Tag Archives: technology

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):

IMG 20141128 081817

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.

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hello, pebble: initial impressions

Pebble

In April 2012, I contributed to a kickstarter project for the Pebble watch. It was a new product that would allow the wearer to link the watch to their iOS or android phone and receive a variety of notifications. Because the watch face itself is software based, the user could select from different watch faces rather than having just one standard display.

Fast forward to February 2013: My Pebble watch arrived yesterday!

Having had a day to play with my new Pebble, here are some initial impressions:

  • It’s lighter and thinner than expected
  • The epaper display is bright and easy to read in ambient light
  • I’ve only needed to use the backlight at night — it’s not super bright but does illuminate the display well enough
  • It’s large but not as large as I’d feared
  • It’s very easy to pair with the Pebble android app
  • The watch band is soft & flexible

Before my Pebble arrived, I’d already installed the Pebble android app. Because the official Pebble app currently has a limited set of notification in settings (incoming calls, SMS, calendar reminders, email, Google Talk, Google Voice, Facebook, WhatsApp) I looked online and found there are more android apps to extend Pebble integration:

While email notifications work well using the native Pebble android app, I found them distracting and turned them off. Note to Gmail two-step authentication users: You’ll need to set up an app-specific password in order to receive Gmail on your Pebble watch.
 
Samsung phone owners need to be aware that due to an apparent Samsung firmware bug, enabling the Pebble in their accessibility settings also turns on Talkback for some phone functions. Example: Now whenever I open a folder, my Note II (audibly) says “The folder is open.” I’m not hearing text to speech across the board, just in some limited instances. If it bothers you, you can try this fix (I just tried it, and it worked on my Verizon Note II):  http://www.productigeeky.com/faq/#1
 
I’d love to see a battery % status display on the watch (or within the Pebble android app). Even so, I love my Pebble and look forward to seeing additional functionality and integration enabled as developers get up and rolling.

Edited to add: Here’s a good video by The Verge that shows Pebble watch in use.

Have we forgotten the joy of tech?

Happy jack

(Photo of my happy little poodle who takes great joy in spreading love)

Yikes. Lots of drama in the mobile tech online community recently:

  • MG Siegler of TechCrunch posted his opinion about the Galaxy Nexus
  • The Verge’s Josh Topolsky countered with his reaction
  • Mobile tech aficionados across the Internet noticed

All too often, tech articles remind me of that off-color adage: “Opinions are like *%#holes, everyone has one.” The recent drama also makes me wonder:

Have we become so entrenched in our individual tech biases that we’ve forgotten the joy of tech… how tech can improve lives in both simple and very profound ways? And how sometimes, the tech that supports those improvements isn’t always the current best-seller or perhaps is no longer an industry darling?

It’s disappointing seeing tech writers so entrenched in their biases that they can’t envision how tech (that they don’t use personally) could be beneficial to others with different lifestyles, use cases, preferences, etc. Some make it worse by discounting any opposing reader perspectives by labeling them “fanboys.” Oy.

So, I say to you, tech writers:  It’s not all about you.

It’s a big interesting world out there, and there’s a lot of interesting tech to cover. If you’re a writer posting your articles online, you have an audience… what information can you share that’s useful to them? If you have a strong reaction to a product, help your reader make an informed decision as to whether that product would be a good choice for them (even if it’s not your preferred choice).

As a fairly savvy tech user, share with me pertinent information (fact) to make my own decision. Your rant or rave is not persuasive otherwise, and most likely will be perceived (by me) as link bait.

In closing, an anecdote about a friend’s recent experience and the joy of tech:

I shared with him an old unused Verizon “network extender” because his home does not have good Verizon network coverage. I’d used it when I had a Verizon phone but stopped when I realized that network issues in my neighborhood prevented me from receiving calls when out walking the dog.

Having the network extender meant coverage issues were no longer driving my friend’s phone options. He bought a Motorola “Droid” Razr. He loves his new phone and excitedly recounted the various ways he’s been using it: As a home phone replacement, to listen to Pandora, to research questions on the web, to stream music to a bluetooth speaker.

Same tech. Two people, different perspectives, individual use cases, different outcomes.

He took tech that was no longer useful to me, and used it to make his life better.

And isn’t that what tech is all about?

UPDATED! Fitness tech gadgets: My “road test” results

Up

I’ve updated this post based on my experience after it was published. See text in blue bold for updates.

With the holidays approaching, I’ve been seeking ways to reinforce my motivation to meet health goals. This time of year, it’s all too easy not to be active enough due to long hours at work and colder weather outside.

So, after hearing about friends’ experiences using fitness devices, I decided to try a few myself:

All three devices worked as advertised for me, although there are some caveats potential buyers should be aware of…

Jawbone UP (pictured above):

PROS –

  • Easy to wear “bracelet” design
  • Compact and unobtrusive
  • Push button to change modes is easy to use and works well
  • Tracks activity (tracks steps when not in “active” mode)
  • Tracks sleep in a fairly granular manner. Comfortable to wear while sleeping. (It’s helped me understand why I’m so tired during the day… I don’t sleep very soundly at night.)

CONS –

  • First generation product with (an apparently) high failure rate. (More on this below.)
  • Only syncs with iPhone app (no joy for folks with other smartphones or even laptop users)
  • Surprisingly, doesn’t sync via bluetooth: User must connect UP to iPhone via headphone jack
  • iPhone sync process can be fussy: I find it works best if I restart my iPhone, open UP app, insert UP into headset jack, turn up headset volume, then initiate sync right away within UP app. (It really shouldn’t require such a precise process!)
  • Progress and metrics can only be viewed on iPhone app (not able to view metric tracking/dashboard on web site)
  • Food tracking is limited
  • Doesn’t automatically sync activity metrics with my favorite fitness/food journal app, Lose It!
  • Due to bracelet design, your arms must be swinging during exercise to accurately register activity (not happy news for bikers!)

UP

Caveats:
The Jawbone UP’s early failure rate almost dissuaded me from purchasing this product. Even so, I bought at my Apple Store, taking care to keep the package and receipt *just in case*. And the failure rates are not just anonymous metrics — I know someone who is on his third Jawbone UP — the 1st two failed.

With so many reports of early hardware failure, I’m not sure I’d give it as a gift until Jawbone comes out with UP v.2

UPDATED: A big con arose for me… it completely stopped syncing. No matter what I did, it would not sync. I finally wound up returning it to Apple (where I bought it) as defective.

Fitbit

Fitbit Ultra:

 

PROS –

  • Syncs wirelessly (dock connected via USB to your laptop)
  • Comes with seemingly handy plastic clip to connect to your clothing. (More on this below.)
  • Tracks activity and sleep
  • Offers detailed online dashboard at fitbit.com
  • Offers an iPhone app, as well as a mobile web site for other smartphones

UPDATE: I decided to keep the Fitbit after the UP stopped syncing. Based on the variety of tracking devices available on the market, Fitbit is among the best. I wrapped the Fitbit “holster” in electrical tape to make it less slippery (less likely to slide off my belt), and added a layer of electrical tape inside the holster to add friction (make it less likely the device itself would slide out on its own).

CONS –

  • Sleep tracking requires inserting device into cloth wristband (I found this a little uncomfortable)
  • Sleep tracking is not as granular as Jawbone UP
  • Integrates with Lose It! mobile app but in a confusing way. (More on this below.)
  • SUPER easy to lose! It’s flown off my belt several times.
  • Fitbit iPhone app is okay but not as granular as I’d like

Caveats:
The plastic clip is slippery! It’s far too easy to lose the Fitbit Ultra (and at $99, you don’t want to risk losing it!). Integrates with Lose It! app but only populates Lose It’s exercise metrics if you burn a certain number of calories (hey, I want credit for all activity, as a motivator to be even more active!).

If you buy a Fitbit Ultra, be sure to find a way to affix it to your clothing so that it won’t fly off.

Withings

Withings Scale:

PROS –

  • Super easy to use… just weigh yourself and your weight is automatically synced to your my.withings.com dashboard
  • Easy to set up: Insert batteries, then connect scale to your computer via USB to complete set up (including enabling WIFI sync).
  • User can enable integration with Lose It! app and Fitbit dashboard.
  • Offers multiple mobile apps (WiScale app for iPhone and Withings app for Android).

CONS –

  • Expensive at $159 (see Amazon page for product details & reviews).

Caveats:
Aside from cost, no caveats I can think of. Does what it promises.

Loseit

Special mention: Lose It! fitness / food journal app

I first started using Lose It! a few years ago on my iPhone and missed it terribly when I moved to an android phone.

I love its robust food database and how easy it is to update and review my food and activity metrics.

However, since then, a Lose It! Android app has been released. Glad to see this great app available for more phones!

UPDATE to add another special mention: F.lux. It’s software for Windows, Mac, Linux, and jailbroken iOS devices. It automatically adjusts your screen brightness by time of day. If you use your computer before bedtime, it’s a must have… I installed it yesterday and noticed a big difference in how soundly I slept last night.

So what combination works best for me?

I’m still using the Jawbone UP and Withings scale with Lose It! iPhone app and web site dashboard:

  • I manually add activity tracked on the UP into Lose It!
  • Since I have Lose It! linked to my Withings scale, my weight is automatically posted to my LoseIt! account.
  • I monitor my sleep metrics via the UP iPhone app.

Both the UP bracelet and Withings scale have been a good fit for me, offering motivation while not requiring a lot of effort or workarounds.

  • I found the Fitbit Ultra works well but wasn’t practical for me because it kept coming off my belt — I decided it would be too easy to lose. (UPDATED: Fixed this with some electrical tape)
  • I recommend Jawbone UP with some reservation. It does what it does well, but seems prone to early hardware failure based on user reports. (UPDATED: And my UP failed as well. Great device, disappointing quality issues.)
  • I recommend Withings scale without reservation.
  • You can’t go wrong with the Lose It! app for iPhone and android!
  • UPDATED: F.lux is a must have, as well!

There once was a company named Palm… or how I came to buy an HP TouchPad

Touchpad

Like many geeks, er technophiles, I recently bought an HP TouchPad at fire sale pricing. I bought it partly because it was a great tech buy, and this article describes what I like about it, as well as webOS apps I’m enjoying.

But I also bought the TouchPad for a more nostalgic reason:

Palm ignited my love of mobile tech

Once upon a time, in a decade not so long ago (the 90s), I received a Palm Vx for Christmas.

Palm vx

Suddenly, I could have my calendar and contact list me wherever I went. I could sync my device with AvantGo content and read news articles while I waited to get my allergy shots. I loaded Peanut Press books onto my Palm Vx and caught up on my reading while waiting in line at the grocery store.

The Palm Vx was small. It was stylish. Palm Computing (division of 3Com) had made other PDAs but none so svelte and pocketable.

I’ve had many PDAs and smartphones over the years, but none evoke the delight I felt using the Palm Vx. I dutifully tucked it into its desktop dock to charge every evening, and never left the house without it. It became my first experience of ubiquitous computing, despite the fact that it didn’t directly connect to the Internet.

When HP bought Palm in 2010, it seemed promising. Finally, the Palm brand would be nurtured.

Alas, that was not to be. In August 2011, HP announced it would no longer manufacture webOS devices, including the TouchPad, Pre 3, and Veer.

And so, when HP announced its TouchPad fire sale pricing ($99 for 16GB, $149 for 32GB), I knew I had to get one.

After all these years, what did I think of the current version of Palm OS (now webOS)?

I love it:

  • Easy to use, intuitive
  • Elegant user interface
  • Scales well to tablet use
  • Easily optimized via Preware

And, like Palm OS of years past, there’s a vibrant and committed webOS community.

And the TouchPad? With its webOS underpinnings, it’s probably the best tablet I’ve used, and I’ve tried them all!

While heavier than the iPad 2, its softly rounded edges make it comfortable to hold and use. Docked in its Touchstone, it’s easily accessible and comfortable to use at one’s desk even while charging. It’s plenty speedy after applying Preware patches and a custom kernel (I’m currently running F4 Phantom).

And despite those naysayers intent on complaining webOS and TouchPad are light on apps, I haven’t had any trouble finding apps I’ve looked for. And I’ve stumbled across great TouchPad apps too.

My favorite HP TouchPad (webOS) apps, so far:

InterfaceLIFT: Gorgeous wallpapers

Angry Birds: ’nuff said

Glimpse: Cool app that enables user to select apps to use in a multi-pane view. See these instructions for downloading Glimpse (Developers’ Cut)

Spaz HD: Great twitter app despite the odd name!

AccuWeather: The same great weather data in an app designed for TouchPad.

box: 50GB free cloud storage just for creating your account from your TouchPad!

Flickr Mundo HD: Great Flickr app, and gorgeous in Exhibition mode.

FlashCards HD: Great study aid. Easy to import cards you find online — I’m using it to study for a professional exam.

Audubon Birds: Beautiful photos and lots of great info for aviary fans

NPR Reader: For NPR fans

Kindle: To read your Kindle books. Be forewarned the Kindle icon you see on your newly purchased TouchPad is just a link to the HP Store — you still need to download it!

Quell HD: One of my favorite Android games, beautiful and relaxing

Honorable mention (aka, apps for which I couldn’t find links!):

The WSJ Reader

The Washington Post Reader

Chicago Tribune Reader

L.A. Times Reader

News Republic

USA Today

Guardian News Hub

Guardian zeitgeist

iheartradio

atPeace: Relaxing scenes and music

PodCatcher Deluxe: Nice podcast streamer

If you’re a new TouchPad owner (and even if you’ve had your TouchPad for a while), I can’t recommend highly enough James Kendrick’s TouchPad optimization article on ZDNet. He’s posted several TouchPad articles, all well worth your time.

All in all, the TouchPad is a very good tablet made even better by webOS. If you’re fortunate enough to find one, I say go for it!

I was wrong about the Kindle…. musings of a new Kindle 2 owner

B000FI73MA In June 2008, I posted an article entitled Kindle: Still too expensive at $359. I shunned the original Kindle as too expensive and frankly, too ugly. As much as I love books and reading, I couldn’t imagine spending $359 for a device that looked so dated.

There, I’ve said it. Even with my affection for shiny, new gadgets, what’s on the inside counts but what’s on the outside counts, too.

Flash forward eight months to February 2009, when the Kindle 2 was announced….kindle2

Suddenly, what I’d previously thought was overpriced became quite compelling. Was it the addition of text to speech? Was it the prettier design? Was it the influence of my Kindle-owning friends? Those answers and more below, in my initial impressions as a Kindle 2 owner.

What I like about the Kindle 2:
Solid, quality construction: My initial impression upon removing the Kindle from its shipping carton was, “Wow, this is really solid.” Of course, it requires the same care in handling as any electronic device. However, it’s thin but doesn’t feel fragile.

Text to speech: It doesn’t quite sound natural but yet isn’t so digitized as to be unlistenable. This feature will be handy for those times when my eyes are tired from gazing at a computer screen.

Intuitive navigation: I confess, I took a quick look at the user guide but didn’t pay attention to navigation instructions. I just picked up the Kindle 2, and started using it.159175-kindle2-350_188

The screen: Crisp and easy to read. It has a matte (not glossy) finish to reduce glare when reading outside. 

On board dictionary: What reader doesn’t at times encounter a word they’d like defined? With the on board New Oxford America Dictionary, one doesn’t even have to put down the book to look up a definition. Nice!

 

Amazon’s eBook selection: I’m a long-time Audible.com (audio book service) subscriber. As wonderful as Audible.com is, sometimes I want a book that’s just not available in audio format. Enter Amazon’s Kindle book store which offers great variety, and pricing (many at $9.99) is still far less than buying the physical book.

3G wireless connectivity without monthly subscription: Considering the cheapest cellular data plans cost an average of $20 to 30 per month, the Kindle’s always on wireless helps justify the device’s pricing. Of course, this always on wireless has its benefits for Amazon – it makes it incredibly easy to buy books.

What I’d like to see improved:
Variety of Kindle newspaper subscriptions is too limited and most are too expensive considering their digital format: I set up a Kindle subscription to The Irish Times since I love the perspective non-U.S. press offers and I thought the subscription pricing was reasonable at $5.99 per month. I love the Wall Street Journal but my current annual online subscription costs less than twelve times the Kindle WSJ $9.99 monthly subscription – I’ll keep my web-based version, thanks.

And, frankly, that’s all I can think of that I’d change. I am delighted with the Kindle 2, and very impressed with its quality and the attention to detail that has gone into its design and implementation.