Sunday, November 29, 2015

The WiFi enabled Video Doorbell by Ring

I had been meaning to try this device for quite sometime, but it's predecessor (the Bot) had too many issues to justify an install. I looked high and low for an alternative and then this summer Ring deployed their newest product (now called "Ring").

I would say right off the bat that the install was incredibly simple. Took me less than 20 mins, came with the right screw drivers and even a video to demonstrate the installation procedure. 

The doorbell part works beautifully. When someone rings, it not only sounds the normal chime but also alerts any iOS devices with the app installed, allowing someone to see the person at the door on video, hear them and speak to them (awesome if you are in the back yard or not at home when a package requiring signature arrives). 



However, the other touted feature is the ability to detect motion at your door and record a brief video while alerting you (a security feature). I experimented with various ranges of distance but nearly all of the distances have too many false positives (i.e. the wind moving a flag, etc). When it is dialed back, it often misses the video capture of real motion because the device does not have the horse power to start video capture quickly enough. 

The video playback feature is commercially reasonable. Less than a few dollars per month to have every 30 second video accessible in the cloud. However, about 1/3 of the time, the encoding / transcoding of the video fails in various parts of the video. I can't tell if it is the hardware or the service they are using for the transcoding and deployment to the service. 

Conclusion: if you need a replacement door bell with a video option, this is worth the effort. However, if you can wait until the next version (better processor, faster recording start, better motion/IR sensing algorithm), I would wait. 


Saturday, November 28, 2015

The new Amazon FireTV Stick


My new and improved FireTV stick arrived this week. I wanted to test a few things with this $39 device (includes Voice remote) including its Wi-Fi performance, the voice remote itself, the new Alexa functionality, the new iOS app, it's "Instant Start" capability and the ability for "anyone to install". 

I am still very pleased with the full-on Amazon FireTV in my living room -- the 4K rendering from Amazon and Netflix are gorgeous on my 78" Samsung 4K set. 
I had my 12-year old do the install. Took him less than 5 minutes with the hardest part being the WiFi password. Simple as advertised. 
The Wi-Fi performance (now dual band) is much better than the previous stick 1080P looks great over my Apple AirPort Extreme Wifi. 
The voice remote is every bit as functional as the full FireTV version and much better than not having the voice search. 
The new iOS app is also great, including the access to voice search and Alexa. Works easily with both of my FireTV devices. 

Finally, the instant start works as advertised.

My view -- much better than the previous version and frankly much better than the Apple TV. I have always been a fan of the content-oriented UI vs an App-oriented approach. 

Amazon has been running sales all weekend on both version of the FireTV...a great Christmas gift.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My first week with Tesla AutoPilot




First of all, let me say right up front - this is definitely still BETA. Keeping your hands on the wheel while driving 75 mph is definitely a requirement.  My first impression is that AutoPilot is currently driving like a teenager--over correcting most of the time and correcting too often (not to mention occasionally scaring the crap out of me). However, automatic cruise control started this way last April and got better and better over a few months and I would honestly say now it is amazing. 

In its current state, these are the use cases I think make sense:

- "the reach". How many times without auto pilot are you trying to grab something, trying to open something, etc, and doing insane things like holding the wheel with your knee? A no-brainer. 

- LA traffic. Rush hour often means stop and go traffic between 0 and 40 miles an hour. This is a perfect use case for auto pilot - relax, listen to an audio blog, make a blue tooth call. 

- "the long drive". Even with your hands on the wheel, there is comfort in the car looking out for changes. I will say that there are times you feel like you are fighting it (i.e. It wants to be in the middle of the lane but as a motorcycle passes in between traffic you want to move to the left), and ironically it drives more accurately in the nighttime than the day (I think that has to do with the reflective lines being easier to distinguish vs. the washed out daytime view). 
I think we are 18 months or more from being able to comfortably drive at 75 mph on a highway without fear of the autopilot misreading the lines on the road and sounding the very alarming collision alert signal so ou can quickly take control. 










Saturday, October 17, 2015

My 4K living room update (10 months later)

In December of last year (2012) I finally wrote up my 4K experience and the result wasn't pretty.
During that time, content was only available from either the Samsung hard drive that came with the TV, or Netflix, Amazon and MGO apps on the Samsung TV.  Netflix would constantly crash, Amazon would constantly buffer (despite bandwidth being available) and the MGO app let me download the content but would never let me play it back.  Even if/when it worked at all, it meant my sound was going thru the TV speakers, not my 7.1 surround sound system.  I concluded then that it could not take off with consumers until some OTT box maker created a 4K decode chipset so a consumer could route through their home entertainment reeiver and have a higher quality app experience (the apps built for TV chasis get the least amount of development effort and have always had subpar performance on all TV platform...in my experience).

Well 10 days ago I finally received my new Amazon FireTV with 4K capabilities. 
While I surprised that Apple did NOT come out with the capability, I was not surprised at its very sharp picture and continued leverage of a content oriented UI (vs. Apple's "app centric" approach -- even with universal search).
I unboxed it 10 days ago right before a long trip to London, but found a problem immediately with the 4K playback tied up in the way HDCP 2.2 was handshaking between the FireTV, my Onkyo NR-636 Receiver, and the Samsung UH9000 series TV.  So I did a little reading last night in the Uber on the way back from LAX and Crutchfield of all sites gave me all of the information I needed.  It turns out that even though ALL of the manufacturers here have been smart and are providing update-able firmware to prepare for what is now HDCP 2.2 (prevents in-stream copying of 4K content), their user manuals were incredibly poor at describing the simple fact that of the 4 or 7 HDMI 2.0 ports they had only one (1) was HDCP 2.2 compliant.  Samsung (below) was forward thinking in their approach to the UHD television generation and created this single "smart" input device for the UHD range which is not only updatable via the internet automatically, it is a replaceable device (in the event a hardware update is required for something in the near future) in a way that does not require a new TV.  But, they are terse in their description of that they call "MHP" on their HDMI 4 port, which is turns out is the ONLY HDMI connection that will pass through HDCP 2.2.


Onkyo is a bit more straight forward in their documentation, but again only have a single port in (under HDMI port 3 for some reason) and an HDCP 2.2 compliant "out" HDMI port.   However, they are good enough to clearly document that even on the back of the receiver itself (and in all of their documentation on their own site and at Crutchfields).

So, making all of this work (after a bit of reading) requires:
  • Amazon FireTV (or other 4K device supporting Netflix UHD and Amazon UHD).
  • An Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver (or better -- the NR636 is roughly $499 now).  I did update the firmeware for this, which gave me Dolby ATMOS and supposedly improved the HDCP 2.2 handshake.  The FireTV needs to be connected to HMDI 3 (STB/DVR).
  • The Samsung UH9000 series TV (the 8000 will do 4K only at 30 Hz).  The Samsung TV needs to have one end of the HDMI cable in HDMI port 4 (MHP) and the other in the Onkyo out (no other choice really).

From start to finish I probably had 30 minutes invested in the reading, 30 minutes invested in pulling cables in and out of ports, 30 minutes in updating the Onkyo firmware (via USB), and 30 minutes re-programming my Harmony Ultimate Home remote system (previously everything had been through HDMI port 1 on the TV, not 4, because I had no idea what the MHP reference from Samsung was on that port until I read the Crutchfield guide).

The downside for the industry here is rather obvious.  This just eliminated a huge chunk of consumers (too much effort required) and has eliminated my capability to get another 4K device (Blu-Ray, AppleTV, Roku, cable/telco provider or otherwise) since there is ONLY ONE PORT on the Onkyo and on the Samsung.  In fact, I could not find a model in the current Onkyo line-up that supports 2 inputs to the receiver that are HDCP 2.2 compliant (perhaps a physical way to prevent stream copies)--and Onkyo is definitely leading the industry in video switching.  This will definitely slow down 4K as consumers will be forced to choose their local cable/telco (assuming they ever get their crap together) vs. their favorite OTT solution.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Apple Pay in the UK

In the last 4 days I have used Apple Pay here in London more times than I have in the U.S. in the last 4 weeks. 

When I was last in London in July, hardly anyone took Apple Pay as it had just launched. But this week, largely thanks to Verifone taking contactless payments, I used it for just about everything--coffee, a black cab, sandwiches, my Heathrow Express ticket, dinner, etc. 

The irony is that because the U.S. Cards are still 'chip and sign' vs 'chip and PIN', they are frankly a huge pain in the ass here, requiring the waiter or barista to run off and find a pen most times, delaying the transaction, etc. In other words, using the Apple Watch or iPhone requires no signature and is MUCH faster than not using it. 

Now if we can just get a similar widespread deployment in America...


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How a flat tire made me love #Tesla more

I had a slow leak in one of my tires over the weekend. Filled it up, but two days later it was back down to half of the right pressure. I was anticipating a nightmare challenge to get this fixed the day before a long trip to Europe because there is NO SPARE for the Tesla Model S. 

So I called Tesla Service. 

What an awesome experience. A tow truck came to my house and put a loaner tire on my car. Took 8 minutes of my time.  I never even heard of this concept. 

The next day I got a call from Tesla Roadside assistance. They are coming by the house again to swap the original rim and new tire for me at my house. All for $395. I never - and I mean NEVER - got out of my BMW Service Center that cheap. Ever. That price included the service on both ends and the amazing tires they use. My BMW tire were at least 50% more per tire, etc. 

Wow. If I wasn't already a fan...


Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Apple Watch after 3 months

I have to say first that I am an early adopter and "tester" of most gadgets - and many of them don't pan out, but the Apple Watch is on the right path.

I was a Kickstarter backer of the Pebble. Loved it for a long time and upgraded to the Pebble Steel. The 7 day battery was great and I had even been scuba diving with it - a REAL watch. But then they had a major software problem in April that caused the watch to constantly reboot unless I turned off Blu-tooth--making it a dumb watch until my Apple Watch arrived in early June. 

By that time I was wearing a FitBit as well to track my sleep. So I had a strange number of weeks where I would wear the Apple Watch during the day and the Pebble while I slept for the silent alarm. 

Then I left my Pebble Steel on a plane by accident. And I had 3 fit bits in a row "break" inexplicably (without much support / help from FitBit themselves, I might add).  I was hoping my Pebble Time Steel would arrive in mid-July, but that is delayed now until September or later I am told.  So having resigned myself to using the Apple Watch during the day in my experiment and some other device at night as a silent alarm, I was now forced to push forward with the Apple Watch.

Here is what I found:
  • It is great for notifications.  One of the "smarter" developments over the Pebble is that if you have seen the notification on your phone (i.e. unlocked the phone or were viewing it), they do not go to your watch.  This was a real frustration with Pebble (double alerts).
  • It also respects your "Do Not Disturb" automatically, meaning there is no need to disconnect the watch from your phone while you sleep (something that was required with Pebble).
  • It automatically installs "Watch Enabled" apps when they come out.  Now this is a blessing and a curse, but better than hunting for new things if you like trying the apps.  They just need to set the bar better for the watch apps themselves.  FaceBook for example just tells you to open the app on your phone -- #FAIL.
  • The native fitness apps are great, especially in hear rate tracking.  But Apple needs to hurry up and give access to those features to RunKeeper and other apps who could do so much more than tracking (i.e. interval training between two heart rate levels).
  • The Uber app is actually really well done and is a value add on the watch.
  • The native music app is terrible...and way behind any of the 3rd party apps-- a bit surprisingly.
  • The "modular" watch face is very productive, but there needs to be a better way to find "cool" watch face apps than there is today (perhaps a trial mode where you get to test a new one every day).
  • The Weather app sucks and is broken.  The number of times I have selected my cities on the iPhone only to have something (the watch, Apple, iTunes, the phone) turn them all back to how they were set previously.  I have given up until they are updated.
  • The TripIt watch app is VERY helpful while traveling.
  • The Passbook app is pretty good.  While paying is still too difficult (to many buttons to press and select to arrive at it while at the register), it does work for boarding planes, movie tickets, etc, which is pretty cool.
  • The speech to text "Siri-like" capability it pretty good (i.e. start a time for 4 minutes).  It works well for dictating texts as well.
  • The messaging app is pretty good at predicting useful short responses to texts you receive.
  • Even the Wunderlist app is pretty good at arranging your priority actions right where you want the reminders.
I think this category will continue to improve and reach mass adoption, but only when the batter problem (i.e. 7 days minimum) is solved and the water proof capability (i.e. at least swimmable to 10 ft) is solved.  The reality is that while most people complain about the $350 entry price tag, it is cheaper than most watches that people already own who also own an iPhone...