First Impressions – Gear VR for the S6

Gear VR cover photo

I’ve been dreaming about virtual reality for years.  So long, in fact, that I totally forgot about it.  I used to dream of strapping on the headset and disappearing into a virtual world of dinosaurs and roller coasters.  Unfortunately, early attempts at virtual reality (VR) were always expensive and clunky.  Even the king of VR these days, Oculus Rift, is still tethered to a computer in order to use it.  The idea of VR anywhere seemed like a dream until this past year when Samsung got into the game.

Samsung released the Gear VR for the Note 4 in December 2014.  Samsung built the hardware and Oculus providing the software support.  It was seen as a novelty, mainly because the Galaxy Note series has never been one of Samsung’s mass market devices.  It’s a top seller, for sure, but it’s nothing when compared to the Galaxy S line of smartphones.  The Gear VR did something entirely new though.  It took away the tether.  The hardware of the googles used the smartphone as the screen and the operating system.  VR was officially “anywhere” you wanted to use it!

Then in April Samsung made another strange move.  They released another Gear VR.  This one was tailored for the popular Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.  Along with supporting the new smartphone, the updated Gear VR resolved several issues that early adopters complained about.  The focus dial has a wider range, the head straps are easier to adjust and wear for extended periods, and the overall device is lighter.  Shortly after the product’s release the next major step forward occurred when the Gear VR launched a Storefront, partnering with Oculus itself.  Much like when the iPhone finally got an App Store, the Gear VR is now prime for developers to actually make money with the device!  So it is only the beginning.  I’ve had the Gear VR for just over a week. I’ve strapped it on every head I’ve encountered over that period, and I’ve been through every feature myself.  These are my first impressions.

The Hardware

First off the headset of the Gear VR is solid.  It finds that nice balance between being light but Gear VR headshotnot feeling cheap.  When I put it on someones head I set the straps at their widest and then assist tightening the two straps on the side and the one over the head.  It’s all velcro, and super simple.  Assistance isn’t really needed, but I’m providing a service here! : )

The Gear VR has a physical “back button”, which is mainly used when you want out of a game and need a “panic button” of sorts.  There are also physical volume buttons on the front of the device.  The Gear VR doesn’t provide it’s own sound output, it’s just your phone.  But you can plug in headphones and control the volume with those physical buttons, which is pretty sweet.  The rest of the navigation is done via a trackpad.  Think of a tiny laptop mousepad.  Swipe up/down and left/right to move through your options.  Give the trackpad a tap to select.  This feature is placed on the right hand side of the Gear VR and is very easy to use.

The last physical feature of the Gear VR is a focus scroll, located at the center of the headset.  My understanding is they have improved the range of focus to allow people who normally use glasses to be able to use the Gear VR without them!  I have tested this with several people, including myself, and the visually challenged are no longer out of the game!

Overall, the hardware is very good.  The range of vision is certainly somewhat limited being you are, in fact, looking at a 5.1 inch smartphone screen.  The dreaded “screen door effect” is present.  This basically means you feel like you are looking through something into another world, but this feels more like a feature when you do diving games (the Gear VR is your scuba mask!)  At $200 the hardware justifies the price.  But what exactly does the Gear VR actually do?  Here we go.

It Offers Experiences

The purpose of any virtual reality device is to offer a window into a new world.  An opportunity to stand in a city on the other side of the planet.  To swim with dolphins and sharks.  Heck, to stare face to face into the eyes of a dinosaur!  The Gear VR offers all of these experiences, and more.  Through Oculus 360 photos, you can stand in London, Paris, or a wide variety of locations around the globe.  It pretty spectacular to stand in the middle of Tower Bridge in London, as it literally “towers” over your head!Gear VR Battle for Avengers Tower

The device offers diving options, dinosaurs, 360 videos where you fly over New York City and Venice.  One of the coolest features I’ve encountered is “Battle for Avengers Tower” which is a 3D experience placing the viewer smack dab in the middle of a massive Avengers fight!  It’s pretty surreal to see Thor’s hammer spinning directly in front of your face.

moon theaterThe last “experience” I’ll mention is definitely something worth checking out.  It’s the Oculus Cinema.  The cinema is just that, a movie theater where you can watch any MP4 video file you have stored on your phone.  Theater options include a small home theater (with 100 inch screen), a massive movie theater with a few hundred empty chairs around you, the “Ant Theater” which displays your videos on a discarded iPhone lying on it’s side under a mushroom, and finally “Moon Theater” where you are watching on a screen mounted on the moon.  It’s a pretty cool way to watch videos, and definitely an experience not to miss with the Gear VR.

It Offers Gamesrocket toss

I have not taken a deep dive into gaming, but the few games I have played have been very fun.  The first game I played was called “Rocket Toss”.  This is a ring toss game, but your goal is to put your ring around a rocket, which will blast off and explode above your head when you succeed.  The game is played in 3D, which is very cool.  You simply aim with your head and toss by flicking the touchpad on the right side of the headset.  It is very addictive!

Samsung-Gear-VR-Temple-RunAnother fun game that you can do without a physical controller quite easily is “Temple Run”.  The game dynamics are exactly the same as the popular smartphone application, but now you are IN THE WORLD.  You can look over your shoulder and see the monster bearing down on you.  This was the first game that really did a number on my balance.  You are racing up and down hills, using the trackpad mechanics to turn left and right, and to jump or duck.  It’s a great way to experience the wonder of VR gaming.  But when you add a Bluetooth controller, things get even more interesting.

I got my Bluetooth controller for about $20 online.  I started with kart-VR“Temple Run” and the gameplay was much easier now that I had physical button to jump/duck, and a thumbpad to turn.  I lasted much longer in the game with the controller.  I also purchased a racing game called “VR Kart”.  This is very “MarioKart” but not nearly as fast.  Still it’s in 3D, so you can literally look down at your hands in the VR and see your fingers gripping the steering wheel!  That’s pretty cool.  Finally I played a game that is heavily promoted in the store, called “HeroBound”.  Think “Legend of Zelda” or “Fable”.  Instead of first person view though, you are hovering over the game, controlling the hero through battles and world exploration.  I didn’t play it much, but what I saw was very impressive.  And it will only get better with enhanced graphics.  So gaming was a good experience on the Gear VR, but the greatest thing about this device is that the target audience is vast.

It Offers Something For Everyone

dolphins VRThere are several nature videos and experiences from swimming with dolphins (though they are CGI versus real animals) and being in a shark cage while a Great White stalks you (again, CGI).  There are many applications that offer a wide variety of things that will interest lots of people.  There is a helicopter ride, but the chopper is doing barrel rolls.  I don’t ever want to do that for real myself, but it was a great thing to experience from the Virtual passenger seat.  Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary show had a 360 camera set up during the taping of “Celebrity Jeopardy”.  So you can be a “fly on the wall” watching the full video show, but now you can look around the studio and see the audience (there are movie stars in there if you look close enough).  That’s definitely a cool experience.  I’ve yet to a find a person who didn’t find the technology fun to check out.  Not everyone wants to rush out and buy one, but it’s hard to deny that the experience of virtual reality is pretty amazing.

The Whole Cup Summed Up

GearVR-590x310The Gear VR is an amazing step forward for Virtual Reality.  It’s making this fledgling technology mobile, and it simply has to do that to really catch on with average consumers.  So many people are ditching desktops and even laptop computers in favor of tablets, that an emerging technology can’t be tied to an older hardware system.  And the Gear VR is proving that such technology can be “unplugged”.  There’s still some work to do (I’m noticing some issues with the phone heating up quickly), but this device is sold as a “innovator version” which means it’s meant for developers and early adopter tech geeks like me.

If you know someone with one of these, try and get some time with it.  Check out the different experiences, and wonder at how a tiny little smartphone is running such complicated software.  It’s a wonder.  And within a year or so, it’ll finally be ready for everyone.  Who knows what the future might bring!!

Gear VR future board meetings

Two Lumps on the Road – the Testing the Apple Watch

Recently I was handed an Apple Watch to test out. Coincidentally I was heading out of town for a family gathering near Fargo, North Dakota. So I strapped on the watch, synced my iPhone 6, added a bunch of apps, and hit the road.  I am currently camped out at one of the rare Dunn Brothers Coffeeshops in Fargo, running through everything the watch can do (or claims that it can at least).

I love wrist tech (my Pebble Time is coming soon!!) but I am skeptical about the Apple Watch. I think it wants to do more than it should. But now my skepticism will be put to the test. Look for a more detailed CONSUMER FOCUSED review later in the week, once I’ve used the watch for a few more days. So far I like it. Not enough to buy one for myself, but enough to be optimistic. Still, I like to be right about my thoughts on tech ; ).  So the gloves are coming off!

Stay tuned for more.

  

App of Note – Funny or Die News Flash

funny or die news flash banner

UPDATE: August 2016.  This app is no longer being offered.  But read on and remember a cool concept, and hope for something similar to return to the news landscape.  We can all use a little humor in our daily news!

I’ll admit it.  I’m a bit of a news junkie.  I do my best to stick to tech news and the major headlines, and I try to stay away from the comment sections.  I think it’s good to be informed, but in a world where endless news articles are just a click away, some balance is required to not find yourself immersed by the torrent.  Enter, smart news applications.

Smart News apps are designed to give you a quick burst of news.  Not too much, but not too little.  I’ve already reviewed one of my favorites, Yahoo News Digest, in a previous “App of Note”.  Today I want to introduce you to another.  And I’ll get this out of the way first, it is currently iOS only.  So if you don’t have an iPhone or iPad, you are out of luck for the moment.  But do read on, for this sweet little news app will certainly come to Android in the future, and if you’ve got a good sense of humor, and a tolerance for minor vulgarity, this news app will keep you informed while it’s making you laugh, and it’s called “Funny or Die News Flash”.

What Makes a Good Smart news App?

20150510_131352000_iOSIn my opinion, every Smartnews app should meet the following criteria:

1.  Scheduled Delivery– Smartnews should come at specific times during the day, versus constantly being updated.  That way you can read all the content, and you know you’re done until the next delivery.  Just like the good ole newspaper!

2.  Short Informative Articles – Smartnews should be a quick read.  I’m talking about the walk from the car to the office, or an elevator ride.  You should barely need to scroll down through the article, because your goal is to know the top stories and that’s it.  There are plenty of apps offering a more lengthy take on the news of the day (see #3)

3.  Links, Links, and more Links – While a smartnews app is designed to be a short read it should offer links to get to longer articles, or even related articles from within the app.

4.  Social Element – Smartnews should at the very least offer buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Text, and Email.  That way if you read an article you want to share with others, it’s just a click to send it on it’s way.

5.  Intelligent Swiping – This one might just be me, but every smartnews app I’ve used makes use of up/down and left/right 20150510_131459000_iOSswiping in intuitive ways.  That’s the key to a quick read.  Read what is on the screen, swipe left, read the next story, swipe left, and so on.  You want to send to Facebook, swipe up, click the icon, and off it goes.  If a smartnews app is clunky, it is no longer serving it’s purpose.

So let’s see how the “Funny or Die News Flash” application stacks up to my criteria.

It Offers a Good News Spectrum

The app takes brevity to a whole new level.  Each “story” is designed with two sections.  The first part is the informative news piece.  The second part is the joke related to the first part.  It can literally be two sentances.  That certainly puts the “flash” in news flash.  But while the articles are incredibly short, they are also very diverse.  US, International, Business, Entertainment, Sports, Tech.  They don’t all show up each day, but I’ve seen them all appear from time to time.  I checked the articles showing in the app against some of my other favorite smartnews apps, and I found they all had similar stories, because they all cover the most popular things in the media at the time.  So for “short informative articles” Funny or Die News Flash nails it.

It Offers Social Element and Links

20150510_131523000_iOSEach article includes a “share” button, which allows you to send the story to a wide variety of sources.  These include Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Flipboard, and Pocket.  Along with standard email and text links.  Across from the “share” button is a link to the “Full Story”, which includes the name of the source (i.e. Baltimore Sun, Telegraph).  Clicking this link takes you into Safari and you are able to read the entire story, which is great.  So “Funny or Die News Flash” is solid with “link, links, and more links” and the “social element”.

It Offers a Slick Interface

One reason I love the Yahoo News Digest is how the swiping works.  There you just swipe left/right to go through the articles, and up/down to read the articles.  The “Funny or Die News Flash” just takes out the up/down element.  Each articles is a single page, and you swipe left/right through them.  You might be think, “what’s so slick about that?”.  Well the really cool part is the video element.  This is the first app I’ve seen that basically has a GIF running for every story, relevant to the article it covers.  That means you actually have a short video (muted), playing while you read the story.  It looks great.  It loads fast!  So “intelligent swiping” is a solid yes.

Where it Hits, and Where it Misses

The other thing “Funny or Die News Flash” has that no other smartnews app I’ve seen hastime to get off the toilet is the humor.  I’ve found myself laughing out loud at some of the jokes they tie to current headlines.  It’s like having a comedian reading the news, which is really the only way the news should be read in my opinion.  I get to be informed and entertained at the same time.  So that is a big HIT for this application.

The only element I find frustrating is related to “scheduled delivery”.  The app seems to only refresh at certain times during the day, but there’s no control over that (like there is in other smartnews apps, like Yahoo News Digest).  And I have found that they tend to add new articles to the front of the “news feed” while leaving some articles on the back end that I’ve already read.  Those jokes were certainly funny the first time I read them, but they lose their kick the next go around.  And I really want to swipe to the very end, because that’s when the Funny or Die News Flash delivers, what I think is it’s best joke (to the right).

The Whole Cup Summed Up

20150510_131412000_iOSSmartnews apps are a great way to get fast news on mobile devices.  They keep you informed while not taking up too much of your time.  It’s the perfect tool for someone constantly on the go.  Who has time to watch CNN, MSNBC, or the rest of the 24 hour news cycle anyway?  With “Funny or Die News Flash” your in, you laugh, your out, and more clued in to what is going on in the news for the day.

If you have an iPhone and a good sense of humor, pick up the Funny or Die News Flash right now!  It’s free and it’s hilarious.  Well worth the few minutes it takes to get through the content.  And if the news stories of the day aren’t so rosey, don’t they say that laughter is the best medicine?

First Impressions – HBO Now

hbo-now-launch

When I was a kid every few years we got cable for Christmas.  It was usually a six month stint, but it was a dream come true for me.  I got the Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon (for NIck at Night primarily), and a hundred other channels to surf.  But we never got the premium package, which included that great mystery that was HBO.  The cost was too high, and I was too young for a majority of the content anyway.

As an adult I’ve never had cable.  I like to say that my cable consists of Netflix and Hulu Plus.  Between those two I can watch the majority of the shows I want to with Netflix providing lots of past seasons, and Hulu Plus providing current programming.  But I’ve added a third service to my “cable” and that is HBO Now.  In March HBO announced that they would begin selling monthly subscriptions that could be accessed via Apple TV and devices running iOS (read iPhone, iPad, and newer iPod Touch).  After a period of exclusivity, the service will certainly come to Android platforms as well, and smart televisions as well.  I signed up on the first day (as of 4/28/15 the first month is still free!), and I haven’t looked back since.  So let’s take a quick look at what HBO Now offers.

It has tons of content

HBO-Now-SeriesI started by taking in all the offerings.  I was a total newbie having never had HBO before.  I’ve seen some shows through DVD (i.e. Sopranos, Game of Thrones), but the vast array of options was a total surprise.  The service breaks it up into categories including: series, movies, comedy, sports, documentaries, collections, and late night.  You can add most of the content to your “watchlist” and I immediately started adding movies I wanted to watch, which included many current films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, and “A Million Ways to Die in the West”.  I found several shows that I’d heard a lot about, like “Veep”, “The Comeback” and “Silicon Valley”.  There were documentaries that looked interesting, like “The (Dead Mothers) Club” which explores the lives of famous personalities who lost their mothers at young ages.  I even found a documentary on David McCullough, one of my favorite biographers.  Bottom line, there is tons of stuff that looked interesting, and well worth the $15 monthly charge.  And all of that content comes to HBO Now the same day as it broadcasts on HBO itself, so no worrying about Game of Thrones spoilers!

Parental Note:  the service offers “parental controls” so you can limit what content kids can access with a passcode.  I found plenty of content my kid would enjoy watching, but HBO is well known for plenty of Rated R type stuff (ahem…Game of Thrones).  So it’s nice that there is a built in “firewall” of sorts.

It has a slick interfaceHbo now interface

If you have an Apple TV, that’s the best way to watch HBO Now.  During Apple’s exclusive period you are stuck with either that or watching on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch.  I’ve watched a bit on an iPad MIni, and it works fine for that size screen.  Though Game of Thrones isn’t quite as epic on an eight inch screen.  The Apple TV interface is very similar to the other video streamers on the device, like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crackle.  Easy navigation, great summaries of shows.  The majority of the movies offer the preview right on the selection screen, which is a great feature (missing from Netflix).

For Your Consideration: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

last week tonight with john oliverWhen John Oliver took over the Daily Show with John Stewart in the Summer of 2014 it was awesome.  I kind of liked him more than Stewart.  When he left the show shortly after Stewart’s return I was bummed out.  The fact that he then started a weekly news show on HBO was a twist of the knife.  So when I realized I’d finally get to watch his program “Last Week Tonight” with my HBO Now subscription I was thrilled.  And the show lived up to the hopes I had in it.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.  While it feels a bit like The Daily Show (leans pretty heavy to the left politically), it also feels like an irreverent 60 minutes.  Oliver spends most of the program digging into specific issues, using good old fashion investigative journalism.  Sure he swears like a sailor throughout, but he makes amazing points, and really makes you think (even if you don’t agree with him all the time).  It’s a great show, and well worth the cost of the subscription.  For me, everything after John Oliver’s program is just icing on the cake.

The Whole Cup Summed Up

hbo-now-2The dreams of my ten year old self have been fulfilled!  Every time we start up a show and the static sound followed by the HBO icon appears I get a little excited.  The grip of the cable companies on the premium content offered by HBO is starting to loosen. Or rather HBO is breaking free of their grasp.

For the time being you will need an Apple product to access HBO Now and an Apple TV to get the service off of your mobile device and onto the big screen. So if you don’t have those options, be patient for the service will certainly come to devices like Roku, Chromecast, and maybe even the Amazon Fire TV (they already have a deal to show older content after all).  That’s not to mention an app for Android smartphones and Tablets.  It should be mentioned that you can watch HBO Now on a web browser if that’s your only option, but that is certainly not optimal.

If you get in soon you can try the service out for 30 days at no cost, so what do you have to lose!  And $15 is a pretty decent deal, since renting just 3-4 movies (which I found on HBO Now) would cost at least that much.  So grab this link and give it a go.

Alexa, turn on the living room lights! – The Echo Smartspeaker Keeps Getting Smarter

echo smart light bulbs

I’ve had the Echo Smartspeaker (containing the digital assistant named Alexa) since December 2014, and it’s been a fun ride as Amazon keeps pushing out new updates.  In January the device received an update to push any music app running on your phone to the speaker via Bluetooth.  That was the clincher for me, and now the Echo Speaker is used almost constantly when I’m home.  But Amazon wasn’t done yet.  Today the company announced a new update, which is the ability to pair Smart Home Technology.  This let’s you control those devices with your voice.  So what exactly does that mean?  For now, it’s all about the light bulbs.

wemo light bulbsI’ve been anxious to get some WIFI enabled light bulbs.  But they are pricey.  A basic setup will require you to drop $100 on the low end, and several hundred isn’t out of the question.  So my light bulbs remain “dumb” for now.  A smart light bulb kit comes with a WIFI Link, which you plug into the wall and a couple light bulbs (you can always add more).  Before Echo got involved, you controlled those bulbs with your smartphone, which is still pretty cool!  But now you can pair those bulbs with the Echo Smartspeaker and simply tell the lights to turn on.  Now, you gotta admit, that’s pretty awesome!  I have a couple lamps that, based on their location, are a pain to turn on, and my dream of just telling them to turn on and off is close to becoming reality.smart crock pot

But the potential goes way beyond just light bulbs.  The Echo Smartspeaker, since the very beginning, has been a signpost in tech showing us where smart technology in the home can take us.  With smart device connections, one day you could tell the coffee maker to start in the morning, the doors to lock before going to bed, and the dishwasher to start in the middle of the night.  Even Crock Pots are getting connected! There are so many possibilities, and the Echo Smartspeaker is just the first step in that direction.

Of course all first generation devices have their glitches and the speaker remains pricey at $200 (by invite only).  Prime members still get a discount though at $150 (again, by invite only).  If you want an invite click HERE.

I’ve had a lot of gadgets, but the best ones have always been those that integrate easily into my daily life, enhancing it and making things easier.  Now I can ask for a news update any time of the day, I can ask for the current traffic report before hitting the road, and I can tell it to play any song in my music library and it does it, consistently well.  And hopefully soon I’ll be turning the lights on and off with my voice! It’s exciting to see what this thing will do next!

Stay tuned.

HaikuReview – HTC One M9

Metal-wrapped body

Same as the one from last year,

But still beautiful.

Stainless steel is slick,

Probably ought to buy a case

Or get insurance.

HTC One M9 Camera

Last year’s five-inch screen

Same look, same feel, same smartphone?

Almost, but not quite.

HTC Generations

With last year’s model

Ultra-Pixel camera

Was not a big hit.

So now it is gone.

Now twenty MegaPixel,

For amazing shots.

Camera on front

Uses those Ultra-Pixels

For those selfies (sigh).

HTC One M9 -2

User interface

Is much more intuitive,

Using location.

When you are at work

The phone will respond to it.

Stop Candy Crush Now!

HTC One Sense 7 for Work

When you are at home

Everything auto-updates.

Candy Crush away!

Phone is still too big.

Wasted space due to logo

Makes one-hand use tough.

htc one front logo

A decent upgrade,

Although Samsung got more press

It’s worth Checking Out.

HTC One M9 - 1

Now we’re staring at our wrists!! – The Apple Watch is Coming – PART 1

apple_watch_iwatch_2

This was originally posted on Sept 10, 2014, just after the Apple Watch was first announced.  Now that we have a release date (April 24th), I plan to write a follow up in the coming week, discussing the pros and cons of Apple’s entrance into wrist-tech, including highlighting its features.  But for now, check out my original first impressions of what a “computer on your wrist” could mean.  And stay tuned for “part 2” in the coming days.

We have a rule in our house, “no tech at the table”.  It’s a rule we follow most of the time, and it’s there for a very specific reason.  Over the years that we’ve had smartphones and tablets in our house, we’ve noticed a distinct drop in how much we interact with each other.  Instead of conversations about our days, we end up staring at our smartphone screens all evening long.  So at least for a brief moment, there is “no tech at the table”.  But what about when the “tech” is strapped on to your wrist?

Like all tech geeks, I spent two hours yesterday (Sept 9th) listening to the keynote Apple Watchaddress from Apple, where they unveiled new iPhones and the Apple Watch.   And while the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are decent evolutions of the smartphone model for iPhone (bigger, brighter, faster), the Apple Watch is trying to be the definition of the newest category in tech: smartwatches.  And based on my experiences with technology in my own house, I have to wonder what the impact of this new category will be.

Technology is saturating our society.  From smart appliances, smart door locks, smart light bulbs, and smart thermostats and smoke detectors; technology is increasingly something you cannot get away from.  The older generations that resisted the personal computer could do so because there were alternatives.  In the coming years, you probably won’t be able to buy a microwave oven without a smartphone app to run it, and so sitting out on the next wave of tech advancements won’t be an option for anyone.  But as our lives are infiltrated by technological advancements, the balance must not be lost with how we interact on a personal level.annoying phone

I believe that the best technology is the kind that doesn’t take your attention away from what you are doing.  That could be as simple as a media streamer that you are fighting with to watch a new episode on Hulu.  Suddenly the joy of streaming internet television is lost, to a battle with failed technology.  Smartphones have been the culprit of many failed personal connections ever since they came to dominate our society.  I know many people who have “no tech” days during the week, and that’s a great idea.  I’m far from alone in the realization that our personal technology is causing us to become impersonal, causing us to lose our connections to friends and family.  And I worry that the amazing features of the new Apple Watch will not help in the struggle to keep those connections.

I thought a bit about how in films the future is full of technology that permeates all aspects of society.  And then I thought about how in many visions of the future everyone is dressed the same way, usually in jumpsuits.  And it dawned on me, the clothes they wear don’t matter any more.  Because they no longer actually see each other.  I see a future where we are all walking around staring at our phones, or now staring at our wrists.  A world where we forget the voices of our friends, and only know them by emoticon and instant message.  We can call that a more modern way to be connected, but is it better?02-03-12-people-phones

So when Apple releases their new Watch April 24, 2015, consider how much of your life that device might consume.  Is the technology enhancing your life?  Are your personal connections to friends and family made better because of this device?  I would argue devices can do such things (the Pebble Time is a good example of a minimalist wristband, at a fraction of the cost of the Apple Watch), but we must be wary.  And if you do buy the Apple Watch, make sure you don’t spend too much money on the most expensive model and band itself.  Because if you’re looking for your new smartwatch to be a status symbol you might be disappointed, since chances are no one will be looking at you anyway.

zombies

First Impressions – Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Edge

SAMSUNG GALAXY PHONES_cropped If you aren’t a tech geek like me you probably had no idea that an annual conference is held ever year in Barcelona, Spain.  And at this conference many tech companies roll out their new gadgets.  Well that event is called the Mobile World Congress (MWC), and it started March 1st.  Two major smartphone companies announced devices on the first day: Sasmung and HTC.  Today we’ll look at the new Samsung phones, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Edge. We’ll focus on the S6 model, as the Edge is pretty much the same phone with the addition of having a screen that wraps around, you guessed it, the edge!

The Design

samsung phonesSamsung has long been known for putting out high-end phones in cheap looking cases.  The tendancy to focus on plastic has been the chief argument by their competitors that they are not good phones.  The Galaxy S5 last year found itself in those cross-hairs like never before because while the software was pumped up with new features (fingerprint ID, heart rate monitor, improved camera), the hardware itself still felt cheap; pic below – S6 (left) S5 (right).  The tech industry knew that Samsung had to change that approach with the Galaxy S6 and they did exactly that.Samsung Galaxy S6 vs S5 One review I read called the S6 the “love child of the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 6” and that’s pretty accurate.  The phone is now entirely metal and glass.  The metal edges look almost identical to the iPhone 6, and the glass back harkens back to the iPhone 4 and 4S.  Though Samsung is using much stronger glass, so the scratching issues that plagued those iPhones should be avoided.  This phone looks great!  It looks like the high-end phone that this line has always been.  Does it sgalaxy-s6-iphone-6-comparison-bottom-frontstill look a lot like the previous models?  Yep.  The dimensions are even the same as the S5.  The camera is the same (with improved optics).  The three buttons at the bottom (including those two that disappear when not in use) are still there.  But it’s an improvement, no doubt.  It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary, but after 4 models that looked virtually the same (little bigger each time), I think evolutionary is good enough for this year.  Let’s briefly breakdown what the new features are and what features are gone for good.

What’s New

samsung fingerprint sensor Fingerprint Access

Last year to use this feature you had to swipe your finger/thumb across the home button (making it useless, based on my experience with it).  Now it works just like the iPhone button.  Rest your finger on the button and you are unlocked.  The fingerprint will also pair for payments using Samsung Pay.

Improved Screen and Speaker

The screen is brighter and the speaker is louder.  Since the phone size didn’t change, those updates should be pretty noticable.

Isamsung galaxy s6 cameramproved Cameras

While the 16MP back camera is the same, they’ve added “optical image stabilization” which means your pics will look better, as it helps handle shaky shots (the iPhone 6 Plus uses this tech as well).  The forward facing camera is now 5MP, which means those selfies will be crystal clear!  You also can access the camera much quicker, with a double tap of the home button (they say less than a second).

samsung wireless charging

Battery Charging – This one is a mixed bag for hardcore Samsung users.  The battery is no longer replaceable (like most high-end phones these days), but they’ve added tech to the device that makes charging lightening fast (10 minutes of charge gets you 4 hours of battery!).  They’ve also made it possible for wireless charging with any of the many charging mats on the market.

What’s Gone

Replaceable Battery

While this means extra batteries are a thing of the past, you do get a slimmer phone in the process. And rapid charge is a huge move forward, making all those extra batteries rather redundant.

samsung no sd cardSD Card Slot

No more expandable memory for the Galaxy S Line.  Samsung has adjusted the memory tiers from 16/32/64 to 32/64/128 (those would be Gigabytes).  Most people would have to try and use 32 GB unless they are loading lots of videos or never cleaning out their camera roll.  This is just another example of the movement towards cloud storage.

Waterproofing

The S5 was one of the samsung galaxy s6 not waterprooffew high-end smartphones that was waterproof (meaning you could drop it in the toilet).  That no longer is the case.  So either get a LifeProof case for the phone, or be more careful when you’re at the beach this summer (not to mention those pesky toilets!)

The Edge – it’s trying really hard to be super cool

Tsamsung S6 Edgehe other phone Samsung introduced this week is the Galaxy Edge.  Last year the Note Edge was released, which featured a third screen along the edge of the right side of the phablet.  Now the edge is on both sides, but it doesn’t act like a third screen.  It just stretches the screen over the side.  There is still a “clock mode” so you can see the time on the phone’s edge when it’s laid flat.  The Edge definitely looks cool.  Its guts are no different from the Galaxy S6 though, so we’ll have to see how pricing works out, and if the “cool factor” is worth the cost.

The Whole Cup Summed Up samsung galaxy edge 1

I like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Edge.  Samsung has always made decent phones that came in cheap packages.  It’s great that the argument about the hardware can be put to rest (of course the lawsuits from Apple might start a whole new argument).  Now you have some clear choices regarding SOFTWARE.  Do you like Android or Apple?  Do you like the interface that Samsung puts on top of the Android system (it’s called TouchWiz)?  Do you like the grid design of Apple’s iOS 8?  It’s really all about preference.  All of these phones are premium hardware.  Metal and Glass.  They have similar cameras (though Apple remains the king for the moment at least there).  They do the same things.  They play the same games.  Support the same apps.  So head to the store when these phones come out and get them in your hands, and see what you think. I tend to jump between Apple and Android every six months (thank you T-Mobile Jump program).  I love the iPhone 6.  I think it’s the perfect phone, in terms of size, and functionality.  But the S6 has me tempted.  If it’s not too expensive the Galaxy Edge has me tempted too.  But I have till May to sort it out.  If you want either Samsung smartphone, your first chance will be April 10th.

Who knew that Samsung and Apple were cousins all along!?!

galaxy-s6-iphone-6-comparison-side-table

New Phones are Coming March 1st – Have Patience!!

what's next samsungIt is a great time to be in the market for a new smartphone! Two of the Smartphone Titans are a week away from announcing new devices on March 1st. So patience is called for!

Here’s the the two things to make sure you keep in mind when you are getting a new phone right around a refresh.

  1. New devices will generally cost the same amount as the old line (or very close), but they will have many new features AND will address many of the problems on the previous model. So you can avoid some headaches by waiting for the new device, at no real extra cost. Why buy a year old device now, when you can get a brand new device in a month for the same price?
  2. Once the new devices are on the market their previous models gets a discount. Sometimes a major discount. So if the new smartphone isn’t that much different from the old one, you might want to save some coin and just pick up the previous year’s model.

So here are the two (possibly three) devices, set to be announced on March 1st.

Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Galaxy Edge

Samsung Galaxy S6 Rumor 1

It’s make or break time for Samsung. Not a lot has changed since the Galaxy S2 (in 2011!). Each year the company puts out another Galaxy phone that is a little bigger and a little faster. The Galaxy S5 made an attempt to incorporate a ton of features (heart rate monitor, fingerprint scanner, etc), but in the end it was just another “Galaxy S” that was a little faster and a little bigger.

The Galaxy S6 is expected to be different. Gone is the plastic build, replaced by some form of metal (aluminum most likely). The device should look much different than the phones that came before it. It needs to, because for the first time in a long time, Samsung is losing market share to Apple. People have been ditching Samsung for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in droves. The market seems to indicate that everyone was just waiting for Apple to build a big phone. Samsung used to be the big phone of choice, but now they must offer something more in terms of functionality and build quality to compete. All signs point to them delivering, but we won’t know till March 1st.

In addition to the Galaxy S6, Samsung is rumored to be introducing a smaller version of the Note Edge. This was a new device introduced just last year. The phablet device had a “third screen” of sorts, in the form of a touch screen located along the right hand edge of the device. This “edge screen” would show things typically found in the dock of your phone. It was definitely seen as more of a gimmick than a phone that tons of people would want. It seems Samsung is thinking if the phone was a bit smaller, perhaps it will be adopted by a larger audience. So we might be seeing the introduction of the Samsung Galaxy Edge.

HTC One (M9)

htc-one-m9-hima-press-rendering

The other big player introducing a phone on March 1st is HTC. I owned the HTC One (M8) for six months last year. I liked the phone a lot in terms of build quality, and the operating system. I never bought into the camera approach, which used “ultrapixels” instead of “megapixels”. Also the phone just seemed too big for a 5 inch screen, and that was mainly due to the half inch of real estate taken up on the front of the phone for the “HTC” logo. Well the next iteration of the HTC One is coming, perhaps called the “M9”, and did HTC fix that real estate problem? No they did not.htc one front logo

The new phone looks really good. In a strange move, the rumors are that it will have the same size screen, at 5 inches, AND they are still wasting valuable screen space on the front of the device on an unnecessary logo (it says HTC on the back too). They’ve ditched the ultrapixel camera for a 20MP camera on the back (yeah!). Beyond that screen size and camera the new phone is ramping up all the specs. A faster processor will make mobile games easier, and web browsing like lightening. The build appears to continue the use of aluminum, which has a great look, but is pretty slick in the hand (so a case is a good investment – and they make clear ones to still show the metal off).  All in all, the HTC One (M9) won’t be the radical change we will probably see in the Samsung line, but it’s definitely a decent upgrade.

Patience Pays Off

In terms of technology March is certainly going to come in like a lion. We are certainly going to see several new phones from some of the biggest companies in the industry. This will give consumers new options, but will also impact the existing phone market, so if you are patient you will have choices, and you’re certain to find something that will get you through a couple more years. And you might find that the old versions aren’t so bad after all (see below).

htc-one-vs-samsung-s5

Stay tuned to Two Lumps of Tech on March 2nd, for a high-level review of the devices, once we get to see what they actually are, versus speculating on what we hope they are.

Review – Nexus 9 Tablet

nexus 9 banner

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.nexus verus ipad size compare  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 followersnexus 9 lollipop screens, 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.

nexus batter indicatorThe 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 EmptyNexus 9 back fingerprints

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.

nexus 9 multitasking paneWhile 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

nexus 9 adThe 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.

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