Amazon Echo: I like it!

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When Amazon announced the Echo, I dutifully signed up for an invitation since I didn’t have to buy it then and had time to ponder the purchase. When I received the email notification that Echo was now available for purchase (still by invitation), I ordered nearly immediately. I wasn’t sure how handy I’d find Echo but figured there’s only one way to find out… to try it out.

Despite wintry weather the day before Thanksgiving, the Fedex guy arrived on time bearing my Echo (he said he likes driving in the snow and wants to move to Maine :-)). I set up the Echo in the lower shelf of a small side table where I’d previously had my Definitive Technology cube speaker (that I’d gotten for an amazing $180 at Best Buy… love that speaker). I was sad to disconnect my Definitive Technology cube speaker but 1) Needed a spot that would limit the chances the cats would knock over the Echo and 2) Really, just how many BT speakers does a person need in their living room?

Set up was quick and easy using the Echo app on my Blackberry Passport. After setting up the Echo, I paired my Blackberry to the speaker via Bluetooth, to stream Audible.com audiobooks to the Echo from my phone.

So far, my greatest use for the Echo has been to ask about the weather, stream music, and add items to my grocery list while in the kitchen. I’ve always longed to be able to add items to my grocery list from the kitchen as I realize they’re running out, rather than having to go back to the living room to retrieve my phone. Productivity nirvana!

As James Kendrick mentioned in his ZDNet Echo review (recommended reading), Echo makes it very easy to stream music of any genre at the spur of a moment. I like new age (ambient/chill) music and leave it streaming in the background.

The Echo app displays your Echo query history, including graphics when appropriate (e.g., forecast if you asked about weather, or album art when streaming music):

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So far, I’ve found Echo to be handy, easy to use, and inspiring. In fact, I’ve thought a lot about future enhancements I’d like to see and submitted them to Amazon for consideration:

  • Stream audiobooks from user’s Audible.com library (rather than need to download and then stream)
  • Sync with Google calendar, to play reminders already resident in my calendar. (Note: You can add reminders to Echo independently, and that functionality works very well.)
  • Adding single items to a list is super easy. I’d love to be able to ask Echo to extend her listening period, in order to add multiple items to a list. (Currently, you can use the Echo remote to make it faster to add multiple items to a list but it’d be very cool not to have to use the remote.) 

Echo is cool and one of the most innovative products I’ve seen in a while. I’ve reported a few minor bugs to Amazon. I figure some bugginess is to be expected considering it’s essentially in invite-only beta testing:

  • I have the Echo app set to play a confirmation tone whenever I say “Alexa” (this is called the “wake up sound”). The tone is hit or miss, and I’d love for it to play consistently.
  • The day before Thanksgiving, I asked Echo when the next holiday was… she replied with an April 2015 date :-)

I’m enjoying Echo and it’s a great deal for Amazon prime members at $99. If you have questions, feel free to add a comment.

Blackberry Passport: Initial impressions

passportI confess, my initial reaction to news of the BlackBerry Passport release was wonder and some snickering. Had those folks up in Waterloo lost their minds? What on earth could they be thinking releasing such an odd looking phone?

And then Passports start shipping to customers and feedback was generally good. Bored with most current phones, I’d recently returned to my trusty BlackBerry Q10. And when the unlocked Passport went back on sale on Amazon for $599, I picked one up.

So, now that I have a Passport, what do I think?

• The screen is bright and gorgeous. It doesn’t feel cramped like so many phone screens
• The keyboard isn’t as odd to type on as some pro reviewers made it out to be
• The capacitive element of the keyboard is innovative and inspired
• BlackBerry Os 10.3 adds nice enhancements and bridges gaps I’d previously experienced. Audible android app works great so I can listen to audiobooks anywhere. My fitbit flex band syncs nicely with the fitbit android app, which is great for tracking my workouts.
• Sound through the speakerphone speaker is loud and rich

So far, so good! I’ll post additional thoughts after I’ve used the phone a bit more.

By the way, I typed this review on my Passport.

Jack’s cataract surgery: Lessons learned

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 Jack watching (!!) my cat Hubert 4 days post-cataract surgery. (Jack’s face is a bit pink because I’d just cleaned the area around his eyes)

Jack and I have been sidekicks for about 5 years, and I’ve always considered his adoption one of the best things I’ve ever done. He’s a sweet, affectionate little guy and an absolute joy.

Several years ago, I noticed Jack bump into the curb during a walk. That made me wonder about his visual acuity (he has juvenile cataracts), and our vet referred Jack to a veterinary ophthalmologist for evaluation. The ophthalmologist tested both eyes and found that Jack had a detached retina (along with a cataract in his left eye), and had lost all vision in that eye. He also had a cataract in his right eye but she felt surgery wasn’t indicated at that point. We’ve had yearly checkups with the ophthalmologist since then, to monitor his eye health.

Fast forward to this spring when Jack had recurring inflammation in his right eye. We went to the ophthalmologist to get it checked out. She felt cataract surgery would be helpful for Jack’s right eye, and he was scheduled for further testing to better examine his eyes. His right eye was confirmed as a good cataract surgery candidate, and we started on the pre-surgical medication regimen (eye drops). 

The period prior to surgery was a little stressful, since Jack has a lot of chronic health issues that can be challenging to manage. Thankfully, his overall health remained stable and we started the more intensive pre-surgery medication regimen on schedule last weekend. Jack was able to have cataract surgery earlier this week. 

I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of outcome. My hope was that cataract removal would significantly reduce the ongoing inflammation Jack had been having, and that some level of vision would be restored — he’s become fearful of sounds outside as he’s lost his sight. I was blown away on surgery day when the ophthalmologist’s office left a voicemail saying Jack was awake and alert, surgery had gone well, and when he awoke the ophthalmologist had determined he could see again in his right eye!

There was a minor complication during surgery which precluded insertion of an intraocular lens. Although I’d hoped for lens insertion to give him the best possible vision, the ophthalmologist explained that despite not getting a replacement lens, he’s able to focus very quickly and his vision seems very good. This feels like a great example of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. He can see again…!

We went back for our 1-day post-surgery recheck on Wednesday. Here were the results:

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We still have several weeks of post-surgery care (medication and rechecks) and I’m so glad he’s off to such a great start.

I am so grateful the surgery was able to restore Jack’s sight! I’d hoped it would help, and when we go out for walks now (post-surgery), I feel an overwhelming sense of wonder and gratitude that he can see again. Even our “quick” walks have become longer since Jack likes to stand and gaze at birds (and neighbors when they’re out). He’s noticeably more confident about approaching and interacting with neighbors… before his surgery, he’d want to visit with neighbors but seemed reticent as they’d walk closer to him.

I hadn’t expected the restoration of Jack’s vision to be such a profound experience but it’s truly been awe-inspiring to see how quickly it’s improved his quality of life.

While contemplating pursuing cataract surgery for Jack, I read several client stories online to get a better sense of their (and their dogs’) experiences. Reading their stories was helpful to me. I share Jack’s story in hopes that it’s useful to others contemplating cataract surgery for their dog.

My rice cooker review (Zojirushi LAC05XT: 3 cup fuzzy logic)

Zojirushi LAC05XT

I recently picked up a Zojirushi LAC05XT rice cooker and love it! Here are the specs for this model (taken from the Zojirushi product page):

  • Micro computerized Fuzzy logic technology
  • 3 cup size ideal for singles and smaller families
  • Easy-to-clean clear coated stainless steel exterior
  • Automatic keep warm
  • Built-in retractable power cord
  • Menu settings include: white/mixed, sushi, porridge, brown and quick cooking
  • cETLus listed
  • Instruction manual in English, French, Traditional Chinese and Korean
Model No. NS-LAC05
Capacity* 3 cups / 0.54 liter
Dimensions (W x D x H) 9-1/8 x 11-7/8 x 7-1/2 inches
Electrical Rating 120 volts / 450 watts
Color Stainless Steel, Stainless Black

And my review… this 3-cup rice cooker isn’t the cheapest on the market but is a great value:

* It cooks rice, steel cut oats, and other whole grains flawlessly and then automatically reduces heat to keep warm for several hours
* You can select a menu setting and then press “Cook,” or use 1 of 2 preset timers to complete cooking by a specific time
* Spherical cooking pan is nonstick and fairly heavy (excellent quality)
* The inner lid not only comes out for cleaning, but the rubber seal is part of the detachable inner lid (making it easier to clean)
* The musical alert when done cooking is pleasant and loud enough so I can hear it from other rooms
* This is a small rice cooker, perfect for singles or a small family (and a small footprint which is great for small kitchens)
* The cord is retractable (again, handy for a smaller kitchen)
* It has an attractive aluminum and black plastic exterior that is easy to clean and contemporary-looking
* It has a handle so you can take it with you — handy for a potluck
* It uses “fuzzy logic” to automatically adjust cooking time

I’ve used this rice cooker to cook whole grains (brown rice, black rice, wild rice, quinoa, steel cut oats) as well as mixed dishes (i.e., rice-based one pot dinners). I’m not the most sophisticated cook but everything I’ve cooked in this Zojirushi has turned out great. I’m sure my friends are beginning to get bored hearing how much I love waking up to freshly cooked steel cut oats for breakfast. ;-)

There are a few items folks may need to adjust to (not really “cons” just need to be aware of):
* Rice cooker cups are not the U.S. standard 8 ounce cup. I haven’t found this to be an issue, I just make sure I use the included cup. If I lose the cup, it’s easily replaceable via Zojirushi.com or Amazon.
* The clock/timer uses military time. Again, not a big deal… If you’re in the U.S., just add 12 hours onto the time you have in mind.
* It doesn’t include “high end” features like induction heating, umami setting, scorch setting, etc. For me, this isn’t an issue because the quality of this rice cooker is superb and does everything I need.
* The “feet” aren’t very grippy so I picked up some 1/2 inch rubbery sliders (also called “bumpers”) with adhesive on one side, and stuck them onto the 4 feet.

I’m very happy with the quality of this rice cooker and its output, and highly recommend it. This Zojirushi would make a great gift for family, friends, or yourself.

Note: I haven’t received any incentives from Zojirushi… just a happy customer

Get a $15 credit for joining Oyster Books (“the netflix of books”)

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I joined the Oyster and Scribd subscription ebook services to save some money since as a voracious reader, I’ve been spending a lot on Kindle books. I’ve found that I like Scribd but absolutely love Oyster:

  • I continuously find interesting books on Oyster
  • The Oyster apps for iOS and Android work well
  • Oyster’s Android app works great on the Onyx Boox T68 e-ink reader (far less page turn artifacting than other ereader apps like Scribd or Kindle)
  • The Oyster subscription cost of $9.95/month is very low considering you can read as much as you want. (Note: The Scribd subscription is low, too, at $8.99/month)

You can try Oyster and get a $15 account credit by joining via this link. If you decide you don’t like Oyster, you can cancel your subscription any time you like… but if you read a lot, I’m betting you won’t.

Onyx Boox T68 e-ink Reader that runs on Android 4.0.4 with Google Play: Initial impressions

 

T68

** Jun 29 update: I’ve been messing around with this a bit more today since Kindle Android app v4.2 doesn’t provide font choices. Today, I downloaded and installed Kindle Android app v4.4.0.71. Not only does 4.4.0.71 include font choices (yay!), I was delighted to find it also seems to *minimize* the page turn lag and distracting artifacting displayed during the page turn process. The artifacting doesn’t go away completely, but it’s much improved over what I saw with Kindle apk v4.2 or 4.5

Edited later: Okay, 4.4 works but after my Kindle (Cloud) library loaded, the page-turn artifacting seemed to return. Oh well, at least 4.4 includes different font choices.**

Original post:

Spoiler: I like it a lot! You’ll note as you read this article that some text has background shading — this is text I’ve copied from my mobileread.com forum post and I just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. It doesn’t signify anything special ;-)

As you read this article, bear in mind this comes from someone who’s generally rooted Nook hardware to run the Kindle app. I most recently rooted the Nook Simple Touch (NST). My only complaint was that the Kindle app on the rooted NST rendered font too thin for my taste. The Kindle app on T68 experience isn’t as “perfect” or refined as on the Paperwhite2, but it’s not bad if you can ignore some minor artifacts in between page turns… the rendered page/text looks fine.

Read on for my thoughts about the new Onyx Boox Lynx T68 ereader which runs on Android 4.0.4 with Google Play installed -

My T68 (ordered from Arta-Tech/onyx-boox.com in Poland last weekend) arrived today. By the way, my experience with Arta-Tech was stellar — they shipped promptly, responded to an email inquiry within minutes and generally provided an excellent purchase experience. Note that Amazon US is now carrying the T68, as well.

I wanted the T68 mainly to read Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle ebooks on the same e-ink reader rather than spending so much money on Kindle ebooks. Here are a few initial observations:

  • Oyster book app: Works pretty well and the rendered page looks great. There is a slight flash during page turns where the new page appears briefly, shows a blank page, then displays the new page (again). It’s pretty quick and I can live with it.
  • Scribd app: Has the same brief text overlap flash when turning pages (as I’ve been seeing with Kindle apps on the T68) but otherwise rendered text similar to the Oyster Book app.
  • Kindle app: I first installed the Kindle app from Google play store. I don’t know if it’s my huge library (I pick up alot of free books) or the size of my audible library, but the newest kindle app wasn’t very well-behaved (for me). I did a google search and found (then installed) Kindle app 4.2.0.101 and it’s working great. Font rendering isn’t quite as dark as the Paperwhite2 but much better than the Kindle app on a rooted Nook Simple Touch.
  • Case: The port cutouts don’t match the T68, but I have an old Kindle Fire (edited to correct: I believe it’s actually Kindle HD 7″) case that fits the T68 well. I wouldn’t mind getting a case specifically made for the T68 but this will protect it in my handbag until then.
Caution: I’m finding that the Kindle app works best when I only have a few (2 or 3 400 page) books downloaded to the T68. For me, that’s not a big deal since this device offers me the flexibility I’ve wanted ever since subscribing to the Scribd and Oyster Books monthly services.
 
If you’d like to see the T68 in action, there are several youtube videos posted. Some are foreign language, but the hardware (and third party app behavior, like Kindle) is demoed. I found these videos helpful as I contemplated buying the T68.
 
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the T68. Battery life has been very good, especially with wifi off in between ebook downloads. The hardware is good quality and I was happy to learn the o-ring around the button on the front works as a page forward/back controller for the kindle app. (It doesn’t work quite as well with the Oyster app and apparently not at all in the Scribd app, but the touch screen page turns work fine for all the reader apps I’ve listed.)

Dyson Hot & Cool Heater Fan: Post-recall perspective

dyson_hot_am04Recently, Dyson issued a recall for its AM04 and AM05 model Hot & Cool fans. These are expensive (approximately $400) but offer bladeless air movement and as such are generally safer for curious pets and small children. I’ve used Dyson fans for about 3 years: My first Dyson purchase was the tower fan (AM02).

A few months ago, I received email notification from Dyson that their Hot & Cool fans were under safety recall. The email asked me to submit my product registration number at their web site, and upon confirming that my product (1st generation Hot & Cool fan, AM04) was indeed being recalled, instructions for taking the fan to UPS to be packaged and reshipped to Dyson. I didn’t have to do anything special, just take the fan itself to UPS and they did all the work for me. UPS gave me a receipt to prove I’d shipped the fan back to Dyson.

Yesterday, I came home to find a Dyson Hot & Cool fan on my front porch, the result of my recall return. Upon inspection, I realized it was brand new and was the newer model (AM05) rather than the AM04 that I’d sent back. With summer starting this weekend, I was very happy to have my Hot & Cool fan back since I use it year-round in the living room.

So, what do I think about Dyson post-recall?

I am impressed by how Dyson stood behind their products, made the product return process hassle-free, and not only returned the replacement quickly, sent an upgraded model (since my AM04 apparently couldn’t be repaired). I don’t perceive safety recalls as a flaw in manufacturing per se — sometimes hardware/software bugs aren’t apparently immediately post-production. I’m very pleased that Dyson seemed to take action promptly upon identifying the problem, rather than dragging their feet (or even trying to hide the problem) like some companies.

Kudos, Dyson! Your products are expensive but work very well and I appreciate your product support: Consider me a satisfied (and now even more loyal) customer.