My favorite gadgets in 2015

Even though 2015 has been a year of decluttering for me, a couple of gadgets have proven to be indispensable to my productivity, creativity and leisure time. While I emphatically believe that most of us benefit from having and buying less stuff, I also believe that technology can work miracles to de-stress your life. These are the toys that have been the most valuable to me.

The iPad Air 2

With the recent release of the iPad Pro, it's smaller and older sibling, the iPad Air 2, has increasingly disappeared from the discussions around the usefulness of an iPad in personal productivity. The argument is that you have to go Pro if you want to get work done on iOS. This is where I disagree with the reviewers. The Air 2 may not sport the latest hardware, but to me it's the optimum size iPad. Contrary to the iPad Pro, the Air 2 is a truely portable device that allows for quick transitions between writing on a desk, reading on the couch or watching a movie in bed. It fits in compact bags and is unobtrusive as a notepad in meetings. The iPad Pro on the other hand is primarily intended to use as a stationary device and it’s just too big to consistently use it on the fly. The iPad Air 2 performs blazingly fast through any tasks that can be done on iOS and in this, it doesn’t show too much of a difference when compared to the iPad Pro. 

What sets it apart from a Mac, is that it's always on and immediately ready to use. The iPad Air 2 is ultralight and yet it's battery life greatly outlives my MacBook Pro’s. 

It's the primary - and increasingly only - iOS device that I use at home. In fact, I am trying to make a habit of fully replacing my iPhone with the iPad when I’m at my appartement.1 It's perfect for reading - much better than the iPhone could ever be. Contrary to the popular saying that the newer, bigger iPhones obviate the use-case for an iPad, I believe that the Air 2 is a perfect compliment for any iPhone power-user. With the plethora of great text editors out there, it is also becoming the tool of choice for my writing. Even though some may find typing on the software keyboard clumsy, I happen to like it a lot. Using the software keyboard gives an intimacy with text that I don't get while typing on the physical keys on my MacBook Pro. I am also a fan of the Smart Cover.

I expect that iOS computing will eventually cut loose my last remaining ties to OS X and a future iteration of iPad will replace my need for a Mac. If I think about it, these days it’s primarily nostalgia, my love for OS X as a platform, the aesthetics and a few dedicated tasks and apps2 that have yet kept me from fully making an iOS-only transition. 

The iPhone 6s Plus

I hadn't been a member of the Plus Club until finally this year. I had been using the iPhone 6, before I jumped to the larger screen phone with the release of this year's „S“ cycle. Now, there is no more going back for me to a smaller screen size. How could I ever live with the smaller phones? If you are into anything beyond texting and taking calls on your iPhone (which you most likely are), you should strongly consider making the jump to the iPhone 6s Plus. It’s a night-and-day difference with tasks like photo editing, writing, gaming, YouTubing or reading. 

Besides size issues, the main reason for me to upgrade to the iPhone 6s from the 6 so timely, were the additions Apple has made to the iPhone camera. I have been an enthusiast for mobile photography since my first iPhone. In fact, I have gone on vacation and purposefully went iPhone-only for my travel photography in the past. The iPhone camera has always been great, especially after the iPhone 5, but the new camera is amazing. The 12 mega pixel sensor allows for higher quality prints in my travel photobooks and with optical image stabilization I have gotten more into video, lately. 3D Touch is still in its infancy, but with apps like OmniFocusDrafts and DayOneand the 3D Touch actions they provide, it is already firmly rooted in my workflow. Since my switch to the 6s Plus, I have virtually never run out of battery life before bedtime.

The Fujifilm X100T

The Fuji X100 camera has been haunting me since it was first released in 2011. Somehow, I have managed to withstand its allure and not bought one - till this year. In 2014, the third iteration of the X100 - the Fujifilm X100T - came out and I couldn't resist it any longer. 

The X100T is a small, classic-looking compact camera with a fixed lens that cannot be changed. It's 35mm equivalent only and doesn't have a full frame sensor. However, the Fuji X100T is all that I would want in a camera and so much more. It's image quality is superior, even so far that you can shoot JPG only without worrying about RAW. Its autofocus is fast and its lowlight capabilities with high ISO are great. You can be assured never to miss a shot even in difficult situations. It’s a range finder camera where you peek through a small glass optic to compose your shot. I always preferred a range finder over any DSLR, but with the X100T you can have the best of both worlds. Besides a full electronic view finder, the camera also has the option to activate a hybrid view which pops up a small digital screen inside the optical view finder. This is handy for taking shots in manual mode where you can improve your focussing by focus peaking.

What I love most about this camera, though, is that it nourishes your desire for photography. In the end, photography is about taking pictures and the more fun and passion you have taking them, the better a photographer you will be. The X100T has been such a motivating factor in my photography that I have taken more pictures in 2015 than in any year before. 

At present, I still do all my photo editing and processing in Lightroom on my Mac. I had to switch from Aperture as it was no longer supported by Apple. I use Lightroom mostly for VSCO's Film presets which give a unique and unmatched look to your photography. With these presets, batch processing images is a breeze. Still, I could see myself moving fully to mobile and eventually away from Lightroom for my photos workflow because iCloud Photo Library is working like a charm for me. The editing apps available on iOS get ever more sophisticated. As it can easily be linked to your iOS device wirelessly via wifi, the Fuji X100T fits snugly into a mobile only workflow. 

The Fitbit Charge HR

I am a nut for the quantified self. In the past years, I have tried numerous health trackers for keeping log of step counts and the like. All the trackers I used3 had shortcomings and so I resorted to the built-in functions of my iPhone and its M co-processor. However, this led to a sort of neuroticism whereby I used to carry the iPhone in my pocket at all times in order not to miss out on any steps or flights of stairs. A wrist-bound tracker is superior to a phone in this regard, as it’s always with you and provides a better picture of your daily activity. The Apple Watch still hasn’t drawn me in as a device - yet - and so this year, I bought a Fitbit Charge HR. Besides tracking your steps, flights of stairs, calories and workouts, it automatically registers when you are asleep and has a constant heart rate monitor. It’s pretty reliable for these tasks. It’s also a watch that shows the time when you lift your wrist. Inside the Fitbit app, you can dig into the details of your workout and get information on peak heart rates and cooldown times. The Charge HR is comparatively affordable and has a good battery life which grants you about 4-5 days of usage. Unfortunately, integration with Apple’s is not officially supported and you have to resort to a third party solution for this. However, by the time of this writing, the Fitbit Charge HR is my health tracker of choice.

The Jabra REVO Wireless Bluetooth Headphones

These have been recommended by David Sparks on the Macpowerusers podcast, recently. I got them for a fairly cheap price on Amazon during the Black Friday sales and what a life changer they have become. Now I can finally leave my iPhone and iPad just lying around the house and walk freely with just my headphones on whilst listening to my favorite podcasts or audiobooks.4 It’s a quantum leap up from wired headphones which I have been using before and they definitely cause less confrontations with your spouse than having podcasts play publically from your Jambox in your appartement.

The audio quality is decent and well-balanced. Fortunately, they are not as bass heavy as a lot of other headphones out there. I haven't experienced to many glitches with the connection, other than a few minor conflicts if you have more than one device connected. They are an on-ear fit which may not be the ultimate for folks with glasses (like me). Still, if you haven’t used bluetooth headphones before, these may just be your next.

Gadgets that have somehow disappointed

Just as every year, I have bought a few things that I shouldn’t have. These things lured me in with their marketing, but that eventually didn’t live up their promise.

I bought a WD My Passport Air and intended to use it as an external drive for my image library. However, for this purpose, it is just too slow and using it with Lightroom is a pain. It’s probably better reserved for simpler file handling.

Another piece of hardware that I bought, was the Rain Design mStand which props up your MacBook. Unfortunately, the stand doesn’t fully lift the MacBook screen up to eye level when placed on a desk. I gave it a second try as a part of a standing office configuration with a bluetooth keyboard, but in the end it just didn’t work out for me.

Finally, I owned a Misfit Shine for about a week or so before I sent it back. It’s a health tracker that wants to position itself as a fashion accessory. To me, it doesn’t succeed in either purpose as it’s tracking functionality is limited, the app interface confusing and it looks more like a magnetic band than a fashionable item. 

Please note that some of the items are linked via the Amazon affiliates program. If you have any questions about any of the gadgets listed, don’t hesitate to ask me.

  1. For this, I have configured my iPad to be an exact clone of my iPhone app-wise. ↩︎
  2. One example that immediately comes to mind is my favorite app for building presentations, Deckset, which still lacks a mobile interface.  ↩︎
  3. The trackers that I spent the most time with were the Nike Fuelband SE, the Jawbone Up and the Misfit Shine. ↩︎
  4. Or some Cool Jazz, for that matter. ↩︎