Sep 29, 2011

Learn the Prime Numbers the Fun Way on Your iOS Device

I don't often write about games because, after all, this is Practical iStuff.  However, learning is always a practical thing and there are a lot of games out there that are designed to educate you rather than simply provide you with the satisfaction of knocking off a few green pigs with some angry avians.  (You could make the argument that Angry Birds teaches you physics but that might be a stretch.)

Not all of the education games out there are both worthwhile and well-designed. However, I caught a an app called Factor Samurai for the iPhone and iPad on sale for free and decided to try it.  It's clearly patterned after Fruit Ninja in the sense that you are slicing things with a sword but it's rather well done.

Sep 27, 2011

Better HDR on the iPhone

The iPhone 4 has a camera app that will create HDR photos automatically for you when you snap a picture.  The iPhone's HDR feature takes two pictures at different exposures then combines them, often into a better picture than you can take with any single picture.  An HDR picture taken with the camera app will make both bright areas and dark areas of a photo stand out. However, you can create a much more artistic HDR photo if you simply move beyond the camera app to an app that is dedicated to taking HDR photos.

The pictures I took for this post were taken with Pro HDR for the iPhone.  Not only does this app give your photos a richer appearance it even gives you the ability to tweak brightness, saturation, warmth, tint, etc. It's definitely a great option if all you have is an iPhone 3G because you don't have HDR with the built-in camera app unless you have an iPhone 4.  It actually even works with the iPad.

Sep 23, 2011

Listening to AudioBooks on Your iPhone and Where to Get Them Free

I may be a little ADD.  I have a hard time focusing on long books but I love to listen to Audiobooks, especially when doing tedious things like mowing the lawn or driving a long distance.  In fact, listening to an Audiobook or something interesting keeps my mind engaged and awake when driving. I always have my iPhone with me and it's a great tool, because of its size, for listening to these.

Sep 15, 2011

Listen to Police, Fire, and Emergency Radio on Your iPhone

If you like to listen to police, fire, or EMS radio, you used to have to buy a scanner. You can easily pay $100 or more for one of these. However, many of these stations are also streamed over the internet, which is OK if you are at home.  If you are out and about and are trying to find out why there are three fire trucks and a police car near your favorite store, you need something more portable.

This is where scanner apps such as Scanner 911 for the iPhone come in.  It gives you a directory, by state, of police, fire, and EMS radio stations.  It also has airport control tower radio and a number of amateur radio stations. Scanner 911 even has a handy reference list of codes typically used by police and emergency workers so that you can understand what is being said.

I found Scanner 911 useful during recent flooding due to Tropical Storm Lee, listening to where people were having to be rescued after going into too-deep water.  It definitely convinced me not to venture out.

Sep 13, 2011

Fantasy Football: What You Can Do on Your iPhone and Why

One of the great things about football season, besides the imminent cooler weather and the excitement of watching football, is getting to play fantasy football with friends.  In the old days, that was too much work for me to enjoy, but now with a multitude of web sites handling the scoring, your team management, etc., it's a lot of fun and a whole lot less work.  However, when web sites began to keep track of your team and your scores, participating in fantasy football still involved getting in front of a computer to set your line-up, add or drop players, and check your scores.  At least that was the case until until the smart phone.

Now there are apps for all the major fantasy football outlets:
  1. Yahoo! Fantasy Football '11
  2. ESPN Fantasy Football 2011
  3. NFL Fantasy Football 2011
  4. Fanstasy Football Monster '11 - If you are in more than one of these leagues, this is the one to get.

Sep 6, 2011

"Envelope" Budgeting on the iPhone

I really like Mint, especially the Mint iPhone app. It's traditional budgeting software that allows you to set monthly spending limits and alerts you when you go over them. (The iPhone app is nice for the alerts.) The web site and the iPhone app are both well designed and powerful.

The problem with Mint is the problem with traditional budgeting software; it's reactive instead of proactive. Whenever I asked myself "how much money do we have for, for example, landscaping?", it was never easy to tell. I could tell how much I had spent on landscaping and what my monthly budget limit is for landscaping but not how much is available. I needed something akin to envelope budgeting, where I could set money aside every month for what I planned on spending, and that money could carry over to the next month if I didn't use it all. This method is actually the simplest and makes it the easiest to understand your financial shape with less surprises. It is the equivalent of giving every dollar a purpose before its spent.

I had used Mvelopes at one time, before they had an iPhone app. It uses envelope budgeting but I can't recommend it. It's clunky flash interface has been slow and buggy. In fact, not realizing all my options, I signed in and tried to launch it and all I got was a "General Error" page. They didn't want my money, I suppose.

In the process of searching I found a program called MoneyWell in the Mac app store. It had good reviews and met my requirement of having an iPhone companion app. I bought both apps (still less than the price of a year of Mvelopes) and haven't regretted my purchase. MoneyWell takes the envelope budgeting concept and implements it well. It uses the concept of "buckets" instead of envelopes. After you are paid, you fill up each bucket with money from your paycheck and then pay for things out of it throughout the pay period. If you come up short in one bucket, you can move money from another bucket, forcing you to make a deliberate choice, rather than simply overspending and hoping "it all works out".

The Mac app will download transactions from a large number of financial institutions with very little effort. If you have a smaller bank or credit union, like I do, and it's not on the list, you can import OFX or QIF files that you download from your bank's web site. This was easier than I thought it would be. You can set up "favorites" that allow you to automatically pull money from a certain bucket for a certain payee. This allows me to skip categorizing Publix as "Food" for example. It just automatically pulls the money for Publix from my Food bucket.

The MoneyWell app for the iPhone gives you your bucket balances on the go and let's you even enter manual transactions on the go that you can reconcile to your bank later. I have chosen the route of simply downloading the transactions instead of manually entering and reconciling for time's sake. MoneyWell syncs with the Mac app but you have to have your Mac and your iPhone on the same network to do that (which generally means being at home when you sync.)

So far, with MoneyWell, I feel like I have a better understanding of my financial situation than I ever did with Mint. Although I prefer something web-based like Mint, MoneyWell is better meeting my needs to get a hold of my finances rather than simply react to overspending. I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, MoneyWell's desktop app is only available for Mac so, if you have Windows, you'll have to choose something else, such as You Need a Budget (which also has an iPhone app).