Archive for the ‘Tech Reviews’ Category

Hello, I thought I’d give you an update into my adventures in the Amazon Echo and home automation.  I’m still really enjoying my virtual assistant.  Since my last post I’ve added a few more items to my home automation setup.  My home now includes two Philips Hue Bloom lights, a Philips Hue Go (thank you, employer, for your rewards program 😀 ) a Harmony hub and a second Amazon Echo Dot for our bedroom.  My husband prefers more tried and true methods of controlling our home, but even he has occasionally tried having Alexa control stuff.  It certainly amuses him when Alexa doesn’t quite… perform as expected shall we say.

The part of my home automation setup I love the most is my Philips Hue lights.  Being able to play around with them is awesome and they can make such a difference to my room.  I think I’ve just about resolved my issue with being able to set scenes with Alexa – you do need to be quite particular with the syntax you use unfortunately.  Once I got that down it was much easier.  The addition of the Harmony hub made combining routines much easier.  Now I can say Alexa, set bedtime and she will turn off the living room lights, turn on a nightlight in the bathroom and turn on the bedroom lights to a gentle glow for me.  

I also tried to configure geolocation as well so that our hall lights will turn on as soon as I (or to be more specific, my iPhone) gets near home.  I only set it up a couple of days ago and so far I’ve not been out after dark to test it.  We lead a quiet life!

My impression of the Harmony hub is somewhat mixed.  I’ve not had the time to really configure it yet.  I’ve set it up to do some basic things like turn on and off my TV and dim the lights, but configuration of it to work perfectly will take a bit of time.  I’ll continue to work on it though.  I do like how it combines managing my entertainment systems and my Philips Hue lights together, so that one command will turn on the TV and Apple TV, switch to Netflix and dim the lights.  It’s neat.

I really wish Amazon would provide support for the Echo in Canada.  There’s a lot you can do, but also a lot that is missing, specifically location based information.  It would be lovely not to have to add “in Montreal” when asking for the weather or to be able to ask when the local Home Depot is open.  My Alexa goal is to be able to ask her when the next number 57 bus to town will leave!

Let me know of your experiences with home automation in the comments.

Update on the Amazon Echo and Home Automation was originally published on Canadian eReader

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.

First Impressions Amazon Echo Dot and Home Automation was originally published on Canadian eReader

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

 

When I visited Scotland recently to visit my family I realised I had to make arrangements for internet access while I was there. I am a self-confessed internet addict, and my parents are not online.

I considered a few options: I could use my Canadian cellphone provider and pay for the roaming charges; I could rent a cellphone in the UK or I could use a service like Tep and rent a wifi device, allowing me to get online with my iPad as well. Two major providers in this area appear to be X.Com Global and Tep Wireless In the end I decided to check out Tep Wireless. I went online and verified that coverage was provided in the area of Scotland I was visiting – it was. For around $60 Canadian I arranged for one week’s unlimited wireless internet access.

Reviews of Tep Global seemed to be either glowing or shockingly bad, with the device not being delivered a significant cause of concern. I was rather relieved when my mother rang me to say that the device had been delivered on schedule a day or two before my arrival.

When I arrived on the Sunday evening I powered up the device only to have it display SMS only. Hmmm. After many, many, many attempts I finally got through to Tep support. Some basic troubleshooting was done, but I was still unable to get online. The Tep agent advised that a replacement device would be sent to me.

By the Wednesday I had not received any device or any further contact from Tep. Once again I attempted to contact them and it took from 9.30 am to 5pm to have my call actually answered. I was informed that there was no record of any new device being shipped to me. By this time, of course, it was already half way through my trip and any device sent now would barely arrive in time for me to use before I returned it. When I inquired about a full refund, I was informed that it was not Tep’s policy to issue refunds in such circumstances, only a credit note. Despite my insistence that this was unacceptable to me, he refused to budge.

However, he did some more troubleshooting and he was able to get me online. This lasted three hours until the device once again dropped the connection and showed SMS only.

At this point, I simply returned the device and demanded a full refund as well as repayment of the $1200 I had run up in roaming charges. I am still waiting for any response or refund from Tep.

So if you are considering Tep, perhaps you will be lucky and experience no issues at all. However, please consider this review and all other reviews out there before making a booking.

WARNING – THIS POST CONTAINS LONG RANT. PROCEED AT OWN RISK

For those of you in Canada who purchase Kindle books from amazon.com, you may have noticed that the site has been pushing you to switch your account to the newly opened Canadian Kindle store at amazon.ca. It appears in the last few days, the vast majority of Kindle books are no longer available from amazon.com for customers with a registered Canadian address.

I have been a loyal Kindle customer now for several years and now I have suddenly found myself cut off from services on which I rely, some of which, for me, raise Amazon above the competition.

In Jeff Bezos’ presentation in September 2012 to launch the new Kindles, one of the new innovations promoted was Whispersync for Voice with Audible books. I was very excited about this, and since its launch, I have made extensive use of this service. Naturally, I am very disappointed that it appears I will no longer have access to it for future purchases. It is infuriating that Canadian users had access to this service and now have had it removed. For me this is a significant deterioration in the service I have come to expect from Amazon. It is my sincere hope that Amazon will find some way to reinstate this service for Canadian users.

The Amazon site says it’s “great news” yet tells you the following:

Periodicals and Newsstand
Currently active subscriptions will be canceled upon transferring to another country. A pro-rated refund will be applied if there are any remaining issues you have already paid for. Once subscriptions are canceled, you will not be able to access past issues. Periodical subscription availability varies by market.

Music
Amazon Cloud Player is not supported in your new country. You will no longer be able to access your Cloud Player music library from your device after you have transferred your account to your new country. However, you may continue to access your music locally on your device by downloading it from Cloud Player prior to transferring your account to your new country.

Video
Videos purchased in your current country will no longer be available after transferring your account.

“Great news!” Really? Loss of access to purchased content is “great news?”

Over the three years that I have had my Kindle, and happily purchased from amazon.com/kindle, I have used my Wishlist as a way of keeping track of books which interest me. It has now grown to 6 pages and is now rendered useless by the forced swap to amazon.ca for Kindle purchases. Although this may seem a minor complaint from Amazon’s point of view, from the individual user’s point of view, users who are Amazon’s bread and butter, it is a cause of significant frustration. It would have been a nice touch to have offered a way to export this list to amazon.ca.

When I contacted Kindle support to ask about this, I received a very unreassuring reply:

I’m sorry, at this time, ability to buy books with Whispersync for Voice to sync with Audible is not available on Canadian Kindle store. We’re regularly working on improvements to your Kindle experience. I’ve let the Kindle team know you’re interested in this feature.

Also an options to import wish list from one site to another is not available. I apologize for the inconvenience you experienced.

The business of our international customers is very important to us, and I have also passed your message along to the appropriate people in our company for their consideration.

We’ll consider your feedback as we plan further improvements. Customer feedback like yours is always important to us. I’ll be sure to pass your message along to the appropriate department as we continue to improve the Kindle experience for our customers.

I really hope that Amazon will be able to restore this service. I understand that this is a very personal gripe, and will not have any major impact on your average Canadian Kindle user. However, taken in line with Amazon’s policy of restricting many services to its US customers, this has left a foul taste in my mouth. I love my Whispersync for Voice and am very unhappy to have lost yet another service.

In a similar vein, Amazon recently announced that it has extended its Prime service to Canadian users. Although for many, the free shipping may justify the $79 per year price tag, even though they are paying the same as our American cousins, Canadians do not have access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (one free Kindle book a month) and free instant streaming of movies and TV shows.

Right now I feel really let down by Amazon and I’m beginning to see fewer and fewer reasons to stick with it and not move to Kobo.

So yesterday Apple held a media event to introduce the new iPhone 5. For those of us following the rumours, the announcement was pretty much as expected. The new model is officially called “iPhone 5” not the “new iPhone” à la iPad. The screen has been increased to 4 inches. It includes LTE fast network access. It has a faster processor and better camera. It includes a new Panorama feature for wide view photos.

Now, the Android cynics amongst you will note, quite rightly, that these features have been available on Android for some time. As Tim Cook took great pains to stress though, it’s the first time these have been available on the Apple ecosystem. It’s also a testimony to Apple’s strength in the market that two weeks ago, Fido announced the activation of its LTE network. I am left with the impression though that Apple was playing catch up rather than being the innovator it used to be.

Until a week ago, I was using an iPhone 4. However, I became frustrated waiting on my Fido phone being eligible for an upgrade and I REALLY wanted to check out Siri. So just over a week ago, I bought an iPhone 4S, knowing that it would likely be returned within the 14 day window to be replaced by an iPhone 5. The upgrade from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S or 5 is a nice jump. Having said that, it won’t be the end of the world if Apple won’t take back my iPhone 4S.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with Siri. It may be because she’s still a novelty to me, and after a week it’s not worn off yet. I’ve used her mainly to set timers and alarms, and also to send the odd text message. She seems to understand my Scottish accent most of the time. There will be a few days between returning the iPhone 4S and having Siri on my iPad with iOS 6. I’m actually really going to miss her. What I find her useful for is reminders and checking calendar events. It is definitely quicker to tell Siri to set an alarm than to navigate through the app. I’m undecided if it’s quicker to type a text message than to have Siri send it. It’s possibly quicker if she gets it right first time, which happens maybe 50% of the time. Maybe she’ll get better as she gets to know me.

Once again, Scott Forstall demonstrated iOS 6 during this keynote. I have to ask myself how many times Apple can demonstrate the same things over and over and over. To my knowledge, this is the third time that iOS 6 has been demoed. By now we all know that the new Maps application is cool; that Siri is now a sports and cinema fan; and that you can now open apps via Siri.

That is not to say iOS 6 does not add a lot of extra functionality which is most welcome. Personally, I’m looking forward most to the Do Not Disturb function which allows your phone to remain silent and the screen blank if you do not want to be disturbed. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been woken by friends in different time zones posting a Facebook status update. I’m also looking forward to local search being available for Siri in Canada. For the moment, Siri is unable to find restaurants: she replies “Sorry, I can’t look for places in Canada.” It should be noted though that iOS 6’s extra functionality is very restricted geographically. This site shows just how few countries can benefit from it. This is rather disappointing from Apple who has generally impressed me with how broadly international its coverage was.

All in all, the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 upgrade are nice, and very welcome. They are not setting my world alight as the original iPhone did.