Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jasia’s Technology Review for 2011

Let me begin by saying that this tech review is being done with genealogy-tinted glasses. Which means that when I speak of my most used or favorite devices/features/apps/software it is with genealogy in mind. And, right off the bat I’ll add that I own/subscribe to all the technology I’m reviewing, I’ve purchased it myself or it was a personal gift from a family member, and I’ve not been compensated by the companies that made/created/designed/hosted it with one exception noted below. (*)

This is some of the technology I’m using this year...

Cell Phone
I have had an HTC Evo, running Android (via Sprint), since last summer. It’s a great device with a phone, a large-for-a-phone screen, a fine 8mpx camera, and many great (mostly free!) apps.
What I like most: The large screen. This feature makes visiting genealogy websites on the fly very doable, viewing photos delightful, and the touch-gesture interface a pleasure to use.
The Downside: It’s a 4G phone but Sprint still doesn’t provide 4G service here in the Metro-Detroit area.
Grade: A- (because of the lack of 4G service)

Cell Phone Apps
The apps I most often use for genealogy purposes on my Evo are Find A Grave (free) + ShootMe (free), and Compass (free) + Catch (free).

The Find A Grave app accesses the FindAGrave.com web site and allows me to search for graves. I’m surprised how often I use this little app to search for family gravesites... standing in line somewhere, waiting in the car, etc. To make it even better, I launch ShootMe (a screen capture app) first and then if I find a record of interest all I have to do is give my phone a shake and it grabs a screen shot. When I’m done searching FindAGrave.com I can go to my phone’s Gallery to view my screen shots and send them to Dropbox, Catch, Evernote, FB, Flickr, Picasa, Twitter, or email them to myself. Very cool.
What I like most: Both Find A Grave and ShootMe are easy to use and free!
The Downside: It would be nice if I could send a Find A Grave record to myself as text via email.
Find A Grave Grade: A- (because I can’t send a record as text via email)
ShootMe Grade: A

The Compass app is handy for taking pictures at cemeteries or historic sites and noting the GPS locations. I like to enter the GPS coordinates of graves I visit only occasionally (because I sometimes forget where they are in big cemeteries). I use the Compass app to note the location when I’m standing graveside and then I’ll take a picture and make a note which then will get uploaded via the Catch app. I can then retrieve my info by launching the Catch app on my phone or access it via Catch’s web site (catch.com) where it’s automatically uploaded to. Saweeet!
What I like most: Both Compass and Catch are easy to use and free!
The Downside: None that I can think of.
Compass Grade: A
Catch Grade: A

I love my iPad 2. But it’s not my device of choice for much of anything related to genealogy. It’s great for email. When it comes to web browsing, it’s not so great. I find its lack of ability to deal with Flash to be a major inconvenience.

I have problems viewing PDFs too. Check out the way these pages from a newsletter are rendered. (Click to view larger)

There is a work around for this by reassembling the PDF in Adobe Acrobat software, but do I really want to go through that every time this issue arises? No.

I can save images to the iPad when I’m using it on site somewhere but when I get home and I want to transfer those images to my desktop computer I have 2 choices; use technology from the last decade... tethering, or send each image to myself via email, one by one. Having to go through iTunes to transfer files is such an inconvenience for me I don’t even bother doing it. And I don’t have time to sit around waiting for image after image to upload. The built in camera that comes with it, fuhgeddaboudit! It’s too low res to be useful. And if I want to print out a family group sheet? Fuhgeddabouddat too! Even though my new-last-Christmas printer/scanner allows you to print to it from anywhere via WiFi, guess what? Apple didn’t put the technology in the iPad to allow it to do so. But wait... aren’t there apps to do just about everything on the iPad? Maybe there are, but since there is no trial period before getting billed through the Apple app store I’m not inclined to go around trying out apps and wracking up my charge bill to see if they’ll work for what I want to do.

I know what you’re thinking right now, “Didn’t she start out saying she loved her iPad?”

I do love my iPad but it’s a poor substitute for a computer. It is however, a good substitute for an iPod Touch. It has a wonderful screen, the gesture based GUI is terrific, it’s very lightweight and well balanced, and the battery life is simply fantastic. It plays downloaded music and videos very well. It’s great for streaming movies from Netflix and songs from Pandora. I’ve done some ebook reading on it and it’s pretty good darn good at that too. It connects quickly and easily to every public WiFi connection I’ve come across. What else can I say? It’s a great entertainment device! Uber cool!
What I like most: Long battery life, beautiful screen, lightweight.
The Downside: Can’t view Flash websites, PDFs are a problem, tethering is a pain.
Grade: C- (I have to take off one full letter grade for the lack of Flash and another for the necessity to tether through my computer and iTunes. Those are two major faults. Problems viewing PDFs will cost the iPad another half point.)

iPad Apps
I have one specific iPad genealogy app and that is Families, which I purchased though the Apple app store for $14.99. I bought it because it will preview a Legacy Family Tree file, which is one of the genealogy software programs I use. Families is OK. Just OK. I’m not fond of the cold look of the program interface (gray and white backgrounds with red, blue, and black text... no other options) but it does display the information I require. The biggest disappointment with this app though is having to use a website to convert my Legacy Family Tree file before it can then be uploaded (via tethering on iTunes) to my iPad. Every time I update a family file, I have to go through the convert and upload process again. :-( Consequently, the family files on my iPad are rarely current.
What I like most: It displays my genealogy information accurately.
The Downside: File conversion/tethering, austere/cold GUI. Can’t print or share from it.
Grade: B- (Took off one full letter grade for the need to convert and tether and another half grade for the cold look and lack of sharing.)

I have and use both Legacy Family Tree 7.5 and RootsMagic 4 genealogy database programs. I run both on my desktop but just Legacy on my laptop. I like both programs.

I’m more comfortable with Legacy since I’ve been using it longer but I’m getting more comfortable with RootsMagic the more I use it. I have 2 programs because they each offer different features that I value. However, either one would quickly take over as my program of choice, my ONLY program, if they offered companion apps for the iPad and the Android platforms.

What I’d like to see is apps that run the Legacy and/or RootsMagic files without having to convert them and transfer via tethering and iTunes. I have my Legacy datafiles saved in Dropbox and it’s ever so convenient for me to go from my desktop computer to my laptop computer and find current data files for my genealogy when I launch my Legacy software. And the best part is I never have to transfer files between the two computers. It’s that kind of convenience I’m looking for with my cell phone and iPad. I’d really like to see apps created and managed by the respective software companies that will run their native files without the need to convert, tether, and sync via iTunes.
What I like most: Both Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic are good full-featured programs.
The Downside: I can’t access my Legacy or RootsMagic files via my iPad or my Android phone.
Grade (for both): B (I have to take a full letter grade off for the lack of apps.)

(*) My husband works for Canon but the company does not sponsor any of my blogs or compensate me in any way for reviewing their products.
I have 3 Canon cameras, a point and shoot, a DSLR, and one I refer to as “Tweener” because it’s between the other two in features, size, and price. When it comes to genealogy, I use all three cameras depending on the situation. If I’m capturing an image of a record on microfilm at my local FHC, I prefer to use Tweener. It’s lighter to hold and balance than the DSLR but has a better lens and more megapixels than the point and shoot. If I’m shooting a photo of an image or document (which I’m doing more and more these days as it’s much quicker than scanning), I prefer my DLSR. It has all the control I need to get a crisp, clear shot and it has lots of megapixels. My point and shoot is invaluable when I’m on the go. I don’t always think to grab one of my better cameras when I’m walking out the door and the point and shoot is always in my purse. “The best camera for any given shot is the one you have with you.” The advancements in point and shoot cameras has been phenomenal and I can get some darn impressive photos from that little one, video too!

I’m not going to do a review of all three cameras here because that’s a whole blog post series of its own. Cameras are a personal thing and features that one person values will be lost on another.
What I like most: Quality images from all three cameras.
The Downside: Price. It would be nice to be able to do everything conveniently and well from one camera.
Grade: A- (My Canon cameras are wonderful but there’s always room for improvement in features.)

My favorite and most used web site at the moment is FamilySearch.org. I really, really like the direction this project is going.

I only wish record collections would be uploaded more quickly. I don’t much care if the records from Poland I want to access are indexed or not. They weren’t indexed when I viewed them on microfilm and I managed just fine. I have put somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 films on indefinite status at my local FHC ($300-$400) and I’d like to have access to about that many more films. The problem is, the microfilm readers at my local FHC are the worst ever. They absolutely rank as the lowest, worst technology that I have to use to do my genealogy research. I’m not going to go on and on about the details but believe me, they are BAD. I will always be grateful to the LDS for all that they’ve done to obtain the images of records for my ancestral villages. But my research is at a standstill right now until additional record collections for my ancestral villages in Poland get uploaded to their website. My eyes and my back just can’t take the strain involved in sitting at those awful microfilm machines for hours on end anymore.
What I like most: Comfortable, convenient access to local (Michigan) records from the comfort of my home on the FamilySearch.org website.
The Downside: The records I need access to (from Poland) aren’t available at FamilySearch.org at the present time.
Grade: B (I have to take off a full letter grade for not having the records for Poland that I need.)

My next favorite website would have to be Google Translate.

I continue to use this technology to translate Polish language websites which allows me to learn more and more about the history of Poland and its people.
What I like most: I like that Google Translate will automatically translate any Polish language web site I visit.
The Downside: Translations aren’t perfect. In fact, sometimes they are downright comical.
Grade: B+ (I have to subtract for the erroneous translations that sometimes occur.)

So there you have it, my technology review for 2011. I love my tech toys and all they can do to help me with my genealogy research. Which one is my favorite? Which ever one I'm using at any given moment in time, lol! I look forward to seeing more and better technology in the months to come!