Category: Tech Reviews

First Impressions Amazon Echo Dot and Home Automation

Hello all.  For something a little different today, I thought I’d share with you my first impressions of the Amazon Echo Dot and its pairing with the Philips Hue lighting system.  

I’ve been thinking about a an intelligent speaker for a while.  I regularly use Apple’s Siri on my iPhone to set alarms, timers etc and I was interested in having an always-on assistant in the home.  At the time of writing, there are three contenders in this market; the Amazon Echo, Google Home and the new Apple HomePod.  I was anxiously watching the Apple Keynote to see what kind of product Apple would announce.  While the HomePod looks interesting, its price was beyond my budget and also the emphasis seems to be on the Bluetooth speaker rather than the smart assistant integration.  The ability to play my Apple Music would have been nice though.  The Google Home was also of interest, but the Amazon Echo’s ability to play Audible audiobooks as well as the low price point of the Echo Dot were the deciding factors for me.  Our apartment is pretty small, and I only play music with a headset, so I couldn’t justify the extra expense for the better speaker part of the full Echo.

The Amazon Echo Dot is not officially available in Canada (why not Amazon?) so I had to turn to eBay to purchase one.  My eBay experience was excellent and it arrived a couple of days after I placed the order.  It arrived the same day as my Philips Hue White starter pack to enable smart lighting in our home.  I chose the Philips Hue system as it works with both Alexa and Siri.

The setup for both the Echo and the Hue lighting system was incredibly easy.  Fair enough, I am quite tech savvy, but if you are able to follow on-screen instructions and press buttons when required, you should have no problem.  In total, it took me about 45 minutes to have the Echo and the smart lighting setup and working fine.

The Philips Hue white starter pack comes with the Hue bridge (the tech that translates between your smartphone or the Echo and the bulbs) and two bulbs.  I placed one in our living room and one in our entryway.  However, I forgot that the light switch controlling the entryway turns on two bulbs, so I had to purchase another for the smart functionality to work.  I also have a white ambiance bulb (this one changes the colour temperature of the white light) and a colour changing bulb on order.  The lighting system works brilliantly.  It was easy to setup and it’s wonderful to be able to say “Hey Alexa turn on the living room lights” and they go on.  Apart from the fun aspect, it’s lovely to be able to turn the laundry room light on by voice if you’re carrying a basket full of laundry.  There are a lot more things you could do with it that I have not yet explored, such as the ability to have the lights come on at a specific time or to have them come on when you (or your GPS enabled smartphone) near home.  I am having a few challenges changing the colour temperature of the white ambiance bulb with Alexa, but I’ll continue to work on it.

The Amazon Echo Dot, too, is a lot of fun.  As well as the usual timers, alarms and general questions, I’ve used it successfully to get weather reports, a flash news briefing and to add things to my shopping list and to-do lists.  My to-do list manager of choice is TodoIst, and Alexa integrates wonderfully with it.  I maintain a shopping list on Todoist and asking Alexa to add something to my shopping list immediately adds it.  Likewise if I ask her to add something to my to-do list it will go onto my Today list in Todoist.  Asking her what I have on my to-do list will have her read out what’s on my Today view in Todoist.  Awesome.

I was concerned that, with Alexa not being supported in Canada some of the functionality may be missing.  It’s true that a lot of the location specific information is unavailable.  For example, if you just ask for a weather forecast it won’t pick up your Canadian location.  You have to specify “what’s the weather like in Montreal, Quebec.”  If you do that though it works fine.  Also you can’t ask it to find you the nearest Starbucks.  Mine thinks I’m in Seattle, so a long way to go for a coffee!  I understand you also can’t place any orders.  I was concerned though that it wouldn’t pick up my Audible account as it didn’t show in the Alexa app.  However, worked perfectly.

Like the App Store, Alexa has what they call a skill store. There you can download mini applications to enhance Alexa’s functionality.  Most of them are just a bit of fun, but others are useful, such as the Hue skill to integrate the ability to manage your lights.  I installed the Allrecipes and one called Miauw Miauw.  This allows Alexa to mew like a cat.  I had to uninstall it though as my own cat, Lushka, was freaking out thinking there was another cat in the apartment!

Avid reader that I am, the real Echo killer app if you like for me is the Audible integration.  Quite often I’ll be doing some chores and think, gosh I could be listening to my audiobook about now, but not been in a position to look for my phone, open Audible and start my audiobook.  With Alexa I can just say read my Scribe of Siena audiobook and she fetches it from Audible and starts playing it.  Add to this the quick connection with my Phonak Bluetooth streamer and it’s a real winner.  I only wish Amazon would add the ability to listen to audiobook samples via the Echo.

All in all, I’m really happy with my Alexa and the Hue light integration.  They are well worth checking out.  Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.

Introducing my parents to the iPad and the world of the internet

ipad

Recently at work I won an iPad Mini (non Retina display) in a raffle.  I never win anything so I was ecstatic – my coworkers joked that I was like a kid at Christmas.  I FELT like a kid at Christmas!  Now, I already have a much loved Kindle Fire HDX and iPad 3, so I knew I was going to rehome one of them.  It’s an understatement to say I read a lot and listen to audiobooks a lot, for which the Fire is perfect, so it was the iPad 3 or the new Mini. 

I was very surprised when my mother expressed an interest in the iPad and going online.  My parents did have internet access several years ago, but let it lapse because of slowness and lack of use.  Since then, better broadband coverage has come to their area of Scotland, so I hope slowness will no longer be an issue.  My father doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about the internet at this point.  I suspect my mother was always the more interested, but previously the internet was connected to the computer my father uses for video editing and she was always too nervous to use it in case she accidentally damaged it or my father’s work.  

So, in the meantime broadband service has been arranged and will be installed at their home at the end of next week.  I chose to send them the iPad Mini, mainly as my mother has commented on the weight of the Kindle Keyboard being a little heavy for long use.  It should be with them at the beginning of next week. Before sending it off I configured a few things for them.  I tried to setup the iPad so that it would be useful for them straight off and only have the most basic icons at first.  My parents are smart people, but being older, technology was not part of their working lives as a veterinary surgeon and nurse as it would be today.  

This is what I configured:

Apple ID

With iDevices, an Apple ID is almost a prerequisite.  I set one up for my parents.  It’s not yet hooked up to a credit card; I’ll leave it up to them if they want to purchase paid apps.

Email, FaceTime and Skype

My biggest frustration with my parents not being online is not being able to email them.  Email is such a practical tool, whether it’s a simple hello to keep in touch or emailing detailed information (such as an itinerary) or photos.   So often I’ve thought, I wish I could email this to them.  Well, now I can!  I have setup an email account for them and emailed a couple of things to them.  When they had internet access earlier, they didn’t check email at all unless someone told them to.  I’m hoping that with the iPad alerting them to new emails automatically they may actually use this.

One of the arguments used in the decision to get online was that using Skype and/or FaceTime to call me would save them international calls on their phone bills.  I’m not certain how comfortable they’ll be using it at the beginning, but I have setup Skype and FaceTime accounts.  We’ll need to see how that goes.

Photos

I am an Apple fangirl through and through, so most of my photos are taken with my iPhone and stored in iCloud.  It was then very easy to setup a Shared photostream which I then set to share with my parents’ Apple ID.  Any time I add photos to that stream it should show up automatically on their iPad without their doing anything.  The photos have already downloaded to the iPad so they will have something to look at while waiting on the broadband being connected.

Calendar

With my job I work shift hours and my mother is often calling me to ask what hours I am working that week.  I already have my shifts entered in my iCloud Work calendar, so it was a quick click to share it with my parents’ Apple ID.  Again when I update it, it should update automatically on my parents’ iPad.

Facebook

I did spend some time considering whether or not I should setup a Facebook account for my parents.  Their hometown’s local newspaper has a very active Facebook page as does a local community group.  Often they hear about things going on in town because one of their friends has seen it on Facebook.  Other than Google searches and email, Facebook is probably what my parents think about most when they think about the internet.  In the end, I didn’t set up the account for them already – I was thinking of using that as a training exercise, but I may regret that.

One thing I do regret not having installed was a crosswords app.  My parents both get a great deal of pleasure out of doing the daily crossword in their local paper.  Ah well, I guess it’s something they can choose to install later if they so wish. I also think I may have left Siri in Canadian English, not British English.  

I’m hoping that my parents will get some use out of the iPad and the internet.  I know that, for me, the biggest challenge is going to be avoiding overwhelming them with all the things to be found on the internet.  I spend a significant portion of my life online and I’m looking forward to sharing that with my parents.  From conversations with my mother, I suspect the first things she will want to learn is how to search on Google and navigate Facebook.  The rest can wait.

I am also going to wait to introduce them to Siri.  I’m not certain how she will react to their Scottish accents and I don’t want them getting frustrated.

Do any of you have suggestions for introducing older people to iPads and the internet?  Please let me know in the comments.

My thoughts on the Amazon Fire Phone

 As expected, Amazon launched its new Amazon Fire Phone last week.  I watched the launch video and have a few thoughts on the device.  Like the Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire phone is geared towards those who are already heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem.  Bezos made a point of stating that one year of Amazon Prime will be included with the purchase of the phone.  

The two defining features of the Fire phone are Firefly and dynamic perspective.  I understand from various other reviews that the hardware specs are middle of the road for smartphones.

Firefly does actually seem quite useful.  The phone uses its camera to match real life objects with the Amazon (and third parties’) databases to bring up additional information on the object and – naturally – to allow you to purchase it from Amazon.  It can recognise objects, sounds, movies and TV shows.  Examples shown by Bezos include identifying a hard copy book and linking to buy from Amazon, recognising a song playing and matching it to the IheartMusic database for streaming, picking up the X-ray for Movies from an episode of Game of Thrones and bringing up details on a piece of art.  Bezos announced that a developer SDK for Firefly is available, so it will be interesting to see how that takes off in future.  Firefly is something I could see users actually making use of in their daily lives.

The second feature touted by Bezos is the dynamic perspective in which the image on the screen appears to be 3D.  A significant portion of Bezos’ presentation was devoted to this, both demonstrating and explaining how it was achieved.  Now, I’m the first to admit that dynamic perspective looks really cool.  However, I do question what added value it brings to the device.  Admittedly the tilt to scroll feature may be useful.

One thing I felt missing from Bezos’ presentation was a fuller description of how the device would work to achieve everyday tasks.  I did like the three panel system where tilting the device to the left or right brings up additional menu items.  He demonstrated how in the SMS function tilting to the right would bring up the menu to add a picture to the message.  I rewatched Steve Jobs’ presentation of the original iPhone and in it he stated that the killer app of a cellphone is making calls.  That is the one feature that distinguishes the phone from a tablet and I would have liked to have seen a demonstration.  I would also liked to have seen how phone, contacts, email and web browsing work together in the new Fire phone.  I look forward to hearing reviews from real users as to how it functions in daily life once it’s out in the wild.

In summary then;  IF you’re living in the US, IF you’re in the market for a new phone, IF you’re already invested in the Amazon ecosystem and IF voice activated assistance such as Siri or Google Now is not important to you then the Amazon Fire phone may be of interest.  Otherwise, stick with an iPhone or more general Android device.

For me personally, even if it were available to Canadians, there is nothing in the Fire phone that would tempt me away from my iPhone, invested as I am in Apple’s ecosystem.  On the other hand, if Amazon were to introduce Firefly and dynamic perspective to the next generation of Kindle Fires, I would be very happy.

If you’ve ordered the Amazon Fire phone, let me know in the comments.

Adobe Digital Editions and E_ACT_TOO_MANY_ACTIVATIONS error

Good morning readers.  I have just spent a very frustrating morning and am hoping my experiences will help some of you save some time and irritation.

A few days ago, I borrowed an ebook from the library, via Overdrive.  Overdrive uses Adobe DRM (digital rights management) as its system to prevent your copying/sharing the books you’ve borrowed.  What it means, essentially, is that you must go through the Adobe Digital Editions software to transfer your books to your ereader.

The process goes something like this:

  1. Download Adobe Digital Editions to your PC or Mac
  2. Authorise ADE with an Adobe account (on the Mac it’s under the Help menu) – you may need to set one up if you don’t have one
  3. In ADE authorize each device you wish to use (it’s one of the right click menu items)
  4. When you borrow (or in some cases buy) a book it will download an ACSM file which when clicked will open the book in ADE.
  5. Transfer the book via ADE to your device via USB.

Once it’s set up, in future steps 4 and 5 are all that are needed to read the book on your device.

Anyway, when I borrowed the book yesterday, it worked without issue and I was happily reading the book this morning on my Kobo Aura.  Suddenly, my Kobo decided it needed a reset.  Annoying, but no big deal until I realised it had lost the ADE authorisation.  I tried to go through steps 1-3 but got the error E_ACT_TOO_MANY_ACTIVATIONS, meaning that I had too many devices registered under my Adobe ID.  I had forgotten to deauthorise my old ereaders when I rehomed them.

This was the point at which my frustration started.  A quick Google search suggests you need to contact Adobe to resolve this issue.  Most information directs you to this page.  However when you click on Chat now, ADE is not one of the options listed.  Choosing Adobe Reader (which seemed the closest one) tells you politely that it’s a free software and to take a hike and check out the forums.  The forums redirect you to Contact Adobe…

I tried everything I could think of, including deauthorising and reauthorising my Mac (Cmd Shift D) to no avail.  In the end I went into the chat and chose Adobe Services as the option.  Very quickly I got through to an Adobe rep who understood the problem immediately and fixed the issue.  Within a minute or two I had reauthorised my Kobo and as a bonus my Kindle Fire.

As I had reauthorised my Mac I had to repeat steps 4 and 5 again, but I was finally back reading my book.

So dear readers, the moral of this tale is, don’t forget to deauthorise your devices from ADE if you rehome them and don’t wait to contact Adobe to have this issue resolved.

Good luck.

Adobe Digital Editions and E_ACT_TOO_MANY_ACTIVATIONS error

Good morning readers.  I have just spent a very frustrating morning and am hoping my experiences will help some of you save some time and irritation.

A few days ago, I borrowed an ebook from the library, via Overdrive.  Overdrive uses Adobe DRM (digital rights management) as its system to prevent your copying/sharing the books you’ve borrowed.  What it means, essentially, is that you must go through the Adobe Digital Editions software to transfer your books to your ereader.

The process goes something like this:

  1. Download Adobe Digital Editions to your PC or Mac
  2. Authorise ADE with an Adobe account (on the Mac it’s under the Help menu) – you may need to set one up if you don’t have one
  3. In ADE authorize each device you wish to use (it’s one of the right click menu items)
  4. When you borrow (or in some cases buy) a book it will download an ACSM file which when clicked will open the book in ADE.
  5. Transfer the book via ADE to your device via USB.

Once it’s set up, in future steps 4 and 5 are all that are needed to read the book on your device.

Anyway, when I borrowed the book yesterday, it worked without issue and I was happily reading the book this morning on my Kobo Aura.  Suddenly, my Kobo decided it needed a reset.  Annoying, but no big deal until I realised it had lost the ADE authorisation.  I tried to go through steps 1-3 but got the error E_ACT_TOO_MANY_ACTIVATIONS, meaning that I had too many devices registered under my Adobe ID.  I had forgotten to deauthorise my old ereaders when I rehomed them.

This was the point at which my frustration started.  A quick Google search suggests you need to contact Adobe to resolve this issue.  Most information directs you to this page.  However when you click on Chat now, ADE is not one of the options listed.  Choosing Adobe Reader (which seemed the closest one) tells you politely that it’s a free software and to take a hike and check out the forums.  The forums redirect you to Contact Adobe…

I tried everything I could think of, including deauthorising and reauthorising my Mac (Cmd Shift D) to no avail.  In the end I went into the chat and chose Adobe Services as the option.  Very quickly I got through to an Adobe rep who understood the problem immediately and fixed the issue.  Within a minute or two I had reauthorised my Kobo and as a bonus my Kindle Fire.

As I had reauthorised my Mac I had to repeat steps 4 and 5 again, but I was finally back reading my book.

So dear readers, the moral of this tale is, don’t forget to deauthorise your devices from ADE if you rehome them and don’t wait to contact Adobe to have this issue resolved.

Good luck.

GoodReads integration now available on the Kindle Fire HDX and HD second gen

Amazon and GoodReads have just announced the release of the Kindle Fire OS 3.1 which brings GoodReads integration, Cloud Collections and other features to the new Kindle Fire HDX and HD second gen.  It can be downloaded from the Amazon updates page or you can wait a couple of weeks for it to hit your device automatically.  GoodReads also has an article on its blog about the update.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to review this for you until next week when my Kindle Fire HDX is due to ship to Canada – I currently have the first gen HD for which the update isn’t yet available.  There is no mention yet of the update for the Kindle Paperwhite first or second gen, which is also supposed to get a GoodReads update.  

I am very excited about this update as I love both Kindle and GoodReads.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what they can do together.

GoodReads integration now available on the Kindle Fire HDX and HD second gen

Amazon and GoodReads have just announced the release of the Kindle Fire OS 3.1 which brings GoodReads integration, Cloud Collections and other features to the new Kindle Fire HDX and HD second gen.  It can be downloaded from the Amazon updates page or you can wait a couple of weeks for it to hit your device automatically.  GoodReads also has an article on its blog about the update.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to review this for you until next week when my Kindle Fire HDX is due to ship to Canada – I currently have the first gen HD for which the update isn’t yet available.  There is no mention yet of the update for the Kindle Paperwhite first or second gen, which is also supposed to get a GoodReads update.  

I am very excited about this update as I love both Kindle and GoodReads.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what they can do together.

Kindle Fire in Canada and Audible – Progress!

This evening when I went to download my latest Audible read to my Canadian Kindle Fire, I got a big surprise. A message popped up advising me that I could now listen to and shop for audiobooks natively from my Kindle Fire and that I should uninstall the Audible app. I did so and found that my audiobook played in a new, integrated player.

Screenshot 2013 08 17 18 29 37

I also noticed that individual Audible audiobooks now appear in my carousel and can be added individually to the Favourites drawer rather than just the Audible app itself. Being a Kindle, of course they’re trying to sell you things, and I see that when I view an audiobook in the carousel, I now get recommendations for other audiobooks.

Searching the Kindle is now integrated with my Audible library. Searching for an audiobook will find it in your Audible library ready for downloading.

It seems that they’re not quite there yet with the integration though. Audiobooks doesn’t appear in the top menu bar, and clicking on one of the audiobook recommendations doesn’t take you anywhere yet. Clicking on Shop still only shows three options available to Canadians: Books, Games and Apps.

At this point Audible books are still not showing available from Amazon.ca and Immersion Reading doesn’t yet work. However, the arrival of the integrated app for Canadians and the indication that we will be able to shop for them would strongly suggest that the rest of the integration is not far behind.

Personally, I’m really excited about this development – the lack of Audible integration for Canadians was my one major disappointment about the Kindle Fire. I really look forward to future developments.

What developments would you like to see for the Kindle Fire?

Kindle Fire HD in Canada – First Impressions

Today the Kindle Fire launched in multiple countries including Canada, and one was delivered to my door for your reviewing pleasure.

My initial impression is that, although the device is nice, for Canadians it is still very, very limited.  It is a lovely device, but the Amazon services which distinguish it from the other tablets out there are sadly missing.

There is still no support for Amazon’s music or movie store or Amazon Instant Video for Canada.  iTunes movies will not play on the Kindle Fire due to DRM.  Through the movies for Flixter though you can view any movies you have on your UV account.  They do not have the cool X-Ray for Movies feature that gives you details of the actors in a movie when you hit pause.

For the last few years, iTunes music has been sold without DRM so can easily be copied to the music folder and will be available in the music section of the Kindle Fire.

For me, personally, I was very disappointed that the Audible integration is missing for Canadians.  The whole Audiobooks section is missing from the top menu, and although Whispersync for Voice continues to work, immersion reading is not available.  Audible advised me that right now, this feature is for US-only. It hopes to expand to Canada in the future, but no ETA yet. 

As with the Nexus 7, the Kindle is not recognised by Adobe Digital Editions on the Mac, making transferring epub books to the device very difficult.  I have not yet tried the Overdrive app on the Kindle to try to borrow library books.

On the positive side, the device feels solid in my hands, I found it responsive and I did like the ease of shopping on it.  I’m not certain I could consider it a full tablet – lack of multitasking, decent organizational system – it’s definitely more of a multimedia Kindle, but what it does it does very well.

At this point, I’m not certain if I’ll keep it – the lack of Audible integration is a real blow to me, but I will work with it over the next week or so to see what I think.

 

Kindle Fire HD in Canada – First Impressions

Today the Kindle Fire launched in multiple countries including Canada, and one was delivered to my door for your reviewing pleasure.

My initial impression is that, although the device is nice, for Canadians it is still very, very limited.  It is a lovely device, but the Amazon services which distinguish it from the other tablets out there are sadly missing.

There is still no support for Amazon’s music or movie store or Amazon Instant Video for Canada.  iTunes movies will not play on the Kindle Fire due to DRM.  Through the movies for Flixter though you can view any movies you have on your UV account.  They do not have the cool X-Ray for Movies feature that gives you details of the actors in a movie when you hit pause.

For the last few years, iTunes music has been sold without DRM so can easily be copied to the music folder and will be available in the music section of the Kindle Fire.

For me, personally, I was very disappointed that the Audible integration is missing for Canadians.  The whole Audiobooks section is missing from the top menu, and although Whispersync for Voice continues to work, immersion reading is not available.  Audible advised me that right now, this feature is for US-only. It hopes to expand to Canada in the future, but no ETA yet. 

As with the Nexus 7, the Kindle is not recognised by Adobe Digital Editions on the Mac, making transferring epub books to the device very difficult.  I have not yet tried the Overdrive app on the Kindle to try to borrow library books.

On the positive side, the device feels solid in my hands, I found it responsive and I did like the ease of shopping on it.  I’m not certain I could consider it a full tablet – lack of multitasking, decent organizational system – it’s definitely more of a multimedia Kindle, but what it does it does very well.

At this point, I’m not certain if I’ll keep it – the lack of Audible integration is a real blow to me, but I will work with it over the next week or so to see what I think.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers