Heading into Summer

Summer: a time to simplify and de-stress. The tech world has been in a brief lull as we await new iPhones and Ipads and Microsoft's user-demanded revisions to Windows 8. (Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S4 launched, and it's a great phone, but not a huge leap from the S3).  Below, a few odds and ends worth mentioning in the meantime.

Unpredictable weather is more fun to track with the Yahoo! weather app (free). It doesn't do anything unusual, but it's visually delightful; the background photo changes to represent the current weather and location.

Getting There
For many people, summertime brings a change of scene: the country, the beach, a lake.  Nothing ruins a weekend like travel delays, but Metro-North, the LIRR, and NJ Transit all offer online schedules, apps, maps, and service change alerts.  No smartphone? Many services are available by text message.

Driving? (Shudder)
Google maps is coming out with a new version, but even the old one can give traffic conditions and voice navigation along the way. With a windshield mount, your smartphone can replace a GPS—one less device to drag along, no map updates—but it uses power like crazy so don’t forget a car charger.  No service on the road? Plan ahead and download offline maps for your iPad or Android tablet--free.

When the traffic's bad (and when isn't it?), the Waze app ingeniously aggregates live data from users' smartphones to track traffic, accidents and speed traps in real time.

. . .And having what you need when you arrive

Ever forgotten a file or a list you wanted? I use Dropbox to store everything I might need with me, from photos to marketing lists to drafts of this email.  They sync effortlessly among computers, phones and tablets, so I never worry about having the latest version of something.  Free for up to 2GB of data (more if you refer people, as we just did). 

It’s great to have access to email, contacts and calendars whenever and wherever you need it, but it can be tricky to get it all working properly. Setting up Gmail with an iPhone or iPad (the most common request we get) only seems easy; if you’re not careful you can end up with a mess of crucial information split up in different places, and no easy way to recombine it. This terrific article  spells out how to set up Gmail with an iOS device. (Hint: the Apple store will not do this correctly).

Both kinds of green

Always happy to eliminate errands, I love the ability to send money to a friend by email (most banks now offer this service, as do Google, PayPal and soon Square), or to deposit checks from a smartphone: you just open the bank’s app, snap photos of the front and back of the check, and the bank confirms by email. Availability and rules vary by bank.  Now if only we could print cash. . .

Electric bills spike in air conditioning weather, and I'd so much rather spend the money on ice cream. Our electric rates are among the highest in the country, so isn't it silly to heat and cool your rooms at the same time? If you still use incandescent light bulbs, that’s exactly what you’re doing; up to 90% of the electricity they use creates heat, not light.  Unfortunately, the ugly light of CFL’s and the high cost of LED bulbs discouraged many people who tried switching, but improvements and price drops mean it's time to try again. Yes, LED bulbs are still pricey, but they are so much cheaper to run that the payback period can be months, and then you save money for years (simple calculator here; our rates average 20 cents/kWh). Here are lightbulb shopping tips from the NY Times and Consumer Reports.

You might also save money by switching to variable-rate time-of-day electric metering; Con Ed has a simple quiz here to help you decide.

Finally, one of the drawbacks of technology is the amount of waste it generates. If you've been trashing old CD's and DVD's, no more! The city's new plastic recycling rules cover them (and yogurt cups, pre-bathing-suit season).