Author Archives: BC
New Phones are Coming March 1st – Have Patience!!
It is a great time to be in the market for a new smartphone! Two of the Smartphone Titans are a week away from announcing new devices on March 1st. So patience is called for!
Here’s the the two things to make sure you keep in mind when you are getting a new phone right around a refresh.
- New devices will generally cost the same amount as the old line (or very close), but they will have many new features AND will address many of the problems on the previous model. So you can avoid some headaches by waiting for the new device, at no real extra cost. Why buy a year old device now, when you can get a brand new device in a month for the same price?
- Once the new devices are on the market their previous models gets a discount. Sometimes a major discount. So if the new smartphone isn’t that much different from the old one, you might want to save some coin and just pick up the previous year’s model.
So here are the two (possibly three) devices, set to be announced on March 1st.
Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Galaxy Edge
It’s make or break time for Samsung. Not a lot has changed since the Galaxy S2 (in 2011!). Each year the company puts out another Galaxy phone that is a little bigger and a little faster. The Galaxy S5 made an attempt to incorporate a ton of features (heart rate monitor, fingerprint scanner, etc), but in the end it was just another “Galaxy S” that was a little faster and a little bigger.
The Galaxy S6 is expected to be different. Gone is the plastic build, replaced by some form of metal (aluminum most likely). The device should look much different than the phones that came before it. It needs to, because for the first time in a long time, Samsung is losing market share to Apple. People have been ditching Samsung for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in droves. The market seems to indicate that everyone was just waiting for Apple to build a big phone. Samsung used to be the big phone of choice, but now they must offer something more in terms of functionality and build quality to compete. All signs point to them delivering, but we won’t know till March 1st.
In addition to the Galaxy S6, Samsung is rumored to be introducing a smaller version of the Note Edge. This was a new device introduced just last year. The phablet device had a “third screen” of sorts, in the form of a touch screen located along the right hand edge of the device. This “edge screen” would show things typically found in the dock of your phone. It was definitely seen as more of a gimmick than a phone that tons of people would want. It seems Samsung is thinking if the phone was a bit smaller, perhaps it will be adopted by a larger audience. So we might be seeing the introduction of the Samsung Galaxy Edge.
HTC One (M9)
The other big player introducing a phone on March 1st is HTC. I owned the HTC One (M8) for six months last year. I liked the phone a lot in terms of build quality, and the operating system. I never bought into the camera approach, which used “ultrapixels” instead of “megapixels”. Also the phone just seemed too big for a 5 inch screen, and that was mainly due to the half inch of real estate taken up on the front of the phone for the “HTC” logo. Well the next iteration of the HTC One is coming, perhaps called the “M9”, and did HTC fix that real estate problem? No they did not.
The new phone looks really good. In a strange move, the rumors are that it will have the same size screen, at 5 inches, AND they are still wasting valuable screen space on the front of the device on an unnecessary logo (it says HTC on the back too). They’ve ditched the ultrapixel camera for a 20MP camera on the back (yeah!). Beyond that screen size and camera the new phone is ramping up all the specs. A faster processor will make mobile games easier, and web browsing like lightening. The build appears to continue the use of aluminum, which has a great look, but is pretty slick in the hand (so a case is a good investment – and they make clear ones to still show the metal off). All in all, the HTC One (M9) won’t be the radical change we will probably see in the Samsung line, but it’s definitely a decent upgrade.
Patience Pays Off
In terms of technology March is certainly going to come in like a lion. We are certainly going to see several new phones from some of the biggest companies in the industry. This will give consumers new options, but will also impact the existing phone market, so if you are patient you will have choices, and you’re certain to find something that will get you through a couple more years. And you might find that the old versions aren’t so bad after all (see below).
Stay tuned to Two Lumps of Tech on March 2nd, for a high-level review of the devices, once we get to see what they actually are, versus speculating on what we hope they are.
Review – Nexus 9 Tablet
When I took the Nexus 9 out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the unique size. I’ve had several 7 inch tablets, and also a 10 inch iPad for many years, so when I first took this 9 inch device into my hands I was a little perplexed over the reason for such a size. It’s basically a small iPad or a large iPad Mini (to put it into the Apple terms that most would be able to relate to). The device most similar to the Nexus 9 on the market right now is the Kindle HDX 8.9 from Amazon. That particular tablet can go toe-to-toe with Nexus 9 in terms of specs, but comes in $20 cheaper. Of course, the Nexus 9 gives you a clean Android operating system, versus the highly customized Kindle software. So maybe the $20 saved isn’t worth it, if you want more than Amazon’s somewhat limited app selection.
The battle over tablets has reached a fever pitch in the past couple of years. Some signs even indicate that the devices have peaked, as sales are starting to flatten out, or even drop in some cases, in terms of year-over-year growth. Even the all-powerful iPad is not immune to this. Simply put, people who wanted tablets bought them, and now they don’t need another for at least two years, and in many cases the time is much longer. So the tech companies are now heading back to the drawing board of sorts, trying to come up with the next evolution of tablets that will bring consumers back to the table. It’s my opinion that the Nexus 9 is the first effort from Google to do just that. They haven’t done anything huge yet, but by placing the size smack-dab between the small and large tablets, they are in effect offering a middle of the road option for consumers uncertain about what tablet they might prefer. The battle for tablet consumers is only made more intense by the increasing size of smartphones. Where “phablet” was once seen as more of a joke than an actual phone people would want, now the market for the 5 inch screen on smartphones is the strongest of the lot. So as the 7 inch tablet starts being challenged by the smartphone market, and the 10 inch tablets are often seen as too high priced for many consumers, tech companies are looking for ways to offer a better tablet at a competitive price. And that brings us to the Nexus 9.
The Cup Half Full
I did not initially like the Nexus 9. I used it casually over the course of the week, and found myself longing to return to my standard iPad Mini. But then I sat down with the device for a few hours and really dug into it. I got to know the new operating system, Lollipop, and then my attitude started to change.
Lollipop does something that comes as a shock to tech followers, it finds Android copying Apple! It’s been the other way around with Apple ripping off Android for so long, it’s kind of refreshing to see the flat simplistic approach Apple employed with iOS 7 (and now iOS 8) brought into Android’s Lollipop. It’s a welcome change. The previous operating systems, Jelly Bean and Kit Kat, were often way too dark, and the buttons didn’t always make the most sense. That all changed with Lollipop.
I like many of the features, but I will focus on two of them here. First is Multi-User Access. I had the original Nexus 7, and one feature I liked about that device was the ability to set up a “guest account” so others could use my device without messing up my stuff. Lollipop is making multi-user accounts even easier. You can swipe between Google accounts easily, if you’re like me and have multiple email addresses for various reasons. But you can also create additional profiles that can have total access to your google apps, have limited access based on your settings, or have unique profiles built from the guests own google apps using their login information. It’s easy to switch between accounts, right from the notification screen, and the setup was a breeze. This is a feature missing from iPads, and it is a key advantage Android has over Apple currently.
The other setting option I like is all about the battery. Sure all mobile devices have battery settings. This is where you can see your percentage and turn on your “energy saver” (which the Nexus 9 also has). But the difference with this device is that it will calculate the estimated battery life and graph it for you, so you have a good idea how long you’ve got before you need a charge. I tested out this feature with the screen at full brightness and then at minimal brightness and I saw a four hour time difference in battery life! That’s very useful and very telling about what exactly is sucking the life out of your battery. And it isn’t your addiction to Candy Crush (probably…)
Finally, I absolutely love the speakers built into the front of the device. This is HTC hard at work moving those speakers from the bottom of tablets to the spot where they belong. The Nexus 9 cranks out the sound. It’s not quite as good as the speakers you’ll find on the Kindle Fire line, but it’s better than anything Apple is doing these days.
The Cup Half Empty
Google tries to sell the Nexus 9 as a “one-hand tablet” but I didn’t find that to be the case for me. It’s simply too wide. It suffers from the same issue as the iPad Mini. You can’t one-hand the device. To be fair, the rubber back of the Nexus makes one-hand holding a little easier than the metal-backed iPad Mini, but it’s still awkward and risky, unless you’ve secured it in a solid case. Beyond the size of the case, the build quality of the Nexus 9 just doesn’t seem on par with other $400-$500 tablets. It feels more like a $200-$300 tablet. By feel, I am referring to the cheap rubber back, and the cheap glass. You’ll find the oils in your fingers will smudge both sides of the tablet very quickly. I did side-by-side testing with an iPad to see how quickly fingerprints appeared, and the Nexus was immediately evident with a couple taps on the screen. The iPad put up a better fight, and that is because of the quality of the glass, and the way the glass screen is attached to the device (iPad glass is glued to the surface of the screen versus laying on the screen like the Nexus 9). In addition the volume and power buttons are loose and, again, feel cheap. Google contracted HTC to build the Nexus 9 and the only evidence of that are the metal edges, which show just a shadow of the beautiful HTC One smartphone line. I wonder what the Nexus 9 would have looked like if Google had allowed HTC to bring that design to the larger form.
While I really like Lollipop, there is one element that frustrated me, and that is the multitasking pane. When you click the multitask button (right hand button), you get a tiled view of all your open applications. It’s similar to Safari’s Multi-Web page view, for those familiar with the design. You can scroll through your various apps and move between them easily, but when you swipe them away you must do this smoothly or the app will bounce to the side and stay in place. I found that the multi-task pane filled up with lots of apps quickly, and it was a chore to clean up those apps running in the background (which is definitely a good habit to save on battery life).
The last issue I have with the Nexus 9 is the price. The 16GB model starts at $399 and that is simply too much for this device. Since the device doesn’t offer expandable memory, you’re probably best served with the 32GB for $479, which is the largest you can get (no 64GB at this time, unlike many other high-end tablets). The general consensus among reviewers is that the Nexus 9 is a great $299 tablet, and I would agree with that conclusion. With a better build, the device’s software certainly justifies the cost, but the Nexus 9 isn’t there. Remember that Lollipop is very new, so while it is currently only available on a few select devices, given a little more time you will be able to experience this operating system on many other smartphones and tablets.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Nexus 9 ended up being a much better device than I thought it was going to be. While the device looks and feels very mid-level for a tablet, what is under the hood is actually very impressive. Lollipop is a huge step forward for Android; It is an operating system that feels much more consumer focused than previous versions. I am certain that consumers who are less comfortable with this type of technology will feel fine on the Nexus 9. But should they get it? Is it worth the $400 price tag when you can get an iPad Mini with similar specs for $100 less. Or an iPad Air with superior specs for $100 more? I would say to steer clear of the Nexus 9 at this point, unless you really enjoy the Android operating system. There are certainly plenty of people out there who love Android the way others love Apple. And for them the Nexus 9 is a good choice. It’s the best tablet yet of the Nexus Line. It offers amazing speakers and a size that makes it more useful than the typical 7 inch tablet.
The Nexus 9 is the first entry in what I think is the next evolution of tablets. People are used to their 7 inch tablets and 10 inch tablets, and they don’t need new ones. Well, the tech industry won’t stand for that! They need to get everyone excited again! The Nexus is a new size (well Kindle did do it first, I guess) and it indicates a trend to the tablet line that is looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the giant smartphones (iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Note 4). I’m excited to see what is coming in the next year. New tablets and smartphones will continue to change the landscape and hopefully the casual consumers who bought iPads by the truck load will reap the benefits.
Review – Basis Peak Fitness Watch
I have reached the end of my two week testing of the Basis Peak Fitness Watch. If you haven’t caught up with my “first impressions” review, click here first for a breakdown of the features of this device.
The Basis Peak has definitely lived up to its category as a fitness watch. It’s much more than a typical fitness band, which generally counts your steps, calories, and maybe flights of stairs. A few fitness bands are starting to show actual clocks and collect or display heart rate data. I fall in the camp that says for a fitness band to be considered a watch it needs to look like a watch. Maybe I’m old-school. But I’ve asked around and that seems to be the general consensus. If it looks like a watch, it’s a watch. And the Basis Peak certainly looks like a watch. But it’s not a smartwatch, not by a long shot.
It is the current expectation in the tech industry that even the most basic smartwatch must do several things, and do them consistently well.
- Show incoming calls and allow answer or decline from the watch (then you grab your phone to actually start talking if you selected “answer”)
- Show incoming emails and texts from multiple text/IM services
- Show Calendar appointments with alerts sent to the wrist
That’s it. Those three things are not optional any longer. The smartwatch that I usually wear is the original Pebble, and it is arguably one of the most basic smartwatches, but it does those three things consistently. It also has apps for timers, weather, Evernote, and games. You can even track your Domino’s pizza order with it! Being that the Basis Peak costs TWICE AS MUCH you would expect that it would have similar “smartwatch” features. And while the device makes an attempt, it simply isn’t there yet. I found the watch could consistently receive incoming calls and texts, but nothing else. And this was only when paired to an iPhone. It was all but impossible to pair the watch with an Android phone during my tests. I made it work eventually, but for casual users, who want a “pair and go” approach for their device, this is not an ideal choice.
So if the Peak is not a Smartwatch, you might be wondering what it does to justify its $200 price tag? Simply put, it tracks your health metrics, and a lot of them. Steps are caught like any pedometer (no mileage calculated though). The device has an excellent heart rate monitor, which I found very useful. It also has sensor to detect perspiration and skin temperature. I guess I could see some value in the sweat sensor, but I live in Minnesota, and my skin temps are going to swing wildly just by moving between buildings and vehicles, so I’m not sure why I should care about that. Data is only good if you can do something with it. And that brings me to the last feature of the Peak Fitness watch that I found useful.
Most fitnessbands/smartwatches make some attempt to track sleep, but the Peak does this better than any other device I’ve used. Being able to look at my sleep metrics, which were broken down between Light, Deep, and REM sleep was helpful not only in determining if I was getting enough sleep, but whether I was getting the right amount of each type of sleep. I found myself trying to get to bed earlier to get more quality in my sleep, and that turns a gimmick into a tool.
Aside from the features on the watch itself, Basis offers a website and smartphone app. I found the website more useful than the app in general, having more real estate to show the data over time in effective ways. The company offers various “goals” to shoot for, but since there is little interaction with the watch itself, other than telling you when you’ve “met your goal”, I found that more gimmicky than useful. In the end I found tracking over time less important than tracking right in the moment. I walked a few flights of stairs, entirely winded, and I could actually check my heart rate, in real-time, and that’s pretty useful, if you’re trying to improve your health through exercise.
The Cup Half Full
The Peak went to market as a Fitness Watch. Its main feature was the Heart Rate Monitor, and that is the thing it does best. I tested the monitor against a doctor validated monitor and found it to be very accurate. Not exactly the same, but close enough to use it as a guide. I have used the heart rate monitor more than anything else with the Peak, and I know I will miss having that feature when I return to the Pebble this week.
The rest of the Fitness Watch metrics are nothing to get excited about, but they work. It tracks steps pretty accurately, if you’re one to shoot for those 10,000 daily steps. The fact that it is waterproof is a huge plus, and should really be a standard feature for this type of device. The battery life came through at roughly 4-5 days between charges, which is great. It also has a nice charger, using a magnet connection for easy charging, without any case to remove or small connection devices to lose.
The watch itself is very comfortable. The silicone wristband can pinch a little when you strap it on, but once in place I barely know it’s there. It needs to fit snugly to ensure accuracy with the HR Monitor, so comfort is very important. It’s not a stunning watch by any stretch, but it’s also not an eyesore. It works as a watch and as a Fitness Tracker.
The Cup Half Empty
As stated, it isn’t a Smartwatch. I found all of the functionality that was added to the device via a software update in early February to be inconsistent at best and at times virtually impossible. The watch connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and after some initial problems with my iPhone 6 I got that syncing very smoothly. But only voice and text information came to the watch, despite ensuring the settings were turned on to have emails and calendar updates come too. My attempts to sync with an Android device (HTC One M8) were incredibly frustrating. Even after a software update came during my trial claiming to “resolve Bluetooth sync issues” I still could not get the device to pair. I’m in the business of finding devices that are so easy just about anyone can use them. The Basis Peak failed that test on all levels in terms of its “smartwatch features”.
In addition to those issues, the only other problem I have with the Peak is related to its price. For $200 it should be able to do more than it does. Things like showing the current temperature would be a start. You get the date when you tap the screen, but that’s it. There are no buttons on the device, which is actually kind of nice, but it took me a google search to figure out that you had to slide up and down along the right edge of the watch to turn on the backlight. The device is marketed as being “automated” and thus the premium price model, but it is simply too far behind with some basic features to justify the cost. I could deal with $149, but $200 is too much.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I sort of love and hate the Basis Peak Fitness Watch. Over the course of my two weeks of testing I found the device very useful at times, and very frustrating at others. The 24/7 Heart Rate monitoring and Sleep Tracker actually drove me to change some of my habits, including giving up caffeine, and working harder to be more active. I can’t over-stress how important that piece of the puzzle is when looking at fitness watches or fitness bands. They MUST drive change in your habits, or they are really just an over-price clock. And in that regard the Basis Peak was a great success. A greater success than 2 years of wearing a Fitbit Flex and Pebble smartwatch ever were. Is it worth $200 for those features? That’s really up to each consumer. But if you are in the market for a fitness watch that will help drive behavior, the Peak is actually a decent contender.
But if you are in the market for a smartwatch that also has a fitness element, this is not your watch. Not at all. Certainly Basis will get their act together at some point and software updates will improve the notifications element of the Peak (after all, these features have only been live for three weeks as of 2/17). So only early adopters who can put up with the frustrations of inconsistency need apply. I’m one of those people, and even I was pushed to the breaking point when trying to sync to Android.
The Basis Peak is a great Fitness Tracker and has a place among the current crop of devices trying to give us all health data on the go, to keep us better informed about how our choices impact our health. Yet these devices are only as good as the value you place in them though, so bear that in mind as you ponder your choices. The Basis Peak is not a great Smartwatch, so steer clear until they fix those features.
For me this one is still over-priced for what you get. And if I really want to go that route, I’ll just wait for the Apple Watch in April.
Tech of Disney – Two Awesome Apps!!
Our Walt Disney World vacation was a success and everyone involved agreed that technology played a central role. We’ve already talked about how MagicBands made negotiating the parks, resorts, and souvenir shops easier. Today we’ll look at the applications we used during (and prior) to the trip to make sense of the madness and make sure everyone had a great time.
Disclaimer: Our vacation was in January, which is a slow month. So bear that in mind when making your plans. Even with these great apps, heading to WDW in July will always be pretty busy, but I’m sure these apps will help.
I was the “tech guy” for our trip and I employed several apps to keep everything sorted out. I used Google Maps to negotiate the way from Orlando to Clearwater, Florida and back (we spent a day at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium). I used Yahoo Weather to keep an eye on the sky and help everyone know whether to wear a jacket or shorts, depending on the day. I used the stock “Notes” app on my iPhone to keep tabs on souvenir money, and the breakdown of our meal plans (which we accessed with those sweet MagicBands). But there were two primary apps that I used to make this vacation successful, and I’m very excited to tell you about them. So here we go:
My Disney Experience App
This app is the “official app” from Disney for your vacation. The app provides a ton of tools to use in the parks including Ride Information, Character Meet-Up locations, Dining Options, Guest Services, and even Shopping.
The My Disney Experience App is something you definitely need while you’re in the park, or even before you’re in the park for planning purposes. Let me share how I used the app for our trip.
Using the App in the Parks
I used the My Disney Experience App for two major things while in the park. First, the app allows you to modify your Fast Pass options directly on the device. We had an early Fast Pass for the Rock Coaster in Hollywood Studios. The bus took a long time showing up (one of the few times that happened to us), and the drive to the park was taking longer than I expected it to. Bottom line, we were going to miss our Fast Pass for the ride, and I knew, from reviewing the app, that we had a 45 minute wait if we had to go through the “stand by” line. So I pulled up the Fast Pass options on the My Disney Experience App, located another Fast Pass window, and switched everyone in our group to that window instead. We did indeed arrive at Hollywood Studios after our first Fast Pass had expired, but because of the functionality of the My Disney Experience app, we were able to saunter our way to the ride (taking a family pic in front of the Tower of Terror along the way) and take advantage of our revised Fast Pass window. This is just on example of the many times I adjusted our Fast Pass times with this app. We actually switched which park we were going to one of the days, and I was able to completely reassign our Fast Passes to the other park, all from within the app on my iPhone.
The second way I used this app in the parks was for Dining. We were doing Quick Service Meals during most of our trip, which is the Disney equivalent of Fast Food. The app shows all of the Quick Service restaurants in the parks with menus provided. On our day in the Magic Kingdom we needed to find a location for dinner. While others in our group rode Dumbo the Flying Elephant, I pulled up the Dining options and took stock of what restaurants were around us (some restaurants have limited hours, and the app indicates that). By the time everyone was done flying I had narrowed it down to two places. With the whole group gathered around, I told them what foods each place offered, and the general consensus was to skip to gourmet mac and cheese of the Friar’s Nook (my choice), and head over for burgers and chicken in Tomorrowland at “Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe”. You can’t win them all. Having all of the menus at your fingertips is a great feature, and something unique to the My Disney Experience app. If you are doing Table Service Dining, you can even make your reservations right from the app. But make sure you do that way ahead of time, because those slots fill up fast, and you’ll have few, if any, options if you do it the day of your visit.
While My Disney Experience provided some great options, including visual maps to guide our way through the parks, another app was my primary tool to make sure we spent more time on rides, and less time in lines. It’s an app called “Touring Plans”.
I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the website for “touring plans“. It was probably during my google searches for “planning a trip to Disney”. However it was that I found it, I can say without hesitation that this app was the jewel that made our vacation a smooth ride from start to finish. Unlike the “My Disney Experience” app, this one has a cost related to it, but I assure you that the price of $12.95 for an annual membership is well worth it. Your $13 gets you access to the Touring Plans website, offering tons of tools, including pre-designed schedules, from which the site got their name. You also can full access to the mobile application (available on iOS and Android). The mobile app is available for free, but you can’t access many of the features without a membership.
The “Touring Plans” app offers all sorts of information about the parks. Park hours (including the “extra magic hours” for resort guests), Crowd Calendar, Wait Times, Fast Pass Availability, and Ride information (height, intensity, description, and ratings). Bottom line, the only things missing from this app are dining information, and the ability to change Fast Passes on the go (but you have My Disney Experience for those anyway). While those features might sound similar to the “My Disney Experience” app, I found that Touring Plans was easier to use, and had more reliable wait times for rides especially.
As I looked over the app, I had a feeling of nostalgia that is usually associated with viewing photos from a trip. But that makes sense, since I spent most of my time there staring at these screens. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let me share how I used this app prior to our visit and during our time in the parks.
Using the App to Plan the Trip
Two months before our trip the family gathered to do some trip planning. Using the “touring plans” application I accessed the “Crowd Calendar” which does its best to predict the tourist traffic each day. We could see the days we would be there, with estimated crowd level. We used that information, along with the days that each park had “extra magic hours” (resort guests get early entrance or staying after the park close to the public) to determine which park we would visit each day. Our planning proved overwhelmingly successful. We had minimal lines, and tons of space as we made our way around the parks. Touring Plans Crowd Calendar proved accurate for us!
The second thing we had to determine was which rides everyone wanted to go on. Bear in mind we had ages ranging from an 8-year-old up to the Grandparents, so everyone wasn’t always going to agree. I used a spreadsheet to create what I called “The Super Awesome Ride Selection Machine”, and filled it with data gathered from the ride descriptions in the “Touring Plans” app. Then I sat with everyone and had them rate their interest in every single ride (0 – not interested to 5 – we MUST go on that!!!!). In the end I had a good idea about which rides everyone wanted to go on, and when we’d need to split up. I used that information in real-time once we hit the park. We managed to get to roughly 90% of the rides we wanted to get to, and that is thanks to the wait time calculator. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Using the App in the Parks
The “touring plans” app provides estimated wait times for all of the rides and shows in all of the parks. When you pull up the ride list, you see the Disney posted time (reflected on the My Disney Experience App) and the “expected time” as calculated by Touring Plans. These numbers are derived from historical data and users entering their wait times while they are in line (which is added to the algorithms driving the historical data). I used the app, to time several of the lines we stood in. I verified just about every line’s wait time against the apps expected time and found the app was accurate almost all of the time. If anything, it sometimes stated a longer time than we experienced; it never went the other way! In addition to providing expected wait times, each ride indicates when there is a Fast Pass available, and when the line is expected to get shorter. We planned to ride Big Thunder Mountain again on the day we were in Magic Kingdom. I saw that there was a 40 minute wait as the expected time in Touring Plans. But the app told me that if we waited another hour the line would drop to 10 minutes. We waited (hit another ride in the meantime), and then we rode the ride an hour later with that 10 minute wait! Spectacular.
Anyone planning a trip to Walt Disney World (or Universal Studios – they have this service too), should get Touring Plans. It’s the easiest $13 you’ll spend, and it will definitely make your trip more enjoyable. If you don’t have a tech geek like me in our group, the site offers designed “touring plans” that will literally guide you through the park, hitting all the rides you want to go to at the optimal time. We didn’t use that service, but I can definitely see how it could benefit a group that doesn’t have a person who is fine staring at their smartphone the entire trip.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
As technology increases its presence in our lives, it is becoming more important to be comfortable with the tools. This is certainly the case for a vacation to Walt Disney World. The use of two relatively simple apps will have great benefits for your trip. You will stand in shorter lines, you will use your Fast Passes effectively (we changed some when we realized we had Passes for a ride with a 5 minute wait!), and you will feel more in control of your experience. Need to find a place to eat dinner? The My Disney Experience app has everything you need to know from menus, to prices, to exact locations in the parks. Need to know if it’s worth walking all the way across the park to hit Space Mountain one more time? Touring Plans can tell you how long you will wait before you take one step towards Tomorrowland. These are great tools. They are easy to use. And the first one is free and the second one is a bargain. So make sure to grab these apps before you head to Florida and I’m sure you will have an amazing time!
And when you want to know where to find her, you won’t need a Fairy Godmother…
First Impressions – Basis Peak Fitness and Sleep Tracker
Just when it seemed that the smartphone had eliminated the need for the old wristwatch, along comes the tech industry to reinvent an age old tool. Smartwatches once again dominated the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2015, showing that wrist-based tech is certainly on the rise! From the simple fitness bands like the Fitbit Flex and Misfit Flash, to the souped-up smartwatches like Moto 360, Samsung Gear S, and the forthcoming Apple Watch, the tech industry is very interested in slapping something on your wrist.
But how do you know what is best for you? Do you even need one? Well, all of that depends on what you value. Do you want fitness metrics like steps, miles, elevation, heart-rate, and calories burned? Do you want a wristband that interacts with your phone to show calls, texts, emails, and calendar notices? The Wrist Tech industry is very diverse, and actually pretty overwhelming when you really start to see how many options are out there. I recently got my hands on one of the lesser known devices. Based on my initial experience, I’d categorize it as a “fitness watch”. It’s called the Basis Peak, and these are my first impressions.
BASIS PEAK – Hardware
First off, the form factor. The Peak is not too big, and not too small. Weight is also minimal. It has a two tone LCD touchscreen which works very well. It comes with a rubber wristband that I find comfortable. This is important because to get accuracy from the heart-rate monitor it’s essential that the watch be strapped tightly to your wrist.
Battery life has been very good. I’m getting about 3 days of life (from the promised 5 days), but I have been using it a lot. Remember that the high end of battery life is usually found through minimal use. But 3 days isn’t bad, especially for a device that does 24/7 tracking.
The Peak is waterproof. So you can shower and swim with it on and there are no worries. Finally, the device will work with both Android and Apple phones, which makes it a rare breed indeed.
Overall I like the look and feel of the Basis Peak. So let’s talk about what this Fitness Watch does.
It’s a Fitness Tracker
First and foremost, this device is for fitness. It is not trying to compete with the Smartwatch category, at least not directly. The Basis Peak offers a few fitness metrics: steps, calories burned, and heart-rate (we’ll get to that last one in a minute). Noticeably missing from the device are the ability to track mileage (a significant omission), and elevation (which would require an altimeter to work). Many other fitness trackers offer both of those features, and for a premium cost device (the Peak will set you back $200) they really should be included.
Though the metrics are limited, it’s what the Peak does with the data that is pretty cool. The device sells itself as fully automated. You don’t have to tell the device when you go for a walk, take a run, or head off on a bike ride. The device can tell what you are doing, and the device responds with an icon for the activity, and begins tracking the activity as a “work out ” session of sorts. This is a great feature for people who like to track their metrics during exercise, especially those serious runners and bikers. And the key to solid metrics is the heart-rate monitor.
This is my first experience with a fitness band offering constant tracking of an actual health element. It’s one thing to see if you can get those 10,000 steps in every day and the resulting feeling of accomplishment. It’s quite another when your fitness watch can give you insight into your actual health in real time. I’m quickly discovering that I am pretty out of shape. I know that by watching my heart rate skyrocket, even during a long, slow walk. I am excited by the idea of mobile technology like a fitness watch helping people make better health choices in the moment. The Peak is already doing that for me, after just a few days.
It’s a Sleep Tracker
You didn’t know how important it was to track your sleep patterns, did you!? According to the fitness band/watch industry it’s very important because the feature is pretty much standard on anything strapped to your wrist. I’ve used the FitBit Flex sleep tracker for a while and I didn’t find it terribly useful. That particular tracker only tracked sleep and awake, using “micro-movements”. So it showed me when I moved around in my sleep, but the data didn’t get any more specific.
The Basis Peak is different, and it’s all because of the heart rate monitor, and something the company calls Body IQ. The device offers several metrics for sleep tracking including: Light Sleep, Deep Sleep, REM Sleep, Toss/Turn, and Interruptions. The phone based app also gives information to help you understand how much of each type of sleep is typical, so you have an idea if you are getting enough of what you need. This is the first fitness watch that I’ve used where the sleep monitor actually tells me something useful and something I can take action on.
It’s a Smartwatch (sorta)
When the Basis Peak first shipped it was strictly a Fitness Watch. It could do everything I’ve already described and nothing else. Then came the “smartwatch update“. This update was promised to early adopters and the company delivered recently with an update that allows Smartphones to communicate with the Peak, showing incoming calls, emails, texts, and calendar appointments on your wrist. The features are still pretty glitchy, which isn’t surprising because it’s so new. I tested both an Android phone and an iPhone and both were inconsistent with delivery of calls, texts, emails, and calendar appointments. Also the “manual sync” button in the phone app of both devices often resulted in an error saying “sync failed”. These issues definitely make the “smartwatch” element of the Peak less reliable.
Bottom line, if you want a full smartwatch experience, the Peak is not the device for you. At least not until they’ve worked through many of the bugs that are currently plaguing it.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Basis Peak is a Fitness Watch. That’s the most important thing to remember. It’s trying to take on some of the other Smartwatches out there, but it’s just not there yet. The fitness metrics offered by the Peak are pretty standard, and nothing to get too excited about. What I am finding most useful is the Heart Rate Monitor and enhanced Sleep Tracking. In the end, the purpose for wearing a fitness watch or fitness band is to help you make better choices about your health, and the heart rate monitor is proving an excellent tool for me in that regard.
The Basis Peak will certainly get better in time. The company promised a software update and they delivered. This is no small feat, especially for a smaller company. This builds customer trust and that is essential for the fledgling industry of Wrist Tech.
The device currently cost $199 and comes in a couple colors. You can swap out your wristband to jazz it up too. My opinion, based my first impressions of the Peak, is that it is overpriced for the features it offers. A $200 fitness watch should at least offer mileage tracking. It also wouldn’t hurt to put in that altimeter so users could track elevation (I used to challenge myself to take the stairs!). At a premium price, it should offer every feature possible. The only justification for the high cost would be the inclusion of “smartwatch” features, which the company is starting to offer. But the phone connectivity is still unreliable, and so be prepared for some frustration if you plan to use those features.
Mobile Health is taking off, and fitness bands and watches are leading the charge, providing valuable health data on your wrist (and your phone). This is technology that truly has the potential to change lives. Unlike the majority of tech updates (tablets, phones, and gaming consoles), wrist tech is often focused on health. At the same time these devices can keep you connected to the things that you value, in a way that involves minimal interruptions from technology.
These two elements in partnership on a small device like a wristband will revolutionize how we communicate with our friends and family, and with our doctors too! Great tech should be easy and life enhancing, and that’s the direction we are heading!
The Update I Was Waiting for… Music on the Echo Smart Speaker!!
I first reviewed the Echo Smart Speaker in a “First Impressions” post on 12/11/14. So be sure to check that out here.
I’ve been kicking around writing a full review of the Echo Smart Speaker recently. The thing holding me back though was that I was pretty frustrated with a few specific elements of the speaker. I’m fine writing a bad review (check out my thoughts on the WinBook!), but the Echo had such great potential, and I knew it was one major update away from being something amazing. Well today that update came. Let me tell you briefly what it is.
It is a fully functioning bluetooth speaker…NOW
When the Echo first arrived it could play music, but your choices were very limited. You were stuck with Amazon Music, I Heart Radio, and TuneIn Radio. If you didn’t have your music collection in Amazon’s cloud, you only had those streaming services as options. Amazon Prime Members can get access to Prime Music, but if you’re used to services like Spotify, RDIO, or Google Music, you’ll find Prime’s offerings pretty limited. And that was the kicker, and why I didn’t want to pass judgement on the device. Echo was a bluetooth speaker that didn’t act like a bluetooth speaker. It acted like a conduit to the Amazon ecosystem, which is very much the business model of the company (ask any Kindle Fire owner). This $100 device ($200 for non-Prime members) couldn’t attach to my phone via bluetooth to allow me to stream other music services, and that was a huge gap. But now that gap has been filled.
Just this week Amazon released on update that allows for bluetooth access. In their marketing they state that now “Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes Music” will work with Echo, but in truth any music service can now connect via bluetooth. That includes RDIO and Google Music, among many others. And now my Echo Smart Speaker is able to play my entire collection (personal music stored in iTunes, and music streaming via RDIO).
It is the smoothest setup I’ve ever seen
I was very frustrated when I first set up my Echo back in December. The need to create a new WIFI connection to link my phone, install the app, and then connect my home wireless was tedious and touchy. It took me a while to get things going. I think about casual users whenever I set up any device, and I worried that the setup was not the smooth experience Amazon is known for. But they fixed some bugs with the role-out of bluetooth connectivity. Here’s how it works:
1. Say “Alexa, pair my device”
2. Alexa tells you to navigate to the bluetooth settings and select “Echo-###”
3. You follow those directions
4. Alexa says, “Your device is now paired”
That’s it. This worked on both my iPhone 6 and my iPad Mini (1st gen). Seamless. Once you start playing music on your mobile device, you can control it with your voice, just like the original music apps. Play, Pause, Next Song, Previous Song, Volume. It’s all controlled via voice. Though you can always control it with your mobile device too.
The Update That Was Needed
The Echo Smart Speaker is a great device. I already loved it before this update. Through Prime Music I found many playlists that have filled my house with music. I’ve used the “add to my grocery list” and “set a timer” functions many times. I ask for my “news update” now and then, and I think it’s amazing. I can see such great potential in this little speaker. And now with the full bluetooth functionality I’m not searching for music, or uploaded hundreds of CDs into Amazon’s cloud. I can use any music streamer I want from my phone or tablet, and the experience is great.
The jury is still out on whether or not it’s worth the full $200 that Amazon says it will cost when the Beta period is over, but we’ll deal with that when it comes. For now the Echo is truly living up to it’s potential.
Here are a couple other reviews worth checking out:
Amazon Echo Review: Listen Up –The Verge
Amazon Echo: A Promising but Not Fully Mature Voice — USA Today
Yes, you can stream any audio to Amazon Echo — CNET
Apps of Note – Scribblenauts Remix
Taking a brief break from my “Tech of Disney” series, I thought it would be fun to highlight a game I recently came across called “Scibblenauts Remix”. My daughter got a Nintendo 3DS XL just after Christmas. The high cost of the system itself sent me off to the pawn shop to find cheap games. While her focus was on Littlest Pet Shop and Pokemon, I was hoping to find some games that had some educational element to them, as well as fun gameplay. I struck gold when I found the original DS version of “Scribblenauts” for $2 in a bargain bin!
Basically it is a puzzle-solving game. You are presented with a challenge within a small 2D environment. Could be a farm, could be outer space, or underwater. You then use your “magic notebook” to type the items that you need to solve the problem. Those items will then appear on the screen for you to use. I love this game because it teaches critical thinking skills with the problem solving and it challenges my 2nd grader to spell all the words for the items she wants to use. She is really enjoying it. Heck, I’m really enjoying it. But I got tired of asking her if I could play “her” 3DS (with her listing the conditions I must adhere to in order to use it), so I decided to see if the App Store had some version of the game. I found it right away, and it is pretty awesome. Let’s break down the mobile app, “Scribblenauts Remix”.
The Cup Half Full
I’ve compared gameplay between the DS version and the mobile version, and I’ve found very little difference. Sure the 3DS offers a second screen, but that’s mainly used for stats, the game itself is entirely played on the touchscreen of the 3DS. So there’s no difference between it and the mobile app (aside from using a 3DS stylus, though you could use one with the mobile app too, if you wanted).
The mobile app offers up a ton of levels for $0.99! And if you drop an additional….wait for it…. $0.99, you get all the current levels (around 50 right now) plus access to all additional levels coming down the road. I did some research and the original 50 levels were a breakdown of 20 original Scribblenauts game levels, 20 Super Scribblenauts levels, and 10 levels created especially for the mobile app. That’s a pretty amazing package for $2, being that buying new versions of the two DS games would run you $40 pretty easily (if you aren’t a pawn shopper like me).
Finally, the mobile app has some cool additions not found on the 3DS version. One is the use of the dictation speaker built into the keyboard to speak the names of the items you want to get in your “magic notebook”. This negates my plan for spelling practice, but my daughter knows that speaking is a last resort, and she seems to be sticking to the plan so far. Also, if you want to scrap all of your current creations in the current level, all you have to do is shake the phone and you will be prompted to agree to scrap all creations. That’s comes in handy when my elaborate plans don’t work out so well.
One final bonus, since the mobile game works on iPad as well, you can play on a much larger screen than with the 3DS version!
The Cup Half Empty
As with all mobile apps, this one offers “in app purchases”. These come in the form of “avatar” character packs to use in the game. It comes standard with the primary character Maxwell, as well as a Lifeguard, a girl Maxwell, and God (picture old guy in white robe). There are several avatar packs that will run you another $0.99 for each group. They include mythical characters, historical figures, and monsters. So if you really want to play as Shakespeare or Dracula, you’ve got options. But it’ll cost ya. There are also “playgrounds” which come in a three pack for, you guessed it, $0.99. So I call the “in app purchases” a half empty thing, but really, you could get everything they have to offer and not even reach the cost of a single 3DS game, so that’s pretty cool.
The other issue I’ve found with the game is related to “Game Center”. At first glance it appeared that a game I started on my iPhone would transfer over to my iPad Mini, but that doesn’t appear to the case at this point. Though that could be a setting issue as much as anything. I’m not a hard-core gamer, so this isn’t a big concern for me, but I know that could be a deal breaker for some, who count those points like they’re real cash.
Parental Note: This game does allow you to call up guns and other weapons. If you “shoot” the weapon at another character they will lose hearts and vanish in a cloud of smoke. When shooting humans, this will generally result in losing the level and having to start over. The game does not have overt violence, but for those sensitive to this issue, it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
“Scribblenauts Remix” is a great little mobile game for both smartphones and tablets. It’s been around for a few years now, so new gamers will find tons of content, with more coming. I would expect a game with similar gameplay to cost at least $1.99 in the app store. But they’ve made this one accessible for everyone’s wallet. The gameplay is on par with the much more expensive 3DS version, and even offers a few perks like shake to scrap and voice commands.
You’ll probably be tempted by those in app avatar purchases, and who could blame you!? So if you’ve got a few extra bucks, pick this up.
And a note to parents. I sought out a game for my daughter that would be so fun she would barely register that she was learning and developing her brain, and this was a total score. So definitely check it out if you’ve got an elementary school kiddo. But be prepared to spend some time playing it yourself, cause it is tons of fun!
Try and tell me you don’t want to know what’s going on here!?
The Tech of Disney – MagicBands
I first heard about the Disney MagicBands from the CIO of Medtronic, who praised the technology in a town hall meeting, after a recent trip to Walt Disney World. He was drawn to the concept of a single device that could provide a variety of services in a portable form. I was excited to get my hands (or wrist rather) on my MagicBand for our Disney trip. Would it live up to the hype, or would this fledgling technology prove unequal to the task? I’m happy to say that the bands worked like a charm for several specific tasks. Here they are:
Magicband as a Room Key and Park Ticket
First off, the MagicBand replaces the room key for those staying at a Disney Resort, as we did. This isn’t a huge advancement in tech, as all it really does is take the chip found normally in the key card of a traditional hotel and places it in the band. Still it’s great to have one less thing to lose, because unlike a room key in your pocket/wallet/purse, it’s a lot harder to lose something strapped to your wrist (though I imagine some could still manage it!)
While the room key aspect of the MagicBand isn’t that revolutionary, the employment of the Band as a Park ticket is where things start to get interesting. Now Disney doesn’t care if you pass your band around your group when accessing your hotel rooms. Those rooms aren’t tied to daily admission. Park Tickets are costly, and everyone needs their own, so they added a second level of security at the gates to the parks themselves to ensure there isn’t any Band sharing. When you first scan your MagicBand at the gate, you are asked to place your index finger on a scanner. This effectively ties your MagicBand to your fingerprint, meaning no one else can enter a park with your MagicBand except you. That’s a great piece of security that isn’t that invasive to the entrance process. I had to redo my fingerprint at our second park, but I suspect that happened because I used a finger with a scar that gave the scanner some issues. Even with the second scan, it was not a time-consuming process.
If you are using a Park Hopper, which allows you to visit multiple parks in a single day, the MagicBand will work for all parks. You’ll have to scan that finger each time, but it’s usually a one-and-done kind of experience. We actually hit three parks in one day at one point, and the single park ticket on the wrist made the process very smooth. By the end of the week, entrance was a science. Smack your wrist to the Mickey till it turned green, then place finger on scanner until the bar went all blue, and you are on your way!
Magicband as a FastPass/PhotoPass
Disney has been using the FastPass option for a while now. Essentially, a FastPass allows you to jump to the front (or near the front) of the line for the rides. Every ticket gets you three FastPasses for the day you are in the park. This isn’t a perk for people staying at Resorts, but having a MagicBand makes using them more convenient. Without a MagicBand, you are issued a paper ticket for the ride and time for each of your FastPasses. This means you’ve got three “tickets” to keep track of throughout the day! The SmartBand keeps your FastPasses for you, and you can double (and triple) check the times via the “My Disney Experience” app on your phone. A scan of the wrist at the FastPass entrance shows your name on a screen and you are on your way to the front. Insiders Tip: They do not check your fingerprint for the FastPass line, so you have the ability to swap bands. My daughter wasn’t interested in many of the roller coasters that we got fast passes for, so she often gave her band to a more adventurous cousin for a second spin.
PhotoPass is another convenient service provided by Disney. The parks are filled with employed photographers, all set to take your family photos in front of iconic location like Cinderella’s Castle and the big golf ball at EPCOT Center. Again, the MagicBand can be used to quickly scan after the picture is taken, and the photo is uploaded automatically to your PhotoPass account. Another bonus is photo stations located after many of the rides (especially the coasters) where you can view your “during ride” pictures. You know the ones, with the scream faces! These stations have a place to scan your MagicBand as well, so those photos are instantly added too.
MagicBand as a Payment Source
The final aspect of the Disney MagicBand is the most complicated. Basically, the band can replace your credit card, so in theory you can leave your wallet behind (assuming you aren’t buying any adult beverages). Like the secondary security at the gates with fingerprint identification, whenever you use the card for purchase you are required to enter a four digit PIN number. This is not only a convenient feature, but a required one if you are traveling with children, and you don’t want them buying a bunch of stuff at the gift stores without your knowledge. Without the PIN, the payment source aspect of the MagicBand is worthless.
If you are staying at a Resort and have a Dining Plan, you can use your MagicBand for that as well. It requires the PIN number, so keep that handy.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Disney MagicBand is a truly revolutionary tool within the Parks and Resorts. Without the band each person would be walking around with a park ticket, three fast pass slips, a hotel room key, a photopass card, and credit card/cash in the wallet. With this simple accessory all of those items are combined into one thing. Of course I still got locked out of our hotel room one day when I went next door to talk schedules and forgot to put my Band on. Thankfully someone was there to let me in.
But here’s what I’m most excited about after using the Disney MagicBand for a week, and that’s the potential wider expansion. We are already seeing the possibilities with the wave of Smartwatches that are sweeping through the tech festivals this year. Apple is set to launch their first smartwatch in the coming months. Android Wear is being adopted by more and more companies. People often ask me why we need another device strapped to our wrist? Won’t that just be another distraction? I agree with that possible outcome if the devices on our wrists are too interactive. If smartwatches are just another screen to stare at, that is a problem. Imagine how many people are going to walk into walls as a result! But if the bands on our wrist can be closer to the MagicBand than the Apple Watch, I think there is great potential for widespread adoption. With Apple Pay, more attention is being given to the industry of mobile payments. Google Wallet has been around for a long time, but few use it. I see a future where your wallet truly is right on your wrist. And this new technology will be even more secure than our antiquated bar scanner cards, using things like Apple’s fingerprint verification. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations!
So if you are off to Disney and staying at a Resort, get ready for the Disney MagicBand, because you will get one. You can even jazz them up with stick on covers and accessories! Not staying at Resort, but still want in on the fun? You can purchase a band for $12.95 and activate all of the goodies already mentioned!
So strap that band on your wrist and wonder at the ease of use, the diversity of options, and the possibilities for such technology beyond the lands of Mickey Mouse, where the rest of the world is just waiting to join in.
The Tech of Disney** – Here Come the Reviews!
We have just completed 8 days at Walt Disney World in Florida. We went with a specific plan, and months of preparation. But you know what they say about “best laid plans”. Managing 10 people (from an 8-year-old to the Grandparents), over the course of 8 days, where each day averaged 12 hours of actual Disney Park time was going to be a challenge. Kids had competing priorities, timing was a best guess much of the time. And so we had to make many adjustments to our daily schedules on the fly. And technology played a huge role in making those changes positive.
Over the next week of so, I will be posting a series of blogs about “The Tech of Disney”. Each post will focus on a different aspect of how technology enhanced our vacation (and the few times when technology failed us, which was bound to happen at some point along the way). Disney has figured out many ways to make the vacation on their resorts a smooth process, but still we were newbies, figuring things out as we went along. I’m certain that our next visit to WDW will be even better because of the lessons we’ve learned throughout this week. And I know I will be looking for great apps again to make sure I am in control of my experience. Because while “going with flow” might sound good, planning and control are the best ways to make sure you get to everything you want to get to, and you don’t spend all our time in lines or on buses.
So check out the coming blogs if you have Disney in your future vacation plans, and hopefully I can help you out. Or if you’re a tech geek like me, make sure to read the blogs to hear a firsthand experience with the Tech of Disney!
**We also visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure, so the posts will address the tech of those locations as well. Call it a bonus.
The Tech of Disney – Final Day
Our week at Walt Disney World is almost done. There has simply been too much going on to post during this week about the technology we’ve used in the parks, but I’ve been taking many notes.
Tech has played a huge role throughout our days. From last minute fast pass changes to wait times and park hours (even the need for the nearest first aid station at one point). I don’t know how people did these parks before the apps came along on the smartphones.
The tech of Disney has been more than just apps though (I got the chance to compare Disney to Universal Studios one day), and I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned in the coming week, once we’ve returned to the cold North!