A New Category of Review!!
A year ago I introduced a category to my fledgling blog called “First Impressions”. The purpose of those posts was to do a quick review of the features of a new device/service/app that I’d only used for a week or so. The first device I did “First Impressions” of was the Amazon Fire TV. After a year of blogging it’s time for a new category that I’m calling “Where It Stands”.
So many technology reviews are written in the whirlwind of a product’s release. And judgement is often passed based on a brief encounter with the technology (be it a phone, tablet, streaming box, application, or any other tech that is targeted for the masses). If you google reviews for the product, the vast majority of the time you will find reviews that are old. Reviews that were written within a week of the release date (much like my First Impressions reviews). This new category is intended to re-visit something I reviewed early on, in order to see “where it stands” after 6-12 months of use. Often tech that looks bad initially improves through software updates. Sometime tech that looks great at launch doesn’t hold up over time. I couldn’t think of a better product to use for my first “where it stands” review than the Amazon Fire TV. So let’s get to it.
AMAZON FIRE TV (STREAMING MEDIA BOX)
Original Review Date: 8/15/14
Time used between Original Review and Where it Stands: 1 year, 22 days
Right from the beginning I loved the Fire TV. I found the user interface very intuitive. The voice command to search for movies or actors worked smoothly. Gaming proved to be a great fit for the streamer. Partnered with a USB Xbox controller, I was quickly playing racing games, and even Minecraft Pocket Edition on the big screen. The Fire TV quickly became my go-to streamer, in a house full of many other options (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast).
The device certainly steers users to amazon content. Voice search only searches amazon’s offerings. Prime videos are not separated as clearly as they could be, so you have to pay close attention to that little “prime” ribbon on the free content (assuming you are a Prime Member). But amazon is a company selling content, and so I made my peace with that element, knowing it would never be as simple to view any video for free the way it is on Netflix. Thankfully, Netflix is an app on the Fire TV, so I’m covered!
The Tech in Action
My primary use for the Fire TV is Netflix and Hulu. The interface for both apps is great. The screens are much easier to navigate through than the current Apple TV. For the first few months I also spent much of my time playing games. I sang the praises of “Asphalt 8” in my first impressions review. That game is great, but you quickly run out of space with internal memory, so having an extra flash drive for additional storage is a must (there’s a single USB for that purpose). I found a fun social game called “Fribbage”. This game uses the Fire TV as the “game board” but it also uses smartphones for each participant. I used both Android and Apple phones with no issue. The game provides a phrase with a blank space, and then everyone types something to fill it on their smartphones. The game mixes up those with the true answer, and everyone votes, again using the smartphone to input your choice. It was a very fun game, and while we didn’t play it a lot, that has more to do with how seldom we entertain than the gameplay value. So gaming remains solid on the Fire TV, from Minecraft to Minions Rush, and more complicated games like Leo’s Challenge and Mickey’s Castle of Illusion. Grab a Bluetooth controller or plug a USB controller in and you’re good to go!
Currently one of the main apps we use of the Fire TV is HBO Now, which just became available after a period of
exclusivity on the Apple TV. We used the Apple TV version since it released and I am so happy to have the improved interface of the Fire TV. Hands down, amazon has better screens to navigate.
Where it Stands
As of today, Amazon Fire TV is the champion of the streaming boxes, in my opinion. Roku may have more channels, but amazon has a slicker experience. Apple TV may have more clout, but currently that box is several years old. Apple plans to announce a new Apple TV September 9th, so we’ll see what changes come to that device. Most guesses are that the new Apple TV will support apps, gaming, and voice search. All things that the Amazon Fire TV does already.
The Fire TV was refreshed via software update in April 2015, offering enhanced features like Bluetooth headphone support (keep Game of Thrones from your children’s ears), enhanced USB support, and improvements to WIFI connections. There are no rumors of a new product launching soon, but currently the device is out of stock with amazon. The company states that it is due to “high demand” for the streamer, but often supply lines dry up just before a new product launch. So stay tuned for news of a new Fire TV; I’ll be all over that! If gaming isn’t your cup of tea, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is currently available for $39. That’s $60 less than the larger streaming box, and offers everything except the gaming aspect. So that’s certainly a good option.
Chord cutters are on the rise. HBO and Showtime now offer monthly subscriptions for apps on streamers. It’s only a matter of time before media streamers truly go mainstream. And the Amazon Fire TV is a great choice, if you’re considering taking the leap.
For now, the Fire TV scores a CUP HALF FULL.
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!?!
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.
Our Walt Disney World vacation was a success and everyone involved agreed that technology played a central role. We’ve already talked about how MagicBands made negotiating the parks, resorts, and souvenir shops easier. Today we’ll look at the applications we used during (and prior) to the trip to make sense of the madness and make sure everyone had a great time.
Disclaimer: Our vacation was in January, which is a slow month. So bear that in mind when making your plans. Even with these great apps, heading to WDW in July will always be pretty busy, but I’m sure these apps will help.
I was the “tech guy” for our trip and I employed several apps to keep everything sorted out. I used Google Maps to negotiate the way from Orlando to Clearwater, Florida and back (we spent a day at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium). I used Yahoo Weather to keep an eye on the sky and help everyone know whether to wear a jacket or shorts, depending on the day. I used the stock “Notes” app on my iPhone to keep tabs on souvenir money, and the breakdown of our meal plans (which we accessed with those sweet MagicBands). But there were two primary apps that I used to make this vacation successful, and I’m very excited to tell you about them. So here we go:
My Disney Experience App
This app is the “official app” from Disney for your vacation. The app provides a ton of tools to use in the parks including Ride Information, Character Meet-Up locations, Dining Options, Guest Services, and even Shopping.
The My Disney Experience App is something you definitely need while you’re in the park, or even before you’re in the park for planning purposes. Let me share how I used the app for our trip.
Using the App in the Parks
I used the My Disney Experience App for two major things while in the park. First, the app allows you to modify your Fast Pass options directly on the device. We had an early Fast Pass for the Rock Coaster in Hollywood Studios. The bus took a long time showing up (one of the few times that happened to us), and the drive to the park was taking longer than I expected it to. Bottom line, we were going to miss our Fast Pass for the ride, and I knew, from reviewing the app, that we had a 45 minute wait if we had to go through the “stand by” line. So I pulled up the Fast Pass options on the My Disney Experience App, located another Fast Pass window, and switched everyone in our group to that window instead. We did indeed arrive at Hollywood Studios after our first Fast Pass had expired, but because of the functionality of the My Disney Experience app, we were able to saunter our way to the ride (taking a family pic in front of the Tower of Terror along the way) and take advantage of our revised Fast Pass window. This is just on example of the many times I adjusted our Fast Pass times with this app. We actually switched which park we were going to one of the days, and I was able to completely reassign our Fast Passes to the other park, all from within the app on my iPhone.
The second way I used this app in the parks was for Dining. We were doing Quick Service Meals during most of our trip, which is the Disney equivalent of Fast Food. The app shows all of the Quick Service restaurants in the parks with menus provided. On our day in the Magic Kingdom we needed to find a location for dinner. While others in our group rode Dumbo the Flying Elephant, I pulled up the Dining options and took stock of what restaurants were around us (some restaurants have limited hours, and the app indicates that). By the time everyone was done flying I had narrowed it down to two places. With the whole group gathered around, I told them what foods each place offered, and the general consensus was to skip to gourmet mac and cheese of the Friar’s Nook (my choice), and head over for burgers and chicken in Tomorrowland at “Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe”. You can’t win them all. Having all of the menus at your fingertips is a great feature, and something unique to the My Disney Experience app. If you are doing Table Service Dining, you can even make your reservations right from the app. But make sure you do that way ahead of time, because those slots fill up fast, and you’ll have few, if any, options if you do it the day of your visit.
While My Disney Experience provided some great options, including visual maps to guide our way through the parks, another app was my primary tool to make sure we spent more time on rides, and less time in lines. It’s an app called “Touring Plans”.
I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the website for “touring plans“. It was probably during my google searches for “planning a trip to Disney”. However it was that I found it, I can say without hesitation that this app was the jewel that made our vacation a smooth ride from start to finish. Unlike the “My Disney Experience” app, this one has a cost related to it, but I assure you that the price of $12.95 for an annual membership is well worth it. Your $13 gets you access to the Touring Plans website, offering tons of tools, including pre-designed schedules, from which the site got their name. You also can full access to the mobile application (available on iOS and Android). The mobile app is available for free, but you can’t access many of the features without a membership.
The “Touring Plans” app offers all sorts of information about the parks. Park hours (including the “extra magic hours” for resort guests), Crowd Calendar, Wait Times, Fast Pass Availability, and Ride information (height, intensity, description, and ratings). Bottom line, the only things missing from this app are dining information, and the ability to change Fast Passes on the go (but you have My Disney Experience for those anyway). While those features might sound similar to the “My Disney Experience” app, I found that Touring Plans was easier to use, and had more reliable wait times for rides especially.
As I looked over the app, I had a feeling of nostalgia that is usually associated with viewing photos from a trip. But that makes sense, since I spent most of my time there staring at these screens. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let me share how I used this app prior to our visit and during our time in the parks.
Using the App to Plan the Trip
Two months before our trip the family gathered to do some trip planning. Using the “touring plans” application I accessed the “Crowd Calendar” which does its best to predict the tourist traffic each day. We could see the days we would be there, with estimated crowd level. We used that information, along with the days that each park had “extra magic hours” (resort guests get early entrance or staying after the park close to the public) to determine which park we would visit each day. Our planning proved overwhelmingly successful. We had minimal lines, and tons of space as we made our way around the parks. Touring Plans Crowd Calendar proved accurate for us!
The second thing we had to determine was which rides everyone wanted to go on. Bear in mind we had ages ranging from an 8-year-old up to the Grandparents, so everyone wasn’t always going to agree. I used a spreadsheet to create what I called “The Super Awesome Ride Selection Machine”, and filled it with data gathered from the ride descriptions in the “Touring Plans” app. Then I sat with everyone and had them rate their interest in every single ride (0 – not interested to 5 – we MUST go on that!!!!). In the end I had a good idea about which rides everyone wanted to go on, and when we’d need to split up. I used that information in real-time once we hit the park. We managed to get to roughly 90% of the rides we wanted to get to, and that is thanks to the wait time calculator. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Using the App in the Parks
The “touring plans” app provides estimated wait times for all of the rides and shows in all of the parks. When you pull up the ride list, you see the Disney posted time (reflected on the My Disney Experience App) and the “expected time” as calculated by Touring Plans. These numbers are derived from historical data and users entering their wait times while they are in line (which is added to the algorithms driving the historical data). I used the app, to time several of the lines we stood in. I verified just about every line’s wait time against the apps expected time and found the app was accurate almost all of the time. If anything, it sometimes stated a longer time than we experienced; it never went the other way! In addition to providing expected wait times, each ride indicates when there is a Fast Pass available, and when the line is expected to get shorter. We planned to ride Big Thunder Mountain again on the day we were in Magic Kingdom. I saw that there was a 40 minute wait as the expected time in Touring Plans. But the app told me that if we waited another hour the line would drop to 10 minutes. We waited (hit another ride in the meantime), and then we rode the ride an hour later with that 10 minute wait! Spectacular.
Anyone planning a trip to Walt Disney World (or Universal Studios – they have this service too), should get Touring Plans. It’s the easiest $13 you’ll spend, and it will definitely make your trip more enjoyable. If you don’t have a tech geek like me in our group, the site offers designed “touring plans” that will literally guide you through the park, hitting all the rides you want to go to at the optimal time. We didn’t use that service, but I can definitely see how it could benefit a group that doesn’t have a person who is fine staring at their smartphone the entire trip.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
As technology increases its presence in our lives, it is becoming more important to be comfortable with the tools. This is certainly the case for a vacation to Walt Disney World. The use of two relatively simple apps will have great benefits for your trip. You will stand in shorter lines, you will use your Fast Passes effectively (we changed some when we realized we had Passes for a ride with a 5 minute wait!), and you will feel more in control of your experience. Need to find a place to eat dinner? The My Disney Experience app has everything you need to know from menus, to prices, to exact locations in the parks. Need to know if it’s worth walking all the way across the park to hit Space Mountain one more time? Touring Plans can tell you how long you will wait before you take one step towards Tomorrowland. These are great tools. They are easy to use. And the first one is free and the second one is a bargain. So make sure to grab these apps before you head to Florida and I’m sure you will have an amazing time!
And when you want to know where to find her, you won’t need a Fairy Godmother…
Just when it seemed that the smartphone had eliminated the need for the old wristwatch, along comes the tech industry to reinvent an age old tool. Smartwatches once again dominated the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2015, showing that wrist-based tech is certainly on the rise! From the simple fitness bands like the Fitbit Flex and Misfit Flash, to the souped-up smartwatches like Moto 360, Samsung Gear S, and the forthcoming Apple Watch, the tech industry is very interested in slapping something on your wrist.
But how do you know what is best for you? Do you even need one? Well, all of that depends on what you value. Do you want fitness metrics like steps, miles, elevation, heart-rate, and calories burned? Do you want a wristband that interacts with your phone to show calls, texts, emails, and calendar notices? The Wrist Tech industry is very diverse, and actually pretty overwhelming when you really start to see how many options are out there. I recently got my hands on one of the lesser known devices. Based on my initial experience, I’d categorize it as a “fitness watch”. It’s called the Basis Peak, and these are my first impressions.
BASIS PEAK – Hardware
First off, the form factor. The Peak is not too big, and not too small. Weight is also minimal. It has a two tone LCD touchscreen which works very well. It comes with a rubber wristband that I find comfortable. This is important because to get accuracy from the heart-rate monitor it’s essential that the watch be strapped tightly to your wrist.
Battery life has been very good. I’m getting about 3 days of life (from the promised 5 days), but I have been using it a lot. Remember that the high end of battery life is usually found through minimal use. But 3 days isn’t bad, especially for a device that does 24/7 tracking.
The Peak is waterproof. So you can shower and swim with it on and there are no worries. Finally, the device will work with both Android and Apple phones, which makes it a rare breed indeed.
Overall I like the look and feel of the Basis Peak. So let’s talk about what this Fitness Watch does.
It’s a Fitness Tracker
First and foremost, this device is for fitness. It is not trying to compete with the Smartwatch category, at least not directly. The Basis Peak offers a few fitness metrics: steps, calories burned, and heart-rate (we’ll get to that last one in a minute). Noticeably missing from the device are the ability to track mileage (a significant omission), and elevation (which would require an altimeter to work). Many other fitness trackers offer both of those features, and for a premium cost device (the Peak will set you back $200) they really should be included.
Though the metrics are limited, it’s what the Peak does with the data that is pretty cool. The device sells itself as fully automated. You don’t have to tell the device when you go for a walk, take a run, or head off on a bike ride. The device can tell what you are doing, and the device responds with an icon for the activity, and begins tracking the activity as a “work out ” session of sorts. This is a great feature for people who like to track their metrics during exercise, especially those serious runners and bikers. And the key to solid metrics is the heart-rate monitor.
This is my first experience with a fitness band offering constant tracking of an actual health element. It’s one thing to see if you can get those 10,000 steps in every day and the resulting feeling of accomplishment. It’s quite another when your fitness watch can give you insight into your actual health in real time. I’m quickly discovering that I am pretty out of shape. I know that by watching my heart rate skyrocket, even during a long, slow walk. I am excited by the idea of mobile technology like a fitness watch helping people make better health choices in the moment. The Peak is already doing that for me, after just a few days.
It’s a Sleep Tracker
You didn’t know how important it was to track your sleep patterns, did you!? According to the fitness band/watch industry it’s very important because the feature is pretty much standard on anything strapped to your wrist. I’ve used the FitBit Flex sleep tracker for a while and I didn’t find it terribly useful. That particular tracker only tracked sleep and awake, using “micro-movements”. So it showed me when I moved around in my sleep, but the data didn’t get any more specific.
The Basis Peak is different, and it’s all because of the heart rate monitor, and something the company calls Body IQ. The device offers several metrics for sleep tracking including: Light Sleep, Deep Sleep, REM Sleep, Toss/Turn, and Interruptions. The phone based app also gives information to help you understand how much of each type of sleep is typical, so you have an idea if you are getting enough of what you need. This is the first fitness watch that I’ve used where the sleep monitor actually tells me something useful and something I can take action on.
It’s a Smartwatch (sorta)
When the Basis Peak first shipped it was strictly a Fitness Watch. It could do everything I’ve already described and nothing else. Then came the “smartwatch update“. This update was promised to early adopters and the company delivered recently with an update that allows Smartphones to communicate with the Peak, showing incoming calls, emails, texts, and calendar appointments on your wrist. The features are still pretty glitchy, which isn’t surprising because it’s so new. I tested both an Android phone and an iPhone and both were inconsistent with delivery of calls, texts, emails, and calendar appointments. Also the “manual sync” button in the phone app of both devices often resulted in an error saying “sync failed”. These issues definitely make the “smartwatch” element of the Peak less reliable.
Bottom line, if you want a full smartwatch experience, the Peak is not the device for you. At least not until they’ve worked through many of the bugs that are currently plaguing it.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Basis Peak is a Fitness Watch. That’s the most important thing to remember. It’s trying to take on some of the other Smartwatches out there, but it’s just not there yet. The fitness metrics offered by the Peak are pretty standard, and nothing to get too excited about. What I am finding most useful is the Heart Rate Monitor and enhanced Sleep Tracking. In the end, the purpose for wearing a fitness watch or fitness band is to help you make better choices about your health, and the heart rate monitor is proving an excellent tool for me in that regard.
The Basis Peak will certainly get better in time. The company promised a software update and they delivered. This is no small feat, especially for a smaller company. This builds customer trust and that is essential for the fledgling industry of Wrist Tech.
The device currently cost $199 and comes in a couple colors. You can swap out your wristband to jazz it up too. My opinion, based my first impressions of the Peak, is that it is overpriced for the features it offers. A $200 fitness watch should at least offer mileage tracking. It also wouldn’t hurt to put in that altimeter so users could track elevation (I used to challenge myself to take the stairs!). At a premium price, it should offer every feature possible. The only justification for the high cost would be the inclusion of “smartwatch” features, which the company is starting to offer. But the phone connectivity is still unreliable, and so be prepared for some frustration if you plan to use those features.
Mobile Health is taking off, and fitness bands and watches are leading the charge, providing valuable health data on your wrist (and your phone). This is technology that truly has the potential to change lives. Unlike the majority of tech updates (tablets, phones, and gaming consoles), wrist tech is often focused on health. At the same time these devices can keep you connected to the things that you value, in a way that involves minimal interruptions from technology.
These two elements in partnership on a small device like a wristband will revolutionize how we communicate with our friends and family, and with our doctors too! Great tech should be easy and life enhancing, and that’s the direction we are heading!
Sitting atop the free apps in the App Store is an odd choice. It’s a typewriter app. It’s actually the typewriter app that I am using to write this short review.
So, I guess Tom Hanks (yeah the ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ Tom Hanks) is really into typewriters. Seems to border on an obsession, but then again, I can think of worse things for a movie star to spend all his piles of money on. Mr. Hanks has decided to try and infect the rest of us with his typewriter hysteria, by way of the “Hanx Writer“.
The Cup Half Full
The app comes with one free typewriter interface, and it’s a decent design. You get an onscreen keyboard with buttons that actually move down as you press them. Of course half of the fun of typing on a typewriter simulator is the clicking sound of each letter and the PING of the carriage return. Fear not! There is no requirement that you physically move the carriage tray back to the left once you reach the end of the page (though you gotta admit that could be kind of cool). You get all the standard word processing options, including spell check, and the ability to backspace (no white out required). But for the courageous, you have the ability to turn off “modern delete” and type without the ability to correct. I am not that brave. While the free typewrite is decent, you do have the option to add additional typewriters for $2-$5. I’ve already made the upgrade to the “Writer Bundle” for $4.99 (see above).
The Cup Half Empty
There is a glaring issue with this app, which has been well documented in the app store reviews, and it’s all about the export options. Basically you are typing a PDF document on this app. I say that because all of the export options (of which there are actually quite a few) only let you export in PDF format. You can’t export to Word or even to Pages. You can send it to Microsoft’s One Drive cloud storage, or Evernote, iBooks, or Kindle, but all you can do with the document there is READ it. I have found that you can copy and paste into any word processing app you might be using, so there is that. Though it’s certainly not ideal. I wouldn’t be surprised if the popularity of this app brings about some new exporting options in the future.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Hanx Writer is certainly a geeky indulgence. Are there better writing apps out there, with enhanced functionality? Of course there are. But the joy found in the sound of each button press is definitely something that will trigger the romantic side of many writers. The idea that we are getting a taste of an old way of crafting words and sentences into characters and story.
I’ve long held that the technology that captures our fascination and imagination the most are those that offer new ways of doing things with which we are familiar. And the Hanx Writer, typewriter simulator, is the essence of that idea turned right on its head! Doing something old on something new, in a revolutionary way!
So if you have an iPad or iPad Mini, and want to take a trip into composition’s past, grab this app and get typing!
What is a Launcher? I hear this all the time. What do you mean you can change it? Why would I want to do that anyway? These are good questions. In a market dominated by the iPhone, most people don’t even realize they are using a Launcher. You are. It’s that grid of apps and folders on your iPhone screen. That’s your launcher. It’s how you interact with the device. And on an iPhone it can’t be changed. And that’s okay. It’s a good interface, and it’s certainly easy to use. So no worries all you iPhone users. I’m even an iPhone user from time to time, and I don’t mind the Launcher. It’s the same Launcher on my iPad Mini. So don’t get hot under the collar when I tell you that Android is different. With Android phones your Launcher can change, and it’s pretty cool when it does.
These are launcher screens. In order, they are HTC One (M8), iPhone 5S, and the Samsung Galaxy S5. All similar but different in their approach.
Every single Smartphone has a stock launcher. HTC has Sense. Motorola has BLUR. Samsung has TouchWIZ. When you first turn on your Android phone, you will be staring at one of those Launchers, masquerading as your phone’s “operating system”.
I currently use an HTC ONE (M8), and for the first couple months I used the stock Launcher, “Sense 6”. It’s a slick interface, but it looks a lot like every other launcher, including iPhone’s design. Both Apple and Android launchers have the ability to move apps around, and add folders. What makes Android different is you manipulate the screen in different ways. You can place apps in specific locations (not tied to the grid pattern), you can add widgets (that’s how Android phones have that big clock on the screen), you can even leave the screen blank (for the minimalist crowd). Android offers so many choices. Just open your Widget menu and feel your eyes glaze over at all the options. For the casual tech user there are simply too many, I would argue. So I set out to find a better Launcher.
My goal was simple. I was going to find Launchers that did everything for me. I don’t want to build my own folders. If it’s a game, put it in a folder called “games”. But I wanted to go even further. I wanted the device to figure out which apps I wanted and make them available. I wanted the phone to look different based on where I was and what I was doing. I didn’t want to have to do any work. What a quest! Impossible you’d think. But after testing out over ten launchers I settled on two. They are Everything Me and Aviate. While I’ve used both launchers consistently, for the sake of your time, I’m going to focus on my favorite, Everything Me. Perhaps Aviate will get its own moment in the spotlight down the road, as it’s a very close runner up. So let’s talk about “Everything Me”.
I’ve been using Everything Me for a couple of weeks now. This Launcher is what you’d call “smart”. That means it uses a variety of source data to customize your experience with your smartphone. Replacing the stock launcher with this smart launcher is a simple process, and after you’ve entered a few pieces of information (location data for the most part) you are up and running. You’ll notice right away that the interface looks very similar but also very different. The grid of folders is still there, but it’s automatically grouped. There’s also a spot called “FIND”. And it’s there that Everything Me first shows why it’s such an amazing Launcher.
Amazing Search Function
The find button is truly what makes Everything Me unique. It gives you the option to either type or speak to search. When you search, the phone will bring back results both from your phone (installed apps, contacts, calendar, etc) AND from the Internet. That’s right, it basically does a google search for everything you are looking for.
The best demonstration I’ve found for this is a new album from my friend’s band “Put Down the Muffin“. I have the CD saved on my phone. When I search for “Put Down the Muffin” my phone brings back internal results, including a button to direct me right to the album within the Google Music app that I use to listen to my music on my device. But it also gives me Internet Links (by way of app icons) which send me to, say, the bands Facebook page! It’s remarkable, and combines several searches into one.
The Smartest of Smart Folders
When I say the folders offered by Everything Me are smart, I mean really smart. The folders are generated automatically when you set up the Launcher. Games go in “games”, music apps go in “music”. Other smart folders on my device include, “news”, “shopping”, “health and fitness” and even “I’m Bored”. You can add and remove smart folders, you can move them around the screens, and you can customize them if you choose, though you probably won’t need to. But the creation of the folders is only the tip of the iceberg.
When you click on a smart folder everything changes. The wallpaper picture changes to something related to the category. The “social” folder shows a bunch of people’s faces in a huddle, the finance folder has a calculator, the photos folder has a camera lens, all serving as the background picture. The apps you have installed appear at the top (as the buttons you are used to), but just like the search function, the smart folder contains web search information for that category as well, appearing as additional apps. So when I click on “shopping” I see the apps I have installed “Google Play, Amazon, Target” but I also get links to web pages for other stores as well that I might consider. It’s a fast way to see more than you’re initially looking for, but perhaps exactly what you want to see!
The Whole Cup Summed Up
Everything Me is the best example I’ve found of a Smart Launcher. While so much is done for you, there is still the option to add your apps as icons, to add widgets, and personal wallpapers. The interface is still a grid of icons and folders, so the look isn’t too foreign to someone used to a stock launcher. But with Everything Me, I rarely go past the “Find” button, because if I want to do anything from make a phone call, listen to a song, search the web, or play a game, all I need to do is tell the phone what I want to do, and it takes care of the rest.
It is truly a SMART option, for us lazy people who don’t want to type stuff, or have a logical organization system for our many applications. So give it a try, because the best part is that this application is free and ready for you to experience.