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ElevatoR(eview): JBL Charge 3 Speaker

ElevatoReview Charge3 Banner

Tech reviews for the average consumer in under two minutes!

The JBL Charge 3 falls into the category of mid-tier consumer Bluetooth speakers.  There are cheaper options for certain (JBL Clip 2 comes to mind) and there are much more expensive options (I’m looking at you Sonos and the upcoming Apple HomePOD).  JBL makes quality speakers that focus on solid all-around sound without killing your pocketbook.  This speaker is about 8 inches in height, and has great sound even at high Charge 3 backvolumes.  I chose this speaker because it is wide range Bluetooth (100 feet without walls), waterproof (you can dunk this sucker), and it works with the Amazon Echo series of speakers (I pair this one with a Echo DOT).  The sounds quality between this speaker and it’s younger brother the JBL Flip 4 was basically the same, at least to my ear (I’m no audiophile though).  I chose the Charge 3 mainly because of it’s larger battery (20 hours) and it’s ability to charge devices on the go (it has a built in USB to charge your phone/tablet).

The only downside I’ve found with this speaker is pairing.  I was able to pair 2 different phones (as advertised), but not consistently.  Perhaps it was a fluke, but something to consider.  Also pairing to my Amazon Echo DOT has been challenging, as it keeps losing the connection.  As a bluetooth speaker, this thing rules.  As a “smartspeaker” jerry-rigged with a DOT, there’s work to be done to make that experience smooth.

ElevatoR(eview) Verdict:Charge 3 Grass

Design: Cup Half Full

Ease of Use (Bluetooth Speaker): Cup Half Full

Ease of Use (with Echo DOT): Cup Half Empty

Sound Quality: Cup Half Full

Cost: Cup Half Full

Overall: Cup Half Full

Long-form reviews to consider, when you have more time:

CNET Review

Tom’s Guide Reivew

Sound Guys Reivew

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Where it Stands – Apple TV (2nd Gen) and 1st Impressions of the new Apple TV!

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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

Initial Impressions

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.

The Tech in Actionimage

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

imageThe 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)

imageHere 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.image

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.

Where It Stands – Amazon Fire TV

A New Category of Review!!

Where it stands iconA 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.

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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

Initial Impressions

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 steersprime ribbons 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

fribbage imageMy 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!

hbo-now-fire-tv-and-stickCurrently 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.

fire tv stickThe 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.

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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.

Review – Nexus 9 Tablet

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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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The Update I Was Waiting for… Music on the Echo Smart Speaker!!

echo speaker bannerI first reviewed the Echo Smart Speaker in a “First Impressions” post on 12/11/14. So be sure to check that out here.

I’ve been kicking around writing a full review of the Echo Smart Speaker recently.  The thing holding me back though was that I was pretty frustrated with a few specific elements of the speaker.  I’m fine writing a bad review (check out my thoughts on the WinBook!), but the Echo had such great potential, and I knew it was one major update away from being something amazing.  Well today that update came.  Let me tell you briefly what it is.

It is a fully functioning bluetooth speaker…NOW

streaming music iconsWhen the Echo first arrived it could play music, but your choices were very limited.  You were stuck with Amazon Music, I Heart Radio, and TuneIn Radio.  If you didn’t have your music collection in Amazon’s cloud, you only had those streaming services as options.  Amazon Prime Members can get access to Prime Music, but if you’re used to services like Spotify, RDIO, or Google Music, you’ll find Prime’s offerings pretty limited.  And that was the kicker, and why I didn’t want to pass judgement on the device.  Echo was a bluetooth speaker that didn’t act like a bluetooth speaker.  It acted like a conduit to the Amazon ecosystem, which is very much the business model of the company (ask any Kindle Fire owner).  This $100 device ($200 for non-Prime members) couldn’t attach to my phone via bluetooth to allow me to stream other music services, and that was a huge gap.  But now that gap has been filled.

Just this week Amazon released on update that allows for bluetooth access.  In their marketing they state that now “Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes Music” will work with Echo, but in truth any music service can now connect via bluetooth.  That includes RDIO and Google Music, among many others. And now my Echo Smart Speaker is able to play my entire collection (personal music stored in iTunes, and music streaming via RDIO).

It is the smoothest setup I’ve ever seen

I was very frustrated when I first set up my Echo back in December.  The need to create a new WIFI connection to link my phone, install the app, and then connect my home wireless was tedious and touchy.  It took me a while to get things going.  I think about casual users whenever I set up any device, and I worried that the setup was not the smooth experience Amazon is known for.  But they fixed some bugs with the role-out of bluetooth connectivity.  Here’s how it works:

IMG_09561.  Say “Alexa, pair my device”

2.  Alexa tells you to navigate to the bluetooth settings and select “Echo-###”

3.  You follow those directions

4.  Alexa says, “Your device is now paired”

That’s it.  This worked on both my iPhone 6 and my iPad Mini (1st gen).  Seamless.  Once you start playing music on your mobile device, you can control it with your voice, just like the original music apps.  Play, Pause, Next Song, Previous Song, Volume.  It’s all controlled via voice.  Though you can always control it with your mobile device too.

The Update That Was Needed

The Echo Smart Speaker is a great device.  I already loved it before this update.  Through Prime Music I found many playlists that have filled my house with music.  I’ve used the “add to my grocery list” and “set a timer” functions many times.  I ask for my “news update” now and then, and I think it’s amazing.  I can see such great potential in this little speaker.  And now with the full bluetooth functionality I’m not searching for music, or uploaded hundreds of CDs into Amazon’s cloud.  I can use any music streamer I want from my phone or tablet, and the experience is great.

The jury is still out on whether or not it’s worth the full $200 that Amazon says it will cost when the Beta period is over, but we’ll deal with that when it comes.  For now the Echo is truly living up to it’s potential.

Here are a couple other reviews worth checking out:

Amazon Echo Review: Listen Up –The Verge

Amazon Echo: A Promising but Not Fully Mature Voice — USA Today

Yes, you can stream any audio to Amazon Echo — CNET

 

 

 

 

First Impressions – Kindle Voyage vs Kindle Paperwhite 

Kindle-Paperwhite-vs-Kindle-Voyage

The Kindle is far and away my favorite piece of tech.  I’m an avid reader and every time I sit down with my Kindle Pafeature-crafted._V325767718_perwhite the act of reading remains the same, but the experience of reading has been revolutionized.  The improvements Amazon has continued adding to the Kindle line just keep making it better and better.  Gone are the days of a physical keyboard (and resulting larger body or form factor).  Gone are the days of seeking good lighting, as most models have a screen that lights up.  And, most importantly, gone is the high price tag of the original models.  While my first Kindle cost $300, the current low end, un-unlit model will run you $79, and that’s with a touch screen (my first kindle was all about the buttons).  My current model, the Kindle Paperwhite, with a lit screen is $119.  A great deal.  While Amazon has consistently added features and reduced price over the years, their newest offering adds the features, but goes the other way with the price.  It’s called the Kindle Voyage.  So let’s see if all the additions make the higher price tag ($199) worth it.

It’s Easier To Hold 

Amazon-Kindle-Voyage-review-backFirst off the form factor has been changed for the Kindle Voyage.  The previous two models had almost identical shapes.  They had matte finish backs (and associated fingerprint issues) and rounded edges.  The Kindle Voyage has the same matte finish, but it also has more angles, which makes holding the device a little easier.  The new Kindle is also slightly smaller in width, height, and weight than the previous model.  These improvements make it easier to use with one hand, and have longer reading sessions, without resorting to resting it on your lap, or table.

The other major change in the form of the Kindle is related to the raised edges on the old model.  The old Kindle has a drop of a few millimeters from the plastic edge to the screen.  The new Kindle is completely flush.  I like this change a lot.  It has a much better look (though that’s not a great reason to spend extra money), but the main reason I like the flat screen approach has to do with how it impacts the reading experience.

It’s Easier to Read kindle voyage pagepress

The first way that the new Kindle improved the reading experience is the flat screen in relationship to new buttons on each side.  The buttons are called “PagePress” in the marketing, and they bring back something from the older Kindles that people had complained about losing: the physical page turn buttons.  Unlike the old models though, the PagePress buttons aren’t designed to “click” when pressed, like a standard button.   Instead they are pressure buttons.  So you can rest your thumb on the button and the page will not turn until you apply pressure.  On my Kindle Paperwhite, when I want to turn a page, I lift my finger from the edge of the device and tap the right side of the screen (or use my other hand entirely).  While that might seem minor, the action of moving to tap often causes my grip to change, and I end up resetting my hold on the device every page turn.  With the new model, you don’t have to move your finger.  I know, talk about a first world problem right!?!?  But there you have it, no more finger exercises in page turning.

Beyond the new buttons, the Kindle has a another improvement that makes a better argument for upgrading than the page turning function, and that is “adaptive light”.

amazon-kindle-voyageThe Kindle Voyage now has an “auto-brightness” feature that you’ll find on almost all smartphones.  So the backlight in the device will adjust based on the lighting around you.  If you enter a dark room the screen will brighten to the optimal brightness for reading (which isn’t the brightest setting, which would be too bright!).  If you are outdoors and the sun is shining, again the screen will adjust, by actually going to full brightness to compensate for sun glare.  This is a cool feature.  While I have brightness control on my Kindle Paperwhite, I find I do adjust brightness a lot, and to have the device do that work for me would be a very nice feature.

The Whole Cup Summed Up 

The Kindle Voyage is a big step up for the Kindle line of kindle_voyage_and_kindle_paperwhiteeReaders.  Unlike previous years, this model doesn’t just improve pixel density to make the screen appear more like real paper (though it does that too, by doubling the pixels on the screen over the previous model).  The Kindle Voyage improves the form factor for easy one hand reading, and page turning.  And it improves the reading experience via Auto Brightness.

The question that must be asked is whether those changes are worth $80, which is the price difference between the Voyage and the current Kindle Paperwhite.  For me, while I like the changes that price difference seems to be a little too much.  I can move my finger to turn pages, and I can adjust my own brightness.  Others might find more value in those features though, and if so, the Kindle Voyage offers a great reading experience.

A Holiday Note:  The basic Kindle is currently on sale for $59 and the Kindle Paperwhite is $99.  No holiday deals on the Kindle Voyage, but the other Kindles are available for shipping prior to Christmas, so if you’re ready to get into the eReader game, now is the time.  Happy eReading!!

2014-Kindle-Comparison-Chart

For further review of the new Kindle Voyage, check out these links:

Gizmodo

The Verge

Engadget

First Impressions – Echo Smart Speaker (from Amazon)

 

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Amazon is usually not shy about releasing new products. Just opening up the home page of amazon.com will usually point you right at whatever new thing the company is pushing to the market. It’s the holiday season so the Kindle Fire tablets are front and center, which is not a surprise. But there’s a new device that Amazon is releasing very quietly. It’s a Bluetooth speaker called the Echo, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.

Thanks to a generous co-worker I am getting to test out this new device over the holiday season. Currently the speaker is only available via invitation (which you can request here). And it’s only for Amazon Prime members at the moment too, at the cost of $100 (it will be $200 when it releases to the general public). Based on my first couple of weeks with the Echo, I’ve already got my invitation request in! So what is the Echo exactly?

It’s a Bluetooth Speaker

There are tons of BlScreen_Shot_2014-11-06_at_11.59.50_AM.0uetooth speakers on the market; everything from the cheap things you can get at Wal-Mart or Target, to the higher end (while still consumer focused) devices like the Jambox from Jawbone. You can always drop a ton of coin on the offerings from Bose, but that’s not what the majority of casual music listeners are looking for in a Bluetooth speaker. The Bluetooth speaker I’ve had for a while is the Jam Wireless Speaker (which you can pick up for $30). It’s a decent speaker but it has to be charged, and has limited bluetooth range. So I’ve been pretty sour on Bluetooth speakers in general. But the Echo is a powered speaker (meaning it’s plugged into the wall all the time). So no issues with power drain. So far the Bluetooth range to my phone has been good too. No dropped connections at this point. But Echo is so much more than just a Bluetooth speaker.

It’s a Digital Assistant

Think Siri. Think Google Now. If you’re a Windows user, think Cortana. These are all digital assistants. They come in all high-end smartphones, standard these days, and in plenty of tablet computers as well. They are tools that connect you to the Internet, for news updates, weather reports, calendar appointments, Wikipedia searches, that sort of thing. I have an iPhone and rarely use Siri, but I do use Google Now quite a bit. Especially for those “what sushi bars are nearby” kind of questions. The Echo speaker has a digital assistant built into it, and her name is “Alexa”.

All you have to do is say the name “Alexa” and the speaker comes to life (via a spinning blue circle on the top) and begins listening for your questions. Simple things like “what time is it” and “WhatIsItwill it rain tomorrow” are child’s play for her. Using the WIFI element built into the speaker, Alexa can search Wikipedia with the best of them. Answering the question tech companies seems to always think we care the most about, you know it, “how tall is Mount Everest?” It’s really important that we all know this. And Alexa will make sure we stay informed. On that topic, you can ask “Alexa, give me my news update” and she will connect to either NPR or BBC radio to provide a quick news briefing just for you. There are some tailoring aspects that I haven’t had time to explore, but I’m excited to learn more!

With the Echo companion app installed on your smartphone or tablet, you can have Alexa save things to a “to do” list or a “shopping list”, just by saying “Alexa add milk to my shopping list”. That’s pretty handy. Now you don’t need to pick up a phone or tablet to have a digital assistant ready to take care of you. Alexa is still a bit of a beta device though, so she can’t answer everything, so be warned.   “Alexa what movies are playing near me?” She hasn’t got a clue. But will gladly search BING for you.

One last note about music listening with the Echo.  Prime members have access to “Prime Music” and that is the main resource Alexa uses when you ask for a genre or artist.  Don’t be surprised that the selection is limited.  Alexa can also search for any music you’ve purchased on amazon.com.  The other two music resources, as of now, are “I Heart Radio” and “TuneIn Radio“.  Both give you plenty of options for whatever genre of tunes you’re in the mood for.

It’s Always Listening

Here’s the coolest thing about the Echo speaker. There are microphones lining the top circle of the echo_02-2device (where the pretty blue light shows up when active). And they are long-range mics, so even if you are across the room, the speaker can hear you and respond. “Alexa, play some Christmas music” and before you know it, chestnuts are roasting by that open fire! Do you want more volume, just say “Alexa volume up” or “Alexa volume 5”. Beware of going over Volume 7 though. I made the mistake of saying volume 10 to her (the highest setting) and the music was so loud the mics couldn’t hear me. Pretty funny scene though as I shouted for Alexa to turn the music down.   Volume can be controlled via an included remote control too, but you won’t want to use it.

The Whole Cup Summed Up

imagesThe Echo Smart speaker has a ton of potential. Tech writers are already speculating about what this new technology could mean for the future of home tech. Imagine coming home and saying “Alexa lights on and play some 80s hair bands” and it’s done (though darker lights might be a better choice if you’re planning to jam to Motley Crue).  The possibilities go beyond lighting and sweet tunes though. Digital Assistants could control your thermostat (like the Nest does now), unlock your doors, open your garage, start your oven, or brew your morning coffee. We are only limited by our imagination! And Echo, along with Alexa is the first step into a pretty cool world.

To get an idea of what this device can do, check out Amazon’s official commercial here.

And for a slightly more “colorful” commercial, check out this parody.