writing about tech

Month: October 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Not quite Fit for consumption: Google Fit impressions

When I shared my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, my biggest frustration was that the valuable fitness data that was being collected by the device wasn’t actually going anywhere, and instead lived only on the device itself in the form of a card that gave me my daily step totals, and a notification that I’d hit my daily heart rate goal.   At the time, I figured Google Fit was the solution to this data-siloing.  Fortunately, it appears I was correct – Google Fit can, in fact, download data from my Moto 360.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to do much else of value.

So what is Google Fit?  That’s…actually a frustratingly difficult question to answer. Ideally, it’s supposed to be a silo for all your fitness data – so the data gathered by my Moto 360 and RunKeeper could live in the same place as data gathered by my FitBit and Withings scale, all of that coming together in a glorious data-gasm that would, in theory, paint a fairly accurate picture of my personal activity.  Looking at their announcement, they claim:

You can also connect your favorite fitness devices and apps like Strava, Withings, Runtastic, Runkeeper and Noom Coach to Google Fit and we’ll surface all of the relevant data in one spot, giving you a clear and complete view of your fitness. No need to check one app to see your weight and another to review a run – with Google Fit, that data will all be surfaced in one, simple place.

Great, awesome, let’s do this thing.  What services are currently available?

Screenshot 2014-10-30 13.41.47

Oh, good, a list of Fit-friendly apps.  Let me just click on that link, and…

Screenshot 2014-10-30 13.43.52

…what the fuck?  When I first saw this, I ignored it as launch day hiccup, but as I sit writing this two days later, all I can think is…what the fuck?  I imagine no Google Fit-compatible apps are available just yet, but there’s still no reason to link to a dead page.  That shit is amateur hour.

So, unfortunately, at this point, all Google Fit really seems to do is gather data from my 360 and sync it to the web.  Poorly.

So close, but so far.  Wait, not close at all.

Yesterday: So close, but so far. Wait, nope, not close at all.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible for a modern web service.

Perhaps I’m coming across as overly harsh here, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a start-up company with their first fitness product, this is Google, and web services are kind of their whole thing.  There’s absolutely no reason for my phone app and the website to be so outrageously out of sync.

The good news: my Nexus 5 and Moto 360 get along great.  The Steps card has been replaced with more health info, as seen here:

2014-10-30 13.30.10
2014-10-30 13.30.23 2014-10-30 13.30.34 2014-10-30 13.31.00 2014-10-30 18.42.12

 

Nothing to complain about here, and as I’ve mentioned before, I continue to be impressed by the fact that the Moto 360 (and thus Google Fit) can track bike rides and runs, something my FitBit can only do if I wear it at the bottom of my bike shorts, near the knee.  I believe it’s forward-motion based, however, which means it doesn’t work on my stationary bike, and I’ve heard reports of people driving incredibly slow in traffic and having Google Fit log that as cycling minutes. Whoops.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the positive section ends.  I mentioned running and bike rides…and those are two of the three activities Google Fit can track, the third being walking.  That’s it – even if you add an activity manually:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 18.12.45

Yup, that’s all anyone ever does! No other type of workout is possible.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but by-far the biggest problem with Google Fit is that it just doesn’t do anything of value.  It asks for my height and weight, but doesn’t give me any sort of calorie burn.  It lets me manually enter activities, but I better hope I didn’t go hiking or swimming.  I can view charts, but those charts provide me very little of value:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 18.16.26

What value does that data have?  Why does this chart even exist?

Compare it to the charts I get from FitBit’s website:

Holy shit! Useful data!

Holy shit! Useful data! Literally every one of these is more useful than what Google Fit tried to stuff into their single graph.

The only thing I can think of is that this was rushed out the door to go along with the Android 5.0 release, but there’s still no excuse for such a low-quality, barebones product from a company like Google.  The fact that none of the partner apps are even ready just underscores the lack of care and polish in this release.

It’s not that Google hasn’t stumbled before, but usually they at least bring something new and exciting to the table.  Android Wear is still basically beta software, but it also does things other wearable software doesn’t, and it has so much potential.  Meanwhile, Google Fit, at least inn its current form, seems to exist just for the sake of existing, and that’s not enough in a world with Apple HealthKit and, more recently, Microsoft Health.  Health, in particular, seems to basically be everything Google Fit should be, but somehow isn’t:

Microsoft Health is a cloud-based service that helps you live healthier by providing actionable insights based on data gathered from the fitness devices and apps that you use every day. Activity-tracking devices like the new Microsoft Band, smart watches, and mobile phones plus services like RunKeeper or MyFitnessPal connect easily to Microsoft Health. Using this fitness data and our Intelligence Engine in the cloud, Microsoft Health provides valuable, personal insights so you can reach your fitness goals.

Microsoft Health is designed to work with you, no matter what phone you have, device you wear, or service you use. The power of the cloud platform lies in its ability to combine the data from all the devices and services you use to give you a more holistic and insightful picture of your fitness.

Google Fit’s only real use for me is that it interfaces with Android Wear, and now, it looks like Microsoft Health might do that, too.  There’s absolutely no reason that Google Fit couldn’t have been this, but Microsoft has beaten them to the punch in a dramatic way.

know Google can do better than this, and that’s perhaps why this frustrates me so much.  It’s not that they did their best, strived for something new and exciting, and then failed – that, at least, would have been an admirable failure.  Instead, Google has done something I’ve never seen them do – release a product with almost no potential value to my life, and while I acknowledge that it will almost certainly get better in the next year, as they add more functionality and more partner apps come onboard, that’s no excuse for releasing it in the state it’s in today.

Apple approves and features “calculator” widget, then changes their mind

From six colors:

First there’s the maddening inconsistency: This is an app that was accepted into the App Store, and is even being featured in the App Store as I write this. And now, a few weeks in, someone at Apple has decided that the app is too… what? Too useful?

And the icing on the cake:

I just don’t understand this behavior from Apple, though maybe I’m just overly sensitive to it as a programmer myself. Don’t they realize a large reason for the success of the iPhone is the fantastic third-party developers who make their platform what it is? Either allow things or reject them, but don’t open your doors, welcome someone in, then slam those doors behind them and set the room on fire.

Update: Apple has clarified their position on Calculator Widgets, and it looks like PCalc can stay!

Google Fit says I’m “Off to a great start”. I wish I could say the same about Google Fit.

 

2014-10-29 11.51.17

Whomp whomp.

In all seriousness: When is Google going to get their shit together when it comes to rolling out new products?  This isn’t Google Fit Beta.

Here’s an added bonus – the screen you’re greeted with when you go to Google Fit help and clink on the link for “See a list of Fit-friendly apps.”

Screenshot 2014-10-29 11.59.04

Nice job, guys. Nailed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full impressions coming tomorrow or Friday, once I’ve had another day or two with the service, but as you can see, things aren’t particularly promising at this point.

Dear fellow gamers: Pre-orders and season passes are gambles, so stop whining when you lose

There seems to be a lot of uproar over the fact that Destiny’s first expansion gets more content on PS4 than on Xbox One:

Unfortunately some people bought the season pass on launch day. I don’t believe they can get a refund. What do you say to them?

I bought it before it was revealed I’d be buying DLC that has more content for other platforms.

I have a friend that bought the DLC not knowing he wouldn’t get access to some DLC strikes. What does he do now?

I find it hard to feel much pity for these people, the same way I don’t feel too bad when Kickstarters get canceled or people pre-order a game with a disastrous launch like Battlefield 4.  Make no mistake – every single time you pre-order a game, or back something on Kickstarter, or buy a season pass – you are gambling with you money.  If you don’t like what you get when you buy products without seeing them, stop giving people money before you know how good their product is.

Is saving a few bucks on a season pass or getting an exclusive sword for pre-ordering a game really worth the chance that the content or the game will be terrible?  I personally back projects I’m hopeful about on Kickstarter, but I also acknowledge upfront that it’s a gamble, and that the thing I want may never actually exist, and I certainly don’t cry about being cheated if a project gets canceled, and  I can’t even think of the last time I bought a game or DLC before reviews were out.

It’s up to you, as a consumer, to protect your money and interests and vote with your wallet, because you certainly can’t expect the companies in the gaming industry to have any interest in mind except their own.  And as such, the only one to blame if you feel ripped off after pre-ordering a game or buying a season pass is yourself.

Google Fit is now available!

When I wrote about my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, one of the major downsides is that the data collected by the watch was stuck in the watch itself and unavailable on the phone.

Today, that’s changed with the official release of Google Fit.  Stay tuned in the coming days for more on how well the Moto 360 cooperates with Google Fit.  Thus far, I’ve found that it didn’t bring in the hour-long run I did this morning, so I’m essentially starting from scratch, which is unfortunate, but hopefully it’s just a one-time hiccup.

More to come soon!

PS4’s Share Play is, perhaps, the first truly “next-gen” feature

While I’m still waiting for the long-promised Standby/Resume functionality of the PS4, Share Play is coming tomorrow, and I think this could be way bigger deal than people are giving it credit for.

What exactly is Share Play? In Sony’s own words:

As we’ve said before, the best way to think about Share Play is like a “virtual couch.” PlayStation 4 will create an online local co-op experience by allowing you to invite a friend to join your game for up to one hour at a time — even when they don’t own a copy of it.

Those last nine words are where the magic happens.  PS Now, Sony’s game streaming service, has been praised for the technology, but rightfully panned for the pricing.  This takes what is, presumably, that same core functionality, and leverages it in a much more consumer friendly way.

Does your friend own a game that you want to try?  Ask them if you can try it.  Do you own the (incredibly entertaining) indie fencing game Nidhogg, but your friend across the country doesn’t?  Now they can play it with you, without having to download a thing. Thanks in large parts to indie games like Nidhogg, TowerFall, and Sportsfriends, the PS4 is already on the way to becoming a local co-op powerhouse – and now Share Play will take that understated strength and bring a next-gen twist to it.

It’s also an important platform differentiator in a way that I don’t think we’ve yet seen this generation.  Sure, Sony and Microsoft fans can argue back and forth over the relatively minor differences between their consoles – even more minor now that Kinect is basically out of the picture – but thus far, there have been very few, if any, console-defining, gaming-centric features.  Suddenly, we have a piece of functionality with no cross-platform equivalent.  If your most of your friends own PS4s instead of Xbox One’s – and let’s face it, the way sales are going, that’s probably the case – this is just another way you’ll be able to play games with them.  I’ve always said that perhaps the most important factor in choosing a console is to figure out what console your friends are using, and Share Play is Sony doubling down on that aspect of social gaming.

Hell, I just downloaded Nidhogg this weekend, and come tomorrow, I’ll download an update, and suddenly anyone I know with a PS4 and PS Plus will be able to play it with me. That’s pretty damn cool – and, I would argue, the first truly “next gen” feature I’ve seen from either platform.   At the very least, it’s certainly the most gaming-centric one.

Of course, a lot of this hinges on Sony getting the tech right – from my limited experience with PS Now, I’m pretty optimistic, but there’s still certainly a chance for this to fail in a spectacular manner.  Of course, we’re early in this console generation, so there’s plenty of time to get it right, even if they stumble out of the gate.

Perhaps even better, having a differentiating feature like this means Microsoft has to respond in some form, sooner or later – and when they do, it’ll make that platform better, and the cycle of improvements will continue.  I haven’t been this excited about gaming in a long time, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

The power of competition: The Xbox One drops to $349 for the holidays

Going into the holiday season, the Xbox One is going to be $349including a game.  You can also get a game and Kinect for $449. Considering that, just 9 months ago, the Xbox One with Kinect and no game was $499, this is a remarkably solid deal – though it also shows just how much Sony has been beating them over this last year.

As someone who still remembers the early PS3 vs. 360 days – and bought a 360 last time around for the same reason I bought a PS4 this time around – it’s remarkable how much this generation has started off like the last one.  The major difference seems to be that Microsoft is responding to market realities way faster this generation than Sony did last generation. I didn’t get a PS3 until years after release, because the price point and exclusives just weren’t there, and the 360 was already my multi-platform box.

The Xbox One is in the same boat for me at the moment, and I hope Microsoft can win me over. They definitely seem to be on the fast track towards doing so.

Retailers are disabling Apple Pay and Google Wallet to push their own terrible payment system

The Verge writes:

…a significant number of merchants, including heavyweights like Walmart, Kmart, 7-Eleven, and Best Buy, are in outright competition with Apple Pay. The retailers, through a joint venture formed in 2012, are building their own mobile payment app, called CurrentC. It’s expected to launch next year. In the meantime, these retailers have no intention to support Apple Pay.

Hooray! A whole new set of mobile payment standards.  And you know what they say about standards.

Meanwhile, not a single bank backs CurrentC. That’s because the system is designed to cut out the middleman — and credit card processing fees. The app, when it launches next year, won’t replace your plastic credit card. Instead, it will withdraw directly from your checking account when you pay at the cash register with a QR code displayed on your Android or iOS device.

Okay, two things:

  1. Why the fuck would I want to give these retailers direct access to my checking account, especially after the number of stories about POS system hacking in the last year?
  2. QR codes?  Fucking QR codesAre you serious?  Was this system devised in 2006?  (answer: probably)

I don’t expect everyone to welcome Apple with open arms just because they finally jumped on the NFC mobile payments train, but can’t we at least all agree that having NFC readers that charge our credit cards is infinitely better than using QR codes to directly withdraw money from our checking accounts?  I want as many barriers between my money and these security-backwards retailers as possible; the last thing I want is the only barrier between them and my money to be a glorified bar code.

Why I use an Android phone, but still recommend the iPhone

A poster on The Verge’s forums asks:

So what am I missing? Where is the greatness in iOS?

Honestly, most “normal” people don’t need the power and flexibility that Android offers – they just need a reliable phone that calls and texts and runs apps and takes pretty pictures, and for that, the iPhone is pretty great. There’s also a lot to be said for the quality of Apple products – why bother to decide between half a dozen Android phones, each with their own limitations, when you can just buy Apple’s phone and call it a day? Sure, iOS isn’t necessarily as powerful or flexible as Android, but it’s also powerful enough that it be used for productivity, as long as you’re willing to mold your workflow to work the way Apple wants it to.

This was actually a topic of discussion on the Vergecast today, and the Verge folks said that the reasons to use an iPhone basically boiled down to:

  1. iMessage (including, in iOS8, SMS through Continuity)
  2. AirPlay
  3. Camera performance

It’s hard to argue with any of these, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on iMessage. Android fans like myself can and will go on and on about the power and flexibility of Android, but most normal people never really see that power and flexibility. What they do see is that they can iMessage their friends and send texts from their computer with very little effort, and that’s huge.  This is what people mean when they talk about iOS’ ecosystem.

Can I send texts from my computer with third-party apps? Sure – but most Android users don’t, either because they don’t know about the apps that enable it, or they know but don’t care enough to go through the effort of making it work. There’s a huge value to be placed on making the barrier to entry as non-existent as possible.

Android 5.0 (Lollipop) Early Impressions

A couple of days ago, I finally gave in and flashed the latest Developer Preview of Android 5.0 to my Nexus 5, as I’d read that it was pretty stable and close to final release, and I’m not a terribly patient person.  So far, I haven’t regretted it – it’s pretty bug-free for a product that’s still technically a “preview”.  Here are some bullet-point-based impressions thus far, though keep in mind some of this could change with the official release in November.

  • The overall UI feels even more consistent than KitKat, though some of that is hampered by the fact that even some official Google apps still haven’t been updated based on the Material Design guidelines.  While this will almost certainly happen sooner rather than later, it doesn’t change the fact that Google has no control over when third-party developers update their apps, assuming they ever do.
  • The UI animations are, unsurprisingly, pretty fantastic.  However, they also seem to impact performance slightly.  There’s often a noticeable pause when I it the Home or Multitask button that simply wasn’t there under KitKat, and I think this may be due to the fact that the OS is delaying the actual action so that the animation can play smoothly.  However, this could also simply be because it’s preview software.  I’ve also noticed some animations, like changing homescreens, can occasionally hitch – but again, preview software.  One of my favorite new animations is that opening Google Now from inside another app displays an overlay on top of that app:

2014-10-22 20.18.37

  • A nice side effect of UI-wide animation changes are that certain interactions (tapping notifications, app controls, widgets like DashClock) inherit some Material Design styles without the developer having to do anything. It certainly goes a long way towards the overall goal of UI consistency.
  • I wasn’t sold on the new task switcher until I used it, but it’s growing on me.  It’s fun to use, and perhaps more importantly, it persists between reboots and goes back way, way further in your execution history.  There’s stuff currently in my task switcher that I opened early yesterday.

2014-10-22 20.20.42

  • Some of the issues I’ve had with Bluetooth media controls seem to be resolved, though occasionally I’ll still hit play/pause or track forward/back on my Bluetooth headset and the phone will take awhile to respond.  It’s a shame that Android still lags behind iOS when it comes to media playback integration at the OS-level.
  • It won’t connect to my work WiFi – both my co-worker and I are having this problem.  Again, could be because it’s a preview build.  It works fine with every other WiFi network I’ve tried.
  • Because I have an Android Wear watch, and had a Pebble before that, I generally keep my phone on “Silent”.  Though this mode still exists in Android 5.0, it functions differently and took me a bit to figure out. Rather than going from Vibrate to Silent, you go from Vibrate to Priority Notification mode.  At first, I thought this was like the Do Not Disturb mode available on other phones, but it’s a bit different.  Despite the name change, this performs more-or-less the same way Silent mode does in previous versions of Android, with the exception that certain apps are still allowed to vibrate when notifications come in. In theory, if you disable all exceptions, it’ll perform identical to how Silent Mode used to.

2014-10-22 20.23.27

  • Speaking of Android Wear, media controls do not currently appear on my watch.  I assume this will be fixed prior to the official 5.0 release on November 3rd.  Unfortunately, until then, I can no longer feel like a wizard by pausing my TV or changing party music from my wrist.
  • Smart Lock, “borrowed” from Motorola’s “Trusted Device” concept, is great, especially if you have a Bluetooth device that’s always with you, like a watch or headphones.  It works exactly as advertised – if any of your trusted devices are connected, you can bypass your lock screen security.  There were apps that handled this before, but they weren’t as elegant, and only worked with PIN locks – not pattern locks or face locks.  In addition, whenever you connect a new Bluetooth device, it asks you if you want to add it as a trusted device – very cool.

2014-10-23 01.20.07

  • The notification changes in Android 5.0 solidify Android’s place as King of Mobile Notifications, as least for my needs.  The lock screen notifications, borrowed from iOS, perform perfectly, and it’s great to be able to interact with notifications directly from the lockscreen.  Media controls now appear as the media control notification, rather than a dedicated screen, which I think works better, especially with the unfortunate removal of lockscreen widgets. 2014-10-22 20.30.50-1That said, the presence of notifications on the lockscreen means that my main lockscreen widget – DashClock – isn’t really necessary.  It still makes a great homescreen widget, though.  I also prefer the drag-down-twice to reveal notification toggles, as compared to the previous method of tapping a small touch target, especially since the second drag down can be done from notification.  I’m also grateful to finally have a Torch/Flashlight toggle, though it’s still a shame that you can’t tweak the list of toggles.  Finally, tapping the toggle actually turns it on and off, as expected, rather than acting as a shortcut to that setting area.  The setting area is now reached by tapping the name of the toggle.

2014-10-22 20.34.36

 

Overall, I’m pretty happy with this update to the Android experience.  It actually feels a bit like stock Android married to some concepts from HTC Sense – it’s almost the best of both worlds.  A great example of this is in the new lockscreen, where you unlock the phone with a slide-up gesture rather than the classic lock ring we’ve seen since (I believe) Android 4.0.

The big question mark will be developer support – the stock Google apps that have been updated look fantastic, but it’s up to third-party developers to take the ball across the finish line and really make Material Design a thing beyond just the stock Google experience.  I’m thrilled to see Google bringing their diverse product line under a single design banner,  and while it’s an important part of the equation, it’s far from the only part.

Given the history of third-party developers on Android, I’m sadly not all that optimistic we’ll ever see a big Material Design push, especially from stubborn players like Facebook and Twitter, but hopefully the smaller apps I use on a daily basis – Wunderlist, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Pocketcasts, for example – will join the party sooner rather than later. Thanks largely to the differentiation between Android OEMs and the staggering of OS updates, you’re never going to open your phone and see two dozen updated apps from prominent developers, the way you often do for a few days after major iOS releases.  It’s a shame, but it’s also the reality of Android.

Regardless of these hiccups, I’m more excited about the future of Android that I ever have been in the past, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Material Design evolves over the next couple of years as app developers and OEMs find ways to incorporate it into their own software.

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