Smartwatches – 4 years, 3 devices, 1 verdict

When it comes to wearables, everyone seems to have their own flavor of the day. It seems like every major phone manufacturer has at least dipped their toes in the wearable market based on the saturation of them out there. Sure, Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, Fit Bit (insert model), and Garmin Vivofit are the most popular brands, but they’re not the only ones. There are tons of knockoff, cheaply made, somewhat effective wearables out there, and sure, if you just want to see if you’d even wear it, get one of those $15 ones at Dollar General and give it a run! Or pick yourself up the $60 Fit Bit if all you want is the activity tracker. They all have their purpose, and each watch has their own niche. These are the three that I have used, and the verdict that I draw from them. They all served a similar purpose, however they all did it in pretty different ways, and had numerous different interface concepts, so this truly will come down to personal preference.

Device 1

In July, 2014, which was still in the earlier phase of the smartwatch craze, I purchased a smartwatch from a kickstarter company, Pebble, and to this day regret getting rid of it somewhat. At the time I was running a Moto Droid that was a few years old (due to shattering my iPhone 5, and not having the means to replace it at the time), and with Android, the Pebble Smartwatch was fully functional, and amazingly affordable. It had an e-ink display, which lended quite well to battery life, it would go up to 8 days on a single charge typically. Sure, it didn’t have all of the functionality that the modern watches do with heart rate sensors, and activity tracking, however you could pause, and play music, view your notifications, and even utilize the buttons as a keypad, and reply to text messages! When I went back to iOS however, the functionality dwindled down to being able to pause and play music, as well as viewing notifications. Well in April, 2015, Apple unveiled something pretty cool that I had my eye on, the Apple Watch, and I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off it now that I was back on iOS for a phone. Given that I purchased the watch for $200, being able to sell it for $150 after getting a year and a half of use out of it was a pretty great deal, so I did that, pooled that $150 with some other random cash I had been saving, marched myself to best buy, and purchased an Apple Watch.

Device 2

Do you run iOS? How about OS X? Well, then you chose right if you picked an Apple Watch as your wearable, just as I did after shedding my Pebble Steel. The Apple Watch from the moment I took it out of the box was pretty awesome, their pairing sequence was scanning some weird, flashy looking code, connecting via bluetooth, and then it was good to go. The app support was much higher than that of the Pebble that I owned before it, and rightly so, given the OLED display, touch interface, WiFi connectivity, and the fact that Apple clamps down on app developers that are trying to produce for the device, and makes sure that it’s legit. This thing even has Instagram on it, if you want to scroll that on the 38mm or 42mm display. It allows full functionality with your phone, from replying to texts via handwriting recognition, voice recognition, or canned replies, taking phone calls, storing music, and more! The workout features on the series 1 that I had left much to be desired, however they were steadily improving upon those, and I did notices a pretty substantial improvement with the implementation of WatchOS2. BUT! The caveat is that it only works with devices running iOS, which leads me to how I wound up with my third, and current, device. With Apple not really releasing anything new, and having “gotten rid” of the home button with the iPhone 7, I thought that it might be time to try something new. I was crazy about the concept of the Moto Z, and the modular platform smartphone, so I traded in my steadily decaying iPhone 6, and picked one of those up. The only issue after purchase (that I found out someone had discovered a work around to a little further down the line) was that my watch no longer worked! I wiped it, and attempted to pair it with the new phone, and while the bluetooth would pair, nothing would work. Had I not wiped it, I would have been able to at least use it as a sleek looking watch, however, I did, and the deed was done, so I decided, why not trade this puppy in, and try out another type of smartwatch designed to run on my fancy new Android Phone… that would only last a little more than a year with three replacements.

Device 3

Do you want an activity tracker that has just a few more little features built into it than the standard Fit Bit? How about something that runs well with Android? You want music storage, canned text replies, emoticon responses, GPS Tracking, emergency calling? Well than the Samsung Gear Fit is a great way to go. The Samsung Gear Fit 2, which I’ve been using it for a little over a year and a half now is a pretty great device. Admittedly I’ve been spending the whole last year and a half waiting for the surprise of having my wrist explode, but so far so good! It has great fundamental activity tracking features built into it, I get pretty heavy into biking from time to time, and having the built in GPS for tracking my route, as well as the ability to hold a button and tap for an emergency call is pretty essential. In addition, it offers standard workouts such as running, treadmill, weights, rowing, and an other workout functionality if you’re doing a few things and just want it to keep tracking you all through it. These are admittedly all features that the Apple Watch had, and didn’t seem new to me, however given that the Gear Fit was designed to be a fitness tracker, I did find them to be much more accurate, and useful even indoors. During the initial couple of months I used the device, I found the S-Health App quite cool, especially with its integration of measurements of water, and coffee intake right from the watch screen. I used them religiously for about a month, and suddenly realized its not worth it. I’m sure there are people out there that find that stuff quite important, but it’s not high on my priority list. For the price of this little device, you really can’t go wrong for how much of a punch it packs, however given that I’m now back on iOS, it’s only slightly more useful than my Pebble was, and that’s simply due to the difference in the Watch’s OS, and design.

Verdict

As with a lot, the preference is purely subjective.. First of all, what device do you own? Are you an Android user, or an iOS user? What is your primary use for this device, activity tracking, or do you want major functionality? These are only three devices, and out of these devices, one has been purchased by a rival company, and discontinued, and two have undergone major updates. The Pebble, though acquired by Fit Bit and discontinued, added activity tracking features and many more aspects to it before it was discontinued, and is still available for purchase via Amazon. To me, for the price, they’re a perfect device. The Apple Watch is the way to go, if you’re running an iPhone that is. It’ll likely be what I switch back to when this Gear Fit dies out on me, simply because I’ve gone back to iOS, and may as well go all in again. The Gear Fit, if you’re looking for a sightly more functional activity tracker, is what I would recommend. It’s priced at the same point as the Fit Bit, however it does offer more functionality with an Android phone than the average activity tracker, and for $120, they’re priced to move!

Internet killed the RadioShack – Well… and our lack of wanting to actually do anything

First of all – I hope you sang the beginning of that title, and didn’t read it, I sat for a few minutes trying to title this in a way that could be sung to this tune. Secondly, who here likes to online shop? I’m going to guess that just about every single one of the two of you reading said, “Yeah!” enthusiastically. Who doesn’t? It’s so easy you don’t even have to get dressed! You can be eating, or drinking something, and about the only thing you have to worry about slobbing on is your keyboard and mouse! Fantastic! But for the electronics industry, it hasn’t been that great. Remember Circuit City? CompUSA? Media Play? Even Best Buy isn’t quite what it used to be, building noticeably smaller stores every time they open a new one. The fact of the matter is that nobody likes to venture out and socialize anymore when they purchase stuff, they know that just about every piece of merchandise that they buy online, whether it be clothes, electronics, toys, games, it can just about all be returned in 30 days for a full refund… who hasn’t taken advantage of that at one time or another?

Now, it’s not just for convenience sake, a few months ago I purchased a Tivo Bolt. I actually went to the store to buy it! I went into best buy, walked to the shelf where I knew they were keeping them, and they were sold out. I asked an employee if they had anymore, they told me that they were out, and I’d have to order it online! I went in that day because I’m impatient, and wanted it that day to try out! Inventory maintenance gets a lot easier when you’re operating an online business as well, when you’re shipping directly from the warehouse, or from a distribution hub of some kind, you don’t have to worry too much. If you’re doing a lot of online business, keep a bulk inventory and call it done. Sure, when it comes time to tracking the product it may be difficult, but when it comes to fulfilling orders you’ll always have plenty on hand. Online stores also open up the ability for you to bring on other products that may not be popular in areas where your stores are, however they may be popular elsewhere – in another area where people know of your store, but cannot necessarily make it there easily. You now have the ability to diversify product offerings, without having to potentially remove a cash cow from the shelf.

RadioShack was the last local go to for electronic mix and match parts. Sure, a PL-259 connector cost $4, the reducers cost $2, and they barely held a connection, but if you needed one in a pinch, they were there. Now if you need something like that, you can hope that the Walmart near you still carries CB equipment, SOMETIMES you can find a stray “patch” cord (likely RG-58, and it’s 50-100′) but that’s about it. That’s because not only the proclivity for online shopping has become so domineering, and electronic projects, and hobbies have become more and more about buying, and less about building from scratch. If you read my previous posts about the contest, building a functional antenna for radio is easy (Unless you’re me, and it’s 6m)! Setting up a raspberry pi is easy! Building a computer (as long as you can match parts) is fairly easy too! Why do we all have this aversion to building stuff? Now – I’m not going to 100% blame the demise of of Radio Shack on online shopping, the last one I was in before they all sold off to Sprint/closed, I had asked about getting a few SO-239 connectors, and he pointed me toward the HDMI cables. In addition, they really, for a while, scaled back their electronic parts section, and focused too much on cellphones, TV’s, and computer cables. They lost the makers.

Where was I going with this? Well, it’s simple really. While we all like to sit in our little nooks on our devices shopping for other devices, and parts (for the few of us left out there who like projects), what we have done is slowly choked the retail market. We’re all guilty of it. Retail spaces for just about everything are facing their demise, just look at Toys R’ Us and how they’re closing all of their stores, and they’re not the only ones. Over time we’ll definitely learn to appreciate retail space more, the ability to see what we’re buying before we buy it, but for now, we’ll have to watch it get worse before it gets better.

 

Cord Cutting – Why Haven’t You, what are your options?

If you’re getting some amazing bundle deal, having cable or satellite makes sense I guess, but in the golden age of streaming where you have options that cost as little as $20/mo, and you can pick your channels, why would you still have cable? There are thousands of channels out there, but think about it, how many of them do you actually watch? And moreover, how often are you still using your cable box in reality? A few months ago, I discontinued receiving Cable TV, and realized a few things:

  1. It was never being used. I was so excited when that cable box arrived, all the channels we’d now get… and after 2 months, it hand been turned on to watch the 30 min looping news channel. The fact of the matter is that with busy schedules, and without the ability to DVR shows, it was being utilized maybe twice a week for something other than the local news.
  2. Cable Companies lie. By removing TV from my account, I was supposed to be saving right around $25/month, when in reality, I was saving $5, and now had to buy my own router… not that the last part was a problem.
  3. No longer having Cable TV coming in improved the consistency of my internet speed. Given, this could be a coincidence given that they were making infrastructure improvements at the same time, but I would hazard a guess that it wasn’t the only thing that contributed to that. There are no longer two carriers along that incoming line being put through a splitter, it’s now a single signal for internet alone.

Upon canceling cable however this pushed me to a new device, a Tivo Bolt. The $200 device doesn’t come with a hefty price tag, however the $15/mo subscription fee (or the fee a little over $500 for lifetime) makes you think sometimes that you may have just been better off keeping cable. The device, however, is well worth the cost. Not only does it allow you to DVR your shows (we still have an amplified antenna and get a dozen or so channels OTA), but you can also stream your recordings to your smartphone (iOS and Android both), but when you search for something to record, it will search the built in apps, and tell you what streaming services it is available on for you to watch from, or differentiate between streaming vs buying in the case of Amazon and Vudu. Yes, this device also works with cable via the renting of a cable card from your provider if cable is still your thing. This device is perfect for the cord cutter though, allowing you to work between apps with no problem. It also features Pandora Radio, and YouTube, but no Spotify.

With all of the various TV Streaming services out there though, it can get a dicey. The concept of being solely reliant on an ISP to be able to watch TV can give cause for hesitation for sure. The foolproof way to have everything the way you want it though, would be to switch over to one, and cut the cord. With TV Providers such as DirecTV, Dish Network, Spectrum, XFinity, and others getting upwards of $80/mo for basic TV access, and then having to pay a surcharge, or additional fee for access to your local channels, it’s obscene! We don’t need TV that badly that it’s worth paying those fees! There are other options out there from places such as Sling TV (a-la-carte options), PS Vue, YouTube TV, as a few examples. Most of which allow you to access everything from any device you’d like. You even have the option of managing from your phone, and, “casting” to your TV. Now the major providers are getting into this market as well, there’s the DirecTV Now, and Spectrum Choice as a couple examples as well, where the package for TV is $35/mo, and $21.99/mo respectively. The major providers are realizing that less and less people actually want over 1000 channels with nothing on them.

In short, to you, I’d highly recommend cutting that cord, switching over to a $20-$35 streaming TV service, getting a DVR, and an OTA antenna if you don’t want to be reliant on streaming for even the local channels. With that you’ll get all your local, big network channels without a crazy fee, and then your cable ones are a fraction of the cost, and you get what you want. If you don’t care so much about being reliant on an ISP for even the local channels, most of the streaming services offer those as well, in fact working with the local areas is why it takes a little while for the services to roll out in different areas. Just so you know, most of the streaming providers also offer DVR capability as well, so you can really skip the Set Top Box if you want.

Is Physical Media Dead?

In the summer of 2009, I decided to undertake the task of importing every CD that I, my parents, and other relatives owned into my iTunes Library. The end goal, that I am just getting around to finally, was building out a media server to have access to that data from anywhere and so I could download to my device, or stream remotely. Pandora was around at this point, and was quite popular too! But the issue with Pandora was that it was just internet radio. Sure, there was a TON of music accessible via it, however, you couldn’t just listen to a song. Along came Spotify. Suddenly any song you wanted, any time, anywhere, all you had to do was search, and as long as you were playing from a computer, you could stream almost any song – well… except for Taylor Swift that is.

While I never have been all about absolutely needing a copy of the physical album, I am one of those people who believes that you should purchase the music to be able to call it yours. If all you do is stream, and yes, I know you can download the music locally from these streaming services, but if you forget to pay your bill for the service, your music is gone. At least if your buy the music it’s yours. Being able to backup on physical medium is huge too, I know I said that I’m not all about needing to purchase the physical album, but being able to burn a copy of the disc as a backup is a must! *keep in mind the concept of 321 with regards to backups*

With the exception of the resurgence of vinyl, and the novelty of the Polaroid Picture, digital, and streaming have all but taken over the modern media industry as a whole. Remember when Netflix was a mail order DVD rental company that was a threat to Blockbuster? Now we associate the name with streaming media and have seemingly all but forgotten about the times of having to wait 3-5 days for your new movie to arrive in the mail, and being charged for losing the disc, but finding it a year later. Netflix is now working to make the cable industry go the way of Blockbuster – personally I say good riddance.

Is gaming on its way there too? Looking at the current (and even into the previous) console generations, we have in increased presence of media within the console specific stores. Playstation offers PS Plus members a few free games a month, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Microsoft has a similar offer with Xbox. In addition, they offer insane discounts for purchasing their games, rotating through different ones each month. They’re trying to put out the GameStop’s, of this world, and trying to take everything direct. Their end goal is to make everyone purchase a new copy of their game, no used copies, no rentals, no borrowing from a friend, no giving a friend an old copy, everyone must purchase their own if they are to play.

How about the concept of actually owning software, is that a memory too? A few days ago I wrote an article about the Adobe Creative Cloud suites, and why I believe that for the particular cost if it, it’s a much better value proposition over time than simply buying a license for a singular program. For $10.99/mo, which works out to be $131.88/yr, you always have an up to date copy of (assuming you get the photography package) both Photoshop, and Lightroom. Now that’s a pretty sweet deal given that the average user who previously just wanted a copy of the program would be looking at paying around $600-800 for a single program. Sometimes the subscription based access does pay off. But that’s the way things are going, even Microsoft Office is available as a $10/mo subscription, or $8.25/mo if you commit to an annual subscription.

We can still go out and buy physical media of course, I doubt it will ever completely go away, there will always be some form of it out there, for the holdouts that just won’t give up their disc drive (like me), but its prominence, as well as its prior dominance is now a dream growing ever more distant day to day.

How many of you still use physical media?

 

Mmmm… Pi….

If you’ve talked to me at all about computers, you know that I love these things. Or if you read my previous post about DV hotspots in Amateur Radio, you must have noticed that I mentioned a device called a Raspberry Pi. In the post I discussed the Pi Zero briefly. Today I just want to quickly go over what a Raspberry Pi is, and why you should have at least one if you want to play around with any technological concepts.

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Pictured on the left is a model B+ of the original Raspberry Pi board, and on the right is the more recent Raspberry Pi 3 B board.

The Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized computer. It has a handful of ports – 4 USB, 1 Ethernet, 3.5mm Stereo, HDMI, Micro USB (for power), Micro SD card slot for storage, 2 ribbon cable slots on the board (1 for camera, and 1 for a display), as well as a 20 pin GPIO.  They upgrade the memory on them between releases, and the Pi 3 is a lot more powerful than the original Pi was for sure, in addition they now have built in WiFi and Bluetooth where as before you had to get a USB device to have the capability. In addition, via the ribbon cable port you are able to convert it into the functioning touchscreen computer below.

What purpose does this serve really though? Why should you want one of these? There are a few things that can be done with these for sure – I have primarily used them in radio applications for running hotspots, and logging, however I am in the process of building a media server off of one as well (been a long process, just need to pull the trigger on some storage, and it’s ready), which will allow me to have the entirety of my music, photos, and movies stored on it, and will make it accessible from anywhere. Pretty neat, right? All off of a board that’s the size of a credit card. You can tie them in for home automation, security systems via the camera port, media center boxes, and any hardware tinkering you want to do, you can fiddle around with the GPIO – check out the people that have built robots and drones with these, they’re really cool. They’re a sandbox for technological play – pretty much any concept that you have you can probably fill in with one of these.

In addition to the Pi, there is the Pi Zero that I mentioned in a prior post. That is a board only slightly larger than the size of a stick of gum. It has 2 micro USB ports, one micro HDMI, a ribbon cable port for a camera, and an SD card slot. That is it. I don’t have any photos, but you can check them out here. This I haven’t really played around with too much, but it’s a slimmed down, bare bones version of the Pi, meant for you to be able to play around with for single uses.