When you think of innovation in personal computers, it’s usually Apple that comes to mind. But you might be surprised to learn that one of the most innovative computers in recent years has come from Hewlett-Packard’s printer division in San Diego. In fact, Apple’s innovations can’t compare, as the company is mostly focusing on increasing display resolution, using faster processors and making thinner housings.

HP’s new Sprout computer, announced earlier this month and now available from HP and retailers, is an imaginative new desktop computer that integrates elements of a tablet, display, camera and scanner into a single attractive product.

It’s able to do everything we now use a computer for, but adds so many new capabilities that it establishes a class of its own. I expect it to mark an important milestone in the evolution of computers. Before Sprout, there was little reason for people to upgrade their computers other than for faster processors and bigger screens.

While the word “breakthrough” is overused, it clearly describes the Sprout. And surprisingly, when you start using it, much of what you do is natural and intuitive, particularly for those used to using tablets.

Sprout looks like a conventional all-in-one computer, but has a pedestal rising up from behind that extends over the front of the monitor, and a large, thin, white pad that sits in front, much like a placemat.

The 20-inch touch-sensitive pad displays a projected image from the projector at the top of the pedestal. The pad becomes a second display, in addition to the 23-inch LCD monitor.

In typical use, the monitor displays the Windows 8.1 desktop and the pad displays Sprout-specific applications. You can also display other apps, documents and files on the pad by flicking them downward from the monitor.

HP’s Sprout looks like a conventional all-in-one computer, but has a projector that extends over the front of the monitor, and a large, thin, white pad in front that displays a projected image. Courtesy photo

In my testing, I opened a browser on the pad and went to the New York Times website to read news stories, much like a newspaper on my desk. I could use the pad to zoom in and scroll the image. Bringing the image closer and being able to enlarge it also makes it a great solution for those with vision issues.

The pad can also be used for game playing. In one app developed by DreamWorks, I was able to move images on the pad to create my own movie on the monitor. In another, I “played” a projected musical keyboard on the pad, while the monitor displayed and played back the music I was composing. The pad can best be thought of as a 20-inch touch tablet in its functioning. The Sprout can digitize both two- and three-dimensional objects. Simply place them on the pad and a high-resolution camera captures the images.

One example I saw was the ability to take a three-dimensional object and create a 3-D scan of it in the computer. Once in the computer, I could rotate and tilt the image and send it to others. A future application would be to use the computer to scan an object that could then be sent or printed out on a 3-D printer, another area where HP is active.

A business application I tried was collaboration using HP‘s MyRoom collaboration software. I was able to mark up and sketch ideas on one Sprout using a stylus and the pad, and it was instantly transmitted to another, where a second person could do the same in real time. It’s all done over the Internet and does not require a phone line.

Sprout sells for $1,899 including the 23-inch display, a reasonable price for its capabilities.

Like most products, there’s the product and the story behind the product. Brad Short, an HP engineer, invented the concept in 2009 and showed it at an HP innovation fair. It attracted enough positive attention to become a small project for investigation by a team of five led by Brad. It was code-named Houdini. It was much like Sprout, but without the second screen.

The results were positive enough to turn into a full project staffed with a full cross-disciplinary team (engineering, marketing, design) that grew to 60, led by Louis Kim, a product management VP in the printer division, and with experience in PCs, phones and software at HP in Houston, Barcelona and eventually San Diego.

I was brought in by Kim in early 2011 to work with the team during the product’s early stages. My role was to help find ways to accelerate the development and leverage outside resources.

Small risky projects are always a challenge in large corporations, where the norm is to be risk averse. As a result, Kim secured a dedicated location where his team could work apart from the main organization in a somewhat stealth mode.

But while physically isolated, they were caught up in a reorganization, as HP struggled to improve its financial performance through downsizing and reorganization.

In March 2012, the printer and PC organizations merged, Houdini was cancelled and the team was disbanded. But a small core team remained, including Short and Kim, committed to find a way to keep Houdini alive, now renamed Merlin.

With support from a consumer-marketing expert and a design manager, they pitched Merlin throughout HP in Cupertino; Palo Alto; Fort Collins, Colo.; Houston and New York as well as external customers, and technology partners, including Intel. Kim estimated they met more than 160 people. During these pitches, Short continued to evolve the product concept.

All this effort finally paid off when Ron Coughlin, SVP of consumer computing, decided to fund Merlin. In January 2013 it was demo’d to Meg Whitman, HP’s CEO, and received her enthusiastic support. The small core team pitching Merlin grew into a full program team once more, expanding to Palo Alto and Asia. Dion Weisler, HP’s EVP of PCs and printers and the future CEO of the split off HP Inc., has continued funding the program to its recent launch.

As far as it has come, there’s still much left to insure its success. It needs support from developers and software companies to create new applications, much as Apple needed support to make the iPad a success. And it needs continued support from HP and its partners. But whatever happens, this is a product that has the potential to change what we now know as a desktop computer.

Read More...

 Imagine being able to enjoy a glass of wine from a bottle without opening it and without affecting the aging of the remaining contents. That’s the premise of an ingenious product developed by an MIT graduate with a career in nuclear science and medical implants.

Greg Lambrecht’s dream was to pour wine from a bottle without removing the cork so he could enjoy a single glass and then put the bottle back into his cellar where it would continue to age. He spent more than a decade of development before introducing his product.

As one who enjoys wine and who even plans vacations with my wife based on the wine regions of the world, the Coravin seemed too good to be true. I’ve tried many devices through the years to extend the life of an open bottle of wine, such as pumps that remove the air and gas that fills the empty space of the bottle.

In my experience, nothing preserves an opened bottle of wine for more than a few days to a perhaps a week. The problem is that once the wine is exposed to air, oxidation begins to occur, which hurts its quality. The only solution that has had some success has been expensive dispensers, mostly found in wine bars, which prevent air from entering the bottle.

The Coravin is allows you to pour a glass of wine without removing the foil or the cork. Courtesy photo

The Coravin (www.coravin.com) allows you to pour a glass of wine without removing the foil or the cork. Instead, the device pierces the foil and cork with a thin hollow Teflon coated needle that lets you access and pour the wine into a glass. The cork is never removed. Argon, an inert gas, is used to pressurize the bottle, which both propels the wine out through the needle and preserves the remaining contents by reducing contact with air.

The device is about the size of a large corkscrew and is made of chromed metal and heavy black matte plastic. The small argon cylinder is screwed into its handle, and the device is placed over the neck of the bottle, held in place with a spring-loaded clamp. The top is then pushed down, carrying with it the needle and spout, as it easily pierces the foil and the cork.

The bottle is then tilted in position for pouring, initiated with a short push on the trigger that forces more argon into the bottle, causing the wine to slowly come out of the spout. One glass takes about 30 to 45 seconds to pour, with three or four quick trigger pushes each 10 to15 seconds as the wine slows down.

After pouring, part of the unit is slid upward, extracting the needle. The cork then seals itself, so that the bottle can be put back into your cellar or wine rack in its normal near-horizontal position.

The Coravin 1000 comes with two argon cartridges about the size of a thumb, and retails for $299. A replacement cartridge, good for about four bottles, costs $11, or about 75 cents per glass.

I’ve been testing the Coravin using a bottle of 2005 Château Prieuré-Lichine, a Bordeaux Margaux. I extracted a glass on day 1, day 5 and day 10, and found that the wine tasted the same, as best as I could tell. I have always been able to detect a noticeable degradation using other devices, such as a Vacu Vin pump.

The significance of the Coravin is that it provides much more flexibility in drinking wine. You no longer need to use a half-bottle, waste part of a large bottle, or even consume more than a single glass at a sitting. You can select a different wine each day if you choose, pair wines with dinner, all without needing to consume entire bottles at one time or within a few days. And when you have guests, each can have a wine of their choice.

I heard about this device from my son and daughter-in-law, both wine sommeliers and owners of a fine restaurant in the Bay Area. They offer wine by the glass, but have a limited selection because they want to serve only wine that’s not degraded from being open for more than a day. This device would allow than and other restaurants to expand their list, and even offer premium wines that would normally not be sold by the glass.

While my test worked well, a true test would be to spread the tasting from a bottle over many months or even years. Lambrecht claims he has conducted such tastings and there is no deterioriation over a span of years.

Other reviewers and wine experts also report very positive results. Alder Yarrow, editor of Vinography, wrote “I’m sitting at my kitchen table, enjoying a glass of 2000 Pontet-Canet from the same bottle that I opened 63 days ago and it tastes exactly the same as it did when I first opened the bottle.”

When the company first introduced the product, testers found that some defective bottles cracked from being pressurized by argon. The company now includes a zippered neoprene sleeve that zips around the bottle for protection.

Are there negatives? Pouring a glass of wine takes longer, the needle needs to be occasionally cleaned with the included wire, and the spout should be rinsed after using, all minor. Perhaps the biggest issue for some would the cost of the argon and the device.

But all this is a small price to pay for having incredible flexibility in being able to choose your glass of wine. This is also a great product for people who buy young wines to cellar until they are ready; they will no longer have to guess when the bottles are ready. The cost is minimal compared to having to pour an expensive bottle of wine down the drain because it spoiled!

Read More...

Not surprisingly, I was one of the 4 million early adopters who went right out and bought an iPhone 6 the first day it became available, replacing my iPhone 5S. In addition, I’ve been using an iPhone 6 Plus on loan from AT&T.

While most of you probably have read the details of each phone, I want to focus on whether it’s worth upgrading and, if so, to which phone.

I’ve enjoyed my iPhone 5S for just over a year. It’s been as good a phone as I’ve ever owned. It’s compact, has high-speed data and an excellent camera. Its one major drawback was its mediocre battery life; it required recharging during the day. So there was really no good reason why I couldn’t continue to use it for two more years.

But with Apple’s big announcement of the iPhone 6, I, along with others, found the newer and thinner form factor to be more attractive and liked the idea of a larger display. Then there was the appeal of Apple Pay, a new payment service that’s built right into the phone. Sounds cool, right?

Apple does an amazing job to get us to think of iPhones as a short-term car lease, getting into a new phone whenever a new model is introduced, rather than when we really need a new one. And Apple is making huge margins on this strategy. For example, they charge $100 more for a 64GB memory version than 16GB, when their cost for the extra memory is in the low $20s.

Now that I’ve used the 6 for more than a month, I’ve found it to be another excellent phone, but the novelty is wearing off. The iPhone 6 is not the revolutionary advance Apple wants us to believe it is; it’s simply another iPhone with a slightly larger display, a different industrial design and a few enhancements.

The benefits certainly don’t warrant the $650 cost, if you buy the phone unsubsidized. It feels a little smoother in the hand and its slightly larger display is nice, but it’s just an incremental advance.

I haven’t had much opportunity to try Apple Pay as yet, but I’m sure I will like paying from my phone. Expect it to take years to be widely available. And just how different is it to take out a phone than a wallet? You’ll still need to carry your card, should you decide to buy gas or pay a parking meter requiring you to swipe your card — you can’t slide the phone into the slot!

One of the drawbacks of a new phone, particularly those from Apple, is it’s usually not quite finished when it’s first introduced. That’s true with the iPhone 6. While the iPhone 5s synched perfectly with my cars, the iPhone 6 doesn’t work with my Mazda 3. Incoming calls cannot always be answered and, when they are, the caller’s voice doesn’t come through.

Other users report that the phone has trouble working with BMW, Toyota, Lexus, Acura and several other brands. This is reminiscent of the iPhone 5’s problems when it was introduced; it didn’t work with Bluetooth headsets from Plantronics or Jawbone.

I was hoping for improved battery life of the 6 over the 5, but they perform pretty much the same. The iPhone 6 battery rarely lasts through the day.

My phone is the T-Mobile version with Wi-Fi calling. It generally works well, but I do get a high number of dropped calls, even though I’m using a top-of-the-line Asus router.

After a week of use, its distinction from the 5 is barely noticeable. It has the same apps, the same general appearance and an excellent camera. The best feature is the slightly larger display, but it means stretching your finger to a button at the top corner of the screen. When I first started using it, I was reminded of Steve Jobs’ comments about how the 3.5-inch display is best for one-hand operation.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably would not have been so quick to upgrade.

The iPhone 6 Plus is appealing in a different way. While it’s not going to be confused with a tablet — it has less than half the screen area of an iPad mini — it offers several benefits. Its large screen makes reading easier and watching videos much more enjoyable. It’s almost large enough for reading e-books, and it’s still thin, light and small enough to be carried in a side pocket.

Some apps become more usable and useful with the larger 6-inch display. It’s especially good if you are use the calendar, where you can get a better look at your schedule. Web browsing works better and the larger, higher resolution screen displays images more clearly. But it doesn’t quite feel like a phone and is less comfortable in the hand.

So what should you do? It depends on your needs. For those wanting primarily a phone, stick with the 5S or upgrade to a 6 if you are due for a subsidized phone or changing carriers. For those wanting a large display, the 6 Plus is a good choice, especially for those who can benefit by the larger text. But remember, Apple’s iOS8 is what really make an iPhone as good as it is, and it works essentially the same on the 5S as on the new family of iPhones.

Extra for Joesentme Audience:

Checkout this nifty device from Simple Matters on Kickstarter that provides a personal alert when a special phone call comes in or you want to be reminded of an appointment. It’s a beautiful design and  very useful . product. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ditto/ditto

Read More...

This month I attended Dreamforce, the world’s largest software conference, put on by the $5.5 billion company Salesforce, founded in 1999 by Mark Benioff.

I was there as part of the introduction of Neil Young’s Pono high-resolution music system and my involvement in its development. Pono is building its worldwide community of music lovers using the Salesforce platform. That includes its website, stores and social community at www.ponomusic.com.

Since I focus primarily on consumer technology, I was surprised to discover just how powerful a force Salesforce has become in the business-to-business community.

There were more than 145,000 visitors from nearly 100 countries for the four-day event at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. That’s about the same number that attends the Consumer Electronics Show each January in Las Vegas.

The conference was so big that a section of Howard Street, which runs between the North and South Halls of the convention center, was shut down to traffic, to make it safe for participants to travel between halls.

Mark Benioff, founder of Salesforce, spoke at Dreamforce, the world’s largest software conference, in San Francisco. Bloomberg photo

Salesforce’s first product was software that manages sales activities, a category known as customer relations management (CRM). CRM software had been around for decades with such products as ACT!, and others from Microsoft and Oracle.

Salesforce, however, was the first to create this type of software that makes use of the cloud. The information generated by its users from sales calls, order taking, correspondence and follow-up activities are a natural for cloud-based software.

Having all this information on the cloud means that the data could be added and accessed from devices other than a computer, just about anywhere and anytime. In addition, the data now becomes instantly available for others to use.

Benioff’s focus has been to create an on-demand information service that’s part of a category called SaaS or Software as a Service. He believes that businesses need to transform into customer-focused companies using social media and mobile cloud technologies in order to better connect with their customers, partners and employees.

Much of this is done through new products that Salesforce has developed or acquired, grouped into six areas of cloud services:

• Sales Cloud, which covers sales force automation, CRM activities and data prospecting.

• Community Cloud and Chatter connect every employee with the files, data and experts they need anywhere, anytime. It also provides a social network for business.

• Service Cloud, a software service that provides customer support and a customer help desk.

• Analytics, which helps users interpret and make the best use of the data.

• Marketing Cloud provides access to marketing tools through the cloud.

Salesforce has also become a platform where developers can create new capabilities well beyond what Salesforce offers. Many hundreds of these companies were on display at the conference.

Dreamforce, unlike many business events, felt anything but stuffy. It was an upbeat event with speakers — including Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Ariana Huffington, Eckhart Tolle and Neil Young — addressing social and environmental issues. Bruno Mars gave a free concert at City Hall.

Benioff, Salesforce’s chairman and CEO, is a noted philanthropist, having built two UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland. The company puts aside 1 percent of its equity, 1 percent of employees’ time, and 1 percent of its product for charitable use. Attendees to the event helped donate 3 million meals to charity and $9 million to children’s hospitals.

Benioff’s presentation noted how every industry is changing because of the ease of being connected and the explosive use of mobile devices. His address touched upon how many trillion interactions occur each year and how Salesforce is one of the companies playing a significant role in these interactions to make us more productive and effective in our work.

That’s exactly what was on display at Dreamforce: products you could only have imagined a few years ago,

Read More...

Here’s an assortment of small gadgets, some so small they rarely get noticed, but useful in their own special way.

I’ve struggled to organize my unwieldy keys — a couple of electronic key fobs for my car and my wife’s, several conventional keys for home and office, a magnetic fob for my office front door and an ID tag for my gym.

Ordinary key cases rarely work with the large key fobs, so I’ve tried putting everything on a large key ring, but that’s awkward to carry in your pocket, with keys sticking into your legs. Enter Nite Ize, a company in Boulder, Colo., that makes little gadgets such as carabiner clips, flashlights and small tools.

I came across their KeyRack Locker that finally provides a workable solution. It has six miniature carabiner clips that are double-ended, spring-loaded S hooks (called S-Biners). They attach to the larger KeyRack.

The S-Biners come in steel or colored plastic to easily identify keys by color. They’re easy to quickly add or remove in order to slim down what you carry or put aside those keys you don’t need, such as at valet parking. What is most impressive with Nite-Ize is its clever design, good engineering and low price. The key system costs just $10 (niteize.com).

An Oregon company, the Leathershop, has developed a very small but elegant leather wallet designed to hold as many as 20 credit cards or business cards in a form perfect for those wanting a side-pocket wallet with little bulge or bulkiness. The Palm wallet is made of a single piece of heavy, beautifully hand-finished leather from the famous Chicago leather company Horween.

The wallet is held together with polished brass rivets. The flap fits under a strap that runs the full width of the front. Its internal width is precisely designed to fit a stack of credit cards. There are three dividers, including a slot in the front, to hold one or two of your most frequently used cards, such as a license and credit card.

Currency is folded in half and slips in the back of the wallet behind the cards. While the wallet is expensive at $120, it’s one of the most compact (2.75 inches long by 4.25 inches wide by 1 inch deep) and best-constructed compact wallet I’ve tried. (http://theleathershop.com.)

With so many of us using iPhones and other smartphones as our cameras, Olloclip has developed a family of add-on lenses that expand the phone’s photographic capability. The Olloclip snaps over the phone’s lens, clamping to the body, to provide a variety of new photo possibilities.

The current 4-in-1 design for the iPhone5S provides a fish-eye lens, wide-angle lens and two macro lenses. The Olloclip is well-made of glass and aluminum, and designed not to scratch your phone, but it requires you to remove your phone case first, if you use one. One limitation is that the lenses don’t focus, but rely on the phone’s lens and, in the case of the macro lenses, positioning the phone at the correct distance.

I’ve tried the lenses and they work well, particularly the close-up lenses that let you get within a half-inch of the subject. The wide angle nearly doubles the field of view and the fish-eye provides a 180-degree field of view of a circularly distorted image. There are versions for the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5. A version for the iPhone 6 is on its way. ($70, olloclip.com)

While hardly high tech, a company called Harry’s has been running sales campaigns over the Internet. Called to my attention by a reader, it’s a company that offers serious competition to Gillette.

Harry’s sells a sleekly designed razor and blades for almost half the price, along with a variety of shaving products you’ll not find in your local CVS. The products are nicely packaged and shipped at no cost.

As a long-time user of Gillette razors that cost close to $4 each and typically last about a week, I’ve found Harry’s blades to last at least as long, shave equally close and cost about $1.80. Harry’s is a great example of how a small company can compete with a huge corporation — such as Procter and Gamble, which owns Gillette — through the Internet with a very good product. (harrys.com).

Read More...

Ever wonder what happens to the used iPhones being bought by companies such as Gazelle or San Diego’s EcoATM? When I met with the CEO of EcoATM in June, she was reluctant to answer the question, saying it was confidential.

EcoATM buys back used cellphones from individuals when they trade up to a new model. It’s done using their ingenious machines similar to ATMs that examine and pay for the phone on the spot. Gazelle and other services similarly buy back old iPhones and other smartphones over the Web.

Typically they pay $100 to more than $200 for an iPhone5S, depending on condition, carrier and memory size. Both services are a boon to the environment, allowing a phone to be reused rather than ending up in a landfill.

But why confidential? Such a response made me only more curious, so I have been speaking with industry analysts, phone company employees and manufacturers over the past several months.

I finally got the answer on a recent visit to China, speaking with a senior executive for a major Chinese consumer products manufacturing company that I’ve known for more than 20 years. He said it’s common knowledge there about what happens to the used iPhones bought in the United States.

He said that about 80 percent of the used iPhones are shipped to Hong Kong, where daily auctions are held to sell the phones in large lots. These lots of iPhones are bought by many manufacturing companies that take the phones to their facilities in southern China for refurbishing.

The process includes refinishing the cases and removing scratches from the screens, sometimes replacing the touch-screen surface or the glass. Normally, they don’t bother to replace the batteries.

When the iPhones’ housings have a ding or deep scratch and cannot be repaired, they are replaced with independently manufactured, look-alike housings.

There are two levels of housings: highly accurate copies and cheaper lower-tier copies. Once the refurbishment is complete, the iPhones are categorized by the refurbishers into four tiers of quality varying from “like new” to “fair.”

Each iPhone is put into brand new packaging that’s an exact copy of Apple’s iPhone boxes and sold mostly as new phones to retailers throughout China. While Apple also retails its iPhones in China, the demand is so great that many retailers, particularly those that don’t have a relationship with Apple, will sell whatever they can get. And they typically sell them as new phones.

I asked EcoATM representatives to comment, but they declined. Instead, they explained how “they adhere to strict environmental and recycling standards, and that all the devices they take in are sent to certified buyers.”

They said that “75 percent of the devices collected have found a second life, and 25 percent have been recycled (meaning junked for material).” Of the 75 percent, iPhones represent almost half of EcoATM’s purchases, another source said.

“Their network of international and national buyers are refurbishers and also recyclers,” the company added. “And it’s their documentation that we use during our auditing process, in addition to our own.”

As EcoATM says, creating a way for people to sell their phones so they can be reused rather than disposed of is a major benefit to the environment. I just found it surprising that the phones end up being sold as new phones to unsuspecting Chinese customers. I suspect it’s this secret that most of the companies that sell to refurbishers know or could easily find out, if they wanted to.

However, this practice is not illegal here, as the phones are being bought and not being sold as new in the United States. It may or may not be illegal in China; the U.S. companies are certainly not implicated — it’s the refurbishers that are duping their customers. Still, I think it’s questionable to profit from these sales.

Read More...

Surveying both customers and prospective customers can be an important element of the product development process. Companies use surveys to assess opinions about current products and services as well as to figure out what new products or features should be added. While I would never use opinions from surveys or focus groups to design a product, each are useful ways of comparing and prioritizing features, likes and dislikes.

Survey Monkey, a Palo Alto-based company, is the leader in developing tools for us to create online surveys. I’ve been trying the product over the past six weeks and have found it to be a valuable tool for gathering useful information. While it relies on our judgment to formulate the surveys, SurveyMonkey offers nearly 200 survey templates for almost any topic. They can be sent as is or customized to specific needs.

I used it to assess feedback for a company that’s developed a hardware product. Samples of the product were sent out to about three dozen potential customers, and they were asked to try it over a couple of months. The users were asked to send their comments to a special email address. While that provided useful information, it took a well-designed survey to extract information that could be quantified, and I found this to be even more useful than the anecdotal comments.

SurveyMonkey works by providing an online, Web-based tool to design your survey. You select the type of questions you want, enter your questions and the format in which you’d like a response (multiple choice, descriptive, yes/no, etc.). The tool lets you change the order, insert and delete questions and optionally add space for the survey taker to comment on why they chose the answer they did.

I started out using the free version of Survey Monkey, which allowed me to create basic surveys with multiple-choice questions, ranking choices, and questions requiring a text answer. But I found using the product to be frustrating because when I clicked on many of the selections and options, I’d get a message saying I needed to upgrade to access that feature.

In addition, the free version limits you to 10 questions per survey and 100 responses per survey. Among its many other limitations, you can’t output the results into a PDF document, making it difficult to share with others.

The software seemed to be purposely designed to remind me at nearly every step the limitations of the free version. And it worked. I was going to upgrade to the $26/month Select plan, but the company suggested I try the $300/year Gold level. Both offered all the features I needed and for me, the differences were minor.

Once you’re done designing your survey, you can preview it and test it out by answering your questions, and then edit it. The paid versions let you create more complex questions that branch out to different questions, based on the answers. There are many other additions, such as customizing the reports with your company’s name, directing users to find the survey on your website or at an URL with your company name.

In the survey I constructed, I used my own questions as well as a few recommended by SurveyMonkey. There are lists of questions arranged by the type of business and information you are looking for.

Questions included the users’ opinion of the product’s features; whether the price was high, low or about right; and what they most liked and disliked. I asked questions requiring text answers, such as asking how it was used, and what title they might use if they were to write a review.

Once the questionnaire is completed and tested, you enter a list of those recipients you want to participate and send an introductory invitation. That portion was a little finicky in that the participants needed to be listed in a very specific format. SurveyMonkey then sends an email asking those on the list to go to your special link and fill out the survey.

My technique was to create a survey that could be answered within 10 to 15 minutes. I used 15 questions, many multiple choices and included three questions requiring the answers to be written out. Notably, SurveyMonkey did not promote its company in the survey nor in the reports eventually created.

After a couple of days I had responses from about eight of the original 40. In a week it rose to 14 and in three weeks I got 27. I could go to SurveyMonkey’s website at any time and view the results.

I ran into a little trouble the first time I tried printing a report: The responses to the written questions were not included. I used the company’s help page to email a question, and got an email response in about 10 minutes. I had omitted selecting a small button off to the side requesting the comments to be included. I found it odd that it wasn’t set as a default.

Once fixed, I chose a detailed report in PDF format. The report was 20 pages long, listing my questions followed by the answers. In the case of multiple-choice answers, the report displayed the results in an easy-to-read bar graph. For those questions asking for a written answer, the responses were tabulated one after another. You can also examine the responses of a single individual and identify that person, should you want to follow up.

The reports were fascinating to read, and helpful to look for trends and to draw some immediate conclusions. The reports were professional in well-formatted documents that I was able to share with others by sending it out as an attachment. Overall, I found SurveyMonkey to be a valuable tool applicable to product development and to many other uses. In fact, you’ll probably be using it more often as you learn to appreciate how valuable it can be.

Read More...

Wireless connectivity has come to portable scanners. I’ve been traveling with the recently introduced Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100, the company’s newest portable scanner. It’s a remarkable little package that lets me turn paper documents into digital documents wherever I am, and do it completely wirelessly. There’s no need for a USB connection or power cord. That means it can connect to smartphones and tablets wirelessly, as well as to a computer both wirelessly or with the USB connector supplied.

I’ve been evaluating the product by scanning receipts, business cards, marked-up documents, NDAs, invoices and bank statements into my computer, iPad and iPhone. I’ve used it at home and on the road in China.

With the scanner by my side, I have scanned in travel receipts minutes after receiving them, such as a hotel receipt while in a cab to the airport. I’ve lost or misplaced receipts in the past, but now they are permanently saved in the cloud or device. Once the documents are scanned, they can be saved in a variety of applications or emailed.

The iX100 is the step-up model to the S1100, a similarly sized unit introduced two years ago that is powered from a USB port on a computer. The iX100 adds a built-in rechargeable battery and built-in Wi-Fi that connects locally to your devices using its own local network and doesn’t require access to a home or public Wi-Fi network.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 wireless scanner is smaller and lighter than a portable umbrella. It weighs 14 ounces and fits next to a keyboard on a desk or in a briefcase on the road. Courtesy photo

The scanner is the same size as the S1100, smaller and lighter than a portable umbrella. It weighs 14 ounces and fits next to a keyboard on a desk or in a briefcase on the road.

Simply open the lid and fold down the front flap and it turns on. You feed in documents using a straight path or a 90-degree path, depending on the stiffness of the document or the availability of desk space. It handles a range of paper thicknesses including flimsy printed receipts, laminated documents, cardboard stock, business cards and even credit cards. Scanning is quick at 5.2 seconds for an 11-inch-long page. It can scan multiple small documents such as receipts at once or multipage documents a page at a time.

Documents larger than legal size, such as charts and diagrams, can be scanned and stitched together. Simply fold the documents in half, scan both sides, and the iX100 will automatically stitch it back together, producing a one-page digital image.

The iX100 is designed to scan documents in full color with 300 dpi resolution, but is not intended to scan photographs. The quality looks exactly what comes off a printer or color copier. The S1100 has 600 dpi resolution, but the perceived differences were not detectable.

In my long use of the S1100 and two-week use of the iX100, it’s apparent that internal software is one of Fujitsu’s strengths. The software can straighten skewed documents that are fed at an angle, and adjust for receipts that are barely readable and business cards on dark backgrounds. Rarely do I get a scan that is not useable.

The included computer software is similar to what Fujitsu provides with its other scanners. It’s robust and easy to use, yet provides broad versatility. After scanning, a window opens and offers a choice of scanning directly to a file folder, Word document, Salesforce, Evernote, a Google Doc, or an email, and can save it as a PDF, jpeg or other format. It works with Windows and Mac computers, as well as iOS, Android and Kindle Fire mobile devices.

The “ScanSnap Connect” app that’s used to scan directly into your tablet or smartphone, can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store, as well as the Amazon App Store for Kindle Fire.

The scanner comes with other software I didn’t evaluate, such as ScanSnap Receipt, to intelligently and automatically extract data from receipts, and CardMinder, which automatically extracts the information from business cards into editable fields that can be exported to Outlook, Excel, Salesforce and other contact management software.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 is available for $229 through Fujitsu authorized resellers. Included is a three-month subscription to Evernote Premium. The S1100 continues to be available for $199.

Both of these products are the best portable scanners I’ve used. I’ve had the S1100 for two years, carrying it around the world without a case, and it’s been reliable and trouble-free. I expect the iX100 to be equally robust and much more convenient to use. The $30 premium for the iX100 is a small price to pay for all its new capabilities.

Read More...

When Apple upgraded its computer’s MacOS operating system to Mavericks nearly a year ago, Mail for Mac, which I’ll refer to as Mail, no longer worked well with Gmail.

It failed to retrieve email reliably. Often you’d need to wait for hours, and when the mail did arrive, it could take several minutes to fill in the body of the messages. Outgoing mail could take five or 10 minutes to send.

My solution was to bypass Mail and go online directly to gmail.com, not a very satisfying solution with Gmail’s limited features and archaic user interface. A few months ago, I moved to another computer, and when the problem followed, I began to look for a replacement for Mail.

Now, a bug such as this, while serious, is not all that unusual with a major upgrade, and the issues are often corrected in the next upgrade or two. But in update after update, in spite of Apple saying it has made fixes for Gmail, the problem has continued, and based on reading message boards, many others are still complaining. It’s now nearly a year later and Apple has not fixed the problem.

A senior customer service manager at Apple, referred by its PR department, told me that the engineers are aware of the issues with Gmail, and for now they suggest clicking on the button that takes your Mail offline for a few minutes and then clicking again to reconnect. Didn’t help.

Why should it take so long to fix? Does Apple or Google really want to solve this, or is there some secret plot by Apple to wean Apple users away from Google. Or is Google trying to take revenge on Apple? Or does Apple just not care? As I discovered, there are substitutes for Mail that don’t have the problem and work just fine.

Not by choice, but out of necessity, I’ve been looking for a Mail replacement. I’ve looked at most products and narrowed down my search to three to try: Airmail, Postbox and Unibox. Each does a good job replicating the functions of Mail, and each has its own special features and quirks.

Email programs have come a long way in making it easy to set up your mail accounts — no more manually entering information by hand. Each of these programs figured out all of the settings by just entering my email address and password for all three of my accounts.

Postbox looks the most like Mail and takes the least effort to learn. It uses the same window layout, color scheme and icon layout. Its typography design is excellent, and is easy to read even while displaying a long list of emails.

Airmail also has a similar layout to Mail, but has a jarring black window on the left serving as a background to the files lists. It can be hidden, but the color cannot be changed.

Unibox organizes email by contacts based on the date of the contact’s last email, an approach different from other products. That took some getting used to, because I normally respond to messages in chronological order or by thread, regardless of the sender.

Its sparse clean appearance is unique and attractive. Even message recipients and distribution names are hidden. But I found it too sparse and it required too many clicks to get to the information

There was a big difference in how effectively these programs retrieve, open and send email. I found new email to show up first in Airmail and PostBox. Unibox usually lagged behind, and I would see the spinning wheel on occasion after opening an email and waiting for the contents to arrive. On a few occasions I got an error that the message could not be synced.

But Apple Mail is worse. It’s usually last in downloading new email, sometimes by hours! Opening up the message and contents can take from a few seconds to more than 30 before being able to be read it. While this often occurs for many hours each day, it’s not consistent. Occasionally, for several hours over the course of a day, it will behave perfectly normal.

Over weeks of use, Airmail and Postbox have proven to be the most reliable and trouble free. Unibox occasionally forces me to wait while downloading the contents of some emails, and some units needed to be closed and opened a few times to work. A spokesman said the company is in the midst of an upgrade that should resolve many of these issues. Postbox and Unibox each enable you to switch from a mail view to an attachment view, a useful feature. And Postbox has a clever feature that reminds you to add an attachment should you try sending out an email that contains the word “attachment”.

While I focused on the products’ basic email functionality, each offers features that may cause you to prefer one over another. While Airmail does a good job at matching Mail feature for feature, Postbox seems like the next generation of Mail.

My favorite was Postbox, followed closely by Airmail. A Postbox representative told me that a new version would be released soon with more features.

Each product costs $10 and each offers a free trial. Postbox is also available for Windows.

Read More...

Apple’s announcements last week showed the strength of the company’s product design capabilities. No company can match its skills in industrial design, engineering and the integration of beautiful software and hardware. But Apple is also skilled in its ability to exaggerate. Without taking away from its accomplishments, Apple takes credit without embarrassment for features they haven’t originated.

For example, the introduction of new iPhones with larger displays comes four years after Samsung and others made that leap. For the past two years the most popular size display for other phones has been in the 5-inch range.  Just look at the offerings from Microsoft, Motorola, HTC, LG and Samsung. And Apple no longer leads the industry with the highest resolution displays. In fact, if you move from an iPhone 5S to an iPhone 6, the sharpness drops slightly.

Another example: Apple took credit for a “new” feature that enables the iPhone to dial over the Internet using WiFi when your cellular signal is poor. It announced that T-Mobile would be the first to adopt. However, Apple omitted to mention that T-Mobile has had this capability built into its phones for several years.

One of the most dramatic examples on display was the focus on the little cylindrical knob, called a crown, similar to what’s been on watches for eons. Apple calls it a digital crown and uses it to scroll, zoom and click. While the application is very clever and ingenious, the company’s video expounding it as revolutionary seemed over the top. But all of this is part of Apple’s bravado, originated by Steve Jobs, and plays to their loyal and outspoken fan base.

Now all of this is not to take away from Apple’s business acumen and often phenomenal products. One of its strategies is, in fact, not to be first in everything it does, but to wait while other companies try and fail. Then it comes up with a much better solution that’s fully thought through and well implemented, bringing along major partners to make the solution really useful. Apple takes the long view, focusing on what its customers will want and can easily use. Apple may be slow to adopt, but when it does, it’s well executed and something that resonates with the customer.

That’s what it did with Apple Pay, a way to make payments with your iPhone. Companies such as PayPal and Google have tried and failed or have yet to get off the ground. Apple may be the first to succeed because it brings along hundreds of millions of iPhone users, and the cooperation of banks and merchants.

It appears Apple has thought through security, ease of use and has the support from the major credit card companies. And its timing could not be better, with the theft of credit card information from Target, Home Depot and others.

Overall, I came away with a generally positive view of the new offerings, but intend to wait for more specifics. For example, the new iPhone 6 and 6+ offer sleeker IDs and larger displays. But Apple iPhones have had mediocre battery life, and no mention was made of whether that will be improved in spite of more power hungry displays. The reported use of scratchproof sapphire glass never materialized, possibly because it was not ready. Will that be next season’s upgrade?

Most interesting was the Apple Watch. This is not perceived as a limited purpose device like a Jawbone UP or Fitbit. It’s clearly Apple’s next platform, deserving of a new OS.  It’s the beginning.  It’s a multipurpose device that will start out performing some interesting functions, but it’s also a blank slate (or display) that can go in multiple directions, based on new software and services. It’s designed for the long run, not to be replaced with new models every year.

It displays Apple’s core capabilities such as hardware miniaturization, mechanical design and beautiful aesthetics. It’s likely the first smartwatch that both men and women would consider wearing.

Its timeless design, catering to both function and fashion, represents Apple’s entry into wearable computers. It addresses all that has been wrong with other wearable devices: size, attractiveness and functionality.

Just as few of us could envision the potential of the iPad when it was first announced — the same applies to the Apple Watch.

My take-away from the presentation is that Apple is more formidable than ever.  As Samsung comes closer to matching its capabilities in iPhones and tablets, Apple has raised the bar considerably.

The company is so good at what it does, you wonder why they have to exaggerate — but that’s Apple, and the fans love it.

Read More...