Is it too late to do a retrospective list?
Of course not! There is no statute of limitations on lists. The Internet loves it’s lists and I’m not one to deny the people what they love. And since I can’t go five feet without some asking, “Ryan, you still haven’t told me all about the web-based services you used the most in 2011!” I have to respond, “Fine, I’ll tell you, but only because you’re so darned persistant you lovable scamp.”And then I’ll tussle their hair, give them a Wurther’s Original and set them down on my lap.
So Internet, I invite you take a virtual candy from the tray and that is my blog and take a seat on my cyber-lap which is this post, presented thusly in no particular order the web-based services I used the most in 2011. These aren’t necessarily my favorites, but I kept returning to them so that says something about their quality. Additionally, I included one service I thought that I would use a lot but ended up ignoring once the initial excitement wore off.
Let me say this upfront: I do not like iTunes. I am a Mac owner and I put up with iTunes because it’s the best option for that platform, but I hate it every time I boot it up. Although I really dislike iTunes, I do realize that it’s more or less the best service around for buying digital music. Or was – enter Amazon MP3! I truly wasn’t expecting much from this service, but I bought no fewer than a dozen albums last year, which is about double what I normally buy. It’s easy to buy music from my Android phone, and using the Cloud Player is a dream. Having all my new music I buy on any computer is pretty great. The best part of Amazon MP3 compared to iTunes, however, is pricing. Every month Amazon provides a robust selection of $5 albums (with some repeats from month to month) and new releases are typically $3.99 on release day!
WORTH MENTIONING - The Android app itself is pretty handy, if not utilitarian. It’s sort of ugly, but very usable and offers features the vanilla Android music player doesn’t have (lock screen control is great).
WORTH WARNING – Uploading new music to the Cloud Player is a pain. I don’t have the greatest internet connection in the world, but there were numerous gaps in the albums I uploaded to the cloud.
In the spring quarter of 2011 I did an independent research project in lieu of classwork. The experience was great, but two weeks into heavy research and note-taking I realized that my old habit of taking notes on Word wasn’t going to cut it. I was using multiple computers in the day and needed a cheap, easy, cloud solution.
I am a pretty unabashed fan of El Goog, but Docs is a service I had never used before. I was surprised and delighted to find Dpcs as intuitive and easy to use as their other services. The whole thing is rather n- frills, but as a single user working on one project with multiple threads, I would not have been able to complete my projects without it. Truth be told, the stripped down interface suits my tastes better than a more robust service like Zoho.
In addition to the great word processing interface, Google Docs also let me create and add drawings and diagrams and insert them easily into my documents.
One important aspect of Google Docs that doesn’t get a lot of attention: it’s fast. I have used it one variety of computers in a variety of connections and never experienced lag, loss of data or any hiccups. For a free service, it’s hard to beat.
WORTH MENTIONING – Seamless integration with other Google services.
WORTH WARNING – Likewise, seamless integration with other Google services. This is a warning depending on your views on privacy.
Did you know that there’s a cheap, easy way to purchase and download video games directly to your Personal Computer or Macintosh Computer System? Even though I knew about Steam before 2011 I didin’t buy my first game on Steam (Civilization IV Gold Edition) I didn’t realize that Valve has designed a digital market that’s easy and – dare I say – fun.
Steam is the gold standard for digital distribution. The site is easy to navigate. All of the pertinent information about the games are right on the page – including game reviews, system requirements, and similar games. As I mentioned above, I’m a Mac owner but I also have a PC laptop. Steam has a great selection of games for Mac, but more importantly, most games that are available for the Mac are also playable on a PC. This blew my mind – as a gamer with a Mac I was accustomed to the gaming gulag. Not so with Steam.
Additionally, downloads are a breeze. I’ve used other download services for games and not been impressed. Steam has made me believe that downloads are a viable distribution option for video games and my game purchases from last year reflect this realization.
WORTH MENTIONING - I can’t forget the sales. My God, the sales. Also, a great place to discover games by indie developers.
WORTH WARNING – During the sales, the servers can explode and reduce download speeds to a crawl.
Seattle Public Library System
I had not bothered to check out the SPL website until last year because I had assumed that it would be rubbish. Let’s face it: civil services aren’t typically known for their robust online offering.
If you’re lucky enough to live in Seattle, you know the libraries are your friends. But my goodness, so is the website. Where to start?
First of all, finding materials, ordering them and getting them to your branch is a breeze. That’s incredibly important; other library systems I have used manage to screw this up. SPL makes it easy.
Second, working with Over Drive Media, SPL is able to offer a wide selection of audio book MP3s for free. This is an incredible service. Not only can I download these MP3s directly to my PC, I can also get them on my phone. Yes, it is as fantastic as it sounds. Over Drive is not as easy to navigate, but the clunky interface is worth it for the scads of content.
And finally the Kindle loan program – that is still in beta – is off to a great start. The search interface is still wonky (searching by genre gets you … well, I don’t know what, but it doesn’t work), popular titles will have you waiting a few weeks before they become available for loan, and the selection is somewhat limited. These concerns need to be addressed – and let me restate, the service is still in beta – but the delight of getting a notification that my digital book is available and then seamlessly downloading the book through Amazon directly to my Kindle makes it all a bit easier to swallow.
WORTH MENTIONING – Don’t forget, you can order outside SPL and use the King County Library System to have access to even more materials.
WORTH WARNING – Forget getting really popular titles on your Kindle in a timely matter. It took a good two months before I was able to get my paws on The Wise Man’s Fears.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: GOOGLE MUSIC
Like I said, I’m a big fan of Google. I was looking forward to this service as I could really see it working well into Google+, Chrome, Android and all the other Google platforms that I use on a day to day.
I’m not sure why I had my hopes up, as Google and commerce (i.e, Android Market) aren’t the company’s strong suit. I started using Google Music Beta on day one, and from day one I was annoyed in a couple ways.
First, it doesn’t really read meta data for tracks. This makes transferring music from iTunes to Google Music a pain. Seeing my carefully curated collection fall into disarray on Google Music was a magnificent disappointment. This is not a problem for Amazon MP3, I should add. Both Google Music and Amazon MP3 had problems getting my music from my computer to the cloud, but Amazon MP3′s uploader is far less irritating than Google Music uploader.
Since beta, the Android app has evolved from strictly utilitarian UI to something quite striking, visually at least. There are a number of interface issues that I have with the app, however -that make using the actual app more of a pain than it’s worth. I’d go into that in more detail, but that could be it’s own blog post.
These issues could be overlooked if the music shop itself were any good. But it isn’t. The interface is fine but the selection is limited compared to Amazon MP3 and embarrassing compared to iTunes. In addition to selection the shop really suffers in one area: pricing. Albums that are $7.99 on both iTunes and Amazon MP3 are $9.49 on Google Music. Why pay more? Google Music doesn’t give a reason.
WORTH MENTIONING – There’s a wide selection of free songs. Quality varies depending on taste.
Thinking about what all these services have in common it’s striking that they almost all rely on the cloud in some way or another. Amazon MP3 and Docs store the actual content in the cloud while Steam has started to tinker with keeping their save data in the cloud. It’s also also telling that the services are all oriented in some way toward mobile usage, except Steam which really wouldn’t benefit from mobile – for now.
So that’s that! Now get off my lap, you unwashed masses of the Internets. But take a Wurthers and leave a comment as you go.