six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Services and stuff

It’s hard to write about web services in a holiday gift guide. They’re intangible, for the most part. Who likes giving the gift of intangibility? “Merry Christmas, Grandma, I got you a year’s subscription to Amazon Prime! This empty box is a representation of all the boxes you’ll be getting via free two-day shipping!”

So it’s settled, then. Only a dummy would write a gift guide entry about favorite services and stuff you order over the Internet.

Marvel Unlimited

X-Men Comic Panel

As I wrote about in detail last week, Marvel Unlimited is a Netflix-like service that lets you read an unlimited number of comics from Marvel’s library of more than 15,000 comic books on your iPad, iPhone, or web browser. (I recommend reading on an iPad.)

Individual comics are expensive, whether you buy them in print or digitally. On one business trip last year I calculated that I read about $50 worth of comics, and that was in a three-day span. The service only costs $10/month or $70/year. If you or anyone you know is a fan of Marvel comics, that $69/year deal is a real bargain. I’ve cut back on the number of new Marvel comics I buy, and I’m exploring more obscure stuff that I might have never tried out if I had to invest $4 per issue to find out if it was my cup of tea.

[$9.99 monthly, $69 annually.]

iTunes Match

When iTunes Match was announced, the appeal was that it would scan your music library—including all of those files that you may or may not have downloaded from Napster or ripped from a friend’s CD—and essentially grant you amnesty, providing high-quality audio files straight from iTunes. It was certainly fun to upgrade my copy of Semisonic’s Closing Time to an iTunes level of quality, but I’ve re-upped with iTunes Match every year since then.

What’s endured is the simplicity of having my entire music collection with me wherever I go. If there’s a song that’s not on my iPhone, I can just download it, from anywhere, even if I didn’t buy it from iTunes. My playlists sync across all my devices. I can listen to music on my iMac or MacBook air anywhere I have an Internet connection, even though neither of those computers has enough disk space to store my music collection.

I realize that using a service like this, focused on music you own (rather than rent via a streaming service), marks me as a bit of an old fogey. I guess I’m guilty—I’ve had Beats Music for six months now and never remember to listen to it. But iTunes Match works for me, and yeah, it gives me access to the ad-freeĀ iTunes Radio when I’m in the mood to listen to a random assortment of songs that are similar to the ones I know.

I have to admit that I’ve been tempted by Amazon’s music offerings, which include a whole bunch of songs that are available to Prime members and a Cloud Library service that’s similar to iTunes Match and available for the same price. I’ve got friends who use this service and like it (especially since Amazon lets you sync 250,000 songs, ten times as many as Apple), but in the end my familiarity with Apple’s music apps—iTunes on the Mac and Music on iOS—has won the day so far. I just can’t see my self relying on Amazon’s apps for music playback.

[$24.99/year.]

Dropbox

Dropbox

I use Dropbox for everything. I keep my work files in it so that I can leave off on my iMac and pick up immediately on my MacBook Air. I keep files in it that I’m sharing with others. I use it to transfer files back and forth for podcasts I’m working on. I use it to load files on my iPad or iPhone when I’m not near a Mac. It just keeps on being useful.

I pay $99/year for Dropbox Pro, because I am a crazy person. It’s great. That price used to pay for 100GB of storage, but now it’s 1TB. There’s so much space that I can’t figure out what to do with it all. The nice thing is, you can get a Dropbox account with 2GB of space for free. That’s how I started, before it all snowballed.

This is not to say that I don’t have complaints about Dropbox. I do wish I could use up all that space without fiddling with features like Selective Sync, which lets you omit certain Dropbox folders from certain computers. And it would be awfully nice if Dropbox could support iOS 8’s new file-access interface. But still, I’m happy to spend my money on Dropbox Pro.

[$100/year.]

Zazzle

Ugly Hat

My father-in-law has this hat that he’s had for something like thirty years. It’s a very ’80s design of sailboats at sunset, in silhouette, in red on a yellow foam trucker’s hat. He’s a really active guy, whether it’s skiing or bicycling or roller skating or surfing, and whenever he’s anywhere outside that doesn’t require protective headgear, he’s usually wearing this hat. This ugly, ugly, ’80s refugee hat. (On a family vacation to Hawaii a gust of wind blew it off his head and out of the car window. Every single person in that car, other than him, considered for a moment if the best option was to floor it and drive away from that hat once and for all. We pulled over.)

The last time I was visiting my in-laws I used Readdle’s Scanner Pro to scan that sailboat sunset silhouette right off of that hat. I cleaned the scan up in Photoshop, uploaded it to Zazzle.com, picked out a yellow trucker hat to match, and placed an order. At Thanksgiving this year my father-in-law discovered that his wife and children were all wearing new ugly hats that looked just like his old ugly, albeit not 30 years worse for wear. Huge laughter ensued.

Zazzle is basically a print-on-demand store for gear. I’ve ordered holiday cards, doorknob hangers, and even hats from Zazzle and been pretty satisfied. (Less satisfying: t-shirts and magnets. Steer clear.) I can’t vouch for the quality of everything on Zazzle, and there may indeed be better print-on-demand options for some items, but I always check Zazzle first.

You can even sell custom designs on Zazzle—the last run of Macalope mugs I did at Macworld were done through Zazzle, and they turned out quite nicely. We may do a run of Incomparable mugs on there, too.

Also, Zazzle! What a name.

[Various prices for various items.]

Large-format prints from Shutterfly

In our living room we have three framed 16 × 20 prints of our son and daughter, taken over the years. Every so often we order a new print from Shutterfly and replace one of the older ones, so they’re never horribly out of date. We’ve been happy with the quality of the prints. If you’re ever at a loss for what to hang on your walls, you could do a whole lot worse than a few big, beautiful prints of your favorite family photographs.

[$17.99 plus shipping.]

iPhoto Calendars from Apple

Time to put on the dad jeans and tell the dad jokes, because I am one of those people who is so uncool that I’m still using iPhoto to make calendars. Every year, my wife and I go through all the photos we’ve taken during the previous year and construct a calendar made up of photos from each month, on the appropriate month, for the next year. Then we order a few, keep one for ourselves, and give the rest to a few close family members.

It’s not cheap, but I’ve been happy with the quality of Apple’s calendars. They look good, and iPhoto’s calendar layout tools are pretty decent. It wouldn’t be the holidays if we weren’t complaining about why we failed to take any good family pictures in September for this year’s calendar.

[$20 each plus shipping.]

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[Get into the buying, er, holiday spirit by reading our gift guide!]