Cutting Cable

When we moved into our new apartment last year, my girlfriend and I made the decision to do away with a cable subscription. At our previous apartment, we were paying over $100 a month on our cable and internet bill. When we moved into our new apartment, we both agreed we could live without cable. We decided to forego a cable subscription and rely solely on the Internet and free network broadcasts to provide entertainment.

Our modest home entertainment system consists of a TV, a DVD player and an Apple TV. This, along with an Internet connection, provides more than enough entertainment for my family, which includes a 4 year old. We have dozens of DVDs but honestly, these rarely ever get taken out of their cases. They are a hassle. You take them out of their cases, (if they even get put back properly), it takes 5 minutes for the DVD player to start up and once you pop it in, you have to sit through 10 minutes of previews and advertisements. That is one of my biggest pet peeves nowadays. Movie studios force you to sit through ads and previews of their other movies when all you want to do is show your 4 year old the movie they requested to watch. Worst of all, trying to skip through them with your remote is disabled. Shame on movie studios. This is why we rarely use our DVD player.

The last piece of our entertainment setup is our Apple TV. The Apple TV is a way for you to rent or purchase movies and TV shows through Apple’s iTunes Store. Pricing is anywhere from $3 for renting a single TV show episode to $20 for purchasing a movie that you own and can watch over and over. While this is one way to consume entertainment, the Apple TV also lets you stream content from different services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. This is how we consume the majority of the shows we watch.

Netflix and Hulu are both similar in that they allow you to stream TV shows and movies. They both cost $7.99/month. They differ mainly in the content they carry. Hulu’s library consists of current and back season shows from ABC, Comedy Central, The CW, FOX, NBC, MTV and Univision. Netflix offers shows and movies that are already on DVD as well as some original programming. While both services offer movies and TV shows, I’ve found through using both that Hulu is good for watching current TV series and Netflix is good for watching movies and old seasons of TV series. The combination of these two services allows us to keep up with current shows with Hulu Plus and enjoy old TV shows and movies with Netflix. We also receive the basic network channels and when we do remember the day and time of the shows we watch, we’ll sit down and watch them as scheduled, but with the convenience of services like Hulu Plus, more often than not, we will choose to watch shows at our convenience.

If you’re thinking about cutting cable, two things are necessary. Most important is a connection to the Internet. This one is obvious. The second piece is a some sort of media set top box capable of streaming video content from the Internet to your TV. What you choose is entirely up to you. People have used dedicated PCs hooked up to their TVs. While it works, it’s not couch friendly. You still need a keyboard and/or mouse to control the computer. The major game consoles are capable of streaming. If you already own an Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or a Wii, you don’t need to purchase anything else. These game consoles already have apps built in for accessing Netflix and Hulu. In my opinion, I would recommend media set top box meant to stream Internet video. I use the Apple TV but there are other products out there, the Roku box and Boxee box are the first two to come to mind.

There are a few downsides to cutting cable. One, not all shows are available on streaming services. Namely, CBS is the last of the major cable networks to embrace new technology and makes it very difficult to watch their shows outside of traditional cable or over the air. For example, if you watch How I Met Your Mother, you have to watch it at its regular showing. Also, if you’re into sports, watching games live is the biggest hurdle in cutting cable. A lot of games are shown on ESPN or on TBS or TNT and you need a cable subscription to receive those channels.

I believe that the days of cable subscriptions packages are limited. If you find yourself only watching a handful of the hundreds of channels you pay for, and if you’re tired of paying for channels you don’t watch, canceling your cable subscription and saving hundreds of dollars a year is a great feeling.

Buy Roku or Boxee from Amazon and help out this site.

Homescreen Apps

I’m always fascinated by the apps people keep on their homescreen. It gives me a peek into their workflow. I’ll usually find an app that I’ve never heard about and I’ll ask how they use it. It’s an easy way to find new apps that might benefit my workflow. I thought I’d share mine. Hopefully someone out there will discover a new app that makes their lives easier.

My Current Homescreen
My Current Homescreen

Beejive – I do a lot of online chatting, primarily through Google chat. Beejive was one of the first apps available when the App Store opened. They support almost all IM protocols and has plenty of features without being confusing.

Agenda – A nice minimal calendar app that syncs with Google calendar.

Photos – I take a lot of photos with my phone. It only makes sense to keep this on my home screen for easy access to them.

Camera+ – The stock camera app is more than adequate but Camera+ gives you a few options that go above and beyond the stock app. Mainly, focus and white balance lock. You also have basic photo editing tools such as cropping and filters.

Checkmark/Clear – I really wish I could settle on one to do app but keep two on my homescreen. I like Clear because it’s pretty and makes cool sounds. I like Checkmark because it lets you identify significant places; home, work, grocery store, and lets you create location based reminders that notify you when your arrive or leave a place. For example, you can make a list of items to pick up at the grocery store and Checkmark will remind you when you arrive at the store. Or you can set a reminder to call your wife when you leave work. Perfect use of geolocation technology.

Google Maps – I wrote an extensive write up of alternative maps apps available on iOS. I use Waze to navigate but Google Maps deserves a place on my home screen.

Settings – I’m constantly jumping into this app to connect to WiFi, go into Airplane Mode or to adjust the brightness of the screen. Seems to me there should be an easier way to do this.

Foursquare – One of the first check in apps, Foursquare has evolved into a recommendation app. I still use it to check in but I turn to it to find places to eat. 

Reeder – My preferred RSS reader. Although Google Reader will be retired, development of Reeder will continue.

Gramatica – Another way to browse Instagram. It lets you ignore annoying hashtags or certain people.

Simple – I wrote a long piece on why I love Simple here

Phone – Because every once in awhile, I need to make a phone call.

Mailbox – This app was released earlier this year to much hype. I don’t get inundated with email but I do like the workflow for this app. It treats your inbox as a sort of triage where you can deal with important emails immediately or snooze them to deal with at a later time. Most people don’t type out long emails on a phone so this workflow makes sense to me.

Instacast – I listen to a lot of podcasts. Although its quality has gone down since version 3, it still is the best of the podcast catching apps.

App Store – I’m always looking for new apps to try and test out. Makes sense to keep it on the home screen.

Chrome – The main reason why I use Chrome on my desktop, phone and iPad is that it lets you sync bookmarks, settings and tabs. If I’m browsing a page on my desktop, I can continue reading on my iPad or iPhone when I get home.

Messages – Because I text more than I talk on my phone.

Rdio – I signed up for Rdio about two years ago. In my opinion, it is not only the best of the streaming services, it is the best way to consume music. For $10/month, you have access to millions of tracks. Gone are the days where you buy one album for $10. If you buy more than one album a month, the service pays for itself. Almost everyone I’ve shown this to signs up for an account once it clicks in their head. Spotify is, arguably, the bigger name in the streaming service space, but Rdio blows it out of the water based on app design and user experience.

Tweetbot – Probably the app that I use the most on my phone. I’m always on Twitter. It’s where I read interesting links and follow interesting people. The official app is fine for most people but I like to use Tapbots’ app because it has features I find valuable. One feature I like is Timeline syncing. If I’m browsing my Twitter feed on my phone, I can close the app, open Tweetbot on my iPad and the timeline position will sync. I won’t miss any tweets. It also lets you mute tweets based on user, hashtag, keyword or by source. If someone is annoying you because they’re live tweeting a TV show, you can mute them for an hour or indefinitely. Or if there is a live event that people are using a hashtag to identify, you can mute all tweets containing that hashtag. If you don’t like seeing tweets autogenerated from say Foursquare check ins or Instagram posts, you can mute tweets coming from the Foursquare or Instagram app. Very powerful features that make my Twitter experience much more enjoyable. Well worth the $3.

Simple – A New Way To Bank

It’s safe to say everyone has a bank account and that their bank has a website and a mobile app. What everyone CANNOT say is that they love using it or get any other useful information other than “How much money do I have in my account?” I can say, for a fact, that I love using Simple as my bank. It’s a shame that none of the big banks, or even the smaller credit unions or other “online banks”, could put together an elegant and useful banking experience.

Simple, by itself, is not a bank. They partner with Bancorp which is FDIC insured. They merely provide an interface layer for Bancorp. Most bank websites show you your available balance and a list of your recent transactions. There are two problems with this. One, your available balance doesn’t accurately reflect pending transactions or scheduled payments. I’ve long hated the guessing game of trying to figure out how much I REALLY have in the bank. Simple has introduced Safe To Spend. They take your total account balance and subtract any pending or scheduled transactions, and any money you have set aside for goals (more on this later) and lets you know how much you can safely spend. This is much more useful than “Current Balance”.

Safe To Spend
Safe To Spend

The way Simple lists transactions is also pretty awesome. Whenever you swipe your card, your bank receives a bunch of information from the business swiping your card. Obviously, the name of the merchant, the date and the amount. Here lies the second problem. Most of the time, the merchant name is in all caps and is either truncated or includes info like store number or other information not useful to you as is. Simple is smart enough to take only the useful information and lists what it thinks is relevant. For example “LUCKY #749.SAN CARLOS” becomes “Lucky”. You can also edit these if you like.

What most people don’t know is that other information is transmitted such as time of purchase and location. Most banks feel that this is not useful to you. Simple takes ALL of this information and presents it to you. With all this information, you can create a pretty detailed overview of how and where you spend your money. There are also memo fields where you can add further descriptions to your transactions. I like to put what I buy at the grocery store or at Target. Or you can add the price you paid for gas and see the price of gas rise and fall each time you go. You can also add photo or pdf attachments. Great for attaching pictures of your food from a restaurant or your phone bill to your mobile phone provider. You could even search for “dinner” and “weekday” and it’s smart enough to go through your transactions and narrow it down to the ones you made at restaurants, on weekdays, around dinner time. The possibilities are endless and I keep finding new ways to make the service more useful.

Attachments
Attachments
Searchby hashtags
Searchby hashtags
Search:
Search: “dinner” “weekday”

With all the information from transactions, Simple gathers all this information and presents them to you in Reports. After using Simple for an amount of time, it can show you trends in your spending. How much you spend monthly on gas. How much you spend weekly on food. Pretty standard stuff.

Monthly Gas
Monthly Gas
Monthly Food
Monthly Food

Something really unique is Goals. Everyone has ambitions to save money. Unless you have an automatic savings plan set up, not many people actively set aside a portion of money to save for a vacation, new gadget or an emergency fund. Simple has two ways of setting up goals. The first way is straight forward; you start a new goal, specify how much you’d like to begin the goal with and name it. You can transfer funds to this goal by clicking and dragging. You can also save towards a goal over time. Say you want to save $300 for Christmas shopping. You’d start a new goal and specify the amount and date you’d like to have the goal completed. Once you create that goal, Simple will automatically take money from your Safe To Spend amount everyday until your goal is met on that date. In the Christmas shopping example, about $1 a day is needed from now until December 7 if you started April 1st. It really puts saving into perspective.

Goals
Goals

There’s a lot to love about Simple but there are a few things that are missing. First of all, they don’t have checks. At least, they don’t have checks that we’re used to. They have a Send Money feature where you can initiate a payment electronically and they will generate a check that gets mailed within 5 business days. Since you can pay almost all your bills online, this won’t be an issue for a lot of people but it is a hassle for those few times you need a physical check immediately. The second drawback is the inability to send money electronically to another bank account, also known as an ACH (Automatic Clearing House) transfer. My long time bank, ING, would allow me to send money to another account as long as I had a routing number and an account number. Simple promises they are working to bring this feature soon.

Send Money
Send Money

It boggles my mind that it took so long for a company to see that the way banks were giving us information on their websites was lacking. Simple really makes it fun and useful to manage and, in turn, save your money. You can request an invitation to sign up at their site.

Facebook Home

Last week, Facebook unveiled Facebook Home; a hybrid of a homescreen replacement, app and operating system for Android phones. I have my opinions about Facebook but I can’t help but admire the work they put into the design of this. It acts as a layer between you and your phone. The chat heads feature looks especially intriguing. It looks like the way messaging should be on your phone.

This is only available on Android phones but I hope to see some of the design elements find its way on to other platforms.