Cool Cloud Apps for Work & Play

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Sunny skies are great for summer activities, but this doesn’t mean that your vacation should be entirely cloud-free. Internet-based cloud services — and the accompanying apps for PCs and mobile devices — can come in very handy whether you want to do a bit of work while you’re up in the mountains, listen to music or watch TV at the seashore, or share photos of your trip with folks back home.

Obviously, you’re not going to be taking your desktop PC with you on vacation, and you might not want to tote your notebook everywhere, either. More and more these days, vendors are running their software offerings from servers in the clouds, and making them available through browsers or Web apps (for notebook and desktop PC access) along with apps designed for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, and other mobile gadgets. To avoid any vacation-time snares, though, it’s best to learn about available services and software before you leave.

Be aware, for example, that you’re unlikely to get the same level of “user experience” on a smartphone as on a PC. Mobile apps for streaming movies, TV and music, for instance, can be glitchy, especially on the Android side, due in part to all of the different devices and versions of Android out there. In any case, the capabilities of mobile apps tend to be restricted by factors such as limited processing power and smaller screens and keyboards. If the app is well designed, those restrictions might not matter much. The sailing can be much smoother when you run the apps on a tablet, as opposed to a phone. Still, however, while many Android and iOS apps provide excellent performance, some have bugs which can impact functionality on either a phone or a tablet. It’s always a good idea to try out an app before counting on it in the clutch.

Cloud Apps for Work: Office Suites & File Sharing

Microsoft Office 365 is one highly visible example of the big shift to cloud-enabled services and apps. With the recently introduced Consumer Premium edition, you pay $8.95 per month for up to five PCs or Macs. Microsoft sweetened the deal earlier this month with the release of Office Mobile, a mobile office suite for iOS devices which is available free of charge to Office 365 subscribers (but not at all to nonsubscribers, except those signing up for free one-month trials of Office 365).

So if you haven’t finished that important proposal or business report before leaving for vacation, you are in luck. If you’ve opted to bring a Windows notebook, a Windows 8 tablet, or a MacBook, for example, Office 365 will let you use nine different software programs (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, and Lync) from anywhere. The subscription also includes Office Web Apps, editions of these same programs with somewhat less functionality. The Web Apps, though, can be used from remote locations — such as the desktop PC at your summer cottage, or a buddy’s laptop — without requiring you to waste disk space, wireless bandwidth, or precious vacation time on software downloads.

If you’re only lugging an iPhone or iPad, the new Office Mobile will let you access any Word, PowerPoint or Excel docs that you’ve recently accessed on your computer (through a “recent documents” panel in the app), as well as any Office docs you’ve stored on SkyDrive, SkyDrive Pro, or SharePoint. You can also view and edit Office documents attached to email messages. You aren’t going to want to write a full report on your phone, but you can take a look at colleagues’ work and make some tweaks.

But what if you don’t want to sign up for Office 365, and what if you’re an Android user? Lots of other cloud-enabled, Microsoft Office-compatible office suites are now available for iOS and Android alike. You should check out Polaris Office, QuickOffice, Documents To Go, for instance.

What if you want to share your work with business partners who don’t have SkyDrive accounts? Here, Web-based file sharing services like Dropbox and Box can be very useful. These services can be easily accessed from just about any PC or mobile platform, and they can also handle PDFs and docs in other file formats. You get copious amounts of file storage and sharing free of charge.

Yet another Web service, CloudOn, lets you create MS Office docs on an iOS or Android device, and then share them vis either Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, or SkyDrive.

Cloud Apps for Play – Photo Sharing, Music & Movies

But enough of work, already! Want to watch TV or a movie from somewhere other than the hotel room? Netscape and Hulu Plus each provide cloud-based services for doing just that. Both support Windows Phone, iOS and Android devices, in addition to Windows PCs, Macs, TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, and other gizmos. Hulu Plus even supports the Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle Fire e-readers. For Android devices, Hulu Plus requires version 3.2 or higher, with the exception of “select numbers [of] legacy Android phones (running Android 2.x).” Netflix, on the other hand, only demands 2.2 or up. Each of these services costs $7.99 monthly, but your vacation week might be the perfect time to take advantage of free trial offers. Netflix offers a one-month free trial, while Hulu Plus gives one-week free trials.

How about listening to music while you’re away? After months of rumors, Google and Apple both recently joined service providers like Spotify, Rdio and Pandora in the streaming music services arena. Google Play All Access and Apple’s iTunes Radio both let you listen to millions of songs, create custom radio stations, and skip songs. Priced at $9.99 per month, with a one-week free trial available, All Access allows you to upload and store songs, as well. iTunes Radio is free, but you need to subscribe to iTunes Match — at annual pricing of $24.99 — for song uploads and storage. iTunes Radio supports the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, PC, and Apple TV. All Access supports Web browsers and Android devices so far, but iOS support is expected soon.

On your vacation, you’ll probably be shooting some photos, too, with either your digital camera or the camera on your smartphone. Cloud-based services like Dropbox and Box are fine for sharing photos. However, specialized photo sharing services such as Yahoo!’s Flickr and Google’s Picasa and Google+ Photos carry the added advantages of letting you enhance and organize your pictures.

Flickr also offers photo sharing groups. You can use Flickr with either a Web browser or a Flickr app for iPhone, iPod touch, Android, or Windows Phone 7. Flickr’s mobile apps are very full-featured, with capabilities that include (but are not limited to) photo uploads, 16 filters, the ability to find and join groups, and a photo editor for enhancing, drawing, cropping, retouching, and adding text.

Picasa, Flickr’s traditional rival, has been available in several ways. There’s a Picasa photo editing app for notebook and desktop PCs as well as Picasa Web Albums, its online extension. Third-party developers have built a variety of Picasa-compatible apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices.

Also for photo sharing, Google offers Google+ Photo, accessible through both Web browsers and Google+ mobile apps. Features include auto-enhancement, auto-backup, and photo editing, search and sorting, for instance. In addition, Picasa and Picasa Web Albums have now been integrated with Google+. Picasa 3.9 — an application for Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 — offers Google+ geotagging and sharing. According to Google, although “Picasa is not yet certified for operation with Windows 8, a large number of people have installed it and use it every day on that platform.” Google has been transitioning Picasa Web Albums users to Google+ Photos, and some long-time users have complained online about the change.

Conclusion

You definitely need to keep the limitations of mobile apps — and any other software — in mind. Still, you can do a little work during your vacation (if you have to, that is!), watch TV shows and movies, listen to music, and share your photos, whether you pack a laptop or just a smartphone or tablet.

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