Category: Gadgets

A Week with Amazon Echo – the Review

Amazon EchoReally? Amazon Hardware?

Amazon’s hardware efforts have always been a mixed bag. Some of them, like the Kindle eReader, were a smashing success to the point of helping change the way we read. Others have been largely panned, like the Fire Phone.

When Amazon delivers, it gives us the hardware we expect: state of the art, but much less expensive than other state of the art. Just like everyone else, but better. You can not only read your books on the Kindle: you can buy them on it, too.

When Amazon doesn’t deliver, it gives you a me-too product with restrictions. That was the case with the Fire Phone, a flagship-priced device that came with mandatory AT&T subscription, but didn’t run standard Android and downloaded software only from Amazon’s anemic app store.


When I got an email from Amazon announcing the Echo, I was as ambivalent as Amazon’s hardware efforts. Should I buy a speaker for $99? Yes, it was supposed to be intelligent, but no, there was no way to modify the software. No apps for it, no development kit. I might buy something, and Amazon may then decide to pull the plug on it.

But what can you do? You put a shiny new gadget in front of me, and I can’t say no. Also, I’ve really never had any real problem with Amazon’s returns, so if I didn’t like it, I was confident I would be able to send it back for a full refund.


Living With the Puck: StraightTalk Unimax U240C Reviewed

Results in Hilo:
Ping: 128ms
Download: 2.27 Mb/s
Upload: 0.51 Mb/s
San Diego:
Ping: 79ms
Download: 1.35 Mb/s
Upload: 0.79 Mb/s

My annual pilgrimage to Hilo used to be fueled by a Verizon 4G MiFi. But it made really no sense to have a $50 a month plan that I’d use only in emergencies and when I was on the islands. So I gave that up and have been looking for a replacement.

When I landed, I had a plan. My primary connection would be the hotel Internet, augmented by the T-Mobile connection on the Nexus 5. Android KitKat has mobile hotspot built-in, and things would have worked swell bUnimax U240Coth at the hotel and on the go.

Turns out the Internet at the hotel (the Wild Ginger Inn) is incredibly flaky. Every ten minutes or so, the connection resets and it takes a while to renegotiate. The phone turns out to be no better, as Hilo is served by the T-Mobile EDGE network and not the zippy LTE. To make things worse, when I tried to use the phone in mobile hotspot mode at the (LTE-enabled) Honolulu airport, the provisioning page refused to load.

When I drove to Walmart to buy the usual necessities you can’t take with you on the plane (like the oh-so-dangerous terrorist mouthwash, or the frighteningly terrorist toothpaste), I stopped at their Electronics department, and they had this device for sale. It promised Verizon network with Walmart prices. Nice! (They also had a 4G Verizon prepaid, but that one requires a subscription).

The economics of the device are simple. You buy the gadget for $80. Then, when you need Internet, you buy data by the GB. 1GB sets you back $15, 2 is $25, etc. You have to use up the data within a specified time limit (up to 2G in 30 days, above that in 60 days), but you can buy as much as you like – and as little. If you don’t use the thing, you just don’t buy gigabytes and you are good. Your only long-term investment is in the device.

Sadly, provisioning was a real pain. I unpacked and charged, and was surprised to find tons of manuals in the box. After all, all I needed to do was connect to the thing, tell it the PIN on the card I bought, and off I should have been able to go.


Chinavasion Rear View Mirror Device

Verdict: buy if you like installing things without good instructions. Otherwise wait until someone posts a video on YouTube, or some reseller afraid of lawsuits creates a real manual.

I just got myself a new car (a Subaru Forester) and I’ve been interested for a while in getting a dash cam. That’s the cameras you install inside the car to keep records of what’s happened on the street you’ve driven on. I am a fairly polite and safe driver, and if anything happens, it benefits me if I have a video showing what went on.

Chinavasion Rear View Mirror CamAmazon has hundreds of different models of the kind. They come with all sorts of functions, but none of them seems to combine them all. For that, I had to go to Chinavasion, a site that aggregates gadgets made in China and has them drop-shipped to consumers. You can get a volume discount, but there is typically no minimum sale.

Best of all, they allow PayPal, which makes me feel better. I am not too happy about giving a company an ocean away my credit card information (regardless of the ocean), and this way I can monitor more safely what happens.

Aside from an astonishing number of cheap Android gadgets and cell phones, security cameras and solar chargers, and all the panoply of things you can get, there are mirror cams to be found on Chinavasion. Those are like dash cams, but they are built into a rear view mirror that replaces the original one.


Nexus 5 – First Look

Short version: buy it, buy it, buy it. Then get a T-Mobile SIM card (micro) and show off.

Do you like your 2 year contract? Do you like the $100+ bill for such precious commodities as the unlimited long-distance calls you don’t use, while you are stuck with a hard limit of 2GB (AT&T) or 5GB (Verizon)? Do you like the mysterious charges that show up in your phone bill?

I got fed up with all of that a while back. I guess quite a few people have, because contract-free phones are all the rage. And for those that love contract-free phones, there is no better one than the gold standard of Android: the Google Nexus 5.

At $350 off-contract, straight from the source, it’s a real steal. You get a state of the art mobile phone that you can connect (in the USA) mostly to AT&T and T-Mobile, but that also comes in a Sprint version (no Verizon, for great reasons). It’s the same price as a mid-range phone, but it’s top of the line. Its specs put it close to the $600+ phones from HTC, Samsung, and LG, and to the much more expensive iPhone 5S ($850).

I couldn’t resist: as soon as I could order one, I was on the Google Play site and hit the submit button. Unfortunately, the ship date was announced to be November 22nd, and I was ready for a 3 week wait. Sigh. I would have to read the reviews trickle in and figure out whether this phone was really what I wanted.

it’s here already. Google shipped within a couple of days, and before I knew it, I held a tiny package in my hand (Amazon, read this, please!). It had the same shape as one of those business card boxes.


Review: Stainless Steel Waterproof Watch Mobile Phone W818 Black with Silver

I’ve always wanted a watch phone. Why? Because it’s an incredibly practical concept.

My use case may be slightly different than most people’s, but in my case a watch phone would be perfect: 

  • I constantly forget my phone everywhere, but I won’t leave a watch phone behind
  • If the phone is on the wrist, looking at the caller ID is the same as looking at your watch; no need to find the phone or get it out of the holster
  • In almost all cases, I don’t need the bulk of a phone; I rarely dial a phone number, and even then I’d rather do so on the computer and have Google Voice route the call
  • I don’t like using a smartphone for voice calls; actually, like a lot of people, I don’t like voice calls at all
  • I am on the move a lot and it would be good to have some sort of paging mechanism to warn me of impending doom

A watch phone is the perfect solution for all those things, plus it can easily work as a bluetooth MP3 player. You get a bluetooth headset anyway (or did you think you’d have to talk to the phone like some crazy hobo spy?); might as well use it to listen to music, no?

Now, the review of this particular watch phone. Without giving too much away, it’s the proof that Steve Jobs deserved all the money he made.


Withings WiFi Scale

withingsIf you have been following this blog for a while, you know that I track my weight. Ever since the days of the fat teenager, I wanted to keep it under control. I’ve had my ups and downs, but in the past 20 years, I have never moved more than 10 pounds from my standard weight of 174.

I wrote software to track my weight on a variety of platforms. It became the default thing for me to do with every new programming language and UI environment: create a widget that allows you to enter weight (and later bodyfat) data and display it in a meaningful way.

What I have always lacked is a scale that does more than display the results. I wanted a scale that transmits the information to some place. Couldn’t find anything interesting at a reasonable price, until I got the Withings WiFi scale.


Android vs Garmin – GPS for the Masses

I finally decided to get myself an Android phone. I was sick of my N900 and its eternally unfixed bugs (including the interesting reboot in the middle of a phone call), and I took the news of T-Mobile’s selling out to AT&T as my launch pad. Within days, I had run to the various stores and found exactly what I wanted: a no-contract Samsung phone on the fantastic $25/month Virgin Mobile plan. It’s an all you can eat Internet and SMS plan, so don’t you ever call me. Even if I had an all you can eat voice plan, though, don’t call me.

Well, at the same time as I set up the Android, I received a Garmin unit. Nice, you’ll say. And to create a perfect trifecta, I decided to look at real estate in San Diego. (Side note: I am sick of renting, and it’s really expensive.)

So, how do my Google Maps-enabled phone and my Garmin Lifetime Maps and Traffic compare? Spoiler: Garmin is dead in the water.


MP3 Players for the Gym Geek

{moszoomimglink:ifp790}So far, I have been using an iRiver iFP 790 at the gym, and it has worked pretty ok for me. Not spectacularly well, not spectacularly poorly. Its 256MB are definitely getting to be a little small; after a year or so, it's definitely acting up: the headphone plug is noisy and doesn't grip the jacks any more; the buttons on top (not the best placement anyway) are starting to become insensitive; and the luster on the shiny red exterior is wearing off.

Oddly enough, though, it was the software that ended up costing the little device its place as MFUG (most frequently used gadget) in my household: I had devised this cool way of changing music on it, by symlinking tracks from the rip collection into a special folder, and then rsync-ing that folder to the device. To do that, of course, I needed to be able to rsync, which means I had to be able to mount the iFP.


Canon Digital Rebel XT

I compared the Digital Rebel with a bunch of other Digital SLRs in a different article. Here now, after a couple of months, my first impressions with the Canon.

Overall Impression

I am very impressed with the Digital Rebel XT. It is a very responsive camera that delivers clear shots in most lighting conditions. The autofocus is very precise, battery life outstanding, and the availability of accessories excellent. The only drawback (which is shared by all digital SLRs) is sheer size. You have to be in a photo shoot mode to carry it around with you. 


UPDATED: CanoScan N 1220 U

Guess what? Now it all works. Regardless of whether you use OpenSuSE or Fedora, it's all good. You just fire up the scanner tool and scan the images the way you want. I have tested it over and over again, and I am thankful to all those that made it work for me. Go, Linux!