• Analog tools,  Review

    Another Batch of Pencils for Writing

    When I refer to “Pencils for Writing,” I’m making a distinction between pencils suited to writing vs pencils better suited for drawing. There are far more high-quality affordable wooden pencils than I ever realized. I’ve tried four more for more pencils since my first post about wood-case pencils. I’d happily use any of these four pencils for writing, but I’m particularly pleased with the Staedtler Norica, the General’s Cedar Pointe #1, and the Musgrave News 600 as reliable, pleasant to write with, attractive, affordable pencils.

    Staedtler Norica

    Staedtler Norica

    These Staedtler Norica pencils came from Office Depot; I saw them mentioned online as a back to school bargain. They were $10.00 for 36, or 0.28 each. I like the glossy black body, the silver print and the white eraser with the silver ferrule. They feel good in my hand; the finish is super smooth. The first pencil I used was great for the first page, and then I hit an unpleasant gritty section for a second. This repeated a couple more times, but by about an inch into the graphite and several pages down the road, the writing was consistently smooth and pleasantly dark. The Norica writes a little on the dark side of #2/HB. The eraser is not great, but not unusable, either. At .28 each, I’d definitely buy these again. If I were shopping for a school, I’d get this pack of 50 Staedtleter Norris pencils with 50 eraser caps for $6.00 from Amazon.

    General’s  Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB

    The General’s #333 Cedar Pointe 2HB is another natural finish pencil, made of unvarnished cedar with a dark eraser and an aged or bronzed looking ferrule. While the General’s Cedar Pointe #2 is a perfectly reasonable HB #2 pencil. It’s not a favorite. That said,  I’d buy it again because it’s a great pencil, just not for me. A single General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB pencil is $1.00 at CW Pencils.

    General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1

    General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1

    I really like this pencil. It’s definitely darker than the Cedar Pointe HB/2, with  the same natural finish cedar body, ferrule and eraser. I like this pencil very much; enough that I’m tempted to buy a dozen. It’s a solid, attractive dark-graphite pencil for writing. A single General’s Cedar Pointe from CW Pencils is $1.00. A dozen Cedar Pointe #1s with free shipping from Amazon is a bit under $10.00.

    Musgrave News 600

    Musgrave News 600

    The Musgrave News 600 is a round, glossy black eraserless pencil with prominent san serif white print. I purchased it from CW Pencils for $0.50, and it was a bargain. As the CW Pencils description of the Musgrave News 600 suggests, this thick-cored dark pencil feels about like “3B/4B and looks a bit darker.” Musgrave News 600 isn’t terribly durable in terms of general hardiness (all that graphite is fragile) or point retention, but it produces a thick dark and very smooth line. Musgrave News is a great pencil for writing, despite its tendency to smudge. I’ll probably buy a couple more so I can always have one on hand because Musgrave News 600 are extremely smooth writers, produce a thick line, and are very dark. I’m thinking that they might work particularly well for handwriting practice.

  • Accessories,  Review

    Oct17 Wooden Alarm Clock

    Oct17 Wooden alarm clockI wanted a way to see the time at night without constantly checking my phone. I was initially looking for an analog watch, but this Wirecutter review of alarm clocks caught my eye, especially the Oct17 Wooden Alarm Clock caught my eye.

    The clock is shaped like a very large Toblerone chocolate bar, has a small footprint and can be set to display the time when you tap it. The wooden clock comes in several different finishes, including an attractive light bamboo. Oct17 Wooden Alarm Clock in the light bamboo finishThe time display is very readable, even without my glasses. The clock can be set display the date and time in alteration, or the time, temperature and humidity. The alarm sound (you can set several alarms) is really annoying, but the alarm would wake me up if needed. As the Wirecutter review notes, setting the clock is a little tricky; it’s modal and involves correctly pressing one of the three tiny buttons in the correct sequence. Setting the clock is manageable however, and for the price (under $20.00), this clock is a bargain.

    The clock is powered by a USB cable and AC adapter plug; my clock arrived with a non-functioning plug, but the company replaced it immediately. The plug has a power light that shows when the adapter is working. The clock uses three AAA batteries as a backup power supply (not included). What I like best about the clock is that I have it set so the display is off unless I tap the clock, or make a loud enough sound to wake the display. This clock does exactly what I needed, is attractive, easy to read, and takes up very little space.

    I couldn’t be happier.

  • Accessories,  Review

    NIXPlay 10 inch Digital Frame

    I bought this NIXPlay Advance 10-Inch Widescreen digital frame for my mom after reading this WireCutter review of the Nix Seed. My mom doesn’t have WiFi, so the NIX Seed wasn’t an option for her. She loves her Nix Advance. It holds a giant amount of images and videos, and so the image is always fresh. And the clock function is useful too.

    The NIXPlay Advance has a beautiful wide-screen display. The frame came with an 8 GB UBS thumb drive but it can also take SD/SDHC cards. It displays JPEGs and MPEG-4 videos, including sound. It also has a calendar and clock, and you can set the time to display on the lower right-hand corner.  The motion sensor can be set for a duration so the frame display “sleeps” when there’s no one around to appreciate it. You can have the images and/or videos play back in sequence or randomly, with a variety of dissolves.

    The remote is easy to use, as are the button options on the back of the frame. There are a variety of sizes and features available, including NIXPlay frames with WiFi support. It took me all of 10 minutes to set up the frame after coping files to the USB thumb drive that was included with the frame.

    I wanted this for my mom, but it’s a great gift for grandparents or other relatives. Pick out the videos and images you want to display on the frame, then when it arrives, copy them to the included USB drive or (the cloud for WiFi versions) and they’ve got a gift rich with memories and joy. Plus, it’s easy to pop the drive off the back of the frame and freshen it with new images. There are a number of options in terms of NixPlay digital frame sizes and WiFi support, including both smaller and larger frames.

    NIXPlay Advance 10-Inch Widescreen digital frame Features

    • Photo & 720p HD Video Playback: Mix photos (JPEG) and video (MPEG-4) in the same Slideshow.
    • 1280x 800 High Resolution IPS (16:10) LED Backlit Display
    • Hu-Motion Sensor: Turns the frame on when you enter the room and off when you leave the room, with several durations.
    • 8GB Thumb Portable Thumb Drive Memory Included, frame accepts USB & SD/SDHC Card.
    • Small well-designed remote control, with batteries pre-installed.
    • Clock/Calendar Function, Stereo Speakers, Full One Year Warranty.

    Purchase From:
    Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK | NIXPlay

  • Books,  Culture and Society,  Review

    Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner by Joe Kissell

    Cover of Joe Kissell's Take Control of Thanksgiving DinnerIn 2007 Joe Kissell, an able an adept technical writer about all things Macintosh with a serious interest in preparing and consuming good food, turned his geekly technical writing skills to documenting the creation of Thanksgiving dinner. Take Control of Thanksgiving, a guide to planning, shopping, and preparing Thanksgiving dinner is the book I wish I’d had the first time I produced a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

    The version of Take Control of Thanksgiving I read has been updated several times since that first version. Using easily understood language, Kissell outlines exactly how and what to do if you’re responsible for Thanksgiving dinner. He covers planning a menu, organizing a shopping list, and figuring out the cooking and prep schedule for a typical Thanksgiving dinner consisting of roasted turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

    But Kissel doesn’t stop there. One of the basic principles behind Kissell’s how-to guide is that he keeps the need for alternatives in mind. For instance, Kissell, very much aware of the importance of presentation and visual appeal in terms of creating food people want to eat, feels that, properly speaking, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is built around “the traditional Thanksgiving colors  of white, yellow, orange, red, and brown” (TCT 61),  and consequently cheerfully offers not only the “traditional” Green Bean Casserole recipe, but a nifty suggestion for roasting green beans. Throughout Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner, Kissell presents a number of alternates for dishes and cooking styles, and provides for adjusting the menu to suit the idiosyncrasies of guests.

    One of the things I love about this book, aside from the easy, comfortable, and clear writing, is that there’s a lot of practical help here. Don’t have time for a day of shopping and a day of prep? Joe’s got that covered. Need to cook for more people? See the section explaining how to scale recipes. Worried about a life that includes six months of turkey tetrazzini? It doesn’t have to be that way, if you use Kissell’s very smart “Deal With Leftovers” advice. Plus, in one of the really, smart, helpful user-friendly parts of the Take Control of Thanksgiving ebook is that the book includes a file of shopping guides and prep schedules ready to print and use. Kissell really does cover all the bases—including vegetarians guests, Tofurkey Roasts, and a homemade Polenta Dome.

    It’s very apparent that this is a book written by someone who knows what QA and testing means; these are recipes that have been carefully tested and even adjusted with subsequent editions to make sure that they can be successfully prepared by people besides the author.

    Whether you’re an old hand at cooking the bird for friends and family, someone venturing into a holiday kitchen for the first time, or interested in exploring alternatives, there’s something here for you. And if you want something beyond the basics, this is my dead easy recipe for homemade rolls, and my mom’s Pecan pie.

    Go download the free 33 page .pdf Take Control of Thanksgiving Sample and read the TOC and excerpts at Take Control Books. Or buy the book yourself in multiple formats for a mere $10.00. Take advantage of the fact that you can download the book in multiple formats, and use it while you’re in the kitchen.

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  • Accessories,  Hardware,  Review

    Brydge+ with Speakers iPad Keyboard

    The Brydge iPad keyboard began as a Kickstarter project. New owners based in Singapore took over in 2014, and the current models are improved. You should look at the Brydge Keyboards Website for a high resolution tour of the Brydge keyboard models. Better still check out this video.

    There are three versions of the Brydge iPad keyboard:

    • Brydge+ with Speakers $99.00 USD
    • Brydge+ Speakerless $89.00 USD
    • Brydge+ Polycarbonate $79.00 USD

    These prices are current as of today; the usual list prices are $149.99, $139.99, and $99.99. The keyboards are compatible with the iPad 2, 3rd and 4th Generations.

    Brydge sent me a Brydge+ with Speakers and the Brydge case for the covered iPad for review. I’ve tried two iPad Bluetooth keyboards that function as a cover, the Adonit and the Zagg, and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard. The Brydge Keyboard is, for me, the best of the three. There’s a lot that I like about it, but the primary feature for me is the keyboard feel. The keys can stand up to serious typing, from a rapid typer. While it’s not as comfortable in some respects as using Apple’s standard Bluetooth keyboard, the Brydge is portable, and realistically, the Apple is not.

    What’s In the Box

    The package comes with the keyboard, a quick start guide, a micro USB charging cable, and shims. The shims are silicon caps that slide over the aluminum hinges on the Brydge depending on whether you’re using an iPad 2 or an iPad 3 or 4.

    Setup

    The Brydge + is made of anodized aluminum, with a look that matches the iPad case of my iPad 3 exceedingly well—it’s very Apple like in look and in feel. The Brydge has rubber feet on the bottom of the Brydge, and small rubber pads below the keyboard on the palm rest so that the screen of your iPad doesn’t contact the keyboard. Depending on which iPad you’re pairing the Brydge with, you slide the shims on the aluminum hinges, then slide your iPad in the slot of the hinges, turning the iPad so the camera and controls are not covered by the hinge of the Brydge.

    Pairing With Bluetooth on your iPad

    The instructions for pairing the Brydge and an iPad are very clear, and fairly standard. However, the built-in speakers on the Brydge need to be paired separately, though, again, the process is standard and the directions are straight forward.

    Keyboard

    This is not a standard keyboard layout. It has a number of special function keys for the iPad:

    • Home | Displays the iPad home screen
    • Brightness | Up and Down keys control the iPad screen brightness.
    • Keyboard | Hide/Show Hides or shows iPad on-screen keyboard.
    • Slide-Show | Plays a slide-show of saved pictures.
    • Search Displays the iPad search screen.
    • International Keyboard | Toggles between international keyboards (Depending on the iPad’s Settings International panel).
    • iTunes keys | Previous Track, Play/Pause, Next Track, Mute, Volume Up and Down.
    • Lock | Toggles Wake/Sleep on the iPad and displays the Lock screen.

    image of the Brydge and an iPad 3

    I really like the responsive feel of the keys on the Brydge compared to other iPad keyboards I’ve tried. I’m accustomed to using a laptop keyboard, and am quite comfortable typing on an 11 inch keyboard. I adjusted very quickly to the Brydge keyboard. Now, having said that, the first hour or so I used the Brydge, I twice hit the special Lock key on the top right, which triggers the iPad’s lock screen. I very quickly adjusted to being slightly more cautious about which key I hit when aiming for the Backspace key. Some reviewers had difficulty hitting the Shift key, since the up-arrow cursor key is just to the left of the Shift key; this wasn’t a problem for me, but I routinely type on small keyboards. Even placing the iPad with the Brydge on my lap and keyboarding, the Brydge feels solid and stable. I did find myself forgetting that I wasn’t using a laptop in that I would attempt to use the non-existent touchpad, instead of using the iPad screen. I especially like the presence of the standard Mac Control, Option and Command keys; the presence of standard Apple keys are one of the reasons I like Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard so much. It’s enormously efficient to use standard keyboard commands for Copy and Paste while editing images, for instance. You have the image editing advantages of the iPad’s touch screen, and the advantages of the keyboard as well. The cursor keys are also extremely useful.

    Speakers

    The sound is surprisingly good, much better than I expected. It’s certainly more than adequate for watching videos or films, playing games or casual music listening. The angle of the iPad seems to affect the acoustics in positive ways. You can toggle the Brydge speakers off and on by pressing Control-B on the iPad keyboard. Pressing and holding Control-B will un-pair the speakers so you can pair another device. The speakers don’t automatically pair; you need to deliberately pair them if you intend to use them.

    Battery and Charging

    Once the Brydge is paired and connected with your iPad, the back of the iPad becomes the top of a clamshell. “Closing” the clamshell by lowering the iPad until it touches the Brydge keyboard works much like closing a magnetic-hinged iPad cover; the magnetic hinge on the Brydge tells the iPad to sleep. The Brydge automatically sleeps if it’s on and not being used for a few minutes. Pressing a key (and waiting a second) wakes the Brydge. Pressing Ctrl-B on the keyboard for a few seconds turns the speakers back on.

    I used the Brydge and the iPad for most of my computing this past week (the exception was using SFTP). That includes lots of writing, not only blog posts, but email and longer pieces using several apps. The fact that the Brydge supports standard Mac keyboard commands for italics and high ASCII characters makes it easy and efficient for serious writing. I also listened to music, watched videos, and finally, had to resort to streaming music for the last two hours in order to run down the battery and see how long it took to recharge. The recharge to a full battery was a little over two hours. I absolutely believe that casual use would allow the battery to remain charged for weeks.

    I am really impressed with the quality of the Brydge manufacturing and design. It’s style is very much in line with Apple’s iPad aesthetics. The Brydge keyboard feels really solid, though I would have expected a warranty longer than six months. This is by far my favorite of the portable iPad keyboards I’ve tried, and compares very favorably with a quality laptop keyboard. I’m now deeply curious about the low-end polycarbonate model; it strikes me as the perfect companion for a student using the iPad to take notes etc.

    For more information, see the Brydge site, and especially, their Brydge FAQs. I’m impressed enough that I’m not only telling everyone I know to check them out, I’ve become an affiliate.

  • Accessories,  Review

    iPad Keyboards, Cases and Styluses

    Increasingly, people are using iPads for creating content, as well as reading and viewing content. While the iPad digital keyboard is nifty (especially if you know these clever typing shortcuts) a stylus, or keyboard, or keyboard-and-stand combination can all make writing, editing, and creating on the iPad much easier. Dan Frakes has a thorough review of iPad keyboards in his Macworld Buying Guide: iPad keyboards. Frakes also favors Adonit’s Writer folio case and Bluetooth keyboard, the one I wrote about here and have been using quite happily (though I’m still planning to pick up Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard to use with my iPad and with an iMac).

    For non-keyboard cases, this Macworld Buying Guide: iPad Cases seems to be the most thorough and helpful collection of reviews. I might as well confess that Apple’s red leather smart case for the iPad 2 (or possibly the navy blue leather one) are awfully tempting—though not quite enough to tempt me into buying an actual iPad 2. Instead, I bought a padded neoprene slip cover case that neatly fits in the padded laptop compartment of my backpack. That said, I’ve been eyeing the design-your-own cases and protective hard shell covers from Zazzle and Cafe Press.

    My current obsession, personally, is with the utility of using a stylus to write and draw on the iPad. I’m about to post a review of the Griffin GC16040 Stylus for iPad/iPhone and Other Touchscreens. I’ve been fascinated to see how well it works, and yes, the Griffin Stylus really is an asset. I note that once again the Macworld Buying Guide: iPad Styluses seems to provide the best coverage.
    At the high end, they like the Wacom Bamboo (and it’s available in multiple colors) at around $25.00. I’ve heard good things about Wacom’s Bamboo Stylus from others too. I note that a lot of my friends are buying the BoxWave Capacitive Stylus; like the Griffin Stylus, it’s about ten dollars, but the Boxwave comes in colors, and people seem to be buying two or three at a time.

  • Accessories,  Review

    Adonit Writer I for iPad

    I finally received my Adonit Writer I. The Adonit Writer I is a Bluetooth keyboard and cover combination. So far, I quite like it. I note that the keyboard, while it has a nice response, is very small and won’t work well for some users without a lot of practice. I’m accustomed to using laptop keyboards, and was fairly comfortable after about ten minutes.

    I do notice that I need to be very careful about bumping the screen lock key when reaching for the Delete key. Oddly, some of the iPad’s keyboard shortcuts, like pressing the spacebar twice for a period and trailing space don’t work.

    But The Adonit Writer makes things like blogging much easier than using the digital on-screen iPad keyboard. I’ll likely keep trying other keyboards as well, but I was primarily looking for something to use while away from home, and the Adonit Writer I does look like it will serve that purpose quite well. I’m still thinking about an Apple Bluetooth keyboard for home use as an alternative to my laptop, in case of emergency.

    Adonit makes the Adonit Writer for iPad 1 for first generation iPads, and Adonit the Adonit Writer 2 for iPad 2 for second generation iPads. Both are available from Amazon.

    Adonit Writer for iPad 1

    Writer 2 for iPad 2

  • Review

    Read It Later iPad App

    The Read It Later app, Nate Weiner’s application that allows you to “save” Web pages for later reading has been updated and released for the iPad. Originally released for iPhone and iPod Touch, version 2.1 now supports iPads as well as iPhones and iPod Touch. You need to be running iOS 3.1 or later to use Read It Later. You first create a free account on the Read it Later Website, then use a special bookmark on your Web browser Toolbar to save Web pages for later browsing, on or offline, in any version of Read It Later, on any device that supports it. (On Firefox, the Read It Later installs an extension to the browser). That means you can mark pages for later reading not only on your computer, but on your iPad or phone, and they’re all synchronized. In Firefox, the Read It Later extension adds a small icon to the Address Bar (where you see the RSS icon, etc.); click it to save a page for later reading. In Safari, you click a bookmarklet in your Toolbar.

    Read It Later can also extract plain text from Web pages, for easier reading (it saves two versions of every page you mark). You can organize your list of saved pages with tags, and sort them. You can choose to share pages in a number of fashions, via several Twitter clients for the iPad as well as variety of news readers have built-in support for Read It Later. There’s a simple tutorial here. If you use Google Reader in your Web browser, you’ll see a Read It Later button right next to the Google Star, for easily marking pages for later reading.

    I note that the process of adding the bookmarklet to mark items to Read It Later for Safari on the iPad is a bit laborious—but that is a flaw in Safari, not Read It Later. Read It Later provides good step-by-step instructions for adding the bookmarklet; read the screen, and you’ll be fine. The Read It Later iPad application also has good built-in Help; be sure to read the Tips section. I note Weiner has included helpful Settings for downloading only when using on WiFi, or for text only.

    The paid for version Read It Later Pro offers easier saving of pages to read later; you can “tap to save,” without having to first open the link/page. There’s also an embedded full-screen reader, among other features. The niftiest feature is the Digest feature; it sorts your saved pages, and presents them in an easily navigable list. There’s a shot of the Digest screen below.

    ETA: Rich points out in a comment to this post that I did not make it clear that the Digest is an add-on feature. It is; it’s an in-app $5.00 purchase for either the free or the paid version of Read it Later. If you purchase the Digest for any version of Read it Later, it is available in all version of the app that you own. See this explanation.

I footnotes