Best of Tech 2015

Stuff that I would put on my gift list this Holiday season


Amazon Echo - I mentioned this last year. It’s worth re-visiting. It’s at the top of this list on purpose.

This one comes back onto the list because, well, I bought one and really like it. After that, I bought a second one. And then, I bought one for all my employees for Christmas (shhhh don’t tell them).  So here’s the thing: Android phones do “Ok google” and iPhones do Siri, but the Echo does it all better. This thing is designed with one goal and that is to be the best hands free digital assistant possible. It has seven microphones in it. Having used both “Ok google” and “Alexa” (one of the Echo’s command words) there is a huge difference. The difference is I use “Alexa” without even thinking about it, and “Ok google” I mostly don’t even use because I end up frustrated. The Echo hears me almost every time and does what I ask almost every time too. With my phone, I’ve got to be close to it and more often than not I still have to click on something to play a song, see a web result, etc… With Echo there is no option for touching/looking at it so everything is hands free.

My favorite uses for it:

Music/Radio/Shows – Supports Amazon Prime music and Pandora. “Alexa play Pentatonix” results in “Ok, playing Pentatonix songs from your Prime Library”. “Alexa play Pentatonix on Pandora” results in “Ok, creating/playing Pentatonix station on Pandora”. Once playing a list you can skip, like or dislike on Pandora, pause, change volume. You can also say “Alexa play 104.1” and she immediately brings up Michigan Radio via Tunein. Or, say “Alexa play Science Friday” and she brings up the latest Science Friday show. Lastly, it doubles as a Bluetooth speaker so you can pull up music on your phone/tablet/laptop/whatever and send it to the Echo too. Once it’s playing you can still adjust volume, skip songs, pause, etc…I don’t use this as much but if you have a lot of stuff in Spotify (which Echo doesn’t support yet) you can play it through your phone to the Echo.

Lists – “Alexa, we need salt” results in “Ok, I’ve added salt to your shopping list. “Alexa, shovel the driveway” results in “Ok, I’ve added shovel the driveway to your to do list”. These lists are both part of the Alexa phone app so you can get them from anywhere. VERY nice when you’re in the kitchen and are out of something while cooking.

General questions – “Alexa when is Home Depot open today” results in “Home Depot is open today from 6am to 11pm”. “Alexa what’s the weather” results in “Currently the temperature is 32 degrees. Today you can expect clouds with a high of 44 and a low of 31.”

Calendar – “Alexa what’s on my calendar today” results in “There are 5 items on your calendar today, they are ……”

Timers/Alarms – “Alexa set timers for 10 minutes and 25 minutes” results in “Ok I’ve set timers, for 10 minutes from now and 25 minutes from now”. You can also ask how much time is left on a timer and set alarms that recur every day like an alarm clock. Whether it’s an alarm or a timer you can cancel it at any time, stop it or snooze it once it goes off. Also, “Alexa, go to sleep in 15 minutes” is nice for playing music before bed without having it on all night.

Flash Briefing – “Alexa, flash briefing” results in summaries from my choice of NPR news, BBC News, ESPN Sportscenter, Fox Sports, etc…”

Other stuff Echo can do that I’ve not really tried or had a need for:

·         Home automation products like Wemo and Philips Hue -  “Alexa, turn on kitchen lights”

·         Triggers for IFTTT recipes - “Alexa, send shopping list to gmail” and “Alexa add 9AM meeting with Greg Feutz to my calendar”

·         Games – “Alexa, open name game with Greg” results in “Greg Greg bo beg banana bo beg, fee fi fo feg, me mi mo meg, Greg”

This was something I debated for a long time ever since it came out because I don’t like having Technology in the house just to have it, and now that we have 2 (kitchen and bedroom) I couldn’t be happier with it. We use it all the time in both locations (more in the kitchen, bedroom is primarily for occasional music and weather reports in the morning). Over Thanksgiving it was awesome because our guests (tech savvy or not) could call up their favorite music, ask for a cups to ounces conversion, or check the weather while we were all socializing in the kitchen. It truly is a very easy and very useful tool. I like that it doesn’t require looking at a screen which always takes away from being present and also that it works so much more reliably than the phone equivalents. 


Playbulb – Light bulb burnt out? Need a Bluetooth speaker?

This is seriously pretty darn cool. Bluetooth speakers are great in general, but integrate it into an LED light bulb (that should last 20+years) so you don’t need a physical “boombox” type thing sitting on your counter and you’ve got a really cool product. Put them in lamps, ceiling lights, pretty much any fixture other than a fully enclosed light fitting. “Where is that awesome music coming from?”


Robot Vacuums – Compared to vacuuming yourself? Better.

Personally, chores are not the thing in my life that bring me the greatest pleasure. Close but not quite. They rank just below headaches, long lines, and shots. So, robot vacuums will not solve all my problems but hopefully at least one of them. I’m hopeful enough after 1. Researching them, 2. Doubting they could really do the job, 3. Researching them again later, and 4. Determining that they seem to be the real deal and quite capable of cleaning my floors, that I finally bought one. I don’t have it yet, but the fact that I bought it (I’m a research beyond research fanatic) should tell you that they are probably worth trying, depending on your greatest pleasures in life list. 


Follow me Drones Film yourself being awesome…FROM THE SKY!!!

Drones are fun, and those with cameras can take some awesome videos from up above. The next progression of awesome with drones? The ability of them to follow you. So you’re biking, skateboarding, skiing, water skiing, street luging, doing cartwheels and you want to film yourself right? Naturally, of course! Well, now all you have to do is A) Buy a really cool drone, B) Choose what you want it to do (follow me, lead me, stay next to me, etc…) and finally, C) Do something awesome (relative here, we’re not all Travis Pastrana).  If you’re like me you’ve discovered that helmet/chest/handlebar mounted go pros are cool but the footage leaves something to be desired in most instances. Desire no more. Initiate awesome aerial film machine! Lots of companies make these now including AirDog, Lily, and Hexo +.


Ultrabooks – Is it time to get a smaller laptop?

I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a traditional laptop. They still have their place, but if you don’t need a built in cd/dvd player and Ethernet port, chances are you’d be much happier with an ultrabook. They are just such a nice form factor for the way we use technology today. They are smaller, more portable, and overall more versatile. They are designed to be fast, lightweight, and flexible. My favorite form factor is the “Convertible” or “2 in 1” where the keyboard can rotate 360 degrees which allows for laptop, tent, stand, and tablet modes. The two I’ve had and love are the Yoga 2 Pro and the HP Spectre x360 (which also allows note taking with a digitizer pen). The new Microsoft Surfacebook also got my attention but in the end I decided I really didn’t like the detachable keyboard method.  They range all over the place in price so there is probably one to fit every budget.


Samsung Gear VR– Bring reality to the virtual

It’s kind of hard to explain what this is, other than its virtual reality and it uses your phone. Best probably to watch the videos, but even they can’t show you what the experience is like. What I can tell you is that it’s a $99 headset and works with Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge plus, and Note 5. From there, you snap your phone into this headset, launch a game or VR app and can then play the game or view a landscape, both of which respond to the motion of your head looking around. All the reviews seem to say the same thing: If you already have (or are planning on getting one of these phones) it’s worth the $99 to at least try out. Also, Best Buy stores are supposed to have it on display to try out.


Stuff that isn’t quite ready or meant for the average consumer….Yet


Hololens– Mixing reality with virtual – Crazy!!!

Unlike the Samsung VR device that uses your phone to show you Virtual Reality from its screen, the Hololens actually puts holographic images into your reality. It would allow you to literally fight monsters in your living room, or view 3d models from your computer wherever you want. It’s kind of mind-blowing actually. The device itself is a computer and can therefore generate much of the same content that your computer could, except in a virtual, holographic way. It’s still in development so it’ll be very interesting to see what real life uses come about. In the meantime, you can buy one of the development kits for a cool $3,000.


ResearchKIT “Taking research out of the lab and into the real world”

Medical research is tough. Because it’s real, live people there are so many limitations, both in and out of the lab. Having appropriate control groups, getting a large enough sample set, performing research that is safe and ethical, all represent a small subset of the difficulties faced by medical researchers. ResearchKIT takes another approach which is pretty cool. The have created a method in which researches can create apps for the iPhone which can then collect all kinds of data for a particular body of research. Thanks to the phone’s capabilities, researchers would be able to track things like sleep, vitals, exercise, and on and on. There are already apps to collect data for Autism, Epilepsy, Melanoma, Ashtma, Parkinson’s, Diabetes, Breast Cancer, and Cardiovascular Disease.


Hyperloop – This is interesting and important on a number of levels.

What is it? How does it work? I really don’t have a clue, but there is a vacuum involved and vacuums are cool. Here’s what I know. The idea was hatched by Elon Musk, founder of Tesla. It’s a very seriously funded and backed project that aims to bring a transportation method that operates safely at around 600mph. Everything about it is innovative. The technology, the way people are working on it, and the company/funding model. If you like to read about amazing possibilities of the future, take a peek. Otherwise, at least my very limited knowledge on the topic has kept this blurb short!

Thanks for reading. You are now more knowledgeable than you ever thought possible and more prepared to be the best gift giver at your holiday parties. Happy Holidays!

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