writing about tech

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I want a Google-powered Amazon Echo

I have an Amazon Echo, and it’s actually pretty great. It’s a bit overpriced for what it is right now, but the $99 I got it for was basically perfect. The big problem is, as a heavy Google services user, the potential of it is, for me, largely crippled by its lack of Google support.

For example: I have several upcoming trips, and Google’s Inbox has kindly created ‘Bundles’ for each of them. It’s borderline-creepy, but it’s also too useful for me to care – it gives me all the relevant details about my upcoming flights and hotels in a single place for quick reference.

I’d love the idea of an Echo-like device that could tie into that data, so that I could ask “Hey , what’s going on?” and it would provide not just news and weather, but also remind me about upcoming trips, etc. based on the context that Google already knows about me.

“Hey Google, what’s up?”

“The weather in Tucson will be warm, but it looks like you’ll get a break from that while you’re in Salt Lake City next week. Do you want me to set a reminder for you to pack 5 hours before your trip?”

“Yes, thank you. Can you also shuffle my favorite songs so that I have some music to pack to?”

“Of course.”

That, my friends, is the future.

What iOS does that Andron’t

Today, Dropbox announced support for iOS8’s sharing system:

You can now count Dropbox among the third-party apps that work with Apple’s sharing system, as of today. The company just pushed out a new update to its iOS app that inserts a “save to Dropbox” option in the sharing pane for certain types of files.

In the comments of that article, someone asked a perfectly valid question:

I’m a rare Android user within my group of friends. I’d say something around 90% of the people I hang out with have iPhones and almost all of them assume their iPhone has the latest and greatest technology available on the market. I’m honestly not trying to troll, but could someone provide a list or a few features that iPhone has than Android doesn’t?

Historically, iOS has been more polished, while Android has been more feature-filled. With the release of iOS8, the two operating systems are closer to parity than ever before, but there are still certainly differences, and there are features my Android phone had that I still miss on my iPhone – the ability to set default apps, more powerful background processing, and custom keyboards that actually work being just some of those. Asking what features iOS has that Android doesn’t made for an interesting philosophical question – when people think about iPhones and iPads, the benefits they think of are usually on the hardware side, not on the software side.  Still, there are definitely things iOS does that Android doesn’t – here’s what I came up with:

  • Touch ID, technically a hardware feature, is worth mentioning due to its deep integration with iOS. As-of iOS8, third-party apps can leverage it, making both unlocking your phone, logging into sensitive apps, and buying products easier than ever.
  • I’ve mentioned this before, but the main reason I switched back to the iPhone from Android was battery life.  While the iPhone’s battery isn’t necessarily  better in my experience, but it’s substantially more reliable, in that I can put it into standby and it actually stays idle, rather than draining my battery in the background. I classify this as iOS-specific behavior, as iOS does a better job at allowing me, as the user, to specify what an app can or can’t do in the background. Facebook is allowed to access my location while in use, but not in the background, and it doesn’t have the ability to update its data while in the background, because I don’t need either of those features. That same permission-centric functionality just doesn’t exist on Android; iOS even goes so far as to warn me when an app is using my location in the background and gives me the option to stop it.
  • iMessage  is something iOS nails that Android stil hasn’t matched. Seamless transfer between data-based and SMS-based communication is pretty fantastic, especially when communicating with fellow iOS users. The ability to send both iMessages and SMS messages directly, and even take and receive phone calls, from a Mac or iPad is also pretty great, and while Android can match some of that functionality with third-party apps, it’s not as well integrated, as it isn’t native.  Interestingly, I find this also helps my phone last longer – if I’m making a phone call or sending an SMS from my computer or iPad, then that’s even more time my phone is spending on standby. I don’t even really use my phone at home for that reason, since my laptop and tablet can seamlessly take over for it.
  • The last one: native OS cloud backups. You’d think this is something where Android would dominate iOS, given Google’s history with cloud services, but nope. While you can re-download all of your apps on a new Android device, the data doesn’t usually come with those apps. iOS does complete cloud backups, with all of your app data intact. Get a new iOS device, enter your iCloud credentials, and you’ll be up and running with everything just as you left it, right down to SMS history. And, if you don’t trust iCloud, you can just as easily run backups to any computer running iTunes. This is a big thing for me, as I love the peace of mind that comes with knowing my iOS devices are backed up on a nightly basis. It’s also frustrating because I think Android needs that functionality more than iOS does. I don’t really tweak my iOS devices, but I would mess around with my Android devices quite a bit. The ability to easily restore all of my apps and data any time I flashed a new ROM would’ve been pretty awesome. There were third-party services to handle this, but they all felt sub-par in some way, and seemed to do just as much harm as good sometimes.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, this is largely a thought experiment – at the end of the day, iOS and Android aren’t all that different anymore, so it’s less about the OS and more about the hardware and ecosystem you want to invest in. There are still some things Android does better, and there are still some things iOS does better, but for the most part, you get roughly the same experience on both platforms, regardless of what die-hards want you to believe.

Why I’m actually kind-of happy the Nexus 6 isn’t amazing

So, unfortunately, it sounds like the Nexus 6 is kind-of a bust. It’s not a terrible phone, but it has little reason to exist unless you desperately want stock Android on a phablet.  Which I thought I did, back when I played with the iPhone 6 Plus, but there just don’t seem to be enough benefits yet to justify the upgrade.

Here’s the funny thing, though – now that I’m back on my HTC One for the foreseeable future, and probably won’t get a Nexus 6, I’m actually super-excited to see what phones we get next year.  For the first time in a awhile, I’m content and willing to wait until the right phone comes along, rather than just jumping onto something for the sake of newness.

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.

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.

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.

The Chromecast continues to be perhaps the best value in tech

Officially priced at $35, though it can often be found for under $30, the Chromecast has proven to be one of the most useful and versatile tech purchases I’ve made in the past year.

As an example: months ago, before I started this blog, I decided I wanted a cloud-powered digital photo frame in my house, to retroactively justify my tendency to over-photograph every event, and because I had a ton of digital photos but no way to display them in my house.  After a bit of research, I determined that a cheap wall-mountable LCD TV, plus a Chromecast, was both the cheapest and one of the the most versatile solutions.  As a bonus, it can double as a poker time when I host a poker game.

Previously, I was streaming photos to it using a crash-prone app called Dayframe, but using it required that I run the app manually on my Nexus 7 and “cast” it to the Chromecast. As-of a couple of weeks ago, Google rolled out Backdrop, which allows me to replace the built-in photo stream with any of my Google+ photo albums.  Since I already had a “Favorites” photo album I’d been using for Dayframe, it took 5 minutes for me to configure both my “photo frame” TV and my primary TV with photos from this album.  It’s pretty awesome to have a couple of TVs filling your house with friends and memories:

2014-10-18 14.38.52

Google seems pretty determined to bring more and more functionality to it’s super-cheap dongle, and it’s hard not to recommend everyone have one at this point.  For less than $30, it quickly proves its utility, even if you don’t use it on a regular basis.

Google just murdered the Nexus line for me

The Nexus 6 was announced today, and it’s almost everything I want in a phone.  It’s got a huge screen (something I’m still not sure about, but want to try using), a huge battery, a camera with OIS, wireless charging, and stock Android directly from Google.  Shut up and take m–wait, how much do you want for it?  $650 off-contract?  Google, why?

To be fair, all major US carriers are carrying the Nexus 6, at a subsidized price, so it could actually end up being the best selling Nexus…but not for people like me.  This goes against my core reasons for loving the Nexus line, which is freedom from carriers at a reasonable cost. Now, I can either cough up $650, or buy it subsidized through a carrier – something I never wanted to do ever again. I suppose it’d be tolerable to do so, but if – and only if – the carriers have absolutely no control over the software or the release of software updates.

Either way, I’m suddenly way more interested to see what OnePlus brings out next year. Hell, at this point, even the Z3 Compact is $100 cheaper unlocked and off-contract than the Nexus 6.  For now, it seems my Nexus 5 is in no danger of being replaced anytime soon.

PSA: If you downloaded iOS 8.0.1, here’s a fix for your issues

In case you haven’t heard, you probably shouldn’t have download iOS 8.0.1.  Fortunately, it’s already been taken down, so you can’t download it now on accident – but if you already downloaded it, The Verge has a great guide to fixing your issues:

Apple’s already said it’s investigating the issue, but if you’re one of the unlucky souls who downloaded and installed it, there’s a simple trick (via iMore) for getting your phone back up and running, without wiping anything.

Unfortunately, it requires iTunes, but you gotta do watcha gotta do.

I’m starting to understand why Google rolls out updates to their Nexus phones over the course of a few days, that way, any major issues like this are immediately discovered and the damage is contained.

You know, as opposed to potentially breaking 10 million phones.

Shit’s about to get real

Tomorrow, Apple announces:

  • A 4.7 inch iPhone
  • (Possibly) a 5.5 inch iPhone
  • (Probably) an iWatch wearable device

I currently have a Moto 360 heading to a Best Buy with my name on it, likely due to arrive on Thursday.  Its arrival and purchase will cement both my allegiance with Android (at least for the next couple of years) and with wireless charging, as I will have the Holy Trinity of Qi-compatible smartphone, tablet, and wearable.

However, iOS8 is impressive.  Very impressive.  It fills in most of the functionality gaps between iOS and Android that I’ve been waiting for since my move to Android a couple of years ago.  It also brings larger phones to iOS – another thing I’ve been waiting for. As someone who wants his technology to “just work”, and is already heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem in the form of OS X, Apple has a serious chance of winning me back over tomorrow, depending on how solid their line-up is.  It’s not that I’m tired of Android – I just see serious value on being all-end with a particular hardware ecosystem, and right now, nothing in the Android line-up delivers quite the comprehensive hardware ecosystem that Apple does.

I don’t think iOS8 with a larger iPhone will be quite enough to win me back, though – in many ways, it hinges on what their wearable brings to the table.  If it’s as health and fitness-based as rumors suggest, then it will be hard to resist, given my near-obsession with the marriage of exercise and technology.

Either way, tomorrow proves to be very interesting.  The time has come, as The Verge put it, to choose my religion.

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