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Chromecast: The Cheap Smart TV Device I Only Bought for Netflix in 1080p

January 22nd, 2014 No comments

I already had 3 options in my living room for streaming media. I have an LG Smart TV with a ton of apps and DLNA. I have a Sony Blu-Ray player with a ton of apps and DLNA. I have a HTPC (home theater personal computer) running Windows 7 connected to my TV which I use to watch live TV and as a DVR. So why did I need to purchase a Chromecast? Isn’t it redundant? For the most part, yes the Chromecast is totally a redundant device for me, but it never occurred to me I wasn’t getting Netflix in 1080p. Yes, Netflix, the company that said 1080p streaming was available to all users, except when your device is not capable of 1080p. However, my Blu-Ray and HTPC both max out at 720p because of the age of their software. My TV is supposed to be capable of 1080p and even 3D streaming, but it does not seem to be getting enough bandwidth to stream in 1080p. Then Chromcast went on sale. At $26.48 after tax, it seemed like a good investment to try to get to 1080p.

Chromecast Unboxing Slideshow

Chromecast, created by Google, was their attempt to bring streaming media to the masses at a cheap cost. The small device gets plugged into an open HDMI port on your TV and it is powered either through a USB port on your TV or using an AC adapter. After plugging it in and setting it up, the Chromecast can then play video from Netflix, YouTube, HBO GO and Google Movies, audio from Google Play and Pandora, and saved videos and audio. None of this stuff is actually selected directly on the Chromecast like other Smart TV software. Instead, Chromecast receives a URL from any capable device with Chromecast app such as your smartphone or Windows PC and then streams the content.

Unboxing the device might have been the hardest part of setting it up. The box is very small so there is no unessential packaging. There is a little plastic sticker holding the box closed. I don’t usually like cutting those stickers. I try to peel them. I should have just cut it. Peeling this sticker probably took me several minutes. After peeling the sticker, then I had to slide the box out of the sleeve casing, which was a tight fit. Then the box lid opens easily and the device is right there. Under the device is the USB cable, the AC adapter and a HDMI extender cable.

Setting up the device was really quick from this point on. I plugged the Chromecast into one of my available HDMI ports and powered it using USB on my TV. My TV immediately recognized it and switched to the Chromecast setup screen, prompting me to go to a URL on my phone or PC to download the Chromecast app. The rest of the setup is done from the app. I downloaded it on my phone. The app walks through finding the Chromecast, renaming the Chromecast, setting up WiFi on the device and updating the firmware. This whole process took at most ten minutes. The next thing I did was begin testing out Netflix. The picture definitely looked clearer in comparison to my other devices. I started with a standard definition cartoons (Futurama) and a High Definition action movie (Marvel’s The Avengers). I also ran the Netflix Example Short to see the streaming quality statistics. I found Netflix maxed out at 4300 kbps and 1920×1080, which is good enough for 1080p, but not Super HD.

So far I have been pretty happy with Chromecast usage. I have watched two movies on Netflix using it. The quality is definitely better. I have noticed the picture does occasionally drop out of 1080p until the connection improves and the video buffers again. What I really like about the Chromecast, since it is so easy to set up and so portable, I can see bringing it to friend’s houses or while traveling to easily set up streaming media wherever.

The real downside to Chromecast is there are still a lot of apps not available to be used with it. I would like to see Spotify and Amazon Instant Video. Hopefully in time, more apps will be able to stream to Chromecast to make it a much more robust device. At about $30, I don’t see it as a waste of money and it is a good investment if you need to upgrade to 1080p streaming for cheap or don’t have a smart TV at all.

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Follow Up : Pebble Smartwatch

January 12th, 2014 No comments

Pebble with wrap and bandI have been using the Pebble Smartwatch now for about 6 weeks. It has been an interesting and enjoyable experience. I really like getting my notifications on my wrist. It saves a lot of time checking my phone. I don’t have to unlock my phone unless I want to respond or read more. I’m also starting to explore some of the other information I can send to the Pebble.

After using the watch for about a week, I upgraded to the SDK 2.0 Beta 2. I will say right away, Beta 2 was junk. The watch froze constantly and would lose connection and not reconnect. I would have to shutdown and restart the Pebble to get it to connect. Very soon after, they released Beta 3, which has been a much better experience. Installed apps can now be removed and some even managed from the Pebble app on the phone. They are now up to 2.0 Beta 5, and it’s looking pretty good. Battery life seems to be improving too. I get a lot of notifications, but I would say it’s now up to about 4 days battery life.

There are definitely still some disappointments in the Pebble that third party developers have been working to rectify. The biggest issue I still have is the stock Pebble app cannot push all notifications to the Pebble or select which apps with notifications can be sent. It will only push a select number of apps with configuration built into the Pebble. The notifications for those specific apps like phone, SMS, email/Gmail, calendar, Facebook and Hangouts all work very well. However, there are so many other apps out there that create notifications too. Other smartwatches, have this built into the software to select any apps with notifications to send. The Qualcomm Toq has this feature built right in. The other issue I had with Pebble is a lot of functionality was not built into the main UI for SDK 2.0, even though there are APIs built for it such as weather. I have other functionality issues such as the music app being slow to respond or not showing what is currently playing. I understand the goal for Pebble was to first launch the hardware with basic functionality then expand. I definitely like this and I am starting to see the potential in Pebble. Lots of third party developers are stepping up to create apps to fix the gaps in the stock Pebble UI. Some of these third parties include major companies like FourSquare, GoPro, and Pandora. Pebble is also making progress in their own software by creating an app store to have these apps available. The app store will launch soon, and I am very excited to see what will be available.

As mentioned, third party developers have stepped up to create watch apps for the Pebble to fix some of the UI gaps. I have downloaded three apps so far that I really like; Glance, Notification Center, and Pebble Cards. Glance serves as a great utility. I talked about it in length in the first post so I won’t go through more detail. I will say, I keep Glance set to a basic screen of time, weather and phone battery life. Glance does have more detailed screens, but I don’t need them. Glance also added a nice feature of adding the Pebble battery life to its settings menu. Notification Center has been a fantastic utility to get the notifications I actually want to see on my phone delivered to my phone. This app has allowed me to get only the Personal Inbox email notifications from Gmail, allowed me to start using a third party app for SMS again, and get ESPN SportsCenter alerts as well as my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other apps stock Pebble notifications could not handle. After the notification clears, it returns the Pebble screen to Glance. Notification Center will also queue the notifications and clear them from the phone after viewing, or will clear from the Pebble when cleared on the phone. The last app I got was Pebble Cards. This is the app that I think will have a lot of potential with new versions. The developer said he was trying to mimic the idea of cards in the Google Now app. I like it a lot since it removes a lot of data Google Now provides to just give a clean and quick update. I set up weather, sports scores and battery life so far. It can also include stocks, calendar, traffic, custom JSON, and more. I don’t think it is as clean as the watch face on Glance, but definitely can show a lot more information. I assume all of these will be part of the Pebble App Store at launch.

Unfortunately, I still have not gotten a chance to really start playing with developing my own apps for the Pebble. The SDK 2.0 comes with so many example API pieces and a tutorial that it shouldn’t be too difficult to develop my own apps. The time I did sit down, I found out that they SDK cannot be edited on Windows computers. As an alternative, Pebble Cloud was created to allow for editing and creation of apps online. However, this reduces a lot of the access to examples Pebble created, unless you load them to your Pebble Cloud account.

20140112_142005The last issue I had with the Pebble was its physical design. The Pebble looks cheap and unprofessional. If almost looks like an oversized sports watch you might buy for running. I spent a little money to try to fancy up my Pebble so it looks more like something you might wear to the office. I purchased a SlickWrap for the watch itself so it would look less plastic. I got the Brushed Onyx metal series wrap to try to make it look a little more metal. I also purchased on eBay a Black IP metal band with polished and brushed metal and a locking clasp. I believe it looks a little more presentable and less plastic.

Fortunately Pebble also recognized their watch was not very professional and recently announced Pebble Steel, which is a metal version that comes with a gorilla glass screen, metal band and a leather band as well. The technical specifications are the same as the original Pebble. It is a little smaller but a $100 more expensive. If it was available when I purchased 6 weeks ago, I would have gotten this one instead.

Pebble is showing itself to be the major competitor in the Smartwatch game. They have two options already on the market. They have a large community of apps that are going to be available very soon. They made it easier for outside developers to create apps. They have even gotten Mercedes Benz to make an app and give away the watch with the car. Pebble is definitely going to need to do something about their price to stay competitive. They are ahead of Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm and some of the others that have a Smartwatch available today in price by being at $150. However, the others are seeing they are charging too much and discounts are already available. Archos has two watches coming out which they hope to be major competitors, especially since the cheaper one they expect to release at around $50 each.

I definitely do not regret purchasing a Pebble Smartwatch. It has made checking notifications a lot easier since I don’t have to pull out my phone. It’s even better for those that I generally clear right away anyway like ESPN. I still believe the best is yet to come for Pebble in terms of apps that will be available.

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Pebble Smart Watch : First Impressions

November 30th, 2013 No comments

I received the other day the Pebble Smart Watch. Smart watches and wearable tech has been on the internet a lot lately with Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass. Pebble is probably one of the cheapest contenders to the smart watch game, but also the one with some of the greatest possibilities. Launched via Kickstarter, Pebble is now available for general sale.

Pebble Box Pebble Box Open

First thing you might be asking yourself is what do I need a smart watch for anyway. After all, how hard is it to see notifications on my phone. The best use for a smart watch is for if you don’t have access to your phone or might not realize you received a message. Smart watches being attached to you allows you to feel the notification directly. As software improves on smart watches, users will be able to do so much more. Pebble is built exactly with that expansion in mind.

Upon receiving the Pebble, the packaging for the Pebble Smart Watch is smaller than what one might expect for a gadget. Probably smaller than most boxes for a high end watch. The box slides open easily and reveals the Pebble. The device looks large in comparison to the size of the box. Removing the watch from the box was a little difficult. The watch is latched into the packaging. This is great because it prevents the watch from moving in the package. However, it is latched in so tightly it takes a little force to unhook it. The only items in the box are the Pebble, the USB charger cable, quick start guide and product information sheet.

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After taking the Pebble out of the box, it is noticeable how the Pebble really is a light weight device. It weighs less than the stainless steel and aluminum watches I am used to wearing. The size of the watch itself is slightly larger than the average watch. The plastic casing and the rubber watchband definitely reduce the weight. The construction does feel very strong for a plastic device. The watchband can also withstand a good amount of tension. The metal latch holds in tightly as well. Unfortunately, the rubber watchband looks cheap. If you are planning to wear the watch in a more formal setting, the rubber is a little off-putting. Wearing the Pebble, it does feel a little large, but only because I am used to wearing a watch with a slightly smaller face. I am already getting used to it.

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Part of what makes Pebble so appealing is its low power usage and longer battery life. The device uses an e-paper display very similar to the one used in the Amazon Kindle. This is great because it because it doesn’t need a lot of power to show time and notifications. Pebble also uses Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is low power consumption. This allows Pebble to stay connected to the smartphone while using as little power on bother devices as possible.

Powering on the Pebble for the first time was difficult. Only because there is no clear power button or something labeled saying what to press in the documentation. Figuring out needing to hold in the Center button for several seconds took me a moment. After realizing this, I am greeted with a Pebble splash screen. It is not a screen I will see very often unless I shut down the device. Right away, the watch will ask to pair the device with your phone. I am using a Samsung Galaxy SIII running Android 4.1.2. I downloaded the app from the Play Store. My phone immediately found my Pebble via Bluetooth and then clicking connect in the Pebble app connected instantly. After connecting, my Pebble required an update that took less than a minute to complete. This update will only complete if the phone is synced. The time on the Pebble will reset to the current time when the sync is complete.

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The phone comes preloaded with three watch faces for telling time: text read out, mock analog with date and a digital read out with date. Hitting the top and bottom buttons on the right will cycle through the watch faces. These are pretty simple and provides really just basic watch functionality. This is a little bit of a disappointment as I want bells and whistles. I want a smart watch to tell me more than time. Out of the box, the Pebble will be set to 24 HR format. Hitting the center right button will open an options menu to apps installed on your Pebble. The Pebble will come preloaded with a music control, Alarm, watch face selector and settings. As other apps are installed, they appear in this list.

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Settings has options for Bluetooth, Date & Time, Display, About, Shutdown and Factory Reset. There are not many things that are controlled on the Pebble itself at this time. Most settings are controlled through the companion app. I first entered Date & Time to change it to 12 HR format. Display controls the backlight, notifications, font size and vibration. Backlight options are On, Off and Auto. Motion Backlight controls are on and off. I changed mine to auto and motion control enabled.

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The other preinstalled apps are pretty basic. The music app will control pause/play/forward/rewind for the music app defined through the companion app. The alarm app, which is only set to 24 HR format and creates the alarm on the Pebble, not the phone itself. The alarm is great if you are wearing the Pebble, but not very useful otherwise, for say waking up in the morning.

As I mentioned, most of the settings are actually in the companion app on your smartphone. The companion app will control connection to the Pebble, installed watch faces, test notifications and notification settings. The test notifications gives you a pretty good idea of how your notifications will appear on the Pebble. Email notifications can just be scrolled through and cleared. SMS notifications are the same way. Phone notifications do allow you to see who is calling and reject a call, but not anything else.

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The settings part of the app is really where the most functionality is controlled.  The top setting is for Bluetooth, which just opens Android Bluetooth settings to pair the device. Next is Notifications. The Notifications section allows you to turn on sending notifications and what notifications to send. Here you can turn on notifications for calls, SMS, calendar, email and/or Gmail, Google Talk & Hangouts, Google Voice, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Other notifications require Android Accessibility settings to be changed. The Pebble app will notify you to make the change when setting up the notifications.

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While on notifications, I’ll voice my annoyance that SMS notifications will only work if you are using the stock Messaging app, Google Hangouts or Google Voice as the default. Any other SMS app like GoSMS or Handsent, which most people who own a Pebble are probably using, will not receive notifications. I am currently trying to use the stock Messaging app or Google Hangouts as my primary SMS app again. So far it is not a problem. However, that first iPhone group message I receive is going to make me realize how much I miss a more robust SMS app. The other annoyance with notifications would be email. You again can only use the stock Email or Gmail apps to get notifications. If you use an app like Good for Enterprise, your email notifications will not appear. Some of these notification issues might be resolved with other apps, but still not ideal.

After setting up notifications, you can also change what music app the Pebble will control. I have mine set to Spotify since it is my primary music app. Having pause/play/forward/rewind available is really great, but volume control would have been nice too.

When I was done setting up my Pebble, I installed Glance for Pebble. Glance is an app that replaced your watch face. It serves as a hub to give a little more functionality. It is available as a companion app from the Play store. After installing on your phone, it will then transfer an app to the Pebble. The companion app on the phone is where everything is configured. It was helpful because it adds more functionality to your watch face such as counters for new email, SMS and missed calls, weather, quick SMS responses and emergency SMS. These are really awesome features and truly expand the usefulness of Pebble. Having quick SMS responses is cool, but I am finding it hard to decide what to have as my quick responses. I’m leaning toward “OK”, “See you soon”, “Bring more beer/wine/whiskey”, or “What are you wearing?” Weather is also rather useful as it gives your current temp and conditions for your location, and you can see upcoming forecast. I strongly suggest installing Glance.

After using my Pebble for a few days now, I love getting the notifications on my wrist. Sometimes I see them there before they appear on my phone. Glance strongly improved the usefulness and functionality. The main thing I do not like so far is when using Gmail, it does not mute notifications for Social and Promotion emails. This can be annoying if receiving many promotional emails a day. The other thing I am not liking so far with the Pebble is the inability to delete emails and text messages from the Pebble. You can only ignore them. Another annoyance I have discovered is there is not a good battery monitor and could use a consistent icon showing battery level.

At $150, this doesn’t really break the bank and it is probably worth the cost. I didn’t pay that much for it. Best Buy is doing $30 off for people with an .edu email address or who have access to someone with an .edu address. I also strongly suggest the use of gift cards, credit card points, or guilt your relatives into giving you one. Pebble is definitely a great device with cool features now and a lot of great future potential. My next plans are to upgrade to the new 2.0 firmware and experiment with the 2.0 SDK to unlock some of the functionality Pebble has, but is not currently in much use.

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