“Must Have” apps for BlackBerry Torch

I’m about to trade in my BlackBerry Torch 9800 for a couple of HTC EVO devices from Sprint. The job I’m moving to, while still a BlackBerry shop, does not provide them for my position (yet…).

But I’ve been refining my collection of BlackBerry apps for a while now. Mostly with my Bold 9000 but these apps have served me well on the Torch for the brief time that I’ve enjoyed using it.

As you check out the list below, remember that my BlackBerry device is primarily a business tool needed for communicating day-to-day support issues plus nightly oncall support notifications. So it needs to be available for all this – sometimes 24 x 7 – and it needs to do all this and be a reliable telephone to boot.

In order of usefulness and not including standard apps that come with the phone :

Pocket Informant: (in app store) Without hesitation the most useful application I have. It replaces the default calendar, tasks and contacts applications and expresses daily commitments in a clear and useful manner. I can quickly see what scheduled calendar entries I have for any day along with relevant tasks so I can work through them as the day progresses. I favor the agenda view as being most suitable for my needs.

BerryWeather: (in app store) A great weather app that I have set to show the current conditions on the home screen as well as a tiny little icon showing temperature in the icon strip. I have mine configured so that my current GPS location (updated every hour) is considered my “home” location and is what displays on the home screen. Then I keep track of my actual house location and Toronto (so I know how lucky I am to be living here). It also shows weather advisories as they are made available.

BatteryBooster: Actually, I only got BatterBooster because I wanted to get SmartWiFi but BatteryBooster was being offered for 1/2 of SmartWiFi’s price and had SmartWiFi bundled in as a package deal. BatteryBooster looks like it would probably help somewhat but many of the options did things like turn off the phone radio if the signal strength dropped too low or (with another bundled piece called PowerControl) it can turn off the whole unit at various times during the day. Since I often have a 24×7 requirement for my BlackBerry, this doesn’t benefit me at all. But the SmartWiFi app is great. Basically it figures out what cell towers are near WiFi spots you use. If you move away from those cell towers it turns off the WiFi radio. Likewise when you return to those cell towers it reenables the WiFi and reestablishes contact – completely transparently to me. I just happen to notice that my device is browsing the web MUCH faster when I get within range of those hotspots and I can see that I’m not wasting my WiFi power otherwise.

MailMinder: I make copious use of Profiles and filters on my blackberry. But the simple distinction between “normal” messages and “Level 1” was not quite what I needed. I have things set so most messages just appear on my device and I’ll get to them when I get to them. But I wanted to be able to distinguish between different kinds of high priority messages since, depending on the situation, I may or may not need to address them right away. So I use MailMinder to draw distinctions between messages from certain friends, warnings from the servers that I monitor, critical issues from the servers that I monitor, messages from my wife and notifications from my personal calendar on Google Calendar. MailMinder allows me to have distinct tones and LED colors for all of the above. Especially handy when I’m on call and the only thing I want to wake me up are critical server issues (and maybe messages from my wife…). If I’m in a meeting, the device can silently let me know just by its LED that a message has arrived from a friend and I can ignore it without even touching the BlackBerry. However a server failure worthy of interrupting the meeting will give me a blip and a red LED and I must be on my way.

RingScheduler: Another great app for someone with differing notification needs throughout the day. I have mine set so that it uses the “Normal” profile as its default. Every evening at 10 pm it switches to the “Phone only” profile until 8 am. On nights when I am oncall, I have oncall scheduled in my calendar as a 10 pm – 8 am meeting. RingScheduler sees the keyword “oncall” in the meeting and automatically switches me over to a custom “oncall” profile that I created. If I have an ad-hoc meeting or simply want to ensure that the BlackBerry will not disturb folks around me for a period of time, I can select the “Schedule Ringer Now” menu option that is available nearly everywhere in the device and set it to hold any of my profiles for a selectable period of time (a few minutes, a few hours), then the BlackBerry will switch back to whatever profile makes sense (default, timed, meeting based) when the ad hoc period ends. Very good if you have ever silenced your device while in a movie or a meeting and then forgotten to reset it and missed those phone calls or emails afterwards.

Ascendo DataVault: A worthy replacement for MiniSafe. It follows the same paradigms. My passwords, logon information, bank account information, etc. are stored in an encrypted file on my BlackBerry – available to me at any time. I bought the bundle that syncs the data with a desktop companion so I can more easily update and reference the same information when I’m working on my PC. It also boasts the ability to fill forms for you on your PC but I use a different app for that so I haven’t tried that functionality.

Twitter (from RIM): I’m not a power Twitter user by any stretch of the imagination so my needs are simple. I tried other offerings such as “Uber Twitter” and a couple of others whose names escape me now and they were not as good as this simple app made by RIM. It actually works in the background to refresh tweets – something the others seemed to have problems with – and it integrates very nicely with my messaging app so I can see that I have new tweets just by inspecting my inbox. And the notification is removed from my inbox when I return from Twitter. Simple and functional.

Bloomberg Mobile: Pretty clean, easy to set up and accurate. It’s amazing how hard it is to get a decent stock price app. I have concerns about battery drain with this app so I always exit out of it so it is not constantly running. But I like how it presents my data.

Facebook (by RIM): While I am sure there are probably better Facebook apps out there, this one from RIM is pretty straightforward, allowing me to post simple updates and pictures without any fuss at all as well as read items from my friends. It lacks the ability to honor the  filters I have set up on the web version to ignore crap such as game updates from bored folks but fortunately not too many of my friends are that desperate for stuff to do…

Google Sync: I only use this to sync calendar entries (not contacts) so I can speak solely to that half of its functionality. If you sync with another calendar system, Google Sync will recognize that fact and will not sync those entries with your Google Calendar. Have a LOT of experience working with corporate calendaring systems I can appreciate that there are probably huge complications that this avoids. But I put it to you that Google should develop read-only calendar entries so that so that your *complete* calendar can be reflected in Google Calendar and be available to aid in planning. As it is, I must choose what calendar to update for what events so that my wife or coworkers can see my busy times. Fortunately the BlackBerry *does* show all entries from all platforms, so I work mostly out of pocket informant.

Vlingo (Professional): I went crazy and sprang for the full version of Vlingo. Seduced as I was by the prospect of being able to largely dictate my emails. Two things: First – If you are in a modestly technical environment and you use a fair amount of jargon in your messages, especially names (people or computer names) then you’ll spend plenty of time manually correcting these. Vlingo’s “learning” ability seems to be more about grammar and sentence structure than individual words. No matter how often I corrected it, it never managed to spell my name correctly.  Second – I really don’t think that voice recognition is quite there yet. This app is amazingly good compared to other versions I’ve experimented with even in the past few years, but it either gets my words almost exactly right or laughably wrong. There does not seem to be a middle ground here yet. My favorite use for this app is to read incoming SMS text messages to me while I drive. The free version will accomplish this for you.

Gmail app: As I have my BlackBerry configured I really can’t work properly with Gmail using the native BlackBerry messaging application. In searching for the link for Gmail Mobile I see that there may be remedies out there for this but it’s a bit too late for me now. I review new messages on my handheld and then delete them permanently (handheld & mailbox) or just off the device (handheld only) if I want to add a label in Gmail later and then archive it. I use the Gmail app because there really isn’t a practical way to keep Gmail messages on the device in the default app and the Gmail app allows me access to search my entire Gmail mail database.

Evernote: I use Evernote on my PC a fair amount. I thought I’d use it more on my BlackBerry than I do, but even with the Torch device – which sports a respectable enough camera – Evernote takes such poor pictures that it is really only useful for non-text grossly obvious subjects. But the ability to search Evernote is handy.

Pandora: I’m of mixed opinions about using my SmartPhone as a music player. The idea of my phone being dead because I was listening to the latest “Katie Melua” song seems distasteful to me. Especially when I actually *do* have an iPod available to me. But the iPod’s weakness is that it cannot introduce me to new music and Pandora does a great job of that. This app doesn’t seem to have buffering issues (that I’ve noticed) and the commercials are not a nuisance. I may even upgrade my Pandora subscription to a paid membership if the Android version of this app is as good as this one.

BeamExplorer: If I really want to manipulate files on my handheld I plug it into my computer and use “mass storage mode”. But this little app is useful when you’re on the road and you want to find or move something other than a straight media file around.

Remember all of these are apps that I use pretty regularly and they are all worthwhile. My needs are more oriented towards business and communication and I think the apps that I favor reflect that. YMMV but I would not hesitate to recommend these apps for the right needs. Most of them I feel are best of breed except where I’ve indicated otherwise.

Posted under Blackberry, Opinions, Utils / Tools

This post was written by Marc
on October 27, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Cat Troubleshooting 101

We have a couple of cats, Phoebe and Maverick who are really well behaved… well… in most ways.

For years we had normal litterbox that they shared that looked just like any other cat litterbox.

After we had done a lot of work on our house I thought it might be nice to de-emphasize the litter box and ended up picking up “The Refined Litterbox” from Catsplay.com (they no longer offer this modestly priced alternative).  And for the past year and a half it has been great. The cats took to it immediately and all was well.

For some reason Phoebe, in the past couple of weeks has started backing herself right up to the edge of the internal litterbox and letting loose when she pees all over the inside (and sometimes the outside too) of the the cabinet. I cannot fathom why the change in behavior as she seems to be fine in every other way but it smelled bad, was a mess and needed to be addressed.

After hunting around for a while to see what other folks have come up with for similar problems, I came upon Clevercat Top Entry Litter Box
at Amazon. Essentially it’s a smooth, high-sided rubbermaid-style box with a lid with a hole cut out so the cats can get in and out but everything else stays in.

I placed the new litterbox next to the old one and barricaded the entryway of the old one with a couple of boxes of litter. I also tossed in some “samples” from their old litter box to let them know that this new unit is theirs.

At first the cats seemed a little wary of the box but they soon figured it out and now seem to be fine with it.  No more cat pee outside of the box! Yay!

A nice side-effect is that it seems that the high sides, the effort of climbing out, and the pattern on the lid of the box seem to combine to stop as much litter from making its way out onto the floor too.

Another few days and I think I may retire the refined litterbox cabinet. It’s a great idea so long as your cat has good aim!

Posted under General

This post was written by Marc
on October 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popcorn – What’s happening to you?

I like my popcorn. Many years ago I decided to see if the brand name popcorns were actually worth any extra money and bought several different kinds and tried them against some no name brands and decided that, at least in the case of the “Orville Redenbacher” offering there really was a difference. Like the ads claimed, most of the kernels would pop and the popped corn was very light and fluffy.

I have popcorn at least once or twice a week and for years I have been pleased with the consistency of the Redenbacher brand. My favorite is their “white corn” mostly because the result seems brighter and more festive to me. I cook my popcorn on the stove and use the microwave stuff only now and then as I don’t really favor the seasonings that are used for those (Orville or otherwise).

A couple of months ago I opened a new container of Orville Redenbacher popcorn that popped  in a manner that could only be described as lackluster. Probably a fifth of the kernels had not popped and those that did were unenthusiastic cheerleaders for the Redenbacher brand at best.

So I cracked open my next-in-line container of  popcorn (seriously, I’m not gonna run out if I can help it so I always have a spare…) that I noted had the same lot number and expiry date (Feb 17, 2011) on it. It was also dismal.

So I went to my local store and picked up another container, different lot number, and later expiry date and… exactly the same thing.

On the label, the Orville Redenbacher products have only a phone number that you can call for information or “To leave comments”. I figured I could help them out by at least registering a complaint. But the phone system offers no ability to talk to a live human or to leave a comment. So I left a note with them through their website to voice my displeasure over the apparent lack of quality control in their product recently.

So, as with another quest I’ve undertaken recently I went out to see if there are alternatives to my favorite popcorn.

I picked up a bag of Kroger’s yellow popcorn and a container of “Pop-Secret Jumbo Popping Corn”.

Both performed admirably. The Pop-Secret kernels were *huge* and this did result in somewhat larger popcorn after it had popped. But the simple Kroger popcorn was fine as well. Both had nearly every kernel popping and both I would use again in a heartbeat.

I’ve finished the bag of Kroger popcorn and am still happy with it and I’ve had three servings of the Pop-Secret with no complaints.

My message left on the the Orville Redenbacher site was as follows:

Recently I purchased 3 bottles of “White Corn Gourmet Popping Corn”. That appear to be from 2 different batches.

2 expiring Feb. 17, 2011 and the third sometime in April.

I’ve been using Orville Redenbacher popcorn for about 2 decades now and have always been pleased with the quality and consistency of your product. These recent batches were terrible. Many of the kernels remain unpopped (up to 1/5 of them) and those that did pop were lackluster in their appearance at best being barely puffed.

I didn’t immediately think to try this web site, but rather contacted the number listed on the container that indicated it could be used for “questions and comments” but found no avenue for the latter. So I simply returned the products to the store.

While it is said that “voting with your dollar” is the most effective way to let a company know when it is failing, I have found the Orville Redenbacher brand so reliable over the past 20 years that I wanted to register my concern / complaint with you more directly than simply switching to a different product.

One thing that truly sets the “Orville Redenbacher” brand apart from others (and hence makes it worth the premium at the checkout counter) is the certainty that quality control will ensure that your popcorn experience will always be great. I have to say that that confidence was a little shaken after the first two containers but shattered after the third.

I am hopeful that, if this is a systemic issue, that others have voiced their concern as well and that measures will be taken to correct whatever failings led to my lackluster product experience.

I was somewhat mollified to receive an email response from them within a couple of days that included this paragraph:

Due to the unusually wet growing season, we are forced to use a different drying process to prepare the kernels for production.  This is the likely cause of the unpopped kernels/excess hulls as you¿ve experienced. We are adjusting our processes to reduce the occurrence of this situation. In the meantime, we want to offer you a replacement coupon for ANY ORVILLE product.

True to their word, a week or so later I received not one but *three* coupons for replacement Orville products.

I appreciate it that they would be stand up enough to not only offer a reasonable explanation for the poor experience that I had with their product, but also to go as far as one could reasonably expect them to go to “make it right”.

So this week, with coupons in hand, I’ll be picking up some new Orville Redenbacher popcorn and figure out if the issue was merely a fluke with a temporary cause or if  there really are now issues with the brand.

More to come.

Posted under Gastronomy

This post was written by Marc
on October 11, 2010 at 6:59 am

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