Inspector Gadget

In the evolving world of personal technology, do you feel left to your own devices? Surrounded by a dizzying array of iWants and iNeeds, are you wondering which technology is worth the investment? Help is on the way. Kenyon's own Sam Grobart '96, senior tech correspondent for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, guides us through the thicket of current devices, gadgets, and apps, offering an expert's friendly advice on the best of the best.

Gambier Bits: Our Tech Life and How It Grew

When I attended Kenyon in the early to mid nineties, it was like many liberal arts schools when it came to technology. Maybe it was even a little ahead of the curve. We had a campuswide computer network, called "the VAX." If you didn't have a PC of your own (and most people didn't), you accessed the VAX through terminals scattered around campus-amber- and-black-screened computers that had e-mail, chat, and access to message boards via Usenet, a precursor to the Web.

Not to say that there wasn't the Web at Kenyon in the early to mid-nineties. There was. On the second floor of the Olin Library. There was one computer with a browser on it called Mosaic. I used it to write my senior comps. I never had to wait in line to use it.

As for our own personal technology in Gambier, we were not that far from the Amish who came and sold bread along Middle Path on the weekends. Maybe someone had a TV. I knew some people with laptops. I spent far too many hours playing Sega NHL '94 on a Genesis game console in McBride Hall. I had a really terrific collection of cassingles.

But a few short years changed technology and how we use it. Our embrace of gadgets has seemingly accelerated along an asymptotic curve, and it affects more people than ever, not just a subset of dedicated enthusiasts. We are all now, whether we meant to be or not, nerds. We poke at our smartphones, we videochat, we download movies, music, and books. We've allowed technology into nearly all corners of our lives.

My day job for the past few years has been to look at that flood of products and services and figure out what's good and what's not. (Special Kenyon note: Professor Peter Rutkoff once described a paper I had written as "more a magazine article than an academic paper." I tip my hat to you, sir.)

Top Tech: The Five I Can't Live Without

My laptop: I have not owned a desktop computer since 1998. I have one at work, which is nice, because I spend roughly ten hours a day in front of it and I like the big screen and the full-size keyboard. But at home? I'm usually just browsing the Web or doing short bursts of work which don't need a lot of screen real estate. As far as which laptop to get, I'm a big fan of the MacBook Air models, which are perfectly thin and light. Sure, they lack a DVD drive, but I haven't had a need for one of those in years.

Bluetooth speakers: I love playing music straight from my phone to speakers in my house. Other technologies may offer a feature or two that Bluetooth doesn't, but nothing is faster or simpler to set up. My favorite Bluetooth speakers are from Jawbone-the Jambox and the Big Jambox. They both sound great, have some convenient and ingenious features (they can also function as speakerphones for your smartphone, for example), and are easy on the eyes to boot.

Internet video: I'm not one who's severed ties to the cable company completely-I like Homeland and Dexter and other premium-cable shows too much to go completely cableless-but I sure do love being able to call up Netflix or Hulu or other video services on my TV, tablet, or phone. My friends who are pediatricians and child psychologists may not like the next part of what I'm going to say, but streaming video can also be a marvelous parenting aid. There's a wealth of kids' shows available on services like Netflix, and the fact that there are no commercials is a welcome bonus.

Dropbox: Not a product, but a service, Dropbox lets me store documents and other files in the cloud, so that I can retrieve them any time on any device. It's massively reassuring to know that what I'm working on won't be left on the "other" computer if I go traveling, since something saved to Dropbox gets synched to all your devices. It's also a great backup solution: if all my gadgets were destroyed in a tornado, my photos, music, documents, and videos would all be safe, since they are stored somewhere in a server farm that has backups of its own.

My smartphone: Not a radical notion, this, as many people are now addicted to the small computer they carry around with them. In my case, I'm partial to the iPhone. I currently use the new iPhone 5, but if you're new to the Apple ecosystem, you will likely be just as pleased by the iPhone 4S or iPhone 4, which remain available and will save you $100 or $200, respectively, over the iPhone 5.

Owning a smartphone also means I don't own some other things anymore. I don't have a camera-my smartphone's good enough for me and always around when something photo-worthy happens. That's also true for a videocamera-my smartphone's got me covered. I still have a GPS unit in my car, but having started to use turn by-turn navigation on my iPhone 5, I'm not sure I'll be replacing my Garmin if it goes on the fritz.

What's App With That?

My smartphone opens me up to a world of apps. Here are a few that I think are essential.

Facebook and Twitter: That's just sort of a given.

TripIt: A travel-management app that scans your e-mail inbox for any itineraries or confirmations from airlines, hotels, or other travel companies. TripIt pulls all the relevant information from the e-mails and puts it all in an easy-to-read itinerary. Buy the Pro version and TripIt will monitor your flights for you, alerting you if anything has changed or been delayed.

OpenTable: It's not that hard to call a restaurant and make a reservation, but it's great to be able to see all the available tables in a city at a given time and then just push a button and reserve one.

Waze: Turn-by-turn navigation is now available on iOS 6, but Waze does have something special-a social network of users who update fellow drivers about traffic conditions. It's like having a buddy five miles ahead who can tell you whether to take that approaching detour or not.

NPR News: NPR's app lets me stream any NPR show that's already been aired, as well as tap into any NPR station's live feed, so if I'm tired of hearing New York-based news and information, WOSU out of central Ohio is a tap away. If you're buying any sort of tech, you're always wondering: Is this the lowest this price is going to get? Am I buying something that's about to be replaced with a newer model? Decide collects thousands of data points about hundreds of gadgets, and uses a prediction engine to tell you if the price is about to move or a newer version is on the way.

Netflix: Always nice to have movies and TV shows available in a pinch. See "parenting aid" under "Internet video."

Solar Walk: It's like having a planetarium in your pocket. Solar Walk (and its stargazing sibling, Star Walk) have celestial maps, charts, and demo videos that are equally educational and mesmerizing. I have yet to meet a kid who is not completely blown away by it.

SoundHound: Both SoundHound and its competitor, Shazam, do that magical thing where you can hear a song you don't know playing in a room, hold up your phone to capture the audio, and then the app will tell you the name of the song and who is singing it. Welcome to the future.

Spotify: I like having thousands of tracks on my phone, but sometimes I want to break out of my own music library and find something new, or something old I don't have. Spotify's app (free with a premium account) lets me browse an incredibly large catalog of music (15 million songs and counting) and play any one of them whenever I like.

Yelp: No matter where you are, you need to know where to eat and what's good. Yelp's extensive database of restaurants covers just about every eatery you can think of. Besides user ratings, the app (and its Web site) include tips from previous diners about what to order. The app is a handy virtual concierge, so if you find yourself, say, on a hilltop in central Ohio, you'll know where to go (Village Inn; four out of five stars; get the sweet-potato fries).

Sam Grobart '96, senior correspondent for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, was until recently the personal technology editor for the New York Times, where he founded and edited the "Gadgetwise" and "Bits" blogs and wrote a column called "Tool Kit."

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