Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bluetooth Finally Comes of Age - The Jawbone Big Jambox

Well, it's almost the end of the year and I have to say it's been a pretty ho hum one in terms of tech gadgetry...why else would I be talking about something so mundane as Bluetooth!  But seriously, Bluetooth technology has come along quite a way since it was introduced over a decade ago.  Back then the technology was so flaky - slow speeds, compatibility issues, connection problems, etc...and this seemed to continue on for a number of years.  Did anyone back then ever get Bluetooth to work on a Windows machine?  I bet not!  It was only during the past 3 or 4 years that things got progressively better, probably due to a combination of evolving/maturing Bluetooth standards along with the proliferation of Bluetooth headsets and "hands free" automobile products that brought the technology to the mainstream.  Nowadays Bluetooth seems to be pretty robust and I can't recall the last time I had issues pairing a device.  To paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, "it just works"...finally!

A great example of the above is the latest gadget I purchased, the Jawbone Big Jambox wireless Bluetooth speaker.  Talk about a dead simple setup procedure - the first time you turn the thing on it smartly goes into pairing mode automatically and has voice/sound prompts to guide you through the process.  The speaker can store a total of 8 paired devices, and 2 of them can be simultaneously connected to it.  In addition, it also comes with a built-in microphone so that you can use it as a wireless speakerphone.  So, for example, if you're streaming your favorite tunes from your iPad to the Jambox and your phone happens to ring, the Jambox will recognize this and pause your music, announce the incoming call (w/ caller id even), and when you pick up the call it immediately turns itself into a full-duplex speakerphone with amazingly good call quality.  Audio quality is generally very good for a speaker of this size - as long as you keep that in perspective you should be fine.  The device's software can be updated through the Jawbone website, and there are even some supplemental apps (e.g. voice dialers) that you can download to the device as well as a plethora of optional audio "voices" in case the default one doesn't suit your taste.

The versatility and simplicity of the Jambox makes it a better choice for many audio enthusiasts over the more elegant (and non-Bluetooth) wireless solutions offered by Sonos.  Don't get me wrong, though...Sonos products are in a league of their own in terms of versatility and handling complex, multi-room environments.  But they can also be a bit finicky in terms of setup and least that's been my experience.

The Jambox is also quite stylish-looking too; don't you agree?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Quick Thoughts on Tyler Hamilton's Book

I just got done reading Tyler Hamilton's book, and all I can say is "Wow".  I know that his credibility may be called into question given some of the lies he's told over the years, but the level of detail and specificity described in the book makes it hard for me to believe that he's saying anything other than the truth.  And I've definitely come away from it feeling stronger than ever that Lance was been doped up all these years.  A few noteworthy takeaways:

  • I was amazed at all the planning and precision of the doping programs by the top teams and how everything was so carefully timed and executed.
  • It was interesting to read about how all the riders had so much information about the doping methods used by their rivals, and how they all knew who was/wasn't doped up.
  • Lance was an unbelievable control freak and bullied everyone who got in his way.  He was even more of an SOB than I had previously imagined.
  • Illegal practices or not, Michele Ferrari was a genius scientist/doctor that you had to grudgingly admire for his knowledge of the human physiology, training methods, diet, and of course performance-enhancing drugs.  I loved the story about Lance getting worried about Pantani's solo breakaway during a Tour stage, and getting Bruyneel to call Ferrari on the phone to run some quick calculations to confirm that Pantani would eventually blow...which he did.
  • Recreational riders are going to start using the term "not normal" on their weekend club rides from now on.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nexus 7 - The Best Android Device Available

Let me just start out by saying that the Nexus 7 is unquestionably the best Android device available today! It's lightning fast, noticeably faster than any mobile device I've used...and I've used a bunch of them.  I don't know if it's due to the quad-core processor or the smoothness of the Jelly Bean OS...probably a combination of both.  Applications download/install several times faster than on other devices, and when you go into 3D mode on Google Maps it's absolutely amazing how quickly all the building structures take shape.  I bought the device intending to hand it to one of our developers in order to test our Android app, but I've held onto to it for over a week now and I'm not sure I'm going to relinquish it...sorry David!

There are a number of other reasons to like the Nexus 7.  The build quality is excellent, as is the screen resolution.  For lots of people the form factor of a 7-inch device is advantageous to the 10-inch iPad because of portability.  One of the nice things about its size is that I can store the device in the glove compartment or in the center console of my car, something I absolutely can't do with the iPad.  The smaller/lighter form factor will also be preferred by a lot of people who read books, though I suspect magazine readers may not think the same.  If you rely heavily on Gmail, Maps and other Google apps like I do then there is no comparison between the way they run on the Nexus vs. the iPad...the latter seems stuck in the stone ages.  Battery life is also outstanding, on par or maybe slightly better than the iPad.  And perhaps its biggest advantage is the $199 it's priced the same as the mediocre Kindle Fire and and blows it away in just about every respect.  And that price is less than half the cost of the entry-level iPad.

Quite a bit has been written recently about Android 4.1, aka Jelly Bean, particularly the sheer speed and smoothness of the OS.  In addition to that Google is really trying to play up its Play Store (no pun intended) as well as the integration with all of its cloud-based services.  For example, after going through the setup process my homepage shows a collage of content I have stored in Google:

Perhaps the coolest Jelly Bean feature is Google Now, which is best described as an intelligent extension to the notification system.  Google Now will automatically display "cards" based on some of your common activities.  For example, I checked the score for a recent Giants game on the device, and ever since then it's been display cards for each of the Giants games, keeping me up to date on the scores.  Ditto for the weather.  And it even goes beyond that, bordering on creepy.  The other day I was reading an article on TechCrunch written by a guest author who is employed by one of the local VC's.  After finishing the article I decided to hop onto the VC's website to check out the author's bio...this was done on my laptop.  A few minutes later I picked up the Nexus and noticed that a new notification had popped was driving directions and estimated drive time from my home to the VC's office.  As I stated...a bit creepy, but useful nonetheless.

So the big question is...will I replace my trusty iPad with the Nexus 7?  It's a really, really close call...but probably not.  I do like the convenience of having 4G connectivity when I need it, and unfortunately the Nexus only supports wifi.  And though I love the whole concept behind Google Now, I also think that the technology is something I'd rather have on my smartphone than on my tablet, if Verizon can get off their butts and deliver Jelly Bean to my Galaxy Nexus I'd be set!   I also think the iPad still gets the nod as the superior reading device, especially for reading magazines/newspapers in landscape mode.  In fact, some of the Android reading apps don't even support landscape mode on the Nexus, probably due to the fact that at 7 inches the screen isn't conducive to a quality reading experience in landscape.  But at $199, it's easily the best value out there and is worth serious consideration for anyone needing to buy a tablet...regardless of the price point.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Apple TV - Not Just for the Home

At my company one of the most important meetings we have is our weekly development sprint review and planning session.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Agile development methodology this is where the development team showcases what they've been working on during the past week, and it's also where we plan and prioritize the upcoming week's set of stories, or to-do list.  Anyway, one of the biggest challenges we've faced is that the meetings tend to run long, and one of the main contributors to this is the fact that during the meeting anywhere from 4-8 people are projecting their laptops onto our conference room TV in order to display something to the entire audience.  With one fairly short VGA cable to share amongst all of us, we not only had to play musical chairs within the conference room anytime someone new had something to present, but whoever was presenting also needed to make sure their display settings were correct and that they were projecting the right desktop window onto the TV.  All told I would estimate that we wasted 15 minutes per meeting doing all this logistical juggling, and when you multiply that by about a dozen participants that's a total of 3 hours of lost productivity for the team.

Luckily we recently moved into a new office space, and in this space we had the luxury of setting up our new conference room from scratch.  We decided from the get go that we were going to purchase one of those conference tables where all the wiring is accessible from the center of the table, so we didn't have to hassle with wires strewn all over the table and tripping on them as we walk in and out of the conference room.  But at the last minute I decided we could go even one better...enter Apple TV.

As most people know, Apple TV is a cool little device that allows you to stream video (and/or audio) to your TV.  The video streams could be from iTunes purchases, YouTube, Netflix, and a host of other available content sources.  However, there is also a very cool and somewhat under promoted feature in Apple TV called Airplay.  What Airplay allows you to do is a couple of things.  First off, you can use Airplay Streaming to wirelessly stream multimedia content from your iPhone, iPad or iTunes-enabled computer directly to your TV via Apple TV.  When you're in the media player you will automatically see a new control pop-up on the screen, and when pressed it enables you to select which available Apple TV device to stream through.  It works wonderfully, and you can stream movies and TV shows in all of its high-def and multi-channel audio glory.  But in addition to this the Apple TV also supports a feature known as Airplay Mirroring.  What Airplay Mirroring allows you to do is to stream any content to your TV via a supported device.  Right now the only supported devices are the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2 (or later).  However, Apple is about a month away from releasing Mountain Lion, the next version of Mac OS X, and that version will support Airplay Mirroring as well.  Given the fact that most everyone in our company is on a Mac, once Mountain Lion is out we'd all be able to stream anything from our laptops onto the big screen.

But there's no reason to even wait for Mountain Lion, because there are already 3rd-party solutions to enable Airplay Mirroring from Mac OS and even Windows clients today.  We're currently using one called Airparrot, and at $6 per license (when purchased in blocks of 5) it's really a no-brainer.  It allows you to either mirror or extend your desktop to the TV, lets you enable/disable audio streaming on-the-fly, and even provides an option for only displaying a selected application vs. your entire desktop.

All of our employees are now using Airplay to wirelessly stream their laptop screens during group meetings, and I have to say the productivity gains are immediately evident and the three Apple TV's we purchased have paid for themselves multiple times already.

In case you're wondering what our setup looks like here's a picture of the wall in our main conference room with dual 52" monitors.  My iPad is being streamed on the left screen; my Macbook Pro on the right.

Here's a pic of one of the Apple TV's, which we conveniently hide behind the TV screen:

And of course, since the Apple TV is still a consumer device there's always a little time for fun as well:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Scale - the Perfect OCD Gift

Okay, so I'm probably one of the few guys around that gets overly obsessed with his weight.  Not for any vanity-related reasons, mind you, but because of my fanatical obsession with cycling and the "weight weenie" aspect of wanting myself and my bike to be as light as possible.  So, when I first heard about the new Fitbit Aria wi-fi scale I just couldn't resist picking one up.  I've been following the goings on at Fitbit for awhile now, and their cool Ultra device has become pretty popular with people who want to track all their physical activities, calorie consumption, and sleep patterns.  I never bothered with the Ultra since I already use a Garmin 500 to track all my cycling activities, but when I heard about the Aria I just knew I had to have it.  What's cool about it is that not only does it show you your weight, but it also displays/records your body fat percentage and uploads all of the recorded data to the internet, which you can view by going to the Fitbit website or through their free iOS/Android applications.  The scale can provide this data for up to 8 people in your household, and by default it makes each person's data completely private.  You can weigh yourself as many times as you like throughout the day, and each time it will add the latest update to your online profile. This is great, because sometimes it's useful to record your weight at the beginning or end of each day, or before/after working out.

My Aria was waiting for me when I returned from a recent East Coast conference, and for the most part setting up the device was a breeze.  I loved the packaging it came in, and dare I say that opening up the box was somewhat akin to opening up one for an Apple product...nice little touches and very pleasing to the eye.  As soon as the box is opened there are specific instructions for going to the Fitbit website to download a setup program.  I did this, and here's where I encountered a bit of a problem.  Turns out that the setup program requires that your machine be connected to the internet via a wireless network - more on this requirement in a second.  Anyway, after unplugging my ethernet cable I tried running the setup program several times, but each time it kept telling me that I was not using wireless.  I almost decided to give up for the night, but just for fun I rebooted my machine, reran the setup program, and worked this time!  Once the setup program runs it asks you to create a Fitbit account if you don't already have one, and then it "finds" your Aria on the wireless network, asks a couple of basic questions,  and automatically configures the device.  I was wondering how this was going to work, because the Aria has no buttons to speak of and so I was curious as to how you would go about configuring it to connect to your wireless network.  But what I believe the setup program is doing is copying the wireless network settings from your computer and then using those settings within the Aria to spoof the identify of your computer...very clever indeed!  And the fact that the Mac address for the Aria doesn't show up as a registered device anywhere on my wireless router seems to support this theory.

The Aria comes in a black or white finish, with a clear Gorilla Glass-like overlay that you step on.  The LED display is bright and readable, and overall the unit is very stylish and modern.  After using it for a few days I can safely say the unit works exactly as advertised and performs flawlessly.  The only bummer that it's constantly reminding me of how surprisingly high my body fat percentage is!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Verizon and the Galaxy Nexus - Two Worthwhile Upgrades

Being the Android fanboy that I am, I had my eyes on the latest "pure Android" device, the Galaxy Nexus, ever since it was launched a few months ago.   The device comes pre-loaded with the latest and greatest Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) version of Android, with lots of new bells and whistles and a much improved user interface.   But alas, it was only available on Verizon and I had been a dedicated (and mostly satisfied) T-Mobile customer for the past 7 years.  In addition to that I felt that this trend towards larger and larger handset screens was not to my liking, and so when I saw that the Galaxy Nexus was sporting a 4.65-inch screen I figured I really didn't want to deal with anything that bulky.  So, given these two issues I decided I would just stand pat for awhile and see how things were going to play out.  And as it turned out, Google did start rolling out ICS to existing Nexus S users such as myself, and since the Nexus S is no slouch of a device I figured I would just hold onto it for awhile and wait for the ICS update.  And sure enough, back in December I was able to download and install ICS without a hitch, so I thought I was golden.

Well, I quickly found out that ICS on the Nexus S had a couple of major issues, notably excessive battery drain and a general sluggishness with most applications.  In fact, shortly after Google started deploying ICS to Nexus S owners they abruptly halted the deployment, probably because everyone was having similar problems to mine.  It was around this time that I also started losing my patience with T-Mobile, as there were just too many places I was going that had little to no reception, and even in the places where there was reception it was often the case that all I could get was 2G....WTF, that just doesn't cut it in today's world.

I waited and waited for Google to address the ICS issues, but no dice.  And then I heard about this great deal that Amazon had for the Galaxy Nexus, just $99!  So, I immediately jumped on the deal, had my phone in a couple of days (with number ported) and I was in business.  And boy, I can't believe I didn't switch to Verizon sooner.  I'm getting spectacular 4G coverage in most places....check out this speedtest report which I ran near my office:

ICS on the Galaxy Nexus doesn't seem to have any of the battery issues I experienced with the Nexus S either.  I consider myself to be a pretty heavy smartphone user, but despite that I am able to go nearly a full day with the device off of a single charge; noticeably better than my Nexus S even before the ICS upgrade.  And the dual-core processor in the Galaxy is so damn's night and day compared to any other phone I've used in terms of the speediness of apps.  This, along with Verizon's great coverage and speedy 4G network have me in smartphone heaven at the moment.  Do I still think the phone is too big?  Yeah, it would be perfect if the screen was closer to 4-inches even...but I'll overlook this given all of the phone's other advantages.

Oh, but now it's time to play with my new "retina display" stay tuned!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bike + Tech Gadgets = My New Parlee Z5 SLi

Those of you that have known me for awhile are aware that two of my personal hobbies/passions are cycling and tech gadgets.  Well, a few months back I decided to pull the trigger on a new bike, and after going back and forth on all the available options I finally settled on the recently released Parlee Z5 SLi frame, married with Shimano Dura-Ace components.  And not just any Dura-Ace component group, mind you, but the latest DI2 electronic shifting version of it.  That's where the gadgetry comes in, and the resulting combination is oh so sweet.

The idea of electric shifting is not new, and in fact back in the 90's the French component manufacturer Mavic came out with the Zap electronic shifting system...and sure enough, yours truly was one of the early adopters of it.  I will say this...when it worked it worked pretty well, but after a few unfortunate mishaps I gave up on it and went back to a more traditional setup.  Then finally, a couple of years ago Shimano announced the new DI2 system, and knowing how good Japanese companies do electronics I just knew that one day I would have to have it.  One of the issues with DI2, though (well, other than the expense), is that with all the electrical wiring running around it doesn't make for a very clean look on the bike.  So, that's where the Parlee comes in.  I've always admired Parlee for their handiwork and they were always near the top of my list for my next frame.  And I always respected the fact that they only cared about making the best frames possible rather doing anything gimmicky like weird tube shapes or loud paint schemes.  So when the Z5 SLi came out I just knew I had to have it.  The "SL" stands for "super light", and at 820 grams it is indeed one of the lightest frames in the world.  And the "i" in SLi stands for "internal routing", which means the frame is pre-drilled to allow the electrical wires to run inside of the frame vs. routing them externally and looking a tad ugly.  The result is simply awesome!

I think pictures are worth a thousand words here, so let the cameras roll.  First up, here is the bare frame and fork, just after I unboxed it at my bike shop.  See the hole close to where the down tube meets the heat tube?  That's for the internal wiring:

I debated quite awhile between going with a traditional gloss finish vs. the matte finish that is very popular today.  I'm glad I went with matte, as in addition to looking great it has bit of stealthiness to it that I like a lot. And the Parlee guys did a fabulous custom paint job for me with the white racing logos, the stealthy head tube logo and just a hint of pink in a couple of places.

And just to prove I wasn't lying earlier, here's the frame up on the scale...yup, just .82 kg:

One of the cooler things I did was to substitute the stock Shimano lithium iron battery with Calfee Design's new version which mounts inside of the seat post.  Normally the DI2 battery would need to be mounted somewhere on the frame itself; again, rather ugly.  Here's a picture of the seat post (incl. battery) being installed in the frame:

In case you're wondering if you need to remove the seat post in order to recharge the battery, the answer is no.  The latest version of the Calfee battery allows you to charge it through a connector attached to the rear derailleur...very cool indeed!

I was told by my shop that getting all the wiring in place within the frame was a bit time consuming.  I guess this next picture (my favorite) says it all:

Is this a bicycle or a computer?  All those little zip ties actually serve a purpose...while inside of the frame they "hug" the surface of the frame so that the wires don't rattle around in there...pretty clever.

The electronic shifting is amazing.  The levers are located in the same locations as the non-electric version, but they act a bit more like buttons than levers since there's not as much throw to them.  As expected shifting is precise and's also dead simple to make micro-adjustments to the rear derailleur - just hold the button on the "control panel" for a couple of seconds and then tap the levers in the proper direction.  Even more impressive in my opinion is the front derailleur; in addition to the flawless shifting the front derailleur auto-adjusts itself depending on the chain more having to manually trim!  You can also shift while braking as well as shift both derailleurs simultaneously - very nice!

The "control panel" is used to fine-tune the rear derailleur as well as check the strength of the battery

Here are a selection of other pictures:

The "cockpit".  Lots of wires and cables here, but all nice and tidy.  Enve bars and stem.  BTW, Enve also supplies Parlee with their forks.

Beautiful sculpted and beefy bottom bracket section.  172.5mm Dura-Ace cranks with standard 39/53 chainrings.

Dura-Ace electric rear derailleur - note the cabling being routed inside of the chainstay.

The "brains" of the system sit here on top of the Dura-Ace front derailleur.

The satellite rear shifters make it super easy to shift without having to take your hands off the bars.  The only "cost" is the additional 70 grams in weight - weight weenies be warned!

And here is the finished product. In addition to the Dura Ace gruppo I went with Enve for the seat post, bars (deep drop) and stem (12 cm.), Look Keo Ti pedals, San Marco Concor saddle (which I may switch out for something else) and Arundel carbon bottle cages.  The only items I didn't purchase new are the Dura-Ace C24 clincher wheels which I bought last year and my trusty Garmin Edge 500 cyclometer.  I also considered going with compact cranks as they are so in vogue now, but since the Euro pros aren't using compact I couldn't bear the thought of doing so myself!

The total package as seen weighs in at about 14 lbs, 12 oz, a bit under the UCI weight limit which means I can't legally ride the Tour de France :-)  Once I finally settle on a saddle the weight will go down an additional ounce or two, as the one I'm using now is not a carbon-railed version.  If I wanted to I could have gone much lighter, but I wanted components which I could use day in and day out under any conditions, with no hassles and with zero compromises.  The bike rides like a dream - fast and responsive, stiff but not overly so, and very comfortable to boot.  And of course, that flawless shifting!  Thanks a bunch to the folks at CycleSports Oakland who worked with me off and on over many months to get to this point.  Special thanks to Chris Blease who continually put up with all my questions and obsessive-compulsive behavior, and also many thanks to Tim Parker whose mechanical abilities are second to none and who is the only person I've let touch my bikes for most of these past 20 years.