Do You Really Have the Time for that New Gizmo?

As the holiday season reaches its final crescendo, I am reminded of a recurring interaction from my childhood, one that I suspect resonates with many of you as well. Itis a dialog that occurred on various occasions -- birthdays, holidays or any time that it was considered okay to tell my parents what gift I hoped to receive.

There would come that moment when one of my parents would rain on my wish list parade, offering the following unsolicited advice: "Do you really want that? Or is it something that youill play with for three days and then never look at again? Remember that talking cockroach action figure that you just had to have last year? It wound up buried in your toy chest a month later and we finally gave it away. This new gizmo, the one that lets you transform a giant robot into actual edible cheeseburger, sounds destined for a similar fate."

OK, maybe they didnit say it quite that way. But you get the idea. Unfortunately, similar dialogs often reappear long after you grow up, this time with your spouse. More than once, my wife has skeptically inquired about my intended purchases: "Do we really need a new television? The old one still works just fine. And why such a huge screen?" Clearly, my wife is not aware of the large screen imperative buried within the DNA of all organisms with a Y chromosome.

Still, such conversations have led me to reflect on my many Mac purchases over the years. Not so much the computers, but all the hardware and software accessories that work with the CPU. How many of these accessories soon wound up at the bottom of my virtual "toy chest" -- never to be used again? As it turns out, quite a few. And they were often items that I was quite enthusiastic about at first. Some of them have even been mentioned in previous columns here.

The list is too long and too embarrassing to give you the complete version. But here are a few highlights:

  • I got Instant Music so that I could easily convert my collection of old LPs to digital files on my Mac. It worked great. No complaints. Still, I have now owned the device for close to a year and have ported only about 6 albums. I havenit even turned on the device since the summer. I still have over a hundred old LPs that are sitting and awaiting their turn at bat. I am not sure if and when their turn will ever come.

  • After purchasing a digital video camera a few years ago, I envisioned myself as a junior Steven Spielberg, using iMovie (or Final Cut Express, which I purchased soon after getting the camera) together with iDVD, to create elaborately edited and enhanced videos of our vacations -- to show on that large screen television I eventually bought. With my new LightScribe-capable DVD burner, the discs would even sport professional-looking labels. As it turns out, I hardly ever use the video camera anymore, much preferring a still camera instead. Of the dozens of occasions that I did use the video camera, less than a handful of the results have it to my Mac and only one has been put on a DVD. And the LightScribe feature of my DVD burner remains unused beyond the first few discs I made just after purchasing the drive.

  • Whenever the subject of printing digital photos comes up, I can be counted on to wax enthusiastically about the joys of using my Canon color printer and the wonderfulness of iPhotois book printing feature. Yes, with my Canon inkjet, I can easily and conveniently print photos that are at least as good as what I would get from my local pharmacy. While I can put these printed photos into an album, an even slicker album alternative is to skip the Canon and use iPhoto to create one of those attractively designed photo books, complete with my own comments. Listening to me talk, you would think I do these things on an almost daily basis. Want to know how many iPhoto books I have actually done? I hardly even use my Canon printer any more, preferring instead to view photos on my computer display.

  • I purchased a Yamaha digital piano, primarily so I could use it with GarageBand. Again, I envisioned making multi-track recordings, combining my piano playing with GarageBandis built-in loops. While I still play the piano almost every day (and thus have no regrets about getting it), I never use it with GarageBand anymore. The piano isnit even in the same room as my Mac. As of now, I donit use GarageBand at all, for anything.

  • I canit even begin to count the software purchases I have made that are now either completely abandoned or significantly underutilized. Among the ones that come immediately to mind are (in alphabetical order): 3D Weather Globe, Delicious Library, QuicKeys, StickyBrain, and Webstracter.

And so it goes.

Now I donit mean to suggest that these items are worthless or that no one really uses them. Most of them are great products and I suspect they all have a core audience that uses them to their full potential. Itis just that I am not a member of that audience. Apparently, I am not even eligible for tickets. Unfortunately, I didnit realize this until after I made the purchases (yes, I can almost hear my mother saying "I told you so").

Happily, I can report that not every purchase I make works out this way. There are many that have been a stellar success story. These include EyeTV (which I regularly use for recording shows and often burning them to a DVD), a media card reader (a convenience for transferring photos from my camera to my Mac), a label printer (I often use it for addressing packages) and of course my AirPort Express (with its nearly essential AirTunes feature).

This led me to consider whether there was any pattern that might explain why some items met my pre-purchase expectations while others ended up gathering dust. If so, it might help me predict what items I should get or avoid going forward.

After looking over the list (and checking it twice...), I believe I found the key:

The items that most often went unused were those that required a significant investment of time before I could reap the rewards. In contrast, the items that I tended to use the most were the ones that saved me time, or least made the passage of time more enjoyable.

For example, while I would love to wake up tomorrow morning and find that all of my digital video tapes have been edited and put onto LightScribe-labeled DVDs, it isnit going to happen. The truth is that it would take weeks, if not months, of effort to do this. Plus the job would really never end, because I would keep shooting new video.

On the other hand, my label printer effortlessly saves me time. Whenever I want a label, I just type in the address (which takes no more time than if I did it by hand) and click Print. The label spits out almost instantly with a return address and bar code automatically included. As a bonus, the next time I want to use the same address, I donit have to retype it. All I need do is click (even so, I still wind up addressing some envelopes by hand). Similarly, playing music with AirTunes is as easy as selecting a playlist. No more fumbling with multiple CDs that include songs I donit especially want to hear mixed in with the ones I want.

Of course, there are times that itis worth the effort for those things that take time. I know there are people out there that regularly make iPhoto books, create GarageBand recordings or produce their own movies. And I envy the results. But (unless you have superhuman powers), you have to be selective. You canit regularly do a good job of all of these things. At least not if you also want to hold down a job, spend time with your family and occasionally take a moment to breathe. There are still only 24 hours in a day.

So you focus on one or two areas at most and pretty much ignore the rest. Alternatively, for better or worse, you can do what I have done, and wind up being a jack-of-all-trades. I dabble in all of these endeavors without truly mastering any of them.

In the end, when it comes to making my purchasing decisions, the moral of the story is clear. I am already more busy than I care to be. The items I will use the most are the ones that free up some of my time -- not ones that create new ways to spend it. Except...there are those boxes of old 35mm slides in my closet. A new slide scanner would be just the ticket to get them on my Mac. Hmmm...