All posts in “Tech Column”

How I learned to love the simplicity of the Amazon Kindle

People often ask me what my favorite gadget is, or if there’s one piece of technology I can’t live without. They’re usually taken aback by my simple response: my Kindle Paperwhite, a device that reliably performs one task really well and one that I’ve treasured since receiving it as a gift in 2013. 

It might be a surprising answer from someone who makes a living chasing iPhone rumors and reviewing fitness trackers everyday, but it’s true. Amazon’s e-reader is, to me, the perfect confluence of technological savvy and no-frills, barebones utility. 

My Kindle helps me focus on just one task: reading books. It’s one of the few single-purpose devices left in this world, and I’ve come to appreciate its narrow focus. While thousands of other do-it-all gadgets seem to have abandoned all pretense of simplicity, the Amazon Kindle remains devoted to a basic purpose — it lets me read books regularly and holds a charge for weeks.

I used to be a staunch defender of reading physical books, refusing to cede any ground to the ruthless Amazon machine that wrecked the publishing industry over the last two decades. But then I moved to Germany, and had little to do in my free time except read — the only problem was there weren’t any easy ways to access physical copies of English language books. 

Amazon’s done right by me in its insistence to keep the Kindle simple.

I turned to my new Kindle and saw the light — literally, because of the very nice Paperwhite  display. I read a book a week, sometimes two, borrowing from a public library’s online network halfway across the world. I devoured classics, old favorites I saw through a new lens, the entire A Song of Ice and Fire saga, and countless other novels. 

I carried my Kindle everywhere, making it the first gadget that I couldn’t imagine being without — even above my cell phone. I read at night, on poorly lit trains, cars, and plane cabins, and on my favorite days, outside in the park. There were no limits.  

Amazon's Paperwhite gave me access to worlds outside of my own.

Amazon’s Paperwhite gave me access to worlds outside of my own.

Image: amazon

That feeling still hasn’t left me, even though I moved back to the US years ago. The same streamlined functionality keeps me coming back to the Kindle. 

When I tap the screen, I can expect to have one unbroken experience, which is all too rare in today’s increasingly fragmented media landscape filled with text, photos, audio, and videos galore, all jockeying for your attention across devices.  

I’ve seen gadgets stray too far from their original purpose before. Apple had a great thing going with the original iPod, for example, but kept adding bells and whistles that muddled the user experience with feature bloat. By the time the bulk of the product line finally bit the dust earlier this summer, the real question was exactly why the last version left standing, the iPod Touch, is still around at all, since there’s no clear use for it other than as a watered-down iPhone. 

Amazon, by comparison, has done right by me in its effort to keep the Kindle simple. The company did introduce its line of Fire tablets under the Kindle umbrella back in 2011 — but by 2014 it dropped the moniker to separate the two very different products. That means that the bloat that killed the iPod is unlikely to seep into the e-readers, since Amazon’s cheap tablets are on a different cycle.  

Since the separation of the Fire tablet line, the Kindle has been the rare tech device that hasn’t added new features as it has evolved. It has merely refined and worked to perfect its single purpose. That allows the Kindle to be a gadget whose battery life can be estimated in weeks and months instead of hours on its spec sheet, with enough memory for mini-libraries full of text.  

My favorite books will not be disrupted by the notifications that have flooded my phone, music players, and now even my freakin’ TV, allowing me to finally immerse myself fully in narratives that take me far away from my own reality. That’s something I feel the need to do more and more these days, and I’m thankful that I have my Kindle to escape. 

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How I finally broke my Facebook addiction

Just do it.
Just do it.

Image: bob al-greene/mashable

A few weeks ago, I did the unthinkable: I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. 

It started off as more of an experiment. I was curious if not having the app would help extend the dismal battery life of my iPhone 6S. But I was also starting to wonder if there might be other, less obvious, benefits too.

I’m happy to report that I’ve been living (mostly) Facebook free for more than a month, and I don’t miss it at all. In fact, I feel think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m as much of a social media addict any other digital media reporter. And while I’ve long preferred Snapchat and Instagram to Big Blue, that never stopped me from compulsively checking Facebook multiple times a day pretty much as long as I’ve had a smartphone.

I hit delete, and I haven’t looked back

But the more I thought about it, the more I hated it. I rarely saw anything I cared about in my News Feed, and I rarely posted anything at all. Instead, I would be treated to a barrage of memes, annoying advertisements, and yes, the toxic political posts from people I otherwise cared about IRL but whose posts would make my blood pressure spike.

So I hit delete, and I haven’t looked back.

I should note that, unlike some of my colleagues, I haven’t purged Facebook from my life entirely. After all, a big part of my job is writing about Facebook, both the company and the product, and I can’t very well do that if I eliminate my profile from the social network entirely. 

Yes, please.

Yes, please.

Image: screenshot

I still log in from my laptop about once a day to quickly scan my News Feed and keep tabs on where Mark Zuckerberg is visiting now. But I don’t use the app on my phone anymore, and I don’t keep myself logged in on my mobile browser either. (Full disclosure: I do have a secondary phone I use for work-related app testing that has Facebook installed, but I rarely use the app on that phone too.)

When I first deleted Facebook, I figured my little experiment wouldn’t last. But I was happy to find that not only do I not miss it at all, I actually feel  happier without it. It turns out it’s very liberating to know that there isn’t a pit of anxiety, and FOMO and time-wasting one tap away at all times.

I’m not alone either. A recent study found that increased Facebook use was a predictor for declining physical and mental health — Facebook is literally making us more unhealthy and unhappy.

Now, I’m not saying we should give up on social media entirely. I still use Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp to keep up with friends. And, my work obligations aside, I’m perfectly happy to spend a few minutes looking at my News Feed every once in awhile.

But I no longer feel the urge to open Facebook just for the sake of something to do. My addiction has been broken— and it’s all because I deleted the app. I suggest you try it sometime, too.

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After 10 years, I’m breaking up with Android

Image: Ambar Del Moral / mashable

The iPhone turned 10 years old this year, which makes it a full 10 years that I’ve never owned one — but I’m finally ready to take the leap. 

As a millennial and internet addict, I’ve been asked so many times why I don’t use an iPhone. I’d usually say it was the price or that I preferred Android — and both are true — but there’s more to it.

I grew up in India, so something about buying an iPhone always felt indulgent to me. Contract phone plans aren’t quite as popular there as they are in the U.S., and so I’m used to buying phones at full price.

So to me, the iPhone was always an $800 luxury, even though most people in the U.S. pay about $200 up front and the rest in installments. But even beyond price, the iPhone has felt like an indulgence that just wasn’t right for me. 

But I’m ready to leave Android for one reason: performance. Even though the OS has supposedly gotten better, I’ve found that my experience with Android has gotten worse over time. It could certainly be that I have higher standards now, but using my phone has never been more agonizing.

The system crashes, the battery life sucks, everything about it makes me mad. 

The apps that I use most often — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram — crash all the time. Android itself crashes often, the battery life sucks, everything about it makes me mad. My most recent phone even had to be replaced because smoke started spitting out of it while it was charging. A million small things that are inconsistent about Android have been nagging at me for years. Google’s Android Emoji have long been awful, and I hate the recent update even more.

Plus the iPhone has better apps, and the good ones always seem to come out on iOS first. Even Google’s apps are better on the iPhone, and some of them were even launched on the iPhone first. It’s given me few reasons to stay on Android. I can’t keep making excuses for a crappy experience.

If the iPhone is anything like my 2013 MacBook Air, it’ll be worth the extra cost. I bought my laptop at the beginning of college, and it still works great. I’ve been sold on Apple’s quality since. It’s also where I was finally able to use iMessage with my friends, but having it on my laptop isn’t nearly as useful as it would be on my phone. iMessage is the biggest source of my iPhone FOMO, and being the green bubble is my secret shame. 

Even still, in a way, buying an iPhone feels like betraying my roots. At some point, not having an iPhone became a core part of my personality.  This may sound silly or dramatic, but it feels like a big step away from being frugal, being made fun of, and being the only person in my group of friends who knows things about Android. 

Maybe my reasons are valid, or maybe I’m just giving in to peer pressure after a decade, but I’m finally, reluctantly, on the bandwagon now — and I can’t wait for that sweet, sweet, iPhone 8.

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Snapchat is becoming the social network it never wanted to be

Even though Snapchat tends to get lumped in with other social platforms, it’s never really been much of a social network — until now.

While Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like thrive off the vast amounts of (often public) frenetic sharing that happens on their networks each day, Snapchat has made no secret that its users turn to it for a different type of interaction.

Rather than the megaphone of Twitter or the popularity contest that’s Instagram, Snap has prided itself on the large volume of private sharing it sees, its users’ “creativity” and the fact that its app enables a kind of authenticity not found elsewhere on social media.

Snapchat has embraced this with an app that’s been far more closed off than any of its counterparts. Until Stories launched in 2013, there was no way at all for users to publicly share any updates at all and even then the feature got off to a slow start. The app eschewed other common “social” features, too.

While select publishers (including Mashable) can produce content for Discover, and advertisers can sell ads in Discover or between Stories, the company has done little to court influencers and smaller outfits. Snapchat still lacks a formal verification system, other than the emoji-based “official stories” that’s still reserved for the app’s biggest names.

But if Snapchat is still embracing its role as the anti-social network social network, you wouldn’t know it from its recent updates. On Wednesday, the company announced that it would allow anyone to share links within any snap they share with friends or post to their Story. 

That may not sound like a huge change in itself but it stands to be hugely significant to brands, publishers, and any influencer not well-known enough to be verified or part of Discover. On a philosophical level, it also raises questions about whether Snap is finally starting to admit that it is, in fact, a real social media company after all (despite Spiegel’s insistence that Snap is “a camera company”).  

Snapchat's new "Snap Maps" feature.

Snapchat’s new “Snap Maps” feature.

Image: snap

Just look at Snap Maps, another recently launched feature that would have once been unthinkable for the company run by the notoriously private Evan Spiegel. The feature, which essentially allows any of your friends to know your exact whereabouts and who you are with at any given time (you can opt out, too), is a far cry from Snapchat’s roots as a private messaging app for teens sharing naughty photos. 

Creepy as it is though, Snap Maps serves an important purpose to the company. It makes it easier than ever for users — and advertisers for that matter — to actually find all that public-facing content Snapchat 166 million daily users are making each day. 

Yes, some of this could be explained away as the natural evolution of a newly public company now faced with meeting investor expectations. Even so, it’s difficult to not see these types of changes as part of a bigger shift toward becoming just like every other social network. 

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. Just look at how much Instagram has grown since deciding to take on Snapchat in earnest.

Whether Snap will be similarly successful is another matter. What is clear, though, is that there is a transformation underway.

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I ran a half marathon with an AI trainer and was not impressed

I did something very dumb last weekend: I decided to challenge the limits of artificial intelligence and my own body on a 13.1-mile course to glory. 

My body held up fine — but the AI couldn’t quite keep the pace, serving as yet another reminder that current AI tech still hasn’t caught up to the hype. 

I had been testing out Vi, a set of $249 Bluetooth running headphones with its own built-in AI assistant and biometric tracking features. The headphones are comfortable on long runs with a neck harness design and in-ear buds for great sound — but the AI assistant is the main attraction here. It’s like Siri and Alexa with a fitness-focused twist: Vi is designed to train its users to be mile-churning super runners. 

I wanted to really push Vi to see what the AI was capable of outside of basic runs, and I was craving a new fitness challenge to spice up my workouts — something that could take me from a casual runner logging intermediate distances to a true blue marathoner, or at least help me manage my pacing. 

After a convoluted series of events in which I was offered a potentially illegal entry to the Brooklyn Half Marathon a week before the race, I found my adventure: I decided to run my own 13.1 miles in the Prospect Park Loop with nothing but the AI headphones to guide me, using Vi for a crash training course to prep in less than a week.

Vi checks all the boxes seemingly required of an AI assistant: it has a catchy name, a disembodied-yet-reassuring voice, and, unfortunately, not nearly as much functionality as you’d expect from your fancy new gadget-based friend. 

Vi doesn’t offer much more than other running apps I’ve used: It tracks the distance you run, measures your heart rate, and offers some realtime coaching direction to fine-tune your step rate to find your ideal pace, which it calls your “Comfort Zone,” — but it leaves much to be desired as a next-gen personal trainer. It currently has no dedicated feature to set specific goals, so users prepping for races like me have no guide to train for big events or set more defined goals than just fine-tuning their running style. 

Vi and me, just getting to know each other.

Vi and me, just getting to know each other.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Putting Vi through her paces

I decided to take the challenge on a Monday with the race on Saturday. That gave me four days to get ready for the half marathon. 

A quick note for you, dear readers: Don’t try this at home.

Runner’s World suggests committing between 10 to 14 weeks to train for a half marathon, especially for novice racers. I’m active, and run roughly the equivalent of 10 miles a week between jogging and Muay Thai training, but I had never run a road race or jogged over seven miles in one go before this adventure. This was a capital-B Bad Idea, to which I committed for the noble cause of #content and living my best #runlife.

Vi didn’t give me much to go on during the pre-race training sessions. The AI noted we had taken our longest run together, but since it was already accustomed to my step rate, it didn’t give me guidance other than when I left my “comfort zone” and at the end of the workout when I hit my target distance.

When I took to the park loop for the big run, then, I wasn’t sure what I could expect from Vi or myself. I synced up the Vi app for a 13.1-mile Distance Run, put in the earbuds, and took off.

As I ran, I noticed again that Vi wasn’t providing me with insights on my running technique, which is what you’d pay for with a personal trainer or coach. After each mile, Vi told me my split time and distance covered, which was helpful — but I was getting the same data from Map My Run, a GPS tracking app that doesn’t boast AI functionality.

I was able to track my heart rate and speed — but those measures couldn’t give me much to go on in the moment. 

I made it!

I made it!

Image: screenshot/vi

I finished the race, but I felt like Vi left me hanging. My last three miles were actually faster than the 10 before them because I wasn’t sure how to pace myself, which is one of the first orders of business for a trainer to establish in the lead-up to a long race. 

AI assistants aren’t quite ready — yet

The issues I had running with Vi reminded me of the problems I’ve had using other voice-based AI assistants. The novelty of being able to talk with an otherwise inanimate object loses its luster quickly when that conversation goes nowhere, as anyone who has struggled to pry more than just a basic Google search out of their phone’s AI can tell you. That frustration goes double when you’re out of breath after running for an hour.   

Vi didn’t launch as a fully-realized personal trainer, which reminds me of another notable AI assistant: Samsung’s Bixby. The much-heralded AI got its own dedicated button on the Galaxy S8, but when the phone launched in April, Bixby wasn’t ready for the party. 

Bixby’s failure to launch was a misstep for Samsung, and just the most recent evidence that the current reality of AI isn’t exactly on par with the hype surrounding it. 

That doesn’t mean Samsung’s assistant will ultimately fail, especially considering the world of AI it will help to shape. Many of the most exciting recent developments from Google and Microsoft focus on practical AI applications, which aim to bring the sophisticated systems to just about every one of their products and programs. 

Even Vi looks like it will much more to offer in the near future. The company’s reps tell me the AI just got some essential upgrades, including new insights and prompts to give users during runs to take advantage of its capabilities. Most importantly, a dedicated race prep functionality is due for release later this summer. Those tweaks could make Vi a fully actualized trainer, rather than just a cool pair of headphones with some fit tracking features.  

Once that race training feature has a chance to find its legs later this year, maybe I’ll give Vi another shot. I only finished half a marathon with her in my ear, after all — we’ll have a much better chance to get comfortable with each other over a full course and 26.2 AI-aided miles.

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