Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ding Dong Ditcher (A Ring Doorbell Review)

This is a long-term review for the original Ring doorbell. (not the new Pro one) Ring has been around for some time now, as have other connected doorbells like August and Skybell. The greatest benefit for these doorbells is the ability to check who has been near your home even when you're not at home.

A connected doorbell has been such a great addition to my gradual goal of a practical smart home. There is a point where connected devices aren't the best option. Overcomplicating simple tasks and merely going with an app-based appliance isn't exactly the smartest route to go. One thing to watch out for is local/offline functionality. What sort of functions will still work if connection to your router, or the internet get cut off? These are things that need to be considered before venturing into purchasing a connected device.

The Ring comes with everything you need to replace your regular doorbell. A mounting plate, screwdriver, level, screws for wood and concrete, and a diode if you have a digital doorbell. Now, that being said, the original Ring has an advantage over the new Ring Pro, a built-in battery. Why is this important? For apartment/condo owners that aren't allowed to do any drilling or exterior rewiring, the battery-mode of the original Ring can operate purely on battery mode. You will lose the Live-View function however, but everything else will work.

The Ring also features motion-detection which triggers the camera & app alert before the button is even pressed. This is handy for observing packages being dropped off, or even people just loitering around your property. The Ring and Ring Pro work on different systems. The Ring works on a PIR system (Passive Infrared) that detects body heat, while the Ring Pro works on pixel-changing. Both have their advantages, YMMV, but I feel like the PIR system works much better than the newer pixel-tracking. Pixel tracking works similar to Nest's system as well. The camera checks the image for changes in pixels and determines when movement is enough for an alert. It may trigger fewer false alerts, but it has a tendency to be less sensitive than the 'dumber' PIR system. Again, depending on the location of installation, the PIR system works better for me. Nest's active zone based system didn't work as well as Ring's PIR for me. Others may have better luck and not because of any real problems with the technology, but more because of the scenario that the technology has to function in. I do love the Nest cam, but I wasn't sold on their subscription service. Their motion detection is also far slower than Ring's in my particular situation.

Now, the Ring comes with the optional cloud recording subscription. It costs $3/month or $30/year per device. I personally think it's worth it since it could potentially be evidence should a crime be committed. I'd like to see it get to a point where all these connected cams offer at least 1-2 hours worth of recording for free. I believe Netgear offers a basic cloud service for free for their security cameras. But they are the exception.

I think the Ring is excellent for monitoring the exterior of the home. For the ease of installation, use, recording, reviewing and monitoring your home while away from home, the Ring is great.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Feathering The Nest. (A Nest 2nd Gen Review)

Ok, this is more about the Nest in general than the unit itself. Replacing an old, and poorly installed, Honeywell thermostat, I decided on the 2nd generation Nest unit over the current 3rd gen one. Why? Cost and features. Our furnace isn't the latest and greatest unit, and wouldn't really warrant any additional benefits from the 3rd gen Nest. Using a Nest display as a wall clock is also not appealing. The extra $50 didn't seem worth it for no real added benefit. (That $50 could go into a Nest Protect or Nest Cam)

For those still worried about compatibility and installation, you can take a photo of the current wiring of your thermostat, email it to Nest for evaluation before purchasing.

After ComEd's electricity rebate of $100, and Northshore Gas' $20 rebate... the $200 2nd Gen Nest totals only $80. So it was an easy choice.

Installation is extremely easy. As long as your current thermostat is wired properly, it takes about 15-20 min. with the only tool needed being the included screwdriver. Although a powered screwdriver will make things go faster.

So how is it living with the Nest? Quite good. One tip, is to create a new Gmail (or agree on a common Gmail) for your Nest account. This way, every household member that you'd like to have control can install and monitor the Nest from their phone. This also makes the Auto Away (the feature that tells the Nest that you're not home) work much more reliably since it's tied into your Google+ location as well.

For the first 3 weeks, the Nest was playing around with the furnace. By this, I mean that it would turn it on as needed but shut down after a few minutes. Then start up again. This made me initially think that the furnace or Nest was broken. But as the days went by, it learned how our furnace worked and how long it took to heat the house, and when to start heating up.

Granted it has been a mild winter this year, there have only been a couple of times when I've had to adjust the heat up and only for a few minutes.

The Auto Away feature is quite useful. You never have to worry about leaving your heat on, and even if you do, a quick check on the app allows you to switch off your heat in case it hadn't detected you weren't home. It gets it right about 85% of the time so far.

Savings? YMMV. If you keep your heat at 85ºF (30ºC) in the winter all the time, then you probably won't notice much savings. So far, we've been quite happy with a 68ºF (20ºC) setting for early am and early pm settings and 65ºF(18ºC) for most of the day. The weekly report shows our furnace on for about 2-3 hours a day total. Probably savings of a few minutes every day. It may not seem like much but the remote feature and learning function are worth it.

All in all, it's worth it. If $250 is too much for the current model, get the 2nd gen model. The smaller screen isn't that inconvenient and is $50 cheaper. Rebates bring the total cost of ownership under $100. It looks good, works well, and is the easiest connected thermostat to learn.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Small Bag for Goodies. A Tumi Alpha Bravo Monterey Sling Review

I'm normally a Pacsafe kinda guy. I like traveling and I like keeping all my gadgets locked down. But sometimes, it is overkill. As great as Pacsafe's stuff are, the extra weight for the Exomesh is sometimes unnecessary.

My Pacsafe Metrosafe 300 strap broke (which essentially was the whole point of the bag.) And the GII update of it, no longer comes with the combination lock. This means that the bag can no longer be left unattended.

I started looking around for a decent replacement for my everyday kit. Which is essentially my tablet, a P&S camera, and maybe a spare shirt. I considered Tumi prior to Pacsafe, but at the time, their designs were quite plain and didn't have any real features over a regular messenger bag. But their Alpha Bravo line caught my eye and I ended up getting the Monterey Sling in Anthracite color. I ordered it directly from Tumi's website as they offer free monogramming services that the other online sites don't.

It's quite a small bag. Unlike the Metrosafe 300 which could fit my Macbook Pro 13 and my tablet, the Tumi can only fit a tablet (and maybe a Macbook Air 11, or equivalent) in the dedicated rear compartment. The main compartment is thicker though, so I actually got to fit my DSLR with a 50mm lens, and bring along an external flash, a 35mm lens, and a Sony RX100. I'm pretty sure I could still fit an extra shirt in there too had I arranged things inside better.

There's also a dedicated pocket umbrella/water bottle pocket that's lines and has a drain hole. You could stuff a small packable raincoat in here I guess, but It would be a tight fit. The other smaller side pocket is for your keys, cards, wallet, and phone. A caveat on the umbrella pocket though, it extends inwards, so placing something in here takes up room in the main compartment. This sacrifices practicality in exchange for minimalism. At its maximum, the bag doesn't puff out or get deformed and maintains it's sleekness. Depending on your priority, this may or may not be a deal breaker.

The strap is made of quality nylon with a nice leather accent by the top. Doesn't seem to be as easy to slash as other straps. Not as good as the metal lined straps of Pacsafe, but not as easy to cut as regular nylon straps either. I wish they had padded the upper part or at least placed a rubber grip at the bottom to keep the strap from slipping off your shoulder when slinging over one arm (instead of cross body).

The zippers are worth a warning, they look cool, but they are sharp. Not enough to cut you, but they may snag on fabric if you're just yanking it out of the main compartment. Be careful when removing items (Like the nylon key loop in the side pocket) as they may snag on the zippers. Which is related to my next observation. This bag is NOT waterproof. I wouldn't even say water resistant, the issue being the large gaps between the zipper teeth. The bag's lining and nylon construction should be fine in light to moderate rain.

One of Tumi's services though is a nice free Tracer program. No, it's not an app. Nor is it a chip inside the bag. It's a simple serial number registry to the original owner. Should you lose your bag, anyone that decides to be a kind stranger can call Tumi and report the number on the bag. Tumi Worldwide will inform you that your bag has been found. Nothing fancy, but a nice value-added service to have.

All in all, I'm quite happy with this bag. I picked this over the Pacsafe Z250, which isn't a bad bag. Just not what I was looking for in a city/everyday bag. For my laptop needs, I do have a Pacsafe ScanSafe 13 (sadly discontinued) which is such a blessing at airport security checks.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Time on Hand with The Moto 360

There have already been several 'first look' reviews on the Moto 360. I've had mine for several months now and have gone through several apps and updates. I think it's time for me to give a very in-depth real-world review on owning the Moto 360.

I had gotten my Moto 360 as a surprise advanced Christmas present from my wife last October. (I had been checking out the other Android Wear watches at the time and still preferred the 360 because of its design) Although this isn't my first SmartWatch, it is my favorite. I've had both Sony's SmartWatches in the past and both were excellent for my purposes. I had gotten rid of the first one, I still have the SW2. How different is the Moto 360? Quite a jump as it is running Android Wear, vs Sony's own OS.

If you're one of those that expect to cram your entire phablet's functions on your wrist, you have missed the whole point of smartwear. Skip ALL these products and just get an armband case for your phone.

My favorite part about the Moto 360 is the over-all sleekness of the watch. It's simple, clean, and classic. No fake diver bezel, no 'luxury' aspirations (let's be honest, no smartwatch at the moment will EVER replace a Rolex). It's a great watch that I can wear with almost anything (as long as you change the strap) without it looking out of place.

Battery life with the latest firmware (5.0.1) is 'ok'. It improved over the original one, but only by a few hours. However, this is also due to the increased usage. I have gotten as much as 2 days with minimal use. Prior to the update, my watch barely lasted 24 hours. But playing with your watch a lot will kill your battery in about 12 hours, regardless of firmware version. Hehehe.

There are a few things I would like to emphasize to potential smartwatch buyers. This will NOT replace your phone, nor will it duplicate all its functions. Try and minimize the use of any smartwatch to urgent notifications only. Not because it can't handle it, but this defeats its purpose completely if you're glancing at your watch every 5 mins.

I've had 3 generations of smartwatches, and 4 months with the Moto 360, and I fully appreciate how a smartwatch can augment (not replace) your phone.

The following features are common to Android Wear and can be downloaded to any Android Wear watch. These are not exclusive to the Moto 360, but these reflect how I use my Moto 360 on a daily basis.

First: Calls/SMS. This is probably the most important thing your watch can do. Notify you of a call, and the ability to reject it. This allows very discreet call screening without looking like a hunchback fiddling with your phone at all times. This holds true for SMS as well, some messages aren't worth replying to, and some aren't worth whipping out your phone for. I'll get to my favorite SMS app for Android Wear in a future article.

Second: Email. Aside from Gmails filters, my phone also has notification filters that read out incoming email so I'll know if its important enough to open right away. My Moto 360 even filters that out further by allowing me to delete email as they come in.

Third: Reminders. Some things aren't 'calendar' important. Android Wear syncs with Google Keep for little reminders. Very handy for grocery lists, weekly reminders, or location reminders (location reminders on Google Keep are already quite useful, made even better on Android Wear)

Fourth: Health tracking. Great side benefit. Works even when not connected to the phone, then syncs when in range. Takes heart rate samples throughout the day and charts your overall health profile. Google Fit works quite well, and even tracks your steps without the watch (it functions on both phone and watch together or independently)

Fifth: Device locating. Although not an über-fancy feature, it is probably one of the more practical functions of having a smartwatch. Being able to buzz your phone without having to have someone call it, or have your watch buzz you if you forget your phone, is one of the handiest apps you can have on your smartwatch.

All in all, the Moto 360 is a great smartwatch. Google Now's voice functions work really well with it, and makes setting timers, simple searching, and texting quite convenient. I do, however, have a several 'wishlist' items:

One, glove mode. So far, no smartwatch has the capability to function with winter gloves on. Sony's current Xperia line has a glove-mode that allows use of the phone without having to remove gloves, or buy 'touch capable' gloves.

Two, much better battery life. I don't mean 2-3 days, I mean 1 solid week. 2-3 days can probably be done with current tech and updated firmware, but 1 week would mean different screen (transreflective or more efficient LED backlighting) or better battery tech. Hoping that this will be possible within the next 2 generations. Another alternative is a solar panel built into the touchscreen, or a mechanical generator similar to Seiko's Kinetic.

Three, better environmental protection. IP67/68 ratings may be good enough for smartphones, but wristwatches are exposed to greater environmental conditions. The Moto 360 is IP67 rated, but it can only handle temperatures down to -10ºC/14ºF and no shock/mechanical IP rating. Considering that smartwatches are not 'formalwear', they should have basic 1m drop protection and operating temperature down to -20ºC/-4ºF. I've had to leave mine at home several times this past winter because I didn't want to risk damaging the screen in the cold.

Four, a speaker or some kind of audio feedback. Even a beep or chirp capability would be quite helpful if a full range speaker wouldn't be possible without taxing the battery or increasing the size of the watch. I don't really want to be able to take calls on my wrist, but alarms and notifications would be nice to hear.

I'm really happy with the Moto 360. Although Android Wear (and wearable tech in general) is still in its infancy, I feel it's steadily improving over time. Motorola has been quite good at maintaining the firmware and the abundance of great apps has made the 360 exceed my initial expectations for a current generation Smartwatch.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Port side! Anker 5-Port USB Desktop Charger Review

As convenient as USB charging is, traveling a lot gives me the problem of available outlets for all my devices. I've had some success with some dual port ones that can handle my Xperia Tablet Z and my Xperia Z1 Compact... but nowadays, even phones need 2.1A of power. So those just won't do anymore.

A quick Google search led me to Anker and their 5-port USB desktop charger. It's quite simple. 5 intelligent USB ports. 2.1A on ALL ports... ALL THE TIME! Sweet! The intelligent chip inside the charger regulates the amount of power. Handles tablets, phones, phones in use, etc. Charges all devices at full speed.

It's about the size of the Apple Macbook power adapter so it's easy enough to carry around and won't add any significant weight or bulk to your bag.

So far, so good. Most of the time, I use up about 4 ports. Leaving one free for a friend or any new gadget I may buy in the future. I'm quite happy with it and their customer support was quite quick to send an email asking if I was happy with my purchase.

If you have more than 3 USB devices that are taking up outlet space, this is a definite must-have in your kit!

Past Tech Gospels

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