I survived doing our own taxes (I think)

Over the last few weeks, I did the one thing I was sure I’d never do after leaving the Post: prepare my own taxes instead of paying a tax professional to do the work.

I’d outsourced my tax prep over the last three years with generally satisfactory results. But this time around my tax guy had raised his rates while my own financial situation had not gotten more complex; I felt like I had finally disciplined my once moronic, then merely slovenly accounting; it seemed wrong to go four years without even looking at a category of software millions of Americans do battle with every spring.

1099s and TurboTaxAnd so I renewed my acquaintance with Intuit’s TurboTax for the first time since 2011–not as a reviewer, but as a paying customer. It went better than I’d feared.

The biggest upgrade from my earlier agonies was effective record-keeping: I’d entered every cash expense last year into a Google spreadsheet on my phone within hours or, at worst, days, then imported business credit-card transactions into the same sheet every quarter. Between that and being able to consult last year’s return for guidance on what should go where, I had the outlines of my Schedule C knocked out in shockingly little time.

That’s a great reason to go to a tax pro in the first place: If you don’t know to do this stuff, you need somebody who can coach you. The results don’t just help at tax time, but throughout the year.

TurboTax’s ability to import tax forms for all of our mutual funds–something I’ve complimented in earlier reviews–was a great time-saver. And seeing each investment firm’s numbers flow into our return meant I got a direct look at the tax hit inflicted by some actively-traded mutual funds versus index funds. Ouch.

I was relieved to see that the stupid date-validation bugs I’d complained about in 2011 were gone–well, in most of the app.

Did I play this unnecessary game of tax-code-optimization as well as I could? I believe I did, but I won’t know for sure until after we actually file. Yes, although the 1040 and our assorted alphabetical schedules are done, I opted to file an extension. I will be dropping a sizable chunk of money into my SEP IRA to chisel down our tax bill, and I’d rather not completely clean out my account in the process.

I also did our Virginia taxes in TurboTax. Then I deleted that return after writing down the total it had calculated and the two numbers I’d need to put down on my state return. Intuit may have convinced a gullible General Assembly to scrap the state’s free iFile site in 2010, but that doesn’t mean I need to reward its successful regulatory capture with my own business when state taxes aren’t that hard and I can always file on paper.

 

 

Apple Watch coverage as a spectator sport

I didn’t see or touch an Apple Watch until yesterday–when I played with a couple in an Apple Store, just like anybody else could.

Apple Watch close-upThat was a somewhat unavoidable consequence of my freelancer status intersecting with Apple PR’s choosy habits (as seen in 9to5mac’s fascinating chart of which places did and did not get review hardware before earlier iOS device launches): An outlet big enough to merit early Apple Watch access will already have a full-time staffer ready to review the thing.

It happens and doesn’t really bother me, although it did when I was at the Post and felt that One of America’s Most Important Newspapers was being snubbed. To the Apple reps I yelled at over decisions made by their bosses: I’m sorry.

Anyway, it’s been positively relaxing to sit out this round of the new-Apple-gadget media circus and instead read everybody else’s reviews at my leisure. I started with those from my regular clients–David Pogue’s at Yahoo Tech, Ed Baig’s at USA Today–and then proceeded to check out John Gruber’s reviewJoanna Stern’s critique at the Wall Street Journal, Nilay Patel’s lengthy assessment for The Verge, and Farhad Manjoo’s evaluation in the New York Times.

Apple Watch reviewsAs ever, it was fascinating to see what issues each reviewer focused on and which ones didn’t merit a mention. Fun fact: None cited the watch’s thickness (at 10.5 mm, or .413 inches, it’s thinner than the Moto 360 I did not like enough to buy). Maybe I’m an oddball to be so persnickety about smartwatch thickness?

I also enjoyed seeing the Verge’s designers get to play with the layout of that piece, and I thought the day-in-the-life-of construction of that review and the WSJ’s was a good way to unpack the Apple Watch’s utility–and the limits of its battery life.

So now that I’ve played with the Apple Watch up close, am I tempted to buy it? Of course not: I have an Android phone. And even if I’d broken my streak of never owning an iPhone, this entire category of product still looks at least one update cycle away from earning a spot on my shopping list.

 

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

 

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

 

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

Things I would like Apple to fix in OS X (please?)

There’s been a minor surplus of blog posts over the last month or so expressing concern about the state of Apple’s software quality. See, for example, this inventory of issues from my friend Glenn Fleishman, Craig Hockenberry’s open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, or the Marco Arment post that got spun completely out of proportion.

Apple logo on iMacI can’t speak to all of the faults people have mentioned; without an iPhone, for example, I don’t see many of the OS X-to-iOS problems folks have been griping about. And I can’t say that this period marks a low in Apple’s software quality: OS X Lion got on my nerves much more than Yosemite has. But look: Yosemite exhibits some baffling and annoying defects that I’d like to see fixed as much as anybody else. Here’s a short list:

AirDrop: This has accomplished the singular feat of making Bluetooth file transfer look elegant and reliable. Because one of my two Macs is a pre-2012 model, I have to tell the MacBook Air to “Search for an Older Mac” for that iMac to get a chance to show up at all. And the advertised ability of AirDrop to send files between OS X and iOS has so far been a bust–and, courtesy of Apple kneecapping Bluetooth in iOS, Bluetooth file transfer isn’t available as a fall-back option.

Mail’s time travel: A round of bug fixes have made Mail much less of a disaster, but the bizarre bug that causes Mail to jump back randomly by months, years or all the way to the oldest messages in a folder when I select it remains intact. Why, Mail, why must you feel compelled to remind me of what people wrote in 2011?

non-transparent volume overlaySemi-transparent toolbars and sidebars: Having Safari’s toolbar turn red when I scroll down a CNet story is one of the dumbest features I’ve seen out of Cupertino. I advised turning that off in my USA Today column but have since reluctantly turned it back on: I couldn’t stand how that change not only rendered the volume overlay opaque but added crude black borders at its rounded corners.

Arrogant autocorrect: The automatic spelling correction in Yosemite seems much more out of control than in prior OS X releases, especially when it interferes with my attempts to write proper names and other capitalized words that a sane autocorrect would know to leave alone.

Non-noteworthy Calendar events: I love how I can mouse over a date or time in an e-mail and have OS X offer to create a new event in the Calendar app based on that information. But at some point (maybe pre-Yosemite?), the events created that way lost an editable Notes field: That part of the event-info window is now locked to a “Show in Mail…” link that opens the message from which you created the event. I can work around this problem by editing the event in Google Calendar, but something tells me that’s Apple’s desired outcome.

Safari tabs with escape velocity: Every now and then, I find that I have somehow launched one of the tabs open in Safari into a new window. I don’t know what the exact sequence of clicks is (it’s not mentioned in Apple’s list of shortcuts) but I would like the browser to not do that.

I’m sure there are other Yosemite issues that have been bugging me, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Remind me in the comments?

The holiday season, as seen by a tech journalist

To those of you with normal jobs, this time of year means things like eating and spending too much, long travel to see far-flung relatives, having to remember where you stashed the ornaments, and wrestling with wrapping paper.

WreathIn my line of work, however, the holiday season includes all of those things and then a few extras:

  • Gift guidance: We’re expected to reel off lists of what computers, phones, tablets, other gadgets and games to buy, even if knowing that CES will offer us a peek at the next year’s crop of consumer electronics discourages gadget purchases at this time of the year. (I have escaped that particular obligation so far this year, but my Yahoo Tech colleagues have been busy offering tech-procurement advice; won’t you please check it out?)
  • Watching people make purchases they’ll regret: You will inevitably see somebody you care for buy the wrong device or app–perhaps because they read somebody else’s misinformed gadget-gift guide–and you can’t get too bent out of shape over that.
  • Holiday tech support: Taking a look at issues on the computers, phones, tablets and other gadgets of the people we see over the holidays is part of the deal. I can’t say I mind, since I can count on getting at least a couple of ideas for my USA Today Q&A column every holiday season.
  • A break from business travel: December is second only to August for its paucity of tech events likely to land on my travel schedule. I’m okay with that!
  • CES is coming: My enjoyment of quality time with friends and family always gets eaten away by the realization that only a few days after New Year’s, I’ll have to leave all that behind and spend five or so hours in a pressurized metal tube on my way to Vegas for this annual gadget gathering. CES is a good and useful event, but I sure would like to see it happen later in January.

Apple Mail malaise (update)

There’s no program on my Mac that’s annoyed me more over the last year than Mail. Which is funny, because for years I held up that program as an example of Apple working to fix customers’ problems while Microsoft let Outlook Express decay.

Apple Mail about boxBut sometime during the development of OS X Mavericks, Mail went off the rails. It shipped with a bug that made syncing with a Gmail account awkward to implausible. Apple fixed that within weeks, but other problems lingered through many or all of its updates to Mavericks:

  • Searching for old messages was intolerably slow, to the point where it would be faster to grab my iPad, log into the relevant account and start the search… after first running up and down the stairs to find that tablet.
  • Switching back to Mail from other apps would leave the insertion point randomly shifted to a point months or years in the past–which, to be fair, is great for cheap nostalgia.
  • Some mailboxes would be shown sorted by subject instead of date, never mind that sorting by subject is a total waste of time unless a mail client can’t handle search (ahem).
  • More recently, Mail began forgetting the custom app passwords Google generates for mail clients and other apps that can’t process its two-step verification codes.

Apple’s updates fixed some of these issues before OS X Yosemite. I don’t think I’ve seen a mailbox randomly sorted by subject in months, and I haven’t had to open Keychain Access to copy a saved Google app password back into Mail since last month.

Yosemite, to judge from its performance on my MacBook Air, has also returned search in Mail to a state of good repair. I can only hope Apple keeps working on these other issues. Because between Web-mail’s issues with offline access and working with other apps and the lack of a compelling alternative client (understandable, given how many people rely on Web-mail or don’t spend as much time in a mail client as me), firing this app just doesn’t seem too practical.

And at least the prominent mentions of Mail in Apple’s product page for Yosemite suggests the company realizes it can’t leave this app in maintenance mode. If only I could say the same for iPhoto…