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Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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Passing Notes

Cell phones evoke strong reactions in many users, from camping out for days in advance of a posted release date, to igniting flame wares online debating the merits of the latest models. Some people are fully entrenched in one brand or the other and cannot conceive of ever using another model, while others flip back and forth depending on what deal they find at the time. Some people get a new phone every six months while others hold onto their phone until it completely stops working. I tend to fall in the latter group. My Galaxy Note 4 was on its last legs and it was time to consider a new phone. I held off getting a replacement until I knew whether or not Samsung would continue the Note line after its Note 7 debacle. I now have a new phone and a new carrier (kinda) and I am a happy camper once again.

I bought my Note 4 when my Note 3 failed. When my Note 4 began exhibiting battery problems after a year, I considered having my carrier upgrade me to the newly-released Note 7 (Samsung skipped the Note 6) as a replacement. Fortunately, my Carrier was able to get me a new Note 4 that resolved my issue and I didn’t have time to be disappointed because it was just then when the Note 7 began exploding in people’s pockets. The carriers very much want people to buy a new phone every year and it had been more than two since I bought my Note 4. Both Samsung and Verizon were keen on upgrading me to the Galaxy S-8. I even considered it, but it came down to the fact that there is no S-pen in the S-8. I just couldn’t do it.

All that changed at the end of July, when Samsung began teasing its “Bigger Things” ad campaign. Clearly from the silhouette, they were about to release a new Note! I was giddy with “New Phone” excitement. After Samsung announced the phone, the major carriers began offering pre-orders at different price points. The phone is not cheap. $960 from all the carriers, but that could be mitigated by trading in an old phone. Best Buy offered it for $150 less than the carriers, so that was the best deal, if I stayed with Verizon. One problem, though, was that I had finally finished paying off my Note 4 and my Verizon bill was about to be a lot lower, but if I bought the phone from them, I was stuck making payments for two years again. Verizon is not the cheapest data plan unless you get four lines from them. As I live alone, I certainly don’t need four lines. Their unlimited plan was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I began shopping around.

The other major carriers were comparable to Verizon and nothing stood out. Comcast had recently launched their Xfinity Mobile service and I looked at that. As an Xfinity Internet customer, I could get phone service from them without paying a line access fee. That was cool. Their unlimited plan was cheaper than the other carriers as well. The only problem was that Xfinity Mobile wasn’t listing the Note 8 as being available, and I had to buy the phone from them to activate it. They do not yet offer a bring your own phone plan. Fortunately, the week after its announcement, the Note 8 appeared on the XM website for pre-order at $200 less than all the other carriers. That pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me. I ordered the phone and the “by the gig” plan ($12 per gig) and waited.

The phone arrived at my home via FedEx on the 15th (the official launch date) and I unboxed it immediately. It is about a centimeter longer than the Note 4 and about a half-centimeter more narrow. It is an all-glass body, which makes it challenging to hold onto. Also, it is very slippery and will readily slide on any slanted surface, so a tactile case is essential to prevent damage. It’s biggest cosmetic difference is the infinity screen, removing any hard buttons from the face of the device. No home button. No fingerprint scanner. Nothing. When the phone is off, it is just a black obelisk. The power button is in the same position on the right side and the volume buttons are on the left. One new button shares the left side at about thumb position and that is the Bixby button. More on that later.

On the flip-side, there are two camera lenses, the flash and the re-positioned fingerprint sensor. The dual 12 megapixel camera is an oft-touted improvement allowing for more portrait style photography giving simulated depth of field. The front camera has improved as well, now sporting 8 megapixels. The most significant improvement for me is the manual settings allowing the user to set aperture and shutter speed and ISO if they so choose.

The S-pen does more now as well. While it is still a WACOM stylus, Samsung has added more features in the system that uses the S-pen. It had a coloring program that allows the user to either color on predrawn art, much like those adult coloring books that were all the rage a couple of years ago, or free draw and color original artwork and share it in an online gallery for feedback. I have wasted a couple of hours doing that already.

The Note 8 is a Note, so it still works on the same principle as its predecessors and I am well familiar with it. My greatest impression is the faster CPU and the larger memory. The Octocore processor running at 2.35 GHz and the six Gigs of onboard RAM mean it is zippy fast. Samsung also brought back the micro SD card slot so the on board 64 Gigs of storage can be augmented by adding up to 256 Gigs of removable storage.

What I not as enamored with is the rear mounted fingerprint scanner. I have yet to get my finger in the correct position thanks to the thickness of my phone case/wallet. Fortunately, the Note 8 offers retina scanning as a biometric option as well as 3-D facial recognition. This is fine for unlocking the phone, but my apps and websites still want fingerprints.

Some of the updates to standard apps are not as welcome either. The mail app is missing the ability to register a domain as spam, meaning one can only register each message one at a time. Some menu items have been moved to other screens, which is just a matter of a learning curve.

All in all, I am quite pleased with my new Note 8 and I am glad I waited. I am also happy I got it for $200 less than the major carriers were charging, while I still get the Samsung promotion for a wireless charger and memory card. I even ordered a new wallet case which showed up one day after the phone. Apple announced the new iPhone just two weeks after Samsung announced the Note 8. At $1000, the iPhone X took the Note’s short –lived title as the most expensive phone on the market. At least until Samsung announces the Note 9.

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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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