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 Homerelevant, 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.
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.
To me, it looks like a Macintosh Classic that’s been squished.
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.)
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:
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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?
The 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.
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.
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:
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.
I’ve mentioned before that the keyboard on the Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 frustratingly cuts out while typing, which sharply reduces the utility of the keyboard while in laptop mode. It was an irritating problem that I nonetheless shrugged through because laptop mode is not the main reason I got the device. I got the device because I wanted a reliable and relatively powerful tablet. So far, it has proven to fulfill that role quite well.
Still, the keyboard issues vexed me, so, while waiting for a verdict in a trial last week (we got a mistrial, which–given the circumstances–was a good thing), I started poking around on Lenovo’s website to see if there was a driver fix for the keyboard. At the time, I couldn’t find one. But that’s because I was a couple of days early.
On October 22, 2016, Lenovo released a fix which can be found here. And, lo and behold, it works. Every keystroke is registered, and typing is much more enjoyable.
Lament the Trackpad
But, there’s a downside. The trackpad doesn’t work anymore. Which seems to be something Lenovo anticipated since the second step of the instructions to install the keyboard fix is to install trackpad drivers. Here’s the problem: the trackpad driver didn’t work. It installed just fine, and when you look at the properties for the device, there are no reported problems. But it doesn’t respond to touch. Comparatively speaking, I’d rather have a functioning keyboard than a functioning keyboard, since I have found I use the trackpad a lot less with the touchscreen (and hey, iPad Pro users don’t have the option for one at all), sometimes it’s nice to have the relative precision it can provide. So, the next time I get some free time, I guess I’ll track down what’s going on with that.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
With the official demise of the Venue 8 Pro, I have been keeping my eyes peeled for an intriguing detachable 2-in-1 device with a good stylus. Also, it needs to be larger than the Venue 8 Pro. For my purposes, eight inches is too small for note taking.
Obviously, Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 are the market definers. Even the Surface Pro 3, though it’s over a year old, has compelling features. The Surface 3 is an interesting option, too, being slightly smaller. From HP, there is the Pavilion x2 Detachable 12-b096ms. Huawei and Samsung have also recently released 2-in-1 devices, the Matebook and Galaxy TabPro S respectively.
From my perspective, though, apart from the Pavilion x2, these things get pretty expensive really quickly. For example, the Surface Book, which thoughtfully includes a keyboard and stylus, starts at $1,349 for a Core i5 with a 128GB SSD and 8GB of RAM. To be honest, that’s probably all the computing power I anticipate needing, for now, but $1,349 is far more than I want to spend. Especially for a device that’s had a spotty reliability record. (If you really want to, you can go hog wild and max the thing out with a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD, resulting in a ……. $3,199 price tag. Still cheaper than the gold Apple Watch, though, so…)
2-in-1 Accessories Add Up
The rest of the devices, though? They’re all missing some key accessories. And they aren’t cheap to acquire.
Surface Pro 4 Base Model (Core m3, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM, 12.3″ screen)
$899 starting price (oddly enough, the Core i5 model is currently on sale at the Microsoft Store for $849)
Stylus (Surface Pen) Included
+$130 — Surface Pro 4 Type Cover
Real World Total: $1,030
Surface Pro 3 Remaining New Model (Core i7, 512 GB, 8 GB RAM, 12″ screen)
$1,949 starting price (all other models are out of stock)
Surface Pen included
+$130 — Surface Type Cover
Real World Total: $2,080(!!!)
Surface Pro 3 Refurbished Model (Core i7, 512GB, 8GB RAM, 12″ screen)
$1,599 starting price (all other models are out of stock)
By the time I’ve made the device usable for my wants, I will have spent more than I think is warranted. Except for the HP Pavilion x2. I think $500 plus change for a detachable 2-in-1 with a good-enough processor (more on that later, but I’m wary of the Atom processors given how sluggish the Venue 8 Pro became once I updated to Windows 10.)
Stylus Technology Matters
But I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger on the Pavilion. It isn’t because it isn’t a really compelling piece of hardware. Yes, maybe it’s slightly heavier and thicker than the other offerings. And yes, perhaps the speakers on the sides might look a little…wonky. Those factors don’t matter as much to me, though. What I’m most concerned about is the stylus’s digitizing technology. From what I could gather, it was either home-grown by HP, or used Synaptics technology, which is what Dell used on the V8P. Given how incredibly unreliable the V8P’s stylus was, I can’t justify spending $500 on something to have it become essentially worthless out of the gate.
Instead, I really wanted something that used N-Trig’s or Wacom’s technology. They have solid reputations, and aren’t likely to conk out on me while trying to take notes during a client meeting.
Where Are All the 2-in-1 Devices with Stylus Support?
Until this past weekend, which I’ll get to later, a 2-in-1 didn’t seem like something I was going to include in my work routine any time soon. The utter lack of easily findable information on whether a particular device supports stylus input is another barrier.
The Microsoft Store’s website does a great job of aggregating a nice collection of 2-in-1s which are part of the Signature Edition program. That is, the machines purchased through that program do not have any junk (other than the stuff included as part of Windows 10) preinstalled. What the site utterly fails to do, other than for the Surface line of machines, is tell you whether a given device supports stylus input. Even Amazon, which has a fine dedicated 2-in-1 section, does not include stylus support as a filter. There are options for operating system (including Windows XP), activity (Gaming, Business, Personal), display size, processor type, RAM size, number of CPU Cores, hard drive size and type, weight, number of USB 3.0 ports, WLAN standard, battery life, graphics type, graphics processor, optical storage, flash storage size, wireless internet connectivity, display technology, brand, display resolution, power consumption, and CPU speed. But stylus support? Not an option.
It would be nice if there was a repository of which machines have active stylus support, but there really doesn’t seem to be one. Not easily findable at least. For that, you need to run a Google or Bing search on each individual machine, and hope that the manufacturer’s website tells you the answer. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to learn what digitizer technology is being used. In the end, you have to make do the best you can.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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,