Monday, June 25, 2018

My TV is on Fire! (An Amazon FireTV Cube review)

Ok, so Amazon's Echo devices have been around for a while. The Fire TV as well. Amazon's latest incarnation of Alexa is the FireTV Cube. An attempt at an all-in-one home entertainment control device. A cube that assimilates all devices nearby and allows control over all your home entertainment devices (more on that later)

First up, unlike the round Echo family, the FireTV Cube is, well, square. It's quite sleek. A glossy, piano black cube that sits on your TV shelf or console.

It comes bundled with Amazon's ethernet adapter (approx $15) which is a good thing and allows a wired connection to your internet router or modem for a more stable connection.

Connections at the back are for power (oddly a separate plug instead of over-USB), a micro USB plug for the ethernet adapter (unsure if power can be supplied over this), HDMI, and a port for the remote IR extender.

Setup is quite easy, place the included batteries in the remote, plug in all the cables and power up the cube! Everything else is voice and screen prompted to guide you through. If all your devices are connected via HDMI (TV, AVR, Bluray player, etc) then you may not even need the IR extended. The FireTV Cube will be able to send commands over HMDI to control all your other devices.

As you go through the setup process, the cube will run some tests to determine compatibility with your devices. The FireTV Cube has most of the major brands already built in (LG, Samsung, Sony, Onkyo, Denon, etc) so selecting them from a drop down list is easy. For those that are not yet on the list, Amazon promises constant updates and generic control via the IR emitter. Once done, the Amazon FireTV will have a decent amount of control over your home entertainment system.

So, how well does the cube control all your devices? Quite well, if you manage expectations. What does that mean? It won't replace all your remotes all the time, it will replace all of your remotes most of the time for the most common functions. Power, volume, input switching, and channel selection can all be done by voice. When watching videos through Amazon Video, voice commands can do a bit more. For example, if you searched for Dare Devil, the cube will display several results in a numbered list and just say "Alexa, play 1 or Alexa play 2" depending on which result was the one you were searching for. It's not very smooth, but its a good system for selecting from similar results. Or if you know of a show on Amazon Video, just say "Alexa, watch [name of show]". The Cube should pull it up and start playing right away.

You can also set the volume increments when you say "Alexa louder" or "Alexa softer" to control the volume. I prefer larger jumps otherwise you just keep repeating the command over and over.

This may or may not replace any universal remotes like the Harmony. But it does offer a much simpler way to interface with a complex theater setup.

Other than entertainment system control, the FireTV Cube also works with your smart home. If you have a Ring doorbell, you can ask "Alexa, show me the front door" and it'll connect with your video doorbell and display the video feed. A nice novelty to have. This feature also works with the other FireTV units, but being able to do it without the voice remote (like with the Amazon Echo Show)

The FireTV Cube will attempt to route audio through your larger speakers, but if it can't it will revert back to its built in speaker. If for some reason, the automatic rerouting doesn't work, just say "Alexa, I can't hear you." and the unit will force audio through the built in speaker. It is pretty loud (Louder than the Dot but not as loud as the Echo) and decent enough for the voice prompts.

Now, the not so great part. Oddly, Amazon calling is not available on the FireTV Cube. This is probably the weirdest omission on Amazon's part. Hopefully this will be corrected in future updates.

All in all, it's a great unit. The inclusion of the ethernet adapter is a plus. If you were planning to buy the regular Fire TV, I'd say bump up and get the Cube. As Amazon expands the command set of the remote functions, or maybe allows custom sequences or macros, the unit will become a much more powerful controller. But even as is, I think it's off to a good start for convenience in home theater control.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Let It Snow! (A HeatTrak Mat review)

"I love shoveling snow!". Said no one ever. It's a chore, a job, a task. For safety, or just practicality, clearing your driveway or walkway is a reality for people that live in areas with snow. But shoveling (or using a snow blower) isn't the only way to clear a path through the frozen landscape that is now your front or back yard.

Wouldn't it be nice if your smarthome could clear your walkway for you? I was hoping someone had come up with a Roomba version of the snow shovel. But alas, other than a few novelty robotic experiments, nothing that could really handle a heavy winter. Then I stumbled onto Heattrak LLC who makes these amazing snow melting mats that, like the name says, melt snow out of your walkway.

Now, that in itself isn't new. Heated walkways and driveways have been around for a while. But they are extremely expensive and require a lot more planning and construction. The advantage of Heattrak is that they can be laid out over almost any existing walkway. So apartment/condo/townhome owners can benefit from them as well.

Each mat uses about 2.5 Amps, and a separate power supply is needed to power up to 5 mats in series. Paired with a Smart Plug for automatic snow detection via IFTTT and Weather Underground and you've got yourself a smart walkway that 'shovels' itself and stays clear throughout the winter!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Lost and Found! (A TrackR Bravo Review)

Where are my keys?!?!? Can you ring my phone? Did I leave my bag at your place? Just some of the phrases of modern life. What if your phone could help you find all these little things that you frequently misplace?

Enter TrackR Bravo.

The TrackR Bravo is like those little tracing bugs shown in most spy movies. It's about the size of a quarter and runs off Bluetooth. The tag uses Bluetooth LE 4.0 which supposedly has a 100ft range but realistically I'd give it the regular 30ft range. TrackR is meant to find things that are just lying around but can't be found. Like keys that have fallen between couch cushions or the remote that's under a desk.

Now for the real-world evaluation: The tags work. For the most part, I'd say accuracy is down to a building/house level. So if you think you left your bag at a friend's house, TrackR will probably show the locator pin on your friend's house, but not the exact room you left it in. When you get to your friend's house and the app can actually connect to the tag (a meter will show that it's connected) you can trigger the tag to 'chirp' so you can locate it. The 'chirp' is very weak. It's not a loud alarm in any way. You could probably use it inside a library and not really disturb anyone.

The tags are not meant to be a primary device to remember where everything is, but more like an assistant that can kinda-sorta remember where you left your item last. TrackR gives a general map location of where it last logged your tags. Sometimes, it doesn't log tags for a few hours, but for the most part, it keeps a decent log of where my items are. As far as TrackR says, their app can keep track of up to 10 tags.

The app works like a relay beacon, relaying information for ALL TrackR tags that it can detect. No one else can see your tags, but everyone with the app helps your app locate your tags. So the more people use the app (they don't need to have a tag, just install the app) the easier it will be to find your items.

Battery life is about 5-6 months, and that shortens to about 3-4 months during winter when the tag is exposed to colder temperatures. TrackR Bravo uses CR2016 coin batteries. Cheap enough to get from TrackR directly with their battery program or in bulk.

The tags are NOT environmentally sealed so do not get them wet, or leave them outdoors. TrackR does sell a silicone sleeve to help protect against rain but it doesn't make the tags waterproof.

Are they worth it? At the single-piece retail price of $30, I would hesitantly say yes, but it is on the pricey side. But they do have frequent discounts for several tags that can bring the price down to makes it a lot easier to justify the shortcomings of the product. The more people use the app, the better the product performs. Use one on your pet's collar for a cheap locator tag. Place one on your car keys. Hide one inside your car and have a cheap lo-jack or parking reminder. Place one inside your luggage and you'll be able to tell when it's about to come out of the carousel. And if you're on a smaller plane, you can even tell if your luggage is in the cargo hold. At about $12 per tag at their Buy 4 Get 6 Free promo, it's well worth it and a neat gift to give friends.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Big 'Bang & Olufsen A1' Review

I love music, and I also love portable speakers. Over the years, I've demoed quite a few to replace my Bose SoundDock which I've had for 10 years now. But I wanted something smaller. (The Bose is about 503 in³ and 5.2lbs) But I needed it to still be loud and sound great.

I decided to try Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay A1. (43 in³ at 1.3lbs) B&O is known for their design and craftsmanship of home entertainment products. Designed by Cecilie Manz for Bang & Olufsen, the A1 doesn't disappoint in the design factor.

Packaging is clean and simple. A bit snug sliding the bottom half out, but the weight of the A1 helps. Inside you'll find the speaker, a USB-C charging cable with the B&O logo, and a quick start manual. That's it. No charging block or case. Very bare. A nice velvet pouch would've been nice specially for $250. But all that aside, the speaker itself is beautiful. Sophisticated, classy, and refined. The aluminum dome is perfectly sculpted and has a very luxurious feel to it. The base is made of a rubber-like material and helps keep the speaker stable when set down on a surface. The buttons are hidden and spread around the base area, along with a 3.5mm input jack and USB-C port. The speaker comes with a leather strap which you can use to hang the speaker on a hook while you're indoors or on a tree branch when you're outdoors.

Pairing the Beoplay with your phone is easy. Turn the speaker on. Press and hold the Bluetooth button til the white power indicator flashes blue. Select the A1 on your phone's Bluetooth list, and you're done. You can also download the free Beoplay app which allows for some basic tone functions. It lists preset EQ curves as 'warm, excited, relaxed, and bright'. There is some benefit to using the EQ, but the speaker naturally sounds good that other than the initial novelty of the EQ, I leave it off most of the time.

I was preparing myself to be underwhelmed by the audio quality. Usually, when a speaker is this compact, the first thing that gets compromised is the bass. B&O claims the A1 can go as low as 60Hz. Your ears will confirm that claim. Not only does it reproduce adequate bass, it does it accurately and cleanly. No muddiness or distortion. No hollow sound. Quite an amazing feat for such a compact speaker. The treble is smooth and controlled. Not harsh or ear grating. Very pleasant. Although the A1 shines with classical, jazz, and ambient tracks, it does justice to rock, electronica, house and even dubstep. With bass heavy tracks, I found that keeping the volume at around half maintains the bass balance of the track. But what if you want more bass at a higher volume level?

Then get a second Beoplay A1!

For true stereo or ambient audio. Adding a second A1 increases its performance dramatically. Pairing can be done via the Beoplay app, but any EQ presets you have will be turned off when paired with another A1. You can also pair two A1s without the Beoplay app, I've found this method more reliable. To pair the speakers without the use of the app:

  1. Turn on the first speaker, you'll heard a power on beep and the indicator light will be white.
  2. Press and hold the Bluetooth button. Indicator will start flashing blue for about five seconds then it will start flashing white.
  3. Wait about 20 seconds for a second beep then turn on the second A1.
  4. Press and hold the Bluetooth button on the second A1 for five seconds until the light starts flashing white.
  5. Wait a while, then you'll see the indicator lights on both speakers sync up then glow a steady white.
  6. Now connect your phone to the first speaker, this will be the Master speaker as well as the LEFT audio channel. The second speaker will be the Slave speaker as well as the RIGHT audio channel.

And how do two paired A1s sound? Like bringing your home stereo system out with you where ever you go! Seriously good portable audio. Although at this price point, you may be asking why not just get the Beolit 15 or 17? It's louder and the bass is a lot deeper. So why choose two A1s over the larger Beolit 15? It boils down to a matter of preference and purpose. Two A1s (100 in³ and 2.6lbs for two) are still easier to pack and carry than a single Beolit 15 (358 in³ and 5.7lbs). Two A1s can be spread out over two rooms to play different music in each room. Two A1s can be stereo paired to give much better imaging and ambient audio. You'll definitely be happy with either purchase, but for my needs, I chose to have two A1s that can be used together or separately.

Now, it's not all party all day and night with the Beoplay A1. There are limitations that come with the compact size, great audio, and relatively low price (low for B&O anyway). And partying all day and night is one of those limitations. To be specific, a short battery life. B&O claims 24 hours of playback at moderate levels. This probably means about 25% volume. Because anywhere close to 50-60% volume, that rating drops to about 6 hours. Crank that up to 70% or more and you're looking at maybe 2-3 hours max.

The other limitation is related to the stereo pairing. The range is extremely short. Bluetooth has an effective range of about 30ft. The A1 can only be about 8ft apart with a CLEAR LINE OF SIGHT. Any obstruction within that 6ft of separation and you will start getting dropouts on the slave speaker. The more realistic distance is about 4-5ft. I'm guessing power to the Bluetooth chip was limited to minimize the effect on the already short battery life. Either that or the beautiful aluminum dome acts as a Faraday cage and shortens Bluetooth range. Either way, this limits how far you can place the speakers from each other when paired. Another limitation of stereo pairing is that it doesn't work if the source is a line-in source. So only Bluetooth streamed audio will work for the stereo pairing.

With regards to the design, my only complain are the buttons. They look great hidden behind the rubber bottom but they're not very easy to press. Now, this can be a good or a bad thing. It does prevent accidental presses but it also makes actually pressing the button quite difficult. Even though there's minimal interaction with the buttons, when you do need to use them it takes a bit of hunting to actually find the right one and press it. The tiny icons make the control surface look clean and very minimalist but the lack of tactile indicators means you have to actually look for the symbols to know which button you're actually pressing.

Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me. I'd rather take the time to memorize the button locations and work around the limited Bluetooth range just to be able to use these wonderful sounding works of art. If you want a Bluetooth speaker that is small and easy to pack for traveling, sounds like a home hi-fi system anywhere you go, and looks like tiny work of art, then the Beoplay A1 is the speaker you've been waiting for.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Not the Sounds of Silence (A Sonos Review)

There are many wireless speaker systems out there. The most recent ones that have been gaining popularity are the Amazon Echo and Google Home systems. These are a new breed of smart speakers that offer more than just music playback. But that's for another blog entry. Today will be for a more traditional wireless audio system, the Sonos. Specifically, the Play 1.

Sonos has been around for quite a while. And their product lineup hasn't really changed much. It offers less functionality than smart speakers, but the multi-room capabilities and the simplicity of the app are what really make it shine. Their app came at the heels of people playing music locally (stored on your computer or local hard drive) mostly through iTunes. But now that streaming services are more popular, smart speakers have become the weapon of choice for most people. Why should you still pick Sonos over the others? Two main reasons. Simplicity and Multi-Room capabilities. Sonos isn't the only one with this capability. Bose would be the closest match, but I didn't like their app interface. Then there's Google Chromecast Audio which can do something similar but not quite and still relies on streaming services.

Playing music in separate rooms isn't a simple task. Wiring up your home to a central amp and music server takes time, planning, and a lot of work. Doing it the wireless way isn't that simple either. Synchronizing playback and centralizing your source isn't for the average user either.

Sonos does this quite simply and elegantly. My main consideration for the Sonos was "How easy would it be for anyone in my home to access my music and playback what they want". I needed something that could easily access my local music library as well as streaming services. Something that wouldn't be crippled if my internet connection went down (this is always a consideration of any tech I invest in). No other system offered ease of use like Sonos did.

And for those that actually care about sound quality, Sonos sounds great. Disclaimer on my statement, it is NOT meant to be a listening room system. It is also not meant to be the solution for just a single room (there are others that can fulfill that need at a lower price point). It is meant for whole house, multi-room music. And it does that job extremely well. Even against larger more traditional systems, the Sonos Play 1 can hold its own. It's very easy to conceal, and it's also moisture-proof if you want music in your bathroom!

Sonos is supposedly working with Amazon to integrate Alexa into their control UI, that would be an excellent combination and one that would bring Sonos back up to the front of the smart speaker pack. But even without it, Sonos is still one of the better multi-room systems available today. The ease of use and audio quality make it perfect for anyone in the home to enjoy great sound. It also helps that they have a wide array of products to suit your specific needs. From the easy to conceal Play1, to the Sound bar and wireless subwoofer for decent movie audio, Sonos is a great product family all around.

Past Tech Gospels

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