Home Technology–Amazon Moves Fast

Amazon’s surprisingly successful (relatively speaking) line of Echo products just added a new member of the family.  As Google pokes along trying to make the Home relevant, and Microsoft won’t enter the market until the Fall with Harmon Kardon’s Invoke, Amazon already has the original Echo, the Echo Dot, the Echo Look (which is a camera that will help you shop for clothes), and the Tap. In addition, certain Fire TVs have Alexa built in, as does the Amazon app on many Smart Phones.

Amazon, in other words, has moved very aggressively to put its voice-recognition in your hands as quickly as possible. And now Amazon has debuted the Echo Show.  The Show is a touch screen-enable version of Alexa, and there’s potentially some interesting functionality. According to Amazon, you can watch some videos, see music lyrics, enable security cameras, use it as a home-intercom device, and even make video calls to other Show devices.

Aesthetically Displeasing

Right off the bat, though, it’s clear this is very much a first-gen product. Where the Echo, Dot, and Tap are aesthetically pleasing cylinders with glowing-blue orbs, the Show is…so very retro. And, in my opinion, not a good way.  Obviously, the cylindrical form factor doesn’t work well for a video-based device, but… surely there was a better design out there than what’s being offered.

Amazon Show
Amazon’s Echo Show

To me, it looks like a Macintosh Classic that’s been squished.

Mac Classic
The Macintosh Classic

Privacy Concerns for Amazon

Of course, any discussion of the Echo–and, really, of any of these always-listening home assistants–needs to include concerns for the privacy of the home user.

Last year, law enforcement officers in Arkansas sought to obtain data from Amazon in the middle of a murder investigation because they believed that the Echo–or Amazon’s servers– might have recorded evidence. With the addition of video capabilities to these devices, consumers need to be confident that their movements in the home aren’t being monitored. (The same concerns go for things like the Kinect, anyone’s laptop, webcams, et cetera.)

Personal Technology–Garmin Forerunner 35 Part 2

Garmin Forerunner 35
Garmin Forerunner 35

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series on the Garmin Forerunner 35, you can find it here

What Can This Thing Do for Me?

Because there are now so many options available for tracking physical fitness, I needed to come up with some criteria for making a decision. Whatever fitness tracker I decided to get, the following were essential:

  • Track steps
  • Have a wrist-based heart-rate sensor
  • Display notifications reliably
  • Have device-based GPS rather than connected GPS
  • Have decent battery life
  • Look relatively okay
  • Sync well with things like My Fitness Pal
  • Be less than $200.00

Having settled on what the device absolutely needed to do, I came up with extras which would be nice to have, but weren’t essential.  This list (and it’s not like I wrote all this down, but I kept it in mind) included:

  • Count floors climbed
  • Be waterproof
  • Be able to connect to a chest-strap heart monitor for HIIT since really intense fitness activities tend to mess wrist-based sensors somewhat
  • Display more notifications than simply phone calls, such as emails, calendar notices, and text messages
  • Have a color touch screen
  • Have GLONASS
  • Alert me when I need to get up from my desk and move around a little bit–I have a very comfy chair, and it’s easy to get lost in work for hours at end…

With these criteria in mind, I started my research.

No Smart Watches

Limiting myself to spending no more than $200 meant that smart watches were all but excluded from consideration. This didn’t disappoint me. The Apple Watch interests me very little, and the only version I would even consider–based on my criteria–would be the 42 mm Series 2, since only the Series 2 has on-device GPS.  But it’s $400, twice what I wanted to spend. Other offerings like the Moto360 Sport, LG Watch Sport, and Samsung Gear S2–while sometimes within my price range depending on what discounts retailers decide to offer–still didn’t tempt me much.

Android Wear-based smart watches probably work great with Android phones. Connectivity with iPhones, though, is a different matter. And while Android Wear 2.0 supposedly is going to work even better with iPhones in the future, some watches–like the Moto360 Sport–aren’t going to receive it.

Also, smart watches don’t meet my essential criteria of having decent battery life.  The Apple Watch supposedly gets a day-and-a-half on a charge, which really means you need to charge it every night or bring a charger with you to work. Other smart watches suffer the same constraints.

On top of that, I really don’t need the things a smart watch offers. I don’t call Ubers, I don’t play games on my watch, I don’t need to reply to notifications from my watch (though I could see that being something that could be useful, I suppose) and I don’t need to make calls from my watch. I’m 40 years old, and so I’m less interested in futzing with a device, and more interested in it just doing a few specific things.

Form Factor

Removing smart watches from the equation freed me up to decide on what form factor I wanted. Did I want a device that looked like a watch, or one that looked like a band? I was initially somewhat ambivalent, but I was also aware that bands have the high potential to look like shackles. The Microsoft Band and Band 2.0, for example, always intrigued me, but I couldn’t get past just how bulky they looked. (Not to mention the fact that both Bands had reliability problems with their straps breaking apart).

As far as bands go, FitBit made its name by getting its bands on so many wrists. And they offer a ton of bands.  The Flex 2, Alta, Alta HR, Charge 2, and even the Surge are strappy devices. The lack of on-board GPS, though, counted strongly against FitBit. That and the reliability problems I had with the Charge’s strap–even though FitBit cheerfully sent me a replacement as soon as I told them my first one broke.

Polar, maker of the FT7 that I liked so much, also makes a couple of bands. These are the A360 and the Loop Crystal, and they’re both a little long in the tooth.  And neither offers GPS, so I decided to remove Polar from consideration.  At least as far as bands go.

Another band maker with a good reputation is Garmin, who seems to have found a way to survive the death of the stand-alone GPS navigation systems that were so popular before Google Maps came to smart phones.

Garmin has a dizzying variety of bands: the vivofit jr. (really intended for kiddos), the vivosmart HR, the vivosmart HR+, the vivofit 3, the vivoactive HR (it’s kinda bandy…), and now, the vivosmart 3.  Of these, the only ones that I was interested in were the vivosmart HR+ and the vivoactive HR, because these were the only ones with GPS.

The vivosmart HR+ initially looked like it would be the device for me. It has a built-in heart rate monitor and GPS. It’s waterproof, it tracks steps and floors climbed, receives notifications, syncs with My Fitness Pal, doesn’t look ugly, costs less than $200, has decent battery life, and nudges me to get up and move.  What I didn’t like, however, is that it does not connect to an external strap-based heart-rate sensor for when I want to do HIIT. Which I will definitely be doing. Also, I was concerned about just how accurate the heart-rate monitoring would really be in such a relatively small device. So I removed it from consideration, and considered the vivoactive HR strongly, since it’s an even more capable device, connects to an external heart-rate sensor, and is available refurbished on Amazon for about $165 (it’s normally $250).

More on all this in the next post.

 

 

Note: I have not received any promotional consideration from any company named in this posting.

Personal Technology–Garmin Forerunner 35 Part 1

Garmin Forerunner 35
Garmin Forerunner 35

When I was a kid, I used my asthma an excuse to avoid running. I had no problem hiking for hours and miles on end, but running bedeviled me.  Like most kids, I played soccer, but it was the free-substitution variety.  Meaning that we substituted in and out for oranges and gatorade whenever we got tired or winded. The only seasons I played entire games were those seasons I played goalie. Free substitution and goalie: that’s how I managed to play soccer for 10 years and still avoid a ton of running.

In middle school, my PE coaches–having failed at recruiting me for football–tried to recruit me to try out for track.  They saw me as a person who could throw the shotput and discus (which I was good at).  But, I declined because, you guessed it: everyone on the track team had to run, even if you were not in a running event.

Just Try It

Years and years later, after squandering the hidden secret that I was actually a very fast runner in bursts when I was a kid, my asthma pretty much disappeared, and I was encouraged by some colleagues to give running a taste.

And so I did. And I liked it! I worked my way up to, first, an uninterrupted mile.  And then, an uninterrupted 5k.  And finally, a nearly-uninterrupted trail 10k. It was amazing, and I loved it. I ran two races: the Rodeo Run 5k and the Hog Hunt 10k. I got nowhere close to winning, but at least I wasn’t anywhere close to finishing dead last, either.

And Then it Ended

But, then, I had kids. And having very young kids means that you don’t have a ton of time to indulge yourself, nor do you have a ton of energy in reserve to expend it by pounding the pavement. I found other ways to stay in shape (HIIT and eating right, for example) but I’ve always missed the feeling of getting out and running.

Now that the kids are a little older, though, I’ve decided to take another stab at running. And using some gift cards I got from Amazon and by using Bing instead of Google (Bing Rewards points are good for more than free OneDrive storage, y’all), I bought myself a Garmin Forerunner 35.

Get Back at It

When I make the decision to get into shape, I become extremely focused on data.  What am I eating? How many calories is that? What is the nutritional breakdown? What is my weight this morning?  How many calories did I burn? What’s my max heart rate? How has it improved? How many steps did I take? Smart phones and wearables make a lot of this stuff easy to track.

When I was doing HIIT, I’d work out with the Polar FT7 heart rate monitor. It’s a watch that connects to an included strap-based heart rate monitor. It worked great, and gave me a lot of very specific data, and helped encourage me to work out harder.

It’s not a perfect all-around device, though. Wearing a chest strap all day to monitor my heart rate is a non-starter, regardless of whether the watch is attractive or not. (And it really isn’t.) It also didn’t sync data with My Fitness Pal seamlessly.  Finally, the heart-strap that comes with the FT7 is proprietary and only works with that watch. (More on that later.)

After ending the HIIT program, but still wanting to keep an eye on my fitness data, I got a FitBit Charge. It was…fine. It had a week-long battery life. It measured steps. It counted flights of stairs. It (occasionally) sent phone call notices to my wrist. It told me that I took 26,425 steps on July 23, 2015. It synced with My Fitness Pal pretty well.

It also had a problem with falling apart, and I didn’t like that it didn’t have a heart rate monitor, that it didn’t have GPS, that it didn’t even have the capability of notifying me of anything other than phone calls (and, as I mentioned, that was spotty at best). The iOS App was very slow to sync with the device, and it didn’t have the ability to bug me about getting up and moving. I also felt that it might have been overcounting steps. In short, I wasn’t going to get another Charge.

What to Get, What to Get

Aside from being somewhat obsessed with tracking fitness data, I also rarely buy technology without researching the hell out of it first. For example, I’ve documented some of what went into buying my Miix 700 here.  And when I bought the Charge, it was widely considered the best of those types of devices in that category at that price point. That is, roughly $100, with visual stats, and syncs with things like My Fitness Pal.

Since the Charge first came out a few years ago, wearable technology has improved and advanced considerably. Wrist-based heart-rate sensors, for example, are pretty common–there’s even a version of the Charge with a heart-rate sensor. Microsoft’s Band and Band 2.0 have tons of other sensors.  So-called smart watches–like the Apple Watch, Moto360 Sport, LG Sport–are festooned with all sorts of sensors. In other words, in many respects, there are endless options for a fitness-oriented wearable.

How I went about my decision-making process is detailed in my next post. See you there

 

 

Note: I have not received any promotional consideration from any company named in this posting.

LOT–Future Apple Offerings for Pros

I’ve written so often about my substantial qualms with Apple’s products that I probably should open a glue factory. The recent stories about Apple’s quasi mea culpa regarding the Mac Pro, and the anticipated new-form-factor iPhone coming this Fall/Winter, however, lead me back to the well yet again.

What is a Pro?

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs editThe rumors that have come out recently about the next generation of iPhone(s) highlight some substantial issues that Apple faces as it tries to bring out “Pro” branded products that are aimed at…well, who are they aimed at, actually?  Because it doesn’t really seem like they’re aimed at a certain class of “Pro.”

The new MacBook Pro, for example, introduces a gimmicky touchbar at the top of the keyboard.  It’s a thin and light computer, sure, but it maxes out at 16GB of RAM.  Which is a lot, but surely there are Pros who wouldn’t mind having more. You can’t have it, though.

The iPad Pros, too, are currently marketed as “Super. Computer. In two sizes.”  Clearly, Apple is feeling some heat from people using Surface (and Surface-clone, such as my Miix 700) devices–and liking them. And so Apple is trying to make the argument that the iPad Pro is the one device you really need.  Yes, they’re pretty tablets, and I know a handful of attorneys who use them, and don’t mind them, but I find them less than optimal. Which I’ll get back to in just a second.

Next Generation iPhone(s)

Every year, at about this time, there’re always rumors of what the next iPhone will look like. For the past 2 years, it’s been pointless to worry about because iPhones 6s and 7 look almost exactly like the iPhone 6, with the exception that the 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack, nor does it have a mechanical home button. Otherwise, they all look the same. Rumor has it that there will essentially be a 7s, which….*yawn*

In addition, though, there will be a special 10th anniversary iPhone …. 8? Who knows? But it will purportedly ditch the home button and side bezels altogether, and switch to an OLED display. Which plenty of Android phones have done already.  But this new iPhone will also apparently have dual front-facing cameras? (Or will all next generation phones have this feature? It’s a little unclear…) Which means better selfies, I guess.

Hardware is Only Part of the Equation

Revamping hardware, and putting in a few extra bells and whistles is all well and good, but at some point, the hardware melts away, and you’re left actually having to use the thing. You can have a Ferrari body, but if you put a Yugo engine in it, no one will want to drive it. To be fair, the processors Apple designs for the iPhones and iPads are not slouches. They are sprightly little things. But the operating system…? Ugh.

And this brings me back to why an iPad Pro (or standard) simply cannot be my “computer.” iOS 11, to be debuted at WWDC in a couple of months, is supposed to introduced a refreshed user interface. The design language we’ve been living with since iOS 7 is, in my opinion, an improvement over the language used through iOS 6. However, there are still a lot of annoyances. Not being able to put icons wherever I want, for example. Or the fact that we’re still using a grid of icons at all.

The issues aren’t just cosmetic. Siri is all but useless, serving mostly to amuse and argue with my kid.  The baked-in mail and calendar apps have improved, but they’re still not great.

File System

The most glaring issue, though, is the lack of an accessible file system.  My electronic file for any random case includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint docs; PDFs; jpgs, gifs, pngs, and tiffs;  and various audio and video formats. They all coexist happily in a special folder on my hard drive, which can be synced to remote storage.  But that folder can also be put on a thumb drive, which can be plugged into my Miix 700, and lo and behold, they’re all right where they’re supposed to be, easily accessible, easily worked with, and easily moved aside. I don’t even need access to the internet to work with them.

“Where are you that you don’t have access to the internet?” you might be asking. Well, courthouses, for example. While the Harris County courts have public wi-fi, it’s not secure, it’s slow, and it isn’t reliable in every courtroom. Montgomery County also has wi-fi, but I’ve had to ask prosecutors to give me their guest passwords to hop on it.

“Well, fine, wi-fi is for losers, LTE is where it’s at, anyway.” Sure. If you’ve sprung for the extra expense of getting the model of your device that includes an LTE chip. And if you’ve paid for the extra line on your phone plan. Even then, when you’re on the 18th floor of the Criminal Courthouse, in the middle of the brick, stone, and metal building, your LTE coverage is going to be unreliable. (This would, admittedly, be less of a hindrance in a place like Montgomery County, where you’re at most three stories in the sky.)

Using your phone as a wireless hotspot, too, would potentially be a solution, but anyone who’s done that can tell you how frustrating that can be.

Still: you can’t tell me it’s more convenient to access files over the internet than it is to simply pop a thumb drive into the side of the device.

Peripherals

The other area where the iPad Pro shows real problems acting as a “computer” is in its support for peripherals. The iPad Pro has one port: the Lightning port at the bottom of the device. My Miix 700 has three: 2 USB and one micro HDMI.  That means that if I want to plug my device into the courtroom’s a/v system (which is based on HDMI in most courtrooms in the Houston area), all I need is this $6.50 cable:

micro HDMI cable
Bog standard $6.50 micro HDMI cable.

By contrast, if I want to do the same with an iPad Pro, I need, at a minimum, Apple’s $50 lightning Digital AV Adapter.  Which, for what it’s worth, has terrible reviews. And you still need to buy an HDMI cable. (Theoretically, perhaps, you could order one of those $20-some-odd cables off Amazon, but they’re pretty skeezy.)  For what it’s worth, the Digital AV Adapter does allow you to charge your device at the same time you’re using video.

Not Trying to Sneer

The point of this post is not to say “neener neener Appl3 1s t3h suxxor” (I’ve written a few of those posts, to be fair). Rather, I’m pretty much stuck using an iPhone for the foreseeable future because it’s the least bad smart phone out there and it handles Exchange reasonably well. Since I’m stuck using it, I’d like to see it, and iOS, become better.

 

No Big Surprise: FanDuel and DraftKings Ordered to Stop

"American Cash" by Revised by Reworked - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
American Cash” by Revised by ReworkedOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It really comes as no surprise that New York’s Attorney General has ordered FanDuel and DraftKings to stop taking money from New York residents.  This is because the New York AG has determined that the operations are illegal gambling enterprises, even though the companies insist that they rely on skill rather than chance. Those of us who remember the explosion and subsequent clamp-down on online poker saw this coming, and I’m betting (sorry) that it won’t stop with New York.

Internet-based gaming first caught Congress’s attention in the mid-00s with the proliferation of websites devoted to playing poker online. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (the acronym for which, UIGEA, is strangely unwitty) is codified at 31 U.S.C. §§ 5361-5367, and was passed in 2006 after the National Gambling Impact Study Commission recommended the passage of legislation to prohibit the electronic transfer of funds to gambling sites or the banks which supported them.  In 2011, indictments were brought against PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker, alleging the federal crimes of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. At least one individual associated with the case pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.

Fantasy sports have always stayed just inside the legal side of the line, and we’ll see if the ongoing FBI and DOJ investigations change that.

In Texas-related developments, Governor Abbott has ordered the Texas Lottery Commission to cease activities related to gathering information about incorporating internet gaming to the State’s sanctioned gambling framework.

WWDC 15 and Windows 10 Build 10130

Inaccessible_Boot_Device
Image sourced from LegitReviews.com

The other day I griped hard on Apple and its dubious tagline “the Epicenter of Change” for WWDC 15.  And while the keynote devolved into a jumbled mess about the new Apple Music service, the rest of the keynote highlighted very few earthquake-metaphor-worthy elements. (Yes, this post is about Windows 10, too.)

Not Much Change to See Here

As I alluded, I recognize that this cycle of OS updates are more geared toward fit-and-finish and stability improvements–which are definitely necessary–but the features highlighted in the keynote are features already available on other platforms.  The Notes App now allows handwriting? Okay, Evernote and OneNote have done that for years.  (Also, doesn’t this pretty much guarantee a fully-implemented stylus input system, which was heavily resisted–and mocked–by Apple for a long time?)  The Notes App now allows to-do lists and picture embedding?  Okay, again, that’s been available on other platforms for years. Side-by-side multitasking on iPad Air 2 devices?  Okay, that’s been a feature of Windows 8.x since its launch in 2012 (and it’s in Android, too) and you don’t need a $500 minimum device to use it. “Slide Over” to bring up a recently used app?  Again, see Windows 8.x. Picture-in-Picture as a floating window on tablets? Okay, that’s somewhat newish, though Windows 10 allows Start Apps to run in windows even on tablets.  Siri might become useful for something other than eliciting stupid-silly responses from a machine, a la Dr. Sbaitso?  Okay, see Google Now and Cortana.  There’s a new News App that aggregates your news interests?  Okay, again, not new.  Safari on OS X El Capitan now tells you which tab is making noise and allows you to pin sites?  See Chrome and IE11 respectively.  Apple Music is a streaming service that costs $9.99 a month for an individual, or $15.99 for a family of six?  Well, I guess they needed to make one to compete, and there’s human curation, but at the end of the day, it’s a music streaming service like Spotify, XBox Music, Google Play Music, Tidal…. (And to think of how much has changed since 1994, compare these pictures:

Reznor Then and Now
(Images sourced from some random Pinterest user, and from The Verge’s Matthew Panzarino.)

…and then think about the weirdness that he became an exec at a tech company who was the punchline to a hurr-hurr joke: “Trent’s my vocal coach.” Okay, so, yeah, that’s a pretty big change.)

In any event, like I said, fixing the underpinnings to iOS is incredibly important and will hopefully make using the iPhone a less-frustrating experience.  And the implementation of features that have been around for a long time will make the iPad a more compelling consideration for business users (though you still have the problem that getting documents and files on the device requires so many pointless and frustrating hurdles that could be easily addressed by having a USB or microSD slot).  But this event was hardly anything approaching “change.”  (And now that I think about it, for a revision cycle largely focusing on stability, why would you reference earthquakes and change…?)

Speaking of Frustrating

Windows Technical Preview Build 10130 is the most-recent build officially available for people in the Insider Program, and while I got it up and running on my laptop (albeit with quasi-crashy Intel video drivers which may or may not continue to be supported in the future), getting it to install on my wife’s laptop has been an exercise in frustration.

The easy way to do the upgrade is to allow it to download through Windows Update and install itself.  This it would not do. Download progress would get to 22-25% and then fail unexpectedly.  The second easiest way is to download the ISO (which has finally been made available) and put it on a bootable USB drive, which is how I installed the TP on her machine in the first place.  Recall that that process was a breeze.  Not so this time around.  Putting the ISO on the drive was simple, but trying to boot from the USB created a boot failure right out of the gate.

Fine enough, I tried booting into Windows 10 and then upgrading from the USB.  That process worked fairly well, until it got about 70% of the way completed, and then it all failed.  Again, boot failures cropped up.  Fine. I looked up the error code, saw that it had something to do with failed boots due to the presence of a USB device in a USB slot, and could see no way to install from a USB drive without having the drive in the slot. (Yes, I even tried copying the drive to the hard drive and installing from there, but unsurprisingly, that didn’t work.)

Well, great, I’ll just create a bootable DVD.  That went fine for a while, until, again, about 70% of the way through the process, it gave up and reverted. Same boot failure, same error code, but this time, empty USB slots.  Whatever. I gave up. I had already spent three evenings trying to install the dang thing, and the final version is supposedly coming in exactly 7 weeks.

Which, when you think about it: if Build 10130 is the most stable version Microsoft is willing to let us use, and it’s been 9 or 10 days since it came out (I know, I know), and it’s still not really a coherent product… Well, I just hope that Build 10500 (or whatever will be the final release) is secretly amazing. Because the last thing anyone in Redmond wants is a bunch of people asking “what the heck does Inaccessible_Boot_Device mean?!?!!?”)

That being said, I do think it’s notable that my wife would still rather use Build 10074 with it’s cludgy interface and super-crashy Project Spartan–declining to instal Chrome or Firefox as well–than use the Windows 7 partition. Windows 10 really is much faster, cleaner, and though the interface is somewhat different, it’s familiar enough for most uses.  And that’s definitely saying something.

Zombies!

It’s only appropriate with “Zombieland” opening today to see that the University of Florida is (cheekily) taking steps to protect its campus from the undead.  According to the AP, “The exercise lays out how university officials would respond to attacks by ‘flesh-eating, apparently life impaired individuals.’ It notes that a zombie outbreak might include ‘documentation of lots of strange moaning.'”

I like it. And the Miami Herald has a copy of it on its website.  I especially like the “Infected Co-Worker Dispatch Form.”