Tag Archives: Apple

Tick Tock: Wearable Tech

I don’t wear a watch. I haven’t for more than twenty years. I did when I was growing up; I went through several. My mother bought me a Mickey Mouse watch several years ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of why she got it for me, but she did and I wore it even in basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in the Army. It was during AIT in Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio that I lost it. As part of our training, we had to run a litter obstacle course, carrying a patient across a mock battle field. I was part of a four-man team carrying our litter across a stream and, not wanting the watch to get wet, I gave it to the patient on the litter. One of our teammates footing slipped, dunking our patient into the cold water and the patient dropped the watch into the stream. Mickey was lost forever. I bought another watch, an Armitron, if memory serves and wore it for some time. It got wet and the face got messed up, but a jeweler offered to clean it up for me. He painted the face and put a nice gold colored band on it. It got people’s attention, and one person even offered to buy it from me. I refused, thinking it was too pretty to sell, but unfortunately the water damage was not limited to the face. The mechanism broke down and it died. By the time I got out of the Army, or shortly thereafter, I stopped wearing watches. The bands pulled the hairs on my arm and I grew weary of taking them off, putting them on, winding them or changing the batteries, and I kept scratching up the crystals. I tried a pocket watch for a while, thinking it looked cooler, more sophisticated, but it turned out to be a pain in that I kept forgetting to put it in my pocket. It’s not much of a pocket watch if it’s never in one’s pocket. Once I started carrying a pager and then a cell phone, I no longer had any need to wear a timepiece. If I had any need to know what the time was, I could simply look at my phone. It was like a more modern equivalent of carrying a pocket watch that I was less likely to forget to put in my pocket. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Fast forward twenty-odd years.

?

A new technology has broken upon the scene: the Smart Watch; a device designed as a companion to the cell phone.

Once Apple introduced the Apple Watch and Samsung offered the Galaxy Gear, many of my friends asked if I intended on getting one. Of course, the Apple Watch was a nonstarter as I don’t like iOS devices, but I did look at the Galaxy Gear. I am a techie after all. If it is new technology, I usually give it the once over; just to see if it will be of use to me. I perused the Galaxy Gear and was underwhelmed. Its clunky design and non-intuitive interface were not enough to pique my interest. I was also disappointed with the plastic band and toy-like appearance. Watches were always a fashion accessory first and foremost and a timepiece second. The Galaxy Gear was neither. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

There are a couple of other smart watches such as the Fit Bit which offers the ability to track heart rate, step count and activity. Most smart watches do this, but Fit Bit makes fitness the main focus of their device. There is also the Pebble, a low-cost entry into the smart watch category and it looks like it. It has the fit and finish of a child’s toy watch one gets from a toy vending machine or Cracker Jack box. I did not like what I saw. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Samsung redesigned the Galaxy Gear to provide it with a standalone cell connection so it is more like a Dick Tracy secret spy watch-phone. It has a speaker and a camera built in. It is essentially a phone one wears on one’s wrist. And it is that much bigger, too. It also costs more than a phone if you don’t get the carrier service contract. No, it would not do for me. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

While I was in Best Buy perusing the latest tech, I spotted a different watch: the Motorola 360. Sporting a solid stainless steel body and gorilla glass face, the 360 looks like a real watch; more so than any of the other entries in the market. It comes with different bands, too. The entry level offered a black steel body and black leather band, or one could opt for the stainless steel body and metal link band. A brown or gray leather band is also available. This device may be a smart watch, but it actually looks like a watch. It has the fit and finish of a fashion accessory, something that most smart watches lack. Before the Apple acolytes rage against this machine, I will admit that one can configure an apple watch with enough bling to make it a $1000+ fashion accessory too. The Motorola 360 has that look out of the box for $150.

When I unboxed it, its battery was flat dead. Many electronics come boxed with a least a partial charge, but not the 360. It uses the Qi wireless charging system, so there is no charging port on the device, which helps it maintain that classic watch look. After charging for a while, I was able to pair it to my phone via Bluetooth. I initially used a Galaxy Note 3 to pair the watch and it went without a hitch. The only problem was that out of the box the version of the 360 firmware was not efficient with its battery use and the watch depleted in about a half hour of constant use. At this point, I was fairly certain I would be returning the watch. I have no use for a device that cannot last at least ten hours of nominal use on one charge. Fortunately, once I charged it up again, it downloaded not one, not two, but three firmware updates. After completing the last one, the system was much more battery friendly. It also added several new features that the first version didn’t have. The battery now lasts all day. I do have to put it on the charger each night, to ensure it has enough charge for the next day, but when I place it on the charger, it still has anywhere from 40% to 60% charge left after 16 hours of moderate to heavy use. One of the nice things it does when charging is change the display from the standard watch face to a digital clock face that shows the charge level as a ring around the face. This means if I wake up in the middle of the night, it acts like a nightstand clock.

The 360 runs on Android Wear, a stripped down version of Android designed for the minimalist interface afforded by the small form factor of a wrist watch. It is designed to work in conjunction with an Android-powered cell phone, provided said phone is running Android 4.0 (Kit Kat) or higher. Interacting with Android Wear has a learning curve. It is not as intuitive as I would have liked. One swipes left/right and up/down depending on the function one is doing, and there are no obvious prompts as to which way to swipe or what swiping will do. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long to figure it out, and there is no lasting damage from doing it wrong. One cannot delete a message from the phone on the watch, for example.

Pairing the watch to a cell phone provides the wearer the ability to read incoming text messages or emails on the watch screen without having to open or unlock the phone. Also, notifications are sent to the watch as well, so that appointments, reminders, and updates alert your watch. Some might find this unnecessary as their phone is never out of their hand, but as I have a phablet which rides in my hip pocket most of the time, I like being able to check an incoming alert with a simple flip of my wrist. If I am instructing, my phone is set to vibrate so that it doesn’t interrupt my class. It would be rude as well as distracting to my students if I stopped teaching to wrestle the phone out of my pocket to see what the alert was. Now, I can just look at my watch.

Google searching is one of the core functions of Android Wear. The 360 is better at voice recognition than most phones. Rather than whip out the cell phone to type in a search term, the 360’s dual microphones allow the wearer to simply say “OK, Google,” which brings up the Google app, and then speak the search terms. “Find a pizza place near me,” or “How old is George Clooney,” brings results right to the watch face. Since the watch does pair with the cell phone, if the user has set up Google Now on the phone for the personalized cards, these same cards can appear on the watch as well. The 360 pulls data from the phone for weather, time, date and agenda right on the watch face. You can even get your airplane boarding pass on the watch’s display.

Flat Tire effect at bottom of display

There is a downside. While the watch face may seem large for a watch, it is small for a browser. Reading content on the watch requires a lot of scrolling. One can set the font size to make reading easier, but with my eyes, I have to keep the font relatively large. Android wear does have the ability to open the alert or message on the phone for better reading if it something that requires more attention. Also, there is a small area at the bottom of the screen that is not used for the display. Some people call it the “flat tire” look. This area houses the light sensor the device needs to set the screen brightness. If one selects a bright watch face, the area is very noticeable. I have a black face, so it’s difficult to notice.

Android Wear offers a number of slick watch faces that are user-selectable and the Google Play store offers many apps to design one’s own from either a template, or from scratch if one has an artistic bent. There are many apps available for Wear, from games, to note taking, to ordering pizza, but I find most of them superfluous. The apps I do use are the voice recorder (though it has no speaker, the 360 has two microphones for Google searching) which saves voice notes on your phone, a calculator, a Wear version of Shazam and the coolest one is the camera remote app. Selfies are a breeze now. Simply set up the phone, frame the shot, the check out the image on the watch and if it is good, snap the pick with the watch. Playing games on the watch seems pointless. There are better games on the phone and since the watch is always no more than 30 feet away, best to keep playing on the phone.

It is important to remember what the watch is supposed to be. It is a time piece that also interacts with your cell phone to help keep users connected to their information. It is not a content delivery system, or a personal entertainment system, or a media system, or a development/production system. One still needs a phone/tablet/PC for those functions.

Motorola just released the next version of the 360, which offers a slightly faster CPU and slightly better battery management. It also has three different versions: one for men, one for women and one for the sport-minded. The price has gone up as well, to between $300 and $400, depending on the configuration. I am happy with mine, so I have no plans on upgrading.

After more than twenty years with a naked wrist, I am adjusting to wearing a smart watch now. It felt heavy at first, but then again, any watch would feel heavy to someone who hasn’t worn one in a while. I do like checking the alerts without pulling out the phone and being able to voice search is a great benefit. People who know me have noticed the device. My son came to the house the weekend I bought the 360. As soon as he saw me he said: “What’s with the watch? You don’t wear a watch.”

He’s right. I don’t wear a watch. I wear a Moto 360.

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The Path To Hell Is Paved With Forced Upgrades

I broke my phone the other day.  It had a problem reading the battery voltage and would spontaneously shut down because of low battery indicators, even though the battery was nearly fully charged.  The second time it did that in an hour, it met the floor with a bit more force than it should have.  Gorilla glass is tough, but it makes the most interesting patterns when shattered.

Dead Epic 4G

It has failed me for the last time.

Since it was almost two years old, I decided to upgrade to the new Samsung Galaxy S3, since it has many improvements over my older Epic 4G (Galaxy S) and the newest Android operating system.  Upgrading when a device is broken is a perfectly understandable and even expected thing to do.  But these days, it seems we are expected to upgrade everything even when we don’t need or even want to.
The morning after I brought home my new smartphone, my wife’s Galaxy S2 phone upgraded itself to Android 4.0.4 (AKA Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS).  This is not a bad thing, but it necessitated upgrading several of her apps as well.  Later that same day, I was working on my old Powermac G3 computer at work and I got several errors when I tried to watch videos from some tech and news sites.  It seems Adobe has upgraded Flash and the flash player in my G3 is no longer compatible with the codecs being used these days and Adobe is not making the updates compatible with Motorola based G3 processors like the one in my Mac.  Adobe is on the hook for another serious annoyance that pesters me virtually every single day: Adobe Acrobat Reader updates.  I get a nag almost every time I sit down at the computer to upgrade this software.  Java is another one that is almost as bad.  When I turn on my phone, I get anywhere from 4 to 40 app alerts from the Google Play (formerly Android Market) to update the apps on my phone, and periodically, my computer will prompt me to install new updates to windows.  It seems that software designers never heard of the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
(as I typed that line, Android just popped up with “updates are available” again, and I just updated last night)
Once upon a time, software developers wrote programs (apps in today’s vernacular) and spent a lot of time and money debugging them and tweaking them to make them as good as they could be.  When they released them, the software was packaged in a box with a user’s manual and the disks or CDs in jewel cases and a user took them home, installed them and that was that.  If a program was updated, it was a significant change in the user experience with additional features added that would prompt the change and it would more than likely cost money.  There were rarely “bug fixes” because most bugs were discovered before publication.  Oh, sure a few got through, but those were dealt with. With the advent of the internet, software companies found they could deal with the few bug fixes with a “patch” that could be downloaded, thus reducing expense.  This lead to more software being released with more bugs, since deploying the patches was easier and cheaper.
Now software is released and then updated within days of each other.
Upgrades are not necessarily a bad thing, many programs get significant new features or improvements in upgrades.  Antivirus software must update regularly to handle the ever changing threat of viruses and hackers.  However, some updates actually worsen or even break the programs by removing features or options with which users are familiar.  Apple removed the ability to format filenames in an earlier version of iTunes and Microsoft is going to alter media center software with the Windows 8 version so that it will no longer be a boot option and must be downloaded as an add-on rather than being included in the release.  These do not even touch the number of apps that are completely broken and stop working when an update is downloaded and applied.  Android wins the contest on this issue since developers have to try to make the apps work on various hardware platforms.
Back in the old days, when the hardware makers built faster machines, software makers wrote programs that utilized these faster processors and memory.  If a user had an older machine and they wanted to run the newer programs, they would need to get a newer machine (or at least upgrade the older machine if possible).  This was known as the forced upgrade path and Microsoft and Intel kept each other in business for years doing just that.  App developers don’t seem to be using that logic.  In fact, they don’t seem to be using any logic with these updates.
With the ever increasing amount of apps available on so many different platforms, it forces one to wonder why the developers can’t leave well enough alone.  If it works, leave it alone.  Most of the updates have no appreciable difference in user experience, add no new features and are indistinguishable from their predecessors.  If a developer makes a significant improvement to an app, fine, push the update, otherwise stop pestering me to update.

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The Netbook’s Eulogy?

There has been much ado in the mobile computing world of late as a new platform has threatened to kill the netbook. The netbook was developed as secondary device to a regular notebook computer to allow more portability with internet access. Many netbooks even come with 3G network access for internet access while on the go. Opponents to the netbook bemoaned the fact that although smaller and lighter, it was essentially the same user experience as a notebook–kind of redundant. A new device, the tablet, was developed with two distinct camps touting the praises of their respective platforms while degenerating the opposition.  This polemic view of this next evolution of personal computing is no where near resolution as developments on both fronts push the debate along.  I joined into this debate this past month by finally buying a tablet PC.image

The two dominate formats for tablet computing are Apple’s iPad with iOS and any number of tablets running Android.  Apple gets points for introducing the tablet PC to the public with the first consumer model in the iPad.  There had been a Microsoft Windows-based tablet floating in the fringes of the market for high end users, but it was aimed at doctors or similar professionals and priced out reach of most consumers.  Windows also lacks a viable touch interface with XP or Windows 7, making the user experience less than par.
Apple had already won the hearts and minds of the public with its touch-based iOS on the iPhone and iPad touch, so it seemed logical to use the same interface for a full-sized tablet.  The iPad was touted as the netbook killer and projected to redefine the mobile market.  It did redefine the market, but it did not kill the netbook.
I have been using a netbook to write for the past three years and it has done a wonderful job.  I used an Acer Aspire One with Win XP and Word to write, surf and email while on the go.  Of course for more serious applications, I had my work laptop and the home media center to carry the heavy computing load.  Since my netbook has become, in personal electronics years, the equivalent of geriatric age, it was time to replace it.  The question was, what to replace it with; a new netbook or something more portable.
I have watched the tablet market for the past year as HP, Acer, Samsung and others battled to produce a tablet to compete with the iPad.  Android and Windows both are being pressed into service on tablets, but as I have said earlier, Windows does not make for a good tablet interface.  It also eats batteries for lunch.  For example, Asus makes two tablets, one that runs android and one with Windows 7.  The Android tablet gets 8 hours of service, the Windows tablet only 5.
I found that most tablets are using the Nvidia Tegra 2 processor chip.  It is a respectable dual core processor and fast enough for most applications. 
I played with all kinds of tablets in the store trying to find the one that said “buy me.”  None did.  Not even the iPad.
The iPad has smooth scrolling on its pages, and the applications seems fluid enough, but the iOS leaves me wanting.  It does not support widgets and it does not multitask very well.  In fairness, iOS 5 does multitask, but not as well as Android 4.
Android has widgets and multitasks very well–though not as well as Windows.
So where does this leave the prospective buyer? Looking for other features. Like a keyboard.
There are plenty of keyboard options for tablets users who want one. Most of them are Bluetooth, which poses its own problem. Bluetooth uses more power. Also, most Bluetooth keyboards for tablets are flimsy sealed rubber key devices that are integrated in a tablet case. Only two manufacturers have dedicated keyboards that make a direct physical connection to the tablet. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has a plug in keyboard that holds the tablet in an attached stand. Not a bad solution, but not optimum in my opinion. The clear advantage goes to the Asus Transformer Prime, which touts a snap-on keyboard which turns the tablet into a netbook. The Transformer Prime also touts the latest Nvidia Tegra 3 Quad-core processor and now updates to Ice Cream Sandwich upon making a network connection.
I bought the Transformer Prime about a month ago and waited to write this review until I had put it through its paces. I am glad I waited.
The device has redefined my use in many ways. I have had the Kindle app on my phone for more than a year and even had a book. But I rarely read it as even with my Epic 4G’s large screen, it was not big enough for comfortable reading. On my Prime, reading is an enjoyable experience. I have finished three novels in the month I have had the tablet. I have become addicted to spider solitaire. Netflix is awesome again. Every app I enjoyed on my phone is better on the tablet–except, of course, calls and text messaging.
image

The drawback (and its biggest complaint from the iPad crowd) is the lack of GOOD productivity apps for the Android platform. Asus ships the Prime with Polaris Office, a Microsoft Office compatible program that allows one to view and edit Word docs, Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentations. I found this app lacking, unfortunately and while there are alternatives, none have the full-functionality of a dedicated professional word processor. As a writer, this is quite distressing and it has kept me from using my tablet as I envisioned until tonight. I have had the WordPress app on the tablet from day two, but since I have never composed IN the app before, I didn’t know it has some really cool and productive features, including spell check.
Armed with this knowledge, I anticipate breaking my writers’ block that has kept my blog silent for more than 2 months. Let’s hope anyway. The action of this keyboard is fantastic for such a small and light device and with the Quad-core processor, the Prime is more than up to the task.
In full disclosure, many Prime owners have complained about WiFi and GPS signal issues. These complaints almost made me rethink my decision to buy one. Now, I will first say that I have experienced absolutely zero problems with WiFi on my Prime. It finds my networks at home and the office and here at a B&B in Smithville, Texas with no difficulty. I am streaming Tune-in radio right now with no buffering and no chirps, gaps or dropouts while I type this. Now as for the GPS issue, one: Google maps locates me using the WiFi positioning faster than any GPS ever found me. Two: Google maps requires a constant internet connection to work. The Transformer Prime is WiFi only (no 3G or 4G option is available) so having Maps work from the WiFi signal shouldn’t be a problem. Google Nav does need GPS to triangulate and plot course, so those who would use that feature may have an issue. I tried it twice and once it didn’t locate me and once it did and it worked for the duration that I used it. I see no problem in my case since I use my phone for GPS navigation anyway. It fits in the center console and this tablet won’t.
I also use my phone as a camera. The Prime has two cameras: one 8 MP rear-facing and a 2 MP forward facing. I have taken 2 pictures in the month I’ve had it. I take a lot of pictures both with my phone and my real camera; a Nikon D80. I can’t see the benefit of holding a full-sized tablet up to take a picture.
I love my Transformer Prime. It has replaced my Acer Netbook, but I won’t say it has killed the class of Netbook, merely replaced it.

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So Close And Yet So Far

Well, there is so much going on and it has been several days since I blogged that I don’t know where to begin. Apple unveiled the iPad device Wednesday that is basically a souped up iPod Touch or iPhone depending on which flavor you get; they have WIFI-N and 3G (with WIFI-N). They will market it as an alternative to the Kindle for ebook reading, while touting its color screen and cool iPod touch interface (the kindle is not a touch screen device). My first reaction to the press releases is “cool,” followed by “I could use that,” which was followed by “why?”

The device is just a bigger iPod. Sure it has a slightly beefier CPU, but it is not a productivity tool. It is an entertainment device. Even with that label, there is a small problem: the device is not small. The iPod slips into a pocket or purse with ease. The iPad is tablet-sized, which means it will have to be carried—either by hand or in the nifty flip easel/carrying case that you can buy from the Apple Store. It is thin, but not as thin as the Kindle. Of course, the big screen does come in handy for those tired-eyed people like me.

What about apps? We used to call it “software” back in the day. No tech toy or tool is worth the plastic it’s made from if it doesn’t run cool apps. Well, the iPad can run all the apps the iPod and iPhone can run, as well as running iWork. Of course, it has the app store, iTunes and now a new store app for ebooks. But it doesn’t run Office, which is a deal breaker for me. As a writer, I need a device that I can use to compose on the fly, and I do not see the iPad filling that bill until it gets a full-blown word processor. iWork’s “Page” app can generate text, but it is not as full featured as Word or even Open Office.

While the iPad beats Kindle on graphics (the Kindle is painfully slow turning pages), the Kindle smokes the iPad on battery usage. The Apple website says the iPad gets 10 hours of WIFI-powered app usage and a month of standby time. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying 8 hours of life when he announced the device at the unveiling. Either way, it isn’t much. Of course, it is more that the average laptop or netbook, but that isn’t saying much. The Kindle gets 2-3 weeks of reading usage and months (that’s monthS with an s) of standby time.

Also, buying the Kindle provides a 3G connection to Amazon anywhere. The cost is included in the price of the device. The iPad offers WIFI-N for those with wireless hotspot access, and they have a 3G flavor which will use a data plan that you have to buy yourself. They have not announced which carriers will support the iPad, but it will probably be the same one that supports the iPhone. So you can add a $40 per month charge to the overall cost of the device.

Another place where the Kindle has an advantage is the ebook market. Apple has made deals with several publishing houses to market new books for the iPad at slightly higher than market prices. Kindle has all of Amazon’s book marketing power behind it. More titles and cheaper (though not much) prices give the Kindle the clear advantage for now. Don’t discount Apple’s marketing team though. They managed to break the DRM pact on music and get the Beatles on iTunes, they can get more books for the iPad. Someday.

Remember, these are just first impressions based solely on the press release and articles touting the device. I have not touched it yet or even laid eyes on it. Once I do, you will be the first to know.

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