wall Charger 🔌
Why: We all have a ton of stuff to charge nowadays. Stick one of these in a central location and CHARGE ALL THE THINGS!
Link: Anker PowerPort 10

SOFTWARE

CarPlay 🚙
Why: First time using it this year, and I instantly fell in love. No car maker on the planet makes a good (or even decent) in-car entertainment interface / system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto fix this so well; why don’t automakers understand?
Link: Apple CarPlay

Spark ⚡️
Why: Email apps come and go, but this one feels like it could be here for a while on all my devices. One strict requirement I have for email apps is that they are on all my devices so I have a seamless transition between those platforms. This year Spark was launched for macOS, completing the triangle!
Link: Spark email for macOS and iOS

Bear 🐻
Why: Notes are tough, and I have used pretty much every app and system there is when it comes to capturing and storing note data. Bear came out late in the year and I have been giving it a go. It has a lot going for it with its 1.0 release. I am still using it, and in fact I am writing this post in it. Bear has a ton of thoughtful features and fits with my note taking really well. Like email, this kind of app needs to be across all my devices and have the same functionality, and Bear has it!
Link: Bear – Notes for iPhone, iPad and Mac

Setapp 🖥
Why: Although not officially launched yet, Setapp is an intriguing way to get and use Mac apps. It’s a subscription of sorts that allows you use any and all apps in the Setapp directory for a flat monthly cost. It’s an innovative idea for sure, and I would like to see it exist as an option, providing it works out for the developers involved. New apps have been added pretty regularly since I started using it. It is a really cool alternative to the more standard App Store model.
Link: Setapp | Your shortcut to get the best apps for Mac

GAMES

Pokémon Go
Why: I don’t think I have ever witnessed a game of any kind create the kind of mass joy that Pokemon Go has. To see so many people outside roaming around with each other searching for Pokemon is absolutely the reason technology should exist.
Link: Pokémon Go

Blackbox Puzzles ◼️
Why: When so much of the App Store is copycat apps that mostly play off the same themes and ideas, this game comes out of left field and crushes you with awesome! Words cannot explain the creativity and genius that went into making this game. Pause right now and go get this game. Now!
Link: Blackbox

PlayStation VR
Why: My first go at ‘modern VR’. I went in blind and purchased it without trying it first, and I was not disappointed! I am sure there are more immersive systems, or systems with better specs, but having a PS4 already, the PSVR system is an awesome entry point.
Link: PlayStation VR

Overwatch
Why: I have been playing this game all year (well, since it came out in May) and I still love playing it. Think of it as a new twist on Team Fortress. It’s a heck of a lot of fun and definitely worth trying if you aren’t playing already. I am on the PS4 as ‘grepjason’.
Link: Overwatch

Stardew Valley
Why: Sometime you just need to escape to a more simple life. Stardew Valley is a game that does just that for me. It’s a low stress game where you live in a town and interact with people, while taking on various tasks. It’s a fun game to play over a long period of time and jump in at any time for a little escape.
Link: Stardew Valley

Left Center Right Game
Why: This simple game was found by somewhat of an accident at a local Target. It’s a super small game that can travel with you anywhere, and is very easy to pick up. It has all the necessary game pieces in a small tube; just add people!
Link: Left Center Right Dice Game

Ticket to Ride
Why: A classic board game for all ages. This game comes in several varieties, spanning across different countries. Building railroad tracks across the country may not sound immediately fun, but once you get into the mechanics of the game you will be hooked. It’s a great group game.
Link: Ticket to Ride

Yoshi’s Wooly World
Why: When you think about game consoles, the Wii U isn’t usually first on your list, but Nintendo always has some great first party titles, and Wooly World is one of them. It’s a a great co-op game with a fun and new artistic style. I wouldn’t buy a Wii U just for this game, but if you have one sitting around, it’s a definite play.
Link: Yoshi’s Woolly World for Wii U

Super Mario Run
Why: A first party Nintendo title on the iPhone? Sign me up! Super Mario Run is exactly what a Mario title should be on the iPhone. It is a thoughtful and very well executed design that will give you joy to play.
Link: SUPER MARIO RUN | Nintendo

HOME

Vacuvita
Why: Wasting food sucks. This handy item helps you keep a wide variety of food for longer periods!
Link: Vacuvita | Vacuum Storage

Microtech Ultratech Knife
Why: No one really needs this, but it’s a really neat automatic deployment knife AND it’s Boba Fett themed! Quick video I made of it .
Link: Microtech Ultratech Bounty Hunter OTF Automatic Knife

GameFrame
Why: Sometimes you just need super cool visuals, and the GameFrame delivers! Awesome pixel art display to amp up the cool in any room you put it in.
Link: Game Frame

URB-E
Why: I researched all over the web when looking for a “last mile” vehicle, and the URB-E looked to be the best quality and provided a great set of features. I use this electric scooter to get from my house to the train station, and then from the train station to work. It’s a great little electric scooter and the build quality is fantastic.
Link: URB-E Foldable Electric Scooter

Simplehuman Soap Dispenser
Why: Your desk is organized, why not your shower? I found this thing on Amazon, and it has been a shower game changer. Keeps your shampoos and soaps organized and you always know exactly how much is left.
Link: simplehuman Triple Wall Mount Shower Pump

FOOD & BEVERAGE

La Croix
Why: I need to be consuming more water, heck we all probably do. From the second I tried one of these tasty beverages, I was hooked! For the first time in my life (except for maybe military basic training), I am now drinking the proper amount of water, and loving it.
Link: LaCroix Sparkling Water

Philz Coffee ☕️
Why: It continues to be my favorite coffee joint on the 🌎!
Link: Philz Coffee

CLOTHING

Reebok Men’s Zprint Run 👟
Why: You shouldn’t wear shoes if they aren’t comfortable. These Reeboks are the most comfortable shoes I have worn in a long time. So much so that I bought 4 pairs in various colors. They are available in Men’s and Women’s.
Link: Reebok Men’s Zprint Run

Hickies Lacing System
Why: Life is short, stop tying your shoes. Turn any shoe into a slip on, and add fun colors while you’re at it.
Link: HICKIES – No Tie Elastic Shoelaces

Stance Men’s Boba Fett Crew Socks
Why: They are Star Wars socks, what more do you need to know!?
Link: Stance Mens Boba Fett Socks

Problem: Live Stream Three Inputs

FOREWARD

Recently I had a problem come up that needed to be solved with a hardware & software solution.
Heads Up Warning: This happened to be a work problem, so I will intentionally be somewhat vague about the content. This may make some of the choices seem weird, but at the end of the day, trust me, it worked for the particular need.

PROBLEM

There are three independent video sources that exist in a room. Each of these video sources is a different combination of signal type and resolution (fortunately they are all digital signals). The three video sources need to be composited together into a single feed that can then be streamed live to an undetermined amount of users spread across the globe (10 years ago that would have been scary and really costly, but in 2016, not so much, thankfully). There are a number of different ways this can be accomplished depending on budget, system complexity, and system footprint. I went in with a moderate budget in mind, and a footprint of a single Pelican Case for transport. I wasn’t too concerned about complexity since I would be the only person operating the system; it just needed to be repeatable.

DIGITAL VIDEO SIGNALS
– VIDEO SIGNAL 1: 1920x1080p@60 via HDMI
– VIDEO SIGNAL 2: 1920x1080i@30 via HDMI
– VIDEO SIGNAL 3: 1680×1050@60 via DVI

SOLUTION

Ok, so here is what I did! First let’s talk about hardware and how I connected it all.

HARDWARE
– 15″ MacBook Pro (2016 – Max Specs): Serves as the hub of the entire setup. This system has 4 ports for I/O and I used them all! (2) USB 3.0 Ports and (2) Thunderbolt Ports.
UltraStudio Mini Recorder: Captures ‘1920x1080p@60’ video signal from HDMI and feeds into MacBook pro via Thunderbolt.
UltraStudio Mini Recorder: Captures ‘1920x1080i@30’ video signal from HDMI and feeds into MacBook pro via Thunderbolt.
AV.io HD: Captures ‘1680×1050@60’ video signal from DVI and feeds into MacBook pro via USB 3.0.
– USB to Ethernet adapter. All network traffic is going over ethernet to ensure maximum throughput for stream output.
– GoPro Type Camera: This camera is for capturing a general ‘room feed’. It is a very small battery operated camera which means I can put it almost anywhere without being intrusive to the people it is recording. Nice wide angle to really get the whole room.
Pocket Cinema Camera w/ lens: This allows me to capture screen feeds of lower resolution equipment without needing a scaler with every conceivable input and output. Set everything up correctly and you would never know it’s a camera pointed at a screen. Since I never know what sources I will be up against in a given environment, this is a foolproof way to ensure I can get the feed.

Streaming Hardware Configuration Diagram
Streaming Hardware Configuration Diagram

SOFTWARE
– For the actual distribution of the stream, I am using http://Ustream.tv. There are an almost limitless number of streaming services available today, and there may be one more appropriate for me, but Ustream offered exactly what I needed for a reasonable price, and most importantly allowed me to lock down the stream with a password so I can manage who is viewing. (Yes that is not super secure, but for this purpose it was good enough)
– In order to effectively composite 3 feeds into a single feed, I needed some kind of software component. Since the events that would be streaming were live, it made sense to have the ability for ‘live event extras’ like switching, lower thirds, and title cards. I decided to go with Wirecast from Telestream. (When I was testing this whole solution out, it was on version 6. This worked ok, but was hitting the CPU really hard and the system ran at about 75% utilized consistently. Good news is that Wirecast is now on version 7, and enables the use of the GPU so CPU load is WAY LESS!)

Viewer Interface Mockup
Viewer Interface Mockup

There you have it, live streaming 3 video feeds It was a fun exercise and the result was really great! As always, I hope this was in some way helpful for someone out there looking to do something similar. Feel free to reach out with any questions!

Skip Forward & Backward (Gestures In iTunes)

I have been using iTunes (on the Mac) and Podcasts (on the iPhone and iPad) to play my podcasts now that it actually syncs correctly. Side Note: I don’t know what they finally did to make it work , but thank you! On the iOS app you are given a convenient 15 second forward and back button to use when you are listening to podcasts, and it’s a very nice feature that you find in most podcast players. The problem is that when listening to podcasts using iTunes on the Mac, you only have the skip buttons, and that takes you to the next track (or podcast). This is not ideal at all for listening to podcasts, so I needed a way to add the 15 second, or any length for that matter, skip forward and backward functionality. I figured that AppleScript was my best bet for solving this problem so I did some searching around before diving in and reinventing the wheel, and came out with a couple good starting points. I found a couple different AppleScripts that did what I needed for the most part, so it was time to figure out how best to implement them for me. Check out the scripts and modify as needed to suit your needs.

I first started down the path of simply assigning scripts to fire when certain keyboard shortcuts were pressed using Keyboard Maestro. This absolutely worked, but it didn’t quite seem as fast or elegant as I would like. Then it dawned on me, I should use mouse gestures! I switched over to using an Apple Magic Trackpad about a month or so back and LOVE IT! Using BetterTouchTool, you can pretty much make up whatever you want with almost any input device to fire off all kinds of actions. The setup I chose is pretty simple. I decided to go with a fairly simple four finger swipe to the left or to the right. With this gesture I can now skip forward or backward with a simple gesture and it’s great! Also because this gesture is global, it can be done regardless of what application I am using.

There you have it, if you have been looking for a convenient way to skip forward and backward a predefined amount of time in iTunes, this could be the answer for you!

iCloud Time Machine

With the announcement of new iCloud storage tiers this past Wednesday, it has got me thinking about an idea that worked in theory but not in practice until now. The idea of Apple creating a mechanism of cloud backup for the Mac. On the iOS side we have iCloud backup and it works great! Bringing this kind of simple and effective backup to the Mac would be a great benefit to Mac users, especially those users who tend to not backup their data. The current Time Machine is easy to use but still requires extra hardware and I think that could be a barrier to a lot of users, because of cost or perceived complexity. If iCloud Time Machine existed, your data would be backed up from the first time you turned on your computer, with no interaction, and automatically going forward. I use Backblaze and love it, but this kind of service still requires you to make the first move and that is an issue for some. If I could use the same 1TB iCloud storage bucket that I already have, I would definitely like that.

This kind of system is going to be somewhat more difficult on a Mac than it is on iOS due to third party data, but I think this problem is easily overcome. Much like the transition to using iCloud Drive for synching rather than other solutions like Dropbox or WebDAV.

I obviously have no idea if this would be an area that Apple would be interested in entering, but I think everything is in place to make it happen for sure. I look forward to seeing what is coming for us in the apple community as iCloud becomes more of a viable solution.

Apple’s iOS Apps

Utter the words “I use the stock apps on my iPhone” in a group of nerds and you will surely be flooded with all the reasons you are “doing it wrong”. In the not too distant past of iOS this was absolutely deserved by all rights. With every new year that rolls around, we see another update to iOS, and along with that overall update, we get updated versions of each of the default Apple apps that come as part of the OS. This year is no exception with the upcoming iOS 9. Most of Apple’s apps get minor updates with each release, but with iOS 9 we are going to see a pretty major revision to a lot of the Apple properties.

With each revision to iOS, I like to go back and check out all the stock apps to see how they have changed and to see if they meet my needs for the particular task they are designed for. There are so many amazing third party apps written by talented developers on iOS, but no matter how good they are, there are always small things that the apps are simply not allowed to do. The integration of Apple’s apps will always be that little bit more. The truth is, if a stock app does what I need, I am more than happy to use it – and sometimes prefer it – due to that extra bit of integration. I will even occasionally put up with some deficiencies in the app because I do get that extra integration benefit as a trade off.

Siri
Siri is an area of iOS where this extra integration really pays off. Siri is able to interact with Apple’s apps on a much deeper level than third party apps. This may not always be the case, and hopefully will change in upcoming versions of iOS; but, as it is still the case within iOS 9, we can assume it will be at least another year before Siri can interact at this level with third party apps. Siri, as a service, continuously improves and enables more hands free use of our devices, which is a great direction for users. With Siri on the Apple Watch and combined with HomeKit, we are enabled to become more detached physically from our devices without losing the connected benefits they provide.

Notes
Notes is not an app I seriously used until very recently. When notes was a yellow legal pad with a felt tip marker font, I wanted nothing to do with it. With the iOS 7 UI refresh, the app became at least approachable to most. I have used many different note taking solutions through the years, and recently grew tired of fighting with the solution I was using. I decided to give Apple Notes a try. A month later, I am still using it full time as my main bucket for notes. The update to Notes for iOS 9 is going to really make this switch worth it, I believe. The new features of iOS 9 will make it a real contender for most people who currently use other solutions that don’t offer the same level of integration. When it comes down to it, I need my notes to be with me on all devices and Notes is doing that for me. I do have the occastional sync issue, but it tends to fail pretty gracefully, and I end up with duplicate notes rather than missing notes. This I feel will improve as more things move to iCloud syncing.

Reminders
Reminders is another app that I have used on and off. When it comes to getting stuff done, I have gone through the entire spectrum on solutions and workflows. Omnifocus > Things > Omnifocus 2 > Todoist. What do I use now? I actually use Reminders as my full time single “GTD bucket”. This would blow most people’s minds, but its effectiveness is in its simplicity. I need to capture stuff and then do it. Reminders does this and has all the scheduling options I need. I am not at all saying this would work for everyone, but it certainly works for me. Using Siri to add new items to my lists is really great. The backend sync could be improved, and I believe it is going to be with the upcoming iOS 9, as more things switch to iCloud sync rather than the old IMAP standard. UPDATE: I am back on Todoist and happier than ever! Reminders is great, but when it get’s complicated, it breaks down pretty quickly.

Calendar
Calendar has not always been my calendar of choice. There are plenty of other great calendar apps, but there were two things that made me decide to switch to iOS’ default. For one, the icon date. I am one of the people who looks at the icon for the current date. The default Calendar’s icon updates with the current date, while others cannot. Like Siri, this is another area where I would like to see APIs opened up for third parties. Second is the fact that it supports all calendar types, so I can use a single app. Using two calendar apps is not a great solution for me, so I just use the one and it does what I need. The Calendar app on my phone is mostly a viewing app, whereas the majority of event editing and creation I do on my Mac with Calendar.app or Fantastical’s great natural language parser. Being that I use the calendar app on my phone in this way, I don’t need a lot of the bells and whistles of other calendar apps when I am on the go.

Mail
Mail is another app that has a ton of great alternatives on iOS. Most of these apps have clever ways for dealing with email while on the go. Most of those features are also for email services I don’t use, so they are of no benefit to me. No matter what email app you use, when you send from a link, it will use the Apple Mail app. This means you need to have all your accounts in Apple Mail anyway, so why not just use it. Again, I don’t find using multiple apps for the same purpose to be helpful to me. The majority of my mail handling happens before it gets to my device (Sanebox & Mail rules) anyway, so the on-device tools become less necessary.

Podcasts
Podcasts is the one area where I am going the other way. Plain and simple, it does not work. The sync does not work at all and there seems to be reason for it. No matter the setup, it doesn’t sync reliably. Between mobile and mobile, computer and mobile… nothing. I have had instances where it won’t even keep things straight on a single device. Quite literally, every time there is any update to iOS, I immediately go and check to see if sync works. As of 8.4, it still doesn’t. I need this app to do 2 things: play audio and sync. That’s it. Until it can do that, I cannot give it the honor of being in the primary position for its task. Fingers crossed for iOS 9. UPDATE 2015-10-19: Sync works now and everything is going great with Podcasts.app now!

Maps
Maps has gotten a lot of negative reviews since its launch, but for me I have not really had any overall problems with it. It has given me erroneous directions occasionally, and had some crashing issues at one point, but overall, it does what it is supposed to do. I am not saying this is the perfect app for everyone; again, for my particular limited use case, it’s fine. If you rely on public transit, you will hopefully be in luck with iOS 9. Once again, the Siri integration makes Maps super easy to use.

Camera
Camera is arguably one of the most important iOS apps to me. This is another area where there are a ton of really awesome applications for taking and manipulating photos, but every single one of them has the same small thing that they cannot do, and that is to be a shortcut on the lockscreen. When you want to take a photo, you more than likely want to do it quickly. There is no quicker way to take a photo with the iPhone than sliding up from the bottom on the lockscreen. Until the lockscreen is opened up to third parties for shortcuts, the Apple Camera app will be my main camera for capturing. With the new extensions available in Photos for iOS 9, it opens up a great world for editing more seamlessly, which I cannot wait for! I also have to say that the iCloud Photo Library has been really great and works without any issues for me. Having my entire library of photos on all of my devices is a dream come true.