March 19, 2017

Perennials: Fitbit Zip & Fitbit One

I've covered the Fitbit line of fitness trackers back to at least 2012. And I've carried a Fitbit tracker for that long as well.

However, Fitbit has been struggling recently, since it focused (like many others) on the exciting potential of the "wearables" market (see, for example, CNN).

Apparently there is a limit to the number of people who want to strap sometimes-clunky smart watches and sensors on their wrists. Plus there is still plenty of competition, including big names like Apple and Samsung and potentially Google, although others like Microsoft and Pebble have come and gone.

But meanwhile the basic idea of tracking your movement throughout the day still makes a lot of sense, simply to help encourage you to keep on moving.

And while Fitbit has a large and evolving line of sexy wearable wristbands and watches, it also has two other simpler "pocket trackers" -- the Fitbit One (shown here) and the Fitbit Zip.

You can clip these on, or just carry them in your pocket, and then record the basics with no fuss -- including steps taken, miles walked, calories burned, minutes active, stairs climbed and and even sleep quality.

I carried the Fitbit Zip ($59) for years, and recently upgraded to the Fitbit One ($99), which adds tracking for stairs climbed and sleep quality.

These are tiny -- the One is only 1.89 x 0.76 x 0.38 inches -- and come with a silicon case with attached clip for more carrying options. The Zip uses a replacable battery, and the One needs to be recharged every week or so.

You can press a button on the device to cycle the display through the current readings for the day, including a built-in clock. Or you can sync wirelessly to the Fitbit App (iOS, Android, and Windows) to check your activity, history, and progress towards your personal goals.

Fitbit also has a social connection, so you can compare activity among a circle of friends, receive badges for achieving milestones (such as walking the equivalent of the length of New Zealand), and connect with others online.

But these perennial devices are most valuable for the basics -- They help keep you focused on making sure you keep moving, every day. And they help you measure and feel good about those especially good days when you took a long walk instead of driving, and climbed the stairs instead of taking an elevator. It's just about keeping track so you keep moving.

See my Holiday 2016 coverage for an overview of the Fitbit line and Fitbit app.

Find the Fitbit One and Fitbit Zip on Amazon.com

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January 19, 2017

Video Encoding by the Numbers by Jan Ozer

Jan Ozer's new book, Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from Your Streaming Video, is a wonderful resource for anyone doing video compression, from beginner to advanced.

The book packages up Ozer's deep knowledge and experience into a comprehensive review, with special emphasis on the latest technologies, including H.264, HEVC / H.265, and adaptive bitrate streaming.

That in itself would make this book tremendously valuable, but Ozer has augmented the text in two important ways -- by providing extensive examples of using FFmpeg to batch process videos, and by demonstrating the application of objective quality metrics to analyze the video and report its visual quality.

For too long, video compression has seemed to be a form of alchemy, with extensive folklore of mystic incantations required to produce video gold. Even if you could successfully penetrate the basic secrets (including formats and codecs and rates, CBR vs VBR, kbps vs bpp), you would only discover even more obscure deeper levels of parameters (including GOP structure, I-B-P, IDR, and adaptive streaming).

And even if you get the formula correct, how can you then package it up for use, and verify that it's working properly? Video Encoding by the Numbers attacks all these issues, end to end.

First, Ozer covers the basics of video compression and associated tools. He does not just provide advice, he backs it up by discussing the results of his extensive testing of compression tools and options with real-world videos. This work is based on his background in video shooting and production, in reviewing and testing video tools, in consulting to build real-world solutions for compression pipelines, and then sharing his discoveries -- in articles, talks, on his Streaming Learning Center website, and in his books.

Then, to package up the compression process, Ozer demonstrates how to use the free cross-platform FFmpeg tool to perform batch compression, providing example scripts with each technical chapter, again tempered with discussions of his experience in experimenting with the various options.

And most importantly, Ozer grounds the compression process in science by applying objective quality metrics that analyze the video and report its visual quality. This is a huge advance driven by new metrics and tools, moving from simple PSNR to newer metrics including VQM and SSIM. Now you no longer need to sit and watch each compressed video you produce in order to check them (which obviously becomes impossible with multiple output formats and resolutions). Instead, Ozer shows how to use these tools to look for anomalies, and then focus in on the trouble spots.

As a further example of the exhaustive coverage in this book, the final section covers scaling up to streaming delivery, exploring adaptive bitrate approaches, discussing setting up your "encoding ladder" for streaming formats and resolutions, and then concluding by discussing the importance of per-title encoding, using these tools and metrics to find the best solution for each individual video.

It's hard to overstate the usefulness of this book -- as a reference for understanding compression technology and trade-offs, as a checklist for best practices, as a guide to more efficient batch compression, and as a path forward to a more scientific and objective approach to video compression.

In my case, Jan kindly provided an electronic copy of the book for review (available in PDF format), and I quickly purchased two more paper copies, one to keep and one to share. The book is available for $49.95, and the PDF download is $39.95. It's 330 pages with extensive discussion, tables of test results, screenshots of tools, and, of course, example video frames. Now you too can transform your video clips into compressed gold.

See more on the book at Ozer's StreamingLearingCenter.com site.

Find Video Encoding by the Numbers on Amazon.com

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December 27, 2016

Google Assistant on the Google Pixel smartphone and Google Home speaker

The Amazon Echo Bluetooth speaker with the Amazon Alexa digital personal assistant is designed to integrate voice-based personal assistance into your home (see previous post).

And smartphone-based assistants like Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana make sure the same easy access to information and entertainment is always at hand.

The original Google Now voice assistance service grew out of Google's search tools and developed into the full-fledged Google app for Android and iOS.

Earlier this year, Google announced Google Assistant as its next intelligent personal assistant, which is evolving to support two-way dialogs so you can clarify requests instead of using only a single command and response.

Google Assistant is currently available on the new Google Pixel smartphone, the new Google Home voice-activated speaker, and the Google Allo smart messaging app.

The Google Pixel smartphone, available from Verizon Wireless, runs the latest Android 7.1 Nougat.

It features an impressive 12.3 MP main camera with f/2.4 Aperture that can shoot great photos in low light or bright light.

It is rugged, with curved edges from the aluminum unibody and 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 4 face.

The battery provides up 13 hours of Internet use or video playback, and charges rapidly -- providing 7 hours of use after 15 minutes of charging.

The Google Pixel is priced starting at $649 with a 5 inch display and 32 GB of storage. Or add $120 for the XL model with 5.5 inch display, plus $100 to expand from 128 GB of storage.

The Google Home is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo line -- a voice-activated speaker with Google Assistant that can integrate with your Google accounts to provide even more personal assistance. It's priced at $129.

It's a Hi-Fi speaker, with a 2" driver plus dual 2" passive radiators. And since it is a Wi-Fi device, you can control music playback on multiple speakers all around your house.

The Google Home is 3.79 inches in diameter and 5.62 inches high, and weighs 1.05 lbs. You even can customize the base with seven colors to fit your decor.

See my Holiday Tech 2016 coverage for more on digital assistants, and for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Amazon Echo Dot on Amazon.com

December 23, 2016

Amazon Echo Dot and Alexa Digital Assistant

We're entering the era of digital personal assistants -- voice-controlled devices that provide information, keep notes and reminders, and even carry out actions for us.

Smartphone-based systems like Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana can retrieve information, play music, provide travel assistance, and also control device actions, including making phone calls, reading and replying to text messages, and launching apps.

And then there's the Amazon Alexa digital personal assistant. While Amazon does not have a smartphone line, Alexa is available on its Fire tablets and on its Fire TV service, and, most visibly on its stand-alone Echo line of wireless speaker products.

The Amazon Echo speakers with Alexa voice commands are designed to be placed in your home to provide assistance whenever you want it, without even needing to pull out your phone.

Amazon has recently reduced the prices of the three Echo products -- The original Echo (now $139) is a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker with Alexa built in, and the Tap ($89) is a somewhat smaller speaker that you tap to speak.

The new 2nd generation Amazon Echo Dot shrinks down the size to only 3.3 x 3.3 x 1.3 inches.

Since the Echo Dot is now priced at only $39, the idea is that you can have one in every room.

Just say "Alexa" as the wake word, and a ring around the top of the Echo Dot lights up as it starts listening to your request.

The voice isolation is very good -- the light ring indicates the direction from which it heard the voice, and it typically understands your request even with different voices, from across a room, and with music and other sounds in the background.

The Echo then sends a recording of the voice to Amazon's server for analysis, and sends the response back to you -- for example, by speaking the information you requested, starting music playback, or controlling a smart home device in your house.

The Echo Dot has a small built-in speaker to respond to your Alexa requests, plus the ability to connect to external headphones over Bluetooth or through a 3.5 mm audio cable to play music or to read books.

While the Echo products do not have local storage for your music and other media like smartphones, they do provide access to the Amazon online services and cloud storage.

You can play music from your personal Amazon library, play streaming music and radio from services including Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, and play selections from the Amazon Music service. With Alexa, you can ask for music in general ways, including by lyrics, era, and style.

You also can have Alexa play audiobooks from Audible and Kindle Unlimited, and read books out load from your Kindle Store purchases or borrowed from Kindle Unlimited.

Amazon is not surprisingly also focusing Alexa on providing shopping services, both from Amazon (i.e., reordering more paper towels) and via third-party plug-ins -- Over 3,000 add-on Alexa "Skills" are now available, so you can order pizza from Domino's, request a ride from Uber, track your fitness with Fitbit, order flowers from 1-800-Flowers, and find flight information with Kayak. And you can set a password to avoid having kids and visitors accidentally placing orders.

Alexa also provides strong integration with smart home products, for example to provide voice control for your lights and heating. This supports devices including Philips Hue, TP-Link, ecobee, Belkin WeMo, Samsung SmartThings, Insteon, Lutron, Nest, Wink, and Honeywell.

Alexa is focused on providing voice responses, but Amazon does have a companion smartphone app that you can use to review the results of Alexa requests, and provide training and feedback.

The Amazon Alexa service is quite useful, and the Echo Dot is a nice low-profile way to access it. It's particularly helpful in this season to settle disputes about holiday traditions, and to turn the Christmas lights on and off.

See my Holiday Tech 2016 coverage for more on digital assistants, and for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Amazon Echo Dot on Amazon.com

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December 14, 2016

Fitbit Charge 2 with Heart Rate Monitoring

Fitbit continues to enhance its line of fitness trackers to help monitor and encourage your activity and health.

You can start with small pocket trackers like the Fitbit Zip and One ($59 and $99) that track your walking steps, stair climbing, and even sleep activity.

Or wear a fitness wrist band like the Fitbit Flex 2 and Alta ($99 and $129) that also connect with your smartphone to display incoming texts and calls and calendar alerts (along with the time).

And there are fitness watches like the Fitbit Blaze and Surge ($199 and $299), with a larger watch face, deeper smartphone integration to control music playback, and even built-in GPS to track movement even when you do not have your smartphone.


The Fitbit Charge 2 ($149), kindly loaned by Verizon Wireless for my Holiday Tech coverage, is an interesting new addition -- It's still a relatively low-profile wristband (0.84" wide), but also adds an optical heart rate monitor.

The Charge 2 has a bright OLED display that automatically lights when you turn your wrist to show you the time (with your choice of clock faces). Or you can tap to cycle through displays of your fitness measurements. The bands are also interchangeable.

It also connects to your smartphone, to display call, text, and calendar alerts on your wrist.

As a fitness monitor, the Charge 2 tracks steps, distance, calories burned, floors climbed, active minutes, and hourly activity. It also can encourage you to stay active by providing reminders to take at least 250 steps each hour.

It also tracks your sleep, reporting how long and how well you sleep so you can see your restless periods. And it has a silent vibrating alarm to wake you up peacefully.

But the big addition is heart rate monitoring, using LED lights on the back of the display to detect blood volume changes as your heart beats and your capillaries expand and contract. These are mapped into three heart rate workout zones: peak (high-intensity exercise), cardio (medium-to-high intensity), and fat burn (low-to-medium intensity). (Be aware that these devices are not scientific or medical devices, the precision of the readings is in dispute, and the reading depends on wearing the band correctly.)

With this data, the Fitbit app can help explain and guide your fitness level. For example, it can track different kinds of workouts, plan an interval workout with alternating periods of high-intensity exercise and recovery, and even provide calming guided breathing sessions. You also can link with your smartphone GPS to provide real-time stats like running pace and distance, and to record a map of your route.

The Charge 2 has local memory to save up to 7 days of motion data by minute, daily totals for 30 days, and heart rate data at 1 second intervals during exercise tracking and at 5 second intervals at other times. It also syncs wirelessly and automatically to iPhone, Android, and Windows devices using Bluetooth LE.

It is sweat, rain and splash proof, but it is not water proof for swimming or showering. It has up to a 5-day battery life, and recharges in 1 to 2 hours.

The Fitbit Charge 2 is available starting at $129, in different styles and sizes.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Fitbit Charge 2 on Amazon.com

December 10, 2016

360-Degree / VR Video

You're probably familiar with 360-degree panoramic images on the web, from travel sites or when making hotel reservations. You can view a photo on the web page, and then click and drag to slide the view around so you can explore the entire scene.

But 360 is not just for images -- This year has seen a boom in support for 360-degree videos -- Full-motion videos that you can look around in, as they are playing. Now you can experience riding a boat down the Grand Canyon, or standing on stage during a musical performance, or flying up to the edge of space -- not just from the single view that was shot by a camera operator, but with the ability to look around in any direction, at any time.


        Full 360 degree video - HumanEyes Vuze

And even better, getting started with viewing 360 videos is free, or at most dirt cheap.

Head on over to the YouTube 360┬░ Videos Channel or similar sites, and just click to play them in your browser on your computer. There's no extra software to download or buy -- these play as-is in your browser. Just click and drag with your muse to look around in the view.

Plus you can display the same sites just as easily on your smartphone (or tablet). Launch the video from the smartphone browser, and then drag with your finger to change the view. Even better, since smartphones can sense when you change their position and orientation, simply tilt the smartphone to look up or down, and rotate it to look to the sides or even behind you.

So, if you just hold the smartphone in front of your eyes, and move your head and body around, you can begin to enjoy the experience of physically looking around within the space captured on the video.

But for a more immersive experience, you need to split the scene into a pair of separate views for each eye, and use lenses to focus them properly for viewing.

This does require using a VR player app on the smartphone that splits the 360 video into the two separate views, and then adjusts the viewpoint in response to your head motion so that you can naturally look around and behind, up and down.


This is the idea behind the Google Cardboard product design. These are simple headsets that use the smartphone as the display. Just slide the phone into place inside the front of the headset to view it through the lenses. Then start the video playing and look through the lenses to experience a surprising sense of realism.

The basic design is literally made from foldable cardboard, and is available from Google and others starting at $9.99 in kit form.

Or the Vivitar Virtual Reality Glasses are especially inexpensive, at $5.99. This is a more traditional VR headset design, with an adjustable head strap, and is made from more solid plastic. The front can hold a large phone, and uses suction cups to hold the smartphone in place.


Or for a minimalist approach, the Homido Mini VR Glasses for $14.99 are foldable lenses that simply clip on to your smartphone.

A great way to start with viewing VR videos this way is the New York Times VR site -- and its companion NYTVR apps. These provide access to a growing collection of 360 videos from the Times, plus the option to display on your smartphone in full-screen, or with dual views for a Google Cardboard or other viewer.

The good news here is that you can get started with 360 / VR videos with minimal effort and zero or minimal cost. If you'd like to make your own videos, you'll need a special camera, typically with a spherical lens and/or multiple lenses to shoot the entire surrounding scene. But prices are falling, and editing 360 videos is quickly becoming accessible with video editing software (see earlier posts on CyberLink PowerDirector 15 and Pinnacle Studio 20).

See my 360-Degree Video page for links to a selection of fun sample videos and 360 video sites, plus notes and references for more information.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Vivitar VR Glasses and Homido Mini VR Glasses on Amazon.com

November 27, 2016

Tile Slim - Thin Bluetooth Tracker

The Tile Bluetooth Tracker is a smart idea, nicely executed. The Tile is a small device that you can attach to your keys or slip into your briefcase, so you can quickly find your stuff -- or your smartphone -- when they go missing.

The basic Tile Mate product's design is quite small and light at 1.34 x 1.34 x 0.18 inches and 0.22 ounces (34 x 34 x 4.65 mm, 6.1 g). And it has a keyring hole to easily attach to keys, remotes, and backpacks.


And now there's the new Tile Slim, with a larger profile but ridiculously flat, at 2.13 x 2.13 x 0.09 inches and 0.33 ounces (54 x 54 x 2.4 mm, 9.3 g).

It's as thin as two credit cards, so you can slip it in your wallet or attach it to the surface of your laptop.

The Tile works with your smartphone in both directions:

- You can use the Smartphone app (iOS or Android) to Ring the Tile -- it will then play a loud tune so you can find your things.

- Or you can double-press the button on the Tile to Ring Your Phone, so you can find it even when it is silenced.

If you leave a Tile behind, you can use Last Place Seen in the app to view its last location on a map to go back and find it.

And if you lose a Tile, you can set Notify When Found, and have the whole Tile community look for it -- You will receive an alert if anyone else running the Tile app comes near it.

You also can easily share stuff tagged with Tiles. And you also can connect the Tile app across multiple devices, to ring one from another.

The Tile app on your smartphone also is accessible from the Tile website. After you log in, you can see the location of your phone, ring your phone remotely, and set a lock-screen message for anyone who finds it.

Tile uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), so it has a range of 100 feet, but is most effective within a range of 30 feet.

The Tiles are durable and water-resistant to the IP5 standard. The Tile's battery runs for about a year, and is not rechargeable. Tile then offers a reTile program to replace and upgrade your Tile, currently at 50% off. You also can send back your old Tile for recycling.

The Tile Mate is available for $25 each, or $70 for a 4-pack, and the Tile Slim is available for $30 each, or $100 for a 4-pack.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Tile Slim and Tile Mate on Amazon.com

November 17, 2016

Switchmate Home Smart Light Switch

The "Smart Home" is a cool vision -- You can automate your house by connecting your lights and appliances and locks and sensors and other devices together, control them remotely, and even access them over the Internet. So you can turn on the lights automatically as you approach the house, or fire up the slow cooker when you are finally ready to head home.

But all this can be a significant investment in time and money, even to get started with a few devices. You also need to choose and set up the infrastructure to connect them together. And, with the recent news about hacking large numbers of embedded devices that are part of this Internet of Things (IoT), you also need to be careful about security, including changing default passwords and validating firewall access.

Or -- you can get started the easy way with the Switchmate home smart light switch. There's literally no installation, no need to re-wire the light fixture. Instead, simply place the Switchmate over your existing light switch, and it attaches magnetically to the existing screws. There's no tools, no wires, no fuss at all.

The Switchmate then has a motorized slider that can flick the switch on and off, which you can control wirelessly from your smartphone over Bluetooth.

Using the Switchmate app (iOS or Android), you then can control the lights remotely, including having them turn on automatically as you enter the room, and setting timers for it to turn on and off, whether you are at home or away.

This is a clever approach to getting started with smart home automation. It works well -- the magnets are strong enough to keep the Switchmate securely in place, and you can still flick the switch manually. It runs on two AA batteries that should last up to one year.

The Switchmate home smart light switch is available for $39.99, in white and ivory to match your decor, and with models for either toggle (standard) or rocker switches.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Switchmate Home Smart Light Switch on Amazon.com

October 28, 2016

FINsix Dart Laptop Charger

Laptops have gotten wonderfully thin and light, but now the associated power supply seems awfully bulky and heavy in comparison.

The good news is that new power technology can deliver much more efficient power conversion, which means more power with significantly less bulk and weight -- and less heat from wasted energy.

Two different companies have recently delivered laptop chargers -- The FINsix Dart, which is smaller and lighter, and the Zolt Laptop Charger Plus (see previous post), which can simultaneously charge two mobile devices along with a laptop. Both come with adaptor tips to fit most popular laptops, and the Zolt also supports the Apple MacBook.

The FINsix Dart Charger is described as "the world's smallest laptop charger" -- At only 2.75 x 1.1 inches and around 3 ounces, it's 4X smaller and lighter than current laptop chargers.

The included 6 foot cable includes an inline 2.1A USB port to simultaneously charge another portable device.

The product includes 9 universal power tips that support 95%+ of today's PC laptops and notebooks.

However, it currently is not compatible with the Apple MacBook and Microsoft Surface.

The Dart has a total capacity of 65W, and works globally with 120 - 240V, 50/60 Hz input. It also has over-voltage, short circuit, and over-temperature protection.

The FINSix Dart Laptop Charger is available for $99, in blue, magenta, silver, gunmetal, and orange. It's ridiculously small -- something like a roll of quarters (but less than half the weight).

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the FINSix Dart Laptop Charger on Amazon.com

October 24, 2016

Zolt Laptop Charger Plus

Laptops have gotten wonderfully thin and light, but now the associated power supply seems awfully bulky and heavy in comparison.

The good news is that new power technology can deliver much more efficient power conversion, which means more power with significantly less bulk and weight -- and less heat from wasted energy.

Two different companies have recently delivered laptop chargers -- The FINsix Dart (see next post), which is smaller and lighter, and the Zolt Laptop Charger Plus, which can simultaneously charge two mobile devices along with a laptop. Both come with adaptor tips to fit most popular laptops, and the Zolt also supports the Apple MacBook.

The Zolt Charger is a portable power hub that you can grip in your hand, at only about 3.7 x 1.3 inches and 3.5 ounces -- so it's around 4X smaller and 3X lighter than current laptop chargers.

The unit has three USB ports on side -- one for a laptop and two additional for mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, portable speakers, and digital cameras.

It has a total capacity of 70W, enough to power a 65W laptop plus a couple iPhones at up to 5W / 2.6A each.

You connect your laptop with the included 6 foot laptop cable, after attaching one of the 8 interchangeable PC power tips, which are compatible with 90% of current laptops. Additional spare cables and MacBook Mag cables also are available for $19.99.

The Zolt works globally, with 120 - 240V, 50/60 Hz input. It also automatically regulates power to the connected devices, with over-voltage, short circuit, and over-temperature protection.

When you travel, the prongs on the end fold up, and you can wrap the cord around the bases, since the cord is thinner than typical power cables. As a bonus, the base also rotates up to 90 degrees so you can access adjacent outlets.

The Zolt has significantly reduced bulk and weight in my travel bag by replacing the old laptop "brick" with its multiple cords, and also removing a separate USB adaptor.

The Zolt Laptop Charger Plus is available for $99, in graphite, ultra violet, and electric orange.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Zolt Laptop Charger Plus on Amazon.com

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