TIME Apps & Software

The ‘Brain App’ That’s Better Than Spritz

Getty Images

There’s a check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. There is, however, a non-magical way to read (and comprehend) more quickly.

We all have so much to read these days. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read it faster? The possibility that this fond wish could actually be granted by technology is what’s driving the buzz about Spritz, a new speed-reading app that debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and will soon come loaded on new Samsung devices. (For now, you can try out Spritz on this demonstration page.)

Its makers claim that Spritz allows users to read at staggeringly high rates of speed: 600 or even 1,000 words per minute. (The average college graduate reads at a rate of about 300 words per minute.) Spritz can do this, they say, by circumventing the limitations imposed by our visual system.

It is true that “our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” as cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes in his book Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read.

But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place — and quickly, quickly, others follow.

RSVP has been studied by scientists for years, and it does appear to bypass the speed limit imposed by eye movements during normal reading. But there’s another check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. When we read really fast — especially in complex or difficult material — our understanding of the text suffers. (I’m put in mind of the old Woody Allen joke: He speed-read War and Peace, he cracks, and came away with the insight that “it’s about Russia.”)

But all is not lost for those of us who would like to read faster, at least some of the time — because there does exist an “app” of sorts that has been proven to allow faster reading and complete comprehension. It’s called expertise. In their forthcoming book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

Expertise has its own limits, of course. Becoming an expert is a long, slow process, and each of us can develop true expertise in only a few areas. But reading with the aid of this “brain app” permits us to read swiftly and with depth and understanding — while reading with an app like Spritz allows us only to read simply, foolishly fast.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Gadgets

Will Buy: App-Sensor Combo Tells You When Your Grill’s Tank Needs Refueling

Quirky

Hank Hill would be proud.

Originally introduced in early December, Quirky’s “Refuel” app-connected propane tank sensor is now entering production. Quirky estimates the product will cost around $18.

For that, you get a ring-shaped apparatus that sits under your grill’s propane tank and is connected to a gauge that adheres to your grill with a magnet. Take a peek at the gauge when you’re near the grill, or instead fire up the smartphone app that connects to Refuel to see how much gas you have left before you need to drag the tank back to Strickland Propane for a refill.

It’s a smart solution to a lazy man’s problem, but Hank Hill would be proud.

Refuel [Quirky.com via Uncrate]

TIME Apps & Software

Gmail iPhone App Gets Less Sucky, Shows New Mail Faster

Products from rival companies Apple and Google don't often play nicely together, but Google introduced an update to its Gmail app for iPhone Wednesday that vastly improves the user experience, pre-fetching and syncing emails for easier reading on the go

Not that it was super sucky before. The one glaringly sucky thing about it has been de-suckified, however.

From Google’s blog:

The app now fully supports background app refresh, which means your Gmail messages will be pre-fetched and synced so they’re right there when you open the app—no more annoying pauses while you wait for your inbox to refresh. This feature requires iOS 7, and you’ll also need to turn on background app refresh and notifications (badge or any other type) for the Gmail app.

Note that this can take a toll on your battery life, depending upon how many emails you get every second. Check out this video to see how to turn off background app refresh on the iPhone to save battery life. Note: I have background app refresh turned off for just about every app, but I’ll be turning it on for this new Gmail feature. Mark my words. That’s not a threat: It’s a promise.

Get your mail faster on the Gmail iOS app [Google Blog]

TIME Apps & Software

Microsoft to Take Windows XP Off Life Support Despite Its 29% Market Share

Microsoft

Change: It's inevitable in and of itself, and it's inevitable that some people don't like it.

Change: It’s inevitable in and of itself, and it’s inevitable that some people don’t like it.

Ars Technica cites a report from Net Market Share contending that Microsoft’s almost-13-year-old operating system, Windows XP, can still be found on almost 30% of computers that connect to the Internet. That’s second only to Windows 7, which claims around 47%. Windows 8/8.1 accounts for just shy of 11%; Mac OS X makes up just shy of 8%; Windows Vista slides in at just north of 3%, with “Other” making up less than 2%.

XP popup
Microsoft

Microsoft will be ending Windows XP support on April 8 and, from March 8 onward, Windows XP users will start seeing the pop-up to the right.

If you’re running XP, your computer isn’t going to self destruct on April 8, but if you use it to connect to the Internet, things might get a bit dicey. Microsoft issues periodic patches that shore up potential chinks in XP’s armor, but that all ends on April 8. Once new security holes are discovered by bad guys, they could be exploited over and over again by viruses and malware. Antivirus and antimalware software can help somewhat, but these solutions are generally more reactive than proactive. They won’t be able to thwart many (or any) fast-moving zero-day exploits.

Obviously, Microsoft would like these millions and millions of XP users to upgrade to Windows 8, whether that’s with a rumored low-cost/no-cost version of the Microsoft’s latest operating system, a site that tells people — yes, this exists — whether or not they’re running Windows XP, or by giving out a free data-migration tool. However, most of these data migration tools transfer files and settings, but not programs. I keep imagining the longtime XP holdout feeling a wave of panic when staring at Windows 8’s big, colorful tiles upon first bootup.

But the biggest issue for a vast segment of XP users – business and industry — will likely be ensuring that software that runs on XP still runs okay on Windows 8. Especially if it’s specialized, custom-made software used by service techs or dentists or various other occupations. To Microsoft’s credit, supporting an operating system for almost 13 years should qualify as going above and beyond. That’s not going to make April 8 sting any less for a lot of people, though.

Weeks before expiration date, Windows XP still has 29% OS market share [Ars Technica]

TIME Apps & Software

In a Merger of Personalized Magazines, Flipboard Is Buying Zite from CNN

Flipboard, Zite
Flipboard, Zite

CNN is selling its app and partnering with a former arch-rival, Flipboard, in a deal that also includes Flipboard getting access to CNN's content and the two working jointly to sell advertisements. The deal is reportedly worth $60 million

A few years ago, a profusion of personalized-magazine apps debuted. These apps for the iPad and other platforms wove together content from the web into a good-looking, magazine-like form. The two that turned out to matter most were Flipboard (which defined the genre) and Zite (which was acquired by TIME’s corporate cousin CNN in 2011).

Now they’re becoming one. Flipboard is announcing that it’s acquiring Zite from CNN, in a deal that also involves the Flipboard app getting access to CNN content and the two companies working together to sell ads. They’re not disclosing the money involved, but CNN.com’s own Laurie Segall is reporting that the purchase price was $60 million.

The bad news for Zite fans is that Flipboard is going to discontinue development of the app it’s acquiring. It is, however, planning to keep employing Zite’s engineering team and integrate Zite technology into Flipboard. That makes sense: Zite has always had more of an emphasis on using artificial technology to help figure out which sorts of stories each reader is likely to care about. Flipboard is also going to give Zite users the ability to log into its app using their Zite credentials.

For those who chose to use Zite over Flipboard, the news is a bummer. But it might result in a product that’s better than either has been on its own: Flipboard has the more polished user experience, while Zite has impressive technological underpinnings. And though Flipboard is the highest-profile, most ambitious contender in the category, it’ll continue to face competition from apps such as Feedly, News3360, Pulse and Google’s Currents.

TIME Apps & Web

FileThis Automatically Gathers and Files Important Documents Online

FileThis

FileThis is one of the more exciting new products for taking financial records to the digital realm.

Finally, a critical missing link in the paperless billing chain has been filled. FileThis is a new Web-based service that that automatically downloads your e-statements into your PC or cloud storage.

FileThis covers the gamut of household paper filing — bank statements, phone bills, tax documents, mortgage statements, credit card statements, insurance policies and benefits, online shopping accounts, utilities and so on.

Is It safe?

Security is a legitimate major concern on such aggregating sites, for fear that one password could give a thief access to the family jewels. So let’s address that up front.

Do you have to give the site your passwords to access bank accounts and more? Yes. How secure can that be? It is essentially as secure as online banking, using the same methods.

FileThis encrypts your login information the moment you enter it. Once you’re on its servers, everything is encrypted to the highest standard so no one can decode your content, even if hackers were to somehow break in. The few employees who manage the encryption process undergo the same rigorous security measures used in banks, including background checks.

And finally, even if someone accessed your FileThis password, it could not be used to make changes to your accounts, because FileThis only does one thing: retrieve statements. Your individual account passwords are never visible, not even to you. The system has been built from the ground up to be secure and safe.

FileThis is based on a user fee revenue model (free basic service with fee-based advanced services). Income comes from customers, not from partners or advertisers. This means there are no hidden loyalties.

Why would I need this?

Our world is gradually shifting from paper to paperless systems. During the transition, consumers must grapple with both types of media for tasks such as preparing taxes and maintaining records. Many institutions charge a fee for paper statements or don’t offer paper at all.

Digital records can equally be a hassle because of the manual process necessary to download all e-statements into your digital file cabinet. PayPal, for instance, keeps only three months’ worth; fall behind at your own risk. FileThis comes to the rescue by automating the whole process, running in the background to collect e-statements while still giving you complete content ownership and control of where they get filed.

How does it work?

First, link your various accounts. It takes just a moment to find your institutions on the supported list and enter login credentials for each. Then choose where you want the documents stored.

The rest is automatic. FileThis automatically fetches all the stored statements at the institutions — up to three years’ worth if available — and saves them in PDF format (a boon, if you’ve been lax at downloading and filing or if you’ve wrangled PDFing HTML statements).

Next, FileThis analyzes each document to automatically give it a descriptive file name, tag it with the correct date, index key words and categorize it for easy searching (for example, “tax documents” instead of “bank statements”). All of this occurs in the background.

Finally, documents are moved to the destination you’ve chosen in automatically created sub-folders. According to the company, most consumers choose one of the supported cloud services, such as Dropbox, Evernote or Google Drive, although some users chose their local PC drive. FileThis also offers its own proprietary cloud with additional robust features like advanced filing and keyword search.

What’s the hitch?

FileThis carries a few limitations. The list of covered institutions is finite. FileThis has to write code to connect to each institution, and though it plans to continue adding new ones, those with the largest demand take precedence.

So while you’ll find major institutions like Chase, Comcast, Verizon and Amazon all covered, FileThis lacks regional institutions like health insurers or local utilities. As a work-around, the site offers document upload and invites users to suggest other institutions to support. The list of supported institutions is expected to triple from 330 to 1,000 by 2015.

Another limitation: The service is available only in the United States.

And, finally, it’s not easy to direct documents to more than one location — for example, both your local PC and a cloud service. FileThis is designed to be used with one or the other. Lastly, while some leading cloud services are supported, many are not yet.

Pricing

The free version of FileThis allows connections with up to six institutions, with $20 per year for 12 connections or $50 per year for 30 connections.

If you’re using the proprietary FileThis cloud storage, your storage space increases from 500MB to 10GB.

Of course, there are no space limitations if you’re downloading to your PC or your own cloud service.

Similar solutions

Other products perform some of the same functions. Manilla, built for online bill payments, offers more breadth in some ways, such as email syncing that automatically pulls in emailed statements. But it connects with institutions at a different level, often grabbing only the information it needs for bill payments rather all the e-statement documents needed for filing and tax documents, and Manilla does not go back so far to pull history. Another example is Doxo, similar to Manilla.

Services like these are evolving rapidly, as they pioneer new ways to organize digital household information.

What currently sets FileThis apart

  • FileThis is a digital mailbox and filing service for all documents, including healthcare benefits or policy documents, year-end tax documents from mortgage or investment companies, trade confirmations and quarterly reports from investment companies — not just billing statements!
  • FileThis is designed for viewing and storing documents. There is no access to transactional processes.
  • FileThis automatically files documents, classifying and tagging them and making them text searchable.
  • FileThis lets you choose where to store documents.
  • FileThis consumer-paid subscriptions are its single source of income, so there are no backroom deals with business partners or advertisers.

The bottom line

I have to admit, FileThis is one of the more exciting new products for taking financial records to the digital realm. That paper tiger no longer seems quite so scary.

This article was written by Kristy Holch and originally appeared on Techlicious.
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TIME Video Games

Zynga Wants You Back with New Farmville, Words With Friends and Poker

Zynga

What's Facebook? Zynga's new games are all about phones and tablets.

If you could just stop playing Candy Crush Saga for a minute, Zynga would really like you to get back into Farmville, Words With Friends and Poker now.

As such, the company is announcing revamped versions of its hit games for mobile devices:

  • FarmVille 2: Country Escape has you raising crops in a coastal setting on phones and tablets. It connects with the web version of FarmVille 2, has a common rewards system and adds “Social Control” options so you don’t have to spam all your friends and family with your progress. It also works offline.
  • Words With Friends is getting a dictionary, leaderboards and detailed statistics. Players can switch to the new version and have all their in-progress games and history carry over.
  • Zynga Poker will be faster and more responsive, and will learn how good of a player you are to match you up with people of equal skill.

Things haven’t been going so well for Zynga. A few years ago, Zynga dominated Facebook gaming with hits like FarmVille and CityVille, but the company hasn’t been able to sustain that success, and declining user numbers have led Zynga to lay off hundreds of employees over the last year. On mobile devices, Zynga hasn’t been as dominant, and one of its biggest efforts to buy into the space–with the $200 million purchase of Draw Something makers OMGPOP–was a spectacular failure.

The trio of revamped games are a clear attempt by Zynga to refocus on mobile. In fact, the company’s blog post announcing the games doesn’t mention Facebook at all. Still, Zynga will need more than few warmed over classics to recapture the enthusiasm of its Facebook heyday.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Apps & Software

AT&T KitKat Update for HTC One: Now with a Side of Bloatware

Jared Newman for TIME

Hope you like auto-installed browser toolbars.

Last week, my AT&T HTC One received an update to Android 4.4 KitKat. Of course, I went ahead with the installation, not wanting to miss out on the new features and interface improvements in the latest version.

Shortly after installing the update, my excitement turned to mild annoyance as I realized AT&T had used KitKat as an opportunity to deliver a fresh batch of bloatware.

The worst offender was AT&T’s “Browser Bar,” which pops up with links to various sites and services while you’re browsing the Internet. Previously, the Browser Bar only appeared in the HTC One’s stock browser. The update allows it to weasel its way into other browsers, such as Google Chrome.

I wasn’t aware of this until I started using Chrome after the update, and received a notification suggesting that I activate the Browser Bar. This notification — I regret not taking a screenshot — didn’t make clear whether it was a feature of Chrome or a third-party add-on. It didn’t mention AT&T at all. While I figured something fishy was going on, I tapped on the notification in search of more information.

attbrowserbar2
Jared Newman for TIME

Instead of telling me more, the Browser Bar simply activated itself and sent me to its settings menu. Only after digging through the settings did I confirm that this was an AT&T add-on, produced by SkyFire, and that it was also collecting anonymous usage data. The settings for the Browser Bar had also moved out of the stock browser and into HTC’s main settings menu.

The good news is that the Browser Bar is easy to deactivate through its settings menu. You can also disable it completely by going to Settings > Apps > All > Browser Bar and pressing “Disable.” However, disabling won’t scrub the Browser Bar from the HTC One’s settings menu. It just ensures that nothing happens when you tap on it.

This wasn’t the only bit of bloatware that AT&T added to the HTC One as part of Android 4.4 KitKat. AT&T also took the liberty of installing Beats Music. At least Beats is a legitimate service, rather than a junky browser toolbar, but as a happy Rdio subscriber, I have no interest in leaving Beats Music on my phone. Unfortunately the app can only be disabled, not uninstalled.

While I’m glad HTC and AT&T are continuing to update the One, the quiet installation of new bloatware leaves a sour taste. The Browser Bar in particular reminds me of how Java would sneak the Ask.com toolbar onto Windows PCs as part of routine updates. It’s an underhanded thing to do, and yet another strike against the Android update process.

I’ve reached out to AT&T to find out of any other phones are getting the new Browser Bar as part of the update to Android 4.4, but haven’t heard back. If anyone has spotted it, let me know.

TIME Autos

Volvo Shows Off the Apple CarPlay iPhone Interface

Hot on the heels of Apple rolling out the details behind its CarPlay interface, Volvo has posted a video to YouTube showing off what everything will look like.

+ READ ARTICLE

Hot on the heels of Apple rolling out the details behind its CarPlay interface, Volvo has posted a video to YouTube showing off what everything will look like. As you can see, you’re presented with a limited number of apps that have been given car-friendly designs: Maps, Phone, Messages, Spotify and others.

Apple says “even more supported apps are coming soon,” which is a sign CarPlay won’t just be a free-for-all where you can futz with every app you have on your phone. They’ll each have to be re-imagined for a quick-glance environment first, which is probably safest for everyone involved. There’s no mention of web browsers, either, which may very well be another safety measure.

You can read more about CarPlay from my colleague Harry here.

Volvo and Apple CarPlay [YouTube via 9to5Mac]

TIME Rumors

A Glimpse at Cortana, Microsoft’s Version of Siri and Google Now

Microsoft

The Halo-inspired AI will reportedly follow Google into creepy-useful territory.

Microsoft’s long-rumored virtual assistant Cortana will likely make its debut next month at the company’s Build developer conference. In the meantime, The Verge is showing what the Halo-inspired AI might look like.

Cortana reportedly takes some cues from Siri, addressing the user by name and showing an animation — a circular blue icon, as opposed to Siri’s white microphone — when it’s thinking or speaking. Users will apparently be able to ask Cortana questions by voice or type them in.

But Microsoft’s assistant will also reportedly borrow ideas from Google Now, digging into e-mail, location and other sources of personal data to serve up information without the user having to ask for it.

As we’ve seen with Google Now, e-mail can be a pretty rich data source for things like flights, restaurant reservations, ticket purchases and incoming packages. A virtual assistant could use this data to give directions when it’s time to leave for dinner, or let you know what the weather will be like on your next trip. It’s as creepy as it is useful. (Thankfully, Cortana will apparently let users control which data the service can access, or turn off e-mail monitoring entirely.)

At first, Cortana will reportedly be part of Windows Phone 8.1, which itself will be revealed in full next month. But as Microsoft slowly merges its phone and tablet operating systems, it seems likely that Cortana would find its way into Windows as well.

This is Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri [The Verge]

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