Tech to be thankful for

Jason Snell gives thanks for the tech that's improved his life this year.

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Credit: Apple

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in the United States, and columnists writing things-I’m-thankful-for columns is as much a tradition as turkey and stuffing and family arguments. Who am I to buck tradition? So let me present my 2015 list of technology stuff that I’m thankful for.

Find My Friends. This year my son started middle school and my daughter high school. They’re both now using hand-me-down iPhone 5’s, and it’s extremely helpful to be able to find where they are when I’m wondering. Part of growing up is gaining independence, but that doesn’t mean dad’s feelings aren’t improved when I know that my son’s a couple blocks away and will be home on his bike in just a minute.

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Apple Music. It seems to be popular to rip on Apple’s fledgling music service, but I’m using it far more than I’ve ever used any other streaming service, and I’ve tried most of them. It’s great that Apple Music integrates into my iTunes music library, so I can mix and match music I’ve bought with music from the service, and I’ve come to really appreciate the curated playlists of new music from different genres. I have discovered a huge swath of great new music simply by subscribing to the A-List Alternative playlist. I wish my family would embrace it, though—my daughter loves listening to music, but is a devout Spotify user and won’t make the switch.

Shared shopping lists on iPhone. I’ve been using Grocery IQ for a few years right now, which lets my entire family place items onto our grocery-store list. Recently I switched to AnyList, which is more modern and full featured than Grocery IQ, and adds Siri integration, so I can say, “Hey Siri, add an aluminum turkey roasting pan to the grocery list.” Pretty great.

Time-saving features in Overcast. I listen to a lot of podcasts (almost as many as I make myself!), and since I work at home, I don’t have a commute to use as listening time. In order to get as many podcasts in as possible, I’ve come to rely on the Overcast podcast app, which has some pretty amazing time-saving features. Overcast’s speed-boosting feature is the first one I’ve heard that makes faster audio sound natural, and not choppy and artificial. And its Smart Speed feature scales down pauses and silences, saving time even if you’re listening at standard speeds. I’d never go back to listening to podcasts at 100 percent speed and without Smart Speed.

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External bluetooth keyboards for iPad. Even before the iPad Pro came out, I’ve enjoyed writing on the iPad as a change of pace. It helps me get up from my desk and be productive in some other location, whether it’s a cafe, the kitchen table of a friend or relative, or even the bar in my kitchen, where I’m writing this right now. To write at peak efficiency, I like to use an external keyboard, and while Apple now makes its Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro, there are plenty of great Bluetooth keyboards out there that offer more keys, better key travel, and even backlighting in some cases. (I’m still using Apple’s excellent last-generation Wireless Keyboard, which works great, even with the iPad Pro.)

Digital comics. As a kid I read an awful lot of comics, but largely stopped between about 1986 and 2010, when the iPad came out. Now I’m back as a comic reader again. Switching to the iPad Air 2 from the iPad mini has made comics even more fun to read. I buy new comics from Comixology, read DRM-free comics using Chunky Comic Reader, and binge-read a whole bunch of stuff from Marvel Unlimited. No, it’s not cheap, but at $69 per year, Marvel Unlimited is a pretty great deal if you like Marvel comics and don’t mind being a few months behind on the latest releases.

Slack. I don’t work in an office with other people—my dog wanders in from time to time, but that’s about it—but Slack keeps me connected. It’s a place to plan projects, explain ideas, and yes, have those water-cooler conversations that no longer take place around the water cooler, because who has a water cooler in their house? Businesses can pay for Slack to get extra features, but you can set up a Slack group for free and use it essentially forever. Think of a group you interact with mostly online—college friends, a club, even your family—and give Slack a try. You may be surprised at how much fun it is.

Social news discovery. I don’t read RSS feeds anymore—if I ever did, really. But I follow a lot of interesting people on Twitter, and have built several Twitter lists full of people who cover non-tech things I’m interested in, most notably sports and science. Thanks to Nuzzel, a clever iOS app and web service, I can browse my Twitter feed and my various lists as if they were news sources. Links recommended by more than one person will float to the top. It’s improved my news consumption for the better.

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Apple Watch. It’s also been cool lately to slag off the Apple Watch, but I still love mine. Not only does it tell the time—the most important function of any watch—but the new Night Stand mode has allowed me to replace my old alarm clock. I love getting notifications on my wrist and seeing my activity for the day and the week. Yes, there’s still a whole lot here that needs to be improved—that’s another column—but I wear mine every day.

A really big DVR hard drive. My TiVo Roamio has three terabytes of storage on it, and that’s a good thing. Between broadcast and cable, there’s a shocking amount of good television on, and I just can’t watch it all. And TiVo has done a good job of supporting streaming, too. Streaming shows appear as peers in the Now Playing list, show up in searches, and play—whether on Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu—with a couple of clicks of the remote. And streaming shows don’t take up hard drive space, which is good, I guess?

There’s plenty to criticize about the technology we use every day, and the stuff that the tech world keeps trying to sell us. But it’s worth stopping once in a while to consider all the great tech stuff that we use everyday. (And for tech columnists, “once in a while” means Thanksgiving week.)

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