Amazon Echo (and why I like it alongside HomeKit)

Amazon Alex (Black)

Whilst I don’t class myself as an Apple fan-boy I do buy into their platform heavily, mainly due to the fact that I have been burned so many times as an early adopter that I just wanted a phone that not only worked, but that did what it said on the packet, but was reliable. Apple’s products work flawlessly (although not always cutting edge).  I decided late last year that I would buy into the Apple HomeKit eco-system mainly due to having iPads, iPhones, Apple Watch and a 4th Gen Apple TV (that acts as a hub and bridge to the control devices external to the house). Just as Santa was delivering my first shiny and pristine HomeKit compartmental smart socket and a Philips Hue Starter Kit a relative purchased the Amazon Echo. I am not ashamed to say it laid in it’s box for a week whilst I was playing with the HomeKit compatible devices. Then I finally got round to tinkering with the Echo…. what fun!

Calling out “Alexa”….  (you can change  this to Echo or Amazon) enables you to do many things with an Echo that are, in the part are trivial, such as:

  • “Alexa, Tell me a joke”
  • “Alexa, volume 11.” (caution: very loud)
  • “Alexa, beam me up.”
  • “Alexa, sing me a song.”
  • “Alexa, random number between “x” and “y.”
  • “Alexa, heads or tails.”
  • “Alexa, roll a die.”

to the more useful:

  • “Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?”
  • “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”
  • “Alexa, play music” (from your Amazon Music Library)
  • “Alexa, play Radio 4 on TuneIn
  • “Alexa, How is traffic?”
  • “Alexa, What’s in the news?”
  • “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen lights”
  • “Alexa, Spotlights colour blue”
  • “Alexa, Dining Room 50%”
  • “Alexa, Connect my Phone”
  • “Alexa, add coffee to my shopping list”

The playing of music (never got round to having a sound system in the kitchen) and controlling of lights is by far the most used features of the Echo and I am surprised at how capable it is at hearing and understanding commands from over 30ft away whilst the TV is on and the kids and making a noise. We can easily control lighting from the lounge even though their is the dining room between us and the Echo. The Echo is constantly having small upgrades, early on in the year you had to use the IFTTT service to turn on a predetermined colour for Hue lamps, now Alexa can do it seamlessly on her own and you can request colours without presetting. Addition of “Skills” (think of as an app for your Echo) allows for integration with other devices such as Plex Media Server where I can ask “Alexa, Ask Plex to play Spongebob the Movie”, a go-to-kid-pleaser!

Now admittedly we lag behind the US for features (but as ever they work extremely well when they come over to this side of the pond). But such features as being able to play the same music multi room synchronicity, texting of voice calling your Echo for reminders and  two way comms between internal and external devices are sure to keep the platform fresh and innovative, as well as giving the rival a real run for their money. I am not afraid to say that it is favoured over using the Siri button on the TV remote or lifting my apple watch for a Siri command – it’s already listening for me and is quicker to react – just as long as I am in ‘ear-shot’ and other family members are not being disruptive (my eldest loves to either beat me to a request, confuse Alexa or countermand me – much to his own amusement).

In relation to learning they show a level of interaction that can be a real advantage to learners (although I don’t fancy taking mine into work just yet!), an always attentive support assistant that can help with definitions of terms, perform calculations, set timers for activities, set reminders, read audiobooks, play music (or audio files), request spelling of word, synonyms and even translate phrases into other languages. These are available right now so who knows what the future might bring?

For a device that’s been available in the UK since the 28th of September 2016 that was fun from the start and has constantly evolved I would recommend a purchase, definitely as a solid entry in home automation and the fact they are heavily discounted on occasion and can be over 30% off. Would I buy another? I can’t see why not, I am just holding out for the expected V2 rumoured to launched later in the year to compete with the impending Apple HomeHub. With improved Audio and styling.

Do you have an Echo or Dot? What do you use your for?

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The Automated Smart Home

Smart Home

This year I decided to delve into the world of the Smart Home and although it is relatively well established and there are many great products it is also a time of competition for the  big players that whilst pushing the boundaries that benefits the consumer by creating amazing products but may well hurt the individual in the pocket if they don’t choose wisely (as much as you can) and invest in an ecosystem that may be destined to fail against the competition.  Take for example Belkin’s WeMo Smart Switches , a stand-alone smart socket product in their own right with an App for both Android and iOS devices, they function happily with the Amazon Echo (for those that don’t know the Echo is a hands-free speaker voice controlled speaker that connects to the Google Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information and control smart devices). Anybody investing in them heavily may have felt that their money may have been spent on the wrong product if they wanted to get involved with Apple’s HomeKit solution (fear not, for it has been recently announced that they are to be compatible through an additional hub). So although you may take a wrong turn, lose-your-footing or lighten-your-wallet or purse upon the journey to a smarter home the future is brighter and evolving all the time, especially from this current year onwards. Over the next year there will be a number of posts connected with the Smart Home and associated devices.

For my own set-up I have a number of considerations:

  1. Use of Apple’s Homekit Eco-system (due to having the Apple TV 4th Gen – this acts as a central hub for HomeKit and allows devices to be controlled away from the house via the web)
  2. Use of Amazon’s Echo Eco-system (due to having my in-laws buy us one at Christmas)
  3. Compatibility between the two prior mentioned systems (where possible!)
  4. Not to go too crazy (yet) as we are hoping to move house in the near future
  5. The lag behind the US, we only have a small amount of devices compared to the US. Try looking for a Smart Light Switch and you will quickly realise.

Of course all of this is likely to have implications upon education – using them in class as virtual tutors? upskilling electricians, engineers or technicians for installation? there is evidence of them creeping into more everyday life (a hotel in the US now has one Amazon Echo in all rooms, over 100, to offer information and ordering facilities as well as comms between rooms. So exciting times ahead.

Interested in using Homekit in the UK? visit & join https://www.facebook.com/groups/homekituk/ 

 

Shock Mount (Black Aluminum) for the Blue Yeti Microphone by Auphonix

Shock Mount by Auphonix

With the ‘fixed mount cradle’ for the Blue Yeti microphone having its limitations such as being bulky and often requiring to be propped up to get the positioning right (well mostly) I have been on the lookout for a decent shock mount for the Blue Yeti, but it has been a long time come and after many months finally a decent (£25) and affordable shock mount for the Blue Yeti found at http://amzn.eu/6bd69jp .

Many issues exist for a decent shockmount purchase:

  1. Blue’s own offering is costly (and reportedly fraught with issues if loose clamps – especially for the price)
  2. The Yeti does have a standard fixing, so there are not many offerings (some bespoke offerings that have been flash in the pan’s)
  3. The Yeti is one heavy beast and there are numerous reports of any point that require tightening not holding out (see point 1)
  4. There are a reported batch of Blue Yeti’s that do have the 3/8″thread overcut by a 1/16″ (causing poor fitting to any mount, and not any issue with mounts themselves)

Now I purchased my Blue Yeti for a very handsome price of approx. £65 and there was no way I was ever going to purchase a mount in excess of that so point 1 is out of the question. I toyed with the idea of creating my own (point 2) and even drew up plans but never got round to it! Something specific needed for the yeti due to its non-standard fitting and needing to carry it’s weight (point 3) was also a concern for any attached boom (see later). The only solutions for an overcut fixing was either and new Yeti or as I have read on the web to use plumbing tape (PTFE) to ‘take up the slack’ and not have the Yeti drop off, thankfully I did not need this solutions.

The Auphonix offering was getting great reviews (a cheaper plastic and a reasonable priced aluminium offering were available) but I hesitated and lucked out on the silver aluminium @ £30, then a rather elegant black version showed up for £5 less! a result – and most Booms are black anyway. So now an accompanying boom was required to be purchased – I was conscious of the weight of the Yeti but on Amazon was the recommendation for under £12 the Tencro Professional Microphone Boom for Blue Yeti ( http://amzn.eu/g4CTVSO ), specifically having the key point of being heavy duty designed for supporting almost all microphones up to 4.4 pounds / 2KG.

Both are now fitted and I found that mounting my Yeti above the mount, rather than below, suited my rig better as I will be swinging my mic up and out the way often – kids can be too inquisitive! The difference between the original fixed stand against the dampening properties of the boom & shock-mount are excellent and given my setup prior to this purchase noticeably picked-up ‘shocks & knocks’ and caused me to be extra careful when recording to minimise disruption the cost @ less than £40 is a great solution and one that I cannot recommend myself if you want the best from your original audio recording with your Blue Yeti.

 

DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset

DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset

VR (Virtual Reality) is definitely on the horizon and one of the ‘next big things’ in the world of interactive entertainment and educational technologies. From exploring terrains or areas that learners would not be exposed to or the mountain of risk assessment alone making it impossible can suddenly transport your learners from differing perspectives such as helicopter rides over London to distant lands and the rim of a live volcano and onto an on-stage presence at gig or musical. Coupled with an immersive audio experience is one hell of a ride! but i shudder at this future and fear for the learners that will feel my pain – literally!

So why the negativity? well a fact about me, I get physically sick when playing 3D games! Now this may seem daft, especially teaching (albeit in the recent past) game 3d engines. But I have never been able to get beyond it, this is a huge concern to the likes of the military that whilst saving a fortune by having their personnel train in VR environments there are those that still need the real thing due to suffering debilitating nausea. Something like 1% feels any ill affects withe 0.1% of those having physical reactions -its worthy of research to further make savings. I for one would welcome any solution (even in part). I am rarely able to play more than say 30 minutes before feeling queasy – often physically ill, and recovering for over 6 hrs+. To just be able to play Minecraft with my little boy would makehis day, and not have him feel guilty when I do play and have to stop due to illness. But there are other worse than me, even being set off by waterways and supermarkets (I kid you not – read the art5icle on the BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-38715719 )

So despite all the ill-feeling I splashed out on a reasonably priced  DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset, it fits my iPhone 6 Plus (without case), is well constructed and has the Magnetic switch (a must in my opinion s  for low end, low cost VR goggles). Fantastic device, if a little uncomfortable at the bridge of the nose it has allowed me(and my six year old) to go ‘wow’ at VR. Don’t get me wrong VR is still in early days (we dare not mention the flash in the pan 3D TV) but for sub £30 its a worthy expense. Yes it makes me sick but to have a ‘go’ at VR that is although not matured is not exactly fledgling either and the price tag certainly does not make my blood boil when i suffer from ‘curiosity killed the cat’, here’s hoping that the earlier link bears some useful findings to support those like me.

So linking back to the educational aspect and all I hear about the fact that VR will play a part, well I am already seeing that I will be those in the minority and hope that ‘differentiation’ will be considered when there are not an insignificant amount of learners (and educationalists) that will break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of VR in an educational programme – beneficial or not! (there may be a surge in travel sickness remedies!)

Note: VR should not be something that you expose those under seven for any length of time!

Betron HD1000 Headphones

IMG_0881IMG_0882

I have reviewed Betron headphones in the past, three varieties of earbud, each of them performing really well and living up to a lot of their hype. In fact the Betron B850i’s (http://wp.me/pspi8-tC) are actually my preferred replacement headphones for my Apple earbuds. Recently I received in the post the Betron HD100 Headphones to review and I have to say these are a pretty awesome pair of headphones. According to Betron the following specifications exist:

  • Powerful neodymium magnets for stereo sound with powerful punchy bass
  • Extended frequency response for accurate, reliable sound reproduction
  • Increased sound pressure level (110dB) to handle demanding use
  • Rich, crisp bass response
  • Good attenuation of ambient noise
  • Lightweight & comfortable
  • Powerful sound reproduction
  • Optimised for portable audio including MP3, CD players, iPad, iPod, iPhone and mobile phones (iPad, iPhone and iPod are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.)

Claiming to have a wider range of sound and enhanced clarity as well as lightweight and durable and comfortable whilst speaker build material dissipates heat and minimises sound leakage these headphones with a RRP of £79 that are currently selling on Amazon for £29 have a lot to live up to. (Current details from http://www.betronstore.co.uk)

Firstly I have to say that the packaging is excellent, in the first instance a minimal black box with ‘Betron’ and the model number ‘HD1000’ on the top I’m white lettering with a few specs that are outlined below on the side:

  • Driver Unit:  40mm
  • Impedance: 32ohms +- 15%
  • Sensitivity: 108 =-3dB
  • Frequency Response: 20-20Khz
  • Max. Input Power: 100mW
  • Cable Length: 1.7M (I actually found the cable to be 1.8M)

Inside the outer box is a ‘D’ shaped carry case in black nylon with carry handle and double zip that when opened up reveals the headphones sitting in a velvet-like interior that is shaped to hold the headphones snug.  Betron was off to a good start, especially as I only ever got a thin drawstring nylon bag with my SkullCandy Hesh headphones that I will be comparing these to!

At first sight the headphones look gorgeous and have a classy retro look to them in a  rich brown wood and gold effect styling. Getting to grips with the headphones themselves and the feel of the headphones is one that reveals some highs and lows. On the plus side the 3.5mm gold plug is one where the cable exists from the side of the plug at 45 degrees, with a high quality feel braided cable and gold splitter, offering tangle free cabling. The L/R indicators for each side are discreetly labelled inside the headphones above each earpiece, with a subtle branding on the outside. On the downside is the feeling of materials cheaper than they appear, especially around the area of the headband joining to the earpieces – but let me be clear that this does not mean they are not well build. Betron claim that there are no visible screws which there are none, however there are visible rivets.

As stated earlier Betron claim that the headphones are comfortable, cool and a clarity of sound with a deep rich bass. Upon the first point I can wholeheartedly agree, my current headphones of choice have been Skullcandy Hesh over-the-ear headphones and I have found them heavy and too hot after a prolonged use of anything over thirty minutes and I don’t like the feel of on the ear headphones such as the Skullcandy Lowriders as they are uncomfortable and unlike the Hesh model let in too much surrounding noise ( plus they slip off if you are doing anything beyond sitting still). The HD1000’s are a joy to wear, comfortable, lightweight, they don’t get hot ( and that has been in the recent 30 degree weather) and they reduce ambient noise far more than other on-the-ear headphones.

So onto the all important bit, the audio, and do these headphones live up to the manufacturers claims? Well I listen to a diverse range of audio – including podcasts, audiobooks, radio plays, music and a variety of video and films. I even listen to text to speech conversions when I need to listen to reports and I am travelling between locations (these are not the easiest to listen to) and always willing to allow for others opinions I even asked my wife to try them out, as a fitness professional and having to listen to a wide range of music that requires choreography I though her opinion would be valid ( The wife’s choice of headphone is the Skullcandy Lowriders that I am not a fan of – even less now I have used the HD1000’s). Overall I can report that the quality of the audio is superb with a rich definition to the audio that is not affected by the  increased bass.

The wife definitely stated that the audio was excellent and that the headphones were extremely comfortable in comparison to the Lowriders and I feel that the audio is actually compatible to the Hesh headphones.At the RRP the quality up close lets the headphones down but if you are looking for well priced, comfortable and good quality audio these are great headphones. At £29 they are an absolute steal!

Betron has provided me with this product for purposes of providing a personal review and I have received no payment for this unbiased review.

iPad, Mini’s & iPhone

iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone

 

We have had a bit of a splurge in the household over the last six months with four new apple devices crossing the thresh-hold.

  • iPad Air 2 128gb (Mine)
  • iPad Mini 3 128gb (wife’s)
  • iPad Mini 3 64gb (6yr olds)
  • New Apple Tv 5th Gen 64gb (Mine)
  • iPhone 5 64gb (Wife’s)

With the exception of the Apple TV (more on the Apple TV in a later post) each iPad has been purchased as a refurbished device costing a heck of a lot less than the full price. Initially purchasing my lad one (he was unlikely to have been fussed with the odd dent or scrap, especially once it was in a bumper case) as we did not want to splash out for a Mini 4 but did not want to be limited to a Mini 2 32gb. Settling on a Mini 3 64gb.

We was so impressed with the quality that one for myself and one for the wife quickly followed with an iPhone 5. Admittedly the original iPhone purchased was scratched and dented but this was quickly replaced. I would normally be upgrading my phone in October, although I have no desire to upgrade yet, I will seriously consider a refurb in future.

Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter (for podcasting)

Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter

Although Apple have had a Camera Connection Kit in the past they have not had one included pass-though power that allows for more power hungry devices to work. In the past devices have either not worked or have required all equipment to be all but plugged together with the final connection being the lightning connector to the iPad, often still displaying a warning message.

The USB speed is only supported on the bigger brother iPad Pro and the adapter does not allow pass-through syncing but not only can you use connected cameras to import photos and videos but you can use it with the iPhone 6 as well, allowing you to plug in…

  • USB microphones, such as the Blue Yeti and the Samson Go Mic
  • Midi Interface
  • USB Ethernet adapter
  • Memory Sticks

For me this adapter is great, I can now throw my Samson Go Mic, stand and pop filter in a bag along with a powerpack (Anker are my choice) and I can pretty much record anywhere with my iPhone 6 Plus!

 

Veescope Live Remote Control

The Veescope Green Screen app in a prior post has the ability to be remotely controlled, originally by another iOS device, more recently through the use of the Apple Watch (see screenshot above). I have access to three other iOS devices:

  1. Wifes iPhone (unfortunately with here most of the time!)
  2. iPad classic (does not like anything beyond iOS 5.5, and the Veescope app is iOS 6)
  3. iPad mini (from work and locked down tighter than Southend piers footings – but I am working on it)

I did however pinch the wife’s to have a go, first its a clear simple interface:

  • record
  • snapshot (Apple Watch does not seem to have this? – only going by screenshots seen)
  • next background
  • prior background

My first concern was that I needed to be on the same network and thought this may well cause issues at work (I could at least try out at home) – but fear not as it functions on Bluetooth connectivity, having enabled Bluetooth of both devices, and was a breeze. It may not look fancy or offer obscure options but it works an absolute dream.

I don’t think it’s likely but I would love the option of having this controlled from a Pebble Smartwatch!

 

Andy

Printer Woes

I love Canon printers, they have always delivered amazing print-outs at superfast speeds and their tanks have always been great value (the “start” time has never been great, but I can live with that!). My first Canon printer cost me over £300 and just because it was a “photo quality” printer with separate cartridges (that I could drill into and re-ink with a syringe and a blob of hot-melt to seal).

I have since then owned in total four Canon printers, each one offering advantages over the previous. Currently I am the proud owner of a Canon IP7250 and all the functionality it has – CD printing, two tray feeds (one for standard A4 paper one for photo paper) and now Wifi and smartphone support. It has lasted less than 3 months! Now don’t get me wrong this is not the issue, it’s that I ordered from Amazon and it’s surprisingly difficult to sort out items that have failed within their guarantee. Difficult in the sense as to find how to go about replacing or fixing, as the item is out of 30 days ownership time-frame it is immediately not eligible. Oh how the time I have spent trying to find online help – don’t – there is nothing. Just find the contact page (or as I did the online text support) and let them do the work (just wish they had a document outlining that!)

A refund later, a re-order and a final packing up of damaged printer and its all good again. But what did get me thinking is the price tag of the printer…. £50, with ink! at that price the concerns of third part ink vanish. Why? well at £50 for a new set of ink I might as well but 3rd party inks for next to nothing, in fact 2 sets for about a £1 a cartridge, just over £10. The printer can break anytime it likes (as long as I get to use my two sets of 3rd part ink and I am quids in!).

I would still buy Canon everytime!

 

Andy