Category Archives: Tech News
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
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!
On the Road – The Tech of Walt Disney World
We are packing up our tea pots and cups, and heading for Florida!
I figure what a great opportunity to check out the tech that is employed by the “Happiest Place on Earth”! Several packages have arrived during the month leading up to the trip. First a package including luggage tags and baggage stickers (for transport of said bags directly to the resort – no bag return for us!).
Then the “Magic Bands” arrived. These are what have me excited. Essentially they are smartbands, programmed with our Disney Experience (with accompanying app for the phones and tablets). The bands will serve as keys for the hotel room, tickets to the parks, and even can be used for purchases (take that Apple Pay).
Speaking of Apple Pay, the Disney Resorts now support this technology as well, so I’ll do my best to give the phone a swipe a few times to see how seemless the experience is. Though I’m not sure how it can be better than the Magic Bands!
I’m excited to see how such a popular vacation destination uses technology to enhance the visitor experience. Oh, and I am also excited for Space Mountain!
So here we go, on the road with Two Lumps of Tech!!
First Impressions – Echo Smart Speaker (from Amazon)
Amazon is usually not shy about releasing new products. Just opening up the home page of amazon.com will usually point you right at whatever new thing the company is pushing to the market. It’s the holiday season so the Kindle Fire tablets are front and center, which is not a surprise. But there’s a new device that Amazon is releasing very quietly. It’s a Bluetooth speaker called the Echo, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
Thanks to a generous co-worker I am getting to test out this new device over the holiday season. Currently the speaker is only available via invitation (which you can request here). And it’s only for Amazon Prime members at the moment too, at the cost of $100 (it will be $200 when it releases to the general public). Based on my first couple of weeks with the Echo, I’ve already got my invitation request in! So what is the Echo exactly?
It’s a Bluetooth Speaker
There are tons of Bluetooth speakers on the market; everything from the cheap things you can get at Wal-Mart or Target, to the higher end (while still consumer focused) devices like the Jambox from Jawbone. You can always drop a ton of coin on the offerings from Bose, but that’s not what the majority of casual music listeners are looking for in a Bluetooth speaker. The Bluetooth speaker I’ve had for a while is the Jam Wireless Speaker (which you can pick up for $30). It’s a decent speaker but it has to be charged, and has limited bluetooth range. So I’ve been pretty sour on Bluetooth speakers in general. But the Echo is a powered speaker (meaning it’s plugged into the wall all the time). So no issues with power drain. So far the Bluetooth range to my phone has been good too. No dropped connections at this point. But Echo is so much more than just a Bluetooth speaker.
It’s a Digital Assistant
Think Siri. Think Google Now. If you’re a Windows user, think Cortana. These are all digital assistants. They come in all high-end smartphones, standard these days, and in plenty of tablet computers as well. They are tools that connect you to the Internet, for news updates, weather reports, calendar appointments, Wikipedia searches, that sort of thing. I have an iPhone and rarely use Siri, but I do use Google Now quite a bit. Especially for those “what sushi bars are nearby” kind of questions. The Echo speaker has a digital assistant built into it, and her name is “Alexa”.
All you have to do is say the name “Alexa” and the speaker comes to life (via a spinning blue circle on the top) and begins listening for your questions. Simple things like “what time is it” and “will it rain tomorrow” are child’s play for her. Using the WIFI element built into the speaker, Alexa can search Wikipedia with the best of them. Answering the question tech companies seems to always think we care the most about, you know it, “how tall is Mount Everest?” It’s really important that we all know this. And Alexa will make sure we stay informed. On that topic, you can ask “Alexa, give me my news update” and she will connect to either NPR or BBC radio to provide a quick news briefing just for you. There are some tailoring aspects that I haven’t had time to explore, but I’m excited to learn more!
With the Echo companion app installed on your smartphone or tablet, you can have Alexa save things to a “to do” list or a “shopping list”, just by saying “Alexa add milk to my shopping list”. That’s pretty handy. Now you don’t need to pick up a phone or tablet to have a digital assistant ready to take care of you. Alexa is still a bit of a beta device though, so she can’t answer everything, so be warned. “Alexa what movies are playing near me?” She hasn’t got a clue. But will gladly search BING for you.
One last note about music listening with the Echo. Prime members have access to “Prime Music” and that is the main resource Alexa uses when you ask for a genre or artist. Don’t be surprised that the selection is limited. Alexa can also search for any music you’ve purchased on amazon.com. The other two music resources, as of now, are “I Heart Radio” and “TuneIn Radio“. Both give you plenty of options for whatever genre of tunes you’re in the mood for.
It’s Always Listening
Here’s the coolest thing about the Echo speaker. There are microphones lining the top circle of the device (where the pretty blue light shows up when active). And they are long-range mics, so even if you are across the room, the speaker can hear you and respond. “Alexa, play some Christmas music” and before you know it, chestnuts are roasting by that open fire! Do you want more volume, just say “Alexa volume up” or “Alexa volume 5”. Beware of going over Volume 7 though. I made the mistake of saying volume 10 to her (the highest setting) and the music was so loud the mics couldn’t hear me. Pretty funny scene though as I shouted for Alexa to turn the music down. Volume can be controlled via an included remote control too, but you won’t want to use it.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Echo Smart speaker has a ton of potential. Tech writers are already speculating about what this new technology could mean for the future of home tech. Imagine coming home and saying “Alexa lights on and play some 80s hair bands” and it’s done (though darker lights might be a better choice if you’re planning to jam to Motley Crue). The possibilities go beyond lighting and sweet tunes though. Digital Assistants could control your thermostat (like the Nest does now), unlock your doors, open your garage, start your oven, or brew your morning coffee. We are only limited by our imagination! And Echo, along with Alexa is the first step into a pretty cool world.
To get an idea of what this device can do, check out Amazon’s official commercial here.
And for a slightly more “colorful” commercial, check out this parody.
Casual Tech Posts – Returning Soon (just in time for the Holidays)!!!
While “Two Lumps” has been on a short hiatus for the past two months, expect new reviews in the coming days. These include the Pebble Smartwatch, the new Echo Smart Speaker from Amazon, the kid-friendly Kindle Fire tablet, a comparison of fitness/smart wristbands, and many others, just in time for the holidays.
We’ve got the kettle on the burner and the T(ech) is coming soon!!
First Impressions: iPhone 6 – It’s Pretty Awesome!
I’ll admit it right out of the gate, I love this phone. It’s simply awesome. And now I sound like the typical Apple fanboy who can see the iPhone do no wrong. But that’s not the case. I love (and hate) Apple and Android both equally. I’ve had both devices over the years. I just switched to the iPhone 6 from the HTC One (M8) which was an excellent Android smartphone. In my opinion, the iPhone 6 is simply better; and this is especially true for the casual user. And that’s who I’m most interested in.
Disclaimer: Many of the items I will discuss here are also available on the iPhone 6 Plus, which I’ve reviewed previously. I intentionally focused on what makes the “plus” different from the iPhone 6, as not to be too repetitive. So if you like what you see here, but would like the larger 5.5 inch screen, the iPhone 6 Plus might be a better choice. But read my review before dropping the coin!
It seems like Apple has always been mired in one debate: is the company revolutionary or evolutionary? Apple fans believe that their beloved company is truly revolutionary, creating new markets for products out of thin air (iPhone, iPad, iTunes). Others, mostly Android fans, would argue that Apple doesn’t “innovate” but is rather copying already existing technology while, arguably, evolving the devices along the way (iPhone, iPad, iTunes – see what I did there?). As a true tech junkie, I don’t have a horse in that race. Apple is both in my mind. And the rest is just marketing (which no one disputes they do better than anyone else). For the sake of this review, I will side with evolution, because that’s really what the iPhone 6 is all about.
The Cup Half Full
I’ve mentioned the amazing design in previous posts, but it can’t be overstated. The difference between the iPhone 5/5S and the iPhone 6 is stunning. And the most stunning is that it isn’t as revolutionary as it could have been. All sorts of “mock-ups” flooded the internet leading up to the announcement of the iPhone 6. Many showed a major departure from the previous model; truly revolutionary design. Apple didn’t go that way. And for a company dominating the US Market with millions of consumers using their devices, major shifts are usually not advisable. The iPhone 6 is bigger but skinnier. It has the same alumimum/glass construction, but the glass is rounded on the corner, giving the face of the phone an entirely different look and feel. So first and foremost the iPhone 6 is a brilliant evolution of the design of the iPhone. It fits perfectly in the hand. I have bigger hands, and always felt the iPhone 5/5S was actually a little too small for me. I think there’s a reason Apple went with 4.7 inches for the screen versus 5.0, and it’s all about how that device sits in your hand for one-hand use.
In addition to the form factor, the iPhone 6 has many new features coming with iOS 8. The inclusion of Near Field Communication (NFC) partnered with Apple Pay will only prove useful if retailers adopt the program. I, for one, like the idea of using my phone to make purchases. And if you are concerned about security, I suggest checking out this link to see how Apple Pay works, because if anything this system would be more secure than our traditional swiping credit cards (assuming it works).
iOS 8 also allows you to respond to text messages and emails directly from the notification as they come in (I just did this while writing this review). It’s all about fast interactions with your phone. The iMessage app has also been updated to allow for voice messaging with a single button push, and instant pictures and videos sent over iMessage. I’m in favor of anything that makes my tech interactions faster. While I love interacting with technology, I prefer to use time efficiently, and clicking through six screen when it could be one tap is a great evolution in speedy tech. Third party keyboards are now also available (via the App Store). If you’ve longed for the ability to swipe your words versus tap them, now you’ve got options. Swiftkey and Swype are two good places to start for keyboards.
The Cup Half Empty
Apple is a closed system, famously so. Coming from Android this time around there are things I can no longer do that I liked doing on my HTC phone. I’ve sung the praises of “launchers” that replace the Operating System with different hybrids. Nothing of the sort will be found in the App Store, no matter how deep you dig. You get the grid. Apple did allow for widgets in the Notification Screen, but widgets are easily the most confusing piece of the Android system, and so Apple has hidden them away to keep distractions from their clean ecosystems to a minimum.
HealthKit was supposed to revolutionize how we see mobile health, and it failed on the first day. Apple is quickly putting out new updates to iOS 8 to rectify this problem, but it’s still a problem. So if you planned to have the iPhone 6 be your one stop shop for fitness and health tracking, you’re gonna have to wait a bit longer. Though the pedometer element is currently working (my phone is tracking my steps just like my old FitBit Flex).
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I’m sure as my eyes come back into focus in the coming weeks after being star-struck by the iPhone 6, I will find more things to add to my “half empty” part of the cup. But at the moment there’s not a lot I can say that’s negative about this phone. It’s better than all of the current flagship Android devices. Granted, it’s only in that spot because they took many features straight from the Android ecosystem and added them as “innovations” to the iPhone (What’s App has had all of the functions of the new iMessage for some time now).
If you’re debating between the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, head to your nearest retailer (Target, Best Buy, Walmart, Cellular Carriers) and get both devices in your hand. I’m on the side that says the iPhone 6 Plus is simply too big for the casual tech consumer. But you’ll have to be the judge for yourself.