Should I Trust Mint.com?

Review: Mint.com

When I bought my iPad last October, the first thing I did was explore the App Store. I was dazzled by all of the different “productivity” apps, but pragmatic enough to realize that I probably didn’t need and wouldn’t use the majority of them (after all, I still had a laptop and would have a desktop as well within a few months). But one caught my eye: Mint.com. I’d never heard of Mint before, so I don’t know what made me tap it to read more about it, but I’m glad I did.

Mint.com is something that will make certain people–especially those who have a pathological fear of identity theft–cringe: it’s a free, online software that pulls in all of your bank account data and lets you budget accordingly. As someone who is not burdened with a pathological fear of identity theft (go ahead, identity thieves, take on my $50,000 student loan debt), I immediately thought, “Wow, I need this!” So I downloaded it.

I quickly realized that account setup would be much easier using the actual online software rather than the app, so I did that first, pulling in my Bank of America checking and savings, my external used-to-be-high-yield-but-not-so-much-anymore savings account, my student loans, and my 403(B) from my old job at the American Cancer Society. It works about as you would expect: every time you log in, it refreshes your account information so that it pulls in the most recent transactions. You can label transactions however you want, and can do so in such a way that certain transactions are always given a certain label. For example, Royal Farms is a convenience store/gas station here in Maryland, but my transactions there (I only ever buy gas there, rarely anything else) always showed up as Fast Food. So I made a rule that said any transactions at Royal Farms should be labeled as “Gas & Fuel.” (You can get to this menu by selecting any transaction and then clicking “Edit Details.”)

Mint.com Screenshot

The budget tool is also really useful. It’s mostly useful for me so that I can remind myself how little disposable cash I have at any point in time and prevents me from spending a ton. For example, setting a $50 budget for food for the month (not including groceries) is a good way to make sure I’m not going out to lunch every other day. It also has a cute red-yellow-green feature where your bar is green if you haven’t spent much of your budget, yellow if you’re close to your limit, and red if you go over.

One of the things that was slightly irritating to me was that I couldn’t set budgets for specific spending accounts. It’s not a huge issue, but since my fiancé and I have a joint bank account for bills and rent and whatnot, it would have been nice to have those budgets under my account as well, without messing up my own personal budgets. (Because our joint account is also with Bank of America, when I gave my account number, the joint account info was pulled in as well.) But Mint does have a handy little feature that you can use to hide accounts you don’t want as part of your budget, so that does help.

Something else that is a bit annoying is that Mint seems to have some trouble with Bank of America. A month or so ago, my accounts wouldn’t update and I kept getting an error message telling me that my account info was incorrect even though I knew it wasn’t. It was eventually resolved, and my BoA accounts have been mostly fine since, but every once in a while it seems to glitch up again.

Another great feature is the “Trends” section. You can see pie charts and bar graphs and line graphs tracking your monthly spending over time, your spending breakdown, your net worth over time, and a whole bunch of other cool things. The graphs look fine on a browser, but boy, are they pretty on the iPad app.

 

By the way, don’t judge me for half of the money I spent last month going to “shopping.” It’s mostly because I bought a wedding dress 🙂

Overall, though, Mint.com is almost exactly what I wanted. (In case you’re wondering exactly what I wanted, it’s this: an app that will let me see what my account balance will be on any given day of the month, based on scheduled transactions, billpay, etc. so I can see in advance if that check will overdraw my account if it’s deposited on the wrong day, or if I should pay my student loans a week before they’re due or wait until the due date. So, whoever’s good at app design–get on it! Thanks.)

Pros:
1) Secure and easy to use. Oh, and FREE.
2) Really helpful for OCD people like me to need to check up on their money 10 times a day.
3) Graphs and pie charts make great visual aids for people like me who sometimes have trouble making sense of huge spreadsheets.

Cons:
1) Can’t assign budgets to specific accounts.
2) iPhone and iPad apps are pretty, but much less functional than the actual website.

Yes, Mint.com has its faults, but much fewer than its competitors (trust me, I know–when it was having problems with BoA, I started looking around for alternatives, and discovered that Mint is really in a league of its own). And to be perfectly honest, I’m guessing that most people don’t really care about assigning budgets to specific accounts or that the apps are less functional than the website. The apps are great to get a quick look at your net worth or if you want to spend some time looking at pretty graphs, and I imagine that’s what most people want out of them anyway.

I would absolutely recommend this site to anyone who wants to be able to have all your bank/investment/etc. accounts in one place. As someone who once vowed to never have more than one bank account and now has 3 bank accounts, 2 investment accounts, and a credit card…I’m thrilled that there’s one place that I can look at it all, and look at it all securely.

Should I Upgrade to Windows 8?

Experience from Erin Cummins

Windows 8 ScreenshotYou know that feeling you get when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff? With the wind whipping at your hair and your face, your heart is pounding out a fearful tattoo.  Even so, you slowly, almost against your will, shuffle your feet forward, closer and closer to the edge… because as scared as you are to stand there, there’s a tiny part of you whispering “jump… jump…”  That’s how I felt about switching to Windows 8: I was standing on a frightening but seductive precipice.

Well. I did the perhaps-inadvisable thing and took the leap.  It felt more as if I had been pushed, actually; my previous computer (a Dell) died at an unfortunate moment, and I did not have much time to spend poking around doing more research.  I decided to buy a Samsung laptop that came equipped with Windows 8, and for the past few months I have been playing with it.

So now I, as the unfortunate first penguin who has been pushed into the freezing sea, have the duty to tell the rest of you what’s going on down here in the water.  Is Windows 8 a glorious sea full of tasty fish? Or am I dinner for the killer whales?

Built to accommodate tablets

If you think I’m being a tad dramatic, yeah–I am.  Really, Windows 8 is not so different from Windows 7 (or even Vista, actually).  The biggest difference is in aesthetics; Windows 8 is built to be compatible with touch screens and tablets, so you do not get the classic “desktop” view upon first logging in. Instead, when you log on to your computer you come to the Start page, your home screen full of apps.

Many new PC ultrabooks are coming out with touchscreens, so this new start page is really helpful with that: the icons are large enough to tap with a finger.  I like the apps, even on a non-tablet device; Windows apps have the “live tile” feature and flip with new news and pictures, so you can be caught up without having to actually do anything. I particularly enjoy the Kindle app and Netflix (both of which are free, like many apps).

Getting down to Business (to defeat the Huns)

When it’s time to actually use your computer as a computer (use a browser, write a paper, etc), it’s easy.  Your desktop is an app on the home screen so you can just click on that and you basically have Windows 7 open. You can set things like Microsoft Word or Firefox as apps on the start page as well and those will both take you straight to the desktop.  I haven’t noticed any differences in the way Windows 8 handles these programs; it’s just like any other computer.

Having two different home screens (the start screen and the desktop) is revolutionary; at least in the sense that it means I can basically have two computer wallpapers.  Now my pictures of a saxophone-playing hamster and my head photoshopped onto Dame Maggie Smith’s body can be given equal billing on my computer, as they do in my life.

Navigation

The biggest difference between the desktop app and Windows 7 is the lack of a Start button in the lower left of the page.  But because of the layout of Windows 8, you actually do not need a start button.  If you want to access any program, you can go back to the start page and do it there.  If that other program is not part of the desktop app, you can lock it onto the side of your screen and have two apps open at once on your screen.  If you have a touch screen, doing this is very easy; it’s a bit harder with a mouse, where dragging things around the screen takes a bit more effort.  Luckily, there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts that take the place of the touch screen motions; for example “Windows button + [period]” will automatically snap the app to the side.

Administration

Shutting the computer down is less intuitive.  But once you learn how to do it, it’s not that tough: just use “Windows button + C” and the settings hover on the right of the page. You can then go ahead and click on the power icon, and can choose from the classic options (“shut down”, “sleep”, “restart”).

You can access the task manager the same way you always have been able to- Ctrl+Alt+Delete. Some things never change.  You also still have the Control Panel, which can help you to uninstall programs, connect to the internet, and basically access the behind-the-scenes of your computer.  And if you need to do something with your computer that you can’t figure out easily, there is always Google… just saying.

Downsides (let’s rant)

So far this review has been pretty tame, so I might be accused of being some kind of propagandist spy-blogger if I didn’t tell you about all the things I do not appreciate about Windows 8.  So here’s a list of rants:

1) The Netflix app causes the screen resolution to overload when you are connecting the computer to your TV (or other screen).  WHAT’S THE POINT OF THAT? People often watch Netflix on shared devices… it’s confusing that I would have to use my browser instead of the specially-made app for this. Get yo act together, Netflix.  Inconceivable! Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

2) A lot of techy people do not like the fact that there is no Start button.  And yeah, it kind of sucks if you just used the Calculator and have to go all the way back to the apps to open it again, instead of clicking on the recent items in the menu.  But overall, I really don’t think there’s a lot to miss from the Start menu; you still get it all, just in a different place.

3) Internet Troubleshooting.  Over the holidays I went home with all my brothers, sisters, and their significant others–and everyone had a laptop.  My parents’ router just did not have the bandwidth to support all 8 computers at once, so I ran into a lot of issues trying to connect.  At first I thought it was my computer, so I ran a lot of troubleshooting tasks. This was not awesome. It was not-some? Anyway, in Windows 7 you could go to the Network and Sharing Center, click on the globe icon, and Windows would just troubleshoot everything.  Now, I’m sent to the Help section, and given 3 options of different types of problems to troubleshoot. And I’m like… can’t you just run all 3 at once and fix whatever it is? If I knew that the problem was my adapter, I’d just fix that.

4) Windows 8 is clearly engineered for “fun”–in my opinion, this is not a system on which a business computer would thrive.  Apps are largely built for watching shows, reading books, or playing games–nothing that should be done in the office.  Businesspeople will want to go straight to the desktop, and will be frustrated by the new extra step of bypassing the start page.  Then again, I have not tested with any business-y apps, which may be out there and be very helpful. And we have also seen the speed with which companies are making the switch to “keep up with the times”–many business executives have tablets they take on trips with them instead of computers–so it’s not crazy to think that businesspeople could adapt to Windows 8.  And the question remains as well: will they have the choice to stay behind? The worlds of technology and business obey the law of the wild: Evolve or Die.

Ultimately, out of all the operating systems for PC computers, Windows 8 is one of them.  As it was famously said, “we are unable to stem the tide of history.”  Whether we like it or not, Windows 8 is part of the future.  Chances are, if you have a PC, you will use Windows 8.  Even Vista, which is authoritatively regarded as “yucky,” was the primary operating system for years before Windows 7 came out.  Windows 8 is happening: software and apps are being developed for it, and newer computers and tablets will be equipped with it.

To return to my original musings about penguins and cliff-diving (two topics definitely relevant to technology…), the choice is still yours as to whether you are actually going to jump into the ocean.  This penguin survived (and is doing quite well for herself), so it looks like the coast may be clear. Windows 8 is not incredible, but it’s not terrible either, so you need to answer the following questions for yourself: Are you going to stick with previous operating systems as programs are made more and more for Windows 8? Will you spend your days searching for a non-existent start button (“Are you there Start? It’s me, Margaret”)?  If I jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?

Review: Motorola Razr HD

Why I Went With Android over iPhone

Motorola Razr HDMy first decision when buying a new phone was what OS to choose. I narrowed down the options pretty fast to iOS (iPhone) or Android, because RIM’s Blackberry lacks support from new app companies and Windows Phone doesn’t have much traction either. I didn’t want a phone that would be obsolete in a year.

My previous phone was Android-based, and it was decent but not great. I found that quality was inconsistent among the available apps and widgets—basically, a lot of them were terrible, which meant I had to sift through and research much more apps than I had anticipated. However, I was already using their products, such as Google Docs (now Drive), Google Voice, Gmail, GTalk, Google Music, and more, on an everyday basis.

I also considered getting an iPhone because I already have an iPad, which uses the same OS. iOS is very easy to use and isn’t flashy, and I enjoy its simplicity. In addition, the App Store seems to be more refined with better options.

In the end, the decision came down to which OS is most compatible with my current lifestyle. I already had the highest data plan, the prices were about the same, and both use 4G. For online file storage, a must for business on the go, I use Dropbox, which is available for both Android and iOS. I use most of the free Google web apps already, and the decision became even easier when Apple decided to use their own navigation system in place of the very trusted Google Maps. It was clear that Android fit my everyday needs far better than iOS.

Here is my review after over a month of use:


Price: $199 with 2-year contract from Verizon
OS: Android 4.0.4
Ownership Length: Over 1 month
Buy at Amazon.com (aff)


Pros:
1) Battery Life – Lasts over 2 full days at moderate use
2) Kevlar Back – Very durable and no need for an additional case. Just put a decent screen protector on the front and you are good to go.
3) Unlock Screen – The default unlock screen allows you to turn the phone to vibrate, make a phone call, view texts, or take a picture without additional steps. This is very handy.
4) Developer Features – I had a developer phone before and the features in the Razr HD are far superior. They include things like pointer location and CPU usage which gives better feedback on how your app works with the device.

Cons:
1) Size – It’s a very large phone and takes some getting used to. The width causes problems with one handed use at times.
2) No Charging Signal – There is no indication on the screen that the phone is charging.

Camera:
The camera is pretty good for outdoor pictures and average for low light pictures. The shutter speed is decent which is good for taking clear pictures. It works pretty well as an everyday point-and-shoot, but you are unlikely to win any awards with them. Instagram’s effects can always improve the look of these photos.

Suggested Things to Use With it:

Apps:
1) Waze Navigation (Here) – Waze is a GPS platform that routes you around bad traffic based on other user’s input. For example, it senses when you are driving slow and prompts you to input traffic conditions. The people using Waze behind you then are able to be automatically rerouted based on that information.
2) Google Voice for Voicemail (installed) – Google Voice allows you to change your default voicemail to your google number. Google then converts your messages into text so you can get a quick idea of its content. Android now allows you to integrate the voicemail with your contacts so can see the missed call and listen to voicemail from the recent calls list.

Mount: I use an Arkon Slim-Grip Windshield Mount ($11.23 at Amazon.com) for my car and I highly suggest it. I use it daily for GPS purposes and it moves around nicely without coming off the windshield. It actually fits most smartphones according to its description.

Summary:

My overall experience with the Razr HD has been great. The battery life makes a huge difference. I work anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day, including an average of 3 hours with GPS direction, and still don’t come close to running out of battery life. Most of the time I can even go two days without charging while I sleep. The other thing I really like is the integration with the Google products I already use. Android has come a long way over the past 2 years. I would definitely recommend the Motorola Razr HD to anyone considering an Android-based phone.

My iPad Experience

A Guest Post by Bridget Germain

iPadHi! I’m Bridget, a friend of Jeff’s. I just recently bought an iPad, and Jeff asked me to write a little post about my experiences with it so far. But first, some background on me: I’m a 23-year-old non-profit business professional (I work for Big Brothers Big Sisters doing corporate relations) and I love my gadgets, but know next to nothing about how they work. I’m also an unabashed Apple devotee, and have been lusting after the iPad for a while.

I bought it primarily to use as an e-reader after I discovered that I really liked using iBooks on my iPhone (except for the fact that it was tiny). Now, I know you’re probably going to say that I could have bought a Kindle for $99 instead of the $800 that I spent on the iPad, but I’ve used a Kindle before and didn’t love it (it doesn’t have page numbers! AGH!). Plus, I wanted to use the iPad for other things; namely, as a personal assistant.

No, I don’t use Siri. But when I started my new job, I really wanted something that I could use to schedule all my appointments, something that’s not always easy to do on the iPhone. Plus, I tend to forget to actually add things to my calendar when I just write them down in my notebook, so having the iPad with me at all times has been dandy.

While I have used it mostly for work so far, there are a few apps that have come in really handy for other things. One is the Mint.com app, into which you can import all of your bank accounts, investment accounts, and loans, and budget for just about anything under the sun. As someone who never wanted more than one bank account but somehow ended up with two bank accounts and three investment accounts (yes, really) plus student loans, it comes in pretty handy to see my total cash flow each month. You have to make an account online before using the app, and the website itself is somewhat easier to use than the app, but the app is great to just quickly check up on something. Plus, it uses lots of graphs and charts, and as a visual person, that helps me a lot.

I also blog on WordPress, so I use the WordPress app as well. I’ve never written a post from there, but it’s useful to check page stats and reply to comments when I’m at work and don’t want to log in on my work computer! It’s definitely a LOT better than it used to be, or at least better than the iPhone app used to be. Luckily, both have improved magnificently over the past few updates, so if you do blog using WordPress, I would definitely recommend the app.

Some of the other apps I use are Facebook (obviously), Goodreads (basically a social networking site where you can publicize and keep track of all the books you read), Slate (an online news magazine) and Kindle (because one reading app is obviously not enough).

I’ve been bad and haven’t really worked on keeping my iPad backed up, but I do use iCloud, so there’s that. I’m considering getting a Dropbox account for work, but I haven’t done it yet.

Something I’ve been having trouble with is finding a case. I originally bought a “Smart Case” from the Apple store, but I didn’t like it because it didn’t stand up the way it was supposed to. I’m looking now for a case that will fit in a folio, since I got a branded Big Brothers Big Sisters folio when I started working there. (If anyone has any recommendations, let me know!) So I’ve been pretty undecided so far, but for anyone out there who is also still undecided, just don’t buy a Smart Case.

Finally, I want to give you a quick breakdown of what I spent on the iPad. I had initially planned to get the wireless-only 32GB one ($599) but ended up going with the wireless+3G 16GB one, for $629. (I got it in black to match my iPhone.) I also got AppleCare for $99 (because I tend to be hard on equipment) and a dock for $29. I haven’t used the dock much yet, but plan to use it more once I buy my new iMac (which I imagine I will be writing about once I’ve spent some time with it!) and spend more time at my desk.

All in all, I would definitely recommend the iPad. I love mine, especially for reading using the iBooks and Kindle apps and for my calendar.