In the spirit of my New Year’s Resolution to keep these posts “shorter”, I’m going to begin with a fast “first impressions” of the new Consumer Gear VR. I owned the “Innovator Edition” Gear VR briefly last Summer. This model was intended for developers and tech geeks like me. It was heavy, it was buggy, and the damn thing overheated so fast, it made it worthless for me. So I sent it back, and waiting patiently to see if they could resolve the issues with the “Consumer Edition”. Just before Thanksgiving I got my chance to find out.
Improvements abound! The new Gear VR is lighter on the head, has improved straps both on the side and over the top of the head (which is optional). The track pad now has indentation to assist in use (whereas before it was basically a tiny mouse pad on the side). The Consumer Edition also fits every current Samsung Galaxy smartphone (Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note5, and Galaxy Edge +). You simply toggle a switch to fit the larger phones. While the issues of lens fogging and overheating are not gone entirely, there is significant improvement (though I still run a fan in my face when doing long sessions to eliminate fogging and heat issues entirely).
The model continues to have the focus dial in the middle, which works nicely, and the plug to charge the phone while in use (though I haven’t had time to test this much). You an even wear glasses inside the headset! The device feels like a consumer product now, as it should.
The Cup Half Full
The best new thing to come to the Gear VR, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Netflix. Not only can you watch Netflix in the VR, but the software places you in a mountain chalet, sitting on a red couch in front of a massive TV screen. Look to your left and you can see the lights of the distant ski slopes. Super cool.
The other things I’m loving about the new Gear VR are increased 360 photo library in the “Oculus 360 Photos” feature. Thousands of photos from around the world are provided. I missed getting to the top of Rockefeller Center when I was in New York recently, but with 360 photos I got to see the views, both during the day and at night. The Oculus Videos feature is also vastly enhanced with videos from Vimeo and even video rentals (though $24 is kinda steep for “The Martian in 3D” – that’s a purchase not a rental).
More games and experiences are being added at a fast pace, and I’ve even dropped some coin for a few games that have quickly become show pieces when I have people check out the VR. Be sure to check out Eve: Gunjack and Smash Hit!
The Cup Half Empty
Fogging and overheating issues do remain. That continues to be my main issue with the Gear VR. I’ve been told there are some scuba diving mask tricks to eliminate fogging in the lenses, I just haven’t tried that yet. A fan will fix the heat issue, but that kinda kills the “mobile” element. Now you’re strapped to the fan just like an Oculus Rift is strapped to a super-computer. Until I can watch a two hour movie on a plane without fogging and overheating, there’s work to do. But considering the processing power required to create these immersive 3D environments with a killer refresh rate, such heat is understandable. But I still get to complain! If you have issues with dizziness, you might want to test these out at your local electronic store before you pony up the dough. I find that I can stare at Netflix for hours, but if I play an immersive 3D game, I last about 20 minutes before I get sick to my stomach. It’s still super cool, but only in small doses.
Gizmag has a great article about improving the user experience. It was written for the Gear VR for Note 4, but all of the tips apply to the Consumer Gear VR as well.
I guess we should also add that only the four Samsung phones work with it. So if you are an iPhone user, you’re out of luck for now. Though you could always check out Google Cardboard if you want to check out a little Virtual Reality.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I saved the best for last. Price. I paid $200 for my lackluster Innovator Edition Gear VR last JULY. Now one of these headsets will only set you back $99. That’s a great price, considering the amount of tech you’re getting. There are so many things to check out, and currently a lot of content is still free. If you have a current high end Samsung smartphone (see my list above) and a spare hundred bucks, I’d say this is a no-brainer. And if you do get the Gear VR, make sure you don’t keep it all to yourself. I’ve placed my headset on roughly 50 people so far, and I have to say I almost get more enjoyment watching people experience it than actually doing it myself. There’s a moment where everyone looks around and starts smiling like an idiot. My friend recently strapped on the Gear VR after I told her about the “idiot smile” thing. She was skeptical. The tech would have to prove itself. Less then two minutes into the Jurassic World dinosaur experience, she broke into a huge grin, and she says to me “I’m doing it aren’t I? The idiot smile thing.” Yes, yes she was. So get on board, and you’ll soon be smiling too.
Here are a few additional reviews to consider:
The holiday season caught me up in a wave, and time went along with it. So a month after I spent a packed weekend in New York City, I am finally getting around to a quick review of the apps that I used to have a successful weekend in the Big Apple. I’ll say right away that my app plan didn’t go as expected, but everything worked out perfectly in the end. Some old apps showed new power, and some new apps proved duds. So first off here are the apps that I pre-loaded for the trip.
The Apps that I planned to use
I love app folders. I have hundreds, yes HUNDREDS, of apps on my iPhone, and folders keep me from going absolutely bonkers. Though if you find yourself searching for an app, here’s a TECH TIP. Just swipe down from the CENTER of the screen, and you’ll find a search bar at the top. Type the app name and you’re on your way! Ok, back to the apps.
I created a “New York City” folder to hold all of the “amazing” apps I planned to use. Here’s the breakdown.
Top of the Rock
New York eTips
NYC Essential Guide
Central Park eTips
My choices of applications were based in what I “planned” to do. I wanted to go to the top of Rockefeller Center (mainly because it was cheaper than the Empire State Building and closer to my hotel). So I got a couple Rockefeller apps. I planned to ride the subway at least a couple of stops, so there’s the NYC Subway app. Central Park was on my Agenda and “eTips” had a nice app highlighting a few bits. Finally, every tourist needs some tourism apps that are all encompassing. I grabbed 3 of them (New York eTips, NYC Tourist, and NYC Essential Guide). I ended up missing the Top of the Rock so those apps went unused. But I missed that trip because our team went down to the financial district to visit the 9/11 Memorial, and that’s where I ended up with my last app on the list, the 911 Memorial App, which proved to be one of the most interesting and powerful apps in the bundle. So how did I use these apps? Spoiler, my primary app wasn’t even on the original list.
The Apps that didn’t make the Cut
I browsed my tourism apps on the plane ride to JFK. I quickly discovered that the eTips guides for NYC and Central Park had only limited content before you had to pony up some dough. For a three day trip, I planned on spending my money on souvenirs not apps. So there went both eTips guides. NYC Tourist offers a nice map showing lots of locations, but it is incredibly busy. I did keep the app the first day, and used it a couple times (found the closed Carnegie Deli with it). But ultimately it went on the scrap pile too. That left me with just a handful of apps that really made the weekend work.
The Apps I Actually Used
My primary tourism app was “NYC Essential Guide”. This app does suffer from the “only a few things are free” issue that plagued all of my tourism apps, but one feature made this app worth it. It’s called “Top 25” which highlights 25 points of interest, including brief overviews, maps, reviews, and contact information. I can see a lot of potential in the “premium features” but I wasn’t spending nearly enough time to make that worth it. Maybe next time! The trip to the 911 Memorial was on the subway’s Red Line. I used my “NYC Subway” app to keep track of the stops and to know when to dash out the doors. TIP: if standing, lean against the train’s forward motion, or you’ll end up on your butt; it’s fast!” The final app I ended up with (aside from my final surprise) was the 911 Memorial app. I highly recommend a visit to this memorial. And plan to take the audio tour and keep your camera in your pocket. This is a somber experience, a sobering experience, and one not to be missed. Everyone I went with got the audio tour kit (with a tape player of sorts and headphones). I opted for the earbuds only, and added the audio tour via the free 911 app. The lady at the audio tour counter didn’t even charge me the $5 for the earbuds. We went into the memorial as a group of 10, but we came out slowly one by one, as we each were immersed in the experience of the memorial. If you can, go.
The old app worth its weight in gold!
Two words. Google Maps. We all know this app. We all have used it from time to time. If it’s to find a local restaurant, get turn-by-turn navigation, or simply check out cities around the globe down to street view; this is an app I always took for granted. But when I hit the pavement Sunday afternoon to begin my ambitious 10 mile hike around Midtown and Central Park, Google Maps was my guide. I spent some time before I left the hotel figuring out how many minutes it would take to get from location to location, to ensure I would make it back to catch my ride to the airport. I loaded my itinerary into my Evernote App, and I never touched the phone again (except to take pictures). My plan, built with Google Maps, went off without a hitch. I could totally see this being my go-to app when I’m in a new city (I get to test my theory in San Francisco in two days). An old favorite showing it still reigns as the king of maps!
The Whole Cup Summed Up
Apps are only as good as how seamless they work with your planned agenda. They are only good if they enhance your experience. If you are fighting the app, it’s not worth the time. I used some duds, and found some gems during my weekend in New York City. So the next time you head out on the road, be sure to find some apps, and build a folder to keep them straight. You’ll use some often, and quickly deleting others, and that’s okay. Just don’t forget, when in doubt, turn to Google Maps!
For years there has been buzz about a giant iPad. An iPad that could take on the Surface tablet (which loves to point out how it beats the Macbook Air in side-by-side commercials). An iPad that would finally be as much about content creation as it is about content consumption. An iPad to rule them all. In September those rumors proved true, when Apple announced the iPad Pro. A gigantic iPad with a screen size of nearly 13 inches. With increased processing power, and all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a $1000 laptop (with similar price tag). For months the only people who could tell us anything were people in the tech review industry (i.e. tech geeks) and Apple itself (um…conflict of interest). But last week I finally got my hands on one. I’ve had it for about 5 days, and these are my first impressions.
It’s an iPad
Let’s get this out of the way first thing. Yes, it’s a huge iPad. It looks like some mad scientist zapped the old iPad with some type of engorgement ray. Partnered with the classic “smart cover” the device looks pretty ridiculous at first glance. It’s just a big iPad. What good is that? I asked myself that question immediately after getting it into my hands. Sure, it’s a very nice iPad. It’s modeled after the current line of iPad Air 2. That means it’s super thin, very light, and has nice features like touch ID and improved cameras. While some apps have already been optimized for the larger screen, the vast majority of applications are just larger versions of their iPad Air counterparts. I’m reminded of the time when the first iPad came out and all of its apps were just iPhone apps blown up. Things are much better here, going from “little iPad” to “big iPad” but the comparison is worth noting. And just like what happened back then, the apps for iPad Pro will soon take on a life of their own, as developers start taking advantage of that massive 12.7 inch screen; not to mention taking advantage of the multitasking feature (also available on iPad Air 2) and the new Apple Pencil (a stylus). Right now this is a big iPad, but it won’t be that for long.
It’s a Laptop
It took a couple of days to convince me of that statement. At first I didn’t see it. I’ve paired my iPad Air 2 with a bluetooth keyboard before. Heck, I’ve paired my iPad Mini with the slick Bluetooth keyboard from NewTrent, and got to pretend like I had the world’s tiniest macbook. But the iPad Pro is a different matter altogether. Unlike these previous hybrids, the iPad Pro is not pretending to be anything more than what it actually is. It’s a laptop (with a couple caveats of course). So what makes a big iPad a laptop? Let’s break it down.
Screen Size/Resolution – The first feature that easily distinguishes a laptop from a tablet PC is screen size. For comparison let’s talk smartphones. When you cross 5.5 inches in screen size, the industry stops calling it a phone, and starts calling it a “phablet”, which is a hybrid of the terms “phone” and “tablet”. Once you hit 7 inches in screen real estate the term “tablet” seems to be universal. Usually the “phone” element disappears at this screen size too. That term sticks around all the way through the current “full size tablets” like iPad Air 2, Nexus 9, and Microsoft Surface Pro 4. But tablets are getting even bigger. They are becoming laptops. Please God, don’t let their ever be a “laptab” or a “tabtop”. Most entry level laptops start at 11inches (examples). So at almost 13 inches corner to corner, the iPad has the right screen size. It should be noted that the screen resolution of the iPad Pro is on par with the Macbook Air, so check that box off as well.
Keyboard – This one is huge. Laptops have always had keyboards. Sure, many hybrid laptops these days have detachable screens, but the key function of the computer is found in its keyboard. It’s how you do everything. It’s how I’m typing this post right now (on the iPad Pro!). Email, web browsing, writing school papers, and the like. All require a good keyboard. And bluetooth keyboards are more often than not, pretty crappy. I’ve had a couple of decent ones, but even those I always know I’m going to deal with disconnection issues and battery life. For a tablet to become a laptop you need a keyboard that is literally part of the overall machine (no bluetooth, no battery charging). And Apple has done it with the iPad Pro. They introduced the new “Smart Keyboard” ($169) which connects to the iPad Pro using a new “Smart Connector” which are circles on the side of the iPad Pro that connect to 3 beads of metal on the keyboard case. I’m currently using the Logitech Create Keyboard ($150), which protects the iPad all around (the Smart Keyboard only covers the front). It’s adds twice the weight and three times the thickness, but it also makes the iPad Pro feel like a laptop (and is still the lightest laptop I’ve ever had). Finally, the keyboard must have keys that CLICK. Some might argue with me here, and perhaps the next generation will be more comfortable typing on flat surfaces, but I still need the response of the click. The feel of the button vastly improves my typing rate and minimizes my spelling errors.
Processor – Quick note, cause I know this one is super geeky. For a tablet to be a laptop, it needs to be able to work just as hard in terms of processing power. The processor is crucial to everything from how fast your applications run, how effective multitasking will be, even simply how responsive all those cool games will be. The iPad Pro has a processor on par with the Macbook Air, so again, no silver medal for the tablet this round.
It’s still missing some stuff
So I’ve made my arguments for why i consider the iPad Pro a laptop. I’d be a fool to refuse to face the gaps that are clearly there. So here is what the iPad Pro is still missing. First off, it is missing a MOUSE or TRACKPAD. Those are bold for a reason. It’s essential to have another way to interact with your screen besides your finger. But what about the Apple Pencil? The stylus could replace the mouse, right? I do think that the stylus is a great tool. I wish the iPhone 6 Plus had one. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has an awesome stylus. But that’s an accessory, and we are talking about the iPad Pro as a laptop. The stylus is useful but not integral to the laptop model. What is integral is either a trackpad, or option to attach a mouse. And the iPad Pro offers neither option, and that is an issue. This is particularly painful when I’m trying to edit something in a Word doc (like, say, this blog post). A trackpad/mouse would make that process much easier, and would feel like a laptop. So the iPad Pro needs something, even if it’s an over-priced bluetooth enabled trackpad to pair to it. It would be better to put
it right into the case, like the Microsoft Surface has always done! The next gap is USB support. For the iPad Pro to be a laptop it must allow for peripherals. This is where the whole mouse thing could be dealt with. But this is also where you could add some extra memory options for the woefully inadequate 32GB storage in the cheapest model. Apple seems to believe that Bluetooth/WIFI connected devices are the future, and everyone wants to store their content in the Cloud. Maybe they’ll be proven right, but for now those missing USB ports (found easily on any other competitor of this size) are going to hold some people back from believing this device could ever replace the laptop. The last thing missing are optimized apps, but those will come. I wish that the device ran a hybrid of the Macbook OS (currently El Capitan) but for now we’re stuck with iOS. But 3rd party developers seem to like making money, so I’m sure they’ll save the day sooner rather than later.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I wanted to hate the iPad Pro. I wanted to say it’s just a big iPad. That it isn’t going to replace the laptop. But I was wrong on most of those counts. I set my Macbook aside for the past 5 days and have used this iPad Pro as my laptop exclusively, and it’s proven itself to me. I am certain that this device is just the first step towards a whole new kind of laptop. Microsoft has had the “tablet/laptop hybrid” market more or less to themselves with the Surface line of tablets. They have had a blast mocking how versatile the Surface Pro is compared to the Macbook Air. And if not for the issues that plagued those devices around Windows 8, we might be saying Microsoft redefined the field. But that playing field is starting to level out. It’s not there yet. The iPad Pro has a couple gaping holes that the competition is sure to point out right away. No trackpad!!!? No USB ports!?!?! That’s just a huge iPad and not a content creation machine!! That’s what they will say. But they would be wrong. The iPad Pro is a laptop. It’s a first gen for Apple, and it’s an indicator of something new to come. There will always be tech geeks who hate how Apple claims to do “new things” when what they are doing is hardly new. (it actually annoys me too) That will be the case for the iPad Pro as well. But Apple markets their products with greater success than any other company, and they create markets where before there were only struggling sales. They did it with the MP3 Player (iPod), then the Smartphone (iPhone); they did it with the Tablet PC (iPad), and most recently with the Smartwatch (Apple Watch). All of those markets existed before Apple introduced their products. But few can argue that those markets weren’t radically changed after Apple introduced their tech. And those revolutionized markets brought opportunities for all sorts of new products, across many companies. Apple drives me crazy a lot of the time. The company just strikes me as too arrogant and full of themselves. But they make good stuff. And the iPad Pro will go down as one of their successes. That’s my bet. Though it might also be the device that killed the Macbook Air. But, in the world of mobile tech, it’s all about change. And this change appears to be a good one.
Here are a few other reviews of the iPad Pro to check out:
I’ve never actually reviewed the Apple TV on this blog. But I’ve had my current model for 5 years, so I think I can handle a “where it stands” review. Just know that when I first got my Apple TV it was the star of my entertainment center. It was my first streamer (followed by Roku, Chromecast, and Fire TV). It integrated well with my Macbook and my iPod Touch (these were pre-iPhone years). It had Netflix, which was all I cared about at the time, and I couldn’t say enough good things about it. Over the years Apple has added new “channels” including other streaming staples like Hulu, Crackle, and HBO Now. But after 5 years it is only one of several streamers that I have on my TV stand. And while I don’t use it exclusively any longer, it is still streaming throughout the week. So this old dog (5 years is ancient for tech like this) is still proving itself, but there is a new sheriff in town, and that’s the brand new 4th Generation Apple TV. So before we talk a bit about the difference, let’s first take a look at the 2nd Gen Apple TV, and see where it stands.
Apple TV – 2nd Generation (STREAMING MEDIA BOX)
Original Purchase Date: 10/01/2010
Time owned between Original Purchase and Where it Stands: 5 years, 45 days
In 2010 media streamers were not a large market. Even now, 5 years later, they aren’t a huge market, though many companies (amazon, roku, google, apple, etc) are working to change that situation. But back in 2010 “instant streaming” was as much a novelty as anything, as people still clung to their DVD players. The mass movement to digital media had only just begun. I’ve already spoken of my first impressions of the Apple TV, but understand this streamer was excellent in those early years. It had a simple interface (with only a few channels initially). And it saw cool updates every year, like Airplay where I could “cast” the content of my iPod/iPad/iPhone to the TV through the Apple TV. This was years before Google would introduce the same function with the Chromecast (another streamer I now own). So it was great. At the time it would have been my first recommendation, but five years is a long time.
Apple is a closed system. Always has been, always will be (to some degree at least). My first major beef with the Apple TV was that there was no way to play external media, like movies stored on an external hard drive. I was already into digital media when I got the Apple TV, and my tool of choice was the WDTV. This device allowed me to plug-in an external hard drive and watch my movies and shows via a simple interface on the screen. To be fair the only current media streamer that kind of does this is the Roku, and even that device is now a smooth experience. So the Apple TV has you locked into the channels they offered. I use Netflix and Hulu for the most part, and both work well on the Apple TV. I’ve found some cool education channels like the Smithsonian Channel and Discovery Channel that offer lots of free media. But, as it always seems to be with Apple, the free stuff will only get you so far. Most of the channels require some form of payment (one time or subscription). So don’t get too excited by the Disney Channel, HBO Now, or ESPN. You are going to pay for those channels to get much more than ads. Over the years the Apple TV has added channels and functionality without sacrificing speed and experience. That’s pretty unique, especially for Apple, which always is pushing you to their new devices by ditching support for older devices, at least in my opinion. So where exactly does this five year old streamer really stand?
Where it Stands
The 2nd generation Apple TV was discontinued in 2013, so why are we having this conversation you might be asking. While the latest and greatest Apple TV is out now, you can still get the 3rd generation Apple TV and it will only run you $69. That’s better than the $100 I paid for my device in 2010. And it’s better than the entry-level price of $150 for the 32GB model of the 4th gen Apple TV. So I think these thoughts on the 2nd generation are relevant. So would I recommend it? As an entry-level media streamer the 3rd gen Apple TV is a bargain, since most similar devices will run you $100. But there are better “entry-level streamers” in the form of “streaming sticks”. Roku and Amazon both offer these for around $50. The Chomecast will only set you back $35. So from a price standpoint, I wouldn’t recommend the Apple TV. While it works just fine, it is expensive for something so old. It also works best for a household that already has other Apple devices. Where other streamers get along with everything better. If you have Amazon Prime, I’d point you to the Fire TV Streaming Stick. If you are brand new, with no affiliation, I’d point you to the Roku Streaming Stick. The Apple TV is good but no longer good enough.
So for now, the Apple TV (2nd and 3rd Generation) scores a CUP HALF EMPTY
First Impressions of Apple TV (4th Generation)
Here is the short list of what the new Apple TV does that is different and exciting. First it’s a whole new interface, called TVOS. The iPad has truly come to the TV screen. And app developers will reap the benefits in the same way they’ve been cashing checks with their iOS apps for years. By allowing 3rd party apps on the Apple TV all sorts of options open. The long-awaited PLEX app is already available. This app allows you to stream media from your computer, or server (if you are a geek like me). This is similar to what the Apple TV has done for years with Airplay, but now any device running PLEX can take advantage of it. And thus begins the rise of digital libraries!!
The new Apple TV features an updated remote control with a trackpad vs the direction pad of the old device. It’s still small, so you’ll be checking the couch cushions from time to time, I’d imagine. The remote also takes a card out of the Fire TV deck with voice control. Of course Siri is front and center, pulling up shows and films based on search criteria. The really cool thing that differentiates the Apple TV from all other streamers in this regards is what I’d call “layered search”. You can search for comedies. Then filter to a specific star, and the search will modify accordingly. I haven’t tried this feature in person, but I can imagine the possibilities, having done voice search with my Fire TV for over a year.
Finally, gaming. The Apple TV has long been an untapped resource for gaming revenue. The idea that you could throw iOS games to the screen was introduced with Airplay, but it was always clunky. Now Apple is taking on the Fire TV specifically, which also has a gaming element (and associated controller). Only time (and 3rd party developers) will tell if gaming will find new life on the Apple TV, but it seems like an easy bet to make.
Apple likes to “redefine” genres. They did it with the smartphone (iPhone), they did it with the tablet PC (iPad), they are trying to do it with the smartwatch (Apple Watch). And now they are truly going after media streamers. Roku, FireTV, Chomecast, and a few others have never faced competition like what it coming. Will the Apple TV prove to be the best? Only time will tell. But things look promising. Stay tuned.
Last August I had a moment. One of those moments that forever changes your trajectory. That moment came from my experience with a story about a displaced Palestinian man, who fled Syria to Lebenon with his two kids. He made a living selling pens on the street. The amazing element is that a picture of the man spawned a kickstarter style campaign, raising over $250K for him and his family! The story of such giving floored me. And looking at myself in the mirror, I knew I that I wasn’t doing enough. Why? Because I wasn’t DOING ANYTHING! I talk a good talk, but that was it. So at that moment I decided to change. I launched a new blog (www.developingcharity.net). And I started an effort I called “Project 520” where I would donate $10 to a different charity every week of the next year ($10 X 52 weeks = $520). And I’m just wrapping up my 10th week. And it’s been great so far. But I wanted to find a way to connect my love of technology with my newfound charitable efforts. And that’s what “Charitech” is all about.
Charitech – How technology tools can enhance the process of personal philanthropy (in big and little ways)
I’ve long held that technology needs to enhance our lives. That’s the essential element. I have found tech tools that enhance my experiences with charity, and I plan to highlight a couple of them in “Apps of Note” in the coming weeks and months. But let me introduce you to one tool that is well worth your time. It is called “Charity Navigator” and it is availalbe as an app (iOS and Android) and a website. If you are a skeptic when it comes to charities. If you wonder, “where does my donation actually go?” or “how much of my donation goes to administration and fundraising?” This app will help you. This app can give you a wealth of information in an easy to digest package. So let’s break it down with a simple “App of Note” review.
In the simplest terms, Charity Navigator is a repository of sorts, gathering up data on a vast array of charities from around the country and around the globe. With a simple “search” function, you can lock in on a specific charity and look at the basic metrics of their philanthropic efforts. A quick search for one of my favorite charities, “water.org”, shows a 4 star rating, and a score of 95.38 out of 100. These numbers are arrived at through an analysis of both the financial responsiblity of the charity, as well as accountability and transparency. The main page of the search shows the address and phone number of the charity, and lists the board leadership, CEO, and mission statement. All important information to have public, ensuring that your chosen charity is on the up and up.
A slide to the right reveals the next feature of the app, “metrics”. Two pie charts are shown, the first a breakdown of where contributions come from (contributions, gifts, grants = good), and the second charts shows how the expenses break down (the larger percentage going to “program” the better). For my chosen charity, 99.2% of their funds come from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and 73.4% of their expenses go to program. That’s not too shabby. Though I have seen charities with over 90% going to program. It’s just important to remember that the
larger the charity is, the more money is probably being donated, and there will be corresponding overhead, in terms of the people needed to manage those funds efficiently. Which is what leads to the final section.
Sliding the screen down from the two pie charts you are greeted with a vast array of data. Revenue vs Expenses in bar chart. Full breakdown of expenses. A checklist of accountability and transparency including things like “audited by independant accountant”, “independant voting board members”, and “CEO listed with salary”. The more check marks, the stronger the charity. Finally you’ll come to the money. Actual totals of revenue and expenses. Here’s where you find out if a large adminstration cost is justified. Water.org has annual contributions of over 15 million dollars. So I can understand why they would need people to manage those funds, and ensure proper distribution to the people who need the services the charity provides (in this case, clean water to third world countries mostly).
The Whole Cup Summed Up
Charity Navigator is a tool in the arsenal of anyone interested in becoming engaged in philanthropy. I agree when the skeptics say you need to know where your money is actually going. Where I break with the skeptics is the next step. Many people use the bad charities as an excuse to do nothing. If there are charities mis-using donations then all charities are bad. I guess that’s the logic. But with tools like Charity Navigator, we don’t have that excuse. This tool helps anyone become educated in intelligent giving. You can know with a reasonable amount of certainty that you are indeed giving to a good cause by using these tools. And I highly recommend checking the app out.
Charitech – Where Charity meets Technology
This is just the first tool I’m sharing on Two Lumps of Tech. I have others. I have a whole folder on my iPad and iPhone filled with such tools. Giving isn’t hard, once you do it. It’s that first step. That first buck or $10 in my case. And once you have your tools straight, once you have your plan of attack, then it’s easy. And it feels good to do it. Because now your technology is not only helping you, it is helping others. And that brings our gadgets to a whole new level.
Remember – Something is Better than Nothing.
We are officially in upgrade season! I am well aware of the daunting task of sorting through all of the different options for smartphones. There are just so many players in the game it can get overwhelming quickly.
What follows is a simple breakdown of my TOP FIVE favorites phones. I’m including a few links to other reviews for each phone, to give you a well-rounded opinion of each device. To keep things simple here, I’m focusing on a few key features of each phone, which I’ve found to be important to the majority of consumers, from the tech-savvy to the casual user. So here we go!
Disclaimer #1: This list is not in order of preference. I’m not awarding medals here, just giving a shorter list than you’ll find with the carriers.
Disclaimer #2: I’m sticking strictly with the high-end smartphones. If you are upgrading, you can usually get a good deal regarding up-front cost, and the monthly cost will be consistent to what you’re used to. As a general rule, upgrading at least every two years is the best way to make sure you have a smooth experience with your phone. Things just change too quickly! If you want to stick with a Mid-Tier phone, definitely try to get your hands on the MOTO G, which is an amazing phone for $180!
On with the list:
Moto X (2nd or 3rd generation)
Motorola has been making great phones for the past three years, with the “Moto X” line. These phones are defined by high
quality build, simple operating system, and small physical size (when compared to the actual screen size). The 3rd Gen Moto X was just announced in August. This phone is HUGE. 5.7 inches makes it a “phablet” and those who want the smaller handset should steer clear. The 2nd generation is still a very good phone, and smaller, so you’ve got options. The 3rd Gen Moto X did vastly improve the camera though, so if that’s important, bear it in mind (though it still is not as good as Samsung and iPhone).
iPhone 6S/iPhone 6S Plus
I had the iPhone 6 for a while, and I thought it was a perfect phone. Great size (4.7 inch screen). Great camera. Decent battery life. If you like Apple, the iPhone 6 is a great choice. I am currently using an iPhone 6 Plus, but that 5.5 inch screen is just too big for me! Apple announced their new iPhones on September 9th. As with all “S” models, the form factor has not changed. This phone looks the same as the previous models. They have vastly improved the camera with 12MP, and optical image stabilization (helps shaky hands take clear pics). They’ve added a 5MP front camera, and are using the screen itself to make a “flash” for selfies. the screen itself has been improved with the use of “3D Touch” which makes it so you can do different things when you press the screen versus just tap the screen (this tech is based on the Apple Watch screen). Overall it’s a good “off-year” for the iPhone, but if you want major changes, wait another year for iPhone 7.
This has been my primary phone for the past six months. Samsung made a beautiful phone with the Galaxy S6. Metal and glass construction, it feels incredibly similar to the iPhone (almost too similar). With a 5.1 screen, it’s big but not too big. The operating system is intuitive, and camera is great. I particularly like the “wide-screen selfie” feature and that you can snap a photo by tapping the flash on the back of the phone (less cumbersome than finding the button on the screen. The Samsung Galaxy S6 also offers turbo charge (15min gets you 40% battery) and wireless charging, which is pretty cool. If you aren’t into Apple, the Galaxy S6 is definitely the way to go at the moment.
If you want something different, Samsung is also offering the Galaxy S6 Edge, which has curved edges. My experience with that device proved to me that the edges look cool but offer little in enhancement, and only make it harder to hold. If you want something really big, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge PLUS just release, with a 5.5 screen size. Again it looks really cool, but for me is a pain to use, especially with the huge size.
I hated the LG G3, so I wasn’t even going to include it, but a buddy let me play around with the G4 the other week, and my opinion suddenly changed. The LG G4 is a very different type of phone. It features a 5.5 inch screen, but the phone size is pretty small, all things considered. LG definitely took a card out of Motorola’s deck, in terms of making sure big screens doesn’t mean gigantic phones. The LG G4 features a leather back, in varying textures and colors. It feels great! The other odd thing about LG is that they moved the power and volume buttons to the back of the phone. It seems like an odd choice, but I am starting to see the logic of it, and it makes those edges super thin. All they need is a fingerprint scanner on the back, but that’s not here yet (maybe G5 next year!)
Finally we come to HTC. I used the HTC One (M8) for six months last year (that’s pretty much the longest I use a device). I loved the feel of the phone (all metal). The screen was brilliantly bright, and the device was lightning fast. But my big beef was related to the extra space used for the company logo on the front (my opinions can be seen here). You’d think they’d finally fix that with the M9, but that was not the case.
The HTC One (M9) is a minor improvement over the previous model. The camera was switched from 4 ultra pixels (which no one ever understood, including me), to 16 mega pixels. But lots of pixels doesn’t mean a better camera, and HTC has lost it’s way a bit here. Still, when compared to ANY mid-tier smartphone the HTC One (M9) and (M8) are heads are shoulders above in terms of picture quality. So as I knock on the camera, it still has a place among these top-tier phones. The HTC One (M9) also updated their operating system to adapt based on your current location. This functionality can be achieved through “launcher applications” like “Everything Me“, but HTC has it built it, which is actually a pretty cool thing. I imagine other smartphone makers will be looking at options like this in future models.
Oh those giant smartphones!! The line between phone and phablet is roughly 5.5 inches. You have a few options. We’ve already talked about the iPhone 6S Plus, Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, and LG G4. Another popular phablet worth considering, if you’re in the market for a big phone is the recently release Galaxy Note 5. They took the materials that built the Galaxy S6 line of phones (metal and glass) and blasted it to 5.7 inches. As always with the Note line, there is a stylus. This time around they have focused as much on the stylus as the phone, and my experience with it was great. In my opinion, any phone over 5.5 inches should have a stylus, so Samsung is leading the pack there.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, you’ve got tons of options. Hopefully this list is helpful in sorting through what makes these high-tier models different from each other. In the end, there’s no right answer for everyone. Some live and die for iPhone; while others believe Android is the only way to go. Some say 5.5 inch Phablets are ridiculously large, but at the same time, I know many people who wouldn’t want any other size. So head to your nearest carrier and get these phones in your hands before you drop the coin, and I’m sure you’ll find something that works great for you!
Happy Smartphone Shopping!
A New Category of Review!!
A year ago I introduced a category to my fledgling blog called “First Impressions”. The purpose of those posts was to do a quick review of the features of a new device/service/app that I’d only used for a week or so. The first device I did “First Impressions” of was the Amazon Fire TV. After a year of blogging it’s time for a new category that I’m calling “Where It Stands”.
So many technology reviews are written in the whirlwind of a product’s release. And judgement is often passed based on a brief encounter with the technology (be it a phone, tablet, streaming box, application, or any other tech that is targeted for the masses). If you google reviews for the product, the vast majority of the time you will find reviews that are old. Reviews that were written within a week of the release date (much like my First Impressions reviews). This new category is intended to re-visit something I reviewed early on, in order to see “where it stands” after 6-12 months of use. Often tech that looks bad initially improves through software updates. Sometime tech that looks great at launch doesn’t hold up over time. I couldn’t think of a better product to use for my first “where it stands” review than the Amazon Fire TV. So let’s get to it.
AMAZON FIRE TV (STREAMING MEDIA BOX)
Original Review Date: 8/15/14
Time used between Original Review and Where it Stands: 1 year, 22 days
Right from the beginning I loved the Fire TV. I found the user interface very intuitive. The voice command to search for movies or actors worked smoothly. Gaming proved to be a great fit for the streamer. Partnered with a USB Xbox controller, I was quickly playing racing games, and even Minecraft Pocket Edition on the big screen. The Fire TV quickly became my go-to streamer, in a house full of many other options (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast).
The device certainly steers users to amazon content. Voice search only searches amazon’s offerings. Prime videos are not separated as clearly as they could be, so you have to pay close attention to that little “prime” ribbon on the free content (assuming you are a Prime Member). But amazon is a company selling content, and so I made my peace with that element, knowing it would never be as simple to view any video for free the way it is on Netflix. Thankfully, Netflix is an app on the Fire TV, so I’m covered!
The Tech in Action
My primary use for the Fire TV is Netflix and Hulu. The interface for both apps is great. The screens are much easier to navigate through than the current Apple TV. For the first few months I also spent much of my time playing games. I sang the praises of “Asphalt 8” in my first impressions review. That game is great, but you quickly run out of space with internal memory, so having an extra flash drive for additional storage is a must (there’s a single USB for that purpose). I found a fun social game called “Fribbage”. This game uses the Fire TV as the “game board” but it also uses smartphones for each participant. I used both Android and Apple phones with no issue. The game provides a phrase with a blank space, and then everyone types something to fill it on their smartphones. The game mixes up those with the true answer, and everyone votes, again using the smartphone to input your choice. It was a very fun game, and while we didn’t play it a lot, that has more to do with how seldom we entertain than the gameplay value. So gaming remains solid on the Fire TV, from Minecraft to Minions Rush, and more complicated games like Leo’s Challenge and Mickey’s Castle of Illusion. Grab a Bluetooth controller or plug a USB controller in and you’re good to go!
Currently one of the main apps we use of the Fire TV is HBO Now, which just became available after a period of
exclusivity on the Apple TV. We used the Apple TV version since it released and I am so happy to have the improved interface of the Fire TV. Hands down, amazon has better screens to navigate.
Where it Stands
As of today, Amazon Fire TV is the champion of the streaming boxes, in my opinion. Roku may have more channels, but amazon has a slicker experience. Apple TV may have more clout, but currently that box is several years old. Apple plans to announce a new Apple TV September 9th, so we’ll see what changes come to that device. Most guesses are that the new Apple TV will support apps, gaming, and voice search. All things that the Amazon Fire TV does already.
The Fire TV was refreshed via software update in April 2015, offering enhanced features like Bluetooth headphone support (keep Game of Thrones from your children’s ears), enhanced USB support, and improvements to WIFI connections. There are no rumors of a new product launching soon, but currently the device is out of stock with amazon. The company states that it is due to “high demand” for the streamer, but often supply lines dry up just before a new product launch. So stay tuned for news of a new Fire TV; I’ll be all over that! If gaming isn’t your cup of tea, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is currently available for $39. That’s $60 less than the larger streaming box, and offers everything except the gaming aspect. So that’s certainly a good option.
Chord cutters are on the rise. HBO and Showtime now offer monthly subscriptions for apps on streamers. It’s only a matter of time before media streamers truly go mainstream. And the Amazon Fire TV is a great choice, if you’re considering taking the leap.
For now, the Fire TV scores a CUP HALF FULL.
This week a milestone was achieved. The blog “Have a Cup of T(ech)” reached the one year mark. That’s no small feat when you’re a one man shop, in a part-time capacity. I’ve had a great year checking out different technology for casual consumers. Over the year we’ve looked at Apple and Android smartphones and tablets. We went on the road to Walt Disney World, exploring the cool apps that make navigating the massive parks not only easy but fun! Reviews of “apps of note” from everything from pocket games like Scibblenauts to Smart News Readers like the Yahoo News Digest.
We reviewed our first “smart home” device with the Echo Smartspeaker, and played around with Virtual Reality with Gear VR. We’ve done our best to offer a wide variety of reviews, including the new Kindle Voyage and Beats Studio headphones. Mid-year we had some fun with a review of the “Funny or Die News” application, and more recently we reviewed the HBO Now service (coming soon to Android devices). One particular post had me trashing
the Winbook tablet computer, which garnered the most hits in the year (and I don’t take anything back).
This past year has seen 44 blog posts, which have been viewed over 5000 times in over 150 countries! I’m so glad that this little operation has been able to reach out so far! And we have no intention of stopping. The first year focused primarily on the blog itself and our twitter handle (@twolumpsoftech). A Flipboard magazine was introduced mid-year, offering another way to keep track of the
consumer tech that is making news. But a few new things are planned for the coming year.
Two Lumps of Tech now has an Instagram account. The focus of that site is to show off new technology IN ACTION. I’m not sure what direction that will take, but I’m excited about the chance to show how the tech works, in addition to continuing to write reviews. A new category is coming as well. “Where It Stands” will be revisits to products that have been reviewed previously. Too often reviews on the internet are published right when a new product comes out. Sometimes products that look great initially turn into duds, while at the same time, other products that have a rough launch, find new life in software updates. I want to return to products after initial reviews to share how the tech is holding up, and whether it’s still worth consumer’s consideration. Look for a “Where It Stands” review of the Amazon Fire TV in the coming weeks!
Finally we’ll be adding guest writers in the coming year. I hope to add some new perspectives and get writers with different areas of interest to give an even broader set of reviews (I can’t keep track of everything that’s going on in tech!). The focus will remain locked on casual consumers though, so don’t worry about this blog becoming another site written for technology geeks. This blog is for everyone. Because technology has the capacity to enhance your life. I believed that when this journey started a year ago, and that thought remains the same. So stay tuned for more First Impressions, Reviews (cup half full/cup half empty), Apps of Note, Tech News, and the occasional HaikuReview.
Thank you to those who have been following the site this past year. I sincerely hope you have found things that were interesting, informative, and even maybe a little humorous at times. A special thanks to friends and family for providing editing and feedback over the course of the year.
On to year number two!!
Cheers — BC Gordon – Two Lumps of Tech
A Note about Heating Issues:
I published a blog last week reviewing the Gear VR for Galaxy S6. I have since returned the device. Bummer! Right?!? Here’s the reason that my time with the Gear VR was so short. It simply heats up the smartphone too quickly. The device has a safety feature that stops allowing VR use when the phone is too hot. I noticed it right away but I thought I’d solved the issue by running a fan directly in the face of the person wearing the headset. But then one weekend nothing seemed to help with the rapid heat issue. I was getting five minutes of use and then heat warnings. I was cooling the phone down with ice packs and trying again, and BOOM, the phone was 100 degrees in five minutes. And that simply cuts the “fun factor” down to zero for me. I see great potential. I don’t take anything back that I’ve written thus far about how amazing this technology is. But part of what is amazing is tied to its weakness. Oculus Rift uses a full computer to power it and manage the software. The Gear VR is trying to do all of that same work with a small smartphone operating system (without an internal fan!). So the tech has some work to do before it’s consumer ready. I’m confident they’ll solve that puzzle, it’s just not there yet. So save your cash for now.