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iWant: A Vibrating Wristband

You may have read my recent review of three fitness trackers, one that clips on your belt or waistband, and the other two that you wear on your wrist. These are examples of wearable technology, which is the Next Big Thing, except that no one has done it right yet.

I was talking to my friend Doug Adams the other day, and he made an interesting comment. He said he wanted a wristband or bracelet that vibrates; nothing more than that. As we discussed the idea, I realized how useful this could be.

The smart watch idea is interesting, but it has to be tethered – wirelessly – to a smartphone. So it simply acts as a separate interface for the phone. I don’t really need to pay a few hundred dollars for something that shows me what’s on my phone, and I don’t care about seeing what time it is; I can get a $10 watch for that.

2014-04-04 16.47.34.pngWhat would be useful, however, is a wristband that vibrates, giving you notifications when certain events occur. Say you have a calendar event, and you want a notification one hour before it happens: you can have this on your phone, but you may miss it. If your phone’s in your pocket, on silent – as mine is most of the time – it vibrates, but I often don’t feel it. If I had a wristband giving me a vibrating alarm, I wouldn’t miss that at all. The same is true for phone calls; I sometimes miss calls because I don’t feel my phone vibrate. If I had a wristband giving me alerts, I’d never miss it.

You would be able to set a variety of vibrations, for different notifications, just as you can now in iOS. You can set custom vibrations for alerts, so you can have all kinds of different vibrations to let you know when different notifications come in.

Smart watches may be the future, and we may just not know it, because no one’s done it right yet. But a vibrating wristband, for, say, $50, would be a boon for lots of us.

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Fitness Tracker Review: Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex & Jawbone UP24

Fitness trackers are motivators. While, on the surface, they claim to record data about your activity, the real reason people buy them is to motivate themselves to be more active. None of them are perfectly accurate, and they all have drawbacks. Some have good hardware and mediocre software; some have excellent software and poor hardware. But, if you want this kind of device, there is certainly one that will fit your needs.

I’ve tried three fitness trackers: the Fitbit One, the Fitbit Flex, and the Jawbone Up24. I’ve had the Fitbit One for about a year and a half; I tried the other two recently. Here are my thoughts. (Note that all three of these devices sync to a smartphone by Bluetooth; the Fitbit devices also come with a USB dongle to sync to a computer. Also, each of them uses a proprietary connector to charge; it goes into a USB plug, but it’s yet another cable to worry about.)

Fitbit One

The Fitbit One (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a tiny tracker that you can either clip onto your pants or belt, or carry in your pocket. It tracks steps, and a built-in altimeter counts the number of floors you climb. At night, it can also track your sleep, both in time and quality. The latter assessment is based on how restless you are at night.

pnl1_fitbit_one.jpgAs I said, I’ve been using the Fitbit One for about a year and a half. I bought it for two reasons: to motivate me to become more active, and to lose some weight. The Fitbit software takes the data from the tracker and calculates the distance you’ve walked, and the number of calories you’ve burned each day; you can set goals and try and reach them.

I’ve been using this in conjunction with Fitbit’s Aria wi-fi scale (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which records my weight and syncs to the Fitbit website, where that data integrates with data from the tracker, and displays in the Fitbit iOS app.

The Fitbit One is discreet, and doesn’t get in your way. Since you wear it on a waistband or belt – or even stick it in your pocket – you don’t have to worry about it being visible, which is not the case with the wristband trackers I’ll look at below. However, I lost the first Fitbit One I bought, when traveling; its clip wasn’t as tight as I’d like. The replacement I bought is tighter, and I’ve had it for about 15 months.

The Fitbit One is very accurate at counting steps; it’s in the best location to do so, right around your hips, where you would wear a simpler pedometer. Fitbit’s iOS app lets you watch your steps live, and I’ve tested the One walking on various types of ground and at different speeds, and it always registers steps. As for floors, however, that’s not so precise. It counts a floor if you go up or down ten feet in altitude; your floors may be more or less than that, and I’ve found that the floor data is pretty useless.

I don’t use the Fitbit One to track sleep. It comes with an elastic wristband, into which you slide the device, to wear at night. It’s uncomfortable and annoying. I tried it for a few nights, then gave up.

Overall, the Fitbit One is a good device, as its step count is extremely accurate. Fitbit’s software – both on iOS and its web-based dashboard – is useful, though relatively simple. It doesn’t offer reminders and nudges as the Jawbone UP does; it essentially offers just raw data. While I want more – the inactivity alert the Jawbone can provide would be useful to remind me to get up and move during the day – it’s good enough for now.

Fitbit Flex

The Fitbit Flex (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a wrist-worn Fitbit device. Offering the same tracking data – with the exception of floors – this device is quite limited in its ability to convey information. While, with the Fitbit One, you can press a button on the device to cycle through the day’s data, the Fitbit Flex only shows a few LEDs to tell you if you’ve reached your goal.

61YRYwYtSJL._SL1500_.jpgUnlike the Fitbit One, the Flex is very inaccurate. It records around 20% more steps than the One, and during a 15-minute drive to a grocery store, it recorded about 100 steps (tested in both directions). Since it’s worn on the wrist, it cannot be as accurate in counting steps; using Fitbit’s iOS app, which shows a live step count, I can see that it records steps when, for example, I reach my arm to a bookcase to the left of my desk to grab a book and place it on my desk.

If you wish to use it for sleep tracking, however, it is a lot easier than the Fitbit One. The idea of wrist-worn trackers is that you wear them all day, so you don’t need to change the device from your belt to your wrist. However, you do need to tap the device in a certain way to engage sleep tracking (five quick taps just below the LED display), and remember to disengage it the next morning. Last night, I slept, according to the Fitbit iOS app, from 12:29 to 8:28. Yet the software tells me I slept 7h 41mins; the math isn’t that hard, and the difference doesn’t even correspond to my “11 restless minutes.”

The Fitbit Flex comes with two wristbands, in a small and large size. I found the large to be comfortable, and not too tight. However, the clasp that holds it shut is just a piece of plastic that you push through two holes in the wristband; it’s hard to put on, and I can’t see this staying on during, say, a basketball game, or ever when you pull off certain clothes. At the cost of these devices, and given that I’ve already lost a One, I don’t trust this type of clasp.

While it’s comfortable, the Fitbit Flex’s inaccuracy makes it essentially useless. I’ll have more to say about that in my conclusion below.

Jawbone UP24

I was very attracted by the concept of the Jawbone UP24 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), because, unlike the Fitbit, this device nudges you to be more active. This can be through notifications from its app, and you can set a reminder to warn you when you haven’t been active for a certain number of minutes (the wristband vibrates).

JawboneUp24-582_size_blog_post.jpgI bought the large Jawbone UP24, after measuring my wrist to be 19 cm (the large size is for 18-20 cm wrists). Surprisingly, the Jawbone is tight on my wrist, even though I don’t have fat wrists. I am big-boned, but the size I measured, following Jawbone’s instructions, should be fine with this model. It’s tight enough that the two ends of the device don’t lie flat as they should (as you can see in the photo to the left). The device should also be loose enough to allow air to flow under it, especially if you’re wearing it when active and sweating; this isn’t the case for me.

I took the Jawbone for a walk. I have a treadmill in my house, and walked for a half-hour with the Jawbone on my wrist: it recorded a total of 38 steps, compared to the Fitbit One, which recorded a bit over 2,000 steps.

I looked on the web, and saw this is a common problem with the Jawbone. It measures steps by the movements of your arms, so if your arms aren’t swinging – such as when you walk on a treadmill, or when you’re carrying something – it won’t count that activity. Apparently, it also doesn’t count steps when you walk slowly, such as in a supermarket.

I’ve seen recommendations that you should put it in your pocket when walking on a treadmill, but if you have to do that, it defeats the purpose of using this type of device. So I tried that; the same half-hour on the treadmill, and the same 2,000+ steps with the Fitbit. The Jawbone, in my pocket, recorded 260 steps.

So, an activity tracker that can’t count your activity is not very useful. Add to that the fact that it’s uncomfortable. When I’m typing, the Jawbone gets in the way. The heels of my hands rest on my desk – I touch-type – and the Jawbone is in a position where it touches the desk. I can’t put the jawbone any higher on my wrist, since there’s no extra room; when I try, I can feel that it constricts my wrist a bit. The Fitbit Flex, on the other hand, is as thick as a standard watchband, and doesn’t bother me when I type.

One more thing

I would have liked to try the Fitbit Force, the most recent Fitbit product. This is a wrist-worn device, like the Flex, but which offers more options, and a real display (it can display numbers, not just LEDs, and also shows the time of day). However, this device has been recalled, because of a large number of users who got rashes from its plastic. Also, it has a similar clasp to the Flex, and I’d probably be afraid of losing it.

Conclusion

What’s the point of an activity tracker if it’s not accurate? Of the three I’ve tried, the Fitbit One, because of its location, is clearly the most accurate. If you have set a goal for your activity – most people use the arbitrary round number of 10,000 steps per day – you’ll hit it a lot quicker with, say, the Fitbit Flex than the One. Which means that you won’t be as active as you want.

The software for these devices also counts calories. If you’re trying to diet with a specific calorie restriction, the incorrect step count will also give you a very skewed calorie count. For a difference of +/- 20% in steps, this leads to a similar difference in calorie count. (And I won’t even go into how arbitrary calorie burn numbers are…) For example, I’m wearing both the Fitbit One and Fitbit Flex right now. It’s early in the morning, and I haven’t walked much yet (I work at home). The Flex shows that I’ve taken 582 steps; the One has counted 367 steps. That’s a huge difference. (A few minutes later, I haven’t taken any steps, and the Flex counted another six of them; because of my arm movements.)

It’s not just the inaccuracy of some of these devices that bothers me; it’s the fact that they are even on the market. If a device that claims to count your steps is not accurate, then it’s not performing it’s most basic task correctly. I understand that this is a difficult technology to perfect. The Fitbit One, worn in the correct location, is the most accurate; as for others, perhaps you simply can’t make an accurate wrist-worn tracker. Many people will buy these because they are very visible gadgets; but they’re little more than fashion accessories. If the basic information they give you is flawed, then there’s not much point.

Note that I could use my iPhone 5s to count steps, as it has a special chip that counts and records such information from its accelerometer. But my phone isn’t always in my pocket when I’m walking – when I walk on my treadmill, I put it on a window ledge – so it wouldn’t count everything. And when I walk around the house during the day, I often leave it on my desk.

As I said earlier, these devices are motivators; they can help you be more active. If you simply want an idea of your activity relative to other days, pretty much any device will give you that. If you want more accuracy, I’d recommend the Fitbit One, which counts your actual steps.

(I’d be interested in comments from readers who have any of these devices, or any others, as to their accuracy.)

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Hardware Notes: The Rain Design mStand Laptop Stand

On my desk, I have a 27″ Apple Thunderbolt display, connected to my main computer, a Mac mini. But I often need a second computer in my work – to be able to test software, do screen shots, and more. For this, I have a 13″ MacBook Pro, which sits on an angle to my left.

I don’t like having a laptop on my desk (I’ve had a number of laptops over the years as a second computer), and for a long time had a plastic stand that raised it off the desk on an angle. But the biggest problem with that stand was that it wasn’t stable enough; when I would type on the laptop, the stand moved, making it annoying.

Doing a search of mail-order vendors, about three years ago, I came across the Rain Design mStand (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Selling for around $50 in the US, this stand is exactly what I needed. It raises the laptop, tilts it on a good angle, and provides room under the computer to stash things (in my case, an external DVD drive and some cables). It’s easy to slide on the desk, since it has felt feet, and it’s really stable. When I type, it hardly moves, unlike plastic stands.

If you need a good stand, either if you use your laptop as your main computer, with a keyboard connected to it, or, like me, for use with a second computer, the mStand is an excellent choice.

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Not a Review: Leap Motion Controller Fails in Normal Conditions

I’d long been tempted to try out the Leap Motion controller (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), out of curiosity. Yesterday, Amazon UK had a one-day sale, dropping the price from £70 to £43 (it’s currently selling for £50, so that price drop seems to have been just a small reduction on the new, lower price). I like the idea of being able to control a computer in different ways, and, while I’m not always a fan of gestures, I can see how using it for occasional gestures could be useful. I was particularly thinking about using it to control iTunes – play, pause, change volume – and to use with Dragon Dictate, when I dictate texts, to control the microphone.

393268-leap-motion-controller.jpg

The Leap Motion Controller is an attractive device, with a good idea behind it, but, alas, it fails miserably in normal conditions. You see, it doesn’t like light; it uses two cameras and an infrared sensor to detect motion, and light – particularly infrared light, such as produced by the sun – prevent it from working.

To start with, when you take it out of the box, then set it up, you’re pretty much on your own. After launch, a full-screen window opens with Airspace, where you can download a few apps, and try out Orientation, which seems to be something that shows how the device tracks your movements. All I got was a stuttery video that didn’t detect any movement at all, and just played annoyingly loud music. There’s no help about how to actually use the device.

There’s a video on the Leap website that shows you how to unbox it, connect it, and place it next to a computer, as well as a few videos that show you basics, but nothing more. To actually use it to control your computer, you have to search to find which apps can help. The videos suggest that you can put the device either in front of your keyboard or behind it, but when I placed it behind the keyboard, it hardly ever detected any movements.

So I opened the Leap Motion app and went to Settings. I saw a Troubleshooting tab, with a Recalibrate Device button. I figured that might be useful. I clicked the button, and saw this:

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As much as I searched, I have not been able to find what “Robust Mode” is. I then tried Diagnostic Testing, and found the real problem. As you can see below, there’s too much light interfering with the device.

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Since I don’t work in a basement, I have a window in my office; to the right of my desk. I also have a lamp to light my office, because that window, and the other window in my office, isn’t very large.

I went to the Leap website to see what troubleshooting information I could find. After searching, I discovered this text:

The Leap Motion Controller achieves its best performance in an environment without any external infrared light sources. Because infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the source of the problem may not be immediately obvious.

If this test fails, try lowering window blinds or curtains, if daytime. Turn off or relocate halogen or nearby incandescent lights. (Energy efficient lights such as florescent bulbs should not cause interference.)

Note that the Leap Motion device will still work adequately under most poor lighting conditions. However, the tracking smoothness, range, and accuracy may suffer.

In other words, if you work in a room with lights in the daytime, the device won’t work very well. You’d think the company would put this in the device’s system requirements: Darkness Required. But, no, they’ve wasted my time, and their money, by selling me a device that isn’t fit for purpose.

As Steve Jobs once said:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.

I’m returning the Leap Motion to Amazon. While I like the concept, the implementation is poor. Not only does the company offer little real information about using the device, but it simply won’t work in normal conditions.

And, by the way, this is not how you provide a software uninstaller:

To uninstall the Leap Motion software on Mac OS X, run the uninstall program located in the Leap Motion.app package:

- Navigate to your Applications folder.

- Control-click (or right-click) on the Leap Motion application icon, and choose “Show Package Contents.”

- Navigate to the Contents/MacOS folder in the package.

- Double-click the uninstall program to uninstall the software.

The “uninstaller program” is a shell script that opens Terminal. I can think that most users will be a bit freaked out to see a Terminal window open and ask them for a password. Then again, most users may never uninstall the software.

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Which Gadgets Do You Take When Traveling?

It’s getting to be that time of year again. You may be thinking of going to visit family for Thanksgiving, or you may be planning a Christmas trip. No matter where you go, you probably have a lot of tech gadgets to take with you.

In my latest Macworld article, Travel tips: what you can’t leave behind, I look at ways to save weight and space by culling your gadgets, cables and accessories.

If you’re planning a trip, check it out; you may end up taking a bit less tech stuff with you.

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A $300 Smart Watch? Why The Samsung Galaxy Gear Will Fail

Samsung yesterday demoed and announced its Galaxy Gear smart watch. This $300 device has a 1.63 inch, 320×320 touchscreen display, and a a 1.9MP camera in its strap. It’s got 4GB storage, and a pedometer.

On the other hand, it only works with one Samsung phone, the Galaxy Note 3, and one tablet, the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition tablet. It has ten hours of battery life.

It’s been interesting watching the smart watch product evolve in recent months. The $150 Pebble syncs with iPhones and Android phones, has seven days of battery life, and offers many of the same features as Samsung’s product. Since it’s not made by a phone manufacturer, it has to be versatile; Samsung, on the other hand, sees their device as an extension of a phone, just one phone (and one tablet). This will be an expensive combo.

But will smart watches take off? As the product started gaining traction, there were a number of rumors that Apple was working on one; that was probably all it took to get Samsung started. Who knows; maybe Apple is working on a smart watch. Maybe the rumors were just planned to get other manufacturers to spend time and money on smart watches. Or maybe Apple is just waiting to see what the others get wrong, and to come out with a smart watch that people would want to use.

Samsung’s smart watch is doomed to fail. It’s too expensive ($300 is what many people pay for phones), and it’s another device that has to be charged every day. With only ten hours battery life, it’ll certainly run out of juice when you need it.

I haven’t worn a watch in years. So I’m not the ideal customer for a smart watch. However, if I think about it, there are some things that might tempt me.

  • A pedometer. I use a Fitbit One to keep track of my steps and motivate me to be more active. It’s unobtrusive, and it runs about a week on a charge.
  • A device to control music playback. When I walk, I like to listen to music or podcasts. Sometimes, when I have music on shuffle, I like to skip around to find the right song for the moment. I can do this by taking my iPhone out of my pocket, but not doing that would eliminate many chances of dropping it. (I’ve actually never dropped my iPhone when walking; and it wears a case.) I can skip songs by pressing a poorly-positioned button on my Philips SHB9100/28 Bluetooth headphones, but it’s easier to see what’s coming up, rather than wait for a song to start and skip again if it’s not the right one.
  • Viewing texts. If I get a text when I’m outside, and my phone is in my pocket, I generally take the phone out to read the text. With a smart watch, I could read a text more easily.
  • Maps. When I’m in a new city, or looking for a store or other location, I often use Google Maps on my iPhone. It might be easier to do this with a watch, but the display might be too small for it to be practical.
  • Checking the time. I do that occasionally. I haven’t needed a watch to do so in years.

The thing is, I can do all of the above with my phone (I could replace the Fitbit with an app), and a watch would just be another gadget, and one that I would notice and feel on my wrist.

I’m probably not the best candidate for a smart watch. If I did buy one, it would have to be cheap ($150 would probably be the upper limit), light, compact (and not looking like an iPod nano on a strap), and not need to be charged every day. The Galaxy Gear doesn’t fit those conditions, and above all, it requires one specific phone. In my book, that’s a fail.

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Why Is it So Hard to Find a DECT Telephone with a Headphone Jack?

I need a new telephone for my home office, and I really like using headphones when I talk, so I can type while talking with clients, and so I don’t have to hold the phone in my hand and keep my arm raised at other times. I live in France, and there are essentially two brands of telephones available: Siemens (Gigaset) and Philips. (There are many other brands, but they only sell the most basic telephones.)

After doing some research, the only phone I could find that has the ability to connect a headset is the Gigaset SL400. It has a mini USB jack, which you can use to transfer data, and which also allows you to connect a headset. I bought this phone, and bought a mini USB > 3.5 mm adapter, but I get no sound out of my headphones. (I’ve contacted Siemens’ support, which is supposed to get back to me, but the call-center person I talked to didn’t even understand what I wanted to do.) The SL400 does have Bluetooth, but I hate Bluetooth earpieces, and the connection takes several seconds, which is annoying.

I like this phone a lot, but I want a DECT phone that allows me to connect headphones, period. I’m surprised that this seems to be rare, at least in Europe. One friend in the US has an older Motorola phone with a headphone jack, but Motorola sells very few phones here.

It’s odd that you are expected to hold a phone like this in your hand, while all mobile phones come with hands-free kits. This is especially the case for people who use these phones in offices, and may need to use their hands while talking, as I often do when working with clients on the phone.

So, any suggestions? Has anyone found a phone like this?

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Gadget Review: SRS iWow 3D Audio Enhancer for iPod, iPad and iPhone

In the search for better sound from portable devices, such as iPods, a number of add-ons (or plug-ins, literally) are available. There are several small headphone amps that you can use with an iPod or other portable music player, and then there’s the $70 SRS iWow 3D. This device plugs into the dock connector of your iPod, iPhone or iPad, and has a headphone jack for you to plug in your headphones or earbuds.

I tested the SRS iWow 3D on a number of devices, and with several different headphones. SRS claims that this device “Deliver[s] natural and immersive sound with deep, rich bass,” and that it “Dynamically locates and restores audio details buried in source material.” It does indeed change the sound of your music; the question is, is that change good or not? I think this type of device is something you will either love or hate, and that there’s not much middle ground.

First of all, the SRS iWow 3D does provide a feeling of surround sound, or what the company calls “immersive” sound. It’s actually quite impressive; there is a noticeable separation among instruments when it is on. While I wouldn’t call it surround sound – which SRS does not – it is more spacious. I don’t know exactly how this voodoo is worked, but some of it involves equalization and a change in overall volume. When you connect the SRS iWow 3D to your device, you press a small LED-lit button to turn it on; if the LED is off, it is merely passing the sound through without altering it. You can instantly notice that the volume is slightly increased, so to compare, you need to adjust the volume to try to hear both signals at the same loudness. The high end and low end are noticeably increased, and there is an overall augmentation of bass, something that portable players often lack.

In my tests with Beyerdynamic DT 990 32 amp headphones, I noticed a bit of hiss at the high end, with some types of music (this was more prominent with orchestral music than rock or pop); it seems that this treble boost is too much for some recordings. Jerry Garcia’s voice on Ripple sounds less smooth; the drums on U2′s Sunday Bloody Sunday are too punchy; and the bass on Brian Eno’s Just Another Day is almost distorted; and Bob Dylan’s voice on Desolation Row sounds processed and hissy.

On the other hand, when I plugged in a pair of Sennheiser PX 100-II i headphones, Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road sounded much better through the SRS iWow 3D; Lou Reed’s voice on Pale Blue Eyes stood out much more; and the acoustic guitar background on Bob Dylan’s Forever Young took on much more space.

(Note that most of my tests with classical music showed that the device, at least with good headphones, doesn’t help much.)

I performed the above tests first on an iPod classic. If you have an iOS device, you can use SRS’s iWow application to choose the type of output (headphones, speakers or car), and choose from advanced settings, such as Wide Surround, Deep Bass and High Treble. This gives you a bit more flexibility in the way the sound is rendered, and you can adjust these settings to fit your headphones. Results were a bit better using the device with the app.

My verdict is this: if you have good, relatively expensive headphones, the SRS iWow 3D won’t improve the sound of your music, and the adjustments it makes may not work with your headphones. However, if you use earbuds or portable headphones, notably with limited bass response, the SRS iWow 3D will give them a much better sound. Also, if you use an iOS device, the SRS iWow app will give you a bit more control over the sound.

This said, I think each listener will need to decide if they like the type of sound this device provides. You should ideally test this with your headphones to see how you feel about the sound.

One note: the LED on the device is bright, and, together with the actual signal processing, the SRS iWow 3D uses up a fair amount of battery life. SRS claims that this reduces battery life by approximately 18%. That’s a lot, if you use your iPod for several hours a day, and could be a deal-breaker.

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