The Last.fm Good Radio Station

As is my bad habit with many social networking sites, I signed up for a Last.fm account some time ago and never really used the service.  I tend to just plug in my iPod or pop in an audiobook if I’m sitting at a computer for a while, so I thought the whole internet radio thing wasn’t for me.  I was wrong.

Before going any further, let me say that I realize I’m behind the times.  Like 90% of the posts I write, I’m bringing old news, reviews and haikus.  I have actually yet to bring a single haiku to the blog – but that will change.  Anyway, I know there are people who have yet to discover some of the cooler things the internet has to offer.  And that is why I write.

For those that don’t know, Last.fm is a website that allows you to listen to customized internet radio stations.  Simply pick a band, song or genre tag and you’re good to go.  From there, you can fast forward, love or ban tracks from your station.  Every artist you play is automatically added to your library, and Last.fm tracks how many times you have played each artist and song, as well as how many playlists and “loved” songs you have.

profile

If it sounds a lot like Pandora up to now, this is where it really takes off.  First, Last.fm is much more user-friendly and user-fueled than Pandora is.  Users are much more interactive, thanks to things like tagging artists and songs, voting on band photos and analyzing friends listening compatibility.  Sure, knowing who listens to the same music as you isn’t a huge deal.  But it is cool.  Take Lucy, a local friend who is a Last.fm junkie.  Upon adding her as a friend, I saw this:

lovesongssuck

Incredibly useful?  Maybe not.  But still neat.

If you’re not sold just yet, I’ve saved the best for last.  Thanks to my friend (and past guest blogger) Jimmy,  I’m now scrobbling.  With a few clicks and a little piece of software, you can start scrobbling too.

Scrobbling is what makes Last.fm so great.  Basically, it crawls through your iTunes library (or Windows Media Player library) and your iPod to gather information on your listening habits.  Check out a list of supported devices here.  Once completed, it adds this information to your online Last.fm account.  It’s a great way for new users to quickly build a large library.  If you use the Audioscrobbling software, you can synchronize your listening with your account automatically, so as you listen your songs are displayed in your online account and immediately added to your library.

To sum up, you should try it.  It’s real swell.  Check out a few more screenshots below or get up some courage and dive right in.

library audioscrobbling

Listen to the (Google) Voice In Your Head

google_voice

It’s easy to get lost in all the buzz over Google’s latest babies – Voice and Wave.  Both are generating a lot of attention among bloggers and tech-enthusiasts, even though each service is still only available by invitation.

I have been invited to use both, and for the past week or two I have been trying them out.  Here are my thoughts about Google Voice:  I love it.

That was easy.  Over the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try and convince you why you should, too.  Before that, however, it’s probably good to do a quick overview.  If you aren’t familiar with Voice, it’s essentially a service to manage your current phone system.  No matter how many phone numbers you have (work, home, mobile, etc), Google Voice can help you manage them efficiently.

Can I have yo’ numba?

When you first sign up for Voice, you’ll have to pick your phone number.  That’s right – Google Voice gives you a new number.  Don’t worry, your old number will still work as Voice simply forwards calls to your phone.  For me, picking a number was the fun part.  Not only do you get to choose from a list of available numbers, but you can search for number or letter combinations for convenience.

As far as setting up, that’s about it.  You’ll customize a few settings before getting started and then you land on your Voice page.  Ah, the beauty.  All of your Voicemails, Contacts, and SMS messages stored in one location, in an interface similar to Gmail.

Read the rest of this entry »

Get More Traffic with Su.pr!

For the past few days, I’ve been trying out Su.pr – the new URL shortener from StumbleUpon.  When I first heard StumbleUpon released a link shortener, I couldn’t care less.  Honestly.  I’m really, really happy with bit.ly – why change?

This is why:

supr

Now, the click counts aren’t all that impressive – I generally get between 20-40 clicks per link I post to Twitter.  The important number is what’s in the little blue box.  This, my friend, is the number of people who viewed your link through StumbleUpon.  See, when you shorten a URL using Su.pr, you have the option to “Thumbs Up” your link by reviewing, categorizing, and ensuring that it’s family friendly.  Once that’s done, it’s ready to be stumbled and is made available to other StumbleUpon users.

So the obvious reason for using su.pr is more traffic.  In the past 3 days alone I’ve received a few hundred StumbleUpon views from the few links I’ve posted.  For a small, part-time blogger, this is a big deal.

Apart from that, Su.pr offers some other great tools for link management.

Thumbnail Previews

Sure, it’s not all that useful, but I like it.  It let’s me know at a glance whether or not my link has been reviewed and it lets me know what I’m clicking on without reading the title.  This sounds incredibly lazy, but…well…yeah, it’s lazy.  But I like it.

Statistics

Su.pr offers a variety of statistics – retweets, reviews, stumbles and clicks.  They also offer the option to download your link statistics in CSV form.

Post to Twitter, Facebook

Like bit.ly, Su.pr offers the option of posting your link to Twitter, along with your message.  However, Su.pr also allows you to post to Facebook – or both!  On top of that, it allows for scheduled updates (like HootSuite).

2009-10-13_2334

Promoted Websites

Once you add your domains to your Su.pr settings, you will start to see click report graphs in your sidebar.  This is useful because it shows your most popular websites and posting times at a glance.

Suggested Posting Times

Su.pr analyzes your updates and link counts to provide you with a nice visual graph of the best times to post.  For me, I tend to drive more traffic in the early morning.

2009-10-13_2331

DNC, RNC Website Review

As a rule, I do not discuss politics on this website.  I have several reasons for this, the most selfish being simply that when people hear me rant and rave about – well, anything really – they tend to not listen to anything else I have to say.  I hope that some of the information I post here might be helpful to someone, and I don’t want my own personal beliefs to jeopardize that.

However, I watched a video the other day that inspired me to do a comparison of the Democratic and Republican party websites.  While the video is certainly biased, it had very good points about the importance of imagery and media in today’s world – especially in regard to politics.  Let’s face it – it’s 2009.  Any popular party, organization, service or group should have a good website.  It’s amazing how often large organizations look over design and content structure when building their site.

And so, without further introduction, here is my (unbiased, I hope) review of the Democratic and Republican National Committee websites.

dncrnc

Above are screenshots of both the DNC and RNC websites.  Right off the bat, you will notice a few things.  The layouts themselves are actually very similar – suspiciously, even (note the 2-column portion beneath the left-aligned main image).  Both sites use very patriotic colors and graphics.  You will also notice that the “Contribute” button on the DNC site is bright red – immediately drawing your attention to donate money to the party.  While it’s not overwhelming, it certainly is one of the first things you notice.

The very next thing I saw was the header.  Both sites use left-aligned header text.  However, the RNC simply displays “GOP.com”, while the DNC reads “The Democratic Party”.  Now chances are if you’re going to the site, you know what the GOP is, and what it stands for.  The point of a site header, however, is to tell the reader where they are and what they are reading.

One of the biggest differences in the two sites is the emphasis on social media.  Both sites link to the main networks, though the delivery is completely different.  The DNC uses classy (but cool) image links and rollover color effects, while the RNC only lists the 3 main sites using very basic, somewhat fuzzy images and no rollover effects.

dnc_social

rnc_social

Another major difference is the background image.  The RNC website uses a very plain 2 colored background image, while the DNC site has a snazzy star background, which gives the impression that the stars are flying out of the site’s main content.

I discovered my biggest disappointment with the RNC website when I clicked on any of the only three navigation options.  Each one opened into a completely different design – new colors, a different header – new EVERYTHING!  In fact, the blog page simply looks like a WordPress theme gone terribly wrong.  Consistency between contained material is fundamental to web design.  Not just good web design – basic design.

rnc_content_pages

There are a few other small things that really bug me.  For instance, favicons.  I am a big believer that every website created should have some sort of favicon – no matter how basic (just look at the DNC’s).  More and more people are learning how to add shortcuts to make their web browsing more efficient, and favicons are used for Chrome application shortcuts, etc.  The point is, your site needs one.  And the RNC doesn’t have one.

In the same manor, the page title of the DNC site (“The Democratic Party”) is much shorter than the RNC (“GOP.com Republican National Committee”).  This means that in a normal tab, half of the RNC title is hidden.  Again, not a huge deal, but remember, it’s the details that take a site from decent to great (as our friend @squaredeye taught us).

I do like the rotating images and site articles on the main page of the RNC website (though sharper images and neater header text would be nice).  However, adding a margin of 10 or 15 pixels to the bottom would make the 2 button links below stand out a lot more and would present a far less cluttered site.

On a final review note, I’d like to say that using offensive language on any website should be done very carefully.  There are times when it is absolutely appropriate.  However, calling the Democratic Party blog “Kicking Ass” might not be the best idea.

It hurt me a little to write this post.  You see, I’m conservative.  The only reason I say this, of course, is because I just wrote a very negative review of the Republican National Committee’s websites.  I want to make it clear that this is solely based off of design.  Don’t believe me?  Take a gander.

Now, to be fair, the DNC website isn’t all that great either.  It has a lot of elements that could be better, though it is leaps and bounds greater than it’s counterpart.  I suppose my point in writing this post is simply to show how important it is to put time, energy, and (get ready) – money – into good design.  It can go a long way in making a great first impression, which (especially in this society) may be all you get.

Goodbye Firefox, Hello Google Chrome

As a raving Firefox fan for years, I can’t believe I’m writing this post. My love for all Mozilla products has always been because they “just work”. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case for me.

Over the past week, Firefox has been acting up – mainly sluggish page loads and running processes, even after the browser has been closed. Basically, this just means that I can’t run Firefox again until I end the process in Task Manager.

Google Chrome has been my #2 browser for several months, so I decided to give it a try. Within a day of serious use, I’m sold. As I posted earlier, Google is planning an entire OS built on the Chrome idea – browser/desktop integration. Chrome makes a great start with my current favorite feature – application shortcuts.

Take any website you visit, add an application shortcut, and you’ve now got a shortcut right on your desktop. Clicking this will open your page in a special Chrome page that’s set apart from normal browsing. This way, you can essentially add shortcuts to your favorite sites, saving a few steps if you just want to check your Gmail, Facebook or Twitter (or your Joupes account!).

google chrome application shortcuts

JavaScript effects and plugins (like LightBox) are faster in Chrome than any other browser I’ve used. Page surfing is smooth and fast-loading. Despite it’s limited customization, Chrome looks good and the lack of buttons works to its advantage by freeing up lots of real estate. Other little design features like the downloads section, highlighted entry text boxes and “Most Visited” (much like the Fast Dial plugin for Firefox) links are icing on the cake.

google chrome downloads

Well done, Google. You’ve won me over. I look forward to you doing the same thing when Google Chrome OS comes out.

Of iPhones and Gnomes…

Big Prize. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, there’s a good chance you’re somewhat familiar with the name. Whether you check the fan page every hour, are constantly confused by the odd little sayings your friends write on their wall, or your Twitter homepage is sprinkled with #moonfruit tweets – you’ve seen the name.

BigPrize

In less than two weeks, and with over 140,000 fans at last check, Big Prize is taking over – by giving stuff away!  The people at Big Prize seem to understand something very basic to human nature – we like free stuff.  Want to attract a lot of people?  Give them really expensive things…for free.

Now, as with every “free giveaway” program, Big Prize has raised plenty of skepticism, especially after the consecutive winnings of Ben Scott.  Ben was one of the people I got to talk with, and he has a very interesting story about Big Prize.  Ben actually won 4 different prizes – 3 t-shirts and an iPod Touch.  While a lot of people posted some pretty rude things about him, he won it all fair and square, simply tweeting responses when he received Twitter SMS updates.  That’s not good enough for some people, and Ben gave up 2 of his shirts to calm the storm of people essentially angry over the fact that they didn’t win.

To be fair to those truly wary, I was also a tad hesitant at first.  However, after doing a little reading, tweeting, Facebook stalking (and discovering that it’s sponsored by Startlike), I was (and am) sold.  So how can someone just give away iPhones, MacBooks and golf clubs?  The answer is pretty straight forward, and involves something my mom has hounded me about for years – budgeting.

As with any company, Startlike has a marketing budget.  This is how they can give away awesome little freebies that we all love so much like t-shirts and koozies (honestly, what is it about free shirts that makes us salivate?).  It’s also how they can afford to chuck out more iPhones than self-taken mirror shots on an middle schoolers Facebook.  Which do you think is more effective – banner ads, pens, and rubber key chains or TaylorMade drivers, iPhones, and MacBooks?

As Michael Scott (Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. in Scranton, PA) has taught us, this is what’s called a “win-win-win”.  Big Prize experiences an exponential growth of fans (hopefully attracting partners), Startlike gets more attention, and all the fans and Twitter followers get the opportunity to win stuff.  Viral marketing at its finest, in my opinion.  Traffic, fans, and interest grows through Facebook “word-of-mouth”, with minimal-to-no direct advertising.

Ok, so all that’s fine and dandy – but why do you care?  As the end consumer, you just want to know that you aren’t getting scammed.  That’s where I come in.  Over the past few days, I’ve been gathering interviews from a few people who have been Big Prize winners.  Everyone I talked to was happy to answer my questions – I guess free iPhones tend to put people in a good mood.

Now, as Facebook is geared towards sharing information with friends, most people I talked with found Big Prize through the wall posts of friends or direct referrals.  Michelle Cramer, however, saw something about it on her Startlike homepage.  A few days ago, I wrote a post about how much I enjoy my own Startlike homepage, and it’s neat to see a winner who uses it on a regular basis.

Basically, though, I just wanted to find out if winners actually got their prizes, and if they got them quickly.  My answer:  a resounding double yes.  Everyone I talked with had great communication with Big Prize, and they received their prizes about a week after winning.

“They were really quick about it, within a week I got it.” – Binal Patel

“They told me on June 29th or 30th I would get the gift card . . . on July 8th. I got it on July 2nd.” – Benjamen Scott

“The prize . . . arrived by postal mail the following week. No muss, no fuss.” – Eric Alderman

“I received my [prize] about a week after winning it, which in my opinion is pretty quick!” – Michelle Cramer

So, after speaking to 4 completely satisfied winners, I can safely say that yes, Big Prize is giving things away – no scams, no ploys.  “No muss, no fuss.”

Now, explaining why I’m a Big Prize fan is like trying to explain to my best friend Daniel (a Celtics fan) why I’ve been a die-hard Laker for 11 years – they’re the best program in the league, backed by some terrific players (in Big Prize’s case, Startlike), and Kobe Bryant is the finest example of hard work, dedication, and fundamental perfection the NBA has to offer.  Ok, so that last one didn’t really apply at all, but it’s my blog.

Show me another company that can give away thousands of dollars in free stuff, carry on great personal customer relations, generate thousands and thousands of Facebook fans in a few days, and represent themselves with a gnome.  In the meantime, my computer’s broken, and I could really use a MacBook – so excuse me while I keep playing.

Thoughts on Palm Pre (AKA, “iPhone Killer”)

As is the nature of Palm, simple design flaws keep this device from being anything close to an iPhone killer.  Let’s face it – a large part of the reason the iPhone is so big is because it looks good, and it’s easy to use (but mostly because it looks good).

OK, so what’s right with the Pre?  In terms of software, almost everything.  It looks as if Palm has FINALLY gotten a modern look for their OS.  In other words, it looks good – really good.  In a lot of ways, it looks a lot better than the iPhone software.  It is apparently Linux-based, and debutes a new operating system called webOS.  Basically, it works with different social networking, email, and web sites to make your life easier.  That sounds stupid, but that’s what it does – web searching, organizing, etc is much easier with the Pre than other smartphones.

Obviously, the phone is touchscreen, and many iPhone-like guestures and icons are used for navigation.  The display looks good for the most part, yet the screen is a little small and doesn’t look as flat as the iPhone’s.  The phone can, however, run multiple applications at the same time, using what seems like multiple workstations (like the multiple desktops in popular Linux distributions) for organization.

My real problem, however, is the slide out keyboard.  First of all, you cannot have a slide ANYTHING on a phone that’s considered to be an iPhone killer.  Part of the appeal of Apple’s smartphone is that it’s heavy duty – it’s metal, solid, and simple.  The Pre is plastic, it slides, and it’s more complex (read: cheap) looking.  Second, the keyboard is tiny.  And it doesn’t appear to be very raised.

All in all, Palm’s got a lot of work to do.  A bigger screen, an alternative to the small plastic keyboard and metal encasing would be a good start.

Facebook 1.5 for BlackBerry

A few days ago, I upgraded all the software and apps on my Blackberry Curve. It actually didn’t take as long as I thought it would, even though it backed up, wiped, and restored everything on the device. Apart from some great changes in the main software (and the addition of a video camera), it updated the Facebook for BlackBerry application to version 1.5.

While I’ve had this app for sometime, I don’t use it that much – I find it easier to simply go to the mobile web version, which lets me see messages, wall posts, and notifications easier.  However, the new version has several great features that make it worth while.

First, contact synchronization.  Simply put, the app synchronizes contacts in your phone with your friends.  If a number matches a friends number online, it will add a “Facebook Name:” field to the Address Book, and randomly sync their profile picture to your phone for caller ID.

Second, phone notifications.  Just like when you have a missed call or receive a text message, you now get a Facebook icon and message number when you receive messages, notifications, etc.  Even better, the notifications and messages are sorted with your texts and emails for convenience.

Lastly (at least for this post), the addition (and ease) of “Send to Facebook” buttons.  For instance, when you snap a picture with your phone, you can send it to Facebook with the click of a button.  The uploader doesn’t seem as bulky as other application uploaders.

Mobile Twitter (It’s Better Than You Think)

Until recently, I’ve used SMS (text messaging) for updating my Twitter while out and about, and then I’d use either Twitter.com or TweetDeck to read, respond, and update while at home. The problem, however, was that I’d miss out on lots of tweets – which isn’t a big deal (I’m not interested in reading everything) except in times when I really need a quick response, game score, etc.

Enter TwitterBerry, “the” Blackberry Twitter client. It’s free, works great, and is customizable in terms of data connection and syncing. Basically, you have several different screens you can rotate through (Your Timeline, Friends Timeline, Update, etc). It’s easy to favorite and reply to tweets, as well as direct message your friends.

Now, you may think that you don’t want another application that is constantly connecting, depleting your battery juice, and alerting you every 5 seconds. TwitterBerry is very customizable, it only connects when you have it set to, and it has its own sound preferences so you don’t have to get notified every time you get more tweets.

I’ve really enjoyed using it so far. I don’t have cable, and I’ve been doing lots of stuff with family or friends while the NBA Playoffs have been on (I’m a HUGE NBA fan). However, I’ve been able to keep constantly updated live through TwitterBerry with scores, big plays, and commentary by other loyal fans.

TwitterBerry

Also, quick shoutout to @KateSpaeder, @TheNoLookPass, and @lakersnation for keeping me updated on my Lakers throughout the playoffs in times when I haven’t had a TV.

7 Online Photo Editing Tools

  1. Pixlr

  2. Pixlr feels like a desktop application – the menu is laid out much like GIMP or Photoshop. Unlike a few other of these sites, you can create an image from scratch as well as upload from your computer or pull an image from another website. You can also open several images in different mini-windows inside Pixlr.

  3. Flauntr

  4. Flauntr is interesting in that it has 5 different services for editing pictures: stylR, printR, editR, picasR, and textR. Flauntr is also the only one of these sites that you must register with before using. It is heavily Flash based, and can be slow to load at times – but once up and running, it looks fantastic.

  5. Picnik

  6. Picnik is possibly the most well known image editor of the lot – largely due to the Facebook application. The initial load time can be annoying, but once you’re finally at the editor, it’s not bad (not to mention very simple). It’s probably the least powerful of the bunch, but that’s because it’s for quick fixing – cropping, colorizing, resizing, rotating, etc.

  7. SumoPaint

  8. SumoPaint is another editor that’s laid out a lot like desktop applications. It will open in its own window, which is probably a good thing because it’s such a big web application. SumoPaint automatically starts with a blank image, a toolbox, color picker, and layer dialog. I would almost argue that it’s a little bit better than GIMP in some ways – like the brushes. Take the default “dry brush” for example. Dry brush looks and feels…well, “cool”. I’ve never seen anything like it in an image editor/creator.

  9. Pixenate

  10. While Pixenate is definitely the least flashy of the bunch, it’s a good, albeit simple, editor. Pages and photos load fast, but ads are very annoying – and they can be overwhelming depending on the size of your image. Use Pixenate for quick, simple photo editing (like teeth whitening, cropping, or resizing) – other than that, try something a little more powerful.

  11. FotoFlexer

  12. FotoFlexer has some neat tools that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Take, for example, the oddly awesome Distort effects like “Bulge” and “Pinch”. While I usually can’t stand these type effects on actual images (like the thousands of distorted faces you see on Facebook profile pictures), it’s pretty neat to play around with on an image logo. FotoFlexer makes it easy, too, and let’s you customize size of distortion and strength.

  13. TiltShift

  14. TiltShift is my new favorite. It’s simple, fast loading, and easy to use. Simply upload pictures and start playing around with the few effects (at least that’s what I do). While TiltShift doesn’t allow things like drawing on the image, resizing, cropping, or anything like that, it’s the best for playing with color, blurring, brightness, etc. The coolest thing is called “center radius”. You can choose where on the image you want the center to be, then choose a size. This allows you to have a focus – then possibly blur the outside of the photo.