Building the better Macbook dongle

As I have said before, the single USB C port is the weak point of the new Macbook.  I’m not overly impressed with the $80 dongle solution from Apple either.

The nice folks at Nonda have slicker solution, at the same price, but only for about another 24 hours.   After the Kickstarter campaign is over, it’s going to run about double the price and still, IMHO, worth it.  The Apple dongle gives you a USB C port for power only, a USB 3.0 port, and an HDMI port.  The Hub+ gives you the following:

  • 2 USB-C ports
  • 1 SDXC card reader
  • 1 mini DisplayPort (mDP 1.2 video output, 4k displays at 60Hz refresh rate)
  • 3 USB-A 3.0 \ charging ports
  • Built-in lithium ion battery to charge ANY phone

Display Port keeps the price down (HDMI needs licensing) and mini DisplayPort to HDMI cables are easy to get.  If you sprung for a new MacBook, grab one of these as well.

Springtime for nerds

It’s spring and the mind of the geek turns to new hardware releases.

The iWatch is still the hot rumor, but I wouldn’t expect that to even be announced until September.  That is when Apple will, probably, announce the iPhone 6, and iOS 8.
I’ve seen rumors that Apple will include a range of fitness tracking options in the much debated iWatch.  If they do, then they have a chance to pounce on the market hole created by FitBit recalling their Force device.   This also puts a lot of pressure of FitBit to come up with a Force replacement (with a functional wrist band) PDQ.  If they wait too long, and the iWatch rumors get stronger, they will loose market share to Apple’s vaporware.
On the Amazon front, they have discounted their Kindle devices.  Given that they had razor thin margins at best at the retail price, I’m taking the discounting as a sign they want to dump inventory.  Flushing the channels of the current inventory in preparation for new model Kindles in the pipeline. I expect them to announce these well in advance of Apple’s big announcement in September.  Big retail sale days for consumer electronics include Graduation and Father’s Day (Dad loves his gadgets).  If they can make those dates, that would make up for the loss from discounting the current Kindles.   They count on the downstream sales on those devices anyway.
For the Android fans out there, take heart.  The Google I/O show is slated for June.  The rumor mill is expecting the next flavor of Android to come out as well as some new hardware.  A new Nexus and some more wearables to go with Google Glass are expected.

Nifty gadget

Today’s gadget is brought to you by the phrase, “Simple is Good.”

The modern geek has lots of gear, and there are still plenty of wires and cables.

Power cables, data cables, audio cables, and the list just goes on.

Wire Ties are great for organizing, but not optimized for things like keeping your ear buds cables from forming the bundle of knots it wants to form. OK, they do a good job, but it is a pain to clip them loose every time you want to use them.

So every modern geek needs a roll of Velcro wire ties.

You can get a hundred of these ties for under $8 on Amazon. Free two day shipping if you are a Prime Member.

For smaller bits of cable, like ear buds, Micro USB, or Lighting cables, I cut the ties in half. I find them easier to put on and off at that length.

So go forth and tame the snake pits of cables that exist in your home theater setup, your monitors, and that pocket in your gear bag where you keep the umptyfratz cables you carry around because they could be useful.

Fitbit Force

I broke down and entered the wearable market. Specifically, I replace my analog watch with a Fitbit Force.
The Force is a wrist mounted wearable that tracks the following:
Steps taken
distance walked/ran
calories burned
Flights of Stairs climbed
Active minutes
Sleep time/activity

It actually does that reasonably well. The Force can display most of that data using a OLED display, unlike the older Fitbit Flex wrist based wearable monitor. I like the immediate feedback right on the device. It reminds me when I’m sitting down too much. Getting up and walking around on a frequent/irregular basis actually helps me with my focus. The Force measures all of this using accelerometers and an air pressure monitor.

The Force will also display the time, but that is one of the two major downsides to the design. To find out the time, Fitbit has recreated that genuine early 1980s experience oh having to press a button on your digital watch in order to find out what time it is.

I’ll get to the other major design flaw later. First I want to cover more of the good points.

The Force syncs with my iPhone over Bluetooth. The Fitbit app then allows me to review the data collected in more detail and over periods of time (day, week, month). I can also log other items, including hydration input.

I can also sync my Force with my Windows 7 desktop, but I have to use the Fitbit custom Bluetooth USB dongle to do so. If I wanted to sync to my Macbook, I have to use the Fitbit custom Bluetooth USB dongle, despite the MacBook having Bluetooth 4.0 built in. Thus sayith Fitbit support, which is a PITA.

On the plus side, the desktop view is a web based app, which gives you everything the mobile app does, but bigger, which is good.

The second major design flaw is the crappy wrist band. I have fairly large wrists, so I’m wearing the Large version of the Force. I’ve found that the “latch” on the wrist band will pop loose when I put on or take off a jacket or long sleeved pullover shirt. The bloody thing will also pop loose if I flex my wrist the wrong way. There are very long threads on the Fitbit forums about this problem. People have lost multiple Force devices (many of which Fitbit has replaced, at $130 retail each), and Fitbits response so far has been to post a video on how to properly insert the slots into the tabs, which is the poor design of the wristband latch. User feedback has been better, including the suggestion of adding an O-Ring over the latch.

Overall I’m happy with the device. The geek portion functions well and gives me data to crunch, which makes me happy. The whole crappy wristband thing is a disappointment, but one you can work around as long as you are aware of it.

Serious though. Wristband design is a pretty mature technology. Somebody at Fitbit who valued form way over function green lighted this Charlie Fox of a design. A decision that has cost them a lot of customer good will. The question is what will Fitbit due in order to get that customer good will back?

Update: Fitbit has stopped selling the Force and issued a recall.  The reason given was the skin rash some users were getting from it.  The crappy wristband design probably didn’t help.  Since Fitbit has dropped this product and will not longer provide firmare updates or other support, I put it to return mine for the full retail value.  Fitbit claims to be working on  new tracker.  I posted the following to the Fitbit user forums:

With all the complaints about the Force wristband, there was an underlying theme of the issue being so frustrating because the Force was the best fitness tracker on the market. The users loved it, except for the bloody thing wanting to jump off the user’s wrist every time they took a jacket off.

I’m sure the Force replacement will be an even better fitness tracker, and have the ability to show messages and phone notification from your phone that the Force will now never have.

However, if it uses the same consumer hostile wristband, I certainly won’t be buying one. That move would certainly alienate the Force customers who love their Force but hate with deep passion the low quality wristband that is integral to the device.

No iWatch

Well, the Apple WWDC came and went with no mention of the much rumored iWatch.

Oh well.  I have several friends who have Kickstarter Pebble watches and they are quite happy with them.

My guess is that Apple has several prototypes in the works and just doesn’t see the market demand to push one out yet.

3D Printer update

Last time I went on about 3D Printers was back in October 2008.  Time for an update.

There are more options out there than the RepRap. Engadet has a “consumers guide” to 3D printers.

What I found interesting is that there are some sub $1,000 models.  Granted, most of those are Kickstarter projects, but it shows that these things are getting some traction in the geek hobby market.

That expanding base also means a greater number of programmed designs as people share their experiments.

One that is sure to cause a stir is Defense Distributed’s plan to design a 3D printable firearm.  They have designed, and printed an AR-15 lower.  They have put over 600 rounds though a firearm using that printed lower in a single day.  They claim that it should be able to handle a 1,000 rounds.

The AR-15 was a good choice.  It is one of the most popular civilian firearms in the US, and as Gun Geeks will tell you, it’s the general purpose PC of firearms.   It is very modular, with the ability to change stocks and uppers easily. It also has a large market of add on accessories, including pink plastic parts for the female (or male who just likes pink) shooters.

The inter-changeable upper (which includes the barrel) is key.  You can convert your .223 AR-15 to 5.55mm NATO, .308 Winchester, .22 LR or even .50 Beowulf.  All the same firearm by current US regulations.

On the lower end of the 3D printing scale, is the EDoodler.  A hand held devices that extrudes a steam of heated material that you can create whole pieces or parts of a larger object.  This is another Kickstarter project which blew past its original goal of $30,000  pretty fast.  They have pledges of over $2 million and still have three weeks to go for fundraising.

Going even lower end, you have InstaMorph.  I know people who swear by this stuff for really Q&D projects.  You heat the stuff up and then are able to mold it.  When it cools, it hardens.  Kinda like a gateway drug for 3D printing.

$250 Chromebook

$250 is a very good price point for a light laptop for basic email/web surfing/document editing.  It’s not a full feature laptop with a full OS, that is one reason the price point is the same as a 7″ Android tablet.  It’s fairly full featured hardware wise.  Web cam, USB ports, card reader and a 16GB Flash drive for storage.   This $250 laptop is a good second system.  I have a big desktop with a Drobo for storage, picture editing and other higher end functions.  For the cost of the Nexus 7, you can get a real keyboard and better monitor.  I’ve been using tablets, both iOS and Android for years, but I keep coming back to a device with a real keyboard for content creation.

For another $80, you can get a 3G version of this Chromebook, which is important if you are going to be using this device on the road.  It really does require Internet access to be entirely useful.

Hidden “feature” in Apple Lighting cable

One of the major changes in the new iPhone 5 is the new 8 pin “Lighting” cable instead of the 30 pin cable used in all iPhone and iPad devices previously.

Now the general purpose computer that you can make phone calls on (i.e. the iPhone 5) comes with a Lighting cable, but odds are you are going to need at least one spare.  No problem if you don’t mind paying Apple $19 for a spare cable.  If that is a bit pricy for you, you may have to wait.

According to one cable manufacture that has done a tear down of a Lighting cable, Apple has put an authentication chip in the cable (which is doing D2A conversion as well).  So beware of any third party “Lighting compatible” cables for a while.  I’m betting this can be cracked, but it may be a few months before its done and third party cables start hitting the market.

If you are laying out the cash for the Darth Vader phone, part with another $19 and get a spare cable.  You’ll need it.  I’ve been considering a dual 1.0/2.1 amp car charger anyway, so can I could charge both my Nexus 7 and an iPhone at the same time.  I could charge my iPhone straight from the car’s USB port, but the Sync system treats its as an MP3 player and tries to index it, which screws with the Bluetooth streaming (are you paying attention Ford?), so it’s easier to use a car charger  plugged into a power point (the former cigarette lighter socket).    The care would probably do the same thing to the Nexus 7, but I don’t keep much music on that (lots of music on the iPhone anyway).

Ok, back to the cable, you can get a 30 pin to Lighting adapter.  Apple sells one for $29.  Again, off the bat, I’m not sure I would trust any third party adapter for  a while.  Not until some early adopters spring for them and start sharing their success/failure rate.

Google enters the 7″ tablet market

Bladerunner may have given us the Nexus 6, but Google is delivering on the Nexus 7.

Before you get your hopes up, the Nexus 7 is a 7″ android based tablet.  Supposed to be available in July 2012.

There is a comparison chart over at gdgt that compares it to the other two important players in the 7″ tablet market, the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Color Nook.  There are some gaps in the data on that chart, most of which can be filled with a quick search.

For a more detailed peek under the hood of the Nexus 7, try the PCMag review.  Here are some key features. It will be running Android 4.1, not a feature reduced in house version of Android like the Fire or Nook.  It has a Quad core CPU with a 12 core GPU.  That is a lot more horse power than you get with the Kindle Fire.  The Nexus 7 screen resolution is a bit better, 1280 x 800 opposed to the Fire’s 1024 x 600 and it has double the RAM as well.  The Nexus 7 also has a built in camera in addition to Bluetooth, both features lacking in the Fire & Nook.  What the Nexus 7 doesn’t have is  speakers or a microphone.  It does have a 3.5mm audio jack, which is the only port besides the MicroUSB port.  That’s right, no SD slot.  The Nexus does come in two flavors, one with 8 Gig of storage for $199 and a 16 Gig version for $249.   For comparison, the Kindle Fire also has 8 Gig, and no SD slot.  The Color Nook is the only one that has a SD slot for additional storage.  Given that both Amazon & Google have extensive Cloud storage solutions, I’m not surprised by the lack of the SD slot.

I’ve used the Kindle Fire before, and I liked it.  However, if I had to put down $199 (plus tax) of my money for a 7″ tablet, I would go with the Google Nexus 7.

Update: The MIT Tech Review has their review of the Nexus 7 up.  According to them it does have a speaker.

Kindle Fire Review

I recently got my hands on a Kindle Fire, Amazon’s 7″ Android tablet. I can see why they are selling like the preverbal hotcakes. For $200 you get an Android tablet that is optimized for the Amazon eco-system.

The screen is sharp, and the text clear. It’s still not an e-ink display, so if all you want to do is read books, you are better off with one of the other Kindle devices. They are cheaper and easier on the eyes for prolonged reading.

The Fire is also WiFi only. No cell carrier based updates and also, no Bluetooth. So no add on keyboards or wireless headsets.  There is a headset jack, and stereo speakers.   You’ll probably want to use headphones or ear buds, but the audio is good enough through the speakers for casual use.

It has just one button, everything else, including volume/mute requires multiple touches to the screen to adjust. The screen is also a fingerprint magnet. Possibly worse than first gen iPads. Bad enough were I started carrying a stylus I had picked up to draw on the iPad with to use *all the time* on the Fire.  The screen is very crisp and the video quality is quite good, so I don’t want to be staring through fingerprints to see that picture quality.

I’ve heard one review consistently that I have to agree with. For content formatted for the 7″ screen, it looks great! Other content, not so much. Streaming video from Amazon in landscape is large and sharp! I’ve loaded some video content and the gallery player only plays it in portrait mode, so I’ve got landscape formatted video playing in the middle third of the portrait mode screen. Definitely sub-optimal. Browsing the web is not as clean as it is with a larger screen (an iPad for example). I found myself constantly having to drag the screen focus in order to read the end of a line.

The Amazon Android App store is ok, but definitely limited.

Bottom line, if you are already invested in the Amazon eco-system, and just want to read books & magazines, and watch videos from Amazon, then is a very well spent $200.

If you want more flexible device in order to see more of the Internet than what Amazon provides, then you are better off with a tablet with a 10″ screen, with either a more open version of Android or Apple iOS.