If you want to introduce a kid (or yourself!) to CAD (computer aided design), Tinkercad is by far the easiest and most fun way to begin. Today I mentioned to my 10-year-old that our CNC machine would soon be up and running. He asked what a CNC could do, and I said one example would be to carve a battlefield out of stiff foam for Warhammer figures.
That got his attention . He wanted to know how to tell the CNC what to do. I explained a bit about CAD, and showed him Tinkercad, giving the example of one cube that you could stretch and change.
Then I got busy with something else and left him to figure out Tinkercad himself. I came back an hour later and the below is what he’d designed. A ten-year-old. No training. One hour.
The green stuff we’re going to CNC out of a sheet of stiff foam. The rest we’ll probably 3D print on the Makerbot. It will take a weekend, but this could be our first 100% digital craft project.
This is an example of what I talk about in Makers: manufacturing technologies are getting so easy and cheap (even free) that anyone can use them. Kids today can grow up as fluent in CAD as they are in everything else on computers. Democratizing the tools of publishing brought us the Web. Just imagine what democratizing the tools of manufacturing will do.
We’ve used the previously reviewed Sketchup and Autodesk 123D, and both are great. But Tinkercad just runs in your Web browser and its simple interface disguises a very sophisticated cloud-based CAD engine.
In the past few months I’ve had to repair my iPhone, my digital camera, and my Macbook Pro. During this time I’ve found the iFixit’s magnetic mat indispensable. Not only does the magnetic surface mean fewer lost screws, but it’s whiteboard surface means I can keep track of what came from where. Intelligently, iFixit includes a very nice fine-tipped dry-erase marker from Staedtler for quickly jotting down repair notes (that also features a bit of wool on the cap for erasing them, too). The pro model mat, which I own, also features a nonslip foam backing much like that of a mousepad which when flipped upside down features cutouts that act like cups.
I like mine so much that it never leaves my desk as it serves as miniature whiteboard, mousepad, and DIY repair station.
Replacing my laptop’s optical drive with a Solid State Disk (SSD) was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the past year. I have an aging early-2008 Macbook Pro. I say aging because the computer itself is in great condition, and while it is suitable for 90% of what I do on a daily basis, I found that when editing photos in Lightroom or when working in Photoshop or anything video related it would slow to a crawl. The first thing I upgraded was the RAM which I doubled from 4 to 8 GB (which I recommend to everyone with an aging computer), but it still left me feeling I could do more.
So six months ago I decided that the price of SSDs had fallen enough to warrant upgrading the hard drive in my computer. When I first started researching the process, I stumbled across a few people who had decided to replace their optical drive with an SSD drive that fits into a specially designed caddy. I realized I could count on one hand the number of times I had used my optical drive in the previous year, and even then it was most often to burn a DVD; something which has, for the most part, been replaced by cheap USB flash drives.
So I made the decision to ditch my optical drive, and replace it with a 128 GB Sandisk SSD and a specially made SSD caddy which screws into the optical drive’s slot. Overall the installation took about an hour of careful disassembly and reassembly. As far as tools, I used the previously reviewed iFixit 54-piece kit. After installation I was left with a naked optical drive which, as it happens, functions perfectly when used with the previously reviewed SATA/IDE to USB adapter. Now when I absolutely need to use the optical drive, I have one available. I decided not to pick up a case for the optical drive given that I rarely use it but they are available from One World Computing for about $40.
Installing an SSD was only the first step in the process, however. The really important part was installing all of my critical software and most frequently used files onto the new disk. To net the biggest bump in speed it helps to perform a clean install of whatever OS you’re using directly to the SSD. I noticed gains immediately as my computer started up in under 30-seconds compared to two minutes before. After install the whole system was incredibly responsive, and programs that used to bounce up and down in the dock for thirty seconds or more opened with a new found urgency. I really hadn’t expected the difference to be as significant, but I can safely say that booting with and using an SSD feels like using a brand new computer. Outside of the immediate gains in speed, SSDs also use less power when compared to their spinning brethren. Since my most frequently used programs were loading from the SSD I saw around a 30-40% increase in battery life (around an hour and a half depending on use).
Overall, the upgrade cost me around $150, and in return I netted what feels like a much much newer computer. I also have the benefit of redundancy in the form of two hard drives, which means that I have an on-the-go backup solution (I have since upgraded my original 250 GB HDD with a faster 1 TB HDD). And it only gets better as I have seen increasing gains as operating systems are optimized for SSDs (in the case of the newest version of OSX).
[Note: It's impossible to keep up with the constant fluctuation of pricing for SSDs so always keep a look out for deals
(for example, the price of the drive I used has fallen $68 in the six months since installation). In addition, I have heard positive things about OWC's Data Doubler which is a more convenient, albeit more expensive, package alternative to the DIY SSD replacement mentioned above. --OH]
Note: If you know of something similar for non-Apple products, please let us know and we will update the review.--OH
I’ve been using Logitech’s Performance Mouse MX and its former model for about four years. They all have one important feature: hyper fast scrolling. Since I’m an engineer who has to deal with source code files that easily contain thousands of lines, I have to scroll an ordinary mouse hundreds of times to browse a file. With hyper fast scrolling, it only takes one single scroll as the wheel spins with minimal friction. This really reduce the stress on my fingers. It can also easily be switched back to normal scrolling behavior (by pushing down on the scroll wheel) when I’m not dealing those gigantic files.
– Jordan Cherng
Similar to Jordan’s Logitech Performance Mouse MX is the Anywhere Mouse MX that I’ve been using for the past two years. Unlike the Performance model, the Anywhere model is significantly smaller, and is easily packed in the included carrying case. Despite the small size, I find it to be one of the most comfortable mice I’ve ever handled which is especially surprising as I have large hands!
Outside of size, the two mice are remarkably similar. Like its bigger brother, the Anywhere Mouse also features “hyper-scrolling” which is very useful when dealing with large documents or long web pages. The scrolling (among other features) is customizable with the included Logitech software (that works for both PC and Macs). Outside of scrolling, they both feature programmable buttons, and most importantly very accurate tracking. Logitech calls their technology Darkfield which they claim is better able to respond to irregularities on a surface (and thus respond more accurately during tracking). I’ve used mine on many shiny surfaces which normally confuse optical mice without any problems, with the biggest surprise coming when I used it on a glass countertop which is normally a no go for laser-tracking mice.
The only other significant differences between the two are that the Performance Mouse can be charged via micro-USB, and that it has a few more buttons for those who want to maximize the customizability of their mice. Both use Logitech’s unifying receiver (which we’ve reviewed in the past) and have excellent battery life. My Anywhere Mouse gets about 4-6 months of use from two rechargeable AAs.
Despite being significantly more expensive than other mice on the market, I have found that these higher end Logitech mice are worth it. They are comfortable and reliable pieces of technology that seem to disappear in use, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
– Oliver Hulland
[Note: Apologies to all those readers who are left-handed as it doesn't appear either of these mice are ambidextrous.--OH]
Skitch is a free OSX (and iOS/Android) screen capture application that I use on a daily basis while editing Cool Tools. Like other screenshot utilities, Skitch allows you to capture the entire screen, a specific window, or drag a selection box across a specific portion of the screen. Skitch’s selection box features crosshairs that function as a loupe to show you what you’re capturing on a pixel level which makes capturing exactly what you want very easy. I am particularly fond of other touches like the ability to drag the image in order to export/resize to the desktop or a particular folder.
Once you’ve captured your image, Skitch features a host of useful tools like drawing, text editing, shapes, easy resizing, and a number of export options. Sharing, in particular, is well implemented, and allows you to either upload directly to Skitch’s servers, or to your own FTP, WebDav, and Flickr account. Given that Skitch was recently acquired by the previously reviewed Evernote, it also features solid integration with another of our favorite applications.
In the past I’ve used other screen capture applications like the lightweight Capture Me, Apple’s Grab, and the traditional screen capture via hotkeys, but nothing has come close to the ease of use and function of Skitch. While Skitch isn’t available on PCs, they have developed stand-alone apps for iOS and Android, however, it really shines on the desktop.
Tasker is an automation tool for Android phones. I’ve used Android and Tasker for a couple years now for a wide variety of tasks. Simply put, this app can change settings on your phone based on practically any information or input available to the phone.
Personally, I use it to silence the ringer during church, class, etc. This can be activated by time or location. I also have it update podcasts when I connect to my access point at home. Or, turn off mobile data when the device starts, and only enable it if wifi is unavailable and certain apps are running. The list goes on and on. I have it set to enable GPS when certain apps are running. When without wifi, I have a task set to turn on 3G for one minute every half hour and have all apps to autosync (this saves a considerable amount of battery). I also use it to prevent wifi from sleeping when the screen is off if Pandora or other apps are running.
It can also be used to adjust call volume, ringtone, and availability based on caller ID, start apps and change settings when a headset is plugged in or the phone is docked, read text messages out loud in the car, and all sorts of other useful things. The application costs $6.50, but I believe it’s absolutely worth it given how much functionality it provides.
[For those interested in learning what else Tasker can do this wiki is full of How-to's.--OH ]
After graduating college, my school email was going to expire and I wanted to keep all my emails. I spent hours and hours of research on how to automatically forward (or migrate, in industry terms) all my emails to an active email account. There were manual methods that took too long, required too much technical experience, or were simply impossible (in the case of some email systems). Many companies offer email migration services, but most require you to buy their software and install them, or have a minimum mailbox requirement. Why do I need to install software on my computer when my old and new email are accessed from the Internet? Then I came across MigrationWiz in some Microsoft forums.
MigrationWiz operates via the “cloud.” They connect directly to your old email (source) and your new (destination) email in order to transfer all your data. MigrationWiz charges on a low per-mailbox fee (between $10 and $12 depending on how much data you have). If you have one mailbox to migrate, you pay for one. If you have 5,000 mailboxes (they migrate entire companies), you pay for 5,000 (but I think they offer volume discounts). So now I’ve migrated my old school emails and old work emails (after changing jobs) to something I have access to more permanently. I’ve also helped friends use it. I wish I had known about MigrationWiz earlier and not wasted all the time on research.
Camscanner allows your Android or iOS smartphone to function as a document scanner. And while there are other competing apps from the few I’ve tried it’s clear that Camscanner is the pack leader.
This app is better than the rest because it is intuitive and produces great results. It includes a virtual bubble-level shown on the screen when you are taking the photo, so you get the picture straight on and undistorted. When you get it level, it disappears, which is excellent design (both giving feedback that you ‘got it right’ and uncluttering the view at the same time). [Note: Strangely, the bubble level seems to be an Android-only feature.--OH]
When you need to crop, the cropping screen shows a thumbnail ‘peek’ window at the opposite corner while you pull the crop line, showing crosshairs of where you are placing the corner on the photo. No need to try multiple times since you can’t see what is happening under your thick finger! The layout is very intuitive, five unambiguous icon buttons, and a quickstart document with a guided tour included (no searching for the documentation)! Did I say great design?
After you’ve scanned something the cropping and enhancing happen before your eyes, recapturing some of the thrill of watching a Polaroid develop. The enhancement options work well, turning even faint pencil scratchings into well contrasted digital versions.
Once the document has been processed, Camscanner can either email or upload the document as a JPG or PDF to a number of hosting services including Google Docs, Dropbox, Box.net, Evernote, and iDisk.
There are no ads in the free version, though it is limited to generating 10-page scan-pdf’s with a ‘watermark’ line at the bottom of each page and also doesn’t feature the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for text searches or AirPrint (which is iOS only). But other than that no annoying (and bandwidth guzzling, cpu-battery hogging) ads! The full version costs $5 and removes all limitations.
[I gave the free version of Camscanner a run through on my iPhone 4 and it really is far better than any other scanning apps I've tried. Its flexible processing engine turns out very readable PDFs (here is a link to a sample PDF I made) even in crappy light. It should be noted, though, that this application is limited by the quality of the phone's camera.--OH]
There are sound effects libraries that cost more than a small car, and they’re probably worth it to certain kinds of users — like movie studios or audio production houses — but not to me. In search of interesting, appropriately licensed sounds for personal amusement, some google searching led me to Freesound.org, which has many thousands of freely usable, user-contributed sound recordings, all Creative Commons licensed. Some of them are tiny snippets, the audio equivalent of the icons on a computer screen, and some are lengthy field recordings. (Many of the sounds here are purely synthetic, too, or remixes that the CC licensing facilitates.) Last Halloween, I set up a playlist for my family’s “haunted condo,” consisting of screams, clanks, and creepy laughter (but also repurposed sounds like foghorns and musical instruments I thought sounded ominious), with sounds drawn entirely from this site.
It’s also a good place to find ring-tone and computer alert sources, if you’re just looking for audio clip art, or (with headphones, especially) fascinating “you are there” audio experiences; being transported to an audio landscape inhabited by gentle waves, ships’ horns, and thunderstorms is a legal way to escape ordinary consciousness.
Freesound really is free, too, though donations are accepted; it started as a project of the Music Technology Group of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. One (very small) catch: you can listen all you want just by visiting the site; downloading the files requires free registration.
I’ve been using Dropbox for over a year now. It just works. It copies stuff you save to a specific folder on your computer to the cloud, while also keeping old versions around. I’ve set up my daughter’s computer to save documents to the Dropbox folder by default. Now it is so much easier to find what she has worked on and to go back to a previous version if she accidentally erases her document.
Her important documents are backed up and available if her computer dies. I share the folder she works in, and can edit or comment on what she’s done and save those changes on my machine. Dropbox synchronizes the changes automatically. It works seamlessly and quickly.
The best description I’ve seen of Dropbox comes from Bill Gurley who said “once you begin using Dropbox, you become more and more indifferent to the hardware you are using, as well as the operating system on that device.” I’ve personally enjoyed the service for quite a while, and the more I learn the more I respect what they are trying to do.