Tech: My Tech Picks (Late 2016)

It’s been close to a year since my  original “Tech Picks” post in January. And a lot has changed for me when it comes to technology use. So, if you’re curious to see where I stand now on various ecosystems and my personal preferences on technology, this might interest you.

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – As expected from a PC gamer, I’m still using Windows as my platform of choice. Although, I have to express my frustration with Microsoft. Windows is a solid and stable option, but they’ve really made some bone-headed moves over the last year that leaves me questioning the road ahead. I’ve been both a PC and a Mac owner, and I can tell you without hesitation, the only thing keeping me on the PC platform is upgrade-ability and the level of customization that a PC provides.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1607) – Since my last Tech Picks post, Windows 10 has received a refresh. The most current version is now “Windows 10 Anniversary edition”. Overall, this update is pretty solid. But it is not without it’s faults. While I have not been directly affected, this update broke a large number of USB devices for many users. Most notably web cams, Kindle, and other multimedia hardware. At the time of this writing, this issue has been not been resolved. Also a number of cumulative updates have caused havoc for many users. It seems like MS’s quality control has left a lot to be desired.

Hardware: Since my last post I’ve left most everything the same with the exception of a hard drive upgrade. In attempt to resolve some bottleneck issues, I updated my main drive to a hybrid SSD/Mechanical hard disk. I have been very impressed with the results. Everything else has stayed the same.

CPU: Intel i7 950 @ 3.07ghz

Mainboard: GA-X58-USB3

Physical RAM:  12gbs

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main: Seagate 2TB Hybrid SATA    Secondary:  Hitachi 1Tb   External:  Seagate USB 320gb

External Media:  DVD RW & Memory Card reader

Power: 750watt

Mobile: Android  – Motorola NEXUS 6 (Android Nougat 7.0) – Yes. I finally jumped ship on the Windows Mobile platform. The writing had been on the wall for some time and I rode it out for as long as I could. But once I saw developers actually leaving, not just “not developing”, I knew the end was near. It seems I was right, as now even Microsoft has all but abandoned their mobile platform. So, I was forced with making a decision between Apple and Google. Now, I’ve owned iPhones before and I think they are great. I have no problems whatsoever with the iOS platform. But, As I’ve mentioned on this site before, I’m very much an “ecosystem” type of guy. I prefer to use like-services. And, being a former Microsoft/Windows user, I decided it would be best to go Android. More specifically, a NEXUS device. NEXUS phones are basic stock-Android devices. They feature the Android OS in it’s purest form, plus, they are very easy to unlock and modify. Originally, my plan was to wipe the factory OS and install CyanogenMOD (a custom ROM). This would allow me to have all the benefits of an Android phone, but I could center it around Cortana and the other Microsoft apps that I enjoy. However, I found myself surprisingly impressed with the stock Android experience. Google’s services really shocked me with how well they all work together when centered on a single device. I will elaborate more on this in other areas of this post, but the way things are going now, I’ve very much become a Google convert. In fact, I’m looking forward to the new Pixel phones that were recently announced.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface No change here. My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. Despite now using an Android phone, I see no offerings in the tablet area that tempt me to make a switch to Android. For my purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – No change here.  The Kindle Paperwhite is an elegant and universal option that serves my needs perfectly. Yes, there are newer Kindle options available. But the Paperwhite remains my go to device.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Google – My switch to Android complicated this a bit. Previously, I was using Cortana exclusively on both my PC and my Phone. The service synced flawlessly and I actually found using a virtual assistant useful. Today, I am using “Ok Google” on my phone when I feel the need to dictate things by voice. But since there’s no Google Assistant on PC, that’s as far as it goes. Yes, I can install Cortana on my Android, but the experience is not nearly as seamless as it was on a Windows Phone device. Cortana is still active on my PC, but with all honesty – she’s not doing much.

Web Browser: Chrome– Despite a slew of improvements made to Edge in the Win 10 Anniversary Update, the browser still pales in comparison to nearly any other. I have set aside Firefox for Chrome, as I’m using Chrome on my phone, As a result, things like bookmarks and prior search results all integrate between my devices. I find this extremely convenient. Plus, Chrome is very well supported and polished.

Search: Google – More Google migration here. As a result of my Android defection, I also find myself using Google again for searches instead of Bing. I still feel like Bing is fine engine and in some ways, superior to Google in terms of design and aesthetics. But when it comes to raw functionality, both search engines seem to be on par with each other. Having Google search integrated so tightly with my phone certainly influenced my switch.

Email and Calendar: Google/Gmail – Another victim resulting from migrating away from Windows Phone. Gmail and Google Calendar integrate so wonderfully with the Google Now launcher that comes with the NEXUS, that they have managed to sway me away from Outlook. For the record, I still hail Microsoft’s spam controls over Google’s overall, but I keep a tight lid on my email address and as a result, do not general have a spam problem.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 Nothing beats it. As far a desktop application suite, Microsoft office is the best.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive and Google Drive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. OneDrive works great with Android and other platforms as well. These days, I use OneDrive mainly for PC Back ups, and I use Google Drive for photos and general storage. But, both are within arm’s reach at any time.

PC Gaming Services: Steam No change. For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. The only time I buy anything on GoG or other platforms is when it’s not available on Steam.

Music Management:  MusicBee – No change here either. I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. MusicBee is my music manager for the desktop. It integrates with my phone and makes it easy to transfer files to Google Play Music on my device.  Side note: I have recently found myself subscribing to Google Play Music as well. At $10 a month, with the perk of YouTube Red (ad free YouTube), it’s been quite an enjoyable experience. I still keep and maintain a local MP3 collection, but I enjoy the vast stream-able library that Google Play Music offers.

Wearables: Fitbit Charge HR–  I have moved away from the Microsoft Band and joined my wife as a Fitbit user. I was excited with the look and concept that the band promised, but over time I found it to be lackluster and not very practical. The Band itself was large and bulky and seemed more trouble that it was worth. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Just last week Microsoft announced they were killing off the device.  My job offers an annual discount for Fitbit purchases, so I sold my Band 2 and took advantage. I’m still not a very heavy user of wearable tech, but aside from losing a few nifty features such as text reply and application support, the Fitbit is serving me well for the time being. I do expect in the future to explore some other wearable options, but for now, I’m content.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Wii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360   (there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP collecting dust.

Tech: My Tech Picks (Early 2016)

Since my recent posts about tech and operating systems, I thought it might be fun to elaborate on my personal tech choices. So, for those who might be curious, as of January 2016, this is what I use:

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – Even though I have nothing but great things to say about Apple hardware. I find their prices to be a bit hard to swallow. Yes, I’ve purchased and owned Apple hardware. But considering the cash you have to shell out vs the limit upgradability, I’ve decided to stick with custom built PCs for the foreseeable future.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1511) – At the time of this writing, Windows 10 is the latest offering from Microsoft. Despite what you may read in certain online media, Windows 10 is not filled with NSA/Microsoft spyware. The OS does not record your actions or phone home to some secret location far in the mountains of Washington state. Yes, there is telemetry and data dumps for crash reports, but all of these things can be easily disabled during and after installation. Other settings such as predicative text and search archival are also optionally enabled for use with the Cortana virtual assistant. Don’t like it, turn it off. — As far as stability and modern options, this is the version of Windows to use.

Hardware: My PC is a custom built Frankenstein of both cutting edge and legacy tech. I prefer and use Intel processors, with Nvidia graphics cards. The biggest thing holding me back are my old school mechanical hard disks. I am hoping to upgrade to a solid state or hybrid drive in the near future. My current rig is as follows:

CPU: Intel i7 950 @ 3.07ghz

Mainboard: GA-X58-USB3

Physical RAM:  12gbs

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main: Hitachi 1TB  SATA    Secondary:  Hitachi 500gb   External:  Seagate USB 320gb

External Media:  DVD RW & Memory Card reader

Power: 750watt

Mobile: Windows Phone – Nokia Lumia Icon (929) with Windows 10 (1511) – This has been my phone for quite a while. In my opinion, despite being an older phone, it features some of the best hardware available today. This phone boasts a 2.2 GHZ quad-core CPU with a 20 megapixel back camera, and a 1.2 front camera. It features 32gbs of storage and wireless charging. It’s not a “phablet” (which I like) it’s display is 5″. Being a Verizon device, this runs on 4g LTE.  – As I said, the hardware is great but the phone suffers from the poor software support that Windows Mobile devices receive. The OS runs well, but at this time Windows 10 is still buggy on this device. (The Factory image for the Lumia Icon is still Windows 8.1 – which runs flawlessly), but regardless which OS you use, the app gap is real.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. Maybe occasionally a little bit of Netflix. For these purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect. The dimensions of this tablet vs a standard iPad are better suited for comic reading. Plus the old Surface is much cheaper.  Would I like a Surface Pro 3? Sure… but for now, this suits my needs fine.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – I like to read. I always have. I love the touch and even the smell of books. So for a long time I resisted the “eBook revolution”. I knew I didn’t want to read a novel on a glaring white LCD. So once I decided to take the plunge into eBooks, I knew that the eInk Kindles would be the best option for me. Amazon features the biggest digital library out there. Nook and other competitors can’t compete. This Christmas, my wife got me a new backlit Paperwhite to replace my old 4th gen Kindle. I bought a nice leather case for it. Now it even feels like a book in my hand. I love my Paperwhite. I can read in the dark without having to stare at an eyeburning screen. The soft light of the Paperwhite is perfect for me.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Cortana – I never thought I’d find myself actually using this type of technology. But once I got the hang of it, it really simplified things for me. I’ve tried and used all three of the big options, Siri, Ok Google, and Cortana and for me, Cortana is the winner with Siri at a close second. Of course, these technologies are all software driven so that could change at any time. But to date, I’ve found Cortana to be the easiest to use and “she” provides me with the most relevant search results. Be it web search or local directions, 9 out of 10 times, she delivers right what I’m looking for.

Web Browser: Firefox – Ever since the release of Internet Explorer 4, I’ve been a fan of Microsoft browsers (until recent years). In fact, if there was an Internet Explorer 12, I’d probably be using it now. But sadly, Microsoft has left IE out to die while they developed their new Edge browser. The only problem is… Edge sucks. At least right now it does. Sure it is fast and renders pages beautifully, but it’s not-feature complete. I can’t tweak it the way I want to. I can’t block ads without editing the hosts file on my PC. And with IE unable to keep up with modern web standards I find myself using Firefox. Firefox offers me everything I need to tweak and customize my web experience the way I like it. The only problem is over the years, Firefox has become somewhat sluggish and bloated. It’s not near as snappy as it used to be. Hopefully, Edge will receive the love and attention it deserves in the future and I can make a switch. I really like the Cortana integration in Edge, but it’s simply not usable for me currently.

Search: Bing – Yes, I’m one of the weirdos who actually uses Bing. Initially, I only used it for images searches. I found a while back that for whatever reason, Bing image search tended to bring me more relevant results than Google. Then when MS rolled out their Bing Rewards to try to snag more users, I entertained the idea for a few weeks and used it while racking up reward points. By time it was over, I was surprised to find it to be just a good as Google. Plus, the layout and design on the page was much more appealing to me than Google. It just sort of ended up being my go-to search provider. Plus, every month of so I can cash in my points for a giftcard, or Xbox Live points, which is nice.

Email and Calendar: Outlook – I’ve been a Hotmail user since back when people still knew why it was called “Hotmail” (HTML — duh), back before Microsoft acquired the company. Sure, I’ve used regular POP mailboxes, and even Apple and Google’s mail products, but I’ve always come back home to Hotmail, Passport, Live, Outlook…. whatever Microsoft is calling it these days. Their spam technologies and privacy policy are some of the best in the business. Plus, it integrates wonderfully into Windows and most other platforms actually.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 Sure, there’s plenty of competitors these days. iWork, Google Docs, Libra/Open Office – but none of them have the ease of use and compatibility that MS Office does. To me, it’s a must have.  – These days, the easiest way to get Office is through the Office 365 program. This is a monthly subscription service that grants personal users a license to install office on up to five computers. Always up to date, latest version.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. It works with my phone. As a result of using both Windows Phone and Office, I have a ton of free storage. But the pricing for additional storage is more than reasonable and competitive with others such as Google and iCloud.

PC Gaming Services: Steam For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. The only time I buy anything on GoG or other platforms is when it’s not available on Steam. In my opinion, Steam has won the day and they are slowly expanding their reach from the office to the living room.

Music Management:  MusicBee – I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. For years I used iTunes, but over time, I became very dissatisfied with it. As much as I’d like to use Microsoft’s new music app Groove (it integrates with my phone), it’s just too feature incomplete for me to consider at this time. Luckily, a few years ago I found a wonderful desktop app called MusicBee. I can’t recommend this software enough. It has the look and feel of iTunes, without all the bloat. Plus, it’s lightning fast! Edit your mp3 tags right from the software and search for album art from a number of sources. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Wearables: Microsoft Band 2 –  I’m not really big on wearable tech, but after seeing my wife really enjoying her Fitbit, I decided to take the plunge. After a lot of research I found that the Microsoft Band really seemed to get me the biggest bang for my buck. It features all of the fitness sensors that one might need: Heartrate monitor, pedometer, GPS, barometer, UV sensor. It’s water resistant and also works as a smart-watch. It syncs with my phone so I can read and respond to texts right from the band. I’m still new with this stuff, so I’m learning. But I may actually make a post about this device soon.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Wii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360   (there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP collecting dust.