From a Tesla design flourish to a zombie app and a shoulder-saving keyboard folio, members of the CNET crew share some of the technology they're most grateful for this Thanksgiving season.
An SLR for all occasions
This Thanksgiving, it goes without saying that loved ones, health, employment, and other big-ticket blessings top the CNET gang's gratitude lists -- but so do tablets, vintage cars, zombie apps, and crowdfunding sites. Given that we spend our days here thinking about tech, is that really any surprise? Click through our gallery to see some of the technology the CNET crew's grateful for this year, and then share your picks in the comments section. Shutterbug Stephen Shankland kicks things off.
It's a contradictory device. On the one hand, it's packed with as much of the latest digital photography technology as a $3,400 price tag can support. On the other hand, what kind of a loser lugs around an SLR these days?
Me. I'm an American living in Paris. I love architecture, history, and travel, so at least once a week I become indistinguishable from a gawking tourist on vacation in Europe. My camera gets a workout on every trip to a 12th-century cathedral, 17th-century chateau, or 20th-century war memorial.
On top of that are the pictures of family, products, and executives. Basically, I have a callous around my neck where the camera strap goes. The camera is a constant companion.
What do I like specifically about the 5D Mark III? First, the image quality, especially in dim light that's so common in museums, keynotes, and dreary northern European winters. Second, the auto focus, which really is a huge step over the 5D Mark IIs. Third, the constellation of right-hand controls that let me quickly change ISO, exposure, and auto-focus points. Fourth, its durability and weather-proofing so I don't have to baby it. Fifth, the sensor-cleaning technology that means I no longer have to worry about dust specks. And finally, the battery life, which lasts for three full days of use with no trouble.
It's far from perfect. Even when I have my SLR with me, I sometimes take crappy pictures with my mobile phone's crappy camera because they're geotagged automatically and, more importantly, are a few taps away from sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, or e-mail. Networking and geolocation are slowly coming to cameras, but I can't imagine they'll ever be as good as a device in which the network and location services are core rather than peripheral.
In the meantime, hauling around several pounds of camera and glass is a burden I'm happy to bear.
In the late hours of March 12, 2003, I climbed aboard a borrowed snowmobile in Nome, Alaska, and headed out of town into the darkness, subzero temperatures, and 50 mph gusts of blowing snow along a poorly marked trail. My goal was to make it to the final checkpoint of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which was 22 miles from the finish line in downtown Nome. My plan was to file a report for my radio station via satellite phone as the leading musher left the checkpoint and then dash back to Nome to catch him as he crossed the finish line.
What actually happened was that I became disoriented in the white-out conditions and endless snowdrifts. I took a wrong turn onto the frozen sea ice of the far northern Pacific, made a panicked 180-degree turn, and then came within a few feet of running over the leading dog team with the snowmobile.
Which brings me to Google Maps. I don't think it's a coincidence that since it has become possible to navigate almost anywhere via Maps on my Android phone, I haven't suffered from another case of frostbite like I did that night in Nome. (This snowbound picture of me, by the way, was not snapped that fateful night; though, it is from that same winter in Alaska).
Ten years later, I looked up the Iditarod Trail route on Google Maps and Google Earth. If I had been able to access such a tool on my phone that night in Nome, I would have known that part of the trail runs along the edge of the Bering Sea, and I wouldn't have freaked out and taken off in the direction of the only light in my field of vision -- which happened to be attached to the head of musher Robert Sorlie. (His dogs, running in front of his sled, were not wearing lights -- hence, they nearly ended up under my snowmobile skis.)
While it's true that I was much younger -- and more stupid -- 10 years ago, I'd like to think that if Google Maps had been around back then that I would have taken one look at the route and turned my attention to Yelping about Nome's surprising abundance of fine pizza establishments instead.
Regardless, my travels are now more well-informed and, therefore, safer, which is why my whole family is very thankful for Google Maps.
Back in the 20th century when I was a kid, "Facebook" could've been a perfectly good description of me at any given time. I was constantly reading. At school, at home, in the car, on vacations, by the pool -- I had not only a book in hand, but in my face as well. I even tried to read in the car at night by the light of the cars behind us, but my dad would keep telling me to put my book down because I was blocking his view.
What little upper-body strength I had as a kid was due solely to carrying around huge stacks of books at the library. I read fast, see, so I needed backups lest I find myself without something to read. I always wished there was a way to have a whole bunch of books with me without them taking up so much room.
I only had to wait 30 years.
When I got my first Nook, I marveled that I was finally able to keep plenty of reading material with me. Of course, actually doing any reading depended on the available light, and it was kind of a drag that I couldn't read books with pictures (not so much the Dr. Seuss kind, but books about vintage video games or vintage advertising).
When I got my Nexus 7 last year, I figured I'd end up using it primarily for reading, especially because now I could read magazines and comic books on it, too. And maybe I'd put a game or two on it, just in case. At some point (possibly an hour or two after getting it), it became essentially welded to my hand. I'm not much of the outdoorsy type, so generally I read or play games or write or listen to music to relax. And I can do all of that (to some degree) on my tablet. Granted, I can kind of overdo it, but that's how I was with books, too. I start reading or playing, and I get sucked in.
Like many families, mine is big on the holidays. When I was living away from home, I would make the five-hour drive on winding, ice-covered roads through the redwood forests of Northern California to have Christmas with my folks in San Francisco.
Every year, except for one, that is.
One year I couldn't make it back, and I knew my 91-year-old grandmother would be disappointed. Luckily, my uncle owned an iPad, and my boyfriend (who was spending Christmas with me) had an iPhone. Through FaceTime, I chatted with my family, they showed me their tree, and I got to wave to all my relatives. The novelty was almost as wonderful as the act of connecting with them from afar.
"Technology brings a tear to my eye today," my sister posted on Facebook that day, along with this photo of my grandmother and uncle smiling at the iPad. That was really the first time I felt grateful for video-conferencing technology. It's not like we were a world away, but it made all the difference in my Christmas.
While I haven't really used FaceTime since (I don't actually own an iDevice), I have become a loyal user of Skype. I like that I can use it across different operating systems, and that it allows my loved ones and me to connect to people who are important to us, even when they're on the other side of the world. Now that I'm back in San Francisco and in a long-distance relationship, I use it every day to connect. It's not just a tool for communication; it reminds me of what I miss when I don't have those face-to-face interactions -- and that's something I don't want to take for granted.
Last week, for my mom's 58th birthday, I bought her an Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 tablet to replace her Kindle Fire 8.9.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer about three years ago and has suffered from lymphedema, or limb swelling, ever since. Unable to use her right arm due to the swelling, everyday tasks are now difficult, if not impossible, for her.
When she can muster the strength, she's at church every week in her Sunday best. Because lugging around the gold-gilded pages of her heavy, large-print Bible has become more of a bummer than a blessing, I'm thankful that all she has to carry now is her tablet.
The HDX 8.9 offers a simple interface on a lightweight device that makes reading the Bible, checking e-mail, playing games, and taking her mind off of things a little easier. After getting through a dismally ironic Breast Cancer Awareness month in October and not expecting her to make it to November, it was an immeasurable joy to be able to give her a better version of her favorite gadget.
My mom is at home, being made as comfortable as possible, and she's probably going to read this on her Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 in between Candy Crush sessions. I'm thankful for tech that makes life easier and more enjoyable, and I'm glad that I have the privilege to share it with my mom.
According to legend, when the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier visited Japan in the 16th century, he was so put off by the Japanese language that he called it "the devil's own tongue."
Surely the saint would have found a Japanese-English electronic dictionary like this to be nothing short of miraculous.
If you have a yen for learning Japanese, an electronic dictionary is a must. I've spent about 10 years in Japan and have used several of these handy units, such as this old Casio Ex-Word XD-V9000. While there are dozens of apps and Web sites that can help with the thousands of kanji (Chinese characters) used in everyday Japanese, I prefer a hardware solution. There are always kanji I've forgotten or failed to learn properly, and it's a snap to look them up or check common kanji compounds with this lightweight unit.
More recent versions of the Ex-Word have all kinds of fancy features, like dual touch-panel TFT displays, SD card ports, and many dictionary options. They often sell for hundreds of dollars. I don't need any bells and whistles -- just something that lets me grasp the gist and some subtleties of what often can be a fascinating but frustrating language. To Casio, I'd like to say: arigato gozaimasu!
That may come as a surprise to anyone who has read my stories over the past year and, truthfully, I'm not particularly enamored with either product as they are now. But I am grateful for what they symbolize -- that tech companies are still making bets with new and unique devices. At a time when "innovation" often means a thinner body or lower price, a truly different product stands out -- even if it's not quite ready for prime time.
Don't get me wrong: There's much work to be done with both devices. Google Glass is insanely expensive, and the practical benefits are still limited. I found Galaxy Gear to be essentially worthless to me. (I don't own a Samsung phone.) And even when properly connected, it was lacking in many respects.
But nitpicks aside, I'm grateful that companies are still willing to push the boundaries. I can only hope to see more of this in 2014.
The thing about running is, you may know you love it and you may go on and on to your friends and family about how much you love it. But unless you keep up a habit of running regularly, you probably won't actually do it.
So I am thankful for the existence of Six to Start's app Zombies, Run! It's basically radio commentary, which unfolds around chunks of your music playlist, that delivers an ongoing story about your role in a small British township after a zombie apocalypse. The authorities can't waste fuel sending out vehicles, so they tap runners -- heroes, like you! -- to bring in vital supplies to the base.
Because zombies don't move that fast, even someone like myself who "runs" at barely over walking speed can swallow the creepers as a motivator. (Ew.) It also offers a little base-building game, so when you've gone certain distances, you can pick up items to improve your home base. How great is that?
Unfortunately, my older smartphone can't handle Android 4.0 and up, which is what the app requires. (The app also works on iPhones.) So I'm extra grateful that Six to Start recently made a prequel app that only requires Android 2.2 or iOS 5.0: Zombies, Run! 5k Training. It has little cards describing your sessions as you work your way up to being a full Abel Township runner. And that's where the habit comes in.
See, I've never had the patience for any kind of graduated program. Calisthenics, cleaning house, training my cat -- it's always the same: "These first steps are too silly and easy. I'll skip ahead to week three. No, week five. Forget it, this isn't working."
But with this app, because I was so interested in the characters and the way the story was being told, I was forced to follow the whole program exactly as intended. (OK, except for the squats. I might have skipped most of those.)
Photo by:Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET / Caption by:
It might be silly to be thankful for something I don't own, or plan to own, but I am really thankful for the recessed door handles on Tesla Motors' Model S. I love the fact that someone cared so much about the design of this car that they developed these gorgeous handles that pop up when somebody touches them. It's such an elegant and unexpected touch. Also, it tells me a lot about the company and its focus on detail. Finally, it gives me hope for awesome things to come from Tesla and, hopefully, other manufacturers in various design-focused industries. The design devil is in the details.
The 19-foot-long, shell-pink-and-iridescent-lavender 1956 DeSoto Fireflite sedan that sits inside my garage is a beast out of time. It is chrome, Detroit metal, and Chrysler designer Virgil Exner's vision brought to life. It may look like a relic to people accustomed to seeing the latest Toyotas and BMWs with their LCDs and computer-controlled engines, but the DeSoto Fireflite packs in plenty of technology that was tops for its time, including a 330 Hemi engine, power steering, power brakes, and a push-button automatic Powerflite transmission.
When I'm not cruising around in it, there's enough room under the hood for me to crawl inside if I wanted to. All that beautiful engineering is on full display, not crammed into an inaccessible engine compartment like today's cars. In just a few years, my Fireflite will turn 60, and it's still faithfully running on its original engine and transmission. It's a magnificent, heart-thrumming, rolling piece of automotive history.
I prefer both my "Star Wars" and my toast on the dark side, so I'm very grateful for the Darth Vader Toaster. The toaster burns an image of Darth Vader's helmet right onto my toast. It sounds simple, but there's something great about starting every morning with a Sith Lord staring back at me in my breakfast food. It's like a good omen that I can accomplish anything that day, even if I haven't quite mastered the art of Jedi mind tricks.
I'm thankful for "smart" parking. It's improving my marriage.
Smart-parking technology, usually found in large cities, uses sensors or some type of monitoring system to let drivers know how many parking spots are available in a lot or parking garage. Signs often greet drivers on each level of a garage, letting them know if there's a spot or two left to grab or if they'll need to move on to the next level. In the case of a parking garage at Baltimore Washington International Airport -- which I frequent on trips home -- there are small signs declaring the number of available parking spots in every single row. It's parking bliss!
Smart parking may seem like unexciting technology to some, but it helps prevent that inevitable fight that happens whenever my husband and I try to park. While we see eye to eye on everything from finances to football, when it comes to parking, we're just not on the same page. In the eye of the passenger, whether it's me or him, the other person always picks the wrong spot. Maybe the spot isn't close enough; maybe it's too close. Maybe the spot isn't shady enough; maybe it's too shady. Our parking wars have become somewhat of a running joke among our friends and family, but for me and the hubs, it means bickering that normally lasts long after we've gotten a spot.
It's everyday technology that makes a big difference in my everyday life. If my husband and I know there is only one spot open, instead of turning against each other, we turn into a team to track down the spot before the car behind us grabs it. So, that's why I'm thankful for smart parking.
It would be hyperbole to say that Assassin's Creed saved my marriage. But the game series has brought a level of domestic harmony to my home that I'm thankful for.
I'm not a frequent gamer. I have the capacity to get wildly obsessed with video games that suit my particular skills and interests, but the truth is I haven't connected with a game to a great degree since Ocarina of Time. I'm pretty terrible at racing games, get bored of first-person shooters, and have zero interest in sports games. Zero.
My husband, on the other hand, is a sports guy. And he loves sports games. First it was a hockey game. Then he picked up MLB The Show. And he played it. All. The. Time. The once-cool soundtrack made me crazy. The very sound of announcer Matt Vasgersian's voice would send me into a murderous rage. So what's a couple in love (and with one TV) to do? Now we play together.
We started playing Assassin's Creed 2, taking turns completing missions, helping each other problem-solve the puzzles, and cheering each other's particularly well-executed double-air assassinations. All of a sudden, the game console wasn't driving me out of the living room. It became the focal point of something we both looked forward to doing at the end of the day.
We moved on to "Brotherhood," then AC3. But to us, neither had the polish of 2. I worried that the magic of the series had faded. Then came Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. The Caribbean scenery is gorgeous. Ship battles are challenging. Hunting is fun. Crafting is quick and useful. Booty jokes are endless.
Black Flag has rekindled our love for the Assassin's Creed series. And for all the hours yet to come of joint plundering, harpooning, and, yes, virtual assassinating, I am thankful.
I've spent the past two weeks covering Amazon's developer summit in Las Vegas and Salesforce.com's annual Dreamforce mega-conference in San Francisco. Suffice it to say, I've had a lot of ground to cover getting from keynotes to Q&As with executives to ultra-essential networking receptions after hours.
Amid hectic trade shows like these, there isn't a lot of downtime, and I normally have to carry all of my gear with me from sunrise to bedtime.
One of my now-indispensable reporting tools is M-Edge's Stealth Pro Universal Keyboard Folio, consisting of a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard and a soft-touch coated, microfiber leather cover that gives the accessory a Moleskin notebook-like aesthetic.
This particular folio is designed with 7-inch tablets in mind, and I have it paired with my iPad Mini in place of using a laptop when doing basic reporting.
Also advertised to be compatible with Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, Google's Nexus 7, and both the Samsung Galaxy tablets 2 and 3, the case is outfitted with a magnetic panel to prevent the keyboard from slipping, as well as GripTrack Technology to keep the tablet propped up while reading and typing.
Style notes aside, the lightweight, 12.05-ounce folio has saved my shoulder from plenty of stress that would undoubtedly occur from carrying a heavy computer around all day -- or perhaps I should say days, given that the StealthPro is touted to support up to 100 hours of use on a single charge. I haven't tested the battery to its full capacity, but it certainly hasn't let me down when charging once every couple of days.
Of course, the StealthPro isn't perfect. Getting used to the pint-size keyboard is difficult for even my tiny hands, which has hindered my productivity speeds to some extent.
But the StealthPro's pros outweigh the cons -- primarily thanks to not weighing much at all.
--Rachel King, staff writer for ZDNet, SmartPlanet, CNET
Rarely a day goes by that I don't open Evernote. The free, online service and app saves all the digital stuff I accumulate, whether it's articles I want to hang on to forever, recipes I know I'll make one day, PDFs of knitting patterns, packing lists for trips, or even just notes to myself.
It's running on my home and work computers, my iPad, Nexus 7, and Samsung Note 2, and it syncs everything I save to the cloud automatically. When I want to cook something, I drag my iPad to my kitchen table, prop it up, and open Evernote to find one of the recipes I've saved. I've tried other services like it, and I always come back to Evernote.
What I love the most is that I can create my organizational schematic to fit my neat-freak personality. I have several stacks of notebooks, each with hundreds of notes nestled inside and organized in a way that makes sense to me -- and probably only me.
Photo by:Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET / Caption by:
International chat for cheap
The one product that everyone on the CNET en Español team feels most thankful for these days is Skype, as it has kept our very international team close to family around the world.
We love Skype because it offers free or low-cost standard international calling rates to landlines and cell phones -- much lower than the big three service providers (AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile) -- and, of course, the ability to video chat for free over an Internet line with anyone worldwide.
This is great because Gabriel Sama, our editorial director, can call his family in Mexico; Senior Editor Vanessa Orellana-Hand can call her parents in El Salvador; and Marta Franco, our video producer, can chat with kin in Spain, all for up to $1 less per minute than it would cost otherwise.
I personally use Skype about once a week when I'm driving to call my mother in the Dominican Republic. (Don't worry. I'm using my car's hands-free Bluetooth capability.)
But it's not just about being able to hear someone's voice. It's about being able to see them too. Last New Year's Eve, I was able to celebrate with family and friends at midnight in New York and at midnight in San Francisco. I cherish those moments dearly because they make me feel connected to so many people despite my distance from them.
Also, here in CNET's San Francisco office, the Español team has used Skype to connect with our lone staffer in New York, our senior editor Laura Martinez (pictured here chatting with Vanessa and me, seen in the upper-left-hand corner). I've only met Laura through Skype. Now that's a way to bring people together.
I can always count on the Jambox to amplify my music -- sweet, jangly, or pounding -- wherever I go.
The portable Bluetooth speaker packs a lot of power for a relatively small device and simultaneously elevates the quality of the streaming or stored song I'm playing from my laptop or phone. The life of the party, it regularly supplies my tunes at the park and the beach, at the pool, on a hike, and at home in my living room. The larger version, Big Jambox, just punches up the volume even more.
How big a fan am I? Big enough to buy my niece her very own Jambox for her college dorm room, the quad, and university misadventures beyond.
I'm thankful for Kickstarter. In fact, I confess that I've become somewhat addicted to it.
The crowdfunding site is kind of amazing. For creators whose product might be a little strange for more traditional funding methods, it's a fantastic way to connect directly with customers who are often able to better see a product's value than a board of directors.
For customers, it's an exciting way of getting to show support for independent creators who are doing something truly inventive -- not just what a product manager thinks will sell.
Of all the crowdfunding sites out there, Kickstarter has the best reputation -- for good reason. It has a more-extensive vetting process and rules to minimize scams. Plus, as the most popular crowdfunding site, it's where you find the most projects -- although a dip around Pozible and Microryza never goes astray.
The ingenuity of the independent creators using the Kickstarter platform is just awe-inspiring. It makes me so happy that there's a place where these inventors can go to showcase their work -- and where I can go to support it.
Photo by:Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET / Caption by:
Smile-inducing laptop bag
While I'm certainly grateful for the laptops that allow me to carry my work on planes, trains, and automobiles (shlepping a desktop on the subway was getting really tedious there), I really appreciate having found just the right bag to carry my mobile machines.
Yes, it sports a cute mood-advertising emoticon (one smiling, one frowning) on each side. But it also hangs just the right distance from my shoulder to my waist and it's made of sturdy laminated canvas that makes it feel more durable than other laptop bags I've tried. (The flimsy shoulder strap on my last favorite laptop bag broke after a few months). The rugged zip-top closure makes me feel pretty confident I'll never have to deal with a broken zipper.
Inside, the $74.95 bag has a power cord pouch and phone pocket, plus ample room for things like pens and magazines -- and, because winter is coming, a sweater, gloves, and maybe even a few custom "Game of Thrones" Lego mini-figs.
There are, of course, many monumental technological advancements to be grateful for every day -- electricity and the Internet, for starters -- but sometimes it's the little things that put a smile on your face (or, in this case, on your laptop bag).