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.

 

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.

iOS, Android, does it really matter?

We’re 11 years into the modern smartphone era that was launched, in my opinion, by Apple’s release of the first iPhone in 2007, and the marketplace has changed drastically in that time. 2007 was a land of flip phones, and tactile keyboards. Blackberry was the prominent all in one device, having released their first device in 1999. While Blackberry is still gasping for air, sort of in the mix with the modern smartphone market, Apple’s release of the first iPhone was a game changer for the entire mobile industry, and it really has never been the same since. Have you actually tried to look for a phone with a real keyboard lately? Blackberry is still in that market, but that’s about it.

I got my first iOS device, which was consequently my first smartphone in 2009, it was an iPhone 3g. That 3.5″ display was HUGE! To paraphrase Steve Jobs, there was never any reason to go to a larger display. Then came the 4, yep, 3.5″ display as well! Then… THEN we had the 5, now that was it, a 4″ display? An additional row of apps on the bottom? Wow! Where was the huge display our whole lives? Then came the 6, 7, and 8, all having 5″ displays (4.7″ if you want to get real technical). We could get into the rise of the Phablets, and the Plus models, and now the 10 (or X) with it’s bezel-less 5.8″ display, which allows it to truly be the same size as the iPhone 8.

Last year however, I switched over to Android for a little bit. I picked up a Moto Z Force, and for the first year, it was a fantastic phone. Who doesn’t love the idea of the modular phone? Wireless Charging/Extended batteries on any phone, High Quality audio from a speaker that is directly attached to the phone itself, not bluetooth, and no clunky wires, a full optical zoom camera, or even a 70″ projector screen, those are just some of the additional features. It is a pretty great platform that allows you to customize your device to do whatever it is that you want. Sure, I had played with Android some before it, and it really is a great OS, but I have one real complaint with it, and that is the updates are all carrier and manufacturer controlled. Motorola and Samsung being the worst offenders with updates, and AT&T always being right behind Samsung. Motorola and Samsung both produce hardware that should be able to match the specs required for at least two additional generations of OS, but when they don’t let you update, that’s a problem. Not to mention at the point where android O was released, my battery was already starting to falter.

I went back to Apple after a year and a half because I knew the quality. Every iPhone I had, if it survived me at least, lasted a minimum of 2 years – my 6 lasting 3 years and change holds the record. The OS Support is top notch, lasting a minimum of 3 OS releases, which coincidentally will likely be 3 phone releases as well. In addition, I’m not a developer. And as much as I love technology, and will pull everything apart, make repairs, build it into my everyday life, I don’t need to be able to mess with system BIOS. Most importantly, if I pick up someone else’s phone to show them something, I know exactly what everything does, how to work it, what the settings menu should show, how to reset it if something goes wrong – I don’t need to learn what the device does, the surface of the device looks the same on every single device. In addition though, every other device I use is Apple, and the majority of the people that I know have iPhone’s, and iMessage is much more reliable than SMS – multiple text messages to people that didn’t go through for 3 days or so.

But, I digress, in looking at the two OS’ objectively however, does it really matter which one you choose? I will be the first one to tell you that I think both Android, and iOS are fantastic OS’, and they have both earned their place in being the predominant things that we run our everyday lives off of – I am on my phone for work a lot, between calls, texts, and emails, and then when I’m out of work, I’m on it again a lot for personal use – more calls, texts, and emails, but also social media, GPS, photos, games, etc. They both have definite perks, and they both have a purpose for sure. What are the differences? If you’re dropping $800 to $1200 on a phone, you want what is going to best fit your needs. Below is my opinion of which OS fits what type of person best.

iOS: Perfect for the Student, or average person who needs their phone for work. It is the perfect Day-to-Day device that you want to just work. You can take it out of the box, and with after punching in your info, you’re ready to roll. Apple’s built in applications for Calendar, Mail, and Web Browsing are perfectly fine, in fact a lot of companies – if they’re not requiring you to download another mail client that is, support the native Apple client. With quite a lot of the native applications, you can’t remove them, so if you decide that you want to go with a 3rd party developer app over the Apple client, then you’re going to have to make yourself a little useless folder to file those applications in and forget about.

Android: Perfect for someone who wants to fiddle a little bit. While the same built in applications mentioned for iOS are built in to android as well, they are no where near as refined… that is depending on what phone you get. Android allows users more options for configuration when it comes to applications, allowing you to delete pretty much everything that comes on it, and replace it with an alternative Google app, or any 3rd party. Motorola, for example, builds mostly Google apps into their release of the OS. Your browser is Chrome, mail is Gmail, maps is Google Maps. Samsung uses Google Maps, however everything else is a proprietary Samsung app when you pull it out of the box. To use the native Google applications you have to go out and install them. They thrive on the customization aspect, while locking everything down.

In summary, I’ll tell you the same thing I have told everyone at this point – if you want something that’ll be good to go right out of the box, something that will have a few years of support, and will always be to the OS manufacturer’s specs, go with the iPhone. If you want to fiddle a little bit, want to play with basic app development, or even just want a blank slate to build it out how you want it, I’d suggest an Android device. If you do side with the Android device, I would suggest the Pixel outright. It is made by Google, runs virtually native Android, and will likely have the longest product life of any of the devices because of it.