Tech  |  Lists

The Five Best Apps/Gadgets of 2011

December 30, 2011  |  11:51am

Rather than take yet another look at the latest iPhone/Androids/Tablets on the market, we’re going to look at our favorite apps and gadgets that incorporate apps on those devices. The line between the two has gotten blurrier than ever.

I’ve long held that the best tech is the tech that enhances your offline activities. I called this phenomenon The Straddle in a blog post back in 2008, where I implored those in the offline world who were not yet using the then-nascent social media tools to begin doing so. I said at the time: “If you’re a restaurant who isn’t tweeting out your specials (and I don’t know one restaurant who is), and even perhaps creating events/menus for your online peeps so that you can then have the offline experience with them, it seems to me you’re missing something.”

Yes, yes, if I believed I had any power, I’d say I’m partly to blame for creating a monster. Sorry. In any case, I feel the same way now about gadgets as I did then about social media: the best ones marry your online and offline worlds.

To wit, my picks for five gadgets that best do the straddle.

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5. Nest
Nest is the only entry on the list I haven’t personally tried, but given its pedigree (the founders are ex-Apple), and the sheer brilliance of how it’s solved a problem most of us didn’t know existed, Nest’s learning thermostat is worth a mention.

While I’ve been using the so-so home automation “solution” Insteon devices (and its so-so Indigo Touch app) for some time, the pure beauty and functionality of the Nest thermostat makes me hope against hope that they’ll introduce other home automation products.

It’s such a logical idea: the best tech in the world takes tedious, repeated actions and automates them. What’s more tedious and repeated then adjusting the damnable (and ugly) thermostat every morning, afternoon, and night? Nest learns your habits, and, over time, adjusts itself based on your past behavior. Of course, you can also check and adjust it via the (free) app.

It’s not cheap ($250), but I have to believe that a few days of not having the A/C or heat on when it doesn’t need to be will make this gadget pay for itself pretty quickly.

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4. Tripit
I’ve grown so reliant upon this app that if I didn’t have it, I’m not sure I’d know how to get my travel information together. If you travel a lot, Tripit is an absolute must-have.

While it does all of the things you’d expect in a travel app—keep track of your itineraries, notify you of flight delays, let you check in from the app and even let you know which other Tripit members from your social graph are close by—the killer functionality is that it automatically generates your itinerary and (of course) syncs to your phone. For $49/year, Tripit Pro will even send you alerts for check-in, flight status/delays/cancellations, airfare-price-drop monitoring and reward-point tracking.

I’ve grown so confident in its ability to recognize whatever travel-related confirmations are in my email—from air travel, to train, to hotels, to even ferry reservations—that I no longer bother to check before I leave. This relieves a lot of early morning stress; no fun to be scrolling through Gmail looking for a confirmation number at 4:30 am.

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3. How to Cook Everything
Mark Bittman’s ascendancy continues. He’s gone from food Minimalist to an all-around commentator, but what impresses me most is that he’s the first cook I’ve seen really get the iPad. As someone who loves to cook, the iPad seemed like a natural for recipes: you could include video, related recipes, updates, etc. With limited exception, most chefs/cookbook authors apparently don’t see the virtues of the iPad as a cooking gadget. Happily, Mr. Bittman does.

His How to Cook Everything app takes the excellent eponymous book and delivers a tremendous amount of value to the home cook. In addition to those features mentioned above (related recipes, variations, etc.), the free and frequent updates keep the app current. And the fact that these updates tend to include some of Mr. Bittman’s current favorites makes it personal.

In terms of straddling your on and offline lives, the fantastic shopping list feature—pick a recipe, hit the shopping cart, and a list of ingredients is emailed to you so you can click them off your iPhone while at the store—is indispensable. The app is an absolute bargain at $10.

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2. Redeye
While we wait for the Apple Television, we’re all stuck in a world of myriad remotes. Even a “simple setup” such as ours—Cable/DVR, DVD, TV, Soundbar, AppleTV and HDMI switcher—adds up to a coffee table straining six remotes. And, of course, you can never find the one you need. There are many, many decent “Universal” remotes—from the expensive (Harmony) to the cheap-but-very-good (RadioShack 8-in-One)—but, like all other remotes: they get lost. As with cameras, the best remote is the one you have with you. What we increasingly tend to have with us is our phones.

Various companies (notably, Peel) have tried to provide a decent a/v remote experience for the phone. The challenge, of course, is that most a/v components are on a different remote frequency than are most phones. Thus, until something like Bluetooth Version Two comes out (and a/v makers implement this technology), an additional component is necessary to convert the signal that your phone emits to a signal your components can understand.

Redeye created a small transmitter to serve this purpose. It must be positioned in your room so that the IR beam it emits can hit your a/v components without obstruction. This is more challenging than might be imagined; if, for instance, your TV is hanging on your wall, but your DVD player is in a cabinet on the other side of the room, you’ll struggle to find the location for the IR emitter to control both.

However, once situated, controlling all your a/v gear from your iPhone/iPad is something of a revelation. For better or worse, we all tend to sit and watch TV with our phones in our hands; not having to put the phone down in order to change the channel or control the volume really does have an impact.

Redeye has done a decent job of integrating a guide into their app. You can quickly see what’s on, and just tap what you want to watch, and it will change the channel. The UI in the app is completely customizable (you can arrange the buttons you want and overall look and feel). Of course, like any higher-end remote, it has full learning capability.

The biggest failing of the UX, however, is the delay between opening the app on your device and when you can begin controlling your devices. Even worse, there’s no indication that the app is trying to connect to your gear. This leads to the dreaded faux non-responsive issue. That is, you think the app isn’t working, so you double/triple tap it, only to have it—seconds later—connect to your gear and respond erroneously.

That aside, it’s a great experience overall (it even automatically mutes your TV when an incoming phone call is received while you’re using the app), that has resulted in all of our other remotes being banished to a box in the closet.

The app is free (which is really handy when guests/spouses/babysitters want to control the a/v: they can just download the app, connect your network, and control away), but the gadget that converts the command you send from your phone into a frequency your a/v can understand will run you $200 (there’s a “mini” version that is essentially an IR sender that you plug into the headphone jack of your phone for $50).

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1. Sonos
2011 was the breakthrough year for this multi-zone music solution. Sonos brought their technology to the masses by introducing a lower-priced unit and increased their streaming offerings to include pretty much anyone who matters. (Exhaustive review here)

However, what makes Sonos so great is the way in which their Apps make listening almost compulsory. You walk into a room with a Sonos set up, and your iPhone pretty much exhorts you to play some music.

Sonos has done what no one, not even Apple (with their still-krufty—and single-zone—Airplay tech) could: make playing music in every room of your house a simple, enjoyable, and—with the excellence of their apps—fun experience.

Importantly, there’s no lag from the time you hit the app to when you can start controlling the music. This is far more crucial than it might at first seem. The ability for you to not have to wait for the app to access your system means no double tapping, no wondering if things are connected. This to me—beyond the decent UX—is the killer bit of functionality; it makes the tech disappear.

Sonos still ain’t cheap—the entry level Play:3 and Sonos Bridge (to connect to your network) will run you around $300 (the app is free)—but it really is worth it.

Certainly, there are lots of other gadgets out there that help you straddle your on and offline world (Apple’s Facetime, Instragram, various guitar tuners and amp emulators, etc.), but the above represent gadgets that really make me feel tech is improving my offline life.

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