Thursday, September 25, 2014

Settling in

Well it's been a little over three weeks at this point and I am finally getting things set up in the apartment. I don't have a TV, there's no Sofa. I never quite got around to setting up an Internet package... but those are all optional extras. I had to focus on the priorities... what might be more important than TV and the internet for a tech worker and self confessed geek?

I'm going to leave you hanging on the suspense of that question and jump back to an update on the Moto 360!

I have been using my 360 for a couple of weeks now and whilst the people I work with often seem underwhelmed with what it is capable of doing, I am still very happy. Sure it's 'only' really good for notifications and quick responses, and there are not many apps for it, but I feel that is really missing the point. This is clearly not a replacement for my phone, but it is a replacement for my Jawbone! (and a LOT more comfortable to wear) and a wristwatch... I mean sure I haven't used one of those in ten year but it turns out that it's a lot easier to look at your wrist to find out that you are five minutes late to a meeting than try and check your phone, whilst wrestling with the coffee machine that is inexplicably attempting to see how far it can spit coffee grinds across the room. And that is disregarding the fact that when I checked, it also told me what meeting, with who and where... and buzzed to give me ten minutes notice which is why I had rushed to the coffee machine. If I am out walking and need directions, wanting to check where to turn, change music track or the volume I am no longer constantly pulling out my phone and struggling to see the screen in the glare of the californian sun. Instead I am simply checking the time, maybe a swipe or two and getting all of that information.

I guess the 360 is more like the x to y. It isn't a stand alone device and people shouldn't be expecting one. It is a second screen with some convenient features that mean your fitbit / jawbone / watch are all unnecessary. And for me that is enough. I don't want to be trying to play games on it, or check share prices (although it seems very determined to keep informing me). The buyer's remorse I felt on first hitting the "Complete Order" button is well and truly gone and I am now enjoying an augmented life that has a lot less pocket searching, walking around looking like a tourist.

And there's one more thing, which has significantly improved my life outside of work - "Mute". When my 360 is connected to my phone, my phone is on silent, the only notifications that I get come from the 360. Not only is this a lot more discrete, it means that when I am not at work, I can simply swipe down on the 360 to mute notifications there as well and all of a sudden, I am living in the real world without the internet constantly buzzing at me to pay attention and for me, that's fantastic.

So back to my earlier question, what could be more important to a geek than TV and Internet access? Well there are two parts to that question, one is of course coffee, and the other is homemade bread. While I was at University, I was fortunate enough to have access to a rather good bread maker, and wanting to avoid revision and studying in general, I took to making bread every couple of days. Over the next few months I tweaked the recipe, discovered weighing flour is really important and, of course, eating a lot of bread. Whilst none of this did much good for my waistline, it did make me quite keen on good bread and totally in capable of eating supermarket sliced loaves. On getting to the US, the bread maker was one of my first purchases, and has since been put to use for the fabrication of my weekend breakfasts. To compliment this, I have added a high grade coffee grinder, Four Barrel's Guatemala Retana Coffee, acquired from Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View and a simple but functional French Press.

All together a perfect combination for weekend breakfasts... next up a frying pan and some eggs!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

RETURN! With Moto 360


That's right, I'm back in the USofA and this time it's for good (or at least a couple of years). I am not going to do the daily blog attempt of my previous trip but I will be keeping a weekly blog of an Englishman's life in Silicon Valley, living 'the dream'.

I'll be talking about the qwirks and idioms, people, food, boardgames and of course technology. I will be starting with the last of these. My newest toy and first real treat for being such a good immigrant:

Behold the Moto 360. The latest contender in the rapidly accelerating 'wearable tech' race. If you have been living under a rock the last few years, then you may have missed the recent evolution of these devices and their arrival in the mainstream conscience. For those of you that have, a brief history:

In 2008/9 there was a rise in wearable fitness trackers that were really little more than step counters that had been floating around for a decade or more, the 'new feature'? The idea that it would in some way sync with software on other devices (PC or smartphone) to give you a more data-driven lifestyle and way of improving your health. Fitbit and Jawbone ended up as the leaders in this fitness tracking race. (It is of course debatable whether the likes of pacemakers should be included in the definition but if this history went that far back then I'd never get around to actually reviewing the Moto 360 and I don't want a bunch of angry comments about being mislead!)

At Google's big annual conference, Google I/O in 2012, they upped the ante by introducing a different kind of wearable technology - Google Glass. It was an impressive introduction to a new product, however widespread privacy concerns, limited release and high price point have kept this out of the hands of all but a small number of people.

At the same time, a group of intrepid engineers were hard at work reinventing an even older form of wearable technology the wristwatch. As Randal Munroe points our in a recent XKCD the fortunes of the wristwatch had rather suffered at the hands of smartphones that, whilst less conveniently placed, were able to replicate all the features of even the most complex wristwatch. All that was about to change however with the Pebble. Started on Kickstarter as an android and iOS compatible wrist watch using a low power e-ink display, it acts as a wrist bound display for your smartphone, oh and it tells the time too.

This was by no means the first attempt at a smart watch (you can read a great article on some of the earlier attempts here), but it was the first to really hit it big. The support for both iPhone and Android as well as the ease of tool development combined with the massive popularity of Kickstarter at the time all worked to give the project a lot of publicity and momentum.

Clearly scrambling to keep up, Google announced a version of their Android operating system streamlined for wearables: Android Wear in March 2014 with the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch launching at I/O '14.

September saw two big updates for smart watches the first came at Apple's annual conference , WWDC, the launch of the Apple Watch (apparently there is no i before watch for Apple). There was no watch to accompany this announcement (eta 'Early' 2015) and of course this is only going to work with iOS and with a hefty price tag ($350 - $100 more than the Moto 360).

Of course the other big update was the launch of Moto 360. Devices had been on display at Google I/O but sales didn't open until September 5th.

I purchased mine as soon as sales opened and have been using it since it arrived last week so (at long last) my thoughts:

I LOVE it. Simple as that. I had used a Jawbone up off and on for 6 months which had kicked off my love affair with fitness tracking. I am not a gym junkie and the mere thought of running leaves me needing to have a good long lie down, however I have gotten to enjoy walking and it is about the only form of fitness I will reliably partake in. Jawbone's app did a fantastic job of motivating me to walk a bit more, a bit further and stop me taking the bus (unless it was raining really hard!). I also liked the sleep tracking, although I never really worked out a good way of using the data, the alarm was a good wake up tool although my body still tended to preempt it and wake me up first.

Already the Moto 360 has all of the core features with more interactivity and realtime feedback than the Jawbone was ever capable of (even the sleep tracking that I so loved about the Jawbone is catered for). I think it looks a lot better than the Jawbone UP or even the UP24 but I can't deny that the Moto 360 is a big beast. I don't have the manliest wrist in the world but it does rather dwarf it and for a woman I think one of the square smart watch offerings may be preferable. It is not, however, heavy and in fact weighs less than the 'retro' wristwatches I could lay my hands on. The leather strap is apparently interchangeable although I can't see why I'd ever want to. The bulk does also give a nice, large and useable display; there is a reasonable amount of debate on the round v square displays. I have yet to extensively try a square display but I am very happy with being in the round camp for now - it seems to offer very little dead space, the image goes right to the edge aside from a small area at the bottom (for the display connections, presumably).

There are a bundle of great ideas being implemented here: a mute function that works pretty well to silence notifications in that all important meeting, an option to set the phone to silent when your watch is connected, the watch still has some basic functionality when it isn't connected and the much vaunted 'screen on' when arm is up feature... which drives me nuts. I can get it to reliably trigger when I want... most of the time... unfortunately it also triggers at all other hours and times from washing my hands & using my keyboard to when I would otherwise be fast asleep. I can't see that it would be hard to implement a tap to switch on or even the need to press the button which would allow me to really control when it powers up the screen. I would also love to be able to gauge what apps are using how much power as I can for my phone so that I can unceremoniously uninstall the battery hogs reliably instead of going on recollections of usage as I have so far.

Set up was straight forward although hampered by a slight freeze on my first attempt. I have since run the process several times as friends tested out the device without issue (although a reasonable battery drain each time). The first thing you are likely to hear about the Moto 360 are complaints about the battery life. 'It isn't long enough', 'It doesn't even last a day', and 'They lied about the battery capacity' are all frequent complaints parroted across the internet. In my experience the Moto 360 battery is substantially better than my Nexus 5. It will last around 36 hours with normal usage and charges very quickly (a full charge sat in the wireless docking station takes about 60 min). This is of course highly dependant on the usage you are making of the watch and some apps in particular seem to suck the life out of the device. This is to be expected when the SDK is relatively new and almost every day the behaviour of the apps seems to change as updates are rolled out. All this should mean a lot of improvements in the coming weeks. For now here is what I have noticed:


Android Wear - for the Moto 360 it feels like Android wear is a necessary evil. Motorola will push you towards their own connect app which gives more shiny features (device naming, more watch designs etc). The main use of Android Wear (aside from the initial setup) is to help you find apps that have wear capabilities (such as ones listed below). This subset of Play Apps is a good place to start but I feel like that most of these are apps that I wasn't using to begin with. There are a few I tried anyway (again detailed below) but that doesn't really seem to be the way these things should work. Hopefully over time it will be less a case of 'look for apps that are compatible with wear' and more 'I got wear and all my apps use it'. Having got a bunch of apps to play with the next challenge came in finding how to play with them... the passive ones were easy enough - when there is an email or IM for me to check, my watch will tell me, when music is playing - I see that too but what about the likes of Duolingo or Tinder? Well the main way to start them up is to say "OK Google, start <app name>". I'll be honest I have yet to find a pronunciation of Duolingo that my watch understands. There is a manual launcher of sorts but it isn't easy to find and when but alongside the rather fetching interface offered by AppleWatch it looks like a Nokia 3210 alongside my Nexus 5.


Initiating things in general using the watch is a bit clunky; trying to start a new hangout or playing your music are both things I am returning to my phone for much of the time and the inability to thumb up music is a little disappointing given how fundamental it seems to have been to every other example of Play Music's design.

Google Suite - This is of course where the most full formed apps can be found. Weather, Email, Calendar and Hangout message notifications as well as phone call alerts all work for the most part. The battery usage is reasonable and some response features through voice recognition mean you can hold a IM chat, take a note to Keep, set an alarm or timer all without getting your phone out of your pocket. There are constant updates to these features but at the point of writing some of the annoyances I have faced include calendar notifications repeating every minute even after being dismissed, voice messages not actually sending.

Navigation - Technically another part of the Google products along with Music below, I have split them out as I feel they really deserve a little of the spot light, they also do somewhat different things than just show notifications and provide simple voice input. The navigation tool doesn't really provide much scope for inputting a request (a simple voice tool will get you to the gas station/work/home but in most cases you are better of pulling out the phone to set the ball rolling. Once it's going however the display and buzz to turn work together to ensure you never need to do that walking while staring at your phone like a total tourist thing again - as long as you are willing to trust it and not look at a map!

Wear Volume - I use play music for playback and whilst this comes with song, artist, play/pause, skip forward & back; it is noticeably lacking any volume control. I am hoping this is a This is a feature that this is a limit time omission, however until then, Wear Volume fills the gap nicely. While the music is playing, a rather helpful image of the album art is displayed... although given my tastes in music this more often than not ends up being rather disturbing:

Fit - Fit provides step tracking and heart rate monitoring encouraging you to both get out and walk a bit and do it a bit more vigorously. These features are clearly still in their infancy and there are are a few things that are definitely missing at the moment but I have high hopes that there will soon be integration with other fitness apps like MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness, and RunKeeper. There should also be a lot more in the way of graphing, on phone view and maybe even a web interface are all things that would help this really become useful.

Duolingo - If you haven't used Duolingo and want to learn a European language... GET IT. The Android App is fantastic and for something that is free, incredibly fully featured. I look forward to some more exotic languages coming along but my French is getting a dusting as a result of this app. The wrist mounted version is still very basic - a simple ten word test that relies on honesty to gauge your learning. It is also hard to escape once you are in it until you get to the end of the questions. For now, not great but I look forward to the next version.

Tinder - One of the apps I installed to test the limits of the software. The idea of judging people basically just on their picture has always seemed particularly crass, doing it on your wrist is either perverted or just lazy and crass depending where you are at the time. Either way it does seem to be a particularly popular app for the Android Wear environment. My experience was a little disappointing... mostly because the app loads askew:
Presumably this will get fixed shortly be I'll never know as it is already uninstalled.

IFTTT - If This Then That is a great concept that I have never really found a use for and testing on the Moto 360 furthers that. It is a really good, simple, programmatic tool that I just don't know how to use. It also seemed to be a bit of a battery leech.

SleepWear - This is undeniably a battery hog, eating 65% of the battery in eight hours, something they really need to try and fix however it has some great features, particularly as I have been a fan of Sleep as Android (SleepWear is basically a bolt on so you will need to get both) for some time. If you are concerned about the quality of your sleep, a few weeks of use with this app and you will potentially see marked improvement. The basic app relies on leaving the phone sat on your bed (and undoubtedly plugged in to charge as it is also a battery hog) and it will collect motion data to assess depth of sleep and cycle periods including a cycle friendly alarm. These are all features that the Jawbone has of course and if you are lucky enough not to be sleeping alone every night then having something attached to you rather than the bed is going to be a lot more useful. SleepWear gives you that by using the watch rather than your phone.


If you like tech toys: GET ONE NOW
If you want a useful device: GET ONE... if you have the money to spare
For everyone else, wait a year for the fad to end or the functionality to improve

In the meantime I will be wandering around California begging to be mugged and looking like a total prick as I stand there talking into my wrist.