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.

 

LOT-Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 — One Month Later

Just about exactly one month ago, I purchased an open-box Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 from Microcenter here in Houston, Texas.  I discussed my initial impressions about the device, which were quite favorable, here.  A month later, how has the device stacked up?  Has it improved my workflow? Have there been any glaring problems? Do I regret the purchase?  Well, let’s dig in.

The Miix 700 is a Good Size

Moving up from the 8-inch Dell Venue 8 Pro to the nearly 13-inch Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 was a revelation. Five inches is a lot when you’re talking about tablet screens. In fact, the Miix 700 is almost exactly as wide as the V8P is tall.

The Venue 8 Pro is just a smidge taller than the Miix 700 is wide.

The screen is beautifully crisp, colorful, and sharp.  Having a full-HD screen in a relatively small display makes for an incredibly pleasing experience.  While the V8P was serviceable at browsing the web and reading books on the Kindle client, the extra screen real estate means that reading Word documents and PDFs is pleasant, rather than a laborious chore. The small screen of the V8P meant that I was constantly zooming and panning to read documents, which was far from ideal.  That doesn’t happen with the Miix 700.  I can read documents in full-screen mode, and it’s essentially equivalent to reading on a standard sheet of paper.

Read more “LOT-Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 — One Month Later”

LOT–Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 First Impressions

The Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 comes in a nice enough box which includes the tablet, the keyboard, the charging block and cable, and a small instruction sheet.  The first thing I noticed was the oddly shaped plug on the charging cable.

Miix 700 Charging Cable
The oddly shaped charging cable.

See that little notch there? It fits into the USB 2.0 port on the left/bottom side of the tablet for charging. I suspect that means normal USB 2.0 cables don’t work for charging purposes.  Which is a bummer.  Proprietary cables are a pain.

Read more “LOT–Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 First Impressions”

Law Office Technology–Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700

Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700
Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700

I mentioned yesterday that I was in the market for a 2-in-1 to replace the dead Venue 8 Pro.  Though I mentioned a lot of options conveniently found at the Microsoft Store, I left a different device off the list: the Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700.  This is largely because it debuted in September of 2015, and really didn’t make much of a splash. (Not that any PCs have made much of a splash in recent years…)

A Blessed Surface (Pro) Clone

Microsoft created the Surface line to show OEMs what a 2-in-1 is supposed to be, and has seemingly given its blessing to devices which essentially copy the Surface look and feel. Obviously, there is only so much an OEM can do to differentiate its devices–at the end of the day, you’re basically looking at a rectangle with a keyboard.  Corners may or may not be rounded, and the devices will vary by a few millimeters and grams here and there.  But, for the most part, a rectangle is a rectangle is a rectangle.

When it debuted, the Miix 700–which looks and acts almost exactly like Microsoft’s Surface offerings–fell somewhere in between the Surface 3 and the Surface Pro 3 in terms of price and features.

Surface 3 Lenovo Miix 700 Surface Pro 3
Starting Price: $499 Starting Price: $749 (?) Starting Price: $799
  • 10.8″ screen (1920×1280)
  • 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Atom x7-Z8700
  • 2GB RAM (up to 4GB)
  • 64GB SSD (up to 128GB)
  • Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0; LTE available
  • 1 USB 3.0 port
  • Mini display port
  • microSD card port (up to 128GB)
  • Micro USB port (for charging)
  • Cover port
  • Headset jack
  • 3.5MP front camera; 8 MP rear camera
  • Microphone
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Ambient light sensor, Proximity sensor, Accelerometer,  Gyroscope,  Magnetometer
  • Keyboard extra
  • Stylus extra
  • Integrated kickstand with 3 positions
  • 12″ screen (2160×1440)
  • 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Core m3-6Y30 (up to Core m7)
  • 4GB RAM (up to 8GB)
  • 64GB SSD (up to 256GB)
  • Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0; LTE available (maybe?)
  • 1 USB 3.0 port
  • Mini display port
  • microSD card port (up to 2TB)
  • USB 2.0 / charging port
  • Headset jack
  • 5MP front camera; 5 MP rear camera (up to 2MP Intel RealSense 3D)
  • Microphone
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Ambient light sensor, G-Sensor, Hall sensor (magnetometer)
  • Keyboard included
  • Stylus extra
  • Integrated “continuous” kickstand with 0-160° of rotation.
  • 12″ screen (2160×1440)
  •  3:2 aspect ratio
  • Core i3 (4th Gen) (up to Core i7 (4th Gen)
  • 4GB RAM (up to 8GB RAM)
  • 64GB SSD (up to 512GB)
  • WiFi; Bluetooth 4.0; LTE not available
  • 1 USB 3.0 port
  • Mini display port
  • microSD card port (up to 128GB)
  • Cover port
  • Charging port
  • Headset jack
  • 5MP front and rear cameras
  • Front and rear microphones
  • Stereo speakers
  • Ambient light sensor, Proximity sensor, Accelerometer,  Gyroscope,  Magnetometer
  • Keyboard extra
  • Stylus included
  • Integrated “continuous” kickstand with 0-150° of rotation.

(These were the best specs and prices I could determine based on the respective manufacturer’s websites. If they’re inaccurate, I apologize. Things in RED are an advantage, and things in GREEN are a slight advantage.)

I Found a Bargain on the Miix 700

Brand new, the Ideapad Miix 700 is a strong competitor, price-wise, but ends up being on my but-I-really-don’t-want-to-spend-that-much-on-this-thing list.  For a lot less, I could get HP’s Pavilion x2, accepting its slower processor and taking a gamble on the stylus.  Or, honestly, just leaving the whole thing alone until a new generation of devices comes out.

But last weekend, I decided to finally go visit Houston’s new Microcenter store. (It used to be on the West Loop, which was a traffic nightmare. Now it’s moved to South Rice Avenue, which is slightly less of a traffic nightmare.) I needed to get some toner and photo paper, but ended up discovering that there was an Open-Box special on a Miix 700, which put the price at roughly 40% off. In other words, it was less expensive than the Pavilion x2, including the Active Pen (only $34 on Amazon).

Gut-Check Time.

I had a decision to make. I’m wary of deals that are too good to be true (which this seemed to be). And Open-Box specials can be concerning–was there a specific reason this came back to the store? (The sales associate said that it was returned because it was unwanted, not because it was malfunctioning.) Why was there another Open-Box special for a couple hundred bucks more? (Sales associate did not know.) The manufacturer’s warranty (1 year) still applied, and there was a fifteen-day Microcenter return policy on all open-box items.  So I bit the bullet, bought it, and ordered the active pen after I got home.

Law Office Technology–Death of the Venue 8 Pro

Here lies the Venue 8 Pro
Imaged sourced from Sb2s3Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44188845

My “venerable” Dell Venue 8 Pro finally gave up the ghost.  It handled the upgrade to Windows 10 well enough, as I’ve mentioned.  Its flaky and unreliable stylus support, though, bounced it squarely in “convenient diversion” territory. I stopped using it for work long ago, and it stuck  around mainly to pass on to my daughter to mess around with.  My thoughts were that she will like it once she doesn’t need the walled playground of the Kindle Fire Kids Edition anymore.  She’s still pretty young, so I hoped it would stick around for at least two or three more years. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a tablet that doesn’t do much other than browse the web and run Twitter would have no real issues staying alive.

As it turns out, though, the wonky micro-USB port–which caused it to be sent back for repair soon after purchasing it–proved to be the Achilles heel; it just never managed to remain firmly attached to the motherboard. I know it wasn’t a terribly expensive device when it debuted, but it’s utterly ridiculous that something that was otherwise quite well-made would have such a fatal fundamental flaw.  That single port was used almost every single day, and it’s just plain mind-boggling that it failed for the sole reason that it needed to be charged.

I don’t suppose the thing needs much of a eulogy. The tech world has come a long way since the day when the Venue 8 Pro seemed to be something of a revelation. And I suppose that’s part of the lesson learned by being something of an early adopter. Still though, it felt nice in the hands as a consumption device, and it worked well enough in that role, so it’s a shame that it could never deliver on my hopes for it.

Technology in the Law Office–Artificial Assistance

The new shiny-shiny right now is artificial intelligence, and how that can be implemented in the devices we use on a daily basis to help us Get Things Done.  Google, for example, showed off it’s new messaging platform Allo at I/O a couple of weeks ago. Part of the gist of that platform is that you would be have a text conversation with a friend, and one of you would say, “I’d like some pizza.” In would pop Google to say “hey, here are some places that serve pizza. Would you like a reservation?”  Useful, perhaps, but a little surprising considering the lack of love for Clippy.

Clippy
Sourced from Mother Jones.

Google Now

Nonetheless, artificial assistance through bots, cards, banners, notifications, gadgets and all manner of similar preemptive technology is where the industry is headed.  Of the three major tech platforms (Apple, Google, and Microsoft), Google is reputationally the furthest along in getting information in front of your face before you know you need it. Arriving at the airport? Google Now has already prepared your boarding pass in a Card. Wondering where your package is?  Google Now has already told you. That’s the theory, anyway, and by all accounts, it works pretty well.

Cortana

Microsoft, too, has gotten into the digital assistant game with Cortana, which comes baked into Windows 10.  (It’s the circle in your task bar.)

Cortana
Cortana Help Screen

You can also install Cortana on your iPhone or Android phone, and you can talk to it.  It will respond, like Siri and Google Now. But Cortana also suggests things for you to read, and will pop toast notifications into the bottom right of your screen, as well, with calendar notices, reminders, and traffic information when you have an off-site appointment.  It… has gotten better since it launched.

Siri

Apple was aware of the need to have Siri do more than tell you it’s raining and cracking stupid jokes.  So  “proactive” features were added to Siri to give you, for example, traffic alerts for when you need to leave for an appointment, and to bring back the left page of the home screen, giving you suggestions on who to contact, and which apps to launch.  Apple’s claimed insistence on protecting user privacy, along with its notoriously cludgy cloud offerings, however, means that Apple tries to do most things on-device. This is alarming to some, such as Marco Arment, who caused a stir a couple of weeks ago with his article, “If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple.”

Apple is Doomed

Of course, the past decade has been rife with stories about how Apple is doomed, and all that has happened is astonishing profitability. It doesn’t matter that OS X’s marketshare is lower than that of Chromebooks, and it doesn’t matter that Android devices far outnumber iOS devices–people have purchased enough Apple products to make it the most valuable company in the world right now.  So, yeah, Apple’s probably not terribly worried about this latest problem.

Siri Could Be A Lot Smarter

That being said, Siri is pretty awful, and part of that is likely due to an issue Arment pointed out in a footnote:

“Privacy” isn’t a very good excuse. It’s possible to build tons of useful services and smarts by just using public data, like the web, mapping databases, business directories, etc., without any access to or involvement from the user’s private data. Even more enhanced functionality can be done with the limited set of personal data that Siri already uses, such as location and contacts. Google and others do these sorts of non-creepy or less-creepy services far better than Apple, too — not just the creepy ones.

The other day, I got a Cortana notification on my desktop telling me that to get to court in time, I needed to leave within the next 15 minutes.  It even included a little map that I could click and it would show me my route.  That in itself isn’t what was neat. After all, Siri tells me when I get in my car that it will take about an hour to get to work or home, since it has figured out those locations.

What was neat, however, is that Cortana was able to tell me that I needed to leave even though the only information I put in the “location” field when I added the setting to my calendar was: “56th District Court–Galveston County.” Siri, on the other hand, did not give me a notification, and has never given me leave-now notifications for calendar settings unless I enter an exact address for the location. What Cortana was able to do, and what Siri should be able to do, was figure out that the 56th District Court in Galveston County is at a specific location and give me the leave-now notification.

Admittedly, leave-now notifications are mostly useless to me. I know when I need to leave for appointments,

LOT (Law Office Technology): Microsoft’s Fall 2015 Event

Microsoft unveiled some very attractive hardware this morning in New York City, but that very attractive hardware comes with very premium pricing.

(Though Microsoft discussed it first, I’ll leave off discussing the XBoxOne, since I’m not terribly interested in it, and it doesn’t really fit into the whole how-does-this-piece-of-technology-integrate-into-the-law-office thing I have going here.  And the Hololens was mentioned and demoed, with a dev kit being offered next year for $3,000…..)

Microsoft Band (2.0)

Microsoft then moved on to the new Microsoft Band.  A few weeks ago, some renders leaked which showed a very sleek and rounded band that looks like a glowing bangle. The screen is rounded, but generally looks like a shiny version of the current Microsoft Band.  Microsoft is still calling it the Band (but I’m differentiating it by calling it “2.0”), and it still, unfortunately, looks like a shackle.

New Microsoft Band
The New Microsoft Band, sourced from Microsoft Store.

The clasp is huge and looks cumbersome, and interestingly, the woman discussing the Band on stage had it on with the screen on the inside of her wrist.  (The models on the product page are also wearing the screen on the inside of the wrist.) It looks far more capable than the first generation Band, and certainly less awkward with that weird flat wedge of a screen, but still quite large. Much larger, for example than the FitBit Charge I currently have on my wrist, which I think is already somewhat large and noticeably…dorky.

Nonetheless, I like the commitment to fitness that Microsoft is going for with the Band, with built-in GPS, partnerships already lined up with all sorts of health apps, and guided workouts.  One of the limitations I found when considering the original Band, in addition to the clunky screen, was its inability–apparently–to track steps all day long; it isn’t clear to me that the new Band has constant monitoring. It would make sense to have it, but then again, this thing is trying to do more than just track steps.

Such as being a productivity smart-watch-ish device, too.   Apparently, it will work with iPhones (no surprise considering Microsoft’s best mobile apps appear on iOS first), Androids, and yes, Windows Mobile phones.  You can get emails, text messages, other notifications, and even use Cortana.  Cortana, however, requires a Windows Phone 8.1 or later device.  *sad trombone*

At $249, it is $50 more than the previous model, but $100 less than the entry-level Apple Watch.  It’s an interesting pricing strategy because there is some legitimately interesting stuff in the device, but it’s probably appropriately priced (as far as these things go) as a second-tier device.  Not that I think the Apple Watch is any great shakes, to be honest. I’m not interested in that device in the slightest, as I already have a non-smart watch I like very much thank you.  I am interested in the Band, but not at $249, regardless of the fact they made a curved display.  That helps a lot, but I already found $199 too steep for my interests, and again, it really looks quite bulky.

Lumia 950 and 950XL

 

Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL
Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and 950XL, sourced from Microsoft.

Anyway, on to the phones.  Not much to say here.  The Lumia 950 and 950XL appear to be flagship devices, and the Continuum features look legitimately impressive.  Being able to hook the phone up to a dock and have it work as a desktop-esque machine is really intriguing.  And the technical specifications are nothing to sneeze at.  Either 5.2″ or 5.7″ AMOLED screens, 20 MP cameras with triple LED flashes and ZEISS lenses (which by all accounts are fantastic), a standard 32GB of storage with a microSD slot, and either a 6-core or 8-core Snapdragon processor, they’re pretty stout phones. (Shoot, they even have liquid cooling, which…what?)  Then there’s the afore-mentioned ability to plug it into a dock and have a functioning desktop experience. It’s creative and progressive, and I genuinely would love to use one.

But.

The apps. Or more accurately, the dearth of apps. And the fact that Windows 10 Mobile is not ready for prime time. There is no way this phone will pass the wife test, and in this BYOD environment, that’s more important to me at this point than the technology. It’s a pity, since they are pretty devices.  And they’re lower-tier priced at $549 and $649 respectively (though, with Google’s release of the Nexus devices last week at lower price points, perhaps Microsoft should knock another hundred bucks or so off each if they actually want anyone to buy them).

Surface Pro 4

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Microsoft Surface Pro 4, sourced from Microsoft.

Anyway, onto the device that I was most interested in, the Surface Pro 4.  I have made no bones about the fact that I have fallen out of love with my Venue 8 Pro as a productivity device.  I find it too small, and far too unreliable to use it for anything but general leisure-time consumption.  And that makes me somewhat sad because the idea of a tablet running a full operating system with pen input is precisely my perfect law office productivity device.  That’s where the Surface Pro 3, the Surface 3, and now the Surface Pro 4 resonate with me, and Microsoft has really delivered improvements to the Surface Pro line.

The new Surface Pro 4 is thinner, lighter, and purportedly more powerful. The pen has been updated, has an eraser, comes standard, and magnetically attaches to the edge of the device. Microsoft also updated the Type Cover, to include spaces between the keys, a glass trackpad, and a fingerprint scanner.  The screen is very nice, and has a ton of pixels.  It’s got Intel’s latest Core processors in it. All around, it’s a sleek machine, and I want one.

But the price.

It starts at $899, which is $100 more than the Surface Pro 3 started at (and you can currently get one for $699.00).  That *only* gets you a Core M3, 4 GB of RAM, and a decent 128GB SSD.  Opting for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD increases the price to $1,299.00.  Another 8GB of RAM pumps it to $1,499.00 and maxing the thing out with a Core i7 with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage results in a $2,699.00 device.  Add in a $199 dock, and a $129 keyboard… well, it’s not a cheap device.  Which is fine; it’s the standard-bearer for office productivity tablets.  But it’s also a lot of money to pay for a device which will be last year’s model in a year’s time.

Surface Book

Microsoft Surface Book
Microsoft’s new Surface Book, sourced from Microsoft.

And then there’s the Surface Book (they really should have called it something other than “Book”), which was quite unexpected (apart from whimsical musings about what Microsoft could do if it made laptop), and is very innovative. It’s also got to have all of Microsoft’s OEM partners peeved, because now Microsoft is definitely tromping in the devices category.  It’s a 2-in-1 device, where the screen detaches from the keyboard, and the two halves are connected by a really strange looking articulated hinge.

The thing is pretty compelling, packing a 13.3″ (3000 x 2000) touch screen that also accepts pen input.  In fact, it comes with the Surface Pen.  It also, in its base configuration, sports a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD storage.  It also starts at $1,499.00, which is firmly high-end territory.  Yes, it detaches and becomes a “clipboard,” which is very cool, but that, again, is a lot of money to spend on a first-gen device.  (Oh, maxing it out with a Core i7, 512 GB of SSD storage, 16GB or RAM, and discrete graphics will run you $2,699.)

Wrap it Up

So, all in all, some pretty interesting devices were debuted by Microsoft today, and it will be absolutely exciting to see if Microsoft’s OEM partners can address the build quality and technological specs with slightly more affordable gear.  Nonetheless, it’s nice to see a lot of innovation coming out in the wake of Windows 10.