I love technology and I strive to be charitable, as much as I am able. As a tech geek I use technology to make philanthropy easier. These are my tips and tricks. I call it Charitech.
Last Summer, when I started focusing a lot of energy on philanthropy, I was quickly overwhelmed by the daunting task of charity. It’s so easy to see the great needs and want to run in the opposite direction. Sadly, that seems like a natural reaction. So my first goal was finding ways to make charity more accessible and less scary. One of the first apps I found is called “One Today“.
“One Today” is a Google product. For some that’s a great thing, for others that might be a reason to run for the hills! But I would recommend checking it out, regardless of your attitude towards the great search engine giant. “One Today” is a great way to do charity in small ways. And it’s as simple as the touch of a button.
When you first download the app, you are asked to select areas of interest that you would like to contribute funds towards. I chose: Food, Health, Housing, Civil Rights & Liberties, and Poverty. From there the application provides a variety of charities to choose from for donations. And all you’re being asked to contribute is one dollar. Yep, just a buck. That is something I could manage.
The very first charity I gave to really opened my eyes to poverty. The charity is called “Rescuing Leftover Cuisine“. This charity “brings excess food from restaurants, catering companies, and institutions to local agencies, such as homeless shelters”, in 12 different cities in the United States. The app provides additional information about the charity and the need. For this charity they point out that while “40 % of food produced is wasted, while 1 in 7 Americans face food insecurity”. I was shocked that such a charity was needed in the United States. In a nation of such great wealth, I couldn’t believe it. But those are the numbers, and it makes sense, when you think on it a bit.
So what does your ONE DOLLAR get? Again, according to the app, $1 means 42 meals for the hungry. 42 MEALS!!! That was another shocker, and it was a simple choice to push the blue button in the lower right corner and contribute one dollar. Maybe I even dug deep and gave $2 that time and BOOM!! 84 meals for the hungry. It’s so small, and so big at the same time.
I love how this app makes small acts of charity accessible. My daughter and I created an idea back in the Autumn of 2015. It’s called “Penny for the fountain, Dollar for the Poor“. Whenever she comes upon a fountain that she wants to toss a penny into, we open “One Today” and find a charity to give one dollar to. We talk about the charity options, and press that magic button. Then she tosses her coin in the fountain. That’s everything I hoped to accomplish with my other blog “Developing Charity” in a nutshell. Adding a little charity to an action that was going to happen anyway. My daughter is a big believer in the power of wishing wells! 🙂
So consider downloading this app, and giving it a go. It won’t take much time, it won’t take much money, but a little can add up to a lot.
And check out more information on charities at www.developingcharity.net
In the spirit of my New Year’s Resolution to keep these posts “shorter”, I’m going to begin with a fast “first impressions” of the new Consumer Gear VR. I owned the “Innovator Edition” Gear VR briefly last Summer. This model was intended for developers and tech geeks like me. It was heavy, it was buggy, and the damn thing overheated so fast, it made it worthless for me. So I sent it back, and waiting patiently to see if they could resolve the issues with the “Consumer Edition”. Just before Thanksgiving I got my chance to find out.
Improvements abound! The new Gear VR is lighter on the head, has improved straps both on the side and over the top of the head (which is optional). The track pad now has indentation to assist in use (whereas before it was basically a tiny mouse pad on the side). The Consumer Edition also fits every current Samsung Galaxy smartphone (Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note5, and Galaxy Edge +). You simply toggle a switch to fit the larger phones. While the issues of lens fogging and overheating are not gone entirely, there is significant improvement (though I still run a fan in my face when doing long sessions to eliminate fogging and heat issues entirely).
The model continues to have the focus dial in the middle, which works nicely, and the plug to charge the phone while in use (though I haven’t had time to test this much). You an even wear glasses inside the headset! The device feels like a consumer product now, as it should.
The Cup Half Full
The best new thing to come to the Gear VR, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Netflix. Not only can you watch Netflix in the VR, but the software places you in a mountain chalet, sitting on a red couch in front of a massive TV screen. Look to your left and you can see the lights of the distant ski slopes. Super cool.
The other things I’m loving about the new Gear VR are increased 360 photo library in the “Oculus 360 Photos” feature. Thousands of photos from around the world are provided. I missed getting to the top of Rockefeller Center when I was in New York recently, but with 360 photos I got to see the views, both during the day and at night. The Oculus Videos feature is also vastly enhanced with videos from Vimeo and even video rentals (though $24 is kinda steep for “The Martian in 3D” – that’s a purchase not a rental).
More games and experiences are being added at a fast pace, and I’ve even dropped some coin for a few games that have quickly become show pieces when I have people check out the VR. Be sure to check out Eve: Gunjack and Smash Hit!
The Cup Half Empty
Fogging and overheating issues do remain. That continues to be my main issue with the Gear VR. I’ve been told there are some scuba diving mask tricks to eliminate fogging in the lenses, I just haven’t tried that yet. A fan will fix the heat issue, but that kinda kills the “mobile” element. Now you’re strapped to the fan just like an Oculus Rift is strapped to a super-computer. Until I can watch a two hour movie on a plane without fogging and overheating, there’s work to do. But considering the processing power required to create these immersive 3D environments with a killer refresh rate, such heat is understandable. But I still get to complain! If you have issues with dizziness, you might want to test these out at your local electronic store before you pony up the dough. I find that I can stare at Netflix for hours, but if I play an immersive 3D game, I last about 20 minutes before I get sick to my stomach. It’s still super cool, but only in small doses.
Gizmag has a great article about improving the user experience. It was written for the Gear VR for Note 4, but all of the tips apply to the Consumer Gear VR as well.
I guess we should also add that only the four Samsung phones work with it. So if you are an iPhone user, you’re out of luck for now. Though you could always check out Google Cardboard if you want to check out a little Virtual Reality.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I saved the best for last. Price. I paid $200 for my lackluster Innovator Edition Gear VR last JULY. Now one of these headsets will only set you back $99. That’s a great price, considering the amount of tech you’re getting. There are so many things to check out, and currently a lot of content is still free. If you have a current high end Samsung smartphone (see my list above) and a spare hundred bucks, I’d say this is a no-brainer. And if you do get the Gear VR, make sure you don’t keep it all to yourself. I’ve placed my headset on roughly 50 people so far, and I have to say I almost get more enjoyment watching people experience it than actually doing it myself. There’s a moment where everyone looks around and starts smiling like an idiot. My friend recently strapped on the Gear VR after I told her about the “idiot smile” thing. She was skeptical. The tech would have to prove itself. Less then two minutes into the Jurassic World dinosaur experience, she broke into a huge grin, and she says to me “I’m doing it aren’t I? The idiot smile thing.” Yes, yes she was. So get on board, and you’ll soon be smiling too.
Here are a few additional reviews to consider:
Last August I had a moment. One of those moments that forever changes your trajectory. That moment came from my experience with a story about a displaced Palestinian man, who fled Syria to Lebenon with his two kids. He made a living selling pens on the street. The amazing element is that a picture of the man spawned a kickstarter style campaign, raising over $250K for him and his family! The story of such giving floored me. And looking at myself in the mirror, I knew I that I wasn’t doing enough. Why? Because I wasn’t DOING ANYTHING! I talk a good talk, but that was it. So at that moment I decided to change. I launched a new blog (www.developingcharity.net). And I started an effort I called “Project 520” where I would donate $10 to a different charity every week of the next year ($10 X 52 weeks = $520). And I’m just wrapping up my 10th week. And it’s been great so far. But I wanted to find a way to connect my love of technology with my newfound charitable efforts. And that’s what “Charitech” is all about.
Charitech – How technology tools can enhance the process of personal philanthropy (in big and little ways)
I’ve long held that technology needs to enhance our lives. That’s the essential element. I have found tech tools that enhance my experiences with charity, and I plan to highlight a couple of them in “Apps of Note” in the coming weeks and months. But let me introduce you to one tool that is well worth your time. It is called “Charity Navigator” and it is availalbe as an app (iOS and Android) and a website. If you are a skeptic when it comes to charities. If you wonder, “where does my donation actually go?” or “how much of my donation goes to administration and fundraising?” This app will help you. This app can give you a wealth of information in an easy to digest package. So let’s break it down with a simple “App of Note” review.
In the simplest terms, Charity Navigator is a repository of sorts, gathering up data on a vast array of charities from around the country and around the globe. With a simple “search” function, you can lock in on a specific charity and look at the basic metrics of their philanthropic efforts. A quick search for one of my favorite charities, “water.org”, shows a 4 star rating, and a score of 95.38 out of 100. These numbers are arrived at through an analysis of both the financial responsiblity of the charity, as well as accountability and transparency. The main page of the search shows the address and phone number of the charity, and lists the board leadership, CEO, and mission statement. All important information to have public, ensuring that your chosen charity is on the up and up.
A slide to the right reveals the next feature of the app, “metrics”. Two pie charts are shown, the first a breakdown of where contributions come from (contributions, gifts, grants = good), and the second charts shows how the expenses break down (the larger percentage going to “program” the better). For my chosen charity, 99.2% of their funds come from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and 73.4% of their expenses go to program. That’s not too shabby. Though I have seen charities with over 90% going to program. It’s just important to remember that the
larger the charity is, the more money is probably being donated, and there will be corresponding overhead, in terms of the people needed to manage those funds efficiently. Which is what leads to the final section.
Sliding the screen down from the two pie charts you are greeted with a vast array of data. Revenue vs Expenses in bar chart. Full breakdown of expenses. A checklist of accountability and transparency including things like “audited by independant accountant”, “independant voting board members”, and “CEO listed with salary”. The more check marks, the stronger the charity. Finally you’ll come to the money. Actual totals of revenue and expenses. Here’s where you find out if a large adminstration cost is justified. Water.org has annual contributions of over 15 million dollars. So I can understand why they would need people to manage those funds, and ensure proper distribution to the people who need the services the charity provides (in this case, clean water to third world countries mostly).
The Whole Cup Summed Up
Charity Navigator is a tool in the arsenal of anyone interested in becoming engaged in philanthropy. I agree when the skeptics say you need to know where your money is actually going. Where I break with the skeptics is the next step. Many people use the bad charities as an excuse to do nothing. If there are charities mis-using donations then all charities are bad. I guess that’s the logic. But with tools like Charity Navigator, we don’t have that excuse. This tool helps anyone become educated in intelligent giving. You can know with a reasonable amount of certainty that you are indeed giving to a good cause by using these tools. And I highly recommend checking the app out.
Charitech – Where Charity meets Technology
This is just the first tool I’m sharing on Two Lumps of Tech. I have others. I have a whole folder on my iPad and iPhone filled with such tools. Giving isn’t hard, once you do it. It’s that first step. That first buck or $10 in my case. And once you have your tools straight, once you have your plan of attack, then it’s easy. And it feels good to do it. Because now your technology is not only helping you, it is helping others. And that brings our gadgets to a whole new level.
Remember – Something is Better than Nothing.
We are officially in upgrade season! I am well aware of the daunting task of sorting through all of the different options for smartphones. There are just so many players in the game it can get overwhelming quickly.
What follows is a simple breakdown of my TOP FIVE favorites phones. I’m including a few links to other reviews for each phone, to give you a well-rounded opinion of each device. To keep things simple here, I’m focusing on a few key features of each phone, which I’ve found to be important to the majority of consumers, from the tech-savvy to the casual user. So here we go!
Disclaimer #1: This list is not in order of preference. I’m not awarding medals here, just giving a shorter list than you’ll find with the carriers.
Disclaimer #2: I’m sticking strictly with the high-end smartphones. If you are upgrading, you can usually get a good deal regarding up-front cost, and the monthly cost will be consistent to what you’re used to. As a general rule, upgrading at least every two years is the best way to make sure you have a smooth experience with your phone. Things just change too quickly! If you want to stick with a Mid-Tier phone, definitely try to get your hands on the MOTO G, which is an amazing phone for $180!
On with the list:
Moto X (2nd or 3rd generation)
Motorola has been making great phones for the past three years, with the “Moto X” line. These phones are defined by high
quality build, simple operating system, and small physical size (when compared to the actual screen size). The 3rd Gen Moto X was just announced in August. This phone is HUGE. 5.7 inches makes it a “phablet” and those who want the smaller handset should steer clear. The 2nd generation is still a very good phone, and smaller, so you’ve got options. The 3rd Gen Moto X did vastly improve the camera though, so if that’s important, bear it in mind (though it still is not as good as Samsung and iPhone).
iPhone 6S/iPhone 6S Plus
I had the iPhone 6 for a while, and I thought it was a perfect phone. Great size (4.7 inch screen). Great camera. Decent battery life. If you like Apple, the iPhone 6 is a great choice. I am currently using an iPhone 6 Plus, but that 5.5 inch screen is just too big for me! Apple announced their new iPhones on September 9th. As with all “S” models, the form factor has not changed. This phone looks the same as the previous models. They have vastly improved the camera with 12MP, and optical image stabilization (helps shaky hands take clear pics). They’ve added a 5MP front camera, and are using the screen itself to make a “flash” for selfies. the screen itself has been improved with the use of “3D Touch” which makes it so you can do different things when you press the screen versus just tap the screen (this tech is based on the Apple Watch screen). Overall it’s a good “off-year” for the iPhone, but if you want major changes, wait another year for iPhone 7.
This has been my primary phone for the past six months. Samsung made a beautiful phone with the Galaxy S6. Metal and glass construction, it feels incredibly similar to the iPhone (almost too similar). With a 5.1 screen, it’s big but not too big. The operating system is intuitive, and camera is great. I particularly like the “wide-screen selfie” feature and that you can snap a photo by tapping the flash on the back of the phone (less cumbersome than finding the button on the screen. The Samsung Galaxy S6 also offers turbo charge (15min gets you 40% battery) and wireless charging, which is pretty cool. If you aren’t into Apple, the Galaxy S6 is definitely the way to go at the moment.
If you want something different, Samsung is also offering the Galaxy S6 Edge, which has curved edges. My experience with that device proved to me that the edges look cool but offer little in enhancement, and only make it harder to hold. If you want something really big, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge PLUS just release, with a 5.5 screen size. Again it looks really cool, but for me is a pain to use, especially with the huge size.
I hated the LG G3, so I wasn’t even going to include it, but a buddy let me play around with the G4 the other week, and my opinion suddenly changed. The LG G4 is a very different type of phone. It features a 5.5 inch screen, but the phone size is pretty small, all things considered. LG definitely took a card out of Motorola’s deck, in terms of making sure big screens doesn’t mean gigantic phones. The LG G4 features a leather back, in varying textures and colors. It feels great! The other odd thing about LG is that they moved the power and volume buttons to the back of the phone. It seems like an odd choice, but I am starting to see the logic of it, and it makes those edges super thin. All they need is a fingerprint scanner on the back, but that’s not here yet (maybe G5 next year!)
Finally we come to HTC. I used the HTC One (M8) for six months last year (that’s pretty much the longest I use a device). I loved the feel of the phone (all metal). The screen was brilliantly bright, and the device was lightning fast. But my big beef was related to the extra space used for the company logo on the front (my opinions can be seen here). You’d think they’d finally fix that with the M9, but that was not the case.
The HTC One (M9) is a minor improvement over the previous model. The camera was switched from 4 ultra pixels (which no one ever understood, including me), to 16 mega pixels. But lots of pixels doesn’t mean a better camera, and HTC has lost it’s way a bit here. Still, when compared to ANY mid-tier smartphone the HTC One (M9) and (M8) are heads are shoulders above in terms of picture quality. So as I knock on the camera, it still has a place among these top-tier phones. The HTC One (M9) also updated their operating system to adapt based on your current location. This functionality can be achieved through “launcher applications” like “Everything Me“, but HTC has it built it, which is actually a pretty cool thing. I imagine other smartphone makers will be looking at options like this in future models.
Oh those giant smartphones!! The line between phone and phablet is roughly 5.5 inches. You have a few options. We’ve already talked about the iPhone 6S Plus, Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, and LG G4. Another popular phablet worth considering, if you’re in the market for a big phone is the recently release Galaxy Note 5. They took the materials that built the Galaxy S6 line of phones (metal and glass) and blasted it to 5.7 inches. As always with the Note line, there is a stylus. This time around they have focused as much on the stylus as the phone, and my experience with it was great. In my opinion, any phone over 5.5 inches should have a stylus, so Samsung is leading the pack there.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, you’ve got tons of options. Hopefully this list is helpful in sorting through what makes these high-tier models different from each other. In the end, there’s no right answer for everyone. Some live and die for iPhone; while others believe Android is the only way to go. Some say 5.5 inch Phablets are ridiculously large, but at the same time, I know many people who wouldn’t want any other size. So head to your nearest carrier and get these phones in your hands before you drop the coin, and I’m sure you’ll find something that works great for you!
Happy Smartphone Shopping!
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.
First off the headset of the Gear VR is solid. It finds that nice balance between being light but not 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!
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.
The 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 Games
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!
Another 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 “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
There 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
The 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!!
Same as the one from last year,
But still beautiful.
Stainless steel is slick,
Probably ought to buy a case
Or get insurance.
Last year’s five-inch screen
Same look, same feel, same smartphone?
Almost, but not quite.
With last year’s model
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).
Is much more intuitive,
When you are at work
The phone will respond to it.
Stop Candy Crush Now!
When you are at home
Candy Crush away!
Phone is still too big.
Wasted space due to logo
Makes one-hand use tough.
A decent upgrade,
Although Samsung got more press
It’s worth Checking Out.
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!
Samsung 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. 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 still 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The S5 was one of the few 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
The 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
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!?!
It is a great time to be in the market for a new smartphone! Two of the Smartphone Titans are a week away from announcing new devices on March 1st. So patience is called for!
Here’s the the two things to make sure you keep in mind when you are getting a new phone right around a refresh.
- New devices will generally cost the same amount as the old line (or very close), but they will have many new features AND will address many of the problems on the previous model. So you can avoid some headaches by waiting for the new device, at no real extra cost. Why buy a year old device now, when you can get a brand new device in a month for the same price?
- Once the new devices are on the market their previous models gets a discount. Sometimes a major discount. So if the new smartphone isn’t that much different from the old one, you might want to save some coin and just pick up the previous year’s model.
So here are the two (possibly three) devices, set to be announced on March 1st.
Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Galaxy Edge
It’s make or break time for Samsung. Not a lot has changed since the Galaxy S2 (in 2011!). Each year the company puts out another Galaxy phone that is a little bigger and a little faster. The Galaxy S5 made an attempt to incorporate a ton of features (heart rate monitor, fingerprint scanner, etc), but in the end it was just another “Galaxy S” that was a little faster and a little bigger.
The Galaxy S6 is expected to be different. Gone is the plastic build, replaced by some form of metal (aluminum most likely). The device should look much different than the phones that came before it. It needs to, because for the first time in a long time, Samsung is losing market share to Apple. People have been ditching Samsung for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in droves. The market seems to indicate that everyone was just waiting for Apple to build a big phone. Samsung used to be the big phone of choice, but now they must offer something more in terms of functionality and build quality to compete. All signs point to them delivering, but we won’t know till March 1st.
In addition to the Galaxy S6, Samsung is rumored to be introducing a smaller version of the Note Edge. This was a new device introduced just last year. The phablet device had a “third screen” of sorts, in the form of a touch screen located along the right hand edge of the device. This “edge screen” would show things typically found in the dock of your phone. It was definitely seen as more of a gimmick than a phone that tons of people would want. It seems Samsung is thinking if the phone was a bit smaller, perhaps it will be adopted by a larger audience. So we might be seeing the introduction of the Samsung Galaxy Edge.
HTC One (M9)
The other big player introducing a phone on March 1st is HTC. I owned the HTC One (M8) for six months last year. I liked the phone a lot in terms of build quality, and the operating system. I never bought into the camera approach, which used “ultrapixels” instead of “megapixels”. Also the phone just seemed too big for a 5 inch screen, and that was mainly due to the half inch of real estate taken up on the front of the phone for the “HTC” logo. Well the next iteration of the HTC One is coming, perhaps called the “M9”, and did HTC fix that real estate problem? No they did not.
The new phone looks really good. In a strange move, the rumors are that it will have the same size screen, at 5 inches, AND they are still wasting valuable screen space on the front of the device on an unnecessary logo (it says HTC on the back too). They’ve ditched the ultrapixel camera for a 20MP camera on the back (yeah!). Beyond that screen size and camera the new phone is ramping up all the specs. A faster processor will make mobile games easier, and web browsing like lightening. The build appears to continue the use of aluminum, which has a great look, but is pretty slick in the hand (so a case is a good investment – and they make clear ones to still show the metal off). All in all, the HTC One (M9) won’t be the radical change we will probably see in the Samsung line, but it’s definitely a decent upgrade.
Patience Pays Off
In terms of technology March is certainly going to come in like a lion. We are certainly going to see several new phones from some of the biggest companies in the industry. This will give consumers new options, but will also impact the existing phone market, so if you are patient you will have choices, and you’re certain to find something that will get you through a couple more years. And you might find that the old versions aren’t so bad after all (see below).
Stay tuned to Two Lumps of Tech on March 2nd, for a high-level review of the devices, once we get to see what they actually are, versus speculating on what we hope they are.
When I took the Nexus 9 out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the unique size. I’ve had several 7 inch tablets, and also a 10 inch iPad for many years, so when I first took this 9 inch device into my hands I was a little perplexed over the reason for such a size. It’s basically a small iPad or a large iPad Mini (to put it into the Apple terms that most would be able to relate to). The device most similar to the Nexus 9 on the market right now is the Kindle HDX 8.9 from Amazon. That particular tablet can go toe-to-toe with Nexus 9 in terms of specs, but comes in $20 cheaper. Of course, the Nexus 9 gives you a clean Android operating system, versus the highly customized Kindle software. So maybe the $20 saved isn’t worth it, if you want more than Amazon’s somewhat limited app selection.
The battle over tablets has reached a fever pitch in the past couple of years. Some signs even indicate that the devices have peaked, as sales are starting to flatten out, or even drop in some cases, in terms of year-over-year growth. Even the all-powerful iPad is not immune to this. Simply put, people who wanted tablets bought them, and now they don’t need another for at least two years, and in many cases the time is much longer. So the tech companies are now heading back to the drawing board of sorts, trying to come up with the next evolution of tablets that will bring consumers back to the table. It’s my opinion that the Nexus 9 is the first effort from Google to do just that. They haven’t done anything huge yet, but by placing the size smack-dab between the small and large tablets, they are in effect offering a middle of the road option for consumers uncertain about what tablet they might prefer. The battle for tablet consumers is only made more intense by the increasing size of smartphones. Where “phablet” was once seen as more of a joke than an actual phone people would want, now the market for the 5 inch screen on smartphones is the strongest of the lot. So as the 7 inch tablet starts being challenged by the smartphone market, and the 10 inch tablets are often seen as too high priced for many consumers, tech companies are looking for ways to offer a better tablet at a competitive price. And that brings us to the Nexus 9.
The Cup Half Full
I did not initially like the Nexus 9. I used it casually over the course of the week, and found myself longing to return to my standard iPad Mini. But then I sat down with the device for a few hours and really dug into it. I got to know the new operating system, Lollipop, and then my attitude started to change.
Lollipop does something that comes as a shock to tech followers, it finds Android copying Apple! It’s been the other way around with Apple ripping off Android for so long, it’s kind of refreshing to see the flat simplistic approach Apple employed with iOS 7 (and now iOS 8) brought into Android’s Lollipop. It’s a welcome change. The previous operating systems, Jelly Bean and Kit Kat, were often way too dark, and the buttons didn’t always make the most sense. That all changed with Lollipop.
I like many of the features, but I will focus on two of them here. First is Multi-User Access. I had the original Nexus 7, and one feature I liked about that device was the ability to set up a “guest account” so others could use my device without messing up my stuff. Lollipop is making multi-user accounts even easier. You can swipe between Google accounts easily, if you’re like me and have multiple email addresses for various reasons. But you can also create additional profiles that can have total access to your google apps, have limited access based on your settings, or have unique profiles built from the guests own google apps using their login information. It’s easy to switch between accounts, right from the notification screen, and the setup was a breeze. This is a feature missing from iPads, and it is a key advantage Android has over Apple currently.
The other setting option I like is all about the battery. Sure all mobile devices have battery settings. This is where you can see your percentage and turn on your “energy saver” (which the Nexus 9 also has). But the difference with this device is that it will calculate the estimated battery life and graph it for you, so you have a good idea how long you’ve got before you need a charge. I tested out this feature with the screen at full brightness and then at minimal brightness and I saw a four hour time difference in battery life! That’s very useful and very telling about what exactly is sucking the life out of your battery. And it isn’t your addiction to Candy Crush (probably…)
Finally, I absolutely love the speakers built into the front of the device. This is HTC hard at work moving those speakers from the bottom of tablets to the spot where they belong. The Nexus 9 cranks out the sound. It’s not quite as good as the speakers you’ll find on the Kindle Fire line, but it’s better than anything Apple is doing these days.
The Cup Half Empty
Google tries to sell the Nexus 9 as a “one-hand tablet” but I didn’t find that to be the case for me. It’s simply too wide. It suffers from the same issue as the iPad Mini. You can’t one-hand the device. To be fair, the rubber back of the Nexus makes one-hand holding a little easier than the metal-backed iPad Mini, but it’s still awkward and risky, unless you’ve secured it in a solid case. Beyond the size of the case, the build quality of the Nexus 9 just doesn’t seem on par with other $400-$500 tablets. It feels more like a $200-$300 tablet. By feel, I am referring to the cheap rubber back, and the cheap glass. You’ll find the oils in your fingers will smudge both sides of the tablet very quickly. I did side-by-side testing with an iPad to see how quickly fingerprints appeared, and the Nexus was immediately evident with a couple taps on the screen. The iPad put up a better fight, and that is because of the quality of the glass, and the way the glass screen is attached to the device (iPad glass is glued to the surface of the screen versus laying on the screen like the Nexus 9). In addition the volume and power buttons are loose and, again, feel cheap. Google contracted HTC to build the Nexus 9 and the only evidence of that are the metal edges, which show just a shadow of the beautiful HTC One smartphone line. I wonder what the Nexus 9 would have looked like if Google had allowed HTC to bring that design to the larger form.
While I really like Lollipop, there is one element that frustrated me, and that is the multitasking pane. When you click the multitask button (right hand button), you get a tiled view of all your open applications. It’s similar to Safari’s Multi-Web page view, for those familiar with the design. You can scroll through your various apps and move between them easily, but when you swipe them away you must do this smoothly or the app will bounce to the side and stay in place. I found that the multi-task pane filled up with lots of apps quickly, and it was a chore to clean up those apps running in the background (which is definitely a good habit to save on battery life).
The last issue I have with the Nexus 9 is the price. The 16GB model starts at $399 and that is simply too much for this device. Since the device doesn’t offer expandable memory, you’re probably best served with the 32GB for $479, which is the largest you can get (no 64GB at this time, unlike many other high-end tablets). The general consensus among reviewers is that the Nexus 9 is a great $299 tablet, and I would agree with that conclusion. With a better build, the device’s software certainly justifies the cost, but the Nexus 9 isn’t there. Remember that Lollipop is very new, so while it is currently only available on a few select devices, given a little more time you will be able to experience this operating system on many other smartphones and tablets.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Nexus 9 ended up being a much better device than I thought it was going to be. While the device looks and feels very mid-level for a tablet, what is under the hood is actually very impressive. Lollipop is a huge step forward for Android; It is an operating system that feels much more consumer focused than previous versions. I am certain that consumers who are less comfortable with this type of technology will feel fine on the Nexus 9. But should they get it? Is it worth the $400 price tag when you can get an iPad Mini with similar specs for $100 less. Or an iPad Air with superior specs for $100 more? I would say to steer clear of the Nexus 9 at this point, unless you really enjoy the Android operating system. There are certainly plenty of people out there who love Android the way others love Apple. And for them the Nexus 9 is a good choice. It’s the best tablet yet of the Nexus Line. It offers amazing speakers and a size that makes it more useful than the typical 7 inch tablet.
The Nexus 9 is the first entry in what I think is the next evolution of tablets. People are used to their 7 inch tablets and 10 inch tablets, and they don’t need new ones. Well, the tech industry won’t stand for that! They need to get everyone excited again! The Nexus is a new size (well Kindle did do it first, I guess) and it indicates a trend to the tablet line that is looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the giant smartphones (iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Note 4). I’m excited to see what is coming in the next year. New tablets and smartphones will continue to change the landscape and hopefully the casual consumers who bought iPads by the truck load will reap the benefits.
I have reached the end of my two week testing of the Basis Peak Fitness Watch. If you haven’t caught up with my “first impressions” review, click here first for a breakdown of the features of this device.
The Basis Peak has definitely lived up to its category as a fitness watch. It’s much more than a typical fitness band, which generally counts your steps, calories, and maybe flights of stairs. A few fitness bands are starting to show actual clocks and collect or display heart rate data. I fall in the camp that says for a fitness band to be considered a watch it needs to look like a watch. Maybe I’m old-school. But I’ve asked around and that seems to be the general consensus. If it looks like a watch, it’s a watch. And the Basis Peak certainly looks like a watch. But it’s not a smartwatch, not by a long shot.
It is the current expectation in the tech industry that even the most basic smartwatch must do several things, and do them consistently well.
- Show incoming calls and allow answer or decline from the watch (then you grab your phone to actually start talking if you selected “answer”)
- Show incoming emails and texts from multiple text/IM services
- Show Calendar appointments with alerts sent to the wrist
That’s it. Those three things are not optional any longer. The smartwatch that I usually wear is the original Pebble, and it is arguably one of the most basic smartwatches, but it does those three things consistently. It also has apps for timers, weather, Evernote, and games. You can even track your Domino’s pizza order with it! Being that the Basis Peak costs TWICE AS MUCH you would expect that it would have similar “smartwatch” features. And while the device makes an attempt, it simply isn’t there yet. I found the watch could consistently receive incoming calls and texts, but nothing else. And this was only when paired to an iPhone. It was all but impossible to pair the watch with an Android phone during my tests. I made it work eventually, but for casual users, who want a “pair and go” approach for their device, this is not an ideal choice.
So if the Peak is not a Smartwatch, you might be wondering what it does to justify its $200 price tag? Simply put, it tracks your health metrics, and a lot of them. Steps are caught like any pedometer (no mileage calculated though). The device has an excellent heart rate monitor, which I found very useful. It also has sensor to detect perspiration and skin temperature. I guess I could see some value in the sweat sensor, but I live in Minnesota, and my skin temps are going to swing wildly just by moving between buildings and vehicles, so I’m not sure why I should care about that. Data is only good if you can do something with it. And that brings me to the last feature of the Peak Fitness watch that I found useful.
Most fitnessbands/smartwatches make some attempt to track sleep, but the Peak does this better than any other device I’ve used. Being able to look at my sleep metrics, which were broken down between Light, Deep, and REM sleep was helpful not only in determining if I was getting enough sleep, but whether I was getting the right amount of each type of sleep. I found myself trying to get to bed earlier to get more quality in my sleep, and that turns a gimmick into a tool.
Aside from the features on the watch itself, Basis offers a website and smartphone app. I found the website more useful than the app in general, having more real estate to show the data over time in effective ways. The company offers various “goals” to shoot for, but since there is little interaction with the watch itself, other than telling you when you’ve “met your goal”, I found that more gimmicky than useful. In the end I found tracking over time less important than tracking right in the moment. I walked a few flights of stairs, entirely winded, and I could actually check my heart rate, in real-time, and that’s pretty useful, if you’re trying to improve your health through exercise.
The Cup Half Full
The Peak went to market as a Fitness Watch. Its main feature was the Heart Rate Monitor, and that is the thing it does best. I tested the monitor against a doctor validated monitor and found it to be very accurate. Not exactly the same, but close enough to use it as a guide. I have used the heart rate monitor more than anything else with the Peak, and I know I will miss having that feature when I return to the Pebble this week.
The rest of the Fitness Watch metrics are nothing to get excited about, but they work. It tracks steps pretty accurately, if you’re one to shoot for those 10,000 daily steps. The fact that it is waterproof is a huge plus, and should really be a standard feature for this type of device. The battery life came through at roughly 4-5 days between charges, which is great. It also has a nice charger, using a magnet connection for easy charging, without any case to remove or small connection devices to lose.
The watch itself is very comfortable. The silicone wristband can pinch a little when you strap it on, but once in place I barely know it’s there. It needs to fit snugly to ensure accuracy with the HR Monitor, so comfort is very important. It’s not a stunning watch by any stretch, but it’s also not an eyesore. It works as a watch and as a Fitness Tracker.
The Cup Half Empty
As stated, it isn’t a Smartwatch. I found all of the functionality that was added to the device via a software update in early February to be inconsistent at best and at times virtually impossible. The watch connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and after some initial problems with my iPhone 6 I got that syncing very smoothly. But only voice and text information came to the watch, despite ensuring the settings were turned on to have emails and calendar updates come too. My attempts to sync with an Android device (HTC One M8) were incredibly frustrating. Even after a software update came during my trial claiming to “resolve Bluetooth sync issues” I still could not get the device to pair. I’m in the business of finding devices that are so easy just about anyone can use them. The Basis Peak failed that test on all levels in terms of its “smartwatch features”.
In addition to those issues, the only other problem I have with the Peak is related to its price. For $200 it should be able to do more than it does. Things like showing the current temperature would be a start. You get the date when you tap the screen, but that’s it. There are no buttons on the device, which is actually kind of nice, but it took me a google search to figure out that you had to slide up and down along the right edge of the watch to turn on the backlight. The device is marketed as being “automated” and thus the premium price model, but it is simply too far behind with some basic features to justify the cost. I could deal with $149, but $200 is too much.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I sort of love and hate the Basis Peak Fitness Watch. Over the course of my two weeks of testing I found the device very useful at times, and very frustrating at others. The 24/7 Heart Rate monitoring and Sleep Tracker actually drove me to change some of my habits, including giving up caffeine, and working harder to be more active. I can’t over-stress how important that piece of the puzzle is when looking at fitness watches or fitness bands. They MUST drive change in your habits, or they are really just an over-price clock. And in that regard the Basis Peak was a great success. A greater success than 2 years of wearing a Fitbit Flex and Pebble smartwatch ever were. Is it worth $200 for those features? That’s really up to each consumer. But if you are in the market for a fitness watch that will help drive behavior, the Peak is actually a decent contender.
But if you are in the market for a smartwatch that also has a fitness element, this is not your watch. Not at all. Certainly Basis will get their act together at some point and software updates will improve the notifications element of the Peak (after all, these features have only been live for three weeks as of 2/17). So only early adopters who can put up with the frustrations of inconsistency need apply. I’m one of those people, and even I was pushed to the breaking point when trying to sync to Android.
The Basis Peak is a great Fitness Tracker and has a place among the current crop of devices trying to give us all health data on the go, to keep us better informed about how our choices impact our health. Yet these devices are only as good as the value you place in them though, so bear that in mind as you ponder your choices. The Basis Peak is not a great Smartwatch, so steer clear until they fix those features.
For me this one is still over-priced for what you get. And if I really want to go that route, I’ll just wait for the Apple Watch in April.