I drove the same VW Golf for about thirteen years. When I finally broke down (only slightly ahead of the car) and bought a brand-new car, I found myself marveling at advances in features that others had already long ago accepted as normal and had passed into unconsciousness. Cup holders – neat! An interior button to pop the trunk – how cool is that! Power windows – well, I had seen those before, of course, but now they are in my car! It's mildly embarrassing to find yourself geeked out over features that are over a decade old. It's like listening to an octogenarian effuse over the miracle of e-mail. But my tech-savvy is usually overpowered by my sense of thrift. I might buy a state of the art digital camera, but then I keep it for ten years.
So, I shouldn't be surprised that I once again find myself surrounded by amazing features that are old news:
Picassa. I had been using JASC Paint Shop Photo Album for the last five years to organize digital photos. At the time it was pretty decent package at a decent price, from the makers of Paint Shop Pro, a Photoshop knock-off that had served me well. But I had trouble browsing the directories after I installed Mozy, an off-site backup service. "Maybe it's time to upgrade," I thought. Of course, five years is geologic time in the software world. JASC had been acquired by Corel, which itself is something of an also-ran in the digital graphics world. The product I thought to upgrade no longer existed, and the feature set in comparable packages didn't seem to warrant the $50 price tag. So I Googled for "digital photo album," and of course Google was happy to tell me about Picassa – the photo album software owned by (surpise!) Google itself. I would be suspicious of Microsoft-like monopolist behavior, but hey, Picassa's free, so why not?
To my astonishment, Picassa was great. Basic features for browsing, editing, and organizing photos were vastly superior to those in my old JASC package. I created an album with pictures of my brother-in-law's family from the last year in a matter of minutes, and burned it to a disk with a single click. Uploading to Google's online albums for sharing was a breeze. Once I got the photos uploaded, I tried out their experimental technology for face recognition, which was spookily good at correctly identifying faces in photos after a little bit of training. No wonder Google is conquering the world. The only thing that was missing was the ability to annotate photos with keywords . . . but it's not like I ever tried to do that more than once anyway.
Sony Cyber-shot. I bought the original Sony Cyber-shot (DSC-S70) eight years ago, shortly before my first son was born. Since the batteries in it were starting to crap out, and Janet had broken her film camera, I decided to get her the latest generation of the Sony Cyber-shot (DSC-W120) for Christmas. It was an order of magnitude better on nearly every conceivable measure. It was a fifth of the mass, and slim enough to slip into a pocket. (That was the biggest feature requirement, for me; we just didn't bother to break out the old digital that often, except for birthday and holiday events at home, since it's the size of a box of animal crackers.) The battery lasts about 5 times as long, and it comes with a separate wall charger so you can easily carry extra batteries as backups. (No more, "You forgot to charge it up again?!?" as the candles are being lit.) The 1 GB memory card is 15 times bigger than the 64 MB capacity in the original. It starts faster, shoots faster, and even has a smile detector for snapping the picture at just the right moment. Darn, now I'll probably never pick up that S70 again.
Tivo. Anticipating Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse in the spring, we knew we would need to record the whole season. A digital video record seemed logical, and they were so darned cheap by now ($150) that it was as much a no-brainer as buying a DVD player five years ago. I just set it up last night, and once again, I'm wondering what took me so long. I might actually watch TV again.