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Samsung Gear 2 Neo review

When the first Samsung Gear came out it was hugely limited by the number of phones that it was supported on. Along comes the second generation of Gear the Gear 2. They eliminated the camera (on the Neo) and ditched the custom wrist band as well as increased the number of phones that supported it. When I bought the Sony Smart watch 2 I looked at the Neo but decided on the Sony instead. I had a chance to pickup the Gear 2 Neo for a reasonable price so I decided to give it a whirl. Comparisons with the Sony are inevitable so I won’t try and not do that. The Sony is definitely heavier, more square and more solidly built. The Neo is much more typical Samsung, plasticy. The screen on the Neo is much brighter and more vivid, but is harder to read in the sun. And thus the trade off. Both devices have one button on the front but they do different things. On both they wake up the screen, but on the Samsung a double tap launches a predetermined app (you choose). The screen on the Sony is always on in a dimmed state, and anytime there is any movement at all it comes on brighter. The Neo uses a light sensor as well as a motion sensor to determine when to turn the screen on. The Sony is on more consistently but in terms or waking up the Neo did a better job of detecting when I wanted to read the time.

In terms of base functionality on the watch (without the phone) the Neo has stopwatch, timer, pedometer, and a heart rate monitor (more in a bit on the heart rate monitor). Samsung forgot to include an alarm (really, that’s a pretty obvious one) as well as a calculator. Both can be added for free from the Samsung store. Once connected to the phone there are lots apps out there to add additional functionality. Including a watch faces, calendar apps, notifications apps and more. The Neo does a much better job of the box of being able to pass notifications than the Sony (out of the box). For the Sony I had to add secondary app called watchit to pass notifications from any app to the watch. This is the default (send all notifications to the watch) but you can customize it and turn off whatever notifications you don’t want. The vibrate on the Sony is noticeably stronger. Text messages can be replied to on the watch using canned responses but I don’t see a way to customize the canned responses. You can also click on a button on the watch and have the text message opened on the phone at that message. A nice touch. Other notifications can be clicked on and open the app that created the notification on the phone.

Once setup the watch can exist disconnected from the phone other than for apps that require the phone. A weakness of Sony’s original smart watch.

The app that you use to interface with the watch and get the pedometer, heart rate, exercise and sleep data off the phone is called S.Health. The Neo has been in the marketplace for months. The S4 is on the list of devices that supports the Neo. But until recently the S.Health app did not work at all with the gear. In fact I had this blog post all written up commenting about this issue and before I published bam up came an update to S.Health. It now supports the Neo on the S4. Better late than never I guess but this to me is typical of Samsung just not properly finishing things before they ship.

The Pedometer is an odd beast. It is an additional pedometer to the one on the phone. And they detect differently. So regularly the number of foot steps it records are different.

The sleep monitor once engaged tracks how long you sleep, as well as how motionless you were during your sleep. You can even see when you moved around. It also puts the Gear into what it calls blocking mode to insure the watch does not turn on and no notifications come through while your sleeping. Of course to use this you need to wear the watch. Thanks Captain Obvious :) Oddly even in sleep mode the pedometer continues recording steps?

There is an exercise mode that allows you to track Running, Walking, Cycling and Hiking. While in use the Gear records your heart rate. Oddly when you use this function it does not automatically pause the pedometer?

All this data can also be backed up to the Samsung cloud. As with past Samsung fitness apps there is no web portal for you to share or see the data off the phone. There’s also no Social network integration. Oddly there is a share icon on the watch they always seems to be greyed out. Another thing I guess Samsung didn’t bother finishing. And of course just to round out the unfinished thought there is also no export either. So at best a partially thought through app. I went out for a short walk with Endomondo to compare. Endomondo showed 670m. S.Health (this was wtih the older S.Health 2) showed 726 and the Gear showed 690. So S.health was off by 8.1% and the Gear a measly 3.7%. Impressive. Calorie wise S.health showed 29, and the gear 30. So pretty darn close. So all in all the Gear works well as a pedometer. And the pedometer works completely disconnected from the phone.

The watch has a Heart rate monitor but don’t get too excited. It’s a one time (rather than constant) HRM which you need to hold still for to get a reading as well as have the watch pretty tight. Even with that it’s only moderately accurate. Back on the exercise app for a minute, it then uses the heart rate monitor in continuous mode to create a calorie count. But this of course given there is no GPS means it depends solely on the heart rate data to be accurate. So I went out for a little stroll. I used RunGPS along with a my Scosche Rythm+ heart rate monitor (which I’ve extensively tested it’s accuracy on) for comparison. In a short walk RunGPS recorded Max HR 110, avg 101.8 in 8.5 mins for a calorie count of 65. The Neo came in at Max heart rate of 179, avg 126 and an odd number of 25 calories? So to say the heart rate monitor is inaccurate is an understatement.

There’s an Endomondo app that integrates nicely with the Neo. There was one for the Sony as well, but the Neo one just seems a whole lot more polished. The Endomondo app integrates with the heart rate monitor on the Neo and is able to log heart rate data from the device. A nice touch. You can even start/stop etc Endomondo from your watch without ever taking your phone out.

The Neo is supported on a number of Samsung devices, but not all. And is not supported on Non-Samsung devices. My S4 works well with it, my Samsung Note 8 is not supported. So before you buy one be sure and check your device’s compatibility with it. I loaded the Neo up with my S4. Then used an app called File Expert to dump all the APKs that had anything to do with the Gear. Took them all over to the Note 8 and was able to get it working with the Note 8. So I thought I was off to the races. But Samsung even block you in the Samsung Marketplace for unsupported devices limiting your ability to use and customize the watch on unsupported devices. A really stupid and limiting move. Likely one of the reasons I suspect Neo’s are not getting far in the marketplace. Not to mention I can only imagine their return rate.
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Samsung really do expect you to get all of the apps for the Gear from the Samsung Apps marketplace. I tried a few from the Google Playstore but they really are no where near as smoothly loaded requiring a separate step. Samsung from their Gear app make it easy to add and delete apps from the watch.

Sony had a flexible and extensible way to make a watch face and for third parties to make widgets. It meant you had a ton of flexibility on your watch faces. Sadly no such beast exists on Samsung. There are set watch faces, and a good number of them (although a lot of them are not free) but there’s no ability for you to design your own. I found one called Styler that seemed like it would offer similar functionality and flexibility but it did not. Very few widgets. A nice start but way off the mark. No weather widgets etc.

You can store pictures and music on the 4G storage of the Gear. According to the gear you are suppose to be able to send them using Gear manager. I couldn’t get it to work (wirelessly). I read you can do it by plugging it into USB. There is an app you can add called TransGear (for free) that adds the ability to send them wirelessly over bluetooth. No idea why Samsung didn’t include this. Another unfinished gap. Music put on the watch can be played on the watch. Not that I can think of a purpose to that. There’s no headset or bluetooth support so your listening to it off the watch? Sure let’s do that.

The Neo actually does have a speaker (the Sony did not) and it can be used for notifications. Notifications can be be sound, vibrate, but oddly not sound and vibrate. An odd miss … Their own phones have this combination.

The Sony had an excellent design in that it took a standard micro-USB charger right on the watch. This meant that you could charge it anywhere. Sadly the Neo does not. You need a proprietary dock that snaps on the back of the watch then you plug in a standard micro USB charger. Fortunately these docks are readily available and cheap on ebay so you can keep a few around.

Battery life on the watch is pretty important. On the Sony I found 2-3 days pretty typical. Which for me was acceptable. The Neo is very similar. And luckily unlike the Sony the Neo tells you the current state of charge in detail on the settings screen. On day one I ran both watches and after 12 hours the Sony was 82% and the Neo was 71%. And in all honesty I used the Neo to do a few more things so in the end the battery life on the Neo in spite of having a much brighter screen was similar. A nice surprise! I expected the Neo to be much worse, it isn’t. At 15% (which was 2.5 days for me) the Neo turned bluetooth off to preserve battery life. A nice choice. Recharging the battery is not a quick feat. It took 2 hours to go from 15% to 100% using the stock charger. About twice as much as the Sony :(. Disconnected from the phone and the battery life is about 4-5 days.

Like the Sony, Samsung do not allow you to see the status of the watch from the phone (eg battery life or memory etc).

Like the Sony the way to move the watch between two devices is a simple reset of the device. It takes about 5 minutes to complete. Of couse all that exercise, pedometer, sleep data etc are all lost.

At this point there are now four generations of smart watch from Samsung. The original Gear, the Neo (and Gear 2), the Gear live and the Gear S. Samsung have waffled on the tech running the watch. This means apps written for one device do not support the others. This is a huge disadvantage for Samsung (compared to Sony). Google have now come out with a standard set of APIs to allow hardware and software vendors for smart watches to have a more common look and feel as well as broader support. The Samsung Gear Live and Gear S are that generation. At this point the Neo (as well as the original Gear) would be considered obsolete, orphans (as is the Sony by the way), Google has set the direction. So going forward this watch is unlikely to see a whole lot of support. This is important to note. From an app point of view I have loaded a calculator, an alarm, Endomondo, transgear, Starlight (flashlight), and DMA Navi watch. The last one allows Google Maps directions to show on the watch. Very handy when walking. And of course a number of custom watch faces. My point is there is not a lot out there for the Gear 2.

I have to say, I quite like the Gear 2 Neo. And I would even go so far as to say I like it better than the Sony Smartwatch 2. Mostly because of the brighter more vivid screen. But the Sony has more of a hacker feel to the software and what you can do with it. While the Samsung has more of a polished feel (outside of the late to the game S.Health app). The limited device support of the Neo may in fact mean you as a user have little to no choice on which watch you can use. But all that said, given the Gear Live is here and has a future, I’m not sure I can recommend the Neo. Right now reports are that the Gear live barely gets a day of battery life which is totally unacceptable. This segment of the market is moving fast. On the positive side the Gear 2 Neo can be picked up pretty inexpensively so it’s not a lot you are investing. As with the Sony, the most disappointing thing about this watch is all the things it could be that will never be developed. It has a ton of unrealized potential. Simple things like a constant heart rate monitor. Or a simple compass (even if it has to pull it from the phone). And so much more. But it is what it is. Set your expectations. First and foremost it’s a watch. Second it acts as a secondary notification device to insure you don’t miss stuff. And lastly there are a few apps you can use on the watch like the built in pedometer. If you have realistic expectations you won’t be disappointed. I look forward to seeing where this market segment goes next. The Moto360 is already out there and is round. Now it looks more like a watch, but most of the things you want on the display messages, weather info etc all suit a square device better anyway so I am not convinced that round is the way to go. Time will tell … pun intended :)

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And here is the Sony for your reference:
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November 21, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Blackberry OS 10.3.1.662 mini review

It’s been a little while since I did anything with my Q10, and a buddy commented on this new Beta so I thought I would look into it. In the past to load a new Beta required you to backup your BB, wipe it, install the new OS and then restore. It was a lengthy process. The GURUs over at Crackberry have come up with a new method called Sachesi which more closely resembles an over the air process for installing Betas. It will even go out and search what firmware versions are out there. I had a bit of trouble getting it to work. I fussed with different USB connections, enabling development mode, and installing BB Link and I can’t say what got it working but eventually it saw my device. Sachesi was not able to find this beta but I did find and download what is called a Blitz OS release. From there simply dragging it onto Sachesi was all it took. The process failed a couple times (no idea why). And in spite of that there was no damage to the phone. Sometimes when a firmware upgrade goes badly it’s a VERY bad thing. Not this time. Each run took over 2 hours so it isn’t fast. Once it finally did work a reboot happened and after a while the new firmware was installed. Very nice!

Ok, onto the new release. The previous release of BB 10 only supported Android 4, which is getting a bit dated. One of the things missing is support for Bluetooth Low Energy devices. Well go figure, the new release actually supports it. I was able to get an Android app to talk to my bluetooth low energy heart rate monitor, a Scosche Rythm plus! Now this is enough of a reason on it’s own to like the new release but there is more. The UI has been freshened. Now as with any UI change there are going to be those those that love it and those that hate it. Another new feature BB have added the ability to create your own profiles. I was shocked that this has been missing from BB10 for so long. And unless BB are deaf, users have been shouting for it. So I am happy to see it. Sadly still lacking is an ability to notify ONLY on the priority inbox. Another obvious miss (for me). Without this the priority inbox ends up as nothing more than a visual filter. BB have added a new app called Blend which is suppose to allow you from a PC to send messages and other functions from your PC through your BB through a wired, wifi or cell connection. To get it to work you need to update your version of BB Link. No matter what I tried I could not get this to work. It just kept saying my BB was still not on 10.3 in spite of being on the beta. If your on a BB Passport, your already on 10.3. I’m sure there is lots more new in this release. but that’s what stood out for me.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Samsung Notes for a while now. The idea of using a pen to take notes is interesting. I do wine tastings and come home with scribbles of paper with my detailed notes on them which I inevitably misplace. The standard note Phablets seem to small to be useful to take notes. This size seems to hit the sweet spot on uber portability and I was looking to replace my now very old Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7 Plus. So I snagged one off ebay to play with.

Physically right off the bat this is a standard Samsung all plastic device. I can not imagine this device surviving much in terms of drops. If the Samsung Notes have been susceptible to breaking this one will likely be frigging magnet for getting broken. From there you have a micro USB port that performs as a USB OTG (for keyboards and mouse), charging and last but not least MHL connector for HDMI output. This uses the newer MHL standard found in the S4 and the Notes. More about HDMI later. There’s a power switch, volume rocker, 3.5 mm audio jack, uSD slot and a uSIM slot if you have the model with a cell radio in it. On the face Samsung have gone with their usual single button on the front flanked by two soft buttons (back and options). The pen now works with the soft buttons (back and options) which I am told was an issue with previous Notes. That’s about it.

Spec wise 2GB RAM & 16GB On-board Memory upgradeable with the uSD slot. Exynos™ 1.6 GHz Quad-Core processor which makes this device pretty zippy. The battery is supposed to be 4600 mAh but I am shocked how quickly it goes down. If there is a place where the specs on this device are lacking it’s the display. While it’s bright and vivid it’s 800 x 1280 which by the way is even below my S4 which has a 5″ screen at 1920 x 1080.

As with most Samsung’s of late this tablet is burdened by tons of frivolous code like Smart screen that attempts to keep the screen on when your watching it. I turn these off. They just interrupt a smooth experience IMHO.

As mentioned above, the micro USB connector doubles as an HDMI output using what is called an MHL. The MHL includes a pass through for charging but as with past Samsung devices the power does little but maintain the device. Even with the factory charger the charge current drops from 1800ma down to a paltry 900ma. So don’t expect it to be quick charging. And as in the past you can not do HDMI and USB OTG at the same time. So the option of an HDMI output along with USB devices is out the window. As with past Samsung devices the MHL connector requires power to work. At least on this tablet it doesn’t constantly overheat and turn off the charger all together which I have seen on a number of Samsung phones.
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Samsung have chosen to not have onscreen home/back/option buttons so as usual this is challenge when using an HDMI display with an external keyboard and mouse.

Like most of these tablets with cell radios in it you can send/receive text messages but the phone app has been removed/disabled. Of course this does not remove the possibility of using Skype etc. But holding this thing up to your ear to make a call without a headset is going to be the definition of uber geek :)

Battery life is all important on a device like this. With a whopping 4600 maH battery it ought to be outstanding. I did not find it to be so. I was hoping for 2-3 days and get one. By mid day with reasonable use it was already down to 56%. As important as battery life is charge time is equally important. With a huge battery charge times can start to grow if the adapter can not put out enough current. I found this device to very picky about cable and charger if you want to get the max charge current out of the adapter which I saw 1800 maH with the Samsung charger and cable. I found Galaxy Charge current HUD as well as Galaxy Charging current helpful to explain why with some chargers the battery was taking forever to charge. With the battery completely dead, and the radios off the tablet with the factory charger took 4 hours to a complete charge. Turning off the tablet might help it some. This is one of the reasons some companies go to non-standard charging ports (rather than microUSB). They can push more current.

Movie playback and XBMC are very good on this device. The Asus transformer was slightly better with XBMC. We have finally come to an age where a modern phone/tablet can be used for XBMC. I added the Kindle Fire TV remote (it’s Bluetooth) and this device worked well. It was quite usable. Samsung have added support for ExFAT but not NTFS so at least you still have somewhere to put your large movie files.

One of the unique features of a Samsung Note is a digitized pen. And this has it. The smaller notes (and the bigger ones) are just the wrong size to be useful in my opinion. This one seems just right. Pulling out the pen is a bit of a test of patience. Between the device switching into pen mode, swapping over the “Buddy page” and then launching the note taking app your in for a good 3-5 second pause. And you won’t be encouraged to put the pen back in or your in for the same kinda delay. Turning off Page Buddies helped this a lot. The pen is easy to write with. There is no substitute for having a digitizer. The built in app for taking notes is quite good. You can control the thickness of the pen. I’m not much of an artist but one of the reasons I chose this device is to try and use it for digital note taking. I have to get use to the S Pen app but it is a little on the clumsy side. The app saves files as a snb file. From within the app you can export it but each and every page ends up being a separate jpg. Messy. And the snb file can get quite large. A 20 something page with a picture on each page ended up being 30MB so almost a M per page. Try and email that? The files for S Note are in a directory on the device called SNote so at least manually backing them up is easy. Of course if you loose or break your Note all of the files entered in S.Note even if you backed them up are useless unless you thought to export them.  I have to say, IMHO Samsung didn’t think this through. The S.Note app can only run on Note based Android devices. There’s no viewer on any other devices or platforms so all in all the document becomes stuck on your Note with nothing else you can do with it. I tried One note but that has a “feature” on Android that when you try and use the eraser it erases the whole last word. WTF.

The slots for both the uSD and microSIM are both VERY recessed. I found getting them in and out to be a challenge.

The phone supports both Ant+ and Bluetooth low energy. I was only able to get my heart rate monitor to work on Bluetooth low energy (not ant). No idea why. Not that this will be an issue with this tablet anyway. What are you going to do go mountain biking or snow boarding with this thing? I think not :)

Like most tablets this device does not have any indicator LEDs. Not for messages, charging nada. No idea why companies do this. Also missing is a flash for the camera. So taking pictures in low light like say a restaurant is not happening.

Having a tablet with a cell radio in it gives options. You don’t always have to carry both your cell and your tablet. One of the challenges to this is that phone companies remove the ability to make or receive phone calls. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to get VOIP running on Anroid. The call quality always sucks. Skype works well for outgoing but there is no incoming numbers in Canada. I found Talkatone that works well and has incoming numbers, again not in Canada. So I got a New York number and added it to my list of rings for my VOIP service. That allows me to make and receive calls on this tablet. Of coure this does not work on 911. MightyText allows you to send and receive text messages on this device from your phone. So with all this you can add a data only SIM into this tablet and leave your phone at home!

Outside battery life I like this tablet. The Transformer is definitely better in a number of areas. If I had reviewed the Note 8 before the transformer I would be more raving. But nothing can hide the fact that the battery life on this tablet is shockingly low.

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October 17, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Windows 10

I’ve not been a fan of Windows 8. I endured it on a first generation Windows tablet (a Samsung XE500) then on an Asus XE202 and in both cases what I found is that as much as Microsoft would like us to believe Windows is touch enabled it isn’t. Outside of Metro apps touch screen on Windows is a mere convenience when it works and infuriating when it doesn’t. The world on Windows 8 was very much split between metro apps and the old style Windows apps. Metro apps did not play nicely, they did not Window, multitask, took gestures you had to learn, to move around and to close them. Originally could only have one on a screen at a time and many other irritating annoyances. The lack of a start menu (as much as you could add one back to Windows 8) meant a learning curve for newbies. So much so I have family that aren’t technocrats that have been stuck on Windows XP and 7 because I couldn’t see them enjoying the Windows 8 experience. I was hopeful that Windows 8.1 would do something do fix the issue but no joy. Along comes Windows 10 (Thanks to my bud Danny for pointing out the release of the preview!) which has been released for Technical preview (free download). At last Windows has seen the light. The start menu is back, the metro apps behave more like normal apps. You can minimize them, resize them, close them as you would any other app. And they even show up in the start menu like any other app. Microsoft has finally seen the light. So far I like Windows 10 and it is finally a step in the right direction. Thanks Microsoft. Better late than never! I won’t do a detailed review of it, there are already lots out there. Just thought I’d throw it out there for my readers that may not have heard about it. Here is Microsoft’s initial announcement with a video of the new interface.

October 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mighty Text Android App review

A while back I played with this app and was underwhelmed. A colleague at work prodded me back to it. How many times have you been sitting at your computer or tablet and have to take out your phone to read/reply to a text message? Forgot your phone at home and need to send a text? Well Mighty Text is a perfect solution for all that ails you. Let’s talk about how it works. So you load an app on your phone and it in turn talks up to a portal. It uploads your most recent messages and your contacts. So right off the bat if this concerns you don’t load this app. Once the app is in, installed, and configured your ready to go. Of course your phone will need to have a constant data connection for this app to work.

From a web interface (which you can log on to from any device) you can send/receive messages, see your photos, see your phone`s battery charge and get at your contacts. All from the comfort of a full size keyboard/mouse or tablet. There is a Chrome extension for it that works VERY well and includes pop up notifications and sound notifications too. You really can completely decouple from your phone. When a call comes in if you have notifications on a pop up box comes up to show you a call is coming in. Of course to answer it you have make a dash for the phone but at least you know a call came in.
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In addition to the web portal there is an app you can install on Android tablets that also links up to the portal and provides the some of the functionality. (You can`t see your contacts, can`t see your photos, and can`t dial your phone). So in other words you can send and receive text messages. The tablet does not need to be on WIFI, or even the same WIFI as the phone as long as the tablet is connected to the net to be able to get to the portal. For tablets with cell radios MightyText does not allow you to setup the tablet to send out the texts for some reason. An oversight perhaps.
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You can load the tablet app onto more than one device, you can be logged onto the MightyText portal from as many computers as you need to making sure you get notified and can answer your texts from wherever is convenient!

All in all this is an app that has come a long way and is now something I have loaded, like and would miss if I went off Android.

October 10, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Android tablets running Atom processors

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but there are a whole group of new Android tablets out there running dual core Atom processors. So I wondered how do they compare against the Quad core ARM processors that are more common? I did a bit of digging and found this article. I’ll steal one of their charts:
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So as you can see in the graph a dual core Atom comes pretty close to a quad core Tegra 3 processor. Now Tegra 3 is by no means the latest and greatest but at least this gives you a feel.

September 30, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Samsung SideSync

I recently heard a bit about the integration that Apple has done. The idea that people might have a phone, a PC and a tablet seems to have alluded manufactures. How many times have you been sitting next to your computer and you get a text message and while your sitting in front of a full size keyboard and instead of being able to use it you type on the phone? Well Samsung seem to have woken up to the idea and have released a product called Samsung Side Sync. The idea is you load SideSync on your phone as well as an app on your PC. Only some phones are supported but fortunately my S4 happens to be one of the few. You get a complete remote control window of your phone on your laptop.
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You can use your keyboard and mouse of your keyboard to control the phone. Type texts, browse, use Android Apps whatever. This app is pretty impressive once you get it working. The install takes some time. I could not for the life of me get it to work on WIFI. It definitely seems buggy. And for some reason the SideSync will not run on my Galaxy Note 8, no idea why.

It’s a great start. Now how people are suppose to find out about it is a mystery.

September 29, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

XBMC the center of my digital universe

If you’ve been living on another planet for the last little while perhaps you’ve never heard of XBMC (now called Kodi). XBMC stood for X Box Media Center. XBMC some time back replaced Windows Media center in my home and I’ve never looked back.

What is XBMC? It is a remote friendly, cross platform, content rich interface into movies, music, pictures and more. This combined digital content can come from local sources (local storage, NAS, file shares etc), streaming sources over the net (through add ons) as well as support for IP TV (which can come from free or paid services). IP TV in case you have not looked into it uses your internet connection to bring live streaming TV channels to your home potentially by passing the usual suspects (Bell/Rogers/Cogeco). As of now I have not been able to get IP TV working on Ubuntu but it does work on Windows and Android for sure. Although on version 14 they have renamed it from “Live TV” to just TV.

What makes XBMC a rich environment is that based on the name of the files it goes out to the web (automatcally) and grabs information about the movie or TV show. So instead of trying to remember what a movie is about you get a nice remote friendly interface. You can sort and search by name, actor, genre etc. Organize your local folders by type Movies, TV Shows/Episodes, Music, Pictures and then tell XBMC what the content is and it will go out and get this info through what it calls scrapers.

Where can it run? As of right now it is cross platform: Android, Windows, Linux, IOS, OSX and Raspberry PI. To get a smooth playback experience of HD videos you need either a fast processor (Core i3 or better) or hardware accelerated video playback. Until recently (version 13.1) XBMC on Android did not support hardware acceleration but it does now. But you need to be careful to check if your GPU on your Android device is supported or even the latest and greatest Arm processor does not stand a chance of doing smooth playback. I have no experience on Ios or OSX so won’t cover them off.

A remote control is key to having a rich experience IMHO. For windows I have used a Windows Media center remote for a long time. It looks and feels like a VCR remote. So you can ignore the fact your using a PC to do playback. On Windows I have not been able to get the right mouse equivalent functionality working with the media center remote. This leaves you unable to see things like episode information, movie details etc as well as unable to delete content once watched (once you enable that feature). The media center remote works even better under Ubuntu and includes the right mouse functionality. On Android, sadly the media center remote is ignored.
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On Android, to date, the best remote I have used is the one that comes with the Kindle Fire TV. This remote is bluetooth so there is no need to keep line of sight to your device. You can pair this remote with other Android devices (The Fire TV is Android by the way in case you didn’t know). Remove the batteries on the remote, push and hold the home button, and the remote goes into pairing mode. These remotes (in Canada anyway) are not the easiest thing to find.
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There is an Android app that can run on your phone/tablet and act as a remote to your XBMC (once enabled). I use it on Windows to get around the missing right mouse button functionality, but find it a little clumsy. Pick up your phone, wake it up, unlock it, start the app (if it isn’t already running) connect to XBMC then push the button.

I have been using a dedicated PC next to my TV for XBMC for a while now. It’s just the best way to do it so it’s always there. I was using a Core i5 based system. Originally on Windows 7, and then Windows 8. I then discovered there is a distribution of Ubuntu that has XBMC bundled in. Unbuntu itself is invisible and in the background only to support XBMC. As soon as it boots up voila XBMC. You do not in anyway need to be a Linux Guru to install it. Updating it does take a bit of technical knowledge. I am quite impressed with Ubuntu/XBMC and it is now my main media center. Power management works almost perfectly. The PC and display go to sleep very nicely as setup within XBMC. The only issue I have is that it will not wake up from sleep with the remote. I’ve searched for settings in the BIOS to fix this to no avail. So to wake it up you need to go up and push the button or … I use wake on LAN. Wake on LAN in case you don’t know was designed into PCs to allow administrators to wake your PC for patching etc. I use a PC based app to wake up the media center (too lazy to get off my fat ass and press the button :) called mc-wol.exe and you tell it the mac address of the network card. I also found a great app on Android Wake on LAN that works perfectly to wake it up. I have found a limitation that IP TV does not seem to be supported under Unbuntu XBMC. Not sure if that will change. To periodically update the version of XBMC under Ubuntu you will need to SSH into it an issue the following two commands. Unfortunately they have not built that into the GUI (yet):
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get –only-upgrade install xbmc xbmc.bin

Recently I got my paws on an Asus Asrock ION. This little PC has a dual core Atom and an Nvidia ION graphics chip. The device is small, quiet and low power. I installed Ubuntu XBMC on it and sure enough it plays back like a charm. I am shocked how well such a small device works and has now become my main media center PC! It fits nicely in my wall unit and blends in with my audio receiver. You wouldn’t even know it’s a PC if you weren’t told!
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I also recently bought an Amazon Kindle Fire TV. This device is not available in Canada so I bought it in the states. I reviewed it a while back so I won’t repeat it here. XBMC 13.1 was pretty solid on the fire with issues on resume/skip and showing where in the show it was. 13.2 added in some nasty instabilities. The current beta of 14 seems to have fixed a number of the instabilities as well as resolved the resume/skip issues. I’ve loaded xbmc-14.0-Helix_alpha3-armeabi-v7a.apk.

The majority of my content is stored on local file shares. I have two media centers for playback in the house. Originally each had their own index of the content, what had been watched etc which was a pain. I recently moved to a common database. I found an article on how to set this up and it works amazingly well. It means the index of anything new only has to be added to one device and it shows up on the other. And content that has been watched is tracked on both devices. Sweet! To make this even more seemless I created a virtual machine with XBMC on it to keep the index always up to date.

So now you have a media center you need content. There are lots of providers out there offering unlimited internet to the home. Get on one :) Ditch Rogers/Bell. I use a program called Sickbeard. It runs constantly and you point it at your TV collection. You can use it to go get new series you want to follow or get new episodes automatically when they become available. It automates the process. You can have it search for torrents or newsgroups. It works better with newsgroups but then you will need a newsgroup account. Sickbeard pulls down the torrent that in turn is then downloaded by a program like utorrent to get the file. From a newsgroup point of view SabNZB can be used to get content from the newsgroup as prodded by Sickbeard. In both cases Sickbeard drops it into a directory that utorrent/sabnzb then look at and go get the download. It’s a bit tricky to setup but once setup it works well. There are lots of guides out there for Sickbeard/SabNZB. I looked into Headphones which is suppose to do a similar function for music but it didn’t work well for me. Ignored lots of my music (likely not tagged well). So I gave up on that. I also looked at Couch Potato which is suppose to do the same for movies but I didn’t like that one either.

So that’s about it. XBMC really is a fabulous game changing product that has been around a while. If you have no explored it. Be sure and do so. Leave some time to set it up. And be sure and explore.

September 24, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Asus Transformer TF701 review

I’ve eyed Asus transformers for a while. They offer the best of both worlds with a detachable keyboard and tablet functionality. Unlike Windows tablets which fall down due to the lack of proper touch support in the apps and operating system itself Android was designed from the start for touch screens. Add in a keyboard, glide point and proper mouse support and this opens a world of possibilities.

Physically the TF701 is an elegant albeit simple design. Nice big screen, a micro SD slot (for memory expansion), 3.5mm audio plug, power switch conveniently located on the back and volume rocker also on the back. Last but not least there is a proprietary (non-standard) charge/data cable. On the tablet itself there are no USB or micro USB ports so sadly any options of using USB flash storage, USB keyboard/mouse, or a USB data card (without the keyboard/docking station) are out the window. The proprietary charge/data cable is readily available on ebay and inexpensive. There is no wired Ethernet port, something you might want if you were to use this heavily with xbmc.
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The keyboard/dock adds in a second battery 7,820mAh in the tablet and 4170mAh in the dock, to up your running time, a great keyboard, a glide point and a single USB 3 port. The keyboard dock does add a bit of weight/thickness as you would expect with one having a battery in it. But it also means the extra weight makes it more balanced on your lap. The keyboard is well laid out and can be used easily for touch typing. Like writing a blog :) Keys for the most part are well placed with a few keys taking some getting use to. Like the positioning of the back button where esc usually is and the lack of a delete key. The biggest miss on the keyboard comes when you try and use it for RDP. The lack of function keys, no alt key, no delete key all make using this device with RDP clumsy at best. Now that said, this is not unique to this device. Any time you cross platforms I have found this an issue. Try using a Mac to do RDP. Or try using a PC with Hackintosh. Very common issue. This does create a fairly significant hurdle for me for using this device as a complete laptop replacement. The connector between the dock and the tablet is not the best. It has an almost rubbery feel to it. You have to press reasonably hard to mate the two and it’s best done on a flat surface. It really does not give you the best feel. There are quick keys to allow you to turn wfii on off, the glide point on off (yay) and others. Handy and efficient.

Charging options abound on this device. You can charge the dock on it’s own, the tablet on it’s own, have the dock battery charge the tablet battery or charge them both. If there is anything Asus missed is they should have upped the current from the adapter when charging both the tablet and dock to reduce charge time. The power is drawn out of the docking station first to insure the tablet always has the most power as possible. The device will always maximimize the battery in the tablet. Draining the dock first. But don’t expect the world out of the second battery. I started with a dead battery in the tablet and a full charge in the dock. In an hour and a half the battery n the dock was down to 5% but the tablet had only risen to 20% meaning the charge is only about 38% efficient. Which is extraordinarily low.

USB compatibility is really quite good. I plugged in a USB hard drive (the kind of thing that most Android devices would simply ignore due to it’s power consumption) and it worked. I tried my Garmin foretrex 401 (which mounts as a flash drive) and it worked perfectly. Even my Kindle worked perfectly. Of course USB flash drive, keyboard and mouse, they all work. I have to say this is the first time I have seen this work this well.

Let’s cover off specs. Dimensions are 263 x 180.8 x 8.9 mm (10.35 x 7.12 x 0.35 inch with a weight of 585 g (1.29 lb). Overall I find size and weight excellent. This is absolutely not an ultra portable, 7″ and 8″ tablets own that space in my mind. You can stick them in your back pocket and your good to go (well at least until you sit on them :)) The screen is 2560 x 1600 pixels, 10.1 inches (~299 ppi pixel density) which is bright and vivid. Covered with Corning Gorilla glass 2 for protection. There are lots of inexpensive covers readily available on Amazon and ebay to protect the device. Storage is 32G with another up to 64G possible on the micro SD card, so lots of space for your stuff. Ram is 2G allowing lots of memory for running apps. WIFI is abgn, and bluetooth is 3.0. Pitty it’s not 4.0 then I could use my heart rate monitor and other bluetooth low energy devices, but hardly an issue for tablets. Processor is a quad core tegra 4 1.9G. Not the fastest on the planet but pretty close to the top of the heap! There are cameras on the tablet, not that I care. I’m never going to be one of those idiots you see blocking some scenic view while they crop and get the best picture they can with their iPad. Let’s face it, none of these devices have any kind of decent optics so who cares what the mega pixel is. And what exactly is the point of cropping on the device before you take the picture? It’s a digital zoom idiot. I digress.

There isn’t a lot of fluff added by Asus to Android which is nice. An updated Contacts and Calendar app. All in all a nice load of Android. I tried using a pen on the screen and it basically ignored a thin pen but detected a fat pen. The fat pen I have has too much drag to be useful. Pooh. Someday maybe I will be able to use a tablet for writing :(

Movie playback is pretty good. The built in player is a bit jittery on playback (I am being SUPER picky here) and XBMC 13.2 shows the usual assortment of issues (same as on other Android devices). This includes on some files not being able to fast forward, not showing where in the video file it is, and not resuming properly. All these I have also seen on the Kindle Fire TV so this is not specific to this device. I tried one of the early beta releases of 14 and it looking better, guess we will see. From a media compatibility point of Asus nailed it with support for large files (needed for movies) through BOTH NTFS and exFAT. A first for the devices I’ve played with. Well done Asus!

The home, back and options are all soft buttons so they work properly when the device is connected to HDMI. Yay! Add in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse and it works well. Speaking of mouse, the right mouse button is properly supported on RDP clients like 2X, but acts like a back button when not needed. A nice touch. HDMI outpt is the best, clearest I have seen to date outside of the Kindle Fire TV. You can actually use this device with a large monitor and external keyboard and mouse. Unlike all the Samsungs I’ve tried HDMI with the device does not overheat, can do HDMI without being plugged in, and didn’t require a custom (expensive cable). Again a first for Android. Asus got it right. Impressive.

Overall performance on this device is excellent. Browsing is a smooth experience. Instant on is as good as it gets. Battery life is great especially when the external dock is attached but it will take a while to charge it back up so be ready for that.

Lots has been said about market fragmentation in the Android world, and tablets like this do not help this issue at all. A number of apps that I wanted to run on it (BBM, Lennox iComfort etc) were not on the playstore for this device. I suspect it’s a combination of the fact it’s a tablet and second it is very hi res. So don’t be surprised if you can’t get all apps to install on this (or other hi res tablets). I was able to manually install a couple of them (such as BBM) only to discover they do not support landscape mode so useless when the keyboard is attached.

Wifi connectivity was good including dual band N with connections of 150 mb/s from a fairly close access point.

Asus have lumped mirrorcast (they call it screen mirroring) as well as DLNA support into one menu they call play to. I’ve not seen this before but it seemed to work reasonably well. The mirror cast was a little underwhelming. but DLNA worked fine allowing me to stream content from the tablet to XBMC. When I connected to screen mirroring it needed to disable bluetooth as well as disconnect WIFI while it connected. Oddly it did not turn bluetooth back on when screen mirroring ended. An inconvenience because I was using a bluetooth mouse. And not having WIFI when connected to Mirror cast is severly limiting leaving this functionality useless.

In terms of size everyone has their thresholds and preference. I found this size to be great for in the home. Big for out and about and particularly big for use in a car to navigate.

All in all I have to say this is the best hands down Android device I’ve played with to date. The keyboard is awesome. Power management terrific. Bright vivid hi res display. Excellent HDMI. I have to say I love it!

September 23, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

Smartwatches

Not long ago I reviewed my Sony Smart Watch 2 and now we have the announcement from Apple. It’s amusing to see presses “hating” of this product already. You know what the number one problem with the Smart Watch revolution, realistic expectation. Expect the sun and the moon out of a watch and your about to be MAJORLY disappointed. Point in case take this one genius’s opinion “it needs to replace — needs to completely replace our need for a cellphone”. ((His whole post). Talk about someone that missed the point. DUMMY this thing is a watch. It supplements your phone not replace it. In fact to keep battery life reasonable and size small the watch relies on the phone. Just how much the smart watch can do without the phone is one of those design choices/trade offs that had to be made. Over 2 months after I bought my Sony Smartwatch I have not stopped using it even one day. I occasionally take it off to protect it. I replaced the cheap rubber watch band with a nice inexpensive metal band from ebay. Kudos to Sony for using a STANDARD watch band. Not like Apple who, suprise suprise, went to proprietary band so you have to buy it from them. I’m sure if Apple could have figured out a watch to put a chip in the band to insure you don’t use a third party watch band they would have (think lightning cable). The big question is if my Sony Smart Watch broke tomorrow would I buy it again? Given the evolution going on the answer is probably not. I’d try something else.

THE biggest disappointment for the Sony Smart watch 2 is all of the things Sony and third party developers could do with this watch. There is a ton of potential for this device that will never be realized. The existence of third party apps like Watchit (that can take any notification and push it to the phone) and Remote widget (can take any widget and display it on the watch) are revolutionary in removing the need for apps to be specifically written to support the watch. Why these weren’t designed in by Sony is beyond me. Heh Sony, go buy these two apps from the owner and be done with it.

So what do I use it for? First and foremost it’s a programmable watch. I can change the watchface anytime I want. I can pull dynamic information such as the weather, song playing, next calender event etc into the watchface by a cleverly designed editor. Very flexible, and extensible. Numerous third parties have developed additional watch widgets you can use to pull dynamic data from the phone. Or simply just display a normal looking watch face. But the CHOICE is yours. Here are some examples of my favs (by the way the lines you see are not shown on the watch they are just part of the editor you use to design the watchface and this is the easiest way of getting the screen capture shy of taking a picture of the watch) :
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The second purpose the watch serves for me is secondary notifications. I find it a VERY effective way of not missing messages and phone calls. I don’t often read the message on the watch, and even if I did I have to take the phone out to reply so that is something that is not all that important to me.

Next purpose is built in chronometer functions. Count down, stop watch, alarms etc. I’ve used an simple analog watch for a very long time and it’s nice to have these back.

Lastly I have a few apps like Endomondo that support the watch and run as a remote display for the phone on the watch.

That’s about it. Battery life is 2-3 days. For some this is there show stopper. For me this is not a big deal. The fact that it can be changed with a standard micro USB charger (even my portable battery pack that I carry for my phone works) and charges the watch quickly is a mitigating factor to the paranoia of having the battery die. But that said, it is yet another thing I need to keep charged.

Is the smart watch earth shattering, revolutionary, something I can’t live without? Absolutely not. But it is useful enough, and reliable enough that I keep mine and like the device.

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Android | Leave a comment

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