Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm.

5 New Tools I Love

It’s been a slow gadget year for me. For the first time in ages, I’ll end up spending less than $1,000 on Apple gear in 2013. Probably a retina iPad mini, and that’s it.

Everything else still works great. But I’ve added some new hardware and software habits to my routine this year, and I’d like to tell you about them. (Alert! Affiliate links ahead.)

Dan Frommer

1) Rdio + Sonos.

It took me a few tries, but I’ve finally accepted subscription music as the way things should be. I tried Rhapsody three or four years ago and Spotify more recently, but didn’t stick with either. Rhapsody’s iPhone app, at that time, was pretty lousy, and Spotify has always felt a little too Windows and not enough Mac. I also had some weird desire to “own” the music I wanted to listen to more than a few times.

But I’ve been using Rdio since the Spring, and I’m happy with it. The audio quality seems good enough, even with my snob earbuds, and now that my iPhone syncs with iCloud and not my desktop Mac, it’s actually a little easier to get music onto my phone via Rdio than it is via iTunes. Rdio’s iPhone app is still more complicated than it needs to be, and I haven’t really gotten into the “social” aspects of music streaming, but it generally works. And it’s been great for trying new music, which iTunes isn’t as good for.

I’ve also been listening to more music at home, and Sonos — which can access my Rdio subscription — has been great for that. My wife and I have both been working out of our apartment this year, so it’s nice to have a little background music during the day so it’s not just two dueling keyboards and a funny puppy. I received a Sonos unit to test a while back, and I’m pretty much ready to buy one and start building out a set. The software could use some more attention, but in general, it’s a great experience, and doesn’t tax my old Mac CPUs. And the nice thing about pairing it with a music subscription like Rdio or Spotify is that you can listen to a bunch of stuff you’d be less likely to own — the Kitsuné mix tapes, for example — one or two times, and then move on.

2) Rancilio Silvia and Rocky.

I have a daily habit of two iced lattes, and I’m pretty picky about what I like. For a while, I used an inexpensive Aeropress to make “espresso” at home, but I missed the richness that a real espresso machine creates. So after saving up Amazon gift cards for months, I splurged on the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine and Rocky grinder.

Yes, spending $1,000 on coffee gear sounds a little nuts. But for machinery that’s designed to last many years, it actually isn’t crazy when you stop spending $5-10 a day at cafes. There’s definitely a learning curve for this machine, and I wasted a lot of good coffee along the way. But I’ve loved learning a new craft this year, and am now at a point where I’m consistently pleased with the espresso I’m pulling. As far as beans go, I try to mix it up, but I’ve been really happy with Stumptown, Sightglass, Blue Bottle, Heart, Counter Culture, Belleville, Irving Farm, and De La Paz. I’ve found that I tend to prefer beans from Central and South America, whatever that says about my coffee palette (maybe nothing).

3) Sketch.

I’ve been designing websites for 18 years now, and have never been truly satisfied with my design tools. Photoshop, while a great photo-retouching app, has never been ideal for web design, especially the way it handles shapes and type. For a while, I used Macromedia Fireworks, but it peaked on OS 9. More recently, I started using Apple’s Keynote app — which seemed crazy at first — after reading about people using it for app and web prototypes on Daring Fireball.

But a couple of months ago, Khoi Vinh told me about Sketch, which has been an excellent addition to my Mac. Like Fireworks, it combines vector- and pixel-based design in one tool, so you can draw shapes that scale nicely and use photos. Like Keynote, it’s easy to move things around using grid coordinates, instead of by hand. It also handles text nicely, and has built-in support for automatically exporting 2x-sized “retina” images. (No more zooming 200% in Keynote, taking screenshots, slicing them, etc.) It’s a steal for $49 and also has a 15-day trial.

4) Topo Designs Travel Bag + Trip Pack.

That’s me holding the little Trip Pack above, next to the beach in Rio. Aren’t those payphone hoods awesome?

For most of the last decade, I’ve traveled with a Mountainsmith travel backpack as luggage. It never looked particularly great, but it was a functional, durable bag that got me through five continents and dozens of trips. Last year in Tokyo, I was on a quest for my first rolling suitcase, and wound up buying a mid-sized piece from Muji, on sale. It’s been solid, if a bit inefficient — the hard plastic shell often seems unnecessary. And I’ve always loved using backpacks as luggage. So this year, I invested in a new olive-green set from Colorado-based Topo Designs, whose daypack has become my favorite everyday city bag.

The Travel Bag is big enough for 4-10 days worth of gear — my clothes are generally size L or XL, and my shoes pretty bulky, so if you’re smaller, it’s even better — and I’ve been able to carry it on every flight, international or domestic, without hassle. Only downside: There’s no flap to hide the backpack straps in, unlike some travel backpacks, so try to avoid checking it as luggage. It’s basically a big, simple rectangular backpack, which is what you want — fussy compartments don’t make any sense for something like this. And it looks great, in a Wes Anderson-goes-camping way.

I also got the matching Trip Pack, which is probably too small to be your day-to-day city bag, but is great for travel, and small enough that I’ve never been hassled for carrying it on a plane as my second “personal item”. It fits a 13-inch MacBook Air snugly, and also a few magazines, books, an iPad mini, small camera, sunglasses, charging cords, passport, etc. It also conveniently attaches to the Travel Bag if you want to only carry “one” bag on your back. But for short distances, I tend to carry the Travel Bag on my back and the Trip Pack in one of my hands.

So far, I’ve taken these on two longish trips and two shorter trips, and everything has been perfect. (Again, I am a light packer, so keep that in mind.) The fabric is high-end Cordura, the zippers are big and easy, the construction seems solid, and I’m looking forward to using these for years. Also, I’ve met the super-nice founders of Topo Designs — which does all of its production in the U.S. — and I’m happy to support what seems like a really great company.

5) A.P.C. jeans.

It took a lot — of time, of coaxing, of trying on — for me to consider spending more than $100 on a pair of jeans.

I had been a very happy Uniqlo jeans buyer for the past 6 years, never spending more than $50. But Uniqlo, which is expanding like crazy, has never made it easy. The first few years, the product was great but the selection was terrible. My size was always sold out, and I basically made a running joke of going into Uniqlo’s only U.S. store, betting myself that the jeans I wanted wouldn’t be available. My goal was to lose enough weight to someday fit into Uniqlo’s higher-end “Japan denim”. And now, five waist inches smaller, I probably could. But just as the Japanese denim look was becoming more popular in America — and as Uniqlo has expanded to many U.S. stores, with much more inventory predictability — Uniqlo discontinued the line.

Then there was a pair of nice Gap jeans I really liked, but they only kept them for a single season, and then made them junky again. More recently, my favorite Uniqlo cut, the “slim” (vs. “skinny” and now “leggings jeans”) have become 25% polyester “powder soft” pants, which just don’t feel like jeans anymore.

So this summer, I set out to find a new pair of favorite jeans.

My wife, who writes about the fashion industry for a living, has been trying to get me to switch over to A.P.C. for years. I’ve always loved A.P.C.’s minimalist branding — no squiggly stitching on your butt, no obnoxious logos — and the founder, Jean Touitou, is hilarious. So after trying on a few this summer, I finally found a pair I like: The “Petit New Standard”, which have a higher rise and more tapered leg, so I can wear them with either a t-shirt and sneakers or a tucked-in dress shirt and boots.

The thing you need to know about A.P.C. jeans is that they are hard to wear. You might say the onboarding process is more like waterboarding. (You’re also warned never to wash them.) The raw denim is thick and stiff, and months later, it still feels like I am wearing a cast. The first time I tried riding a bike in them, I almost slid off of the seat. But day by day, they are getting more comfortable. And they look exactly how they should: Like jeans. The only thing I’m still not crazy about is the button fly: Wtf? (The only nice thing about a button fly is that you can never leave the house and discover three hours later that your fly is unzipped. Other than that, it’s annoying.)

But overall, they’re great. I look forward to having a truly comfortable pair of jeans in a decade, which is how long I hope they’ll last. And when I need to ride a bike, I still have my trusty old Uniqlos.

Also: Amazon’s $35 External DVD Drive Will Make You Feel Young Again