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Wearables, my thoughts on the current state

I’ve definitely been an early adopter in the wearables area, and I have to say I have come to the point where I have become fed up. In fact I recently ordered a good old fashion mechanical watch (more of that to come in a future post).

I love the whole Fitbit eco system. A great portal (with the ability to export for further data analysis), a good app (although I really wish they would focus on giving more stats, like max steps walked, woohoo you exceeded your previous max etc), and a host of different form factors to choose from. But that said I’ve actually got rid of my One, Charge, Charge HR, and Blaze and gone back to a good old Flex. Why? Simple, you can buy a third party normal buckled strap and put the little peanut in it. Or buy a holder that magnetically clips onto clothes and keep your wrist free for other things. And the Blaze while a terrific tracker sucks as a watch.
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Android wear is great, well sort of. My last Android wear was a Moto 360 gen one. I loved it, comfortable looks great, bright screen, excellent functionality. BUT (and you knew there had to be a but), it is far less functional on iOS. Watch faces are severely limited (again on iOS), and battery life totally sucks. Barely a day. So bad I actually bought a second charger to keep at work. Sheesh. And if I was going away for a weekend, not a chance it was coming with … And the “Ambient screen mode” (Motos version of always on) was very poorly implemented.

Of the devices I own the Polar A300 is one of the better. Super battery life, always on screen, reasonably comfortable and works with any bluetooth chest strap. Notifications even on iOS are well done and smooth. It actually can act as an activity and sleep tracker making it an all round every day watch and fitness watch. If they had included a chronometer features it would have been a clean sweep. When I decided to clean out my wearables this one got to stay!

The number one area wearables are falling down is the simple act of wanting to know what time it is. It is a watch … Bizarre to have to harp on this, but between screens that are unreadable in bright light, to notifications getting in the way of seeing the time, to not detecting my wrist turn and thus not turning the screen on, it can be maddening. And ultimately it is when I am pressed for time, catching a train or the like and it makes me just wanna scream.

Who knows what will catch my eye next in this category but for now I sold them all …

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August 29, 2016 Posted by | Activity Trackers, Android Wear (Smartwatch) | Leave a comment

Livescribe smart pen 3

I have to say, I had never heard of this device. It popped onto my radar because I tripped over it. I had no idea it exists. Which is amusing because I have been searching for better and better ways to take digital notes. I’ve spent a ton of time and money on tablet to do just that. So when I saw this I was curious. I wonder over the years how much money and time I have spent doing nothing more than satisfying a curiosity 🙂 I think it’s part of my personality. I love to learn.

So what is this thing? It is pen that when you write on special paper it saves what you write. This can then be uploaded through bluetooth to your phone and into their own app called Livescribe+. You can do the upload offline, or live. I have not been able to tell just how much memory it actually has (ie how much offline you can do), however their website says it has storage for thousands of pages. There are other versions of this pen that use USB or WIFI.

So let’s get started. The pen comes with a safety cover for the end of the pen. Sadly this will likely get easily lost, not sure if they intend this for shipping only. I’ll probably look around or a case to protect the pen in the pocket.

The first thing you need to do is charge it up. On the one end of the pen is the pen tip itself which houses a regular ball point pen that uses real ink. This ink cartridge can be easily removed and there are blue and red ink for it readily available on Amazon etc. I see no way of knowing the amount of ink left in the cartridge. And if you run out of ink your dead …

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On the other end of the pen is a capacitive pen tip you can use on almost any smartphone/tablet. Hiding under this is a microUSB charging port, it uses a rechargeable battery. This is a brilliant design rather than use some kind of proprietary plug.

In the middle of pen is a twist ring that brings the ink out for use and turns the pen on. There’s an LED on the pen that tells you the status. There’s even a beep to tell you it’s ready to go.

There’s the usual pen clip on the top for holding it in your pocket, but it is not that firm so I wouldn’t trust it. Also the pen is longer than most.

If there is a complaint, I wish they had made the bottom of the pen where you hold it less slippery. Say use the same knurling they did on the twist. And I wish they had included a cover for the end. Putting it in my pocket could end up with lint obscuring the lens.

All in all the pen is a touch on the chubby side, but weight is fine and not really noticeable. I do wonder how robust this pen will be to dropping. And given how expensive it is to replace, loosing it is going to make me cry 😦 $250 in Amazon.

Ok so we are all charged up and ready to go. Load up the Livescribe app on your phone/tablet and your ready to roll. The pen can pair with up to 4 phones/tablets, but it might be a bit of a challenge to see which device gets the pen if all are on.

On first start the Livescribe app will ask if you want to pair with a pen. It goes out and searches for the pen and adds it. In my case it found a firware update and proceeded to install it. It took a number of tries to complete, not sure why.

Clicking on the pen from within the app gives you everything you might ever want to know. You can see firmware, check for updates, see the battery status, and even help you find the pen by having it buzz (assuming it’s in range). You can even manually unpair one of the 4 devices in memory. All in all well done and thorough.
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I had a bit of difficulty getting the pen to quickly move between devices (an Iphone 6 and an iPad mini 2). Sometimes the only way I could get it to move was to turn off bluetooth.

Each device you setup (for example a phone/tablet) is setup separately. All settings have to be redone for each device. This includes setting up your cloud services. Livescribe can send notes out to Evernote and Onenote. These can be setup to happen manually or automatically. There is a LiveScribe account but from what I see there’s no link between the Livescribe app and the Livescibe web site. There does not seem to be a Livescribe portal where the docs are stored. I did eventually see a notebook from one device appear on the other when the pen connected. I almost wonder if the pen storage is how that happened. The lack of a Livescribe portal does make the option to send it off to Evernote or OneNote as a way of keeping this cross platform and always available. Exporting to Evernote and Onenote can be done in one of two ways as an embedded PDF (this seems useless to me) or as a image per page. The image includes the background of the paper. Once in OneNote it can not be edited (except by graphic editors). Handwriting recognition would seem to be further complicated once in OneNote.

It’s worth noting that since the pen seems to keep everything in it’s storage, you may need to be concerned with security if what you are writing is confidential. There is a way to set a PIN for the pen but PINs are kinda limited as far as security goes.

Paper wise you can buy a variety of sizes from Livescribe, or print your own. I did try the print your own and it works fine. Another link to print your own.

I was surprised to see that the notebook from livescribe didn’t include a loop to put the pen in. Seemed like an obvious thing to do …

One of the things you won’t be able to use it for would be to jot notes down on an existing document.

The output is probably the smoothest digitization of handwriting I have seen to date. I don’t however see anyway to erase what has been written, but then that’s no different that writing in ink.

All in all the pen is quite impressive and works well. If you do hand written notes then this might be the gadget of your dreams! The need for special paper is limiting, but also probably one of the reason it works as well as it does!

August 11, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fitbit Alta mini review

I’m a fan of Fitbits. Great portal, easy to use, able to export data, they have it all. Sadly physically speaking they keep missing the mark. I like my Charge but hate the way it does up and can easily come off. I’ve come close to loosing it more than once. I love the Blaze, but it just sucks as a watch, poor watch face design. So I decided to look at the Alta. It’s the latest and greatest from Fitbit.

So let’s start with the physicals. The band features yet again a two whole punch you have to endure to put on. It’s as bad or worse than the Charge. The only positive in it all is that the band can be easily removed and there are ones available on Amazon and ebay. Why Fitbit continue to redesign something that isn’t broke is beyond me. The Charge HR used a simple watch like buckle. Perfect. Mr F’nBit please use a normal watch buckle. Moving on …

The Alta definitely has a more polished look to it. Maybe a bit too polished. The screen is very shiny, I can only imagine this is going to be a scratch magnet. All in all I would have to say the Alta looks, well feminine. The display is oriented like a lot of these wearables the wrong way on the wrist. The app can turn it so it displays in a readable way but the screen is so narrow that it can’t even properly display the steps walked. You get things like 5.3K steps. Fitbit have yet again screwed up like they did on the Charge. They have a setting called quick view that attempts to detect you rotating your wrist, but unfortunately, it doesn’t turn this feature off when your trying to sleep. Absoloutely idotic. So this means, as with the charge, the display is pretty much useless other than to check your steps from time to time.

Fitbit just can not seem to decide on a charging cable/connector. Each and every Fitbit does something different, and unique. I thought the Blaze was bizarre, but the Alta trumps that one. You get this odd spring loaded close pin like thing you need to carefully align with pins you can’t easily see. Getting this on right is really stupidly difficult.
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There is no heart rate monitor, not a big loss …

As usual it tracks steps, sleep etc. There’s one new trick up it’s sleeves, it attempts to detect and remind you when you have been inactive for too long. A feature others have had for years, and fitbit has promised to add to the Blaze and have not yet done.

So all in all I am SERIOUSLY underwhelmed. So much so, after two days I returned it. I really have no idea why anyone who already has a fitbit would buy this. There sure isn’t a reason to upgrade IMHO. Sure it looks nice, more like a piece of jewelry, and maybe for this reason alone it will sell well. In fact sales of the unit are strong.
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So at this point, I think I will go back to a Fitbit Flex and buy an aftermarket band that has a proper watch clasp. Cost me <$10 on Amazon.
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August 10, 2016 Posted by | Activity Trackers | Leave a comment

Mocreo 2500 mAH external battery

I’ve bought a few external batteries in the past and overall been underwhelmed. I was looking for one that was small, and light to allow me to carry it all the time for emergencies. Funny enough, more often when I am carrying the external battery pack it’s been used by colleagues rather than by me 🙂 Probably something to do with my paranoia of running out of battery. This one caught my eye on Amazon as inexpensive, light and thing. So I bought it. The model number is a LAVO-2500 from Mocreo.

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iPhones even as far as the 6 only draw a max of 1A out of the charger. Android phones more often require 2A. This battery pack can only put out 1A max. So it’s of little use on Android devices. Check the output current on your charger before you buy a battery pack like this. Most of the smaller ones cap out at 1A. For the iPhone 6 this device is perfect.

Physically the device includes an integrated microUSB cable that is a little on the flimsy side. It also came with a microUSB to lightning converter. The converter has a bay but it is difficult to get it out and if you put it in the wrong way around it’s an even bigger challenge to get it out. If there is a bad part to the design this is definitely it. In fact, I wish the charger was available with a lightning connector on it.

So I put it to the test. The battery on an iPhone 6 is 1860 mAH. I did two runs. First run went from 56 to 92% in 45 mins. Second run went from 1% to 64% in 78 mins. So in all the combined runs were able to provide a 99% charge in 123 mins. The battery pack was able to keep a pretty constant charge current into the iPhone throughout. The charge curve is very close to the stock chargers which is impressive.
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Looking at efficiency the 2500 mAH was able to push a virtually full charge into the iPhone 6’s 1860mAH battery which comes out as 74% which is very good.

From completely dead it took around 4 hours to charge. It can only draw 1A on charge so plugging it into a 2A charger doesn’t help this. So this battery pack does not have quick charge circuitry built in as a lot of new phones do, but given the price …

The unit supports passthru meaning you can plug the battery into the wall, and the phone into the battery and both will charge. The current it can take is limited so the phone is given all it wants first and then once full the battery charges.

The pack lacks a flash light that some of these have and would be convenient, and there is no way to tell the charge in the battery pack. There’s only one LED, off when plugged in means fully charged, purple when on pass thru means charging the phone and red means charging the battery.

All in all this an excellent battery pack for every day carrying, at a reasonable price for an iPhone!

August 4, 2016 Posted by | iPhone Stuff, iPhone/iPad | Leave a comment

Amazon Fire TV 2nd Gen

I’ve had a Kindle Fire TV first gen in the house for a long time. I side loaded Kodi and used llama to hide the Fire interface. Kodi was the only purpose to the box. I still have this and it’s my secondary media player in the house. It works well, sleeps well, draws very little power, is reliable and completely silent. The remote works pretty well with Kodi the only nits being no volume control and no stop button. A while back I started using Firestarter, an app that made it easier to launch and update Kodi. Amazon caught on and blocked Firestarter. Clever folks renamed it to Firestopper and things continued. Then the maker of Firestarter decided to play nice with Amazon and came up with AppStarter and removed some of the things Amazon found offending (capturing the home button, and auto starting on boot). Sadly in becoming less offensive to Amazon the developer neutered anything that was useful about Firestarter in the first place IMHO.

Amazon released a second generation FireTV with some updates to processor, codecs it could support etc. This article does a great job of explaining the differences. The power adapter was bumped up from 18W to 21W and the barrel end of the charger was changed up. Amazon removed the optical output for 5.1 audio (something I still use on my secondary home theater system). The remote is pretty similar to the first gen.

Amazon have been a lot more aggressive with blocking any apps other than apps that come from the Amazon Appstore. They install but you have to find them in the settings to start them. And if you manage to press the home button on the remote, your back manually starting the app. To say this has become infinitely clumsy is an understatement. In fact, Amazon’s behaviour makes the FireTV a far less compelling Kodi box, something I am sure Amazon is fine about. Just to illustrate the point, to launch Kodi from first power on (assuming you can’t get it into the recent apps list, which seems to come and go) it takes 28 clicks (9 – to get to settings from home, 4 – to get to applications, 4 – manage installed apps, 6 to get to kodi (varies depending on how many installed apps)). Sheesh.

A colleague of mine, Johannes, had discovered a neat party trick. When the FireTV registers, it registers with Amazon.com. If on Amazon.com you have a US address (pick an address, any address) and add a credit card, low and behold magic happens and apps you manually launch (like Kodi) appear in the applications list, favorites and recent. This dramatically cuts down on the number of clicks to get Kodi up.

You can see what the latest firmware release from amazon.com. From a command prompt on ADB you can issue the command cat /system/build.prop|grep ro.build.version.name to see what your currently installed firmware version is.

Once Kodi is up and running playback is smooth, and manipulating through the menus is also smooth. IPTV using the Stalker plug in under Kodi also works well, but initial load is quite slow think 2-3 minutes. So if your using it for IPTV your going to want to exit Kodi only when absolutely necessary.

Power management on the FireTV 2 is not perfect. In Kodi your going to want to change the power management option to minimize (or off) to avoid the slow IPTV startup. The screen saver of the Fire’s can be used to black out the screen when not in use and the Fire itself goes into some form of sleep mode. Neither my HDMI receiver nor my TV went into sleep when the FireTV when into sleep, rather the screen was just a dull black.

There is an app called FireTV Utility that you can use to make side loading onto any of the FireTVs easier.

So all in all the FireTV 2 adds new codec support, some challenges to getting a Kodi icon for easy launching, but overall is an excellent playback device. The remote works well for Kodi but is missing volume control and the stop button.

August 2, 2016 Posted by | Mutlimedia, Uncategorized | Leave a comment