Technology Notes

Pebble WatchSmart Watches

I read a piece recently that had been recommended by LinkedIn, the Facebook for business folk. An analyst wrote that Apple was developing a sure-to-fail product: the iWatch. Now, first of all, it’s hard to believe anybody is still going out on that “Apple is sure to fail” limb. The writer’s logic was also puzzling. He wrote that while the iPhone was a revolutionary product in an up-and-coming market segment (smartphones), the iWatch is entering a declining market (wristwatches). This makes no sense – if the author could distinguish between “smart” and “traditional” mobile phones, surely he might have made the leap to imagine a market for “smart” watches.

I have been wearing a Pebble watch for the past nine months. Here’s why it makes sense:

1) You can leave your phone on silent mode all the time and still get your notifications (the watch vibrates and displays the message.)
2) You can glance at your wrist while driving, at dinner, in a meeting or talking to someone, instead of pulling out the phone to see what’s up. 95% of new messages don’t require immediate attention, so this is a great way to quickly see the difference.

I’ve gotten to the point where I rely on the Pebble and prefer checking it to bringing the phone out every few minutes. I think Apple’s version will include a better interface, and some new health & fitness applications that will make it even more valuable. Apple’s version is likely to offload some processing from the phone to watch, and to allow better 2-way communication than is now possible (Dick Tracy’s wrist communicator will almost surely become a reality, if not in the first version then certainly down the road.) Even in a very primitive state, my early smart watch is already very useful – I expect it to become more so.

Philips HuePhilips Hue Lighting

I remember being surprised, a long time ago, to discover that a theatrical lighting designer I knew had really boring lights in his house. The Philips Hue system makes it possible for everyone to design their own lights at home.

Hue light bulbs are not cheap – a starter kit runs $200, which includes a control unit and three bulbs. Additional bulbs are $60. But what fun. The low-energy LED bulbs are controlled via phone app or computer interface. They have built-in dimmers and can shine any color you want. You can schedule them on and off, and they allow fade times as well. An interesting feature is the software’s ability to import a picture, and to duplicate the light (color and intensity) from any portion of the photograph. My kitchen light turns on at 5 AM with a bright, “let’s tackle the day” feel. It turns off at 8 AM, then comes on again in the evening, with a relaxing “sunset” cast.

An early complaint about Hue lights was that people didn’t like getting their phone out to turn the lights on if the light wasn’t scheduled already. All of our bulbs turn on just by toggling the light switch – off and then back on again (the default setting is like a traditional incandescent bulb.) They’ll remain in that state until you turn the switch off (it’s better to leave it on), or use the app to change it, or once a scheduled change happens.

Nest ProductsNest Products

When I read that two designers of the original iPod had started a company to make home thermostats, I knew I had to try one. The Nest thermostat is a pleasure to unbox, and couldn’t be easier to install (they even include a tool.) The thermostat itself is gorgeous – a black and silver circle on the wall, quite refined. As you approach it, the device senses you are there and the display turns on. Turning the temperature up or down is as simple as turning the dial. The beauty is how it senses the activity in the house and suggests schedules to optimize your energy use. (I think the device would pay for itself very quickly in a home with central air, which I don’t have.) Of course, you can control the thermostat and also see the current temperature using a phone app, convenient if you are not home or lying in bed.

The Nest Protect also seemed like a slam dunk for our house; a smoke/carbon monoxide detector that connects to the home wireless network. If a unit detects smoke or CO, it makes the traditional racket and also sends a signal to your phone. This seemed great until our first false alarm – I was outside and my phone indicated there was smoke in the upstairs hallway: EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY! So I ran inside and up the stairs. No smoke, but the machine would not stop screaming – I couldn’t turn it off (“This alarm cannot be silenced. Evacuate immediately.” So I put the damn thing under the couch. (It turns out the Nest Protect units also detect dust – once Susan took the unit apart and cleaned it, we were able to hang it again.) I won’t be buying more of them soon – they cost three times what a “normal” combination unit does, and I don’t want to risk an increased likelihood of false alarms.

Apple AirPortWI-FI Routers

About a year ago, I purchased a new WI-FI router. The new one was an Apple AirPort Extreme, to replace a 5 year-old unit. My Internet throughput doubled, according to a speed test I ran. Speed tests are available via your ISP – they are web pages that simulate Internet traffic and help to indicate if your throughput is what it should be. I run a speed test once per week.

When you have slow or dead Internet service, it MIGHT be your ISP. (This is where most people assign blame.) The problem might also be your router or your computer. Routers need to be re-started every once in a while, just like computers. Also like computers, new models are faster than old ones. Consider upgrading yours if it’s been more than four years.

Bose Soundlink MiniBOSE Soundlink Mini Bluetooth Speaker

I was given one of these amazing speakers for Christmas. Most of the time, it sits on my desk and I use it for day-to-day music playback while I work. When I brew, I bring it to the garage and it plays music (wirelessly) from my iPad or iPhone. I’ve brought it with me on several business trips to provide music in my hotel room. Amazingly, it puts out enough sound to fill a small theater – I’ve used it to run sound cues during two shows this year. (The downside is that it turns off after 30 minutes if no sound comes through during that time.) Battery life runs about 14 hours, and it allows a wired connection in addition to Bluetooth (my iMac doesn’t offer uninterrupted Bluetooth playback, unlike the iPhone and iPad, both of which are almost perfect.) If you read online reviews, you’ll see many written by professional sound workers who are impressed at the quality of this unit – I add my voice to theirs.

iPad comparisonTablet Computers

I have an Apple-centric house. I switched ten years ago, despite the fact that I was a certified Microsoft Engineer (MCSE). The immediate reason was that I sang in a rock band that wanted to record its sessions. We tried using my Windows laptop, but it kept crashing with only 4 channels of digital input. We bought a $500 Mac Mini and it took 18 channels at only 30% processor utilization. When the band broke up, I kept the computer. Mac does cost more upfront, but you don’t need virus protection, anti-spam subscriptions, etc. The annual OS updates are free, and those usually make the computer faster, instead of slower (like Windows.) Also, the experience using the product is typically better and they last longer.

As for tablets, Apple’s iPads integrate seamlessly with an Apple infrastructure – the e-mail, contacts, calendar, Internet browser and other applications are all synched across all devices. Even if you don’t need that, the iPad is an ideal tablet computer for these reasons:

1) Hundreds of thousands of applications.
2) Lightweight.
3) It almost never crashes (be sure to re-start it whenever you update your apps to the newest versions.) I rely on mine for theatrical applications, including lighting, sound and slides – I still won’t rely on a Windows machine.
4) Incredible battery life – mine goes about 14 hours with normal use, but I’ve also gotten 6 hours of “always on” usage, where the screen never turned off.

Apple TVApple TV

The Apple TV is under $100 (plus an HDMI cable, not included.)  It provides a link between your computer, iPhone, iPad and high definition TV.  (Only the TV is required.) The Apple TV unit connects directly to the Internet via your home WI-FI.  I subscribe to Netflix and Hulu; both apps are included on the Apple TV (you enter your username and password to access your subscription.)  I can also play movies and music from my computer, simulcast anything from the computer, iPad or iPhone, and show my home videos and pictures on the TV.  Like most Apple products, it just works.

Withing Smart Body AnalyzerWithings Scale

The Withings Smart Body Analyzer scale ($150) connects to home WI-FI, and can be customized to recognize everyone in the family. When I step on the scale, it uploads my weight, body fat and heart rate to a web site, where I can view it on the computer or on my phone. Three AAA batteries last about 9 months. (The scale also gives an air quality report and tells me if rain is in the forecast.)