It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly a year can pass by, nor how much can happen in a mere 365-odd days. Personally, 2013 was a mixed bag for me and my family. It’s not over yet (I’m starting this post on Christmas Eve morning), but I’m thinking that it’ll end at worst with high hopes for 2014.
Two major factors dominated our year. First, my wife has slowly recovered from grieving over the loss of her father at the end of 2012, a task far more arduous than I’d imagined it could be having never lost anyone close. She’s starting to come out of it, and that’s a positive that can’t be overstated.
Then, just last month, I lost my job of six years due to an unexpected (and, to me at least, inexplicable) corporate reorganization, placing me in the interesting position of being in that alleged group of seasoned professionals who are overlooked by HR managers because, well, we just seem too old to them. I’m not yet convinced that group truly exists (are HR managers really so irrational?), but I’ve certainly received fewer responses than I would have hoped from the 150+ resumes I’ve sent out.
Otherwise, 2013 was peppered with the usual trials and tribulations of middle-class life in America. Meaning, really, that life was better for us than it is for a large percentage of people on the planet, many of whom struggle to find food on a daily basis. Toss in the fact that the job I lost was a job that I found wholly dissatisfying, and really the year should be counted as a good one.
All of this is merely by way of introducing a topic that might otherwise be trite—my most important products and services of 2013. While I have a passion for technology and how it constantly improves our lives, I do recognize at times that much of it is superfluous, that the latest smartphone, tablet, app, or service, while beneficial, just holds so much less weight than some other topics I might discuss. The NSA, Obamacare, Iran’s nuclear weapons, etc.—those are weighty topics that I typically avoid on this blog, but that I certainly don’t ignore.
And so, I’m providing my list, but I’m doing so in the hushed tones of one who recognizes that there are far more important things going on in the world, and in my own life. And I’m sure in yours, as well. But let’s get to it, before I slip into the maudlin…
As an aside, I started writing this as a Top 10 list. I struggled to come up with more than five products that truly defined 2013 for me, and so I made a mid-post switch. I think that says something about how 2013 treated me, at least in terms of technology.
Number 1: The Nexus 5 Smartphone
No, the Nexus 5 isn’t the perfect smartphone. Its camera is acceptable and not much more. It lacks some of the features and functionality of its competitors (Samsung’s Galaxy S4 being the marquee example). And its audio quality (not voice, but music and such) leaves something to be desired.
However, it’s an incredibly good deal at $399 for the 32GB version, with excellent performance, a beautiful screen (if you can get one with a good color temp), and a comfortable form factor. Plus, it’s a Nexus, which for me—I don’t want to wait for updates, and I don’t want those extra features and functionality weighing the phone down—is a huge plus.
Putting the Nexus 5 at Number 1 is also a bit of an indictment of 2013’s gadgetry in general, at least for me. There’s not a single product or service that I’ve tried out myself that truly knocked my socks off, including the Nexus 5 itself. So this is a bit of a subdued list—these are all good products, but none of them rise to being great.
Number 2: Evernote
I’ve been using Evernote for well over five years (a lifetime in technology terms). In fact, I’m officially the 756th Evernote user, which amazes me a bit given that there are now over 65 million. I have so much information stored in Evernote that it’s the one company I root for more than any other—I don’t know what I’d do if all that information were to suddenly disappear.
In 2013, Evernote was reliable and continued their trend of supporting every platform with improved features and functions. The Chrome Web clipper remains the single best way I know of to grab information from a Web site and save it for future reference. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons why I like using Windows 8.1 on a tablet—Android and iOS have Evernote Web clipping capabilities as well, but neither can compete with the ease and intelligence of the Chrome solution.
Evernote has competitors, including Google’s own Keep. However, I can’t imagine what it would take to convince me to switch.
Number 3: T-Mobile
I was with Sprint for over 15 years, and suffered such a profound degradation in data performance at the end of 2011 (coincidentally or not, right around when Sprint added the iPhone) that I just finished switching my family to T-Mobile. They’ve upended the American wireless market with their “Uncarrier” strategy, resulting in better service, lower costs, and contract-free plans.
Currently, I’m paying $150 a month for four lines, two with unlimited 4G data, one with a 2.5GB limit, and one with 500MB. Three of the devices are smartphones, and one is a Samsung feature phone. And this is without a contract of any kind—I can leave T-Mobile any time I want. Freedom and cost-effectiveness is a fresh and welcome combination when it comes to wireless service.
Data quality has been reliable and robust in all of the areas where my family uses our phones, which is in and around Los Angeles. Whether it’s HSPA+ (my daughter’s Nexus 4 and my son’s feature phone) or LTE (my Nexus 5 and my wife’s Samsung Galaxy S4), we rarely experience less than 5Mb/s down and at least 2Mb/s up. HSPA+ is usually closer to 10Mb/s down and 5Mb/s up, and LTE averages around 20Mb/s down and 5Mb/s up. That bandwidth is more than sufficient for anything we do with our devices, and then some.
Call quality is equal to Sprint’s, and customer service has been much improved. And, remarkably, getting significantly lesser data bandwidth and performance with the same lines and phones on Sprint would cost $250/month. That’s $100/month less on T-Mobile for dramatically improved service. It’s the very definition of a win-win.
Rumor has it that Softbank, Sprint’s owner, is negotiating with T-Mobile’s owner, Deutsche Telekom, to merge with or acquire T-Mobile. I’m a firm believer in property rights, and so I wouldn’t support government interference in this transaction (although I’ll hedge a little by saying that the wireless industry is hardly a free market and so things get a little fuzzy), but I do hope that the deal doesn’t go through. Or, if it does, I hope that I’ll get at least a year or two of continued excellent service and contract-free affordable plans. The last thing I want to do is end up back on Sprint after working so hard to leave them.
Number 4: Windows 8.1
I’m probably in the minority when I put Windows 8.1 in my list of top products and services. Many people seem to hate Microsoft’s attempt to meld mobile, notebook, and desktop operating systems, and even more just don’t like it. Quite a few, I think, simply don’t get it, failing to understand why the modern touch-optimized UI even shows up on devices meant for keyboards and mice (or trackpads).
As I’ve written about before, however, I’ve learned to like using Windows 8.1 for the most part. It’s not perfect, by any stretch, and it has some significant weaknesses on all three of its intended platforms—desktops, notebooks, and tablets. But it’s genuinely productive, on every platform including tablets and particularly hybrids, managing to bring the full power of a “real” operating system no matter the machine.
Windows 8.1 might not yet be as comfortable on tablets for pure consumption, and its hardcore productivity is not yet perfectly touch-optimized, but compared to iOS and Android, I remain convinced that a person can get more real work done in Windows 8.1. That’s relative, of course—as I’ve said before, it really does depend on what you do with your devices. None of the major platforms is “best,” in a general sense, because everybody’s needs are different. But for me, I’m pretty darn close to calling Windows 8.1 best for me because I can both consume and produce content on Windows 8.1 devices, almost without compromise.
Number 5: Android
I’ve had some nice things to say about Windows 8.1, including putting it ahead of Android in this list. However, I still use Android on mobile devices more than I use Windows 8.1, specifically my Nexus 5 smartphone and my Nexus 10 tablet. But there are only two remaining reasons for this preference.
First, Google Now is a great technology that I use far more than I ever imagined. Many are the times that I’ll be heading out the door for a meeting or appointment, and will perform a quick search on Google Maps in Chrome on my desktop or notebook. More often than not, that location is then waiting on my Nexus 5 by the time I’m ready to start navigating. Hit one button, and I’m on my way.
The same goes for searches in general, where I’ll receive additional search results in Google Now after doing some searching (in Chrome, of course) on other machines. The results aren’t always relevant, but when they are, they dramatically improve how I can use all of my devices as part of a cohesive unit.
Add in the constant improvement in Google Now cards, and I’d be hard-pressed to give up Android completely, particularly on my smartphone. Google Voice Search is another powerful feature that plays well with Google Now, and I’ll mention it as part of Google Now’s charm even though they’re really different technologies.
The second reason that I still use my Nexus 10 more than my Dell Venue 8 Pro (besides the size difference, which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is that there are still more high-quality touch-centric apps for Android than there are for Windows 8.1. Evernote, Stumbleupon, Twitter apps (various), Feedly, Google Music, and a host of other apps are still far better on Android (where they exist at all on Windows 8.1), and when I’m consuming information I still find myself picking up the Nexus 10.
Toss in Chromecast support in apps like Netflix, HBO Go, and YouTube, and I’ll likely continue to use my Nexus 10 for quite some time. I might change my tune if I ever receive the larger Dell Venue 11 Pro with it’s battery-packed keyboard dock—I’ve long been wishing for a device that would allow me to consume content with the comfort of a tablet, and then instantly convert to full-on productivity mode by plugging in a keyboard with trackpad. Only a Windows 8.1 machine can do that for me, and so Android might become my go-to mobile operating system exclusively on my smartphone.
As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t come up with 10 products or services that defined 2013 for me. And that’s okay—these five served me well, allowing me to get all of my work done, relax and have fun when I wanted to, and keep my life organized. I think that 2014 will be an interesting year, but I don’t expect a greater number of breakthroughs than in 2013. In fact, I think the biggest change in 2014 will be the (surprising, to some) resurgence of Microsoft and Windows 8.1, should all the stars align the right way.
Thanks for following along with me in 2013, and I’m hoping for bigger things for The Tech Chat in 2014. I wish you and yours the Happiest New Year possible.